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Bocas Lit Fest pays tribute to AJ Seymour
The late Arthur James (AJ) Seymour would have been 100 years old on January 12, had he not died Christmas Day,1989.
Renowned Guyanese writer Ian McDonald drew this fact to the attention of Bocas Lit Fest organiser Nicholas Laughlin during last year’s edition of the literary festival. Laughlin did not forget.
What ensued was a slightly chaotic but memorable meeting of writers and bookworms in a small room on the second floor of the National Library on a day when some religious folk decided to arrange a cacophonous five-truck musical parade through the streets of Port-of-Spain.
The April 26 tribute to “AJ” was due to take place at the Old Fire Station which adjoins the library, but had to be moved because of the noise generated by the Carnival-style music trucks.
Laughlin was careful in his remarks about the noisy evangelical parade, perhaps because Seymour was himself quite a devotee. In fact, it was Kyk-Over-Al co-editor (with McDonald) Vanda Radzic, in her own tribute to the late writer, who described him as “the most prolific of Caribbean religious poets.”
Kyk-Over-Al was the literary journal founded in 1945 by Seymour which served as an early platform for writers such as Wilson Harris, Martin Carter and Derek Walcott. Over the course of 16 years, 50 editions of the journal were published.
Radzic, who had promised McDonald she would sleep with his original copy of Volume 1 Number 1 of Kyk-Over-Al under her pillow after travelling with it to Trinidad, exhibited some early editions of the publication, together with reprints published by the Caribbean Press.
The only close T&T equivalent to Kyk-Over-Al would have been Anson Gonzalez’s New Voices, which was launched in 1973. Peepal Tree Press publisher Jeremy Poynting, who had only days before launched Pepperpot: Best New Stories from the Caribbean—a collaboration with Akashic Publishers of the US—agreed that giants like Seymour and Gonzalez don’t come along very often.
But April 26 was all about Seymour. In Radzic’s view, he was a “key figure not just for Guyanese writing, but for the Caribbean as well.”
There were readings of his poetry by Guyanese writers Grace Nichols, John Agard, Malika Booker and Yaphet Jackman, overseas-based journalist/critic Gaiutra Bahadur – whose book, Coolie Woman, was also featured at the festival—and diplomat Dr Riyad Insanally, who heads the Organisation of American States (OAS) office in Port-of-Spain.
Sadly, the authoritative collection of Seymour’s finest work—Collected Poems by AJ Seymour from 1937-1989—which was published in 2000 by his family after his death, is currently out of print. The collection was edited by McDonald and Seymour’s niece Jacqueline de Weever. Seymour had over ten collections to his name.
In the small room at the National Library, there was a solemnity which bespoke the poet’s grave but often optimistic reflections on Guyana, the land he loved.
His acclaimed poem The Legend of Kaieteur, which was set to music by the late Guyanese musician Philip Pilgrim, begins like this:
Now Makonaima, the Great Spirit dwelt
In the huge mountain rock that throbbed and felt
The swift black waters of Potaro's race
Pause on the lip, commit themselves to space
And dive the half mile to the rocks beneath.
Black were the rocks with sharp and angry teeth
And on those rocks the eager waters died,
Above the gorge that seethed and foamed and hissed
Rose, resurrected into lovely mist.
The small crowd filed silently out of the room more convinced that, perhaps against some odds, this hero of Caribbean literature will not be easily forgotten.
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