Lorna Goodison: Interview

by Clarence V. Reynolds

Poet and author Lorna Goodison has a contagious laugh. Whether she is sharing a moment that enlightened her early in her literary career or retelling an incident that involved a family member

or a neighbor while growing up in Jamaica, the richness and fullness of her joviality embraces whoever happens to be in her company. Goodison confessed that in Jamaica having a sense of humor helps many people cope with life’s difficulties.

This past September, Goodison visited the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts in Brooklyn, NY, where she read from her latest book, By Love Possessed: Stories (Amistad/HarperCollins). The heartrending and oftentimes risible tales Goodison presents in By Love Possessed, including the Pushcart Prize-winning short story for which the book gets its title, explore the wide range of complex feelings that are kindled by love—its heartaches, its obsessions, and its passions. Many of the fables in the collection were inspired by people and instances in Jamaica, she said. Goodison is a detailed and thoughtful writer in every sense; and in these short stories she wields a cast of memorable characters, animated descriptions, and Caribbean patois to convey a truthfulness and a universality through her storytelling.

Before she decided that writing was indeed her calling, Goodison’s creative spirit had been drawn to painting, and she studied at the Jamaica School of Art and the school at the Art Student’s League in New York. (In fact, her artwork graces the covers of some of her books.) She also worked for a brief time in advertising. In the end, she surrendered to her literary voice. Goodison published her first collection of poetry, Tamarind Season, in 1980; and over the next thirty-plus years she has written ten volumes of poetry, which includes Selected Poems, Controlling the Silver, and To Us, All Flowers Are Roses: Poems, for which she was awarded a Gold Star by Booklist magazine. Her second book, I Am Becoming My Mother, won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Americas; her newest collection, Supplying Salt and Light, is scheduled for publication in spring 2013. She is the recipient of the Musgrave Gold Medal by the Institute of Jamaica, the author of two collections of short stories, and her work appears in several publications such as the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces and the Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry.

Goodison’s highly acclaimed From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island is a beautiful and tender narrative of her family history and one that also examines a history of Jamaica. From Harvey River won the 2008 British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and was shortlisted for that year’s Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. The memoir also received accolades from The New York Times and named a Washington Post Book World Best Book of the Year.

At one point during the reading and discussion with the audience in Brooklyn, Lorna Goodison praised many of today’s writers and described them as “solidly brave.” She added, “I respect so many of them [especially young authors]…Writers today take on subjects such as domestic violence and rape that I would stay away from.” The conversation later worked its way to our discussion about her life and her writing.

Clarence V. Reynolds: Growing up in Kingston, can you recall your wanting to become a writer, or describe when you actually began to identify yourself as a poet or a writer?
Lorna Goodison: Okay… I think I was first conscious of wanting to be a reader. One of my first vivid memories of any kind of relationship with the written word was as a small child wanting to read so very badly. I’m eighth of nine children. And everybody was reading in my house; my sister was a journalist. So everybody was reading the newspaper, and I just thought that was what you do. But I remember not being able to read. And I would pay my brothers to read the comics to me. I have six brothers, and one in particular would take terrible advantage of me and I would give him whatever money I had to read for me. One day, he took a large sum of money, which was like a shilling at the time, and promised that he would read. And he never did. I then realized I was being had. (Laughter) And there was something in me at that moment that said, “You have got to learn to read so that people won’t take advantage of you in this way.”

Anyway, my mother taught me to read before I went to school. And once I started reading, I was taken with the idea of what could happen to you once you read something. I don’t actually remember thinking that I wanted to be a writer, but I remember thinking I wanted to be a part of this world where people put down thoughts on paper, and when you read it back you could feel all of the emotions: you could be sad, you could be happy, you could be repulsed—all of those things. And I knew I wanted to be a part of that world. It was some time later when I decided exactly that I wanted to be a writer.

And I probably credit my own feelings to my writing. A lot of my poems come from a sensitive state in me that triggers some kind of writing. I remember feeling, when I was about eight or nine, being really taken by how different everything became after rain. Are you from the Caribbean? Well, rain in the Caribbean context is entirely different from rain as you would imagine in a North American context. [In the Caribbean] It is always hot and the rain comes and then everything gets renewed and revitalized afterward. And I remember thinking I really wanted to write something about that. And for the first time, I was able to document how I felt after a shower of rain. I still write poems about rain. Poems about regeneration. A lot of my writing tries to be about revitalizing things and regeneration, especially from despair.

