Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Calabash, oh Calabash! How we mourn your passing!

So Calabash done! For now, anyway. Don't know if the organizers (note the source I'd like to hear from!) will ever tell us the whole story, but money seems to have been a part of it, as also Colin Channer's departure from the core team. Whatever the causes, it's a big loss. I never made it to read or to visit, though I was asked more than once, and I now feel that as a big and probably irreparable loss – in this world, anyway. Never mind. I believe all kinda amazing things await me after I die, and some retrospective Calabash visits will I hope be among them.

So the first thing is to say thanks for the vision and energy of Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes and Justine Henzell, and all those who supported the Calabash effort over time. Here isn't the place to say why it was so important, because it was very important. It never make no argument but simply went about its business demonstrating truths like if you build it right, they will indeed come and keep coming, and the 'they' will be a most comprehensive and inclusive and various 'they,' a motley crew who will enjoy kulcha not as that, but as the simple thing kulcha is, which is song, music, story, skits, drawings and paintings and the like...

Anyhow, that account is not for me to write. Calabash was superb while it lasted, no doubt about that, and one is glad for the respects in which it is promised to continue. Its demise should make us think, though, about what we need to do to keep good things going, about how we approach building 'institutions' so they continue. And it ought to make us address hard truths, like that we should perhaps spend a little less money on frivolities (I have been alarmed to see such a one as Vera Wang feature as a designer worn by the well-heeled in the Observer's glamour pages!) and invest a bit more into, say, the Calabsh kitty. One-one cocoa fill basket...

Ridiculous? True, until Barack Obama used the Internet to capitalize on donations by the poorest American to help finance his way into the White House. Don't bother bring no facts and figures to show that the contributions of wealthy financiers and unions far outweighed these in size! The likl-likl donations added up, and with every donation came a commitment to the Obama cause. What's wrong with a Calabash Foundation that issues tax receipts for donations? Come to think of it, what's wrong with tax receipts for donations to worthy causes as a way to encourage grass roots mobilization?

Sadly I fear that we will prefer our expensive frocks and fancy parties, even the most educated and most thoughtful of us, who ought to know better. Why? Could it be that we are still the bruised, insecure, unresurrected children of the enslaved (new PC term!) who have decried 'white' people's ways and values as we have rushed to ape them, and who have stalwartly resisted putting our money and efforts where our mouths are?

Well, whoever that may be true of, it does not apply to Colin Channer, Kwame Dawes, Justine Henzell and the Calabash Crew. For that, let us give thanks!


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Linguistic Preserves or How to Use Language to be Powerful

Okay. So I am always having this problem. It has to do with how much we use language to isolate people rather than bring them together, to construct divisions among groups rather than promote community, to confuse rather than clarify – all in the interests of power. This is something complicated enough to merit yet another book, for many books have been written about it, I'm sure. But I don't have the time, nor in all likelihood the competence, to write any such book. So I will try to tell a story, my story, instead.

Years ago, when New World, a sort of unstructured radical movement that arose in and around UWI, Mona, Jamaica, in the seventies, began to publish New World Quarterly, in an earnest effort to persuade the editors to make the writing in the journal available to anybody who could read, I found myself at Lloyd Best's house on the UWI Mona campus, attempting to 'translate' the academic-speak of one article into plain English. I can recall vividly tackling a footnote that referred to an observation by Alister McIntyre about the ingenuity of peasant farmers in the Caribbean who rotated crops on their small acreages so as to get the best yields, despite constraints of size.

Nothing ever came of the initiative to simplify, of course.
New World spoke its erudite way to its untimely end.

The truth is that the powerful reserve languages to and for themselves. If you don't believe me, try getting an explanation of what happened to make the world economy collapse. Financial operatives, in plain speak (PS after this – BS is Bull Speak), those who run things in the money world, keep their affairs to themselves. It is, in BS, obfuscation twice over, or, in PS, secrets on top of secrets. Those money folks are as often as not up to no good, and where regulators insist on transparency (BS for keeping things out in the open and above board), a good way to hide them anyway is to talk about them using names and terms ordinary people cannot understand: sub-prime mortgages, derivatives, toxic loans, eurozone, etc. etc.

It’s not a habit confined to the worlds of finance, or law, or medicine, or science. My friend Jennifer broke my heart when she told me she had tried to read but couldn't understand Walcott's poetry. I love Walcott, and Brathwaite, and Brodber, and Brand, and Wilson Harris. They all take hard reading, sometimes, as do heaps of other writer folks. And that's okay. Writers are free to write as they see fit.

