Fragments of mental and physical photographs are what Trinidadian-born British author and poet Anthony Joseph pieced together to bring to life the persona of his father, Albert, who was largely absent. Confronting this absence through poetry, he penned Sonnets for Albert and captured the 2022 TS Eliot prize.
Perhaps the most esteemed in poetry, the prize is awarded to the best new poetry collection in English and published by UK or Irish authors.
Joseph joins fellow Trinidadian-British writer and performer Roger Robinson who was also a recipient of the TS Eliot prize in 2019.
In their remarks on January 16, the judges called Joseph's work “luminous”. He sees it as vindication for years of quietly pursuing his love of writing and creating.
The 56-year-old poet told Sunday Guardian that his fifth collection of poems Sonnets for Albert published by Bloomsbury seeks to memorialise his “charismatic” parent who was missing from his life and who became almost a “mythological figure.” It also has the potential to speak to others who have experienced the same void he said.
Citing (Earl) Lovelace's vision of the Caribbean as a place central to humanity rather than as an isolated one on the periphery, Joseph made a case for Caribbean people, even if everyday people, to be immortalised.
“The Caribbean is also a centre of humanity and it's important that we recognise the mythologies and the folklores we live in. We have to realise that they are universal. A lot of people have a difficult relationship with their father, so when I talk about my father on a very personal level, I'm also reaching out universally to touch anyone who's had similar experiences,” he said.
Featuring photos of his father, the poet lays bare his complex relationship with his absent parent in Sonnets for Albert, contending with his father's shortcomings while still longing for and loving him.
Joseph's love for and acceptance of his father who passed five years ago were influenced by his grandmother Sylvia, a nurturing woman, who loved Albert, her last son. Joseph said, at a very young age, he was sent to live with her and his strict step-grandfather Clarence Hoyte in Mt Lambert after his parents split up. His younger brother stayed with his mother.
Joseph would develop a very close relationship with his Cocoa Panyol grandmother who was a country woman, originally from Santa Cruz. His aunt Ursula would also impact his life.
“My father wasn't around. He was in and out. You would see him once a year if you were lucky,” Joseph recalled.
His most cherished memory of the man he often idolised is being hoisted by him onto his shoulders in Memorial Park near the Port-of-Spain General Hospital on Charlotte Street when a fight broke out at Carnival and then watching the mas bands pass from his vantage point on his father's neck. He entitles it POSGH 1 in the book.
The gifted poet who has also authored three novels said his earliest memories of writing poetry were at age 11. But his childhood poems centred on teenage romance, the savannah where he lived, Carnival, and his general environment rather than on his carpenter father who later became a foreman on construction sites.
Completing his secondary education at San Juan Government Secondary, Joseph worked in insurance for a couple of years and left for England in 1989 bent on starting a rock band and even becoming a rock star. For a time, he lived his dream as the lead singer of a four-member Black rock band called Zedd. Then things fizzled out.
It was a box of old song lyrics and poems he had written as a youth back home that revealed his true calling one day. Taking his cue from Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka who promoted a passionate approach to poetry often accompanied by progressive jazz music, and such Caribbean greats as Derek Walcott and Kamau Braithwaite, Joseph delved into what he termed post-colonial Caribbean experimental poetry and spoken word. Surrealism and Trinidad his main themes, he reimagined everyday elements in the homeland with beauty and wonder, eventually finding his voice.
Along the way, he put together another band, releasing eight albums to date and touring internationally. In 2019, he and his band recorded the album People of the Sun in Trinidad, with 3Canal, Ella Andall, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and Brother Resistance as guests.
Joseph's approach to lyrics, rhythm and expression moves seamlessly between his writing and music, pouring into other aspects of his life.
“Being a poet means that I carry that attitude and aesthetic into anything I do, even in making music or teaching. It's an approach where you are trying to find a new way of what it means to be human constantly,” Joseph who is also a King's College London lecturer in Creative Writing said.
Naturally, his musicality played into his award-winning Sonnets. He experimented with the classical 14-line-ten-syllable patterned poetic form, pouring what felt like his father's “energy” and “spirit” into his verses.
“Because the sonnet is an imperial form. It's one of those elements of England that is part of a colonial mindset, so [the spirit of] my father kind of resisted it and I wanted to hear his voice come out so I started changing it. It varies, some of it still has traces of the classical sonnet, but mostly I freed it up and wrote it more in a Caribbean or Trinidadian rhythm,” Joseph explained.
