Bocas Lit Fest

I read a poem for the late Giselle Rampaul.

If Bocas were a child, this year it would have turned seven. We’re way past first steps, scrawled graffiti on living room walls, teething woes and ABCs – but in another sense, it feels like the Bocas journey is just beginning. This couldn’t be truer than in the arena of social media, which feels like it’s hurtling towards a shiny innovation with every trending hashtag or mercurially-game-changing metric. When I began with Bocas, seven years ago, my laptop had just died, and I was the proud owner of a slightly scuffed Me2. Now, I barely have time to look up from my smart-screens during the festival days and evenings, as I barrel from panel discussion to plein air performance, pausing to tweet, Facebook live, monitor online feedback, and do it all over again with each pinging notification. If it sounds hectic, that’s because it is, but it’s also the frontline of how we generate Bocas buzz, and I’m thrilled to be in the trenches, learning on my feet (and feeling my age in the process!)

At this year’s Bocas, however, I took pause amidst the clamour. Something – someone – was missing, and though it was business as usual in my footfall and Facebook feed, I desperately longed to see a familiar face, of someone who’s been an ardent Bocas supporter, partner, and beloved friend. In February, Giselle Rampaul passed away unexpectedly. It’s a sentence that has become no easier to type, or to believe, with the inevitable persistence of months. Giselle meant many things to many people, and she meant them all at the highest, most intensely generous frequency possible. That, after all, was Giselle. That continues to be Giselle.

My hands shook and my eyes welled, as I read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 74 as tribute to Giselle, during the OCM Bocas Prize Ceremony. It’s a tragic, devastatingly powerful ode to loss, to what lingers after death, and it was chosen by Giselle’s peers and closest friends. My task was simple, and labyrinthine: to read the poem well, to honour Giselle without faltering. I bit back copious tears as I read, keeping my voice steady, my gaze trained forward. I hope that I did well, not for my sake, but to stand and offer everything I could to an unforgettable woman in fourteen lines.

The day after the ceremony, my favourite living Trinidadian poet – who also happens to be one of my dearest friends – read a poem dedicated to me. I wasn’t in the audience (remember, the constant social media maverick cycle keeps me on my toes!) but my mother was, and she told me about the poem. Shortly after, I met up with my friend and favourite poet, and she slid it to me soundlessly across a coffee table, with a small, enigmatic smile. I read it only when I returned home, after the final day of Bocas, and it was then that I wept openly into my palms.

Ever since #bocas2017 ended, I’ve carried both poems, printed on plain A4 paper, pressed together in my backpack. Shakespeare and Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné’s verse follows me like the talismans I need, the proof that even in years marked by unbearable loss, poetry can restore us to ourselves: never as we were, but on the path, perhaps, to who we might like to be. Bocas did this for me, in the way a sensitive, wide-eyed, wise seven-year old might take your hand, and lead you to a space that gives you what you need, in the time that you need it. Here’s to more poems, pressed together tight like hands clasped in prayer and praise-song.

Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné reads at #bocas2017.

Blog by Shivanee Ramlochan, Photos by Marlon James.

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