“I’d love to see poetry explode”
For the first time, Barbados has designated a Poet Laureate. As Esther Phillips begins her tenure, we ask how she feels about her new responsibility, and what it might mean for the island. Interview by Joe Shooman
The literary scene in the Caribbean is as colourful, varied, spiritual and creative as the region itself. There are gems hiding everywhere. But to find them, it helps to have a guide; someone with an intimate knowledge of the nooks, crannies and emotions of both place and page. A native-born, world-aware practitioner not just ready to help but bursting with talent and enthusiasm to show the world the Caribbean’s unique, complex character and rich artistic talent.
Step forward renowned Barbadian writer Esther Phillips – the best guide we could hope for – who has recently been named Barbados’s first ever Poet Laureate. Phillips has been awarded many accolades over the years, but topping the lot is her new status as Laureate, a three-year post that came about in perhaps the most authentic manner: shouts out by the public.
“A recommendation was made to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth by sections of the writing community and other members of the public to have a Poet Laureate named during Carifesta [the annual Caribbean Festival of Arts], which was held in Barbados in 2017,” says Phillips. “We felt that such an appointment would be most appropriate then.”
The post did not materialise in time for Carifesta, but in early 2018 the ministry finally offered Phillips the role – and she was happy to accept. “Other names were considered but mine was selected,” she adds.
“I believe that this has to do with my publications and also my longstanding work in the literary arts in Barbados. It is such a distinct honour and one for which I am eternally thankful to the Master Craftsman, the Creator Himself.”
Born into poetry
Esther Phillips grew up in Greens, St George. “Looking back, I realise that growing up in the country meant I was immersed in nature, especially while walking to and from primary school,” she says. “Such a panorama of fruit trees and flowering trees, grasses, khus khus hedgerows, gully, quarry and so many butterflies of so many colours; there were hog plums, guavas, dunks, mangoes, sugar cane being cut and reaped, the smell of syrup and molasses from the sugar-cane factory at nights. In other words, I grew up in an environment that was rich in visual and sensory and auditory images and influences. I also believe that listening to my mother play the piano as a young child and beating the tambourine at church gave me a consciousness of metre and rhythm from very early.”
She went on to excel at St Michael’s Girls’ School and Barbados Community College at the UWI Cave Hill Campus before taking the big step of moving to the United States to study in Miami. It paid off. “My first significant moment was winning the Alfred Boas Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets on completing my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Miami in 1999,” says Phillips. It’s an honour she shares with the likes of Sylvia Plath and many other renowned poets. She won the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award in 2001, and released her first full-length poetry collection, When Ground Doves Fly, in 2003. Further well-received collections followed, including The Stone Gatherer (2009) and Leaving Atlantis (2015), a suite of poems addressed to the great Barbadian novelist and thinker George Lamming, for which she won the Governor General’s Award for Literary Excellence. Her poem ‘Word’ was selected to represent Barbados at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland.
Poem as prayer
Phillips cites Wordsworth, William Blake, Shelley and Longfellow among her early influences. Her general style, she says, is quite flexible. “My form is more often than not free verse,” Phillips says, “though I am very conscious of employing metre in order to produce the lyrical quality; I pay careful attention to where the stresses fall. Much of my work is also driven by metaphor and visual images. I avoid abstractions as much as possible; readers are more easily able to connect with the visual and concrete.”
Her Christian faith is of extreme importance to her life and her work. “Derek Walcott said once that poetry is like prayer,” says Phillips. “I think that the poet, like the one who prays, connects with and draws from a source beyond the self; there is a transcendent quality to the inspiration one taps into. I have so many experiences of lines or images coming to me and I have no full consciousness, in the natural sense, of the thought process from which they derived, but those lines are exactly right, in my view.”
The creative process is, says Phillips, fairly complex – something that can’t be defined in strictly rational or scientific terms. But she always knows when she has a poem coming: “I read something, hear some phrase, have some experience, and I know a poem is there somewhere. Then I wait for the poem to come, and I actually feel/hear the music of the poem first before I have the words. It’s often a process of waiting. I don’t impose my thoughts or ideas on the poem initially; I wait to hear what the poem has to say. Once that first draft is completed, which is as true as possible to the ‘music’ that I’m hearing or feeling, then I apply the various techniques that complete the final effect.”
