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This interview is taken from PN Review 177, Volume 34 Number 1, September - October 2007.Lorna Goodison in Conversation
This conversation was recorded at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in July 2006, to mark the publication of Lorna Goodison 's new collection, Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems (Carcanet, 2006), with grateful thanks to The Wordsworth Trust.
VICKI BERTRAM: The title poem in your new collection paints a vivid picture of vibrant, cultured Kingston in the early nineteenth century. It strikes a different note to the poems about New World history in your earlier work. Cassamere is a giant of a man, a ski lful fireworks impresario, liquor-blender, confectioner, dancer. The ladies al love him, he's rich enough to buy his freedom. His stature, and the elegance of the world he moves in - they're very different from many depictions of Africans under slavery.
LORNA GOODISON: Yes. That's what I intended. I came across this account from a man named W.H. Hinson in the Institute in Jamaica. It was a narrative taken down by a Jamaican historian called W. Adolphe Roberts, about how as a young boy Hinson met this man Cassamere in a village named Goldengrove in Jamaica and was so taken by the excellence of his work that he followed him to Kingston as an apprentice. After reading this account I began to think about the power of beauty and the ability to do something really well - mastery of something - and how that can prevail even in the worst circumstances. I thought too how ability is timeless, and about the admiration of one artist for another artist. I became taken up by these ideas. I also thought a lot about how enslaved people were represented - and sometimes still are represented - as completely helpless victims which is not strictly historically accurate because many enslaved people died fighting for the right to live as free human beings. Sometimes, of course, there was very little that they could do; they could only make a gesture. My poem 'Who was the mother of Jamaican art?': that's a gesture. I think a lot of my poems have been trying to make these gestures, you know, to say 'I'm a human being, and I have some control ... very limited, but some control over myself as a human being.' But this newer poem was for me a hymn to the few special people who are highly skilled, who are able to do something really well and how that gift helps them to make their way through the world. People admire them for the excellence of what they do.
I think I learnt a lot about writing poetry from watching people do manual labour, and from my mother sewing. I love watching people make things; that's one of the old names for a poet: a maker. I was a very strange child; I remember sitting down and watching some men building a wall for almost a whole day. I was very taken with the idea of mixing mortar. I sat there and watched them for hours. And my mother's sewing was done according to strict rules. The business of how you put a garment together, and how the sleeves fit, and how the shoulder has to sit, was very important. She would discard a garment if the sleeve did not fit right. And the other rule she had was that if you turned a garment inside out, it should be neat on the inside as it was on the outside. I use these rules in my poetry.
I've not wanted to talk about this too much, because it's like the hen checking to see where the egg comes from! I do things, and then I realise long after what it is I've been doing. But I suspect that I've always been trying to develop some sort of womanly poetics of my own. Increasingly I've become interested in form. At first I was more interested in just putting the words down. The best way to describe what I've been trying to do recently is something my mother told me about swaddling. I remember her explaining to me about 'swaddling clothes'. That the Baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and sometimes, she said, if a baby was really restless, you had to swaddle it a little more tightly, not so much that it will kill the baby, but so it controls the infant and makes it feel safe and all of a piece. That's how I describe what I've been trying to do with my form. I don't want to wrap it so tight that the baby will die or I'll asphyxiate it, but sometimes the baby will need to be swaddled. I might use tercets or quatrains or the sonnet form - it is mostly influenced by my eye, how it looks to me on the page. Sometimes, right in the middle, I will just discard the swaddling process if I think that the poem doesn't want to be bound any more. Sometimes if it wants to cry or flail I just let it.
In 'Yet once more I will shake' you describe writing as a kind of possession.
My mother raised us as good Anglicans. She died talking about the Church of England. I said, 'Mama, we don't call it the Church of England any more, it's the Anglican church'. 'Well,' she said, 'It's Church of England to me.' We had to go to Sunday School, every week, and coming home from All Saints Church, I'd see, on the street corners of Kingston, these Revivalists and Pocomania groups with their synchronisations of African and European religion. A lot of these sects are headed by women, who are called 'The Mother of the Church'. These women would be so powerful, just taken over by the spirit; I thought that was wonderful! It certainly was not quiet and orderly, and it certainly was not just something that you stood coolly by and observed. What they were doing took you over and moved you and shook you. I always liked that. My mother would not have been happy if she knew that I was thinking that was the way I wanted to feel in church. Those sects were associated with ignorance because they were so African, the antithesis of Anglican restraint and control. The figure of the revival and the pocomania later became a model in my poetry.
Is that what poetry does to you?
