art in all its forms

art in all its forms


A Belmont saga-boy turned poet

IT WAS when his father died that things changed. Mervyn Taylor, 73, still recalls it well.

"My high-school career was shaky," the Trinidadian-born, New York-based poet says. "I was doing okay but I went into decline. My dad died when I was 13. I think as I hit 14 I got to that age where I started to become interested in clothes, in how I looked, girls, and partying. I didn't go bad because he died, but I started trying to combine studies with a little bit of, you know, hanging out."

Taylor is seated at a small table in an Indian restaurant around the Queen's Park Savannah. It is a few days after Carnival, when he played a sultan. He appears mischievous as he recalls his purported descent.

"I will always remember my mom got really concerned at the time," he continues, recalling how, on the Lord's Sabbath, he was always busy focusing on several activities in Belmont, where he grew up. "I started hanging out up the street. It was exciting. There were Dutch parties where you would bring a bottle of something, normally on Sunday evening. We could barely afford the bottle we were carrying and many times guys would put half-water and half-cider."

Taylor continues, "Wherever there was a party we went. I developed a real interest in music. Joey Lewis was popular at the time. He used to practice on the corner of Pelham Street and Reid Lane. But the Norman "Tex" Williams Orchestra was the band of choice. That was the band. Played incredible music. When they played at a fete, the women would crowd around the guitarist. Those things became my interest. This was the 1950s."

This is the poet who, later on March 29, 2014, presented the W.E.B. DuBois Award to Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott at the Black Writers’ Conference, Medgar-Evers College, Brooklyn. At that event, Taylor made a well-received speech on the nature of poetry (see here). It was not an easy task considering the status of the honoree involved.

"I did not go bad in terms of mugging people in the street," Taylor states over dinner. "I was still a good kid doing some school-work. I was never disrespectful but I really had this thing for just hanging out."
Taylor has somewhat different advice for aspiring poets out there.

"Keep a notebook," he says. "Write your lines then do what is the hardest part. Edit and re-write all the while looking at poems by established poets to see what a poem looks like. Train your eye to see your heart to have compassion and your mind to be disciplined. Then listen for your own voice, it will surprise you."

Mervyn Taylor was born in Belmont on December 18, 1941, the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor. His father Julian was born in Barbados, and was a railway conductor.

"Sometimes I rode with him. My mom, Agatha, came from Venezuela," he says. "I was born right here in Belmont, in Belmont Valley Road, up near Zed Road. I lived near what was the Shango Yard up there with my mom."

He notes, "All kinds of people came out of Belmont Valley Road. For example, David Rudder came out of Belmont Valley Road. When I was about five, my father – who did not live with us at the time, he lived on Rosalind Street – bought a house at Warwick Lane and moved us down to the flat. Walcott says, 'To go downhill from here was to ascend'. And so we moved down and I grew up in Belmont." Taylor went to Belmont Boys RC then Belmont Intermediate.

"Andre Tanker was one of my classmates, as was Johnny Boos who would later run a disco in town," Taylor recalls. "There was Trevor Anatol, Courtney King, Kenwyn Smart, Winston Rawlins, Archie Thompson, Winston  De Goveia, among others."

Taylor remembers the night when he won what was then called an exhibition (later Common Entrance and then SEA).

"It was a very big evening in my life," he says. "I remember being thrown up in the air when close neighbours found my name in the Evening News. I went to my father and the first thing I said was, 'Well I got the exhibition, what about the bicycle?' My father said, 'What bicycle? I don't have the money.' I said, 'Of course you have money. You always have money under your pillow.'" His father insisted on not getting anything. Then, a few days later Taylor got his bicycle as a surprise.

Taylor writes of his father in his poem, 'Picture of a Man at Peace', in his third collection Gone Away (2006). That book was preceded by An Island of His Own (1992) and The Goat (1999). In 2010, he published No Back Door. His latest book, his fifth, is The Waving Gallery, from which he is expected to read at the Bocas Lit Fest on April 25, alongside the Trinidadian/UK poet Vahni Capildeo.  

From Belmont Intermediate, Taylor entered St Mary's College where he was doing well until his father's death.

"My grades were going down. My mom got concerned.," he says. She staged an intervention, calling in two male role-models to speak to him. "They spoke to me for three or four hours of talking and asking me what I wanted to with my life. It ended up with everybody in tears." But it was from these tears that a germ of what Taylor would later become emerged.

"They asked me what I wanted to do. I said write. They said write what? I did not know how to articulate it. It was not yet poetry." The intervention worked.