But writers need also to have vision, to be savvy, to make informed political choices. And if people read fiction and poetry, story and song, less and less, even as they listen to popular music more and more, it may have something to do with the fact of
how as well as what writers have chosen to write about.

It takes me five years or so to produce a book of poetry or fiction, so I don't have a lot of writing to which to refer as I try to illustrate this point, but I’ll try nonetheless.

In 1995, Sister Vision Press published de man: a performance poem. I've talked about it up here before. It's the crucifixion story in Jamaican Creole. It's been performed many, many times in Canada, the Caribbean and who knows where else, and it's been taught (as I've recently discovered) in several universities in the US and Canada. George Elliott Clarke calls it a 'revolutionary work', though it's largely been ignored by critics in the Caribbean and doesn't even figure in Canadian Hugh Hodges’ survey on religion in Jamaican poetry, Soon Come, published by U. of Virginia Press.

The important point about
de man, for this argument, is that it's in ordinary people's language. Anybody can understand it. I think, at first half-knowing and then more consciously, I took my cue from that book about how I would write, probably till Jesus comes. My next book of poetry, Certifiable (2001), contains many story poems and many poems in plain Jamaican English, as does The True Blue of Islands (2005), the poetry collection after that. My first collection of short fiction, Pink Icing (2006) has many stories seen through the eyes of children and told in their voices. It too uses Jamaican English. And the collection of sonnets that I have just completed, never mind that they are sonnets, is also as plain as can be. You’ve seen a couple of those sonnets here.

Lest anyone think I am suggesting that plain English or Jamaican Creole dumbs things down, dilutes them or condemns them not to eschew (BS for ‘stay clear of’) complexity, I refer them to the writings of Jean D’Costa and Dennis Craig on creole as a literary medium.

Mark you, I think I can confuse and confound with the best of us. I love big words, and like every good Jamaican, I thrive on confusion. But I understand that the Tower of Babel was punishment. That breakdown in communication is something to be struggled against.

Thus, creole-speaking children, wherever in the world they are, should learn the standard languages whose lexicons their creoles employ. They need to be able to make themselves understood outside the small community of creole-speakers. Dutch and Danish people learn languages other than their own for exactly the same reason. There are not that many people who speak Dutch and Danish in the world. If they want to talk to a wider audience, they need to know other languages.

There are more urgent reasons: not every creole-speaking person hauled before the law in a foreign country, for example, will get the benefit of a translator. Jail time because you cannot truly have your day in court, on account of nobodi kyaan unustan yu, an yu kyaan unerstan dem is very far from justice done. Similarly, a creole speaker who cannot fluently describe to, say, a paramedic or an emergency-room doctor what symptoms she is experiencing might well be at serious risk.

In fact, creole speakers and non-creole speakers should learn Mandarin and Hakka and Russian and Swahili and Greek and Krio – as many languages as they can grasp. Look at Eminem and Sinéad O'Connor as they besi dung into our languages, and take example!

The powerful preserve their power by using language as a tool when they make language policy as well, as, for example, those persons in the Caribbean who are versatile in standard and creole languages and fail to encourage creole speakers to learn standard languages. Indeed, there should be a requirement that all creole speakers achieve a solid competence in a standard language since, as I’ve tried to show, it may prove a matter of life and death. The policymakers are the powerful. They are equipped. They well know that every new language is an arsenal. So how come they don’t want everyone to have more linguistic guns?

When finally we beat our swords into ploughshares, I suspect that peace will be a great silence in which we listen to the music of praise and rejoicing and speak not a word. “Peace on earth,” the angels sang at the baby’s birth. Peace to the benevolent, those of good will – from the Latin, bene volantem, well-wishing.

Have a Happy Christmas, a Holy Channukah! Learn a new language in 2011!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Wikileaks, the G20 and Common Dreams

Do you know that Bradley Manning, the former US intelligence analyst who is suspected of leaking the diplomatic cables at the heart of the Wikileaks storm is being held in solitary confinement at a military base in Virginia where he faces court martial and a possible sentence of 52 years in prison for his alleged role in copying the cables?

David House, who visits Manning a couple times a month, says he has noticed a decline in his physical and emotional well being over the past few weeks. Read the full story here:

No, no. I did not say Manning was being held at a gulag in Siberia. Nor is he accused of killing anyone, engineering a Ponzi scheme that defrauded people of billions of dollars, stealing or helping to steal an election, threatening anyone with harm, raping children who reposed confidence in him as their teacher or priest, sending harmful substances through the mail, bombing any buildings, inciting anyone to riot or damage property or harm their neighbour. No. No. Not any of those things. He is supposed to have copied and leaked cables that include information about actions being taken on behalf of a nation, to the people of that nation. That is his crime.

