Anthony Joseph on the Influence of Kamau Brathwaite
Anthony Joseph on the Influence of Kamau Brathwaite
Anthony Joseph is a radical wordsmith. His work makes language elastic, stretching it to capture the sounds and rhythms of Trinidad, the Caribbean region, and the Caribbean diaspora. He works in several forms—poetry, prose, music, and scholarly research—but his work is always, at its foundation, poetic. Joseph has earned positive critical reviews for his writings, which include four collections of poetry and a novel, The African Origins of UFOs (Salt, 2006), which Kamau Brathwaite describes as “great new ‘second generation’ Caribbean stuff—movin away from the script & the Scruff—or ratha—betta!—writin upon it—over and under it.” This interview about Brathwaite’s influence on Joseph took place in Brooklyn, New York, on 8 November 2016, and was edited for publication in January 2018.
Kelly Baker Josephs: How did you meet Kamau Brathwaite? What effect, if any, did the encounter have on your own work?
Anthony Joseph: Well, I’ve met him at least three times. The first time I met him was in London. He was staying at London House, a postgraduate residence on Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury. I don’t know how he ended up in there, but we went there. It was an introductory thing. We were just talking, you know, and he said something to me, which is something I still use a lot (I quoted it in my thesis). So, it wasn’t necessarily his influence on my work, but that encounter influenced my view of what it meant to be a Caribbean writer. I said to him, the longer I stay in London, the more I'm actually writing about the Caribbean; I find myself writing about the Caribbean more and more the longer I stay away. And he said, “Well, you only really become a Caribbean person when you leave the Caribbean.” It’s a simple idea, but at the time I hadn’t thought of it that way. He’s one of these teachers; I call him a deep teacher. He’s someone that teaches you really profound things in very simple sentences. Earl Lovelace is like that as well.
The idea of being more Caribbean in the UK was profound to me at the time. And that contextualized a lot of things and made me begin to think of myself as being someone who was in the diaspora but still very much a Caribbean writer. I think up to that point I felt I was drifting away from the Caribbean, and I was becoming insular. I was doing my own little thing here, and I didn’t really associate myself that much with the Caribbean. I felt I was drifting away from the Caribbean, the longer I stayed.
KBJ: When was this?
AJ: This was 2005. It was definitely after Lauri Ramey introduced us.
AJ: Yeah. Because he wouldn’t have met me otherwise. I worked with Lauri when I did a residency at California State in 2005, so it would have been 2005 that I met Brathwaite, after I came back.
KBJ: Okay, so you were already working on the manuscript of The African Origins of UFOs and had published two poetry collections, Desafinado [Poison Engine, 1994] and Teragaton [Poison Engine, 1997], but you still felt like you were drifting away from being Caribbean?
AJ: Well, not drifting away, but I thought that I was fully in the diaspora rather than . . . I didn’t see myself as a Caribbean writer. I saw myself as a writer that was from the Caribbean. But, when he said that, I started rethinking that whole idea and thinking of myself more as within the Caribbean and doing a little bit more research on that idea and seeing that part of the condition of Caribbeanness is diaspora. I mean, Kamau says it as well. He says it in “Sir Galahad and the Islands,” one of his early essays in Bim, that “the desire (even the need) to migrate is at the heart of West Indian sensibility."
That was what that encounter had for me. And then, later on when I met him the second time, I did a workshop with him. It was a workshop/talk thing that he had at New Beacon Books in London. It was more, I guess, practical advice about writing and about aesthetics and being connected to an African trajectory in Caribbean writing, and how to connect to that.
KBJ: He was giving the talk? Was it for young writers?
AJ: Yeah. He was giving the talk. It was just an audience with Brathwaite. We met in the middle of the day, upstairs in New Beacon. There were about six people there. And we just chatted.
KBJ: Do you remember who was there?
AJ: No, I don’t. I think maybe Malika Booker was there, though I can’t be certain anymore.
KBJ: It wasn’t something that created a community of people/writers there?
AJ: No. I don’t think it did. We were already a sort of community, a sort of family of Caribbean writers who were begging to carve a space there. It was definitely an important moment, and those who were there gained a lot from it.
KBJ: How long had you been in England by then? When did you migrate?
KBJ: So, you would have been there almost twenty years by the time you met Brathwaite. Do you think that first meeting—and that idea of being a Caribbean writer—had some effect on your work? You mentioned that you also quoted him in your thesis, so meeting Brathwaite had an effect on your critical work as well? Or just your creative work? Or maybe both in ways you can’t quite separate?
