Poetry and performance

Philip Nanton

The high literacy level among Barbadians is no guarantee of professional success for local writers who, as the result of a small reading audience, often have to earn a living abroad. Performance poets, however, are striking a new beat. 

If the existing plans to set up a national literary festival next year become a reality, it will be interesting to see how the contrasting worlds of Barbados’ literary establishment and the younger generation’s sometimes radical performance poetry can, or will, coalesce. 

The Caribbean boasts two living Nobel prize-winning authors in Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul and the regional’s literature is established as an area of academic study in its own right. With Montserrat, Dominica and Antigua all hosting annual literary festivals, and Trinidad and Tobago launching its Bocas festival this year, Barbados does not want to miss the chance to showcase its own literary achievements. 

For some years now, three internationally known writers – George Lamming, Edward Kamau Brathwaite and Austin ‘Tom’ Clarke – have represented Barbados literature to the outside world. They have won major awards for their work in and out of Barbados and, at home, are widely respected for their literary achievements. 

Authors based in Barbados have two choices: they may seek international publishers or they may self-publish. The former often results in publishing houses overseas holding the copyright to their work, while the latter is handicapped by a lack of editing, marketing and distribution skills. Although over the years Barbados has developed a well-established mechanism for encouraging new writing, the pattern of reliance on external publishing houses has not changed. 

While they each have strong ties to the island, poet Brathwaite and novelist Clarke are based in New York and Toronto respectively. Lamming, who commutes between Barbados and New York, perhaps comes nearest to having a finger on the local pulse. He is consultant editor to the recently re-established, government-financed, biannual literary magazine Bim – a journal edited by poet Esther Phillips (see ‘Leading lights’), who works hard at encouraging new writing talent on the island. 

At the other end of the literary scale are the performance poets who have established their own popularity in Barbados over the past 15 years. Theirs is a form of versifying that is predominantly public, unsubsidised and commercial – performed at events that charge a modest entrance fee. The poets attract enthusiastic audiences of over 100 at monthly gatherings – a large number for regular poetry events. The themes usually involve metaphors of resistance, communal initiatives and the nurturing of ancestral links. 

Most of the performers recite their work from memory. A backing band or a DJ may supply rhythms for poets who require this, although a few may be musicians and singers in their own right. The audience, most of whom are in their late 20s or early 30s, crowd around the stage and offer encouragement or commentary or wander off, depending on their interest in the artist. 

The fact that the performance poets live and work locally gives them more of a presence than writers like Lamming, Brathwaite and Clarke who have understandably chosen to live abroad to support their writing careers. Although the island has a literacy rate of 99.8 percent and an estimated population of 288,000, the local reading audience is small. There is also a lack of established book publishers, with the sole exception of academic publishing at the University of the West Indies. 

The National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA) and the annual Frank Collymore Literary Awards honour new creative writing on the island. To date, poetry and short story writing has predominated but many of the prize winners have failed to find publishers – although Thomas Armstrong’s Of Water and Rock and Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, which won awards in 2008, have since been released in Canada and the USA respectively. 

Barbados is also now beginning to flaunt its other cultural assets as a matter of government policy to cope with the economic downturn. Soon after taking office in 2008, the administration made the international pop star Rihanna an official cultural ambassador, and the Barbados Tourism Authority (BTA) has also brokered an agreement with her to promote the island as a tourist destination through advertising campaigns and public appearances. 

However, the wider process of development of the cultural industry has some way to go. The return of Rihanna in August was a coup – her popularity and international success in the pop world plays well in fostering national identity and a sense of social cohesion. At the same time, the sector’s development depends on the market place and requires active government support for an industry that remains fragmented, small and disorganised.

About the author:

Philip Nanton is a Barbados-based freelance writer


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