"I would stay behind in school everyday and start over from theorem one. This is what brought me back up to par.," Taylor says. "Finally, I ended up leaving school with a second grade, which allowed me to qualify for a job at the Treasury." The future poet and teacher - who has worked with youths in prison - worked for four years as a second-class clerk in the Treasury, making sure columns were added correctly. That was from 1960 to 1964.

"I was able to buy a fridge. A lot of people did not have a fridge at the time. I got a car. I got my licence. Took my girlfriend to the beach after Maracas, Tyrico I think," Taylor says. "I had money to buy clothes I liked. In some ways I became a kind of saga boy. I was real dapper. I was dressing and having a good time. Continental suits were in style at the time. As much as you guys now like the slim-fitting suits, those suits were the thing." 

Taylor would play mas and remembers becoming a member of a group of saga boys called Amboy Dukes.

"The name came from an American group. It was a big deal at the time. There were bad john boys," he says. It was perhaps a premonition.

Taylor, sensing a kind of inertia setting in among those around him at the Treasury, made a decision to go to America, like some key relatives had before. A brother, Ansil, a boxer (subject of the poem 'My Brother the Boxer' in Gone Away), and aunt, Bertha, were among them.

"I came to America," Taylor says, still in that country even as he speaks over dinner around the Savannah. "What I remembered most when I first came out of the airport was how loud it was. This was 1964. This was September. I started school at Howard University. I spent two weeks in New York, then I went down to DC, met my first American girlfriend." The times were, for him, exhilarating.

"It was the height of the whole Black Power movement and poetry was an essential part of that movement.  I wrote a few things for The Hilltop school newspaper. I wrote a couple of short poems," he says. But it was really in classes that poetry came to him in a strong way.

"John Lovell taught a course on Walt Whitman," Taylor says. "I think that opened my eyes to the possibilities of poetry: how it could flow. We studied Leaves of Grass. I remember something happened during that class when Dr Lovell was absent for a few days. His wife had died but still he came to teach the class. He was really devoted to the idea of poetry. He said it was better doing this than sitting at home. That never left me."

Taylor was also taught by one of the great American folk poets, Sterling Brown, whose first book was Southern Road.
Mervyn Taylor on Carnival Tuesday, 2014

"He had been a whole part of a movement in terms of literature and black expression. He used to have students come to his house and roundtable things. His wife was Daisey," Taylor says. "Eventually, he went through some changes and there was talk of suspension. But it was inspiring."

By 1968, Taylor graduated with a BA in English and headed to New York. Along the way, he met Carla Thomas and Otis Redding, got a job in the garment district making,  "ugly women's coats, working as a charge clerk, writing receipts." Then, after a year, he took a job at Plenum Publishing Company.

"It wasn't what you think, they published Russian, Math and science journals," he says. "I would proof-reading the translation. Publishing was different then. They would cut and paste. You had to cut blocks of type and stick them and line it all up. I met very unusual people." But writing called.

"I wanted to get back into writing or start some kind of workshop and somebody gave me a number for the American poet Nikki Giovanni," he says. "So I called her and she was really sweet and she said the writer John Killens runs a workshop at Columbia. I started this. One night, Derek Walcott came and substituted for John." He recalls being "fresh" with Walcott who tried to get the workshop members to have a more open approach to poetry, to go beyond reactionary, political writing.

"Derek was saying every poem does not have to be this politically conscious thing," Taylor recalls. "I was full of it, and said things down in the islands are not all that honky dory. I was saying there needs to a be a revolution down the islands. I was being fresh with myself."

Today, Taylor has settled down a little now that he's a grandfather. His son, Ihsan Taylor, though not a writer has inherited an interest in words and is an editor at the New York Times where he writes the Paperback Row column. Ihsan is married to Becca and they have two children Julian and Zadie (named after the writer Zadie Smith). Taylor's daughter, Suchitha is a therapist and is married to Jude, they have two children, Sarai and Taj.

Today, the saga-boy and bad john of times past is so reformed that he gets a little sheepish when it comes to Carnival. This year, he says, he enjoyed himself. But there was something on his mind.

"I liked the Carnival, though I felt in some ways it interfered with the work," he says. "With Carnival, I am sure that somewhere I am paying the price for that. The poet should be really observing, taking it in. The poet should play poet, not mas. I've always felt this dichotomy, like if I was more serious about the work I would not be spending so much time with the mas jumbie." But however costumed, Taylor, and his poetry, continue.

