Esther Phillips: “I’d Love to See Poetry Explode”


For the first time, Barbados has designated a poet laureate. As Esther Phillips begins her tenure, Joe Shooman asks how she feels about her new responsibility, and what it might mean for the island. Shooman interviews the poet for Zing (the in-flight magazine for LIAT, Caribbean airline). Here are excerpts. Read full article at Zing and don’t miss Phillips’s poetry picks: 5 great works by Caribbean writers.

The literary scene in the Caribbean is as colourful, varied, spiritual and creative as the region itself. There are gems hiding everywhere. But to find them, it helps to have a guide; someone with an intimate knowledge of the nooks, crannies and emotions of both place and page. A native-born, world-aware practitioner not just ready to help but bursting with talent and enthusiasm to show the world the Caribbean’s unique, complex character and rich artistic talent.

Step forward renowned Barbadian writer Esther Phillips – the best guide we could hope for – who has recently been named Barbados’s first ever Poet Laureate. Phillips has been awarded many accolades over the years, but topping the lot is her new status as Laureate, a three-year post that came about in perhaps the most authentic manner: shouts out by the public.

“A recommendation was made to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Youth by sections of the writing community and other members of the public to have a Poet Laureate named during Carifesta [the annual Caribbean Festival of Arts], which was held in Barbados in 2017,” says Phillips. “We felt that such an appointment would be most appropriate then.”

The post did not materialise in time for Carifesta, but in early 2018 the ministry finally offered Phillips the role – and she was happy to accept. “Other names were considered but mine was selected,” she adds. “I believe that this has to do with my publications and also my longstanding work in the literary arts in Barbados. It is such a distinct honour and one for which I am eternally thankful to the Master Craftsman, the Creator Himself.”

Born into poetry
Esther Phillips grew up in Greens, St George. “Looking back, I realise that growing up in the country meant I was immersed in nature, especially while walking to and from primary school,” she says. “Such a panorama of fruit trees and flowering trees, grasses, khus khus hedgerows, gully, quarry and so many butterflies of so many colours; there were hog plums, guavas, dunks, mangoes, sugar cane being cut and reaped, the smell of syrup and molasses from the sugar-cane factory at nights. In other words, I grew up in an environment that was rich in visual and sensory and auditory images and influences. I also believe that listening to my mother play the piano as a young child and beating the tambourine at church gave me a consciousness of metre and rhythm from very early.”

She went on to excel at St Michael’s Girls’ School and Barbados Community College at the UWI Cave Hill Campus before taking the big step of moving to the United States to study in Miami. It paid off. “My first significant moment was winning the Alfred Boas Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets on completing my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Miami in 1999,” says Phillips. It’s an honour she shares with the likes of Sylvia Plath and many other renowned poets. She won the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award in 2001, and released her first full-length poetry collection, When Ground Doves Fly, in 2003. Further well-received collections followed, including The Stone Gatherer (2009) and Leaving Atlantis (2015), a suite of poems addressed to the great Barbadian novelist and thinker George Lamming, for which she won the Governor General’s Award for Literary Excellence. Her poem ‘Word’ was selected to represent Barbados at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland. [. . .]

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