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


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Can a good poem be political?

Years ago, when I was doing my first degree, we were told that the best critics and literary theorists held that good poetry could not be political. It couldn’t advocate any ideology, couldn’t be Republican or Democratic, socialist or communist. In fact, overall, a poem shouldn’t get too worked up – Wordsworth’s old “recollection in tranquility” bit.

The injunction prompted me to write my own poem, published in what would now be a very old issue of that venerable Barbadian journal, BIM. I remember the words, but the lineation here is probably revised.


good poets

have no tears

they taught me.

Hopes, fears


are all distilled

into a necessary distance.

The poem is

the sweet mouth water

of a slightly-passioned kiss –

no phlegm, and non-infectious.

© Pamela Mordecai 2010

Clearly, I was not persuaded.

Of course, things are now much changed, and we are in a literary world in which we all acknowledge, poets and readers and critics alike, that, as Jamaican poet Edward Baugh puts it, “Every line commits you.” There’s no question about whether testimonial and political poetry belong in the fold.

It’s complicated, though, because we also all agree that good literature, whether it be story or poem or play, has no message. Message is a dreadful word that we avoid. And this is probably what the people who originally put the embargo on political poetry wanted to save us from, messaging in poems and plays and stories as ordered, say, by the Third Reich, or the cultural arm of the Politburo, or the architects of China’s Cultural Revolution.

So, even though every act, thought, statement, presence-or-absence is political, because we live in a polis, a body of citizens, and willy-nilly cannot speak or act outside of that context, when an author writes merely and mostly and pointedly in order just to persuade people to think a particular way, then we are veering away from writing literature and moving towards writing tracts – religious, political, or otherwise.

But there’s a lot of qualifying in that last sentence: “merely and mostly and pointedly;” “in order just to persuade;” “veering away”. That careful treading is a far cry from the earlier bald proscription: "Good poetry can’t be political."

Plain and simple can be good and helpful, but that absolute is difficult to defend, because surely all literature intends to persuade the reader in some way? Even when writers adopt a naturalistic, slice-of-life approach, the very act of choosing this scene to expose in its ordinary, actual aspect, rather than that one, involves a choice, based on a value, that embodies a point of view. Assuming that the scene has an impact and that it hits the reader as it ought, then that POV will get across.

And aren’t ideology and politics just heightened points of view?

So might it be a matter of degree? In other words, how hard the writer is working his words in his bid to haul the reader over to thinking as he does?

There may be a way out of this, which has to do less with whether the work presents an ideological, religious or other position, less with how hard the writer is working at co-opting us, and more with whether the work invites the reader into a larger or narrower arena, constricts or expands her response. Does the work engage the reader’s imagination? If it sets that maverick faculty in motion, then it is an artistic creation. If it doesn’t, then it’s a dud.

All literature, all art, is the actual transformed into the imagined. It is that transformation that makes the new creation. And the artist’s imaginings, knit into the created thing, summon the imagination of the respondent, so that the act of appreciation is unfettered, complex, multifarious, wild. That is the still point of art’s turning world. The tract, the catechism, the tablets of the law say “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not”. But the story or the poem says, “Get on the back of my bike, or climb on my shoulder, or hold my hand, and come with me down this road. Look at the colours of these flowers. Look at those shifting blades of grass. See that worm. Or is it a snake? Look at that man with an axe in his hand! See what I see, but not as I see. See what I see, but see it as you see!”

So one can write political poetry, and indeed, poetry of the kind that wants to rouse real people to real concern and real action about real situations because even when he summons his readers to overthrow a tyrant, the poet has no message except wonder, and his call to action is a summons to our hearts and our senses and our faculty of whimsy. It's an appeal to our imaginative and not our conative faculty.Of course, the one can serve as a powerful prompt to the other!

I've written a couple of political poems myself. I'm thinking of "Protest Poem" and "Last Lines," in my first collection, Journey Poem, both overtly political. Many, many years after it was published, I received a letter from someone in West Africa who said how important it had been for him to come across "Protest Poem," how much it had meant to him in the trying political times in his country.

I leave you with "Last Lines". More soon.

This is the last line I draw.

Alright. Draw the last line.

