Poet Of The Week

Keisha-Gaye Anderson

     October 12–18, 2015

Keisha-Gaye Anderson is a Jamaican-born poet and creative writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of the poetry collection Gathering the Waters (Jamii Publishing, December 2014). Her writing has appeared in national literary journals including African Voices Magazine, Renaissance Noire, The Killens Review of Arts and Letters, Small Axe Salon and others, as well as anthologies such as Poems on the Road to Peace: A Collective Tribute to Dr. King and Bet on Black: African American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama. Keisha is a founding poet with Poets for Ayiti, whose proceeds from the 2010 chapbook For the Crowns of Your Heads helped to rebuild the Bibliothèque du Soleil, a library destroyed by the earthquake in Haiti. She recently curated two poetry/theatrical programs for the annual BEAT Festival in Brooklyn, and her journalistic work includes news and documentary production for CBS, PBS and Japanese television, as well as feature articles for magazines like Psychology Today, Black Enterprise, Honey and Teen People. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College–CUNY and for more than a decade has worked as a college administrator and occasional adjunct lecturer.

I Am the Caribbean

In the belly of a ship named
for supposed nobility
I came this way
From low-caste Bombay
to Chinese-built railway
I came this way
From Irish town here
poor as the one back there
I came this way

I became that jigsaw piece
floating on the archipelago
too enmeshed to go
beyond the gravity of
my being

I am the Caribbean

a sweltering pool of
disjointed life
every day remaking
reshaping itself into
an electric rhythm
skipping from
to tassa
to nyabinghi
weaving through me

Making me

that kumina sound
that pan melody
that flute in the hills
that shak shak
that brings back
that sound of conviction
of personhood fought for
the independent ardor
that we bled to see

I came to be

that diasporic medley
calling me down
to ride through this life
changing shape as I see fit
and though we may forget
the names of spirit
we call them viscerally

to Trench Town
Port of Spain
concrete just the same
all repositories
of potential energy
and stilted memory

I am the Caribbean

–Originally published in Small Axe Salon, April 2011.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

To live in America is to be continually focused on “identity”—either voluntarily or involuntarily. As an immigrant, this question of identity becomes even more pronounced in just about every area of life. My Caribbean identity—and that of the Caribbean region as a whole—is not one that fits neatly into any one box. It’s more like lines drawn over and over in shifting sands. After all, the Caribbean is one of the first truly globalized places on the planet, in recent history. The transatlantic slave trade, colonialism and the perpetual rivalries of empires have created complex identities in these places, in just 400 years. A Spanish colony becomes a French colony, becomes a British colony, becomes a Dutch colony . . . Africans from the Igbo, Akan, Fon, Yoruba and Bantu ethnic groups are thrust together under one yoke with laborers from India, China and Ireland, and the indigenous Arawak/Taino people . . . How does one name the constellation of this DNA? I wanted, with this poem, to succinctly convey the personal map of my being, the roads of humanity that converged so that I could emerge as me. But I also wanted to make a broader statement about the ways in which Caribbean people transform their collective struggles into art, in these places that were peopled expressly for the goal of turning forced labor into profit for colonial masters. I wanted to convey how the disparate cultures that formed the Caribbean are linked through a singular tumult. I am the result of all of these convergences. I am the Caribbean.

What are you working on right now?

I’m happy to say that I’m polishing another book-length manuscript of my poems and will be circulating that to potential publishers in the new year. What’s really special to me about this collection is the possibility of matching some of my original, abstract line drawings with the words in a sort of experimental presentation. Whereas Gathering the Waters spoke mainly about ancestry and collective memory, this work feels a bit more spiritual, philosophical, abstract. Almost musical.

What’s a good day for you?

Well, I feel like every day that I wake up and open my eyes is a good day. But a great day? Now that’s one in which I’ve gotten adequate sleep the night before (I’m a mother of two and the boogeyman is real busy over here in the middle of the night) and I’ve spent substantial, focused, quiet time on my writing or work that is related to my writing career. And if there’s room in that day to also get my sci-fi or horror fix on Netflix, I’m good.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in?

My family moved from Kingston, Jamaica to Flatbush in the 1970s. But we didn’t stay there long. I was raised in Queens, NY. For the past 12 years, I’ve lived in Brooklyn, first in Prospect Heights and now in Crown Heights.

What do you like most about it?

When I moved to Brooklyn, my mother was like, “Why on earth do you want to go back there?” But her Brooklyn of the 1970s was very different from my Brooklyn of the 2000s. Though quite nice, the Queens neighborhood where I grew up was primarily a bedroom community. I wanted a different type of neighborhood experience. I came to Brooklyn because of the diversity, the cultural and artistic institutions, and opportunities to connect with people very different from myself. I loved the mix of people I found in Brooklyn! There was my Caribbean community, where I felt so much at home, and also people from all corners of the globe. Now that I’m a homeowner, and pretty rooted here in Brooklyn, I only hope that the borough will be able to maintain that diversity; it’s what draws people here in the first place. It’s what makes Brooklyn “Brooklyn.”

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

Free concerts in Prospect Park, baby! From Kassav’s zouk music to watching Purple Rain and singing all the songs out loud. Those were among my most memorable experiences, where I really felt a sense of togetherness with perfect strangers. The vibe was always good. Also, experiencing J’Ouvert on Labor Day weekend made a big impact on me, especially as a Caribbean person. And I must add to this list becoming a homeowner eight years ago. That was a thrilling turning point for me and my family and really cemented us in this borough.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

Sekou Sundiata comes to mind immediately. How piercing and soothing were his insights, all at once. And there are so many contemporary poets I adore; the list would be too long. But some are Patricia Spears Jones, JP Howard, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Tyehimba Jess, Mahogany Brown, Rachel Eliza Griffiths . . . They and many, many others are creating bravely, honestly and unapologetically, and moving this work into finer and finer iterations. This dedication to craft is necessary for poetry to continue as a fine art. And I think we can agree that poetry is a balm and a lantern that the world cannot afford to do without.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Greenlight for sure. They often have great reading series and an eclectic collection. And they’re kid-friendly.

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

I love to sit on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum to read or write. Great people watching there. Brooklyn Bridge Park is also one of my favorite spots, right by the water. It’s really beautiful, especially at sunset.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

I must have my Cuban sandwich and tostones from Habana Outpost. And with the children, picking up books at the book store and going right next door to catch a movie on Court St. is a favorite pastime. Sugarcane restaurant is a great place to go for a drink and just unwind. Great food.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I discovered the work of Robert Hayden quite late. I’ve listened to audio recordings of some of his poems and I’m just gripped by the elegance of his work, the command of language, the use of form and the vivid pictures he paints with his writing. His poem “Middle Passage” is especially potent and was penned over 60 years ago.

Why Brooklyn?

Because I can be here fully as myself, comfortable in my skin, proud of my heritage, eclectic as I want to be, and still be seen as completely belonging to the fabric of the borough. Not too many places like that in the nation.