An interview with Geoffrey Philp (21 July 2012)
Interviewer : You were born in Jamaica and emigrated to Miami in 1979. So, basically, what was it like to grow up in Jamaica during that important post-independence period ?
Geoffrey Philp : Yeah, coming of age during the 1960s and 1970s was exhilarating. It was a time of radical change. You had Bob Marley coming into that… I was born in 1958, and Marley is coming along, and in 1975 he put out Natty Dread, and you had Michael Manley coming. So you can imagine a fourteen-year-old or a fifteen-year-old who is very interested in music, very interested in politics, and the two of them coming together in that explosion. And it was quite a heavy time, listening to Marley, listening to Manley. Plus I’m in love with a girl ! So everything is coming together !
Interviewer : So you basically look back on those years fondly.
Geoffrey Philp : Oh yeah ! I mean high-school was probably one of the best times of my life, you know, music, politics, being in love.
Interviewer : So, at the time, where did you live in Jamaica ?
Geoffrey Philp : I lived in Mona Heights, which was one of the first experiments in the development of a cosmopolitan middle class in Jamaica. And it worked for a couple of years, you know ; you had everyone living together, black, white, Indian, Chinese. We even had a German lady
living down the road from us who had this huge white dog she called Sheppie. She only wore a white bikini all day long and it was her thorough intention to teach us to speak German !
Interviewer : I understand that you were educated at Jamaica College and that you were taught by the late Dennis Scott. What kind of environment was it ?
Geoffrey Philp : Well, it was formally at an English boarding school. So it basically retained all of the flavour of an English boarding school and I wrote a lot about that in Benjamin My Son, where the young protagonist is being brought up by a young Englishman.
So there was bullying, the prefect system, the whole thing.
Interviewer : And that was after Independence…
Geoffrey Philp : Yes, they kept all the English traditions. So it’s the same divide that you have now where you have people who want to fall down to the whole British traditions with an African base. Instead of embracing the complexity of the Caribbean which, yes, begins with an African base, but there are all these other influences coming in, we had to go to one extreme or the other, which is total British system, or Africa. So, instead of embracing the full creole culture that is being created, Jamaica at one time opted for the full British or the full African. So that was like a time of turmoil. So it was like “Who are you going to listen to ?”. Even in terms of the music, there was soul music and there was reggae. Who are you gonna listen to ? Bob Marley or Michael Jackson ? Are you gonna wear bell-bottom pants ? Are you gonna have a big Afro or are you gonna have dreadlocks ? So that was the sort of period… And Dennis Scott was one of the people who fully embraced the creole culture that was being created. I took English A-level degrees with him, and so we were studying Shakespeare and Robert Frost, and he would take us to meet some of his friends , like Christopher Gonzales, who did the Bob Marley statue, Lorna Goodison and we would talk with her about literature and art and Rex Nettelford would come in and talk to us. So it was a full immersion into Jamaican culture.
Interviewer : What about reggae at the time ? Were you aware of its influence ?
Geoffrey Philp : I was fully aware of it. I lived next door to Mickey Moa, who was one of the starters of Real Mona, the soccer team. And he was good friends with my brother, he had just come back from the States, and he was living right there. He is the founder of Jah Love Music. That was the first place that I met Bob Marley and the Twelve Tribes of Israel. So call it Karma, call it whatever you like, but I was right in the heart of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, reggae and Rastafari.
Interviewer : Were you attracted to Rastafarianism at the time ?
Geoffrey Philp : Yes, I was, but my problem was that I couldn’t , I still don’t , accept the divinity of Haile Selassie, but everything else… I mean I have often said “Rastafari is my North Star”. My novel Benjamin My Son is the story of this young man whose name is Jason Stewart, but his real name is Benjamin because he was born in the month of March and so he becomes Benjamin. So he’s changed in the novel because he starts off as Jason but at the end he’s called Benjamin by the Rastafarian elder whose name is Papa Legba. So he’s a Rastaman who renames himself Papa Legba and this sort of connects Rastafari with the African tradition. So, yes, I was very very much influenced by Rastafari.
Interviewer : When did you first become interested in poetry ? At a young age ? At school ?