But I tell you, yonder

is a next. No line ever last,

no death not forever.

You see this place? You see it?

All of it? Watch it good.

Not a jot nor a tittle

going last. Every old

twist-up man you see,

every hang-breast woman,

every bang-belly pickney,

every young warrior

with a head wrench

with weed, white powder,

black powder, or indeed

the very vile persuasion

of the devil – for him not

bedridden you know –

every small gal-turn-woman

that you crucify on the

cross of your sex

before her little naseberry

start sweeten,

I swear to you

every last one shall live.

Draw therefore, O governor,

prime minister, parson,

teacher, shopkeeper,

politician, lecturer,

resounding revolutionaries,

draw carefully

that last fine line

of your responsibility.

from Journey Poem (Kingston, Jamaica: Sandberry Press), 1989, p. 53

© Pamela Mordecai 1989

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mourning Ken Brown, the resurgence of the Republicans and Toronto's new mayor, Rob Ford

I've been away, watching and praying and lighting candles for the sick and dying, and mourning the dead. That 'away' refers not just to the blog, but actually being away from home in the case of one person, my daughter's father-in-law, a distinguished, inspired, remarkable, funny, devoted, tireless father, mentor, teacher, philosopher and peacemaker named Ken Brown. He taught at Manchester College, a Brethren institution in North Manchester, Indiana, USA, for some three decades, and, as was evident in the memorial service held there for him on November 13th that we attended, influenced the lives of many people and motivated numberless students to work for peace, social justice and a better, more equitable, more decent, peaceful world.

We saw family and friends we hadn't seen for a while, met some of Ken's students and colleagues, and spoke to one or two at length. Here's a shout out to Matt Guynn, Laura Dell and Dillon Haro. Hail, and well met, and many thanks for great conversation.

Also mourning Barry Chevannes whom we have known for many years, and a classmate, Cenia (McGrath) Abrahams, a lovely woman whom I don't think I've seen since leaving high school, who died on 17th November. Condolences to the Chevannes family, and to Cenia's family and her sister, another good human being, also an Alpha Alumna,. Melba Moses.

May Cenia and Barry rest in peace.

Of course, perhaps God is calling these good people because they deserve better than to live in a world that's slipping further and further into greed, malevolence, spite, dishonesty, meanness of spirit and – well, pure hate. It's an open secret that many politicians make a habit of lying about facts, twisting the truth to suit their 'message,' and that, even when corrected, they persist in repeating the lie. It's an oft used Republican tactic and one also employed by the new mayor elect of Toronto, Rob Ford, in his recent campaign.

Nor do these folk care! Imagine my horror as I sat in the car driving back to the city from one of our recent visits to the US, and listened (Ha! Some welcome!) not to covert recordings, or su-su and hearsay, but to Rob Ford's campaign staff as they outlined on CBC RADIO the 'dirty tactics' they had used to dissuade John Tory from entering the mayoral campaign. They reported with great smugness that they had posted a video on YouTube impugning his integrity, and that one of their staff had made a phone call to Tory's radio program to do the same thing.

John Tory maintained it had made no difference to his decision about running for mayor, but the dirty-tricks Ford boys were gloating, and honestly, what else could Tory say? He probably convinced himself that it made no difference, but how could it not have affected his decision? Of course, he'd have been an excellent candidate, never mind his Conservative politics, and may very well have won.

Here's the rub: people who lie are liars, and liars are not bound by their word. so we'll look with interest at what eventuates, here in Toronto and in the great United States...

Saints, ancestors and people of good will, ora pro nobis!

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

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stephen Colella, LKTYP Dramaturg and dramaturg for EL NUMERO UNO

Today was the first preview of El Numero Uno. The villagers in Lopinot are out in the world, fabulously costumed, gorgeously lit, making their own music and telling the story of their town's predicament and how they deal with it... Big thanks to everyone, actors, creative team, administrative team, front of house, production, sales, marketing, volunteers, sponsors, the remarkable thespians, ahrdi zina mandiela, the director, and the artistic director, Allen MacIniss, who took a chance on a teenage pig. So many people have worked together to make El Numero Uno happen, one of them being LKTYP's dramaturg, Stephen Collela, whom we feature today.

