A Bahamian writer who uses the crafts of book binding, letterpress printing, hand papermaking and printmaking, Sonia’s work is intimately tied to the Caribbean landscape and identity. Often her work engages with contemporary Bahamian society through the lens of history and mythology, specifically in the realms of feminism and the tourism industry. She is the founder of Poinciana Paper Press, a small and independent press located in Nassau, The Bahamas, which produces handmade and limited edition chapbooks of Caribbean literature and promotes the crafts of book arts through workshops and creative collaborations. Her artwork has been exhibited throughout Nassau including at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, Doongalik Studios, The Hub, & the Central Bank Art Gallery. Her poetry has won the 2011 Prize in the Small Axe Literary Competition and has appeared in tongues of the ocean, The Caribbean Writer, Poui, The WomanSpeak Journal, and Moko Magazine. She holds a BFA in Writing from Pratt institute. Visit poincianapaperpress.com to learn more.
What a joy to finally be in Barbados, and how quickly this first week has breezed by in a whirlwind of new faces and places. When I applied to the International Residency opportunity almost six months ago, I was in a strange place: frustrated and defeated by events out of my control at the disastrous hotel development Baha Mar, and overall uninspired and lacking in the drive to pick up and start over. All I knew was that I wanted to change my context and find inspiration again, so I applied to the open call at Fresh Milk; designed a several month odyssey to visit Book Arts Centers across the United States; and put my hat in the ring for an MFA in Book Arts at the University of Iowa—all things I had always wanted to pursue, but found circumstances contradictory to taking those steps. Rock bottom is a great foundation for building the life you want, and I’m glad I found the courage and support to pick up the sledgehammer. Because here I am, finally in Barbados, the first leg of the next chapter in my creative life, with an exciting schedule of travel to look forward to afterwards, and finally, acceptance into the graduate program of my dreams just three days ago.
Fresh Milk is a true blessing. I already feel as though I have been made new. Every morning I enjoy my coffee outside while I work on my artist pages, listen to the sounds of the farm, and enjoy cuddles from resident cat Tiger or dog Rudy. Then I head to the breezy studio and work on one of several writing projects at a cheerful blue desk, or surrounded by books in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room. A writer’s dream! I’m already working my way through their fiction and poetry section in my spare time. Though this first week has been more about finding my “sea legs” in a new context than diving full on into my own work, I’m so overjoyed to have this space to tap into my writing more fully now that I feel truly settled.
I spent most of my time in the studio this week preparing for my first class in many years. As part of my residency, I had committed to teaching a four-part workshop on the Art of the Book, whereby I give my students a crash course in handmade book structures and the ways they can drive or interact with narrative. It’s similar to the course I took during my junior year at Pratt Institute with Miriam Schaer that changed my trajectory. I’d like my students to walk away after every class with a new perspective on books and narrative and how these things can function in their own creative practices. But it’s been ages since I have taught a workshop, so I was very nervous! Not only is my class over capacity—already a great sign!—but it is composed of a fantastic cross-section of artists eager to see how Book Arts can function in their creative lives. If the success of our first class is any indication, I am going to have a great time with them this month.
For week one, I started with a quick slideshow examining book arts throughout various art movements, including a few contemporary examples, in order to broaden their understanding of books and how much control they can have over narrative. We also covered resources for book artists, including vendors for supplies, book arts centers around the world to visit, and retreats and fairs should my students ever want to explore more.
Then we shifted into hands-on practice, breezing through the one sheet/8 page “Instabook” structure as well as the accordion fold, which they nailed. Since my workshop is also about narrative, we explored several experimental writing challenges to engage with the forms they just learned. We started with an erasure of “A True and Exact History of Barbadoes”—a vintage text by Richard Ligon from the Colleen Lewis Reading Room that I’ve become a little bit obsessed with—whereby students erase parts of the existing text to reveal a new poem. Then we all took part in an “exquisite corpse” poetry exercise where each of us contributed a line to a poem in response only to the line before ours, which will be turned into a group accordion fold book at a later date since we ran out of time before the end of class. The theme, fittingly drawing upon the current environmental crisis in Barbados, was “The Drought”, and I think you can see how much we are all in sync by the final product. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them next week when we engage with simple sewn structures and chapbook culture!