Geoffrey Philp : When I fell in love ! She was studying A-Level literature, like myself, and so we got together to study for our A Levels, and so I started to write poems to her in order to woo her. And I bought a copy of Dennis Scott’s collection and I got him to autograph it, you know, big time ! And that’s how I started to write poetry, very bad poetry, and I continued to write and write and write, until finally, I wrote a poem that Dennis Scott said “OK, yes, this is it ! You’ve hit it”. And I was told “This is what works” , which kind of put me out of the mainstream, the kind of poetry that is coming out, because Dennis Scott, for a very long time I tried to write like Dennis Scott. In Exodus and Other Poems, one of the poems talks about the “vesperal sea”. And then I began to read Walcott and Brathwaite and came into my own sense of what my poetry should sound like.
Interviewer : So Dennis Scott was a very important mentor for you….
Geoffrey Philp : Very important, very important.
Interviewer : What about Mervyn Morris ?
Geoffrey Philp : Mervyn… Remember I met Dennis Scott every day for two years ! Every day ! I met Mervyn years after, and I was already developing as a poet. But of course I’m aware of his work, and one thing that both Dennis Scott and Mervyn Morris are known for is the precision of the language, and that is the kind of precision that I wanted in my work. So yes I count Mervyn Morris as a very important influence because of me trying to write and use verbs and nouns that are particular and precise and can give you that kind of double entendre, and the fact that you can have a word that can register at different levels at the same time. Yes, that kind of built-in complexity to the work.
Interviewer : Moving on to your poetry more specifically now … In Florida Bound, exile is obviously a major theme. Can you tell me about the reasons that led to you to emigrate to Florida ?
Geoffrey Philp : Well, I fully intended to stay in Jamaica. Mervyn Morris’s wife taught Spanish at Jamaica College and at one point I had the choice between continuing to study Spanish and commerce, and my whole thing was “Iwas born in Jamaica, I’ll live in Jamaica and I’ll die in Jamaica”. So I don’t need to study Spanish … and I ended up in Miami !
I’ve seen all the various sides of Jamaica. I mean I’m down in the ghetto areas because these are my friends as far as I’m concerned : we’re playing soccer together. Then I’m showering, picking up my clothes and going to Beverley Hills. So in one day I can go from one extreme of Jamaica to the next. So all of this is happening and then political violence is rising, rising, and rising, and then you have the Green Bay Massacre, you have all these other things, and the nmy sister almost gets attacked in our driveway and that’s the point my mother says :”We’re leaving !”. So she leaves Jamaica and goes to the United States . This was 1977. I didn’t want to leave. Finally she says :”I’ve sold the house, so find somewhere to live !”. So at that point it becomes impossible for me to stay in Jamaica. You know, basically, I’m a middle-class person and, you know, artists and writers have been notoriously devoted to their art and their writing while at the same time ignoring other obligations, financial and otherwise. I was determined that I wasn’t going to live like that, sponging on my friends. And I had seen also … Because meeting Bob Marley and Seeco, so Seeco is always taking me to meet other famous musicians, and it’s like basically you walk inside the studio and you meet this famous musician and he’s like “Can you spare a dollar ?”. And I thought :”No, this can’t be ! You are So and So !”. So at a very early age I realised that Jamaica, and the Caribbean, are very cruel to its artists (this is something that Walcott wrote about). So I wasn’t going to live like that.So is was “OK ; move to America”. But the big education for me was playing soccer in Jamaica, ’causeI would play three games in one day. In one game I would play outside left and in the next I would play midfield. So it was seeing Jamaica through the eyes of my friends, because, growing up middle-class, I didn’t know that sometimes they were coming to school without having had breakfast. I mean when you learn that about a friend of yours, it makes you think.
Interviewer : Your early poems about moving to Miami, like “Florida Bound” or “Monday Morning Miami”, seem to me to very bitter and bleak. It seems that moving to Miami was quite a shock… I thought that Miami wa a multicultural city with different ethnic groups. When you came over, was it like that ?
Geoffrey Philp : No. It was divided. It’s still pretty much divided. The children, the young people are changing that, and that’s a sort of a generational shift. When I first came in, we were having the Mc Duffie riots and those kinds of things. So at tha ttime it was pretty much divided.
Interviewer: Was there already a large Jamaican community ?
