Pointed in the right direction: A conversation with John Robert Lee

John Robert Lee (bn. 1948 in St. Lucia) is a prolific St. Lucian poet, critic, journalist, and educator. His work has appeared in numerous regional and international journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Caribbean Quarterly, Savacou, Small Axe, Wasafiri, Trinidad & Tobago Review, Callaloo, The Jamaica Gleaner, The St. Lucia Mirror, Catholic Chronicle, The Faber Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories, The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. For a number of years John Robert Lee worked for the St. Lucian radio and TV where he conducted interviews with personalities in the world of art, literature, politics, and entertainment. Among those were Derek and Roderick Walcott, Dunstan St. Omer, Msgr Patrick Anthony, Kendel Hippolyte, Kamau Brathwaite, George Lamming, Rex Nettleford, Seamus Heaney, Arthur Miller, and Little Richard.

As a literary and theater critic John Robert Lee has written widely about St. Lucian cultural history, contributing an astute critical eye to a vibrant tradition of St. Lucian art criticism. His reviews are characterized by an unswerving insistence on the relevance of the arts in St. Lucia as a way of working through socio-political contradictions in a post-colonial country, and a generous appreciation of the tenacity of St. Lucian writers in the face of limited resources. “Despite colonialism and the new imperialisms of thought that entice us to deny ourselves again,” he wrote in a 1982 review, “we are responsible to ourselves and our people to provide answers, possible solutions, hope, and a vision of our final destinies” (36). He has also painstakingly chronicled St. Lucia’s literary history compiling with Kendel Hippolyte Saint Lucian Literature and Theatre: An Anthology of Reviews in 2006 and Bibliography of St. Lucian Creative Writing: Poetry, Prose, Drama by St. Lucian writers 1948 – 2013 in 2013.

Since 1975 when Vocation & Other Poems, his first collection of poetry, was published John Robert Lee has given us poignant and carefully crafted verse in which he charts his own cultural and spiritual paths. To this day he has published eleven collections, including The Prodigal (1983), Clearing Ground (1991), Artefacts (2000), Canticles (2007), Elemental (with Peepal Tree Press, 2008), and, most recently, Sighting and other poems of faith (2013), which earned him a firm position in the Caribbean poetic canon. While unmistakably Caribbean in its exploration of Creole cultures and in its acute historical sensibility, John Robert Lee’s poetry is also original in its inquiry into the intricacies of Christian faith. Of John Robert Lee’s work, poet Vladimir Lucien writes:

John Robert Lee is a poet that has been a caretaker of the files in the archive of the St. Lucian soul. Both creatively and in his work as information manager at the Folk Research Centre, he has continued to interact with forms that would in other hands be left to the sibilant hands of dust. He has worked in the media, as a columnist and reviewer, a poet, preacher— in a myriad of capacities. As poet (and otherwise) he has resembled his own creative conjuration, ‘the manbird’ with one foot firmly grounded on the St. Lucian soil, and the other suspended in air, acutely aware of the trajectory of the world filtered through his Christian faith, and his belief in the messages of its prophets; the approaching rapture. As Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott says, ‘He is a fine poet.’

* * *

John Robert Lee kindly agreed to talk with me about his life, his work at the Folk Research Centre, the current literary landscape in St. Lucia and beyond, as well as the directions his writing has taken.

John Robert Lee

John Robert Lee (photo by Stephen Paul)

Ania Kowalik: We meet at the Folk Research Center (FRC) which has been celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. FRC was established in 1973 by Patrick ‘Paba’ Anthony who has been a staunch supporter of folk heritage not only in terms of sustaining cultural tradition but also as a way of enriching the church in local practices and cultural elements. He has just been named a National Cultural hero. Would you talk a bit about who were some of the people involved with FRC and what programs you organize? What is the role of the Center in supporting the arts in St. Lucia?

John Robert Lee: Well, FRC is a center for research on the folk culture of the country, with strong connections to the arts community. So it has served a great purpose. It has helped us to get to know our root culture which we can now bring into art. And it has played a great role in that. And “Paba” Anthony has been pretty much a force to bring people together – culture people, arts people, and folk people themselves.

AK: How did you become part of the Center?

JRL: Well, I was at the University of the West Indies when it started and because I’ve been friends with ‘Paba’, I’ve been involved with FRC from the very beginning. I came here to do a consultancy in 2002, and ended up staying. Too long I think sometimes.  I’m the Librarian and Information Officer and I organize educational programs for the center for young people and adults.

AK: In fact, you’ve worn many professional hats. You’ve also been a teacher…

JRL: Yes, I have taught Literature, Creative Writing, Media, Library Science, Theatre, and Drama…

AK: In 2012 the Folk Research Center launched the Harold Simmons Folk Academy whose main goal is educational – to celebrate and spread Kwéyòl culture through language classes and arts courses. Does the education system in St. Lucia support creative arts education?

