During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I was invited to Ulster University, and was told sternly to be sure and lock the university building where I was staying, first the outer gate, then the inner, then the door to my corridor upstairs, and then the one to my room, each with a different imposing key; once inside this stronghold I heard laughter and came upon a crowd of poets, talking, drinking, reciting. It was startling, like a sunburst of colour in pervasive grey winter, another world. The company included Michael Longley, Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, who had his penny whistle and was playing it – but memory may be playing tricks. Poetry, I realised, could be a vivid shared pleasure, something understood between friends or new acquaintances; a feature of a party alongside the drink and the craic and the songs: not silent, not solitary, not somehow high-minded or especially melancholic, even when the content was filled with dread and misery.
I was reminded of this long-ago scene when I went this year to the Bocas Literary Festival in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The five-day event draws its distinctive character from the way poetry, storytelling, satire, performance, recitation and masquerade are bound up together in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, and in the lives of the vast diaspora of Caribbean people. The festival is inclusive: even descendants of former colonials, like me, are invited (my grandfather, the cricketer Plum Warner, was born in Trinidad, and I still have cousins there, called Cadiz).
At most literary festivals, it’s publishers who pick which writers will go, because they pay for travel and expenses: at Bocas, most of the writers, coming from all over the world, were supported by the festival, along with some nearby countries: the logos sprinkling the programme include the EU, the British Council and several Latin American embassies, as well as scores of local firms and enterprises, led by the National Gas Company, the chief pillar of the island’s rickety economy.
Marina Salandy-Brown, the festival’s director, used to work as a producer at the BBC, in an era when it was less supinely complicit with government; when she retired, she decided to return to her birthplace. She started the literature festival nine years ago, naming it after the Bocas del Dragón, the straits between the islands off the northwest tip of Trinidad, but the word also evokes the strong oral tradition of Caribbean culture. One rapso poet, Gabrielle Jamela Hosein, performed street-wise political satire, and then turned up later, with an entirely changed speaking voice, as a super-sharp feminist philosopher in a panel discussion.
The extempo champions, Black Sage (pork pie hat, darting bright eyes, trim moustache), and Brian London (melancholic, baseball cap, loose-limbed, younger), jousted together in comradely humour, catching cues from each other and from the audience, as they sang out twisting skeins of rhyming couplets. It was amazing to watch them making up the next lines of verse as they responded to calls to comment on climate change, or picked out members of the audience for this foible or that look, or complained of corruption in high places.
The Guardian journalist Gary Younge, sitting beside me, said he might as well throw in the towel. He also told me he was enjoying himself far more than he did at other literary festivals. I suggested this was because the panel discussions weren’t primarily promoting new books, but asking writers to take on arguments, about e.g. auto-fiction – ‘I don’t like to be visible,’ Caryl Phillips said, ‘I want to be in the wings, peering round the curtains, observing’ – or the proliferation of borders. Nick Makoha, born in Uganda and carried to safety from Idi Amin by his mother when he was a baby, gave an arresting reading: ‘My skin became a border… the border moves with you.’ The filmmaker Anthony Wall, who explored music and other arts in dozens of Arena programmes for BBC2, presented some of his classics, including his 1988 study of Celia Cruz: he is looking for a permanent home for this unrivalled corpus of arts documentaries.
There was an enthralling session revisiting the national archives of Trinidad: ‘Everything is ours,’ Kendel Hippolyte declared, ‘I am a thief.’ Celeste Mohammed read a blazing story, told from the point of view of a bailiff who evicted poor fishermen in 1941 to build a US naval base, and thereby finance his passage to England and a music degree. Alexandra Stewart gave voice to indentured Indian women labourers whose unidentified photographs are in the archive.
Stewart later reappeared as one of the 16 finalists at the First Citizens National Poetry Slam. She delivered most appealingly, with split-second timing, a tragicomic cri de coeur about writers never getting paid:
Somebody please explain
Why so quick to put the artist’s name
In the programme but not in the budget.
Does anybody know the exchange rate for exposure?
She won, and got paid: the prize is TT$50,000 (around £6000).
The crucial role that radio played in the past, when the BBC’s Caribbean Voices brought the writings of the region to the attention of readers far away, has been picked up by the internet and digital channels. Festivals and prizes have become vital to the process of exposure and appraisal on international culture routes – they act as a form of curating. Bocas has a strong track record of giving a platform to writers before they’re well known, or taken up by a major press. In 2015 at Bocas, I heard Marlon James, Vahni Capildeo and Kei Miller, now names up in lights. This time I was struck by Canisia Lubrin, who read a burning ode to Mars from her first collection, Voodoo Hypothesis (Buckrider Books).
I was the overall chair of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. It has three categories: poetry, fiction and non-fiction. The three winners are then shortlisted for the overall prize. This year the winning poet was Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné for her first collection, Doe Songs, and the winning novelist was Dionne Brand, for Theory. Gary Younge was chairing the non-fiction judges, and they picked High Mas (Mississippi), a meditation on carnival by the photographer and poet Kevin Adonis Browne. He has taken strange, spectacular images from inside the rituals – inviting viewers to enter the frenzy of the stilt dancers and blue devils – and recorded scenes from the streets of Trinidad, far from the rhinestone-and-feather pageants of the official carnival.
Gary Younge praised Browne’s book for the way it ‘blends photographic essay, essay, memoir, poetry, polemic and prose poetry to transformative effect … The result is a radical, genre-defying tribute to a cherished tradition in the finest tradition of literary non-fiction.’ Jane Bryce, the fiction chair, said it was ‘interesting, provocative and politically purposeful’; Geoffrey Philp, the poetry chair, agreed on Browne’s boldness and range; I liked his cast of conscience. So we went ahead and decided on High Mas as the overall winner – the first time a non-fiction book has won the prize. When I announced the decision, the crowd in the light, breeze-swept room in the Old Fire Station in Port of Spain exploded in cheers: Browne is a much-admired teacher and colleague. Will a UK publisher now pick him up?
Back in London, I heard a bird singing in the night, as has become quite common in the city. When I first heard a cascade of birdsong in the gathering darkness, I thought it must be a nightingale, but it wasn’t. Ruth Padel recently told me the reason more birds are singing at night: the daytime pandemonium, the traffic roar and wail of sirens, means that birds can’t make themselves heard by one another. So they have taken to singing in the relative quiet of the night instead – in much the way that writers keep writing, finding a space in the cacophony to make their voices heard.
In Omeros, Derek Walcott plays on the Latin words for ‘mouth’ (os, oris) and ‘bone’ (os, ossis). In many myths and tales, flutes and pipes and lyres originate from a bone, pierced or strung to play. At the launch during the festival of New Daughters of Africa, a huge anthology edited by Margaret Busby, the sci-fi fabulist Nalo Hopkinson read her story about casting a spell with a pipe made from the bone of a black cat. When a bone-mouth begins to give voice, it remembers where it came from and whose body it once belonged to (in the murder ballad ‘The Twa Sisters’, for example, to a girl murdered by her sister, her rival for a boy). Thinking about futurism, Nalo Hopkinson quoted Octavia E. Butler: ‘If the things in my novel come to pass, you haven’t been listening.’