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'Oh for the day ...' Tanya Shirley's dream to see poetry more appreciated in Jamaica

Published:Sunday | July 24, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Tanya Shirley, author of She Who Sleeps With Bones, is still amazed at the treatment poetry was given at the eighth World Poetry Festival, held in Venezuela from June 13-18. "I was very impressed," Shirley said, adding that Professor Edward Baugh, who made the trip to South America for last year's staging, had a similar reaction.

And while the high level of organisation evident from initial contact through to reception in Venezuela and the high-tech setting of the first reading in Caracas were part of the lasting, good impression, the obvious value placed on poetry was striking. "You feel the work you were doing meant something to the general population," Shirley said. "You felt you meant something to the people who came in to the events.

"I felt that as a writer my contribution to global and regional literature was valued."

Being from Jamaica did not hurt; at one reading of the five she did in various states, a man who attended because he heard a Jamaican was coming, presented her with a bracelet that he had made. Shirley read in English and a translator then repeated the poem in Spanish, so the work resonated with the audiences.

At that first reading, Shirley read 'My Christian Friend', a very dramatic translator delivering the Spanish. The lines "I tell her isn't it nice that there's/flexibility in Christianity and the Bible is really just a good book of poetry" resonated with the audience - and fellow poets - on a level she had not anticipated.

The poem tapped into an ongoing debate on Christianity and women's sexuality, and not only did some people who attended that Caracas reading come to Shirley's other readings outside the capital but also persons in those states who had heard about the poem attended as well.

Then there were the other poets who read poems critical of Christianity, dedicated to the Jamaican poet. Twenty-five poets from North, Central and South America, Africa and Europe participated in the festival.

Also, there was the woman who found a translator's package with Shirley's poems and, the following day, brought "her entire family, from grand-mother down" to meet Shirley.

Shirley also read in Yaracuy and Aragua, the four-hour drive to the former showing similarities to Jamaica. However, that goes beyond the physical, as she said, "It is almost like I could see our people and culture reflected in the people and culture there."

"I felt optimistic. I thought if we are so alike, why can't we embrace poetry here on the same level? As poets, we have to demystify this whole idea of the poet who sits in the ivory tower and locks away for years and years."

In interviews there, Shirley said she was often asked how her poetry is revolutionary. "I had to say my work is not the 'hit you over the head' work. But even writing personal poems and sharing them in the public space is revolutionary, because there are still those people who believe women should not say certain things in public," Shirley said.

"People tend to pigeonhole you. Yes, I do write the erotic stuff, but I am still writing about things that are happening in the society."