Trinidadian Poet Flexes The Power Of Poetry

As part of Tell Me More's celebration of National Poetry Month, host Michel Martin speaks with professional poet, Roger Bonair-Agard. Bonair-Agard was a law student in New York when a chance attendance at a poetry reading turned him on to writing verse. He went on to win two National Poetry Slams and offers poetry writing workshops to incarcerated youth. Host Michel Martin speaks with the Trinidad and Tobago native about his work and his new book, "Gully".

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're continuing our series on National Poetry Month. TELL ME MORE is celebrating the art of poetry all through April, and we are sharing your tweet poetry on the air. That's coming up.

But first, we hear from someone whose poetry is slamming. New York-based Roger Bonair-Agard has won the National Poetry Slam Championships twice. He's coached poetry teams, performed in different parts of the world, and uses his craft to help incarcerated young people turn their lives around.

And Roger Bonair-Agard joins us now from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Happy poetry month to you.

Mr. ROGER BONAIR-AGARD (Poet): And to you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How did the poetry bug bite you? How did that happen?

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: I wrote poetry as a teen in Trinidad. And - but when I first moved to New York at age 19 or so, I didn't for a long while. I didn't involve myself with anything artistic, as a matter of fact, for about seven years. Then I went to college. A friend of mine in college from back home took me to a poetry reading in Brooklyn. I immediately came home and started writing and haven't stopped.

MARTIN: You know, young people, kids, almost naturally write poems as they're learning language. But then something seems to happen. Somehow things diverge to where only some of us sort of give ourselves permission to consider ourselves poets. Do you know what I mean? And I'm wondering...

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, you know...

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Rhythm and meter and rhyme and all those things are a natural byproduct of language. So it's no surprise that children have easier facility with it than adults do. But at some point, what poetry is, as we start into our schooling, becomes a matter of definition by academia. But even so, throughout history, you found definitely there have been movements that have sought to reclaim it from those towers and return it to the mass of folk. And I think we're in the middle of one such movement right now.

MARTIN: You know, the term spoken word has become popular these days. And is there really any difference between spoken word and poetry?

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: I think spoken word, or performance poet, has become a means of separating oneself from different aspects of the movement of poetry. And on one level, I think it has been about academia separating itself from these lowly common folk who are writing their base rhymes. And on another level, too, it's about some people, I believe, trying to separate themselves from a history and a theory and a study of craft that they believe hasn't let them in. I call myself a poet. I don't bristle if people call me a spoken word artist. But for me, I don't really use it.

MARTIN: Could you take us through the life cycle of one of your poems? How do you come up with an idea?

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Ideas for poems either find their genesis in a line that catches my attention or a concept that's been rolling around in my head, or even an item of news or life that's happening for me consistently. So when I feel like I've got to the point where I need to commit this thing to written form, I start writing it. And if I'm lucky, I'll get a first draft down in one sitting. It's just as possible, though, that it'll take me three months before even a first draft comes out.

But let's say I get a first draft out of one sitting. Then I do minor tweaks. I read it out loud, I send it to friends. It probably goes through five or six goings-over before I feel like it is ready for me to read it out aloud in public. Then that becomes another place for revision. Because when you hear something coming out of your mouth out loud in front of people, then you start to really realize how dumb some of it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Then you're, like, oh, this does not make sense now that I'm saying it in front of people.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're celebrating National Poetry Month. We're speaking with poet Roger Bonair-Agard. We're talking about his career, his philosophy of poetry, and I'm hoping that we can tempt you to give us a sample of your work. Will you do that?

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Sure. This poem is actually the opening poem of my book that's been released already in Britain and the Caribbean, and that's about to be released here. The book is called "Gully." This is the title poem. It's called "Gully."

MARTIN: OK.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: (Reading) Here, the ball comes off the bat so fast that it's sometimes a flung streak of paint. From here, how fast I am, how snapdragon-quick my reflexes can dictate a whole day's play. A cocky batsman will cut right past me late or square, and then, I must become a bird, a winged reptile uncoiled to snag the catch so fast the commentator fooled, already looking to the boundary for the ball.

