Reflections from the Heart of Waitukubuli…

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Cover of “Verses from atop the Mountain”… Photo by author. (c)

When I started making plans to have my fourth book, Verses from atop the Mountain, published, I thought of a number of individuals whom I wanted to ask to write the Foreword. I wanted someone whom I could identify with as a villager from St. Joseph and one who was aware of the literary road I had travelled to this point.

Forewords to my previous books had been written by Alwin Bully, Lenox Honeychurch, and Edward “King Shakey” James, so I decided it would be a good idea to add a new voice to my work and I believed it would be great to have that new perspective on my work. I have worked with Alwin, Lennox and Shakey in various aspects of my past publications and I wanted a new voice.

After careful consideration, I finally decided upon Ted Serrant; a young man from my home village, St. Joseph, Dominica. I knew Ted growing up and I also had the opportunity to have him as a student during my short stint as a teacher at the St. Joseph Government School. However, I did not get the opportunity to have him as a student at the St. Mary’s Academy where I later taught, since he went to the Dominica Grammar School. I wonder what that would have been like!!! Ted was a very challenging student back then and as an inexperienced teacher stepping into the classroom, I had to muster all the skills I could to do a good job and, yes, to sound, “smart and educated.” I was dedicating Verses from atop the Mountain, to the children of St. Joseph and I felt Ted represented most of the children that I had in mind.

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A view of Senjo sitting on the fringes of the Caribbean Sea… Photoby author (c)

I also recognized the role Ted, who just recently attained his Ph. D from the University of Pittsburgh, had begun to play in the field of education in Dominica and also because he, of humble beginnings, had surmounted many odds and had now become a great example to the young people of St. Joseph. I saw in him one that the young people could emulate and know that with determination, their goals are attainable especially in an era when good role models are difficult to find.

I contacted Ted and I was extremely pleased when he agreed to write the Foreword. I sent him a copy of the manuscript and waited as I worked feverishly on getting my second full-length book of poetry ready. When Ted sent the write-up, I realized I had made a good choice. Not because what he wrote pleased me, (that was good) but because of the way he “painted” the collection of poems. I felt pleased that one of my own: a past student; neighbor, villager and community minded person, had worked with me and my small team that included Lionel Leslie, Kalinago Woryi and Ophelia Olivaccé-Marie, in putting together what I hope will be a well-received publication. The journey was proceeding well!

 

This is what Ted wrote:

Lotka’s law posits that most people will write one article or one book in their lifetime. This, I believe, is Giftus’ fourth anthology of poems. Giftus has defied the odds. He has been defying the odds for a long time. I know! He taught me years ago. I congratulate you on a provoking piece of work, and thank you for inviting me to present the foreword for this anthology. I am honored that the teacher can turn it over to his student.

Verses From Atop The Mountain signals a proclamation; a call; a cry. This proclamation is symbolized both by the verses and the location from which they are proclaimed. The mountains, therefore, are metaphors for heights attained and the universality of the messages embedded in these verses. They are also symbolic of Giftus’ mountainous island origin and the land that remains almost like an unsettled bargain in these verses. “The Migrant Song” captures that unsettled existence derived from residence in an adopted homeland. Much of the work in this anthology, then, comes from lived experiences and a persistent banter between what is and what used to be, what is left behind and what one now contends with. In “The Land Beckons Me,” he finds solace and the assurance that he is not a castaway confirming the temporariness of the migrant tension between the homeland and the adopted homeland.

The work is a “literary hopscotch” (and I mean it in a flattering way,) of themes that addresses love, nature, reality, expectations, dreams and ambitions lined with hope and restoration: “The Sun Rises Tomorrow;” “The Morning Awakens.” This hopscotching, to me, is the art of a multifaceted artist, and Giftus is multifaceted. He is painter, writer, and poet. This book bears this out as he weaves together pieces on the spring, fall and the snow; things that are transient and yet in “Ode to a Tree Stump,” he finds not just death, decay, and a break from the past, but endurance of that past. With its roots buried deeply, the stump remains as a lasting memory of its legacy. For him, the more things change the more they remain the same. That sentiment comes through in his serious treatises on politics and freedom, two of the things that vex us most.