JRL: Not enough, no. We have called for a more integrated curriculum and that is not happening at all. We’ve called for that for many years and it should have happened but it has not happened. There is no culture education, there is no arts education. These things are lacking in the education system.

AK: Would you then say that the Harold Simmons Academy is trying to fill in this gap?

JRL: It is trying but it hasn’t been very successful. There hasn’t been much response to what we are trying to do. People are not responding as we had anticipated.

AK: I am really impatient to ask you about Saint Lucian Literature and Theatre: An Anthology of Reviews (2006), the collection of reviews that you compiled with Kendel Hippolyte. It is an indispensable anthology for anyone interested in St. Lucian and Caribbean literature, literary history, and criticism. Would you talk a little about the idea behind this publication?

JRL: I think it must have been something I wanted to do for many years, as I recall it. Patricia Charles [Chair of the Cultural Development Foundation at the time, 2005], who has now died, was a good friend of mine – she immediately liked this idea and decided to publish the collection. I wanted to put together a kind of history of our literature and theatre through the compilation of reviews. There are a lot of photographs most of which I collected myself. Kendel had quite a bit of this material himself, so we just needed to put it all together.

AK: The Anthology includes reviews complemented by images of posters advertising literary events, book covers, photographs documentation of readings and literary meetings. The impression I got is that there is a counter-story told in these pages: while so many of you note that there is little institutional support for arts in St. Lucia, the documents you have collected seem to be saying “Look what a strong community we are and how we have continued to thrive and support one another against all obstacles.” Was this part of the message you wanted to share? Was part of the idea to encourage the next generation of writers not to give up and continue their work?

JRL: I think so, yes. In fact, it is dedicated to all those “who have contributed to the development of St. Lucian literature and theatre.” And certainly to encourage the new artists. And of course it is a record of what has been accomplished so that we can continue to grow, you know?

John Robert Lee (photo by Marion Nelson and Allen Sherman)

John Robert Lee (photo by Marion Nelson and Allen Sherman)

AK: In his review of your second collection of poetry Dread Season (1978), included in this anthology, Kendel Hippolyte stresses the need for an explicit critical framework through which St. Lucian (and more generally Caribbean) art can be assessed. He says that “the reviewer should reveal his framework of thought and feeling, should show where he is coming from. This is particularly necessary in a Caribbean context where we so desperately need to judge our response to artistic creativity by reference to some vision of who we are, what we need, where we are going and why” (Anthology 22). As a literary and theater critic yourself, you seem to share this sense of intellectual responsibility. Would you be willing to expand on Kendel Hippolyte’s statement? Why is local art criticism so important? What, in your opinion, is the role of the critic?

JRL: The critic and local criticism put the work into its context. All literature, theatre, and art come out of a cultural and social context. And the responsibility, I think, is to ensure that the context counts. And to identify for the reader, especially of newspapers and magazines, where the work is coming from. And there is need for criticism because the local critic hopefully understands the context where the work is coming from.  We do need people from the outside, of course, who bring their own perspective but the local critic is rooted himself to understand what is happening. Context, social setting, and history are important to understand and to know.

AK: You have just compiled a Bibliography of St. Lucian Creative Writing: Poetry, Prose, Drama by St. Lucian writers 1948 – 2013, another indispensable document for students and scholars of St. Lucian literature. So in your work as a critic you are committed to affirming the long tradition of national literature. Would you say a few words about how you came to this project? Who are some of the writers in St. Lucia (or in the Caribbean) you feel especially excited about?

JRL: I had been working on this for several years. I am a professional librarian and I know the value of these kinds of reference works. It becomes a valuable record of our national literature. It is in itself a historical work. I guess you can say I have been a literary archivist and historian as well as a literary journalist. The Cultural Development Foundation through its current chairman encouraged me to finish the compilation. There will also be an ebook version.

In terms of writers, local and Caribbean that I am enthusiastic about: St. Lucian Vladimir Lucien for sure, who is still to publish his first collection. He has a lot of talent. In the Caribbean I like Kei Miller from Jamaica, he’s very good. From Trinidad, I like Danielle Boodoo-Fortune. There are others, older and younger, like Lorna Goodison and Kwame Dawes; and the senior classic writers like Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Martin Carter remain standards. In St. Lucia, Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King, Adrian Augier, McDonald Dixon and the unpublished Irvin Desir  are personal favourites.

from left to right: Kendel Hippolyte, McDonald Dixon, John Robert Lee

from left to right: Kendel Hippolyte, McDonald Dixon, John Robert Lee

AK: Let me ask you here what St. Lucian identity means for you in the larger context of Caribbean identity. For instance, in some of your reviews in the Anthology you use the Arawak name Iyanola to refer to St. Lucia. How do you negotiate between these two kinds of belonging?

