ARI ALANNAH HERNÁNDEZ (AH), CHARLOTTE LÓPEZ (CL), MICHELLE RAMOS (MR), NILO MAHATMA CAITUIRO MONGE (NM), LORETTA COLLINS KLOBAH (LCK)
Richard Georges is the author of the debut poetry collection Make Us All Islands (Shearsman, 2017), which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and Giant (Platypus Press, 2018). He won the Marvin Williams Prize for Caribbean Literature in 2015. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Prelude, Smartish Pace, decomP, The Puritan, WILDNESS, The Caribbean Writer, The Rusty Toque, The Poetry Review, Wasafiri, and elsewhere. He is a founding editor of the online journal Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters. He lives and works in the British Virgin Islands.
In the violet hours, under the palm arcade,
a colony of crows sit with fiery lidless eyes
watching the ethereal sea tumble on,
and the scarred mountains seem to rise,
the trees shudder in a rushing rattle,
a wind moving amongst the bones.
From Make Us All Islands, by Richard Georges
With a gathering of readers in Puerto Rico, Georges discusses how he reimagines in his poetry historical scenes related to sea wreckage of slavery vessels near the BVI, the lives of migrant laborers who travelled by sea, and current connections between the BVI and other Caribbean island cultures. He refers to the movements of his collection Make Us All Islands, in which he ‘divided the poems, generally, into three intentions’:
The first group of poems were concerned with the liberated Africans, the second with Los Cocolos, and the third with contemporary BVI. I thought of these as movements in the sense that the three sections were reflective of waves rolling into shore. The movement within them, despite being three distinct historical periods, was similar. The arrivals and departures, the ramifications of the same, and the ultimate submission to the untamable sea. I am reminded of the closing lines of Omeros, of the sea still ‘carrying on’ after the characters had left it.
AH: What personal journeys have led you to become a poet who writes about the isles of the British Virgin Islands and the connections between Caribbean islands?
RG: I’m not sure how best to answer that. I don’t know any other way to be a poet, or a person in the world for that matter. I’m a Caribbean poet foremost, I was not born in the BVI. I was born in Trinidad to a BVIslander father and a Trinidadian mother. His mother is Antiguan, her mother is Grenadian. He grew up in Guyana, and I grew up in the BVI. Because of that chain of connections, I think that the vibrations that drive my work are deep in the currents of this sea, those currents that touch each island – I would invoke that famous image of Brathwaite’s from ‘Calypso’, ‘the stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands’.
AH: In the opening poems of Make Us All Islands (Shearsman Books, 2017), the figure of the ‘griot’ is invoked, as he speaks of the ancestral histories and kinspeople that reside at the bottom of the sea. The poem ‘Griot’ names the ‘cross of the griot’: ‘to speak for the speechless, / to grip the stern of the bone and coral sceptre, to be mounted, to sing light into bleakness.’ Searching out ‘verses trapped in the holds of divers prisons,’ his hymns are for those drowned in sea burials: ‘black limbs fused to the reef,’ perishing in the ‘breaking slaver,’ the ‘cries lost in sea erupting.’ By focusing on shipwrecks and sea journeys, you relate stories that ‘speak for the speechless,’ as a kind of poet/griot. Why have you selected the crossroads of the sea floor as a primary site of socio-historical retrieval and poetic exploration?
RG: I’m not sure I am possessed with that agency. I see these tropes as inescapable as they are the landscapes and seascapes of our histories, of how we got here. All I’ve attempted to do is to excavate those depths, to try to see or imagine those moments, those realities that remember that particular genesis, which is one of many in the Caribbean of course that entwine and bleed into the central stories that we give prominence to now.
MR & AH: We have watched a video interview in which you describe how the sea was a central part of your doctoral research. Can you tell us, if anything more, what attracted you to academically study that particular theme, the sea, in Caribbean literature and how it ultimately became an important part of your own writing? How did your interest and knowledge of shipwrecks and sea crossings find their way into your poems?
RG: That concern and consternation around the sea was there prior to the poems, and it persists, I think. I look at the Mediterranean migrant crisis, and I can’t help but think of the ways it echoes the Middle Passage, Kala Pani. But these are the higher registers, the louder vibrations, and I come from a small place where the quieter registers, and the humming vibrations don’t always get heard or sensed. I knew I had to find a way to both memorialize and give life to those crossings and wrecks so that they could live in more minds, more imaginations.
LCK: In the poem ‘Griot,’ he ‘drums the ground with his staff.’ In ‘Offering,’ history is traced through the ‘slow march of ribbed/ barnacles’ that inscribe their ‘glittery mosaic’ in Olokun’s underwater realm, near the wreck of the Restaurdora. The poem juxtaposes grim images of sharks eating the limbs of those ‘still chained their tongues mute from mourning sun and shore’ with imagery of ‘nervous clouds of silvern fish.’ The poem ends with a striking image of the rooted, wrecked ship keels, ‘their masts like trees planted in the dense sand.’ These two images in the first introductory poems of the staff making contact (sound/drumming) with the ground and the ship masts rising like trees from the reefs make me think of the idea and act of ‘grounation/groundation/ grounding,’ mentioned frequently in Caribbean literature, music, and spiritual lifeways. Your poems are often situated in on-land ruins of the islands and submerged shipwrecks that contain stories not fully erased by time. Are you engaging with the idea of ‘grounding’?