Mervyn Taylor and Vahni Capildeo will read at the Bocas Lit Fest on Friday, April 25, at the Old Fire Station, Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, at 2.30 pm. Admission is free.

From Newsday, April 7, 2014


LIVE AGAIN #DouenIslands

MORE here.


Meryvn Taylor on where poetry begins

Upon the giving of 
The W.E.B. DuBois Award to Derek Walcott at the Black Writers’ Conference, 
Medgar-Evers College, Brooklyn March 29th, 2014

'Port of Spain or Castries, No Greeting Is Casual'

No matter how busy, they stop to talk, to friends, strangers, to anyone who happens to catch the eye. There is so much crime today, they are a bit more wary, but they find time to discuss good fortune, to ask about yours. Sometimes they tell the whole story, even the part about a daughter’s disgrace, about a son for whom they have no money for lawyer, about one who is on the verge of getting into college.
I ran into a store to shelter the rain, and a woman asked me if it was raining. I saw the drops on your shirt, she said, and I wasn’t sure if it was rain, or a pattern on the material. See? It looks like a pattern. And she turned to others around and they confirmed, yes, it look like a pattern, but is really rain. Further down the road my mind would be taken up by sight of the security guard in front of a jewelry store, by the size of the bore of his rifle. And later by the cloud over the city, the stifling smell of yellow fumes coming from an area near the city dump, where bad boys from gangs were staging some kind of standoff.

And in the taxi on the way home, the driver pointed out a man who he said played the most beautiful chords on the church organ on Sunday, but who the rest of the week drank heavily, till one of his daughters had to find him wherever he was and bring him home. And I remember my neighbors asking, how is your father, and that thumb cut off by the train, how are the goats he has decided to mind?

And I looked at my shirt from which the pattern had disappeared and it occurred to me that this is where poetry begins, in an observation captured before it disappears for good, given with the honesty of a woman wondering if it was raining in truth, a witness. That someone will call out, like the passenger on the bus in Walcott’s Light of The World to remind us that we left something behind, mister, your cigarettes, while we wish they were calling us back for something more.

This, more than ambition, is what makes a man close the door to his room, even as the world outside calls to say how good he is, sends tickets to bring him across the globe to receive prizes, the Nobel included. It sends him back to a window from which he can see his father show a young boy a line of women climbing the hills for anthracite, the pattern and weave and rhythm of their walk as they crisscross, how his verse should be true like that, like the weight balanced ever so lightly on their heads; close the door to what he says is “the hardest prison ever”, the prison of verse, as his friends have also testified, like Brodsky out of Russia, saying the world is hard all over, might as well try the States, the line in the poem Forest of Europe speaking of poetry as “the bread that will last after all systems have failed”. It is what makes him close the door and assume the position of prayer, whatever that is, standing, kneeling, sitting, and begin the next line, the next stanza, about a man like an egret, standing still in thought.

For it is never finished; this work is never done, because the light of the world will slant differently on a different morning, and who is to see it, who is to find the right metaphor, who is to listen to the voice in the community observe that it must be raining, I can tell by the pattern on your shirt, it’s new, like a new Caribbean, a new America, for ourselves and for those, as Stephen Vincent Benet said, who are to come.

To you, Derek Walcott, for time spent in the service of verse, for the miracle of achieving ordinary speech, in thousands of poems that are simply, prayers, for the next poem, and the one after that, this award- The W.E.B. DuBois Award, presented on behalf of Medgar Evers College, CUNY, at this 10th anniversary of the Black Writers’ Conference, 2014.

Mervyn Taylor


Lava Moko Jumbies

In this beautiful documentary by Trinidadian/Canadian Janine Fung, we follow Shaun Griffith. He is a 21year-old barber who founded the LAVA MOKO JUMBIES in the Gaza, Trinidad.

WATCH another film by Fung, the fine documentary 'Paramin Blue Devils', here. A few screen-shots from the latter film:


CHECK Janine Fung's website here.




Rodell Warner’s artist residency at New Local Space launches a year of consolidating increased international outreach with support for local artists.

February 19, 2014, Kingston, Jamaica
“There is a palpable evolution taking place with art in the region right now” states New Local Space (NLS) executive director Deborah Anzinger.  She believes that the combined effect of resilience and tireless work of a few individuals and organized initiatives both private and public in Jamaica is sparking new and exciting developments in the art Jamaican art scene.

Initiatives like Alice Yard in Port of Spain, ARC Magazine out of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the Fresh Milk Platform and Projects and Space in Barbados, and Popop Studios in the Bahamas are putting in the time to develop, not only local art scenes, but regional ones with more and more collaborations between artists across the Caribbean and the world.

