Wednesday, May 12, 2010

El Numero Uno; adventures in the West

EL NUMERO UNO played from 31 January to 21 February, closing a week early because box office sales were so sparse. I'm still trying to figure it out. The reviews were good, and all the folks, the children especially, who came to see it absolutely enjoyed it, as Walter Borden, who played Chef, recently said. I went to 5 or 6 performances and that was certainly true on each occasion. But only half of the seats were filled, all told.

It doesn't happen that often in the diasporic community: a play for young people, with Caribbean content, a black playwright, black director, black cast, black stage management, slated for a month long run (some 35 performances), and in Black History Month, to boot. I think the last one was more than ten years ago.

Bad mind people will say keh-keh, but in many ways, the person this concerns least of all is me, a ole lady who soon dead. El NUMERO UNO is a good play, a funny play, hilariously funny in parts. It will be staged again – if only because there aren't many plays for young people in the Caribbean or the diaspora. But the implications aren't encouraging. Professional theatre survives on its box office after all, and if investment of time and effort in plays like this won't garner support...

But maybe I oughtn't to be surprised. I just read an online interview in which Owen Percy, a PhD student at the University of Calgary, in a discussion with with Griffin prizewinner, Christian Bok, says to the poet, "You sell more copies of Eunoia than there are theoretically people who read poetry in Canada..." Eunoia at the time had sold more than 17,000 copies.

This may well be the seminal comment in an interview well worth the read. If you haven't seen it, look for it at:

Its context is Canadian but it raises issues about juries and prizes and poetry itself that we've considered before and I'd promised to get back to again.

I'm making a wild leap here, but if, in a population of 33 million people, fewer than 17,000 read poetry, then perhaps in a population of 2.5 million (Toronto), it's silly to think that twelve thousand people would want to see a Caribbean play for young people... Seems to me though that something is rotten in the state of – English-teaching? Education in general in schools, college, universities?

What am I going on about? THE GUARDIAN newspaper in the UK is to be reduced to 'Twitter-sized' bits! I tell you it's the end of the world.

We visited the grandchild at the end of February, and then I took off for the Canadian West in March, to revisit Emily Carr University and read there in its great On Edge series, with Salimah Valiani. Rita Wong is a wonderful hostess, and it was a treat to meet for a pre-reading dinner with Salimah, her aunt, the fabulous couple, Fabiola Nabil Nagib, artist, poet and activist, and her husband, philosopher Rajdeep Singh Gill. The reading went well, and I was off shortly after that to Calgary, where Jamaican-Calgerian, Howard Gallimore and I read DE MAN, my two-hander poem/verse play about the crucifixion for the third time in that city and the second time at St Stephen's Church, an amazing congregation in downtown Calgary.

I preached the Easter Sunday Service at St Stephen's as well. I'll tell you more about DE MAN, and our visit to St Stephen's, and a second reading in Vancouver tomorrow, if God spare life. Walk good meantime.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Happy Birthday, Kamau Brathwaite!

A great day to be back – Kamau Brathwaite’s birthday. Happy eightieth birthday, Kamau! And many, many more happy birthdays to come.

We tried to squeeze what Kamau has meant to us, husband Martin and me, into a few words, which we submitted for an upcoming issue of POUI, a new journal forthcoming from UWI’s Cave Hill campus. The submission was late, mea culpa, and we haven’t heard back from them, so in case it doesn’t make the issue, here’s what we said:

Early sixties. Kamau and Doris came. After that nothing was the same. Pam and Martin were in Noel Vaz's production of RITES OF PASSAGE at the Creative Arts Centre. Mortimo on the big drum, Archie Hudson-Phillips the fucking negro man. Nothing like that before. We still have the marked copy of the book. Martin took Kamau's course, "History, Society and Ideas". After that he wasn't the same. Now we join in the Missa Solemnis to celebrate fifty amazing years. Ave, Kamau. Vere, rara avis, sui generis! Happy Birthday!

Over the years, I’ve written poems for Kamau. The first, called simply, ‘Poem,’ appeared in my first collection, Journey Poem, in 1989. It’s reproduced here as it appeared on page 41.


It grows inside you
like a child
its meanings secret
like the peal of bells
and their music
long after

The rubric scratches
on the retina
the drums sound
but no spirit starts

the fingers of the blood
assort the images
the wind remembers
sifting the long grass
the womb impulses
the beast

a new testament
the Word

for Edward Kamau Brathwaite

In 2000, there was a wonderful celebration of his 70th birthday at NYU facilitated in part by Tim Reiss, Professor Emeritus in Comparative Literature, in which I was privileged to take part. Poets, scholars in many disciplines, singers, artists, philosophers and admirers gathered to celebrate Kamau’s 70th birthday. On that occasion, I read a much longer poem dedicated to Kamau called "Caliban Calypso". It appears in my third book of poetry, Certifiable, published in 2001 by Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton, B.C. There’s a link to "Caliban Calypso" here:

And finally, a suite of sonnets for Kamau called “Remembering Nothing.” The suite is one of thirty or so that constitute the book of poems on which I am currently working. It's tentatively titled, Litany on the Line: subversive sonnets to remember the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The first two sonnets in “Remembering Nothing” appeared in an issue of BIM: Arts for the 21st century, a recent revival of the original BIM, but the entire suite is composed of three poems and I reproduce it here, as we wish Kamau once more, Happy Birtday! Happy Birtday! Happy Birtday, Kamau, from everybody! Happy Birtday!

Suite Six: Remembering Nothing
For Kamau Brathwaite

Minnesota: Dakota word meaning 'water stained with sky'

There is a continuing candlelight vigil for peace on a bridge across the Mississippi in Minnesota, once a week, every week.

Let me remember nothing, not recall
this watchful bridge of fireflies that spans
a torrent with a name we schoolers spelled
a pride of little cats unfettered from
the cages of our elementary zoo who screeched
"M-I, crooked letter crooked letter I, crooked
letter crooked letter I, hunch back hunch
back I — that's how you spell Mi/ssi/ssipp/i!"
The vigil fires watch one night every week,
week after week a humming loop of light
bright chant against the Babylon of war.
Dakota people join the elements
to make a name for water stained with sky.
So Minnesota writes its liquid prayer.

Let me forget the brethren and their queens,
jacketed men and their fat bougie wives,
students war torn from skirmishes inside
the muddy trenches of the minibus,
beggars, vendors, workers in the health trade,
the tourist trade, the education trade,
the trades of politics and government,
joined with sweat-pasted fingers to declare
before the Mighty Eagle's embassy:
"You people better stop this war." These tilt
the forces: Arab men tortured in Abu Graib,
Sioux warriors cut off at Wounded Knee,
Darfurian women raped, numberless slaves
wave after wave corralled in this green sea.

Let me not recollect you ached to fight
sharpies manipulating war machines
who conned the credulous with WMDs
to raise crusades against the infidel –
and there are those who don’t believe in hell?
Those silver pieces changing, changing hands
for guns, grenades, tanks, rockets, missiles, bombs,
the miscellaneous tambourines of war…
All you with palms crossed by those pretty coins?
Beware the anthem rising in your throats
beware your fingers plucking at those strings
beware your feet tap-tapping to the notes.
What if the show you staged and took to play
abroad opened upon the Great White Way?

© Pamela Claire Mordecai 2010