Stephen, who hails from south of the border, down Philly way, is a graduate of the Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) Dramaturgy program at the University of Glasgow and has a BA in English with Minors in Theatre and German from Loyola College in Baltimore. Among his past projects at LKTYP: Co-adapter of Love You Forever…And More Munsch (Dora Award, Outstanding TYA Production/Canada Council Theatre for Young Audiences Prize), Dramaturgy for The Princess & the Handmaiden, Hana’s Suitcase, i think i can (Dora Award, Outstanding New Musical), and Touch the Sky.

Stephen kindly agreed to answer some of my questions. Here's our little chat.

Dramaturgs seem to do all kinds of things, according to which country or which theatre tradition, or indeed which company they work with. What is your job at LKTYP?

Well, as you said, dramaturgs do all kinds of things and that holds true not just for the position in general but for my work at LKTYP as well. The primary focus of my work is our new play development. For our purposes, this means not only working directly with the playwrights, in the workshops and on the scripts, but also casting and organizing the workshops, managing the play development budget, managing our unsolicited script submissions, reading previously produced scripts and working with Allen, our Artistic Director, on our long-term planning. In addition to this work, I also coordinate our auditions, see productions that we could potentially present at our theatre, occasionally work with Educational Services on the study guides and proof all of our external documents. I also get involved with mundane things like tech support and fixing photocopiers, but that's more by happenstance than design. I have probably left a few things out, but one of the best things about my job is that the requirements are diverse and that helps to keep things fresh and interesting.

Dramaturgs are sometimes playwrights. Have you written plays?

I, along with Sue Miner, adapted five short stories of Robert Munsch that were staged at LKTYP. The play was called Love You Forever...And More Munsch. It won the Dora Award for Outstanding TYA production that year and was produced at Carousel Theatre this past fall. It will also be running for a week at the Stirling Festival this summer. But, other than that one piece, no other playwriting for me yet.

Does dramaturgy differ from play to play?

Dramaturgy is always different play to play, even working with the same playwright. There isn't really a set process. It depends on the individual needs of the play as well as the individual needs of the playwright. There are similar features in that each dramaturgical relationship requires good communication and a healthy amount of respect for who you are working with and what you are working on, but every instance needs to be tailored to the project's needs.

You were involved with developing El Numero Uno over a number of years. Is this usually the case?

I think it's normal to expect a script to take at least a couple of years to develop. Plays come to us in very different states. Sometimes they are a kernel of an idea and other times they have already had a few drafts and been through a workshop process. Frequently they end up somewhere in between. What is important is not to allow a schedule to dictate the development of the play, but to work to the needs of the play and allow the development to run its course before deciding to program it. Giving the play (and the playwright) that time to breathe and take the proper amount of time with the development as they require is what leads me to say that normally a couple of years is to be expected.

Was there anything particular or peculiar about El Numero Uno?

Can I say the playwright and not have her upbraid me? Of course I am teasing, except to say that she was particularly lovely and peculiar in her indulgence of my occasional brattiness. I would say that the particularness of El Numero Uno is, as Allen has said previously, the Shakespearian nature of the language. And I take that not just to mean the poetry of it, but also that it uses an English that is at once both familiar and strange to the majority of North American speakers. That character and richness is what made the play both fascinating and challenging. For me it required extra special care to be sure that I understood everything I was responding to. Fortunately I had a lovely group comprised of the playwright, director and workshop actors to help illuminate that process for me and make that task as easy as possible.

Any final comments?

When all is said and done I'll miss being able to work with Pam, but I'm glad that her little wiggly pig has finally made it to the stage.

Many thanks for answering my questions, and for helping to make El Numero Uno happen, Stephen!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Making music in EL NUMERO UNO

Here's Cathy Nosaty, our brilliant composer, conductor, sound designer and music maker, who featured in Jahworld's post of January 22.

Here's a great quote from Frank Zappa.

"Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best."

Zappa was an American composer, electric guitarist, record producer, and film director who died in 1993 at the age of fifty three. A versatile self-taught composer and perfomer, he wrote rock, jazz, electronic, and classical works. He penned the lyrics to all his songs and was an iconoclast who frequently used humour to criticize the status quo.

