MAGGIE HARRIS: It was all yellow...
Maggie Harris is a Guyana-born poet and prose writer living in Kent. Twice winner of the Guyana Prize for her poetry, most recently Sixty years of Loving, 2014, (Cane Arrow Press), she was also the Caribbean Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story prize in 2014, and her collection of stories, In Margate by Lunchtime (Cultured Llama), was long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize. She has been published by several journals including The Lampeter Review, Wasafiri, The Caribbean Writer and Poetry Wales, and has performed her work across the UK, Europe and the Caribbean.
Angela Dye put on her best yellow dress, cut some drizzle cake, poured lemonade – cloudy of course – put her feet up, read and reviewed On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea, and then has a chat with Maggie
A: Hello Maggie, you have written prolifically: more books than I could shake a lemon or lime at – ‘piled high in their abundance’...
M: To date I’ve written six books of poetry, a memoir, Kiskadee Girl, and three collections of short stories. There is also a book of Selected Poems (with a very useful introduction by Lynne Macedo) published by the Caribbean Press in the Guyana Classics Series which is free to download. I’ve also recorded poems for children, ‘Anansi Meets Miss Muffet’.
A: I love Anansi the magic spider! That’s a great cross-cultural marriage. What did you enjoy writing the most?
M: I love writing, period, although to be honest I don’t think the word ‘enjoy’ is one I’d use. More – a compulsion. Everything I’ve written is a journey, and has been enlightening, challenging, turbulent and surprising in turns. I don’t write poems in terms of a collection, so they are all individual. Editing them into a collection comes later. However I do have poem cycles, e.g. ‘Sugar’ in From Berbice to Broadstairs, and the opening sequence in On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea. You will have to read them to see! I think Kiskadee Girl proved the most intimate and challenging and awakened me in many ways. I think it is up there as something I am quite proud of, although there might be a few changes if I were to write it again.
A: I always want to change things! I guess all writers do the second it goes to press. As it showcases you and your history, it must be nice to see that development really. You talk of past, culture, identity, concepts of home and journeys. Are these your main themes? I traced these in your book On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea.
M: This is a big question. Generally speaking, as a writer from Guyana, themes of migration and loss, engagement with questions of ‘home’, history and landscape are intrinsic to my writing. The loss of homeland and ‘roots’ is a strong undercurrent, as is also the fact of being a woman. Journeying, settlement and motherhood are also essential themes as is the realisation of being a creative person, which means that these themes are not necessarily negative ones, but a part of life.
I have a holistic outlook on life which despairs about inequality, religious indoctrination, cruelty to animals and disrespect of this one world we all share. I hate the idea of the business world that sees increasing productivity as a goal despite the decimation of our world’s natural resources, its animals and indigenous peoples.
A: So in ‘Lemon’ there is much there to appeal to so many tastes. Lots of birds and lots of sea. Like the birds you capture with words, you are drawn to travel... nest... fly... root. What is the attraction in journeying? Are you trying to find something?
M: Well my Mum believes as I was born feet first I was born to ‘walk’! That means wander, travel. Must be some truth in it as not only was my first memory falling out a window at 2 1/2 leaning to hear conversations from downstairs, but I left home at age 3 walked busy streets to climb on a bus to take me to the country! I’ve always loved travelling to see different places and people and broaden my mind, but haven’t done as much as I liked during my younger years. I don’t think I’m looking for anything, maybe just a connectedness to the wider world and I am just curious. And a frustrated dancer. And sitting still is boring!
A: As a constant traveller, a constant thinker, do you have a particular writing process?
M: No, not really. I am very unpredictable. I have bursts of writing, entirely random and unpredictable. That’s true for poetry. It is a bit different for short stories, I do knuckle down much more for those!
A: An unpredictable writer is the best kind! Who and what are your influences?
M: Ahh! Well there are many! For the ‘who’ – Leonard Cohen, Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Lawrence Scott, Isabel Allende, Jean Toomer, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Grace Nichols. As for the what or why – I admire these for many different reasons – ways of seeing, making it permissible to address certain subjects, the idea of giving voice to those who have no voice (including ancestors) lyricism, style and rhythm, religious incantation, praise songs, call and response... I am also inspired by history: botanical exploration, and traveller’s tales for example by Patrick Leigh-Fermor.
A: Traveller’s Tales! You are quite the Marco Polo of writing. You tell great stories of many lands. Do you enjoy writing for the reader, or to portray your poetry and prose through performance?
M: As I said earlier, writing is not so much an enjoyable experience, more of a compulsive one, although there is a therapeutic and relaxing quality to it, as well as the energy released in creating something new. Performing for me is about direct engagement with others – when you write you do so in isolation – poetry in particular comes alive in performance through cadence, musicality, and interpretation of the text for that particular audience in that particular place.
This may sound strange but poetry readings often take me back to my childhood attending Sunday mass. There’s a strange power in seeing someone take to the stage (pulpit!) and a hush descends. When the poems are powerful and whether they are well-meaning or disturbing – well, we are really in the power of magicians! Of course this is not always the case!
A: I find your words magical. Abracadabra I command you to describe your writing in five words.
M: Lyrical. Womanist. Cross-cultural. Rhythmic. Conscious.
A: Always good to be conscious when writing! Unless you were Bukowski perhaps. How would you describe yourself in five words.
M: Funky (that’s from my granddaughter!) Young pensioner who loves dancing.
A: Oh I love that. Your words do actually ‘dance me to the end of love.’ Many of them do. Oh to pick one! Which is your favourite poem of yours?
M: Usually the last one I’ve written!
A: Ah the mother that neglects all the older siblings and lavishes praise upon the baby! Of your ‘word-children’ do you prefer ‘Prose’ or ‘Poem’?
M: I love them both, but stories do take me much longer as there are additional challenges such as plot and character to be taken into consideration. Some people have said that reading my stories you know they’ve been written by a poet!
A: Well now there’s a surprise! Poetry lends itself well to effective prose, the economy, the turn of a word to the light. I love blurred lines. Where do you get your story ideas from?
M: Canterbury Tales on a Cockcrow Morning came from my desire to write new stories inspired by the city which I had seen change over the years, from my perspective as a migrant, then a mother, then a student. In Margate by Lunchtime followed, as Thanet was where I had lived since 1973. Those stories are a bird’s eye view of Thanet from pre-Roman times to contemporary life of nightclubs and working, and remains a favourite of mine.
Writing On Water, my third collection, was mostly inspired by my living in Wales, and by the theme of water. ‘Sending for Chantal’, the first story in that collection, was a winner in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2014, and highlights the issue of migration, and the cost of human lives.
A: It seems fitting that for a person whose last book chronicles journeys across the globe that your wonderful work is also in Confluence magazine where many writers from many deltas meet and flow out together.
M: Yes I was delighted to be published in Confluence, a beautiful literary anthology illustrated with fantastic art. There are 10 issues and they can be bought from Wordsmithery. On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea, published by Cane Arrow Press, can be bought directly from me.
A: It has been wonderful speaking with you Maggie. Thank you from myself and Wordsmithery. We look forward to your next writings, performances and your audio poems for ‘Mind the Gap’.
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Maggie performing at Roundabout Nights, 2019