Born in Jamaica, Geoffrey Philp has published one novel, five volumes of poetry, two short-story collections, and three children’s books. His work is represented in nearly every anthology of Caribbean literature, and he is one of the few writers whose work has been published in the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories and Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. Philp is currently working on a collection of poems, “Letter from Marcus Garvey” and a novel, “Garvey’s Ghost.”
Geosi Gyasi: Let’s start talking about where you come from —— could you introduce me to the country Jamaica in just a few sentences?
Geoffrey Philp: Anything I could say about Jamaica, with apologies Jean Robinson, the opposite is also true. For there are so many Jamaicas. As one the characters in my latest novel, “Garvey’s Ghost” says, “If you have two Jamaicans in a room, you will also have three opinions.”
Geosi Gyasi: What is your opinion on the current crop of writers coming out of Jamaica?
Geoffrey Philp: The younger writers who were born in the seventies have challenged many of the aesthetic notions that writers of my generation held as true and representative of Jamaican literature and life. This is very healthy development because it forces a writer like myself to examine the ideas and techniques I’ve used in the past.
For example, Marlon James in a recent interview said, “I think violence should be written the same way I believe explicit sex should be written” and both figure prominently in “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” Generally, I don’t write scenes with explicit sex or violence. So I have to ask myself, “For whom am I writing?” Does my discomfort with the unforgettable scene in which Josey Wales stomps through the crack den killing everyone in sight stem from Puritanical upbringing? If so, what is the aesthetic basis for the exclusion or inclusion of certain details in a scene or in a book?
It’s an intergenerational conversation that’s worth having because it represents a shift away from values such as restraint that I once held as dear—values which stemmed from my confrontation with writers such as Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Tony McNeill, Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris, Orlando Patterson, and George Lamming.
The irony is, of course, that is this lack of restraint that makes the novel so irresistible
Geosi Gyasi: Marlon James, recently won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his book, “A Brief History of Seven Killings”. Does this mean anything huge for Jamaicans considering the fact that he’s the first Jamaican to win the prize?
Geoffrey Philp: Well, he almost broke Twitter and some have called him the “Usain Bolt of Literature,” which I think is placing too much of a burden on Marlon. Not that he isn’t capable of handling it! If anything, I hope Marlon’s success–his first novel was rejected 78 times– will be viewed as a model of persistence and untiring effort to accomplish one’s goals.
Geosi Gyasi: When did you start writing?
Geoffrey Philp: I was sixteen and in love with the girl next door. I tried to write poems that would impress her. It didn’t work, but I kept on writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that any great writer ought to have a talent for writing?
Geoffrey Philp: Talent is the tiniest part of a writer’s makeup. What counts is perseverance, good friends (writers and non-writers), a tough skin to ignore what others think about you–which is none of your business anyway–and a little bit of luck, which will help you on those days when you are down and thinking, “Why on earth am I doing this to myself?”
Geosi Gyasi: You’re a Poet, Novelist and Playwright. How do you manage to combine all at the same time?
Geoffrey Philp: To be honest, I don’t know how I do it because I am much more that all these labels. I am also husband, father, professor and sometime soccer player. It hasn’t been easy, but I think I have done all these things because I’ve learned how to manage my time. My wife and family have also given me the space to be able to create. One of my wife’s favorite sayings is “Don’t bother Daddy right now. He’s writing.”
Geosi Gyasi: Which of the three came first into your life —— Poet, Novelist, and Playwright.
Geoffrey Philp: I am a poet.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you stumble on the idea to write, “Benjamin, My Son”?
Geoffrey Philp: During my teens I was attracted to Rastafari, specifically the Twelve Tribes of Israel, because of their desire to live authentic lives. Then, during my graduate studies at the University of Miami, I found Joseph’s Campbell’s, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and that changed everything. The protagonist in the novel, Jason Stewart (renamed Benjamin by the Rastafari elder, Papa Legba) goes through all the stages of the hero’s journey. In fact, at the opening of the novel, Jason has been floundering because of his “refusal of the call.”
“Benjamin, My Son” taught me how to write in a way that is different from the method that I now use: to sit with the character each morning and ask, “Now that X has happened, what are you going to do in order to get Y?”
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve mentioned somewhere online that Derek Walcott had a great influence on your work as a writer. When did you first hear about Derek Walcott?
Geoffrey Philp: When I started writing, I wanted to write like my mentor and teacher, Dennis Scott. When I found out that no one could write like Dennis, I began reading many of his contemporaries such as Mervyn Morris, Tony McNeill, and Wayne Brown, which led me to Derek Walcott.
