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Interview

Lorna Goodison (born in 1947) is a Jamaican poet of international renown. Her first book, Tamarind Season, was published in 1980 and has been followed by twelve other books of poetry, as well as volumes of prose, essays, and memoir. In 2018 Yale awarded her a Windham-Campbell Literary Prize, noting that her poetry “draws us into a panoramic history of a woman’s life, bearing witness to female embodiment, the colonial legacy, mortality, and the sacred.” Her poetry is at once consoling—with titles that sometimes sound like hymns—and confronting, addressing the legacy of colonialism and empire. The most recent edition of the Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry is dedicated to her, and she was the first non-British writer to be made poet laureate of the Durham Book Festival in England. From 2017 to 2020 she was poet laureate of Jamaica, the second person to hold that role and the first woman. On the first Emancipation Day of her tenure (Emancipation Day, August 1, being the holiday marking the emancipation of enslaved people of African descent—and also her birthday) Goodison wrote: “I don’t think it was an accident that I was given the gift of poetry, so I take that to mean that I am to write about those people and their condition, and I will carry a burden about what they endured and how they prevailed until the day I die.” In 2019 she was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry by Simon Armitage, the British poet laureate. She was interviewed by Pádraig Ó Tuama.

Image: In your writings, you refer to a strong Anglican background in your parents. And one of your books, the 2013 Carcanet publication Oracabessa, has a painting of yours, Mothers of Revival, on its cover, depicting women at a Pentecostal service. In your poem dedications you also speak of the Most High, and your titles often seem like hymns (for instance “I Shall Light a Candle to Understanding in Thine Heart Which Shall Not Be Put Out”). Your work—and, indeed, your person—seem to be infused with a religious and biblical sensibility. Could you say a little about how faith has played a part in your life?

Lorna Goodison: When I was a very small child, I heard a voice say to me: “Your life will not go like everybody else’s.” It was pretty terrifying. I was not thrilled at the prospect, so I tried very hard at various times in my life to fit in, to tamp down what I now recognize as spiritual impulses. I even used to destroy my poems. That really did not work. For this reason, like our beloved friend Thomas Merton, I identify with Jonah, who did not want to go to Nineveh, and I too have had what could be called belly-of-the-whale experiences.

My mother, who was raised in the Anglican Church, sent me and my eight siblings to Sunday school, so I was raised as an Anglican. The church we went to was very high Anglican, almost Roman Catholic, and I loved the rituals: the chanting and the incense, the suitable kneeling and standing, the hymns written by some of the great poets of the English language that helped to lay a foundation for my own poetry; but always at the back of my mind, I knew that this way of worship was not all there was going to be for me. I also attended an Anglican girls’ school, Saint Hugh’s, named for the twelfth-century bishop of Lincoln, where in sixth form we were taught a yearlong course in comparative religion. There I learned about the world’s major religions, and that helped me to come into the understanding that there are many ways to worship, and that all these other religions were well worthy of respect.

When I was eight or nine years old, I was sitting in the back seat of my father’s car, parked outside the Coronation Market in Kingston. He had gone inside to help my mother with the shopping, and I remember being alone in the car when a man who looked like an early Rastafarian, a kind of African John the Baptist, a wild man carrying a big bundle of bush (for medicine) under one arm, leaned into the car and began to prophesy that I would become a kind of doctor or healer. I did not tell my parents about this, but I had nightmares about that incident for years.

While I have never practiced any of the Afrocentric religions—Revival, Myal, etc.—I have much respect for those forms of faith that enabled many of my ancestors to endure, yea, to prevail over enslavement and some of the more brutal aspects of colonialism. I also have enormous respect for Rastafari, but I have never been a practicing Rastafarian. I am too unruly a woman for that.

Whenever I travel, mostly to give readings, I usually make time to visit different places of worship. I have been blessed to be able to visit many of the great cathedrals, mosques, and temples of England, Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal as well as small “clap-hand” churches in Jamaica, the US, and South Africa, and I feel free to worship in all these different places. My husband and I very much want to go to Lalibela, Ethiopia, to see the great underground rock churches.

