Eintou Pearl Springer gives a retrospective of her service as Poet Laureate of the City of Port of Spain, as another successful National Poetry Festival came to a close. Ms. Springer delivered her remarks at a gala function at the National Museum, which saw the mantle of Poet Laureate of Port of Spain being passed to Anson Gonzales.
Following is the full text of her speech:
"It has been an honour and privilege for me to have served as the Poet Laureate of the City of Port of Spain.
I follow in the footsteps of A.M. Clarke, now deceased, who put together the first ever compilation of Trinidad and Tobago poetry. I am being followed in this position by someone who has served the art of poetry, tirelessly, from his heart, (though that part of the human anatomy is in the national doghouse these days) but also from his pocket. He has been a beacon and source of inspiration to many young poets, and has played a part even in my own evolution as poet.
As you may be aware, I have made no distinction between my life as librarian, especially as National Heritage Librarian, political and social activist and poet, playwright.
These roles have all coalesced into a celebration of the many facets of my self; my self as third generation African, Trinbagonian, Orisha, woman – proud of my Amerindian blood, birthed in the fertile soil of the Santa Cruz valley – walking in the footsteps of the ancestors whose struggles ensured my existence and the questionable measure of freedom I now possess.
As Poet Laureate, I have been very conscious of the role of the Poet and indeed of all artistes at this time of national crises. We artistes represent the people, celebrate the people and visionaire into the future on behalf of the people.
Our country has a legacy of struggle in defence of the sovereignty of our indigenous cultures. Cultural retention for this society of migrants, has been a force of cultural resistance as we struggled during our history to mark out a space for self-expression in this gayelle of our existence.
The Canboulay riots, Hosay riots, Belmanna riots … For me, the practice of my art is a continuance of that battle for self-expression that believe me, has not yet been won.
As I come into our capital city and note the vast expenditure on new buildings, I see right next to City Hall the building, the first custom built library building in this region, open since 1901, now lying forlorn, neglected and dilapidated. This building from whose hallowed halls have thundered the voices in debate of Eric Williams and Dom Basil Matthews. From there have spoken CLR James, Sam Selvon, George Lamming, J.D. Elder, Earl Lovelace, Leroy Clarke, Ken Parmasad …
The spanking new National Library building has on its upper floor an occupation, literal and metaphoric of senior public servants. Both these examples speak to our cultural insensitivity and indeed cultural illiteracy. Woodford Square brings back memories of the voices of poets in the ‘70's speaking to many, many thousands of dispossessed youth at the height of the Black Power struggle; Abdul Malik and Lasana Kwesi, Chestwayo Murai and Syl Lowhar.
In his seminal poem ‘The Bureaucrat' Lowhar makes the case …
Power is not enough to make us strong
The heart must also sing the human song
How relevant then as now the words of the great Guyanese poet Martin Carter in ‘This is the dark time my love' …
This is the dark time my love
A festival of guns
A carnival of misery
Everywhere the faces of men
Are strained and anxious
In the years since I assumed this post of Laureate, I have confronted the continuing sterility of our school curricula geared towards producing persons with pieces of paper ready to fill a niche in the job market; devoid of rootedness to their cultural moorings and basic information about their history and culture. Without a whimper of protest from the society, Civics, Literature and History have been excised from many of our schools. In fact, I don't think anything called Civics is taught anywhere.
Our traditional arts, our history, the celebration of our community heroes, our gifts and talents are still not given pride of place.
We build high walls around our schools, locking in the lack of sense of self and keeping out the exploration of learning styles rooted in our culture. Every society, every people has a different learning style. Have we explored the impetuses to make our children learn?
In metropolitan societies where Caribbean diaspora communities exist, there have been developments of curriculum initiatives based on our Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. In this THE Carnival country, we still have not recognised that we can teach Maths, History, Geography, Arts and Social Studies through Carnival, our history and our Folklore. Rather, our Ministry spends countless thousands on ads (with I dare say a very fetching photograph of the Minister) couched in language to which clings the stench of the innate social disapproval of the Mas; a disapproval that spawned the Canboulay riots. Maybe, if the schools were not so alien from the reality of our childrens' lives, we would not have to beg or bully them to go to school.
