art in all its forms

art in all its forms


FILM REVIEW: Play the Devil

Gareth Jenkins and Petrice Jones

WHAT IS most taboo about Play the Devil is not its examination of gay life in Trinidad and Tobago. Rather, the work unsettles by throwing up questions about the power dynamics that exist when two persons of vastly different ages are in a relationship.

Of course in repressed, spiritual Trinidad and Tobago we talk about neither. We also ignore the grim implications of the vast inequalities of wealth nurtured and perpetuated by our rigidly-structured society.

The film follows Gregory (Petrice Jones), a disciplined, subdued and struggling 18-year old student who meets James (Gareth Jenkins), an older, wealthy businessman. James makes a move on Gregory who, in turn, encourages and accepts the older man’s advances. In one important scene, the younger man actively explores his sexuality with James.

The trope of doomed love between two persons of widely differing ages is a classic one in art. Consider Nabokov’s Lolita, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Eliot’s Middlemarch. In all of these male cougar stories, the love under examination is heterosexual. Here, the filmmakers flip the switch.

Other sources abound. Comparison with the 2014 musical theatre production Jab Molassie – which also starred Nickolai Salcedo (who appears in this film and is even more incredible on screen than he is on stage)—is inevitable. Like that tale, the story is set high above the capital in the hills, and a central character is seduced by a devil. But whereas the temptation in Jab Molassie was highly symbolic, in Maria Govan’s film the power of the erotic is not sublimated within the story. It is the movie’s central conflict.

Gregory’s inability to come to terms with his sexuality and James dogged campaign to take up residence in Gregory’s life breed disaster. While we must be weary of the trope of violence being used against gay characters in art, the resolution of the plot is, in this instance, not contrived and is in line with the demands of tragedy. The resolution is not gratuitous and also channels the grim reality of our violent society.

In the opening scenes, actor Gareth Jenkins leaves enough room for us to have different interpretations of James’s motives. Does he want just a hot date? Or is he looking for something more? From the perspective of Gregory – and also evidently some audience members at MovieTowne tonight – James might come across as predatory.

But the projection of negative motives on others is a hallmark of a life of isolation and in the closet. What Gregory actually fears is himself.

To some extent, James, for all his audacious provocations, is the true victim because his actions may well be motivated by a genuine yearning for love. Though clothed with greater wealth and power, James is as trapped as Gregory in a world where every aspect of his life has been brought under manners: his career, his family life, his attempt to act out his core being.

Therefore the roles of victim and villain are as interchangeable as the movie’s Carnival costumes. Gregory’s anguish at the film’s haunting climax is not just a reflection of the fact that all doors have closed on him, it is also the Edvard Munch Scream of all minorities relegated to life at the margins.

The subtle way the film handles questions of class, education and social power is among its strengths. Visually, this Abigail Hadeed-produced film is also sophisticated but not ostentatious. There is a memorable shot from cinematographer James Wall of Gregory literally shutting a closet, as well as one where he is split in the face of a mirror.

Govan’s script does a very good job of turning the screw, pitting Gregory against the forces of family, of religion, of gender norms for males in a macho society, of criminal violence, of peer pressure, of a scholarship-obsessed education system and of wealth disparities caused by a society concerned with money above all else.

Here, at last, is a film of great integrity for the age in which we Trinibagonians live.

The Strange Years of My Life

THE TITLE asks us to think of change. To look back, to reflect. To put into context past moments, past times.

This exercise of self-reflection is also one of estrangement. It places one outside of the parameters of what is being examined. It subjects a life to objective scrutiny, to reportage, a reporter's objective gaze.

But the reporter’s selection of facts is an inherently subjective exercise. And what is really strange? To whom? To which version of the self?

Is strange necessarily pejorative? The unusual, surprising, alien can be pleasurable. What has happened to change things, to render these years different or differently perceived?

And whose life? The poet's? Or a persona of the poet? Is there is difference?

Thus, the title of Nicholas Laughlin's book, The Strange Years of My Life, like the best titles, is already a poem. It suggests autobiography, but flags the conflict between truth and perception. This is an epistemological conundrum. When does the mirage end?

