The Path of Negative Growth

A Conversation between Vladimir Lucien and Lorna Goodison

• June 2022

Often we think we are in charge of conversation, in charge of our interactions. My conversation with Lorna Goodison was delayed several times, for various reasons. When the day finally came, although we were both merely speaking of our experiences, there seemed to me to be some other shaping element, something we were collectively creating that was serving us both far beyond and deeper than the “reason” for our conversation. Something else was expressing itself to us that we both had experiences with but had been reluctant to speak about or share. This is the conversation that we had, or that had us.1  —Vladimir

 

Vladimir Lucien: Let us begin with the very moment we’re in. I know you had the bad weather on your end, which caused us to postpone this conversation, for instance, and we have the pandemic. How have you been coping with it all?

Lorna Goodison: It’s been very humbling, because I think it’s like what Rasta would say, you know: Man like to think like dem rule de earth; dis just showing we nuh rule nutting. Because where we live is called the Sunshine coast and is supposed to be like, “Wow, the Sunshine coast!” and we have never seen more snow. Nobody who has been there has ever seen more snow. I’m just saying it’s very humbling, and that is what the world is being told right now.

VL: That of course applies to the whole COVID situation as well. . . . I thought I would start with this whole idea of where we are based as well. I wanted to actually start with your special love for New York (where I am based).

LG: I love me some New York. It’s the first place I ever went to outside of Jamaica. And I went in fall of 1968, when everything was happening. It was the height of the Vietnam War protests. The music of that time was very important, and I went to take classes at the Art Students League on West 57th Street. I got into Jacob Lawrence’s class. And as you know, Mr. Jacob Lawrence was a great African American painter whose whole raison d’etre, his whole project was about the upliftment of his people. And he had an influence on me that I didn’t realize until many years later, in that he was very single-minded, him don’t want you to go into any argument about theory or anything. Him just say to you, “Lorna, go and do the work.” So for a long time I didn’t realize what I’d been given, but as I look back on my life now, sometimes the work has to be cultured for a long time. So even ideas you have and even just ways of being as a writer, sometimes you have to go into hibernation or into cold storage and develop. And it gets cultured over a fairly long period of time. So even when you think you’re not doing it, it is being done.

VL: I was having a similar conversation with a friend, where I called it “negative growth,” which is a “bad” term in business, but it is the growth that people don’t see, and it’s almost spiritual.

LG: It is spiritual. And, you know, in Sufism, they have a term that talks about a kind of—“the path of blame.” Sometimes in your life, you are going along what looks like “the path of blame,” in that everything in your life is going wrong—from the outside. All people see is just pure disaster and grief, and even you yourself, saying, “But, my God, what is happening to me?” But when you think about it, its almost like a spiritual barb-wire fencing, in that all that people see is that, and it keeps them away from [your] real growth. In the early stages, even a flame, when you light a candle, it take a little while before the flame get steady, and you cyann have everybody blowin’ on it. You cyann have everybody looking at it. So all of that outward stuff is just to keep people off the real growth.

The other analogy I use is—I don’t usually talk to people like this, I don’t know why I am talking to you like that, but we’ll just go with it. You know when dem building a nice new building, dem want to put up a ol’ rickety fence roun’ it. You pass it, and people write ’pon it, but all you’re seeing is the hoarding, and then one day when that move, you see this new building.

VL: So true. And I could totally relate to that image, being in New York. . . . I’m very interested in what you said about Jacob Lawrence in terms of that artistic commitment to the upliftment of one’s people. I was reading some time ago about Erna Brodber, [who is] a sociologist, historian—but she explained her moves in between these disciplines as that similarly single-minded concern with the upliftment of her people. Has that been a catalyst, or impetus, that has sustained you, to write and to continue writing?

LG: I come from a family of people who help. My mother’s father was a man who was known to . . . He would literally take off his shirt and give [to] people going to court. And I guess I go back to . . . ’Cause my mother was like that too. She help everybody. And my sister was a journalist, so I was lucky, because unlike a lot of other Caribbean writers, I grew up in a house where somebody was a writer. So it was in my upbringing that you could help people, but I didn’t know you could help people through poetry. That is something I had to find out for myself, you know?

VL: Did it take you a while?

LG: It took me a while, and it took me . . . When people would say to me, “I read that thing and it help me.” You know, I felt better.

