Geoffrey Philp Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
I admire the ways in which these poems re-imagine the life of Marcus Garvey. Writing about a historical figure seems daunting, as there is an entire life to draw from, but these poems in particular speak from the angle of identity. How did you arrive at this focus? Have you faced any obstacles in writing about a person with such a rich history?
A few years ago, Kamau Brathwaite suggested that I should write a book of poems about Marcus Garvey. At first, I resisted the idea because I was fixated on Garvey the icon and not the man. But then, quite by chance, a series of events led me to consider the possibility of writing a children’s book, so I wrote Marcus and the Amazons, which combines the lives and teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marcus Garvey. Then, I wrote a non-fiction book, The Story of Marcus Garvey, which is currently with a publisher. Because I had to think about the qualities that would make Garvey comprehensible and entertaining for children, it created a space for me to imaginatively explore Garvey's life through poetry.
What were some of the qualities you focused on in the children’s book that inspired the poems about Marcus Garvey?
Marcus Garvey not only espoused certain qualities and values, which the Coalition for the Exoneration of Marcus Garvey, (I serve as the social media manager) has incorporated into the RESPECT Garvey campaign (redemption, education, self-reliance, purpose, entrepreneurship, community, and tradition), he demonstrated them in his daily life. With the exception of entrepreneurship, these are the values that are at the heart of Marcus and the Amazons.I would also add love. In Marcus and the Amazons, the hero, Marcus Formica, rallies his nation to save Amy, his bride-to-be and future queen of the colony, from the Amazons, who have kidnapped her. In the book as in life, Garvey's love for his people and for Amy Jacques Garvey gave him the courage to organize the largest human rights campaign during one of the most segregated periods of American history.I see so many of the qualities you mention at work in these poems: Garvey searching for a sense of identity as a child, at the printing press finding his voice, and bringing a community together through tradition. I admire how the imagery used in these poems offers snapshots of Garvey’s life. Since there are more sections to the long poem than are published here, could you talk about a few more of the moments of Garvey’s life that inspired you and the ways in which you’ve included these? Letter from Marcus Garvey has fifty-one sections, and I would like to think that each offers an epiphany into Garvey's complex life. There are, however, certain sections that I hope my skill as a poet revealed the emotional truth of the situation. These sections are "30. ~J. Edgar Hoover," "31. ~James Wormley Jones, “Agent 800” and "33. ~William Edward Burghardt Du Bois," which are narrated from the point of view of Garvey's detractors.If I had to choose a favorite from the three, I'd have to choose "31. ~James Wormley Jones, “Agent 800.” This poem was very difficult to write because James Wormley Jones, an intimate of Garvey, was the first black man to be hired by the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover. I'd often wondered why Jones, a WW1 veteran who saw the horrors of serving in a segregated army and knew about the race riots of East St. Louis in 1917, could betray the only black leader at that time who had a comprehensive plan for the liberation of "Africans at home and abroad."
I noticed from your blog and bio that you are a teacher, an active member of the literary community, and a supporter of social change. Could you talk about how these areas of your life intersect with and inspire your writing?
When I was in high school, I never thought I would be a poet because all the poets I knew, Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris, and Lorna Goodison, were geniuses. And coming out of postcolonial Jamaica, I didn’t think I had what Anton Nimblett calls “permission to speak”—there are some who still believe this, but that’s another story.So, I bided my time and learned as much as I could about the craft of poetry and this naturally extended into teaching—for at the heart of poetry is the impulse to share the discovery of beauties. I became a good teacher and at the start of every semester, I asked myself three questions: What do I want my students to know? What do I want them to care about? What do I want them to do?For about twenty years, my poetry was separated from my teaching because there was nothing to do about the themes that interested me: the effects of the undeclared civil war in Jamaica during the seventies; the plight of fatherless boys in the Caribbean, and the denigration of the African presence in the Americas.Then, I wrote Marcus and the Amazons and my poetry was now wedded to praxis. For the more I read to the children of the diaspora, the more I saw the world through Garvey’s eyes. I now had something to do. I petitioned Representative Frederica Wilson for the exoneration of Marcus Garvey and she has agreed. I also started a petition to President Obama and this opened up other opportunities for me to lecture about Garvey and Pan-Africanism.Between the readings and the lectures, the poems from the book, Letter from Marcus Garvey, emerged and I give thanks that you have chosen to share a few of them with your readers.
Letter from Marcus Garvey
The old linotype, like a neglected spinster,
idled in the backroom of the printery
where I was apprenticed to my godfather
to learn the mysteries of binding
after my father disappeared into the bush.
Lifting the magazine, I worked through the night
on the escapement, dabbing oil on the levers
that squeezed matrices as easily as the ratchets
in the sugar mill chewed my grandfather’s arm.
Under the pressure of my fingers that knew
each character’s weight and plumb
I coaxed a line from the worn slug,
and breathed my first words on to the page.
Am I the only Jamaican who wants to be black?
My sisters burn their flesh pink so they won’t be black.
Sweetening their blood, my brothers prefer to gorge on English tarts,
than feast on local delicacies because that would be too black.
Yearning like school boys to be dubbed “Knights of the Empire,” we claw
each other to kneel before the King, when we should stand proud and black.
O, how we have deformed our souls, sacrificed our bodies to foreign gods
when we should have reveled in the power, grace, and beauty of being black.
There’s an old African proverb, “Until lions tell their tale, the hunter
will always be the hero.” When I tell our story, I will write it black.
35. The Tombs.
Years later, my father would try
to explain, why after shoveling dirt
for three hours in the vault of a neighbor’s
son, he’d abandoned me in an empty grave.
And no matter how much I wailed,
“Pa, the duppies are coming after me,”
he calmly chiseled the boy’s name
into the headstone and said, “I hope you
have learned to fear nothing, except God.”
Toward noon, I fell asleep with one thought:
Is this what it felt like to die so young?
To never find the meaning of your name?
When I emerged by torchlight from the tomb,
covered in dirt, I was no longer his son.