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The write of retreating

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Atlantic unruffles itself along the wide sweep of Grand Riviere’s beach, hammering the sand with Shango percussion. 

Stark the dog is on paws, oblivious in the shade of Mt Plaisir Estate’s al fresco dining room to the crash of breakers, the rustling of notebooks, muted literary conversations and even Miles Davis’ languid In a Silent Way seeping through gaps in the wooden kitchen door, music mingling with the aromas of the catch of the day frying. 

“This is a unique collaboration between friends who met because of literature,” enthuses breeze-blown Monique Roffey, award-winning novelist and highly experienced Creative Writing lecturer, explaining the genesis of the recent four-day North Coast Writers’ Retreat. 

Overall winner of the 2013 T&T Bocas Literary Festival, Roffey linked up with friends in letters and life, 2012 Bocas Poetry Prize winner Loretta Collins Klobah and Mt Plaisir proprietor Piero Guerrini to realise an idea which had been gestating for a while: “We’d been talking about this for years, and we (eventually) said “Let’s just do it.” 

While writers are known for “fabricating”, Roffey’s claim about the retreat’s literary antecedents is strictly factual, though with a twist which reads like pure fiction: Italian star photographer Guerrini, commissioned for a series of photo essays on the rich and famous, comes to Trinidad circa 1992 to shoot a photo essay on Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. 

He visits Grande Riviere, falls in love with Mt Plaisir Estate, which he initially rents before buying it and establishing his now internationally-known eco hotel, a haunt for turtle watchers during nesting season and the world weary throughout the year. 

Guerrini came to Mt Plaisir with a mindset which prepared him for his new role as host for retreats with an eco/holistic/creative focus. Back in Italy he’d participated in Umbria’s Free University of Alcatraz, run by Jacopo Fo, son of another Nobel laureate, playwright Dario. 

Walcott’s project to open a creative centre on Rat Island, St Lucia was another inspirational impetus.

Roffey and Klobah’s mission “To come together to provide support and mentoring for emerging artists” synergistically found an ideal venue (beachfront surrounded by rainforested hills plunging directly into the sea) and ally at Mt Plaisir, proving that the dreams of “old hippies, friends, allies and collaborators with the same mission and a conscious awareness of the environment and the arts” can be more potent than projects mounted by state bureaucrats, who lack both the passion and working experience of those with a shared vision.

Californian-born Klobah, “adopted by the Caribbean” and a Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras campus, brought several fellow UPR professors with her as participants in the retreat, whose complement was made up of aspiring, emerging and established creative writers and veteran journalists and editors from Trinidad, including former Guardian Editor-in-Chief and biographer Judy Raymond, poet and journalist Andre Bagoo, novelist, poet and Sunday Guardian Arts Review Editor Lisa Allen-Agostini, along with reviewer, poet Shivanee Ramlochan, singer/songwriter Gillian Moore and debut novelist Anna Levi. This Anglophone contingent was augmented by Jamaican poet Millicent Graham, whose community-based Drawing Room project was another inspiration for the retreat.

For Klobah the retreat was an opportunity “To bring together Trinis and other writers of the region and to establish contact between the Spanish and Anglophone Caribbean...Among writers, the desire for regionalism has never faded—it’s very much alive.” 

Like Roffey, Klobah credits cyberspace and the free platform offered by social media to grow collaborative projects between regional artists. 

She also refers to literary festivals like the Bocas, Jamaica’s Calabash and St Martin’s Book Fair organised by Nehesi House publisher Lasana Sekou, as an important network base. “I’m about positive collaboration,” Klobah explains: “I put my thoughts and energy into positive issues. The people in the workshops (poetry and life writing) have treated us really well. It’s been very positive. This is the kind of energy literary friendships develop in. It’s not just the retreat, now we’re all connected on Facebook.”

Klobah’s thoughts about the potential of such collaborative projects like the North Coast Writing Retreat are especially pertinent in the context of the current downturn in the economy and the continued empty talk of “diversification” and the development of cultural industries. 

As Klobah says, “This (kind of collaboration) could be happening all over the Caribbean. It could lead to experienced writers in T&T setting up their own projects.” She and Roffey are already planning the next retreat in Isabel, Puerto Rico, but she points out that here in T&T “What would help would be some government endorsement,” possibly from the Tourist Board, to develop Grand Riviere community-based writing projects (eco and wildlife writing based on the turtle season). 

She mentions Millicent Graham’s Drawing Room project in Jamaica, which incorporates public readings by writers along with interaction with the local communities, who bring their arts, crafts and foods to the collaboration, generating income for the community.

Klobah also highlighted the benefits of the retreat for people at different stages in writing. “It’s good for developing writers to meet more experienced writers, who function as commentators and mentors. In my workshops everyone got individual time. These retreats have a leveling-off effect. Out there it’s competitive, there are issues of ranking, ego, public persona. The retreat gives writers a chance to concentrate on craft; how to do it on the page.” Despite her two degrees in Creative Writing from Iowa University and her Bocas success, Klobah admits “I go to retreats whenever I can afford it. It’s necessary if your writing is not going to reach a plateau.” 
Participants in the retreat unanimously celebrated its success and relevance. Brenda Dominguez, Professor of English at UPR Bayamon, agreed: “My expectations were surpassed. The beautiful, tranquil and isolated beach setting plus the excellent workshop presentations…were conducive to a very rewarding weekend. The Trinidadian participants were a special bonus and made me and my husband feel very welcome.” 
Her UPR colleague, Professor of English Nalini Natarajan, waxed lyrical: “The ocean nearby, lapping up to our very rooms, the supportive spirit and good Qi of the group and the amazing food lovingly prepared and served…by Piero, are things I really liked.” 
Newsday journalist and poet Andre Bagoo was equally fulsome in his praise: “An excellent chance to learn, workshop and to share work and experience in a beautiful place with beautiful people. I gained tremendously from poet Loretta Collins Klobah and writer Monique Roffey who shared critical insight in structured and focused sessions. I particularly enjoyed encountering new work and meeting the amazing poets and writers who participated.”
Emerging writer, 65-year-old Mootilal Boodoosingh, found himself flexing muscles from a lifetime ago: “Although I’m primarily a short story writer, I was motivated to write my first poem in 48 years”, while another emerging playwright declared: “I think I finally got my poetry mojo back”, and MFA student Anna Levi, whose debut novel Madinah Girl is hot off the press, described her experience as “a kind of renaissance…I felt brave to write honestly about painful and glittery topics. To own your shame in writing is to overcome and conquer it.”