Saturday, August 16, 2008

More beating books...

Shortly after hanging up the post entitled “Beating books,” I received an e-mail from Edward Baugh. He said he had come across the post and seen my ‘ticking off of Eddie Baugh for his egregious error, in the "History of [West Indian] Poetry", re Rachel Manley's not being included in Jamaica Woman.’ Professor Baugh declared himself “buried in sackcloth and ashes”. He described the circumstances in which the error occurred and asked that I accept his apologies, saying, in conclusion, ‘The older I get the more I learn that you can never be too careful. The real sin was in not having read the "Preface".’ I said in response to his e-mail: “I’m of course happy to accept the apologies but they aren’t mostly due to me – or Mervyn [Morris, co-editor of Jamaica Woman] – since we know how in fact it did go. Is all de people dem out dere...” And I added, as a rider: “BTW, on page 281, the bib[liography] cites [my book of poetry] de man [: a performance poem] as having been published by Sandberry Press. It was in fact published by Sister Vision Press here in Toronto.” I don’t know what one does about all of this, except perhaps to believe half of what one sees, even in books. What happened in the case of Jamaica Woman is important because it is exemplary. (And, as I’ve said, I’ll adduce some more examples here from time to time.) It raises the question of how much confidence the reader can repose in the authority of the specialist writer. How expert is the expert? How scholarly, the scholar? Some may argue that there’s not much harm to be done in the humanities – a position I don’t hold. I do admit that the possibilities loom large for more immediate, more tangible, more readily quantifiable damage in the sciences. My late father, God bless his soul, a man who never went to university, nor apprenticed for lawyer – he wanted to be a dentist, but there was no money – was a great one for proverbs when we were growing up. “Anything worth doing is worth doing well!” he’d tell us, and “When you have done your best, the angels can do no better!” I’m not sure how often I’ve done my best, but I have had that as a benchmark all my life. I think what I’m really in a flap about is how close and how potentially devastating the dangers are when any of us fail to hold up our (little or big) end of the stick. Also, as Usain Bolt can testify, the feeling of exhilaration to be derived from doing even close to one’s best is matchless. All of us deserve to experience it, the more consistently, the better.

Lightning Bolt!

Congratulations to Usain Bolt, Jamaica's first Gold Medalist at this year's Olympics. What a joy to see him run like him navel string cut pon it! Him run so natural, easing up at the end, looking around, slapping his chest in anticipation of victory. He's clearly capable of cutting back on that 9.69 world record time! Asafa Powell's performance was disappointing, but it was a great feeling to look at a field of sprinters who were all from the Caribbean, save the American, Walter Dix. Congrats too to Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago and Walter Dix of the USA, who placed second and third, respectively. I've three or four posts in the making this weekend, and there will be a couple more about sports, so this one will be relatively short. It ends with a beef. No commentator speaks of Michael Phelps, or spoke of Mark Spitz, as coming from the American swimming factory, and factory for factory, dem have plenty, plenty more factory dan we. So why do our sprinters come from 'Jamaica's sprinting factory'? Not so much a matter of being thin-skinned, but a matter of objecting to a comparison that's misleading. I taught Don Quarrie at Camperdown High School many years ago, and remember the struggles of the late Mrs Ivy Grant, founder and headmistress of Camperdown High, as she fought to support the young sprinters of that school, to secure training for them, to see them into national and international competitions. Happily or unhappily, things haven't changed all that much in the intervening years where training for our athletes is concerned. So there isn't anything like a training factory for sprinters in Jamaica – a recent article in the New York Times (by Duff Wilson, 20 July, 2008) says as much. As a poet and former media person, I feel strongly that metaphors shouldn't be random or decorative. They should be warranted, and this one isn't.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Beating books...

