Caribbean Writers and Poets: John Robert Lee, your new book of poems, Belmont Portfolio, is published by Peepal Tree Press of Leeds this November. What can your readers expect?
John Robert Lee: I have been thinking that this new book could be read as a companion volume to my preceding Pierrot (Peepal, 2020). It was not planned that way, but in terms of form, and thematically, it could be seen like that. Here, as in Pierrot, and in earlier work, I explore my world and what is happening in it, Caribbean and international; my culture and its history, its music, both traditional and contemporary, its life in all that complexity; my own personal experiences of maturing, aging, and my ever-deepening faith. Part Two is very autobiographical, plain statement poetry, confessional.
CWP: Belmont Portfolio, intriguing title and cover art. What about them?
JRL: The cover art is by Trinidadian artist Jackie Hinkson. A general theme behind the poems is “a return from…a return to” and this art seemed to capture the idea. I attended Carifesta in Trinidad in 2019 and stayed in Belmont. Every day, walking to the Savannah from Pelham Street, I would take photographs of buildings, fences etc. Out of these photos came a series of poems inspired by the photos which developed into the long title poem Belmont Portfolio. Dedicated to the Trinidadian novelist Earl Lovelace. The poem holds my impressions of the little bit of Belmont I saw, I make various wider connections and it also brings in references to famous calypsonians like Shadow (probably my favourite kaiso griot) and David Rudder, associated, like so many other famous Trinidadian singers and artists and writers with Belmont.
CWP: The publisher’s blurb describes it as “a magnificent and varied collection in which the observational, the sacramental, the elegiac, the prophetic and the personal mesh together.” Vladimir Lucien, in his endorsement, says that you are “the chronicler of the infinite in small places and in honest quotidian experiences,” that you have “managed to refine a poetic voice as unassuming and plain speaking as the places he chronicles.” In 1993, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott had said that you were “a scrupulous poet…not a common virtue in poets, to be scrupulous and modest in the best sense, not to over-extend the range of the truth of his emotions, not to go for the grandiose…you don’t get in the poetry anything that is…preachy or self-advertising in terms of its morality..”.Canisia Lubrin, the very talented younger Saint Lucian poet resident in Canada, writing of Pierrot, had said that ‘the depth of his knowledge of poetic form and craft is made plain in every line.” Such huge praise from many respected quarters! How do you respond?
JRL: Well, I am grateful that these very accomplished writers, major voices in their own right, have been so generous. They have put their fingers on what I have always tried to do with my poems. Being Saint Lucian means that they can pick up the Saint Lucian references and allusions that non-Saint Lucians might miss. An influential book for me has been ‘The Sacred in life and art” by Philip Sherrard (1990). Its ideas guide these poems in many ways. I have always been conscious of the transcendental, the divine, the sacred in the world around me, in life’s experiences, and think of how that should be translated in my art. My latest manuscript is titled After poems, psalms, which tries also to hold that vision of the sacred, the divine, in the midst of our mundane, painfilled, confused, diurnal experiences. As the Psalms, great Hebrew poetry, also capture. I have no interest in being dogmatic about my metaphysical beliefs, no interest in living under any theocratic authoritarianism or so-called Christian nationalism. As a democracy loving person, I believe in freedom of choice. So yes, the “sacramental, elegiac, prophetic” are in my poems. Vladimir’s comment about being a “chronicler of the infinite in small places and in …quotidian experiences” is true, and is seen in the kind of details I try to sketch. Derek very early understood what I was attempting. And Canisia touches on my long interest in and dedication to, form and craft. Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press has been my editor for four books, we have always worked well together. My earlier books with Peepal Tree, the foremost publisher of Caribbean, Black British and Asian literature, a prestigious and respected independent UK press, are elemental (2008); Collected Poems (2017), Pierrot (2020) and now Belmont Portfolio (2023).
CWP: You seem quite prolific. What is in the pipeline? And any final thoughts?
JRL: In January, during Nobel laureate Festival, I will be launching something called IKONS: New and Selected Poems. I am publishing it locally under my imprint Mahanaim Publishing and with the Msgr Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre (FRC). This publication is a way to celebrate my 75th birthday and my several years of local publishing as well as to join the FRC in celebrating its 50th anniversary. It will contain selections from earlier published books and new unpublished poems, as well as art from various Saint Lucian artists. The cover art comes from the walls of a 200 year-old prison that was unfortunately demolished by the government of the day in 2020. All proceeds from sales of this book will go to help needy artists. I have already submitted to Peepal Tree my new manuscript After poems, psalms, with cover art by Saint Lucian international artist Llewellyn Xavier and am working on a new book of 12-line poems titled Diary. I do occasional reviews of literature, write a monthly Christian column in the Voice of Saint Lucia. Earlier this year, I published a chapbook of twelve of those articles titled Sermons under the sun. I continue to be active in my local Baptist church where I preach occasionally. I curate an email list to over 100 writers and artists where I pass on news of Caribbean literary and arts interest. I am no longer involved actively in theatre and broadcasting as I once was.
I mourn the genocidal slaughter in Gaza and the long oppression of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. I recognize that many Jews also want peace and a resolution to that intractable problem and mourn with them their own losses. I mourn what is happening across our Caribbean with the phenomenal rise in gun crimes everywhere and especially observe with alarm what is happening with gangs in Haiti. The situation in Haiti is a dire warning to the rest of the Caribbean where gangs have proliferated quickly in recent years. I am concerned about what is happening in Ukraine and Sudan and Afghanistan (oppression of women) and in India (with persecution of Muslim minorities) and all other such suffering.
I am concerned about climate change issues and our vulnerability as small island nations. Our carelessness in places like Saint Lucia with disposal of so much plastic and other waste into our oceans, our land use, our huge dependence on hotel-type tourism and all its related issues. Also, I am saddened by our understanding of nationalism and independence and how we are still so dependent on larger powers which keep us in a neo-colonial state. I have many questions about media in the Caribbean, now compounded by social media and the easy accessibility of so much questionable stuff from everywhere. We still do not have enough Caribbean-oriented media for relevant and needed information and education.
I observe also what is happening in America, how liberal democracy has been subverted by autocrats and their fanatic, non-liberal, non-democratic supporters, spouting very conservative religious and political rhetoric. Already in our Caribbean, our own liberal democracies are also under threat from autocrats and non-liberal factions who enter through the ballot box. Aided by the propaganda and pervasive influence of social media, and external manipulators of local politics, many of them right-wing.
I continue to mourn all kinds of discriminations and violence, everywhere, that are racist, gender-based, against indigenous people, against people of different religious faiths and ideologies, against basic civil rights.
But I continue to marvel at the miraculous beauty of our Caribbean and our planet, the resilience of our people, in which I find daily, testament of the sacred, the divine, the sacramental. And I continue to applaud and enjoy and admire the achievements of my contemporary writers, artists, musicians, dancers in the Caribbean and elsewhere.