I think that somehow the Anglican and the African healer, the Rastafarian and later the teachings of my Sufi friend Ali Darwish, all came together in me to form what could be described as my faith. But really, at this stage of my now-long life, I think my faith is becoming simply this: God is Love.

Lorna Goodison

Image: In both your prose and poetry, religion is regularly referenced. At times you highlight its colonial associations, and at other times you speak of people who are using old and new re-imaginings of religion to reconstruct what it means to be Jamaican. What, for you, is a test of religion? How do you know it’s doing good work?

LG: There seems to be a great deal of what I would call bad religion in the world right now. The examples are there in the news every day, from clergy who abuse children to evangelicals who support tyrants who lock children in cages. When I think of good religion, I think about the kind that produced a Martin Luther King, who was all too human, but who was all about love and justice. Good religion is what made a Sister Iggy, who mothered the “wayward” boys at the Alpha Boys School in Jamaica, and those boys went on to shape modern popular music. At some point in my teenage years I felt as if a dark wall went up between me and my childhood faith, and the girl who used to sing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and believe every single word of that hymn just went away. It may have had something to do with the fact that my beloved father died when I was fifteen. It was terrible watching him die of stomach cancer, and maybe that brought on a loss of faith, but that was when I really turned to painting and reading and writing poetry.

So I guess the arts became my religion, and I’d consider that good religion because I felt connected, I felt cleansed and healed by poetry and painting and music, and I sometimes felt that I was contributing beauty to the world.

But I never could write or paint or listen to enough music, or fall in love over and over enough, to fill that great yawning lacuna in my heart. You know that sort of trite saying that we all have a God-shaped hole in us that can only be filled by God? I’m now sure it is true, and I guess good religion helps you to accept this, and it gives you what you need to begin to at least start to fill in some of that great yawning, yearning that nothing created, and that not even poetry and painting and music can really fill. On my very best days, for a fleeting moment, I feel something like that girl who believes every word of “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Is that a form of Beginner’s Mind?

I should say that I began to sing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” again after my son Miles was born. His birth gave me new life and released a new kind of singing in me. I began to write more about hope and possibility after I had Miles.

Image: Reading the poem “This Is a Hymn,” as well as the one titled “And You Being So Abundantly Blessed with Names,” and also its companion poem, “A Rosary of Your Names,” it seems to me that you speak of God with a freshness that makes it seem like even God is young and lush and newly discovered. Does liturgy hold a place in your experience of religion and art?

LG: “This Is a Hymn” and “And You Being So Abundantly Blessed with Names” are poems that wrote me as much as I wrote them. “A Rosary of Your Names” was my attempt to add to what my friend Ali told me were the ninety-nine names of God. The truth is, I am not sure how to speak about those poems, except that I wept a lot when I was writing them.

As a teenager, I once had a laughing fit in the middle of a church service. I disgraced myself and my hosts—I was visiting some of my mother’s relatives in a place named Haddo in the western part of the island—and I could not stop laughing at something the preacher said, so much so that I had to go outside and stand there among the tombs, laughing. I look back at that moment now as a gift, because laughter is one way in which I experience God, and so I want to write about the ways in which I am sometimes lucky to experience the divine, as friend. A friend who makes you laugh out loud, and who makes you weep. I’m a weeper, and that too is a gift from God.

I try to begin most days by reading from the King James  Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Koran, and sometimes the Carmina Gadelica. I find this morning ritual helps me with what a day can bring. Yes, liturgy does hold a place in my experience of religion and art. The language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer is hard-wired into many of our writers and artists from the Caribbean. So many of Bob Marley’s lyrics are influenced by the King James Bible, for instance.

