Pamela Mordecai on the Influence of Kamau Brathwaite
Pamela Mordecai on the Influence of Kamau Brathwaite
A former language arts teacher, Pamela Mordecai is a poet and fiction writer. Born in Jamaica, she went to the United States for her undergraduate degree, then returned to Jamaica, where she later obtained additional diplomas in education and a PhD in English from the University of the West Indies, Mona. She has published numerous collections of poetry and short stories, including collections for children; written and performed in plays; edited and coedited collections of Caribbean writings; published academic articles; and cowritten many textbooks. Her most recent publications are her first novel, Red Jacket (TAP, 2015), which was short-listed for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Award, and de book of Mary: a performance poem (Mawenzi House, 2015). For this interview, part of a series on Kamau Brathwaite’s influence on writers and scholars, I asked Mordecai a series of questions about Brathwaite’s influence on her work and worldview. She responded via e-mail in April 2017, and we revised the full interview in January 2018.
It grows inside you
like a child
its meanings secret
like the peal of bells
and their music
The rubric scratches
on the retina
the drums sound
but no spirit starts
the fingers of the blood
assort the images
the wind remembers
sifting the long grass
the womb impulses
a new testament
for Edward Kamau Brathwaite
Kelly Baker Josephs: How/when did you encounter Kamau Brathwaite and/or his work?
Pamela Mordecai: Martin, my husband, and I go back with Kamau and Doris (of most blessed memory) a long time. In fact, so far back that I can’t remember exactly when I met them. I know I met his poetry at almost the same time as I met him, or as near as makes no difference. I first met his poetry in the (at the time) recently published Rights of Passage. I don’t really know Rights by heart at this point, but I still remember chunks of it, having been in Noel Vaz’s production at the then Creative Arts Centre at UWI [University of the West Indies] that ran over four days, beginning 5 November 1967. Rachel Manley, Pat Priestley Mahy, and I made up a chorus of women’s voices. The production was inventive. It featured a screen on which slides were projected, and the director used different levels of the space. I remember the chorus of women at one level, the main “action” at another, and Mortimo Planno on drums on an elevated platform in a corner. The CAC staging was the first of four different productions between 1967 and 1971; I took part in two of these, the second one being a reading arranged by Jeanne Barnes that took place at the then College of Arts, Science, and Technology [CAST] for the purpose of making a video recording.
I may have met Kamau as early as 1965, for at that point I was doing a Diploma in Education on campus, and he came to UWI, Mona, in 1963. Whenever it was, what I remember is great excitement preceding Kamau’s arrival. My sister Betty [Wilson] and her husband had been in the UK studying and had lived in William Goodenough House, where Kamau and Doris were also living. They were part of the Caribbean Artists Movement [CAM], which Kamau started at the time, along with John La Rose and Andrew Salkey. Probably our excitement came from their accounts of the poet. We remember Kamau as coming to UWI from Ghana (Betty remembers it that way too), but in fact, after he left Ghana in 1962, he spent a year in St. Lucia as resident tutor at the Department of Extra Mural Studies and came from there to UWI in 1963.
KBJ: What effect did your encounter with Brathwaite and/or his work have on your own work (critical and/or creative)?
PM: Kamau has influenced my work more than any other poet, except perhaps Louise Bennett Coverley, whose poetry I grew up reciting for the sheer pleasure of it. If he and Louise in their different ways demonstrated the artistic possibilities of patwa, which I like to call my “heart language”—a term Bible translators use—Kamau showed me how to be truly vulgar, as in the Latin root of the word, vulgaris, “of or pertaining to the common people.” Louise wrote for ordinary people, but she was essentially a lady. Kamau was prepared to exploit common speech to the fullest, obscenities and all. I learned from both to appreciate the sounds, rhythms, and rhetorical devices of dialect speech, but Kamau showed me the broad possibilities for what I could talk about in poetry and how free I could be in talking about it. He showed me what could be achieved by code switching, code sliding, and writing extended story poems in dialect. He helped me recognize how brilliant poetry could be as unrestrained spectacle—and that was enormously liberating for a person for whom theater and acting had meant a great deal growing up. He also helped me, eavesdropping on his course “History, Society, and Ideas” that Martin was taking at UWI at the time, to readjust my ideas on the Caribbean and on society in Jamaica. If the New World movement helped cement my political views, Kamau adjusted the lens so it embraced aesthetics, language, philosophy, and literature as servant of the people. Kamau’s notions appealed (as did those of the Abeng and Unmuzzled Ox groups) to my Jesuit/Sisters of Mercy–instilled ideas of a person’s duty to his fellows, of a human being as a responsible communal creature.
