A Discussion With Guyanese Poet Balwant Bhagwandin
With M. Stephanie Browne
Balwant Bhagwandin recently published his second book, i hear guyana cry! which is a compilation of twenty-one poems. Whereas Wild Flowers (2001) covered a wider range of subjects and concerns such as the travails of self-exile, cultural assimilation and social justice in both his homeland and adopted homeland, i hear guyana cry! laments the political destabilization and social despoilment of a country and people least prepared to deal with such havoc.
Bhagwandin emigrated to the United States in 1990, relocated back to Guyana in 1997 for a three-year stint, then moved for a second time (out of disillusionment) to the United States. He currently lives in New York City.
To a great extent, Bhagwandins poetry still remains undiscovered. Hopefully, in time, a new cadre of readers (both the young and the more experienced) will be awakened to his works.
Wild Flowers and i hear guyana cry! can be bought from iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.
Marilyn Browne spoke with this poet recently.
Marilyn Browne: Why do you write poetry?
Balwant Bhagwandin: What a question, Marilyn! But its one Ive asked myself more than a few times. Poetry wont make me rich or glamorous and famous. It doesnt put a meal on the table and if current returns maintain their trend, wont ever be able to pay a fraction for a night out. So why, indeed! Aah! What else is there for me to do? Why do I laugh, why do I cry, why do I breathe? What choice do I have? Writing poetry for me is like a bird in free flight, a bird that flies because its in him to fly; that flies for love of flight and if I dont do it, will be denying myself, will be a form of suicide.
This is how Rilke puts it: Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this question with a strong and simple I must, then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Let me add that I see poetry as my version of creativity and self-expression, my line of communication with other human beings. And, its a great pleasure for me.
MB: Who influenced you most as a writer?
BB: I want to think what I write is me and what I am today started a long, long time ago my parents (who, albeit poor, felt that their children should have an education) and siblings, teachers and friends, the writers and books I have read. The poems in the books I, you, all of us read in primary school, even though Sparrow, one of our greats, brilliantly makes mock of them! In Teachers College, Kathleen Drayton, my English lecturer, and the brilliant wife of the man [Harold Drayton] who set up UG greatly influenced me to further appreciate the values and beauty of Literature. I read and was deeply impressed. The stuff was hot and we were hungry. We a group of youngsters aspiring to be artists published a little magazine, two actually, that eventually became one before early demise from lack of funds to continue publication (Plexus and Expression) in 1969/70 I think, and Martin Carter as Minister of Culture called us to his office and sat with us on the floor, to show fraternity with the young renegades, I guess, to congratulate us on the effort and thank us for maintaining the artistic legacy but, I often wonder, was it also to contain us? To warn us in the custom of that time? Can you imagine our trepidation and exhilaration? That group included Johnny Agard, Victor Davson, Marc Matthews, Charles Barrow, Brian Chan, Terrence Roberts, Neville Matadin, Joe Drepaul, Janice Shinebourne, Sultan Khan, Harold Bascom, Kamal Singh, Njide, Peter Kempadoo, several others, who have all moved on and in many cases excelled in their art, sadly, outside of Guyana. I dont know, Marilyn, it was a good feeling that Martin, our hero, our poet, had noticed our little efforts and was impressed by our art, but we published that magazine with our own money which we didnt have much of (the biggest job amongst us were pupil teacher or assistant teacher) and Martin Carter, the Minister of Culture, a poet and brother artist, didnt offer help to keep it going. Wordsworth McAndrew and his then wife, Rose, helped us, Rose edited and Mac was mentor and an encouraging force and today, Mac the Wordsworth McAndrew is living by the grace of God and family/friends in New Jersey and I dont know where Rose is .
You know, in retrospect, I admit we were young, arrogant and not very respectful to people in the main stream of the art scene in Guyana at that time. Many of us felt that artists thought that to qualify to line up for the handouts that were being doled out to artists to survive they had to get on the political bandwagons and one must admit that much of the idealistic art that the euphoria of independence and a Guyanese government in office and maybe our party in power brought out were either overly naive or sycophantic and we turned our backs to it because art was being prostituted for propaganda purposes. The people at the Ministry of Culture and the National History and Arts Council didnt have much use for us and we reciprocated because we felt they were playing the political games for their own gains that had nothing to do with art.
Personally, I thank Burnham for Carifesta; his motives for that colossal gathering of Caribbean artists I am highly suspicious of. (Incidentally, his is a personality, and his deeds we have so far been hesistant, as artists, to delve into.) Edgar, Edgar [Mittelholzer], why did you go the graveyard so soon? In the minds of Guyana, he [Burnham] was either good or evil. Good, he was genius and visionary; bad, he was monster and pure Animal Farm!