JRL: Well, I was born here, I live here, this is my culture which I know first. But I’m also part of the Caribbean culture. My great-grandma was a Carib from Dominica. So I’m very aware of the mix of cultures that we share. So it’s very important for the St. Lucian writer to understand the larger context. You can’t be only St. Lucian, trying to live apart from the international culture which Derek Walcott, for example, exemplifies. With all the connections and links in this connected world, we are also writing for an international audience who, because of Walcott, is looking at us also now. So things like the Anthology and the Bibliography bring together what we, writers, have done, consolidate our identity and bring us to international attention also.

As to the name Iyanola: this is actually a Rastafarian version of the old Arawak name Iouanalao (land of the iguana) which the Caribs called Hewanorra. The Rastas began to use the name Iyanola sometime in the seventies.

In terms of identity I would not, however, consider myself a flaming, flag-waving nationalist in terms of island or race. That kind of identification is too limiting for me.

AK: What other identities do you interrogate in your work?

JRL: I’m a Christian and a Bible teacher and preacher, I’ve been a Christian writer for many years. And my poetry reflects my Christian faith. My Christian faith gives me a viewpoint of the world overall. I try to see my world through my faith without being preachy, without being overbearing about it, you know? Without making a big fuss about it.  C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Harry Blamires, Dorothy Sayers – these Christians were also writers, critics, literary scholars and they are models for me. In terms of theology I look to the Reformation and the great reformers. I’m Protestant. I like many theologians of past and present. And I have a strong interest in Christian literature and Christian arts. Unfortunately the Caribbean is not very strong on that kind of literature even though Christianity has been the main religion. So I do feel a bit isolated sometimes.

Heart’s Rooms

"Personal" John Robert Lee

“Personal” John Robert Lee

                                        “My heart holds rooms”
My heart holds rooms I’ve never entered
doors concealed, secret entrances
 sudden corners turning to knobs without keys —
O, some chambers I know familiar
favourite window seats, corner desks, comfort stations
boudoirs of great pleasure
and sacred crypts, twilight zones, forbidding cells
dread dungeons deep under dreams—
but I’ve also danced and flown through octagonal halls, their slanting light
and played the cantor down glass staircases­—
but those other places, the guessed at
the undiscovered, the unexplored
the mysteries of the curious heart—
are they the promised portals
to the mansions of His Father’s House?
                                                                           (2011)

from Canticles

Canticle lix

John Robert Lee "Turquoise"

John Robert Lee “Turquoise”

You must now enter the silence alone and listen. Wait.
Wait for the translation of the first line. Write.
Write with your fingers searching the pigments on the palate
for the essential shading of the right
image. The medium frames the sacred intercession.
To give face, posture, and voice to the holy is no trite
matter. And where humility unveils some gracious incarnation,
offer first this blessed sacrament to the King of saints. 
                                                                                             (2007)

AK: A lot of your poems are dedicated to other writers. Who are the most important poetic interlocutors for you? Who do you read?

JRL: Walcott, for sure. Brathwaite, all the big Caribbean writers like Martin Carter, Lorna Goodison. Kendel Hippolyte, for sure. French Caribbean writers like Césaire. Among international writers Seamus Heaney I think speaks in a very special way to what I see the world as, you know? Older writers like Eliot, Auden, McNeice, Larkin, Lowell, many Americans. So these are my influences, in many ways. I don’t read as much prose as I used to. There are a lot of Christian writers whom I like as I mentioned earlier.

AK: You seem to like to return to your works. You recycle a lot of your older poems in your recent collection Sighting and Other Poems of Faith.

JRL: Kamau Brathwaite asked me how I came to my faith, what was my ‘Damascus journey.’ I thought I’d choose all my poems of faith from all my collections and put them together. And Sighting was the result. It starts with “Dread” as a Prologue and then gives a reasonably chronological development of the work and faith. Many of the poems have been published in other collections but there is also some new work. And I have included my own photographs as illustrations. I quite like the book.

AK: “harbouring unbelief” is how “Dread” ends…

JRL: Exactly. And then “Prodigal” comes next, the first poem of faith.

