Colin Robinson: Doing the work of memory
Poet, LGBTQIA activist and Sunday Newsday columnist Colin Robinson announced in his May 10 column that his colon cancer was terminal.
Robinson, 58, the author of the poetry collection You Have You Father Hard Head, is one of the few openly gay writers in the region.
He is a founder and a director of the rights organisation Coalition Advocating for the Inclusion of Sexual Orientation (CAISO), which has done groundbreaking work towards making TT queerness visible and de-stigmatised.
His rapacious intellect, devilish wit and lack of filter combine to make him a great conversationalist – and interview subject.
He answered these Newsday interview questions from Maryland, US, where he is being treated. He’s had eight cycles of treatment, but his cancer is now stage IV. He is in constant pain as he waits to die.
He wrote in that fateful column that he is engaged in “the work of memory – recording what I remember; and helping others to remember the paths I have trodden by leaving better markers of them – memoir-writing and archiving. It is the work of social history.”
Robinson’s mother Josceline Stewart-Robinson, who retired as the principal of Diego Martin Central Secondary, and father Carlton M Robinson, managing director of TTMF and sometime chair of the Stock Exchange, are both dead. Between them he has two sisters and an adopted brother.
Educated at Miss Richie’s, a private school in Port of Spain, Trinity Junior School and St Mary’s College, he won a languages open schol and headed to Yale in 1980. He has a master’s in health policy and management from the New School.
He lived in New York for more than 20 years.
“Paralysed by being an adult in a culturally challenging space (it was another decade before every black Ivy League undergraduate had immigrant roots; there were four of us across the university then), and facing competition for the first time, I flunked out after one term (at Yale), but New York University was happy to accept me and the government’s scholarship, and eventually awarded me an anthropology degree (in 1988).
“I lived in New York (in central Brooklyn, and – for three years, on the cusp of the crack epidemic – Washington Heights) for a decade after my student visa expired before I legalised my status.
“One year I was named grand marshal of the Brooklyn Pride Parade.
“For the past decade I’ve functioned as a dual resident, between a house with my sister near the U of Maryland campus outside Washington, DC, and the family home in Diamond Vale.”
Single, he said he has few “close friends alive.”
“I have a long and important friendship with another Trini writer in Brooklyn, Anton Nimblett, but few other friendships have survived.
“In 2011 I joined OkCupid and the one local match I found took me out for ice cream at MovieTowne. Nine years of macajuelling and three-minute French kisses later, I’ve come to adore him and he’s the closest thing to a boyfriend I have. But he’s not.”
How did he end up in his field?
“After my first HIV death, my ex, I went to work in HIV and really haven’t left.
“At home my HIV work has focused on the workplace, in-service training, state policy.
“Though its work wasn’t only with gay men, most of my HIV career was at Gay Men’s Health Crisis and, as early as 1994, I was moving toward doing LGBTI policy work, which is where I have landed.”
He joined a queer writers’ group, Blackheart Collective, in 1984. The group spawned a workshop.
“I was among the many university-educated guys for whom it became a critical social and support group who brought work secreted in sock drawers – and we all went out to dinner after. A lot of us discovered we were writers.
“The group started a literary magazine and took work in performance into gay bars and other spaces. I became its leader. And, through the workshop, a poet.
“For a long time people pressed me to write fiction and I imagined…that I was going to be able to pull it off.
“When I entered the UWI fiction MFA in 2009, I developed confidence that my writing sample had got me in.
“But the responses I got from the instructors to what I wanted to fictionalise cut my nature. What I thought was boldness they found inartful. I’ve not returned to fiction.”
I proposed that his work is now considered canon, as he is one of the few openly gay Caribbean poets. His acerbic reply: “But ay-ay, look how I reach ‘canon.’
“I consistently feel like (You Have You Father Hard Head) has been underappreciated, underreviewed, undernoticed…The most notable responses to the collection have been acknowledgments, particularly by (UWI academic) Amilcar Sanatan, of how the work contributes to the imagination of Caribbean masculinity.
“I think the column has more become canon. It is a space where over six years I have been given the opportunity mostly by (former Guardian and current Newsday editor-in-chief) Judy Raymond to write as a gay man about current affairs and culture – and myself. I can think of little like it in the local media. I think it’s the writing I’ve done that’s had the most impact and significance.”
Intersectionality frames his activism. He campaigns for the inclusion of sexual orientation, age and HIV-status in the Equal Opportunity Act and founded CAISO in 2009. His TT activism started with initiating the Anti-Violence Project – initially to protest against a planned Buju Banton concert one Easter. (Buju, a reggae superstar, sang the homophobic Boom Bye Bye (Inna Batty Bwoy Head), but has since recanted the song.)
