Wow. That was intense. Three hours on a hard bench listening to poetry readings with no break and no refreshments. That’s a real test. Luckily it was an open-air event, on the boardwalk at Hastings (the Barbados one, not the UK one). It was easy to get up and stretch your legs occasionally, and the view helped.
The occasion was an event called Bim Rock Variations, part of the inaugural Bim Literary Festival. (By the way, I should have mentioned earlier that “Bim” is an informal name that Barbadians use for their own country – so it’s like the Barbados Literary Festival, only with a more casual, less official sound).
There were some good poems and some great performances. The event was a lot more lively than many I’ve been to in England, as many of the poets incorporated song, or recited from memory, or encouraged audience participation in a call-and-response style. There were also a couple of prose readings, but poetry dominated. It started around sundown, at 6pm, and finished at 9pm, which was good because there was not much shade – it would have been brutal during the day!
Here’s a rundown of the event:
Margaret Gill started off with some poems about the sea, appropriately enough, but my favourite was a new piece she wrote recently about carnival and was performing, I think, for the first time. She really captured the feel of a woman losing herself in the feel of the music as she’s “wukking up” on carnival day (for non-West Indians who need a definition of wukking up, click here for a quick video tutorial :-)).
Next up was British writer Courttia Newland, which was interesting for me as I knew him as a London writer, and read his debut novel The Scholar. He was invited here as a writer from the Caribbean diaspora (he’s London-born, but his parents are from Barbados and Jamaica). He read an extract from his next novel, The Gospel According to Cane, which is due out next February. It’s about a woman whose child is abducted at eight months old, and then twenty years later a man turns up claiming to be her son. The extract was a dream sequence, which had some really arresting, beautiful language. It was slightly hard to follow because it was a weird dream and I didn’t know the rest of the book, but it piqued my interest.
Winston Farrell gave an energetic performance, with a wide range of types of verse, including song and a poem based on dancehall rhythms. My favourite was one that I think was called Umbilical, which dealt with the Middle Passage and was full of imagery of infertility, sandy soil, dead soil, nothing growing or ever really able to grow again after that terrible journey. For more information, see his website.
Dorothea Smartt was another Londoner, but in this case I hadn’t come across her work before. Her style was a little more formal, her delivery more understated, but the quality excellent. I particularly liked Just a Part, which dealt with the fractured nature of a family split by migration, knowing aunts and cousins by name but not by their personal gestures or mannerisms, with the repeated refrain “My family are a distant lot”. I was also fascinated by the story of a place in northern England called Sambo’s Grave, where an unknown African is buried. Smartt read a poem imagining the life of “Sambo”.
Spoken word poet Adrian Green gave a powerful performance, entirely from memory, a long stream of eloquent political commentary, critiquing colonialism, neo-colonialism and consumerism. I found the image of being “seasoned deep” particularly effective, as he tied the history of planters throwing salt on the wounds of whipped slaves together with the contemporary West Indian people who are still “seasoned deep” in colonial thinking.
Do you ever just connect with someone’s style immediately? I felt like that about Kendel Hippolyte. I liked his poetry, yes, but I liked the person he was, or seemed to be, and that’s really why I bought his book Fault Lines at the end of the event. I loved his Century of the Sale, about the destructive effects of consumerism and greed, and also a simple and beautiful piece about land, and how senseless it is for something that belongs to everyone to be marked off and fenced in.
I liked Puerto Rican Loretta Collins Klobah‘s poem about homosexuality in the Caribbean and the way people refuse to talk about it, but I can’t remember too much about her other poems – I was starting to flag by this stage!
Philip Nanton‘s poems were more conversational and humorous – I enjoyed them, particularly because of his delivery, but it felt more like stand-up than poetry. Because it was conversation, it must have been difficult to make the language beautiful or “poetic”.
I missed a lot of Kei Miller‘s readings because I was walking along the boardwalk, listening to the waves in the darkness and shaking the numbness out of my legs and buttocks. It’s a shame because I was looking forward to hearing him, and liked the quick snatches I heard, some impressions of moving to the UK and also poems based on dictionary definitions.
