Dorothea Smartt has an international reputation as a respected poet, live artist, and literary activist. Born and raised in London, with Barbadian heritage, she has two full collections, Connecting Medium and Ship Shape [Peepal Tree Press]. Her recent chapbook, Reader, I Married Him & Other Queer Goings-On, “…is subversive, radical, and surprisingly panoramic…”. She was awarded an Attached Live Artist residency at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts, an Arts Council of England One-to-One live art development award, and most recently their Grants For All as an independent artist.
Over the past twenty-five years, her credits include engagements with the British Council in Bahrain, South Africa, USA, Egypt, and Hungary. Her seminal work “Medusa? Medusa Black!”, was cited as an O.B.E [Outstanding Black Example) of British live art. Other works include: “Triangle” [A Black Arts Alliance commission, with Kevin Dalton Johnson], exploring generations of UK Blacklesbian & Blackgay lives. “Tradewinds/Landfall”, an international cross-arts residency, exhibited in Houston, Texas and the Museum of London Docklands. In 2013 she was keynote speaker at Barbados’ Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award.
She is currently researching a new work, to culminate in a third full poetry collection. In it she continues to rework standard narratives. This time imagining cross-gender experiences, same-sex relationships, and the role of traditional religion/spirituality in sustaining the ‘West Indian’ workforce constructing the Panama Canal, in the early 1900’s.
She is a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art, Programme Manager of Inscribe (Peepal Tree’s writer development programme), and Associate Poetry Editor at SABLE Litmag. In 2016 she was honoured with a nomination for a Barbados Golden Jubilee Award, and her collection Ship Shape proposed as an ‘A’ Level English Literature text.
I arrived on Thursday, my bruthafren met me at the airport and drove me up to Fresh Milk where we were met by a warm and welcoming Katherine. We followed her car slowly up the pot-holed driveway back out to the main road, driving the short stance to the lodgings. Danilo welcomed me like a an old friend with a shot-glass of smooth premium cachaça, and bonded with my bruthafren over a mutual interest. Next morning, I settled myself into my spacious room, making it my own with a few adjustments to the furniture.
Katherine came to take me grocery shopping. On the way out, a parliament of twenty (I counted) guinea fowls (the Brazilian translates as ‘Angola birds’), leisurely crossed the driveway as Katherine waited for them to cross. It’s been a week of synchronous events. The two best bits of news were that Lauren Craig, one of my collaborators, was coming out later in the week, and would be able to spend some face-to-face time with me here at Fresh Milk. And I was delighted to learn that Iya M. Jacqui Alexander had arrived the same day as me to spend a few days in Barbados, with her former student and my future PhD Supervisor Yanique Hume. It’s been almost 10 years since I saw Jacqui in New York during the last days, death and funeral of my dearest friend and mentor Myrna Ilare Bain – who introduced me to Jacqui and Santeria back in the 1980’s.
Danilo and I shared food, cooking, conversation and XO Mount Gay rum like practised housemates. Iya Jacqui and Yanique came by the studio, and left their good energies singing in the air. The ‘New Partner’ Angel card I’d drawn over the weekend at my bruthafren’s place near the beach, had told me a chance meeting would send me someone who I’d recognise by my “sense of familiarity, comfort, and safety”, “an answer to my prayers.” The cat at the lodgings attached herself to me from my first night. The large African snail slowly crossed our doorway. On her visit, Lauren helped me by organising my video cameras and my old Olympus OM 10, charging them up and checking batteries. Over an early dinner I‘d cooked that morning, I read her a poem-in-progress I’d shared with my potential collaborators. She was particularly drawn to it because it had emerged and was titled for a live art workshop we’d both done in London with Stacey Makishi. ‘Death For Beginners’ is my attempt to write something of the claustrophobia and censoring of women & girls I experienced growing up in my Bajan house in London and had heard and seen here in Barbados. The characters of Olive Senior’s short story ‘Window’ had provided a (November!) setting. The Sunday visit to the Farmers’ Market at Holder’s Hill gave me gifts of ‘leaf of life’ and the delight of a stall-holder’s toddler son who had attached himself to me, and was set on helping me with my shopping. He picked small yellow flowers and presented them to me.