RG: I’m not sure. I do know that I have been turning over rooting/routeing in my mind, and thinking about the ways in which the sea may not contribute to feelings of weightlessness, to that floating feeling. But instead, offering up the sea as an ironic alternative, that even in it, we cannot escape history, that gravity which keeps drawing us back to itself.
AH: When reading your poem ‘Offering,’ the reader gets the feeling that he/she is actually seeing an image that is under the water, as if it were a photograph or video taken under the waves. Have you had the opportunity of scuba diving near -or at- one of the sites of the shipwrecks that you poetically stage in your collection Make Us All Islands? If so, what was that diving experience like, and how did you transfer it from what you saw into your poetry?
RG: I’ve actually never scuba-dived! Those images are pure imagination. Learning to dive is one of the things I wish to learn.
MR: Of course, not all of the poems in the collection are about shipwrecks. Through several of your poems, we see images of everyday people experiencing Caribbean life – from the coal master in ‘Bushing in the Pit,’ the perceptive cook in ‘Mural,’ Betty in ‘For those left behind to ponder a hillside,’ the hired men with their cutlasses and the old woman under the tamarind’s shade in ‘The Cutters,’ the old woman who died of grief in ‘On the Loss of Lovers,’ and the domino player and fishermen, among others. What was your inspiration for portraying some of these people?
RG: With the exception of the Betty character, each of those are portraits of real people, or amalgamations of the portraits of multiple people. I wanted, alongside the heavy historical element of the book, for there to be a thread of personalized work that humanized the bodies that are dealt with in the abstract elsewhere in the collection.
CL: Do you consider yourself a ‘poet of witness’? Can poetry serve as a cultural healing process?
RG: In some ways. I don’t consider my particular witness as inherently valuable or more valuable than the next person’s, but it is definitely therapeutic in the personal plane as I work through all the cultural, social, and historic traumas exacted upon this place and its peoples. In order for poetry to serve loftier aims, it would have to be read much more widely, and much more intently and then engaged with critically, skeptically, even.
LCK: I became especially interested in the poems that respond to the inter-island voyages and lives of the seasonal workers who travelled by ship and spent months away from their homes, families and friends as economic refugee or exile in order to earn money through arduous labor on islands where sometimes the language spoken was not their mother tongue. In terms of Caribbean cultural crossings, how has the ‘Cocolo’ figure become one that you return to again and again in your poems?
RG: Discussions of Caribbean histories, like I said before, are overwhelmed by the larger registers – the plunder and attempted genocide of the indigenous peoples; the transatlantic slave trade; indentureship; European naval wars. Those massive historical concerns almost serve as distractions from the quieter moments that likewise exacted their toll on our bodies. The migrant worker phenomenon in the region did not just begin, and the turn of the twentieth century brought opportunities for work for residents of the smaller English-speaking Caribbean islands in Cuba, Panama, and in this case the Dominican Republic. This isn’t a well-worn topic, but it is that seasonal migration to the Dominican Republic from the Virgin Islands that gave us our most severe maritime disaster. So here I was, with all this history, all this pain, and all these stories to work with – to give voice to.
MR: In your poetry, you mention the multi-cultural religious beliefs of the Caribbean, such as Hinduism, with Hanuman (‘Leslie’) and Ganesh (‘Ghazal of Guyana’); African religions with the Orishas and the deities Olokun (‘Offering’), Eshu (‘Eshu’) and Anansi (‘The spider resting on the rafter’); and the Biblical tradition and Rastafari, with references to Tzion (‘The Heavy Anchor’) and Gomorrah (‘Cane Harvest, La Romana 1918’). For a poet writing the Caribbean, do you think that spirituality is a vital mainstay and literary resource? How does bringing together so many spiritual traditions of the region give you a means of exploring our distinctive but, over time, linked lifeways?
RG: I don’t think we can escape it. Those religious traditions surrounded and enveloped me throughout my life in the region. If you are a poet interested in the divine and human communion with it, there is a vibrancy and a richness to the way divinity is understood here that is really liberating in a way. There are so many different ways to approach the sacred here, each way bleeding a bit into the other.
LCK: Which poets or books inspire you to write at the moment? Any recommendations for readers?
RG: This is a frighteningly long list. I would have to condense it somehow. I am always searching for new work and revisiting the old. Right now, for the old, I am playing around with collections by Robert Hayden and Louis MacNeice. As of poets who inspire me right now? Maybe it’s easier if I just name Caribbean poets? Here’s a short list: Shivanee Ramlochan, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Danielle Boodoo-Fortune, Raymond Antrobus, Vahni Capildeo, Andre Bagoo.