Prodigal (excerpts)

‘And when he came to himself…’ (Luke 15:17)
(for Kendel and Jane Hippolyte)
(iii)
And man is yet another flower
that buds and bursts and bursts to bud again,
a wondrous sunblossom
that blooms and blows and blows to bloom again,
a cock of paradise,
that preens to flash and fade and fades to flash again –
and in the fade and bud, that blow and bloom, that burst and flash,
this manbird flowers forth to catch the sun
to hold the fire
to fill its petals with the ever lasting light.
Praise God.
(v)
In the middle of the night this howling.
We will have to wait until the morning
papers come to understand that prowling
messenger’s lament.
                                         Without warning,
this solitary hound which moves about
our dangerous streets before the dawning
hours, now comes to plead with loud devout
insistence right beneath our shutters.
We yearn to know of what he cries throughout
the dark.
                  Dear Lord Jesus, what soul utters
with such keening sorrow, gnashing, gnashing
at the night, what soul is lost beneath my shutters?
My life cannot bear this gashing.
It crumbles from my face’s edge, crashing
in the middle of the night.
(vi)
Above Soufriere descending early
morning heals the night in sulfur baths
covers over all in fine rain and light,
and among the mists, below the road’s steep edge,
within the valley forest, on a clearing ledge,
see Christ, the charcoal burner,
perfection raking wood and leaves
spirit with bare feet of earth.
                            His sweet blue smoke climbs steady up to heaven.
(vii)
Although it is so hard these days to talk of friendship,
love, and things like that, still, my friend, if you will please to
trust the One who floods our heart with much we cannot
hold within our foolish selves, I pray that He will shape
eternal beauty, love, and holiness upon you,
as even now, woman of Christ,
                           you glow, grow and grace
                           me with His Power and His Glory.
                                                                                           (2008)
AK: This time, most of your older poems are complemented by images. You are very attentive to the visual aspect…

JRL: In many of my poems now, I work with an image. From my experience in theatre, I write with a director’s eye. I see everything. I work with an image, try to intuitively let the image speak, as it were. Without necessarily imposing a story or theme on it. Of course, I am probably attracted to the image because of some theme or idea it evokes.

Will Love Hold

Vladimir Lucien 'Boats at Moruga, Trinidad'

Vladimir Lucien ‘Boats at Moruga, Trinidad’

Will love hold, tight-roped between tears
Certain of storm, not wanting loss
Howling to horizon’s abyss, heaving from despair?
Will love hold, memoried to casual harbours—
And we were happy for a while, and forgot
Tomorrow coming, and coordinates we couldn’t
                                 share?
Will love hold, when all is broken
And merciful tides of amnesia
cradle us till we wake?
                                              (2013)
Cathedral
Shaul Schwarz/Reportage by Getty Images

Shaul Schwarz/Reportage by Getty Images

The ionic columns hold nothing up
Not the twin cupolas that welcomed mariners to Port-au-Prince
Not the grand round windows of stained-glass ikons
Not the novenas of those who died in the fallen girders,
Unless you count the blue dome of vacant air
The ruined, ruined facades
The hovering stench —
Has Boukman triumphed?
Do Legba and Ghede aka Baron Samedi mount the buried altars?
Does Ogoun lie entombed in this broken peristyle?
Do these curious questions matter to the houngan
Crying down the mess of fallen masonry
To touch his daughter’s ears?—
Outside the shattered cathedral
The women kneeling in the dust
Raise rosaries to the familiar Haitian sky
And lift their psalms
Past the ionic columns
That hold nothing up.
                                            (2011)

AK: The poems you wrote in response to the Haitian earthquake – “Madonna of Port-au-Prince,” “Maman,” “Cathedral,” “At Capernaum, boats” – are also triggered by images. These poems literally come out of ruins but you also attempt to imagine lives behind faces that stare at us out of the rubble of Port-au-Prince, as if you were trying to sustain poetic imagination in the face of that tragedy. Would you talk a bit about your response to the earthquake?

JRL: Well, Haiti is a Caribbean country, it is a Creole country and we have a lot in common. And I guess the horror of what happened there, more than 200,000 people died, made an impression on me. So I guess that triggered the poems in me.

I also wrote some poems on the mining accident in Copiapó in 2010. These 64 miners were trapped in Chile, in Copiapó, and were rescued miraculously by ingenious use of technology. So I was imagining through the images what it would be like. And I go beyond to make a Christian poem out of it, with the resurrected Lazarus as a guiding image.

from left to right John Robert Lee, Seamus Heaney, Kendel Hippolyte, Sigrid Nama, Derek Walcott

front to back: John Robert Lee, Seamus Heaney, Kendel Hippolyte, Sigrid Nama, Derek Walcott

AK: I want to ask you about Walcott, whom you mentioned earlier…

You dedicate your poem “Line” to him. In section II you acknowledge the influence of his poetic vision and write “When have I not measured this land by your lines?” But in the last section, Walcott is invited to assume a place among St. Lucian poets and folk artists…

JRL: Yes, this is quite right. Kendel is there, Jane [King] is there. And Walcott has been a tremendous influence in so many ways. He and his brother and their group of artists like Dunstan St. Omer and Garth St. Omer were the founding influences of my early interest in the arts and literature.

