Danielle Boodoo-Fortune is a talented writer and artist in her own right. She hails from the land of the hummingbird and I (JCH) am, of course, in Wadadli. Thanks to the world wide web, we’ve stayed in touch since meeting at a BIM symposium, Celebrating Caribbean Women Writers, in 2008. Not that long ago we had a virtual chat about me and my work as part of research she was doing for a grad school paper. As we discuss writing and influences, I thought it might be interesting to share:
DBF: Where do you do most of your writing?
JCH: Well, my most recent poem was written on the porch of the LIONS Den while I waited to be called for my breast cancer screening; and the one before that twisting and turning on my couch, the night before. The one five or so before that I may have written in a restaurant during dinner; an earlier one, I think in bed or maybe laying out on the grass at Breadloaf in Vermont – I wrote a lot down by the river sitting on a rock that summer; ideas come to me in my car, while driving…sometimes I pull over. Point is, I write anywhere, anytime; I really don’t have a routine. If I’m at home, the writing may most likely take place in the living room lying on the floor or on the back verandah regarding the sunset.
But I think it’s true to say I write on the go (that writing stills the chaos).
Oh, and there’s usually music.
DBF: Do you find that location affects your writing? How so?
JCH: I think it’s more accurate to say that my writing is unaffected by location. When I write – when I’m really into it – the physical space…fades away…no, that’s not quite right…everything is still there, but I guess it’s kind of white noise unless there’s something that is jarring in that space. I didn’t grow up with the luxury of having a ‘room of my own’…but I learned early how to disappear into my head.
Location can affect the writing, if what drew me to write was something in that space – and not my own emotional baggage. Like if I’m at an art show and moved by a painting or at Fort James and overwhelmed by the changing colours of the sunset or at Pigeon Point at an India Arie concert and her song unlocks the long muted muse. It works the opposite way too, if there’s something in that environment grating on my nerves, I can reduce my irritation by writing about it.
So, I guess I’m both inspired by what’s happening around me and also use my writing to slip away from it.
DBF: If you have written from abroad, do you feel as though it affects the way you represent home? How important is the concept of home in your writing?
JCH: Hm. This has me rethinking the location question. As I realize that I write where I am, of where I am. I’m thinking of time spent in Boston where I wrote about twilight as it was there, or in Vermont the sound of the river, the feel of the forest…some with comparisons to home implicit, if not overtly expressed…but really drawing inspiration from where I am.
DBF: In your experience, how does literature affect the ways in which we view landscape, home and identity?
JCH: I think literature has helped me appreciate the ways in which we’re similar…no matter how different our experiences. Inside, the fears and insecurities, the things that bring us joy are remarkably similar. So, I believe that literature helps us to see each other more insightfully (to understand each other better), more clearly, and maybe see ourselves as well. I have so many aha! And oho! moments when I read where windows of learning/understanding/knowing/feeling/grasping open up whether it’s reading Alice Walker or Judy Blume.
Having said that, I think literature about us can deepen our sense of place in the world, validate us in a way. I’m thinking of reading Annie John as a teenager and seeing not only a life I recognized but a possibility (given that the author was an Antiguan writer) of what I could be…never mind that I came from a 108 square mile rock that was little more than a pin prick on the world map.
I think that for marginalized groups, reading literature about ourselves has that power.
DBF: Lorna Goodison has said that she repeatedly returns to metaphors of water. What elemental metaphors do you find to be recurring in your work? Why do you think these persist?
JCH: I can’t think of any specific elemental metaphors that re-occur. But I do find that I tend to write the working class experience (because that’s where I’m coming from), and some version of my tanty who died when I was a child sneaks in more often than I realize, and that while most of my stories are set in Antigua there’s often some reference to Dominica, where my mother is from but which I’ve only visited twice. And I suppose I play with the senses a lot; light and shadow, sounds – whether it’s birdsong or music (yes, a lot of music); the taste and smells of our environment – from the fruits the pit latrine and, yes, water. It’s such a rich environment; I suppose when I write I instinctively want the reader to taste it and smell it and really see it – how nuanced and interesting it is. I believe in detail.
DBF: Do you feel as though there are any inherent differences between the way men and women write landscape?
JCH: Hm. Inherent? Not sure.
DBF: Walcott and Goodison have openly professed their belief in writing as something elemental, divine. What are your thoughts on this?
JCH: I don’t know the specific reference from Goodison and Walcott; but I do believe that all expression is part inspiration. I always urge learning craft and try to improve my handling of it at every turn, but before and beyond craft, there’s definitely something that’s touched by a greater force. No other explanation for it.
DBF: What poets (regional or international) do you find yourself returning to? What is it about this work that holds you?
JCH: Specifically poets? Because I read a lot more fiction than poetry (and identify primarily as a fiction writer). But, ok, poets…usually the ones whose language wash over me…definitely Keats (fell in love with his odes, especially, in college – his sensitivity spoke to something in me and his use of nature imagery and mythology, and how he gives emotion and abstract concepts intent…Ode on Melancholy comes to mind), Shakespeare (when I first came across him in high school, it was all Greek to me but then I got to understand and appreciate the plays better in college and then somewhere in university when I hit upon Sonnet 116 “love is not love which alters when it alteration finds or bends with the remover to remove”; the language, man, the language), Martin Carter – it started with these powerful words “I do not sleep to dream but dream to change the world” and “I come from the nigger yard of yesterday, leaping from the oppressors hate and scorn of myself…from the nigger yard of yesterday I come with my burden, to the world of tomorrow I turn with my strength” – I fell in love first with the force of his words and grew to appreciate his deft use of language (like I said like the flow of things) and the way the personal and political intersected; other favourite Caribbean poets include Mervyn Morris (because he was my mentor and because he dares…On Holy Week comes to mind), Bob Marley (love his lyrics – flow and the layering of meaning), Lorna Goodison (especially, I am becoming my mother…because of her relatabilty); With Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni – my appreciation has to do with their soulful and rhythmic use of language and with the relatable and powerfully explored themes which spoke to me as a black person and as a woman; Among Antiguan poets, all time favourite would probably be Shelly Tobitt, classic calypso writer, and calypso singer-songwriter King Obstinate (theirs were the poems I grew up hearing)…I’m increasingly a fan of Althea Romeo-Mark, and Motion (the latter a hip hop generation spoken word artist…and since I consider hip hop artists poets I’d have to throw in Tu Pac and Lauryn Hill for flow, clever use of language and realism). I’m sure I’m forgetting many favourites but suffice it to say that I continue to discover new writers whose work I enjoy Danielle Boodoo Fortune, Tameka Jarvis, Chadd Cumberbatch, CinD etc. – usually it’s writing that feels authentic, that has a distinctive style and intrinsic beauty and flow. It’s hard to say cold what I like; it’s what I feel when I read it that matters, and do I believe the truth of the emotion that it expresses.
And this post note to her…
re poems i keep coming back to…i realize the poets whose work i’ve sought out and bought (without the formal introduction of the university environment) Langston Hughes, Martin Carter and Maya Angelou…Shakespeare and Keats i met formally and grew to love …for the reasons given…I realize too that there are a few poets who while I may not be au fait with their full body of work are always on my reading list for specific pieces – Auden (musee des beaux arts), dylan thomas (do not go gentle into that good night), Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality…and i’m beginning to sense a theme here…also edna st vincent millay’s to a friend estranged from me and grace nichols’ holding my beads…symbolism, imagery that connect to issues at the core of my own concerns…i hate picking favs…someone important is always forgotten…but these are the ones that came on further consideration…i guess where it overlaps with the original list is most telling.
And so the interview ends.