John Lyons, winner of the WindRush Arts Achiever Award 2003, was born in Trinidad and educated as an artist and art educator at Goldsmiths College and the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne respectively. During those years without a grant he had to work. Some of his part-time jobs included: early morning factory cleaner, evening waiter, postman, and shift-work hospital porter.
John's writing naturally grew from his addictive reading of novels and poetry at a very early age; this passion continued throughout his art education years. After he won his first Peterloo Poetry Prize he became recognized as a poet. Other major prizes followed. He published four collections and contributed to numerous anthologies; read on radio, television and in many festivals; was part-time creative writing lecturer at Bolton Institute of Higher Education; became an Arvon tutor; was co-founder and director of Hourglass Studio Gallery, promoting the visual arts and Creative writing in the Community.
He observed men building houses:
how they cleared the ground
for digging to bed-rock.
He watched them building,
with the body's knowledge,
pillatrees on steep slopes.
He marvelled at the way
things came together with intimacy
of halving joints, mortise and tenon,
constructing a logic men live by.
For a long time he stood beneath immortelles
in awe with corn birds weaving hanging nests;
he knew then it would take a life-time
of ingenuity to build the house
he wished to grow wise in.
It was hard work digging a pit of clay,
dancing in the straw with bare feet,
pugging mortar to shape rooms to his desire.
As he danced, he dreamed of moulding
a room around silence, a place in which to foetal-curl,
suspend thoughts of how to survive;
another, without corners,
walls smoothed to a mirror
with the friction of love.
He danced dreaming
of the one where he would store
the things he had given power to:
an owl's mummified wing,
his navel string, never planted,
withered like dead yam vine;
the cosmic pebble, like a bull's black eye
that almost struck his father down.
The last room was for his mother
She died when he was nine.
From Voices From A Silk-Cotton Tree Smith/Doorstop Books
I arrived in Manchester in 1967 to discover the rich ethnicity of its population. It felt like the place where I wanted to be; but settling into a new social environment, I soon discovered, needed more than a positive attitude. Afflicted with long periods of loneliness, I had all the time in the world for quiet reflection and escaped real depression by painting and writing, much of which were discarded after they played their anodyne role.
It soon became clear to me that if I was going to explore the artistic, creative life of Manchester, I would have to leave not only the cocoon of my domestic environment, but also my mindset of isolation. I had to begin building a positive life-situation, go out meet the poets and artists wherever they were. I did not have to look far to discover the hidden wealth of the city's creative talent. By the seventies and eighties Manchester was a dynamic, multi-cultural expression of artistic creativity. It was happening everywhere: in the pubs, community centres, libraries, schools, colleges, galleries. It felt good to be part of that scene.
This free verse poem,The Builder, is a sustained metaphor for the construction of one's own creative life-situation. The inspiration for it came in a quiet moment reflecting on the struggle for artistic survival. I used as material for the poem what was culturally familiar to me: experiences I had growing up in Trinidad.
Years ago as a boy I observed a tradition of building tapia houses in rural Trinidad. Clay and straw were mixed together in a pit, where clay was dug up, by a prancing dance, often to the rhythm of a call-and-response song or chant. This wet, sticky material was then systematically applied to the constructed, wooden skeleton of a house, in a similar method of the wattle-and-daub of old England.
The clay dance referred to in this poem, implies acceptance, making the best of one's environment, and moving with the rhythm of one's living circumstance. It is an affirmation of creative resilience.
Lure of the Cascadura
Bogle L'Ouverture Publications Ltd. 1989 ISBN 0 904 521 48 6
Behind the Carnival
Smith/Doorstop Books 1994 ISBN 1 869961 54 4
Voices From A Silk-Cotton Tree
Smith/Doorstop Books 2002 ISBN 1-902382-41-2
The Sun Rises In the North
Smith/Doorstop Books 1991 ISBN 1 869961 32 3
June 2009 No Apples in Eden. Selected and New poems, Smith/Doorstop Books
October 2009, Cook-up in A Trini Kitchen. Recipes, poems, anecdotes, drawings, Peepal Tree Press.
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