My first scrape with the arts happened in Secondary School, in London around age 13. An English teacher read a few poems to us and asked us to write imitations. I forget the poems now but I remember the feeling of liberation when I started to copy the poem in terms of my experience or to put it another way, translate my experiences as a teenager in terms of the given forms of the poems. My instinct tells me it had to be Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron and the Coleridge of Kubla Khan, rather than, say, Frost At Midnight. A few years later another English teacher, Geoff Hardy, revisited the same poets and this time his readings made me pay attention to the poets themselves, to the intensity of feeling in their utterance. From that moment I knew I wanted to write but had no idea what I would write. Poems came to me first in those school daze, yes daze, but some editorial pieces as well for the school magazine.
Success as a writer came years later in my early 20s with poems placed in English poetry magazines and then a first book of poetry in my mid-20s, by which time I had found my subject – growing up in Guyana, and my form – an English Romantic sensibility creolized by my upbringing in Guyana. This is wisdom miles after the event and partial wisdom at that, fashioned by my desire to turn a chaotic past of accidents and incidents into seamless narrative or at least a story with as many of the crinkles in it ironed out by a highly selective process of recollection.
The truth of the matter is that I believed in writing as a moral project from the earliest days since my consciousness was forged and forced by the politics of growing up black in London – not an easy enterprise in the 1970s. I felt indebted to twin geographies, an English landscape and a childhood in Guyana. Oddly the romance was with Guyana and the politics with a spoiled, secular England. Perversely, I sometimes reversed these two strictures at will in my writing. Inevitably, I moved away from both into a third sphere, an American experience, brought about by my teaching jobs in America.
I return to all these arenas poem by poem, novel to novel, play by play and in my essays. For example, in my most recent play, Days and Nights in Bedlam, for BBC Radio (broadcast date 2 October 2005), I tried to make my protagonist think of one place he misses while he is stuck in another place, in this instance he is bogged down in a mental hospital and dreams of his Penelope waiting for him in an unspecified country in the Southern Hemisphere.
In the piece written for this commission I decided to examine the two early locations, England and Guyana, as palimpsests for me. I wanted to go for the feel of a place as it taxes the body and draws on memory as a reliquary for the imagination. And I wanted to declare a sort of debt and depth of place, landscape as an expression of the creative and what the great Guyanese writer, Wilson Harris, calls, the 'literate imagination.'
© Fred d'Aguiar
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