A guest blog by Halifax's Poet Laureate, Dr. Afua Cooper
Poetry that inspires me
In elementary school in Jamaica, my teachers introduced my classmates and I to Caribbean poets. What a gift! We read such poets as Claude McKay, Louise Bennet, and Nicolas Guillen in translation.
Claude McKay wrote some of his poems in Jamaican Creole, as did Lousie Bennett—AKA Miss Lou. Bennett was of course very special. When we were reading her poems she was still very much alive, and was an avatar of Jamaican culture. In addition to her being a poet and writer, she was also an actor and television personality. Her writing in Jamaican Creole gave permission to many of us to write in our mother tongue. Many Caribbean poets see Miss Lou as an early Dub Poet because of her use of Creole.
As a Dub Poet myself, Creole is of critical importance to my work. Jamaican is my mother tongue, and the use of Jamaican Creole is one of the ways we use to break the chains of colonialism. Miss Lou made us realize that one could write poetry about the ‘everyday.’ She had a weekly Saturday television show called “Ring Ding.” Children of school age were on that show singing, reading poems, dancing, and engaging in other aspects of folklore.
In high school I began to read Kamau Brathwaite, a legendary Caribbean and world poet. My high school drama group, of which I was a part, also performed one of Kamau’s plays called Odale’s Choice. Brathwaite came to our rehearsals and helped us with the play. What a tremendous privilege that was for us. As a poet, a major concern of Kamau’s was the transatlantic slavery and the Middle Passage. His work of poetry The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, a tour-de-force, had a tremendous impact on my life as a writer. It helped me find my voice as a poet. Yes, I could write about slavery, displacement, colonialism, loss and grief, and also resistance and resilience, and about my family: my grandfathers William Cooper and Neil Campbell, and my mother Ruth Cooper, my aunt Elfreda Campbell, and growing up in Westmoreland and Kingston. All these themes come together in my books Memories Have Tongue and Copper Woman and Other Poems.
Like McKay and Bennett, Kamau used Caribbean Creole as a language of poetry. We see Kamau (like Bennett) as a foundational Dub Poet. Brathwaite was also a historian of Caribbean history and the African Diaspora. So those twin vocations (history and poetry) provided a template for me as I went forward in my life. Brathwaite gave me the permission I needed to become both a poet and a historian. Other poets that sustain and inspire me are Pablo Neruda, Nazim Hikmet, Olive Senior, June Jordan, Jayne Cortez, and Rumi. While writing my Ph.D. dissertation in history, I read Neruda and Rumi over and over again for sustenance.
What I love about libraries
Libraries gave me wings to fly.
As a young child, I would lose myself in books and be transported to other realms—magical realms of “talking trees, and fabled cities beneath mighty rivers.” Libraries fired my imagination. I simply love libraries because they contain books, and books are some of my soul’s companions.
When I was about three (not yet in school, so I know I was very young), there was not a physical library in my home community of Barracks Road, Westmoreland, Jamaica. But a book mobile would come every week. The mobile parked itself at a place called Lindo’s Hill, about a half a kilometre from our house. To get to Lindo’s Hill, the mobile had to pass our house. I would get really excited when the bus passed and my mother knew this. So, soon after the mobile passed, she would walk with me up to Lindo’s Hill. I can remember holding her hand as we walked. It felt really comforting, and I was happy. Going into this mobile library was a great treat. There were so many books! I would sit there and ‘read’ page after page of books. Then my mother would borrow the books for me, and I would go home and devour them. I could hardly wait for the week to pass when I would visit the mobile again and borrow new books.
Later, I moved to Kingston, and there was a public library close to my school. It was called the Junior Centre Library and it was connected to the Institute of Jamaica. Junior Centre was the best! There were so many books of different genres to read.
I particularly love mystery novels, biographies, and historical novels. I loved reading a British author named Victor Canning. He wrote all kinds of thrillers. I remember reading Nelly Bly’s biography, that of the Wright brothers, and Shaka Zulu. At Junior Centre, I would load up on books, take them home, and because I was an avid reader, I would read them over the course of a day or two. The librarians were always amazed at the speed at which I read the books. Sometimes, they did not believe I read them all, but I did. Junior Centre also had arts and cultural programs like pottery, violin, and dance. I took violin for a while. This library was a place that nurtured the creative growth of the child in so many ways. Junior Centre was a cornerstone of my childhood.
My high school library was also a great place. I loved to go there after school to do homework, and just read. As I became a teenager, I realized the kind of literature that spoke to me was poetry and historical novels. After a while, I lost interest in detective stories.
The Halifax Central Library on Spring Garden (I still call it the ‘new library’) is a really fantastic place. It brings art and literature to life! I suspect the kids who come to this library love it the most. It is so kid-friendly. I love to come to the library to borrow books or movies, and sometimes just to browse. I love the Black studies sections, whether these are non-fiction or fiction. Paul O’Regan Hall is a gift to the City of Halifax.
Another library I love is the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. It is a research library and has a great primary and secondary source collection. It was my home while I wrote my dissertation. I remember it with warmth and affection. I have also done research at the Bibliotheque National in Paris, France, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. They are also wonderful places.
