art in all its forms

art in all its forms


The politics of Jab Molassie

Roger Roberts as Jab Molassie

IN AN INTERVIEW in 1978, Trinidadian novelist Samuel Selvon set out a conflict he faced in his work. For him, there was a tension between the use of standard English and the everyday language of conversations, the vernacular.

"I still have this problem of having to think consciously of what I am going to say and how to phrase what I want to express," Selvon said. "I grew up in Trinidad speaking the way Trinidadians talk. And that remained with me throughout all my years living abroad. I find that if you were a Trinidadian and I was talking to you, perhaps I could slip into the dialect form." He felt strongly that dialect is to be presented in standard English, not written phonetically.

"I feel this jars on the readers' eyes and it makes any dialect form so much more difficult to understand," Selvon said. He was not the only writer to have this view. Other novelists have taken a similar stance, such as Merle Hodge in "Crick Crack, Monkey".

The tensions set out by Selvon are reflected in "Jab Molassie", a work of opera which seeks to immerse its audience in a Trinidadian scenario using language which, though poetic, remains in dialect, with the added complication of being in rhyming couplets.

"Jab Molassie" follows Starboy as he gives up something precious to him for the sake of material gain. It is a story set in Laventille written by an American, Caitlyn Kamminga, who grew up in New Orleans and moved here from her last posts at Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

Kamminga has clearly bent over backwards to replicate authentic Trini dialect. At the same time, she has kept the language in formal rhyming couplets. This is an unusual blend which some audience members took a while to adjust too. Others, though had no problems. I felt what was being communicated was clear enough. However, some restraint would have been beneficial. In everyday language, Trinidadians slip in and out of standard English. Therefore, the approach to the dialogue should be more multi-faceted. The text gains if it does not stick pedantically to the vernacular at each and every line. This is the balance which Selvon thought he found in his novel, "The Lonely Londoners".

That said, the tensions in the language of "Jab Molassie" did not overly harm my experience of it. Perhaps this was because the medium of opera comes with an expectation that things are not going to be natural. Persons entering an opera - when they do actually enter to consider the art - do so with certain expectations, bracing for a peculiar experience. Opera is difficult. In the first place, most are in foreign languages. Also, they can sometimes seem highly-mannered, stilted. As lush and beautiful as some productions are, modern audiences can feel alienated by the formality of the language used. Yet, this same formality is what draws others.

The tension of the language of "Jab Molassie" does not detract from the work because we are already within a heavily stylised realm. In a weird way, the unrealistic nature of the dialogue enriches the sense of another world being created and the ideas raised within it. The language mimics the political themes within the story. For the use of our dialect is not just an attempt at realism. It becomes an assertion of identity. It demands the audience come to grips with it. It shows that it has a place in the high art of opera. As imperfect as it is formulated, the language paints a vivid picture of who we are.

What "Jab Molassie" represents is never expressed. We understand it is about material gain. But we are left to project other possibilities such as: party politics; crime, violence and gangsterism; power; gender; self-representation; nationalism versus individualism; addiction, drugs and booze; love or all of the above. There is a strong social sub-text. The production is about the different things that lure young people. The common thread is temptation. The Jab is the devil himself.

At one stage, Starboy trades his precious violin for a magic book which gives him whatever he wants. But it is suggested this comes at a price. It is notable that a book is the taboo object which seduces and turns Starboy to possible oblivion. Is this a critique of knowledge? Of book-sense as opposed to commonsense?

An interesting aspect of "Jab Molassie" is the decision taken to have both female and male embodiments of characters. So the narrator, the Corporal, is split into two roles played by a female and male actor. So too the titular Jab. Also, at the run at the Little Carib Theatre, Woodbrook, from November 6 to November 9, the orchestra was placed onstage. While there are space constraints at Little Carib, I wonder how things might have worked with the orchestra amid the audience?

Though this show is entitled "Jab Molassie", it's all about Starboy and his coming of age. We are absorbed by this. However, I felt the production was too short. I wanted to know more about Starboy and understand the context within which he operated. While there are merits to a short, breezy production, the fallout is the development of conflict. We do not really see the price Starboy pays for his decision and thereby must project our own ideas of the worth of his salvation at the climax.

The strongest aspect of the production is its music which cannot be faulted. Dominque Le Gendre's score is incredible. Her contribution to Caribbean culture I fear is not properly understood. Her work is powerfully stamped by her unique aesthetic. Ironically that aesthetic is a cosmopolitan, Caribbean one, which has been described as creole, meaning it is hard to pin down. The tonal qualities of her music, the precarious balance between play, darkness and ambiguous lyricism, her unabashed passion for vintage Caribbean melody and form and for infusing these elements within an avant garde sensibility make for true magic. Because of the music and the skill of the actors, "Jab Molassie" achieves the sublime. It mesmerises with its sections about love, then grips you in terror.