AJ: When I was writing the thesis, I used a lot of his work because I was looking at liminality; I was looking at writers who rejected fragmentation as a way of looking at the Caribbean. Someone like Louis James, an English scholar who wrote books on the Caribbean literature in the sixties—someone like him would say the Caribbean is a fragmented region. People all speak different languages. There is no common thread. It’s a fragmented society, with fragmented literatures. I kind of believed that at first: we have these little islands, we all do our thing. But then I started rejecting it. I started thinking, no, there are things that connect the Caribbean. The Caribbean as an idea, it’s not fragmented. So I looked at [Derek] Walcott, who connects the whole thing.
KBJ: “The sea is history.”
AJ: Yeah, exactly. And Brathwaite as well. He said—
KBJ: “The unity is submarine.”
AJ: “The unity is submarine.” So, I started looking into that, and I used Brathwaite’s work to show that there are ways of looking at the Caribbean as a unified region rather than a fragmented region. So, that idea of Caribbeanness fed into that.
KBJ: Do you remember the first Brathwaite poem that you read? Or heard?
AJ: The first Brathwaite poem I read was in secondary school. It was in a book called Bite In, a poetry anthology edited by Cecil Gray. It was a text we used in class. This would have been late seventies, early eighties. One of the poems in there was “The Making of a Drum.” That was my first encounter. At the time, I didn’t know who Brathwaite was, but I remember reading that poem in school and thinking, hmm, this is a curious poem, I like this. But I didn’t know anything about the poet. When I moved to London, and I started going to bookshops and buying a lot of books, I started reading some more Brathwaite. But you know, by the time I started reading Brathwaite properly, I had already been writing for many years. So I don’t know how much of my own aesthetic he shaped. I mean, on a philosophical level, or an overview, ideas . . . But, the actual aesthetic, I had already formed, or at least begun to form, by the time I met him.
KBJ: What is your Brathwaite story? When someone brings up Brathwaite, what is the story that you would almost always tell? Whether it’s about the actual work or the man or some combination of the two, what narrative of an encounter with either him or his work would you repeat?
AJ: When I was working on my novel The African Origins of UFOs, it was just after I had met him. I asked him to write an introduction for the book. I couldn’t imagine anyone more suitable to do this. So I sent him the manuscript but didn’t hear from him for weeks. When the publisher started asking where the intro was, and with time running out until the book went to press, I knew that Kamau wouldn’t make it in time. I e-mailed him and let him know what the situation was, that he didn’t have to do it, that I’d be honored to have a blurb instead. He was so grateful. He was, like, “Oh, thank you so much because I love the book, but to get into this, to write an introduction . . . It’s just so much to get into.” I sensed that for him, an intro wouldn’t be brief. I thought that was so beautiful, how happy he was. And, of course, the first time I met him, and he said to me that you don’t become a Caribbean person until you leave the Caribbean. That’s another bit of deep teaching that I’ll carry with me.
There have been other little things. Once I saw him read at the Queen Elizabeth Hall or Royal Festival Hall, and Blake Morrison introduced him, and Brathwaite just appeared between the curtains, dressed all in black. He didn’t say hello; he just started reading. Spellbinding.
KBJ: What quarrel do you have with Brathwaite?
AJ: I don’t really have a quarrel with him because I love his work, and I love what he stands for and his courage. But, if I do have a quarrel, it’s that he’s at that level where he’s creating a kind of self-sufficient universe for his work—which is what I think all writers try to do, all artists, great artists try to create a body of work which has its own rules, which is a self-sufficient universe of its own rules. So, it’s very hard to go in there and fault it or critique it because it’s operating by rules that you probably don’t know. Someone like Brathwaite is like that. Walcott less so. Walcott, I think, is tied to a tradition, very much. But, someone like Lovelace a bit, and there’s a painter from Trinidad, Leroy Clark—he’s got a self-sufficient universe thing going on. And I think because of that, because Brathwaite is creating this self-sufficient universe via writing poetry, sometimes his quality control or some of his editing choices are not always right. Or they are less important than the urgency of the word, of the message.
KBJ: You think more so in the later work, as that world has developed and been recognized as self-sufficient?
AJ: Yeah. The later work.
KBJ: Perhaps because that work requires that you learn the rules and editors haven’t necessarily learned the rules? Or, are you saying that Brathwaite himself should know the rules enough that he should do better quality control?
