art in all its forms

art in all its forms


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


A biographer in search of his father

Arnold Rampersad’s ties to mysterious ‘McGee’ column of 1940s

By Andre Bagoo

Arnold Rampersad
IN THE opening chapter of his biography of the great poet Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad notes Hughes once said, “children should be born without parents– if born they must be.” Rampersad – the acclaimed Trinidadian biographer – writes extensively about figures such as Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Jackie Robinson. Yet, arguably, a book is waiting to be written about Rampersad himself and his relationship with his father, one Jerome Ewart Rampersad.

“He was a scamp,” Arnold, the son, said last week Thursday as he delivered a lecture on Jerome. “Which is what John Babb called my father recently, although I intervened to say I thought he was more a thug than a scamp. He never allowed us to call him Jerome though he allowed other children he had later to call him daddy and so on.”

The event was a lecture organised by the group known as the Friends of Mr Biswas on the newspaper column, “Mc Gee”, to which Jerome has been tied. As Arnold made clear to the audience gathered at the AV Room of the NALIS on Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, the Mc Gee column of the 1940s was very popular. At one stage it was said to have single-handedly sold the Evening News, the tabloid put out by the Trinidad Publishing Company. References to McGee appeared in calypsos at the time, including one by Lord Invader called “McGee”. Figures like Karl Hudson-Phillips appeared in it. Invader sang, “I’m trying to live peacefully because I don’t want McGee write about me.” The column and the newspaper were read at the sidelines of football matches.

“It was certainly widely-admired among certain segments of the population,” Arnold, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal by US president Barack Obama for a lifetime of work,  said. “He would spin the stories in a particular style and people would find it on the whole a pleasure to read. I remember I read it with pleasure at a time when not every thing about my father pleased. (It) lead Trinidad journalism in a small but significant way to a fresh direction.”

But though wildly successful, the authorship of the column remains a mystery. In addition to Jerome, a series of persons have been tied to it including: Patrick Chokolingo; Lennox Raphael; Vernon Khelawan; Ewart Rouse; John Grimes; “a fella from down south, maybe his name was Alleyne”; and even, according to John Babb, “an unnamed young woman”.

The mystery of the authorship of McGee befits the mystery of the man Jerome Rampersad. He was born in 1917, as Geronimo Ewart Hernandez. His mother was Romana Hernandez, a woman of Venezuelan descent. It is surmised that his father was Christopher Rampersad, a “full-blooded Indian”, Presbyterian, school-teacher with “a multitude of descendants” (apparently including Junior Sammy).

“We know only a few facts of Jerome’s past, although there are people in this room who know more than I do, as usual,” Arnold said. Disappointingly, the name Geronimo was not in honor of the Apache hero, but rather Saint Jerome (Spanish-speaking Romana was a devout Roman Catholic).

In 1930, Jerome started work at the Port-of-Spain Gazette (later famous for the Ambard case) where he met Evelyn De Souza who had migrated from British Guyana.

“One day he left his job on the Gazette, got married and went back to the Gazette to finish his day’s work,” Arnold said. “There is much more I could tell you but I draw a curtain right there. In any event, the marriage was doomed after the birth of three children. Doomed and finished even before I, the third one, was born late in 1941.”

By 1945, Jerome had left the Gazette and had started at the Evening News, following the trail blazed by Seepersad Naipaul, father of VS Naipaul, to the Trinidad Publishing Company. Jerome developed a reputation as a trouble-maker and at one stage tried to organise a formal trade union for journalists.

For Arnold, the column played a role in shaping West Indian literature, even if indirectly. He linked its American, Damon Runyon-esque tone to, for example, VS Naipaul’s Miguel Street. It is likely that several persons wrote the column and that its tone, even if in homage to Runyon, tapped into a bigger cultural ferment which embraced the wave of Hollywood movies at the time, like those starring Bogart.

Whatever the case, the biographer argued McGee came at an incredible time. Said Arnold, “The 1940s represented the most volatile and transformative period of social change in the history of the island. The decade following World War II was, not coincidentally, characterised by social conflict of every kind. There was joblessness, illegal immigration, acute housing shortages, food rationing, racial friction, religious intolerance, erosion of moral and intellectual values. A new, exciting, challenging, puzzling and dangerous place. This was the precise, or maddeningly imprecise and volatile background against which Jerome Rampersad, allowed to do so by the Evening News, began to walk down the dimly-lit road to becoming McGee.”

The writer further stated, “As for my father, I have no recollection of him ever reading a book. But he must have read some. I know that I am going to offend people here. I don’t set out to be offensive. I’m just a biographer. Biography is having a jooking board and wash-tub set up in Woodford Square and you get the dirty linen washed away. Other kinds of biography is more like dry cleaning. There is no intermediate process that marks life.”

Jerome finished a short novel in 1962 that has never been published. He also introduced structural elements of writing fiction into his court reportage. He died, as Arnold discovered only last week, in 1978. Upon his death, the Evening News claimed his “last column” appeared inside the paper.

“He was close to destitution at that point and maybe the folks down at the Evening News took pity on him and allowed him to write,” Rampersad said. “But maybe not. I have no personal or family investment in this project whatsoever. This is not intended as a tribute to my father. Not interested. What’s left is the important part, understanding what was achieved.”

But if, as VS Naipaul once observed, the greatest way a writer can honor a person is by presenting them as they are, Arnold Rampersad may have, despite his protestations, already begun the process of paying tribute to his father and mysterious McGee.

from Sunday Newsday
April 19, 2015, p. 18


BURN - film poem no. 2

Second film poem from BURN by Andre Bagoo (Shearsman Books, 2015: 
See the first here:


BURN, a film poem

Film poem for BURN by Andre Bagoo (Shearsman Books, 2015).


A sheet of paper crumpling on
Vodka, crevices draining into place,
Slopes of mountains torn agape.
I am in love with his face.

Desiccated cracks, diurnal longings -
Hewn, and by blades, eye a valley;
Skaters make grids of icy sweat.
This limestone, I will marry.
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