VL: But it’s interesting that you see it as an extension of these ways that seem “far from poetry,” if you want to call it that, an extension of the tradition in your family of altruism. Poetry as sharing, perhaps. I taught poetry in Jamaica for six months at UWI [University of the West Indies] and couldn’t help but see that you birthed a lot of these poets coming out of Jamaica. Because in teaching them, it seemed to me that they were emerging from under your voice. They were working through some very serious issues, and I guess [working] to be able to give voice to it. Maybe it is that they were able to borrow and use your voice until they found their own.

LG: Then, if that is what I do, then my work is done, and I just give God thanks, because the worst thing in the world is to be in a situation where you can’t find any way of expressing what is really happening to you.

VL: Like that space of negative growth. Poetry is like that, something that is difficult to explain to others, what it’s doing for you or why you’re doing it: “Oh, you’re a bright girl or a bright boy”—note the word bright—“you could’ve been doing this and that.” For you, it is very evident in your work that it is a spiritual matter. . . . I’m curious now about Mother Muse, because my sense is that this is a collection that was a long time coming, hibernating . . .2

LG: I remember seeing Don Drummond perform at the Little Theatre. And I’ll never forget that as long as I live. He had what the very best artists have: he made it look easy. Everybody’s playing, and when he stepped forward, it just looked effortless. And it blow you away because what was coming out was something so complicated. And I did see Margarita [Mahfouz] dance once. And the same thing: I was aware again, with Margarita, that there was something extraordinary going on here. So when he killed her, it affected me in a way that I couldn’t even explain.3

So I’m saying—and I’d go back to where we started about this gestation period. So all these years later, here it comes. And I’ll tell you this, she never gave me any rest until I wrote those poems—Margarita. There’s one of them I think is called “Tell Them,” like she say, “You must tell dem, mi waan yu tell dem, tell dem who I really am.”4 In Jamaica, I remember all the terrible misogyny and victim blaming that went on when that woman died—it was horrible. So part of that was why I had to . . .

VL: But you develop it in a very kind of balanced way. So in redeeming Margarita, there doesn’t seem to be a kind of vengeful redeeming or an angry redeeming but one that’s very measured and balanced, almost by, maybe your sense of Jamaicanness, or, I’m not sure what it is . . .

LG: But he was ill. What I’m trying to say is that these were people who blazed trails, and they were ahead of their time. If he had lived now, he would’ve been able to get much better medical treatment, he would’ve been treated for schizophrenia. And it was the same thing with her. She was married to a man who was a professional boxer who used to beat her. Can you imagine a professional boxer beating . . . . So there are all of these mitigating circumstances and things that people don’t factor into the story. For months and months I just read newspaper reports. Some of the poems are made from things I found in the reports. As with Don and the medical condition, there were no avenues in her time for [Margarita] to be a professional dancer, except where she was dancing, which was in a nightclub. If she lived now, she coulda been the head of the NDTC (National Dance Theatre Company).

My aim as well is to have your generation see that people really suffered so we could be artists. We’re all so happy to be artists now, but the people who came before us, a lot of them paid a terrible price.

VL: Mhm, mhm . . . but also, apart from telling the story of Margarita, what was the sense of your connection to her? Because she is elevated now to the status of muse.

LG: One of the things I looked for when I was reading was other people’s response to her. And one of the things one of her friends said was that if you tell her something, you would never hear it again. Like, if you confided in her, she would never ever ever break that confidence. And that’s a quality in a person that I really personally admire. It really for me is a godly characteristic.

VL: You know we had been talking deliberately and otherwise about “negative growth” as spiritual growth, and now we’re talking about a female muse figure. And you’re bringing out a lot of things people did not know [about Margarita’s life and experience]. So in a way the muse is behind the artist, kind of in that space of “negative growth” we were talking about: occupying and doing the work in the dark.

LG: Absolutely.

VL: So what about divinity? From Harvey River, for example, seems almost like the book of Genesis with women, because the focus is on ancestry but coming down through the women.5 Now even though, yes, you are woman, I’m still curious as to the importance for you of that female line, and that female role that is there as well. It seems to me that in From Harvey River we see the vertical line of ancestry, and in Mother Muse we see that more horizontal line of partnership and love—

LG: That’s a very astute observation, thank you for that. Well, it just is. You know the Caribbean, that is how we are. When my mother died, I was sitting in church [for her funeral], thinking, “People really have no idea who this woman was,” you know, and [the inspiration] was from there. And then right after she died I had to go back to Ann Arbor, and nobody in Ann Arbor knew me. There was not another Jamaican I could speak to. My only companion was my son. So I went back to Ann Arbor, right into the winter, and I just started to write it, and I was conscious that I was writing about her, but I was also writing about Caribbean women, because a lot of those stories are my family stories.