Lorna Goodison was launching a book of short stories, By Love Possessed. It was one of the main purposes of the evening, but because she came last, I just couldn’t listen any more. I was too tired. So I really can’t judge her stories.
That’s it! I realise this post was a test of stamina too 😉 If you’re still here, leave me a comment to let me know you made it… Would love to hear from anyone else who was there, too, or who’s read any of these writers’ work.
For a roundup of other posts in my series on Bim Literary Festival 2012, click here.
There are 13 comments
You did better than I would have done – three hours listening is a long, long time, and I would certainly have lost concentration (and feeling in my legs!). But hey, this sounds like a wonderful event and I love the thought of it being much jollier and cheerier than similar sorts of things in the UK (I’ll bet!).
Yes, it was very long! I felt bad for the people who were reading towards the end, because it really was impossible to give them the same amount of attention as those who went earlier on.
As for jolly and cheery, in some ways yes! Some of the poems were very serious and grappled with social issues, but others were light-hearted. I think what was different, for me, was the energy that the writers put into their readings. It was more like theatre at times – and sometimes like musical theatre. I mean that in a good way. They were real performances, not just readings.
Nice post, Andrew! It was an introduction to me to West Indian / Barbadian literature. I also loved Barbados’ informal name ‘Bim’ 🙂 ‘The Gospel According to Cane’ looks like a fascinating book. I will keep an eye for it when it comes out.
Yes, ‘Bim’ is a good name! It’s short for “Bimshire” – Barbados had such close connections with England that it was like a county or ‘shire’ of England. The origin of the “Bim” part is uncertain, but may be from an Igbo phrase meaning “my people”. While we’re on the subject, Barbados means “bearded” in Portuguese, and is named after the bearded fig tree that’s native to the island – it has roots that come out of the branches and shoot down to the earth like an old man’s beard. I find these things interesting…
I was at BIM Lit Fest too and also attended the event on the Esplanade. I may have seen you sitting under the tree. I do agree with your feelings about the event. It should have been better organised.
I also found your other posts on Walcott, Clarke and Lovelace interesting.
Your posts are the first I’ve seen on the Festival.
all the best to you
Thanks for visiting! Yes, that was me sitting under the tree in the middle – you may have seen me doing various yoga stretches to stop my back giving out! I was surprised there was not much coverage of the festival, not only on blogs but also in the media. I only saw a couple of very short articles in the newspaper, and nothing on TV (although I didn’t watch the news much during the festival so may have missed any mentions they made of it). Glad you found the posts interesting. Funnily enough I just got an email from Kamau Brathwaite mentioning you. He said that you gave a reading at the book fair. I missed it – it must have been earlier in the day, when I was visiting all the book stalls and making my purchases!
I’m not sure I’d be able to pay attention to poems during three hours. Well done!
It’s great to have time to attend literary events. I missed the two ones I wanted to attend here.
Thanks, although I’m not sure I fully deserve the congratulations – my attention was definitely wavering towards the end!
I do like literary events. To be honest I still prefer to read an author’s work than to listen to him/her reading it, but there’s something about the atmosphere of these things that I enjoy. I know what you mean about finding the time – there were festivals and events all the time in London, and I missed so many of them!
I found the setting lovely, though yes the session perhaps was too long. It was a pity that you missed Miller whose poetry is thoughtful, with elegant turn of phrase and mesmerising delivery.
What i think distinguishes him also is the range of his themes, which yes, nod to the Caribbean past, but fully engage with the moment of now. His poetry is both political and personal.
Thanks for visiting and leaving the comment. It was certainly a beautiful setting. I think the length could have worked if there was a break in the middle (preferably with a glass of wine and some snacks!). Then I could have returned refreshed for the second half. I think people would also have been more likely to buy books.
I was looking forward to Miller’s reading, but just couldn’t concentrate by then and had to take a break! I did catch a few bits and pieces as I was walking on the boardwalk, but didn’t really take it in. I’d like to read some of his work now!