Let me say that we were not the only people writing then but we were outside of both the political and art establishments and so we were shunned; but I do remember names of some others who were writing then and later but there was not that much contact and intermingling as we all must have been suspicious of each others motives (you had to live there to know the Orwellian nature of the society then) Mahadai Das, Laxhmie Kallicharran, Rosetta Khalideen, Parvati Persaud Edwards, Churaumanie Bissundyal, Kampta Karran, George Vidyahanand, and others, and of course, the recognized and accepted artists [Arthur J.] Seymour, Rajkumarie Singh, [David] Dabydeen, Norman Cameron, Donald Trotman, Evadne DOlivera and this suspicion and lack of interaction were to the detriment of art in Guyana.
I will write what I want to write and how I want to write for as long as I can. Initially, I wanted to write poetry like Martin [Carter] and [Derek] Walcott, a novel like [V.S.] Naipaul or [Sam] Selvon or [George] Lamming but they wrote their stories and poems and I couldnt write like them because I was not any of them and their stories were not mine. I would like to think that what and how I write now are a gathering and culmination of a multitude of movements and forces and relations and perceptions and books and experiences over the years of my life.
MB: In Guyana, you were an educator. Can you elaborate on that which might perhaps explain the blatant didactic strains in your poetry?
BB: I guess poetry, like teaching, lends itself to proselytizing and I have been guilty. I have tried, try not to be blatantly didactic but apparently I have not been as successful as I would like to be. You know, I started to teach in the 1960s which were years of massive, often times turbulent changes not only in Guyana but also of great social upheavals all around the world in thoughts, politics, values and of revolutionary changes in music, art, literature, in almost everything we did. I, like most of my generation, had lost faith in the old ways and their proponents in our little backwater republic. We saw our leaders and their cronies for the con artists they were; we saw independence did not bring the golden age they had promised us; we saw our nation begin a moral and social freefall. And the new way was slowly dying a premature natural death. So I was no fanatic or one-eyed mullah. In fact I was too skeptical even then to be missionary or jihadist out to capture converts from among my students. Even though they were so lost they desperately needed someone with answers but I didnt/dont have them. I was/am too full of doubts and questions to be a messiah because I do not possess the blind self-possession, confidence and dogmatism to try to make converts to my opinions, shaky as they are, but I have strong unshakeable hatred for injustice, unfairness, corruption, inhuman and barbaric behaviors such as going on in Guyana and the world now, and whichever poem(s) turned out to be didactic just happened that way in the nature of poetry without any premeditation on my part. I write, I hope, to touch consciousnesses, to open eyes with whispers not to make beaters of drums and bearers of standards or AK47s, as the custom nowadays.
MB: Despite your late start, the startling richness and depth of your poetry compare favorably to the works of giants like Martin Carter and Derek Walcott? Do you feel short-changed at your still under-exposure and seeming lack of professional validation?
BB: What honored company you put me in! Emily Dickinson, recluse ne plus ultra and magnificent poet, in my opinion, deliberately avoided exposure and professional validation during her lifetime. Allen Ginsbergs Howl was made the definitive poem of its time by prosecution for obscenity, I think, by the establishment but I know that exposure and validation did not come overnight to Martin and Walcott or to most poets for that matter. I knew from way back that poetry was not the indulgence of choice of very many people and perusal, exposure would be doubly measly for me, coming as I do from the Turd World and a Guyana (along with its Diaspora) preoccupied with shinier acquisitions and more lucrative endeavors where poetry is not seen as vital to life and poets are more often than not considered weirdoes and those who do not make it. So I was well aware of the nature of the beast or, if you prefer, the inhospitable geography of the terrain a poet journeys through, and it didnt daunt me, wouldnt daunt me from doing what I care about doing. Rilke wrote this: go into yourself at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.