VL: There is a phrase I use for it, because my mother is similar to yours in some ways. Like she would not be an international star or anything of that nature, but I call it “small-famous,” because locally—

LG: That’s a beautiful word. Yeah, it’s true. That’s a beautiful way to put it.

VL: Locally, people know her, and they know her for things she’s done, not from a distance but things she’s done for them or done with them, in actual contact with them, you know?

LG: That is real fame. Because the other type is more evanescent. When my mother died, a girl who had never actually met my mother, well, I met her in Cayman in a bank. She said one day my uncle came in with a bag with two pretty little dresses in it, since my mother had heard that [the girl’s] relative had adopted this little girl, so she made her these two little dresses. Because she say, “She must want to have a pretty dress like any other little girl.” Can you imagine that? Talk about “small-famous.” How about that for kindness.

VL: And in a way your poems do similar work in the “small-famous” family tradition of helping, except you lend your voice to others. Have you thought of [writing a] personal memoir? Like your own?

LG: I don’t want to do it. I think I might have to because . . . Mi never use to feel the need to share something like that, but I am amazed that we came on, and I just started to speak to you in this way. Recently I’ve been feeling that I have to speak like that more and more: things I’ve found out over the course of my life—insights, if you will. Things that might be able to just help. Because I wish someone had told me about that “path of blame” when I was going through what I consider a “path of blame”—I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t know what it was.

You know, I remember this person I was very attached to gave me Bertrand Russell to read—Why I’m Not a Christian—and I was eighteen or nineteen.6 And I just remember all I felt was confusion. It did nothing to help me in any way. It just knot up mi head, you know? And I said to myself, maybe we need versions of books like that.

VL: Yes. I feel like certain insights that we don’t know we have in the Caribbean, or as diasporic Africans—“all my weapons within me” is a phrase I think about often7—your work authorizes or makes okay, because the voice of the person speaking is usually speaking very much at ease with that world. Like from the beginning of From Harvey River, you think of your [deceased] mother handing you that book.

LG: Yes, it’s true, it’s true. God’s truth.

VL: And I’m wondering if that does not have something to do with the dearth of academic response regarding your work that Kei Miller decried?8 I wonder whether something like that spirituality in your work could be profitably discussed academically?

LG: Frankly, I’m way more taken up by the fact that some of these poems have actual use to people. Whether anybody write about it or not, I’m not going to be worried spending no time thinking about that.

VL: There is this US critic I came across some time ago, Kenneth Burke. He says literature is “equipment for living.”9 That became important for me during my “path of blame.” And the work that I am doing now, I’m looking at how some writing, when we understand differently what is being given to us, is action-oriented, is meant for direct use in your life even before “critical” response, which restricts it to the realm of the “literary.”

LG: Great societies have that kind of literature, you know—those are things to help you live your life. And poetry by its very nature is something given us to help make our lives easier. People don’t tell you that, but good poetry, that’s the purpose of it. When you finish reading it, something happen to you during that process that lifts you up some more. Or lift up something off you.

VL: We often forget the relationship that poetry has to the proverb. That even the craft it takes to put together a poem, it’s a similar craft. I did a workshop once trying to get people to create proverbs. Nothing is harder.

LG: That’s right. It’s very hard, because it comes out of collective folk experience and living. It’s your life lived that produces these proverbs. And very often, it’s pain that squeezes out these things. Like, you know, Ms. Lou. She would call me sometimes and say, “Lorna wa gwaan?” and mi tell her, “Well, Ms. Lou, nuttn much ah happen’ wid de work, you know,” and she’d say, “Just tek whey yuh get suh till yuh get whey yuh want.” That might sound simplistic, but let me tell you something: when you not getting what you want, it’s best to just tek whey yuh get, till yuh get whey yuh want, knowing that one day yuh goin’ to get whey yuh want!

VL: There is a tendency to take certain things that are produced on the ground in the Caribbean as something dismissively called “folklore.” It’s like the proverb, it comes across as deceptively simple and it is so profound. But its profundity is grasped in action. So I think a lot of those who are producing in this tradition suffer a lot from not being taken seriously because the first impulse is to test the profundity “critically,” which is to say, in language. But as you showed with Don Drummond and Margarita Mahfouz, the lived lives and experiences from which it comes give it incontrovertible authority.

