My Personal Tribute to the St. Lucian Poet Kendel Hippolyte
Looking for Kendel
My first encounter with St. Lucian poet playwright and director, Kendell Hippolyte came without any fanfare or announcement. It was at St. Mary’s College, St. Lucia, during my Common Entrance examination, way back in March, 1984. I was an eleven-year old primary school child, momentarily under his authority, as he filled in for the official proctor who had to leave unexpectedly.
Hippolyte, through his attire and mannerism was striking a strange balance. He was different, eccentric, but not intimidating. At this time I did not know this person from Adam. A few children in the room snickered at Hippolyte’s bohemian aesthetic. Hippolyte then uttered one phrase in a deep voice, “I see that you are getting quite noisy”. The tenor of his voice, coupled with the resonance of the classroom and the damp early morning air seemed to have a profound effect on everyone in his presence. Quiet reigned from that point on. Hippolyte left as quietly as he came in, and the designated invigilator, whom I don’t have the faintest recollection of, resumed his/her duty for the rest of the day.
A few months later, in September 1984, I became a student of St. Mary’s and realised that this strange person I had seen in the examination room was Mr. Kendel Hippolyte, a member of the school’s teaching staff. I had to refer to him now as ‘Sir’, and for many years henceforth as he served as my English teacher, until he transferred, circa 1988, to the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College.
Throughout my five years as a student of St. Mary’s College in St. Lucia, there was always this intangible tension in the air. It was not caused by anything bad or ominous, but rather, by the clear fact that this was the educational institution produced the two individuals who blessed St. Lucia with the most amazing statistic: the greatest number of Nobel Laureates per capita in the entire world: Derek Walcott and the late Sir Arthur Lewis.
As a young adolescent, the greatness of these individuals and their accomplishments weighed heavily upon me. Moreover, the school’s administration drilled it into your head from early on that this school had produced some of the best that St. Lucia had to offer, and you, the current “College Boy” better not ruin that trend. I recall many assemblies where the Headmaster and other teachers spoke at length of the magnitude of Derek Walcott’s accomplishments as a poet and a playwright, long before the award of his Nobel Prize in 1992.
It was against this backdrop of Walcott’s impact on the literature of the Caribbean and World, that Hippolyte moulded our young minds. I specifically recall one assembly when I was still in Form One, where Hippolyte introduced us to Dub Poetry. Although Kendel was a respectable poet in his own right back then, as a teacher he was completely selfless, imparting the work of other great West Indian poets with opulent animation and zeal, which reinforced an emotional attachment to the inanimate words written on paper.
One particular poem, Ghetto Love by Mutabaruka struck a notable chord with us as young students. The opening line, “Ah coulda gi’ yuh little bit o’ lovin’ tonight”, was followed by a litany of excuses centred on the problems of poverty. The leaking roof, the children peeping, and the perpetual fear of a police raid, to young children on the verge of puberty, with unfamiliar levels of hormones raging system, “Ghetto Love”, brought to light through Hippolyte, taught us firsthand that poetry and other subjects in the Arts were not merely academic. Poems could be accessible. They could be grounded in reality and connect with real, everyday problems. This little realisation made a world of a difference to us as young students and planted the seed which enabled me to pursue tertiary studies in the Visual Arts.
As Hippolyte moved on from St. Mary’s to the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, I, along with many of my colleagues, followed his dramatic pursuits throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hippolyte, along with his wife, Jane King set up the Lighthouse Theatre where several plays and skits would be acted out under a makeshift wooden structure where actors had to project their voices, sans microphone, over the constant crashing of waves on the nearby seashore.
Fast forward to 1997, October to be more precise, and Hippolyte’s Birthright is launched on an international scale through Peepal Tree Press, a publisher based in Leeds, England. As a former student of this poet, I felt proud, elated and extremely privileged as a result of this development. Around this time I was also fortunate to attend the official launching of this book in St. Lucia. The function took place in the Castries Central Library where I finally got the chance to witness Hippolyte breathe life into words that he had penned. It was breathtaking and exciting.
Indeed, at the time of its launching, I saw Birthright as the justification for Hippolyte that was long overdue. It was the collection of poems that I knew had existed since the 1980s , along with more of his recent work. Finally, I could listen to my former English teacher recite poetry, this time not just to a class, but to a public audience. Poems from the Birthright collection, such as “I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes” and “Systematic Hegemony” generally illustrate the current malaise of our colonial legacy and gross inequalities that have been nourished by excessive Capitalism. However, Hippolyte also went on to recite other poems such as “The Muse’s Complaint” which demanded a musical lilt in order for this work to make complete sense.
As a reporter, I interviewed Hippolyte in December 1997 at his home, in Pavee Road, which overlooked Castries. I remember the drive there, because at that time he usually travelled home via maxi, or minibus, as they call it in St. Lucia. The road was incredibly narrow and steep, with corners that would make my geometry set envious. We then settled down in his veranda for the interview. Actually, it was me sitting in a chair and Kendel cocked up on the banister. I tried to initiate the conversation by asking him about the release of Birthright. I started by something like, “So Kendel, now that you have been published by an international publisher and recognised throughout the world....”. At this point Hippolyte quickly interjected, “Really...Internationally recognised...Really?” He burst out laughing.
