I have no idea how many read it, but following the recent Guyana Prize awards, a lady from the University of Leeds in the UK, Lori Shelbourn, herself part of the jury deciding on the awards, wrote a review of the collection of poems by Cassia Alphonso that won the Guyana Prize for Poetry 2012. The review appeared on Sunday 6 October in Al Creighton’s weekly column on the arts in Sunday Stabroek, and it can only be described as glowing. Cassia’s work in this collection – it is entitled ‘Black Cake Mix’ – is revealed as a striking venture into dialect poetry, and Shelbourn’s delight in the work is there in almost every line of the review. She quotes several excerpts from the work (it’s a fairly comprehensive presentation) and lauds several aspects of the poet’s skills that space does not permit me to reproduce here.
If my memory is accurate, the column is headed by a line from the poetry where the author is conveying the difference in appearance of one of her characters and says that the ideal is to see her in the morning before the rum takes her. At that time, says Alphonso, “she was a jewel fuh watch sparkle.” Shelbourn goes on to rave about this collection where she says Alphonso shows “a great capacity for writing lively, engaging and approachable poems that tackle big issues in an original way.” In one line she speaks of Cassia as “sending you back to the poems, once and again, with a growing sense of wonder.” I was already taken with this description of ‘Black Cake Mix,’ but I read that line twice; it told me that this young woman had clearly caught one of the elements of good poetry – that sense of wonder or revelation – that can take poets years to achieve; I simply had to get this book.
I am writing this five hours after I returned from Austin’s Book Store in town to be told no such book is available or even in the pipeline. To be sure, I asked twice. “No, we definitely don’t have that. I don’t even know the title. Is it new?” I called a person knowledgeable about the Guyana Prize to be told, “We have a manuscript, but I don’t know when you will be able to get a book of the poems.” Disappointment doesn’t begin to cover my reaction. (Ian McDonald’s ‘The Comfort of All Things,’ joint winner of the poetry award, is available, but Cassia’s unpublished work is not.)
On the matter of the individuals involved in the operation of the Guyana Prize, I am virtually ignorant. That does not matter. Regardless of who is engaged in that body, I am taking this opportunity to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have to do better than this.”
Undoubtedly, we must applaud the concept of the Guyana Prize, and the devotion to it, despite some gaps, over the years. It has become a substantial plank in the arts community here; our creators take it seriously – look at the number of well-known writers who contributed works this year – and the very name of the award has a substantial ring to it. There is also clearly significant work involved in the process of winnowing what must be scores of submissions to arrive at the final cut, and the judging itself would be onerous. In particular, the Guyana Prize decision to accept submissions of unpublished work is to be commended as a strong motivation for new writers. But given all of that effort, and given the seriousness with which the arts community takes the Prize, we have to invest in making these creations available for people to read and enjoy, and when, as in Cassia’s case, the work was not previously published, and is not therefore available, a part of the Prize’s undertaking should be to ensure that a practical number of copies are produced soon after the event.
The person I called regarding my interest in ‘Black Cake Mix’ should have been able to tell me of some plan with that aim in mind. Perhaps that is indeed the thinking. If so, I haven’t heard so, and if so, it should be part of the Prize’s information arm to let the public know what the time frame of that will be.
Apart from the financial grant that comes with it, the award itself has significantly less impact as arts development if the works are not available. Part of the arrangement in the Guyana Prize should be a commitment, for unpublished works, to print, say, 1,000 copies of that work for public sale; that should be part of the undertaking. Perhaps the Caribbean Press can contribute to that commitment, perhaps private sector support can help achieve it, but however delivered it should be in place as part of the Prize mechanism if, as we proclaim, this effort has an arts development nexus. That distinction should be clear to the reading public before the event. If some impediment occurs to delay the copies being available, then part of the undertaking should be to so inform the public, and the usual book outlets, of this. Austin’s Book Store did not have the book. They did not know of the book. They had no information on a possible publication. They will call me. I am waiting.
I am grateful to Al Creighton for ceding his column space to Lori Shelbourn, and to the UK lady for opening such an alluring window into a new artist – Cassia must be over the moon – but I can’t help observing that while we get excited about “a jewel fuh watch sparkle,” the reality, for her unpublished work, is that “we en gat no jewel fuh watch.” We need to do something about that.