The week closed with a very exciting island adventure with a group of wonderful artists and creative thinkers from the Bajan community. We were quite ambitious in our itinerary—visiting a couple of the Fresh Stops benches as well as key sightseeing points at literally every corner of this beautiful island—however we managed to cover enough that I have a good sense of the gorgeous expanse of Barbados as well as feel connected to some dynamic individuals who call this place home.
Hailing from a Caribbean island myself, I find visiting other islands an exercise in magical realism: familiar elements approached with the same level of wonder as every encounter in a foreign land, a welcome strangeness in some alternative universe of our lives. In every Caribbean island lives another version of a history which we all share, expressed in our industries and infrastructure and shared ghosts. I am most struck by the ubiquitous old sugar mill here, haunting its rural and suburban landscapes alike. I feel confronted so boldly by a path of colonial history we have not experienced in The Bahamas, and also fascinated by how this has informed the trajectories of our island’s individual histories and subsequently our social identities today. How do we intersect, how do we divide? And how does this exercise, in exploring these differences, actually help us as a region to overcome our internal prejudices? The Bahamas occupies a strange role in this conversation. One of my students told me what other Caribbean people have told me before: that they don’t consider The Bahamas a part of the Caribbean. I think things are shifting though, especially through the exciting amount of region-driven cross-cultural platforms and conversations taking place, and I’m thrilled to be a Bahamian artist taking a seat at the table.
“I found myself a stranger in my own Countrey.”
That line jumped out at me as I combed through the book, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes by Richard Ligon pulled out of the Colleen Lewis Reading Room library by Annalee when I asked if she had any old local texts. I had planned to use it for an erasure exercise in my first class, which I did, but immediately became obsessed with creating my own response to the book. I could see a new poem emerging from the strange story told from an Englishman’s perspective in the 1600s. Putting aside the project I had planned to focus on in my time here, I’ve allowed this new endeavor to drive my inspiration for the time remaining: an erasure called A True and Exact History, gleaned from this delightful account.
An erasure, as I explained to my students, is the act of removing words from an existing piece of text in order to create a new poem. I’ve always admired the method, specifically in the brilliant ways writer and artist Jen Bervin has used it, but didn’t explore it much myself until a few years ago. I’ve found more and more that I enjoy using one part erasure, one part found language to drive the content of my work—not because I find it difficult to use my own words, but because I love the challenge of such an exercise, finding new narratives from often outdated accounts to construct a contemporary response. I also enjoy using language against itself and out of context to bring attention to its disparities and contradictions.
I used this method a few years ago to form the collection of poetry in ‘Clipping Feathers’, taken from newspaper stories surrounding a major event in Bahamian history shortly after our Independence. With the fantastical narratives I constructed out of sensationalized accounts, I found a way to address the lack of contemporary Bahamian history studies—since, like me, many young Bahamians may not even know about this groundbreaking event, we are left to create our own fictions, a dangerous place from which to glean our national identity.
I’m coming from a similar place of ignorance with A True and Exact History. Purposefully, I am not “reading” the text as I seek out its underlying narratives. I also don’t yet fathom how important it has been in Bajan history, though through informal conversations with Bajans, I am starting to get the picture. I did read a little bit into Ligon’s background, finding that he arrived in Barbados late in his life after political upheaval in his home, built a sugar plantation, and then wrote this book in jail upon returning to England from Barbados. I don’t want to research too far, however, holding myself back so as not to directly influence my exercise, not yet anyway. The reason is because I want to be an explorer here in an unknown territory—as I am in these new surroundings. I’d like the narrative to form organically out of that experience.