After the laughter subsided, for Kendel’s broad smile and laughter were infectious and I was laughing too, I realised the magnitude and depth of the joke. Like Ghetto Love that Hippolyte had taught me so many years before; situations could be incredibly funny and gravely serious at the same time. Hippolyte’s impromptu reaction was a bitter-sweet reminder that a career in the Arts is difficult. Despite this milestone of getting Birthright published in the UK, the financial floodgates did not suddenly burst open and international recognition, the kind that Derek Walcott has received, still does not come easily for any other up and coming St. Lucian or Caribbean writer. Birthright was a brilliant accomplishment for Hippolyte and St. Lucian Literature, but more work still needed to be done.
For the pursuance of work beyond Birthright, I noted in my interview at the end of 1997 that the UK Publisher, Peepal Tree Press, made a commendable commitment to deal exclusively with writers from the Caribbean; something unprecedented in the 1990s and still quite rare in the 21st Century. Fifteen years later, in 2012, it is wonderful to see that Peepal Tree Press has maintained its loyalty to Caribbean writers and specifically to Kendel Hippolyte with the release of Fault Lines, the latest collection of written work by this poet. Incidentally, the cover art for this new book was created by Cecil Fevrier, my former Physics teacher whose divergence from Science to Photography to Painting has given me even me another former teacher to be proud of.
Again, getting an advance copy of this work seems to have been an act of remarkable coincidence or divine intervention. After leaving St. Lucia for Trinidad at the end of 1999, I had virtually lost touch with Kendel Hippolyte. It just so happened that earlier this year, we got in touch through another poet and Folk Researcher John Robert Lee while I was doing research for the article on St. Lucian Artist, Dunstan St. Omer.
Kendel and I exchanged emails from that point onwards, with me trying desperately to coordinate a meeting with him as he had a copy of Fault Lines to give me. I finally caught up with Kendel on 28th April at the Words & Music function at NAPA, where I dodged cameras, stage lights, and other audience members to meet Kendel. His Afro had now become a series of dreadlocks and the long beard is now mostly grey, but the warm, radiant smile and piercing eyes seem to have defied the ravages of time. I was bursting with pride and could not contain my enthusiasm. I guess this was the same feeling I had when I met with the late Pat Bishop.
To say that Fault Lines is another brilliant collection of poetry, pursuant to Birthright would be overly simplistic. Fault Lines ought to be read and experienced as a separate work, describing St. Lucia in the midst of the early 21st Century, where perennial problems such as economic subjugation and political deception persist. The publisher’s introductory sentence entices you into reading Fault Lines by stating,
“If you want to feel what it’s like to live on a small island, vulnerable to the wounded thrashings of world capitalism in crisis, an island where livelihoods are destroyed at the flourish of a Brussel bureaucrat’s pen, where Paradise is a tourist cruise ship come to remind you of your neo-colonial status, where global consumerism has poisoned the ambitions of the young into drugs, crime and violence, then the poems in Fault Lines, dread, urgent prophesies of ‘a black sky beyond’, are indispensible guides”.
While I fully agree with this introduction, I am further enlightened by the fact that I walked the streets and personally experienced what Hippolyte writes about in Fault Lines. In the poem entitled “Paradise”, when Hippolyte says,
Every time this tourist ship name Paradise come dock in the harbour
you does realize we never going to make it
Because the tallest building in the town – and is a big-ass bank –
Still down below the level of the high regard of Grade X Tourists with sunglasses (13)
I envision the cruise ship, either from Carnival Cruise lines, or Celebrity Cruises; the latter is the line whose ships have the big ‘X’ emblazoned on sides the main funnel. The bank referred is the National Bank of St. Lucia, whose opening I personally covered as a St. Lucian Journalist.
Above all, my almost life-long experience with Kendel Hippolyte, is reinforced by Fault Lines. In addition to my personal experience, Fault Lines emphasises the issue of legacy and continuance. In Birthright, Hippolyte pays homage to his father in a poem entitled “Mr. Kent”. Now, in Fault Lines there is a poem entitled “Going” where the poet refers to an incident where his son asks him, “Daddy where are we?” and Kendel Hippolyte, realises that, “In the intuitive logic of a child, where you are going tells you where you are (8)”.
Fault Lines should not be interpreted as a collection of doom and gloom poetry. Rather, its poetry is focused on the harsh reality of what small, island states like St. Lucia currently face. Other poems such as “Reggae Rant” (26), an homage to Kamau Brathwaite, serve as a jolting reminder of the power of poetry and words to help us make sense of our current situation and inspire us to seek a way out. It is therefore fitting that when I finally located Kendel in the NAPA audience, he quickly dug through his satchel, whipped out a copy of Fault Lines and signed it, “To: David, In the Word, Kendel”.
Indeed, Kendel showed me first hand that there is real power in words. Words evoke emotions, conjure images, analyse, interrogate, bring back memories, experiences and transport and even return a student to his mentor and friend. Thank you Mr. Hippolyte, Thank you, Sir!