When the Trinidadian poet Victor Questel died in 1982, at the tragically young age of 33, it was a major loss not only to his family and friends, but to Caribbean poetry. He left behind a small but acclaimed body of work, and a sense of enormous literary potential only partly fulfilled. With his three books long out of print, Questel’s writing has gradually faded into obscurity. But the publication of a new edition of his Collected Poems, years in the making and due to be launched in April at the 2016 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, promises to revive Questel’s reputation for a new generation, and return him to his place among the key Caribbean poets of the 1970s and 80s.
Questel, who grew up in Gonzalez, east Port of Spain, first won literary attention in the late 1960s, as an undergraduate at UWI, St. Augustine. There he was a student of Professor Gordon Rohlehr, one of the first scholars to write seriously about his poetry, and Questel went on to earn a PhD for his critical research on Derek Walcott. Questel’s three books — Score (1972), a co-publication with his friend Anson Gonzalez, Near Mourning Ground (1979), and the posthumous Hard Stares (1982) — traced an arc of growing confidence in the craft of words but also of increasingly piercing confrontation with the demons of politics, family, and faith.
“He watched the transition from the melancholy void of the 60s to the explosion of the 70s with a dry skeptical eye,” Rohlehr has written, “refusing … to be taken in by pan-Africanism, the quest for ancestors, or the rhetoric of revolution” — though Questel’s poems were “tempered by his restraint, dry wit, and ability to control morose self-absorption by humour.” Questel was also an important critic and book reviewer of the 1970s, writing for journals like Tapia and The New Voices about the work of his contemporaries, and co-editing the small arts magazine Kairi with Christopher Laird.
The new edition of Questel’s Collected Poems, which includes a major critical essay by Rohlehr, will be published by Peepal Tree Press as part of its Caribbean Classics series. The launch of the book will be a highlight of the 2016 NGC Bocas Lit Fest, which runs from Saturday 23 April to Sunday 1 May. At the launch event, which is open to the public, Rohlehr will speak alongside Peepal Tree publisher Jeremy Poynting, with readings from Questel’s poems by Trinidadian writers of the current generation. Copies of the book will be available for sale.