If you want some idea of the runnings in the world as they concern Wikileaks, the goings on in Washington or, indeed, in your neck of the woods, chances are you’ll find it on this website:

Away from home in Toronto, I was able to read a piece in the Toronto Star by Linda McQuaig.entitled “Vindication for G20 Protesters”. You can read it here.

In it, McQuaig says: “What is now unmistakably clear — with the release of a searing report by Ontario Ombudsman André Marin and startling new video evidence of police beatings obtained by the Star’s Rosie DiManno — is that the vast powers of the state were unjustifiably used against thousands of innocent protesters, as well as against others doing nothing more subversive than riding a bike or picking up groceries.”

I know it’s Christmas, but as you do your shopping, or help out at a soup kitchen, or visit the sick with a word of Christmas cheer, it might be worth chewing over the propects for “Peace on earth” of which the angels sang, when those entrusted with upholding the law act, not to secure the citizens’ rights but to vitiate them. There is a name for states that use organized violence against their citizens. It starts with an F.

And it is not just silly but downright stupid to be fooled by baby blue sweaters, jam sessions with Yo-Yo Ma and ostensible ‘Christian’ positions on issues like abortion. Violence is violence, whether it’s used against a foetus or a citizen exercising his or her right to peaceful protest. When it costs those same citizens a billion dollars to have their rights trampled on, there’s no need to wonder about 2012 and the possible advent of Apocalypse. Ask 57-year-old Revenue Canada employee John Pruyn, who had his the prosthetic leg yanked off by police after he was unable to move quickly enough from where he was peacably sitting with his daughter.

Today his artificial leg was pulled off from his body. Tomorrow your real leg and mine might well be at risk. Pull your fingers out of your noses and smell the brimstone.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What I'm reading; what I'm thinking...

This is a device so that I don't fall off the blogging bandwagon again. As folks who stop by know, I don't do this kind of 'personal post' – not much anyway. But since I am reading, all together, several books that exercise me, I thought it would be okay to share with you. I'll take them in no particular order.

Derek Walcott was just in Toronto to read and discuss his life and work, and so I dived into the Walcott books I'd not caught up with. I'm reading Tiepolo's Hound (not for the first time, but I'd not got too far in on the previous reading...), a gorgeous book illustrated with Walcott's paintings and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2000. Having just finished a MS of sonnets, I am keen on what Walcott is doing with couplets in this book, running with alternately rhyming lines, AB AB BC BC DE DE FG FG, and so on. There are only one or two poems in my MS where I hold tight to any rhyme scheme, and one of the things I think I found out is that it works to run the unit of meaning, the 'sentence,' past the rhyme at the end of the line over into the next line. Not always, but often. Otherwise, especially if one is working with iambics, there's the danger of doggerel, sing-song, however highfalutin the sentiments. I'm watching for that here, as the poem trails about Europe and Camille Pissaro's little Caribbean island.

I'm also wondering in and out of two books by Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at NYU, Timothy Reiss, a polymath if ever there was one. My pursuit is not academic. Interested in ideas of self (see sonnet, "Who loves not self, loves not..." in a recent post), I had started with Mirages of the Self, but realized that for a handle on Reiss's term, "analytico-referential," I'd need to go back to a previous work, The Discourse of Modernism. Maybe I'll keep you posted.

And I'm making my way steadily through Thomas Cahill's popular biography of Pope John XXIII, published in the Penguin Lives Series, and called just that. Pope John XXIII. Cahill, who is comfortable to read, begins with the long reach back to Peter the Apostle and the beginnings of the church, some of which makes for horrific reading. His strategy works because he eases the reader through the history, in an effort to provide Pope John XXII (and Vatican II, of course) with a broad, meaningful context. Which he manages to do. No easy task.

And finally, the inevitable detective-story-mystery thing, most recently Thomas H. Cook's Peril. Peril, especially as something which confronts small children, is something of which I have written (see title story of Pink Icing: Stories) with feeling, but I don't think that's why I remember Cook's story. (Often I forget stories in this genre within hours of closing the book.) He writes some good characters (except for the heavy-heavy, Old Man Labriola, who is unrelieved evil) and his approach to telling the story, short sections marked with the name of the character whose POV is explored therein, succeeds in moving the story forward quickly.

