Castellani House has a very distinguished history. It was named after an architect from colonial times who was a quintessential artist, leaving his exceptional marks of distinction as monuments in Guyana’s history and architecture. Castellani House will survive and ensure that the famous designer’s name survives along with Guyanese art. Perhaps it is more accurate to say ephemeral monuments, unlikely as that oxymoron might sound, since one cannot say the same for all his magnificent buildings. The still imposing and once dignified New Amsterdam Hospital is being allowed to swiftly decompose and will soon be reduced to disjecta membra and ‘the ruins of a great house.’ But the institution which bears his name was established to ensure the future of the nation’s artistic heritage.
It has been doing that with distinction for some fifteen years. The building itself was once the ‘kykoveral’ of the beauty of Georgetown, viz, the Botanical Gardens, and has been the home of royal botanists, scientists, colonial administrators and national prime ministers. It is now the home of art, founded in 1993 to give nomadic art a domicile as the official residence of the National Gallery and the National Collection. It serves beyond the call of that mandate, and has been the venue as well as the innovator of several cultural activities well beyond the fine arts, emphatically ensuring the survival of literature.
The most recent event hosted by the National Gallery of Art was ‘An Evening of Prose, Poetry and Music’ which was really a programme ‘Celebrating the Life and Work of Martin Carter.’ It was designed by Curator Elfrieda Bissember and attended by Chairman of the Gallery, former President Janet Jagan, member of the Board, architect Albert Rodrigues, and Mrs Phyllis Carter. This celebration of Carter has become a regular feature and on December 17, helped to preserve the life of his work close to the anniversary of his death (December 13, 1997). The programme took place at a significant time. The life history of the poet is punctuated by times when this very survival seemed threatened. Although his first book of poems, which brought him to prominence, was published in London in 1994 there were times when his work was out of print and not very accessible. He chose to remain at home throughout his life and his international exposure and recognition were limited. These accelerated in the 1990s, however, and at present there are several books of his verse, including translations into Spanish and Hindi, and of critical comments on it.
This most recent Castellani House programme was moderated by Miss Bissember with an introduction by Al Creighton and selections read by various personalities. They were consultant and former UG lecturer Vanda Radzik; Head of Language and Cultural Studies at UG Alim Hosein; literary activist and columnist Petamber Persaud; dramatist, actress and consultant Grace Chapman; writer, administrator and editor Ian McDonald; Martin Carter’s son Keith Carter and his daughter Maria Carter, grand-daughter of the poet. The music was by Elisha Adams and Derrick Callender.
This further celebration of Carter’s life and work was another demonstration of the strength and enduring quality of the poetry which engages in and lends itself to a never-ending engagement. Some participants read those selections of his work that bear special meaning for them. In addition to the readings, the comments which often prefaced them amounted to a virtual dialogue with the poet, with his poems as well as dialogue by the participants with each other. It was as if Martin Carter was being interviewed because of the quotations and references to his views and comments about poetry. This started with members of the poet’s family, Maria and Keith, who quoted what amounted to Carter’s statement about what makes good poetry: dedicated hard work in the articulation of passions truly felt. Both Keith Carter and Ian McDonald compared this to definitions of poetry offered by William Wordsworth (in his preface to Lyrical Ballads). This includes what is contained in the poem ‘They Say I Am’ in which Carter writes “they say I am a poet, write for them” but explains why “poets cannot write for those who ask.” This is because poems are written only “for the dying or the unborn” and those who want true poems “must be born again, and die to do so.”
The dialogue sometimes touched on the further reaches of Carter’s poetry and prose, including the inspiring effect it could have on others. Petamber Persaud mentioned the translation of Carter into Hindi and there is a publication in Hindi with this work. He also introduced Carter’s prose tributes to other writers such as a piece on Edgar Mittelholzer at the time of his death. Mittelholzer, who would have turned 100 in 2009, was born in December. Carter’s prose, which was collected by Nigel Westmaas and published in Kyk-Over-Al’s Martin Carter Prose Sampler was the subject of other commentary. Most of these pieces were published in Thunder, an organ of the PPP for which Carter wrote for a number of years.
The prose writing highlighted by Alim Hosein, however, was not any of those on politics, public affairs or other commentary, but short stories. Hosein referred to an interview conducted by Bill Carr in Release in 1978, published by Rayman Mandal. Carter’s response to Carr’s question about whether he was ever tempted to write fiction is typical of him. He tells Carr that he has indeed thought of it, but that he was too indisciplined to write a novel. He always thinks, he explains, in metaphors, and goes on to say three lines of poetry is equal to a whole book. Hosein identified two short stories which indicated that the poet did succumb to the temptation. One of them is about Maccabee, a fisherman who goes fishing at night, burdened with a past. As he catches a large and powerful creature, whom he never saw, in his seine, his mysterious past comes back in images and a crippling pain which consume him. It is, indeed, an intense piece wrought in metaphors.
The poems selected, the anecdotes, the comments made, all attempted to capture the private life and the public presence of the man described in erroneous fashion as a political poet. Vanda Radzik quoted from her preface to the Red Thread publication of Selected Poems in which Carter, impatiently, according to Radzik, responds to Frank Birbalsingh’s question about his political poetry. The poet explains in the interview that he no longer saw politics as over-riding, even though he still acknowledges its great importance. He recognizes the vital elements of the private and the political which must always be taken together. “It is always something and something else; both together”. The poem ‘Conjunction’ deals with this important joining and inter-relatedness of things so organic to Carter’s work.
Musician Deryck Bernard set Carter’s poems to music and the compositions have been performed. But there are two pieces of theatre inspired by the poet’s work which are memorable and outstanding in their quality and impact. They demonstrate the potential of performance in poetry. One is the choreography by Vivienne Daniel to Carter’s ‘Poems of Shape and Motion’ danced by the National Dance Company. It is one of the crown jewels of their repertoire, a piece of depth and power. The other was performed by Grace Chapman, a Guyanese playwright and actress now working overseas on projects in early childhood education. Chapman has deeply studied ‘I Come from the Nigger Yard’ and interpreted it in a dramatic monologue and choreography in a manner never seen or heard before. It is riveting, moving, and exceedingly sensitive, thoroughly discovering every minute change of mood, every image, however fleetingly mentioned. The ‘Nigger Yard’ is perhaps Carter’s most frequently performed poem, but one has grown tired of seeing it done badly, insensitively, and superficially.
Carter’s narrator in ‘I Come from the Nigger Yard’ is not a loud, aggressive, angry black man shouting his dispossession at the audience as he is too often portrayed. Yes, he does resist “the oppressor’s hate” and he is a creature of an environment. But he is a thinking, observant, strangely very informed, individual, sensitive to every minute detail in the environment around him, who responds to experience and emotion, and who has an interesting story to tell. But you might never discover this until you have seen Grace Chapman’s performance.