The production design was also beautiful, with stock light projections chosen by Benny Gomes and director Patricia Cumper suggesting the hills of Laventille in a manner reminiscent of Braque.

The performance at the Little Carib Theatre made me wonder where Nickolai Salcedo has been before all this. Yes, a bandleader, yes a painter. But here he is intriguing, mercurial. You wonder what is next. Roger Roberts, of 3canal fame, and soprano Natalia Dopwell were perfectly cast as Jab Molassie, embodying menace. That said, I sometimes wished both characters had more shades of complexity.
The narrating Corporal was a highlight, played by Wendell Manwarren and Germaine Wilson. Of Starboy, the Corporal remarks: "That boy clever, but he ain't smart!" and, later, "He got everything, /Tout Bagai! / Everything he want / The book provides. / But he startin' to feel / Empty inside." Overall, this production, an adaptation of Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale", was better than the original.


- from Newsday, November 18, 2014


‘I fell in love with Trinidad’

ONE DAY, it all clicked. Miquel Galofré was at his grandmother’s house at Sabadell, a small city 30-minutes from Barcelona, Spain. He was listening to the Rolling Stones’ “Still Life”. He was 12-years old.

“I was a neglected child, my parents were too young and they had problems,” he says. “I had to handle a lot when I wasn’t ready for it. So the world was not a nice place for me at that time. I cried a lot in my bed.”

“But things got better when, as a teenager I discovered music and films. The click was a Rolling Stones cassette when I was 12. And now I use all the feelings I have experienced in my life, in film,” the film director and editor says.

Galofré’s description of his own childhood evokes scenes from his most recent film, “Art Connect”. That film, which features children coming to terms with their problems through music, dance and painting, was awarded Best Trinidad and Tobago Feature Film at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF) in September. It also took home the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary Film.

“With ‘Art Connect’ I basically wanted to do two things,” Galofré says. “I wanted to help a group of teenagers from Laventille to be happier. And I wanted to show in a film that this kind of program does work and they should be done in every school.”

Like the titles of his other films (“Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast?”, “Hit Me With Music”, and “Songs of Redemption”) suggest, Galofré is a filmmaker interested in music and the uplifting potential of film. Whether set in a Jamaican prison or the Success Laventille Secondary School, he tells deftly-edited, immaculately-paced stories that weave several elements but ultimately  – no matter how dark the subject-matter – end up blossoming into lyrical outpourings of love.

“A film should hit you and give you energy!” the director says. “You should come out the cinema feeling able to do anything, with a smile in your face and in a rush to make your dreams come true. Like a good song, it should make you stand up and move, with a big smile.”


Miquel Galofré was born on June 1, 1970.

“I was conceived in Ibiza, the small, beautiful Spanish island known for crazy parties and drugs,” he says. “And I was born nine months later in Barcelona, Spain.” He is reluctant to talk in detail about his parents, but says, “I didn’t grow up with them and I was a very sad child, feeling guilty for all the dramas, fights, abuse and alcoholism that were around me.”

Galofré, 44, traces his passion for art, generally, to that moment when he was 12 at his grandmother's house listening to "Still Life".

"When the riff of the guitar of the first song ("Under My Thumb") started, my life changed for ever," he says. "That energy woke up everything in me! I got goosebumps, tears welled in my eyes. I had a burning need to jump and a strong wish to live!" He also recalls the impact of a favorite toy.

“My grandpa had some Super-8 cameras and that was my favourite toy ever,” he says. “Unlike other kids, I didn’t enjoy cartoons, fantasy, or kid’s games but I always loved to look at the world through the lens. To this day, I think I use cameras as a tool to find beauty in the world. And I started very young. At 12, I started editing with Betamax videotapes and I never stopped.”

By the time he was eighteen, he was seeking work and found the job that cemented his passion.
“I saw an ad on TV,” Galofré says. “They were asking for home videos for a contest. I sent more than 100 and they called me, not to participate in the contest, but to work with them in the TV company. Working on TV I learned a lot. I was there more than 20 years doing all kinds of stuff.” One of his tasks was to film and edit the castings/auditions of people trying to get into the Spanish versions of American Idol or Big Brother.

“The videos were very successful and people always told me that I made them get emotional and cry,” Galofré recalls. Eventually, he decided to study film. But the experience in television was teaching him things faster.

“There is no better school than that,” he says. Television took him all over the world. By his count, he’s been to 26 countries. Then, in 2010, he came to Trinidad.


