PHOTO BY RAE BEARD
In the inaugural podcast of the Poet Laureate of Trinidad and Tobago Programme, Poet Laureate Paul Keens-Douglas reads selections from his work including a new poem, ‘The Same Old’. Keens-Douglas also speaks with Circle of Poets public relations officer Andre Bagoo about life as a performer and Keens-Douglas’s role as Trinidad and Tobago’s first Poet Laureate. Listen in the media below. A full transcript of this podcast also follows.
ANDRE BAGOO: Welcome to the inaugural podcast of the Poet Laureate of Trinidad and Tobago Programme run by the Circle of Poets in collaboration with NALIS, the National Library and Information System Authority. I am Andre Bagoo, public relations officer of the Circle of Poets. In this podcast, we feature Poet Laureate Paul Keens-Douglas reading selections from his work. Keens-Douglas will also chat about life as a performer, the importance of poetry today and his role as Poet Laureate.
Poem: ‘The Little Leaf’
AB: A little about Paul Keens-Douglas. Paul Keens-Douglas is Trinidad and Tobago’s inaugural poet laureate. He was born in Trinidad on September 22, 1942. He has been writing and performing since 1974 and founded the Talk Tent in 1983 at Victoria Avenue, Port of Spain. Today, Talk Tent has become an integral part of Trinidad’s post-Carnival presentations, focusing on our oral literary tradition among other things. Keens-Douglas is the author of several books of poetry and short-stories including Tanti at the Oval, Savannah Ghost, and Twice Upon A Time. His many awards include the Humming Bird Silver in the sphere of culture and the Zora Neale Hurston Award.
Poem: ’I and I and You’
AB: That was Paul Keens-Douglas reading ‘I and I and You’. Mr. Keens-Douglas, thank you for joining us.
PAUL KEENS-DOUGLAS: Well nice to be here, nice of you to be interviewing me actually.
AB: Most people know you from your Talk Tent show but can tell us about your new role as Poet Laureate?
PKD: Well as Poet Laureate of course you know I have a hankering for poetry from a long time and it was an honour actually to be asked to be Poet Laureate of Trinidad and Tobago. I see the Poet Laureate as somewhat of an ambassador for poetry, who is supposed to help build the image of poetry, support poetry, encourage others to do so, in whatever way you can. Of course as individuals we all bring our personalities to the job, so there are different types of poet laureates and each poet laureate will bring what he has, in his makeup to the job – right? In this case I am a performer, I am a writer, I am also a motivational speaker so I have a lot of exposure out there on the stage. And I think a lot of this can be turned to the benefit of promoting poetry, once it’s done correctly and once we have the support and the structures in place to move it outwards to the public image.
So I think it’s a nice job, nice thing to be asked to do and sometimes you know you want to join certain things to give back something to the society and I think this is a good opportunity for me to make some kind of contribution, you know, in another form because I do a lot of performing, and that kind of thing. And in this case and I particularly like it because it gives me a chance to work with young people again and you don’t often get that type of young people interested in poetry and writing, it’s more sports and that kind of thing. So when you get people asking you to help push poetry, it’s good because not many people come out to push poetry particularly. So, I think it is an honour to be asked to be this Poet Laureate and I think, as I said, once we have those structures in place, we can do a lot of work to help poetry and its image and put some sort of structure that others coming behind us can build on.
AB: You mention giving back to society, what do you see as the role of poetry in society today?
PKD: Well I think poetry particularly, needs to bring back the softness to the society. I think this is what we lack. We lack the values that make us respect those things like flowers and trees and old people and small children. All these things we hear the crimes and we say to yourself how could somebody do that, you know they have no respect, you know. We grew up with that, we were taught those things and you find that it is lacking in the society today and you get these things. You can’t buy it at Hi Lo or Massy or any of these places, it is something that you have to develop and create – you see and I think poetry and reading - all these artistic forms - bring those kind of values of softness back to the society and we should encourage a lot more people not just to perform poetry but to read it, and to get back in touch with the nature around them.
I think we are more caught up in the financial aspects of life, the survival aspects of life, you know and we are drifting away from those little values that made us who we are; that brought the society to where it is today and if it is one thing that we can do as writers and poets it is push what we have which is poetry. So I think that is a natural place for us to start. You start with what you can do. We are into writing, we are into poetry, into performing. We can reach young people. I think that is the way we have to go. Other people try other ways – fine for them. But I think in terms of poetry we have it and we have people interested and we have a platform. Let we go for it.