AK: The poem leads this towering figure of a poet towards the community. Is this the poem where you work through a kind of an anxiety of influence towards Walcott? Is this even a correct term to use? Would you talk about the relationship of poets in St. Lucia to the legacy that Walcott represents?

JRL: Anxiety of influence? No. I don’t think so… No, not at all. It’s a tribute. A tribute to him, to his work, to his lines. I don’t think poets and playwrights in St. Lucia are overawed by Walcott. Certainly he is greatly respected and admired. But he has not been a stifling influence.

“Line” is a very formal poem. It is written in terza rima. I use half-line endings. I use some lines from Walcott as epigraphs for a number of stanzas. I think it is one of my most accomplished poems. I put a lot into it, both in terms of form and content/ideas. It deserves close reading and study.

Line
(for Derek Walcott)

“The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;
yes, I have a goodly heritage.”

—Psalm 16:6
i.

Within the boundaries of my mortgaged peace,
bordered by unruly ficus, some struggling croton,
forsaken fallen palms and other anonymous waste—

Veronica’s scattered variety of roses, Simone’s
sensible vegetables, Kamara’s clump of scruffy cat-tails,
and, swimming in Babonneau air like a tentacled sea-anemone,

the breadfruit; only today, “Jules’ tree-trimming
crew“from Desbarras sawed down the ant-infested mango. Among
other unknown pretty-flowered bush—from Joy’s time,
the elegant Easter spider-lily, in all her seasonal fragrance.

ii.

“to every line there is a time and a season.” (DW)

When have I not measured this land by your lines?
When have I not tracked blue-smoke pits to their river-stone roots by your metaphor?
When have I not walked, Walcott, by your fire-scorched love, through uptown lanes

of old Castries, strolled the revolving corners of Chaussée, Coral, Broglie, Victoria?
You leave us your covenants with the everlasting fretworked eaves
of Riverside Road, gommier canots and their men from Dauphin to Vieux Fort,

the epiphanic groves of Mon Repos, the stone chapel of Rivière Dorée, the turning
leaves’
whispering of Methodist hymnals on Chisel Street.
It’s what’s left, at the end of the line (I imagine you insisting) that scans our lives,
marks our season’s faith, and amortizes all indentured loans.

iii.

“qu’est-ce que la poésie, si elle mérite son sel,
sinon un langage qui passé de main en bouche?” (DW) 

The cross-hatching drizzle imitates flaking snow.
It’s not Boston, just Castries, near the Square.
Snow, or warm rain, whatever city, the sketchy common news

these days is of war in ancient lands, terror
in towns whose subways we’ve negotiated,
vice parading proud banners in new Gomorrahs.

And while the bellowing fog of Babel’s collapsing ziggurats chokes 5th Avenue
with the same old hatreds—
from some obscure archipelagic galaxy,
unknown nebulae, light-years ahead,
sign fresh canticles to patient watchers on Becune’s surf-battered coast and on hill-top
hamlets of Plateau.

iv.

“but come, girl, get your raincoat, let’s look for life
in some café behind tear-streaked windows…” (DW)

I didn’t see any 36 views of Mount Fuji. From the bullet-train to Kyoto,
Fuji wasn’t there for the film. Like Morne Gimie in July, forest worlds floating in
self-indulgent cloud.
I did see Kabuki—at a theatre near Ginza Station, on Harumi Street in Tokyo—

language winged like pagodas, lines played for wood-block prints of Tokaido
traffic, teahouse courtesans, bombastic actors. Didn’t see Hiroshima. Or Nagasaki.

Sound a gong, lay a blossom on the lily pond of the Golden Pavilion—for
Roddy,

Brodsky and André Tanker. For these gracious, courteous, transmigrated souls,
pour a rice saké
as you pass the Shinto shrine near your hotel. These lives line your work, as ours—
shoguns and faithful companions following some Minshall dragonfly muse, from
Gulag to Santa Cruz,
faith drawing our straggling band to this sepulchral escarpment—as in some “View
from Moule à Chique, after Hokusai.” Or, after Apilo.

v.

“The only art left is the preparation of grace.” (DW) 

Did Blake see angels sitting in the neighbours’ trees?
Did an angel smile at me on a train platform in cold Boston one Winter?
Will Christ come with Ezekiel’s four-faced seraphim and their fiery wheels?

