Kei Miller, Nadia Ellis, Ann-Margaret Lim, Tanya Shirley
Kei Miller, Nadia Ellis, Ann-Margaret Lim, Tanya Shirley
It would not be unfair of me to attribute much of what I know about poetic craft to Mervyn’s tutelage. That might seem strange to those who know our poems, which are very different. There is, perhaps, at times an excess and extravagance in my work that seems nothing like the economy and restraint that characterizes Mervyn’s. But then, poetic sensibility is not the same as craft. My poetic sensibility comes (I would imagine) a little from my own personality, and my days in the church, and initially the poetry of Lorna Goodison and more recently a kind of brash, male, American lyricism (W. S. Merwyn, Eliot Weinberger, Ed Hirsch, et al). But as Mervyn likes to say, all good writing is rewriting, and it is this profound lesson that I take from him—this refusal to be precious about anything, this willingness to cut and to edit ruthlessly, the maturity of not just having a sensibility but being willing to subject it, whatever it is, to craft.
There is another small thing he did—a game, really, that he had us play in my very first workshop. It is a game that I now repeat in the workshops that I lead and that has become a conceptually large thing in my own poetic practice. Mervyn had us write nouns on little squares of paper and the corresponding definitions on separate pieces of paper. We mixed them all up, and then through sheer luck or serendipity, nouns would reattach themselves to new definitions that they somehow resonated with. Poem—an organ full of blood that beats in a cavity in our chest; Heart—a place where dead things are buried; Cemetery—a lyrical organization of words that often rhyme. That sort of thing. I am convinced now that the great poems always do this—they always expose the world as being insufficiently defined. They take words, place-names, feelings and offer us new and surprisingly resonant definitions for them.
Perhaps that is just an elaborate way of saying the old dictum: avoid clichés. And perhaps in time I would have come to this understanding on my own. But the fact is, I came to it very quickly under Mervyn’s tutelage. Nuff respect is due to him.
Kei Miller is a Jamaican poet, essayist, and novelist. His latest poetry collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, won the Forward Prize in 2014.
Mervyn’s Agnosticism; or, How to Look Askance while Believing
It is not, of course, that Mervyn doesn’t believe. It is that he believes so much in the urgent necessity of form, the rigor and elegance of which is so scarce in our nonsense world, that he must—one senses out of sheer preservation of mind and soul—retain a skeptic’s eye. To be entirely wide-eyed, to gaze directly at unrealized poems while also doing the work, God’s work, of encouraging young Caribbean poets to keep going, would be a mode of undoing. And so what Mervyn does instead is to slant his gaze a bit, to insert sufficient distance, not too much, to take in the work with a bit of humor. This humor offers some grace to the relationship between master and student, enough to keep Mervyn believing and the younger poet hungry for praise and thus ready to work harder.
You can see some of this, Mervyn’s technique of looking askance and his adoration of form, in the JCDC lecture included here. The irony comes early on in his inimitable use of the comma: “I been there, sort of.” (A citation of one of his poetry collections, but also a sly reference, perhaps, to his ground-breaking essay “On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously.”) This is the knowing insertion of necessary distance, a sign that Mervyn plans to identify with his audience only so much. Restraint guides Mervyn’s veneration of form, too. Notice that the majority of the poems he has selected as examples of good form have been chosen because they withhold. There is Philip Sherlock’s minimized half line, right before the volta; there is Lorna Goodison’s afterthought clause; there is Olive Senior’s irony—irony being a form of not saying; there are Dennis Scott’s five short lines.
I had the pleasure of experiencing Mervyn’s skillful eye and his unimpeachable taste in the classroom as well as on the page. As an undergraduate I took lectures and a heady, delightful poetry workshop with him. (Here I must apologize, Mervyn, for my own undergraduate attempts foisted upon you!) Much of what I learned in Mervyn’s classes was how to see things the way he saw them: as a committed artist who nevertheless refuses just to barrel on through with any straightforward platform (“don’t buy in- / to any sweet mouth programme”). I saw that he nurtured the heart of a true believer and that he also honed a skeptic’s tongue. He taught me to slow down, to think harder, and to apprehend the power of indirection. He suggested to me through his own poems, and through his responses to the work of others, the strong effect of saying more by saying less.
Nadia Ellis is assistant professor of English at University of California Berkeley where she teaches black diaspora and postcolonial literature. Her book on black belonging, Territories of the Soul, will be published this fall.