AJ: I think he should, but it’s almost like he rejects the tradition of Western verse and purposefully does his own thing that is not connected to Western literary history. He’s almost writing against that. I read an interview he did with Nathaniel Mackey, in which Mackey asks him if he sees co-relations between his work and that of Charles Olson, in terms of how he and Olson both write about history, and Brathwaite said that he hadn’t read Olson, that he wasn’t familiar with his work. He went on to discuss Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, and what he saw as a focus on the fragment, on fragmentation, and on ruins, within their work. He argued that Caribbean people, and Caribbean writers, begin with the ruins and then try to reassemble or reconstitute those ruins or fragments into a cohesive society. He made the point too that these writers had not considered the concerns of Caribbean peoples, that it went both ways, so he couldn’t say he was influenced by them.
For me, I like Charles Olson. I like some of Eliot’s work. I see myself as part of a wider community of poets and writers, and we’re all trying to write well, you know? Even if you’re a white middle-class dude from Massachusetts, we’re still engaged in the art of trying to make good verse. So, I always thought it was curious that Brathwaite would never acknowledge being part of that tradition of poets. I always got the feeling that he saw himself as very singular and very apart.
But when I asked him, Who are your influences?, his answer was even more unexpected. He said, “Well, when I was a child there was a guy carving a map of Africa in the corner . . .” [laughter] “A shoemaker who was carving a map of Africa . . .” Makes sense. Makes sense, but, you know . . .
So I guess the only “quarrel,” which is not a quarrel really but a curiosity, is that it would be interesting to see how he would engage or even wrestle with the constraints or language of more restrictive or formal verse, verse in the tradition of editing, and form, and meter. I’d love to see him write a Petrarchan sonnet, for instance, or his version of a villanelle.
KJ: Do you think that the first trilogy, Arrivants, has that?
AJ: I think it begins like that. I think his early work definitely has more formal structures, a tighter meter, an attention to form, in some way. It’s very precise. But then later on . . . I mean, not even Born to Slow Horses—that’s incredible—but a collection like Strange Fruit might’ve benefited from some tighter editing, maybe.
KBJ: I wonder if editors just allow him because—
AJ: It’s who he is.
KBJ: Well, partially because of who he is, but also because of that self-sufficient world you mentioned. It takes ongoing work to learn that world, and so you can’t always tell when something is not right in it. An editor might just think, Well, I can’t tell what this is anyway, so it’s all right or it’s all wrong.
AJ: That’s right. My editor at Salt Publishing, Chris Hamilton Emery, who published The African Origins of UFOs, had a story about Words Need Love Too. The book had gone to press and Brathwaite called him up, the night before it was to be printed, and said he needed to change a line. Chris had to literally stop the press so Kamau could change his line.
KBJ: Have you been having a conversation with Brathwaite in any of your work? If so, what is this conversation about? How does it manifest? Is it visible in your finished work or just part of your process? All of that is based on whether you’re having a conversation or not. When I write, in my head there are people having a conversation with me and with what I write. They may not end up in the piece itself, but I have an imagined dialogue with them about what I am writing.
AJ: Yeah. I don’t see it as a dialogue. For me, people like Brathwaite, people like Walcott, people like Lovelace, their energy, if you’re aware of their work, you read their work, and you’re familiar with the rhythm of how they write, they could influence your work in the middle of a sentence. You could be writing, and you feel a Brathwaitian energy and it ends up in the work. Or you feel a Lovelace-like phrase or a rhythm or a vibration. So, from time to time I’m writing and I can tell, oh, that’s something like Brathwaite would do.
KBJ: What would you say a Brathwaitian energy is?
AJ: It’s audacious. It’s muscular. Like the beginning of this poem in Born to Slow Horses, where he begins by saying, “Dem fine two dead fish / lay out in the plate of his white tongue / w/out language."
That’s audacious. That’s a reclaimative kind of power. There’s a muscularity to it which is insisting, this is what happened. I'm telling you, this is what happened. There is no room for any other reality or image.
I don’t know if that makes sense. I had a workshop with Lovelace, and he said that in a lot of literature about the Caribbean, Caribbean people are not portrayed as knowing stuff, as being intelligent. So his job is to create characters that know stuff. People that are intelligent and have volition and are clever. So he struggles to make people have force. Not just comical or funny or charming characters, but characters that are intelligent, smart.
KBJ: “And have force.” I like that. Because you can be intelligent and smart and not have force.
AJ: Yeah. So, it’s a voice. It’s giving voice to the voiceless, to give it that power. I think Brathwaite does that. Sometimes I connect to that briefly.
KBJ: Is there a particular line of yours that shows a moment of that brief connection?
AJ: Yes, I’ll quote something. I'm working on something new.