My performance poems, de Man [Sister Vision, 1995] and de book of Mary, both owe their shape, and so in a way, their existence—the first not so consciously, the second very consciously [see below]—to Kamau. Canadian academic and poet George Elliott Clarke has called the former “a revolutionary work” and Caribbean Beat, “an extraordinary work.” Clarke has taught it at Harvard and Duke and here in Canada [McGill; University of Toronto]. Others have taught it too, here and in foreign, though I’m not aware of its being taught in the Caribbean. Excerpts of de Man are included in Kwame Dawes’s 1998 anthology, Wheel and Come Again: An Anthology of Reggae Poetry , so it presumably fits the criterion of reggae poetry, as also in George Elliott Clarke’s Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature . It has been performed across Canada and repeatedly in Jamaica (at least nine performances that I know of), as part or all of the Good Friday service. Some performances occur without my knowing and without permission of any kind. I am told it has been broadcast on radio in Jamaica, though that, again, I know little about. I am happy that it is so widely known and loved by ordinary folks, that it is very much the people’s poem. I think Kamau would be pleased with that.
As for de book of Mary, dedicated to Kamau, it is part of a putative trilogy that ends with de Man—never mind the latter was published twenty years earlier. I may change my mind about this (Kamau has led the way in that too . . .), but since de Man recounts the crucifixion of Jesus through two eyewitnesses who describe it in patwa, it seems that it should come at the end of the trilogy. The third book, on which I’m currently working, is the first in the series. It is called “de book of Joseph: a performance poem.” They are all in a tradition that Kamau inaugurates. (Think of “The Dust” in Rights of Passage, where the poem emerges as story—or the story emerges as poem—out of the mouths of two characters in conversation.) They are all owed in large part to him.
Kamau is engaged in his thought and writing with the multidimensionality of lived experience, understood as history, aesthetics, ecology, politics, theater, and music, among other things. His is a kind of poetry of/as being. It is what I try for. What I have appreciated about Kamau is that his consciousness and concerns have always been based in community. I have never once heard him speak of his talent or his poetic gift or his calling. I have deeply appreciated that about him. This Kamau quote, about the formation of the Caribbean Artists Movement, speaks to what I’m trying to say: “The isolation of West Indian writers from each other and from the society in which they lived could eventually only stultify development and could do nothing to contribute to perhaps the most important problem of our times—the problem of the future of race relations in Britain.” Effort needs to be communal and literature needs to help solve important practical problems.
This doesn’t mean that he couldn’t be the temperamental artist, for Kamau had his ways, but that is another story . . .
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 only part of the process?
PM: My most consistent “conversation” with Kamau stretched over the eighteen years that it took me to complete my dissertation on his and Walcott’s poetry. In “Prismatic Vision: Aspects of Structure, Language, and Imagery in the Poetry of Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott,” I propose prismatic vision as a Caribbean cognitive style and describe it as “the disposition to construe reality in sometimes unresolved pluralities.” It is a seven-chapter thesis, rather than the traditional five. In the fourth chapter, “The Idea of the Image as Prism: A Taxonomy,” I propose a new taxonomy of images suitable for describing Caribbean poetry (Kamau probably helped to give me the nuffness to do such a thing), two of which are almost certainly Kamau’s contribution—the conundrum (riddle) and the “mixing image,” aka “poetic mix.”
