EIBF 2014: SWEET POTATO AND CALLALOO – THE POETS OF ‘YONDER AWA’

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
Dorothea Smartt, A. A. Graham, Sasenarine Persaud, and Malika Booker performed at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 9thAugust 2014. 

by Stephanie Green

The much-loved Jackie Kay acted as presenter of this poetry event with her usual good humour and warmth, and, as an Afro-Scottish poet and writer, was the ideal choice embodying the multi-cultural heritage that has come down to us through the Empire, and now the Commonwealth.

Most of us in Britain are familiar with sweet potato nowadays, but I had to google ‘callaloo’ and learnt that it is a Caribbean dish, originating in West Africa, using a leafy vegetable sometimes called amaranth, not unlike a watery spinach. Each island seems to have its own recipe. So callaloo’s local variety, and its history of travelling the Triangle route that was the slave trade, from Africa to the Caribbean to Britain’s western ports, including Glasgow, is a graphic metaphor to remind us that Scotland’s wealth is based on ‘tobacco, sugar and linen’, all based on the suffering of slaves, but luxuries we relish (even if two are bad for us).

This complexity is reflected in the wonderful riches of Caribbean language, its vocabulary, inflexions and rhythm which we have the privilege of inheriting here in Britain and a taste of its local variety from four poets from the Caribbean Diaspora in this event: the British-born Bajan performance poet Dorothea Smartt, the Jamaican Millicent A. A. Graham, the Guyanese-born writer and poet based in the U.S. Sasenarine Persaud, and finally, the British-born performance artist and educator Malika Booker.

As well as a selection of other poems, the poets all read from Yonder Awa, a poetry anthology commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library and Scottish PEN as part of the Empire Café project, curated by writer Louise Welsh and architect Jude Barber. The Empire Café ran during the Commonwealth Games (formerly called the Empire Games) to explore “in amongst the hoo-ha” as Louise Welsh put it to me, the complexity of Scotland’s imperial past, and open up a conversation still relevant today.

First up was Dorothea Smartt, called a “British-born Bajan International” by her iconic mentor Kamau Braithwaite. Bajan is an English-based creole language, “a precious mix” as Dorothea calls it, spoken in Barbados where her parents came from. Growing up in Battersea and now based in Brixton, Dorothea was the first poet in residence at Brixton Market, and “an Attached Live Artist” at the London Institute of Contemporary Art, and also a guest writer at Florida International University and Oberlin College, U.S.A. Her poetry draws on historic memory, her distant shared identity, the private language of her family and site-specific South London. “Poetry is not a luxury” she believes, quoting Audre Lorde.

She read in a deep alto voice her poem from Yonder Awa, ‘Smouldering On’ which addresses the impact of the tobacco trade, a poem melding evocative description with dramatic declamations:

Lords, in this tartan tale, tobacco hogs-
heads’ stink clinging to their cloaks,

scarlet smoke wisps, curling through
Glasgow……. 

What more is there to say?
Except – how much would you owe?

If you were to compensate
for lost lives and stolen labour? 

….What more is there
to learn? It was all so long ago

What does it matter now, you ask, 

lives and landscapes altered forever?

She also read from her latest chapbook Reader, I married him: and other queer goings-on (Peepal Tree, 2014) in which she explores various taboos: “Soon she will kiss a loving woman’ and “with our tainted love we said ‘I do’.”  This title poem is a “precious mix” of language, going in and out of standard English and Bajan, Dorothea changing her accent accordingly.

Next up was Millicent A. A. Graham whose softly spoken but intense delivery entranced us with poetry full of physical detail, sensuous sound and feeling.  As Jackie Kay said “she is a surprising and enchanting take on Jamaica.”  Millicent grew up in Jamaica where she read Keats, Dickinson and other classics.  The first poetry book she bought was Burns, she told me later. She still lives in Kingston but has attended the University of Iowa’s International Program, the Bread Loaf Conference and, as a beneficiary of the Calabash Writer’s Workshop Fellowship, she has been introduced to many contemporary writers. Her poetry is a superb meld of influences, but is still rooted in the cadences of the Caribbean. Reading from her latest collection The Damp in Things (Peepal Tree, 2009), two lines from ‘Curfew’ give a taste of her physicality of language: “The day was its ritual blue except for a sheer / of clouds clogging the mortal air that women sucked” and ‘Rain Days’ shows her affecting emotional resonance

My mother said, ‘Tie yuh shoes-lace,
mind cloud-water pools, know only the dry.’
Not this ache for rain days.

Now regret like ringworm
blue dye and young limes cannot heal;
these feet that restrained the heart
      and kept me raw, far from the damp in things.

