John Robert Lee: common human experiences

“Poetry is a literary/language art form that attempts, with precision, to apprehend and record with truth (to the subject), beauty (no matter the subject) and harmony of composition, the writer’s perceptions of human experience, as received through our physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual bodies.”

John Robert Lee, Saint Lucian writer:

Author of Pierrot (Peepal Tree, 2020)

Pierrot is a collection of poems that covers a linked range of subjects that includes the death of literary figures, tributes to writers, responses to Caribbean art, aging, faith, love, politics, culture. Readers will have to decide how this book’s themes are important to them.

The title Pierrot was inspired by the art of Shallon Fadlien, Saint Lucian painter. That particular piece provides the cover art. The Pierrot personality in the poems is a composite of the Trinidad carnival character of Pierrot, the later Pierrot Grenade, verbose Midnight Robber, Saint Lucian New Year masqueraders and is also a Christ figure, the Man of sorrows.

I started this collection about 2017, the year my Collected Poems 1975-2015 was published by Peepal Tree. I usually write steadily as I build up a new collection. No particular highs or lows to report. I have themes in mind as I go along. Essentially, deep down, the poems are all linked, if not obviously. Always good to be completed and then published. This is my third book with Peepal Tree. My editor there is Jeremy Poynting with whom I work well.

Ideally, we Caribbean writers hope our own people, home island and wider region, would read and appreciate what we write. Our themes, images, characters, narratives are Caribbean and we hope our first appreciative audience would be home folk. But we also hope our work – poems, novels, non-fiction – would find an appreciative audience beyond our shores and cultures.

I write of topics and subjects that relate to our common human experiences – life, love, aging, death, politics etc. I try to do this well with all the skills I have accumulated over many years. And I would hope that my poems would find resonance with those who share these common experiences.

Arielle (1966-2020)

“who tip toed into her own beauty like flowers” (Vladimir Lucien)

arrange your griefs, carefully

with white roses

alongside wreaths & yellow lilies —

her glancing grace, elusive

 penetrating, languid gaze, untranslatable

smile at her lips’ corners, beauty —

the child’s purple balloon rises

above scrape of trowels, hymns

pleading for remembrance, like a tear not planned for

dribbling off the overcast cheek of a drizzling sky.

While Perrot touches on the Black Life Matter issues, my newer work in progress, does reference the Covid times and BLM. These things have impacted so one cannot avoid them. As a black Caribbean man, with black children who live in the UK and US, I am concerned about perennial racism and the dangers to us non-white peoples.

Covid has not impacted me directly, but I follow as best as I can all the recommended protocols. I have received the first dose of the vaccine. Certainly, for us in small islands, so dependent on tourism, Covid has had huge economic impact on us all. It has exposed our vulnerabilities, both internal and external.

As writers, we cannot physically meet for readings and launches. But a whole virtual, online world has opened up with many opportunities for meeting other writers and artists, to share work. And of course to publish online. And to do interviews like this.

Apart from my creative work in poetry and short fiction, I also write reviews and related arts and literature articles. So I am always reading – new and older literature and related materials. I am working on a new poetry collection, tentatively titled Belmont Portfolio. The title poem is dedicated to novelist Earl Lovelace.

Collage

-for Ann-Margaret Lim

“To the saints who are in Ephesus..” (Ephesians 1:1)

Gospelling yellow-breasts among avocado blossoms,

butterflies cavorting round the Rose of Sharon

a clean white flower in the morning

tinged at noon with pink changings,

hummingbirds probing under grapefruit,

hens and chicks foraging brown fallen leaves,

children on this Sabbath chanting hymns from their verandah,

and palm tree like a winged angel under the blue, sparse-cloud sky —

who would think

that pestilence is ravaging our world?

No safe zone on continent or island,

regular routines locked-down,

family, friends, lovers masked, distanced,

networks obsessed with flattening curves, death statistics,

churches and mosques closed, except for fanatics,

beaches, bars, brothels shut, except for skeptics

or those who want normal here, now,

and there are us crowding long lines outside shops —

who wrote the script

who configured this incredible dystopia?

Skies are clearing over megalopolitans everywhere

Himalayas in view after decades

I hear canals in Venice and Amsterdam are clean these days;

in neighborhoods under curfew,

wood-doves, various warblers clock quick-passing hours,

crickets, breezes soughing through leaves, are the night sounds,

no backfiring bikes or late-night dj’s. Judgement is dropping abroad

from our mouths, our hands —

what unbelievable drama is rolling out behind the scenes,

Who is moving, Ephesians, to centre-stage of this cosmic scenario?

My writing process is: Ideas come. I think about them. Plan how to write about it, in terms of content and form. Research where needed. Aim for truth (to the theme), beauty (regarding form), harmony (overall composition). While I make handwritten notes, I now compose entirely on the computer. Then I do several versions of editing, until I arrive at the final piece. After that, even after some publication in a journal, I would fine tune.  Further edits come when my book editor begins to work on the ms.

My aspirations as a write is to write well. Be an accomplished writer in terms of writing skill. Leave behind work that reflects thought and true insights. And work that can reach readers anywhere in the world.I am a faith person, so like the makers of ikons, prayer and deep spiritual preparation informs my writing and all that goes into it.

for Anthony ‘Cocky’ JnBaptiste, drummer (1964–2021)

on this first afternoon of your last April

a furtive sadness plays the fool

with my masked & distanced feelings

as news of your death sounds out

like an insistent knuckling of a kenté drum

through the indifferent sunlit April of your last afternoon —

(this April   masquerade prancers   moko jumbies

goatskin drummers   are not allowed   to dance   your last   parade)

For more information on John Robert Lee:

www.mahanaimnotes.blogspot.comFacebook: @Thejohnrobertleeauthorpage; Instagram: @caribbeanwriter
Twitter: @Rlee_fan

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