"I would say I came to Trinidad following my dream of making films and also trying to know who I am," Galofré says. His first time in Trinidad was to attend screenings of one of his films, "Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast?", at the TTFF. The film had screened previously at studiofilmclub (run by painters Peter Doig and Che Lovelace) and was well-received.

"I came for a week and I fell in love with Trinidad," Galofré says. "Trinidad has something that makes me feel at home, it's such a unique place. It took a while to understand it and it has not been always easy at all."

The filmmaker continues, "I meet a cool guy called Alex Smailes, a photographer who is today my friend, who asked me if I wanted to make a documentary in Trinidad with him. I said yes. And after 6 months I was living here ready to film." Though a trailer was produced for "Mike Men of Trinidad" (you can find it on YouTube), the film has to date not been completed due to a lack of funding. But Galofré remains undaunted.

"I feel I still have some important stuff to film here," he says. "I have my company here, called Trinidad and Tobago Rocks! (which has a Facebook page, search for "TandTrocks").

Despite the ups and downs, the affair has lasted unusually long by Galofré's standards.

"I have traveled a lot, filming in more than 26 countries but I've never stayed for more than 2 months abroad, I always came back home to edit," he says. "But the same feeling I had when the plane landed in Barcelona I have it every time the plane land in Piarco.  Home." But he adds, "Then the immigration officers usually remind me that I'm not home!"

Galofré says he has two film projects due next: one a documentary and the other a narrative feature film, both in Trinidad. The documentary is based in the book “Wishing for Wings” by Debbie Jacob.

"What she does is amazing," he says of the book. "Instead of complaining about how bad crime is, she seeks to understanding why a kid becomes a criminal. I want to do the film about this to reach more people, people who don’t read books. Films are the new books. A country needs good books, good music, good art and good films. They write the history." Of the local film industry, Galofré says more needs to be done.

"It’s so young but the potential is huge," he says. "It has to happen. Trinidad is such a unique place: the mix, the contrast, the culture, social, political, cultural. There is so much stuff. Something has to be done and it’s urgent. The success of the TTFF shows there is space for other kinds of movies in Trinidad. To be honest, if nothing changes, I’m about to give up with filming here." To film students, or anyone thinking of becoming a filmmaker, Galofré does not mince words.

"The reality is that it’s very difficult to work in film," he says. "Make sure it’s your passion. Make sure you love it bad, bad, bad. You will have to put in a lot of effort. And ultimately, what is needed to become a filmmaker is not taught in any school in the world. Only life and a lot of work can give you the skills. You have to learn who you are, what you have to say, how to build a story, how to handle a crew, how keep people’s interest, how to touch them. But all is possible."


Miquel Galofré’s favorite films

“The Bicycle Thief” (1948, Vittorio De Sica), “8½” (1963, Federico Fellini), “Taxi Driver” (1976, Martin Scorsese), “Buffalo ‘66” (1998, Vincent Gallo), “Old Boy” (2003, Park Chan-wook), “Pulp Fiction” (1994, Quentin Tarantino), “In the Mood for Love” (2000, Kar Wai Wong), “Funny Games” (1997, Michael Haneke), “Head-On” (2004, Fatih Akin), “3-Iron” (2004, Kim Ki-duk), “Uzak” (2002, Nuri Bilge Ceylan), “Short Cuts” (1993, Robert Altman), “Tarnation” (2003, Jonathan Caouette), “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001, John Cameron Mitchell), “Night on Earth” (1991, Jim Jarmusch), “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (2005, Amanda July), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982, Steven Spielberg), “The Shining” (1980, Stanley Kubrick).


-from Newsday, October 20, 2014.


The mirror has two faces

THE MIRROR has an ornate, gold frame. It stands onstage, as if floating, suspended solely by the movements of the dancer. He props it up, lifts it, hides behind it, and at one point is almost guillotined by it. The audience is made privy to a series of private moments: we all gaze at a person in front of a mirror, obsessed with self or with something refracted in its hard surface. He dabs white powder all over his face continually and, seeking perfection, tests his image anew in the face of his true, glass lover.

This is Dave Williams’ incredible, monstrous work of choreography, entitled ‘Older’, which was shown at the Coco Dance Festival on October 4 and October 5 at Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s. We may argue that the piece is about the relationship between self and self-image over time; a rendering of Narcissus. Or it may be about relationships with others, how they always reflect something about ourselves. Perhaps as we get older we get wiser. Or equally we stay the same, make the same mistakes, play the same tricks of self-delusion and, well, it all just gets old.