The Mervyn Morris
My original intention while in my first year at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, was to apply to the law school after completing the first year. Seeing the Mervyn Morris in action in “Introduction to Poetry” and in the other poetry classes I took in that year changed that. I was dumbstruck and awestruck when I saw the man who wrote “The Pond,” the poem I encountered in CXC English literature classes, in front of me, in blue jeans and a doctor’s shirt, with a spade of a white beard and a baritone laugh he was generous with. I didn’t apply to law school after those spellbinding experiences with Professor Mervyn Morris.
After graduating from UWI and working as a journalist, I met Professor Morris again at a production he was attending and I was covering. He noted that he had seen my journalistic work, but, “What about the poetry?” I told him I only got a B in his creative writing poetry class (he chose twelve of us, if I remember correctly). And he said, “If that’s the case, I should have failed you.”
Being in Professor Morris’s classes for those three years, I got an idea of the man, and I knew exactly what he meant, that I should have continued with the poetry, and that’s how and why I started writing poetry again in the latter half of my twenties—Mervyn Morris’s disappointment, admonishment, and foresight. He is my first poetry father.
Ann-Margaret Lim lives in Red Hills, Jamaica. She has been published in journals, anthologies, and newspapers. Her first poetry collection, The Festival of Wild Orchid, published by Peepal Tree Press (2012), was nominated for the UK Guardian First Book prize and received honorable mention for the 2013 OCM Bocas Prize.
It Is Not Enough to Chant Down Babylon
I have taken many workshops, I just published my second poetry collection with Peepal Tree Press, and still I find this speech by Mervyn immensely helpful. No matter where we are in our career as poets, we cannot take for granted the importance of crafting and revising our work. I also benefited from the context provided by the poems he cites and his comments outlining some of the reasons the poems succeed. That brings me to an important point about Mervyn and poetry in our contemporary society. Mervyn wants writers to succeed. He comes from a generous place. I have relied on him since my undergraduate days to give me constructive criticism, knowing that in the end he has my best interest at heart. Our global society now privileges immediacy and fame. Anyone can publish a collection of poems. That doesn’t mean you should. Your church group will tell you they love your poems, your addiction anonymous group will praise you, your university writing club will commend you. However, many of those people will not buy your book. Publishers will reject you. You will not get even a mention in any contests. I am not saying that these are the only means of ascribing value to work; what I am saying is, if you want to succeed as a poet, why not share your work with established poets? Why not read the kind of poems that get published and win awards? I am still surprised by how many aspiring poets do not read poetry but would want others to read theirs. I am saying that being a successful poet means you produce work that, as Mervyn’s speech outlined, follows some of the conventions of good poetry, and this is regardless of your genre. So if you want to write dub poetry, it is not enough to chant down Babylon. Your chant must have surprise, irony, consideration of rhythm.
I first showed my work to Mervyn at a time when I was young and frequently read my poems at events. It would have been easy for the “fame” to go to my head, but because I was also studying literature at UWI, I knew my work did not match up with the work I was studying. I showed Mervyn my work because I wanted to be better. I wanted to be a successful poet, and by that I meant a good poet. I’m not sure many young people currently writing care about producing good work. I think it is too easy for people to get caught up with the appeal of having their name in black and white, their glamour photo on the back of a book. But it is unfair to have us suffer through that. I am not speaking from a place of complete mastery. I am constantly learning. I still show Mervyn nearly all of my first drafts. I value his opinion in my revision process. I remember he visited a writer’s workshop I belonged to at the University of the West Indies and shared his first drafts of poems and then the final drafts, and it was amazing the transformation that the poems went through, sometimes even with just the omission of one word. Writing poetry is not easy work. I published my first collection nine years after I finished my MFA, and all that time I was working on revising and creating, creating and revising. In this tribute paying homage to Mervyn, I want to publicly thank him for the role he continues to play in my life. I trust his voice and I trust his desire to see me do well on the international poetry stage. I hope that I can be to my writing students and other poets half the mentor he has been to me.
Tanya Shirley was awarded an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland. She currently teaches in the Department of Literatures in English, University of the West Indies, Mona, where she is also a PhD candidate. She is the author of two poetry collections, She Who Sleeps with Bones (Peepal Tree Press, 2009) and The Merchant of Feathers (Peepal Tree Press, 2014). She is a Cave Canem Fellow and has performed her work in England, Scotland, Newfoundland, the United States, and the Caribbean.