When we encounter books of poetry we seldom have the author at our disposal. The poet's processes are often not documented and are largely unknowable to the reader. When a poet speaks about the work, it is easy to dismiss this as the poet's own reading of what she has done; as just another reading among many possibilities. But it is still a worthy exercise to look at what Laughlin himself has said of his own work, decades in the making.

"The poems belong to a hemisphere of the imagination that encompasses the narratives of nineteenth-century travelers and twentieth-century anthropologists, spy movies, astronomical lore, the writings of Saint-John Perse and Henri Michaux, and the music of Erik Satie," the poet says. "They balance on the edge between concealment and revelation, between bemused fascination and tentative comprehension. Every sentence is a kind of translation, and language is a series of riddles with no solutions, subtly humorous at one turn, sinister at another, heartbroken at the next."

The Strange Years of My Life: manuscript notebook, successive typescript versions, proofs, book (Photo from .

The troupe of “friends” and “strangers” whom the reader encounters in these pages, he says, are sometimes alter egos, sometimes aliases, sometimes adversaries. They inhabit a milieu of mistaken identity and deliberate disguise, where “there are too many wrong countries” and “already no one remembers you at home.”

These statements are apt. However, because poetry moves us by holding up mirrors, I also find reflections of Trinidad and Tobago life in this work. The brief poem 'Ars Poetica' is billed as a treatise on art, but its reference to guns inevitably invokes ideas of crime and punishment in this bloody society. It further makes us question the place of art in this at times fetid state. Yet, though some have dismissed art as a thing of ornamentation, they forget its power, how many people exist today simply because of that one poem, that one movie, that one song that got them through a difficult time. If Laughlin's poem says anything, its conjunction between poetry and violence reflects how words can do things in today's world.

Last week, Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo was awarded the Forward Prize for her awesome book Measures of Expatriation. Her work has astonished and her seven published works comprise an achievement in their own right. It's a good time to reflect on the place of the poet in the Caribbean region as a whole. Both Capildeo and Laughlin’s poems are implicitly political. They liberate us from tendencies that would seek to box Caribbean writing into a narrow corner.

On another note, this shall be my final column. I'd like to thank readers for, well, reading. Maybe you agreed. Maybe you disagreed. Maybe you were moved. As I move on after ten brief years of journalism, I can’t help but look back and embrace the title of Laughlin’s book. Often we have dreams and don’t pursue them. But what if we give ourselves permission to do so? I’ve one word for all the years of doubts. Enough.

From Sunday Newsday, Sept 24, 2016
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From the archive

Anu Lakhan on The Strange Years of My Life 
at Annie Paul's Active Voice blog here


Alice Yard: X

Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard

A LOT can happen in ten years. Ask Christopher Cozier, Nicholas Laughlin and Sean Leonard. Ask the artists, the dancers, the mas men, the musicians, the poets, the writers, the academics, the curators, the publishers, the bloggers, the film-makers, the graphic designers, the projectionists, the lecturers, the audio technicians, the carpenters, the workmen, the civil society activists, the craftsmen, the curious strangers. 

This September, Alice Yard marks ten years and this evening it opened a year-long series of events by hosting a new installation by Blue Curry.

Blue Curry's Untitled (Alice Yard, assorted combs) 

"I am always a bit cautious when I encounter the work of Curry," says Cozier. "His work confounds and confronts, but with precise and strategic composure....I would not trust these objects - just so - no matter how visually appealing."

Indeed, what objects can we trust? Curry's work transforms banal things, isolates them from their functions, opens the mind to appreciation of their aesthetic qualities, and then puts them back together again into a new sculpture - a kind of dance without movement. In the process, he repurposes the viewer. One man's trash is another man's treasure. And one man is also another. These are found poems. 

Cozier tonight traced the origins of Alice Yard to a conversation during Galvanise.

"We thought it would be interesting to start that conversation again," he said. In coming weeks, several events are planned, including a collaboration between Cozier and Blue Curry that seeks to shift encounters with art into public spaces, dissolve the boundary between makers and viewers and reject the notion of art as commodity.

Kriston Chen's toofprints
On a personal note, I've been around Alice Yard for years and participated in two iterations of Douen Islands there. The space has never stopped being exciting. It's never stopped. The only thing that might have changed is the fact that these days, some have more greys.

