Peter Jailall is a teacher, poet and storyteller who has read his poetry in schools, libraries and universities across North America, the United Kingdom and the Caribbean. A graduate of the University of Toronto (B.Ed., M.A.), Peter is an avid supporter of human rights and social values as well as an advocate of environmental protection. He is the author of several books, among them This Healing Place (1993), Yet Another Home (1997), When September Comes (2003), all of these published by Natural Heritage. His book Mother Earth: poems for her children (2009) was published by In Our Words Inc., and People Of Guyana (co-authored with Ian McDonald) was published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2018.
Peter was a finalist for a Mississauga (Ontario) Arts Award in the category of Established Literary Artist. He was a volunteer with CUSO (Canadian University Services Overseas) as a teacher- trainer in Guyana. Peter lives in Mississauga with his wife Sabi and their two sons Dave and Nari. He enjoys gardening during the summer.
Peter, thanks for taking the time to do this interview for my readers. I’d like to focus on your writing and teaching careers.
KP. DO YOU RECALL AT WHAT AGE YOU STARTED TO WRITE AND WHAT YOU WROTE ABOUT?
PJ. I started to write something similar to open-mike rap poetry and my rhyming would get in trouble with parents and teachers. I wroe poems about love and sex then I moved into Guyanese nursery poems. I followed the pattern from nursery rhymes, framing my own. I looked at racial connotations— bad ones sometimes, where people called each other names. I wrote about children on the street to get my feet into the poetic world. I was also interested in English poetry when I was eight or nine years. My father was also a big poetic man who studied Shakespeare and quoted stuff learned in high school. He liked Scottish poems. He went to high school and they offered him a job in civil service but wanted to be a farmer, like his father before him. As for me, I started writing in primary school and studied Shakespeare at Hindu College at Cove and John on the East Coast.
KP. GROWING UP IN WHAT WAS THEN BRITISH GUIANA, AS A YOUNG LAD, WHICH BOOK(S) INFLUENCED YOU MOST? WHAT DO YOU THINK ACCOUNTS FOR THIS INFLUENCE?
PJ. Lots of Shakespeare. Mill On The Floss and other works by George Eliot. I was also big on Jane Eyre and other books by the Bronte Sisters.
KP. HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE YOUR FIRST BOOK OF POEMS AND HOW LONG TO GET IT PUBLISHED? HAS WRITING GOTTEN ANY FASTER AND EASIER FOR YOU SINCE THEN?
PJ. It was by accident really that my first book came about. I came to Canada in 1970, the height of the PNC lead government (that subsequently evolved into a dictatorship in Guyana). I was teaching in Canada and used to read to children. Jane Gibson heard me — her husband is a publisher and she offered to show the poems to him. He liked them. This Healing Place in 1993 was the result. The name of the book refers to Canada—a beautiful country with kind people and The Healing Place is partly connected to the turmoil I came from and the peace I found here in Canada.
KP. YOU MUST HAVE AN EXTENSIVE CATALOGUE OF POEMS IN YOUR PORTFOLIO. HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT SELECTING POEMS FOR A PARTICULAR BOOK?
PJ. I select according to a theme, like the Immigrant Experience or thinking about home, thinking of my father, etc. I might be inspired by reading a particular subject like 9/11 and similar traumatic incidents. I have a daily journal and write a poem every day and place it on Face Book. I don’t write at first for publication but more for therapy. I write for myself in prose and then form into poetry. I read some poems in draft and try on audiences until I get a positive feedback.
KP. YOU HAVE A WIDE REPERTOIRE OF BOOKS THAT HAVE BEEN PUBLISHED. WHICH IS YOUR FAVOURITE AMONG THEM ALL?
PJ. Poems about Sacrifice tell about the coming of my ancestors from India to Guyana and the journey when I came from Guyana to Canada. My ancestors made a lot of sacrifice in the cane-fields and now I’m here building my own family. Something like re-tracing our roots and making a triangular journey.