With the support of NLS’ parent company Creative Sounds, NLS has also done its part, steadfastly holding on to its commitment to artists and the right of the general public to not just survive but to live and experience the thrill of culture in motion that is the foundation of contemporary art.  NLS has increased its reach through online programming -- Its art talk radio show IN, which brings international exposure to local art practitioners and introduces international art practitioners to the local public, now airs once a month.  The program has been a great networking tool for local artists and curators to find ways of collaborating with their international counterparts, and viewership has more than quadrupled since the first episode last year from 90 people to 534, providing an excellent educational archive for art students and the general public.  Guest on IN have included: Annalee Davis of Barbados, Elvis Lopez of Aruba, Holly Bynoe of St Vincent, with guests such as Diana Nawi, Associate Curator of the Perez Art Musuem in Miami (PAMM), Rachael Barrett of Three Sixty Degrees, and Trinidadian artist Rodell Warner our incoming artist-in-residence, slated to appear in the coming months.

NLS has also begun partnering with contemporary arts organisations abroad to extend its exhibition programming into their more thriving local markets.  An exhibition of four NLS artists, one Trinidadian and one Trinidad-based, titled FLOAT travels to well-respected Washington DC art gallery Transformer this May, with a scheduled artist talk at American University. 

Through NLS’s residency program the organisation has been able to facilitate regional and international collaboration, providing professional and critical support for artists and facilitating relationships between organisations and people across the region. Last year, American artist Wilmer Wilson completed a residency, and NLS has upped the number of accepted artists-in-residence that we’ll take in 2014 to three.

This March, Trinidadian artist Rodell Warner has planned to embark on a unique community art project that will connect Trinidad and Kingston’s creatives through material, digital and wearable art, using images he’s taken in nature. Rodell will produce patterns and printed fabrics from his nature photographs and has invited designers and other artists working in Kingston to help him create wearable garments and art from these fabrics and patterns. NLS will provide him the workspace and share this collaborative work publicly in a multimedia live event in May. The short list of collaborating artists is Leasho Johnson, Ai Yoshida, Ayana Riviere, Storm Saulter, Phillip Thomas and Afifa Aza. 

To support Rodell’s travel and project expenses, a Kickstarter campaign has been developed to raise funds for his travel and material costs. The campaign closes in less than one week on February 26.  So far 47 people have pledged US $2101, but the campaign must make it all the way to $3400 for his project to receive any of the funds already pledged.  The link for the campaign is as follows :

“We believe strongly in the power of art to raise the profile of the region, foster collaboration and understanding and improve economies and quality of life across the Caribbean” Anzinger states, “but first art must flourish in the Caribbean. The region must invest in its own artists, and work together to develop our potential.”   A similar case in point of unprecedented changes in a place that became art capital of the world is demonstrated by the first ever press release from MOMA written in 1929 before the museum opened its doors,

To find out more about the work of NLS visit them at:


The undiscovered country

SMB II International Airport's waving gallery

The Waving Gallery, by Mervyn Taylor
(Shearsman Books, ISBN 9781848613300, 80pp.)

TRAVEL does things to you. The traveller is in a position like no other. While in transit, whole nations are stripped away by the journey, leaving the individual on their own. Here, the traveller is reduced to their core being. While in transit from one place to another, you are confronted with the question: who am I? From this position of truth, the traveller is then bestowed a gift. Who would you like to be? The traveller, unlike others who stay at home, is in a position to take up whatever identity they please; is free to make new friends in a foreign land, to become whatever they want.

The poetry of Trinidadian poet Mervyn Taylor reflects these dynamics in his forthcoming collection, The Waving Gallery, which finds him grappling with familiar ground. Moreso than his previous book, No Back Door, his fifth book is organised explicitly around ideas of travel and differing stages of migration. The book, which will be published by Shearsman Books in January, comprises 60 poems divided into three parts: ‘Section 1. Leaving’; ‘Section 2. Overstayed’ and ‘Section 3. In Transit’.

There are ekphrastic poems ("Benefit of the Doubt"); poems ostensibly about poets and writers ("What Poets Wish For" ; "Edwidge’s Voyage"; "And Now This"; "The Old Ways") poems that tell stories; poems about characters; and poems that have the mood and feel of memoir ("Sedona"; "Storyteller"). All track a journey of some sort – whether literal or metaphorical, across countries or within a psychological terrain, over miles or between two people at rest in bed.

