Tuesday, September 27, 2005

My interest in A.J. Seymour goes back to 1998. That was the year that Faber introduced its short-lived Caribbean Series, edited by Caryl Phillips. To launch the series, Phillips, Robert Antoni, & the late Antonio Benitez-Rojo were sent on a Caribbean tour, with a stop in Port of Spain for readings & speeches. That evening, when the formal events were done & the small audience was buzzing around & gossiping, I nervously went up to Phillips & asked if the new series would eventually include poetry. I suggested Martin Carter [*see below] might be a good poet to begin with. He answered noncommittally, then said Seymour was also in need of revival.

Our conversation ended there. I was left with the sense that I ought to know something about Seymour--I was vaguely aware of his connection with Kyk-Over-Al, but had managed at the age of 23 never to have read any of his poems. Then in late 2001 or early 2002 a book arrived from Guyana: Seymour's Collected Poems, recently published. At last! was the first thing I thought.

I ended up writing a short review for Caribbean Beat & a longer one for the Trinidad & Tobago Review. I was fascinated by the poems in the first place, but also by their author, & especially by the fact that he seemed all but forgotten outside Guyana, despite his crucial role in the development of West Indian literature in the 1940s & 50s.

I got it in my head that I'd write a profile of AJS "one of these days"; I quoted his poems occasionally in my blog, & started keeping an eye out for references to him or his work.

Nearly four years later, the profile still remains to be written (it's currently scheduled for publication in Caribbean Beat in 2006), but two recent trips to Guyana have refreshed my interest in AJS & I've stepped up my research into his life & work. Along the way, I've noticed that there's very little useful information on Seymour on the Web--scattered references, almost no hard facts, & at the moment the top Google hit for "a j seymour" is my own review of the Collected Poems.

A little HTML knowledge is a dangerous thing. Partly to force myself to sort through the AJS material I've collected, partly to give him some kind of meaningful online presence, I've put together a few modest pages with biographical information, links to other online resources, & excerpts from some interesting documents. At the moment this is occupying a corner of my already rambling website, but at some point in the future I may get enthusiastic enough to acquire a top-level domain name. And this is very much a work in progress; as time & energy allow, & as I come across more material, I'll try to make the site more useful. Do email with suggestions or criticisms.

So, for what it's worth: A.J. Seymour online.

[* The publishing world has finally come around to Carter. There are currently two substantial editions of his poems being prepared for publication, one edited by Ian McDonald & Stewart Brown for Macmillan Caribbean, the other edited by Gemma Robinson for Bloodaxe.]

Monday, September 26, 2005

From the Guyana Project

Just write it flat, I told myself, write it, as it were, in a monotone, don't be distracted by anxieties of style. Don't try to explain what you didn't understand. Press on, though you can barely see what comes next and can't see what comes after that. Make it clear how confused you were, how scattered your thoughts, how patchy your knowledge, how arrogant your assumptions. Don't be distracted by anxieties of truth. This is all a fiction you've been assembling in your head anyway, trying to make yourself believe you really know where you've been and what you've been doing. Already you're inventing apprehensions and motives to fill the gaps in your memory. Already the phrases in your notebook, however hastily or petulantly you scribbled them, take on the authority of history, supplying details you cannot dispute because you cannot remember them otherwise. Already some sensations saturate and overpower others, and you rewrite your untidy fictions under their influence.

New working title: Imaginary Roads

Rejected working titles:
Strange Name for Stones (after A.J. Seymour)
Cartography of Stones
Imaginary Maps
Imaginary Countries
Imaginary Journeys
Empty Maps
The Map of the Savannahs Was a Dream (after Wilson Harris--but too long. Make this the working epigraph instead)

All of them attempting to name the tension between physical & mental landscapes....

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Today's Stabroek News publishes an abbreviated version of the review of Denis Williams's Prehistoric Guiana that I wrote for the August Caribbean Review of Books--unfortunately without a note explaining its original appearance in the CRB. As far as I can make out, mine is the first review of the book to be published anywhere. I must admit I'm keen to see how (if?) Guyana's archaeological & anthropological establishment respond to this non-expert's take on Williams's opus.