The resulting narrative so far has been exciting to me in its abstracted exploration of emotional landscapes. I had said before that as a person from the Caribbean, visiting other islands in the region is an exercise in magical realism. This new poem is helping me to explore that and deconstruct it. After all, what does it mean to write a “True and Exact History” of anywhere or anything or anyone? How conceited is that? Recognizing the importance of this text is necessary, but not without the lens of colonialism and privilege. With his own biased eye and with centuries between its inception to now, the text is strangely poetic even at its most problematic moments. It’s a gorgeous text to explore and consider, and I hope it yields an interesting result by the end of my stay.
Week two of my Art of the Book class found us exploring the wonderful world of chapbooks, small presses, and simple sewn binding structures. I gave everyone a crash course in chapbook history and highlighted the work of a number of small, independent presses. Then we reviewed some student projects completed at home using last weeks’ structures and writing challenges. All I can say is I’m one proud teacher! The books they’ve made are awesome, fully engaging with everything these structures have to offer to their individual narratives.
Then we got to work on sewn structures, including the Japanese stab-binding and pamphlet stitch. In order to register for the class, students had to submit a poem of their choice. I gathered these into a simple chapbook called “Fresh Verse” and also made us a special press name, “Fresh Chaps,” under which we made twelve copies—one for every contributor, and two for the Colleen Lewis Reading Room itself. So by the end of the class, everyone got to bind a limited edition anthology of class poems. Who knows, maybe there will be a volume two someday?
Lives in and out of the studio are converging in interesting ways given my chosen project. I’m still working my way through an erasure of A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes by Richard Ligon, but also discovering more of the island myself. The week began with thrilling visits to Harrison’s Cave, Hunte’s Gardens, and Bathsheba, all self navigated with a car rental rather than a pre-arranged tour. We became dreadfully lost on the way to the cave, got soaked in one of those short-lived island downpours in the gardens, and found our recommended lunch place closed due to construction with dangerously low blood sugar levels—but we could say we had a pretty fantastic adventure. Similarly, I’m reconnecting with a Bahamian friend who lives here in Barbados. When she asks what I would like to do around the island, I answer, “Anything.” I’m hungry to see and do it all.
These moments bring out the romantic in me, even though I know all too well the often-frustrating realities of island living and rolling stone travel. But just as I felt during our Week One island tour, exploring a new space is a thing of wonder and an entirely individual experience, something that I am trying to honor and witness in my personal journey as well as my creative practice. I want to be an explorer, not only of physical space, but emotional space too—to study how we meet new experiences with both head and heart.
Is discovery the endgame? Discovery is a problematic word for me, but one that I have been turning over in my head as I think about what it means to write “a true and exact history” of anything: the weighty privilege of it, the naiveté, the narcissism, the violence, all inherent in that word as we have learned it, especially in the Caribbean. We all know the story: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Good for him. Not so great for others. Because we know that no place can be “discovered” that has already existed in the minds and hearts of others. What maybe can be discovered is something entirely individual and emotional, found on an inward journey while on the outward journey, and that discovery is completely personal. The “true and exact history” of the world as we have learned it is a myth. I don’t think discovery is an endgame here. Exploration and deconstruction, perhaps.
Because when I revisit this historical text by Richard Ligon, a man who, by his privilege, has found a spot in this island’s history, I am interested in deconstructing and reconstructing through the act of exploration. I’m drawn to finding a new narrative within the existing narrative, one that touches upon emotional landscape. And one that honors the fact that if I had approached the text on any other given year, or day, or hour, I could pick up on a completely different set of words and perspective. And that would be true for any other person I hand the text over to.
So I don’t want to think about the history of discovery, I want to think about the discovery of history. I want to think about the act of exploring. I want to explore what we carry and what we choose to include vs. what we overlook and what we choose to leave out. I want to think about the fragility of the moment in the process of choosing one story over the other, and why we are drawn to that. I want to think about making space and leaving room. I want to think about the stories we tell ourselves when we only have one version of history to work from, and how we can still find power and wonder and self-discovery in that. Or not. I have my own set of privileges guiding my through the process behind this project. So overall, I want to keep it personal, because there is no true and exact history.
