Barbados Voices

Maggie Harris on Performance Poetry in Barbados

 Barbados 1999. It's 96°F in the shade and my knees are shaking. I'm at Gun Hill Station, St Phillips, a guest of Voices: Barbados Writers Collective. I am about to go on stage. Nerve-racking in itself, but Winston Farrell has just finished performing and the cries of "Yes man!" and "Lick them down!" are still resounding among the audience. He has left them heightened. The stamping of feet and clapping of hands pulse out over the countryside. Farrell is a multiple award winner. He has performed in America and Europe and toured with Linton Kwesi Johnson. His body rhythms are rooted to the ground he moves on, his words and dreads alive, with poems of ancestors –


cassava and yam

roots of African ancestry

the drums

black skin stretched

over hell's water

('Discovery' from Voices 1, An Anthology of Barbadian Writing, published by Voices)


– and poems that draw on the imagery of the ibis ('Sphinx'), and rhythmical poems, such as 'Black Knight', which I always request.


The sun is shining of course, and many groups have made their way to this old British fort for an afternoon of live poetry. I break out in a sweat, and not just because of the heat. I've got to follow him! What to read? How to appease this poetry crowd whose eyes are swinging expectantly from their hero to me. The atmosphere is electric. Sandra Morris waits to read her charged, sexy poems. The audience is already wild. They could do wilder. I take a leaf out of Sandra's book, and select 'Migrant Woman Bodysong' (from Limbolands). But it needs an intro. I eye up Farrell settling back in his seat. My Caribbean cockiness rises to the fore. "All right Farrell", I say, "Y'all men had yuh time. I reclaim this stage in the name of Woman". There's laughter, clapping, foot-stamping. Thank Christ. They're on my side.


Search Barbados on the internet and you're swamped by Bargain flights, Real Estate, Happy Island. It's no longer a recluse for the wealthy. If you're lucky you can pick up a flight for under £300. I know no-one who goes for the poetry. Back in 1999, on a Leverhulme Research Abroad Studentship, I couldn't understand why literature was not advertised as a major cultural force. This is Lamming's island. The Castle of My Skin has never been out of print. This is where Kamau Brathwaite's 'The Arrivants' live and breathe; at every bus stop and market stall, church service and cricket match. The island that nurtured these writers continues to produce vibrant, earnest poets, in touch both with their history and their present. Soon I would come to know these names too: Adisa Andwele, Nala, Michelle Barrow, Deanne Kennedy, Phelan Lowe.

My remit was to seek out the links between Caribbean and Black British performance poetry. After five years at Kent University studying African and Caribbean Literature, Derek Walcott, Lynton Kwesi Johnson and Kamau Brathwaite were my major inspirations. I expected to find bus stops plastered with quotations from 'The Arrivants'. It didn't happen so, as we say in the Caribbean.


I found Nailah Imoja in the Sunday issue of The Nation newspaper. A fine performer and writer, she also wrote 'Rhyme and Reason', a weekly article about Literature on the Island. I contacted her and was invited to come along to Voices. Voices, the Barbados Writers Collective, meets the last Friday of the month at the Barbados Museum. It's now been running for eight years. When I walked in I thought I was in heaven. Poets! Poets! Everywhere! Chairs set out nice nice, everybody dress up, everybody friendly, food and drink outside in the gardens. For the first time the sense of performance, which was already beating in my own poetry, found a home, and I realised how important it was. The culture of performance feeds each Barbadian. At an event for older citizens, one pensioner, shaking to the music, told me, "I can't walk but I can dance" (the title of my next book).


The National Cultural Foundation also holds events every second Sunday of the month in the different parishes on the island. Katy Gashes, Voices' present co-ordinator, tells me that they "seek to encourage the literary artform as a vibrant and effective method of cultural expression – one that is often overlooked against the colourful calypso backdrop of our culture".

Poetry at the beach, poetry picnics, poetry and jazz at The Waterfront Café in Bridgetown, where The Holders trio only need to hear the first line of your poetry to get the rhythm and accompany you. Barbados woke me up. I borrowed a lil bit of the sunshine, a big piece a de riddum and smuggled it through Customs. This year I had the privilege of inviting Mark McWatt, Prof of Caribbean Literature at UWI, Barbados, and Winner of the Guyana Prize for Literature 1994, to read in Canterbury. Sunshine danced on the table; the voices had travelled with him.


Maggie Harris is a Guyanese poet living in Kent. Her first collection, Limbolands (Mango Publishing), won the Guyana Prize for Literature 2000.

Poetry News, Autumn 2003