In this dark networking age, the schoolmen assassinate the Author, desecrate the
groves of wonder,
scrabble on their bellies to find significance in the dung of scarabs; in columns of sneers,
they sniff out apostasy, line-up heretics, trigger disputes. Orwell warned
us of those tenured tyrants. Come Virgil and Dante, Aesop and Pascal, come griots
and chantwèls, come Ti Jean and Anancy,
come, fireflies peeping from evening bush of Monchy, chase ‘way those soucouyants!
We passing through Vanity Fair, learning our lines, Grace steering us,
to reach in front the Ancient of Days, Who sitting on the circle of the created
stratosphere.

vi.

“I am going down to the shallow edge to begin again,
Joseph, with a first line, with an old net, the same expedition.” (DW) 

After the largesse of Sweden—gold medal, hand-written scroll, krona quickly
gone in the exchange;
after the depth of the blue N circled on the Konserthuset carpet,
after the cramped hands weary of inscribing yet another title page—

did you sense the hound stirring to its feet
as you entered the Grand Hotel?
Faithful guardian of the craft
that brought you here, he would not leave

his master to banquet whisperings of sirens, braided tongues of polite laughter,
even generous cushions under his exhaustion. He points Pissaro’s island.
He scents Becune Bay. He is eager for the Bounty of futile
mutinies that fall as cedar settling scarlet around the patient Hound.

vii.

Okay. Time for this procession to begin.
The legacy gathering. The Monsignor waiting in the appointed place.
M’sieu Kendel, take the shac-shac please. Call violon, bones and mandolin.

Princess Jane, you carrying the Choiseul panier of petals. Majèstwa Dixon, please
to bring your dear stentorian self. You leading this line.
Chantè Fish Alphonse, where you? The weedova dancers

ready?—And now, if it please your floral majesties, King Derek and Queen Sessenne,
to grace us with your pleasantries—we must go up,
to bring our arts’ offerings to the Son,
the First in Line, the End of metaphor, the Psalm of the Embracing Voice…

(2003)

AK: “Line” is not the only poem dedicated to Walcott. Another one is “Lusca” in which you reflect on the gap between the city and the countryside. Are you “a town boy” yourself?

JRL: Yes. I grew up not far from the Folk Research Centre area, a place between the country and the town. Only through the FRC, years later, did I come to appreciate my folk culture. Other poems like “Artefacts” describe that early life.

AK: Is this a real difficulty you felt, the ability to relate to the rural parts of the country?

JRL: Not all the time. But I did feel a distance. I was English speaking, with very little Creole. My grand fathers were Barbadian which means they were English in language and culture, not Creole in the St. Lucian sense. My parents read and wrote and education and books were important in my home. So all this, in a strange way, separated me from the rural folk and life.

AK: In this poem Lusca is a country girl, a figure that stands for St. Lucia. You reflect here on the difficulty of setting up a home in St. Lucia, but also more generally in the Caribbean, where the relationship to the land was established by slave or indentured labor. So any poetic reclamation of homeland inevitably encounters this history of dispossession and the impossibility of establishing any easy and straightforward connection with the indigenous populations in the region. But the difficulty you are trying to register is not a facile opposition between the chaos of the city life and the peace of the countryside. You’re not interested in that at all…

JRL: No, I’m staying on the border. In the in-between space. Seeing both sides but not fully identifying with any. As I said earlier, I have never been moved by strong nationalistic fervor and flag-waving.

AK: Yes, you write: “Perhaps Lusca, we should build our house / somewhere on a valley’s side, a valley moving / with its riverbed, between the country and the town.” The home you imagine here is a precarious one. You touch here on a paradoxical but compelling possibility of belonging – you are not interested in an exclusive, nationalistic vision of home and neither do you give in to a nihilistic impossibility of imagining a home anywhere at all. What is the complexity of home and belonging that you are trying to capture in your work?

JRL: I’m not a nationalist, I’m not interested in nationalism. I love the country and the people, but I can’t bind myself blindly to those kind of superficial, sentimental loyalties. I think I am too free for that. It’s a personal thing, it’s my nature. Where I grew up, I was separate a bit from things… I think I’m a kind of separatist, I like to be separate, you know. I’m involved, but not too involved….

AK: I think you’re very involved!

JRL: Yes, of course. And yet, I do it by observing it from outside.

Lusca
(for Derek Walcott)
          Moonlit rings I never knew,
their songs, or dances, chances for first gropings in the dark;
never had I known like you, grandmothers and their days of pride,
chantwelles for this feast-day or that.

You, your early gods were rum-soaked banjo-players,
wanderers of hills and towns, story-tellers, gossip-mongers,
to whom you gave your heart up captive, new each time, to each new
                                                                    chord,
to each sweet tongue of flute that whistled you past long canoes,
down lonely tracks, to rivers hiding naked among rocks
and frowning rain forests.

