Just after the Bocas launch of my debut collection, Sounding Ground, I had conducted an interview with Tanya Batson-Savage, publisher, and editor of Susumba/ Book Bag (http://www.susumba.com/) (see interview here: http://www.susumba.com/tags/vladimir-lucien) in which I spoke about how my ideas about poetry were formed. As is often the case, I think about such things when that sort of self-searching is forced upon me. But I was happy with how clearly and how candidly I was able to answer Tanya’s questions. Only then, did I come to realize how much of the early poetry I was introduced to were all of a particular brand: political and even militant poetry.
Before I was born, my father was decidedly leftist and at one point bordering on radical. He once told me the story of the moment he realized, as CLR James might say, that you don’t play with revolution. He had been perusing various Marxist publications and soon after began spreading the ideals furtively, starting with people whom he knew. One man, barely educated, convinced by my father’s arguments and instigation, looked at him blankly and asked: “Do you think we can get them to give us some guns?” It is there that my father must have confronted that cross-roads, that Legba zone where all convictions begin to limp. The crossroads is a matter of life and death. My father flinched within, withdrew and capitulated. His ideals remained in tact, but lost the kind of energy that the seventees was saturated with. I have come to see this as a kind of creation story, for my siblings and I—- but mostly mine. This is where I became possible.
By the time I was born, my father had come to accept that the dichotomy created between actions and words (Actions speak louder than words) was to some degree a false dichotomy. There is truth in the phrase, however there is also a middle ground, where the two roads cross. By the time I was born, my father had chosen poetry, had chosen words, and the very meaningful conviction of being a father to his children, being a man in a different kind of way. In fact, it was in the year of my birth that he won his first poetry prize, the M & C Fine Arts prize for poetry. But the Marxist—- or rather the desire for urgent change and his impatience with injustice that had attracted him to Marxism, remained. The poems he recited were militant ones: “Exposure” by Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum est…”, “The United Fruit Company”, “This is the Dark Time My Love” and poems about commitment “As John to Patmos” and the occasional ‘anomaly’ like his deceptively lilting recital of “McCavity” by T.S. Eliot. But these were the poems —and their being recited by my father with what was left (no pun intended) of his militancy— that really shaped what my earliest conceptions of what poetry was, could do and what poetry was for. And that has never, never left me. I have always been infinitely more interested in hearing poetry than reading it, though of course the world being what it is, I obviously read more poetry than I hear. And the sounding out of poetry has gradually become the centre, the poto mitan/poteau mitan, of my editing process. Not only that but I have had the dark owl over my shoulder constantly asking what is this poem DOING or going to DO in the world, when it is sounded. I won’t go on too much about the title of my collection, but sewn deep down into it, is that belief in commitment, in having a mission, in having a GROUND in all senses of the word, and in SOUNDING it.
Recently via e mail thread, Kamau Brathwaite shared a poem with a group of writers on the Ebola outbreak in Africa. For me the poem contained that bravery and aplomb that has always appealed to me in Kamau’s work —- aplomb while pursuing an alternative tradition. What this means is the risk of not being intelligible to what is mainstream or permitted, it means defying the very language of a long cultivated “reality” that is maintained by very powerful and pervasive forces. One of the lines that struck me from the poem, was this one: “Tho this conspiracy will hide itself again, like Aids/from blame.” A similar line occurs in the ‘controversial’ ‘radical’ American poet Imamu Amiri Baraka’s poem ‘Who Blew Up America’: “Who cut off people’s hands in the Congo/ Who invented AIDS”. I ended up listening to Baraka’s poem a while after meditating on Kamau’s, when I was searching for printed works by Baraka on Amazon, and came across this publication by House of Nehesi in St. Maarten: http://www.amazon.com/Somebody-Blew-America-Other-Poems/dp/0913441619/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410032602&sr=1-1&keywords=somebody+blew+up+america. Therein I found a quote by Kwame Dawes (and Kamau). Excited as I usually am about any contemporary Caribbean writer engaging with another’s work rigorously, I went in search of the origin of the quote. I didn’t find it, but found another essay by Kwame on Political Poetry: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2007/05/political-poetry/
Upon reading Kwame’s essay, something I had been thinking about since reading Kamau’s poem weeks before came together. I haven’t formed it into a finished thesis, but it has something to do with talking about ‘conspiracy’ or since that word has been so utterly besmirched, talking about the furtive and malevolent machinations of Babylon/power. It has to do with how it has become somewhat taboo or shameful to talk about conspiracies, particularly conspiracies that implicate power (the US, Europe, the ‘powers than be’ and have been). Specifically, I was thinking about how difficult it is to be young, gifted and black as Nina Simone puts it, and to speak about such ludicrous things as conspiracies, about power moving in such soft, rodent-like ways to plague those who dare to question. To be young, gifted and black for some time now has had clear boundaries drawn around it, a certain meagre reality within which it would be tolerated. We can give a long list of assassinations and deaths and yes, conspiracies that warn those who choose to openly speak about and against power to beware. Yes the list is filled with persons of all races and even classes, but I was specifically interested in what it means to be intelligent, opinionated, conscious, outspoken and Black. In a Literature like the Caribbean’s, that has been so concerned with the relationship of the centre to the periphery, I was thinking very hard and deep about what constitutes the reality of the young, gifted and black.