The first part of this week I was able to finish and submit a funding application to a fellowship offered by the Center for Lesbian & Gay Studies at CUNY Grad. Centre. The late night task to meet the deadline created an opportunity to review the impetus and previous Arts Council funded research I intend to build on during my time at Fresh Milk. Phone calls, messages and emails to my artist friends/collaborators will hopefully open the door to their contributions and feedback via Skype/WhatsApp/Facebook Messenger in the coming weeks. I set up a shared Google Calendar.
My weekend back at my bruthafren’s was an opportunity to play, party, dance through the night, re-connect with Bajan poets, freestylers and spoken word artists, and sing karaoke in Holetown after seeing Mannequins in Motion do their fabulous Sunday night show. More signs, as the Angel Card had said. A beautiful Super Full Moon (the closest a full moon has been to the Earth since 1948), playful children, the warm sea off Lower Carlton, and lush countryside of St. George, let me know there’s beauty, love and laughter in this world (now being dumped with Trump as President). Always.
Maferefun Egun. Maferefun Orisha.
This last week seems to have sped by! Full of rich encounters and insightful conversations – not least with my ‘roomie’ Danilo as we both try to unpick the complexities of ‘Bajan-ness’ and the near invisibility of any African cultural/social/religious/spiritual life-ways in this most ‘English’ of ‘West Indian’ Caribbean islands. This has implications for how I might re-imagine the characters I have coming to me through my ‘panama poems’.
I know that in every place/space, things are not always as they may appear at first glance – the ‘happy couple’ may be rife with indifference or conflict! The ‘happy couple’ may not be a couple at all! Lol! To all intents and purposes, I can appear to be heterosexual, or perhaps I fall ‘victim’ to persons assumptions and lack of imagination. Unlike some of the queer community – I can ‘pass’ as a straight Blackwoman. My gender appears binary, fitting into one of the two accepted categories of ‘male’ or ‘female’. If I am seen out and about with a friendly male (and I do have them in my life these days!), it’s often assumed we are a couple or husband and wife. This is true in every society, not just here in B’dos. However it comes with its own particularities given the specifics of the location, age of the persons and so on. If I’m seen out and about with a friendly Blackwoman, it can be assumed we are sisters (regardless of how unalike we might be!) or we are mother and daughter (these days I often get to be the ‘mum’ half of the equation!). Only those with what you might call ‘queer-eyes’ or ‘zami-eyes’ would see that we are a couple, that we are in an intimate sexual relationship of some kind.
This week I sent out personal invitations to a few selected artists/writers/friends and the Fresh Milk team to come to a “Community Constellations” workshop next week. A visiting friend and colleague from London, Sonya Welch-Moring will be facilitating the session. Sonya’s heritage is Guyanese, we were friends at South Bank Poly back-in-the-day, and re-connected on First Street, Holetown one magic night last year. Sonya’s intro to the session reads:
(Community or) “Systemic Constellations explore relationships within a system, by creating a ’mapping-process’. The method can indicate ‘entanglements’ over generations and ‘stuckness’ within wider systems and networks of relationships. This approach can surface what is hidden and offer steps to reconcile or resolve difficult situations, in order to ‘restore the flow of love’ between individuals and within communities… family constellations,…offers a way to honour your family and reconnect to your cultural and ancestral lineage. …systemic constellations [can] explore a range of community and social-justice issues and seek solutions to problems.”
I’ve taken part in Sonya’s workshops in London, and have been excited and moved by what can be accessed through a skillful application of the Constellation technique. For my session, I will be bringing a ‘social/community’ issue relevant to my ‘panama poems’ and creative research.
One highlight of this week was returning to the B’dos Archive for an Open Day. Danilo was able to introduce me to Frederick Alleyne, and I saw his modest but telling display of the Bajan-Brazilian connections, created by ancestors who went to Brazil to build a railway in the late 1800’s. Several generations on, and significantly, their descendants are still Bajan-English speakers! This is not the case with descendants of Panama Canal workers. I was delighted to discover that the Open Day programme included a screening of Diggers, a remarkable 1980’s documentary with interviews of then 90-plus years old men, for whom the harsh and dangerous working conditions on the Panama Canal had been a teenage rite of passage to manhood. Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not a consideration, in how these young men’s lives had been shaped by the experiences they spoke of with clear emotions, and in some instances tears.
