The Blue Mountain Review September 2022

Page 30

INTERVIEW WITH

JOHN ROBERT LEE BY: LYNNE KEMEN Welcome, and thank you for talking with us. Who is John Robert Lee? John Robert Lee is Saint Lucian by birth and residence, a writer (poetry, prose fiction and non-fiction), an ordained elder, a retired librarian, literature teacher, former radio and television presenter, and producer. Belmont Portfolio, Poems, is forthcoming from Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, in 2023.

Can you tell us about Derek Walcott and the influence that he has had on your own writing? A big question. Derek was a mentor and friend who I came to know well in the second half of his life. He had been a name and distant presence for many years before that, even from my late teen years. I often say now that I am of the school of Walcott, even though I can claim the guiding influence of other Caribbean writers like Kamau Brathwaite and Dionne Brand and many other novelists, playwrights, essayists. But Derek gave me, and still gives me, a sense and understanding of poetry that is deep, rooted in the accomplished writers of the past and contemporary times. He remains for me the master of metaphor, not afraid to use language in all its richness and expansiveness. And he also opened my eyes to Saint Lucia and the Caribbean (and by extension, the world) through his painterly descriptive-narrative depictions of what he saw and analyzed – not only the physical landscape and seascape but also the history, culture, language, the people. As a Christian poet, I want to do for Christian poetry, poetry of faith, poetry of the metaphysical, what Walcott did for poetry – to bring the Caribbean voice, imagery, and sensibility into the poems of faith I write.

I was fortunate to be at a (virtual) reading that you gave for Bright Hill Press a few months ago. I was so mesmerized by the delivery of your poems. Tell us about your performance background and how you think poetry should be heard. I was involved in theatre for many years as an actor and director. I also worked in media, radio, and television for many years. So I bring to the reading/presentation of my poems that background of experience in drama and media. I often say to friends that I think poetry should be “presented” rather than “performed.” I say this with full respect for those who do “performance poetry,” and there are writers for whom that genre works well. When I read, even my own work, I try to follow the line, its rhythms, its sounds, its inner voice. I try not to impose myself on the line, to “perform” it in a way that may over-dramatize what is there. Is there place for taking poetry and making a “drama” of it, a “play” with voices and actors? Sure. I think many of my poems would lend themselves to that kind of dramatic extension. But for me in reading, I try to “present” the lines with their thoughts and ideas and music and voices, rather than “performing” them.

Can you describe your writing process? Do you find that you want to revisit certain themes? How much rewriting do you do? Hmm. Ideas come in all kinds of ways. A line may come first. At some point I try to work out the idea in terms of logical development, form, images. For many years now, once the basic ideas are put down on paper, the necessary research is completed, I compose on the computer. Poems can come in clusters. My books are usually structured around themes, even though the poems are written over a period of time. All my poems represent one book, since from poem to poem, themes connect, if not always obviously. So in that sense I suppose I revisit themes from different angles. As to rewriting, I do as much close editing as I feel is needed, until I sense it is done. I hardly go back to

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