The greatness of this piece is how it achieves what the best choreography does. It uses simple tools to create complex, dynamic effects. For instance, throughout the performance the audience is at times able to glimpse into the mirror and see what is being reflected. We see the dancer, in garish black spectacles that look like aviation goggles. Sometimes, in the dark of Queen’s Hall, we see only blackness: the type of deep blackness only a mirror can provide. But then, when the mirror moves, there is blinding light. Williams plays with its reflection, throwing it like a scrutinising beam all over the audience and elsewhere.

The effect is thrilling. We think of the powder on teenagers’ chests; Mr Sandman; Carnival sailors shouting: yuh can’t play mas if yuh fraid powder. We understand the vocabulary of this piece and we are compelled to follow to the bitter end when Jhené Aiko’s pop single ‘The Worst’ fades and we then hear a poem speaking of the nature of aging, how it turns bodies that once seduced into transparencies. We understand, at this point, the absurdity of all of Narcissus’ machinations with his mirror, coming as they do in the face of the inevitable fade-out of death. The dancer ends his piece with the mirror on the floor, prostrate after being licked. He walks back into the darkness.

Williams has, over the years, cemented his position as a necromancer. His best pieces – like “Waiting” and “Roasted Swan” – derive their power, in part, from their physical challenge. Here, the challenge was how to sustain the relationship between the body and the mirror in an interesting and intelligent way.

Williams makes it look so effortless. He’s not only older, he is certainly wiser. We are left wanting more and, notwithstanding its achievement, I wonder if this piece is complete. But finished or not, its images stay in our minds.

In an interview with Newsday Williams said he was inspired by fragments of questions surrounding the process of aging, mindful that the careers of most dancers in times past were limited by age.

“It’s a short life span,” Williams says. “Ballet dancers are lucky if they make it to 35.”

The dancer continues, “I wanted to do something that I was interested in.

“Because I have been dancing for 29 years and aging, I’ve noted how the body raises pretty immediate questions and situations. Aging was something that I was interested in. Nobody tells you what to expect. When I was child, 50 was an old person. The idea of aging gracefully, what does that mean in the current era?” He states ‘Older’ is an excerpt from a longer piece which will be shown on November 17 and November 18 at another show at Queen’s Hall, put on by the Noble Douglas Dance Company.

Other highlights at the Coco festival included Sonja Dumas’ ‘Walk the Talk’, an intelligent and beautifully structured take on stereotypes and how people – particularly women – are judged by how they walk. A similar feminist cord was found in ‘Farm Girls’, Sharifa Hodge’s piece which sees the limiting tropes applied to women in calypso and soca re-appropriated by the women onstage in a way that overcomes. ‘Hidden Curriculum’ by Deliece Knights had a similar intent, though wider scope, with intervals that voice specific thematic concerns about gender, power and discrimination in society. These threads were also woven into Akazuru’s ‘The Elemental \I. Hail for Stones’, which saw a procession and protest outside of Queen’s Hall, with rope being tied to the building’s pillars. ‘NeoIndigenA’ was a raw and audacious piece which was incredibly effective, provoking thought about the indigenous populations and their fate. ‘Beyond Words’ was a promising video. All of it was part of a programme which featured many other gems which shined in the dark.


- from Newsday October 13, 2014


Only connect

Art Connect

SINCE, as one student featured in the documentary Art Connect states, art is a picture of life, this film stands on its own as a sublime work.

Ostensibly about a social intervention programme for a group of students in Laventille, the work turns out to be an acute observation of contemporary social conditions in Trinidad and Tobago. It's insights are sometimes subtle and understated: telling of absent parents, emotional violence, the impact of drugs and crime on communities, mental and emotional turmoil, communal prejudices. But also, refreshingly, it sings of the redemptive possibilities of love, trust and beauty. Though there is tension and danger, all hope is not lost.

We follow the group of students of the Success Laventille School as they participate in a series of projects and challenges marshaled by artists in different mediums. But we also hear them tell their own stories about their lives, through a series of unforgettable interviews conducted by the filmmakers (including Janine Fung). And, most memorably, we are gifted with footage filmed by the students themselves using point-of-view cameras. We learn of their conditions, hear of their family problems, see where they live and what they eat, what chores they do, whom they interact with and account to.

"What's one of the happiest days of your life?" a student is asked.

"I don't have one," the child answers.

"What about a happy moment?"

"One of the happy moments was when I found out I got into this programme but I don't really have happy moments," states the girl. At another stage the girl says, "I actually feel nervous when I hear... gunshots because I don't know if my brother picked up one or my dad."

Another student states, "I feel that I cannot talk and I don't know why."

Sadly, these students could be in any school anywhere in the country. They articulate universal anxieties, as well as peculiar problems which communities are today dealing with. The film, which premiered in the first week of the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, gives voice to open secrets, and in this way, does a kind of justice, asserting dignity and grace. It has deservedly attracted sold-out screenings. Trinidadians have been yearning to see themselves.

