An interview with Mervyn Morris (25 August 2010, Kingston).
Interviewer: I’ll begin by asking you a very simple question. You’ve worked for many years as an academic on performance poetry and orality. One of your first essays that got you noticed internationally is entitled “On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously”. I know that this essay was published in the 1960s, which was the time of independence, when West Indians were discovering or re-discovering their heritage, but did you have any personal reasons to write this article, apart from the obvious ideological ones ?
Mervyn Morris: Yes, very much so. Growing up, in our household, we read, as in many households, Louise Bennett poems when they appeared in the newspapers and also in her publications, particularly the early ones, the Pioneer Press one. So we enjoyed in our household many of the poems before, and what happened was that I was teaching in a secondary school, at Munroe College. I was teaching there when I came back from England, that was 1961. I was Head of the English Department in 1962. I had used some Louise Bennett poems among the poems I had used to teach English, because I liked them and I knew the students had found them attractive. So because of me using them and recognising their skills, it occurred to me that I might just write an essay on them, because it hadn’t been done at any length before, and I thought she was a lot better than some of the people who were getting anthologised. That was one the things that set me going and I wrote it largely out of my pleasure in reading her poems, which of course tends to be how most of the stuff I write comes to me. I write a lot more about what I like.
Interviewer: So you’re telling me basically that in your household, as you were growing up, people knew about Louise Bennett’s poetry…
Mervyn Morris: Throughout the country people knew about her poetry. But I have at least one friend who used to tell me that my household was unusual. But there was a mixture of influences. We also read P.G.Wodehouse ! That is just as oral as Louise Bennett ! So that we were not uncomfortable and we didn’t make a special fetish of it. Some of the stuff being published in the newspapers in standard English was awful, and my dad used to play games with it. He would read two lines and then ask us to supply the last one, and we often got it right because the craft was so poor. So we knew that Louise Bennett was a lot better.
Interviewer: In your collection of essays entitled Is English We Speaking, there are pieces on Mutabaruka, Paul Keens-Douglas, Miss Lou and an essay entitled “Printing the Performance”. About Paul Keens-Douglas, would you see him as Trinidad’s answer to Louise Bennett, or is his poetry significantly different from Miss Lou’s ?
Mervyn Morris: Paul has always in his career acknowledged the influence of Miss Lou. He thinks the world of Miss Lou and there was a stage when he was becoming more successful, and he was inviting her to his performances, in Canada mainly. He has a great regard for Miss Lou. He studied in Jamaica for a while and did some acting and so on. They’re very similar in many ways. Paul is a terrific performer, a terrific manipulator of audiences. In a sense, so is Miss Lou. But there’s something about Paul’s style, it works, it’s very efficient, but it almost seems to be studied, you know, the timing, and so on.
Interviewer: Would you say he’s more of a storyteller than a poet ?
Mervyn Morris: Yes, absolutely. But Louise Bennet is a storyteller too.
Interviewer: Then, in the same collection, there’s an essay on Mutazbaruka, which is an account of one of his performances. In that essay, you seem to see Muta more as a cultural activist, more as an orator than as poet. This is something that I noticed at the conference on the Rastafarian movement. There were several presentations on Muta, but apart from Carolyn Cooper’s talk, the other presentations were mainly about Muta as a cultural activist, or a black “icon”. My feeling is that Muta is a real poet, and that sometimes his poetic talent is overlooked.
Mervyn Morris: But he has led us in that direction really. I think he knows he’s a poet, he’s got accustomed to being called a poet now. He has many times disclaimed any interest in the shaping but it’s not true. I mean the fact is he’s got better. I think one way with which we can disagree with Muta’s way of presenting himself is that, I think in that article I gave one example where there’s an earlier version and a later version…
Interviewer: Yes, the poem about the Statue of Liberty…
Mervyn Morris: Yes, and it’s quite clear he had improved on it. I don’t know how often he rewrites, but then, you know, quite often, the oral people, without thinking they’re rewriting, say it differently. But he defines himself primarily as a cultural activist. But he’s developed that more and more and more, because he’s got his radio programme. He also has his own sound system that plays black music from all over the world. And he’s been on a television series quite recently, Simply Muta. You see, Muta’s great skill is that he is a communicator and he’s a kind of natural orator. So he will come up with various things that he takes very seriously, but they’re said in a way that makes you laugh as well as think. So he’s a cultural activist and that’s the way he wants to be seen. And another point I was making in that article is that I like the poems, but when you go to a Muta performance, the poems are really a smaller part sometimes of the overall impact. He’s very, very skilled that way.
