“If you give young people an opportunity to speak, to say what they feel, it is less likely they will resort to violence, and poetry helps people to get their feelings out in a positive manner.”
These were the words of Barbados’ first Poet Laureate, Esther Phillips, as she shared her experiences with Bajan Vibes following a reading of her works to a group of Literature in English students at the Barbados Community College (BCC).
Phillips, who taught at BCC for many years, eventually becoming the Head of the Liberal Arts Division, was also among the first group of students when the college opened its doors in 1969. She recalled, “the campus was based at Sherbourne, where the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre is now. Back then it was an old plantation house. I would say it was an exciting experience; there weren’t very many of us – at most I would say between 50-80 students – but staff and students were very close. The Liberal Arts subjects were taught at Sherbourne, and the Technology Division was down by the harbour.”
When asked how and when she recognized her gift, Phillips stated, “It’s difficult to say when I got into poetry writing. I always liked words… language… I found it was a way in which I could express myself. My first work was published in Bim magazine in 1970, and to me it is a natural form of expression.”
In February this year, Phillips was appointed to the Poet Laureate position, and outlined to Bajan Vibes exactly what that role meant.
“The Poet Laureate is seen as someone who can represent the country in terms of writing poetry for specific formal occasions. I haven’t been asked to do that yet, but I was given instruments of appointment; it is put down in writing what I should do. I am to present one full length poetic work each year; to represent the island locally and internationally in writing, to create an archive based on the works I have done during the three-year period of appointment. And to encourage, as far as possible, an environment that will create and inspire an interest in poetry, which is part of my reason for being with these students this morning.”
She said candidates were selected “based on their ability to write, their involvement with poetry over a period of years, the number of publications they have had, and I would say levels of success in the field in terms of awards and recognition at home and abroad”.
The long time writer, who has published several collections of her work over the years, shared her thoughts on the emotional reactions poetry evoked in listeners, and how it could bring emotionally disturbed people to a place of healing.
“It is a way of creating empathy, and we do not have enough of that. For example, I just read my poem Absent Father. I can read the emotions going on; just now a student came to me in tears, and one or two students left while I read it. Another young lady came to me to talk about her situation; I didn’t want her to break down in front of me so I took her number to chat with her later. Even though my poetry is based on my personal experiences, there is always somebody else who may be in that same emotional space.”
Referring to the recent decision the Ministry of Education to change the acronym “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) to “STEAM” (where it incorporates the arts), Phillips commended it, stating that “when I studied at the University of Miami, they were including Arts students in their Technology programmes, because they recognised that even if you are building a robot, you still have to understand how humans react to make it meaningful.”
The Poet Laureate said, “we can create poetry from any experience around us. Everyone has a story, but I find we have become too cold and callous in our society and if we could make some inroads into opening people’s sensitivities it could make a world of difference.” (DH)