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Poetry Month, Africa and the African Diaspora
Reclaiming My West Indian Roots, with Poetry
As a young girl growing up in Jamaica — and later in Brooklyn, NY — I often heard the poetry of Louise Bennett (Jamaicans affectionately call her "Miss Lou") permeate the air. One of my earliest recollections of Miss Lou’s lyricism was hearing the term mout amassi (big mouth). The term comes from the title of one of her most popular poems about a young lady, Liza, who loves to gossip and chat.
To be called a "mout amassi" was far from a compliment and the nickname could follow one around for a lifetime. Adults used it on adults and children alike. Children used it on each other, often eliciting uncontrollable laughter.
I have more fond memories of how Miss Lou’s poetry reverberated throughout my youth and the many phrases that I—as well as my fellow islanders—eagerly adapted to tease as well as to assert my identity.
Many years removed from my childhood, it would take a long time before I returned to my roots. It wasn’t until I was in grad school getting my master’s in English Literature, with a focus on postcolonial literature, that I ventured beyond the poetry of the Romantics and the Harlem Renaissance. In one of my classes, Caribbean Literature, my professor further exposed me to Anglophone, Francophone, and Hispanaphone writers and poets, like: Derek Walcott, Olive Senior, Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Césaire, and Reinaldo Arenas. The lyricism of these poets — from varied backgrounds and languages — spoke to me and my cultural identity. I realized, albeit not too late, that the reason these poets resonated with me was because I had never really forgotten my roots — they just needed to be watered and restored.
Below are a few West Indian poets whose works capture and transcend their shared cultural heritage:
Derek Walcott, born in 1930, is from Saint Lucia. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992 for his epic poem, Omeros — based on Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. Walcott is currently a professor of poetry at the University of Essex.
Martin Carter (d. 1997) was a Guyanese poet, whose work came to symbolize post-colonial nationalism.
Grace Nichols was born in Guyana. Grace Nichols lives in England with the poet John Agard and their daughter Kalera. Watch her talk about one of her poems on bbc.co.uk.
John Agard was born in Guyana and currently resides in England.
Olive Senior was born in Jamaica. She currently resides in Toronto, Canada.