Review of ‘The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art’ Workshop – Part 1 & 2

As part of his residency at Fresh Milk, Toronto based, Trinidadian-Bahamian writer Christian Campbell hosted a workshop titled The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art on December 6 & 13, 2014. The two days focused on critical essays on art, not only as a form of criticism but also looking at the essay as an art form in itself. Fresh Milk Books team leader Kwame Slusher shares a two part review of the workshop below:


Part 1

The word origami means folding paper. For it to be authentic the paper folder is expected to create a paper sculpture without cutting, gluing or marking the paper in any way. Despite these restrictions, the possibilities of paper sculptures from a simple flat piece of paper are inexhaustible.

On Saturday December 6th, the Fresh Milk Art Platform hosted the first half of a two day workshop titled, ‘The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art’. Led by the Toronto based, Trinidadian-Bahamian poet and cultural critic, Christian Campbell, the workshop was geared toward encouraging us, as artists and writers, to rethink and reexamine our idea of the essay. Campbell demonstrated to us that, like a flat piece of paper, the essay can also take many different forms.

In our first activity we were challenged to analyze an elegiac essay titled Etta James: Her Lonely Sound by Hilton Als. We looked at how his piece deviated from the traditional form of the essay while simultaneously maintaining an analytical authority—how Als expertly weaves the personal with the analytical.

After that, we watched Janis Joplin’s very dark rendition of Summertime on YouTube, and wrote a paragraph long response, bearing in mind the techniques used in Hilton Als’s essay. When we were finished we all read our responses aloud, and Campbell critiqued them. Some of us he encouraged to put more of ourselves in the essay and others to be a little more analytical, but on a whole it was clear that we all were beginning to understand the potential elasticity of the form.

At the end of the session Campbell passed out printed copies of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Map’ to be read for the next session, which will be held on Saturday December 13th, from 10 to 12. As we packed notebooks and pens or pencils away, Fresh Milk Director Annalee Davis served slices of cake/pudding, while we were locked in lively discussion on what it means to be a “…millennial in the Caribbean right now”, and the inexhaustible shapes in which we can sculpt the space/s around us.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait, 1982

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-Portrait, 1982

Part 2

In a recent interview, a Guyanese art student at the Barbados Community College said that she was given an assignment where she had to do an abstract self portrait of herself. She decided to focus on her origins, and the result was an overhead topographical map of Guyana. She wanted the art work to show a landscape with all of the bumps, hills and groves that correlate with the complexity of a person’s emotional layers.

The second and final session of The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art was really about creating maps. Like the art student, we were challenged to move away from the established contours and chart emotive and critical pathways with our writing. Christian challenged us to navigate our own ways through perilous territory—ourselves.

The first thing we did was to review the reading assignment that we were given from the previous week, The Map by Elizabeth Bishop. After a not too close reading of Bishop’s poem, Christian brought up a map of Barbados on his Mac and asked us respond to it, keeping the poem in mind. The result was the charting of emotional territory as we found unique ways of connecting with the familiar landscape; from immediately coherent political statements to abstract, but poignant, word associations.

After that we looked at another reading assignment that we got during the week via email. It was an essay called Never Trust a Big Butt with a Smile by Greg Tate, which explored implications of the phrase ‘Black Comedy’ amongst other things. What was immediately apparent, even before the subject matter of the article became clear, was Tate’s use of colloquialisms. After discussing the reading, we were encouraged to make a list of all the colloquial words and phrases we could think of within a given amount of time.

Next, Christian brought up the image of Jean Michel Basquiat’s Self-Portrait on his Mac and challenged us to respond to it using some of the same colloquialisms that we had written down, or any others that we could think of during the free writing exercise. This proved problematic, because the use of dialect and colloquialisms seemed to peel away the seriousness of our responses to Basquiat’s work. We had mapped ourselves into awkward territory and tried to laugh it off. This exercise really forced us consider our relationship with standard English and dialect, and the existing linguistic hierarchy that privileges the former over the latter, ultimately considering our own identities.