KP. YOU HAVE BEEN AN EDUCATOR, LECTURER, POET, TRAINER, STORYTELLER, DID STINTS WITH CUSO, AMONG YOUR EXTENSIVE PURSUITS. HOW HAS ALL OF THIS INFLUENCED YOUR POETRY?
PJ. They all have. CUSO for example, going into the rain forest of Guyana where I wrote poems about the First Nations. I wrote about the Bartica massacre; about how the young First Nations children go to school in boats; about the Chief of Shell beach who looks after the turtles. In revisiting Guyana, I could see the changes there. Staying in Canada also enabled me to tackle racism here about people calling us Pakis and I wrote poems about that too to get it out of my system. I wrote poems about the children I taught in Canada. I read to the children and inspired them to write their own poetry. I have also read regularly in the Hindu temple and in the Presbyterian church, at concerts, and in mosques.
KP. KEN CORSBIE, CARIBBEAN STORYTELLER, ACTOR, BROADCASTER HAS DESCRIBED YOU THIS WAY: “PETER’S VOICE IS THE AUTHENTIC COOLIE VOICE OF VILLAGES AND THE RICE FIELDS, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME, THE VOICE OF EVERY MAN, CROSSING SOCIAL, CULTURAL AND EVEN GENERATIONAL LINES.” IS THIS A REPUTATION BORN OUT OF YOUR POETRY OR SOMETHING YOU’VE TRIED TO CREATE OVER THE YEARS?
PJ. My poetry is born out of heritage. Coolie is not derogatory. They are people who went from India to Guyana to work on the cane fields, for their family, and to build Guyana. I took the word Coolie and changed it to mean something other than derogatory. It’s about labour. About people who labour for their family, and I gave the word a powerful meaning. Corsbie saw me a person with an Agricultural background, a farmer and he liked that I did not give up my base. I now plant a garden at home. His term was not meant in a derogatory way. He meant that I have a very strong cultural heritage.
KP. THERE ARE ACTORS WHO WILL NOT SEE A MOVIE THEY’VE APPEARED IN, AFTER IT’S COMPLETED. DO YOU EVER READ YOUR BOOKS AFTER THEY ARE PUBLISHED? IF SO, WHY? IF NOT, WHY NOT?
PJ. I do. Mainly at events and presentations. I see the role of the poet as a someone who’s a sounding-board for culture. About what’s going in the world. We are very important people as poets, people who observe what’s going on around us. As a poet I write about myself. Unlike a novelist who writes about others. We poets go deep to write about ourselves.
KP. DO YOU THINK THAT GREAT POETRY HAS TO COME FROM THE EXPERIENCE OF PAIN AND GRIEF, FROM LONGING AND SEPARATION? PLEASE EXPAND…
PJ. Yes. I agree with this. I came from a hunger and a longing for knowledge, for identity, who I am as a person — a Canadian and Guyanese. Poetry brings out the greatness of Canada. That’s what multiculturism is all about.
KP. WHAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART OF YOUR ARTISTIC PROCESS IN COMPLETING THE CYCLE FOR ONE OF YOUR POEMS?
PJ. Difficult part for me is the revision and I revisit to write many drafts to make the poem to my satisfaction. Drafting and revising is important. I bleed on paper until it comes to my satisfaction, every word, every line, every stanza. I have to be pleased with the rhythm, the form, the language; if the word is not right I have to rewrite many times. I also think of the audience— different poetry for farmers, different for children.
KP. WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER THE MARK OF ACHIEVEMENT FOR A POET? HOW DOES HE KNOW HE’S BEEN SUCCESSFUL?
PJ. For me it’s when you connect with the audience and different kinds of people at their level. I was reading a poem called Black Skin at the library and a dark-skin Muslim lady cried and wanted to buy the book. “People think I’m ugly because of my skin,” she told me. So, poetry is powerful when it connects and sparks different emotions in people; when it causes disturbances in people’s minds in different ways.
