Kei Miller Maps His Way to Zion…

A conversation with Forward Prize Winner Kei Miller of Jamaica

Kei Miller. Photo credit: Susumba.com
Kei Miller. Photo credit: Susumba.com

Kei Miller was born in Jamaica in 1978. Kei writes across a range of genres: novels, books of short stories, essays and poetry. His poetry has been shortlisted for awards such as the Jonathan Llewelyn Ryhs Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Scottish Book of the Year. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Phyllis Wheatley Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First book and has won the Una Marson Prize. His recent book of essays won the 2014 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature (non-fiction). In 2010, the Institute of Jamaica awarded him the Silver Musgrave medal for his contributions to Literature. Kei has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Glasgow. In 2013 the Caribbean Rhodes Trust named him the Rex Nettleford Fellow in Cultural Studies. His 2014 collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, has just won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. (Adapted from note on Carcanet website–Carcanet Press being the main publisher of  Kei’s poetry)

Kei it was in Treasure Beach during the Calabash Literary Festival in June this year that you found out you had been shortlisted for Britain’s top poetry award, the Forward Prize, right? I remember your telling me about the controversy aroused by Chief Judge Jeremy Paxman’s draconian pronouncements on the state of contemporary poetry (“with bloggers ranting and poets unfriending each other on facebook “ as you said on Facebook) and his virtually calling for an inquisition of poets. At the time you were pleased just to be on the shortlist but now it turns out you’re the sole survivor–the champion–of that figurative Inquisition. Do you feel as if the moon just fell into your lap? Describe what winning the Forward Prize feels like and means to you please…

Well, it was while we were in Treasure Beach that the news became public. I had known a little bit before, and yes, I was simply pleased to be shortlisted. I actually wasn’t looking forward to the award ceremony because before that there was simply the possibility I could win, and I thought after I’d go back to simply being the person who was shortlisted. I seem to get shortlisted for things but hardly ever win, so it has come as a huge surprise and as you put it, a little like the moon has landed in my lap. I knew I had written my best poetry collection to date, but I also knew there were other really good books out there, and I didn’t know if a collection so steeped in a Jamaican soundscape could be fully heard by British ears. So it all feels like an incredible validation that if we write well enough our voices can be heard.

I have to say I completely agree with Paxman about poets needing to connect with ‘ordinary people’ more. As a youngster I loved reading poetry but gradually became alienated by the gnomic, elliptical utterances I was increasingly being offered in its name. Your A Light Song of Light was the first book of poetry that made me realize I didn’t really dislike poetry as I had started thinking, that I could and did still appreciate really good poetry I could connect with. What was your reaction when Paxman said he thought poets had more or less made themselves irrelevant? I feel the same way about much contemporary art that I see today by the way–too tight-lipped if you know what I mean–oh, you don’t wish to communicate with me? Let me not be detained any further by you then is my response. I know you disagree about communication–strictly for ad agencies and PR folk you’ve said in the past but it IS something you do well. There’s a profound empathy in your poems that pulls you in and an effortless virtuousity that detains you, enraptured. So you’ve won it already and don’t have to worry about offending anyone, tell us what you really think of Paxman’s position on poetry.

Well I always kind of agreed with Paxman and I think many poets, not only today but as far back as Wordsworth, have been saying the same thing. There was an unfortunate backlash that seemed to me to say, how dare a non-poet talk about our world and our craft, which pretty much proved his point. I think each poem ought to consider very deeply its reader and what it is offering that reader. Too many poems, I think, seem to be more conscious about what they withhold rather than what they reveal. The thing about communication is probably just semantics, because I think we’re saying almost the same thing. I don’t like the word ‘communicate’ because it’s too wrapped up in the idea of a simple and reducible message, and I think what a poem transmits is a lot more than that, a lot more complex. But that the poem ought to be generous, that it ought to consider and give to its reader – these are things I’m fully on board with.

When did you first start writing and did you start with poetry? A lot of people think that you came out of the Wayne Brown writing workshops in Kingston but you didn’t did you? Was there a literary community that nurtured your interest in writing or was it something you just developed on your own?