'We began ten years ago with questions and possibilities. Our evolution has been organic and open-ended. As we consider our actions and ideas of the past decade, our instinct is less to celebrate and more to affirm our spirit of investigation and exchange, our ethos of generosity and independence.' 

Conceptual sketch of Alice Yard by Sean Leonard


From prison to poetry

US poets Rowan Ricardo Phillips and Dwayne Betts. Photo: Marlon James/Bocas Lit Fest

DWAYNE Betts has told the story before.

When he was just 16-years old, Betts was jailed for a gun crime. Inside, he found freedom from an unexpected source.

“I was in solitary confinement,” Betts recalls, speaking at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest on April 30. “You could call out for a book and someone would slide one to you. Frequently, you would not know who gave it to you. Somebody slid The Black Poets edited by Dudley Randall. In that book I read Robert Hayden for the first time, Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton. I saw the poet as not just utilitarian but as serving art. In a poem you can give somebody a whole world. Before that, I had thought of being a writer, writing mostly essays and maybe, one day, a novel. But at that moment I decided to become a poet.”

The poet – who read at the festival alongside fellow American poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips – also conducted a poetry workshop at the Port-of-Spain Prison on April 29. The experience changed everything.

“The first thing that hit me was that there was just a bunch of people in jail on remand who had not had an opportunity to see a judge; to have a trial,” Betts tells the literary audience gathered at the Old Fire Station on Abercromby Street, a few blocks away from the penal facility at the heart of the capital. “I went into the jail and I was struggling to reconcile the profound injustice and the profound pain that happens, that permeates an entire community that does not get acknowledged at all.” In his workshop, prisoners were asked to write.

“The poems these guys wrote had this same pain and frustration,” Betts says. “In the US, most of the prisons are built way out where you can’t see. One of the things that also struck me is they are right here and still seemingly invisible.”

Betts, whose poetry chronicles some of his own experiences with the US justice system, says the workshop changed him.

“What does it mean for me to be in that space and talk to them? I hope that something I said made some sense,” Betts says. “You kind of forget what it means to have certain kinds of privilege, some kind of access to justice. If you come from the States and you are interested in criminal justice reform issues you get this very narrow view of what justice should look like and you take for granted that the system works extremely well– both to lock you up and to give you some semblance of opportunity for justice formally.” He adds,  “What I walk away with in terms of what they gave me is a challenge, both in terms of my writing and in my living.”

Betts is the author of the poetry books Bastards of the Reagan Era (described by the New York Times as “fierce, lyrical and unsparing”) and Shahid Reads His Own Palm, winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. He is also the author of an excellent memoir, A Question of Freedom, which chronicles his experience of the US justice system. In prison, he was re-Christened Shahid.

“It means witness,” Betts says.

At the event – which was supported by the US Embassy – Betts read poetry alongside Phillips, author of acclaimed collections The Ground and Heaven, which was in April shortlisted for one of the world’s biggest poetry awards, Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. Heaven was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post.

“The role of the poet is to write good poetry, period,” Phillips says. “But if you do other things, you do other things. If the poet is a politician, be a good politician. If the poet is a parent, be a good parent. The poets of the future will decide what good poetry is.” For him, craft is key, particularly form and sound.

“You live by the syllable,” Phillips says. He warns against labelling. “We are always related to some kind of event that has already happened. I don’t want to be related to anything. I don’t have to think that I’m related to Dante or Langston Hughes. I’m not responding to Wallace Stevens. The role of the poet is to write good poetry and to find good poetry.” For him, understanding the world is a constant process of re-evaluation.

“I grew up in New York,” Phillips says. “Completely by accident I grew up in an Antiguan household. When they hear or read my name, people don’t know if I am male or female. People don’t know where I’m from. So in a way you are always translated. We are always constantly translating. The classical stuff has always been important, including myth. To me it’s how you understand the world through storytelling.”

- From Newsday, May 31st, 2016


Poet Anthony Joseph traces his ‘Caribbean Roots’

The album's cover is by painter Che Lovelace, son of novelist Earl Lovelace.

By Andre Bagoo

THE TITLE track of Anthony Joseph’s latest album ends with a statement from Earl Lovelace.

“Our history is not colonialism and slavery,” Lovelace says. “Our history is our struggle against enslavement and colonialism.” This is central to the album and Joseph’s work generally.

