Tonight we went to St. Francis College on Remsen Street (where we used to see our psychologist Dr. Rochelle Wolk in the early '70s and where Henry Miller once lived) in Brooklyn Heights
for a really stimulating reading and spirited discussion with our friend from South Florida, the Jamaican-American poet/fiction writer/essayist/blogger Geoffrey Philp, and Charmaine Hamilton-Valere, whose blog Signifyin' Guyana, like Geoffrey's own blog, has become a major information source about the literature of the Caribbean diaspora.
The evening was a part of of the Poets & Passion monthly series supported by the Caribeban Cultural Theatre, which presents the work of Caribbean-based or -influened writers, performers and entertainers. Previous writers in the Poets & Passion series have included Kamau Brathwaite, Opal Palmer Adisa and E.R. Braithwaite.
We were excited that Geoffrey was coming to New York to read. We subscribe to his blog and first went to see him read his work years ago (we think at one of the poetry readings curated by Barbra Nightingale at the South Campus of Broward College.
At that reading we bought Geoffrey's book Uncle Obadiah and the Alien, which we enjoyed enough to explore his other books. His latest book is Who's Your Daddy?: And Other Stories:
Whether set in the Jamaican past or the Miami present, whether dealing wittily with sexual errantry or inventively with manifestations of the uncanny (when Brother Belnavis tangles with a vampire), Geoffrey Philp's second collection displays again the gold stamp of the born story-teller. But beyond their capacity to engage and entertain the reader, these are the multi-layered stories of a perceptive and humane observer of contemporary life. In particular, an acute empathy with troubled childhoods and adolescence offers adult readers a rewarding reconnection with the turbulence of earlier selves.
Tonight's reading began about half an hour late, but the charming E. Wayne McDonald
of the Caribbean Cultural Theatre greeted everyone effusively - it later proved to be the kind of homey reading where all the audience members got to introduce ourselves - and said we were on "Caribbean time"; gradually, a good-sized responsive crowd developed.
Wayne turned things over to the Poets & Passion series coordinator, Anton Nimblett, whose own story collection Sections of an Orange, has been widely praised.
introduced Geoffrey Philp,
the author of a children’s book, Grandpa Sydney’s Anancy Stories; a novel, Benjamin, My Son; two collections of short stories, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien and Who's Your Daddy?: And Other Stories, and five poetry collections: Exodus and Other Poems, Florida Bound, hurricane center, xango music, and Twelve Poems and A Story for Christmas. His work has been anthologized in both the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories and the Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. He teaches English and creative writing at Miami Dade College where he is the chairperson of the College Prep Department.
Geoffrey is as skillful a public reader as he is a writer, and he kept things moving, reading only three recent poems from his forthcoming poetry book, including the fine "A Prayer for My Children" and a wonderful poem "in memory of the New York firefighters" that was written for our mutual friend Lisa Berman-Shaw:
Wherever there are sentient
beings in need of compassion, sick
in need of comfort, hungry
in need of food, they arise
summoned by the cries of the innocents--
a love so strong, they count
their own lives as nothing
to awaken the bounty of our sleeping
lives, lost in the labyrinth of the city,
and they cannot rest until the stones
themselves find solace.
So when we were strapped
securely in our SUVs in Key West,
Van Buren, Providence, Nome
burning money like Saudi oil,
thinking we were safe in our towers
of steel and glass, cages
of mortality that turned to smoke,
ash, soot--they did what they have always
done through time and space, dropped
their lives and rescued us
in the midst of the fire.
After discussing Caribbean writers' sense of place, comparing it to the Jamaican concept of "capturing" land in which property rights are given to squatters after seven years (we learned this as "adverse possession" in our University of Florida law school property class), Geoffrey read a story from Who's Your Daddy?, "Sunday Morning Coming Down," which wryly captures a father's recognition of himself in his young son when they're stuck in traffic on a Miami expressway. Praise Jah, it's a sweet, funny story with really effective descriptions.
Next up, Charmaine Hamilton-Valere was introduced as
creator and curator of Signifyin’ Guyana, an internet blog that celebrates Caribbean literature. In fact Signifyin’ Guyana, often at the vanguard in championing new work, facilitates discourse on terms, words, and ideas that concern many in the Guyanese (and wider Caribbean) Diaspora, exploring questions of culture, quality and art. Widely quoted across the blogosphere, she modestly states that she relies on her own significant though unpublished, unpolished opinions. Hamilton-Valere is a “Better Hope” gyal, who attended Bishops High School, and now lives with her family in the US.
Charmaine asked Geoffrey to join her in a discussion of litblogs in general and how they relate to Caribbean literature in particular. She discussing Signifyin' Guyana - its title, of course, stems from the work of Henry Louis Gates (The Signifying Monkey) - as an outlet and forum to showcase Guyanese and other Caribbean writers.
A poll of the audience revealed few who read blogs. Geoffrey made the important point that we're at the cusp of change in media technology, at an inflection point - he mentioned the introduction of the iPad last week - where the writers "who survived the jump" will be remembered. He suggested that if Shakespeare's friends and colleagues had not taken the step of using print technology for the folios, Shakespeare's work might not have survived, as some of his contemporaries' work did not. Blogs can archive and restore memory, as when they display otherwise unavailable material, such as a photo of Dennis Scott or a 1970s song popular in Jamaica that's not on YouTube and otherwise "doesn't exist."
Charmaine discussed trying to find a consistent audience for literary blogs and, in response to a question by Wayne, how blogs like hers and Geoffrey's differ from what can be found in print periodicals like Caribbean Quarterly or The Caribbean Writer, and both bloggers discussed issues of copyright, generating income from digital literature (Charmaine said she "doesn't get a dime" from Signifyin' Guyana "and that's a good thing" because it keeps her blog honest; Geoffrey noted that J.A. Konrath of Newbie's Guide to Publishing apparently makes a lot of money) and the balkanization of literature.
Charmaine used the example of Anton Nimblett's book as one that a blogger can draw attention to, and both writers discussed why certain name authors, like Kamau Brathwaite, appear in The New Yorker and become renowned (Geoffrey, acknowledgng Brathwaite's brilliance, ssaid his worldview coincided with that of the readers of The New Yorker and that other, more Afrocentric, Caribbean writers did not).
After Charmaine and Geoffrey reported that they don't publish highly negative reviews on their blogs, Wayne asked if that wasn't a disservice to their readers: shouldn't they know, for example, that Charmaine didn't like a particular book by a Montserrat writer? Geoffrey said he avoided "slams" because he didn't want to fill up his life with negativity, "nastying up my soul." Charmaine read a wonderful poem that was essentially her credo as a blogger about Caribbean literature.
The conversation, involving audience members, continued to be fascinating, and we learned a lot and greatly enjoyed the event. Thanks to everyone involved. On Sunday, April 18 at 5:30 p.m. at St. Francis College, the Caribbean Cultural Theatre is presenting a tribute in honor of Rex Nettleford, the Jamaican scholar, social critic, and the choreographer who founded the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica.