INTERFACE: ANSON GONZALEZ IN CONVERSATION WITH FUNSO AIYEJINA
Funso Aiyejina (FA): What was the genesis of Score, the joint volume you published with Victor Questel?
Anson Gonzalez (AG): Victor Questel and I were part of a group called Pivot which we joined before we went to university. Although I was much older, we went in at the same time. I studied literature and sociology; he studied literature and history, and we operated together as partners in the publications committee of the Students' Guild for a long while. I was the chairman, editor, etc. I had a group of people around me and he was one of the closest ones. We were both writing poetry before we came to the university and during the three years we were there, we contributed to all the university publications that published poetry, such as Pelican, Embryo, Themes which I founded. Themes lasted a few years after I left. We also did readings on campus. We were quite active in that sort of way. We even tried to introduce readings at Infinity, the students' bar, but that didn't do too well. Students preferred to drink than to listen to poetry. By the time we graduated, Victor had written a several poems. He might have started publishing in Savacou by that time. It was International Book Year, 1972 I think it was and we wanted to make a contribution. As partners we decided to make it together. So we pooled our money to publish. Basically, I was the editor of the book.
FA: What did you set out to do in Score?
AG: They were early poems. I was being generous by putting my friend first. People read the book and began to think in terms first and second. When Eric Roach reviewed the book, he said we had done a bad thing to ourselves by publishing a joint collection. He harked back to Clarke and Telemaque who had done a similar thing in the 40s and said it would always invite comparison that was not intended. Victor, in my opinion, wrote long thin poems so when I was putting mine, I was changing the beat from long thin poems so I chose some short poems to contrast the long ones. Form did not mean much to many people. So I chose my poems based upon a pattern I had in my mind. Most of the poems were written in the late 60s and others in the 70s.
FA: What was its reception like?
AG: The reception was quite warm as usual. Not in terms of sales but it established us as young poets within the society and as poets who were writing out of the experience of the 70s. We got rid of the books, some through sales and others as gifts. We had done only 500 copies.
FA: What was the philosopy behind the Pivot group?
AG: A group of guys invited each other. I think Roger McTair was the guy I knew in the group and it was he who invited me into it. Apparently these young people, as young people feel today, felt that they were being stifled by the old and they wanted to establish that there were others, younger, who were doing something that should be recognized. It started as group that was working along that course but along the way it shifted, with the Black Power movement. The vocal members of the group became more and more involved in the political side of the Black Power movement. The group eventually fizzled out as leading members became involved in NJAC and other actvist and political groups.
FA: What do you consider to be the major influence of the Black Power period on you and your poetry?
AG: The basic thing was that it was a period that enlightened us one way or the other, each in his own way. We were at different ages. There were people like Victor [Questel], David Murray [ now Aiegoro Ome ] who were in their very early twenties, and there were people like myself who were in their early thirties, so there was almost a generation between us and we responded in different ways.Those like me who intended to stay on the cultural side and not to be involved with the political did not like the rabid ethnicity employed by some to advance themselves and their cause. There were thousands of students who lost their way because of the way the movement was conceived. Many students dropped out of secondary schools and became perhaps the first wave of the Lost Generation, ending up cracked because of marijuana, ending up cracked because they could not support their so called independence from their parents. Families broke up. You had situations where people were being attacked because of their colour and I am talking about light–skinned people. I gradually started to move away when, during demonstrations, people started picking on me, wanting to know what I was doing there because I happened to be of a lighter shade in that company. It was quite funny to me but I believe that at the same time, there was no real philosophy behind it and the leaders had no control over the far reaching effects of what they said to the crowds. They were saying one thing and something else was being gathered by those who were listening. When you had arson, violence and people spitting on people just because of their skin colour, that wasn't something that I could want to identify with. Yet there were aspects of it that made me continue for a long while to try to make Trinidad and Tobago the centre of the universe for us; it was an inspiration from that whole movement that we could project ourselves as authentic human beings. That was one of the more positive outcomes of it. Many people tried to express multi–cultural patterns in their clothes, food, associations. It was my most creative period but I deliberately chose not to follow the protest mode too much. Since everyone else was doing it, I chose not to do it.
FA: "Who killed my son?". What is the background to that poem?
AG: Number one, it is a reflection on the inhumanity of the people involved in the revolution, an inhumanity that is similar to the inhumanity they were protesting against. For instance, I had done hours and hours of work for them. When I lost a kidney, none of them was around to say what could we do, or how you're doing. It was no big thing when they heard about it. All this happened while a child of mine was being born, at a time when Port of Spain was burning and the hospital was a top security risk. He was born but didn't survive many days as a direct result of what was happening at the time of his birth. The poem was a reflection on that. Well, I can understand what you call karma but at the same time people should be aware of the fact that there are implications for everything we do.
FA: But although this poem has come out of a very painful personal experience, its over all import is very universal.
AG: Exactly. That was the idea at the time. I wanted to use certain events in my life to create art forms.
FA: On the whole, looking back at that period, what would you say has been the central influence of the 70s on Trinidadian poetry as a whole?
AG: Some of the poems were immediate and suitable to the occasions in which they were being presented. There were a many rallies and marches where the crowds were excited and many poets wrote things that worked. Besides, in such heightened atmosphere, sometimes, a simple word had so much meaning that one word alone was a poem. For example, at that time, the word "black" was a whole stanza or two of poetry by itself. It was black this and black that, filled with emotion and all kinds of connotation. Certain people attempted to treat that as art and failed to lift it beyond the occasion to great poetry. FA: Was Abdul Malik writing about this time?
AG: Yes; Abdul Malik was deeply involved in the whole thing. He was imprisoned. Some of his poems were from prison. The emotion in them was that of anger and protest and suited the time. However, some of them seem to rise above mere ejaculations of anger.
FA: In another conversation, you singled out Gordon Rohlehr as someone who was instrumental to the growth of the poetry of that period. Could you expand on that?
AG: My writing was never really too serious until I met people like Gordon Rohlehr. He came and inspired us. He was such a young person; he was twenty–five when he came here. I must have been thirty already. He was this young man with a PhD already. He came with ideas which interested us. He caused us to take our art a little more seriously. Here was somebody who was criticising our dilettante efforts and trying to put them in some context. He had a quiet but very significant part to play in what transpired in literature in Trinidad from 1968 onward. He has always been involved. He then started a little hobby with the calypso and now he is foremost calypso historian and critic. He had a very big role to play because he encouraged us by providing intellectual support for our work. My breakthrough at the international level was due to Gordon as well. Someone of our friends was publishng a collection of Caribbean poems and Gordon was the man to select the poems from down here. He had forwarded the poems that he had carefully selected and they had rejected nearly all. Gordon got upset about that and wrote this dynamic article about it. How could you leave out, among others, Anson Gonzalez.... James Carnegie who was producing an anthology of Caribbean poets found that article and the poem and included the poem in the first international anthology in which my work was included. That book is called Caribbean Rhythms. It felt so nice to be included alongside CLR James, Lamming, Walcott and others. You knew that you were included for, maybe, space filling or potential or something but it felt nice anyhow and they paid me the grand sum of $10 for it as well. So Gordon made the region look at us more seriously and this opened up several doors, for me in particular. I didn't walk through all the doors but they were there.
FA: Looking at the poetry of the region, it would seem to me that the poetry of your generation, especially that of Victor Questel whose Hard Stares is an excellent collection, has been ignored by critics. What is responsible for this neglect?
AG: Maybe we were stereotyped as protest poets, as statement poets. Maybe we do not have an apologist to keep our work in the public domain. Trinidad does not have the leading edge in cultural production in the Caribbean. The island that has the leading edge takes care of its own first. When they produce an anthology, 2/3 of it will be from that island and, just to make sure that they give it a regional outlook, they will include one or two people from other islands. Victor was only able to have two books produced because he died pretty young. I happened to produce both of them – On the Mourning Ground and Hard Stares. What happened is that as poets we have names but we don't have followers in terms of people who will promote our books. For me, for sure, I could not be bothered to be known. If I have a poem out there and it is known, fine. But I could not bother to send poems to various people and get funny replies. I think he was known. I guess it was his death that put paid to it. If you were publishing an anthology of Caribbean poets of the 70s, or poets of the second part of the century or something like that, his name would come up.
FA: Yes, but apart from the critical attention paid by Gordon Rohlehr, we don't get enough critical statements about his work and the works by others of that generation.