On another note, I remember when we first said we would do this interview, we said we’d talk about Derek [Walcott]. I know you had a good relationship with Derek. I was interested in what that relationship was like. And also with Kamau [Brathwaite], given that these two have gone. Did you interact much with them both?

LG: Not so much with Kamau, but with his wife Doris, yes. Not enough is said about Doris. Because she did everything. She was a librarian, researcher; she used to just do all of that. She really facilitated his great project. With Derek, I remember taking the early work to him. You know, he would spend hours on [the poems]—seriously, hours. And he would go like, “Hmm . . . Sell this one to Hallmark [laughs]. Throw this ’way.” I remember a line about ashes and weaving. He say, “You cyaan weave ashes, throw ’way that.” After he had finished, he would say, “Now let’s work on these.” And he worked on them with me. He was so excellent at what he did, you know. And it was so generous of him, and being Derek, he say, “Don’t tell anybody I do this, you know.”

One of my most moving memories of Derek is, there were a couple of times in his life when stuff was going on with him that was very difficult, and I would be in Ann Arbor and I would just feel it, and I would call him and we would say, “Hey, how you doing?” and we’d say, “Fine,” and we’d just say a few words, and we would just stay on the phone together—we don’t talk. For long long periods of time, just breathing together, and I would say, “I gone,” and he would say, “No, don’t go yet.” And we’d just stay there—honestly—and we’d just stay there breathing on the phone and keeping each other company. It’s not strange.

VL: This too seems to be speaking of that space where things seem not to be happening but are nonetheless—perhaps spiritually—happening.

LG: I don’t talk about it, but I will never be able to explain it to anybody. But he and I on the phone for a long long time, he and I just breathing together. Like I am there and you’re there and that’s it.

VL: A space where just action, or inaction, is necessary and not always words. Like your mother, just helping.

 

 

 

 

Vladimir Lucien is a writer from Saint Lucia. He is the author of Sounding Ground (Peepal Tree, 2014), which won the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

 

Lorna Goodison is an acclaimed writer from Jamaica. She is the author of numerous poetry collections, the most recent of which is Mother Muse (Carcanet, 2021). She has also written three books of short stories, a memoir, and a book of essays. Goodison has been awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry and the Windham-Campbell Prize for Literature, along with several other prizes. From 2017 to 2020, she served as Poet Laureate of Jamaica.

 

 

 


[1] Our conversation took place via Zoom on 21 January 2022.

[2] Lorna Goodison, Mother Muse (Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2021).

[3] Don Drummond, acclaimed trombonist, known tellingly as Don Cosmic, was found guilty of killing his partner at the time, the dancer and actress Anita Margarita Mahfouz, on 2 January 1965. Ruled criminally insane, Drummond was imprisoned in Belle Vue Asylum in Kingston, Jamaica. Goodison’s poetry collection Mother Muse celebrates both Mahfouz and Sister Mary Ignatius, who ran the Alpha Boys School for wayward boys that Drummond had attended and where he had been actively encouraged in music by Sister Ignatius, known to the boys at the school as “Sister Iggy.”

[4] Lorna is referring to the poem “Margarita’s Version” (Mother Muse, 21–22).

[5] Lorna Goodison, From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2007).

[6] Lorna is referencing Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, first delivered as a talk in London in 1927, then published as a pamphlet in the same year.

[7] Lorna Goodison, “Nanny,” in I Am Becoming My Mother (London: New Beacon Books, 1995), 45.

[8] “Though she has emerged as a major force in World Literature, I suspect she still isn’t as celebrated as she really ought to be,” Miller bemoans in a post, “because there simply doesn’t exist the perfect critical language to talk about what she is doing, the risks she is taking, and why exactly they succeed.” Kei Miller, “An Appreciation of Lorna Goodison,” The Carcanet Blog, 15 November 2013, carcanetblog.blogspot.com/2013/11/kei-miller-appreciation-of-lorna.html.

[9] Burke’s influential essay “Literature as Equipment for Living” first appeared in Direction in April 1938 and has since been anthologized and reprinted several times. This notion predates Burke, however, having long been a huge part of how literature is dealt with in many non-Western societies.

 

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