The writing of Anthony (Tony) Kellman is replete with mango trees, blue water, burning sun, angel fish, sugarcane and coral reefs. Though he writes from his experience in the Caribbean, he’s always interested in striking a chord for humanity.
For a couple of years his has been a familiar face on the literary scene in Augusta, where he teaches English and creative writing at Augusta College and heads up the Sandhills Writers’ Conference. How did a Caribbean poet end up in Georgia’s Garden City?
To start, how did he end up as a poet at all? At 14 or 15, while growing up in Barbados, West Indies, Kellman began playing guitar and writing poems and songs. At 18 he was off to England to work as a musician, playing a mixture British pop and West Indian folk music in pubs and such. 'It was glamorous and a great deal of fun,' he says. Then the harsh realities set in of living as a full-time pop musician.
He enrolled in a journalism program in London to master a more marketable trade. Then he returned to Barbados and landed a job as a newspaper reporter. He worked part-time while he went to the University of the West Indies, where he majored in English and History. He didn’t want to end up teaching high school, however.
'Teaching high school is very demanding, difficult work,' he says. 'I remembered how terrible I was to teachers who had the misfortune of teaching me, and I was afraid I would reap what I had sown.'
Kellman went into public relations instead, managing PR efforts for the Central Bank of Barbados. The bank had a cultural complex in its compound, with a recital hall and art gallery, so Kellman got to stretch his creative wings now and then even in an 8-to-5 job. 'I was well placed,’ he says. ‘I organized art exhibitions and readings of writers.'
While in Barbados, Kellman had two of his own books of poetry published by Letchworth Press: In Depths of Burning Light (1982) and The Broken Sun (1984). But he wanted to give his muses freer reign. 'I felt a bit stagnated as a literary artist in Barbados,' he says. 'I felt the need for a new challenge. I had done all I could do on the island.' So he packed his bags in 1987 and headed to the States to pursues Masters of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at Louisiana State University. 'Louisiana was a good introduction to America for me because of the common history,' he says. 'Also, the food and weather were similar.'
'I graduated from LSU in 1989 and pretty much came here to Augusta after that,' he says. 'Prior to Louisiana I was in Barbados drinking rum and Coca Cola and doing the limbo.' (Kellman, while very serious about his literary pursuits and the perennial questions of existence, knows how to have a good time.)
One reason he feels comfortable in the South is because landscape is so central to works of Southern writers, as the island landscape is central to Caribbean writers. 'I see the landscape as a living entity, influencing people’s lives and shaping destinies,' he says. His own writing reflects this theme. A couple of lines from Watercourse, part of a collection by the same name published last year by Peepal Tree Press (Yorkshire), reveals his intimate connection to the landscape of his birth:
is a womb of a cave
is a wave inside me.
'I’m very much into place,’ Kellman says. 'Writers will use the imagery of their immediate environment to communicate aspects of existence.' He has found particular comfort in the network of labyrinthine caves beneath Barbados’ surface as a metaphor for the human condition. 'The surface of the island, which is made of porous limestone, doesn’t have much dramatic scenery', Kellman says. ‘As I used to wander around the place, I thought, what am I going to write about? What am I going to use as a metaphor for humanity? Our hopes and aspirations and disappointments? I found this metaphor in the caves, believe it or not.' 'I used to explore caves when I was boy,' he recalls. 'As I was trying to find my voice as a writer, I found my voice in the caves.'
He became enchanted with the notion of appearance versus reality. 'All the dramatic moments in the landscape in Barbados are subterranean,' he says. 'There are rivers and fantastic waterfalls. It’s very scary to be underneath the earth with all this drama going on. It’s a coexistence of beauty and danger.'
Similarly, Kellman explores the exhilaration of human emotions using the imagery of these caves, with water running through the island like veins in the body. Several poems in Watercourse call on this imagery. The metaphor works for his fiction as well as for his poetry. In fact Kellman’s first novel, due out after the first of the year, is called The Coral Rooms. It tells the tale of a public relations officer at the Federal Bank of the fictional island of Charouga and makes use of the cave metaphor as the story develops. 'The challenge for writers is to convey reality in fresh way,' he says. One of his favorite authors is Toni Morrison (Beloved). 'I think she’s trespassing on literary territory that demands attention,' he says. 'She uses magical realism with fantastic premises to help express the inexpressible.
'The conventional rendering of reality, the realistic novel, has played its hand out really,' he says. 'It’s been done. We’re approaching the 21st century now, so I think the increasing complexity of the human person is demanding a form that more closely approximates that complexity.'
Even in critical essays, Kellman tries to employ a fresh treatment. 'I find many scholarly articles very boring,' he says. 'My scholarly articles combine an academic and creative approach. I’m not a slave to academic jargon.'
He enjoys teaching and says he would always want it to be a part of his work. 'I find teaching very stimulating,' he says. 'You’re forced to read, for one thing, and a writer must have an enormous appetite for words. Also, you learn so much from students. You become in touch with their generation and contemporary morality.'
Kellman seems to have a handle on the art of integration - combining an academic and creative career, finding inspiration in his past and present environments, and mixing his serious pursuits with the fun of music and the outdoors.
'I think balance is important,' he says. 'I’ve seen the fruits of imbalance and it’s not a pretty picture.' He also works to integrate the cultural influences of his island upbringing with the sophistication which comes through education and travel. 'As a third world person, you’re part of two heritages,' he says. 'There are African influences in speech and culture, and European influences in the educational system. I’m a very positive person. Why see it as two irreconcilables? I’d rather see it as being a complex singularity. Its a gateway for being a more enriched person.'
He says life in the southeastern U.S. has broadened his perceptions, and he’s even starting to invoke references to the local landscape in his works. 'I allude a lot now to blue jays, dogwoods and wisteria,' he smiles. But he still insists on good island rum when he’s out for a drink. In some areas, he has no plans to adapt.