What I liked about Walcott was his expansion of the line that was in stark contrast to the work of Scott, McNeill, and Morris, who were almost cryptic in their utterances. Conversely, the poems of Scott, Morris, and McNeill were Afrocentric in way that Walcott didn’t embrace until late in his career with “Omeros.” And even then, the Black characters were living out a Caribbean version of a European myth.
This is why over the years, I have gravitated toward the work of Kamau Brathwaite because of his engagement with West African mythology and to whom I have livicated my most recent collection of poems, “The Orishas of Ives Dairy.”
Geosi Gyasi: What theme(s) do you often explore in your stories?
Geoffrey Philp: The persistence of mythological archetypes (either consciously or unconsciously) in our lives, the plight of fatherless boys, the quest for justice, the tangle of desire, ethics, and responsibility, and what Robert Frost calls, “my lover’s quarrel with the world.”
Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell me about reggae and the Rastafari movement?
Geoffrey Philp: When I was growing up reggae and Rastafari were synonymous. They were anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and at their core held an Afrocentric worldview that was inspired by Marcus Garvey. My friend, Kwame Dawes, coined a phrase, the “reggae aesthetic,” to describe the nexus between reggae and Rastafari: “It is an aesthetic which unites body, emotions, and intellect and brings into a single focus the political, the spiritual and the erotic.” In other words, both Rastafari and reggae move away from the Cartesian model and “double consciousness” that DuBois and then Fanon explored toward a unified sense of self.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about “Dub Wise”?
Geoffrey Philp: The original title for “Dub Wise” was going to be “Nearing Fifty”–an homage to Derek Walcott’s poem, “Nearing Forty.” When that poem was scrapped in the final edits, “Dub Wise” became the title poem because it reflects a few of the things I’ve learned as a son, husband, father, and poet and their connection to reggae and spirituality.
Geosi Gyasi: To what extent do you edit your stories before you send them out to publishers?
Geoffrey Philp: Leonard da Vinci once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” It’s a never ending process. Sometimes I’m still editing my poems and stories in my mind even after they’ve been published.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you go about beginning a new story?
Geoffrey Philp: To be honest, I don’t know. Sometimes I look over at my bookshelf and I am amazed that I’ve written anything. I mean, I could tell you that I wake up early in the morning and try to write, but that would only be a part of the story. Because there are some mornings when nothing happens or much of what I’ve written is discarded the next day. But then, I’m driving home from work and …
Geosi Gyasi: Do you reread your own books?
Geoffrey Philp: I only reread my work when I have to give a public reading. Before publication, I’ve reread them so many times, especially during the editing process with copy editors, that it’s almost painful to look at it afterward. I’m not complaining because I know that I am blessed to be living the life that I dreamt about during my adolescence. But I avoid rereading my work because even six months later, I am rereading with different eyes and then, I begin to think how I could have done this better here or that could have been done better there…
Geosi Gyasi: Do you make money out of writing?
Geoffrey Philp: Not enough to set off an IRS audit, but whenever I am asked this question, I am reminded of the poem, “Joseph Heller,” by Kurt Vonnegut. The poem describes an encounter between Heller and Vonnegut, who asked him, “Joe, how does it make you feel to know that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel ‘Catch-22’ has earned in its entire history?” To which Heller replied, “I’ve got something he can never have…The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Geosi Gyasi: What took you to the United States of America?
Geoffrey Philp: I left Jamaica during the waning years of our undeclared civil war. Many of the events that are described in my novel, “Benjamin, my son” and the poetry collection, “Florida Bound,” are about that time period.
Geosi Gyasi: How much of your work comes from fact(s)?
Geoffrey Philp: I’m not trying to be needlessly obtuse, but the answer depends upon what you mean by “fact.” Much of my worldview is influenced by Rastafari, which holds a mystical vision of the universe that often sounds like quantum mechanics. But then, we live in these dense bodies with which we try to walk on the earth without stubbing our toes. Which one is real? Which one is true?
Geosi Gyasi: Do you give poetry readings?
Geoffrey Philp: Yes. In fact, I have a few scheduled for the end of this month and some more scheduled for early next year.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you find it difficult creating characters for your stories?
Geoffrey Philp: Creating a character is not the problem–it’s finding the time to write the story. I’ve killed many characters at the earliest stages of their development because I simply didn’t have the time to explore his or her story and another more interesting character or complication came into my life. Do I get up from my desk when my daughter says to me, “Daddy, come see me ride my bicycle,” or do I continue writing? That was one of the times that I was proud of myself because I had made the right decision.
Geosi Gyasi: What other things do you do besides writing?
Geoffrey Philp: I think being a husband, father, teacher and writer is enough. Don’t you!