For the Reckord | Poets on islandwide tour 'to make a change'
Malachi Smith knows firsthand both the ugly, destructive side of humanity, and the creative beauty of the arts. That's because the former policeman (in Jamaica and Florida) is now a full-time activist and poet.
Disgusted, he says, with the crime and violence infecting much of Jamaica, he is intent on using poetry to make a change.
"With the number of illegal guns and violence around, and murders all over the place, we have become the wretched of the earth," he told an audience on Monday evening at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. "But we're poets speaking truth, and with or without sponsors, we're going to light a fire in Jamaica and make a positive change," he added.
He was giving an introduction to a performance-poetry session by a group of Jamaican poets he had assembled. Earlier in the day, the group had started out on what Smith hopes will be an annual islandwide tour of schools and colleges.
He told me that the group had visited Kingston Technical High School and The Mico University College, where the presentations were particularly well received. The group was scheduled to head for Montego Bay yesterday for three performances at Mount Alvernia High School, Cornwall College, and Sam Sharpe Teachers' College. Today, they will be in St Elizabeth at the parish's technical high school (STETHS), Hampton High School and Munro College. There could also be appearances in Manchester, Clarendon (at Glenmuir High School), and St Catherine.
The tour ends in Kingston on November 14, when the group performs at the University of Technology, at the YWCA, and the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.
The UWI poets
Eight poets appeared at the UWI - Wise Wurds, Antonia Valarie, Richie Innocent, Dr Susan Davis, Judith Falloon-Reid, Cherry Natural, Tomlin Ellis and Smith. Only some would perform at all the venues, but the plan was for the core group to be strengthened at each stop by poets from the area.
A major obstacle to travelling with everybody, he said, was a complete lack of sponsorship. "I have to be taking money from my pocket," he told The Gleaner.
The first performer at UWI was Wise Wurds. Delivering his original poems with a passion and energy that was later evident in all the other poets, he started off with The Ailing Dollar, then moved into Are We Free Yet (about oppressive forces in the society and the need for self-reliance), then on to Tek It Back (in which he refuses the British government's offer of money to build a prison in Jamaica).
Valarie praised Jamaica with Out Of Many One People, reflected on her love and admiration for her mother in her second poem, and told us a bit of her early life of poverty - sleeping on a bed with four others, in a place where she said, "killing was necessary for survival".
Richie Innocence also inveighed against societal ills, lamenting the passing of the old days where there was greater respect for elders. In horrified disbelief, he spoke of hearing a song by a popular new deejay being repeatedly played at a function he attended, though it included a line about "bussing a shot ina yu girl fren head". His poem, Monster, was a tirade against the singer.
A veteran dub poet, Natural said her aim in writing was "to connect wid people", and connect she did as her poems received a thunderous applause. College professor Davis, who, Smith said flew to Jamaica from Florida on her own to be a part of the tour, told the audience that she was British by birth, Jamaican by choice, and worked in the United States. Her aim was "to entertain, educate and elevate".
Smith introduced Falloon-Reid as "a fantastic actress, film-maker, writer and director." Her first poem, I Bleed, was about a girl who was raped, and she went on to read others about social problems, like racial prejudice in America and the proliferation of garbage in Montego Bay. A personal piece was Padded Walls - about mental illness.
Tomlin Ellis, another veteran poet, started off, ironically, with No Poems Tonight. There was too much pain and stress at the time, he explained. Smith's varied poems addressed both world problems, and celebrated the joys of Christmas in Jamaica and the beauty of the female form.
Questioned about their reasons for writing, the poets had varied responses, but all seemed to agree with Falloon-Reid's declaration, "I write because I have to, otherwise I'd explode."