Over the last dozen years a new wave of literary genius has been emanating from the Caribbean. In just the last few years many of the new generation of writers have been winning the top prizes. Anthony Joseph is the second Trinidadian to win the most prestigious prize in poetry, the TS Eliot Prize, in just four years. His writer-friend, 2021 Costa book of the year winner Monique Roffey pays homage to a fellow literary trailblazer.
Anthony Joseph has won this year’s coveted TS Eliot Prize and his win will not surprise anyone who has read his stellar collection Sonnets for Albert (Bloomsbury).
Written over some time, maybe years, Sonnets for Albert is Joseph’s masterwork and a major contribution to the contemporary Caribbean cannon. The poems, a collection of sonnets written in Trinidadian dialect, are both an examination of Caribbean masculinity and a composite portrait of a mostly absent father; they are a body of work which both holds his subject to account and also, stoically, understands.
While there’s loss in these poems, the loss of having a father who couldn’t mentor him and show him the "skills needed to be a man" in the world, and, there’s longing too, never once does Joseph slide into sentimentality. He holds the poems steady, today a mature man and a father himself. The poems capture a time, a father, a man and a sense of hoping for more, and also an acceptance of things, as they are.
Here, I need to confess that Joseph is a close friend of many years. I’ve read most of his body of work and listened to much of his music. We lime in London and in Trinidad. We have attended many NGC Bocas Lit Fest literary events together, as well as played mas. I know his wife, Louise, and he and I have talked for many hours about Trinidad and the wider region’s literature. He is a writer-friend. I have followed his career and wished him well, over decades, and vice versa. This kind of relationship between writers, let alone Caribbean writers, is rare.
I had dinner with Joseph in London not long ago. We tried to remember how and where we’d met, it’s been that long. I couldn’t remember. 2005? I don’t know. It feels as if I’ve always known Joseph and that when he appeared to me, he was already fully formed, as a poet, musician, a man, the poet he is today. A man with a keen sense of aesthetic for language, be it in poetry or music, and a feel for the cadences of the Caribbean. But of course, this isn’t true.
He has evolved way past the writer he was when we met, to the writer he is today. Early on, Joseph was largely self-taught as a poet, his early collections were published by shoestring presses. You wouldn’t have known that then; he is a quietly confident, striking-looking man, and a strong performer, owning every stage he stands on. In the early days, he could have written his poems on used napkins and still sounded like a rockstar.
Well, today, Anthony Joseph is a poetry rock star.
Maybe some poets and writers are born formed and just get stronger. From the get go, Joseph identified with language, with creole dialect, and with literature in all its forms. He is a word man and a man who knew who his gods and goddesses were, early on, (Walcott, Brathwaite, Carter and Audre Lord) and he knew where home was, too, Trinidad. From the outset, Joseph has been an experimental writer, a man who wrote the crazy wonderful African Origins of UFOs, a sci-fi triptych, spanning three time frames, written in a kind of futuristic Afropunk fusion language, and he pulled it off.
His 2018 biography of the calypsonian Lord Kitchener, Kitch (Peepal Tree Press) is another masterwork, a piece of scholarship which blends biography with fiction and still stands as the only biography of Trinidad’s great calypsonian. Joseph is a prolific trickster writer, writing across forms and making music too. Almost all of his work springs from and is dedicated to his homeland, Trinidad. But today, January 2023, Anthony Joseph is one of a cast of Trinidadian writers too, for it's not possible to ignore how many Trini writers have been mashing up the place since the 1950s.
Congrats, Anthony. Trini proud.