In the cool confines of a room on the upper storey of Fundacao Oriente, I met Landeg White. A citizen of the world, he has taught in three continents and turned out a prodigious number of books of prose and poetry. He is in Goa presently to talk to audiences about his work and preoccupations of the last 50 years. Here are some excerpts from our conversation
- Let’s begin with your translation and concerns about Portugal’s legendary poet Luis de Camoes and his epic poem ‘The Lusiad’
My first encounter with Camões was in July, 1970 in Beira, Mozambique through my wife, Alice, when I bought ‘Os Lusiadas’ and she, Jane Austen’s ‘Orgulho e Proconcerto’. Camões was the most widely travelled of all the Renaissance poets.He travelled to East Africa when he was very young and then on to the Far East, including India and Macau. ‘The Lusiads’ is his epic account of Vasco da Gama’s pioneer voyage to India. He was loved for his lyric poems that I have translated as well. These were not known outside his home country. In my compilation ‘Translating Camões: a Personal Record’, I have recounted my concerns about ‘The Lusiad’. Vasco da Gama, the hero of ‘The Lusiads’ was not by a long chance an epic hero but a working hero, whose voice became the voice of his nation. In retrospect, my translation has divested the poem of its imperialistic, nationalistic and colonial intention by playing down the multiple adjectives and finding alternative narratives for nouns and verbs in the poem. Along with religious sentiment, it equally conveys scientific revolution and discoveries of its times.
- The cover of your translated volume ‘The Collected Lyric Poems of Luis De Camões, depicts a colourful painting. How does it connect Camões to Goa?
Camões (1524-1580) was the first European artist to cross into the southern hemisphere and his poetry bears the mark of near two decades spent in North and East Africa, the Persian Gulf, India and Macau. From an elegy set in Morocco to a hymn written at Cape Guardafui on the northern tip of Somalia and through the modern European love poems for a non-European woman, these lyrics reflect Camões’s encounters with radically unfamiliar peoples and places. I have arranged the poems to follow the order of Camões’s travels, making the book read like a journey. The work of one of the first European cosmopolitans, these poems demonstrate that Camões deserves his place among the great poets. The colourful painting on the cover was, most probably, the artwork accomplished in Goa, depicting Camões in a jail cell, working on his epic poem.
- Do you agree with George Monteiro’s book ‘The Presence of Camões: Influences on the Literature of England, America & Southern Africa’? Is there evidence that Camões’ works inspired poets after him?
Camões’ influence is seen in the works of many poets of the last centuries. Elizabeth Bishop, Melville and South African poets like Prince and Campbell echo his poetics in their works.
- Your multicultural commitments in the Caribbean, West Africa and Portugal led to a plethora of writings rooted in the people and histories of these lands. You started with ‘V.S Naipaul: A Critical Introduction’ and followed up with twenty more books. Shed some light on your writings in ‘Studying to be Singular: John Gabriel Stedman, 1744-1797’,and the more recent ‘Singing Bass’ and ‘Arab Work’.
My long interest in John Gabriel Stedman began with the brief account, first read in Trinidad, of ‘the idyll between Stedman and his brown Joanna’ in Charles Kingsley’s ‘At Last’, an exuberant naturalist’s description of a Christmas spent there in 1870. My book is a double biography. First of Stedman as an idiosyncratic artist and soldier (1744-1797) and second of the book he wrote about his five years’ campaign in Suriname. Within the book are dozens of illustrations, including the engravings by William Blake – based on Stedman’s sketches of scenes from the Suriname planter-slave society. It celebrates Stedman’s Suriname colony and his non-European dark love. My first book of poems ‘For Captain Stedman’, the title poem is dedicated to Stedman.
‘Singing Bass’ and more so ‘Arab Work’ reveals what it means to settle and age in a foreign country. The collection explores Portugal, where I have been for the last 20 years now, through the eyes of a Welsh poet. It is a celebration of Portuguese culture.
- I am wondering that if the book is about celebrating Portugal, why you titled it ‘Arab Work’?
The answer lies in one of the poems in the book. Alice was designing a water garden around our plot of land, in Mafra, Portugal, when we came across the stone trough, the square stone culvert that tunnelled our plot to the arched exit. This was Arab work: a well-watered platform raised a thousand years back at the valley’s head.
Landeg finds the poem in the book and passes it to me. I read the last stanza aloud:
and my unfolding luck’s to have/purchase where the husbandry/of a millennium still holds./The olive trees are archives,/the soil clinging to my shoes/has been turned so many centuries/by tools that have kept their/shape and muscle. My sudden/ prayer is serious: to be worthy.
The impact is tremendous. I repeat the last two lines savouring each syllable.
- All through your work you have hailed the oral poetry tradition of indigenous societies. Please expound on this.
Oral genres are maps of experience that open up the intellectual, emotional and moral life of societies more clearly and dramatically than any other source. Poetry becomes an investigation to understand the subtle and the obscure in cultures which would otherwise not be so easily understood. I was teaching ‘Dickens’ to my students in the African landscape when for the first time, through the open window, I heard a chorus of singing voices. Thus began a journey of understanding ethnographic history from non-literate social contexts.
- Name the books that have set you free as a human being.
Derek Walcott’s first book of poems ‘In a Green Night’ and everything he wrote after that has inspired me. The pastoral rendering, with such great affection, in small villages is heartening for the soul.
Our long conversation lasted two hours, wherein the poet distilled his life and works. I got a peek-a-boo into a rich multifarious life, but the soul thirsts for more such enlightening encounters. Landeg White is here for the Goa Art Lit Fest from December 8 to December 11, 2016.