Reggae poet talks at UWI
Participants in the workshop on performing poetry led by Linton Kwesi Johnson at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, last Monday would have known that he is a highly regarded Jamaican poet. They might not have known, however, that in 2002, he became only the second living poet, and the only black one, to be published in the Penguin Modern Classics series.
Nor might they have known what Professor Carolyn Cooper said in her introduction: that the 63 year-old United Kingdom-based poet, who is often referred to as LKJ, has four volumes of poetry, nine albums, and is much anthologised.
In light of this, we were surprised when Johnson revealed that he has not written a poem in the past decade. His tentative explanation was that perhaps he does not want to write anything inferior to the work he has already done.
In any case, the message that came across loud and clear during the two-hour workshop was that neither writing nor performing poetry is easy. That message was obvious even from Johnson's personal definition of poetry as "the distillation of experience through language that offers, on rare occasions, a
fleeting insight into the human condition."
He also said that writing good poetry is an art and a craft that one has to learn. It took a long time for him to learn, Johnson added, admitting that he "cringed with embarrassment" when he looked back at some of his early work.
Another lesson that LKJ had for us was that it is important for a poet to find his (or her) own voice. Initially, his poems were in Standard English and imitated the poets he was reading at the time Kamau Brathwaite, Martin Carter, and AimÈ CÈsaire among them. Later, he switched to writing 'reggae poetry', a name he prefers to 'dub' poetry, which is most often used by others to describe his poems.
Explaining the origin of the term, Johnson said that he had associated the concepts of 'blues poetry' with the work of poets like Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Ted Jones. Then there was and 'jazz poetry', including the work of Leroi Jones (later called Amiri Baraka) and a group of African-American poets who called themselves The Last Poets, whose work was accompanied by percussion instruments.
Johnson liked their use of everyday African-American speech in their performance, and when he first heard reggae deejays, he got the idea of writing reggae poetry using ordinary Jamaican speech.
"I thought of their work as dub poetry and I wanted to write reggae poetry. The distinction between the two is that dub poetry, as I saw it then, began with a piece of music, not with the word, and the poet would create words to fit the rhythm of the music. With my idea of reggae poetry, you'd begin with the word and the music would insinuate itself into the words. The music would come out of the actual structure of the language ... . The other difference with dub poetry was that the poets would intone their work in a semi-melodic way. For me, with reggae poetry, you'd speak the words plainly, not make it sound like music," Johnson said.
He had some difficulty getting it right, Johnson said. "I had to learn a way of reciting without sounding singsong. I was so drawn to the music and to the rhythms of reggae that sometimes I'd find myself sounding more like a deejay than a poet ... . [Performance] poetry is about speaking language as opposed to singing it. If you're going to be a singer, then sing. If you're a poet, then talk," Johnson insisted.
LKJ then gave an example of what he meant by reciting a line from his poem Dread Beat and Blood, about a fight in a London nightclub, with the word "rocking" enunciated in two different ways.
Many of his poems are structured like songs, he said, with verses and choruses alternating, or, in the case of work songs, with a "call and response format". He recited his poem It Nuh Funny to illustrate his point. In the recording, he chose three lines from the poem for the bassline.
When he first began to perform his poetry Johnson used drummers as accompanists. There were difficulties with getting the right balance.
"The problem with working with musicians is that sometimes they don't realise that they're there to accompany you. They think it's about them," he said. "The worst experience you can have is trying to shout to get yourself heard."
"The drummers get excited when they see the crowd and start to beat their drums louder and louder ..." he said. Ironically, he said, "the quieter the band plays on stage the better it is for the sound engineer who is mixing the sound for the audience. It took me about 20 years to get it right".
LKJ's reggae band consists of a bass player, a drummer, a rhythm guitarist, a keyboard player, a trombonist, a saxophonist, a percussionist, and a violin player.
He said that writing poetry was something he liked doing but also had to do. "I began to write out of a need to articulate the experiences of that generation of youth from the Caribbean that I belonged to in Britain," Johnson said.
He started getting invited to poetry readings more and more. Once he began to make records, Johnson found that he could make a living as a reggae artist.
Now, though, he is faced with another challenge. "I can't make any money from my CD sales anymore," he said. "I have to depend on live performances. The CD has almost disappeared."
The workshop was organised by the UWI, Mona's Department of Literatures in English.