I don’t know if it’s possible to develop on your own, but those communities were quite various. No, I didn’t attend Wayne Brown’s workshops regularly though I dropped into a couple of their end of year sessions. But the space that Wayne created in the Observer Arts supplement was one of the most important spaces in which I was allowed to develop as a writer. So Wayne was massively important – not as a tutor but as an editor who created space for writers. Mervyn Morris was much more important to my beginnings as a poet. I did his poetry workshop as an undergraduate student at UWI and at a time when I only saw myself as a prose writer. But there were online communities as well – place at Alsop Review called the Gazebo that had both the kindest and the most vicious critics I’ve ever encountered. It was nurturing and rigorous and I grew a lot there – my standards became much higher.

cartographer

One of the remarkable things about you is that you’re a multigenre writer, if that’s the right term. You’ve written novels, poetry and most recently a book of essays. I remember a conversation in which you said you thought you were increasingly finding non-fiction a more interesting medium than any other, am i remembering correctly? You also write about art, don’t you? Could you talk more about your forays into non-fiction? Did this develop out of your blog Under the Saltire Flag?

The blog is certainly a space where I try out a lot of my ideas and sometimes develop them, but I’m not sure where my interest in non-fiction came from or how it grew. I know that it’s a genre that seems incredibly full of possibilities – a place where I can use all my skills as a poet and a fiction writer at the same time. But also, where a good poem might impress you most deeply for its lyricism and a good story might impress you most by its narrative, a good essay always impresses me most for its intelligence. I leave a good essay thinking, what an incredible mind this writer has! And to be able to think that clearly, with that much sophistication, and to be able to allow others to think through things like that – it seems to me an especially high calling, something I always want to aspire to. But something about the sensibilities of these various genres keep on spilling over into each other. I think it used to be obvious in my fiction that I wrote poetry as well, and in this new collection of poems it’s probably quite obvious that I’ve been writing essays.

Did you follow the recent fuss about Shonda Rhimes, the woman behind a string of US TV success stories such as Scandal and Gray’s Anatomy, who was described as ‘an angry black woman’ by a New York Times writer despite the fact that she chooses not to view herself or race in such polarized terms? That whole controversy reminded me so much of your encounter with some postcolonial African academics who tried to interview you a few years ago but assumed you shared their sentiments and worldview. “I’m sorry I cannot be your angry black poet” was what you wished you had replied, apologizing for the fact that you were comfortable in your own black skin. Can you talk a little more about this refusal of an all too familiar role? It’s not unlike Jamaican poet Mervyn Morris’s refusal to be a cookie cutter ‘revolutionary’ or leftwing poet several decades ago.

I wonder if that’s natural, I mean – for an artist to resist the boxes we try to peg them in. It’s an occupational tick to live in fear of clichés, and also I live in fear of a kind of self-indulgent earnestness. Maybe that’s because, deep down, I think I’m susceptible to that sort of thing, so I have to resist it. But I’ve never felt like a particularly angry writer, which obviously doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot that doesn’t concern me, and neither does it mean that I’m not a deeply political writer. But there are other tools I think we can use to explore and unpick the many things that are so wrong about the world we live in today – humour for instance. Humour is always there in anything I write and we discredit humour too easily as not having heft, as being trivial, but I don’t think it is at all.

Marlon James, Kei Miller, London Underground, October 2014. Photo: Morgan Everett
Marlon James, Kei Miller, London Underground, October 2014. Photo: Morgan Everett

This is such an incredible moment for writing in Jamaica what with you winning the Forward Prize, and back in the US Marlon James meteoric streak across the literary firmament with his new novel A Brief History of 7 Killings. How does this make you feel?  How long have you known Marlon? When did you first become aware of each other? You seem to enjoy a friendly rivalry with him–I’m remembering your Facebook jousts about being invited to an event in Switzerland because Marlon the original invitee had dropped out and you joked that the organizers turned to you “to fill their quota of One youngish dreadlocked Jamaican writer”; then there’s your defence of ‘Maas Joe’, the rural caricature whom Marlon dismissed in his keynote address at the 2013 Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference. I agreed completely with Marlon by the way, what he was criticizing was the stock rural Caribbean character often found populating mediocre stories and not a particular individual who may happen to live in the country and ride a donkey. It was the hackneyed representation of such individuals he was deriding. It’s not just about cosmopolitanism versus local or ‘fi wi maas joe’ but about a romanticization of rural poverty over urban blight–a kind of simple-minded belief that the ‘folk’ are not to be found in urban ghettoes, only in verdant pastoral villages.

