art in all its forms

art in all its forms


'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.


Favorite bedside books of 2014

YEAR'S END means its a good time to recap what you read and what you want to read in the coming year. When recently asked by writer Brandon Mc Ivor and his sister Breanne - who conduct writing workshops at Diego Martin - what were my favorite books of 2014, I realised that I had spent a lot of time catching up on books I've been meaning to read for a while. Many of them were poetry. Most written before I was born. And the vast majority were non-fiction. Instead of drawing up a list of my favorite books published in 2014 I've drawn up a list of books I read in 2014. (Or at least started to read!)

1. The Poetry of Derek Walcott 1948 - 2013, selected by Glyn Maxwell

Not the kind of book you read from cover to cover, though, of course, you could. Walcott's poetry endures because of his ability to find the essential elements of life and present them, in elegant, painterly strokes, in poems which achieve what he once said the best poems should. They are perfection's sweat but "seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue's brow". I like how expansive this edition is and how you can still discover a Walcott poem you were not familiar with. At the moment, the poem 'Midsummer, Tobago' - from Sea Grapes - is my personal favorite. But that's like saying I like just one movie by Woodie Allen or one soca by Machel. Also up there for me is the opening poem of White Egrets and a poem called 'To Norline', from The Arkansas Testament.

2. Collected Poems, by W.H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson, along with The Dyer's Hand, by W.H. Auden

This was the year my family got fed up of the calls from NALIS saying I had a book overdue and decided to just get Auden's whole oeuvre for me. Nothing beats having this handsome edition of all of Auden's poems in one neat, compact door-stopping tome. Auden was a poet concerned with form. He also took on, like Dylan Thomas, an evangelical tone. Because of this, the achievement of some of his more daring poems - such as 'The Sea and the Mirror' - is sometimes overlooked. This is the poet who, in the poem, 'In Memory of WB Yeats', wrote the line, "The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day". His Collected is uneven, but that will always be the case for any poet. Auden was also notorious for revising earlier published versions of the poems. You are guaranteed, though, to be surprised by something new, whether in a familiar poem or a poem you've not read before. The essays in The Dyer's Hand reveal Auden's wit, wisdom as well as the fact that he was an excellent writer of prose.

3. Capitalism and Slavery, by Eric Williams

The politician, man and historian may have been controversial - he is hated and revered in almost equal measure -but one thing is incontrovertible: this is a great book. Not only was Williams an excellent orator, but he could write. That's a pure and simple truth. And he could make a good argument, whether or not we agree with its finer points. The book remains relevant in a world where the projects of emancipation and independence remain ongoing concerns.

4. Discourse on Colonialism, by Aime Cesaire 

This should be mandatory reading for anyone concerned with the state of so-called post-colonial society. This book is not just a historical artifact of the kind of revolutionary spirit that was key to provoking ideas of change, but it contains insights about the process of colonisation that are relevant today in terms of still-lingering effects.

5. The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James 

If Eric Williams was a genius then I don't know what to call C.L.R. James, whose enormous body of work challenges, provokes and demands close, careful attention. This book is a tour de force. Consider, alone, its first sentence: "Christopher Coloumbus landed first in the New World at the island of San Salvador, and after praising God enquired urgently for gold." This is the definitive account of the Haitian Revolution, which contains important ideas from a writer who influenced major thinkers like Williams and Edward Said, among others.

6. The Waving Gallery, by Mervyn Taylor

More poetry. In a review of this book published in Newsday I wrote: "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. These poems are often sophisticated exercises that find an easy tone....Taylor gives us no answers.... 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'."

7. A View from the Bridge, by Arthur Miller 

Reading a play is an interesting experience. The words are not meant to be read but staged. The work is also meant to comprise action and sound, the stage is supposed to be a realm of light and shade. A reader must imagine all of these and flesh out details. In this sense, a play shares some of the qualities of a novel. But it also has the advantage of distilling the action to dialogue: it depends entirely on characters.

Arthur Miller is known for his most famous work Death of a Salesman, but A View from the Bridge is also a great play to read. It intimates a deep, buried secret. But when the dust settles we feel nothing has been revealed, even though everything has been made crystal clear.

8. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, by August Wilson 

In a Chicago-based recording studio, Ma Rainey’s band players, Cutler, Toledo, Slow Drag, and Levee turn up to record a new album of her songs. As they wait for her to arrive, tensions simmer — particularly around a young trumpeter appropriately named Levee — who has dreams of having his own band, and older players Cutler and Toledo. This 1982 work was one of Wilson’s cycle of plays which aimed at depicting the Black American experience over time. It stands as a record of race issues. But it is also a fascinating study of gender, attitudes to power, as well as band dynamics.

9. Utter, by Vahni Capildeo 

Full disclosure: I’ve collaborated with Vahni in the past and can be regarded as completely biased. That said, the strengths of this book are likely to be recognisable to lovers of poetry everywhere. This is a beguiling collection that races through ideas, moments and experiences with a verve and style which is completely Capildeo’s. It is sometimes difficult, intense. It is always lyrical, beautiful, mesmerising. The poems cry to be read aloud, slowly, with careful attention to the nuances of intonation. Utter pleasure.

10. Sounding Ground, by Vladimir Lucien 

Lucien’s voice is assured and strong, blending the personal with the political. These poems veer between rally cries and wry narratives. They are always moving. Personal favourites include, “The Last Sign of the Cross”, “Mi Jean”, “To Celebrate St Lucian Culture They Put on Display”; and “Tjenbwa: Ethnography”. The influence of Walcott is felt, but Lucien has found his own voice and concerns, some of which are often personal and, thereby, universal. This was an outstanding read.

11. Diatomhero: Religious Poems, by Lisa A Flowers 

Despite the title, these are not evangelical poems. Or if they are, the message they seek to preach concerns the fluidity of our perceptions and senses: how life’s margins might be more permeable than we imagine. There are long sequences which I could not stop reading, due in large measure to Flower’s talent for unforgettable imagery. Additionally, the poems allude to fairy tales, novels and myths. They intoxicate and evoke complex feelings. “I was already in paradise”, Flowers writes, “Waiting out my death”.

12. Voyages, by Wayne Brown 

In a recent column, of this book I wrote, “Voyages is a tour-de-force. Poems include “Monos”, “Drought”, “Crab”, “The Approach”, “Mackerel” and “Whales”. The sea is a key theme, and it becomes a burnished forum in which life, joy and death mingle. In ‘Poem Without End’, Brown states, ‘I write with the night in my veins.’ Like his deep, smooth voice, his best poems glimmer in the dark, they express ideas and images in hewn dreamscapes.”

As I continued to review books from the poetry scene, I also read: The Dustbowl by Jim Goar; Performance Anxiety by Jane King; Subversive Sonnets by Pamela Mordecai; Fault Lines by Kendell Hippolyte; The Butterfly Hotel by Roger Robinson and Difficult Fruit by Lauren K Alleyne. I also dipped into tomes by Dylan Thomas and the poetry of Ian McDonald.

But 2014 is over, and we are in a new year. Already, the first book I’ve cracked open is Days of Wrath by the journalist and poet Raoul Pantin who died last week. This is an intriguing read which is itself an important artifact of the events of 1990. I’m looking forward to reading more. So many books, so little time!


Sunday Newsday, January 11, 18