KBJ: Poetry or prose or somewhere in between?
AJ: It’s in between. It’s poetic prose. It’s a novel. One hundred chapters, and each chapter is exactly one thousand words long—one hundred thousand words exactly (though footnotes are separate). So, a line like, “Melcoir say they spit roast that hog all day and still under the belly yellow.”
KBJ: Why is that Brathwaite?
AJ: Because there are different ways you can say that. You could say, for instance, ‘That day the men spit roasted the hog and then later, when they checked under its belly, it was still yellow.” That’s one way of saying it. Or you could say, “Melcoir told me a story. He said that one day some men spit roasted a hog.” But to say, “Melcoir say they spit roast that hog all day” . . . it’s on the one. It’s not on the down beat. It integrates an element of speed. It’s not reflective, it’s direct.
KBJ: Okay. But I’m not sure everyone reading this will know what you're talking about. You’re a musical poet. You write and perform your poems to beats. So that’s part of the way you’re hearing it.
AJ: Yeah. So, you know, for another example, this: “She arrives at a hotel with windows which open out to a highway in Rouen. Smog and dirty feathers, dust and her mother dead and in the earth, planted like a seed."
This has a different languidity than “Melcoir say they spit roast that hog all day.” It’s, like, duh-duh, duh-duh. It’s a rhythmic thing.
KBJ: Even with the differences between Trinidadian and Bajan rhythms, you still hear Brathwaite?
AJ: Yeah, I think so. Trinidadian speech is quite unique in that way of attacking something, attacking an idea and ridiculing or subverting it with language. A Trinidadian could say the most tragic thing, the most horrible thing, and make it sound so you laugh your head off.
KBJ: And you feel that Brathwaite has, not that latter part, but you can still hear him in that Melcoir line? Even though your rhythm is Trinidadian?
AJ: Yes. But, I don’t know if my rhythm is Trinidadian. Sometimes it is, but I think generally it’s made up of what I read, of people that I read. It’s made up maybe a little bit of [Allen] Ginsberg sometimes, a little bit of Brathwaite sometimes, a little bit of [Amiri] Baraka, a little bit of Mighty Sparrow thrown in there. It took me a long time to figure out that we create our own voices, our unique arts and whatever, but that we do so standing on the shoulders of those we have read or heard.
KBJ: It goes back to your quarrel with Brathwaite.
AJ: Yeah, man. I mean, the guy wouldn’t even say, “Oh, Martin Carter.” No one.
KBJ: In “A History of the Voice,” he does talk about Claude McKay and T. S. Eliot. Though I can’t remember just now if he simply uses them as examples of nation language or as influences on his own work.
Is there anything else I didn’t ask that you would like to add about Brathwaite and/or his influence on your work?
AJ: A question that I ask myself is why hasn’t he ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature?
KBJ: Well, that’s why I asked you to do this interview, because I saw that exchange you had with Vladimir Lucien about this on Facebook.
AJ: Yeah. It’s just a dialogue I’ve been having for a while now with people. I asked Brathwaite too.
KBJ: What did he say?
AJ: [Laughter] He just smiled and said, “Oh, them people would never give me that.” He laughed.
KBJ: Well, such a prize means being part of the “establishment.” Again, that question of having that self-sufficient, closed world in his work.
AJ: That’s it. Yeah. That’s the thing. I mean, I was like that. I still am in a way. I create work, and I think it’s my original thing, my own universe, and it is, but of course I'm influenced by people. Musicians, writers, Brathwaite, everyone. It’s a paradox.
Kelly Baker Josephs is an associate professor of English at York College, City University of New York. She is the author of Disturbers of the Peace: Representations of Insanity in Anglophone Caribbean Literature (Johns Hopkins, 2013), editor of sx salon: a small axe literary platform, and founder of The Caribbean Commons.
 Edward Brathwaite, “Sir Galahad and the Islands,” Bim 25 (1957): 8–16.
 Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History,” in Selected Poems, ed. Edward Baugh (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007).
 Kamau Brathwaite, “Caribbean Man in Space and Time,” Savacou, nos. 11–12 (September 1975): 1.
 See Nathaniel Mackey, “An Interview with Kamau Brathwaite,” in Stewart Brown, ed., The Art of Kamau Brathwaite (Mid Glamorgan, Wales: seren, 1995), 13–32, esp. 23.
 Kamau Brathwaite, “Dear PM,” in Born to Slow Horses (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005), 63.
 Anthony Joseph, The Frequency of Magic (forthcoming, 2019).