This is an assured documentary whose craft is concealed but whose achievement cannot be overstated. Here are several different narratives which unfold through the use of the point of view footage; the interviews; pop music; supplemental footage and the mediums of song, dance and painting. That all these elements fuse effortlessly is to the credit of director and editor Miquel Galofré, who has steadily cemented his status as an exciting and talented chronicler of this region through a series of bravura films.

Galofré is a multiple-award-winning filmmaker born in Barcelona and based in Trinidad and Tobago. His “Jamaican trilogy” of documentaries - including Why Do Jamaicans Run So Fast? and Hit Me With Music - won several prizes. His eye for pacing, his exquisite judgment on the use of music as well as the restraint of his cinematographer (Fung) means this does not feel like a gimmick, nor does it come across as a sterile social experiment. Instead, it feels real.

On the music, I found that the film provided an interesting glimpse of how popular music - foreign and local - functions in our lives. Through music, and art generally, we do ultimately come together no matter how unique our circumstances. As EM Forster once extolled, "only connect".


Miquel Galofré's website.

Find or make your space

Alice Yard

TRY to summarise all of the different events that have taken place at Alice Yard over the last eight years and you are bound to run into trouble.

The space is small, you might not notice it from Roberts Street, Woodbrook. Just a stone’s throw away from the swings and see-saws of the Augustus Williams Park, it could be any other house on the street were it not for that small green sign on its black wall. But in a sense that’s fitting: this is a place where people come to play. It’s home.

But make no mistake about the scale of its importance. Alice Yard is an arts space - call it contemporary if you must - administered and curated by architect Sean Leonard, artist Christopher Cozier, and writer and editor Nicholas Laughlin.

I can recall many events there: start with dancer Dave Williams’ performance of Waiting, a show he put on over several nights in which he danced on moko stilts in a small white room with a glass door. Or maybe Adam Williams drawings hanging on a curtain rack, or Jaime Lee Loy and Nikolai Noel becoming living installations: sitting in the exhibition space drawing the audience. One night, Akuzuru ripped open a vein (not literally, thank goodness) and marched from the Yard to the park outside, wearing a white costume, reminiscent of a mutant Miss Havisham or maybe Bronte’s Madbertha, breaking things, haunting the streets of Port-of-Spain.

The Yard, which last week marked its eighth anniversary, has a regional outlook, emphasizing the need to reverse and question the colonial and historical boundaries that have kept small islands that dot the sea apart. Since 2008, there have been artists and writers in residence. Bahamian Heino Schmid has shown incredible collage/video work. There was an amazing exhibition of photography called Shot in Kingston. Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson read with Valzhyna Mort.

The space has also hosted bands. Start with 12 the Band and consider the list on Alice Yard’s website ( 3Canal; Cabezon; Gyazette; jointpop; Orange Sky and you scratch the surface.

Earlier this year, Alice Yard hosted an experimental reading or poetry and prose as part of an ongoing collaboration called Douen Islands, of which I am a part. After that event, Laughlin noted how the space has had a “can do” approach. “Find or make your space” he said.

“Alice Yard has hosted roughly three hundred public events,” Laughlin said. “We’ve hosted nearly three dozen artists, curators, and other creative practitioners. Our guests have included world-famous names who would make a splash in any metropolitan city, but often we’ve been most motivated and inspired by new, young artists, musicians, and writers near the start of their careers, who challenge us to respond to their energy and ideas.”

Laughlin continued, “This has all happened in a simple backyard in Woodbrook which we and our collaborators have re-imagined over and over again — the space continues to surprise us. And it has all happened with no paid staff and very minimal funding, raised from our modest resources and efforts.”

“Instead we’ve imagined the biggest things we can make happen with what we do have. It’s a modus operandi of improvisation, and an attitude of possibility,” Laughlin, who is also editor of the Caribbean Review of Books, said. This is a key thing to observe.

If art is an inevitable part of the human condition; if it functions to give pleasure, or to enact catharsis or is, as David Forster Wallace stated, “an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other”, then its value is not mercenary or static. It is invaluable in a true sense. Any forum that allows that kind of dialogue to grow must, like Alice Yard, be free.

While we may desire more institutionalised forms of this dialogue: while we wish more of state or other organs, that is not the end of the matter. Alice Yard demonstrates the power of simply saying yes to art, and acting, with true volition and free will. It is as boundless as the imagination.

Imagine if we said yes like this more often, if we built spaces upon spaces for the mind, heart and society as a whole to exist, to flourish. Imagine, then act.