As a person for whom words are life and livelihood, this capitulating to music isn't easy, but there's a certain inexorability about Zappa's logic. I'm not entirely sure how songs found their way into EL NUMERO UNO, nor what prompted me to think I could write both lyrics and music for Uno's signature tune. But willy-nilly the songs came and melodies insinuated themselves, some traditional, some that would need to be written for the purpose. The play that has emerged would not be what it is without them.

Watching and listening to Cathy work with the cast of EL NUMERO UNO to make the music happen is riveting. She weaves instruments and voices, separately and together, lays bedtracks, discovers sound trails, conjures with these elements – because it is conjuring, it is magic, this thing that cements words and actions, marries players and audience and moves them into an other space, beyond conflict and contention, that is at once full of sound and joyfully quiet.

Music is indeed the best and Cathy is indeed a consummate music maker.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

How to survive during earthquakes: Doug Copp's "TRIANGLE OF LIFE" with links to comments/advice from the Amer Red Cross, Snopes, the UWI Seismic Unit

This post ends with ten recommendations for earthquake safety from a man named Doug Copp, who is the Rescue Chief and Disaster Manager of American Rescue Team International. (The American Red Cross points out that this is "a private company not affiliated with the U.S. Government or other agency".) Copp's recommendations came to me from a friend in Fort Lauderdale who had been sent them by a classmate of ours who lives and works in Bel Air, near Port au Prince, Haiti.

Go to for the 'American Red Cross response to "Triangle of Life" by Doug Copp.' The ARC takes issue with some of Doug Copp's recommendations (nos 1, 4, 6 and 8 below, as far as I can gather) and defends its "Drop, Cover and Hold On" advice as being appropriate for structures built according to US codes and specifications.

The American Red Cross article (I recommend that readers look at it themselves) ends like this: 'The American Red Cross, being a US-based organization, does not extend its recommendations to apply in other countries. What works here [i.e., in the US] may not work elsewhere, so there is no dispute that the "void identification method" or the "Triangle of Life" may indeed be the best thing to teach in other countries where the risk of building collapse, even in moderate earthquakes, is great.

Readers should also check Snopes

which publishes Copp's article in its entirety as well as reservations about his advice. (Many of these are quarrels with Copp's professional behaviour.)

Caribbean readers may wish to consult advice from the UWI seismic unit at

Interestingly enough, The American Red Cross and Doug Copp agree that standing in doorways is NOT RECOMMENDED. The UWI Seismic Unit continues to give that advice.

Here are Doug Copp's recommendations. I pass them on for your consideration, (a) aware that (1) is obviously an exaggeration – his syntax is dicey as well – and (b) with my own warning that jumping from windows, balconies and openings that are high off the ground can result in injury and death.


1) Most everyone who simply "ducks and covers" WHEN BUILDINGS COLLAPSE are crushed to death. People who get under objects, like desks or cars, are crushed.

2) Cats, dogs and babies often naturally curl up in the fetal position. You should too in an earthquake. It is a natural safety/survival instinct. You can survive in a smaller void. Get next to an object, next to a sofa, next to a large bulky object that will compress slightly but leave a void next to it.

3) Wooden buildings are the safest type of construction to be in during an earthquake. Wood is flexible and moves with the force of the earthquake. If the wooden building does collapse, large survival voids are created. Also, the wooden building has less concentrated, crushing weight. Brick buildings will break into individual bricks. Bricks will cause many injuries but less squashed bodies than concrete slabs.

4) If you are in bed during the night and an earthquake occurs, simply roll off the bed. A safe void will exist around the bed. Hotels can achieve a much greater survival rate in earthquakes, simply by posting a sign on the back of the door of every room telling occupants to lie down on the floor, next to the bottom of the bed during an earthquake.

5) If an earthquake happens and you cannot easily escape by getting out the door or window, then lie down and curl up in the fetal position next to a sofa, or large chair.

6) Most everyone who gets under a doorway when buildings collapse is killed. How? If you stand under a doorway and the doorjamb falls forward or backward you will be crushed by the ceiling above. If the door jam falls sideways you will be cut in half by the doorway. In either case, you will be killed!