Geoffrey Philp : No, we’re only now really coming into our own. Most of us are leaving Jamaica and there’s still a lot of distrust. So where we can land we land, and then slowly communities started growing up. And then you know how communities develop :”I hear John is living in Miramar. Is it a good place to live ?”.
Interviewer : So where did Jamaicans settele down when they came over ?
Geoffrey Philp : You have places like Fort Lauderdale, Miramar. Very big community there.
Interviewer : In your first collection, there is a number of Petrarchan sonnets which were obviously inspired by Derek Walcott’s “Tales of the Islands” series. There’s even a wicked skit on Walcott’s “Pupa that was a fete…”. So why sonnets and why Walcott ? Was Walcott a very big influence on your early poetry ?
Geoffrey Philp : Walcott had written some beautiful sonnets. So I sat down and took them apart and looked at them, sort of analyzed them. So as a form itself, it’s how do you teach yourself to write poems.
Interviewer : So yo used them as some kind of exercise.
Geoffrey Philp : Of course. In that respect, Walcott is a big, big influence.
Interviewer : Looking at poems like “Dancehall” and “Crossfire”, I thought of what Walcott said about poets having to learn their craft and having to be apprentices before they could become masters ;
Geoffrey Philp : Yes ,and I agree completely, and I am, perhaps more than any other poet, an apprentice of Derek Walcott.
Interviewer : Poems like “Fort Augusta”, “Naseberry”. Reading “Fort Augusta”, I found myself reminiscing about “Ruins of a Great House” and “The Sea is History”. You can see a whole tradition being forged.
Geoffrey Philp : Well, that was my whole point, that you don’t have a tradition in literature until you have intertextuality. And so it was my intention to create this kind of intertextuality. Sadly, I don’t see many other poets, in my contemporaries or otherwise, following that. It’s something that I think is sadly lacking among male poets. With women poets, people like Jacqueline Bishop, you can see the influence of Lorna Goodison. With the non-male poets, you see them looking at Brathwaite, Walcott, and I think really and truly now we can talk about a Caribbean literature. I think before that, you had a lot of talent, Brathwaite, Walcott, Roach, Martin Carter, and those were the pioneers. You had Brathwaite and Walcott, two different ways of approaching it, and Walcott is clearly saying the craft has to come first.
Interviewer : By the time Hurricane Center was published, you seemed to have moved away from Walcott’s influence. Hurricane Center seems to me to have been more influenced by Mervyn Morris’s craft. There’s even a poem dedicated to Mervyn Morris (“I Man”).
Geoffrey Philp : At that time, the hurricane became a metaphor not only for the mortality, but for the other things that happen in the Caribbean, for all the structures that had been built and torn apart. So I’m coming back to language, and to sort of paring down, which is how you mend up. So you just start off with some Walcottian world which is filled with all kinds of fauna and flora and excess, and suddenly here comes the hurricane which was Hurricane Andrew passing through. So I was living through this and in my mind I was saying :”Here we are, living in the hurricane center. What are the important things ?”.
Interviewer : In Hurricane Center, there are also a couple of poems inspired by the late Tony McNeill’s poetry. Did you meet him ?
Geoffrey Philp : No, I saw him one. I have his collection Reel from the Life Movie, which is one of my treasures. Tony McNeill was one of those poets who mixed music and poetry, and made it seem easy, and anyone writing knows that it’s not. Tony McNeill helped me to retain the precision of Mervyn Morris, but moving now towards the more lyrical aspects of it. Because, yes, you can have it pared down and inside your head… There is this wrestling that I keep doing. With Scott, there is a music that is kinda surreal, a world there. Scott is moving towards the surreal. So, you know, a glass becomes a prison, you know, that sort of thing. Tony McNeill is grounding it in the experience but is also bringing around what is the music of it. With that poem (“8 o’clock road block or prelude to a riot”), Tony Mc Neill becomes a way of understanding black America.
Interviewer ; You also wrote a poem about Haiti (“Reel from Port-au-Prince”). Have you been there ?
Geoffrey Philp : No, I ‘ve never been there, but , from a very long time, here in Miami, I was with the Haitian poet Félix Morrisseau-Leroy. He told me things, and a friendship developed. H e was blind at the time. And listening to him telling me his stories and seeing the world through his eyes influenced me a lot. And that’s the time when Aristide is coming in and it’s the firs ttime that he goes back after being exiled for many years from Haiti.
