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Poetry filled up NAPA last month-end. Fuller than the grandstand for Dimanche Gras. Grandmothers. A tassa section. A screaming posse from Tobago. $200-a-ticket poetry.
Now the biggest single event of the national literature calendar, the finale of the annual BocasLitFest is a competition among young “spoken word” poets for prizes and appearance fees (provided by First Citizens) that this year leapt from $36,000 to $88,000, rivalling the festival’s US$16,000 prize money for leading Caribbean authors of the best books annually.
Spoken word’s multiple roots wind through several Black Atlantic vocal traditions, among them 1970s dub poetry, rapso, and of course rap and hip-hop, African-American popular music forms whose decline of musicality and dominance of lyricism, along with a cleverness of rhythmic and lyrical form, signal a breathtaking rise in popular literacy and social expression among youth globally.
Our local movement’s most immediate influences may be the North American “slam” competitions on which Caribbean immigrants like Roger Bonair-Agard and Jamaican Staceyann Chin have left their signature and its early machinery was a number of open mic frameworks—I’m aware of Gillian Moor’s Songshine, Skeeto Amos’s One Mic, and UWeSpeak at the St Augustine campus’s old undercroft.
Ask: Where calypso gone? And I answer: Here. Lament the barren monotony of the rented, headwrap-clutching calypso, the generational decline in soca lyrics from Maestro to Iwer and JW—I will show you a fascinating landscape of vocal fertility.
Anyone can strive to be a spoken word poet, too. School tours, intercol competitions, and support for tertiary campus activities at both UWI and USC, are providing incentive and infrastructure for this corner of imaginative productivity. These are organised, along with the National Poetry Slam, by the seven-year-old 2 Cents Movement, which has risen to an uneasy dominance of the scene, in collaboration with the Bocas festival and various international, corporate and state donors. The achievements of this youth organisation, an employer of eight, are impressive, whether by the yardstick of youth entrepreneurship, or of corporate social responsibility in the creative industries. Sadly, locally, that’s more cause for hate than celebration.
It’s not all sweetness and light, though. There are deep creative ruts in the movement and the national slam that are increasingly being called out. The judges—every year a majority are expat and foreign writers visiting for Bocas, quite likely to miss key nuances—praised the 13 finalists’ bravery in engaging taboos, and their local inventiveness with form (cadences of speechband and robbertalk pop up delightfully from time to time). But the panel yearned for more complexity and experimentation with language, more discipline and chromatics in delivery (they said less shouting and running overtime), and less self-referential work.
The two semifinals of the competition often see the most brilliant work, with many in the final unable to equal work that got them in. This year’s semis, Kyle Hernandez performed a consistently comedic piece, largely for its delightful self-consciousness that it was a customer service experience at a branch of the title sponsor; evoking his diabetic mother’s faith in his winning in the final wasn’t nearly enough. Others’ risk-taking was more complicated.
One of the most stunning departures of this year’s competition was Brendon O’Brien’s use of the stage in both semis and finals to allege sexual predation and intimate partner violence by other performers. Another semis hit was last year’s tabanca-paean to newscaster Desha Rambajan by Seth Sylvester, the eventual winner with another poem that seemed judged more for its autobiography than craft.
Yet truth-telling is a complicated factor in the competition. Nineteen-year-old Alexandra Stewart, second-place winner this year—the first in which women (both teenagers) took both top spots—ought to have placed before now. Her choice of contemplative work cuts against the masculine grain of blunt and witty syncopation in the genre, though some of her pieces have been so similar to seem formulaic. This final she pondered the weight of poetry, that it is not casually commissioned or without consequence. A poet opens more than her mouth. She imagined a girl who wanted a poem on rape, which is like an unfinished simile, and she wondered if the poem should say her or I.
Many of us have noted how sexuality and violence—along with family—have come to overwhelm the poets’ themes in recent years. As the judges applauded, this means men and women are exploring rape, homosexuality, domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, gun violence. On the one hand, evidence of the issues dominating the young participants’ lives presents a difficult responsibility for the 2 Cents managers in responding to jaw-dropping performances that present trauma as autobiography.
On the other hand, like other particular themes dominant in earlier years—absentee fathers, forceripe schoolgirls—the performers are equally often encoding stereotypes they imagine, rather than offering nuanced representations from their own experiences. Homosexuality is always tortured. Men enact women experiencing men’s violence. The work, often melodramatic and limited in empathy, constricts instead of expanding understanding of the issue.
This year, Michael Logie opened the competition sharing the death wish of a death-row prisoner raped as a boy, who has killed a man over another gratuitous rape attempt. Like defending champion Sylvester’s tale of normalised sexual violence against women, he told an insistent story, with only an occasional illumination of poetry.
But not every story needs to be beautiful, O’Brien urged.
• More on the other eight performances and the 2 Cents Movement next week.
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