The Rub

I never wanted to be a writer. Talk the truth, I never thought about what I wanted to be, apart from a mad wish to be a ballet dancer, one time, when I was very young. I let it go when it became clear that I didn’t have what it takes, and I came to that clarity by the time I left to go to college in the US at age seventeen. I can still see Betsy Stewart Beckford pirouetting en pointe and—I think it was Betsy, and if it wasn’t her, it was Jeanette Nasralla—doing a running leap into Clive Thompson’s arms. I couldn’t do that.

I don’t think I considered being an actor, either, though I knew from I was about ten years old that I could reach and hold an audience by being Not-Me. (I shall soon have to write about being “Not-Me,” but I’m not doing that now and won’t do it here.) I had that early talent recently confirmed by a friend who told me that my thespian abilities were noised abroad at her high school in the country by the husband of a beloved teacher, an Englishwoman, who taught me and who was also in charge of drama at Alpha Academy, a downtown Kingston school. So it seems I did have something to bring to the boards. This enjoyment of the performing arts as a child and my possibly seeing a future in them seems to have worried my mother, for I once found something she wrote to the effect that I had the impossible fancy of becoming a movie star. Well, Mama, I did make it to TV, and that, in the event, decided my life, for good or ill, for there I met the late Martin Mordecai, babyfather, with whom I cohabited for 54 years…

I can’t say, as others have done, that writing, or writing poetry “claimed” me, though I could write a well-shaped, serious poem at age nine, when I used Walcott’s ‘pages’ metaphor to describe weather in a poem about Hurricane Charlie, which hit Jamaica in 1951. Walcott used pages for the sea; I used it for the stages of that hurricane. At the start, I wrote poems as a way of exploring experience, of thinking it through. Perhaps my poems reflected on life more than they re-experienced it, recollected it in tranquillity. A poem like “Chapel Gardens” describes a real experience, which I think over, and through, and then pass a “good girl” judgment on. (A recent critic, writing about that poem, says I’ve nothing invested in passion. I guess he hasn’t read “Cockpit Country, a Tasting Tour.”) Maybe that sells “Chapel Gardens” short, though. The University of the West Indies, like every university, needs to plant things “deep as a tomb” to grow in its garden, chapel or otherwise. This highest seat of learning can’t be about whatever used and discarded condoms signify, can it? Perhaps UWI hasn’t planted deep when it should have? Perhaps most universities haven’t? Perhaps that’s one reason why the world is the ravaged place it is?

When I came back to Jamaica in 1963, opportunities came at me and I seized some. I was a member of a couple theatre groups after I came back from college, and had the extraordinary privilege of participating in the first dramatization of Kamau Brathwaite’s Rites of Passage in November 1967 at the Creative Arts Centre (now the Philip Sherlock Centre) on the Mona campus of UWI. The late, great Noel Vaz directed. And I auditioned for the job of part-time TV anchorperson at JIS TV in 1965 and I worked at JIS TV (and at API, which it turned into for a while) till 1980. I worked very briefly for USIS anchoring a TV short clip meant for showing in this part of the world. But TV and theatre were hobbies, not earning-a-living pursuits.

Maybe, because my mother had been a teacher, I just assumed I’d be a teacher too. And that’s what I set out to do, was trained (at UWI Mona) to do, and did well enough that I was able, with an amazing writing partner, the late Grace Walker Gordon, to write textbooks for use in Caribbean schools. Royalties from those books still provide the substance of my earnings, as they have done for the last thirty years. They also led to my first literary publication: Storypoems: a First Collection. And teaching led me into writing and publication, for those textbooks for primary and secondary schools are full of poems and stories.

Now, nine collections of poetry, a novel, and a short fiction collection later, I call myself a writer. Maybe I wondered into the writing business. Maybe God had it there, waiting for me from the beginning. What has become clearer in the journey is that writing kept me sane, was my therapist. It saved me. And there’s the rub.