Interviewer : Two poems in Hurricane Center deal with the damage done by the tourist industry in Jamaica : “Hedonist’s Paradise” and “Rent-A-Dread”.
Geoffrey Philp : Yes, George Lamming wrote about this. You know, from Columbus’s journal, he’s sort of selling the idea of Paradise to Queen Isabella, and there’s that theme which continued with El Dorado and so on. But it kaes a different turn now when you have the Americans moving in and, instead of having this idea of Jamaica is an exotic place, because of the American influence, this vision of Paradise changes and all of a sudden the natives are all sexually charged. There are three questions I ask myself daily : “Where have I come from ? Where am I now ? Where am I going ?”. And if you’re seeking any kind of authenticity in yourself, you really have to strip away all those expectations. And once you start taking on those other things as Jamaicans as a people have done, and you start becoming how the other sees you, then you start betraying who and what you are ; And that sort of rampant hedonism is a betrayal of not only the English sensibility that we inherited, but also the West African idea about sexuality and everything else. So for me that dancehall thing in which people are daggering each other , that sexual display in the middle of the street I think is a betrayal of the Jamaican character. It’s very sad and it’s because we’ve lost the sense of who and what we are. And again it’s this false idea of what Africa is. Yes, there’s jubilation, yes, there’s joy, and passion and everything else in sexuality, but the sexual act in itself, to me, is not a public act.
Interviewer : You fourth collection of poems is entitled Xango Music, after the god of thunder in Yoruba mythology. Why Xango ?
Geoffrey Philp : I did a workshop at the university of Miami, with Brathwaite and he is pointing out to me all the sorts of African retentions and then one of my very good friends here in Miami, Adrian Castro is a Santeria priest. So all of the things that are in Yoruba culture and in Santeria, or in Lukumi, all of the herbal practices, medicines, basically we’re doing the same things in Jamaica, we have the same things. And again, after Hurricane Center, what survives ? The music. And so here we have the African retentions.
Interviewer:There is a poem in that collection entitled “Healing in the Balmyard”, after the famous song by Stanley and the Turbines .
Geoffrey Philp : It’s a metaphorical poem. Again, because my friends tell me so many things, I’m just sitting with them and taking it all in. That again is influenced by Adrian Castro and his experience as a Yoruba priest with healing.
Interviewer : In Xango Music, Jamaican history looms large as a theme and there a number of poems about famous historical figures like Paul Bogle, Michael Manley or Nanny.
Geoffrey Philp : At that time, I was teaching a course on Caribbean heroes and heroines, and the necessity of heroes and heroines, and the exoneration of Marcus Garvey. How do our heroes inform our actions ? What’s the use of a hero if he doesn’t inspire or inform your present actions ? So these were my heroes, these were my heroines and I wanted to make a statement about how they have influenced my life and my thinking.And sometimes, about Walter Rodney, as I said in the poem, that was a man to be feared. People like Walter Rodney, people like Marcus Garvey, people like Kwame Ture (Stokeley Carmichael), these were people to be feared. And these are only to be feared if you think you are white. Again if you come back to the whole Rastafarian understanding of I and I, we are intrinsically one and the things that divide us are perceptions of ourselves.And if you want to continue with the sort of, for want of a better word, white, patriarchal, colonial system then of course Marcus Garvey is to be feared, of course Kwame Toure is to be feared , of course Paul Bogle is to be feared because they’re actually talking about equality, fraternity, about the structures of privilege. And my father was very much, very much in favour of keeping those structures, because he benefited from it. He was an accountant , went to school in England. But I also saw the downside : my friend doesn’t get breakfast and he’s smart. Some of them are smarter than I am. But being a brown man living in Jamaica, there are certain things that people just assume : you walk in and they go :”You should be the manager of the store !”
Interviewer : Is it still like that in Jamaica ?
Geoffrey Philp : To a certain extent, it’s still happening because there’s now this epidemic of bleaching, and one of the reasons why they’re saying “I bleach my skin” is because I can move up on the social ladder because of the bleaching. Fifty years after independence, we’ve never really addressed these issues and they continue like, you know, ghouls in the shadows, which is why again someone like Marcus Garvey is very important. Because if you haven’t dealt with who and what you are, no matter how hard you try, there’s always going to be that gnawing at you, of race, of colour and it destroys you. It destroys you !
