Jan 23, 2022 News
By Rehanna Ramsay
Kaieteur News – UK-based Guyanese writer and poet, Grace Nichols, uses the experience of growing up in rural Guyana to pen culturally-captivating pieces. Her pieces have won a number of international awards.
Most recently, Nichols became the recipient of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, for her first collection of poetry titled, “I is a Long-Memoried Woman,” prose and several books for younger readers.
In the past, the Guyanese poet, who moved to Britain at the age of 27, won the Guyana Poetry Prize in 1996 and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize.
Speaking to Kaieteur News about her feat, the poet remarked: “It was wonderful to be recognised in this way.” The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry extends not only to poets from Britain but also from the Commonwealth.
According to an official communique for Buckingham Palace, Nichols was selected for Her Majesty’s Gold Medal for Poetry for the year 2021. The selection committee for the medal was chaired by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, who also received The Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry for 2018.
The poet says that the medal is a major honour that is given to poets for their body of work.
On receiving the Queen’s Medal for Poetry, Nichols said, “I was overwhelmed when I first got the news. It was both wonderful and humbling to be recognised in this way. As a poet you write your poems in solitude, never knowing whom they’ll reach. I feel so honoured and delighted to be given this award by Her Majesty and the committee, headed by Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage and to join the illustrious company of past winners from across the Commonwealth.”
She continued, “In my own work I’ve celebrated my Guyanese/Caribbean/South American heritage in relation to the English traditions we inherited as a former British colony. To poetry and the English language that I love, I’ve brought the registers of my own Caribbean tongue. I wish my parents, who use to chide me for straining my eyes as a small girl reading by torchlight in bed, were around to share in this journey that poetry has blessed me with.”
Nichols who grew up in the village of Stanleyville which is located between Mahaica and Maichony along the East Coast of Demerara is the second person in her household to be given the prestigious honour.
She revealed, “My poet husband, John Agard, also received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2012. So it’s somewhat amazing having two Guyanese poets from the same household receiving this award.”
Speaking about the creative process of her work, Nichols said that she is largely influenced by her Guyanese upbringing. Her experience in the Guyanese village which was nicknamed “Highdam,” plays a mysterious part in her writing process.
She said, “It seemed that nothing separated me from anything then, the water, the fish, and the trees. I was part of them. I was the fifth of seven children, five sisters and one brother. Some early mornings we’d go out on the pasture to catch crabs and whenever it flooded we could also catch fish in old baskets. At about the age of eight, we moved to the city of Georgetown. I missed Highdam very much but grew to love Georgetown too, especially when I joined the Public Free Library…”
As a youth, the award-winning poet had always loved reading. By the time she left Guyana for England at the age of 27, she had already written about half of her first novel, ‘Whole of A Morning Sky’, which was later published by Virago in 1986. Not surprisingly it was inspired by Highdam. The emotional separation from Guyana drew her more and more into poetry.
The writer told Kaieteur News, “My father was a head teacher and I was always dipping into his books of poetry, even though the poets were far removed from my world.
“Mostly they were English poets like John Keats, Wordsworth and of course Shakespeare which we also studied at school. I was moved by the beauty and music of the words, just the power of language really. I really wanted to be a novelist when I was much younger,” added Nichols.One of her most celebrated publications, “I Is a Long-Memoried Woman,” was published way back in 1983. It was inspired by a dream, she had one night of a young African girl swimming from Africa to the Caribbean.
In this book, the poet explores an African’s journey to the Caribbean through the eyes of a young girl.
In the dream, Nichols recalled the young girl had a garland of flowers around her neck.
She explained, “When I woke up I interpreted this to mean that she was trying to cleanse the ocean of the pain and suffering that she knew her ancestors had gone through during slavery. So the whole book sprang from that. It’s been described as a kind of psychic history of Caribbean womanhood. It’s in the voice of the young slave woman who manages to keep her humanity and spiritual strength despite the brutality of that system.”
Apart from her adult collections, Nichols published a number of children’s books. Some of her work was inspired by her time in Highdam. That list includes, “Trust You Wriggly’ is about a mischievous little girl who was always getting into trouble.
She explained that her writing for children also came naturally.
Nichols added, “When I’m writing for children, I suppose I’m writing for the child in me. The kinds of things the child in me would love to hear about. I’ve written some 10 collections of poetry for children with books such as, ‘Suntime/Snowtime’ by A&C Black and my latest, ‘Cosmic Disco” by Frances Lincoln.”
As regards her prize-winning efforts, Nichols asserts that poets write because they must and if he/she wins a prize in the process that’s an added bonus.
She noted nevertheless, “that doesn’t mean you can’t secretly dream that your book might win a certain prize one day.
The writer says “reading poets from different cultural backgrounds and being committed to your work will go a long way into making you an accomplished poet who might win a prize.”
The Gold Medal for Poetry was established by King George V in 1933 at the suggestion of the then Poet Laureate, John Masefield, and is awarded for excellence in poetry. Each year’s recipient is from the United Kingdom or a Commonwealth country.
The Poetry Medal Committee unanimously recommended Grace Nichols as this year’s recipient on the basis of her body of work, in particular her first collection of poetry ‘I Is a Long-Memoried Woman (1983)’, prose and several books for younger readers. Speaking of Nichols at the selection committee, the Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, said: “Over the past four decades, Grace has been an original, pioneering voice in the British poetry scene. A noted reader and ‘performer’ of her work, she has embraced the tones of her adopted country and yet maintained the cadences of her native tongue.
He emphasised that “Her poems are alive with characters from the folklore and fables of her Caribbean homeland, and echo with the rhymes and rhythms of her family and ancestors. Song-like or prayer-like on occasion, they exhibit an honesty of feeling and a generosity of spirit. They are also passionate and sensuous at times, being daring in their choice of subject and openhearted in their outlook.”
Above all, the Laureate said Grace Nichols has been a beacon for black women poets, staying true to her linguistic coordinates and poetic sensibilities, and offering a means of expression that has offered inspiration and encouragement to many.
“She is a moving elegist, and a poet of conciliation and constructive dialogue between cultures, but also a voice of questioning dissent when the occasion demands,” he said.
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