UK-based Cane Arrow Press has just published 100 Poems from Trinidad & Tobago. Edited by Ian Dieffenthaller and Anson Gonzalez, the book spans a century of writers, from Olga Comma-Maynard and AM Clarke to Muhammad Muwakil and Danielle Boodhoo-Fortune. Ian Dieffenthaller, who is also the publisher, talked to one of the book's contributors, LISA ALLEN-AGOSTINI, about 100 Poems from Trinidad & Tobago for the Sunday Arts Section.
I grew up in and around San Fernando. I left and went to England to study architecture, because it would mix an artistic side and something more practical, technical, scientific. That was in the 80s and apart from the odd visit home I'm still there, just south of Cambridge. I still work as an architect, mainly in conservation. We preserve the heritage of the United Kingdom and I wish sometimes we would do a similar thing in Trinidad.
I was interested in poetry from early on. My mother was an English teacher. I was always interested in our culture-I used to play parang and accompany people singing calypso at school and used to write the odd poem. (In England) I used to go to the odd poetry reading and (...) got talking to Stewart Brown, who is a well-known Caribbean anthologist who did a lot of work with Ian McDonald, Eddie Baugh and all these big names. He was at the University of Birmingham and he invited me to come and formalise my interest in West Indian poetry. I did that; it turned into a doctorate.
The main thing I discovered was that there was virtually nothing from T&T, whereas Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, lots of former colonies had anthologies of their poetry. I thought it would be a nice thing to be able to conserve some of our literary heritage in the same way that I'm accustomed to doing buildings. I decided to form Cane Arrow Press and see if we could get some of that archived stuff released.
The lack of any publishing house that would want to approach this made me form my own business to bring out the anthology, but I had to wait three years before I could complete it. I was working with Anson Gonzales but unfortunately he had major heart trouble and he has been in and out of the process, so it took a lot longer than we had hoped. We would say that we are quite happy with the results but equally we could have chosen another hundred poems and it may still have worked. You can't really capture a whole nation in 100 poems but it sounded like a good number; it fitted in a reasonable sized book and we thought that would be a good representation. In the end I think we did about 109, because everybody in T&T likes a lagniappe.
(The name) Cane Arrow Press came about because the symbolism of sugar and the fact that it's all bound up with colonialism and the whole reason that we have this cultural mix. I thought it was a good cultural representation of the roots of the nation. And it also has that bittersweet connotation that possibly would sum up T&T.
The collection was chosen to reflect as many constituencies that I could identify and do justice to. I'm not saying that we've covered every root and branch but we did our best. We started in the 1920s with CLR James, Albert Gomes, Alfred Mendes, AM Clarke, later Neville Giuseppi, Harold Telemaque (and) one woman from that period, Olga Comma-Maynard. She wrote mainly for children. She was a rarity. And then we go through people like Eric Roach, one of our best. (From) the 30s, 40s and 50s (...) a lot of the work was very similar, but we chose people who would best represent the era. Essentially what we were trying to do was find poems with a T&T provenance, something that seemed to be written out of the country, about the country, that had something to say about being from T&T. That would not necessarily qualify in terms of literary merit in any other constituency-sometimes it was nice to meld literary merit with T&T provenance but it wasn't necessary to have the absolutely best poem in the world to qualify.
We went through the troubled 60s with the Voices group, Judy Miles, Roger McTair, Wayne Brown, Earl Lovelace-I don't know that many people know that Lovelace is a poet, so we made some interesting discoveries along the way-and of course Derek Walcott. Everybody claims him but he made such a great contribution to Trinidad culture it would be impossible to leave him out of a collection like this. Moving to the 70s, the Black Power Movement, all that turmoil. There were a lot of things that came out of that period: the work of Anson Gonzalez, Victor Questel, Malik, Selwyn Bhajan.
After 1970 it's virtually impossible to choose a representative sample. So much stuff was written after that so we just chose what we felt would fit that bill of T&T provenance. We have poets who are working now, a lot of spoken word poets, a lot of very literary people-like Vahni Capildeo-and people who work in media-Nicholas Laughlin, Andre Bagoo. In the end we see this as a first step towards documenting the written history of English-language poetry in T&T.