Susannah Herbert (centre)
Susannah Herbert (centre) ©

Marlon James

In April 2016, the British Council invited Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation in the UK, to be part of the Bocas Literary Festival. The event was called Poetry Forward: Celebrating the Vitality of Contemporary Poetry. The special two-part event began with readings by Forward Prize-winning poets Kei Miller (Jamaica/UK) and Vahni Caplideo (Trinidad & Tobago) followed by the writers in conversation with Susannah. Here, Susannah shares some reflections on her time spent at the festival in Port of Spain.

"Some days", said Kei Miller, the Jamaican writer, "have more hours than others.” A scrawled note of these words is pinned above my desk. Some mornings, it’s a riddle. On others, as I feverishly calculate the minutes until National Poetry Day, the UK’s biggest annual literature celebration, it’s almost a taunt.

And when I think back to the extraordinary festival at which I heard him speak – Trinidad’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest - it is a plain statement of fact. Some combinations of people, places, ideas and events become a point of reference against which time’s passing is measured.  Bocas is one. In three week’s time, I hope that National Poetry Day will be another.

First, some context. I was invited to Trinidad in April by the British Council to learn more about literature’s role in enabling a region – the Caribbean - to develop a fuller sense of itself. I knew that Bocas, as a relatively new festival of words, stories and ideas, was breaking fresh ground and that its founder, Marina Salandy-Brown, fuelled by the conviction of literature’s value as a source of independent thought.

They seemed to be on to something. Recent high-profile international accolades for authors of Caribbean backgrounds – including Kei, Marlon James and the poets Claudia Rankine and Vahni Capildeo – suggest these islands are writing their way into a new place in contemporary literature: centre stage.

From the moment I landed in Port of Spain – and fell into conversation in the airport bus-queue with Baz Dreisinger, an American expert on criminal justice, en route to a music-and-poetry session behind the bars of Trinidad’s main jail – it was clear that no conversation about books at Bocas would ever be just about books.

My first stop was Vahni Capildeo’s workshop for a dozen writers, which introduced me to “Listening to the Land” by the Guyanese poet and political activist, Martin Carter, jailed by the British in the 1950s for “spreading dissension”. Capildeo’s suggestion that we look at this work “not as an act of utterance, but as an act of listening: a poem of the build-up of a new kind of attention” felt like a key in a lock. What does it mean to pay full attention – to oneself, to one’s immediate surroundings? 

We learnt, over four-hours and two days, to see ourselves as translators, alive to the need to switch between private local languages – those particular to family or professional groups - and those languages with a more general reach. “Maybe we can get away from the idea that poetry happens in a particular language,” she added. “It doesn’t.”

I had intended to audit the workshop, rather than join in, but on day two, I wrote some lines of poetry: no masterpiece, but my first in thirty years. At an adjoining table, a security guard from the Port of Spain courthouse put the finishing touch to his poem, altogether more accomplished. “No one here does just one thing,” he said. “You just move between your different lives. It’s expected.”

Then there was the night spent swaying along with the crowd in a downtown nightclub, listening to LGBTQ writers read their work aloud. The courts and legal system of Trinidad and Tobago continue to enforce the criminalisation of homosexuality, but I sensed no fear among the beer-drinkers laughing at in-jokes and references way over my head.

One detail stands out: in the darkness, a young woman in hijab was listening, almost invisible, alongside me. By the time I was sure she was no illusion, she was leaving, head down to avoid eye-contact. I wondered if she and I had heard the same things, what she would tell her family about her night out – and what they would understand from her description. A poetry reading, perhaps. Nothing to worry about.

In the UK, there’s often a priest-congregation pattern to literary festivals: the writers promote their new books from a podium, the ticket-buying audience applauds and queue to buy signed copies, the writers leave. An invisible barrier divides them: the same barrier that sees “literature” as something set apart from daily life.

By contrast, at Bocas, barriers seemed oddly permeable, open to negotiation.  The line between audience and speakers was endlessly blurred, helped by the fact that all events were free, and most writers, booked in for three or four days, were as interested in hearing others as they were in holding forth themselves.

Applause is not just for writers, either: some of the warmest cheers at Bocas were for an award presented to the bookseller Joan Dayal of Paper Based Books, who has spent her entire career ensuring that poets and novelists from the Caribbean are read, and heard by local audiences in her bookshop in Port of Spain. “I don’t want to write myself but I do try to help good writers get heard,” she told me. “That’s the difference I can make.”

And the difference that Bocas has made? If National Poetry Day this year has a far greater presence in bookshops, jails and – yes – clubs; if it feels like a celebration, not of Poetry with a Capital P, but of the creative acts of listening, noticing, sharing, the change is driven by those hours spent in Trinidad, still present, still making themselves felt.

Susannah Herbert, executive director of the Forward Arts Foundation, runs the Forward Prizes for Poetry and National Poetry Day, which falls this year on 28 September 2017.

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