Meanwhile, setting aside the 24 hours I thought I was coming down with a flu but somehow gained strength from a fantastically indulgent meal at Chefette, my students crushed week three of our workshop when they sewed their first multi-signature text blocks to create two different blank notebooks. One will be an exposed-stitch hardcover, while the other will be cased into leather for a travel-notebook. As usual, I was completely too ambitious within my given time-frame, even though we extended the class by an hour. Luckily, week 4 is a catch-up class as well as a fun final class, so we will case in our notebooks, revisit a group project, and then make some quick fun book structures. Also luckily, they all had a blast even though I know it was a very challenging class and I couldn’t split myself into three people to assist everyone, but they passed with flying colors. I’m so proud of them!
Just as my time flew by in Barbados, so has the time on my journey post-Barbados. Being my first residency, I was not sure what to expect, but I did believe I had a lot of time at my disposal…which wasn’t entirely true. That is the lesson I’ll carry to any future residencies: you don’t have all the time you think you do while you are there. But—at least in this instance—the piece doesn’t exactly have to live within the confines of the residency itself.
I am barely halfway through my erasure project of Ligon’s A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbadoes. I harbored some anxiety about finishing the entire erasure within the environment of its origin, but I also knew the desire was unrealistic, given my major commitment to teach a four part workshop during my time there, which took up half of my studio time overall.
But this desire to start and finish the text within Barbados was unrealistic in another way too, which has been revealed to me as I continue to visit the text on trains and buses moving through landscapes just as unknown to me as the island: the poem I am culling from this text so concerned with establishing a sense of place in fact removes that recognizable place. Or perhaps, more accurately, its underlying anxiety to locate place drives an obsessive challenge to interrogate that very idea, dismantling it not necessarily for reconstruction but rather for dismantling’s sake, the very unsettling result the actual desired result:
“But being here a prisoner
is the greatest art
that I am exactly made for”
There is a loose narrative, a voice that belongs sometimes to a traveller, sometimes with a companion, and other times belongs to a collective. Place, time and body collapse and expand, melt away and come into focus, but remain always in an abstract, deconstructed and unsettled state. I’m enjoying the little insights this provides into our historical foundation and current realities in the Caribbean space. It makes me think about what I said it week one, that visiting other Caribbean spaces is like an exercise in magical realism—this text is the written experience of that feeling, a constant rush of déjà vu.
I think it is appropriate to continue this exploration as I myself remain an explorer for these next few months, finding refuge in the strange but also exciting nature of this act even outside of the Caribbean. Because I’m still captivated by this idea, the in-progress poem and its imagery became my subject during a three day workshop in San Diego, ‘Sketch Book Stitch’, taught by Cas Holmes and hosted by San Diego Book Arts.
Less about creating a finished product and more about encouraging experimentation, the class helped to break open my obsessions with Ligon’s text and the themes I’m exploring in the erasure. I brought together decorative papers, found imagery, maps, and Ligon’s own drawings to create mixed media collages that respond to the poem. Just like the poem, these pieces are in no way finished, but they have allowed me to keep dig deeper into this project began at Fresh Milk. I think I’m gaining clarity on another theme that interests me while I deconstruct this text and also visit other spaces, which is how violence plays into the physical and social formation of landscape, and how violence inflicted upon one ties into the other. That definitely came out in the imagery, and I’m still turning it over in my head. We will have to see how it plays out.
I’d like to take this last opportunity to thank Fresh Milk for such a life changing experience. This residency has helped me tap back into my creativity with confidence and playfulness. I have been so fortunate to meet some incredible creative thinkers while there and also light a fire for book arts through my class. After our last class together, many of my students seemed pleased with the course. They walked away with many book structures to explore through their own creative practices, and we left three collaborative books in the Colleen Lewis Reading Room as a tribute to our time together. I’m so proud of them and I hope they continue to explore the craft! Thank you, Fresh Milk, for giving me the opportunity to teach again.
I’m at a rare rest moment in a months-long nomadic journey, but soon I’ll pack my bag and head to the next city on a train or bus, discovering new landscapes and their strange histories, carrying the voice of the narrator inside of me:
“I suffer to remain
Saint of a wild