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Poetry Month Q&A: Pamela Mordecai on recording her canon

Pamela Mordecai (photo: Martin Mordecai)

Pamela Mordecai (photo: Martin Mordecai)

On a recent trip to Newfoundland, Jamaican-Canadian writer Pamela Mordecai recorded 25 years worth of her poetry in a pilot project created by Memorial University English professor Stephanie McKenzie. The project took five days to record with Mordecai in the studio between four to five hours each day.

McKenzie is interested in Caribbean poetry and has taught Mordecai’s work in her classes. Mordecai first visited Corner Brook, Newfoundland in 2012 to lecture at Memorial’s Grenfell Campus and returned this year to read at the March Hare festival, for which McKenzie is the artistic director. It was during the most recent trip that Mordecai recorded her work in St. John’s.

Mordecai spoke to Q&Q about the importance of hearing poetry aloud and the connections between Newfoundland and Jamaica.

Why was it important for you to record your work? Recording my poetry keeps it alive in my voice – indeed an aliveness that will be available beyond my life. There are other aesthetic reasons, and some practical ones. From the point of view of aesthetics, there is a historical value to having a poet read his or her own work. Hearing someone else reading T.S. Eliot or Dylan Thomas or Derek Walcott or Kamau Brathwaite is quite different from hearing those poets read their own work, and presently, there is no record of me reading my poetry in any other archive in the world.

How does the experience of listening to poetry differ from reading it? There are many possible answers to that question, the easiest one being that the experience speaks for itself. Another answer is that the layers of meaning in poetry, indeed in any written language, become plainer when poetry is spoken. In the case of Jamaican or Caribbean poetry, where creole languages ghost the English line, those layers are multiplied. An example: I have a poem about Vincent Van Gogh called “Sunflowers” in which the last line is, “Madness has always been my guess.” That’s a pretty plain line with an obvious meaning – except that in Jamaican creole guess and guest are homonyms. That meaning best emerges when the poem is spoken, to an audience aware of the homonyms. And then, there is the singular appeal of a voice, “the word in audible motion,” as Trinidadian scholar Gordon Rohlehr calls it, with rhyme and rhythm and metre being explored as only that human instrument can. There is also, in a performance, a lively communion between speaker and hearer, a union of two presences that words on the page have difficulty achieving. I think most people would allow that the heard word is memorable in a way that words read on the page are not.

What is your connection to Newfoundland? There are historical connections between Jamaica, where I was born and have spent most of my life, and Newfoundland. Newfoundland ships brought codfish to the island, and barrels of Jamaican rum were taken to Newfoundland on the return journey. Until the moratorium in 1992, the cod in Jamaica’s national dish, ackee and codfish, came from Newfoundland. There’s now a family connection as well: I have a niece-by-marriage whose family is from Newfoundland, and a grandniece who is half-a-Newfoundlander.

This interview has been edited and condensed.