Sometimes. You know, the Emily Dickinson litmus test: if I read a poem and I feel so cold as if no fire will ever warm me, or if I feel physically as if I'm losing the top of my head? Most poems can't pass that test, but you read something like 'Ode to a Nightingale', and you do lose the top of your head! Nowadays people seem to want this absolute control over poetry, a kind of domination. I'm not interested in that kind of poetry. I appreciate artistry and virtuosity, but I love it when you just back away from a poem, and think, 'Jesus! Where did that come from?' When you have to admit you have no idea how it got in there.
It sounds as though, for you, poetry is a religious force? In the biggest sense of the word 'religious'. In the sense of connecting
Yeah. Being reconnected. It's something quite mysterious that I have to make room for. Poetry, to me, is the opposite of power, it doesn't make you powerful. That's the other thing I've heard people say, 'I started to write because I wanted to have power because I didn't have any.' For me, that doesn't make any sense, because poetry makes one vulnerable. That's what poetry did to me anyway, it rendered me utterly vulnerable. Discovering poetry at a very early age made me think, 'This is a wonderful world, I can't get enough of this world.' I didn't even start off wanting to be a part of it, I wanted it to just keep influencing me, and delighting me, and puzzling me. It was only much later on that I thought, 'I'd like to see some people I really know in this world: people who look like me, or sound like me', so I ended up writing poems because I wanted to read what I wrote.
So you ended up writing the kind of poems that you wanted to read?
Yes. I never wanted to write poetry. I really am not being melodramatic when I say that I didn't choose it. But I want to express my undying gratitude for poetry; I'm very honoured to have this thing to do. I don't write every morning; I don't have any kind of routine. I tell my students that no writer worth his or her salt would ever go out on the street with a Walkman, because you need to listen to the music of what happens, and you need to hear things. I do an awful lot of just listening and looking. I want to be accurate. I don't want to distort Jamaican culture, just to present it in a way that makes it more accessible to the wider world. I have a deadly fear of that, so my telephone bills are horrible, because I'm always speaking to my siblings in Jamaica, who will tell me very bluntly if I'm losing my Jamaicanness!
Keeping the language alive.
Yes. I'm not too concerned with trying to be in accord with the latest thinking about anything. When all of this is over, I want to have done something that I really think means something to people: something that feeds them in some way, and I'm trying to feed the work in the hope that it can nourish people. My mother sometimes used to feed us, when we were very small, with food from her mouth, like a bird. Sometimes I think that's what I'm trying to do. All of my poetics are very influenced by my life as a woman.
You use the word 'balm' quite a lot, particularly in the new poems. Is poetry a kind of balm?
In folk medicine there is a belief that you can buy certain oils that will keep your love loyal to you. The notion has always fascinated me. I'm not sure I believe in love potions, but I don't like dry poetry! Poetry as unguent, though, that is it.
I notice how often you talk about words as being alive, the living language, and words as a kind of medicine.
I don't like dead words. There are some words - you hear them and you don't feel good afterwards. I love Keats. He was a doctor, an apothecary, and I think he doctored in his poems too, because he said poetry could function like medicine. Certain cultures need certain kinds of poetry: the poetry should be appropriate to the time or to what the people need.
Do you have a sense of who you're writing for?
Never. Time and again I've been surprised by who likes what, or who understands what, and I think I need to just leave that to readers. That little poem, 'Black Like This?' from Controlling the Silver: a Japanese PhD student at the University of Michigan said, 'That poem is a ju-jitsu response to racism.' In ju-jitsu you use the strength of your opponent against them. When I wrote that poem, I may have thought that only black people would respond to it. But the most interesting response to the poem to date has come from a young Japanese woman. It just blew me away!
Although you live in America, it sounds as though you're not immersed in American culture.
Yes and no. One of the things I love about US culture is the freedom, the sense of possibility as opposed to the lack of possibility you find in some older societies, you know... Jamaica has that problem. We need to give people more of a sense of hope and possibility. I didn't come into my poetic voice in the US; I'm still coming out of the good old Colonial encounter with poetry. I still wake up at two o'clock in the morning to read 'Ode on a Grecian Urn', because nowhere in poetry, for me, is there a line like 'winning near the goal', you know? I don't know of anything else that expresses the business of just not quite being able to realise your full potential.
So is it the English poetic tradition, then, that has been more important?
The other language that I noticed a lot in your poetry is the Bible.
Yes. Well, that is also my good Colonial inheritance! Everybody in Jamaica reads the King James Bible, no other. They can't sell any of the other revisions in Jamaica. Even the wickedest people in Jamaica know the King James Bible! And they're all authorities ... especially the Rastafarians. The language of the King James Bible permeates all aspects of Jamaican culture. It's all over the music, and it certainly is all over the writing.
Could you say a bit about the influence of music?