Also in today's Stabroek: Al Creighton on Edward Baugh; & an article on the plan to have Georgetown placed on UNESCO's World Heritage list, including a list of the eleven main sites around the city chosen for preservation (the twelfth, Sacred Heart Church, burned down last December and the Catholic archdiocese hasn't decided what to rebuild on the spot--the parish wants to reconstruct the church in concrete, the archbishop says that's pointless).

Saturday, September 24, 2005

This Is the Dark Time My Love

This is the dark time, my love.
All round the land brown beetles crawl about.
The shining sun is hidden in the sky.
Red flowers bend their heads in awful sorrow.

This is the dark time, my love.
It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.
Everywhere the faces of men are strained and anxious.

Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.

-- Martin Carter

Happy Republic Day.

Friday, September 23, 2005

A Brief Note on the Music of Bach

by Thomas Milliongate

The best description I know of the music of Bach occurs, unsurprisingly, in Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently.

"The air was full of music. So full it seemed there was room for nothing else. And each particle of air seemed to have its own music, so that as Richard moved his head he heard a new and different music, though the new and different music fitted quite perfectly with the music that lay beside it in the air...."

It is the music of the universe, the music the universe would make if every particle sang and every force hummed; the music the universe does make, if only we could hear it; the music God hears; and we hear it in Bach.

Beethoven, my great lover, even at his most exalted is always terrifyingly or wonderfully human. He is imperfect; we recognise this glorious imperfection and even rejoice in it; we share it. We love Beethoven as at the best of times we love ourselves. We cannot love Bach the same way. He is, it seems, inhuman: superhuman. We love him as we love the universe, as we love God. It is not instinctive. It requires an act of faith. And really to listen to Bach requires courage. One finds oneself horribly wanting. There is consolation, but it is profound, metaphysical, difficult, detached. It is the consolation of an ultimate order in which we have we know not what part. Properly listened to, Bach must make us weep, or make us helplessly abstract.

We can imagine what Beethoven thought. Bach's mind is as inconceivable as the mind of God; and perhaps as eternal.

-- From Small Print, the little "magazine" I started in 2000 & which ran for a single issue, read by perhaps a dozen people. I came across the files this evening while looking through old backup CDs. (As it happens, Dirk Gently is sitting on my desk at the office right now--I've just been lending it to a colleague.) I also found an article on the NASA mission to the asteroid Eros that I wrote some years ago for the Express, & a review of W.G. Sebald's Vertigo that the Express declined to publish--among other disjecta membra.
Housekeeping note: I've finally got around to posting Interrupting the Conversation: Trinidad's StudioFilmClub, the essay I wrote with my friend Leon Wainwright for the catalogue of the exhibition of Peter Doig's StudioFilmClub posters that ran from late April to July at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne and then moved in August to the Zurich Kunsthalle.

(I made it to Cologne for the opening of the show; flew in sleep-deprived just in time for the morning press conference; & that night after the formal ceremony--my friend Uta supplied a live translation of the speeches--there was a party in the lofty museum restaurant, with a DJ playing 70s Jamaican music, a motley crowd of wealthy patrons, curators, dealers, journalists, & art students, & next morning I found out we had collectively drunk 310 litres of koelsch, the local beer.)
Blogs get people excited. Or else they disturb and worry them. Some people distrust them. Others see them as the vanguard of a new information revolution. Because they allow and encourage ordinary people to speak up, they're tremendous tools of freedom of expression.

Reporters sans frontières has compiled a Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents; download in PDF format here.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

I don't know if the bulk of people, including Trinidadians, really believe that genius can be manifested.

I guess that's Vidia's bitch: that they don't know what they have, and how can they encourage it if they don't know what they have. The same belt of society we're talking about: people who could give more patronage, who could be less interested in the latest paperback. I don't know what critic is going to write about the play at what level.