This anthology traverses the human emotion as well: From an elusive love to solitude, nightmare, cowardice, and death—his mom’s. Then almost in a ‘tantalizing soliloquy,’ he asked, “For whom does the church bell toll?” Despite the hopscotching, Giftus returns again and again to the theme of his beloved land and community, a microcosm of the returning nature of West Indian migration. In the end he reckons that we all are cut form the same cloth. Simply, this anthology is all of us, reflects all of us and speaks to all of us from the mountaintop. Listen!

 

Ted D. Serrant, PhD
Senior Fellow
Rise Institute
Washington, DC

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Staying the Course

I was at an event recently, when a lady came over and engaged me in discussion about my artwork and books that were on display. She was very impressed with the quality of my work, but, before she left, she asked, “Where do you sell your work?” After telling her how I went about getting my work sold, she stated I was doing myself a disservice. She felt I needed to explore more lucrative venues, and events, if I have to be as successful as she thought I could be.

Book by Lennox

Book by one of the Caribbean’s leading historians, Dr. Lennox Honychurch

This is a common theme at a number of events where my work is displayed and after a while, it becomes more of a motivating factor, to move beyond the level, that I am presently. At times too, it makes you ask yourself whether, what you’re doing, is a waste of time. It prompts you to ask yourself what else can be done to make such questions go away, not because you are offended, but because you realize that there are people who appreciate your work and the quality of work. How can you show them that you are interested in making a change or taking your work to another level?

I began writing poetry during my early years of high school in Dominica, and it was the appreciation by those who heard and read my work, that helped me move into the literary spotlight and become a household name. Individuals like Mrs. Phyllis Shand-Allfrey, Editor of the Star Newspaper, the late Marcel “D’jamala” Fontaine, Daniel “Papa Dee” Cauderion, Royston Ellis, and Alwin Bully..

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Island Sunset-Mero Beach

One of the highlights of my literary career, was lying in bed at my home in St. Joseph, many years ago, listening to the late Prime Minister, Hon. Mary Eugenia Charles, deliver her Independence Day message. To my greatest surprise I heard her mention my name and then she quoted lines from one of my poems “Towards A New Day,” from the collection, Words in the Quiet Moments. I was thrilled. The Prime Minister of our country had found it fit to use my poetry as she addressed the nation and the world. What an honor it was.

I dabbled with oil painting and photography before, and after, immigrating to the United States. However, I took them up seriously in 2009 while at home, and wanting to fill time, after having been laid off from my job, the year before. But, I had to deal with the disappointment expressed by my children, and my wife to some extent, who felt I had deprived them of my creativity all their lives. I thus had an added incentive to move on and dig deeper. I am pleased and proud that my daughter is now “stepping into the ring,” and beginning to display her own artistic talent on canvas.

However, being multi-talented, has been a good thing. I have been able to combine them all together when I paint or write or do photography. The knowledge of all three helps me “paint,” for lack of a better word, a clearer picture, when I put oil on canvas, write a poem or short story, or take a photograph. Not that I am an expert, far from that, but the little I know comes in handy. Many are surprised when they visit my booth at events and I tell them that all the paintings, photos and books, are my creation. “You did all this?” they would ask, sometimes, a bit bewildered, and doubtful, until they see my signature on the artwork and my name on the books.

The questions, queries, and words of fans, are rather encouraging. However, as an artist, I, like many of my fellow artists, who now reside, and create, outside of Dominica, face this challenge. I try to portray my art as close as possible to what I understand, cherish and can relate to, yet at the same time, be able to relay my message to the people whom I interact with on a daily basis, that is, besides fellow Dominicans.