Danilo and I left the screening subdued yet angered by the injustices portrayed. We both needed to walk and vent! The importance of my small offering in highlighting this period of our history was re-affirmed. And the early black & white film footage and photographs of energetic young men (for it was very much a Blackmen’s story, in fact there was only one Blackwoman’s voice in the entire documentary), digging, jumping trains, recklessly balancing dynamite boxes on their heads, operating steam-powered engines was an amazing sight. As I scanned the faces in the crowds I wondered who in today’s language would have been gay, queer, men-who-slept-with-men? I wondered what loves and affections might have kept them going through this trauma. I wondered who might be wearing womens’ underwear under their work clothes! I wondered who had a charm or a talisman to keep them safe and alive in this virtual war-zone of construction – a crucifix or a bag of dried herbs with bones and stones? A set of baths they’d taken before they boarded the boat? And once arrived in the ‘pestilence of the jungle’, if they fell sick or were injured – would they look for cerasee, five-fingers, dog-dumplin’, or leaf-of-life to soothe them?
Maferefun Egun. Maferefun Orisha.
My week started with my first ever visit to Barbados Community College, a place so many Bajan artists and creatives have passed through. I was excited, arriving just in time to hear Ellen Gallagher begin her talk. Before I came on this residency, I’d thought of my poems, still in draft form, written in response to pieces in her retrospective exhibition AxME [Tate Modern, 2013]. I’d been engrossed by her imagery and the collage and layering she so often employs. I was particularly taken with Monster one of her collaborative 16mm projections from the sequence Murmur ; the Watery Estatic series; and the large Bird In Hand portrait. I was drawn back again and again to sit with and explore her work.
I listened to Ellen speak about the making of, and process that birthed her Oh Susannah painting. One of the first things that resonated, was her saying she’d had no intention of being an artist – because she hadn’t known then that it was something you could become. She went to Oberlin College, studied the history of sailing and oceanography. This led to her being on a sail ship travelling the Caribbean sea – the US Virgin Isles. It was only after this she enrolled in art school. She found community off-campus, with poets and writers like Sharan Strange, a co-founder of The Dark Room collective. The only non-writer in the group, Ellen put up her work during their Salon events, with readings from authors like Samuel R. Delaney and Ntozake Shange. I was startled – these are all writers I have some kind of connections to. They and/or their works have made a pivotal impact on my journey to becoming a poet-artist.
I find myself wondering if the seemingly abstract pieces I’ve written, drawing on her imagery, aren’t in some way connected with my more obvious ‘Panama poems’. Perhaps if I were to re-visit them now, they could be edited to say something about the very watery world of Canal construction: the torrential rainy season that drenched everything in Panama?; creating Gatun Lake (the size of Barbados)?; the flooding of the valley and the subsequent underwater world?; the two-week voyage from Barbados to Colon, that some did not survive; and of course the two oceans that kissed when the canal opened.
Ellen quoted Delaney, History is not a single file stutter, explaining that history is not a fixed thing, but rather it’s like a net over the world, with closures and openings. Being here at the culmination of Independence celebrations you can’t help thinking of history. Of the gaps and silences of Bajan history. I posted Prof. Sir Hilary Beckles anniversary lecture Cuffee’s Stool to my Facebook page, for the sense he talked, and the insights he offered – not least how to be engaging when delivering a history lecture!
The rain. Caan talk bout dis week an’ not talk bout de rain! ‘Bout how much floodin went on. How half a’ Cin-Cin front door did drown out! How roads turn t’rivers, and new potholes get gouge out by water. How in d’midsts of Independence, St Joseph (issa year now?) still ain’t got nuh water! And CBC put on ah advert from B’dos Water Authority, straight after The Reveal dun! An advert of smiling BWA staff, wishing we ‘Happy Independence!’ – widout a care in de worl’! So my planned Tuesday workshop, get postpone to Friday, at WKD Beach Lofts up pon d’big roof patio. It was small but mighty!