Joseph is a Trinidadian/British poet, novelist, musician and lecturer resident in London. Not quite calypso, not quite soca, not quite rapso, not quite extempo, not quite blues, his latest album is, simply, poetry.

In Caribbean Roots, Joseph is evangelical. His spoken word sings. At times he is direct. Occasionally, the music seems unnecessary. But more often than not, it wraps itself around the words, reflecting the complex history which Joseph addresses. This work is a paean to the Caribbean.

“You realise that you rooted in the muck of history,” Joseph says in the title track. “And you begin to look around the majesty of old Europe and the citadels of its power, and its grand architecture set in old stone. And you begin to ask yourself where are my monuments? How come all these monuments – even the ones in the islands – were built by those who colonise and enslaved me?” He continues, “You need to set yourself in the soil / of these Caribbean roots”. The poet roams Europe, bringing news of the Antilles. From first to last, this work is an assertion of his identity, as complex as that may be.

The opening piece references Derek Walcott’s famous Nobel Lecture, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’, with a kora becoming part of “a complex science of sound”. The personal and political mix, the poet voyages alongside the, “memory ghost of my father, memory ghost of my mother.”

The saxophones of Shabaka Hutchings (The Heliocentrics) and Jason Yarde, the trumpet of Yvon Guillard (Magma), the bass of Mike Clinton (Salif Keita), the trombone of Pierre Chabrèle (Creole Jazz Orchestra), meld seamlessly with the steel pans of Andy Narrell. Each track proceeds like the section of a Carnival band. David Rudder makes a guest appearance, tribute is paid to the Mighty Sparrow, there is homage to Lord Kitchener.

In 1993, Lovelace also said, “This world doesn’t belong to somebody else and it doesn’t belong to just me either. It belongs to me too. I say that sets the terms of my writing: I deal not particularly with a little group of people somewhere on the periphery of existence, but at the very center of existence.” So too, Anthony Joseph.


May 21, 2016,


'My ambition was to become a writer'

Trinidadian-American poet Mervyn Taylor was last month honored for his contribution to education by the Trinidad & Tobago Alliance, at Brooklyn, New York. He shares with us his address on that occasion. 

Trinidadian poet Mervyn Taylor at the Bocas Lit Fest, Port-of-Spain, 2014

In high school I earned the nickname Teach. I came by it honestly, since I was always shushing the boys so I could hear what the teacher was saying. I would have preferred something more flashy, like Dancer, or Blade. But since I wasn’t bad, I settled for Teach, though once or twice I tried to throw it off, by doing something dangerous, or disrespectful. It just wasn’t in me.

My ambition was to become a writer, of stories, novels. In college, I turned to poetry. I was working at a publishing company, when a colleague from a writing workshop asked me if I wanted to teach. I said I’d never taught before. He said, of course you can. That’s how I got my first job in teaching, at Bronx Community College. And so it began. Since then, I’ve taught on every level, sometimes high school in the morning, college in the evening. High school is where I learned the most- about life, about people, about education, where I heard the truest excuses for not doing homework - my uncle and them was bagging weed in the room and I had to help them. Or, the whole building was in darkness because the inspector find the line we run from outside. Rough stuff. And it wasn’t like when Mr. Defour just cough in Belmont Intermediate and the whole class get quiet. I had to try tricks, like Hear nuh allyuh! And the accent would make them stop, and laugh, just long enough for me to distract them and bring them back to the lesson, to the line in the poem. Yeah, mon, is how they would mock me when they ketch theyself. I learned a lot from them, names like Jasper Lucky and Pazazz. African-American and Dominican and Puerto Rican and Jamaican and Guyanese and Trini all mix up, all trying to figure out what they doing here. Today I see them on Facebook, proud of how a daughter is learning to read, shocked at the behavior of those 'knuckleheads' on the train. Sometimes I remind them.

One of the best rewards for my years of teaching came when a good friend introduced me to his younger brother, who said that after seeing me at BCC, and learning that I was from the same Trinidad he was from, he decided that if I could be a teacher, he could be one too. He has just retired from a career of thirty years. He comes to my poetry readings all the time.

What’s in a name, you never know. It could bring you face to face with yourself. Hey, Teach! Whappenin dey, boy?

Mervyn Taylor