Halifax Public Libraries guest blog by Halifax’s Poet Laureate, Dr. Afua Cooper (April 30, 2019)
Poetry that inspires me
In elementary school in Jamaica, my teachers introduced my classmates and I to Caribbean poets. What a gift! We read such poets as Claude McKay, Louise Bennet, and Nicolas Guillen in translation.
Claude McKay wrote some of his poems in Jamaican Creole, as did Lousie Bennett—AKA Miss Lou. Bennett was of course very special. When we were reading her poems she was still very much alive, and was an avatar of Jamaican culture. In addition to her being a poet and writer, she was also an actor and television personality. Her writing in Jamaican Creole gave permission to many of us to write in our mother tongue. Many Caribbean poets see Miss Lou as an early Dub Poet because of her use of Creole.
As a Dub Poet myself, Creole is of critical importance to my work. Jamaican is my mother tongue, and the use of Jamaican Creole is one of the ways we use to break the chains of colonialism. Miss Lou made us realize that one could write poetry about the ‘everyday.’ She had a weekly Saturday television show called “Ring Ding.” Children of school age were on that show singing, reading poems, dancing, and engaging in other aspects of folklore.
In high school I began to read Kamau Brathwaite, a legendary Caribbean and world poet. My high school drama group, of which I was a part, also performed one of Kamau’s plays called Odale’s Choice. Brathwaite came to our rehearsals and helped us with the play. What a tremendous privilege that was for us. As a poet, a major concern of Kamau’s was the transatlantic slavery and the Middle Passage. His work of poetry The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, a tour-de-force, had a tremendous impact on my life as a writer. It helped me find my voice as a poet. Yes, I could write about slavery, displacement, colonialism, loss and grief, and also resistance and resilience, and about my family: my grandfathers William Cooper and Neil Campbell, and my mother Ruth Cooper, my aunt Elfreda Campbell, and growing up in Westmoreland and Kingston. All these themes come together in my books Memories Have Tongue and Copper Woman and Other Poems.
Like McKay and Bennett, Kamau used Caribbean Creole as a language of poetry. We see Kamau (like Bennett) as a foundational Dub Poet. Brathwaite was also a historian of Caribbean history and the African Diaspora. So those twin vocations (history and poetry) provided a template for me as I went forward in my life. Brathwaite gave me the permission I needed to become both a poet and a historian. Other poets that sustain and inspire me are Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Olive Senior, June Jordan, Jayne Cortez, and Rumi. While writing my Ph.D. dissertation in history, I read Neruda and Rumi over and over again for sustenance.