She is now one of the greatest! Accomplished author and Jamaica’s first female Poet Laureate, Lorna Goodison, is considered one of the best Caribbean poets of her generation. Her impressive body of work continues to highlight the scenes and culture of Jamaica, the triumph of the Jamaican people and the many roles that women play in the society.
Goodison loved reading books as a child, a trait she got from her mother and sister, who read frequently.
“I would also listen to the radio a lot, and ‘The Birthday Club’ was one programme that told stories of the great myths like ‘Diana and the Golden Apple’. The programme also played music for children, and my imagination was filled with the visuals, especially when I heard Brahms’ Lullaby and they read Peter and the Wolf,” she added.
Although she grew up in Kingston, she often travelled to the countryside and was always in awe of its beauty. During this time and while attending St Hugh’s High School, she wrote her own poems, some of which were published anonymously in The Sunday Gleaner.
“While at St Hugh’s, two teachers in particular told me I would become a writer. In second form, I was terrible at homework, and that teacher told me if I settled down and did my homework, I could be a real writer. In fifth form, another teacher told me the same thing, and I wrote a poem for her, ‘My Teacher Lena’,” said Goodison, the 2018 recipient of the RJRGLEANER Honour Award, Special Award, in the category of Arts & Culture.
MIXING PAINTING AND WRITING
After graduation, Goodison went on to the Jamaica School of Art, where she studied both writing and painting. Later, she moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League, after which she returned to Jamaica to work in advertising and teach art and writing to high school and college students.
“Many poets are also painters and I wrote a lot while studying abroad. ‘New York Is A Subway Stop’ I wrote in 1969 and this was published in The Gleaner. My name was attached to it for the first time. Poetry for me at the time was something I wrote in private, and expressed my internal thoughts and feelings,” Goodison said.
In 1980, Goodison published her first collection of poems titled Tamarind Season, which refers to a particular time just before the harvest when food is extremely limited. This is usually a period of struggle that requires strength and optimism, a recurring theme in Goodison’s poems.
At their best, Lorna Goodison’s poems observe the unsavoury in history and society even as they guide us firmly towards sources of redemption. With compassion and empathy, Goodison writes about human failure and triumph in large and small measures.
Many of Goodison’s poems are about the different roles a woman can play, and one of her best known, For My Mother (May I Inherit Half Her Strength), tells how her mother – “a child of the petite bourgeoisie studying to be a teacher” – fell in love with a working-class man who “had nothing but words to woo her”. The couple moved from the lush countryside of Harvey River to a busy street in Kingston, and went on to have nine children, of which Goodison is the eighth.
The poem is a celebration of her mother’s remarkable domestic skills, which included making “a garment from a square in a span that defied time”.
Her numerous poetry collections also include Heartease (1988), Travelling Mercies (2001), Controlling the Silver (2005), Goldengrove: New and Selected Poems (2006) and Supplying Salt and Light (2013). She is also the author of the short story collections Baby Mother and the King of Swords (1990), Fool-fool Rose is Leaving Labour-in-Vain Savannah (2005) and By Love Possessed (2011).
Goodison has also written the memoir From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People (2007), which won the BC (British Columbia) National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and was a finalist for both the Trillium Book Award and the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.
Her work is also featured in numerous anthologies, including the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (third edition, 2003), the Longman Anthology of British Literature (third edition, 2006) and the Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (1996).
Goodison was encouraged during her early years by a number of persons, including James Verty, who was head of the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation at the time, Professor Meryvn Morris, Dennis Scott, Neville Dawes, Derek Walcott, and Professor Edward Baugh.
“Dennis Scott would come to my house and say, ‘Are you writing any poetry? No matter what you let go off, you have to hold on to writing poetry’. God bless Dennis Scott. Derek Walcott really liked my work and throughout the whole time, he was always encouraging me,” Goodison said.
Significant among her supporters have also been Trevor Fearon and her son Miles Goodison Fearon. She also credits her current husband, Ted Chamberlain, a literary critic who she said made sure her work flourished.
“I met him because he read my poems and wanted so much to foster and help me build my work,” she said.
Goodison is a member of the Jamaican National Commission to UNESCO, and was awarded Jamaica’s Musgrave Gold Medal in 1999. She also received the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for the Americas for her second book of poetry, I am Becoming My Mother (1986).
Recently, Goodison was among a group of sterling writers that received the Wyndham Campbell Award for poetry from Yale University, and her poem The Mango of Poetry was translated into French at the University of Bordeaux.
“I am very grateful for all my achievements. I am passionate about my work and I continue to draw from the strength of my ancestors,” Goodison said.