How does your writing process take place internally, do you begin with an emotion, an idea, or a story you want to share? And in the case of a short story, is there a particular character you want to speak through?
Any and all of the above. (She laughs.) Sometimes, especially with the poetry, it begins where there is an acute feeling or a response to something. Say the rain, for instance, can generate an idea for a poem. And then there are times that I just don’t know. I believe in the definition of poetry by William Wordsworth, which was drummed into us at school because we were good colonial subjects. Wordsworth said: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

And I think there is some truth in that, in that you absorb all these sensations and you see these things and at some point it overflows. In his case, he says, “recollecting in tranquility.” But I simply feel that writers and artists end up paying more attention to the world around them. I certainly do… I was always like that. I was always the one saying, “Did you see that, did you hear that?” Because I pay particular attention to everything, there are a lot of things I see and hear.

You’ve just published your third collection of short stories, and have written a well-received memoir and several books of poetry. How did you approach or prepare to work on each of these projects that are of different genres? Was writing one any easier than the other?
No. I know that there are writers who say—and I don’t know if this is true— that they are just writing something and that is it. I have never been that fortunate. I have never had a work of writing that was ready after sitting down with it just once. I revise constantly. I rework. I revisit. I change. All of it is not easy. I am not one of those writers who have an easy time.

I write when I have to. If it comes, I try to make room for it. That’s my process.

I might be out shopping and all of sudden I’m writing a poem on the side of a supermarket bag one day. Some poems and parts of the memoir came to me like that, right there—in a sort of demanding way, wanting to be let in. And I just had to write it down. With poetry, there are some poems that came about simply because, and I had to pull over on the side of the road a few times to write them down.

With the memoir, when I was writing about my maternal grandfather and my maternal great-grandmother…when I was writing about those characters, words and descriptions about them would come at me in such an insistent way that I knew exactly what they would say and what they were thinking. It was quite exhausting.

What was the overall experience of writing the memoir like for you?
There is a lot of history in From Harvey River. I almost studied history but attended art school instead. I realize, in retrospect, I have a long life of following my own ideas about writing. I have always wanted to write a history of Jamaica somehow. When I went to school, we were taught history from a book written by a Cambridge historian, an upper-class British historian; and as I look back it was probably a waste of time, as we spent so much time reading about the Anglo-Saxons, the Jews, the Tudors, and very little about my own history. But what I did learn was that of a good writing style. It was a social history and the author made a story out of history. Somehow, he made the characters come alive. And what I got from reading history like that was a sense that you could make history into a story that people could enjoy.

And so my own memoir is a history of Jamaica; it’s my attempt to show that history happens to real people; how history affects ordinary people. It took me twelve years to write my story. (I could actually write a book about writing that book.) But I was not the same person when the book was finished as I was when I started it. Writing it taught me patience; it taught me resignation because there was a point when I almost gave up on it. There was a point at which I called everybody who was somehow connected with it and I said, “I’m shutting this down, it’s not going to work.” And there was one person who got it. And when I called the last person to say I wasn’t going on with it, she said, “I never said that I was finished reading the manuscript, just be patient.” Ellen Seligman, editor extraordinaire at McClelland & Stewart, ended up publishing it.

Trinidadian author V. S. Naipaul once commented, in an interview, about being a writer that: “You are writing a book to satisfy a need, to leave a fair record behind.” What are your thoughts about your desires and your role as a writer?
Well, I’ve never had that sort of sense of myself as being a big important writer who tried to set huge changes in anything. My particular role, as I see it, is to accurately represent my people. I have this real concern about how sometimes Jamaicans, and Caribbean people, are represented. And in my own writing, I want to tell their stories, but I want to do it in such a way that I think accurately portrays them. That’s the only ambition I really have. And if I do that, then I’ve fulfilled my job as a writer. I am happy when people respond to my writing in a certain positive way because then I think I’ve done that. My job is done.

How much does your relationship with your homeland influence your writing?
A lot. I was committed to writing about Jamaica [with Harvey River]; but once I finished the memoir, I had a sense that maybe I could do other things, or try to do other things. But I suspect that I might always write about Jamaica. I don’t know. The stories about Jamaica…they never stop. They are familiar and they are funny. And the humor in most of what I write and that comes across in my stories comes from the people themselves. Jamaicans are very comical people, and laughter is a way of coping with life’s displeasures. Also, when you make something of it [a hard situation], it says that you are in control. There are incidences when we have no control; all we can do is make some sort of a gesture. Sometimes, the world can throw things at you that are so cruel and so devastating that you are in no position to have any kind of real response but to make a gesture. And I think that sometimes laughter is a gesture saying that you have not completely annihilated me; you have not robbed me of my ability to respond as a human being.

So with that in mind, how important is cultural identity in your poems and stories?
It’s very important. For me, some of the greatest responses to my work have come from people who are not from the Caribbean. For example, they look at a piece of writing and see that the work is a lot about family. And they connect with that. So I have ceased to try to formulate any opinion or any conclusions about who likes my work anymore. The most unlikely people sometimes respond to my work. And I think that is true of any writing. I mean, I didn’t live in London, England, at the time of Dickens, but people all over respond to the human conditions and the realities he wrote of.