You knew of old crones dégagé,
of strange and silent single men who, they said, might have mounted
you,
you dear Lusca, in their magie noire!  You knew as I did not
of soucouyants and loup-garous, of kélé and kutumba,
of chembois and of obeah!

Books could make me fear the dark, but your grandmother,
head scarved, nostrils flaring, could flame her mist-ringed eyes
and send you quick to bed or straight to father-priest’s confessional:
                          -duh lajablesse is coming!
                                      -M’sieu Luwoi et Papa Bois!
                                                   -Look! duh screaming faceless Bolom
                                                    searching for Ti Jean and Lusca! 

 

And so dear Lusca I have a loss to claim:
my friends must know that town bred as I am,
my hands are soft, my feet cling poorly to the land,s
my fingers scratch in vain, my toes itch for shoes to wear;
here, I am Lusca’s lover, nice boy, but still from town.
The earth will not be entered by my hoe, it cannot conceive
that I can truly want its syllables of roots, its language
of firm green shoots that climb from it with confidence and with trust.
A stranger here, my seeds grow weak-kneed, if they grow, and lack truth.
No one believes them, their garbled pidgin making them the village idiots.

And this is why, dear Lusca, I must remain a lover,
and have but safe acquaintance with your past.
Or every image in your album
will fill me with a morbid lust
when each deserves my gratitude.

My plot of ground is dry and hard
as sidewalks are; at nights street lamps
block out the stars, and hi-fi sets
replace the country violons.
And I must dig foundations deep,
plunge steel and concrete shafts into this city’s dirt,
and hope for structures firm,
and spare, no space for flair or show,
each entrance, passage, exit, clear and marked,
each section storing much within  a little space.
Perhaps Lusca, we should build our house
somewhere on a valley’s side, a valley moving
with its riverbed, between the country and the town;
then we would see the city’s lights
and hear the dying belle-aire drums,
comb the dust of highways off our hair
and smell the burners’ blue-smoke pits.

(1978)

AK: The problem of home persists in your work. For instance “Artefacts”…

JRL: Oh, it’s very autobiographical.

John Robert Lee's old house; painting by Ron Savory

John Robert Lee’s old house; painting by Ron Savory

AK: It is dedicated to your children and the first part is titled “house”…

JRL: It’s very formally organized. A lot of my poems are like that, I’m a formalist in many ways. This poem is very deliberately short-lined.

AK: So would you say that the discipline of the form gives you a way of holding fragmentation?

JRL: Yes, and to shape it. And to go through it, yes.

AK: “house” is organized and fragmented at the same time – you not only enjamb lines, you also disrupt words. It is the only poem of yours I’ve read which so dramatically focuses on the fragmentation of life and on the effort of poetry to hold this life together. You are giving your children a family narrative that is not easy to hold together. Was this a real difficulty – does this section reflect the actual laboriousness of putting your family history together?

JRL: Maybe… I think you’re right, yes. I don’t think I wanted it to be hard. But this was very difficult. I haven’t written a lot of autobiographical stuff like this. This is very personal. In fact, it took a long time to publish this – it was so personal. I was in Boston when I wrote this. I was on a Fulbright Fellowship for about a year and I wrote this poem “Artefacts.” But the other sections are clearer, I think. This one’s very personal. The other parts are more open, but this part was meant to be very focused and more tight.

AK: Let me ask you about the last section of this poem, “city”…

JRL: Castries… my memories of it even though I did not live in the city itself. My aunt and cousins did and I spent time with them. Of course my Anglican schools were in town and the poem remembers these days. And my father ran a small drug store on Jeremie Street. Those were vivid memories.

"My vernacular city" John Robert Lee

“My vernacular city” John Robert Lee

AK: Here again you don’t settle for an easy definition of home. You write: “All / those figures of birth, lineage, growing ambitions, lie / vaguely on our curriculum vitae and say / nothing much about what makes us call a city / home.” Figure is a poetic term and I read you as being interested not so much in producing appropriate and fixed figures for belonging but in returning to the question of home, posing it again and again. If not “those figures of birth,” then what? How, for you as a poet, does poetry help in addressing this question of belonging?

JRL: Hmmm, how does poetry help? Well, searching all the time. Searching, digging, examining through metaphors, through images, through form. It’s also like a hologram, giving different angles and perspectives. I actually have a poem called “Hologram.”

AK: You like this effort of searching, of walking… In “Dread” you are interested in departure – “I set off / towards horizons decked with choice” – but not so much in arrival. In that poem, the wanderer never arrives, he comes to the edge…

JRL: True.

AK: It is disquieting.