If I'd had a choice of gifts, I would have wanted to be a singer. I love women singers like Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan, Jesse Norman, Kathleen Battle, Miriam Makeba, Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington... I wanted to be one of those women who sang in a dark nightclub, wearing a really sexy satin dress. But I think I would have had a really bad life! The female Revival preacher is one side of my voice but the other side of that coin is the club singer, the blues singer. And that voice is the voice I try for in my poems... I admire Keats and I admire Derek Walcott, and I admire a lot of the great Russian women poets... I admire writers from all over the world, but the woman singer is my favourite voice. I think about music when I'm writing certain poems.
What about the influence of Rastafarianism?
Huge influence. Huge in every way, except that I have real problems with the state of women in Rastafari. That aside, we owe Rastafarians a great debt, certainly Jamaicans, certainly New World people, our generation, owe them, because in a way they were a bridge for us. Coming out of slavery and colonialism, where you were taught that everything about you was ugly, and the way you spoke was unacceptable and you couldn't possibly be anything else but inferior... a lot of people spent their lives trying to become something that they couldn't possibly be. Along come these people, and they say to us, 'Fire for that!' They are so defiant. They spoke like violent Old Testament prophets in that early phase. And their message was, 'Self hatred is the way to madness. Babylon's way is the way of destruction! Forget about it!' They were the bridge to a better place of self-understanding and self-acceptance, even self-glorification. They have to be credited for pulling us away from the abyss which is what you would fall into if you couldn't accept yourself, accept the way you're made.
One of the things I love about your poetry is the lightness of touch with which your own personal 'I' is present. You chronicle such a broad canvas, without trying to keep yourself out of it, yet your presence does not dominate. And, of course, one of the problems for women has been to develop the authority to speak 'I', but it seems to me there's a danger in overplaying the 'I'. Has Rastafari had any part in that?
Well, community, I suppose. They were calling people to community, you know, and the fact that they say 'I and I and I' when they mean a whole group of people. And the word play: they're really brilliant at that. 'Overstand' instead of 'understand'...
When I wrote 'After the green gown of my mother gone down', which is an elegy, a woman came to me and she said, 'Were you aware, when you wrote that, you were writing it for all of us? You were giving us a way to bury our own mothers?' A number of people have told me they read that poem at funerals. And if I have written poems that can be used in that way, I feel very happy.
Yes. There's a lot in your poetry about mothers and becoming your mother, and the River Mumma.
There is a big difference between my image of the good mother, or the caring loving mother, and images of the mothers who aren't. In Jamaica, the River Mumma is a spirit that's in charge of the waters and rivers. In Controling the Silver, I became very interested in that figure as a bad mother because I'm trying to speak about pollution - some of our rivers are polluted - the pollution of culture through drugs and violence.
In 'Making Life' you write, 'We're not in exile, just making life.' You've already talked about the anxiety of exile in terms of language, losing the connection to that place, but are there positive things?
I have a horror of causing offence by using that word. I'm not in exile: I can get on an aeroplane and I can be in Jamaica in eight hours. Wole Soyinka was truly in exile; Abasha was going to kill him if he went back to Nigeria. I think he had a right to use that word. I don't. But New World people have always had to go where there are opportunities. That's what I am doing. The job I have now, at the University of Michigan, I would never have had that job at the University of the West Indies.
And do you think you've learned from teaching?
Enormously. Because in order to teach, I've had to study a lot!
Do you think you can teach people to write poetry?
You can give them the benefit of your experience. Very often, in a room of students, you might not be the most learned person there, but you will more than likely be the most experienced person. And I have had a lot of life experience.
How do you feel about being published by Carcanet?
Very happy. That's what you hope will happen, as a writer. I've been published in England previously by New Beacon Press, and I will always be grateful to them; because of them I had a little frisson of attention here in the 1980s. There are a lot of people interested in poetry in Jamaica now. There are some good poets there. Jamaicans love rhetoric. They admired the late Michael Manley: even when they just hated what he was doing, politically, they would say, 'God, what a man can talk sweet!' Because they love anybody who can use words well.
The power of rhetoric and performance ... How do you perform?
My performance style has changed. I really trust the words now. I'm more concerned with letting the words just be the words, just doing my best by them. I just want to stand back and let the words speak for themselves.
You're the vessel through which the words pass?
Something like that. I've worked very, very hard on them, so I don't want them to get passed over. I don't know if the new poems show it, but I have worked hard for them! Every time I thought I was finished .... I mean, the people at Carcanet, I don't know what they think!
Has Michael Schmidt played a role as an editor? Or does anybody play that role?
Well, in Illinois, Larry Liebermann who edits the series, is a fine editor. Michael Schmidt is a very discerning reader, his reading of these new poems has helped and encouraged me greatly.
Well, I think they're going to make a massive impact on any reader.
I hope so!
This interview is taken from PN Review 177, Volume 34 Number 1, September - October 2007.