Interview with Pam Mordecai
1. Have you always been “poetic”? An interview at Geoffrey Philp’s blog dates your first poem back to when you were 9. What was the first poem you placed in a magazine? Did that/those “first” poem/s make it into any of your books?
Always, if that means seduced by rhyme and rhythm and the power of images. My father didn’t read us bedtime stories — he read us poems from an anthology called THE BEST LOVED POEMS OF THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. Some poems told stories, and some of those were fit for children, like “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat”, but others were very grown up poems, like Longfellow’s “The Day is Done”. Shortly before his death, I read his favourites back to him from the same book, weeping the whole time. The first poem I published was in BIM, an important literary magazine founded in 1942 in Barbados by Frank Collymore, which has just recently been revived. There were very few publishing outlets for us in the region at the time so many of us in the Caribbean, poets and prose writers, cut our teeth there. No. Those first poems never made it into any of my books. I didn’t publish a first collection until long after that.
2. Some writers are poets, slammers, some are prose writers: fiction, documentaries, and so on. What do you call yourself when you’re alone: a poet, a writer, or something else?
These days I only call myself one thing when I’m alone — Grandma! I have had ‘writer’ as my occupation in my passport for a while, as that’s how I’ve earned my living for a while. I have no other job or source of income.
3. Poets spend a lot of time perfecting their craft, and then perfecting each piece. They never stop going to school. So, where’s the money?
I wish I could be like Rustum Kozain or Geoffrey Philp and see the money in the reward of the work, but this is it, so the money’s got to be bread money, or dunny, as we say. In Canada, journals pay for poetry, so there’s a little money for publication in that venue. And if one were to get something in the NEW YORKER, I imagine that would mean good money! (Yes, I’ve sent poems there, and will probably continue to do so. They ‘allow’ you two submissions a year.) One gets a little money for use in anthologies too. I get good permissions fees for my children’s poems — I’ve been paid as much as Æ’500.00 for one-time use of a poem. It’s higher than any advance I’ve had for an entire poetry manuscript! However, my new daydream is: write a great poem, devise some hit music, and record it! That’s the jackpot! I’d get paid every time it had airplay!
4. One of your poems is about the death of your dear brother. I have admired the way you deal with the (gratuitous) killing of a loved one. And, I have questions: Did this poem come to you, or did you have to go and get it? Once it was done, did anything change? Perhaps my question is, Can art help humans overcome adversity?
I’m glad you like the poem. (They’re actually two, but I think you mean the dub one, yes?) You understand what it feels like to lose someone near to you by arbitrary violence, I know. I don’t think I went and got any of the poems in that final section, called “The True Blue of Islands”, which is also the title of the book. Once the poems were done, I felt that I had witnessed to my brother’s life, affirmed, blessed, anointed him. It was a kind of ritual. That wasn’t all there was to it, of course, but overall, I was in a better place when I was done. As for the power of art over adversity, I’ve believed for a long time in art, what I call in one poem, “the comfort of making,” as a way of keeping evil at bay, as the last refuge of grace, goodness, God. I feel that through the creative act an artist can arrive at a kind of wholeness that absorbs even dread experiences and can share that peace-inducing process. (It seems that there’s now evidence of this. See “Real Bodies: Write it all down. You’ll feel better” at http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/real-bodies-write-it-all-down-youll-feel-better-1118135.html ) I don’t believe in ‘closure’, perhaps because I’m not interested in closing anything. I want to keep it all open until I really close, finally, in death. Till then, I want to gather my experiences and make sense of them, make something good of them, including those occasions when I have been stubborn, dumb, foolhardy, even wicked. I write to share the good things that I hope I make.
5. A university teacher of mine (Elizabeth, one of the reasons I’m here busting my…, well… my things to try and write) told me that if I ever got a poem published in a prestigious magazine, she’d go back and turn my grade into an A+. No matter when that happened. Question: Was that a good or a bad move on her part? Would you do something of the sort if you were a varsity teacher?