7) Never go to the stairs. The stairs have a different "moment of frequency" (they swing separately from the main part of the building). The stairs and remainder of the building continuously bump into each other until structural failure of the stairs takes place. The people who get on stairs before they fail are chopped up by the stair treads - horribly mutilated. Even if the building doesn't collapse, stay away from the stairs. The stairs are a likely part of the building to be damaged. Even if the stairs are not collapsed by the earthquake, they may collapse later when overloaded by fleeing people. They should always be checked for safety, even when the rest of the building is not damaged.

8) Get near the Outer Walls of Buildings or Outside Of Them If Possible – It is much better to be near the outside of the building rather than the interior. The farther inside you are from the outside perimeter of the building the greater the probability that your escape route will be blocked.

9) People inside of their vehicles are crushed when the road above falls in an earthquake and crushes their vehicles; which is exactly what happened with the slabs between the decks of the Nimitz Freeway. The victims of the San Francisco earthquake all stayed inside of their vehicles. They were all killed. They could have easily survived by getting out and sitting or lying next to their vehicles. Everyone killed would have survived if they had been able to get out of their cars and sit or lie next to them. All the crushed cars had voids 3 feet high next to them, except for the cars that had columns fall directly across them.

10) I discovered, while crawling inside of collapsed newspaper offices and other offices with a lot of paper, that paper does not compact. Large voids are found surrounding stacks of paper.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

More on Catastrophes

Funny, the extent to which we're brainwashed, the extent to which we are, most of us, committed to being part of the herd, to looking to someone else, some supposedly expert person, to tell us how to think and what to do. (You’ve heard my views on experts before.)

When I was a young woman, I started opening taps in public bathrooms with my elbow. I'd seen how poor people's habits of hygiene were, and epidemics of this and that were beginning to move fiercely here and there. I thought it was a good idea, but was also secretly ashamed, having been made to feel foolish about my obsession with cleanliness when I was a child. I'd hardly have imagined that years later, I'd see this elbow routine recommended in pamphlets and books on hygiene, that, along with pushing doors open with your back and not putting your handbag on the bathroom floor, etc, etc. All of these were old habits for me but it would take the threat of vicious, swiftly speading viruses before their basic good sense would be evident.

We all believe there's nothing to be done about earthquakes. They arrive of their own volition and in their own intensities, and we can’t tell when they will come. I don't believe that. I've already said on this blog that if we keep pumping massive amounts of viscous matter (as in, oil and pitch) and natural gases out of the earth, we're removing cushions that the earth's mantle needs. It stands to reason – otherwise they wouldn't be there. It's the equivalent of saying we can take air out of our lungs, or water out of our bodies, and have it make no difference. But the earth isn't alive, is it? Or is it?

I've seen one article that suggests that the earthquake was caused (perhaps accidentally) by the massive manipulation of waves in the ionosphere, but I'm not going there till I find out whether it's from loonies, mischief makers or serious people. I think it's within the realm of possibility, and I'm as far from New Age as anybody could get. A bit of a conspiracy theorist maybe, but that's just because I believe Donne and "doubt wisely". I don't see why I should bow down and worship science and expertise that is demonstrably less scientific and expert as the days go by. Makes a lot more sense to me to worship an inscrutable God. At least he’s up front and says his ways are higher than mine and I’ll only start to figure him out after long study.

But we've been programmed remarkably well. We trust our banks and insurers to be reliable, our doctors to be skilled, and our levees to hold, until something disastrous happens. Consider, after all, how we've behaved since the economic collapse. Have people changed their banking habits, switched their business away from the Big Banks? Not that I've heard. Those very banks are making enormous profits once again. We know those experts are greedy robber barons who ruined – wait for it – the world economy, but we trust them with our hard earned pence anyway.

Consider that in 1975, E.B. White wrote an essay about how vulnerable the city of New York was to precisely the kind of attack that arrived in 2001. But E.B. White was a literary man, not an expert on war. What would he know?

