Your Library... What's In It For You... By: Wallace Williams, Librarian/Olympic Marathon Runner Spring/Summer 2000 POETS ARE LONG DISTANCE RUNNERS TOO! (AN INTERVIEW WITH EDGAR OTHNIEL LAKE) World Poetry Day 2000 was celebrated for the first time on 21 March 2000 by UNESCO at its 30 th General Conference Session. Associated events were held within the framework of Springtime of the Poets, March 21 to 31 2000. International and regional organiza tions such as PEN Club, International Fund for the Promotion of Culture of UNESCO, several publishing houses, including UNESCO PUBLISHING, Presence Africaine, l'Harmattan, all contributed to this celebration. The final results in the International Poetry W riting Competition on the occasion of World Poetry Day by UNESCO for primary and secondary school children, in cooperation with the Associated Schools Project of UNESCO, will be announced on World Poetry Day in 2001. Recently I learned that Edgar Lake's po em To Ghana, was published in Presence Africaine. I caught up with Lake on one of his frequent visits to the Caribbean Collection of the Florence Williams Public Library, in St.Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Over several visits we discussed his thoughts on the poem as it relates to the Black creative experience and the journal in which it appeared. WW: Edgar, Presence Africaine is one of the oldest journals with literary content on the Black African world experience. It recently celebrated its fiftieth year of publishing. (That is some run!) What significance does the fiftieth anniversary issue lend to your creative efforts? WW: When and where did the journal Presence Africaine first start? EL: The journal Presence Africaine started in 1947, in Paris, France. WW: What route, or circumstances influenced you to write, and ultimately publish this poem?
EL: It was written in response to a recent UNESCO Associated Schools Project summit of delegates including many from the Americas convened on St. Croix in December 1998, and particularly as a salute from the Virgin Islands community, for the follow up Atlantic Slave Project (ASP) conference in Ghana in February, 1999. I wrote this poem, To Ghana and asked Sarah Bucknor, Gha naian UNESCO/ASP delegate from Accra, to read it at a ceremonial meeting with the chief of the Akwamu, 100 miles from Accra! When I learned that the 15th Great message of kinship] had died two weeks after I sent it to the literary journal Presence Africaine as a Pan African gesture between our two communities. WW: Of the many other accessible African American Journals, why did you enter this particular race, or in other words, submit you r poem, To Ghana, to this particular African journal in Paris? EL: As a journal of record for the peoples of Black Africa, I saw Presence Africaine as a cultural vehicle, where I had read many memorials, and eulogies of African personages. I desperately thought they would understand my poem as sharing in their grief while extending a ceremonial offering confirms this, by publishing the poem an effort I could not have duplicated in the territory. Only Professor Gene Emanuel in the "University Hour", his local weekly Saturday morning WSTA radio program, permitted an audience.. WW: So, this journal is a premier recorder of the larger Black World? EL: Yes, Presence Africaine became one of the principal instruments of the Negritude Movement, after World War II. Today, it is primarily a publishing house for Black Africa, but the journ simply the most venerable cultural journal of the Black World. There is also the journal, Transition now forty years old, once started by an Asian poet from Uganda. the late Rajat Neogy, but now published o ut of Duke University. Callaloo an African American journal began in 1976 in the U.S. runs concurrently with Transition in different lanes of the cultural relay. Of course, there were many groups nourished by Presence Africaine along its journey and th e publishing house which also bears its name. There is also its sister organization, The African Society of Culture.
WW: Who founded this journal? (its starting blocks); and who were among its first supporters that we should remember? EL: Its founder was a Senegalese man of letters, Alioune Diop; he, along with Andre Gide, Paul Riet, Father Maydieu, Emanuel Mounier, Paul Herzoume, Jean Paul Sartre, Michel Leiris, Senghor, Rabemananjara. There were several other intellectuals from Afric a, African America, and the French Antilles, to include (French) Guiana who formed the editorial board; all of them gave tremendous energy and spirit in support of this journal. WW: What of the Caribbean Intelligentsia? Were they at the starting line 'akin to the emergence of Presence Africaine ? EL: From the beginning, Presence Africaine published Caribbean poets, including Aime Cesaire, Leon Gontran Damas, and later, Rene Depestre Of course, several other friends helped this journal through its first steps and now through its first fifty years. But, Caribbean intellectuals crossed the first thresholds sharing both the setbacks and achievements of Presence Africaine Guadalou pean poet Albert Beville (Paul Niger), had his poem, published in Presence Africaine in 1948. He was one of the earliest Antillean intellectuals, and a member of the Executive Committee of the African Cultural Society, participati ng as early as 1942. So he helps start a poem, "Let America Be America Again", published in 1966 in Presence Africaine WW: This journal celebrated its 50 th anniversary with a symposium at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. In attendance was the organization's Director General, Federico Mayor. He declared, "Along the lines of the tributes UNESCO has paid to individuals Leopold Sedar Senghor, Aime Cesaire it was logical to honor the review which has been the home, and the mainstay, of their action". Aside from the frontrunner Guadaloupean poet Paul Niger, was this journal, and the African Society of Culture, pivotal to other Caribbean poets and writers, or was it central to their development? EL: masterpiece, (1939) was published in 1950. And, we cannot forget Edouard Glissant, that young full t at the Lycee, whose four book length poems ( Les Indies, Black Salt, Field of Islands, Uneasy Earth ) surfaces in the early 1950s. WW: By 1942 there already was a phalanx of Presence Africaine pacers: a broad community of Africans, African Americans, and exiles from the Black Antillean World, moving over some steep ideological terrain, weren't there? EL: Indeed. In 1956, Paris became the backdrop for the First Conference of Black Writers and Artists. (James