AG: I think I am overlooked mainly because I do not promote blackness per se and also because I do not promote dialect. Now, you didn't ask me this question but I will proffer a comment: I have been very angry by the way Caribbean people have accepted a designation of dialect as their mode of expression by outsiders and then adapted it to their own. It makes it appear as if English is not our language, as if we have not been educated. We have been relegated to a category in the way "they",say, relegate Scottish dialect poetry; a little aside. And we have generally accepted it. To begin with, poetry is not a popular form anyhow,so why does one have to be seeking popularity to get them to this level of phonetic expression, phonetic spelling to express your thoughts? I do not know. I just get very annoyed about the whole thing. It seems as if somebody up there has said the Caribbean language is this and a whole set of people have said oh yes, this is our language, English is not our language. So we're not writing Caribbean English you know.
FA: I take this to mean that you are saying that dialect should not be the only language of expression in the Caribbean, but that it should exist as part of the continuum.
AG: Yes. And then what amazes me is that the people who try to explain and justify the ascendance of dialect normally do it in the most perfect English.
FA: But the poets of the 70s would have had some justification for wanting to use dialect. As products of a mass revolutionary movement, if their poetry was to reach the masses of people the movement was trying to reach, the language needed to be that of the people.
AG: I have a problem with the grassroots people in Trinidad. When I was a boy, I saw the house in which I was born. I don't want to describe it because it is a painful memory. You couldn't get more grassroots than that. I am as grassroots as you can get. Nine out of ten Trinidadian look at my colour and draw other conclusions. And I feel that is how they respond to the art form and other things.
FA: Maybe grassroots is a wrong term. Maybe we should talk about the semi–literate members of the society that the movement was trying to reach out to.
AG: Let them learn to read.
FA: But if you are leading a political movement, you won't have the time to stop and educate the people to read before you march ahead.
AG: Then don't print papers and books and all kinds of things because the people can't read then. Leave that part out of it. Use oral poetry.
FA: What about those poets like Walcott and Brathwaite who are competent in the use of standard English but still have occasions to use the dialect form?
AG: I am not sure how much of it is not just form to maintain their Caribbeanness at world level. So you are dashing a little Caribbean expression or image here and there. Or like in the case of certain mythical approaches, they transpose all the characters to Caribbean characters. In the case of Braithwaite, he is basically consistent; but even his is not dialect, it is more like his shorthand and his way of doing things. If you get letters and things from him, they are written in the same style as in his literary works. But when he speaks now, even though he is speaking dialect or what he calls dialect, it does not sound like dialect. Sometimes you have to wander what's really going on.
FA: You have been involved at various levels, including being a foundation member of the Writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago, what have these experiences been like.
FA: One of the things you have also done is the publication of TheNew Voices. It was the means through which a good number of young Trinidadian writers and many others came to public attention. What led you to committing yourself to this undoubtedly onerous task and what has the struggle been like?
AG: I guess I always liked writing, publication, books and such things. In the 1970s there were many people around me who were creating but there was no way to have these published. We tried several ways of publishing with no success. So I decided that we were going to do something. Forget how it looks and let's just think about content, I thought. A samizdat kind of production. I started off with a very rudimentary journals. It was a case of doing everything myself until I could afford to pay to print. I just felt that it had to be done and many people, just by submitting work and so on, apparently felt that it was worthwhile. Friends and acquaintances, while I couldn't raise money for printing, gave me money for prizes which I passed on to contributors as honoraria for their work. Eventually one or two foreign friends gave donations which went a long way. One or two local ones as well. So there was a little help but the bulk of it came from me directly, sometimes with the help of my wife, who, instead of giving me gifts for my birthday, would give money towards the production of The New Voices. It was basically a self help project done for what I thought was demanded by the literary situation. As a direct result of what was happening in the 70s, I got the idea that we must make Trinidad the centre of the universe, for us at least. I had hoped to do that through literature. Although minimally, we had got responses from as far apart as Australia and Argentina as well as from Canada and Europe and even Croatia. So we did in a way become like the centre of the world for a while. After a while, the magazine kept getting better and better but the financial support got worse and worse. It became almost as if I was doing it only for the writers who were sending their works. No issue was really breaking even. I had invested in all kinds of typewriters and then moved up to computers and more expensive computers and with this thing not even breaking even, I felt I had exceeded even an artist's boundaries of poor management; and there was a certain lack of respect down here. I thought that what I was doing was not appreciated; it is no use doing something that had no value to other people and could not even support itself. So I decided to call it quits after volume 21, which means it ran for twenty one years – 1973 –1993.