So even if no one else is interested, I'll try to find out what the Chinese, and anyone else studying the matter, have discovered in their efforts to predict earthquakes. The devastation in Haiti would have occurred to no purpose if we, in Haiti and elsewhere, don't try to learn all the lessons it can teach us. There are obvious ones about helping one another, building homes and offices better, the importance of re-forestation, and so on, and there are less obvious ones about, say, how to move with dispatch when catastrophes happen. Why, for instance, is aid getting to Haitians so slowly? There was an interesting sermon at mass this week about how good Jesus was at crowd control. The people were pressing in on him, so he got in a boat and put out to sea and preached from there. No danger then, of people crushing one another in their rush to get close to him. Similarly, he sat people down before he fed them and distributed the food so they all got. Maybe we should check with him?

We’ve learned from recent tsunami events and there’s now a warning system that’s been proved to work. I think there are efforts we can make to at least foresee when earthquakes might happen, and so prevent the kind of massive loss of life and wholesale devastation that's occurred in Haiti. Selah!

Friday, January 22, 2010

EL NUMERO UNO takes musical shape with Cathy Nosaty

Friday, January 22 2:00 p.m.

I sat in on readings of EL NUMERO UNO last week. Our director, ahdri zina mandiela, lets me visit as the play takes shape. Thanks, ahdri! I appreciate it.

Long time since I’ve been this side of a stage.

This week the cast is on its feet, Astrid Janson’s dazzling costumes are being fitted, Kimberly Purtell is working on lighting design, and Cathy Nosaty is busy with the music. And that’s just a little bit of what’s going on.

A while back, I promised more about some of the people who are part of the creative team. It won’t be everybody because so many amazing folks are working to make UNO happen, but I’ll do my best. I thought I’d focus on the behind-the scenes folks, whom the public don’t usually pay attention to quite as much as they pay attention to the actors.

I’m going to the theatre a bit later to listen in as Cathy, our sound designer, works with the cast, and serendipitously – well, sort of – today we feature Cathy, whose talents are multifarious. An award-winning musician, composer, conductor and music educator, Cathy was one of the first recipients of The Banff Centre's Paul D. Fleck fellowships. Like another friend of mine who hails from Winnipeg, she’s also a poet-of-the-moment, an e-mail rhymester who lets no time stir before she delivers a message in verse!

So here’s Cathy’s bio-note, a missive in the meticulous manner of Chef Trenton of Cochonville, punctiliously penned by Cathy herself.

Thanks Cathy! Especially for transforming my likl Uno tune!

“Cathy is delighted to be part of the creative team for EL NUMERO UNO! She has created scores for theatre productions for regional and independent theatres across Canada and her work has been heard on international stages with Ronnie Burkett’s Theatre Of Marionettes. At LKTYP: GHOSTS AND LADDERS (Dynamo Theatre), THERE’S A MOUSE IN MY HOUSE (Carousel Players), COMET IN MOOMINLAND (Manitoba Theatre For Young People) and the LKTYP productions I THINK I CAN, THE MAN WHOSE MOTHER WAS A PIRATE and THE NUTMEG PRINCESS. Documentary film scores include BIODAD, BELOVED: THE DOMINICAN SISTERS OF ST. CECILIA, and the animated series DARK YEARS co-composed with her partner Mark Korven. Last year she was Assistant Conductor/Keyboardist for the Canadian company of JERSEY BOYS and has been nominated for four Dora Awards for original music, sound design and musical direction. “

Monday, January 18, 2010

Can we avoid catastrophes like the earthquake in Haiti?

First, manners. Best wishes for 2010! Hope you were fortified in body and spirit over Christmas, Kwanzaa and/or Hanukkah, and that you are warm and well and anticipating a peaceful, productive year.

So hard to say that with Haiti on my mind. There’s something apocalyptic about the devastation caused by the earthquake on January 12, which occurred at 4:53 pm and was also felt in Jamaica, in the parishes of Portland and Kingston and St Andrew. The terrible ruin and the rising death toll urge us to consider what can be done, if anything, to avoid its ever happening again, in Haiti or anywhere else.