BOOKS BY PAUL KEENS-DOUGLAS
AB: So how did you get into performing and being a poet?
PKD: Well quite accidentally, in a sense of a poet and writer. I always loved drama, from an early age. I was involved in drama of some kind. I was born in Trinidad, but as you know I grew up in Grenada and in my early days in Grenada, I was very much interested in drama. I like theatre. I was a dancer. I started off in dance and theatre. I love the local, I always loved the local plays, that kind of thing and then I went to Canada and again got more involved up there because when you travel to places like Canada you get more involved in your culture up there than at home. So you join the West-Indian choir you do West-Indian plays and actually begin to learn the songs you knew at home but had never known fully. So I got involved with choirs and the dramas and the theatre in Canada and of course in that period in Canada it was part of the Black Power movement.
Those were the days of Black Power and that’s when The Last Poets and the black poets were all streaming and then again I was influenced by that. That’s the first time you are hearing this type of poetry and from Canada I went to Jamaica and there I heard Louise Bennett now doing her dialect and pushing this nation language and it was right there on campus, that I decided that I should try my hand after hearing Louise, try my hand at writing dialect poetry and I wrote that first piece: 'The Band Passing' and since that time I have never gone back to writing Standard English. I mean I still write Standard English. But when I discovered the power of the poetry, when I saw how it moved people in the audience, the local poetry particularly, the response blew me. I thought, you know, this is wonderful because you became a pioneer then, in those days, because there was nobody else to follow. You wrote your poem and you want to sing, you just sing, you want to dance, you dance your poem, you want to put it upside down, you put it upside down. You were in charge of your poem. There was no structure that you had to follow, whereas in the Literature Department you had all these Literary Terms and what is Literature and what is Poetry. Did away with all of that and said listen I am writing for the people. Let them be my audience.
I took my poem once for somebody to critique it up there. The very first poem as a matter of fact and I can’t recall his name now and he gave me a long story about learning to live and love and all these kind of things and I went on and said man he doesn’t really understand what I am trying to say and I still say that you know it is what the poet sees when he is writing. Because the other person is not seeing what the person is seeing, right. So sometimes you critique a poem and that person can’t critique because he is not really seeing what you are talking about and you understand that criticism is nice but this man is not seeing.
AB: But isn’t that one of the great things about poetry, how it reveals different perspectives of people in relation to the same text?
PKD: Yeah, well that’s it. As I say it’s not what people say but what people see. I will say communication is not about saying but about seeing right. And you can use the right words and it changes the whole meaning of the sentence because you change one word. Put the emphasis on the wrong part of the word, it becomes a bad word, in another context it’s a good word. But coming back to the writing, Laureate poetry, in my case. I found it gave me freedom I never had before in writing because I was the one actually setting the pace.
After Louise there were very few local writers around. You had no records on the market here and I put out that first record Tim Tim and that became a big hit and after that I got so many calls to perform that eventually I decided to quit and become a full-time poet, performer, writer. It don’t happen in sequence, but it’s a spiritual thing you know. Sometimes you are called upon to do things you have to do. But you just have to make the right choice at the time. We are all given the choices and everything has to do with timing. You reach crossroads, you recognise it. That you are at a cross road now and you have to make a decision. One side is plenty money, one side is what you want to do. Some people go for the money and others people say I will go for what I want to do. If you go for what you want to do, what happens in the end is that it becomes easy because the road opens for you, everything opens because you are supposed to be on that road and I think I have made the right choice at that time and it has brought me to right where I am today.
AB: Okay Mr Tim, Tim can we have a final poem?
PKD: Yeah. This is called The Same Old, it is a new poem. When I say new it was written some years ago but I never performed it, you know because it’s just been lying there so I will do it for you now.
Poem: ’The Same Old’
AB: That was Paul Keens Douglas reading ‘The Same Old’. You’ve been listening to the inaugural podcast of the Poet Laureate of Trinidad and Tobago Program. The Poet Laureate of Trinidad and Tobago Programme is run by the Circle of Poets an NGO dedicated to promoting a national awareness of poetry. To find out more you can check the website of the Circle of Poets at: www.circleofpoetstt.org. I’m Andre Bagoo and thanks for joining us.
- TRANSCRIPT BY JENEIL STEPHEN
THE POET LAUREATE PODCAST
A series of podcasts by the Poet Laureate of Trinidad and Tobago Programme under the patronage of Poet Laureate Paul Keens-Douglas.