McDonald Dixon, one of the most prolific and multi-talented figures in the Caribbean artistic world, celebrated his 70th birthday last week in his birthplace of St Lucia. To mark a lifetime’s achievement, The Missing Slate’s poetry editor Jamie Osborn talked to McDonald Dixon about his inspirations, his connections with his home, his understanding of nature, and his vision for the future.
To start with what might be called your roots, your inspirations – a lot of your work draws on nature and the landscapes of the Caribbean, and even when your poems are set in the past in other countries, there is still an intense evocation of the physical environment (for example your poem “Ancestors” traces the journeys of your Irish, Indian and African ancestors through the clay “that was once my flesh”). How do you see your relation, and art’s relation, to nature? In your poem “Beloved Country”, you imply that nature itself speaks through poetry: “This conch will blare across the land in verse.” Is nature an artist itself?
My roots are diverse. First, my mother’s father was a Barbadian sign painter, and her mother was Saint Lucian. My father was born on the Balmain Estate at Couva in Trinidad, the son of an Indian mother, Ramdoularie (“Beloved of God”), and an Irish father, George Dixon. Already you can spot the complexities. Which do I choose? I am an amalgam. Genuine West Indian.
My work draws on everything that touches me, particularly the human condition. Nature and Man are one. “Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return”. I am not very religious but was brought up in the Christian faith, first as an Anglican and then a convert to Roman Catholicism. Art is a manifestation of human creativity. It shapes our disciplines. Nature is the overarching godhead that is sometimes Jesus, Allah, Lord Siva, Buddha – all manifestations of one being: the great architect of the universe.
I noticed that often in your poems description of nature coincides with quite harsh religious imagery. You talk of villages being “nailed / Like Christ to this hillside” by the “sharp nails of rain”. Could you comment on this? What attitude to religion do you think is expressed in your poems? In your work God’s power seems to be reflected in the power of natural forces, and I wonder whether there is something inaccessible and potentially violent about both these forms of power?
As you may be able to deduce, I am not conventional where religion is concerned, but I believe in a divine creator. Nature is more than just simply an artistic self. It is the complete being, both animate and inanimate.
The harshness that you see comes from my utter distaste from what man has done to religion. Look at what the Catholics and Protestants have done to Ireland. Look what the Pilgrim Fathers did to the native American. Look at what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians, look at what is happening in the Middle East. Where is that sense of goodness and holiness? It is all power and greed.
I believe in a God, call it nature if you will, if this is how it manifests itself in my work. The awesome power of nature is seen every year in my part of the world in the fearsome hurricanes that visit us. The earthquake in Haiti, and the tsunami that strode across the Indian Ocean are a few examples in recent memory.
You explore extensively your country’s history and your own family’s history, and sometimes the poems in which you do so are addressed directly to your forbears. You also make use of local St Lucian words and Creole. Your friend and fellow poet Derek Walcott has famously explored the tensions between the old world and the new – the old world of history and the old world of European culture, and how these relate to his own situation. Do you feel a similar tension? Has the literature you were taught in school influenced you at all? And whom do you imagine your poems to be ultimately addressing?
You should realize that when I started writing there was nothing called West Indian Literature. Derek and I went to the same secondary school. He is about 14 years ahead, so I did not meet him there. However the teachers and more importantly the fare from which they taught were the same. I was fed on a diet of English Literature and did not discover the moderns until I was 14. The first Caribbean poet I read by accident was Derek when I dusted off ‘25 Poems’ from the school library shelf.
The literature I was taught in school helped me to mobilize the English language to be used as a tool for expression. Prior to discovering Walcott, all I had known were English poets. I sometimes feel compartmentalized. Part shelved in an English tongue and at other times liberated by my language of the street. My poems address mankind: although secret at times, I tend not to be insular, and speak to the Caribbean man, emerging.
You talk of Nature as “the complete being”. You also say that you write of everything that touches you. This idea of completeness or universalism is something that I feel in your work, but I find it very hard to define outside the context of your poems. Do you think that only art can express the power of nature or God as you see it? How else can it be expressed?
I can understand why you have difficulty in understanding my interpretation of universalism outside the context of my poems and perhaps you would need to know me a little better, like Robert (John Robert Lee) does. I take creativity deep into my other work. I did it in banking, trade negotiations, and when I act or direct a play, which is seldom nowadays.
In your essay on “The Collective Epic”, you suggest that a musical mix of Gregorian chant and Creole prosody can conceal an “unset stage”, which becomes a dough to be kneaded, then undulating hills, and finally a poem waiting to stain the page. As well as being a poet, you write novels, and short stories. You are an artist, a theatre director and actor, and a playwright. I’m interested in how you think these different aesthetic disciplines inform each other. Where are the overlaps, where do you think the differences lie, and what can we make of these differences?
The Gregorian chant and Creole prosody forms the backbone of early Saint Lucian folk music. The slaves heard these chants coming from the church especially on Sundays, and made parodies with lyrics in their creole tongue, accompanied by the drum. I look on all the disciplines you’ve mentioned as parts towards a whole. They do overlap – poems, plays, novels and short stories do spill into each other, but through the rewrite process they are confined to their individual compartments. However, the greatest difficulty has been my painting, photography and poetry. These definitely merge until one sees the poem in the pictures. It is like taking a photograph of my mind. But I am no Renaissance Man and have come to grips with my human foibles. I now concentrate mainly on my writing and have converted the other talents to hobbies. After all, there is a limit to what a 70-year-old frame can take.
What do you think the distinctiveness of Caribbean writing is, not just compared to “English Literature” from Britain, but maybe also compared to writing from Asia or Africa?
One of the most distinctive features of Caribbean writing is its luminescence. Just as the tropic sun dazzles and reflects on everything, counterbalanced by shade and shadow and a night that is alive with the cacophony of insects. We can experience all this in the colour of speech, when our five senses are invoked. We have been assisted by a unique collection of influences: English, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese (European); the Tribes of West Africa and the Guinean coast, Congo and Angola (African); Kalinago, Ciboney (Amerindian); the Indian and Chinese indentured workers (Asian). There is a ‘magic realism’ that seeps into the work as if all the ghosts of these long-since-forgotten ancestors contrive to be present at a rebirth of a new generation in another century. We use the tongues of our former colonizers but we have removed the cold and infused their languages with a warmth that only we as Caribbean people can express.
We have not experienced in our generation the indignities, the human degradation and the suffering that our brothers and sisters in Asia and Africa have had to endure in recent memory and our writings are devoid of the depths of anguish, remorse and even regret. The Grenada Revolution and the Earthquake in Haiti are among the closest examples of loss and suffering that inspire work on the levels of some of the other writers I have read, especially from South Africa, Nigeria and China.
You’ve pointed out the atrocities carried out in recent years. Do you see your art as working to remedy the problems caused by humans’ lust for power and greed? What do you see as the prospects for the future, and what role does art have to play?
Like water, Art must find its level. It cannot be all things to all men. However, it should provide the balance, where men of reason may bask in its shadow and, without resorting to violence, find peaceful means as a balm to soothe a troubled world.