World Poetry Day: The preservation of oral art

Arts on Sunday

While Anansi stories are dominant in the folk tales of the Caribbean, they were also a favourite in the storytelling tradition when it was a popular past-time in the region. That entertainment practice is now moribund. Under threat to follow that path is Balgobin who was the subject of the offering by Petamber Persaud, but already disappeared is Ole Man Pappie. This colourful rural character was recreated by Michael Khan of the UG Division of Creative Arts.  Khan appeared as Ole Man Pappie accompanied by Natasha Azeez as the folk song character Sitaira

Guyana joined the world community last week in observing World Poetry Day with an evening of international, regional and Guyanese poetry. That event was hosted by Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport Dr Frank Anthony (March 26) and followed a similar production on March 20 to observe World Storytelling Day.

Last week in our account of the storytelling occasion, we set out to honour two of the objectives of World Storytelling Day, viz, to revitalise and preserve the tradition of storytelling and to highlight the story of a people. We focused on one Guyanese tradition that is threatened with extinction – the Balgobin Tales.

This week’s intention is to briefly put Poetry Day in context and then give more detailed attention to the actual presentation of stories on the Storytelling Day production.

The origins, history and background of both observances are incompletely and mostly sketchily documented. An attempt to set these down comprehensively was made in this column on March 21, 2010.

More is known about World Poetry Day, which has a longer history and has been better organised than World Story-telling Day. It was officially established by a UNESCO declaration in 1999 and had its first unified observation across the world on March 21, 2000. But it had existed for several decades before that, albeit in a sketchy and uncoordinated fashion. One source credits Tessa Sweezy Webb of Ohio, USA with starting it in 1936, when she began honouring poets of Ohio every year in October. The idea caught on and was observed in 41 different countries by 1951 on October 15 annually. Other sources give the date as October 5.

20100905artsonsundayOctober 15 prevailed as the preferred date right up to the 1990s and another source explains that this happened because it is Virgil’s birthday. Publius Vergilius Maro, known to all as Virgil (Oct 15, 70 BC – Sept 21, 19 BC) was Poet Laureate to Augustus Caesar in Rome during the great heights of classical poetry. Reckoned among the most celebrated and influential poets, he was much imitated and engaged by other poets in the long Renaissance period. He was Dante’s guide and inspiration on his journey through The Inferno, and Bernard Shaw took one of his well known titles from Virgil’s lines Arms and the Man.

Publius Vergilius Maro
Publius Vergilius Maro

Trinidadian poet Anson Gonzales is credited with initiating much of the annual observances in the Caribbean, starting with a famous event at the Normandy Hotel in Port of Spain, a favourite and immortalised haunt of Derek Walcott, on October 15, 1979. It was taken up by the University of Guyana at the beginning of the 1990s with public readings by poets first at the Theatre Guild, then at the Russian Embassy. UG then changed this to readings by High Commissioners and Ambassadors presenting poems from their respective countries at the National Cultural Centre. After a while this annual programme was taken over by the Association of Guyanese Writers and Artists (AGWA) led by Roopnandan Singh on the UG Turkeyen Campus, then at the Umana Yana when the AGWA joined with the Ministry of Culture to host the event.

When UNESCO took up the matter in 1999, March 21 was the declared date and it is not known why it was changed from October 15. Other high level international fora were held in attempts to strengthen world recognition and observance. Meetings under the theme ‘Dialogue Among Civilisations’ were held at United Nations Headquarters in New York in March 2001. Coming out of this was the additional emphasis on National Poetry Day – a day fixed annually when individual countries will feature their national poetry. Dates vary from nation to nation. Prominent among these countries was Great Britain whose Day is October 8, and in 2009, British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy was commissioned to write a poem for the occasion. She produced “Atlas”.

As in the case of the different national poems, the stories performed on World Storytelling Day 2013 in Georgetown truly highlighted the culture and experiences of different peoples.
These varied from folk tales, oral literature, the storytelling traditions to the literary heritage of nations in the scribal traditions. World Storytelling Day strives to perpetuate the art of oral storytelling and this was integral to what happened in the first recorded national Day in Sweden.

Very significantly, the organisation of an annual Storytelling Festival in Bridgetown, Barba-dos in the early 1990s deepened this art in the desired way although it had nothing at all to do with what was happening in Scandinavia. But it was taking place around the same time that this observance was founded in Sweden. Such artists as Ken Corsbie and Stanley Greaves were leaders in this annual international performance at the Central Bank Auditorium, which presented The Earthworks Awards to leading performers.

