A literary flowering
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
March 21, 2004
Poui is the name of the Cave Hill Literary Annual, a journal of creative writing published by the Department of Language, Linguistics and Literature at UWI's Cave Hill Campus in Barbados. The names on its editorial board alone are enough to recommend it because of their own reputations, not only as writers, scholars and linguists, but because as critics of literary work they are hard to please, thorough and dedicated to excellence. Jane Bryce writes fiction and has been a member of the Jury for the Guyana Prize. Hazel Simmons-McDonald writes poetry and is an anthologist of poetry and prose. Mark McWatt is a winner of the Guyana Prize for Poetry and is soon to publish his first book of short stories.
However, a reading of Poui establishes more than the fact that you can trust the judgement of the editors; it reveals why this journal has been developing its own reputation and gathering readership. The editors ascribe that to "a loyal following amongst writers both within the region and outside," but it is also because of the refreshing new talent that it introduces in each issue and the fact that you can look forward to Poui for the latest work from some already known writers.
This annual collection has the distinct advantage of being able to draw on two significant sources for the new writers. Bryce and McWatt conduct two academic courses in Creative Writing, Poetry and Fiction, at Cave Hill. Students do them for credit as part of their degree, but they are virtual practical workshops, which manage to produce a few undergraduates who are really serious writers. In addition, since 1998, Cave Hill has been running a Creative Writers Summer Workshop led by some of the best-known Caribbean authors. Its wide cross-section of students produce works which have found themselves in the pages of Poui.
The literary annual takes its name from a tree well known in parts of the Caribbean for its extravagant flamboyance during its season when it becomes a spectacle of colour. It is also influenced by the poem Poui by Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison. In this verse the tree is so effectively described that it leaves you convinced that nowhere will anyone find a more appropriate name for the journal than Poui.
She don't put out for just
She waits for HIM
and in his high august
he takes her
and their celestial mating
is so intense
that for weeks her
lies tangled around her
and she don't even notice.
Never mind its sexual imagery, the "HIM" in the poem is the sun and what it describes is the fact that it is only in mid-summer that the tree explodes into "rose-gold" colour and the ground around its feet remains covered for weeks by the flowers that fall from its branches. The literary journal is published once a year and exhibits the annual blooming of talent reflected in its pages.
It is a tree, and therefore symbolic of growing things, appropriately relevant to the creativity and the development of West Indian literature that it nurtures.
The poui is also known for its wood, which used to be standard material for kalinda (stick fighting) combat. A favourite weapon of the stick fighters was the poui, the stick or 'wood,' carrying its own sexual imagery. But the image that the journal may draw from it is that of power or vitality as well as its magical properties. The poui stick was often treated by the obeahman to give it that spiritual quality.
As it happens, this heritage may be found in some of the interesting selections in The Cave Hill Literary Annual, Number 5 of December, 2003. Three poems by Katia Ulysse draw strength from the spiritual traditions of Haiti in which they seem to be set. Who Will Feed the Spirits is a particularly clever play on the poet's move from Haiti to the USA, from a traditional to an electronic computer culture. In her new home the poet interrogates the tension between her neglected duty to feed the spirits and her possession by a rival technological power. Unfortunately, it ends weakly.
The best of Ulysse in these pages is The Mistress To Her Restavek, a dramatically effective monologue based on "the phenomenon of forced domestic labour by children in Haiti, which prevents them from going to school." This is in all respects a good poem with an ironic interplay running through the mistress' argument for keeping the girl out of school and the striking usage of the language and metaphor of learning and of tradition.
Also among the most interesting pieces in this volume is Crossing Water 2: Luis in which Jane Bryce demonstrates that she is master of the art that she teaches. Her prose writing in this piece contains as much of the scrupulous and wire-bright descriptive detail as Crossing Water, but it does more and goes somewhere.
Yet these two very separate parts seem meant to go together. Bryce carves out dramatic detail with a very sharp instrument. She draws on her close familiarity with the West African Yoruba townscape with its mixture of dust-covered squalor and sacred places in Nigeria, crossing over to the cloning of that same setting in the New World.
Debra Providence, a graduate of the creative writing degree courses, is among Bryce and McWatt's very best students.
This may be confirmed by the quality of her two selections, one poem and one prose piece. Although they do not represent the best of her work, Firefly and, especially, The Corridor, show her intention to venture close to the frontiers of fiction writing. Another student from the College of the Bahamas, Cecilee Hilton, has similar ambitions backed up by the ability to explore them in poetry. Unlike those new writers, Nan Peacock's fiction remains well within the conventional narrative. Hatpin is third person limited consciousness in carefully crafted prose with both subtle and vivid character portrayal.
These various selections illustrate the range that is to be found in Poui and provides supporting evidence for the editors' claim that the writers are "ready to experiment and to take risks."
They represent "a wide range of themes and styles, registers and voices" from "a diverse lot" of writers "representing perspectives from Puerto Rico, Barbados, Bahamas, St Vincent, Nigeria, the USA, Bermuda and Haiti, and sometimes more than one of these at a time." Poui Number 5 carries this tradition forward and has been growing not only in readership, but in importance as an outlet for writers. This importance increases as the numbers of similar outlets in the Caribbean diminish. This volume, though, may be valued just for the delight provided by its collection of poems and short fiction.
The editors are now accepting submissions from writers for Poui Number 6. They are also inviting readers to subscribe and even to order copies of the new volume. Correspondence may be addressed to The Editors, Poui, The Cave Hill Literary Annual, Department of Language, Linguistics, Literature, U.W.I., Cave Hill, Barbados W.I.
[Poui, CHLA, eds. Jane Bryce, Hazel Simmons- McDonald, Mark McWatt, No. 5, December 2003; 62 p.]