Interviewer : Do you think that, if you had stayed in Jamaica, it would have destroyed you ?
Geoffrey Philp : It’s something that I ‘ve thought about.The poet Mikey Smith wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, and people who aren’t afraid to speak their minds often end up dead in Jamaica. It could happen here but that’s a very real possibility. I don’t know. I believe, and this is where Rastafari comes in, we’re all sisters and brothers, but I also know there are structures in place that perpetuate all kinds of inequalities.
So I would like to think that I would be as I am now.
Interviewer : Your latest collection is entitled Dub Wise. Could you tell me why you chose that title ?
Geoffrey Philp : It’s what I’d learnt from the music, and the music is not only the music of reggae, but the music of these poets. So it comes down again to that paring down, the drum and the bass.You know, the drum is the heartbeat and the bass guitar is the blood coursing through the veins.
In the Bible, it says “In the beginning was the Word”, and so with that absolute paring down of everything else, what survives, what is important ?
Interviewer : In Dub Wise, there’s a section entitled”Beyond Mountain View” and this section seems to be devoted to reggae and Jamaican poetry. There is a poem dedicated to Edward Baugh, another one about Marcus Garvey. One of my favourite poems is the one entitled “Mule Train Version”, after the Count Prince Miller song. It’s about a young girl who was a “mule”…
Geoffrey Philp : And the interesting thing was that this is as close to an actual experience, because it actually happened on a flight from Jamaica to Miami. You know, when we’re coming through customs, the customs officer says :”Come this way”, and you see the look on her face, and when you’re standing there, you know, they say :”She was a mule”.
Interviewer : There’s also a poem entitled “Calabash Poem”, written as a Calypso.
Geoffrey Philp : Yes, that is my “Spoiler’s Return” ! You know, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, Eliot (I may be overplaying my hand here!) sort of says that poetic genius sees who you put on a pedestal as equal. Because the minute you put a working poet on a pedestal, the work is going to be flawed. It’s going to be flawed. So the only way you can approach a poet is to see Walcott as an equal and to compete with him. After the competition, I would put Walcott back on the pedestal, but in that moment of the poem, I am on the same field.
Interviewer : It’s very much in the Calypso tradition, in the picong tradition. In Trinidad, they have competitions where Calypsonians challenge one another. So the poem is a very playful take on that tradition and at the same time, it embodies that tradition.
In the first section of Dub Wise, entitled “Poems for the Innocent”, there is a poem entitled “Tallahassee 2005” in which the Native American presence crops up.
Geoffrey Philp : Well, you can’t really escape it here in Florida, with the Seminoles and everything else. So it will creep into my consciousness. So you can’t help but be influenced. I mean, in their football games, they have a guy dressed up as Seminole Indian on a horse, and that whole thing. And when you realise what happened, the betrayal, the total irony of it…
Interviewer : “A Gathering of the Gods : Miami, 2010” seems to have been influenced by Brathwaite’s approach.
Geoffrey Philp : Brathwaite and Adrian Castro, because Adrian is now introducing me to Yoruba culture in Miami.
Interview update :
Interviewer : Are you working on a new collection at the moment ?
Geoffrey Philp : I’m working on two collections, Letter from Marcus Garvey and The Orishas of Ives Dairy, in collaboration with Adrian Castro.
Interviewer : In a recent email, you told me that you were going to retire. Are you retired now ? Do you have more time for writing ?
Geoffrey Philp : My plans for retiring were based on my dreams of finding more time to write. So far, my plans don’t seem to be going the way I had planned. But I am still hopeful and always have a Plan B. Like my Muslim friends say, “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.”
Interviewer : Is there a Caribbean poetry scene in Miami, apart from you, Adrian Castro and Malachi Smith ?
Geoffrey Philp : I don’t like doing these lists because someone will always be left off the list. That said, here are a few poets with whom I’ve worked in the past year: Donna Aza Weir-Soley, Christine Craig, Carolina Hospital, Sandra Castillo, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Celia Lisset Alvarez, Max Freesney Pierre, Caridad Moro McCormick