I am trained to disappoint. My outstretched snatch of a one-hand catch must trap the batsman halfway up the pitch, thinking he is on his way to more runs. In this position, so close, I could be quiet for hours. I could also be a god, a trickster god, a two-faced orisha, one who, when prayed to, delivers in the most excruciating manners.

MARTIN: It's about cricket.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Yes.

MARTIN: It's all about cricket. That's funny.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Yes.

MARTIN: You know, so, which raises a question, you know...

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Right.

MARTIN: ...that cricket is a passion in some parts of the world...

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Right.

MARTIN: ...completely unfamiliar in others. So I'm wondering the experience of reading that poem in Trinidad...

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...is going to be very different than reading it in Chicago, right? I would imagine.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: Talk to me about that.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: The first half of the book is what it was like to be a young, black man living at a time when black men dominated this white, colonial quote/unquote "gentleman's game" in the way they did. So, the first half of the book, while it is about cricket, hopefully, the themes are so large that they transcended the idea of whether or not you understand the game. In the poems that are most successful, it doesn't matter to people whether to not they know what cricket is.

They may come into it with some trepidation, but I think by the time they leave the poem, they realize it's about the same things they're concerned with. It's about their relationships with their fathers. It's about their place in the world. And so, if I keep that in the back of my head, then I am less frightened about reading that poem to people unfamiliar with the game than when I'm at home.

MARTIN: But you also had a delicious voice, and I do have to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I do have to ask, though, whether that is part of the experience.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: I would like to think that if my poems weren't any good, it wouldn't matter how good people thought my voice. But one of the things I've recognized, I've discovered about my own process, is that if in the readings of my poems out loud, I am as true as possible to my authentic voice, then I put myself in a better position to make better choices with where I go with the writing of poems in the future.

MARTIN: As we mentioned earlier, you don't just write and perform, but you also teach. You work with students at, as I understand it, at the Cook County Temporary Detention Center.

One of the reasons I'm intrigued by this is, actually, there's a very long history of artists - particularly - poets working with people who are incarcerated.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I'm interested in why you think that is and what you think that work does and means.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: I think there are a number of reasons that is, and those reasons are both about when you are an artist, what sort of social responsibility you develop a sense for, you develop a taste for. It's also about if you're a teaching artist who's making your living that way, how creative you have to get in terms of looking for work that'll allow you to eat.

The work is important for me, A, I think young people - and, of course, we're speaking largely here about young people of color, but young people in general - need to have options to self-define themselves more broadly than we are allowing them to be defined. I don't actually believe that my teaching them poetry will necessarily change their material reality. But it is potentially a chance for a young person to say I am more than these narrow ways I've been defined, especially been defined by the prison system, and that therefore, I might be able to do something larger when I get out of it.

MARTIN: What do you think poetry is for?

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: For me, it's for survival. It is for a self-expression that I can't access in any other way. I think other people come to it because in poetry, they find the expression of their day-to-day lives in a manner that either validates or exults or makes sense of what they live and who they are. And it does that for me, too. For me, though, I continue to write it because I can't have that as a way of making sense of the world. I'd go crazy or die, at least, in some secret way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, we don't want that to happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And finally, how are you celebrating National Poetry Month?

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: A bunch of poets - you know, every year what we've been doing is we get together. We keep a blog or something. And what we try to do is we try to come up with 30 drafts of poems, one per day, for the entire month.

MARTIN: Well, that sounds rigorous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Indeed.

MARTIN: Roger Bonair-Agard is a poet. As you can hear, he hails originally from Trinidad. He has twice won the National Poetry Slam Championships. He's written many books. The latest collection of poems is titled "Gully." And he was kind enough to join us from NPR member station WBEZ in Chicago.

Roger Bonair-Agard, happy Poetry Month to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BONAIR-AGARD: Thank you so much for having me.

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