Baldwin writes a passionate acc ount about this in his book, Nobody Knows My Name.) a Harlem tenement in 1971.I still remember his stage setting prose: "Electricity, in fact, filled the hall...Behind the table at the front of the hall sa t eight colored men. These included the American novelist Richard Wright, Alioune Diop, editor of Presence Africaine ...Poets, Leopold Senghor from Senegal and Aime Cesaire from Martinique, poet and novelist Jacques Alexis from Haiti. From Haiti, also, came the President of the conference, Dr. Price Mars, a very old and very handsome man..." That would inspire any young writer. WW: It would. That first summit seemed a spectacular idea Were there other summits which followed for the post WWII Black intellectual movement? EL: Well, there was the Second Conference of Black Writers and Artists in Rome, in 1959. Then, there was the creation of the World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar, Senegal, in 1966. Later, they had a World Festival in Lagos, Nigeria. (My friend and Crucian artist, the late Charles Abramson, attended and performed at that summit; his accounts of that cultural gathering are vividly etched in my memory.) There were post World War II proclamations of solidarity, such as a Day of Black Peoples all this, and more, came from the creative community of Pan African scholars and Pan Caribbean intellectual activists, of which the journal Presence Afri caine is an appreciable jewel. WW: Practically, how did these movements facilitate significant collaboration between the friends of Presence Africaine and of Caribbean writers or artists? EL: Many intellectual comrades supported this journal, and our various cultural and political movements. They included Albert Camus, Andre Gide, Cissoko, Balandier, Sadji, Breton one cannot forget Andre Breton his work with Cesaire's first literary journal, crediting the Haitian antecedents of Sur realism, and his salutes to Wilfredo Lam. II WW: Now, from this first stretch of the 21 st Century, what significant roles did the Virgin Islands people play in the expressive movement of the Black World, in the last century? EL: Well, the people of African Heritage in the Virgin Islands are at the center of this historic Pan African movement, because of their giant visionary scholar, Wilmot Blyden. (I believe he published in the first issue of Presence Africain e .) Presently, St. Croix is a particular extension of this movement because (along with To Ghana ), it has produced the Middle Passage monument, the last significant 20th Century public monument to the memory of African peoples, who survived the Middle Pass age trans Atlantic experience. This is no surprise. Nor is it surprising that the Designer/Humanitarian Wayne
deployment, at several other prime sites in v arious national communities. WW: Looking forward. Do we, Virgin Islanders, presently have the artistic reserves to sustain this remarkable ongoing historical relay? EL: We have several other cosmopolitan artists from the Virgin Islands who have produced technical works of the finest rank, and who remain powerful gate keepers to the 21st Century Pan African pulse and who have proved this A and here, let me give tribute to the world wide murals of the late Charles Abramson. There are also some powerful young acolytes here in the Virgin Islands. There is La Vaughn Belle, whose mixed media canvases have impressive visual narrativity; Niarus Benjamin, who has mastered the miniature. Danica David's folk women series embrace the trans Atlantic folk parables of the islands. As emerging sculptors, there is Afreeken Southwell whose works are minia who works on massive sculptural pieces, synthesizing pre Columbian forms and Egyptian motifs. Simmonds, like Abramson, before him, continues a particular Crucian tradition complex graphic patterns in their ser ial paintings, while also concurrently constructing large sculptured pieces. WW: Have international journals like Presence Africaine contributed to Caribbean artistic movements, or helped bring the field together for significant events, contributing hi storic achievements? EL: Sure. In 1951, Haiti commanded a special edition of Presence Africaine featuring its art, but particularly its paintings. In the past, the artistic communities of Brazil and Cuba also gained international recognition through this journal. Poets and painters have a kinship; some poets are painters, and vice versa. Wilson Harris, our brilliant Guyanese novelist and poet has written passionately about Aubrey Williams. Derek Walcott, our pr esent day Caribbean nobelist, writes frequently about a St. Lucian childhood painter friend, Dunstan St. Omer and also length poem Tiepolo's Hound on Pissaro, from St. Thomas, which was reviewed in Ap rightfully writes, in his earlier Massachusetts Review article on Hinson, "getting the light right has been the hope of saints, of painters of poets." Callaloo continues this traditional role, presently. III WW: Manichean Racism towards the Black African World has now been consistently addressed by African and Western intellectuals. How does the journal Presence
