About Esther Phillips
Born in Barbados, where she still resides, Esther Phillips graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami in 1999, winning the Alfred Boas Poetry Prize of the Academy of American Poets for her poetry thesis. In February 2018, she was appointred the first Poet Laureate of Barbados. Her first publication was a chapbook, La Montee (University of West Indies Press, 1983), and she won a Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award in 2001. When Ground Doves Fly (Ian Randle Publishers), her first full-length collection, appeared in 2003. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, most recently Poetas de Caribe anglophono (Casa de las Americas, 2011) and Give the Ball to the Poet (Cambridge-Homerton, 2014). Phillips is also a Sunday columnist of the Nation newspaper, and editor of Bim: Arts for the 21st Century, a revival of the seminal Caribbean literary and arts magazine, which first appeared in 1942. A founder of Writers Ink Inc, and the Bim Literary Festival & Book Fair, her most recent publication is The Stone Gatherer (Peepal Tree Press, 2009).
Phillips’ work is characterised by its faith, a faith in her country, in the poet’s craft, and in ‘the master craftsman’ of Christian belief. As Jane King has said of her work in the Caribbean Review of Books, ‘God’s willingness is quietly present in a way that may be possible only in post-colonial spaces, now that the metropolitan academy has become so relentlessly post-Christian’. Yet Phillips is keen to stress the influence of what she terms Western Classical Literature, particularly on the technical craft and range of language in Shakespeare, Eliot, and Heaney. For Phillips, ‘how a poem is crafted is what decides how powerfully the ideas and emotions will be communicated’.
Phillips’ poems have a hugely generous spirit about them. She has said that ‘it is never possible to write only for oneself since every idea or emotion expressed is contingent on the people or the world around them’. Her voice is magnanimous, her language is layered but uncomplicated, and her subjects universal, made up of what have been described as ‘the foibles of family’ – love, grief, memory and particularly, absent fathers, which is a recurring theme in Caribbean literature. Yet her poems strive for reconciliation; ‘I Do Not Know My Father’ declares the lack of the eponymous smart-talker from the start, the one who warped words ‘out of all meaning’, but the poet comes to discern with a greater compassion that it might have been ‘grief etched on his face’ all the while. ‘The Mask’ contains a similar struggle to articulate grief: ‘there are no words / that can describe the horror. / No wonder he has kept us out’, but the ending is one of resolve, to ‘look behind the mask / and choose to love him still’.
‘Legacy’ is about the mother who is left to raise her children alone; her touch is not tender, and makes for a brash ‘fortissimo’ music about the home, which the speaker later comes to appreciate for its whole-heartedness and strength, the kind of song that ‘lured us into feeling / for word, image, rhythm to shape our world’. The West Indian dialect of ‘Steal Away’ urges slaves to ‘drop yuh sorrow / into de watuh’ so as not to be overheard by slave masters, and becomes almost incantatory in its build-up of clipped assonance. The speech act is paramount ‘the slave should risk his life’ to ‘speak it low in de watuh / [and] let de Spirit hear’. Elsewhere, Phillips mourns the autonomy of words without their speakers, taking on new lives, ‘unconnected / from anything we meant to say’. But we realize the truth is in the act of telling, in the ‘legacy’ of stories, in earnest speech. These recordings of Phillips are measured, warm and assured; there is a bright knowing confidence in her voice, so much so that you can almost hear the poet smiling at the close of certain poems.
Esther Phillips’ favourite poetry sayings:
“The poet turns the world into glass, and shows us all things in their right series. For through that better perception, he stands one step nearer to things” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented on that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.” – Muriel Rukeyser
“The sources of poetry are in the spirit, seeking completeness.” – Muriel Rukeyser
“Poetry is a language at its most distilled and most powerful.” – Rita Dove
“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” – W.B Yeats
“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” – Plato
“Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself.” – William Hazlitt
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive at Livewire Music, Barbados on 29th September 2013, and was produced by Fabian Bishop.