Gotta go. Next time around, DV, the state-sanctioned abrogation of citizen's rights at the recent G20 in Toronto. Walk good.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Caribbean Examination Council, regional ministries of education, and the ‘that-which’ rule

This will be an exercise in the usefulness of the internet.

I am curious about the position of regional ministries of education, as (presumably) expressed in the Caribbean Examinations Council syllabi, on the ‘which-that’ rule.

A few more folks now visit this site than did before (thanks, bredren and sistren, guys and dolls) but I am also shouting out those whose sites carry a lot more traffic with the request that they circulate our dilemma because it is an important question and one for which we need an urgent answer. I’ll say why in a minute, but first a little story.

Not long ago, I had a phone call from an academic from the region, distressed because the American publisher to whom this person had submitted a MS was insisting that a host of ‘which’s’ in the MS be converted to ‘that’s’. Of course I had, sadly, to say the publisher was right, and to invoke the ‘which that rule’.


You are working in MSWord, grammar function on. You type this sentence. The pot which had a hole in the bottom had to be thrown out… Behold! The wriggly green line appears under “pot which had a hole in the bottom” and you are advised that this is in need of correction, and you are told what your options are: insert comma after ‘pot’ so clause becomes a descriptive clause, or use ‘that’. This will always happen with sentences in which the word ‘which’ introduces a definitive clause.

If you check the style books, or the newspaper guides, they will say either that the word ‘that’ must introduce such a clause, or, more gently, as does the London Times style guide below, that ‘that’ is usually better that ‘which’ for introducing definitive clauses. (A definitive clause says what the thing being identified is. A descriptive clause merely ascribes a characteristic to it.)

According to the Times, then:

that ... That is almost always better than which in a defining clause, eg, “the train that I take stops at Slough”. As a general rule, use which for descriptive clauses and place it between commas, eg, “the night train, which used to carry newspapers, stops at Crewe”.

And indeed, if you say the sentence, it will indeed roll more pleasingly off the tongue, be more sensible-sounding with ‘that’.

But, by sweet serendipity, this is not the way we learned it in the Caribbean as children. And old habits die hard, especially if you are not in the daily grip (came out as ‘drip’ – Kamau would like that!) of authoritarian software – hence the dilemma of my academic friend.

I’m assessing a book which… oops, no, a book that has been in use in the region and that is replete with infractions of this rule. So I need to know, and would be glad of any help in discovering what the judgment of regional expertise in this matter is.

Thank you, then, on behalf of children and new learners of English in the Caribbean!

On the matter of the Wikileaks, and further to yesterday’s post: Here’s Haroon Siddiqui in today’s Toronto Star on the Wikileaks. His position is not unlike that of the Canadian ex-diplomat whom I quoted yesterday (well, he’s a Canadian, but not a Canadian ex-diplomat)…

Till soon.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


It's amazing the variety of responses to the Wikileaks. There's one from a former Canadian diplomat who thinks they are mighty dangerous. If diplomatic information gatherers are to be of use, he feels, then they must be able to pass on in a forthright fashion, any information, however ugly and compromising, that they may discover. They must be free to communicate, as he once did, things that "would make your hair stand on end." (I think that's how it went.)

And this communication has to be privileged and private, and so secret.

Further, he argues that to compromise this information flow by subverting its secrecy is only one aspect of the danger. Worse is the fact that the leaks lead not to a freer but a more repressive world, by means of the retribution that will follow and be visited on local populations. Local people, activists or not, who supply info-gatherers from
foreign embassies and covert agencies with information about human rights abuses will be at risk because oppressive regimes will round them up and there will be repercussions – presumably, threats, torture, maiming, imprisonment and maybe even death.

An ex-diplomat I know (not Canadian) pooh-poohs that. "Oppressive regimes always know who the informers are," he says. Presumably they have also already jailed or killed or otherwise dealt with the ones they consider truly dangerous. (One thinks of Aung San Suu Kyi, who makes a good case for that argument.)

He also repeats some sound coaching he received many years ago, from a senior civil servant, about writing memos and advices for senior politicos and government decision-makers.

"Draft everything as though you are going to see it next day on the front page of the newspaper!"

Is it possible to do this? Be cogent, comprehensive, bald and – well, I guess, diplomatic?

On the one hand, code names, and codes and hieroglyphs are the order of the day. Texting and the net have manufactured their own lingo. HTML, anyone? On the other hand, there is all of literature and fable and song to draw analogies from, a host of languages to forge into pastiche
and bricolage, a panoply of imaginative stuff to creatively deploy to send messages across.

