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Friday, 12 June 2009

Talking to Nicolette Bethel

Many Antilles readers are familiar with tongues of the ocean, an online poetry journal based in the Bahamas, which was launched in February 2009. Edited by poet and playwright Nicolette Bethel, and focused on poetry from the Caribbean and its diasporas, tongues plans to publish three issues per year, with the contents of each issue appearing gradually week by week.

Soon after the second issue of tongues — dated June 2009 — began appearing, Bethel answered some questions via email about the journal’s background, influences, and modus operandi.

Nicholas Laughlin: Why now? What’s the immediate backstory behind the launch of tongues of the ocean earlier this year?

Nicolette Bethel: It’s a bit personal, a bit professional. Let’s get the professional out of the way first. On 31 December, 2008, I left my position as director of culture for the Bahamas. The immediate goal was to return to academia. However, one of the other goals was to get back into cultural production — something I’d put on hold for any number of reasons for the five years. tongues of the ocean was the first of a series of projects in that regard.

Which brings me to the personal. For the past eight years or so, I’ve been working as a poet, and in the past two I’ve been publishing as one. I’m a little bit lazy, and I’m based in the Bahamas, which makes submitting by regular post a nuisance and a chore when doing it right involves sending along a SASE requiring stamps from the UK and the US, and . . . anyway, it was a waste of time and energy, and besides, it’s a little too much like imperialism, isn’t it? So I prefer submitting only electronically.

Anyway, to cut this long story short, I made a point of submitting only electronically and mostly to online journals. I’d read a few and was impressed by their quality — which had changed tremendously over the past decade, and which now rivals the quality of mid-range print publications. I was also impressed by the sheer geographical range that these journals have — writers from India, Africa, Europe, Australia, and South America jostle with those from the UK and the US. And I was impressed by these journals’ integration of media into their offerings, which made them a substantially different, more alive, animal from the printed page.

What was missing among them? An online Caribbean journal for Caribbean writers with the kind of turn-around and quick publishing record that these other online journals had. And so I thought about establishing one of those.

In the beginning, the idea was really to address the lack of publishing opportunities in the Bahamian market. We have a wide literary community, but it’s rather familial and acritical. What’s more, the written word poets and the spoken word poets were unfamiliar with one another, and there was no sense of being located within a tradition that has a trajectory; there was really only a sense of me-now. I thought a journal would be a very important addition to this community, and a good channel to bring about a wider writers’ community within the Bahamas — as well as allowing people outside the Bahamas access to some of the fine writing that’s going on here. In some ways, the absence of a wide Bahamian diaspora has hurt us globally; we maintain our insularity with great success here. An online journal, being directly inserted into the global conversation, would help to change that a little.

Finally, I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. Last year also saw the launch of the Bahamas International Literary Festival, also known as the Seagrape Literary Festival, and tongues of the ocean was born at a planning meeting. But it’s not a committee venture! We’re affiliated with BILF/Seagrape, and we’re happily partnering with them, but tongues of the ocean is its own master.

NL: Why did you decide that tongues would focus on poetry, rather than making it a more general literary journal?

NB: Purely for convenience. It’s what I have the time to edit. Fiction and non-fiction require far more sustained focus, while poems — especially those best suited for online publication, which are of a limited length and focus — can be edited on the fly. I can read a batch at lunchtime, between classes, during really boring meetings, in that little space between arrival at home and supper, and get the job done. Prose is more than I can handle now.

And anyway, I tend to prefer reading creative prose off the page (blog posts excepted). Poems work well for me on the screen, but I find that the screen demands a certain style of prose that limits the sweep of creativity. Like newspapers, the screen favours short paragraphs, pithy sentences, breezy styles; but my prose preferences tend towards the dense.

If I had another editor who was interested in prose, then we’d consider expanding. But for now, it’s poetry alone.

NL: A few years ago the Bahamian poet Christian Campbell wrote a letter to the CRB, published in our February 2006 issue, in which he argued that Bahamian writers were unfairly ignored by the rest of the Caribbean, and excluded from the region’s literary history. Do you feel that’s still the case? Is addressing that exclusion one of the aims of tongues? And how has the literary establishment (if that’s the right term to use) in the Bahamas reacted to it?

NB: I think Christian’s right to say that Bahamian writers have been ignored by the rest of the Caribbean. Whether that’s unfair or not (given my government’s rejection once again of Carifesta) is a different question; the Bahamian track record with regard to the Caribbean is not a stellar one. But unfair to the writers, perhaps; we are not our governments.

The Bahamas has been excluded from the region’s literary history. I think it’s still the case, as was made clear in Guyana at Carifesta X [in August 2008], where no Bahamians, not even our heavyweights (who have personal connections with the region and who have made their own Caribbean contributions), were programmed. Bahamians have to make real efforts and get pushy to be included in regional literary discussions.

Addressing the exclusion is indeed one of the aims of tongues, though the main purpose was to give Bahamians the opportunity to undergo the discipline of professional publishing.

NL: What has been the great surprise or discovery of working on the journal thus far?

NB: Finding the number of people from across the Caribbean who are writing good poetry. And making connections throughout the diaspora and even around the world. And the number of Bahamians who are writing well.

You know, when I started, when we were gearing up and tongues was no more than a site with instructions about how to submit, a fellow writer asked me if I thought I’d get enough good poetry to fill a journal that published three times a year. I had no idea. I knew there were some good Bahamian poets out there, sprinkled across the archipelago of the Bahamas and over the globe. I even covered my butt by announcing that tongues would reprint previously published poems (after all, how many of those poems are previously published in the Caribbean — or anywhere they can gain a more global readership?), and prepared to fill some of the gaps in the first issue with reprints of some of my favourite Bahamian poems. But the last issue received near to two hundred individual poem submissions from eight different countries! In this issue we’ve already published a poem from Italy, and we’ll be featuring poems from all the way down the archipelago and through the diaspora.