JRL: But then what comes next [in Sighting, the most recent collection] is “Prodigal” where I come out and how I come to faith is what gives me a way out, yes. A way out of despair. Faith in Christ saved me from despair and all else that comes with that. And the poems reflect that journey from “Dread” and loss to faith and clarity of my life as man, poet, world citizen. That doesn’t mean that I am not still, always searching experience for further clarification. But the important part of the journey, finding the direction, the Way, the principles and values, the truth and so on, is settled. I am heading home. Through storms or good weather. Pointed in the right direction.

Castries, St. Lucia

July 30, 2013

Hologram
(for Luke, Barbara and Ace Salisbury)

After the roll & tumble, we may find a startling
company of grandfathers: long obscure poems loaded with secret
perfections, put away for the quiet retreat of returned prodigals;
muttering lyrics, once rejected, hold freedoms that we’ve twisted
our lives all out of shape to find.

Poems are like children.  Conceived in mystery,
our minds lost in strange passions, they arrive
to be fussed over, pinched, hugged and worried;
dressed up, dressed down, straightened out, set clear
on ways of speaking (they’ll bear their own

subtleties & indiscretions, make their own intrigues, stir gossip);
we compare them to others’ children, are aggressive
for their success, fear namelessness in their failure,
excuse all weaknesses, despair over their future,
humiliate ourselves to get them good recommendations.

Then, we fight to let them go, fall where they may,
make their way, shape their world, talk their
jargon, hope they’ll be found honest.  It is certain
that life’s not an open book: the plainest face withholds
founts of sly metaphor & all sorts of reversing symbol.

Fathers, sheltering stones that revolve in our ancient bones,
may they make true friends, as I have.
I commit you to the future with prayers,
my children, my poems, my friends.

(Boston, 1991)

John Robert Lee blogs at MAHANAIM notes.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Works cited:

Kendel Hippolyte “Robert Lee’s Dread Season“; Saint Lucian Literature and Theatre: An Anthology of Reviews, 2006.

John Robert Lee “Questions of Responsibility: Kontè Magazine”; Saint Lucian Literature and Theatre: An Anthology of Reviews, 2006.

Vladimir Lucien, personal correspondence.

Endnotes to “Line”

* The Walcott lines:
(ii) from “Italian Eclogues” [The Bounty]
(iii) from the French translation of “Forest of Europe.” Trans. by Claire Malroux [The Star-Apple Kingdom]—”what’s poetry, if it is worth its salt, but a phrase men can pass from hand to mouth?”
(iv) from “Piano Practice” [The Fortunate Traveller]
(v) from The Bounty [Section Two, #1 (Untitled)]
(vi) from “Italian Eclogues” [The Bounty]

canots – St. Lucian fishing canoes hewn out of gommier trees.
Becune – sea-side location of Derek Walcott’s St. Lucian home.
Plateau – in the high hills of Babonneau, northeastern St. Lucia.
Kabuki – traditional Japanese theatre.
Roddy – Roderick Walcott, twin brother of Derek Walcott, died in 2000.
Brodsky – Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, Nobel prize in1987, died in 1996.
André Tanker – Trinidadian musician, who composed music for Walcott’s plays, died in 2003.
Minshall – Peter Minshall, Trinidadian carnival designer.
Moule à Chique – mountain on the southern tip of St. Lucia, crested by a lighthouse.
Apilo – nickname of Dunstan St. Omer, St. Lucian artist, lifelong friend of Walcott.
Chantwèl – female lead singer of St. Lucian folk groups.
Soucouyants – vampire-type creature of St. Lucian folklore.
Krona – Swedish currency.
Konserthuset – the Stockholm Concert Hall in which the Nobel Prize ceremony is held.
Shac-shac, violon, bones, mandolin – musical instruments used by St. Lucian folk bands.
Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King-Hippolyte, MacDonald Dixon, Fish Alphonse – St. Lucian poets, friends of Walcott.
Choiseul – St. Lucian village, famous for its crafts, like straw baskets (panier).
Majèstwa – St. Lucian Creole word for magistrate, a character in the street theatre of the flower festivals unique to St. Lucia.
Chantè – male lead singer of St. Lucian folk groups.
Weedova – a St. Lucian folk dance.
Sessenne – St. Lucia’s leading folk singer.

Credits:

Interview © John Robert Lee and Ania Kowalik
Poetry © John Robert Lee
Photos © John Robert Lee; Marion Nelson and Allen Sherman; Shaul Schwarz/Getty Images; Vladimir Lucien; Stephen Paul

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4 comments

  1. This is so wonderfully comprehensive – and organised with beauty. i love the looking back and forward that runs through it. Give thanks.

    Kendel

  2. The right direction, marked by Word, leading so gently towards simple paths of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. So cleansing and refreshing too. Many, many thanks.

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