Exposure, ah exposure! We get published outside of mainstream mostly through our own efforts and but for our own media and people, we are non-existent. So who will promote our books, who will sell them and who will read what we publish? The non-Guyanese/non-Caribbean reader is not interested in us and our writings, and our own people do not read and/or do not read their own writers, so what to do? Go at the corner of Lefferts [Blvd.] and Liberty [Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens, NY] and hawk my books like if they were religious tracts or supermarket flyers? How many young people in Guyana, do you think, know who Naipaul, Selvon, Walcott, Martin, [Rooplall] Monar, Mittelholzer are? Even the children of the affluent who read and can afford books! My friends wife, grown woman and mother of children, who knew of my friendship with Martin Carter, his reputation and my reverence for him, once saw a photograph on my computer of me kneeling at Martins tomb and sardonically asked of me, What were you doing there? I didnt, dont, know the answer to that question or if it deserves an answer but it exemplifies the philistinism of our people. These things do create moments of despondency and doubts because so few people are interested in reading and fewer still in reading poetry and even fewer of our countrymen/women in Guyanese poetry, but so far, so far, I have not allowed those significance that would bog me down. But it is a struggle to stay afloat and sane. Maybe time, as you say, will rectify this situation The more I hear of friends or acquaintances falling into slumps and ready to dump their efforts in writing and the arts the more I come to think we have to believe that one day we will be read, seen, heard, known if only not to be overwhelmed by the depression, frustration and discouragement that comes from being unheard, unread, unheeded, unrecognized. I strongly believe a people, a nation, a culture will disappear like dust in the wind, no matter how magnificent its marketplaces, how wealthy its traders, how aggressive its armies, how extensive its empire, if it does not produce and honor poets and singers and drummers and writers and artists and museums and podiums and flutes and drums. What I find most depressing and discouraging is the fact that even though there are so many of us, Guyanese and West Indians, here in New York, there is no active community of writers and artists, no gathering of poets! (Editor: There are a few that are struggling.)
MB: Do you usually have a specific audience for a specific poem? For example, whom did you have in mind when you wrote Beyond Value and Little Wild Flower in Wild Flowers?
BB: Some poems may be written with a situation or person (s) somewhere in the background, in the mind, but I dont think I consciously seek out a particular audience when I write a poem. As the poem works itself out, I may think or hope, along the way, that it would be read by Marilyn or Gary or Sherry or Joe but I prefer the freedom of writing without being curtailed by the agenda or opinions of any person or group, especially since I do not/cannot belong to any grouping or believe in anyones manifesto. Beyond Value I would like to think of as my canon, if I may use that word, for why I write, my search for answers and a voice in which to speak and I may have hoped in the writing of it that it would provide to anyone reading it the explanation not only of why I write but also of the how and what. Little Wild Flower is more personal or intimate and was my unraveling for myself (I didnt even think the person involved would ever have seen or read the poem) of an incursion, invasion, intrusion, encroachment into what I thought then was a set and closed existence. Events proved otherwise and the poem was an attempt to explore the event.
MB: You write from a unique perspective which is totally devoid of the closed world academia. Do you see this as a help or a hindrance to your writing? In other words, do you think if you were in academia you would have a better chance at being known by a wider audience?
BB: Maybe. I dropped out from UG when it was exciting then at the beginning that we had a University, you know, because academia, even then in Guyana was stultifying for me. My friend, Joe Drepaul, told me, more than thirty years ago, that acceptance by academia ensures a better meal ticket but me, I didnt/dont need caviar or crown roast; I eat what is available, be it straight cook-up or dholl/rice and bhajee or cups of pond water! Striving for acceptance by academia is self-defeating. Its a closed world as you say that stifles creativity and experimentation. I see the artist as a permanent outsider to mainstream, like a bum or a hunchback, a freak peering through the skylight of human existence for what make him outsider and cannot belong to the claustrophobic world of academia. The poet-professors, or professor-poets, in their lectures and workshops and essays dictate not only the route of travel but [also] the manner of travel and if you want to be accepted and continue to belong to their world and to benefit you had better know whose rear-ends to romance and get on with it, for one thing is sure they do look out for themselves and their own! Which I think is one of the more serious failings of the Guyana Prize, that it has largely been placed in the care and control of a cabal from academia.
MB: Why do you think poetry has remained cordoned off from the rest of the world by academia despite the seeming rapid expansion of the art? And, do you have ideas, if any, for re-directing this trend in the future for the next generation of writers and poets?
BB: I think it was Ian McDonald who wrote that an average person going through the newspaper and coming across a page laid out in poetic format would quickly flick over that page without reading it even if it were reporting news or words to that effect. The attitude that has prevailed, been made to prevail, I should say, for some time now, has been that poetry, as compared to prose, for the reader requires an academic intellect to be intelligible, that only a specialist of special scholarship and training can understand and unravel what poetry is saying; that only a trained craftsman of exceptional and premeditating intellect writes good poetry. As if poetry were a difficult, convoluted, academic/intellectual metaphysical challenge to be written, read and studied only by the intellectually gifted and trained! It is a deliberate and premeditated attitude fostered by academia to retain custody of the art as one of its last possession, one of its last sacrosanct places.
Many poets themselves are also to be held responsible for this cordoning off of poetry in the way they have made their works beyond the understanding of the non-academic reader. Perhaps they were writing for particular editors or publishers or reviewers or audience, conforming to particular styles, tastes and demands, but I mean, how many far-fetched and far-stretched images and phrases can you crowd on the pinhead of a poem? How many historical and mythological symbols? How obscure and convoluted make the language? Why should a reader have need to access a University-level library with encyclopedias, dictionaries, companion volumes, interpretations, theses, all the paraphernalia for a heavy academic undertaking to read and understand the works of a poet? Then it becomes a distasteful labor when reading a poem should be a pleasure, a joy! I guess the Beat Poets became so popular and widely read because they broke that cast, were able to speak in everyday language to everyday people. Charles Bukowski, a most prolific poet if I ever came across one, wrote in very simple language that is straightforward for even the most average of reader and there are many other very accessible poets [Pablo] Neruda, Dylan Thomas, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Ogden Nash, Wanda Coleman, Thylias Moss, Sapphire are just a few that come to mind.
In the US, in the last forty years or so there has been an explosion in the population of poets and poetry readings outside of the academic establishment are as common as workshops and lectures in lecture-halls on poets. Books have always been available here and poetry readings have become TV events and poetry videos and CDs are becoming increasingly available and people are reading and listening to poetry more.
As recently suggested in Guyana, I believe literature should be made a required subject in schools and dedicated efforts should be made to promote poetry at all levels of society. We have all heard the laments about the reading habits, or lack thereof, of children here in America and its consequences, and I fear that in the drought of cultural/social activities in societies like Guyanas where TV (mostly American) has made a dramatic and dynamic advent the result will be the same or worse, bearing in mind the chronic shortages of reading material, the inadequacies of libraries, the paucity of bookstores and the lack of attention to writers and writing, where the over-riding attitude about the arts and artists is that they are like inanimate ornaments on the mantelpiece of the society, half-glanced at occasionally and given no more importance/significance than decorative trinkets. How often and how much space and time are given to poetry and the arts by the media? In Guyana not very much! Here in NY, in the multitude of Guyanese/WI community newspapers and radio and TV shows, poetry, the arts and artists are rarely mentioned, if ever. Even as news about new books or the achievements of our artists. In an issue of one of the more popular of these newspapers I just now cursorily flipped through, of seventy-six pages of reprints from various news services and other journals, ads for real estate, lawyers, doctors, West Indian stores and the likes, there is only one article of original writing! Is as if amidst the pages of all-important ads and the glut of reprints from other journals and the news services, these self-styled journalists have no space and time and energy left over for mundane book reviews, interviews with artists, announcements of new books and art exhibitions or for original writing. Also exemplified therein, is the undeniable fact that writing as an art and skill is dead amongst people who are supposed to be making their living from writing! Is it any mystery then that in such a medium, a poem or book review or article on a writer/artist cannot find a place? (Thus, we need to give credit to the singular efforts of the Guyana Journal for setting aside some pages for poetry and book reviews). I think the media, print and electronic, has to give exposure to poets (as well as other writers) and material and personnel do exist to permit dedicated programs of poetry and prose to be produced on a regular basis as a first step to encourage reading and writing. I remember radio BBC Caribbean (?) and the stories, poems and plays I heard as a child. As well, it is long past time for State agencies, the Ministries of Education and Culture, the History and Arts Councils to do more for all the arts than merely organize Calypso Competitions and the bacchanals of Carnivals and Mashramani! I do believe that one of the greatest gifts one can give a child is a love of books and reading and, you know, to this day I get a secret feeling of self-gratification when one of my former students from Buxton or Anna Regina tells me that his love of reading and his respect for books originated in my early attempts way, way back to expose them to Guyanese and West Indian writings by reading to them the stories of Miguel Street, The Lonely Londoners, Black Midas, the poetry of Martin Carter .
MB: Your style has flamboyance, reminiscent of the famous Chilean Poet, Pablo Nerudas later works. How do you respond to that?
BB: I am honored that you hold that opinion about my poetry. If I remember correctly, I first heard the name Pablo Neruda in the late 1950s, when I was still a child, spoken reverentially by my brother who had studied in the UK and though I had read quite a bit of poetry by the time (I migrated in 1990) I had not come across any significant body of Nerudas works, without doubt due to the general dearth of books and particularly so of poetry, in Guyana; so it was not until about eight, ten years ago, here in NY, that I really had the opportunity to read him. I even heard a recording of him reading once but as it was in Spanish what I heard were his rhythms and cadence. Had the culture from which I come been more stable, clearly defined, cohesive and as long-standing as his, I would have been tempted to say our common South American origin and close histories impart a particular perspective on life, a kind of continental identity or personality, but the facts being what they are, that would be presumptuous and arrogant. As it is what I would say is that my style has evolved over the years from my readings of other poets, my experiences, my reactions and my own experimentations. And I must emphasize it is not set in stone, solidly fixed as yet, defined with total clarity I am still searching, still experimenting. Had I consciously set out to create a particular poem any one of my poems I might have also deliberately contrived a style, but mostly the material has dictated the format, the style as you say, tempered no doubt by my own whims and fancies, my on-going experiments. Neruda wrote: Let (that) be the poetry we search for: steeped in sweat and smoke, smelling of lilies and urine A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophesies, declarations of loathings and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denials and doubts, affirmations and taxes. Those who shun the bad taste of things will fall flat on the ice. I concur; much of what he is saying is what I feel and maybe therein lies the resonance in my style you consider reminiscent of our South American master!
