The latest in our series of Poet in the Month interviews is perhaps the widest-ranging yet. John Robert Lee discusses his own work, past and present, and provides a beginner’s guide to the contemporary art scene in St. Lucia. Readers of this interview should be able to see at a glance why John Robert Lee has been described as ‘a caretaker of the files in the archive of the St. Lucian soul’…
‘After Gary Butte’ strikes me as an enormously wide-reaching poem, covering great distances in space and time and tone. Could you tell us a little more about how you came to write it? Where exactly was the point of intersection between Gary Butte’s paintings and your poetry?
The poem is an intuitive response to the work of Gary Butte. I found his work to be very different from the work of other St. Lucian artists. So I selected some pieces and over several months, just literally stared at them, studied them and allowed them to, as it were, speak to me, to pull out from me, their own response. So while I was searching out Gary’s work, his work was searching me out, and pulling from me a response. And after a long while, the lines of the poems and the poems started to come. Gary’s work carries within itself those great distances in space and time and tone and the poem reflects that. Of course I suppose what was touched in me were my own interests and concerns that resonated with the work. But I tried the best I could to keep it intuitive, not forcing anything on to the art. I used the titles of the paintings as the titles of the individual poems. As to a point of intersection between Gary’s paintings and my poetry, I suppose it is the depth and vision of his work that interests and excites me. I try always for depth and vision in my own writing.
Vladimir Lucien has called you ‘a caretaker of the files in the archive of the St. Lucian soul.’ Would you be able to pinpoint any qualities which you feel are specifically St. Lucian? In what ways does ‘the St. Lucian soul’ differ from a more general ‘Caribbean soul’?
Every Caribbean island is unique even as we share so much in common. St. Lucia’s unique qualities come from its Creole/Kwéyòl history and culture, a blend of French, English, African, Asian and the older Amerindian that have become something new in Kwéyòl language and culture. Add to that the influences of the contemporary cultures, especially North American. You sense the St. Lucian unique spirit especially in its folk music and dance. I have tried t0 capture this in some poems drawing on the music and dance and dress. As in Creole Canticles:
Let us praise His Name with an opening lakonmèt,
and in the graceful procession of weedova;
let laughing, madras-crowned girls rejoice before Him in the scottish
and flirtatious moolala, its violon hinting of heartache.
And while we forget time turning in quick-heeled polkas,
pause during the tentative norwegian —
for when the couples end the gwan won,
you alone must dance for Him your koutoumba.
I was glad when they call me to go up in the Séwénal.
The violon scraping my heart,
banjo and kwatro thrumming my grief like their plectrum,
and the guitar pulling my heel.
—I only seeing her tuning the mandolin on her bosom —
Then the shakshak shake me loose, insisting, insisting,
“wait for the bow, the bow and the courtesy,
wait for the sax, the drum and the kwadril to start.” Selah.
And so, she has come: to the gold-flecked Wob Dwiyèt,
its long train in folds over her left wrist,
the clean petticoat adorned with lace,
the satin foulard, the head-piece of rainbow madras—
from the nondescript costume of the far city,
from the profligate famine of Cardun’s estates—
to the embracing plenitude of Kwadril shakshak and violon,
to that Bright Brooch on the glistening triangular foulard.
The cascading words of my hand
pluck His praise from eight-string bandolin and local banjo,
place His favour on madras and foulard, the satin and the lace,
plant His steps in mazouk, lakonmèt and gwan won;
point His casual grace in yellow pumpkin star, pendular mango,
plait Him a crown of anthurium and fern —
He is the Crown, the Star of grace, the Dancer of creation,
the Robing of righteousness, Tuning of the spheres,
Hand of the Incarnating Word.
Lakonmèt, weedova, scottish etc are traditional folk dances of St. Lucia.
Séwénal – a musical tradition of St. Lucia in which musicians and others with any object that can make a musical sound walk in procession through the town – making music and diverse sounds, of course.
Violon (violin), banjo, shakshak, kwatro are traditional folk music instruments.
Kwadril (quadrille) – folk dance of St. Lucia, out of the French heritage.
