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Esther Phillips was born in Barbados where she continues to live and work. She heads the English Department at Barbados Community College. Her books include When Ground Doves Fly (Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, 2003) and The Stone Gatherer (Peepal Tree Press, 2008). Her remarkable poem Just Riffing sets the tone for the anthology Stories from Blue Latitudes: Caribbean Women Writers at Home and Abroad. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Caribanthology and The Whistling Bird: Women Writers of the Caribbean. She has won both the Alfred Boas Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets and the Frank Collymore Literary Award.
SJF: Poetry Parnassus will offer a unique opportunity for some of the world's leading poets to share with each other, as well as a new British and truly international audience in London, their work and their philosophy on contemporary poetry. Is this dialogue something that is important to you and your practise as a poet?
E.P: I always think of writing poetry as essentially a lonely art, as I suppose most artists think of their work. At the same time, it is never possible to write only for oneself since every idea or emotion expressed is contingent on the people or the world around us. Sharing my work with others, particularly other poets, helps me see and better understand what it is I've written and why. I also need to hear from them; other kinds of inspiration are not only possible but almost always inevitable.
SJF: Moreover, do you think this dialogue can have an impetus or agency for change in contemporary poetry and beyond? Perhaps increasing the width and reception of poetry from outside each individual country involved?
E.P: I think that any discussion on contemporary poetry will inevitably raise the question of differences between the page-based poetry and the now popular spoken word. I admit that I am biased when it comes to the former since that is what I practice. I also believe the two have different technical requirements. I believe, however, that different social energies generate particular trends and one must make way for these different forms to find expression. I believe that in all diverse forms of artistic expression across all countries, there are some sensitivities in common.
And do you think poets have a responsibility to engage with their peers, and not maintain themselves solely as singular artists, in order to proliferate poetry and to support others?
E.P: I would be careful of the word "responsibility" since I personally do not link my writing poetry to a sense of duty. I love engaging with other poets but I think that involvement works best as a natural synergy; a natural meeting of minds. I do see what you mean, however: if poetry is to survive and help to inform a society's way of thinking and behaving, poets must make a united effort to come together and create that voice that impacts their environment. The single voice can hardly be as effective.
Poetry from the Caribbean has had an enormous influence on global poetry since the 1950's and on. Does it continue to maintain its power now the generation of 'post-colonial' poets and writers seems to have passed?
E.P: You would be referring to the likes of Dennis Scott, Eric Roach, H.A Vaughn, Martin Carter, Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott...These were poets whose world view was so different from the more global contemporary view, that it is difficult to make certain comparisons. The 'post-colonial' poets as you refer to them were heavily influenced by their exposure to the western classical literature.
The present writing is more fluid and more highly personalised in terms of content and style. I suppose only time will tell in terms of its shelf life. How well will the "new" writing travel? I think that will be the real test.
Having said that, though, there are some very good Caribbean poets who are becoming well-known internationally. Lorna Goodison, Kwame Dawes and Kei Miller are three who readily come to mind.
One would hope it is occasions such as Poetry Parnassus itself which provide the best evidence that poetry from beyond 'the West' and its dominant mode is being recognised and given its proper place and standing. Poets from a truly global range of traditions will read alongside each other as equals, no matter their language, ethnicity or style. Do you think progress has made been made in this regard, or is your experience that there is some way to go, or the problems are fundamental and structural?
E.P: When you refer to "fundamental and structural" problems, I'm not sure if you're referring to poetry itself or social differences. I think, though, that any initiative that brings people together, especially revolving around art, is bound to yield good results (e.g when it comes to social integration at all levels, artists may be way ahead of the politicians!)
This gesture which the 'West' is making to acknowledge the validity of poetry worldwide is a commendable one. The question, however, is what happens after the event? Is it reasonable to expect that Poetry Parnassus has any further responsibility towards the poets? Does Poetry Parnassus reinforce for individual countries the importance of nurturing and properly recognising their own poets? One would hope so.
What epoch, or style, or individual poet has had the greatest influence on your own work?
E.P: Shakespeare, T.S Eliot, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney. All males, surprisingly, but I am a great admirer of the power and range of these poets' language and above all, the craft. For me, how a poem is crafted is what decides how powerfully the ideas and emotions will be communicated.
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.