Interviewer:Since we’re talking about Muta, maybe we should move on to dub poetry. You were one of the first critics who wrote about Mikey Smith, Jean Breeze and Oku Onuora. So what’s the state of dub poetry today in Jamaica ? Is it a flourishing, a decaying art form ?
Mervyn Morris: It’s a very reasonable question to ask, but I don’t have a good answer, because I haven’t really kept up. And, you know, the way dub poetry developed wasn’t because I started looking at it. As a result of my work with Oku, Mikey Smith asked me to help him, and so on. And I had had for many years an admiration for Mutabaruka. Certainly in terms of dub poetry theory, I really feel that the great originator was Oku, in terms of how he spoke about the thing. Everything has come from there. You know, Linton had done similar comments earlier, but he hadn’t applied it in the same way to performance poetry. He was talking about the deejays.
Interviewer: Ironically, if you look at all these early pioneers of dub poetry, Oku, Muta, LKJ, Jean Breeze, Oku is the one who’s probably theleast recognized today, internationally. Muta has a huge profile, Linton tours regularly, but Oku seems to keep a low profile.
Mervyn Morris: I doubt that he wants to keep a low profile, but I think one thing that has contributed to that is that I don’t think he’s been writing as much as the others. He is more concerned, I think, with trying to get films of dub and the whole recording scene.
Interviewer: You’ve edited the work of several oral poets like Miss Lou, Mikey Smith and Jean Breeze. Your poetry is quite different from these poets’ work and you background is different from their background. So do you or did see yourself as some kind of cultural translator, as a bridge between the world of oral poetry and academia ?
Mervyn Morris: I would understand if you saw me in that role, but I never saw myself as that. In the same way that I wrote about Louise Bennett by accident ( I liked the stuff and I wrote about it and it grows), the same kind of thing happened with dub poetry. What happened essentially was that in 1975 to 1976, I was director of the Creative Arts Centre on the campus. John Hearne had gone on leave. And when I was there, sometime I think before Christmas, it must have been November or something, Leonie Forbes, the terrific Jamaican actress, phoned me and said she had some poems by someone who was in prison. She rather liked them and wondered whether I would have a look at them and thought they were any good. And so she passed these poems to me and I told her yes, I thought they were very interesting. They were by Oku Onuora. I quite liked them. So she said:”You should go and tell him that !”. I had not been ready in my head at the time, but once she said that, you know, I went. I became after a reasonably short while one of his regular visitors. I talked to him a lot and lent him books that he wanted. So he was able to talk to me about the theory about what he was doing because he thought he was writing something which was closer to Jamaican popular music, and as it happened, I had met Linton when I was at the university of Kent in 1972-73. So I was able to tell him that what he was doing was rather similar to what Linton had been doing, and I lent him some Linton and he discovered that.
Interviewer: So you did act as some kind of “bridge”…
Mervyn Morris: Yes, but what I’m resisting is the idea that I did it self-consciously, but it fits the pattern that you’re talking about, certainly.But my basic line is that the bridge is not necessary, and I know a number of people for which it is not necessary. People like Eddie Baugh, like Dennis Scott have always recognised excellence in some of the popular music, in Louise Bennett. So really you can say there’s a kind of bridge yes, but it’s simply that you like the stuff and you talk about it, and it makes sense. About translation, there’s particularly one instance where that is certainly what I was doing, that’s when I was helping Mikey Smith. Because in a sense that was the assignment ! Because he was already making a huge impact as a performer and then he said he wanted to get published. And he asked if I would help him put things on the page; so we started working on that. So I knew what I was doing. I did a lot with Oku, working on the poems that appeared in Echo. You see, what I’ve done in relation to Oku, and to a certain extent Mikey I’ve also done in relation to some standard English poets who just simply give me stuff and ask me what I think of it.
Interviewer: What about Jean Breeze ? I understand you edited her work too.
Mervyn Morris: I think I was helpful at an early stage, but, although Race Today credited me with having edited Riddim Ravings, I didn’t really see it as something that I had edited, though I helped at an early stage. I mean if I had edited it, there are choices I would have made rather differently. But before she was published, Jean Binta Breeze was one of the early poets who asked me to look at stuff and she was very responsive to some of the things I said to her. I think she found me helpful at that stage. By the time she got published, she didn’t really need that kind of feedback and she was already developing very strongly.
