Speaking from a small place in a large language – Fellows’ seminar by Richard Georges

15 August 2023

STIAS fellows were treated to a rich literary feast as Artist-in-Residence Richard Georges read some of his poetry in his fellows’ seminar.

“Part of the power of poetry and art is to allow us the freedom to wonder. To just be in the world,” he said. “Poetry, music and art allow us to slip away from the hyper awareness of our daily lives and just open up.”

Richard Georges is the first Poet Laureate of the British Virgin Islands and President of the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, Georges was raised and currently resides in the British Virgin Islands.

STIAS Artist-in-Residence Richard Georges during his seminar on 10 August 2023

Georges has published three books of poetry. His first Make Us All Islands, published in 2017, was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection by the Forward Prizes for Poetry. In 2018, his second collection, Giant was Highly Commended by the Forward Prizes and longlisted for the 2019 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, while his third collection Epiphaneia won the poetry category and the overall OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean literature in 2020.

He read extracts from all three.

Georges is at STIAS to make his “first foray into writing fiction” – tentatively titled A Season of Prosperity, the collection of linked stories will blend a sequence of narratives set at various turning points in the history of the British Virgin Islands and is concerned with the themes of body and work, individual and collective identity, and the intersections of trauma and identity.

“I was originally awarded the STIAS fellowship in 2019, and I’m finally here,” he said. “I’m very impressed and invigorated by the experience.”

Charting an Atlantean imaginary

Georges’ poetry has been described as “enveloped in the textured sensuality of the sea”, addressing the history of the Caribbean and specifically the Virgin Islands, and the more-recent impact of climate crises on these island states. “You can’t lose sight of the sea on the Virgin Islands. The entire culture revolves around water.”

His influences include Barbadian poet Kamau Braithwaite, Saint Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott, recipient of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Toronto’s Poet Laureate Dionne Brand, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago. “Walcott’s The Sea is History posits the Atlantic and Caribbean in conversation with the Mediterranean; Braithwaite’s History of the Voice examines a repeating island theme; while Brand’s Hard Against the Soul is a book-length love letter to Trinidad and lost love.”

“The sea is used in different ways but is ubiquitous in Caribbean poetry,” he explained. “It’s also essential and crucial to everyday life. It never disappears. It’s difficult to lose sight and smell of the sea on an island. It’s an Island – where are you going to go?”

“The Atlantic and its legacy of violence are the truest forges in any construction of identity in Caribbean letters. We must acknowledge the geographical ubiquity of the Atlantic (and its historical burdens) to any discussion of the archipelago,” he continued.

He explained that representations of the sea in Caribbean literature operate in different ways – “as muse, crypt (both literal and metaphorical), or vault through which ancestral memories are accessed; a portal which demands to be passed through to provide the primal matter from which new world identities are formed; or it can suffuse the world in ways that help to reframe historically rigid socio-political perspectives of race, gender and sexuality”.

A world beginning and ending with the ocean

“Caribbean writers cannot escape the magnetism of the marine as it roars in the background of every narrative. Images and rhythms of the sea suffuse the language, creating a single fundamental wave that can be discovered throughout the literature. The writer must access a marine bank of memory which can then be repurposed to imagine the islands.”

“My argument is not new and not particular to the Caribbean,” he added. “It’s common to many spaces but there are some nuances that are particular to the Caribbean understanding of the sea.”

Some of the nuances and specificities include the link with the cultures and histories of West Africa; the history of slavery and its end; and, how shipwrecks impacted personal stories on the islands.

Focusing on the Virgin Islands, he highlighted some examples. “Since the 1850s most of the land is actually owned by Virgin Islanders which is unusual in the Caribbean. Anegada, the largest of the islands, is surrounded by a barrier reef so there are lots of shipwrecks including slave ships. What did they do with the slaves in the hold? Many became indentured labourers or were conscripted. In fact, the first black man to win the Victoria Cross was a British Virgin Islander – Samuel Hodge. There are also the stories of Los Cocolos – Afro-Caribbean migrants who travelled to the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s – some of whose progeny have now returned.”

“My three books, which almost form a trilogy, continue a tradition of grappling with the sea but I am trying to mine the lesser-known histories, not only the large registers.”

He also pointed to more recent events including the devasting impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

“Hurricanes depend on the sea. These hurricanes start on the west coast of Africa, spin to the new world and arc back to Europe. They are a powerful force that changes the landscape, but also a tool for reimagination – what will the place be following the storm?”

His most recent book Epiphaneia is about the response and the people’s resilience.

“These are often people divorced from the conversations on the global stage,” he continued. “This is a battleground for discussions on climate change, but we forget people also live there – they are not just fodder for theoretical and political discussions.”

“I’m asking where their joys come from, where do the traditions, practices, foods, cultures come from? It’s often not knowledge from a formal space but that which is felt and remembered.  In a small place weird and funny things can happen.”

“Of course, to create good poetry consistently you need academic knowledge, to read, understand and analyse a diverse library of poems to create your own. My poems are about body and space. They have a large historical component but they are about advancing knowledge and experiences that have not been recorded. Other ways of knowing and understanding that are not part of the record.”

“I want to elevate the mundane into the mythical. To make quiet histories equal the larger ones.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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STIAS is a creative space for the mind.