In his chapbook of 17 poems entitled What Happens at the Edge of the World, 26-year-old Ronaldo Mohammed writes about “This land…sweet and messy;” a “creole conundrum of identity," immigrants navigating treacherous seas, and a woman selling sweets on Frederick Street – just as his grandmother once did after she lost her job.
Drawing inspiration from TT’s history, culture, and folklore, he offers a glimpse of crime, violence and the struggle to survive.
“My poems are about marginalised people in Trinidad and Tobago, people on the borderline – Venezuelan migrants, people who live in hotspots and ordinary people trying to make their way on the periphery of society.”
It is a precarious place filled with beauty and treachery – a place most people don’t think about when they consider this country.
“I always wanted to touch on things that are unspoken here,” Mohammed said.
“I want to be a voice for issues that are ignored in Trinidad – issues that regular people living regular lives experience. I want my work to get people to be more compassionate, have more empathy, and look at the world in a different way.”
Mohammed’s poems are being noted, and they’re even making a splash abroad. He represented TT at the 40th Poetry Market (Marché de la Poésie) held in Paris, France on June 7-11. He was one of ten emerging poets selected from 252 applicants for this event that brought writers together from the English, Spanish and French-speaking Caribbean.
Soft-spoken, thoughtful and introspective, Mohammed turned to poetry in his teens when he was a student at Trinity College East.
“I had a crush on someone in secondary school, and I started writing poetry to express my feelings. I was drawn to poetry. In school, I loved William Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Shakespeare was this whole new language to explore and translate.”
Fascinated by language and communication, Mohammed did a Bachelor’s degree at the UWI, St Augustine with a double major in French and Spanish.
“I always loved language. In primary school, I liked writing short stories, doing Midnight Robber speeches and calypso.”
His mom, Jennifer Charles-Mohammed encouraged a love for reading and she encouraged him to write.
“She told me stories and bought Black Beauty by Anna Sewell for me to read. I liked R L Stein’s Goosebumps series and Gothic literature like Frankenstein as I got older. I love the macabre.”
Mohammed said he discovered “there’s a power associated with language. Language is evocative. It causes people to move and react.”
But he recognises there’s a stigma associated with poetry.
“Some people associate poetry with softness and femininity and figure men shouldn’t write poetry because it’s not manly, but look at poets like Chilean poet Pablo Neruda who made important political statements through poetry. Poetry allows us to use language creatively. It makes me look at the world in a different way. We are surrounded by poetry in this country from robber talk to calypso and extempo. There is a rhythm to us.”
Mohammed said he has always thought of himself as a quiet person, and he never surrounded himself with a lot of people. Then he got involved with the poetry community performing first at UWE Speak.
“The Two Cents Movement was instrumental in getting me into poetry too. They had writing workshops, and I wanted to do something to take me out of my comfort zone,” he said.
It helped to have mentors like writer and journalist Lisa Allen-Agostini. His dad, Raphael Mohammed, a police officer, also supported his poetry and came to events he participated in like the First Citizens National Poetry Slam, which was the closing event of the 2023 NGC Bocas Lit Fest.
For Mohammed, each opportunity brought a new awareness of the creative process.
“People feel poems always need to use flowery language, but it’s the simplicity of language that creates the power in poetry. When I started writing, I thought poetry had to rhyme all the time. That’s not the case either. Poetry is about writing in a way that brings words alive. The most powerful poems I’ve ever read use concise language and tell very real stories. Writing poetry has made me appreciate language more – I’ve learned the importance of economising words.”
His favourite poets reflect his eclectic tastes. There are masters like the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Guyanese-born Martin Carter who captures the Caribbean landscape, US Civil Rights activist and librarian Audrey Lourde and Barbadian Kamau Brathwaite hailed as a defining voice in the Caribbean canon of poetry.
His favourite fiction writers include Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat and US-born F Scott Fitzgerald, most famous for The Great Gatsby.
“I loved how Fitzgerald captured a certain time and place in that novel.”
His nonfiction favourite books include James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Sun and Francophone psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins White Mask.
He’s currently reading Hungry Ghosts by Trinidadian author Kevin Jared Hosein.
“As a writer, it’s extremely important to read. It opens up your mind and gives you new perspectives. It shows how people use language to make a point.”
When he’s not reading, writing, working full time in the administrative office of the Ministry of Education or attending classes for a Master’s degree in Global Studies at UWI, Mohammed enjoys sports – especially playing football or hiking.
“I just like being in nature. I love adventure and trying new things. I like the feeling of an adrenaline rush,” he said.
He’d like to try his hand at journalism, a discipline he feels will also feed his poetry. He wishes our education system would foster a greater love for poetry in students.
“I think that can be done by using the artefacts of poetry that exist in our society – midnight robber talk, calypsos. Poetry exists in our daily life. It’s all around us. Look how poetry is associated with our culture.”
He plans to have a launch for his chapbook, work on a book of poetry and put his degrees in French and Spanish to use by translating literature.
In these trying times when the lack of communication skills contributes to cynicism and crime, Mohammed finds endless opportunities to use poetry as a path for communication.
“Poetry is more than literary elements. It’s who we are,” said Mohammed.