But that reticence in recognising that we are a Carnival society, and being unable to destroy the negative and celebrate our industry, our creativity and our ability to work hard – has its parallel in the fact that the ghettos and barrack yards of Port of Spain from whose belly the Mas was birthed, still sing the same painful refrain of poverty, crime and neglect as they did in 1881 or indeed in the 1940s.
And where are our monuments to this Pan that emerged in the ‘40's? Where are our praise songs for Laventille? A Laventille that spawned this majestic, magnificent offering to the world. Rather, as a monument to our cultural illiteracy, we create a National Steel Orchestra that at its launch plays only foreign classical music.
As Poet Laureate of the City of Port of Spain, I have done workshops and performances across the USA, Canada and the Caribbean. I deeply regret that not once have I been formerly invited to serve the City of Port of Spain in that capacity, nor am I invited as Poet Laureate to any functions hosted by the City. Not that I regret this lack of invitation, the food served usually does not sit well with my sickly indigenous palate. I do hope that this situation will change during the term of office of this new Poet Laureate.
I accepted the honour of being Poet Laureate not because I crave any kind of recognition; I have an absolutely useless national award given, so they say, for my contribution to Art and Culture. But to paraphrase my brother Chalkdust liberally, ‘as artist I cannot run fast or bat good or box or kick ball, so the state pays me no financial recognition, no matter how long or how earnestly, the artist serves'. So I accepted this award because it came from a young and seemingly promising group of those hoping to be poets and willing to pay the long and painful apprenticeship to the craft or workmanship.
I have been very disappointed that there has not been an ongoing process of workshops and preparation to take on this most taxing mantle of excellence in a society where mediocrity is enshrined.
In the early phase of my term as Poet Laureate, we had some sessions, but these stopped. I say to the Circle that Anson and myself and other seasoned poets will give of our time to nurture you. Make use of us while you may.
A Circle does not mean that it is closed off from the rest. Do not use the concept of the Circle to represent a closed entity, but rather something that harbours and shelters all who have a commitment to this artform.
Our noted novelist Earl Lovelace speaks about representing ourselves and claiming what is ours. What is there to defend though, if we do not know what we can claim? To the ‘Circle' I say yours is the task to steep yourself in your cultural history. Yours is the task to be able to provide an anodyne to the influx of ‘othernesses' in public policy, both in the dispersal of our financial as well as our cultural patrimony.
Yours is the task to then take this knowledge and then create the link between tradition and modernity, a responsibility given to us by the Fanonesque doctrine.
There should be no dichotomy between tradition and modernity. There is no reason that the La Diablesse, her light coloured skin, her long right dress and her club hoof cannot be used to represent the dangers of AIDS, of cocaine and one-night stands. There is no reason why the stories of the Douen, cannot caution our children about kidnapping, dealing with strangers … the possibilities are limitless.
Those of us here, artistes, public servants, government people (it have any?) media, are all in a position to impact on our degree of social consciousness, in a society where popular media so heavily controls what our children are exposed to, dream and think about. Yet, we have no local television programming for children, no local storytelling programme at an organised and national level. Where are our Midnight Robbers (shorn of the alien savagery of North American gangsterism and restored to his pristine role)? Where are our Rapso men, Pierrot, Pichikaree Artists, Kaisonians, Ramleelas, ExTempo artists, Chantwells, Griots? All confined to seasonal superficiality?
There is so much to say.
Culture is our unique and individual way of defining ourselves as a people. The artist in all the many formulations in which art exists, is by extension the Curator of the nations' soul. To ignore us, is to ignore and devalue ourselves, is to reap the whirlwind now swirling about our heads.
May Mama Oya protect us.
You know me?
I name Survivor
I survive through the strength of meh culture
Beat out through the skin of the Drum
Beat out in the steel of the Pan
Sung in the Calypsonians' song
Through the strength of meh culture