An Interview with Mervyn Morris

By Arifa Akbar on May 4, 2017 in Articles

Mervyn Morris is the outgoing Poet Laureate of Jamaica. His work as a poet, essayist and teacher has had an enduring impact on Caribbean literature. He is professor emeritus at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona, Jamaica, and lives in Kingston. In 1970, he began lecturing at UWI, where he later became a Reader in West Indian Literature. In 2009 he was awarded Jamaica’s Order of Merit. In 2014, he was appointed the first post-independence Poet Laureate of Jamaica.

His collections include ‘The Pond’ (1973),’Shadowboxing’ (1979), 

And ‘Examination Centre’ (1992). In 2006, Carcanet Press published his collection,’ I been there, sort of: New and Selected Poems’.

Alongside his poetry, he has written extensively on West Indian literature, and edited various anthologies, including ‘Miss Lou’, a collection of poems by the Jamaican Creole poet, Louise Bennett (2014). His poetry mixes standard English with Jamaican Creole and patois. ‘Peelin Orange’ is his latest poetry collection, and it brings together half a century of work.

He met Arifa Akbar in Herne Hill, South London, at the home of his friend, Linton Kwesi Johnson, while on a UK tour.

AA Will you speak a little about writing in ‘Englishes’ and tell us what you mean by this?

MM What I mean by it is to use the whole range of our language in the way that Louise Bennett did. I grew up in middle-class family; my mother was a teacher and my father was an accountant. We were expected to speak Standard English but of course we were in contact with Creole. In a sense we were bilingual. Certainly, in our childhood there was a very firm emphasis on speaking properly which meant ‘Standard’. That has shifted somewhat. You don’t find many young Jamaicans speaking Standard English constantly now. They are able to speak Standard but within a ‘mesolect’. I’m unhappy that sometimes people emerging from the school system are less efficient in Standard English but I’m happy with the freedom we have in language to say what we feel. I grew up with two radio stations – now there are more than twenty in Jamaica – and what dominates Jamaican talk shows is the phone-in. It’s a major element and it certainly means that we are getting people speaking in whatever language they are comfortable in.

AA I wonder when you began mixing Creole with Standard English in your writing? And how much of a journey was it? The Jamaican novelist, Marlon James, has spoken of overcoming his internalised prejudice in writing his second novel [The Book of Night Women] entirely in dialect. Do you identity with this?

MM No, it was not a problem writing in Creole. I grew up reading Louise Bennett’s work in the newspaper, and also the folk stories which were a part of growing up in Kingston. My experience [of writing in Creole] is closer to Sam Selvon’s experience than Marlon James’s. Sam Selvon has talked about starting The Lonely Londoners in Standard English, and then finding that when he started to use the Trinidadian speech language that the book took off. One example is in my poem dedicated to Don Drummond, called ‘Valley Prince’ [about the Jamaican ska trombonist and composer]. That’s a poem I started writing in Standard in the late ‘60s and it didn’t feel right because I was trying to suggest a voice for this Jazz trombonist who died in a mental asylum. It shifted and sometimes that happens – I can think of another one, ‘Diptych’ which is two poems. And the first version is entirely in Standard. The final version is virtually Standard as well but there was a Creole words slipped in by the time it got to this stage and that makes a big difference to me, the way it works. It means that a particular section is clearly mesolect, clearly a mixture, and it just felt natural to slip that word in.

AA I have read that it was when you came to Britain at the age of 21, to Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar for three years in 1958, that you knew you began writing your first serious poems, and knowing that you wanted to be a writer. Will you talk about this period of your life?

MM There is one correction here and that is knowing that I wanted to be a writer when I arrived in England. I’m not sure that’s true. I was already writing but I certainly hadn’t made the kind of investment that I now have in writing. I had written very little that made me feel I was a writer by 1958. People often ask ‘when did you start writing?’ I would say that I started writing in Jamaica but wrote a lot more in England. I just want to make sure you realise I didn’t figure I was a writer when I got to England.

What is true is that the earliest of the poems in any of my books was about 1960 when I was in England, and I suppose the most important thing when I left for England was that I was not formally, but virtually, engaged to Helen [Morris’s wife]. And of course that’s a natural source of a lot of bad poems [laughs]. I wrote a lot of poetry which I think is partly out of the sense of her not being there, but lots of other things as well. I’m always talking about two poems from that time – ‘West Indian Love Song’ and ‘The Day My Father Died’.

AA This latter poem – ‘The Day My Father Died’ reads like you are a child observing your mother’s grief. Can you tell us more?

MM That’s right, my father died in 1948, when I was eleven, through complications of hypertension. He must have had a stroke at the end or something but he had been not worked because of illness for a while in 1947, and he and my mother decided it would be good for me to go to a boarding school. My two brothers and many cousins had been to Kingston College in Kingston, but I think it was structure that they were thinking about. He died in my second term at Monroe [College].

AA What was it like being at Oxford in 1958 – there can’t have been many non-white faces at that time there?

MM I was at Teddy Hall [St Edmund Hall] and I loved it. What I haven’t mentioned yet is that I was very much a sportsman as well. I actually earned a Blue for lawn tennis in each of my years there and I played serious hockey as well. The old sporting hall was a very good hall to be in and I had good tutors in English.

But because of the way you’ve asked the question, I’m remembering now that I wrote an essay called ‘Disappointed Guests’ [in a book edited by Tajfel and Dawson]. It was for a competition instituted by the race relations people; I wrote it just after graduating and I won first prize. It seems a little earnest now! It was about how, as a black person, I responded to Oxford. One of the points I was making was that I could see eventually that my responses were as much related to what I brought to that experience as the experience itself. One of the things I remember was that people didn’t take you seriously when you said ‘drop by anytime’!

AA It sounds overall though like you didn’t feel an outsider in Oxford. Is that true?

MM Yes that’s a point I made in the essay, that sometimes you ran into people who figured you were an outsider but because of your colonial education, you are very much aware of things that they thought you might not know – because you were brought up with many of those things. There is a section in the essay that I’m quite embarrassed by now, and that’s my response to Africans, which was not a solidarity response…One of the moments I recall is that an organisation invited foreign students to a tea and afterwards there were thanks offered by an African student, and it was more fulsome than I could bear. I’m sure it was all very genuine, and because of where he was coming from, he was very courteous but it seemed overdone to my somewhat English sensibility.

AA Was there a part of you that was separating yourself from his Africanness?

MM Absolutely. I say that pretty explicitly. There were Africans whom I was fairly close to, but the ones I was closest to were the ones I could have mistaken for West Indian. The assumption of society around me was that we were similar. I also report on the rudeness – I didn’t call it that at the time – of a West Indian woman student who in response to an English person saying ‘you speak English very well.’ She said ‘and so do you’ [laughs].

AA Can I ask you about the poems you have written on race and if you consider them to have a revolutionary element?

MM Many of them came in the late 1960s, particularly from the Jamaican Black Power Movement which was in full flow in American and was beginning to overflow in Jamaica. A little bit after the late ‘60s, the energy being put into Black Power in Jamaica was being transferred to the question ‘are you a socialist or not?’ [with the rise of Democratic Socialism and the People’s National Party]. In many instances, what was happening in these movement was that you had people that were not just arguing for things but policing those who were not saying the same as them, or even those who did not subscribe fully enough.

So in the poem, ‘The House Slave’, there are terms applied to black people who are not felt to be as black as others, ideologically. In Jamaica, some of them are called ‘roast bread-fruits’ referring to when the outside is black but once you cut it, inside it’s white. There’s also the distinction between house slave and field slave. The field slave would be the revolutionaries, in theory, although the house slaves were in a position to do more. Some of it was silly as well – there was something very silly about assuming that the opposition to the people who were most genuinely progressive were the people who were saying things that were conservative, or who were deemed not sufficiently revolutionary. If they were being smart, they should have realised that they needed to inspect more carefully those people who were saying the right things. In Jamaica of the 1970s, the suggestion was that the CIA had begun to infiltrate – and I believe that it was really happening – and disturb the Socialist movement that Michael Manley was trying to lead because he was flirting with Cuba. America got worried by this.

Anyway, I address these things fairly directly through many of the poems I wrote in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Different poems represent different elements. For instance, ‘I am The Man’ represents the dispossessed voice of the Rastafarians at a time when they were putting up buildings where they had lived. These are the socio-political references in it. Others written in the same period includes ‘The House Slave’, which asks the question ‘who takes over when the master is gone?’ Historically, it has meant the educated middle-class trying to lead but of course some of them are more concerned with taking the place of the master rather than transforming society.

AA In some of the poems – two of them in your latest collection, Peelin Orange, there is use of the N-word. I know poets use the word but it’s shocking nonetheless, because it is so freighted with a history of violence and abuse. Nowadays we hear it in rap in an almost redefined context of the word. How easy or difficult a decision is it to use that word?

MM In one instance, I used it in the poem, ‘Catch a Nigger’, that was written in the late 1960s, and has the lines – ‘Fee fi fo fum,/When you perform, our god is dumb;/Eeny meeny miney mo, you’re a Nigger Minstrel show!’ .[It refers to] the black person who is seen as not being black-committed enough, who is being assaulted and responding with throwing the mockery back… the suggestion is that some blacks are really performing for white people.

There is another poem in which it’s used. It’s a love poem, ‘The Pledge’ and it has the line: ‘Stay with me nigger’ but the next word [on the next line] is Lover – ‘Lover keep it true’, so ‘nigger/lover’. I can connect this with something that might be helpful. In Kamau Braithwaite’s introduction to ‘Savacau 3/4’ [a journal of literature founded in 1970], there are passages which suggest that nobody likes to be assaulted in the bedroom or the ‘bank-vault of his assumptions’. It’s a reference to those who are ‘sleeping white’. It’s a very elegant sneer. I think that poem must have come out of some of that.

Derek Walcott, in some of his essays and interviews of the same period, is grappling with the same ideas of ‘blacker than thou’. He speaks of a generation with ‘black skins and blue eyes’ which is very much about how the colonial tutoring affects the way you see things. Even in verse, somewhere in ‘Another Life’, there is a passage which is very firmly trying to deal with those Black Power people who were opposing him, he felt.

AA Just to finish, did you know Walcott well?

MM I knew him and admired him but I wasn’t a close friend. In a way, I’m a closer friend to Kamau who has become a kind of recluse. He was on campus and very active in bringing people in the arts together. He and his wife are really quite wonderful. But Derek – I had less to do with. I knew him from just after he graduated in 1953 – I entered college in 1954 and he was still around. He got married to a Jamaican, he had friends on campus, but I didn’t get close to him.

Peelin Orange is published by Carcanet.