As to whether I am trying to write a new liturgy, one of the many blessings I get from doing what I do is that I sometimes receive messages from people in different parts of the world who tell me that they use my poems at weddings, funerals, christenings, and other church services. I recently heard from a rabbi who is using one of my poems in his order of service. I am always amazed and happy to hear that. A poem like “I Shall Light a Candle of Understanding in Thine Heart” has been used at both weddings and funerals.

Image: In the 1960s, the term “decolonize” entered the language, particularly through the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America. (While the term was new, the concept wasn’t.) Your poetry has been bearing witness to the shedding of the disease of colonialism for years. How do you analyze Christianity when its witness in Jamaica has been so enmeshed with empire?

LG: Christianity in Jamaica certainly played its part in keeping slavery and colonialism going. Then again, the role of the Baptist church in the history of Jamaican liberation struggles is well documented, and a number of our greatest freedom fighters—Samuel Sharpe and Paul Bogle, for instance—came out of that church. The Quakers were also active abolitionists, and the Anglican Church founded important educational institutions after the abolition of slavery. But the fact is, all those established religions were complicit in keeping plantation slavery going for hundreds of years.

Plantation slavery ended in large part because of the sheer determination of enslaved people. They knew they had a right to freedom, and being told by Saint Paul in Ephesians chapter 6, verse 5, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling…” did not deter them from waging relentless fight-back against that system.

The Rastafarian religion has helped to cultivate some sense of wholeness in Jamaican people of African descent who had to wrestle with the question of how to love a God who looks just like your oppressor; how to love yourself when everything about your physical being is deemed ugly and inferior; worse, how to believe the words of a holy book that claims you and your people are cursed. Rastafari addressed all that, by the rejection of those vile teachings, and by replacing them with exhortations to self-love and self-reliance. People everywhere now wear dreadlocks with pride, but Rastafarians used to be locked up for that. Best of all, they captured the Exodus story and made it their own. In a brilliant turnabout, they rewrote the script and cast themselves as the children of Israel enslaved by wicked masters in a strange land.

Image: Your recognition that your poems write you, rather than you writing them, strikes very true to me as I read your poetry. It seems to me that poetry is a priest in your life. For instance, when I read the line, “Some of my worst wounds / have healed into poems,” I found myself thinking of your poetry as working a kind of healing in you; and through you, in the lives of your readers.

What, for you, is the work of poetry, for the poet and also for the public?

LG: The foundation of the poems was the hymns I was made to sing in church and at Sunday school. My mother sang hymns as she went around her business. She sang one particular hymn a lot. One of my siblings used to mutter that they couldn’t stand the hymn, so my mother would look up the text so as to sing it in its fullness. She looked it up so much that the particular page in the hymnbook fell out, for which she then blamed my sibling. In the Jamaica I grew up in, it seemed to me that women sang hymns all the time—washing, doing chores, working—so it was all around me, that language. I remember leaning very heavily on the language of those hymns when I started out. At Saint Hugh’s, we started every school day with a hymn.

I think it was Tagore who said that your first poems always have a “crying out” quality to them—I suppose because most people come to poetry as a result of being broken in some way. I got accused of that a lot with my first book, Tamarind Season. Perhaps this was because a lot of people don’t like religion in poetry, so they started asking, “Why is she writing about God?”

The poems in Heartease came in great waves that would force me awake at night, make me have to pull over to the side of the road if I was driving, get up in the middle of a performance at a theater and go out into the lobby to write what was coming in the margins of the program. And other poems were attempts at self-healing. But I am sure that only some of my worst wounds can be healed by poetry. There are other wounds that seem to require confession and tears and lamentations. I’m not sure poetry can carry all the weight, but it does carry a lot.

Image: Your poem “A Forgiveness” sounds like a blessing for a person who is finding it hard to live into the reality that the poem prescribes. It reads like the balm in Gilead of the biblical prophet. What is happening in this poem?

LG: First of all, I should say that I love Nina Simone’s version of “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” I hope that some of my poems convey such deep consolation.

