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Poetry: Fred D’Aguiar and Shara McCallum

By Shivanee Ramlochan, 2012 Bocas Lit fest blogger


D’Aguiar and McCallum discuss their work with Giselle Rampaul after the reading.
It’s frankly amazing, the ways in which attending the Bocas Lit Fest can make you feel that you’ve absorbed months of vital creative atmosphere, in the space of just four days. My enjoyment of the poetry sessions at this year’s Bocas kicked off with a reading by Lasana Sekou and Kendel Hippolyte, and it ended in a similar vein, of deep appreciation at the poetic voices of Fred D’Aguiar and Shara McCallum.McCallum, a Jamaican poet, whose most recent book This Strange Land was longlisted for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize, took the stage first. Each of her shared pieces was delightfully (and, on occasion, disturbingly, but in the best fashion, in the way we want poems to disturb us) vivid, equally picturesque and unsettling. Lines like “There are moments in a life when everything is ripped apart” (with apologies for potentially inaccurate structuring) still linger, refusing to leave my thoughts even now. McCallum beamed when she prefaced the poem “Dear History” by saying that it was such a pleasure, given her audience that day, to not have to gloss over the names in this poem, names that are part of our language, names like Marcus and Manley.Fred D’Aguiar, Guyanese-English poet and fiction writer (and the chair of this year’s poetry judges) followed, his selection of poems truly running the gamut. He shared a piece wherein the mention of the word “mosquito” was meant to be synonymous with the thought of politicians, a concept that no member of the audience found difficult to grasp, tellingly. His poems elicited both uproarious laughter and silent contemplation. I most appreciated slivers of frank admissions he made, such as the fact that he loves Guyana abidingly, but is most drawn to writing about its problems. He ended his reading with three poems from his 2009 collection, Continental Shelf, to a room full of grateful hands coming together in resounding applause.

Literary academic Giselle Rampaul asked both writers to engage the notion that they speak about trauma in their work, in distinct patterns, endowing it with fresh, thought-provoking considerations. Shara McCallum voiced what she thought might’ve been an unpopular sentiment, stating that, for her, the act of writing itself can be its own catharsis, at times even more so than the content, than the story her words have told on the page. (I see why this rationale could be thought of as less flattering to the sensibilities of a reader, but I remind myself, time and again, that there are no hard and fast rules for writing/appreciating poetry, and that poets have every right to respond to their poems differently, with a separately engaged narrative than their audience does.) D’Aguiar’s response had much to do with gratitude: the sense that he is deeply thankful in the here and now, and has been growingly grateful over time, for all his poems as they’ve come to him; for all the things they revealed, even miles and miles after they’d been written. Both poets urged, to young writers: read, read, read, read! Seek out as much work as you can, by as many writers as fascinate, intrigue and shock you. Poetry, they concurred, is someone’s life, someone’s testimony to being alive… so absorb as much of it as humanly possible. I could think of no finer sentiment on which to conclude this year’s poetry sessions. I know I’ll spend every day I’m fortunate to read fiction carrying out just that advice.

Photo by Nicolette Bethel.