Africaine remain vital to a poet living in the Caribbean? EL: I continue to benefit from community of scholars olitical science, technology, medicine, cinema, constitutional treatises, and of course, always re poem, "I Do Not Like Africa". WW: So, for you, something still remains instructive about Paul Niger's poem, first published in Presence Africaine fifty years ago? He seems like a classic record holder still shadowing the field. EL: Well, yes. Because, even in his artful accomplishment by negation, he asserts the Pan African lineage to which he belongs: the Africa men like Paul Morand and Andre Demaison. Of course, it is hard to discuss this African without considering its echoes "A Far Cry From Africa"; Rites of Passage", for that matter. Of course, there is the pioneer work of Vic Reid, the Jamaican novelist, who was the first Caribbean writer to make Africa the explicit setting, and thematic character of his 1950s novel, The Leopard C.L.R. James' Black Jacobins would be the second column of this tradition. WW: Let's talk about early African Caribbean traditions. Does Niger's life, as well as his poem, shadow all this? Or, are there more modern Caribbean literary examples? EL: In the Sixties, the Caribbean celebrated our now forgotten St. John Perse, our first Antillean poet to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Poetry. Perse, in his tropical poem, To Celebrate a Childhood reflects on the African presence which nourished his childhood, ("I remember the salt, I remember the salt my/yellow nurse had to wipe away at the corners of my eyes/The black sorcerer harangued in the pantry. The/world is like a pirogue, which turning and turning, no longer/ knows whether the wind wanted to laugh or cry"). Perse inherits many other modulations, and syntactic antecedents of the Martiniquan poet, Paul Niger, his saga in Africa, and his literary work. Similar to Niger, who as head of the Guiana National Committee goes to live out conv ictions in Africa, Perse lived in China for many years, as a French diplomat, before getting caught in some fierce French nationalist politics and, ultimately, exiles in America. WW: Beginnings, or Roots matter keenly with writers. Too often, early events, or pivotal events charge their poetic route. What were your first strides like, from the starting block called poetry? IV
EL: As a child, I attended a school, T.O.R Memorial High It had a small room where Friday afternoon performers magicians, clowns were presented for the nursery pupils. We also had an annual maypole dance for the entire K 12 school; obviously, a tremendous emphasis was placed on the public self, and the repertory tradition. That school, to this day, has a highly polished brass door knob on the front door, which signifies a certain theatric tradition a space for collective learning, which one can enter, by knocking and Paul MacDonald, became the first Caribbean poet of the British Royal Air Force. I discovered his volume in the Oscar Micheau x National Unity Book Store, in Harlem, as well. I went to a British grammar school, The Antigua Grammar School, and poetry was very important, as was our Latin and French language courses through which I had an early baptism in the passive and active tenses, rhetorical Just So stories As you Like It and the English Romantic poets. Our school motto was,"Semper Virens" (Always Flourishing). Our main hall where daily morning and evening assemblies were held, was ringed with alumni portraits of Royal Air Force pilots, who had died in World War II. Singing memorial hymns every day made you aware of the lyric, with which we sometimes improvised. (Dr. Neil Cr eque, was also a student, and our organist. Many Virgin Islands families sent children there in the Forties and Fifties) We had to memorize, and translate various texts from Latin to English, and vice versa: The Battle of Gaul Eulogy at Julius Cae The Burial of Sir John Moore In Literature, we had to recite, discuss, and essay forth on Paradise Lost Elegy in a Country Churchyard s Psalm of Life The Wreck of the Hesperus, and the Merchant of V enice WW: The Lyric gets us every time! When did you first come to know of American poems? When did you first become aware of the poems of African Americans? EL: My first exposure to American poets was at the College of the Virgin Islands, in St.Thomas, in 1966. Antioch College professor, Judson Jerome, who had the longest running poetry column in a U.S. publication (Writers Digest), and James Dickey (later a poetr y consultant at the Library of Congress) were Fellows during the first years at the college. Dickey would read his poems to our class. I remember one poem distinctly, Cherry Log Road about adolescents using a junkyard as their hideaway. Later, when he lef t to become poet consultant he took several poems from The College of the Virgin Islands students to be published in some journal at the University of Georgia. Soon after, he wrote a novel, Deliverance which became the most literally adapted novel in American film,
in the Seventies. (It was still one of the cinematic highlights of the 2000 Academy Awards.) Becoming aware of the Poet Laureate post, allowed me to become acquainted with African American Poet Laureates, Gwendolyn Brooks (who published in the first issue of Presence Africaine along with Richard Wright), LOC consultant Robert Hayden and much later, Rita Dove. V WW: When did you first see African American poets recite their work and how did bookstores sustain your first secular contact with these poets? EL: Living in New York at the beginning of the Seventies, I saw a number of important poets read their works, to in clude Derek Walcott, Leopold Senghor, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, Sterling Brown, Dennis Brutus, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Robert Hayden and yes, James Baldwin, who wrote a long poem to Ray Charles, celebrating his recovery from heroin. It was at the 1971 Newport Jazz Festival in the old Carnegie Hall. Soon, I read Claude McKay's poem If We Must Die and Big Blue Sea, and his Panther African Unity Bo okstore. Another bookstore in Harlem, The Liberation Bookstore, run by the daughter of Hugh Mulzac Caribbean literature. I bought my first books on the poetry of Nicolas Guillen, Martin Carter, Wil son Harris, Franz Fanon, Derek Walcott, and rare Caribbean journals such as Kyker Al, and Savacou. In Robert Farris Thompson's works, I read of Lydia Cabrera. I also read Fernando Ortiz, Alejos Carpentier, Cola deBrot, Thoby Marcelin. WW: During your extensive residency in the United States, how were you able to discover particularist veins of poetry traditions from your region's cultures?| EL: Living for some twenty years in American cities, provided constant access to great private colle ctions, as well as university and public libraries. I read the Negritude poets, Cesaire, and Diop, certainly. But, I particularly read the Caribbean poets of that literary movement: Oswald Durand, Massilion Coicou, Rene Maran, Leon Laleau, Jacques Roumain Emile Roumer, Charles Pressoir, Guy Tirolien, Paul Niger, Leon Damas, Aime Cesaire, Edourd Glissant and Rene Depestre. Roumain wrote a poem, Guinea in 1949, it had a wonderful line: "Its a long road to Guinea/Death takes you there."
