The hardest thing to do is to find time to Blog at Calabash. All day the audience, true owners of this festival, will accost to ask questions, make suggestions, express gratitude. I can’t bring myself to do stock answers, even when the questions are the same:
“Kwame, Kwame, [fishing into a worn satchel] I have this book, man. This book of poems. I want your critique. Let me read you a poem and I need you to assess it…”
“Right now?” the crowd is thick, people bouncing off us.
I say no, I say it is a bad idea, it is unfair to their poetry for me to try and assess it right now—under these circumstances. Disappointment. But we smile.
Someone has the constant question:
“You, star, you are the man to ask, they say.” I can tell this is an open mic poet. The dread locks, the worn sheets of paper in hand, the pure intensity, the hunger….
“We will announce the open mic in a few minutes check the program.” I say, quickly They smile, nod.
“I just reach.”
“You came for the open mic only?”
“Yeah, I have these poems. I want you to assess them for me….”
I answer questions about how to get published, about how to be featured writer at Calabash, about why it seems like Calabash is condoning homosexual “arguments” on stage, about who selects the writers to read at the festival. I feel like an ombudsman, answering questions, trying to make sure that people are satisfied. The Calabash regulars will always give you a knowing smile, and thumbs up—they have been baptized into the healing of Calabash and they are enjoying their renewal and are smiling with the giddy brightness of people who are getting their fix for the year. I like being their ombudsman.
Colin Channer, the Founder has committed a small sin. He has cut off his wild explosion of hair (a la Bob Marley in 1971), so now his cropping is not unlike mine. He is almost incognito and I am starting to feel like that decoy general in the field of battle, while he slips around making are things are running smoothly, trouble-shooting, making sure that the authors are feeling at home, encouraged, and excited.
Calabash is not an easy audience. Even the “home-boy” Derek Walcott is uncertain. He says that he is nervous. The crowd is noisy before the my interview with him on stage. There is a palpable excitement in hearing Walcott but with Jamaicans it is sometimes hard to distinguish a festive audience of supporters from a mob about to rise up against you unless you know the people. At high noon, Walcott smiling wryly and looking cooler than he claims begins to charm the audience with witty remarks, with a generous outpouring of advice and encouragement for Caribbean writing and a free ranging discussion about film, theater, poetry, song writing, and the landscape. When I ask him what he thinks about when he comes to Jamaica, he says, “I think of my friend the late John Hearne…. It is now as if the landscape is beginning to look like his fiction. He is gone now, but he is still here.” John Hearne is one of the best authors that Jamaica has produced, but he had the misfortune of being a middle class light-skinned Jamaican writing at a time when the push for nationalism and a post-colonial identity was inextricably tied to the push to extricate the art from the strictures of a really racist colonial sensibility The brilliant Hearne was a casualty—his beautiful novels were not easily co-opted into the new West Indian Literature discourse. Two years ago, Calabash celebrated his novel Voices Under the Window by orchestrating its re-publication and by organizing a reading of the work at the festival. It is the gift that Calabash can give, and Walcott’s invocation of Hearne is a fitting way.
Walcott, would read from his new collection of verse. When I ask him what happened to his declaration in Prodigal that it would be his last poetry book, he smiles and sense, “Sympathy, cheap sympathy.” His new collection seeks, he says, to find the simple, the clear, he was to slowly disappear, it is the quest of great art. I think of Walcott’s presence, his unabashed celebration of the grand metaphor, the virtuoso line, and I realize that he is seeking to slowly ease that instinct back, back, back. The poems he reads are elegant, and present—full of a sense of landscape, clotted with lasting images, horse hoofs in bloodied mud, a train across Spain, the sea, the landscape. Then he warns us about the last poem. He fumbles with the sheets of paper in his hand, trying to prevent them from blowing off into the window. He has already lost one poem—it gets caught on the wind and heads out to sea. I know I am not the only person thinking that I should follow that paper and retrieve it, it will be valuable one day. Justine does. Walcott starts to read a poem he says will be nasty. It is a long rhyming poem, and it is the most personal and unrestrained attack on V.S. Naipaul called “The Mongoose”. Were it not for the beauty of the verse, the sure form at work and the strong images, were it not for the elegant turn at the end when the poet contemplates the landscape of Trinidad that Naipaul so round and famously rejects, this would be a broadside of unmitigated viciousness. But Walcott never hijacks his own poem, and the impact of the reading is overwhelmingly strong largely because in his attack on Naipaul, Walcott shows a vulnerability that is touching to witness. Some would say that Naipaul should have the chance to respond, and we hope to have him at Calabash, but he has said no to us constantly. And anyway, there is no demand for this fair and balanced approach. The audience feels that sense that he is markedly more relieved and at ease at the end of the interview and reading. For my part, I am at ease, too. I have written about how Walcott looms in my own sense of myself as a poet, and in this moment of talking to him before such an engaged audiences, I feel expanded by the experience.
Walcott’s presence would be one of a series of stunningly distinctive readings on Saturday. I will talk about those in a later blog.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...