Sasenarine Persaud, the only male in the group, was born in Guyana, has lived for several years in Canada and presently resides in Tampa, Florida. Not only a poet, he is an essayist, novelist and short-story writer, much awarded. Though not white or black, he was pleased to be included in the Yonder Awa anthology since it is often overlooked that Indians were also affected by the slave experience.  After slavery was abolished in 1806, the British imported Indians to the Caribbean to take their place. His great, grandparents moved to South America where Sasenarine was born. He himself has never been to India but his work is, as he puts it, “hounded by ancestral aesthetics.” Unapologetically learned, he has been compared to a mixture of T. S. Eliot and Rabindranath Tagore. He himself has described his poetry with his self-coined ‘Yogic Realism.’

To give one example of the elevated tenor of his poetry is his fondness for aphorisms: “Who placed that dot on your forehead? / He who cannot recollect promises cannot honour them.” But he yokes the modern world onto ancient values with postmodernist irony: “You do not negotiate with terrorists” he quotes in a poem about Sita’s rape in the ‘Ramanaya’. Exile, belonging, loss and land are his themes. He pointed out the so-called “Arabic” numerals came from the Hindu. And he believes there is no such thing as Christian or Jewish yoga. It is just yoga: “What else can we give you, world?” he asks.

To borrow from Derek Walcott, he sees himself as “a fortunate traveler”. “Place is…a muse”, he said. “Of course, without people what is place?” and to illustrate this, he read ‘Campbellville’ from the Yonder Awa anthology, where he explores mixed cultural inheritance:

Who? What? Whose fingers invade our dreams,
consciousness, conversations on love, whose

slave labour allow us to float on cutout
car-top rafts like Huck Finn, and Jimmy and I

Narayan, Narayana, sun rising in the east over Fortyfeet,
over Biscayne Bay, over the Clyde is the same
sun –Hay Surya, Hay Bhagwan – lighting our lips.

His latest poetry collection is Lantana Strangling Ixora (published by Tsarbooks, Toronto, 2011).

The last poet was Malika Booker of Guyanese and Grenadian parentage, who now lives in Britain. She represented Britain with the British Council internationally, has written for stage and radio and is heavily involved in educational projects. Her dynamic presence and dramatic poetry made it clear why Malika was the ideal poet to be chosen as the first Poet in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Her voice is strongly Grenadan which adds strength to her delivery.

Malika was delighted that the title of the anthology was taken from her own poem, ‘yonder awa awa’.  ‘Awa’ is not a Grenadan but a Scots word she learnt whilst here, “So much nicer than ‘away’.” The prose-poem’s epithet is from Exodus 2.22: “I have been a stranger in a strange land”.

look how Duncan begat Duncan and Ross begat Ross, how McIntoshes begat McIntoshes and McIntyre begat McIntyre and red hair jump pon black skin people headtop yonder awa awa, look how you can’t run awa awa from truth. Look how you can’t back chat this one awa awa.

I certainly would not want to “back chat” Malika. On meeting her later she was warm and full of a generosity of spirit. That her poetry is forceful and does not shy from the political was also shown when she read ‘Sauteurs’ from her collection Pepper Seed (Peepal Tree, 2013) about the American invasion of Grenada in 1983 during the Bush presidency when people chose to jump off the cliff of Shooters’ Hill rather than die by bombs:

I stand at this cliff’s edge: water froths below;
The tar road behind disappears. I see only down….

Here men kissed babies, then flung them out,
like skimming stones over water,
hurled children like sacks.

….

So they began to rename.
Grenada: that is not our name
Caribs: that is not our name
Grenadian Dove Leptotila: that is not our name
Hook-billed Kite: that is not our name
Hummingbird: that is not our name
Oh soured baptism.

The repeated naming creates a powerful incantatory effect and is one of the many dramatic devices Malika uses. First person dramatic monologue and ironic humour is also one of her main techniques illustrated in ‘Warning’ which she read for the women in the audience, showing that she can also turn her satiric eye on both Grenada and Britain:

Some great grandmother told her daughter,
Never let no man hit you and sleep,
pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,
use knife and make clean cut down there, [Malika using graphic hand gesture],

use cutlass and chop, then go police.

On that humourous if scary note, a Q and A session followed the readings and gave the poets a chance to express their pride to be part of the Yonder Awa anthology and the Empire Café project that inspired it. It was a chance “to own” the shared history said Dorothea Smartt, Sasenarine adding: “it opened a new space”; “If we are honest about things, there is dialogue,” said Malika and Millicent finished by suggesting “healing not a judgment is needed.”

 

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