Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Report on Calabash Literary Festival - Treasure Beach, Jamaica 2005

Jake’s Resort – Treasure Beach - Jamaica

Monday May 30, 2005 – 2:30AM
I am sitting on the porch of a guest house overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The waves coming in are thunderously loud and the stars are intense and hung low as candles.

I smoke Gauloises as I have all weekend here, since I got here on Thursday afternoon, but now it is Monday at 2:30AM and the Calabash Literary Festival is over and I’m waiting for the van to come take us to the airport, so I can head for New Orleans.

If some day I have built something to which people want to return over and over again – like a poem or a reputation (good or bad), people will say that this weekend, I built a verse of it, a chapter in a story – at Calabash amongst beautiful, black West Indian people. It has been an exquisite 5 days and 4 nights.

Perhaps the greatest revelation of the whole time spent here, for me, has been the time spent with Amiri Baraka. He is a legend to me as activist and literary figure, as political icon and philosopher. He is perhaps equally loved and reviled in the public world, and it was excellent for me to spend time with him in a human context. It has been a joy to spend that time. He is ridiculously funny and uncompromisingly honest to a fault. Indeed, it is possible to argue that this is the greatest asset of his poetics over the years; the uncompromising honesty with which he expresses himself, even when those opinions represent a change in his own opinions on something. It would seem that his understanding has been distilled over the years into the pithiest of witticisms so I’m going to have to interrupt this report from time to time to offer an Amiri quote of the moment. Other than that, I’ll jump from moment to moment since the flyness of this experience is too random to offer a linear report.

Friday May 27th – sometime in the afternoon:

We get into a speedboat piloted by Captain Dennis, a thirty-something year old wiry, country-strong fisherman. The boat is called FBI Galore (I’m not kidding), so naturally, into it, pile Amiri Baraka, Amina Baraka, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Elizabeth Lund (journalist for the Christian Science Monitor), Colin Channer (Calabash organizer and author), Staceyann Chin, Kerry Jo Lin, Miles Lewis (Bronx-born author now based in Paris), Meena Alexander (Indian-American poet and memoirist extraordinaire) and Russel Banks (Adirondack based author, memoirist and poet extraordinaire). We head for The Pelican, a bar made of sticks, built on stilts on a sand-bar in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Half-way there, we all start to wonder about the wisdom of heading into the middle of the ocean on a boat called FBI Galore with 90 years of activist and revolutionary thought aboard (between Baraka, Johnson and Banks alone).

The Pelican is owned by Floyd, a fisherman himself who discovered the sand bar and brought sticks there bit by bit til he had built himself a structure, out of which he then conducted business. We drank rum and Red Stripe. I listened to cricket on the radio and had a spirited discussion with Captain Dennis as to why Brian Lara was probably the game’s best batsman ever, having to score as much as he’s had to under the most pressure of any of the game’s historically best batsmen.

From there, we went up the Black River, a crocodile infested tributary that empties into the Caribbean Sea on the South Side of Jamaica. We got to see a couple of crocs, scores of white egret and some of the most fascinatingly beautiful vegetation ever.

Thursday May 26, 2005 – 5:15PM

A few hours ago, we landed at Montego Bay airport – fifteen of the writers who will be participating at the Calabash Literary Festival – and were taken by bus on three hour trip to the South Coast of the island and Treasure Beach.

So right now I’m seated on a porch overlooking the Caribbean Sea. it is about 85 degrees and sunny and waves are lapping at the foot on the rock on which our cottage is located. Staceyann Chin, Miles Lewis and myself share this cottage and we’re all already floored. In a few hours, the welcome dinner will take place, but first I will nap…

Friday May 27, 2005 – 12:40AM

“ -America, Fuck you and your atomic bomb – that’s the greatest line Ginsberg ever wrote!” So says Amiri Baraka along with a host of other wisdoms and histories as I sat by and listened to Amiri, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Russel Banks and a host of others including Roger Guenvere Smith (actor; ‘Dop the Right Thing’, ‘School Daze’ etc) argue, cajole and generally talk shit before and after dinner on the first night of the Calabash Literary Festival. It was a wonderfully eye-opening time, especially getting to hear Amiri argue with Perry Henzell (maker of ‘The Harder they Come’) about class and racism and imperialism. It was good to hear so much of Amiri’s politics as part of a larger understanding instead of as part of a soundbite. This was a learning at the feet of elders, even when Perry Henzell was trying to suggest that racism does not exist in the Caribbean like it does in America. Indeed, he suggested that racism is not something that the black West Indian had to contend with any longer.