Some of the contradictions are laid bare in Kwame’s essay when he looks at how the American political climate had “circumscribed” American political poetry: “Amiri Baraka became radical again, at least in the view of “the establishment” when he not only wrote, but read at the Dodge Festival, the poem, “Who Blew Up America”. His outrageously radical proposition was that someone in power in the Israeli (and by extension the American) government knew enough about the 9/11 attacks before they happened to warn their nationals about going to work in the Trade Center that day. It is, admittedly, a disturbing proposition, but if Baraka is revolutionary there are certainly more radical works of his than this to prove this idea. Yet one has the sense that the quite defined parameters of extremism in America, which, incidentally offer greater latitude to the right than the left (Rush Limbaugh is not a rabid dangerous nut, just a man who tells it like it is), are largely responsible for the demonizing of Baraka, the poet.”
Of course here Baraka is talking about a kind of conspiracy. And “outrageous” and “disturbing” as this particular accusation might seem, I had to wonder how ‘outrageous’ it was in Baraka’s reality. How outrageous was it in a place like Amerikkka? Part of George Lamming’s essay A Way of Seeing, came to mind. Incidentally, it is a thought that occurred to Lamming after speaking with Kwame’s father, Neville Dawes about a fear Dawes had one night in London, of being struck by two men in the Tube station: “The point is that in this situation the West Indian will not pre-judge the other. I am walking up a street and three men are walking towards me. I do not think that they are the enemy from Notting Hill; nor do I think that they are not. I simply do not know, for there is no way of telling. It is my particular way of seeing which creates this doubt, in spite of all I have read about what was happening…..I am completely in their power by the fact that experience has not trained me to strike without the certainty of the enemy’s presence. I am completely immobilised by all my social and racial education as a West Indian. This could not possibly happen to an American Negro. His experience prepares him for any situation of racial emergency. He can smell it, and every nerve is summoned to deal with the arriving odour.As soon as the Notting Hill siren went, the American Negro would have replied that the war was on.”
Over and over on the television/internet we have seen and grown increasingly tired of the analysis of Rihanna’s videos, or the playing backwards of JayZ’s or some heavy metal rocker’s songs, to reveal concealed hymns or prayers to Satan or affiliation with the Illuminati. The accusations of affiliation with the feared illuminati has become more pervasive and has perhaps been blown out of proportion. But all of these things are still part of the larger conversation with and about power. Is it that surprising that power has seen a kind of apotheosis, that it is perceived as a spirit, or force behind the reality we love: the Rihannas, the Papa Roaches , the Jayzs?Is it outrageous to connect a sudden rise to fame or the outrageous amounts of money accumulated by American pop artists, with a collusion with morally ambiguous and tenebrous spiritual forces? I mean when we speak of Mammon —- or when we think of how the enslaved associated the Plantocracy’s acquisition of such limitless powers with witchcraft or more powerful ‘obeah’—- it is not strange that power, when it has come to seem to be so omnipotent, so totalitarian, can genuinely be seen as a large and enveloping force, or spirit. So I wonder again and again, not about our rejection of such conspiracies, but about words like ‘outrageous’ and ‘ludicrous’ that distance it so remotely from our reality. I am even tempted to wonder about the word ‘our’ in ‘our reality’. In the history of Africans in the Americas, it has been nothing strange for black bodies to be used by science, and conversely for science to be used to the detriment and defilement of black bodies. Teju Cole ,who reflected on other aspects of the black body in his recent essay on re-reading Baldwin’s ‘Strange in the Village in the New Yorker,(http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/black-body-re-reading-james-baldwins-stranger-village) had in his book Open City, reflected on one part of that history during his peregrination: There had been, in the 1780s, a petition by free blacks in defense of their dead. Black corpses were frequently singled out by cadaver thieves, who passed them on to surgeons and anatomists. The petition, in palpably pained language, laments those who under the cover of night, “dig up the bodies of the deceased, friends and relatives of the petitioners, carry them away without respect to age or sex, mangle their flesh out of wanton curiosity and then expose it to beasts and birds.”