WW: In the richness of a city's resources bookstores, libraries, literary societies, readings how do they offer specific opportunities, or rare connections for the poet as an expatriate? EL: Well, for me, there was a particular Greenwich Village bookstor e, The East Village Bookstore, where each week I would buy two or three books from the Henneman Series, edited by Chinua Achebe; books by African poets and Biafra Poems made me aware of the twin tradition of poet and novelist. Later I saw many African plays performed at the Ubu Theater, a French drama cooperative specializing in French West African plays. (There I got to know Antiguan actress Anna Horseford, and the librettist Playthell Benjamin) Langston Hughes wrote a book, Black St ars a biography of many Black performers. It certified Bert Williams was an Antiguan who had gone to study Tragedian theater at Berkeley, before ending up, out of financial necessity, in vaudeville. The Harlem Writers Club, The New Horizons Playwrights s upport group, the Antiquarian Society, the PEN American Club, all these helped me immensely. VI WW: So, a lot is happening post Sixties, in America! Tremendous events Biafra, Independent Nigeria, Socialist Tanzania, Ethiopia in revolutio n, Black Nationalist movements, Black Aesthetic, right? That's a big meet in which to be exposed. On what particular areas of this poetic field did you focus? EL: Poems From Black Africa that really introduced me to the wide spectrum of tonal languages which connote particular meaning through Modern Poetry From Afr ica ; that was an eye opener. From Lament of the Lavendar Mist ("And we are now shadows/that cling to each other/but only kiss the air"), Antoine Portrait ("I have my gri gri/gri gri/gri Ibadan ("Ibadan/running splash of rust/ and gold flung and scattered/among seven hills broken/china in the sun"), Farewell at the Moment of Parting ("Hope is ourselves/your children/travelling towards a faith A Plea for Mercy ("The naked cowherd has brought/the cows home/and stands silent with his bamboo flute"). Brew was from Gambia, and I had known a Gambian student at the College of the Virgin African poetry, in the late 1960s. I lament the loss of the Black World journal out of Chicago, which I used to read in New York, before its demise in the Seventies. WW: So these links or crossroads, they become routes to several layers of the poetic self identity, representation,
origin, as you run through the lows, the euphoric highs, the difficulties, and rejection pains of becoming a poet? How was the exposure to A frican literature influencing you? EL: Overall, I think my most influential exposure to African poetry, came when I read about African literatures in African Language Literatures of Sub Saharan Africa com es to mind. He was an Englishman who taught in Nigeria, and Makarere College, Uganda, and was a member of the Black Orpheus committee. Through his book, I began to learn about Ethiopian religious writing The Acts of the Martyrs, Book of the Miracles of M ary all the esoteric symbolism evident in The Book of Mysteries of Heaven and Earth The Ethiopian Coptic Church, battling heresies, contributed a genre to Ethiopian literature called qene extending the hymn writing tradition of the great Axumite poet n amed Yared. I also learned about Islamic poetry from Timbuktu, and its reform period, where Abd al Rahan al Fulani diplomat, wrote Tarik al Sudan ("History of the Blacks "). Kofi Awooner's volume of Caribbean poetry has a lovely poem about Neville Dawes, a tragic young Jamacian Senator form Cockpit country. WW: So, you're down on the marathon field stretching across time. Big tracks Timbuktu, Addis Abba, Axum? Man, those poets are echoing across customs, cultures, languages! Where were you focusing, then? EL: Muqadd imah I was able to better understand our Middle Passage kinship to Madagascan literature, which was influenced in turn by Indonesian Islam, which had been influenced by Hindu. There was an ajami tradition, which flourished in Zanzibar, where texts in the sorabe are still guarded by diviners. The oldest of these book have never been seen by Europeans. But ajami really flourished in Hausaland and on the Swahili coast. That book by Albert Gerard ta ught me about Takhmis wa Liyongo and Utendi wa Inkishafi Takhmis a rare Arabic five line stanza scheme, is credited to him. One line of it goes like this: "When I strive for honor, thou gh I be black, I become white". WW: So, these were entirely African literatures, with which you were becoming familiar? How were these lost literatures to influence you in your own time, your own pulse of contemporary sensibilities? EL: A Polish set of editors, Andrzejewski, Tyloch and Pitaszewicz wrote Literatures in African Languages I remember a poem in the last chapter from the San peoples scattered in Botswana. The recent floods there now remind me of it:("Where will I hide from the terrible God who torments me?/The year of my death is known/Hoo, hoo!"). Voices in the people's literature counter balance the images we otherwise see in media, about African catastrophes: ethnic wars, starvation, and religious