Though it is Wilson Harris’s work out of which I gather the examples and develop the prismatic images, when applied to the poetry, it is Kamau’s work more than Walcott’s that exemplifies them. Brilliantly. (A fact, not a value judgement.) The conundrum (riddle) has obvious roots in the questions, quests, and enigmas in Brathwaite’s work. Regarding the mixing image or poetic mix: Kamau altered words or used parentheses and the backward slash to, one, emphasize the physicality and signification of the word on the page and, two, break open its possibilities. I had worked for a long time in TV (as an interviewer/presenter) and understood what happened technically when images were “mixed,” how a thing could immediately and visually become another thing with which it was in some way associated. In the thesis, I describe the mixing image like this: “The symbolic form presents a kind of transition or ‘mixing’ within the image whereby the reader is moved suddenly and surprisingly from one figurative domain/dimension into another.”
So, the “fuck-in’ negro” of “Folkways,” in Rights of Passage, says his dreams are “wet // as hell’”; Timid Tom describes himself as “founder/flounderer” early in the Rights story, and there’s “the boy now nigratin’ overseas.” This last example of the figure is especially powerful and efficient—the image, by the change of one letter, physically marrying black bodies in transit with the blackening of “overseas.”
The dissertation draws on my understanding (so much influenced by Kamau) of Caribbean society and my ideas of the work poetry has to do (also very influenced by Kamau). Our societies are not just diverse but complex, convoluted, so the poetry has to stretch itself formally to cope. Kamau has kept stretching it. (This is one big difference between Kamau and Derek Walcott.) I too try to extend the poetic calisthenics.
KBJ: What is your Brathwaite story? That is, what story do you most tell, or would most like to tell, about Brathwaite (the man and/or the oeuvre)?
PM: My Brathwaite stories are many, some involving his beloved Doris, Zea Mexican, too heartbreaking to tell. A heartwarming one concerning the man is that he broke his silence in 2013 to call Martin when he heard that I had just had a craniotomy—he wanted to know how my recovery was progressing. Concerning the work, he has been supportive ever since his review of my first book, Journey Poem, in Caribbean Quarterly. It was not without qualification, but overall was a welcome endorsement.
KBJ: What quarrel do you have with Brathwaite?
PM: I have two quarrels with Kamau. The first is poetic, and out of it has come a challenge that I have set for my own work. Kamau has famously said, “The pentameter carries with it a certain kind of experience, which is not the experience of the hurricane. The hurricane does not roar in pentameters.” My position is that the hurricane may roar as it pleases, and its winds in that roaring may pitch and toss with iambic pentameter as well as all forms of measured and unmeasured metre. (A hurricane, after all, may be wanton in where it goes, but it is a very organized set of behaviors of temperature, air pressure, ocean, wind. and rain.) If I unconsciously did this in de Man, I was very consciously doing it in my last two collections. The penultimate one, Subversive Sonnets, uses the sonnet, or my version of it, to subvert traditional ideas of what the form should speak about and how it should do this talking. The last one, de book of Mary, is written in triplets of anapaests, so measured metre, but across the continuum of Jamaican Creole—Kamau’s “nation language.” Both, the latter more than the former, use patwa for storytelling, as the folk do; but they do this by employing traditional poetic forms.
My second quarrel is that our contact with Kamau in recent years has been infrequent. For a time, he’d retired to his home in CowPastor, and we couldn’t reach him. We’ve missed him greatly, so I’ve been more than rejoiced that he was able to help with dates and factual information for this interview. Thank you, Kamau, and, as ever, all my love.
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.
 Pamela Mordecai, “Poem,” Jahworld (blog), 11 May 2010, jahworld-pmordecai.blogspot.ca/2010/05/happy-birthday-kamau-brathwaite.html; originally published in Pamela Mordecai, Journey Poem (Kingston: Sandberry, 1989), 41.
 Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, “The Caribbean Artists Movement,” in “A Survey of the Arts,” special issue, Caribbean Quarterly 14, nos. 1–2 (1968): 57–59.
 Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 30, 15, 50.
 Kamau Brathwaite, “Pam Mordecai’s Journey Poem,” Caribbean Quarterly 36, nos. 1–2 (1990): 127–40.
 Quoted in C. L. Innis, The Cambridge Introduction to Postcolonial Literatures in English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 107.