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Mervyn and Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture Launched by Literary Icons

Professor Mervyn Morris Poet Laureate of Jamaica

It was a celebration of two Jamaican icons as the Faculty of Humanities and Eduction at the University of the West Indies, Mona, launched Mervyn Morris’ Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture. While the evening presented an interesting look into the value of the book, it was also in many ways a celebration of the two icons with performances from the body of work they have influenced. The evening featured input from some of Jamaica's most notable names in the literary landscape. 

“This book is the crowning product of Mervyn’s engagement with Miss Lou,” said Professor Edward Baugh, the evening’s guest speaker. Prof Baugh pointed to Prof Morris’ award winning essay ‘On Reading Louise Bennett Seriously’ which called attention to the text behind the performances as worthy of the highest critical engagement. Morris also edited a Louise Bennett collection of poems as well as Auntie Roachie Seh.Professor Edward Baugh, guest speaker

He remarked that when he first saw the book, and before having read it, he was struck by the size. 

“Could just 94 pages do justice to so large a life?” Prof Baugh admitted to asking. His answer upon engaging with the content which marries both critical engagement with the work and biography of Miss Lou, was a resounding yes.

“It is succinct without being cramped,” Prof Baugh said. He described the book as “illuminating” and noted that it was written with a kind of clarity that can allow it to engage the general reader while still being able to hold the interest of the researcher.

Prof Baugh pointed out that a key part of the book is that it is so written to allow the reader to be able “dip in and move around as curiosity and interest direct”. A slice of Jamaican literarti

“Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture is a book that attracts and the attention is matched by what it delivers,” Prof Baugh said.

In his reasonably brief address, in keeping with the book, Professor Morris noted that he hoped that more people would have access to her many recordings including Lawd Di Riddim Sweet, Yes Mi Dear and Miss Lou and Friends

Prof Morris also spoke about Miss Lou and the issue of Jamaican language. He noted that in some quarters, Miss Lou’s work was still meeting with the same resistance it had encountered when she began. He also pointed out that her approach to Jamaican Creole and Standard English was not a matter of either/or, explaining that although she was a staunch defender of Jamaican Creole she was not opposed to English.

Lilieth Nelson delivers a few pieces of Miss Lou's workThe evening featured several performances. Lilieth Nelson artfully (with the exception of a few stumbles) delivered a few of Miss Lou’s poems. Her performance was refreshingly restrained, allowing the humour within to speak for itself without imported theatrics. 

In a similar vein, Amina Blackwood Meeks brought storytelling to the evening. Blackwood Meeks’ hilarious satire about Miss Lady, Jingbang and the beauty contest was an engaging homage to Miss Lou. Though the story bore the distinctive traits of Blackwood Meeks’  style, it shared Miss Lou’s tactic of using humour to make pointed statements about the society.

Poets Oku Onuora, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze and Mutabaruka also delivered selections of their own works, each speaking of the ways in which Prof Morris had influenced their development. The three poets were introduced by Professor Carolyn Cooper who, explained that long before Prof Morris became Poet Laureate and was “parading poets” across the island, he spent much energy helping poets find their voice. 

Oku Onoura Onuora, Breeze and Mutabaruka represented three of these poets. Cooper also helped to set the stage for the performance by bringing a touch of critical analysis to each of the poet’s work, noting that critical reflection of their writing does not often happen.

Oku Onuora started off the set well. Unfortunately, he soon marred his delivery by wandering off into a self-congratulatory monologue that caused him to overstay his welcome. However, when not speaking about his own awesomeness, he delivered some of his most celebrated pieces including ‘Dread Times’ and ‘Echo’. 

When she arrived to the stage, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze opened by metaphorically rapping Oku Onoura across the knuckles for his performance. Jean Binta Breeze

“He (Prof Morris) taught me, I don’t think he taught Oku, never to use two words where one will do,” Breeze said to the amused audience. Breeze’s lively set included ‘Natural High’, ‘Nanny’, ‘Repatriation’ and ‘The Simple Things of Life’. 

Mutabaruka closed out the set of performances. He revealed that upon receiving the email from the department, he said yes, before finishing the contents. 

“No is not in my vocabulary in relation to Mervyn,” Mutabaruka said.Mutabaruka

Mutabaruka opened with the fabulous meta-poem ‘No Poems Please’. He also delivered ‘Nursery Rhyme Lament’, ‘For Haiti’ and ‘Letter for a Friend’ before rounding out with ‘Dis Poem’. 

The launch of Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture was held on Tuesday, February 10, 2015 at 6:30 pm. The launch was staged as a part of UWI Research Days 2015 and took place at Theatre 3, Faculty of Medical Sciences.