Haiti is on the Gonave Microplate, a narrow sliver of the earth's crust at the edge of the larger Caribbean Plate which is south of it and extends over most of the Caribbean Sea. Chris Rowan has an explanation of the event at

The earthquake occurred along the Enriquillo Fault, part of a ‘strike-slip feature’ that joins the Yallahs-Plantain Garden Fault and separates the Gonave plate from the Caribbean Plate. (For non-geographers, think of a fault as a fracture or break running along at a certain point in the earth’s crust. Rock on one side of the break can move sideways with respect to rock on the other side, or rock on one side can move up and the other side, down. Sideways movements are called strike-slip; up-down movements are called dip-slip. The earth can do a combination movement as well.)

Rowan says, “There is nothing particularly unusual about this earthquake given the tectonic context. … however, Haiti is a very poor country... so ...its government was not in a position to really do much to prepare for the inevitable large earthquake, leaving tens of thousands to suffer the consequences.”

(One hopes things are being done about the inevitable super quake that is predicted for the San Andreas Fault.)

What is deeply distressing is that, according to a briefing on naturenews

‘…a team led by Paul Mann at the University of Texas at Austin has been monitoring this fault for some years. In a presentation to the 18th Caribbean Geological Conference in 2008, the team pointed out that their models showed a slip rate of around 8 millimetres per year on the fault. ...they warned that this, combined with the fact that the last known major earthquake near Haiti was in 1751, could add up to yield "~2 meters of accumulated strain deficit, or a Mw=7.2 earthquake if all is released in a single event today".

One of the team members, geophysicist Eric Calais of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said in an e-mail to Nature: "Unfortunately we were pretty much right on."’

So there was some advance warning. The truth is of course that all the countries on the edge of the plate – which includes a big chunk of the northern coastline of South America as well as central America and most of the islands in the Caribbean – ought to be on continuous earthquake watch.

But what does the state of watchfulness entail? What can people who live in earthquake-prone zones do? We know some of the things: have adequate building codes that are rigorously enforced; conduct regular earthquake drills in schools and workplaces so people know what to do when they feel the first tremors; have medical kits widely available and encourage people to get basic training in first aid; maintain emergency services that have protocols in which they are well versed and the resources to execute them. Perhaps, adapt some of the building styles of the Japanese who have endured this kind of seismic activity for ages...

The ideal thing, though, would be to know when the earthquake is coming.

There is one famous case where the successful forecasting of a quake led to the saving of many lives. In 1975 Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of the city of Haicheng (population one million) mere days before a quake that had a 7.3 magnitude. Only a small portion of the population was hurt or killed. If the city had not been evacuated, fatalities and injuries could have been in the hundreds of thousands.

The observation of animal behaviour was in part what led to the prediction of that earthquake. Geologists tend to dismiss strange animal behaviour as a reliable predictor of earthquakes, but biologist Rupert Sheldrake disagrees. He admits that odd animal behaviour doesn't occur before all quakes, but his research on major quakes such as those in California (1994) and Greece and Turkey (1999) identifies peculiar activity in caged birds, dogs and cats preceding the tremors. The Chinese continue to study animal behaviour as a predictor – snakes, horses, cows and pigs all behaved oddly prior to the Haicheng event.

Sheldrake, who feels that more research into this predictor should be done, proposes a hotline or web site where people could report any strange behaviour in their animals. The incoming messages could be analyzed by computer to determine where they originated and pinpoint any areas from which there were sudden surges in incoming calls or e-mails, since these might indicate that a quake was imminent. Checks would have to be made to ensure that the behaviour couldn't be attributed to other sources and, so as to avoid issuing false warnings, the animal data would be used in conjunction with other monitors such as seismological measurements.

Sheldrake feels that "Such a project would capture the imagination of millions of people, encourage large-scale public participation and research... What is holding this research back is not money but dogmatism and narrow-mindedness."

All this, according to National Geographic

There are now many amateur weather watchers worldwide. Perhaps bloggers, tweeters and other internet users could take on the project. Surely there are scientists who would collate the data, and surely it would be better (and less costly) to evacuate and find that an alarm was false, than fail to follow the animal cues and face devastation. The world is full of towns and cities that are not earthquake proof. Haiti is by no means alone in that respect. And increasingly we are being taught that we should listen to the planet. It can speak eloquently to us if we don't decide that we are determined not to hear.

It's hard to imagine that listening to the dogs and cats might have spared Haiti. For sure, our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti.