A Brief update on Poetry, Art Music; A Celebration to Benefit St. Lucia

Earlier this year, way back in May when the year was fresh and promised endless possibilities, I shared with you my plans to host a fundraiser Benefit for St. Lucia after Hurricane Tomas thrashed the island late last year.

Well, I managed to pull it off and wanted to share some of this with you:

St. Lucia event listed in Chapman University's 150th Celebration Booklet

"Heliconia" one of two glicee prints donated for auction by artist Donna Grandin on display at Leatherby Library

" Bird of paradise" glicee print donated by Donna Grandin on display at Leatherby Library

Leatherby Library St. Lucia display

Me with poet Lynne Thompson and dirtcakes editor, Catherine Keefe

Dr. Anna Leahy, Director of Tabula Poetica, welcoming everyone with "See Me, See Me Now" (image from artist Donna Grandin) in background.

Me along with theater students Vano Kimmel, Kelly Rogers and Malia Wright who did a fantastic job of reading poetry by St. Lucian poets Travis Weekes, Jane King Hippolyte and Kendel Hippolyte. See also event sponsor, Catherine Keefe of dirtcakes.

Steel Drummer Francis Lynch creating great ambiance

Photos depicting St. Lucia before, during and after Tomas on display throughout poetry reading. Images provided by St. Lucian photographers Stephen Paul, Bill Mortley and artist Donna Grandin

Click here to view video recording of the event.

Again, I’d like to say thank you to all involved: Dr. Anna Leahy, Catherine Keefe, Leatherby Libraries, Lynne Thompson, Donna Grandin, Jane King Hippolyte, Travis Weekes, Kendel Hippolyte, Stephen Paul, Bill Mortley, Vano Kimmel, Kelly Rogers, Malia Wright, and last but not least, Deena Edwards for all your support and participation. This wouldn’t have been possible without you.

All donations were delivered to the Red Cross.

Poetry, Music, Art: A Celebration to Benefit St. Lucia

I was born and raised in St. Lucia, a tiny island in the West-Indies, and though it may be viewed as just a dot on the world map, I wouldn’t trade my small island upbringing for anything in the world. At 16 degrees north of the equator, St. Lucia wears a fertile skin of dark rich volcanic earth covered in lush vegetation, and rises pristine out of the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to fold itself into fecund hills and majestic mountains, deep valleys and serpentine rivers all fed by cool tropical rains.

Masquerader on the streets of Castries depicting a pregnant Mary as part of Christmas Celebrations in the city

The island brims with sensuality and life.  The waves’ constant caress carves sandy beaches out of the shoreline and keeps the island and its inhabitants isolated from the rest of the world. As a result, St. Lucians have development a rich and unique culture. The combination of St. Lucia’s impeccable natural beauty and its deep culture that inspire me as a writer. I grew up reading books that took me on journeys and adventures all around the world, creating a longing for foreign places, peoples and languages, but it is St. Lucia that grounds me as a writer.

Castries habor in the background

I had no idea I wanted to be a writer until my late teens, but I think the seed was planted long ago when I attended Methodist primary school and learned that Derek Walcott, had attended my school. By secondary school, I was introducing myself to my classmates saying, “My name is Natalie and I’m fascinated by Greek Mythology.” My good friend Kama and I still laugh about it to this day. I then sat in Mrs. Edwards’ class at St. Joseph’s Convent and soaked up all she had to say about literature. It wasn’t until then that I began to think that I too could someday write great stories. The woman displayed a passion for Caribbean Literature that inspired me to want to read more, to dream that I could someday create and share my very own stories. From there I attended the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College where I studied under Kendel Hippolyte and his wife Jane King Hippolyte, two of St. Lucia’s most noteworthy poets. My time with them was what truly convinced me that writing was what I wanted to do with my life. I remember having a serious conversation about it with Kendel. He told me that it wouldn’t be easy, but well worth it if I was prepared to work hard at my craft, and I am forever thankful for his guidance. Now, as I work on my first novel, I can truly appreciate how inspiring St. Lucia is for a writer.

Severely damaged road in Tomas' wake

I followed the news of Tomas from my Los Angeles apartment remaining glued to my computer. Countless images and stories kept appearing on facebook and I couldn’t pull myself away. That same tropical rain that nourishes all life on the island had become torrential, causing landslides and mudslides, damaging roads and infrastructure, washing away homes, livestock and vehicles.

Damaged home

The southernmost districts of Vieux Fort and Soufriere, home to Hewanorra International Airport, the famous Pitons and the world’s only drive in volcano, were most heavily impacted by the strong winds and heavy rainfall. I know Soufriere and Vieux Fort, but couldn’t recognize them once Tomas had left them disfigured, hardly recognizable. I cried.

Soufriere endured the brunt of Tomas’ rage, getting cut off from the rest of the island as chunks of the major artery of roadway circumventing the island were washed away.  The town could only be reached via boat following the storm and residents were trapped without fresh water or electricity as authorities struggled to address the threat of waterborne diseases. Locals were advised not to consume meat off dead cattle and to boil all drinking water. The John Compton Dam was also severely damaged and roads leading to the dam were impassable, cutting off access to any and all water supply. In the end, there were fourteen confirmed deaths, including one American whose vehicle ran off a road and fell down a precipice. The Prime Minister, Stephenson King, described the island as a “war zone” and damages are estimated to be in the amount of $100 million US dollars after an air survey was conducted.

I followed all this online and was lucky enough to talk intermittently to my mother.  She stays in the north of the island and managed to remain safe throughout it all.  Landlines were down but we could still reach each other via her cell phone until the battery died. The family home suffered minimal damage due to flooding, but my aunt wasn’t so lucky, she lost part of her roof to the strong winds.

Doing laundry after the storm

I was still very affected by all the information coming out of the island when I returned to campus the following week but was somehow unaware that I was carrying the weight of it around with me. I felt helpless, hopeless, and something of a traitor for not having shared the experience with my people and was deeply saddened by the idea of not being able to offer any help from all these thousands of miles away. It was a typically beautiful Southern California day when I emerged from my apartment and returned to campus. The sight of all the smiling young people, students, going about their business as usual, seemingly without a care, struck me as tragic. I felt alone, like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. It was in that moment that I realized how everyone around me was unaffected by this serious, devastating incident in St. Lucia. The news hadn’t made any ripples in America because a small island like St. Lucia does not get a lot of attention in the international media.

It was then that I decided to do whatever was within my power to help. Because I couldn’t afford to send food, water or money home, I approached Patrick Fuery, the Chair of Chapman University’s English Department about the possibility of hosting a fundraiser. Dr. Fuery’s reaction was positive and encouraging, and as a result, the fundraiser, Poetry, Music, Art: A Celebration to Benefit St. Lucia, is scheduled for April 5th at Chapman University.  I am therefore extremely thankful Dr. Fuery and the English department, Catherine Keefe, a Chapman alum, and editor of dirtcakes, for sponsoring the poetry contest, Dr. Anna Leahy of Tabula Poetica, for being my mentor and working with me on planning this event. To Lynne Thompson, thank you for agreeing to read your poetry. Donna Grandin, much love for your donation and photographers Chester Williams and Bill Mortley, and Stephen Paul, thanks for allowing me to share your images. My sincere thanks to poets, Kendel Hippolyte, Jane King Hippolyte and Travis Weekes. It feels good to know there are people willing to lend a hand.

Daddy Issues and Allison Joseph’s “My Father’s Kites”

My Father's Kites Cover Page

Allison Joseph’s My Father’s Kites is an intensely intimate collection of poems that dissects the poet’s relationship with her father. The opening piece “Bio Note” suggests, by repeating the line “Tell me about the poet,” that the speaker has lost a bit of herself with her father’s passing. The collection therefore  seeks to restore the poets identity by analyzing and scrutinizing every aspect of her relationship with her father. Art and the creative process become therapeutic and by the end of the collection the poet has reconnected with herself and is able to assert her right to speak on what she has not been able to speak when her father was alive. In “A Daughter’s Villanelle” she states:

Allison Joseph (image compliments dancingpoetry.com)

If you could read these words, I’m sure you’d damn

the talent that I waste trying to scan

the junk of memory for what I need.

I write about your life because I can, (lines12-15)

The collection does indeed scan the poet’s memory, revisiting her childhood, her college graduation and the dreamlike moments directly following her father’s passing. The poems reveal a strained father-daughter relationship, as the poet remembers and recreates, in metered verse, the significant moments of her life, moments when her father was absent or fell short of acting as she thinks a father should. Through the act of writing, the poet comes to realize how these moments have influenced the way she views and presents herself in the roles of daughter and artist. In revisiting moments when her father had failed her, causing silence, distance and resistance on her part, Joseph manages to show how her father’s story is inseparable from her own. Presenting a dynamic image of her father, we get to see him as neglected son, “black man fighting for his dignity (Defrerred, line 3),” widower and diabetic.

At once her father is the kite-maker whose contraptions would “grab ahold of the wind to sail/ into the sky like nothing in our neighborhood” only to end in a “collapse of grocery bags.” Her father, the man who would “sing/a made-up tune to show the world how proud he was of [her],” the man who called her sister “stupid” and her “clumsy,” the same man who was “the advertising man,” “the real estate exec,” “insurance man,” and “nurse for hire.” The man who lost a part of himself when his patient, “a boy with sickle cell, kidney disease” died.

Fallen Kite (Image compliments Rajasthan Jaipur)

Even as daughter paints a picture of father, the poet demonstrates that she is aware that she can only share her version of the story. She reminds us that the vision of the man we’ve encountered in these pages is heavily colored by a daughter’s subjective perspective, by her emotions. She admits that she may failed to play the perfect role in their relationship. In “On Not Wanting to Write a Memoir” Joseph states, “My memory is insecure. I have no proof/ that what I claim is true. There’s always doubt” (Lines 4-5), and in “Dereliction” she states “I wasn’t there to help you when you fell (line 1).” Then, in ” My Father’s Hand Mirror,” she even identifies with her father saying, ” I hold the mirror as my father did,/ see imperfections, blemishes, and lines…now I glimpse the lines under my eyes,/ can feel that doubt he knew begin to rise (lines 1-14).” In acknowledging her limited perspective, Joseph allows herself to note the similarities between herself and her father. She is finally able to erase the distance, seeing his reflection in hers, knowing that they share a story. She is now able to reveal what she couldn’t when her father was alive ( I suggest you read the collection to find out).

Sprinkled throughout the text however, is the underlying fact that her father was from the Caribbean, the island of Grenada to be exact, and by the third section of the book we learn that her father’s own father, her grandfather, might have had a hand to play in who her father was.

My grandmother remained behind as he

departed to make money in the States.

She later learned my grandfather begot

A secret shame: another family. (“Father’s Lineage “Lines 11-14)

This aspect of the work is what stuck me as most poignant, for I too have a complicated relationship with my father. My father left my mother in her sixth month of pregnancy with me. He went to the States in search of a better life, promising to return to us or send for us to join him. As so often happens however, he begot another family, and the two of us still don’t have the kind of relationship I always imagined we could. This absent parent is not an uncommon occurrence in the West-Indies though. It is rather common for one parent, or sometimes both parents, to migrate to the States leaving children to grow up in single parent homes, with grandparents, or sometimes with other, more distant relatives. To grow up in the shadow of this absence is not easy, it affects one’s self-image, for as a child it is difficult to understand how a parent can choose to leave one behind.

Daddy and I at the wedding

As I participated in my father’s wedding last Saturday, the day when he finally made “his other family” official, I couldn’t help but remember Joseph and My Father’s Kites. In telling her story Joseph made it easier for me to share my own. I dare say that we share this story with countless other children who were “left behind” by West- Indian parents, who promised to return, may have wanted to return, but never did, or did too late. I still have hopes of cultivating a closer relationship with my father, and  My Father’s Kites has played a role in helping me understand that he is only human, as I am human. I accept that one only evolves as one has experiences and that one works through the process as Joseph demonstrates with this collection. My father may never be able to reveal his full story, but I can see a bit of it in my story. I think I can understand him better through analyzing myself.

Works like My Father’s Kites make me aware that the perfect relationship may never be a reality, but sadly, or not so sadly, I am okay with letting things run their course. I admire Joseph’s courage in speaking out on such an intimate issue and look forward to hearing her read on Tuesday Nov.4th  as the final guest reader for Tabula Poetica’s annual poetry reading series.