I think it’s a good move on her part, and I hope that I would do something like that, yes. I don’t think she meant to convey the idea that poetry is only worthwhile if it’s published in a prestigious magazine. Rather, I think she wanted to show that she sees the acquisition of these creative skills as ongoing, as a trajectory which she wants to be part of even after her students walk through the university’s gates. So I see her giving you this undertaking, less as motivation, more as a sort of magical reward to look forward to, according to which you would be twice recompensed when you wrote your prominently published poem. It’s as if she would complete a circle, a pact, when she went back into your records and changed the grade.
6. I grew up listening to Reggae, Bob, Peter, Burning Spear and (yes) Afrikan Dreamland (when I was in the U.S.). We as Lesotho teenagers in the late ’70s and early ’80s identified with this music, as Africans, and, of course for the music’s own sake. Do Jamaicans hold African music in any such light? Do you listen to African music?
I think many Jamaicans love the various musics of Africa. I do, though I confess that one great tragedy in my life is that I have listened to less music, of all kinds, than I would have liked. I’ve been a fan of Miriam Makeba since my teens. I still like her songs. In the 70s, when you were listening to Bob Marley, Jamaicans were listening to Makeba and Hugh Masakela, but there wasn’t a lot of ‘African music’ on the airwaves, and the only records available were by people like those two, who had English or American recording contracts. For myself, I like Fela and Femi Kuti: they are so familiar they could be in a calypso tent in Trinidad! I think Ladysmith Black Mambazo are great. I very much enjoy the work of instrumentalists like Hugh Masakela, instrumentals like, say, the sounds on Simba Wanyika’s “Shilingi”. I like the traditional music too. The missa luba is superb and I enjoy the choirs. I’m not pretending that I listen to African music a lot (as I say, unhappily I don’t listen to music enough) but I do like it.
7. You are to encourage poetry students to write a poem. Please come up with a “writing prompt” out of your own experience, or out of something else, using anything that invades your mind right now. Very short and simple.
Pick an animal, famous for a particular characteristic (e.g., lion for bravery, elephant for long memory, etc.) Write, as a poem, what you, the animal, think and/or say when you wake one morning to discover that this defining characteristic has gone.
8. What position do four-letter words hold in your work? Do you sometimes resort to profanity?
I often begin my readings with the comment that I’m a wild woman, ‘Certifiable!’ — it’s the title of my third collection of poetry. I tell them that I’m politically incorrect, so they should expect anything, and certainly ought to expect to hear ‘bad words’. I’m a Jamaican. We have a rich vocabulary of cuss words. I’m not profligate with them, but I use them when I need to, in both prose and poetry. I don’t think of it as profanity. Profanity is what offends God. Curse words like raas are our vulgar response because sex frightens us. And if it is something to which I resort, I do so to render the frustration and upset of those whose distress I’m representing…
9. What do you do for inspiration? Do you go somewhere, read something, listen to something?
I’m, like I say, a crazy lady, with a lot of years under my belt, on my face. Most times, inspiration is only a memory, one phrase, one good or bad feeling away. I’m reading all the time, too. Right now, the poetry I’m reading is Derek Walcott’s Omeros, which I’ve read most of (in fact, I’ve read the first part again and again) but up to now have not managed to complete. My writing feeds off what I’m reading, whatever it is. That’s of course true for every writer.
10. Here’s an on-going poem. Please write the fifth verse.
They stood before me that night
With clenched fists and blown pupils,
Shadowed by leafless branches of a cotton tree,
The moon as bright as the moon and no metaphor
For which image can serve? What simile
Makes sense enough? The ghosts that guard
the tree nod yes, though I’ve not said a thing.
One shade uncurls and crooks a bony finger, calling me.
Pamela Claire Mordecai (born 1942 in Kingston, Jamaica) is a Jamaican writer, teacher, and scholar and poet. She attended high school in Jamaica and college in the USA, where she did a first degree in English. A trained language-arts teacher with a PhD in English, she has taught at secondary and tertiary levels, trained teachers, and worked in media and in publishing.
Mordecai has written articles on Caribbean literature, education and publishing, and has collaborated on, or herself written, over thirty books, including textbooks, children’s books, and four books of poetry for adults. She has edited several anthologies. Her poems and stories for children are widely known and have been used in textbooks in the UK, Canada, the USA, West Africa and the Caribbean. Her short stories have been published in journals and anthologies in the Caribbean, the USA and Canada.