Sonya and her peer facilitator Katherine, expertly guided Danilo Oliviera, Yvonne Weekes, Sonia Williams, and myself through the techniques of mapping relations; that is, Constellations work. After we all introduced ourselves, Sonya said a little on the history of Constellations. Then she straight away got us into things by asking us to pair-up and invite our partner to ‘represent’ someone in our lives we had a question or difficulty with. I invited my partner to ‘represent’ Jay, an ex-lover and friend who after a long period of silence had phoned unexpectedly a few days before. Guiding “Jay” by the shoulders, I placed them in a physical position on the roof, relative to me, that I thought suited our situation. My partner, representing “Jay” then began to intuitively move and speak as they felt to. It was interesting how spot-on much of what “Jay” said was, and some of what was said, and where they re-positioned themselves, was surprising based on my knowledge of them.
We all finally ended up working on a constellation suggested by my research and Panama poems. Someone represented ‘men who went to Panama and never came back’, another ‘my father’ and the third ‘my project’ – I observed. With Sonya guiding everyone, asking the right questions and picking up on aspects of the dynamic unfolding between these ‘characters/elements/things’ and myself, an amazing pattern emerged. I was reminded, for example, how my creative practice is never purely abstract or removed from me/my experiences. That the juice in this Panama project of mine, is in exploring, imagining and re-imagining my life and personal family history – that is how I will achieve something universal, something that speaks to our humanity.
The following day I had a wonderful Skype dialogue with members of Fundacion Casa Matria in Panama City. Despite my almost non-existent Spanish, and thanks to Valentina’s able English and translating, we ended a two-hour Skype excited by the role re-working the lyrics popular songs can play in grassroots resistance and street protests.
I shared the back-stories of two of the transgender and cross-dressing characters in my Panama poems – Miss John/Senorita Juan, who left her Bajan village a butch woman and worked in Panama as a man. And Carmelita, a trans-woman, prostitute, and beloved of Canada – a man who loved her for who she was. After his death, in a terrible accident, she learns to sew and re-invents herself as a maker of ladies intimate apparel. Fundacion Casa Matria shared memories of their modest Abuelas, covering with a sheet, any underwear they hung out to dry. We all felt that in this act, we’d found an ideal metaphor for the hidden, unseen (and therefore presumed non-existent) lives of same-gender loving and trans-persons in days gone by.
Maferefun Egun. Maferefun Orisha.
After a return to London to take care of pressing domestics, I reconnected with Fresh Milk in January. We had a good meeting with local St George Primary School in December. Katherine at Fresh Milk followed through, and we were given a date, Monday January 16, to hold an 80 minute session with some of the students.
We met the head teacher before going to the class. A junior class of curious boys and girls greeted us formally, after a brief introduction from their welcoming class teacher. Katherine introduced me as a Fresh Milk International Artist in Residence. I talked a little with the pupils about myself and being a poet.
The class took part in a discussion on people leaving Barbados to go to work building the Panama Canal. I drew a rough map of the Caribbean, and they joined in identifying where Panama was. Some pupils, one boy in particular shared about great grandparents who’d gone to Panama. Some pupils were hearing about it for the first time.
I read them one of the poems about Panama that spoke of some of the men who died. And we spoke about the dangerous working conditions people endured. I guided the pupils in a free-writing exercise with a prompt: ‘In those days…” and they wrote for 3mins. They responded with enthusiasm.
To follow I shared five old black and white photos of the Caribbean. These were from a learning resource pack produced by the (British) National Archive. The pupils worked in five groups with a photo each. First they discussed the image and were asked to imagine how they might relate to Panama workers. For example, they imagined a banana worker was harvesting food for the workers; a large drawing room, a place where bosses would have gathered to relax; and an image of a hut with a canoe outside a place where a worker may have lived and fished for food.
Then each pupil wrote a short poem drawing on our discussion, their free-writes and the photos. We had time to hear some of the pieces produced, which were full of imagination and insight.
I really enjoyed meeting these pupils, they were keen and interested. Their input, questions, and writing added to my own imagination, especially when it came to what the workers would have eaten! Hopefully my workshop is the start of an on-going relationship with Fresh Milk – as they have plans to work with this class on a future project!
I had hoped to connect with the group in Panama again, and present something of my work and process. Time, internet and availability of space weren’t able to come together and after a discussion with Katherine/Fresh Milk, I let this go.
On this residency, the space, time to focus and reflect, discussions with Bajans and others, and the events I attended have enhanced me. I feel encouraged and affirmed on my journey with this research and the poems I written. There’s more to unfold and write, and this residency has definitely resourced me to carry on.
Maferefun Egun. Maferefun Orisha.