The truth is, I don’t know how forgiveness works. I really am drawn to the Sufi practice called “neutralizing the earth’s glue.” I believe that was Rumi’s line. Forgiveness helps to peel you away from the death grip of resentment—one of earth’s strongest and most damaging adhesives. I do not know how it works. I know that it works in its own way, in its own time. You cannot force it; and maybe you have to really, really want it; and it is neither cheap nor free.

Forgiveness is the most difficult thing of all. In the poem I don’t think I stressed enough just how difficult it is. I can write a poem about forgiveness, but to this day as I sit here I’m trying to live it. And why it is so hard to live it for oneself and other people? I struggle with it in the most brutal of ways. When I’m hurt, I find myself rehearsing the original wound and thinking, “How could you have done that?”

There was a sibling with whom I had a difficult relationship. At one point we had been close, but as the years went by, our relationship seemed to become strained. Perhaps it was when my poems began to get attention. I don’t know, really. I would find myself awake and distressed, remembering what things had been like in our younger years, wishing something could be restored. Recently, I have been waking up at night remembering her, and often I would get up and put on some music that we had loved together, in the hope that somehow she’d know I was playing songs that we had shared when our friendship was alive.

When we met again recently, all the anger and friction between us had just fallen away, and I felt as if we were being bathed in great waves of love. Maybe I had to really, really want for our friendship to be restored. Maybe I had to put in the hard work of praying and crying out to God in the night. Maybe I had to find something that connected us, like songs we both loved, and hope that she would hear them too. And it seems she did.

There’s a lovely poem by Denise Levertov named “The Fountain” that I think of when I think of forgiveness. She says that the fountain “is still there and always there / with its quiet song and strange power / to spring in us / / up and out through the rock.”

 

A Forgiveness

Forgive yourself
for loving the voodoo priest
who drinks your blood at night
through undermining tubes.
Forgive yourself for loving
the children of salt
who left their brine on you
so you dream always of waterfalls.
Take the base betrayals
stamped with deceit
throw them to the forgiving air
and invoke transmutation.
In time they will fall
as rains of redemption.
Forgive yourself for loving
sailors
with brass trunks
filled with lies
for loving flying stuntmen
when you needed earthbound
eyes.
Forgive yourself then
forgive yourself now
and know that you cannot change
someone
if only they would let you
love them.
All changing (like yours)
is light from within
all you can be is witness,
and love yourself now
enough to know
that you are lit
and that light will draw
more light to itself
and that will be light
enough for a start
to new life and a self
forgiven heart
and being new
just be.

“A Forgiveness” is from Hearteaseby Lorna Goodison. New Beacon Books, 1988.

 

Image: And the work of poetry in public?

LG: A friend of mine once said that my poems can be divided into poems about love and poems about justice, and that at the best of times the two come together. You really can’t have love without justice. It doesn’t work. And I come from a family where we are quite politically engaged. In the seventies in Jamaica I could say that I experienced political activism. More than that, what I saw in the 1970s in Jamaica made me very conscious of the suffering of people, what people had to go through, and how much repair work had to be done. The hundreds of years of slavery and colonialism—the neglect of so many of the people came home to me in a very real way then. And so I think my poems started to turn towards that.

My friend Dennis Scott, who was a beautiful, wonderful poet, said to me once that in the beginning as a poet you see through your own eyes, and as you develop you begin to see through windows. That really stayed with me. It was okay to write my own angst, but I began to see through windows. That’s when the poems began to turn. And I wanted to talk.

Image: Your poetry is so full of place: Harvey River—a place almost mythic in your writing—as well as references to Babylon and Zion. What is the significance of place for you—as a person, as well as in your poetry?

LG: Harvey River is where my mother was born, and I am sure that not one day went by without her speaking the name of her birthplace out loud. This was my earliest engagement with place. She had a happy childhood, and she had sisters and brothers there. We used to roll our eyes when she mentioned it. I realize now that it was functioning as a charm for her, to steady and comfort her, especially on difficult days when she had to cope with a different and more difficult life in the city of Kingston, where she and my father moved in the aftermath of World War II. She would conjure up stories of Harvey River to console herself that one day she’d be all right again like she was in Harvey River. It was her Ithaca, her Jerusalem. I didn’t understand it then. This is all in hindsight of course.