Can you possibly imagine a local-white Jamaican businessman saying something like this to Amiri Baraka? Among the priceless retorts from Amiri on the situation came this one “Either you stupid or you think I’m stupid; and I ain’t stupid” and after a lull in the conversation, when the argument has resumed and Henzell is reiterating again that no black person in Jamaica is held back based on color, and offering as his proof the challenge “Alright then, show me one black man in Jamaica who is held back because of color”, to which Amiri somewhere now on the outskirts of the conversation because he is becoming too irritated by it and feels – maybe correctly so – that Henzell’s arguments are disingenuous, says “who brought stupid back in the conversation?” (to which Staceyann and I fall into fits of laughter and general inappropriateness).

Saturday May 28th, 2005 – about 11:30PM

My reading has just been completed and I couldn’t be more pleased. The line-up (in this order) was Me, Staceyann Chin, Joan Andrea Hutchinson and Mutabaruka. Joan and Muta are practically Jamaican legends within the dialect/dub poetry tradition. We read to about 3000 people and if I may say so myself, I did an excellent job. One might expect that reading to a crowd of 3000, under an open-air tent with the roar of waves in the background might be difficult, but the sound system was so exquisite that one could actually whisper on the mic and be heard clearly throughout the space. I got to perform for half an hour (I’m not sure I used it all) but it felt really good to perform all the calypso work to an audience – and a huge one at that - that got all the references, and was patient enough to listen to the long pieces (like Melda’s Song). The entire reading was top flight. Staceyann too, always with a harder row to hoe in Jamaica, because so much of that audience is so violently anti-gay, delivered her usual sterling performance. Indeed, I think her performance skill has grown, become more nuanced and as a result more emotionally lush, and the crowd lapped it up. Joan is primarily a comedic writer, so after Staceyann and I, she was a marvelous change of pace, and folks were fairly rolling in the aisles. Muta is Muta and legend is legend and he did not disappoint.

Earlier, before I got to Calabash, I had spoken to Colin on the phone and he told me about how much Calabash had grown since my first performance there in 2001. At the Saturday night reading then, I performed for about 200 folks, so I figured; okay, so maybe it’s really really gotten huge and there’ll be 500 in the audience. As a result I bring with me 20 chapbooks and 20 CDs for the 3000 people. They are gone in approximately 3 minutes after the reading and folks are meeting me from then till the end of the festival and cussing me out for not being able to get my stuff. I fielded about 4 marriage proposals after my reading…

Earlier on Saturday, I’m on my way to the bar for an Appleton Rum and a Red Stripe to wash it down. Three women are sitting around a table. One of them beckons for me to join them and after some witty repartee on all our parts, I’m finally acquainted with Coleen Douglas (a local TV/Radio personality – and gorgeous to besides), Wendy Lee (co-owner of La Pluma Negra, a local clothing line that makes some excellent t-shirts among other things – and gorgeous to besides) and Scarlett Beharie (and there is no need to explain anything about a woman named Scarlett – everything you think is true; in a good way). This way I end up with my first clothing endorsement deal – two t-shirts for free, for the promise of wearing them in public. I wear one of them that night for the reading. Later we all go back to the verandah in the unit in which we’re staying. Coleen interviews me and Staceyann for the radio show she does – in the dark, on the porch. A half moon is brighter than a half-moon should ever dare to be and it glows on everyone’s skin. We’re all dog-tired so the interview feels good in a languid no-pressure sort of way. We get done and return to the night’s after-party, Calabashment. We’re all half-drunk, half tired riding the wave of the live reggae rhythms under the insistent moon…

Random Barakaism of the day:

“A European and an African are talking and the European says to the African, ‘y’all the oldest liars in the universe’ and the African says back, ‘yeah, but y’all are the best…”

Sunday May 29th

Early Morning swim with Wendy Lee and Coleen. Finally get up early enough to get breakfast too – calaloo and salt fish, with festival and blue food (ground provision).

Get to hear Dionne Branch read, return to nap, get up and hang out most of the afternoon with Kerry Jo. We decide on double shots of Appleto rum chased by Red Stripes. I run into a woman who taught my mother in high school. It is a slow motion, languid sort of a day which ends with a wrap party at a really cool villa for a movie being shot by Roger Guenvere Smith. It is interesting and odd and cool. Get to speak with Daniel Wideman (poet, author, Cave Canem fellow) for a moment.

Closing Dinner features a random Barakaism, in response to Staceyann’s ribbing that he’s always irritated about something goes kinda like this:

“the measure of consciousness is whether or not you irritated – if you squeeze a lemon on even a one-cell organism, it’ll act up, wriggle around, get irritated. You know we know a lot of people ain’t even got one cell…”

But this perhaps is a good wisdom to end it on; in response to the idea that sometimes it seems like all our agitation and activism soles nothing. It is Russell Banks quoting someone else:

“There is no wasted love. No love, is ever wasted…”


Blogger Mahogany L. Browne said...

thank you for making me feel like i was there... sounded like a dream. the best literary dream one writer could imagine.

9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good commentary. I too wish I had been there. Can't say I understand Amiri calling Henzell, a Jamaican legend, "stupid". What was Perry Henzells response?

8:05 AM  

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