FA: What was the distribution mechanism like?
AG: I have this terrible weakness of the artist that the book was my work of art and once it was finished I tended to lose a lot of interest. Besides, postage cost kept rising and with the last rise, they did not include a book rate which made it impossible to mail books from Trinidad to the outside world. It was as if everything was just conspiring to keep TNV down, although I think that according to the United Nations' convention, all countries should have a book rate. I do not know why we do not have one. The union has not taken it up, the library association has not taken it up. The blind people have not taken it on. They are all people who benefit from special rates. Definitely, publishers and all others in the book business should have taken it on. At least queried it. I got tired of the run around from the bureaucracy, may be I was getting old or whatever, and I thought that, well, let me stop putting out good money after bad investment. Nobody really missed it any how.
FA: I think many people did.
AG: They said the right things when they realised the last issue was coming out. My friends and supporters were of course very genuine with their concern. I even made it available to any person or group who would like to continue, but that as well didn't work out. Lately a new group has indicated its interest. Let's see what happens.
FA: What pleasure have you derived from your involvement in this project?
AG: I think it was the pleasure of artistic and aesthetic engagement. My involvement put me in touch with writers, some of whom kept up correspondence with me. I have letters from famous writers like Andrew Salkey, Edward Brathwaite, Jan Carew, A.J. Seymour and people like that. Even a note from Selvon, a scribbled note from Anthony, etc. And then a lot of minor writers who may become major writers... I have a whole lot of letters from Jennifer Rahim and all sort of manuscripts from when she had just started writing. Stewart Brown, Jeremy Poynting are my soul brothers from England - the former starting a Caribbean publishing house and the latter being a foremost anthologist and editor of Caribbeana.. Beside publishing so many writers The New Voices under its publishing arm has also published more than 20 items, by several Caribbean writers in many genres. Another major activity was a Caribbean Poetry competition that received entries from several countries. That involvement has been a priceless part of my life.No part of my material life can measure up to sheer joy of having interacted with so many highly talented and creative Caribbean writers, many of whom I can truly call my friends.
FA: What is the relationship between your search for inner peace through your involvement with Eckankar and your more recent poetry? What distinguishes your pre–Eckankar poetry from your post–Eckankar poetry?
AG: Writing the new poetry is more deliberate. It was a kind of dialectic approach to my own life. It is not that I do not feel about things the way I felt before. Even though I didn't choose to do much protest in the popular way before, I still wrote about social concerns. I tried to approach the same topics from an angle that the others couldn't or chose not to come from. But after looking at all the kind of things that were happening – the deterioration of the social system, the devaluation of life, I thought that I would hardly write anything that would encourage people to continue to denigrate life, especially in terms of power. I took a deliberate decision around 1979 not to publish, even if I wrote, that kind of poetry. I was becoming older, mid–life crisis and all that, and I got involved in TM, it was my first introduction to Eastern Meditation and it really had a calming influence and that put me out of a productive mode for a long while. Eventually, through moving through different things and getting back on track again, I got into Eckanker. I did write a couple of poems out of the TM exposure. Since I had taken the decision not write life threatening things, the only thing I could write was life supporting things, mainly love, moving towards understanding divine love. What I am trying to do now is to express my experience of Eckankar. When you have newly joined something , you have marvelous experiences. It is like marriage. The initial experience is marvelous; you have nothing to compare it with. I try to show the spiritual dimension of whatever matters I am dealing with. Even when I write political poems I still let the spiritual seep through. I will not encourage anything that is life destroying. I will not encourage politics in my work.
AG: Politics is about power and power and love don't fit in the same place.
FA: You don't perceive of the possibility of someone with power using it to enthrone love?
AG: No. Power is power. Love is love. Power is about manipulation and getting your own way and doing things the way you see them, regardless of what others want. Love is not like that. They are diametrically opposed; they cannot fill the same spot.
FA: But a lot of the great spiritual leaders had power, divine power, and used it to help other people.
AG: Divine love might be seen as power, by interpretation, but they would not have used it for any personal gain whereas the power monger would have done that same thing for himself. But I doubt that you can find any ruler using their power as love.
© Funso Aiyejina 1998