I consider Barbadian poet/historian Edward Kamau Brathwaite the greatest living poet in the western hemisphere. Period. In the early eighties I did a brief interview with Brathwaite.
KALAMU YA SALAAM: What are you trying to do with your poetry now?
KAMAU BRATHWAITE: My poetry has been concerned, for a long time now, with the attempt to reconstruct, in verse, in metric and in rhythms, the nature of the culture of the people of the Caribbean. This involves not only discovering what I would call “new poetic forms” — a breakaway from the English pentameter — but also, and more importantly, discovering the nature of our folk culture, the myths, the legends, the speech rhythms, the way we express ourselves in words, the way we express ourselves in song. That has been my concern for about ten years and is increasingly so. One has to develop technical resources of a very complex nature and at the same time one has to get an increasing knowledge of who our people are, where they come from and the nature of their soul.
SALAAM: What’s so important about that?
BRATHWAITE: Well, what’s important is that until we can do that we remain “ex-selves,” we remain nobodies, we remain just imitations of those who had colonized us. Considering that the man in the street, our own people, the common man has always been himself, it is ridiculous that the artists have remained a shadow of that self. What we have to do now is to increasingly bring the artist and the people together.
SALAAM: Do you prefer working on the page or would you like to do more recordings?
BRATHWAITE: Both. I wouldn’t separate them. My poems start off as rhythms in my head, as patterns of songs which also have an objective. The patterns of songs have to say something, address themselves to some problems or go through some dialectical process. From my head they have to be transferred onto the page, because that’s how I started, but then from the page I instinctively transfer it on to song. In other words, every time I write a poem I have to either have it read or read it myself to some kind of audience before I’m satisfied that it’s a real poem. The recordings are a necessary part of the whole process.
SALAAM: What’s the importance of the audience in that process?
BRATHWAITE: The audience gives me feedback. The audience completes the circle. The audience are the people I’m writing about and for, and therefore, if they can’t understand what I’m saying it means that it might be that I’ve failed. There are some cases where I think I’m ahead of the audience but then I would know that and they would know it too, but you’ve got to start from a base that the audience and yourself agree on and move from there.
SALAAM: Who is this audience that you speak of, obviously you don’t just mean people in general?
BRATHWAITE: I start off with a Caribbean audience which is representative of the people who have been down-pressed. The audience is usually a mixed audience, moving in terms of class from college educated to middle class right up to the laboring class because that is how our society is composed.
SALAAM: What immediate reactions do you find valuable as verification and what long range reactions do you find valuable as verification?
BRATHWAITE: The immediate reactions are one of ascent or descent. You can tell from face and feeling, body movement, if you are saying the right thing. That is clear. but the long range reaction is very interesting. I’ll give you an example: I’m starting to use a lot of possession (religious) sequences in my work. Because the work is culturally accurate, instinctively when people come to it they want to perform it, they don’t just want to read it, nearly all my work in the Caribbean is done as a performance with groups. Now, a young group of actors recently came into contact with my latest poem which was essentially involved with religion, native religion, Afro-Caribbean religion. They were not themselves fully aware of what I was talking about but they could tell from the descriptions, the external aspects of the descriptions, the kinds of churches I was talking about. They went to those churches in order to experience for themselves what was happening and many of them have now become members of those churches. As artists they find themselves now being fulfilled as members of those people’s churches. I think that’s a very significant long term effect because it is really motivating people not just to talk about their culture but to become participants in its root basis. The Haitians have done it too. The Haitians are increasingly returning to vodun as a central experience. With the African person the religion is the center of the culture, therefore every artist, at some stage, must become rootedly involved in a religious complexity.
SALAAM: How do you deal with the mystification inherent in much of the religion?
BRATHWAITE: It is not mystification at all, that’s the thing about it. The religion is so natural, it is so vital, it is so socially oriented, so people oriented that there is no mysticism — mental mystification — in it al all. That is really the difference between an African oriented religion and a European one. Theirs is very mystified because they are not dealing with a living god, they’re not dealing with man in relation to god in relation to community.
SALAAM: They’re not people centered.
BRATHWAITE: Right. In the African sense the religion is medicine, it is philosophy, it is martial arts, it is everything, holistic.
SALAAM: In that sense the work you are doing is people centered work as opposed to idea centered?
BRATHWAITE: Right. As opposed to art centered work, art for art’s sake.