If what I have with Marlon is a rivalry, then I wish all rivalries would be like that. We obviously like each other. We’re friends. It’s true that not all my interaction or relationships with Caribbean writers in my generation feel as healthy. Some of them – the things people say – are downright petty and vindictive. But in that I have a Caribbean Granny’s approach: I leave them to god. But with Marlon, you know, I think it’s just exciting to be writing at the same time that he’s writing. Probably in both of us is this excitement that we want to do something in literature that hasn’t been done yet. I don’t know if you know this, but our backgrounds are scarily similar – we went to the same high school (not at the same time), then we went to UWI to study literature and were both influenced by similar books; we both went into advertising; we were both part of the same charismatic Christian circles which we eventually stepped away from. Perhaps the profound difference is that Marlon’s instinct is to transform the material he gets into a kind of darkness, and my instinct is to transform it into a kind of light.

Kei Miller, Deborah Anzinger...
The ever mischievous Kei Miller with Deborah Anzinger of New Local Space (NLS) Photo: Annie Paul

You mentioned our Maas Joe argument, and maybe that’s something that I will continue to disagree with both you and Marlon about. I used to feel the way you do, but the more I think about it is the more I simply don’t know the books you’re talking about. I’m not saying people don’t probably write such books, but when has such a book ever been valorized or held up as great Caribbean Literature? I don’t know any such examples. It seems like a myth to me. Look – literature is something that is created twice. It’s created when the writer writes it, but more profoundly it’s created when the reader reads it, and perhaps we have to ask – how are Caribbean novels being taught? How are they being read? Because I suspect the folk romanticization you’re talking about happens then. I think of a writer like Olive Senior whose settings are as idyllic and rural as you can get – but in Summer Lightning, a little boy is raped by a man who visits the village; in Claude McKay’s books, goats are raped; in Erna Brodber characters migrate and return and have huge psychotic breakdowns, and in the novels of Orlando Patterson or Roger Mais, the folk are very much in the heart of urban blight where the most violent things happen to them. So where is this romantic treatment we love to criticize. When I actually think about Caribbean literature the folk presented are always wrestling with a violent and complicated modernity that is thrust on them. Even in the poetry of Louise Bennett (which is where my argument with Marlon began long before – he tends to dismiss her), if you don’t read the sometimes brutal critique that she levies against the folk, then you’re simply misreading her.

So to repeat the easy argument that the folk has been romanticised in Caribbean Literature seems simply wrong to me, and represents a kind of anxiety to appear sophisticated, savvy, and yes – cosmopolitan, but it reinscribes a terrible, terrible misreading of the literature. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll stop there.

Finally, you recently moved from Glasgow where you taught for several years to London. How are you finding the shift? What are your writing plans for the coming year or two?

Moving from Glasgow to London feels a little bit like moving back to the Caribbean. My first morning here I woke up to two voices arguing under the window and all manner of ‘clawt’ was traded in this verbal altercation. And those sounds for me are a kind of healing. I’m enjoying it so far. As you know, I’m always writing something, and there are several ideas (non-fiction and fiction) percolating in my head, and I’ll write them as they come, but I don’t want to say too much and jinx myself.

Author: Annie Paul

writer, editor and avid tweeter anniepaulose@gmail.com

4 thoughts on “Kei Miller Maps His Way to Zion…”

  1. Love the dark/light MABRAK of Marlon and Kei. An interesting ting for me is the niceties/differences of being a black c’bbean/Jamdown writer in America VS England. I think there are important distinctions that have some bearing on the type of writing produced.

    And agree with Kei on Maas Joe issue. Marlon’s new book can find its ancestors in Orlando Patterson and Mais and elsewhere. Perhaps even Brathwaite’s ‘I’m a XXXX Negro man!’

    I am sceptical about Kei’s ” incredible validation that if we write well enough our voices can be heard.” But oh well—- mi gaan into early retirement about thinkin bout dem tings too hard.

    Loved the interview Annie.

    1. Hey Vlad, thanks for leaving a comment, really glad you you liked the iv…yes the dark/light thing was interesting…though as a friend said on fbk he thought Marlon was more casting light on the darkness in Ja…

      interesting observation re Patterson, might fit where cosmopolitanism is concerned but you simply can’t insert Brief History into a ‘cosmopolitan’ slot exclusively…what he’s done is animate the local in ways that travel across all sorts of barriers…i think…

      and i hear you on writing well enough that our voices can be heard. i also felt a twinge at that…if i could send Kei follow up questions i would probe him on that.

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