Are there any writers or stories that you admire, and what is it about them that connect with you?
I like it when something rings true, even if it is imagined. I can tell if someone has written something that just resonates with me in a way that I cannot even put into words. I think Toni Cade Bambara is an amazing writer. I love Bambara’s work because there is a certain fineness of feeling in her voice. She has a loving sympathetic imagination as well as a great deal of negative capability. There are also currents of redemptive love and joy that run through her work. And she makes me laugh, really, really laugh.

Also, one of the early things I read, when I was about maybe twelve, was an excerpt from what turned out to be Go Tell It on the Mountain [James Baldwin]. I had no idea what I was reading at the time, and I believe it was in a magazine. It may even have been in The Saturday Evening Post or one of the magazines my sister brought home. But I remember reading this excerpt; it was a very powerful scene that takes place in a kitchen, and I remember feeling like the top of my head was being lifted. And many years later, as an adult, I realized what it was I had been reading. I like writers whose words can have that kind of affect on you.

One of my delicious reading experiences as a teenager was reading Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. I just loved that book… I love Tolstoy. I love Russian writers; that sense of drama and the idea of ordinary people who were living these huge interior lives; how small, seemingly insignificant things can set about a chain of events that you could not have possibly imagined.

I also enjoy many Latin authors, Jorge Amado, for example. And who doesn’t like [Gabriel García] Márquez. One of my absolute favorite collections of poetry is by Antonio Cisneros. His book The Spider Hangs Too Far from the Ground is such a beautiful book.

But I have no shame when it comes to reading. I like reading everything, even some of the rubbish. If I find it interesting enough. But of late, I have had this urge to return to books that I now see have shaped my voice early in my life. I’m finding great comfort in some things I read a long time ago. I am one to revisit books from time to time.

What is next for you?
I really don’t know. I do have a book of poetry that is due to come out in early 2013; and those are very strange poems because they begin in Spain. There are times though, I think I’d like to attempt to do a Part Two of the memoir because Harvey River ends around 1960s, with Independence; and I did have quite a lot of experience on the ground in the 1970s in Jamaican politics. I was around a lot of it. But it was a complex and strange time, so I’m wondering if I could tackle that.

Does politics have a role in literary writing?
Politricks as Peter Tosh would say. Ah, politricks. I used to be very politically active, but I never wanted my poems to be freighted with political rhetoric. Absolutely, politics has a place in literature. Read Things Fall Apart. Politics certainly plays a role in both African and Caribbean writing. A fine example of that is A Man of the People [Chinua Achebe] because it captures the African culture and politics. What I like about these books is that the story is often familiar and there is an engagement with the dialogue. I believe it was Eduardo Galeano who said that “writers should not speak to their readers as if they were hard of hearing.” I believe my own writing to be very political. Maybe it is mostly below the surface, but it is still there.

In one of my stories, “For My Comrades Wearing Three-Piece Suits,” a young man is in prison because he attempted robbery because of his political activities. Now he doesn’t actually say it that he did it because of his political involvement. Yet I caught a lot flak from the Left in Jamaica for that story. You see, there is, or was, a generation of people who were so committed to the politics of the time that a lot of them made big errors in the own lives because they were so committed to this idea of politics and change. And I wrote that story because I think there are often young people in that particular situation. And I wanted to express my thoughts about it.

You’ve been teaching at the University of Michigan since 1991, in the disciplines of Caribbean studies and poetry, and in the M.F.A. program. Do you have any specific ideas about teaching writing?
I think what you can do is give people the benefit of your experience. Let me give you an example. I like to give examples. I was both extremely fortunate and unfortunate in that Third World culture with a family friend who went to the university with my brother-in-law. I was about eighteen at the time, and he wanted to see some poems I had written. He had said to me, “You, show me your poems.” And I said I wasn’t going to do it, because he came at me very harshly, intimidating even. But a friend of mine said, “Are you crazy…How can you miss an opportunity like that?” So I did. I took the poems to him, and as he read over them he then told me, “Throw this one away…sell this one to Hallmark… this one is rubbish.” And the ones that were left, he went over them very carefully with me. And I’ve been living on that experience ever since.

The thing is this, a very gifted and very experienced person can help you in whatever field of endeavor you are engaged in; especially if that person is able and willing to pass along their knowledge. And I think that is what the teaching of writing is about. Maybe some students will arrive at skills and development at a certain rate pretty much on their own, but it might probably take them a little longer. But as a teacher, you can just only guide them, help them, and shape them. I try to give students the benefit of my own experience; tell them of things that I think they might want to read to help them along.

Clarence V. Reynolds, an independent journalist, is the assistant director at the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY, and a contributing writer for The Network Journal.

Cover photo credit: Marcia Wilson, WideVision Photography