The Child is Alive - Afua Cooper
And a niece of Granny Nanny
an Akan woman
A woman who can see far
A woman with the knowledge of herbs
A woman who works in the field cutting cane
A woman who speaks the language of her grandmothers
A woman who tells stories of talking trees
And of fabled cities beneath mighty rivers
A woman who flies to Africa when she sleeps.
This woman takes her cutlass and runs
with the swiftness of Sogolon Condé
in her guise as Buffalo woman…
It is such a great honour to be poet laureate of the HRM. I read at Council on April 16 and I felt it was a real privilege. I shared my poem, “15 Ships” with the Mayor, Council, and visitors.
“15 Ships” is about the exodus of the Black Loyalists from Halifax Harbour in January 1792. About 1200 Black Loyalists fled Nova Scotia on 15 ships, refusing to put up with the racism anymore. On 24 Jan. I had a conversation with the outstanding Halifax poet Sue Goyette at the Paul O’Regan Hall. It was such a wonderful interview. As laureate, I have read poetry at community events, senior citizens' affairs, schools, universities, business events—just about anywhere where a poet is needed. I have represented Halifax overseas and within Canada. What a great honour.
Nurturing and honouring the inner poet
For me, I love to walk by the water, the ocean especially. I come from an island and so I am always drawn to the sea. I love to gaze at the water and watch it as it changes its colour.
Here in Nova Scotia, the sea can be very dramatic. In the North Atlantic, in places like Cape Breton, the sea can be rough and unrelenting. I love it in its myriad forms.
I also engage in meditation. Where would I be without it! Meditation calms and heals my soul. It is in a meditative state that I sometimes work through a poetry issue. What is the word I am looking for? What is the sense I want to evoke? What is the image I want to play with? In meditation, these issues are usually resolved. I think it is import to honour the inner poet by sitting still, watch the breath, and greeting and saluting the inner spirit.
I grew up in Jamaica, and was grounded in that particular culture. I find that here in Canada, it is oftentimes necessary to get back to that cultural grounding as a way to nurture the inner poet. This means at times, preparing and eating my cultural foods like boiled yam, plantains, and bananas with ackee and codfish (cod from the Maritimes, of course!); corn-meal porridge; rice and peas and calaloo; and fried dumplings. I also sink into the music. Reggae music—whatever its roots, rock Reggae or dancehall. And I dance and dance to the music! I find the dancing really grounds me. The artists that I really like these days are Chronixx and Koffee. So food and music are important components of honouring and nurturing my inner poet.
15 Ships - Afua Cooper
In fifteen ships they sailed from Halifax
On the big wide sea
They were Black Loyalists
Wherever it might be
They were Black Loyalists
Bound for freedom’s land
FREE SETTLEMENT ON THE COAST OF AFRICA
It is therefore declared that every Free Black man
Shall have a grant of not less than
20 acres of land
parents and their children
Led by Thomas Peters
Who had a plan
To fulfill the free mission
in an African land
About Dr. Afua Cooper
In recognition of her poetry Afua Cooper was installed in 2018 as Halifax Region’s Poet Laureate. A recognized poet, spoken word artist, and wordsmaestra, Afua helped found the Dub Poetry movement in Canada, and popularized Dub Poetry around the world. She has organized and co-organized five international Dub Poetry festivals in Canada. Additionally, Dr. Cooper has published five books of poetry, including the critically acclaimed Copper Woman and Other Poems. She has recorded two poetry CDs, Worlds of Fire (2002) and Love: The Revolution (2019). She is currently working on a photo-poetry book with German multidisciplinary scholar and artist,Wilfried Raussert.
Afua Cooper is a senior academic trained in the history of Black people in Canada, and the African Diaspora. Her indomitable research on slavery, abolition, freedom, Black education, and women and youth studies has made her one of the leading figures in African Canadian studies. She currently teaches in the History, and Sociology and Social Anthropology departments at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Her book on Canadian slavery, The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Slavery in Canada and the Burning of Old Montreal broke new ground in the study of Canadian and Atlantic slavery. Angelique was nominated for a Governor-General’s award, and was named by the CBC as one of the best books published in Canada. Her co-authored publication We’re Rooted Here and they can’t pull us up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History helped centre the study of Black women’s history in Canada. Her commitment to social justice education has resulted in her curating five exhibits on Black history, slavery, and freedom.
An academic leader, Afua founded the Black Canadian Studies Association and the Dalhousie Black Faculty and Staff Caucus. She also established the Black and African Diaspora Studies Minor at Dalhousie.
Dr. Cooper’s awards and achievements include: Poet Laureate of Halifax; the Ontario Black History Society, Daniel G. Hill Community Service Award (2019); Canadian Trailblazers Award, Historica Canada Recognition (2017); a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Scholar of Honour feature (2017); Honouree: Hanging of Angelique named as one of the "Best Canadian Books Published,” CBC (2016); Honouree:100 Accomplished Black Women, Ryerson University (2016); Nova Scotia Human Rights Award (2015); and The Planet Africa Renaissance Award (2007).
The impulse behind the work of this multi-disciplinary scholar/artist is democratic. She aims to bridge the gap between academe and the world at large.