He also channelled his Trinbagonianess and connection to home into his second novel Kitch (Peepal Tree Press 2018) a fictional biography of Lord Kitchener which he initially started as part of his PhD at Goldsmiths in the wake of the death of the cultural icon. It was shortlisted for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness prize and the Royal Society of Literature’s Encore award.
Joseph enjoys being the father of two daughters. He appreciates the support of his wife, Louise, the writing community, his publishers, and his agent Elise Dilsworth.
As to whether writing Sonnets for Albert has brought him closer to filling the void of having grown up without a father, the poet is still not quite sure. But it has helped him better come to terms with who his father was and gain an understanding of unconditional love.
Sonnets for Albert is available at Paper Based Bookshop, St Ann's.
Sonnets for Albert
Q&A with Anthony Joseph
What are your feelings about winning the coveted TS Eliot prize?
It's a big acknowledgement because I started writing a long time ago, probably in 1978. I was 11 writing in secondary school. In the past few years, it's worked in that I make a living from being a poet now, and an academic. This is a real acknowledgement because I've never been a mainstream poet. My work has always been experimental, kind of left field and I'm not someone who's great at selling himself. I was never that way. I just did my thing. It's really important to me on a personal level and also it means hopefully more and more people will get to read my work. That's a great thing.
How come you left Trinidad in 1989? Was it your lifelong dream to seek out your future abroad?
At that time in the 80s, everyone was trying to leave Trinidad. We had just come out of a recession, I think, and things were a bit unstable economically and a lot of people were trying to leave. A lot were going to the States and we got caught up in a sort of post-colonial mindset that you have to leave Trinidad, leave the Caribbean and go somewhere else. I thought: I'm not going to be successful here. It's changed now, everyone's trying to get in.
So you felt compelled to leave?
Yes...because of the stuff I was into; Literature and music and at that time, there was very little opportunity to do anything outside of the norm in Trinidad. It's different now because we have technology, the internet.
You got into poetry around age 11. How did that come about? Have you always felt the need to express yourself?
I was really into music and my grandfather had a few records that I grew up listening to; people like Sparrow. I was really fascinated by lyrics. It was amazing how calypsonians rhymed and talked about all these interesting topics. So by the time I got to be 12 years old, I started listening to American pop music. I started writing my own lyrics and the writing of lyrics and poems became a real passion, every day I just wrote. But at that time, I didn't know what a poet was. I didn't know what poetry was. It was only when I came to the UK I realised that I was a poet; that this was what my life was about.
Did you have feelings for your father in your early years?
Well, my grandmother loved my father. That was her youngest child. He lived in Tobago for about ten years and when he would come, he would come to see her...and I would be there and get to see him, as I said, once or twice a year. He was a myth to me, a legend, very charismatic and charming, very well-dressed...just a real trickster.
So at that time you really idolised him? You had positive feelings towards him?
The funny thing, I never had any negative feelings about my dad. I always loved him and accepted him for who he was. I think it was because my grandmother loved him that I felt that love for him too. He was a hard man to dislike. He was a nice guy when you were with him.
Any memory of you spending time, doing an activity with him? Perhaps you talk about it in your book?
Yes. One of the poems talks about being very young and my father showing up and he's got big rolls of money. He takes me to the shop on the corner and he buys me anything I want. I end up buying comic books and chocolates. That was quite special. I felt like I had a father...but then he was gone again.
Men, and Caribbean men, are typically seen as finding it harder to communicate their feelings. What allowed you to express yourself, and do so honestly in Sonnets?
I never suffered from that. I was always a romantic and I was always writing love songs. I never had an issue expressing myself because I wrote it down. Yes, and it stemmed from my grandmother too. She was always going to be pushing me, asking: tell me how you feel, what are you thinking? And that was beautiful. We could talk about anything.
What do think your win means for Caribbean writers and those of the diaspora?
There's never been a shortage of amazing writers in Trinidad. We have a rich tradition of writers going back to CLR James, VS Naipaul, and all the way up to now. I hope that my win draws even more attention to writers from the Caribbean because I think I said it elsewhere that the Caribbean is a microcosm for the rest of the world. If you want to understand where the world is right now, look at the Caribbean: migration, gender conflict, global warming, and people moving in and out trying to find their identity. We've always tried to move beyond the Caribbean and I think as Braithwaite and Lamming used to say: we become Caribbean people when we leave the Caribbean. I think this movement creates interesting literature, and I don't think it's good to regard it as a marketing trend that we have these great Caribbean writers now winning prizes. It's not a trend. It's how it should be.