This emphasis on performance was a prominent feature in the Ministry of Culture’s event in Georgetown. Without any prearrangement almost all the presenters had a pronounced sense of performance of an oral art even when they were reading narratives belonging to literary genres produced by various national writers.

Students of the National School of Drama actually staged a performance directed by Tutor in Acting, Godfrey Naughton.
Their presentation was exemplary in this regard since it was a refashioning of the story of Makantali. This has its origins as one of Guyana’s porkknocker stories arising from a tradition of the experiences of an occupation, which generated its own mythology and characters that became legendary to create a corpus of tales.

The drama students drew from a play by Harold Bascom and the tradition to dramatise the story of Makantali, showing the theatrical qualities of a storytelling tradition.
Likewise, UG students of Oral Literature presented tales that had been collected in the field. Rosalie Seepaul and Chandrani Brijlall demonstrated mythology created by the living experience of peoples such as the personal testimonies of supernatural beliefs, the creation myths, the trickster tradition and moral tales, which abound in the folk traditions.

However, those who were reading stories from the written literature needed no prompting from the dramatists or the re-counters of folklore to demonstrate theatrical qualities. The Americans selected from works of fiction led by some of the great writers of American literature such as Edgar Allan Poe. Suemayah Abu-Douleh of the US Embassy read The Tell-Tale Heart one of Poe’s classics of drama, popularly categorised as “horror” but which is a deep tale of conscience, retribution, the grotesque and the troubled imagination. This may be linked to US Public Affairs Officer Tabatha Fairclough’s choice of The Lady and the Tiger by Frank Stockton. This also took the audience into the dark corridors of Poe which interrogate the hidden horrific recesses of the mind in a story of suspense. These were examples of the craft and drama of a nation’s writers.

That was certainly continued in the even more dramatic reading by Canadian High Commissioner David Devine of Stephen Leacock’s My Financial Career.  This highlighted the high art of the humorist. Leacock’s short fiction touches on the absurd in the ironic and farcical insecurities of his protagonist. Again, this was a demonstration of the craft of Canadian fiction in the literary tradition of humour, which so abounds in the oral tradition of storytelling. The sharpness of this was also illustrated in the short fiction of other cultures, namely those read by Russian Second Secretary Peter Sizov and Mexican Ambassador Francisco Olguin Uribe.

The most visited source of stories, however, was the great corpus of Amerindian tales. There is quite a bit of variety within that heritage and many different places from which they were drawn.

The Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, which is itself a keeper of this heritage, was represented by Shebana Daniels who read Amerindian folktales from the Caribbean. One of her sources might well have been the collection by Dorothy Bland St Aubin, a prolific collector who published edited versions of them in a special Calendar by Demerara Mutual in Trinidad in 2005. Most of the tales read were creation myths and other myths of origin such as How Fruit Trees Came Into Being read by Alim Hosein of the University of Guyana. This was taken from those documented by Walter Roth himself after whom the museum was named.  From the store of legends, another prevalent type within the Amerindian corpus, came the story of the demi-god Amalivaca, which was retold by novelist Jan Carew in The Coming of Amalivaca published by the Guyana Book Foundation and read in this programme by Vanda Radzik.

But among the most common and popular type of folk tales across the Caribbean are those belonging to the trickster tradition, and in particular, the Anansi corpus. These abound in the field but have also been composed. Two Caricom representatives read Anansi stories – Riane de Haas-Bledoeg read Anansi and the Barrel as told by Johan Ferrier while Konyo Addo presented a selection from Jamaica.

While Anansi stories are dominant in the folk tales of the Caribbean, they were also a favourite in the storytelling tradition when it was a popular past-time in the region. That entertainment practice is now moribund. Under threat to follow that path is Balgobin who was the subject of the offering by Petamber Persaud, but already disappeared is Ole Man Pappie. This colourful rural character was recreated by Michael Khan of the UG Division of Creative Arts.  Khan appeared as Ole Man Pappie accompanied by Natasha Azeez as the folk song character Sitaira.

This was a full dramatisation polishing off the theatrical character of the production coordinated by Nadine Madho of the Department of Culture and chaired by Russell Lancaster. This recreation of the character in his environment was well in keeping with what World Storytelling Day and World Poetry Day seek to achieve: the preservation of the oral arts and the appreciation of poetry throughout the world.

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