A bit of serendipity: it was Canadian Jack Cole, already publisher of Coles Notes in Canada, who sold Nebraskan Cliff Hillegass on the idea of creating American study guides similar to Canada's Coles Notes. Bet you never know! On to the subject of our post, the first in which we tackle misunderstandings and misinformations. In an age of the said CliffsNotes, and by analogy, any number of ways of avoiding getting to know the 'thing', whatever it is, really well, it seems laughable to try persuading students that the name of the game is hard work. I hear this kind of discussion among teachers all the time. If I were in the classroom, I'd try telling the tale of the air traffic controller who cheated. How would you like to know that the fellow who has charge of the airplane you're on got his certification by false pretenses? Then there's the woman handling the colonoscope that's peering into your colon, the chap controlling the switches in the nuclear reactor that supplies energy to your town, and so on, and so on... So there's a good case to be made, these days especially, for really knowing what you're supposed to know. That's an important part of teaching: first, how to find the facts, the data, the information, and then how to check those facts, that data, that information. Multiple sources, the journalists would say; triangulate, the researchers would say. In this virtual space, the problem becomes plenty worse! I was disappointed, therefore, when I saw an essay of Eddie Baugh’s in A History of Literature in the Caribbean. (I confess to having a personal interest in this case.) On page 264, Baugh says: "By 1980, however, [Mervyn] Morris and [Pamela] Mordecai edited Jamaica Woman, an anthology of ... fifteen mostly young women poets, whose work demanded serious attention... The flowering of Jamaica Woman had been heralded only a few weeks earlier by the Savacou anthology, New Poets from Jamaica, in which seven of the thirteen poets were women… Neither collection included the talented Rachel Manley, who had already published two slim volumes. Perhaps the admission was purely inadvertent.” I can’t think why Professor Baugh didn’t think to ask the editors, Mordecai and Morris, both well known to him and easily accessible, how come we’d left out Rachel Manley. The thing is, the Preface to Jamaica Woman states (in the first paragraph!) that the poets in the collection are all women who had, up to that time, NOT had a collection of their work published, the idea of the book being to expose the poetry of those women who were writing but whose work was not well known. This is why Rachel Manley (along with other poets like Jean Goulbourne, whose Actors in the Arena Savacou had published in 1977) was not included. So the omission was not inadvertent by any means. (BTW, Jamaica Woman was dedicated to Edna Manley and Louise Bennett. Wat a ting to dedicate de book to Rachel's Granny and lef her out ob it!) The observation also came as a surprise because Professor Baugh was kind enough to comment on the chapter on Literature in Culture and Customs of Jamaica (eds. Martin Mordecai & Pamela Mordecai) in which a note (#12 on page 133) points out that none of the poets in Jamaica Woman had previously published a book of their own. Unhappily, this kind of error has the potential to cause plenty kas-kas, and so much literary writing these days feeds on 'controversy' – manufactured or otherwise. So I thought it important to set things straight. Selah! BTW, ef you doan know, check out what Selah means. Wikipedia says it probably is the most difficult word in the Hebrew Bible to translate. Fascinating.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Disaster preparedness

We are all addicts, as I learned many years ago from a book by Gerald May called Addiction and Grace, and our addictions are to things that we least suspect. Many of us – especially those of us in this place peculiarly named the "First World" – are addicted to certain ideas about what a 'normal' life is: that it is wrapped up in electricity, clean tap water, a roof over our heads, enough food to eat, and weather and ground underfoot that are not treacherous and wont to betray us from minute to minute. As a consequence, if and when our regular fixes aren't there, we are catapulted into trauma and dysfunction. We trample each other underfoot if there's a sudden fire. We refuse to move out of our houses when there's an ice storm, even when the authorities tell us that energy and heat are not likely to be restored for days. We stay put in out seaside homes though the radio advises that storm surge is likely to plunge them under water. We don't go into withdrawal - we go into denial, often doing ourselves permanent, even mortal harm. Those of us who come from places where earthquake and hurricane or typhoon come with fair regularity are maybe a little less addicted in some respects, but none of us are truly free of these (quite unwarranted) expectations. All that having been said, this isn't a warning about Armageddon or unexpected assailants (from inner or outer space) or debilitating plague-like viruses or the collapse of economic systems. All of those are possible – nay, if you listen too closely to the news, shortly to be upon us – and, happily, there are websites that can be consulted which offer sensible practical advice for being prepared: have a windup radio and flashlight, a tent, some money, a supply of food and drinking water, a bottle of bleach, a box of salt and lots of clean cotton cloth (my additions, these three last), etc., etc. Go take a CPR class. So what is this post about? Cultivating, because it will stand us in permanent good stead, attitudes and behaviours that will see us through disaster. Looking out, first of all, not just for our families and loved ones, but for folks generally, especially those that are most vulnerable, the old, the sick and little children, for they are likely to be helpful in ways you least expect – small children can get through tiny spaces; sick people know about disease, and healing; old people have the store of skills and knowledge that comes of being old. Sharing – information, goods, encouragement. Treating one another with the utmost consideration. Controlling our tempers. Stopping an extra minute or five minutes or ten minutes to really let something, good or bad, sink in. We all know the drill. We've heard it countless times. The thing is that we need to realize that, when there is catastrophe, this is the only thing that will get us through it, and, by the grace of God, past it. If we behave well, we'll survive. If not, we can look forward to a planet emptying itself of people the way a mangy dog sheds hair.