My first job out of school was as a bookmobile trainee librarian, and I would go past these places in deep rural Jamaica, and when I saw “Heartease” on a signpost I thought, “What a wonderful name.” Many years late those memories came to me, and I thought of it as a place both mythic and real for my own poetry. Heartease, Harvey River—they are humble little places.

I grew up in several places. I was born in downtown Kingston, and then my family moved to Harbour View, a large housing estate near the sea. I was sent to live with my sister and her family in Gordon Town, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, after my father died. All these places hold special significance for me, and they function as charms in the same way that Harvey River did for my mother. These days I live with my husband, Ted Chamberlin, in Halfmoon Bay, British Columbia. It is very close to both the sea and the mountains.

Place is important to Jamaicans, to dispossessed people. One of the powerful things about Rasta is that they claim the Exodus journey and they claim the Promised Land—in Ethiopia. You have to take control of the narrative somehow, or you’re taken away by people who are telling you where to go. This insistence on one’s own relationship to place is vital for life.

Image: Across all your writing, both poetry and prose, your mother is a powerful presence. She went from relative affluence in Harvey River to living in shared accommodation and financial struggle in Kingston. The stories you told about her in your memoir paint a character of fortitude, insight, and entrepreneurship. Could you tell us some more about her—her virtues, and also what it’s like for you to write so frequently about her?

LG: My mother had sisters—all of them very close. They referred to each other as Dear. Dear Jo and Dear Anne and Dear Doris, these lovely honorific names. They were good to each other and supportive of each other. So she came up with love: with love in her family life and home. Her mother was strict, but her father was very loving, demonstratively so. She also had something the others didn’t: she would pour out herself for everybody—she’s the one who looked after people.

She had a sewing room in her house, and she made some money from her sewing. She never charged what she should have. She sewed beautifully, but she’d never charge full price. For her, her gift of sewing was entrepreneurial, but it was also spiritual. For her, if you were gifted, you should serve the world with it. Her sewing room was a gathering place for women—a place of conversation and life and support. More than once the women grouped together to help someone get away from an abusive husband. She helped a woman go away to England and other places. That’s the heroic part of her that I am always in awe of.

Bear in mind that this was long before writings about feminism—it was simply part of her culture for her to protect other women. I suspect that when women are in danger, they always find ways to band together and help each other. I grew up witnessing these things, and it was only afterward that I realized she was the one who was leading these initiatives.

My mother’s actions, especially the ways she helped other women and took care of many children in addition to her own nine, have helped to shape my own thoughts about feminism. I actually prefer the term “big woman” to “feminism.” Big woman is how my mother and her friends and many ordinary Jamaican women describe a woman who is independent, grown-up, and a caring and responsible member of her community.

She had a great way with language. Because of this interesting way in which she grew up—with an Irish grandfather and English grandfather and two African grandmothers—she had this lovely mix of languages and dialects, and her vocabulary was really diverse.

Image: What did she think of your poetry?

LG: I wrote in secret for a long time, and I tore the poems up and didn’t want to be a public person at all. I was never wishing that people would listen to me. When I first started to publish, after I published the poem “For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength),” my mother said, “You’ve told the whole world my business.” I felt so bad. I felt terrible. I meant it as a prize poem, but I felt like a traitor. However, as the years went by, more and more people told me that that was the story of their parents, too. That as private people they were uncomfortable having poems written about them, even poems that praised them.

And, you know, eventually I think my mother felt good that I had found something to do with my life. For as long as I was trying not to write poems—and I spent years trying not to write them, and throwing my energy into dumb things—my life was having none of it. I was stuck. I was getting spiritual pushback. Everything I planned was being dashed to pieces, because I had work to do that I wasn’t doing. But when I started to write, things settled for me. My mother was smart enough to figure out that I’d found the thing that I was meant to do.