Interviewer: At one stage, Jean Breeze distanced herself from the dub poetry scene and said that she did not want to write poems to a one-drop reggae rhythm.
Mervyn Morris: A very important thing to say to you in relation to her distancing herself from that, is that it’s not uncommon. I mean it’s true of Linton. It’s just that the ones who press hardest… The trouble with pressing hard actually and saying “Oh, we want to make sure there’s more for dub poetry” is that they end up embracing people whose talent they know is not very strong, because they’re into this idea of promoting it as a kind of movement, and that can be a real problem.
Interviewer: What about Louise Bennett ? How did you work with her on the 1982 collection ? What was it like ?
Mervyn Morris: Oh, it was a wonderful experience ! She had ultimate control, but she didn’t actually have a lot of input, because she seemed to agree with most of what I was proposing in terms of, you know, what might go in. What happened is that she allowed me to photocopy some of her precious early volumes. Then I went to them and I made my own selection of what I thought might work, and I don’t remember her objecting to anything really. She was very humble, but very confident as well, and one of the things which I don’t think has been as much attention paid as should be, is that she was immensely knowledgeable. People say they know it, but they take it for granted. I mean she’s one of the great scholars of Jamaican folk culture. So she would tell you in a very informal way what that thing really meant and really came from and so on.
What happened with Selected Poems is that, you know, Jamaica Labrish was edited by Rex Nettleford in 1966, and then Sangsters decided that they should have a school edition, and I got into it and made it something that’s larger than that. You know, it seemed to me a good idea to make sure that the questions would have some things that schools might take on, but also things which if people looking at her work at university for example, decided to look at teh questions and might find them rewarding. A key thing I did which is subject to serious question that was done completely with the agreement of Louise was trying to get a common-sense orthography.
Interviewer: Yes, you wrote about it in “Printing the Performance”.
Mervyn Morris: Yes, what I said is that in many, many instances, there were words and phrases which gave difficulty in the forms in which they had been written in previous editions. There were things like were there really any reasons for spelling “white” without the “h”. Not really. It ended up with me saying “Look, let us assume that the reader of this thing has already been taught to read standard English. Therefore what we want to do is to signal enough of what isn’t standard that the ywould recognise, but where to have a sense of the standard English spelling might be helpful, let them stay”. I mean it makes a lot of sense to transcribe “friend” “FREN”, but in that edition it’s spelt “FRIEN” so that someone who’s been reading standard English constantly will pick up right away that this is “friend” without a “d”. But I asked Louise whether she would approve of “ha fi” for “haffi” and she wouldn’t. She chose “haffi”. But the way I was heading, I might have kept them separate and quicker to read.
Interviewer: You also edited an anthology of oral poetry with Stewart Brown and Gordon Rohler. So how did you work with these two researchers ?
Mervyn Morris: What happened was the initial project, it was suggested that Gordon would certainly do the Eastern Caribbean, Stewart would do Britain (Black British) and I would do the rest of the Caribbean, Jamaica and other places. And we did some of the early selections on that basis. I think it’s a good anthology, but it was made much better by what Gordon did at the end which was rearrange in different principles from the way it had first been conceived by the three of us. And of course you know that superb introduction.
Just to tie off the first part of the tape, I think there’s an epigraph that I used in Is English We Speaking from Mckay, about dancing down the barriers between high literature and the common thing. And, in a sense, looking back on it, my real point about most of the things that I’ve done is I don’t think the barriers necessary. So I’m not so much thinking “bridges”, but pulling down barriers, so that people who enjoy literature should be enjoying the whole range of it.
Interviewer: Moving on to your poetry now. Many of your poems seem to about the relationship between the poet and the reader, or between the poets and literary critics. Poems like “At a Poetry Reading”, “Data”, “Question Time” tackle the issue of the relationship between poets andthe outside world, or poets and academia. Would you agree with that very blunt characterisation ?