I think if I lived here I'd be more distressed. I can see a great despondency here, from the artists or writers who want to do something. But then, is that very different from London or Paris? I have rage against the stupidity of Caribbean governments; but [not] despondency. [In the situation], anger is a healthy thing to have.

-- Derek Walcott, interviewed in today's Express by B.C. Pires (whose book Thank God It's Friday I've just been reading again, trying to write a short review). The play Walcott refers to, of course, is the musical Steel, which opened at Queen's Hall last Tuesday night. The reviews (Lisa Allen-Agostini in the Guardian, review not online, and Terry Joseph in the Express) were, let's say, mixed, but on opening night the mostly well-heeled audience gave the production a standing ovation, and it's announced today that the show's run has been extended. Steel's biggest problem, I think, is not its length (over three hours) or the historical inconsistencies (playwright's prerogative), but the music; and that's obviously a crippling problem for a musical. Steel doesn't sound Trinidadian; the melodies fight against the syntax of the lyrics; & two of the climactic numbers, one meant to be a winning Panorama "bomb", the other the soca hit with which the character Growler makes his comeback, are musically entirely misconceived. So much effort from a clearly hardworking, hard-singing cast, producing so little emotional effect; if only (I found myself thinking) Andre Tanker were still around to work his arranger's magic! And I can't talk about Steel without mentioning the particularly strong performance by Conrad Parris, an exceptional young actor (who I happen to have gone to school with) who should by now be playing leading roles from the major repertoire, if only we had "real" theatre here (& so back to where we began: see Walcott's interview).
I read it as a teenager, for the "dirty parts"; then in my 20s, when as a young writer it "blew my mind"; then in my 30s, when it seemed the most piteously tragic book I'd ever read (Nabokov also termed Lolita a tragedy, remarking in its defence that "The tragic and the obscene exclude one another").

And then I read it again in my 40s, when its comedy repeatedly cracked me up, and left me wondering how I'd never seen it before. Most recently, in my mid-50s, I read it for consolation when, newly displaced to Jamaica, I was in the process of "collect[ing] my scattered skeleton" (Carter); and that reading was a pure, uncomplicated delight. Re-reading it again in my 60s--and seeing what new and utter mutation it has once again achieved under the depredations of yet another passed decade--is one of the few treats I hope still to have in store.

-- Wayne Brown on Lolita at fifty, in today's J'ca Observer.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

No Poem

Too many ideas about what is a poem.
No ideas about what is a poem.

What is a poem about too many ideas.

The poem lodged like a seed in the teeth of the world.

The aim of poetry is: "Thoughts that are not at peace."

A poem that prefers maps to photographs.

Convinced that poems can exist.
If a poem were not an accident.
If a poem finished what it started.
If a poem were not surprised.
If a poem were willing.

Ten thousand false starts.

There are other things to do with the truth than tell it.
A lie does concern itself with the truth.

Poetry is what survives a poem.
A poem is what survives poetry.

-- N.L.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

"I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art."

Happy fifty-twelfth birthday (as one scholar put it), Lo.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The lyrical and ironic tone of Phillips' narrative voice may owe something to the prose of W.E.B. DuBois--who finished writing The Souls of Black Folk in February 1903, at just the moment Dancing in the Dark begins. The novel reads like a gloss on DuBois' theme of "double consciousness" in African-American life.

The black artist's challenge, wrote DuBois, was to escape "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity" and "to merge his double self into a better and truer self."

It is hard to recognize that effort in the antics of Williams and Walker. (DuBois himself would have shuddered at the spectacle.) But this elegant, painful novel finally gives them the honor their audience never did.

-- From Scott McLemee's review of Caryl Phillips's new novel, Dancing in the Dark.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

During the early days of her rule, she survived various attempted coups--one orchestrated by Patrick John with, bizarrely, the help of Ku Klux Klan mercenaries--and did not flinch. Once she calmly locked the door to her office and walked out by the back entrance while members of the Defence Force, which she later disbanded, came for her up the front stairs.

R.I.P. Eugenia Charles

(Read Polly Patullo's obituary in the UK Guardian.)