conflicts. WW: How did Presence Africaine re enforce the discourse of friendship, as well as kinship new communities, new narratives in a changing world? EL : Well, what I learned decisively through Presence Africaine is that the peoples of Africa have many frie nds, and poets were privileged recipients of this kinship. These friends included Ulli Beier, Gerald Moore, Andre Breton, Jean Paul Sartre, Janheinz Jahn, Andre Gide and many others. WW: The poet, while mastering the epic, and otherwise perceived as learn ing only the short form, could now have a marathon world view? Using the epic, were there overt links, say, between early poems of one people's history and another? Could you see literary, even poetic connections between their historic starts and finishes? EL: One of the earliest poets I read was the Russian poet Pushkin. I can still remember his wonderful poem, "To Dawe, Esq", "wherefore does your wondrous pencil draw my Moorish Profile?") This poetic line is echoed earlier in a Phillis W heatley poem, "to S.M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing his Works ". (The initials S.M., stood for Scipio Moorhead of Boston.) The Wheatley line is: "When first thy pencil did those beauties give/ How did those prospects give my soul delight". In sever al other letters and poems, Pushkin pens his genealogical line. One poem has a beautiful line, albeit my poor English translation: "my father, the Ethiope." His epic poems prepared me for a cache of epic African poems, Sundiata and Monzon and the King of Kore among several epic poems and cycles from Mali; Senegal with its rich living traditions of griots musicians; the epic, Lianja from the Mongo people in Rwanda; the ; Emperor Shaka the Great The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga People of Zaire, is interspersed with songs and proverbs in beautiful verse. WW: Against the African epic, did you find a similar tradition in the early Caribbean? Did you, as a poet, running along your own shoreline, discover some bank, some shoal, unexpectedly hidden beneath the surface? EL: There was! There is a Caribbean tradition of epic poetry in James Grainger's extended georgic poem, The Sugar Cane, which he wrote in 1764, five years after arriving in the West Indies. From this you better understand the shimmering blank verse of Walcott's Another Life, and later on, his other f ine epic, Omeros. The 18 th century Jamacian poet Francis Williams, in his Camen Or, An Ode has a wonderful line, "But let a Negroe own the happy lines, How the wit brightens, how the style refines." There is also John Singleton's 1767 poem, A General Desc ription of St. Croix A recent book, Tiepolo's Hound presents Walcott's
Virgin Islands' portraits in Pisarro's time. There was also the anonymous abolitionist 1777 epic poem, Jamaica, a Poem, in Three Parts, 66 lines of which are quoted in John Steadman's Narrative, a 1796 chronicle of Surinam slave revolts in 1770's. The author wrote it when he was at the age of eighteen, as the manager of a plantation in Jamaica. He writes in the Preface, "a poem without a name to protect it." Recently, a fine scholar, w ho grew up in St.Thomas, has recently edited all this classic West Indian verse. VII WW: Against "Classic" literature, Spain's Golden Century or Greek mythology, are their African classic poetic voices we should remember? EL: Absolutely! For instance, the 18th century works of Juan Latino of West Africa, and Francis Williams of Jamaica. Both Latino and Williams wrote poetry in Latin. (Incidentally, Juan Latino was called "avis rara" by his tutors, so that lends an honorific tra dition to our St. Croix Cornelius also share a portraiture tradition, an extended Afro Atlantic "learned tradition" of holding a favorite book in their hands, when sitting for the portrait. WW: These earliest of Classic African poets, were they entering European academies as scholars? How do their accomplishments, or the principles they expressed, connect to us, today? EL: There are the poems of Anton Wilhelm Amo, who was born in Axim, Ghan a, and who wrote in German in the 1730s. I know about Axim from by grandmother, who made cloth dolls, and stick men. She sometimes projected these against her kerosene lamplight, to transmit Ghanaian mythology to us. Her people seemed to have come from For t Sekondi, the namesake of the leader of the 1736 revolt in Antigua. She had been brought up in a village named Liberta, and had learned to read at the Grace Hill Moravian Mission. Those two words she frequently used, "Axim" and "Seckon" are still alive in the Antiguan Creole vernacular which we still use today. One is a notorious guerilla diet, which women still make for children from corn and sugar; the other, is a term of endearment for adults addressing children, bribing them to do something cooperative ly.) So, my poem, To Ghana, has a strong familial legacy, as well. WW: Classic Ghana is creeping into the race, here. Gold Coast land of the Gold. That's real Olympian poetic amphitheater. The ancestral run, coming on home! How has translational scholarship been considered one of the most serious, and classical of marathon running tools for the poet? Any examples?
