The Monthly discusses a distinguished career in poetry with Mervyn Morris, former Jamaican Poet Laureate – Part 3 – Developing the craft

Part two of this interview is here

How did you develop your poetic writing?

It is still developing. I often begin with only a vague sense of what I think I’m writing about, and the poem emerges in the struggle to give it shape. The published poem is usually much tighter than the earliest drafts. It may be full of nuances, or may be more direct.

You have viewed “Literary Evening, Jamaica”, presented at the British Library launch of Jubilation, an anthology celebrating fifty years of Jamaican Independence. It describes a poetry reading in a colony. Two English men are promoting, modestly, work by “two fair English poets writing nowadays”, and later in the programme there are undergraduates reading anti-colonial poems, “some coarse, some wild, and many violent”.

The poet-persona, faintly disparaging both sets of readers, is mimicking some very English locutions (such as “a rotten choice” and “bloody rude”); but, protesting ever so gently, the tone at the end of the poem seems closer to that of the English presenters than to the undergraduates’: “What now if honesty should choose / to say, in all this world’s confusion, / that we are still too young for disillusion.” Another poem, “Reprise”, is more direct. It calls out “fifty years of chattering pretence” and says that “we’re now old enough / for disillusion.”

You seem, from what I have been able to read, deeply committed to crafting your poetry?

Yes. I mean to be intelligible but to have the language do more work than in everyday usage. In some of the poems ambiguity and tension makes them move in multiple directions.

Do you think that sense of movement or tension is what makes good poetry?

Good poetry comes in many shapes, most often employing imagery and metaphor. It can also be in statement memorably expressed, alert to sound and rhythm.

You were a supporter of Dub Poetry. Can you say a little about that?

I got into Dub Poetry by accident. A friend of mine asked me to look at some poems she had received from a man who was in prison. I saw talent in them, and she asked me to go and tell him so. The person was Orlando Wong, who later became Oku Onuora.

I learnt a lot from him about what he called Dub Poetry and its connection with reggae music. Having previously met Linton Kwesi Johnson and read some of his work, I told Oku about Linton, and I told Linton about Oku. Linton is the most famous of the Dub Poets (though he and some of the others resist the label).

Were there other Dub Poets who interested you?

Jean Binta Breeze (who died recently) produced a wide range of admirable work, not only “riddym ravings: the mad woman’s poem”. Mutabaruka (also now a talk-show host) was one of the earliest. Mikey Smith (killed in 1983) was an outstanding talent (“Me seh me cyaan believe it”). Most Dub Poets would say they write to make the world a better place, and they give priority to their political mission. Some, like other poets, work hard at shaping what they present.

Part four of this interview is here

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