Talking to Jamaican litblogger Geoffrey Philp

The Jamaican writer Geoffrey Philp has published five books of poems, a collection of short stories called Uncle Obadiah and the Alien, and a novel, Benjamin, My Son. He lives in Miami, a member of the great Caribbean diaspora in North America, and he currently teaches at Miami-Dade College. Since December 2005, he has also been a blogger. The plainly named Geoffrey Philp's Blog Spot announced its author's intentions with its very first post, “Why Do I Continue to Write?”:

I continue to write because I am from a marginalized race/culture and I work in an even more marginalized discipline/craft…. I continue to write about my people, my landscape because I think they are important, real and the proper subjects of art.

Geoffrey Philp

Over the last year and a half, Geoffrey's blog has become an important meeting place for Caribbean writers and readers. He posts samples of his own work, short literary essays and meditations, interviews with other writers, news about upcoming literary events, and regular birthday celebrations for major Caribbean authors (most recently, Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite). I chatted with Geoffrey recently about his blog and Caribbean literary blogs in general. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

Nicholas Laughlin: What made you decide to start a blog back in 2005?

Geoffrey Philp: My daughter, who had been blogging for five years, finally convinced me to try and I liked it.

NL: Had you ever contributed to a blog before that?

GP: I had written an essay, “Voices of the Jamaican Diaspora”, for the now defunct blog Book Coolie. The essay was picked up by Maud Newton, so I began to read a lot of blogs from her links: Moorish Girl, Bookslut, The Valve, the Literary Saloon, and Metaxu Café.

NL: How is writing on your blog different to writing in other media?

GP: I'm not saying that I don't have any standards for my writing on the blog, but I worry more about my poems, short stories, and novels than I do about the blog. Some of my friends have told me that I'm too hard on myself when it comes to my writing, but as many readers of my blog know, I believe in the tradition of Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Dennis Scott, Anthony McNeill, A.J. Seymour, and Martin Carter, so I'm not going to even try and publish something that doesn't meet up in my eyes to that standard.

NL: Has the blog pushed your writing in different directions stylistically, or in subject matter?

GP: The focus of my blog is pretty narrow: to promote my work and the work of Caribbean and South Florida writers.

Now, I started off writing as a poet, and I've learned not everything can or should be a poem. As I've often said to my students in my creative writing workshops, a poem is that bok! of when the ball meets the bat and it shakes you up. A short story is about bottom of the ninth, the bases are loaded, both teams are tied, and the pitcher begins his motion. A novel is the whole shebang–what Henry James called the “loose, baggy, monster.” A blog comes closest to the feel of a novel–it can be anything. This is why I've given myself such strict limits about what my blog should be and what it shouldn't be. By setting such narrow parameters, my writing doesn't end up all over the place and I know exactly what my subject matter will be.

NL: Do you consider your blog a literary work in itself?

GP: I don't know what to think of my blog, Nicholas. I write about things that interest me. If someone wants to drop by and leave a comment, fine. If not, that's cool too.

NL: What are the Caribbean literary blogs you read every day?

GP: I have subscriptions in Google Reader to Books of my Numberless Dreams, Guyana-Gyal, Croaking Marley (Jamaican writer Marlon James's blog), the Caribbean Beat blog, Antilles, Jeremy Taylor, and Seawoman's Caribbean Writing Opps. There are some blogs out there, not calling any names, that you can't subscribe to, so I visit them less frequently.

NL: Nalo Hopkinson seems to use her blog to keep in touch with her readers. Marlon James uses his to write short–sometimes not so short–essays on all kinds of literary topics, and he mentioned to me once that he was surprised by the attention his blog has got. What's the value of blogs for writers, in your opinion, especially writers in or from the Caribbean?

GP: A blog is about freedom. And if we can get that idea into our heads, many things will change. For example, publishing in the Caribbean is very incestuous. You go to a party and you worry if you say this or that about so-and-so that he won't publish you in frick-and-frack. I'm not saying this isn't true in Miami. Just sometimes by speaking (and some people think someone like me shouldn't speak) I've managed to anger some very important people here, so you won't see my face in some places. But I tired of the games. I know I'm a good writer, so if I think I've written a good poem or short story, I'll put it up on the blog.

I really meant it when I wrote on my blog that we have to “shoot the sheriff”. And the times that I grew up in had a lot of “sheriffs”–if I had listened to them, I would never have written a thing.

NL: Recently, Kwame Dawes, who's been blogging at Harriet, the Poetry Foundation blog, described his “greatest fear about blogging”: “It will suck up all my creative ideas–topics that really should belong in poems.” Do you ever feel this way yourself, or are the two activities–blogging & literary composition–too far apart?

GP: Writng for me is about discovery, and poetry, fiction, and non-fiction are different modes of discovery. Let me explain what I mean.

The writer is a craftman or should be. I was listening to an NPR interview with a man in China who made bows and arrows, and he said that with each piece of wood, the fashioning of the bow had to be done with intuition and experience. That is how I feel about poetry and writing. An idea comes into your head, and you in that moment have to decide how best to treat it. Are the images and the music of the words that come with the words so intense that they must be rendered in a poem? Or when you begin, do you find other voices creeping in saying, “Him is a dutty liar. Nothing no go so. Doan't listen to that boy! Make me tell you how the story really go”?

Now you have a conflict, so is it going to be a short story? And the more you write, is the inciting incident and the idea that is emerging too big to be contained in a short story? Now you have a novel? Or is it interesting, but none of these things are happening, but still worthy of notice? Then you have a post for a blog. And you bring to bear all the skills you have as a writer to the post.

Does it have an opening that will capture the reader's interest? Do you have to give background information? How are you going to handle the main idea? Do you know any anecdotes, facts, information to support the main idea? How are you going to link the ideas? How are you going to end the piece? Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Now ask yourself this, does the opening sentence, etc.? Is the writing doing what you think it's supposed to be doing? Can it still be improved or are you finished? Finished? Publish.

NL: A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece called “West Indian literature online” for Global Voices, in which I suggested that in the future the blogosphere could play a role for today's writers similar to that played in the 1940s and 50s by the BBC Caribbean Voices programme–i.e. providing a space where writers scattered across wide geographies can discover what they have in common. Any thoughts on this?

GP: In order to develop his/her talents, a writer needs time (which means money) and support/exposure.

The Caribbean Voices programme provided an important outlet–it was a source of revenue for the writers and gave them support/exposure when no one knew who they were. When listeners (another important factor, because we come from oral cultures) tuned into Caribbean Voices they knew that the writer was important because the BBC had put him on the air. The writer had instant credibilty. The CRB could become that. Antilles could become that, but the digital divide has to be overcome. The stigma attached to blogging has to be overcome, but we know our people are very conservative, very slow to change.

So one of the things that has to be changed in the minds of the people who read is that a blog, especially the blogs that I or Marlon do, are some how frivolous and not worthy of attention. We have to get away from the idea that because someone has self-published in a blog the writing isn't good.

Writers will always need support/exposure in one way or another. This is why the recognized writers have an army of publicists etc, and are given huge advances so that they can continue with their work. But merely because a writer is not recognized by the literati does not make him any less competent. Good writers, whether they are recognized or not, are going through the same processes of writing: inspiration, selection, distillation, revision (except for the last part, I sound like a winemaker, don't I?).


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