EL: Yes. Another inspiring African writer who wrote in Latin, Jacobus Capitien, was taken as a boy to Elmina Castle, and later educated in Holland. After studies at University of Leyden in the early 1740s, he returned to Ghana, an ordained minister. There, he translates the the Twelve Articles of Belief, and the Ten Commandments into Fanti. WW: Translational works seem pivotal across time, in this race of history as literacy, doesn't it? How are Virgin islanders of African heritage historically c onnected? EL: There is a shared Virgin Islands translational tradition with Jacobus Capitien extended by the second husband of Rebekka Freundlich Protten. Rebekka was an Afro Danish emigre. She was kidnapped from Antigua as a child, and sold to the Moravian mission in S t. Thomas. As the first interracial couple under Danish West Indies jurisdiction, she and her first husband, Moravian missionary Matthaus Freundlich were jailed and later released from the territory. They immediately left for Europe. On their way from Holl and to Germany while traveling overland, he died at Marienbaum. She remarried a Ghanaian Moravian missionary, Christian Protten, in Herrnhut. They served in Little Catechism in Ga Fante (I hope I give Professor Arnold VIII WW: Given that librarians, and community scholars are among the organizers of tomorrow's literary marathon runners. How did they help you understand the twin legacies of Caribbean and Latin American literary heritages? EL: Well, through historical societies, l iterary bookshops, college departments, antiquarian societies, I enjoyed access to scholarly journals, and great city libraries. I painstakingly learned of the Afro Hispanic poets: Juan Francisco Manzano, Jose Mauel Valdes, Placido, Candelario Obeso, Gasp ar Octavio Hernandez, Nicolas Guillen, Juan Manzano, Pilar Barrios, Estupinan Bass, Nicomedes Santa Cruz, Quince Duncan. pioneer work on the Central American poets of African heritage was a shattering eye opener. It was through reading of Carib bean Basin cultures, and the saga of Black Charibes of the Afro Atlantic world, that I learned of another place in Guatemala named "Antigua", and wrote a poem of kinship, "Hermanas de Antiqua". In New York I was fortunate to be in contact with the Afro Hispanic community, when the Caribbean Research Institute first opened. It was started by Dr. Marta Vega; among her first gifts were US Library of Congress Afro Caribbean photo collections. Through that center I learned from primary documents, attending exhibitions, workshops, all about the Afro Atlantic masquerade traditions, the filigreed art and poetry of Afro Uruguayans, the straw braiding pa tterns, and pottery and songs of Afro Peruvian
communities. Later at the Center for Inter American Relations, which also was a clearing house for Theater in Latin America, and a publishing house for Review : English translations of Latin American literat ure. There works, and the painterly Afro Uraguyan images of painter Pedro Figaro, among many others. WW: Were there any surprises in Caribbean Basin heritage literature? EL: Yes. There were many unexpected, but important surprises, and renewed confidences which I acquired following the literatures of Latin America, its earliest poets and contemporary great writers. For instance, Gabriel Marquez through a series of interview s now published songs and story telling in Bogata, Columbia impacting on his childhood stories, fantasies, and his Caribbean Basin sensibilities. Re No One Writes to the Colonel: or, read his tribute to Simon Bolivar. There were also black poets emerging in the Nicaraguan struggle of the Mestizos peoples, linked to Ghana, and Virgin Islands' ancestors. WW: How can we African Americans, and emigre Caribbean nationals, further come to grips with this literary strand? EL: By reading widely across languages world literature, journals, international newspapers. I read only recently, in the Miami Herald, Marquez was convincing President Clinto n, that even a U.S. southern American novel tradition, is a Caribbean literary tradition. It is easily traceable, that Marquez openly claims to be, (Hispanic culture aside) a Caribbean writer. One has to pay attention to Patrick Chamosseau's poetic lines fashioned as prose in his recent novels; and translated into several dozen different languages IX WW: Let's talk of the Present. How does the limitation of institutions, where there would be a ready access to materials impact on the modern writer's projects? EL: Well, let's take an example. Recently my writing has shifted to an historical focus. Perhaps because I am very keen to the increasing loss of Caribbean historical records and other primary historical papers, correspondences and visual documents. The lack o f access to archival material robs value and energy from creative communities, and leaves both creative voices, and a wide spectrum of creative expressions exiled in critical times.