From Sunday Newsday, September 21, 2014.
Alice Yard website


In search of Dylan Thomas

"It seems every single thing in Laugharne is connected to Dylan Thomas. Or if it is not, it fast becomes so. The entire town is a memorial to him; a living and breathing tomb. It is a monument comprising: pubs, book-shops, a clock-tower, ruins of a gothic castle, and St John’s Hill. And all of this can be found in Thomas’ poetry.  
"But how much of a poet’s life and circumstance do we need to know? Do we need the back-story in order to enjoy each poem? Is it not better the less we know? Must we see the writing-shed, learn of the love affairs in New York, visit the favourite drinking haunts, the neighbours, the aunties? Of poetry Thomas once said:
"All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem...."

READ my Zocalo Poets website post on the Dylan Thomas centenary, and a trip to his home-town, Laugharne, here.   


Papa Bois, poet

Life is like the sea
—Sylvester Devenish

ACCORDING to one historian he was, “the most outstanding poet Trinidad has ever produced”.  The same writer—Anthony de Verteuil—tells us he was also, “a prominent figure in Trinidadian society as Surveyor General; in scientific circles; and also in encouraging a spirit of patriotism among all Trinidadians whatever their original nationality”. In a 392-page book about him, de Verteuil states, “he was one of the best known characters among French creoles in Trinidad.” Long before the controversy over judges and MPs pensions, he was at the centre of one of the island's first scandals over retirement pay. When he died in 1903, the Schoolmaster magazine, wrote, “As a Poet his name will be immortalised in literary circles”. A contemporary, Léon de Gannes, stated, “He sees all, knows all, is everywhere.” But today he is forgotten.

Peter James Sylvester Devenish, who came from an Irish family, was actually born at Nantes on March 9, 1819. He lived in Trinidad for five years before being sent back to France to study. He read a wide range of subjects at the College des Oratoriens of Vendôme where, according to lore, he was presented to Ferdinand, the old King of Naples, after a fencing match. While in Paris, Devenish apparently made the acquaintance of the authors Jules Janin and Honoré de Balzac.

Devenish reluctantly returned to Trinidad at the age of 22. He longed for Paris life. But things changed when he fell in love with and married Laura D’Abadie here on June 16, 1842. He was educated, cultured and became popular.

“The general impression in Trinidad was that Sylvester Devenish knew everything about anything,” de Verteuil states in his 2007 book, entitled, Sylvester Devenish: Trinidad’s Poet. We learn how Devenish once delivered a talk to the Scientific Society entitled, ‘A Few Notes on Alligator Shooting in Trinidad’. He recommended grilled babiche with lime and pepper sauce.

In 1850, though not an engineer, Devenish was appointed Inspector of Roads. In 1857, he was made director of the Irois Forest Convict Settlement; in 1860 Superintendent of the government saw-mill in Port-of-Spain; in 1861 engineer of the Port-of-Spain Wharf Improvement in which capacity he constructed the new sea-walls. In 1874, he was Justice of the Peace for the counties of St David, St Andrew, Nariva, Mayaro. From 1875 everybody gave up: he was made Justice of the Peace for the whole island. When the time came to open the Royal Victoria Institute at the top of Frederick Street on September 17, 1892, it was Devenish who would cut the ribbon, not the governor of the colony.

Rosary Church, Port of Spain, designed by Devenish

De Verteuil states Devenish played, “a significant if very small part in enlarging the boundaries of 19th century botany.” He collected 126 specimens of wood. In 1867, he was appointed director of the Botanical Gardens at St Anns. Over 43 years, Devenish surveyed properties all over the land. “I have all the maps of the island in my head,” he once reportedly said. De Verteuil tells us, “he was known to the Spanish-speaking inhabitants as El Duende de la Montana (the Spirit of the Mountains); and to the creoles as Papa Bois (Father of the Woods)”. In 1875, Devenish was appointed Surveyor-General of Trinidad, the highest surveying post in the island. He retained the post until 1878. In the 1870s the New Era carried an account of him: “passing over roaring torrents by swinging himself from bush rope like a monkey; making roads in the Savannah of Caroni; sleeping on a tree in the middle of a lagoon, astride of a branch, on top of a nest of stinging ants. Sun, rain, gales, thunder, lightning - the impossible does not deter him in the least.”

However, questions were raised about the fair allocation of state survey work. Devenish arguably became caught up in politics relating to feuding French and English factions in Trinidad society. This culminated with his suspension on Christmas Day 1878 from the post of Surveyor-General by the new British Governor General. There was outcry. A commission of enquiry was established. The governor who fired Devenish was later called, “one of the most unprincipled governors ever seen in the West Indies”. Devenish’s pension of £150 was deemed too low and raised to £200.