Colonialism and postcolonialism loom large in the Caribbean story, and these themes resonate in much of the region’s literary work. Phillips’ writing is no exception, but it also contains a large aspect of folk wisdom and culture. “I believe I write more from what I might call a Caribbean consciousness,” she says. “How have we as a people survived the wreckage of colonialism? What are its remaining effects, but also, what coping strategies have we created for ourselves? How have we moved on, whatever entanglements there may still be? My ‘looking back’ very often has to do with what wisdom there is to gain from those who have gone before us, especially our womenfolk: mothers and grandmothers.”
The world is more connected than ever before, of course, with instant access to information through technology. How does this impact on the human experience? “With the ‘shrinking’ of the world by way of the internet, the media, social media and so on, everybody knows about everything happening everywhere every day,” she says. “We are divided as to whether this is a blessing or a curse. There is also a greater freedom of personal expression, even when this freedom may take us to our lowest levels as human beings. There is no way to turn this back. The individual must live by what he or she believes.”
Bringing arts to the world
Phillips’ work has taken her around the globe, but she is most passionate about the literary scene at home in Barbados. She serves as co-editor of BIM, the island’s long-standing literary magazine, first published in 1942. She was also instrumental in founding the first Bim LitFest in 2012, an incredible celebration of local talent that saw Derek Walcott, George Lamming and Austen Clarke share the same space. Following another successful outing in 2016, the next festival is planned to take place in 2020.
“As a founder and director of the festival, I felt that such an event could answer the need for greater public awareness of the literary arts and to showcase the best of Barbadian writing and that of the diaspora and the wider Caribbean,” says Phillips. “We are proud of our children’s festival, too, which is extremely important in developing young writers and readers. Linda M Deane has been doing a fantastic job in organising this part of the Bim Litfest.”
The festival is part of the increasing desire for recognition of the literary arts in Barbados, which Phillips says was instrumental in the creation of the Poet Laureate title. Over the next three years she will have plenty to keep her busy. “I am to represent Barbados in poetry readings both in and outside the country,” she says. “I have to read at various official functions, contribute to an archive relevant to those occasions and produce one original work per year – one longish poem on a national theme or event.”
Phillips is also putting together another poetry collection. “I suspect that a greater interaction with a wider cross-section of Barbadians will produce some rather interesting information and insights,” she says. “All this should inspire varied kinds of poetry, which is a main means by which I attempt to understand or interpret my experiences.”
She is keen to take poetry to the widest audience. “My hope is to draw out the sectors of Barbadian society whose voices we don’t hear too often, if at all, in the literary arena,” Phillips says. “I want to know what the Asian community is writing. I’d like to hear from the Rastafarians and the Caucasians. I also plan to make contact with younger groups, especially spoken-word artists, to bring more poetry into wider Barbados. I’d love to see poetry explode. I mightn’t see that happen in three years, but I’m prepared to try.”
Esther’s poetry picks: 5 great works by Caribbean writers
“These represent a cross-section of poetic thought, experience and styles from Caribbean poets. All the collections chronicle the Caribbean identity historically, socially and culturally. The last two reflect the lives and the emotional responses of women relative to the Caribbean experience as well as universal realities.”
1 White Egrets by Derek Walcott (Faber & Faber, 2010)
The St Lucian master’s celebration of the life and language of the West Indies is
a hymn to beauty, love, art and ageing.
2 Liviticus by Kamau Brathwaite (House of Nehesi, 2017)
This collection from the Bajan poet and co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement has been described as a “monument to sorrow that cherishes
3 Collected Poems by John Robert Lee (Peepal Tree Press, 2017)
Drawn from the poet’s work between 1975 and 2015, this collection reveals
a subtly changing voice and a continuing journey, exploring everything from
the kingdom of God to community,
St Lucia’s natural beauty and the challenges of poetry.
4 Madwoman by Shara McCallum (Peepal Tree Press, 2017)
Jamaica-born McCallum’s fifth poetry collection wrestles with the idea of being girl, woman and mother all at once. It was longlisted for the 2018 OCM Bocas Poetry Prize.
5 Doe Songs by Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné (Peepal Tree Press, 2018)
Boodoo-Fortuné is a fresh new voice on the poetry scene. This collection creates vivid images of the rural Trinidadian world, where the real and the mythical rub along together.