When do you get to call yourself a writer? Olive Senior who very kindly introduced me at the launch of my first novel, Red Jacket, at Ben McNally’s bookstore on 9 April 2015, remarked, humorously, that now that I had written a novel, I would have passed the test that many believe is necessary to qualify one as a real writer.
I fear I did not wait to be tested. I’ve been describing myself as a writer on my passport for a long while now, on the basis that over the past couple of decades, I’ve earned a living from nothing but writing and writing related activities, for I have not had another job in a very long time. It’s not a fabulous living, but it’s a fairly good one. I confess that juries of my peers have been good to me, and that I rejoice ever day that Canada is a country that values writing and the arts enough to support its writers and artists through excellent granting systems at city, provincial and federal levels. But I must acknowledge the awful truth is that had I stayed in my native country, I should not have written a collection of short stories, a novel, a play which has been brilliantly mounted and excellently performed, and the last four of six books of poetry (including de book of Mary, which Mawenzi House will publish in the fall).
By the time I reached Canada in 1994, I had written three of the five children’s books I have published (the most recent, The Costume Parade and Rohan Goes to Big School, published by OUP in 2000 were written here), and many of the poems in two of three manuscripts of children’s poems that await publication. Sadly, the widest exposure of my poems for children is by means of anthologies and textbooks published in the UK and the USA, the US textbooks being for their schools markets, the UK texts being for the Caribbean. Now that we are in the digital and cyberage, exposure has been multiplied manifold via materials on password-protected websites. Happily, many of the textbooks published in the UK are for the Caribbean, which means that Caribbean children see my poems, but I’d love to have a collection available throughout the Caribbean. However, it is harder and harder to get poetry published anywhere!
A recent anthology in which four of my poems appear is called A Caribbean Dozen, published (1994 and 2011) by Walker Books in the UK and Candlewick Press in the US, and edited by Guyanese John Agard and his wife, Grace Nichols. A more recent one is called Poems to Perform. It is edited by former UK children’s laureate, Julia Donaldson, and published by Macmillan Children’s Books in 2013. In it, there is a favourite poem of mine called “Caribbean Counting Poem” that has been around a long time – as so many of my uncollected children’s poems have been, for I have not published a book of my own children’s poems since 1993!
Nevertheless I clear permissions for use of two or three poems a year and continue to be delighted by the fact that the poems that are ‘out there’ seem to have a life of their own. How determined a life I had not realized till I encountered, in The Guardian, that wonderful newspaper published in the UK into which I now wonder online with increasing frequency, an article dated 2 October 2014 with the headline, which I italicize for ease of recognition: ‘Tony Mitton’s top 10 poems to remember and recite” and the subhead, “Being able to recite a poem by heart is impressive so – as National Poetry Day’s theme this year is “remembering” – Tony Mitton picks out 10 perfect poems to learn, love and recite’. Here’s the url: http://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2014/oct/02/top-10-poems-to-remember-and-recite-tony-mitton-poetry-day
Mitton, a poet himself, allowed that it was a list offthe top of his head, but whether or no, I was delighted to see my “Caribbean Counting Poem” in that top ten. So I’m not just a novelist, a poet, a writer of children’s poems and stories – I’m the writer of one of the top ten poems to remember and recite – at least according to Tony Mitton and as seen in The Guardian. I can entirely live with that!