WW: I recently read where Robert Pinsky, the poet laureate of the Library of Congress, has been collecting poetry from all over the Union. What is your present poetry project? IX WW: Let's talk of the Present. How does the limitation of institutions, where there would be a ready access to materials impact on the m odern writer's projects? EL: Well, let's take an example. Recently my writing has shifted to an historical focus. Perhaps because I am very keen to the increasing loss of Caribbean historical records and other primary historical papers, correspondences an d visual documents. The lack of access to archival material robs value and energy from creative communities, and leaves both creative voices, and a wide spectrum of creative expressions exiled in critical times. WW: I recently read where Robert Pinsky, the poet laureate of the Library of Congress, has been collecting poetry from all over the Union. What is your present poetry project? EL: Five years ago, Caribbean Writer published the first poem of my series on Virgin Islands figures. In response to recent matters of status, and hoping to more deeply share our heritage in Early American history and as it pertains particularly to our contr ibution to the struggle for Freedom in the Americas I published about James McCloud, a 21 year old St. Thomas seaman who fought with the 54th Volunteer Regiment of Massachusetts, after the Battle of Sumner, in 1863. WW: Did the 150 th Virgin Islands Emancipation commemoration influence any of your creative projects? EL: Last year, for the 150th Commemoration Year, I wrote two poems about Danish West Indian women whose selfless lives prove them to be 18th and 19th century humanists: Rebekka, for Rebekka Freundlich Protten, and Toujours, about Emma Francis. Another poem, C ornelins all of these poems will be published in the respective countries where they made such substantative contributions. WW: In what direction do you see your lyrical poems movi ng? EL: Lately, I have been writing librettos. My first, Saint Maurice his Grenadian people. An opera company, and an opera production house have formally shown interest; hopefully, it will soon be pr oduced.
WW: You've been working on another, haven't you? One that has to do with an American Founding Father? EL: Yes. Another opera, "Alexr.", is almost completed. Its St. Croix, the influence of his childhood friend, Koffi; a small African boy, whom I designate as a native from Ghana. His mother buys this boy, to serve as a comrade for Hamilton, But he is sold after her death. This pivotal and tragic life and by metaphor, the life of the nation. WW: Isn't there an opera about the saga of the Virgin Islands people? WW: Isn't there an opera about the saga of the Virgin Islands people? EL: I started an opera, for the V.I. Emancipation called Americas Virgenes which I conceived many years ago in New York City, in a conversation with the legendary jazz drummer Max Roach. The outline for a three act libretto is finished. But, these endeavors are long, vertical climbs. My opera Americas Virgenes begins with the Akwamu people from Ghana offering praise at the Rock Pool shrine in St. John. It moves through Danish and Moravian narratives, lesser known insurrectional tales, two Danish military trials, Afro Danish petitional visits to Europe, Afro American Virgin Isl songs for coal women, and on to the complex visionary flight of Ozani. WW: This ultimately, can be a rich vein a mother lode; gets us back to the lyric! EL: Two other operas huge canvasses remain in vague outlines: one on the Honorable Marcus Garvey, which I already hear tonally, based on his letters from an Atlanta jail to his sons; then, there are the pan Caribbean lieutenants in his organizations, G eorge Weston, Bishop McGuire and Hugh Mulzac.The other, is based on a series of letters, correspondence of a shared vision of Democracy ( Estados Unidos ), shared by Simon Bolivar and Toussaint X WW: The final turn lets bring home the poem, To Ghana. In the field of aesthetics, or as it relates to the international field of poetry, Traditional or modern African what is it's standing, its particular posting? EL: Well, yes. To Ghana has some surreptitious postings.