MB: Who is your favorite poet? Why?
BB: All of them! Why? They write poetry! Seriously, I dont have any one favorite poet. Martin Carter is still a favorite though I am bitter about his collaboration with the politicians for which he himself made a half-assed apology and his contributions, or lack, as poet and Minister of Culture towards promoting poets/poetry in Guyana. Walcott, Pound, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Rilke, Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, Edward Braithwaite, Erica Jong, Charles Buckowski, The Beat Poets are all favorites. Too many to list, Marilyn, too many. I read anyone, everyone; the poems of one poet may appeal to my tastes, sensibility, prejudices, if you will, more than those of another; or in a volume I might like most of the poems or find only a single one to like or none, but that does not detract from the value of the poems. I admire Ezra Pound greatly not only for his poetry but [also] for his efforts to define and expand and promote the form, for his encouragement and help to other writers, but his Cantos are heavy reading and it is often I have to reach for the Companion Volume or encyclopedia or my volumes of myths and fables to make headway. You know, I remember in the late 60s and the 70s our group of young aspiring writers in Guyana used to make mock of the old fogies (pedantic was a popular word among us!) like Seymour, J.W. Chinapen, S. Sadeek, N. Cameron, but in time I came to regret that youthful arrogance and ignorance, if not for love of their material and styles, then in respect for what they were doing. Truly, they were helping to build a literary tradition in Guyana and their writings are our legacies.
MB: Your most recently published collection, i hear guyana cry!, addresses serious political and social issues that have ravished and racially divided Guyana within the last few years. In terms of social responsibility how do you want your readers to respond to this book?
BB: Almost without exception, all who have read i hear guyana cry! have told of being terrified by the brutality and anarchy and, almost without exception, have spoken of major emotional and mental trauma at the barbarism into which our beloved motherland had plunged and of which I was writing. So bad has reading the book been for some people, I have had to apologize for the pain and try to make amends, not retract a word of what I wrote I am still jerked out of sleep in sweat with heart thumping at the nightmares, and yet there are people in and out of Guyana who would condone the violence by pointing fingers and those who would seem to decry the barbarism by pointing fingers but truly aiming to hammer another nail in the coffin of their opponents.
Poetry I think should awaken, entertain, enlighten, expand, instigate change (even shock) at an individual level and to quote Neruda for the Guyanese reader
that they turn their backs (as they did once before) on the charlatan politicians of Guyana and say we are important, our children are priority, the nation is first and not your bankruptcies, corruption, megalomaniac selfishness and tit-for-tat-/hide-and-seek/one-up-manship games as the first order of business on a long, hard road (even an impossible one as I see in present circumstances for there are many areas of the country where the rule of law and the authority of the state do not extend, where drug-lords, warlords and crime-lords rule so how far away from a failed state are we?) of priorities to reclaim their hijacked lives, their prostituted moral validation, rekindle their battered spirits and join hands to live and rebuild. Of course, I did not write the book as a manifesto for social reclamation. Remember, I am neither missionary nor jihadist but as a Guyanese I can only hope that in an individual and collective manner, my countrymen will wake up and make the decisions that they need to make. I do not expect the ethnic animosities to evaporate completely too much has been done and said to each other and by each other for too long for that to happen overnight or even in years, but maybe it is not too much to hope for that we can rise out of the sewers we have created and lived in for the last half-century and extend to each other some kind of respect, no matter how grudging for the moment, as fellow human beings for the sake of tomorrow and the children. Oft times, I have felt that my countrymen, if not jubilant, are quite content to live in the wasteland Guyana has been made with their help. From the non-Guyanese reader, if any, all I expect, I guess, at best is pity for the abuse of a blind people and a brutalized land. At worse, scorn and mockery for our collective stupidity and failures.
It is a lonely life you have chosen, a heavy cross to bear but always Keep the Faith! and flight just might become a reality!
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