Under a different set of circumstances, my mother would have become a great writer. She was a wonderful storyteller and a gifted teacher, especially of small children. I feel that in some ways I am doing the work she would have done had she been born at a different time, and had she not had nine children. Still, she always told me, “Be yourself.” That is who I am trying to be.

Image: I want to come back to talking about power. Your work is so filled with the reality of empire. You go into the stories of colonialists and view the world from their vantage point; you upend names of God and tell them from a Jamaican point of view; you write in a Jamaican dialect that is subversive in its usage of English. Is this critique of power something you feel called to particularly, or is it something that is inevitable for a Jamaican writer, given the island’s history?

LG: I have to give credit to people in my house during my formative years—I was surrounded by siblings with political awareness. So, early on, what people were saying on the streets would filter into our house. At that time Jamaicans—particularly Rastafarians—were raising their voices. Some people were terrified of the Rastas: these Old Testament prophet men who would stand on the streets of Kingston and call down destruction on Babylon, meaning empire. They were naming destruction and pointing out what was so terribly wrong. This formed me, and I became very aware that you shouldn’t just accept words that were given to you or language that was demeaning to you.

Part of that whole project, too, was the subverting of anything that had to do with that system of Babylon. And language was obviously the most important one. For instance, some of the Rastafarians I knew would say that they “overstand” something rather than “understand.” They had been kept under for too long. The time was up.

All of those things were floating through my world. I would hear my brothers and their friends talking, and it has influenced me. So I can’t claim credit. That was part of the national conversation.

When I began to write poetry, I knew I couldn’t write like a pretend English person. And also, I didn’t want to write Jamaican dialect (Louise Bennett is brilliant, but I didn’t want to write like that); so I was cultured into a way of writing poetry that included the voices and words and languages of my mother and the people on the street and teachers and all the English and Irish people back through some of my previous generations.

When I was twelve or thirteen, I had a teacher named Miss Priestman—imagine that!—and she was lovely. Some things I learned from her have changed my whole life. She told us a story about going to a dinner back in England—for Oxfam or unicef or something. She had paid a lot of money for the ticket, and everybody got dressed up and sat down to a fancy meal. However, they were served only a small bowl of soup and a piece of bread. She thought this was an interesting appetizer. And then they were told that that was about as much as most people in the world eat for an entire day. When she came back to Jamaica and told our class this, it had a huge impact on me. Firstly, it opened me up to the reality of poverty around the world. But secondly, it showed me the power of a creative act for a public purpose.

Miss Priestman wrote a response to a paper of mine once: “If you would do your homework and settle down and behave, you will be a real writer.” She’d written that because I’d shown her some poems. She was the first person who told me I’d be a writer. So many of my teachers came from England, I am grateful to her, and to them. Certainly empire intended one thing when it came to English people in Jamaica, but a lot of other things happened, and I’m grateful for those.

Image: You’ve been writing poems for many years now, and your work is well known and recognized. Do you see yourself as a public figure, and what does that mean to you?

LG: I am not young. I have been at this a long time, so mostly I don’t think about these things. This is my work, and I am doing it. At this stage of my now long life, it would be terrible for me to suffer from vaulting ambition and competitiveness. I don’t want to do that.

Recently I was uncertain about placing one of my poems in a particular magazine, and my brother Karl, who is a social worker in one of the toughest areas of Kingston, told me that I should allow the poem to be published by anybody who wanted it, because it just might help somebody. That is what I’m doing. I’m putting my poems into the world because they just might help somebody.

 

 

 


 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, speaker, and theologian whose work centers around themes of language, religion, conflict, and art. His books include Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Sorry for Your Troubles (both from Canterbury), and In the Shelter (Hodder & Stoughton). He is the host of the Poetry Unbound podcast from The On Being Project.

 

 


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