In the case of migration away from Trinidad and Tobago to other countries, the rationale for that journey itself is subject to Taylor’s scrutiny in the title poem, “The Waving Gallery.” Here, Taylor presents that phenomenon all Trinidadians of a certain age will remember. At the Piarco International Airport’s old terminal, there was a specific gallery with a view of the runway. It was the place families would go to literally see their loved ones off. I remember, as a child, its large windows, through which you could stare forever at airplanes before you saw the tiny speck of your auntie, tantie, cousin, mommy or daddy climbing up the steps of the airplane taking them away. Even after the plane left, families would hang around for what seemed, as a child, like eternity, mourning, as though at a teary-eyed wake, the loss of yet another loved one. With each trip, a visit to the waving gallery was regarded as inevitable, almost as inexorable as the need for the migration away from this country itself.

The new terminal no longer has a waving gallery but with a few brush-strokes Taylor vividly suggests this place for us. However, his poem questions that which was often not questioned in the gallery: the very rationale for the trip itself. The voice of the poem notes he was, on this occasion, “going away to study English, as if / it were not the language spoken here.” The abrupt diminishing of energy at the poem’s end reflects the point of realisation that English is native, meaning this country is already foreign in a sense: it is already a part of the world out there. What is out there is here. And what is here is out there.

Thus, the theme of migration is revealed to be a red-herring. It is true that it is often a journey away and a return; an alienation; an estrangement, which provokes reflection. But the reflection is possible, even inevitable, no matter who what when or where we are. Every country is the undiscovered country. In this respect, there are no foreign lands. We are always constantly learning and discovering aspects of each place – home or abroad – as we are constantly discovering life itself. And so the voice of “Countryside” is beset by uncertainty as to whether home is really home:

As many times as I’ve been there,

the roads remain strange, going east

when I think we’re headed south,

passing fields of the same farmers

who lift and shake their heads.

I’m sure I was born here, though

when I hold out my hand the fish

swim away, the men toast someone

behind a partition, and only one

aunt claims she still loves me.

Here is an uncertainty one senses even natives might feel. Taylor’s focus on intransigence leads us to see that it is not necessarily travelling which causes a rupture in personality, for it is the idea of personality itself which is malleable. With each minute, with each new experience, each new person, friend, and even stranger encountered, the individual changes. Yes, there is a core to us, but the penumbra of that core shifts like the weather. It is not travelling that changes you, but rather it is you. Taylor deals with those quiet transitional moments where the self is confronted with its own starkness: “Returning”; “Layover Trinidad”; “Life In The Islands”; “Marie, and Juan”. And he shows how that self flips about in poems like “Country of Origin”; “Poet in Peru”; “Language Major”.

The blurring of these lines is not limited to geographic and personal ideas, but also involves art: challenging the mediums though which we grapple with understanding reality itself, such as film. This is the centre of the incredible poem, “First Time Seeing Snow”. Taylor takes a common trope in post-colonial literature and uses it obliquely to raise an unexpected concern. In the poem, we expect some sort of jejune pastoral idyll about a West Indian going to a country with snow and being in awe, but instead we are presented with the idea of a depiction of snow on film, viewed while at home, not abroad in a temperate land. The poem focuses on how film not only presents but also can come to define reality in certain contexts. The voice of the poem reacts strongly to a banal glimpse of snow under a car tire in an old movie. In this way, the first snow is not a physical tangible thing: but something more cutting, almost as powerful, more unshakable: a seed planted in a mind from the screen. When snow falls, cars skid. It is an idea at once alien, exotic and revelatory for the man in the dark.

In these shifting sands, what are the imperatives which we must honour? Taylor has an idea. They include family, memory, society, truth, justice and, above all, love. We are changing, yes, but the heart and its propensity for irresistible impulses will always be the same. And so, in “Another Country” loneliness is compared from one country to the next.

These poems are often sophisticated exercises that find an easy tone. They appear unforced and seduce with their elegance and craft. They greet and surround us, stimulating the mind, making points by not making points, and all the while remaining beautiful – with smooth rhythms, well-chosen images and metaphors, and provocative enjambments – before waving us goodbye, leaving us to think of them when they are lost to us.

Taylor gives us no answers (nor is he asked to) but he moves us to something approaching wisdom. He seeks to teach us the value of the truly examined life, to re-route the trip somewhat: to make it a voyage into the interior. He knows how fast a life fades, as quickly and abruptly as the day ends in the opening poem “Mt Hololo.” 
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