Three years the laureate - Mervyn Morris reflects on stint guiding Jamaican poetry
While Jamaica prepares to officially observe 55 years of political independence, Professor Mervyn Morris can also use August 6, 1962, as a marker for reflection on a markedly shorter time span. His stint as Jamaica's Poet Laureate - the first since Independence - was three years. His official investiture was on Wednesday, May 21, at King's House.
He has been succeeded by Lorna Goodison.
The Sunday Gleaner, asks Morris if he was surprised to be made Jamaica's Poet Laureate. "Truthfully, no," he said in his accustomed level, measured tone. "There had been indications," he said, those coming from persons who would say he was the right person. Still, there was some careful consideration on his part - among that, the need for a poet laureate and the terms of the post - before accepting and becoming the designated public face and voice of Jamaican verse.
There was financial and logistical support, Morris saying, "The important thing is they supported the programme by arranging the travel, and, when it has been necessary, arranging for you to be outside of Kingston." This was critical to one of Morris' objectives for his stint as Poet Laureate, Morris crediting the National Library of Jamaica for the role it played.
"One of the main things I wanted to do, and managed to do some of that, was, in a sense, draw on other poets who were available and put them in touch with audiences in Jamaica, especially audiences outside of Kingston, where they may not have seen many poets. So it was, in a sense, building a
community of poets who were willing to read, present."
Readings across Ja
That programme became The Poet Laureate Presents series, with readings across the island. The 'out of town' intention was carried though from the get-go, as the first one was held in Port Antonio, Portland, featuring Professor Edward Baugh in his home parish, and Tanya Shirley. Morris names places and poets - along with some reminiscing on the details of each staging - his delight in the memories obvious.
In Kingston, there were Ann-Margaret Lim and Millicent Graham at Bookophilia near Liguanea; in Manchester, there was Dr Earl McKenzie (who taught for many years at Church Teachers' College) and Jean Goulbourne; Linton Kwesi Johnson and Jean 'Binta' Breeze were the poets at UWI's Western Jamaica Campus in Montego Bay, St James (Morris said, "We were fortunate to have two poets of such international renown); Mutabaruka and Yasus Afari read in Negril (with a stop at The Manning's School along the way); M'Bala, Yashika Graham and Dingo read at Munro College on their way to the event in Black River, St Elizabeth. That was very, very successful," Morris said. Dr Ralph Thompson and Dr Velma Pollard read in Port Maria, St Mary; in Ocho Rios, Raymond Mair and Cherry Natural were featured; while back in Kingston, Dr Michael Abrahams and Delores Gauntlett read at the UWI's Mona campus."
Many of the readings were held at parish libraries, and Morris noted that in a situation where poets are often not paid for reading, "one of the nice things was that the National Library offered a fee."
Morris said that he was persuaded to read at the Negril event by the National Library of Jamaica's Winsome Hudson, but there were other events during his tenure where his voice was heard in full. Among them was an event in Bristol, England, which coincided with the Jamaica Rising project in which Yashika Graham and Dingo participated. The Bristol reading became part of the mini England tour by Morris, and he also read in South Africa (incorporating a stop in New York, where Johnson was doing a residency) and St Lucia.
It was not only the voices that Morris pushed to get a wider audience for, but also poems on the page.
"I had the idea that there were so many good poems and books that many people did not know existed, so it would be good to fit some of them into the space The Gleaner provided," Morris said. That became From Our Poetry Books in The Sunday Gleaner's Arts & Education section, Morris noting that Justine Henzell of the Calabash International Literary Festival was "crucial" in securing that outlet.
The selections from books led to a book, close to the end of Morris' tenure as Poet Laureate. Where the required permission was secured, the poems were published in the collection - In This Breadfruit Kingdom (Blouse and Skirt Books) which was launched in May this year.
"I wanted as much as possible to have a sense of range of Jamaican language." Morris said, that naturally carrying over into the collection. And, again, those whose poems were used here offered a fee. It was not the only poetry collection for a man who has had a hand in the shaping of many collections, reviewing manuscripts (or parts thereof) long before becoming Poet Laureate.
His own Peeling Orange, which includes selected as well as new poems spanning from close to Independence to the present, was published by Carcanet Press close to the end of Morris' tenure as Poet Laureate.