On CAISO, Robinson wrote: “If I had to do it again, CAISO would have been founded in 2007, when the people in the room in 2009 gathered at a Rust Street agency to meet Kennty Mitchell – the maxi driver with the gold caps and the rag over his shoulder who had just won a court judgment after he was arrested, stripped and taunted by a corrupt police officer for being gay, and had become the subject of a weekend feature captioned with a picture on the front page.
“Our most important achievement is that our discursive work has been key to changing how sex and gender diversity in TT are imagined. It’s not the only factor; but I’ve watched the needle move. While we can’t yet claim any clear policy win for ourselves, we certainly did the critical cultural groundwork that made Justice Rampersad’s judgment in the Jones case possible.”
How does he feel about the prospect of his death?
“It isn’t terrifying. I’ve always been comfortable with dying.
“I’d like to see two big things happen in TT before I go:
1) the Equal Opportunity Act to be expanded to protect LGBTI folks and others and fulfil
Government’s promise four years ago to create a national human rights institution;
2) for the vision of a shared management services hub for NGOs to become real. “And a much smaller one – that a stubborn self-righteous man who pretends he’s the best adherent to international public health guidance, the current minister of health, is standing in the way of – following Caricom-endorsed international public health guidelines and giving HIV-negative people who want it – access to antiretroviral drugs to strengthen their ability to protect ourselves from HIV.
“I hope politicians won’t cheat me out of all three. But I do plan to haunt Terrence Deyalsingh.
“I’m doing things I never would otherwise, fixing relationships where I’ve held onto stuff, recovering memories and telling stories like never before.
“I had a moment of panic in front of the mirror last night, where I once again saw my ageing mother’s face looking back at me, that there would be sickness and pain once again ahead. But in this stretch of morphine’s relatively stable comfort and enough alertness, I feel blessed.”
‘Colin believes in Caribbean poetry’
Nicholas Laughlin, editor, poet, programming director of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest and co-director of Alice Yard:
It’s a simple matter of statistics that our most widely read and potentially most influential writers are our newspaper columnists, the ones facing up to the repeated task of analysis, provocation, and truth-speaking. In the whole body of Colin’s work – as activist, organiser, social historian, mentor, poet – it’s his weekly charge into the arena of the press that’s most enthralled and moved me.
There’s no other writer in TT in recent years who has made me think harder about what justice and equality can really mean, and how to wrestle those abstractions into reality – always acknowledging the difficult of that task, but also its urgency and possibility.
Jeremy Poynting, publisher, Peepal Tree Press:
I first heard Colin read in a little bookshop in Port of Spain amongst a little circle of around a dozen people, with whom you could not avoid eye contact.
I always thought myself unembarrassable, unshockable, but I will confess I blushed at one point in the reading. When, later, I told Colin this he was very amused.
On the page, in the privacy of your room, these frank poems of gay desire are just good poems, and what stands out for me across the collection as a whole is its sheer range: the honest recorder of experience, the campaigner, the sensual lover, the witty observer of both himself and the performance of Trinidadian masculinity in a poem such as Manhood at the Oval, about the appropriate behaviour of male spectatorship at a cricket match.
It was mentioned to me that Colin was keen to put together a collection of his essays and memoirs. I told the person who mentioned this to me that of course Peepal Tree would be delighted to play host to this, so I will put this on record in public.
Shivanee Ramlochan, poet and reviewer:
I love Colin Robinson. We met at the Cropper Foundation Creative Writers Residential Workshop in 2010, and even then, I knew I’d encountered someone who believed in Caribbean poetry not as an abstract concept, but as an active verb: a doing thing, full of love and solidarity, vision and community.
He is never separate from my thoughts when I think of the family of Caribbean poets, writers, and activists who have made meaning in this, our shared space, with their creative service.
Andre Bagoo, poet, reviewer and journalist:
I first got to know Colin Robinson…in Toco at the Cropper Writing Workshop in 2010. I knew who he was, had heard him read his poetry at events. At the time I was on the cusp of publishing my first book and was steeped in the poetry of John Ashberry, whose sexuality was no secret.
But Robinson showed a different possibility. His work was candid yet lyrical in its sensuality and brought to mind another gay poet, Essex Hemphill, except it was coming from the mouth of a true Trini.
Colin would be anxious of terms like “gay canon.” When he co-edited Moko Magazine in 2015, he asked: “Who polices the canon? Who gets recognised?”
But it cannot be denied he has lit a flame and inspired many. Alongside writers like Denzil Mohammed (who also once wrote a column for the Guardian), Colin has given voice to LGBT+ perspectives in public discourse.
After I came out in my newspaper column in October 2015, Colin sent me a message I will never forget and which I would like to now redirect to him: “Words can change times. Thank you.”
"Colin Robinson: Doing the work of memory"