WW: A poem has its own particular skin, clothing, armor, doesn't it? Otherwise it doesn't survive the field. What is the genus of this poem? EL: My poem is written in a deeply oral tradition talki talki or a rapid addresse used while twisting the cotta a cloth for heavy burdens; twisted and spun elliptically over the fingers and wrist, or sometimes across the elbow. The poem starts by first presenting two pre eminent Virgin Islands' messengers, as humanists, then reflecting on our Akan people's tradition s. Then, it binds our masquerade traditions to the African military resistance campaigns against slavery, particularly the recognition of women warriors in that resistance; the pitchy patchy masquerade signifying predominance of African women in the coast al textiles trade. That reference ties the addresses together by crossing the sea, and transforms the poem into the landscape of contemporary Ghana. It becomes a fabric of place names, tropes, and ritualistic significations: palm trees, palm oil, cola nu t, ale, home plots, Akosombo dam. Finally, symbolic praise words, "marks of gold", become ancestral cloth again. Anomabu links Phillip Quaque, a Fanti African missionary sadly trying to bridge two worlds to our Brother Cornelius, who more successfully di d so. WW: Give me the footing of this poem its particular overarching bond; its deeper literary heritage: Something unseen, but which is also there? EL: First, as the only English language poetry selection in this Presence Africaine issue, To Ghana is posted between the work of Mohammed Bennis, one of the major contemporary Arab poets, who was born in Morocco; and Jacques Rabemananjara, one of the founders of the Negritude movement, an ally of Diop at Presence Africaine and a venerab le poet from the Indian Ocean. But keep a perspective here: Ghanaian poet O.D. Ako published his verse book in 1909 almost a century ago. Some seventeen South African poets from the ancient peoples of South Africa the Sothos, Xoshas, Tswanas began pu blishing verse between 1906 1920. WW: On the back course, position the poem for the turn home, protecting it for safe landing: meaning, stride, and cadence what should we remember? EL: On a more literary scale, the handwritten letters of these men, Quaq ue and Cornelius a tradition of comparable correspondence both chronicle their people, composition of their narratives, their scriptural designs and meters, are the literary inheritance which To Ghana a lso receives. Incidentally, this epigraph tradition preempts and ongoing African American visual tradition exemplified in George
Davidson's illustrations in The Georgia Review Winter 1990 edition. To Ghana is also a kind of familial ritual registry in the me nua tradition, an Akan tradition meaning English Creole phrase used in the Caribbean. I hope I used it well: to serve tracings of kinship on both sides of our community, extended in this period of Ghanaian grief. WW: What about your contemporaries Virgin Islands poets as marathon runners? How do they inspire you? WW: What about your contemporaries Virgin Islands poets as marathon runners? How do they inspire you? EL: Sure, many Virgin Islands poets inspire me. My work may one day, stand between contemporaries: My friend, and classmate, the late Dana Orie's Triolet and Clement White's Jumbie Jubilee ". Habib Tiwoni, particularly his Moncada of My Mind "Triolet" extends Islands poem, St. Thomas On the other hand, White, a scholar of Hispanic literature, uses Jumbie Jubilee to extend the lyrics of the late Virgin Islands folk composer/poet, Lezmore Emanuel. (I wrote a poem for him at his death, House of Palms). I was his neighbor, and was close by at the time of the violent crime that caused his death. I believe I still have photographs of the idyllic paintings by Grappo, in his night club The House of Palms, as well as a catalog list of his book titles and man uscripts which were in his house after his death (Poets serve as custodians, you know). WW: We're there. Victory lap! Anything else you would like to say? EL: Let me thank a number of Virgin Islands scholars, in this context: Adelbert Anduze for his pione er scholarly work, The Literature of the U.S. Virgin Islands 1900 1970; and more recently, Professor Marvin Williams, for his timely edited 1988 volume, "Yellow Cedars Blooming: An Anthology of Virgin Islands Poetry" The work of Arnold Highfield in regar ds to Rebekka Freundlich Protten, and Queen Mary, also his prized bibliographical database projects of immense encouragement. Dr. Vincent Cooper, always a vigilant Humanities teacher, a poet, and an editor; Dr. Marilyn Krigger, and Dr. Ruby Simmonds, hav e been encouraging role models in their cultural scholarship about our community. Dr. Gilbert Sprauve, and Professor Gene Emanuel, educators pioneering triangular exchange projects between Denmark, Ghana and the Virgin Islands peoples. One must never forg et the poet Audre Lorde, her Cancer volume, and her contribution to a Virgin Islands scholarly tradition. We just lost Barbara Christian her pioneer feminist scholarship, feminist literary tradition and her recommendations for both of Nella Larsen novel s to be
included in the Norton. WW: This run has been nice, Brother. This interview about historically reading the poem has been a serious run, and the poet's life long search for meaning is obviously, serious terrain. EL: You know, poets, too, are long in it for the long haul. Breathing is the key appreciate this space on your running/library web site. Thank You, my Brother. First editions from the private library of Edgar O. Lake The graphics appearing in this interview are from the private book collection of Edgar O. Lake. For an enlarged graphic of the selections, click the graphic below. Remember, to return to this page, click back on your browser.
The Georgia Review Winter 1990 with paintings by George Davidson "Bardo Roadhouse" E.R.Braithw aite C.L.R. James Claude McKay V.S. Reid Audre Lourde
Left: Copy of original letter dated September 28, 1787, written in Creole by Cornelius offering to buy the freedom of his granddaughter from owner Schimmelmann. (From Black Educaton in the Danish West Indies from 1732 to 1853 ). Right: Phillip Quaque's letter. We would like to hear from you? We would like to know if this interview is a useful resource for you, and whether you would be interested in continuing the effort to make it useful to others who have similar interests. Please respond to the questions that follow: Your Name: Your E Mail Address: In what country do you live? What is your occupation?
Your age? Sex: Of the books indicated in this interview, which have you read? Of the books indicated in this interview, would you be willing to donate to a libr ary currently continuing in its efforts to develop its special collection of materials on these topics? Yes N o What is your favorite poetry publications/s? Would you be willing to donate copies or make contributions to a library continuing the development of its collections? Yes No How do you acquire your books? Book St ore: Mail Order: E commerce: All of these: Other? Please list: To Poet & Poem | Home Virgin Islands Pace | | Home Page "Your Library...What's In It For You!" | firstname.lastname@example.org