KP. YOUR FOCUS HAS BEEN MAINLY ON POETRY SO FAR, I BELIEVE. DO YOU HAVE PLANS FOR EXTENDING YOUR WRITING TO PROSE, PERHAPS A SHORT STORY COLLECTION, OR A NOVEL, OR A PLAY? IF NOT, WHY NOT?
PJ. I have written articles on education and I am going to eventually work on my biography, about my journey from Guyana to Canada. But I love poetry so much that this is something I see in the future.
KP. WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE THE GREATEST STUMBLING BLOCKS THAT UP AND COMING POETS ENCOUNTER, AND HOW COULD/SHOULD THEY OVERCOME THEM?
PJ. To make progress as a poet you have to have the desire and have to read a lot of poetry and pay attention to the works of different poets. You have to be free in your thinking and acceptance of people of different cultures and different languages and speakers of the language. If you don’t you come up against obstacles.
KP. ASSUMING YOU ALWAYS THINK THERE’S ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT, WHAT’S YOUR APPROACH TO BECOMING A BETTER POET/ WRITER?
PJ. it’s a daily struggle and I still haven’t reached there. It’s a process of always climbing. Reading and writing and sharing. It’s a process of growth and you never reach that pinnacle which is such a lofty height to reach. It’s the journey that’s important, not reaching it.
KP. “PETER WRITES FROM THE HEART ABOUT HIS LIVED EXPERIENCES. HIS POEMS RESONATE FOR IMMIGRANTS, PARTICULARLY FOR THOSE OF US OF INDO-CARIBBEAN ANCESTRY.” ~ KAMALA-JEAN GOPIE, RETIRED TEACHER, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST, PHILANTHROPIST AND RECIPIENT OF THE ORDER OF ONTARIO. DO YOU THINK THERE IS A UNIVERSALITY OF THEME IN YOUR POETRY, SOMETHING THAT CROSS NATIONALITIES AND OTHER DIVIDES?
PJ. Yes, there is but also, I have to a strong footing in my own culture and I have to know and practice my own culture. She got into big trouble for quoting me. I got into trouble for quoting her. She said while growing up in Jamaica Black people called her Coolie who can only sell in the market-place. She was very honest to say she had to fight for her own identity before she could embrace others. If you don’t have a sense of self and culture you can’t understand others.
KP. IS WRITING POETRY CATHARTIC IN ANY WAY FOR YOU? HAVE YOU EVER WRITTEN A POEM THAT MADE YOU CRY? IF SO, WHICH AND WHY?
PJ. Yes my poems are therapy—they bring out my identity. My poem about my Ajah (in People Of Guyana) strong and proud, cutting cane for the white Sahib brought back the memory of my grandfather, something that brought tears to my eyes as I wrote and read it.
KP. IS THERE A CENTRAL THEME IN YOUR POEMS? IS THERE A COMMON MESSAGE TO THE READER?
PJ. One is identity—trying to find out who I am. Second, bringing justice to the world. Third, writing to make the world a better place, I like to dwell and live in my audience and helping children to enjoy the rhythm of the language.
KP. WHAT IS YOUR WORK SCHEDULE LIKE WHEN YOU’RE WRITING? DO YOU HAVE A FIXED ROUTINE, OR DO YOU WAIT FOR THE MUSE TO STRIKE YOU, LIKE MANY WRITERS?
PJ. Generally, every day I get up in the morning and I write for about an hour, then I make coffee and we talk, my wife and I. Then I write again before I get to bed at night. I write part of my journal every day and share them with people. It’s a discipline to develop.
KP. IF YOU WERE TO PASS ON ONE PARTICULAR PIECE OF ADVICE TO AN UPCOMING POET, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
PJ. It’s simple, really. Keep on writing poetry, reading different poets, and sharing your work with audiences, small and large and keep refining as you go along.
KP. WHAT IS YOUR PREFERRED METHOD TO HAVE READERS GET IN TOUCH WITH OR FOLLOW YOU (I.E., WEBSITE, PERSONAL BLOG, FACEBOOK PAGE, GOODREADS, ETC.) AND LINK(S)?