Wob Dwiyèt – national dress of St. Lucian women. The verse describes parts of the dress.
Foulard – a triangular scarf-type part of the wob dwiyèt that is placed over the shoulders. It is usually fastened at the front by a distinctive brooch.
Cardun – a name created by the poet to describe a certain bacchanalian sprit of carnival licentiousness. (from the expression “fete can’t done.”)
Bandolin – Creole version of mandolin, traditional folk music instrument.
In terms of contemporary Caribbean, the “soul” of St. Lucia is very much at one with the general Caribbean. Musical styles from Jamaica, fashions and technology from North America, and unfortunately, the drugs and crime and social ills are as much with us as with everywhere else. And of course this is Western society everywhere. We are a Western society with all the goods and bads of that historical and social reality.
Which contemporary St. Lucian writers and artists do you feel deserve a wider audience? Are there are any Kwéyòl poems you’d like to see translated into English?
Artists like Gary Butte certainly; a young, very talented sculptor whose work has been on show in China named Jallim Eudovic; another painter, Kenneth Lawrence among many others. As to writers, I would mention Kendel Hippolyte, his wife Jane King, the younger Vladimir Lucien who should have a first collection published in the UK in 2014, McDonald Dixon an older writer, Adrian Augier. The main Kwéyòl writer poet is George ‘Fish’ Alphonse, also a fine actor who specialises in one man shows using his poems. His work deserves wider exposure and translation. There is a younger Kwéyòl poet called Marcian Jn Pierre whose work could bear translation and exposure. Of course the work of many of our writers deserves translation into other languages, not only Western languages. I think the rural nature of our islands even with their modern small towns, would resonate with other rural cultures in the Eastern part of the world.
Do you think the rise of new technology is helping to dissolve borders for artists from smaller communities? Has the internet made it easier for writers from St. Lucia to reach a worldwide audience, or is it naïve to assume that ‘making it new’ automatically leads to progress?
Certainly the new technology has already dissolved borders for everyone including artists from smaller communities. Social media with its facebooks and blogs and online magazines and accompanying hardware, has meant that writers and artists can send their work to any part of the world, at any time. More writers in St. Lucia and the Caribbean are using non-traditional publishing sources to get their work out. Of course this means that there needs to be good valid criticism to separate the good from the indifferent. So we need to see the development of good online critics who gain wide respect. They probably are already there, but there is so much, you can miss a lot of significant work. And yes, the new does not automatically mean ‘progress’, since there is also a lot of negative and bad stuff happening through social media and the internet. But today’s writers and artists must be aware of and use the positive advantages of the new media.
Where does your own journey take you next? What do you think has been the most radical change in your poetry since your early collections?
I really don’t know where next. My personal philosophy, in a way, is to live a day at a time. Which does not mean that I don’t plan or think ahead. But I try to be open to the opportunities and possibilities waiting around the corner.
Radical change in my poetry? My poems have become more deeply poems of my Christian faith as seen through my St. Lucian and Caribbean culture, a kind of incarnational, sacramental experiencing. I have learned much from many poets especially my own countryman Derek Walcott. I try for truth, beauty and harmony (those old essential verities) in my work, weaving images and language around the themes and ideas with what I hope is a maturing skill. I think there should be beauty in poetry, even though the subject may be grim. And I have been working quite a bit with images —art, and photographs (many of my own) — which could also be seen as a radical development for me. ‘After Gary Butte’ comes out of that exploration with images.
Nothing depresses so much as when, caught
suddenly unawares, the heart and memory
come face to face and find forgotten pain
in a remembered glance or touch that sought
to ease that very hurt. And when, in vain
later, one tries to fill some emptiness
with some moment that the heart should leave to
memory, nothing depresses so much.
(For Pat C. – in memory)
we return, never the same point,
that’s gone, that’s passed
but a familiar conjunction,
place, person, angled commemoration
unsettling déjà vu—
from the hours’ spiraling edge, I call you
to mind, to heart, to touch ghosts
in the stairwell, serious roots thrusting
us around today, tomorrow
to come here again yesterday, another furrow
another spiral turning up the past.
All poems and photographs in this interview © John Robert Lee.