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An interview with John Robert Lee

Author photo credit: Marion Nelson and Allen Sherman

Adam Lowe interviews John Robert Lee about his latest collection, Pierrot.

What drew you to the image of the Pierrot as a core motif for this collection? Why now?

On the Acknowledgements page of Pierrot, I wrote “The inspiration for the Pierrot figure came from the cover painting by (Saint Lucian artist) Shallon Fadlien.” I have long admired Shallon’s work and have written other ekphrastic poems in response to her paintings. In the Pierrot cover (which she titled “at the heart of the mask”) the eyes and mouth seemed to reveal the person beneath the costume, the actor under the masquerade, with all his heart pain, bewilderment and anguish. I named the figure Pierrot, and made him within the poem a composite of the Trinidad early carnival characters Pierrot and Pierrot Grenade, verbose Midnight Robber, Saint Lucian masqueraders. I also saw in that face, under the harlequin’s colours, a Christ figure, the Man of Sorrows. So following an ekphrastic mode, I gave full characterisation to the art of Shallon in these and several other voices. So the powerful narrative expression of the face drew me and inspired the Pierrot poems. The art was not designed originally for the book, but I asked Shallon’s permission to use it since it was so inspirational for me.

Why now? Well the idea of the masks we wear, the way we disguise our heart’s thoughts and feelings behind various disguises, as the way of life, is not a new one. Why now? Perhaps the times we live in call for masking and unmasking, speaking plainly or through various aliases, pseudonyms, characterisations – which perhaps is a device for speaking truth to power and to each other and to ourselves, and that, self-protectively.

There are a number of different forms within the collection. How do you choose which forms to use and when? Was there anything that drew you towards, for example, the glosa?

From my earliest writing days, as I learned from other poets and that through imitation, I have always used different forms from traditional to experimental, from formal, established structures to freer forms. I have always believed in deliberate form, crafting of carefully structured lines as important to writing good poetry. I have created a “canticle” form, eight-line stanzas, loosely terza rima, using half rhymes which I have used in many books including Pierrot. I have also used the American ideas of “the breath determining the length of the line” which freed me up from traditional metric and syllabic systems. Poets like Kamau Brathwaite would have been a great influence.

As to what form to use: sometimes I start with ideas for a form sequence and fit my content into that. Other times, in reverse, I have content ideas and try to find the best form that will satisfy what I want to say. Form also includes using the white space on the page in various typographical ways. And form can metamorphose as the poem develops. Also, because I have been involved in theatre and media, my form is very descriptive, with characterisation through voice, and a certain plotting/blocking of movement through the narrative of the poem. I do write for the speaking/reading voice so the dramatic element is an important part of literary creation for me.

Having said that I am more interested in “presenting” my poetry than “performing” it. I think the reader should follow the line given and not impose, as it were, their own “over-dramatisation” on the poem. I am not being dogmatic about this since I am aware that “performance poetry” or “spoken word” is very popular and approaches will differ. I prefer the term “spoken word” to “performance poetry”.Often when I hear “performance poetry”, I wonder where the poetry is.

I discovered the glosa via Dionne Brand who is among my top three favourite writers now. Looking for YouTube readings by Dionne, I found her reading poems using the glosa form by a Canadian poet, P. K Page. When I tracked down P. K. Page, I discovered a book of poems titled hologram: a book of glosas and immediately liked the form. I have since gone on to write several poems using the form and many are included in Pierrot. The glosa is ideal for writing homage-type poems, in which you, as it were, “riff” off the lines of the poet you are responding to.

Poetry is often in dialogue with itself. Which poets are you in dialogue with in Pierrot?

In Pierrot I am in dialogue, not only with poets but with several artists to whose work I have written ekphrastic poems. The art is not included in the book, but I have published the poems in other places accompanied by the art that inspired them. My response to the art is not first literal, but intuitive, allowing the art, as it were, to pull from my subconscious, how it wants to be responded to.

As to poets, I am in dialogue with several, including Dionne Brand, Derek Walcott, Francis Thompson, the Psalmist. But I also dialogue with writers, and song-writers, through the epigraphs I use with most of the poems.

So in many ways, this book, like my others (with Peepal and my self-published Saint Lucian volumes), is conceptualised very deliberately, from theme to cover and book design, through the poems and layout, and represents also a dialogue with my literary contexts, my influences - Caribbean, international, past and present - my faith. I describe Pierrot as “a simple man of simple faith.” I have been fortunate to work with the editorial experience of Jeremy Poynting whose edits are right and judicious and gives me room and space to also lay my poems out as I want to.

When writing your poems, do you have a particular approach? Do you have a particular setting, or do you write them on the go?

I have never written poems “on the go”. I may jot down ideas and lines that come as I am on the move. I am always collecting images and ideas as I pass through my worlds. My main setting for writing is my study at home. Many poems include research to get the facts right – of flora and fauna or names, historical facts, etc.

Years ago, I wrote by hand, but now I do my writing straight on to the computer. I use notebooks for the preparatory planning, notes, stray lines, to plan my half rhymes and other musical things. But once the poem gets going the computer is where I work. Many poems take a while. Some come to life more quickly. In writing, especially long sequences, there are moments of total “panic” where I don’t have a clue where to go with the idea or image I might be responding to. Par for the course now.

When editing your work, which voices are at the back of your mind, guiding you towards a finished version? Are there particular poets or readers you share your poems with first?

I aim for a guiding parameter of “truth, beauty, harmony”. Is the poem “true” in terms of the experience or feeling being worked through? Will the reader see the poem as “truthful”?

Poetry should have a “beauty”: of image, sound, line, language, even though the subject may be grim. That is what makes poetry, poetry, for me. Of course, in all literary forms, “beauty” is also needed, in prose or drama.

And “harmony” – composition, balance between content and form, logic of meaning and “argument” or “proposition”. Music has always seemed to me to be a model for poetry writing, especially with its distinct, diverse forms.

These “voices” test what I have written. And then, I need patience to give time to editing, to removing the extraneous, to tighten lines and images, to test the logic. Once the poem is given time to rest, I always see more clearly what edits are to be made. I usually know when the poem is essentially done. When a book is compiled, then working with my editor helps to clear up things.

I have one or two poets and readers I may run poems by to get a perspective. Not many. My wife is usually my first reader.

Sketches and Canticles of Lent after Shallon Fadlien

Pierrot – Mardi Gras


Filthy feathers, that painted shoe, trampled headpiece, etcetera

choking drains down the route,

street-light blinking out, stale roti


baddening the guts, your eyes sharp for midnight bandit

or coke jumbie looking to make ole mas

with the unwary  —

                                    you clown prince, you celebratory idiot


you forget she was Coolie Devil original,

Jab-Jab Mistress, maker of scourges?

Socialite – Ash Wednesday


God, to be outta this talk-show bakanal

these infernal cycles of mamaguy kaiso politricks

perpetual, shameless, cell-phone scandals


and all else; man gone cold in Toronto

landlord looking for his portion,

me sleeping with my fantasies —

                                    in the penitential procession


the priest and his boys washing

you, beloved masquerader, in their platter of ashes.

Masque – Good Friday


We know the triumphant end of that old scenario:

disembowelled shroud, vacant catacomb

incredible gossip of love-struck women


whose eyes and hands and arms

encompassed the impossible incarnate eternal,

the risen God —

                                    the empty mask, inanimate


signature of death’s humanity

crosses to centre stage before that tremendous denouement.


Art © Shallon Fadlien
Poems © John Robert Lee

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