Following on from that, I suppose, I am intrigued by the attitude towards religion expressed in your poems. Both the poems that you have published with The Missing Slate contain allusions to Christianity, but the opinion suggested in the poems is perhaps ambiguous. Could you explain how religion has informed your work?
The attitude may be, as you say, “ambiguous”, but my attitude to my faith is complicated rather than ambiguous. A brilliant poet, Eduardo Corral, recently said in a talk he was giving, something that I may be paraphrasing badly, but that has become something of a mantra for me: “Doubt should drive shotgun, never let it take hold of the wheel.” He was talking about attitudes to writing, and the advice is exceptionally brilliant for its honesty and wisdom, but for me it is doing so much more. It works for my faith as well. I do not regard my attitude to the Christianity that has shaped and guided my life for at least thirty-four years as ambiguous, but it is complicated, even as it is enriching and necessary in me. In the end, I think of T.S. Eliot, who himself wrestled with the pointlessness of his art and the “still point” of his faith, who wrote in the ‘Four Quartets’, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I used this phrase as an epigraph to a poem I wrote in 1995. It still resonates for me today. I find profound comfort in leaving those things that are not my business to those whose business they are—and in many ways, where there are questions around my faith, I am happy to leave them for a time when I can ask them. I just want to be in the room to do so.
You have an interest in reggae and have said that reggae musicians are amongst the most influential Caribbean artists. How do you see the relations between music and poetry? Your poetry often takes a regular form, but frequently deviates from conventional expectations of that form— does that have anything to do with music, do you think?
I am not sure about some terms that you are using—namely “a regular form” and “conventional expectations”. So I am tempted to cheat a bit and say that my poetry is probably as regular and as conventional as contemporary poetry is in form, and I suspect that I am meeting the expectations of most readers of contemporary poetry as it relates to form. But asked in the context of reggae, I can only say that the most defining influence of reggae on my work is not “formal” in the sense of the physical shape of the poem or in the thing that most people seem to expect when I say I am a reggae poet—rhythm or accent. These are there, and I know they are there, but reggae is a music form that is quite basic in its innovation, and so its radical power lies in the philosophical and cosmological breadth of the music and the ideologies and aspirations and histories that have come to shape this music. It is in that sense that you might find in the two poems published in The Missing Slate a consistency with the reggae aesthetic, as I have coined it. After all, the poems are at once lyric expressions as they are engaged with the collective imagination, the poems have a sensuality in them, and yet a political engagement. The poems, further, are spiritual in the sense that they presume a world-view that involves the spiritual. I believe that reggae’s remarkable power lies in its capacity and inclination to contain all those different impulses in a single lyric, in a single composition. Not all reggae does this, but roots reggae sets that as a working template for all variations of the form. Dub offers a wonderful non-lyric demonstration of this thing. It is harder to articulate it, but those elements are all there, but more than that, the wonderful mutability of reggae while maintaining its core identity is one of the things that allows me to be a poet working in different forms while somehow maintaining a core drum and bass. Reggae, I suppose.
These two poems seem to explore the artifice in the quotidian, it is true, but I can’t claim this quality for all my poems. That said, I am not sure that there is ever anything but the quotidian. In other words, even when there is pomp and splendor there is probably a streak of fecal matter in the briefs of the King. I am as interested in the alarums as I am in that telling streak—that thing that makes us all human beings who will eventually die and become quite ordinary things. I can’t say that poetry represents anything for what it is. I am not sure though that the elevation of things is the opposite of representation. Instead, I think that poetry heightens our perception of what is out there—it complicates and simplifies all at once. Poetry distils and muddies. This very contradiction prevents me from being overly doctrinaire about what a poem is. That is healthy. I am always more interested in how a poem understands the challenges of language. I can’t help but think of that wonderful whimsical song by Paul Simon, ‘Rewrite’,
I’m working on my rewrite,
Gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash.
In the end there is gratitude—“thank you for listening to my prayer”. It is a beautiful song in the classic way that Simon is so aware always in his songs that he is writing songs, he is making poems, he is reconstructing experience in art, and I like that. That is what I want to do, and even sometimes “turn it into cash.”