A good example (sourced from the other Wiki, Wikipedia) is the apocryphal story of General Sir Charles James Napier's terse (one-word) communication of his fall from grace

In 1842, Napier was appointed Major General to the command of the Indian army in the Bombay Presidency. Here Lord Ellenborourgh's policy led him to Sindh Province in order to subdue the insurrection of Muslim rulers. Napier's campaign against these chieftains led to victories in the Battle of Meanee and the Battle of Hyderabad, and then to the subjugation of Sindh Province and its annexation by its eastern neighbors. Having conquered Sindh, Napier was supposed to have dispatched to his superiors the short, notable message, Peccavi, the Latin for "I have sinned" – a pun of course, on "I have Sindh."

Any good English or civics teacher would already have taken the problem for discussion and action to her class! What would you, if you were a diplomat, communicating sensitive, even explosive information, do?

All that said, is it safe, let alone wise for everyone to know everything about everything?

Here's counsel for all seasons and servants and souls from Bernard of Clairvaux:

Peace within the cell: fierce warfare without.

Hear all; believe a few: honour all.
Don't believe everything you hear;
Don't judge everything you see;
Don't do everything you can;
Don't give everything you have;
Don't say everything you know…


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Litany on the Line: subversive sonnets

Litany on the line: subversive sonnets in thirty-three suites, a manuscript I've been working on for five years, is finally at the point where I've decided to stop working on the poems – at least until someone agrees to publish it.

I don't know that any poet ever feels completely satisfied with a poem, so I'm not saying the MS is finished. Taking a leaf out of the books of Kamau Brathwaite, who has always felt free to revise and has done so extensively in, say, Ancestors, and of Mervyn Morris, whose 1997 edition of The Pond contains revisions of several poems, I had included in Certifiable (2001) three poems from my first collection, Journey Poem (1989), all of them revised in varying degrees. I've been repeating one or two poems from collection to collection, with the exception of my crucifixion poem de man: a performance poem (1995). So Certifiable contains those three poems from Journey Poem, and The True Blue of Islands contains an excerpt from one poem in Certifiable.

Continuing that tradition, Litany on the Line contains one long poem from The True Blue of Islands, slightly revised and re-lineated, and a poem from Journey Poem that's been substantially rewritten. The remaining thirty-one poems are new. They are collected in suites, mainly of two or three, though a few are longer and there is one suite that contains only one sonnet. I'll end this post with that one, called "Who loves not self, loves not..."

Three of them, "Counting the Ways and Marrying True Minds," "Jamboree – Darfur maybe," and "Yarn Spinner" have been featured on Geoffrey Philp's blogspot. Many thanks again, Geoff, for that, and for the blogspot's continuing great work..

The first can be found here:

and the other two here:

I've just said that I've been working on this MS for five years, and that's both true and not true. The oldest notebook for writing drafts of poems that I have to hand contains some "Endsongs" with drafts dated 1984 and 1985. The idea for Litany on the Line begins with those poems. In fact, I think I recently came across grant proposals for this collection that used Endsongs as a working title.

In the beginning, the poems were conceived of as being about various kinds of endings: former lives, old worlds, old friendships, life itself, the world.... That idea composed and recomposed itself several times in the course of the writing, and the collection as it now stands is as much about the (often comic) desperations of living as those of dying. So there are indeed endsongs, poems like “From Everlasting to Everlasting,” Our Lady of Good Voyage,” "Poor execution," and the title poem, “Litany on the Line,” and there are endings of other kinds sneaking around under poems like "Zambesi 1995,” "Wade in the Water," and “Remembering nothing", and there are poems about beginnings and the triumph of just being like "Temitope," "Zoey stands up to Schrodinger's Cat" and "Blooming in Barcelona."

So, as promised:

Suite thirty-one: Who loves not self, loves not…

If Robert Southwell made a hymn for a soulful boy child

‘whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand

no deed defiled;’ if Hopkins sprung new rhythms for

his falcon spry on wing, wind hovering bird,

up full, fiercely flaming on Spirit’s swing, is it not Lord

that these are saints who have selves that they love,

and loving self so, and so loved by self, can others love?

You Self have said that we must love others

as we love self. But what if we despise

that craft, sweet purling that your Father set

about as he wove every self each in

his mother’s womb? What if inside us, animus

flares furious, eating all air, prayer? What then, most valorous

when we say no to God’s grandeur in us?

© Pamela Claire Mordecai 2010