Mervyn Morris: What I try to stay away from is regarding the sense of any one poem as expressing my view of a whole lot of situations. The poems are very often trying to say something that may have some kind of currency in one specific situation. I mean poetry isa minority art; there aren’t many people who like poetry, who write poetry. I think in an earlier version I had an epigraph trying to make the point that telling lies is the business of the poet, which is a traditional notion. [Mervyn Morris reads from “At a Poetry Reading”]. Yes, “false pretence”, that’s the heart of it, really. And “manage” is important too, which is very much the way I often work, you know, talking about “able to make happen”, but also “in control of”. That’s the notion of “false pretence”, which is a kind of paradox and similarly the division, the ambiguity is also in “manage” which is like “If I can just manage to do so and so” but it’s also “manage” the occasion or epiphany.
Interviewer: In a lot of your poems, you use paradox, which reminds me of the Metaphysical poets…
Mervyn Morris: Oh, it’s a very big influence, mainly because when I came to the University College of the West Indies in 1954, Professor Crofton taught a number of the Metaphysical poets. So we did Donne, Herbert, Marvell, bits of Vaughn. And so I became very much aware of the importance of language. And there was Cleanthe Brook’s book which was like following through some of the kind of tendencies where you recognise the way in which a word or a phrase might be doing several different things at the same time and the critical task was to clarify the complexity.
Interviewer: In the poem entitled “Post-Colonial Identity”, you seem to attack the post-colonial school which you see as formulaic. The last line of the poem is in Creole (“white people language white as sin”). Could you comment on that aspect of the poem ?
Mervyn Morris: Well, it’s because it’s working against the line before. Actually, it’s a very helpful question…It’s coming from very far back, I think. I grew up, when we were taught English at school, it was still a common notion that if you thought clearly you would write in good English. And there was also the notion that Creole was limited in its ability to deal with complex ideas. And it was during my university time on campus that I realised that Creole could perfectly well do what you chose to make it do. And then of course a bit later, in the late 1960s, it became quite fashionable for some of the academics to teach or lecture in Creole. George Beckford, the economist, often did public lectures in Creole. There was also Abeng magazine which didn’t last long but which was a magazine with revolutionary ambitions, and most of the writing was in Creole. So more and more we were realising that there’s no need to feel that Creole is not adequate. So that’s behind it.
Interviewer: Some of your poems like “A Poet of the People”, “Afro-Saxon” and “Advisory” seem to deal with the pressures intellectuals had to bear in the revolutionary 1970s when art for art’s sake was challenged by a more social approach. You seemed to take the Walcottian view that social art was a sell-out…
Mervyn Morris: It’s probably something I grew out of. The one poem that makes that point very well is “Advisory”. The key thing is the last couple of lines with “Don’t let anyone lock you in”, and that’s a very Jamaican line by the way, because that “in” rhymes with “between”. “Don’t let anyone lock you een !”.
Interviewer: In some of your poems you use Creole very sparingly and to telling effect, and there are other pieces like “Valley Prince” or “For Consciousness” which are written entirely in Creole. What were trying to achieve with the poems written entirely in Creole ? Did you make a conscious decision to write in Creole or did they come naturally in Creole ?
Mervyn Morris: Neither, but nearer to the second one. It just came naturally. One of the things about “Valley Prince” is that I remember when I started drafting it, I drafted it in standard English. I started writing it in standard and somehow that’s not the voice that I felt it wanted. That one, contrary to the other ones you mentioned, is pretty much in Creole, but there are standard elements.
Interviewer: In some of your Creole poems, I seem to hear Dennis Scott’s influence.
Mervyn Morris: He was a very good friend. But I don’t know if I see the influence where you see it. I’m not sure. In the period in which many of the poems were written, the late 1960s, Dennis was a close friend. So by the way was Tony McNeill. So by the way was Wayne Brown, the Trinidadian poet.
Interviewer: Some of your poems are about human relationships, love, life, and domesticity (“Proposition One”, “Togetherness”). One of them, “The Roaches”, is quite enigmatic…
Mervyn Morris: It was originally a longer poem about moving house. When people talk about me writing short poems, sometimes they were originally short, but quite often they end up being what was left of a much longer poem. The roaches thing was there in one element in that longer poem and that became “The Roaches”. But it’s a poem I still have a lot of time for. Whenever I’m doing readings, where I place it in the reading helps to colour the way it’s received. Sometimes it’s placed next to some political section and sometimes it’s placed to some more personal section . See what I mean ? But it’s really all about the fact that we don’t change. You know, whatever the problems are, they are likely to recur !
Interviewer: Well, thanks for answering my questions.
Mervyn Morris: Thank you for talking to me!