Sometimes, the only opportunities we have, as artists, to showcase our work, are at cultural events which are far and few between, and even then, we get more compliments about what we do than selling what we do. Some say it is because our people have not been sensitized enough about Arts as some of us-the artists-expect. Usually, the artist has to make his own connection to attend the events rather than getting an invitation to participate. There is also the argument that it is also that we still, to this day, seem to believe that anything Dominican is inferior.

Fresh Water lake

Oil painting–The Freshwater Lake

Georgie

Oil painting by George “Georgi” Christian.

Dominica just celebrated its 36th year of Independence, and as an independent country, I have not seen a serious effort to harness and save the artistic creativity of our people. I already mentioned this on a previous blog so I won’t go into length on this. We have to devote a little more time at ensuring that the artistic creations whether in theatre, music, paintings, literature, get their rightful place in the annals of Dominica’s history. I have noted, just recently, that some individuals are asking questions as to the origins of certain folk/cultural songs. Is it because it did not matter at the time or we just pay lip service to the arts in our country and even when we go out? I am yet to understand why Dr. Lennox Honychurch, a noted Caribbean historian, has not been commissioned to write a History of the Island exclusively for use in ALL our schools. What are we waiting for?

If our own people do not show an appreciation for our talent and creative abilities (except at certain times of the year-Carnival and Independence,) then how do we expect others to exhibit that same love and appreciation for something that is foreign to them? How do we expect the artists, who spend time and effort at creating, to feel good about what they do. How do we expect them to feel appreciated for what they do, more specifically, upholding the culture of the island in many respects, when their work, is second-guessed, or they are seen as individuals trying to make money off our backs?

I am devoted to what I do. I have a love for what I do, not just to get paid for it (this is great) but because of what I gain emotionally, spiritually and mentally from engaging in the various art forms I have taken a liking to, and I am sure I am not alone. There are quite a number of us out in the “wilderness,” so to speak, honing our craft and being proud to do it: Among them; Christian George; Glenford John; Dave Wilson; Joszann St. John, Paula John, Steinberg Henry, Felix Augustine, Judge Irving Andre and Lola Louis; just to name a few.

So the struggle continues, notwithstanding. Frustrating? Yes. Rewarding? Yes. Enjoyable? Yes. But we need to ensure that our own are sensitive to what we do, not only for the complimentary word, but for accepting, not mediocrity, I should stress, but what is good. We have to debunk the saying “No prophet is wanted in his own country,” and say “All our prophets feel lost away from home.” meanwhile, I will surely stay the course!!!

On the Move Again

It’s been a while since I have added anything to this site. A few events that occurred recently somewhat threw a wrench in my routine and  slowed or stopped some of my activities. This edition is hopefully the start of getting back to doing what I have been enjoying lately.

However in the midst of life’s turmoil, there is usually a shining light. We celebrated our son’s graduation from Temple University with a Civil Engineering Degree. We look forward to him doing what Bill Cosby asked the graduating class to do that day at the Commencement Ceremony … Get a job! And with God’s guidance we know he will. But things have somewhat settled down and I am getting back to allowing the creative juices to flow once again.

As the warm months approach, (I confess, I don’t enjoy the cold) I am looking forward to embarking on the 2013 Geejay Arts and Photo Road Tour which, in effect, is my attendance and participation in a number of activities from now till December, especially those with a Dominican flavor. No, I am not getting on a bus with all my stuff although I really wished I could and have the opportunity to tour other states. But my car will do, with all my work crammed on the back seat and in the trunk; sometimes solo and other times accompanied by my wife or my son or daughter.

So far I have tentatively planned to be at CODIA’s Father’s Day Dinner and Dance in the Bronx; Tropical Hawaiian Party with Patorah in Mt. Vernon; the Dominica United Cricket Club’s picnic in Somerset, NJ; DOTSAC’s Flag Raising Ceremony and show in CT, DEONJ’s Madam Wob Dwiyet in N.J.and one of my favorites, DARDA’s Independence Gala in NY.  I am also looking forward to once again participating in the Collingswood Book Festival in Collingswood, NJ which I attended for the first time last year. There are a few that I have heard about but no confirmation yet.

