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A prose poem for Kitch
When Anthony Joseph reflected afterwards on the work he shared at the Reader’s Bookshop, St James, on February 16, right in the wake of Carnival, he said he was grateful for the intensity of the event. Via Skype from London, he described reading his fiction and poetry to a packed house that included attendees such as Marina Salandy-Brown, founder and director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest; author Earl Lovelace; and one of Joseph’s self-avowed personal all-time heroes, David Rudder.
At the reading, Joseph read extensively from his recently-finished second novel, Kitch: A Fragmented, Fictional Biography of the Calypsonian Lord Kitchener, which represents the basis of his doctoral studies in creative and life writing at Goldsmiths College, University of London. The writer is Trinidad-born and has lived in England since his early 20s; Salt Publishing issued his debut novel, The African Origins of UFOs, in 2006.
While “growing up in Trinidad in the 1970s and 80s,” Joseph said, “Kitchener was a major part of the culture, the fabric of the country.” While in London he experienced the veteran calypsonian’s death in Trinidad in 2000; it hit Joseph at his emotional centre. Despite Kitchener having been involved in the local music industry for around 60 years, Joseph noted there has been no seminal published work about this cultural icon. It was here that the genesis for writing the book began, a creative project that would span more than a decade of Joseph’s life.
The researching and writing process behind Kitch, Joseph said, followed a unique tack, in that he sought to approach it with “the spirit of calypso” and the ways in which calypsonians have lived. The notion of sobriquet was important to establishing Lord Kitchener as a real figure with a fictionalised, imagined life—yet a life of imagination that is rooted, the writer emphasised, in many events that did actually happen.
“Who Kitchener was as a person, and who he was on stage…those are two completely different people,” Joseph said, explaining why it was so important to capture the sense of that duality in his writing. Given the lack of published work on Aldwyn “Lord Kitchener” Roberts, much of Joseph’s research took an oral slant, in the form of several interviews on the multiple facets of Kitchener’s life. In addition to this, he did a significant amount of newspaper research, particularly in the Trinidad Guardian archives of the 1940s and ’50s. “A lot of Kitchener’s life is in his music,” Joseph said, “so I did a lot of listening, too.”
There is a definite balance to the art of the fictional biography, Joseph said, because “wanting to get every little detail ‘right’ means that you can become obsessive. In order to create a character that’s living, you have to embellish.” Writing about Kitchener as authentically as he could meant that Joseph stuck faithfully to a majority of actual events in the calypsonian’s life, then added flourishes of detail to help propel the story along, and to fill in the unavoidable gaps.
The author of several collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Rubber Orchestras (Salt Modern Poets series, 2011), Joseph admitted to the poetic sensibilities at the heart of the novel. Teaching fiction writing at Birkbeck College in London, he said, has helped to solidify and strengthen the essential differences in writing prose and poetry. “I am a poet,” Joseph said, confirming that the novel itself is grounded in a sort of poetic prose, one which considers the way language works on the page. In addition to being a novelist and a poet, Joseph is also as a musician—he headlines his own musical group, the Spasm Band, with which he has released three albums. This musical background signifies a certain kinship with Kitchener that Joseph values.
“I can talk about musicianship, of musical values and elements” without having to invent any expertise in that area, he said. On the lives of calypsonians, Joseph concluded, “They’re showmen, they propagate their own legend.” It is his hope that with the future publication of Kitch, his work in documenting and honouring the life of Lord Kitchener will take centre stage as both an archive and a tribute.