Despite all this, de Verteuil states, “Devenish was above all a poet. ” Many of his poems were sold in the streets on loose pages for a penny. The poems follow a rigid style, which Devenish regarded as classical. Putting aside literary merit, the poems are, as de Verteuil correctly observes, valuable because they are snapshots of society then. You also sense they are meant to be sung. They have a kind of stony grace, and do what Paul Valéry says poetry should do, dance. The poet wrote in a time when a ballad was recited at Belle Air dances as long as five years after.

Devenish died on January 31, 1903. The funeral took place at the Rosary Church, Port-of-Spain. Ironically, and perhaps fittingly, that stunning gothic church had been designed by him. The church stands today, even if we do not remember Papa Bois' name.


From Sunday Newsday, July 13, 2014. 

READ a review of de Verteuil's book on Devenish by Sharon Millar at the Caribbean Review of Books.


Douen Islands experiment at Alice Yard


A FEW DAYS before the Blood Moon, on Saturday April 12, the contemporary arts space Alice Yard was transformed for a night of experimental literature readings as part of what is called the Douen Islands project.

Douen Islands is an ongoing, open collaborative project — featuring writers, poets, musicians, artists, photographers, dancers and others — first launched on All Hallow’s Eve, 2013, by poet and Newsday reporter Andre Bagoo and designer Kriston Chen.

On April 12, Alice Yard hosted an event by the Douen Islands collaborators, as part of the 2014 NGC Bocas Lit Fest pre-festival programme. Douen Islands: In Forest & Wild Skies, saw the floor of the yard at Roberts Street, Woodbrook covered with dried leaves, set aglow with red lights. Poetry by Bagoo – from an e-book produced for Douen Islands – was projected onto the floor of the drive-way leading inside the space. Tyre swings were put up, re-creating a child’s play area.

Poetry and prose produced as part of the ongoing collaboration – which follows the Trinidad and Tobago folklore character of the douen or a haunted child spirit – were also presented in what was billed as “an experimental reading”. The event was true to that description. Instead of a typical reading with a poet/writer at a podium, there was a projection of a shadow/silhouette of Bagoo who at one stage was pictured literally reading, with a giant moon image being beamed behind him, part of a video produced. At another stage, Bagoo’s silhouette appeared to consume a lit candle as he read his patriotically-themed poem, “Twin Islands”.

Several video pieces produced by Chen were streamed in the space Bagoo read in, including video adaptations of some of Bagoo’s poem “In Forest & Wild Skies”.

The stunning footage enraptured the crowd gathered, featuring video images of the Port-of-Spain skyline and text from the poetry e-book. One video featured the voice of artist and teacher Luis Vasquez La Roche, who read a Spanish translation of the section of the poem, heightening the sense of being foreign in one’s own nation and harking back to the colonial past.

Writer Sharon Millar read her haunting story produced for the collaboration, entitled, “The Gayelle”, occupying spaces in the yard and in a small kitchen area on the compound, lit by hurricane lamps. At times she read, while Bagoo recited and while another collaborator, the poet Shivanee Ramlochan performed.

Ramlochan did not speak. She wrote two poems down on a large blackboard/wall created by the collaborators for the event. Her poems, “Duenne Lara” and “Duenne Lillith” were startling adventures. The audience got a chance to see the poet write, react and even re-edit her words live, emotions and feelings and images flowing out of her.

The entire production involved a sound-scape featuring sitar work by another collaborator, sitarist Sharda Patasar, whose instrumentals were stripped down to create ambient noises and effects, evoking a landscape and resonating with the work’s concern with the marginal.

The event was well-attended. Among those present were Wendell Manwarren and Roger Roberts of 3 Canal, writer Monique Roffey, painter Che Lovelace, dancer Dave Williams (who gave key support to the collaborators), diplomats and more.

Leading up to the event, the collaborators stated: “Douen Islands is a journey, unearthing what is lost — the furtive child foraging through darkened forest; tricked by moonlight into a vacant past; vanishing, like love and blood, into wild skies. A slippery stream flowing out of this post-Independence country, trek into heat, memory, nightmare, dream. Take back the steps we never took. Seek to find.”

After the event, Nicholas Laughlin, one of the co-instigators of Alice Yard – alongside architect Sean Leonard and artist Christopher Cozeir – blogged on the event.

“In the past seven and a half years, Alice Yard has hosted roughly 300 public events,” he noted. “Thinking about last night’s Douen Islands event – and all the people who made it possible by sharing time, expertise, equipment, and labour – I was struck again by the generosity of our network and its immeasurable value.”