These events give me the opportunity to showcase and sell my work while interacting with other artists who are present, especially one like the Collingswood Book Festival which gives you the opportunity to see others like you trying to reach out to the public offering what we’ve created and hoping to get their support. My first experience was a good one and I look forward to be there once again on October, 6th.

I am working on plans to have an exhibition later this year in my hometown of Union, NJ. Plans are still being worked out as to venue, date, and time, and I am hoping that this is not just a dream, but becomes a reality. I had previously held such an event a few years ago, but I want to make this one much better and possibly a little grander. I will see how things fall into place as we move along.

This month marks two years since the publication of Ma William and Her Circle of Friends and I can say that I have been extremely pleased with the feedback and support I have received though, like many self–published authors I would have hoped for more support in terms of sales of the book However it is a work in progress and all one has to do is keep stoking the fire. My other two books continue to find their way into people’s homes and I am pleased about that…Mesye Kwik! Kwak! a collection of stories based on life in St. Joseph and, The Island Man Sings His Song, a collection of poems.

I recently heard from Mrs.Vinna Royer of St. Joseph, my home village in Dominica and the setting for “Ma William and Her Circle of Friends”–who told me that she reads chapters of Ma William and Her Circle of Friends to the seniors who meet at the Matthew’s Hall in St. Joseph and they have enjoyed it so much that they would like to know what happened to Ma William and her gang. Needless to say, I was very happy to hear about it. Another friend, Dominica’s grand lady of song, Ophelia, sent to let me know that she was present at one of those sessions and she was proud to tell the seniors present that she knows the author. Hopefully, one day I can grace the gathering and read a chapter to them.

But, oh, oh! Do I hear a call for a sequel? I have heard that call before though, however, at this time, I am working on two projects so the sequel is some time in the future.

It is said that variety is the spice of life and hopefully some variety will add some spice to my site…though I pray not too spicy…and I have invited three fellow bloggers and writers to be my guests on subsequent editions. If all goes according to plan, the next edition will be by one of those individuals. Something interesting that we can look forward to.

Finally, as we approach Fathers’ Day, I want to take this opportunity to salute my dad, Mr. Shaden John. Daddy recently celebrated his 84th birthday and we’re hoping that he can celebrate many more still with us, God willing. I did not pick up my artistic skills from him; that came from my mom’s side—painting influenced by my uncle Ronald Julien, and photography, by my late uncle, Frank Julien. I don’t know where the writing came from—I guess a God-given talent, though I wished I had dad’s penmanship. He writes very well. It would have saved me a caning from Br. Sullivan when I was in First Form at the SMA…yes…believe it…my handwriting was not up to snuff on three occasions, so I paid the ultimate price. Never got caned again though!!!

But what my dad has left imprinted within me and which I have admired and respected over the years, are: his love for his family, his hard work and dedication, his easy-going attitude, and his friendliness. Yes, he was a strict dad and made sure I did what was right, as did my late mom, but I don’t hold it against them. My dad has had a strong commitment to his community; to his church and God—dad has been singing on the St. Joseph church choir for over 50 years. I am proud when so many see him in me, especially my wife, who thinks the older I get the more I am like him. I’ll take that compliment.

My annual backyard garden is a tribute to him and what he instilled in me in terms of agriculture and gardening from an early age, although I have to confess I was not fond of going to the “garden,” except when I was going to have fun. Banana reception days were not my favorite. I rather stayed in Senjo and be out on the playing field with my friends. But as I became my own man, I saw what drove him and I am now guilty of being like that sometimes.

So Daddy, this is for you. Happy Father’s Day and though we have not spent one together in over 27 years, the respect, love and appreciation for all you are and have been, have not waned and the older I get the more I believe I am truly my Father’s son. God’s richest blessings, Daddy!