There is always that fear of transgressing an existing border, but the workshop showed us that we need to untangle ourselves from preexisting imaginary lines. We need to toss our compasses, and form our own Keys and Legends, and really try to chart our own personal geographies.

Christian Campbell’s First Blog Post: Begin Again

One of Fresh Milk’s current resident artists, Toronto based, Trinidadian-Bahamian writer Christian Campbell, shares his first blog post about what he has been working on during his time in Barbados. Read more from Christian below:

It feels like either we just got here yesterday or we’ve been here for six months. But it’s neither—time is a good Anansi like that. Or maybe not Anansi, but something more sinister. A real thief of too-much, this mythical creature called “time.” Time has been the big subject of all I’ve been working on here—revising a book project, putting the finishing touches on another, working on new essays, new poems.  The pain of time, the problem of beauty, the problem of representation itself. I’m also developing a crick in my neck from listening to D’Angelo’s new genius joint—his first album in 14 years. Or maybe is just chikungunya.

In addition to being a trusty assistant for Kara’s Repositioned Objects installations, I had the pleasure of teaching two workshops at Fresh Milk on “The Art of the Essay/The Essay on Art.”  I always try to cultivate a kind of community of ideas when I teach. But this was different; we had that and something else. After all, this wasn’t a classroom—it was a dairy farm, in the open air, with life happening regardless. So whether or not the cows, roosters, key lime-coloured lizards, secretish rats, vicious mosquitoes and welcome committee of dogs were also doing the writing exercises, I can’t be too sure. But some of them were certainly participating in the discussion.

My workshoppers were very timid at first, terrified even, and then, gradually, open, courageous, brilliant and deeply honest. We were working on the “essay,” which means “to try,” but we were also working on transgression, “creolization” (of forms), translation, and, as always, freedom.  I challenged them in big ways to completely re-think “criticism” and they responded by testing their own limits, taking risks and beginning to slay the demon of doubt.  Most of them (maybe all) are millenials—anxious, lost, savvy, luminous and seriously talented. I’m very inspired by Tristan Alleyne, Khalid Batson, Kaz Fields, Versia Harris, Amanda Haynes, Katherine Kennedy, and Kwame Slusher.

Fresh Milk Wkshp

We landed in Barbados just before Independence Day and I could see my students (and myself) very clearly as the afterlives of Independence—its gains and its many, many failures. They were pretty clear about the ways they don’t fit into prevailing paradigms in “Caribbean” literature and culture. Teaching them also forced me to confront my own doubts and fears, my own need to be far more courageous. All of them are all over social media and tech-savvy. I’ve been thinking about the ways I’m a bit old-fashioned about my relationship to technology as an artist and critic.

On December 13, partly inspired by my students, I initiated what I’m tentatively calling “The Martin Carter 70 Project.” December 13 was the 17th Anniversary of the death of Martin Carter (7 June 1927-13 December 1997), one of my great, guiding spirits. I decided that, beginning with December 13, I would record a poem by Martin Carter every day for the next 70 days, one day for each year of life Carter spent on earth. Here is the first recording, “This is the Dark Time, My Love”:

I see this project as a way to honour Carter through “Shango Electric” (to reference David Rudder), new technology; to be possessed by his words; to test my endurance and commitment; to create a ritual of renewal. After my first post, I learned that I should record on garageband for better sound, then upload to soundcloud and finally upload to my Facebook page. Each recording archives my thanks to him and the ghost of his voice through mine, as well as the traces of my life at a given time—the hoarseness of my voice in the morning, the tiredness of my voice at night, the vocalizing choices I make in relation to the text, the sounds of the world all around me. My poem-choices spring from a range of urges, sometimes to comment anew on the events of the globe and sometimes to comment on my interior.

Gratitude to D’Angelo, my students and Martin Carter for reminding me that you can always begin again.