“We’ve never been anxious about the resources we don’t have. Instead we’ve imagined the biggest things we can make happen with what we do have. It’s a modus operandi of improvisation, and an attitude of possibility,” Laughlin said.

For more information see: and email


From Newsday, April 21st, 2014


Poetry, poetry, poetry

A GREAT deal of poetry is being produced by this nation. The evidence: books, published locally and abroad; a constant stream of public poetry reading events, poetry slams and poetry salons. And, of course, the poetry that has been with us all this time: the Carnival poetry and its progeny: such as the still flourishing Robber Talk and a host of traditional characters that rely on language and live action.
In the last few months several new books of poems by Trinidadians have been published. Consider: Lauren K Alleyne’s luminescent Difficult Fruit; Vahni Capildeo’s magnificent and distinctive Utter; Roger Robinson’s wonderfully textured The Butterfly Hotel; and Mervyn Taylor’s haunting and beautiful The Waving Gallery, to name a few. Taylor’s book is published by Shearsman Books, a UK publisher based at Bristol, while the other titles listed have been published by the Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press. In the coming days, more poets will launch books. These includes Jennifer Rahim who will next Sunday launch Ground Level at the Bocas Lit Fest at the Old Fire Station, Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain at 1pm.

These are just books produced by persons who may be identified as Trinidadian. But of course the nature of this region means each country is larger than an island and persons with ties to Trinidad are also launching books, such as St Lucian poet Vladimir Lucien who will launch Sounding Ground, also at Bocas on Sunday. The great St Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott - of Trinidad Theatre Workshop fame - recently published a magnificent volume, Collected Poems: 1948-1913.

However we cut up and view the region it is clear: a lot of poetry is here. Apart from books published by foreign publishers, poets living here have also, increasingly, turned to self-publishing to get work out. Two recent examples include: An Uproar of Angels, a self-published chapbook by Akil Thomas; and what has been described as a second edition of Poemas of the Caribbean Sun by Jude Patrong. All of this excludes dozens of other poets being published in journals, reviews and anthologies produced here and abroad, in hard-copy format as well as through the immeasurably diverse realm of journals on the internet.

Additionally, there is a flurry of readings. Every month there is a poetry slam event called “True Talk No Lie”, hosted by Yvan Mendoza at Martin’s Piano Bar, Woodford Street, Port-of-Spain. Events are also regularly put on by Rachael N Collymore’s Poetry Vibes. Bookshops like the Paper Based Bookshop at Hotel Normandie, St Ann’s, also host regular readings. There are smaller salons. Additionally, events are constantly being put on by the Writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago.

Then there is the poetry that stays private, in secret note-books all over the nation. Or the poetry so ephemeral it is never named: the true Carnival of words.

What does all of this activity mean? Is it really new? Is poetry finding a larger audience here? I think all of these, as well as events such as the Bocas Lit Fest which opens on Thursday, present a good opportunity for discussion of the role of poetry in society.

Even with all the activity, poetry, unlike other art-forms, remains very easy to avoid. In a world now dominated by moving images and more visceral forms of communication, poetry, which calls for a kind of serenity and silence in order to be appreciated, is now more likely to be drowned out. Poetry must be actively sought out by the reader. Increasing activity by poets is one thing, increased readership is another. They may not coincide. But the mere prospect of an increased appetite for poetry still tells us something about the changing appetites of a reading nation which is, today, freer than ever before to pick and choose what it places on its bookshelf or iPad. Yet, what is poetry and does it require an audience?

As a poet myself, at the moment I don’t subscribe to any rigid stance on the role of poetry. I have ideas of what poetry can do, not necessarily should. Those ideas involve an engagement with truth — even through misdirection — and an engagement with social reality, however we choose to define that reality. Poetry, I think, is the emancipation of language from politics, mercenary duties and sacred cows: from forces that seek the opposite of love and freedom. Therefore, poetry is at once nothing and everything. To quote critic Stephen Burt, “Perhaps poetry needs no use at all; or perhaps it should do many things, all of them mysterious and beautiful and inefficient.” That itself is a freedom to which all — not just poets — are entitled.

In the coming days, the Bocas Lit Fest will present a rich array of poetry events. There will be readings or discussions of work by John Agard, Capildeo, Kwame Dawes, Anthony Joseph, Mervyn Morris, Grace Nichols, Taylor, Walcott, among others. There will be a film screening of Ida Does’ fine study on Walcott, Poetry is an Island. New poets such as Anna Levi and Gilberte O’Sullivan will read, spoken-word poets will recite. Word around town is that words mean something, then. So who is listening? Are you? For more information visit 

Newsday, Sun, April 20.


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

READ Taylor's speech on where poetry begins here


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


READ more about Mervyn Taylor here.