Ironically, anyone deemed to be intelligent, especially young and outspoken is encouraged. They are expected to have a view on everything that is current, and important in the world. People will post things to your facebook wall, or e mail you and ask you what do you think about this, and of course expect a certain answer. In the thread ensuing beneath an article on the Trinidadian who is allegedly affiliated with ISIS, one of those commenting was scandalized by the stupidity of someone who was from ‘the sweetest country on Earth’ (Trinidad) aligning himself with ISIS. The person who made this statement, by his own ostentatious admission, was a Dr. who had worked with the US in Iraq, attending to injured women and children. So clearly the issue was about the Trini, not being smart enough ( a value that is prized in Trinidad and in the wider Caribbean: the smart man, the samfie man) to find himself on the ‘right’ side. So what it means to be intelligent is carefully though quite narrowly delimited. There are things we must say, things we must not say.
Recently, I was completely taken aback when I came across the term ‘Holocaust Denier’, and how casually it was said. Of course it is outrageous to deny that the holocaust happened, but the fact that it had developed into an epithet that, I am sure carried with it consequences that had all the force of legitimacy and Power behind it was a little shocking. I came across the term in a facebook comment by an acquaintance, who usually started his arguments with ‘What educated and thinking person/intellectual would think or say such and such’— the kind of talk I am afraid of. But to be an intellectual, there are some things like these that you must say, that must be taken-for-granted parts of your vocabulary, your way of seeing. What is not examined is how much more we are hemmed in by the great hinterland of things that one must not talk about, or what one must deny validity or silence, as an intellectual, either by denouncing these things outright or dismissing them forthwith. It is after becoming part of a cautionary tale, very early in my journey into poetry, that I learned what is required of one, and wrote these lines from a poem entitled ‘Even Now’— a title I borrowed, or stole, from an equally dark and dismal poem written by my father:
Even here, there are things that must not be spoken of,
and even that must be done beautifully. (See poem here: http://caribbeanreviewofbooks.com/crb-archive/22-july-2010/two-poems/)
The idea of a bio-weapon being used to surreptitiously wipe out a population, is perhaps as ridiculous as what took place with Hurricane Katrina; that silent way of making things (un)happen. I have no empirical grounds upon which to proclaim stridently about Ebola or AIDS being used as a bio-weapon against black people or crack cocaine and its associations to the US involvement in war in Nicaragua. But Kamau and Baraka, both marginalised poets who in different ways have been silenced, have been ostracised precisely because of their untrammelled testimony of the black experience in the Americas. This alternative or broadened reality is one in which they have accepted such things not as the exception, but the rule concerning the behaviours of Powers like those. It is a similar world that allows the Rastafarians to shout and denounce Babylon without a second thought! And one wonders why Kamau and even Baraka are considered exceptions; pariahs even? It does speak to the parameters that we have continued to consolidate around being young, gifted and black. That to be intelligent also means to be intelligible to Power. And what is intelligible to Power? Anything, absolutely anything that does not question or attack the basic assumptions that it has set out to establish as the rule. And those who are subversive are killed loudly like Hiroshima, or Dr. King, or Walter Rodney or Emit Till; or they are killed softly like the way a bio-weapon works, like the way Baraka was ostracized, silenced even though he spoke with force; like the way Kamau’s Ebola (and other) poem(s) was shared in an e mail thread and not in a book available on a shelf for everyone. Something the market cannot consume.