NL: I assume that, like most web publications, tongues keeps a close watch on its visitor statistics. Do you have a sense of where your readers are?

NB: Yes! I’ve told you where the poets come from (from Trinidad to Canada to Nigeria to Italy). The visitors are mostly from North America and the Caribbean (of course), with a goodly number of Europeans and a sprinkling of people from Asia (India to Singapore). Not so many hits from South America or Africa or the Antipodes yet, but give us time — we’ll get there.

NL: In your editorial for the first issue of tongues, you wrote: “I think that we’re (unwittingly?) in the midst of a global literary revolution, a new golden age of literature made possible by a new and radical mode of communication, a.k.a. the Internet.” What are the online literary journals you read most often? What other online resources would you recommend to readers and to writers from the Caribbean?

NB: I’m a big fan of two in particular — Anti- and qarrtsiluni. Both of them are making use of the Internet in a way that punches up the difference between web and print — qarrtsiluni in particular has some interesting characteristics. It’s the most like a blog, its entries are posted two or three times a week, the entries take various forms — art, sound files, video, mixed media — and readers can comment on the poems as they are posted. I stole a whole bunch of ideas from them, most notably the idea of an issue that’s spread out over a period of months; their issues run for as long as they need them to, and at the end they close the issue with an editorial and contributors’ notes. They have themed issues and guest editors, and they have got to the point where they’ve got a sound file accompanying every written piece. At the end of two of the most recent issues, when they closed the issue, they podcast the whole thing!

Anti- works in a slightly different, perhaps a little more traditional, way. Like qarrtsiluni and tongues it uses blogging software (Wordpress, to be exact), but it’s more structured and more stable than qarrtsiluni. Part of the fun of qarrtsiluni is the almost chaotic nature of the journal, the edginess, the not-knowing what to expect (from the themes, from the guest editors, from the managing editors) — you’re always surprised. Anti- has a structure that is predictable enough to brand it as something special. It isn’t as interactive as qarrtsiluni — you can’t comment on its posts. It’s not entirely predictable; it publishes issues as it sees fit, but in between the issues (which remain stable for two to four weeks) it publishes poems by featured poets. Those poems are left live for two weeks each, and I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of those poets. I stole the idea of leaving poems live for a set period of time from Anti-, as well as the idea of using blogging software to create a mood and a tone for the journal.

Other online journals that I frequent are The Avatar Review, which is an annual journal, fairly established and very good; and Soundzine, which is all about the sound of the words on the screen (every poem published in Soundzine is accompanied by a sound file). No Tell Motel is another online journal that makes the most of the web, publishing a single poet a week with a new poem for each day from Monday to Friday; and then there’s also Eclectica, which, as it suggests, is, well, eclectic. I stole the idea of poems written for prompts from them.

There are huge resources out there for writers. Those specifically focused on Caribbean work are harder to find, especially online — which is why tongues came into being. Sometimes I feel bad that I’m not very open to considering poems from beyond the diaspora. But then, the diaspora casts a very wide net (the Caribbean being the world in a basin), so I don’t have to be as mean as I think.

So just so readers know how tongues works, and how what was culled from other online publications found its way into the journal: we publish three issues a year, in February, June, and October. Each issue has a fourteen-week cycle or thereabouts. Two poems go live every Sunday, and when the issue closes they’re replaced by a static page that gives the list of the poems from the issue, the cover art, the contributors’ notes, and the editorial, all in one page of linked contents, as is standard in online journals. Each poem can collect comments for up to three months, but the window for collecting comments eventually closes. And what we really want is a mix of the written and the spoken word. The spoken word’s taking some time to get off the ground, but I trust that as time goes on (as happened with qarrtsiluni) people’ll get the hang of it.

NL: As you mentioned earlier, you are a practising poet, and in fact the CRB was privileged to publish one of your poems in our November 2008 issue. How — if at all — has working on tongues changed the way you think about your own writing, your approach to your own poems?

NB: I don’t know whether working on tongues has changed the way I think about my own work. I don’t even know if it has changed the way I submit my work — I think that the process of submitting and writing has shaped what I do for tongues. Being a working poet (and being a moderator on an online poetry workshop) has certainly made me a better editor. Quite probably, as time goes on the two roles will affect one another more. I try not to be an editor when I write — the editing eye’s too constricting — but whether the separation can be sustained over time remains to be seen.

NL: What three poems would you select from those in your inaugural issue to represent the scope of tongues?

NB: This is a hard one! Well, I’d have to pick one of the spoken word pieces, but which one I don’t know; I like them all. So it’ll be a blind pick, and I’ll go with the one that generated the most comments: “Crack Conch and a Hot Guinness”, by Ishmael Andrew Smith.

As for the rest, they’re also pretty blind picks. I could pick something Bahamian, or something from the region, or something from outside the region; or I could pick something by a woman, or something by a man; or I could pick something in a form (like haiku or — you know this one better than me — an ourobouric poem) or I could pick something strong and powerful, or something small and meditative. Dear lord! What shall I do? Put the titles in a hat and pick them out, trusting that I’ll get a contrast (because I like them all).

So that’s what I’ll do — or the next best thing. I’ll refresh the page, and see how the writers’ names are randomly shuffled, and pick two more. And they are: an untitled poem by the Canadian Sheila Brooke, who sent in a poem for catch a fire (poems written according to prompts), and “Standing in Line”, a prose love poem by Muhammad Muwakil.

As for the rest — people will just have to go see for themselves.

1 comment:

Nicolette Bethel said...

Nicholas, thanks so much for doing this!