Last Friday, Feb. 20 was the second VOICES reading of the semester featuring poet R. Erica Doyle in Daugherty-Palmer Commons of St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM). Doyle won the 2014 Norma Farber First Book Award for her book “proxy” and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry. Associate Professor of English, Elizabeth Charlebois introduced Doyle “with pleasure and some undeserved pride.” Professor Charlebois met Doyle 35-years-ago when she was a resident assistant at Georgetown University and Doyle was a student on her floor.
Doyle attended Cave Canem in 1997, “a home for black poetry,” where she met Lucille Clifton who was teaching there at the time. Lucille Clifton was Poet Laureate of Maryland and a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at SMCM. Doyle described Clifton as a supportive presence in her life who encouraged her to “write what I like and not to feel pressure from other people.”
Doyle was born in Brooklyn with family from Trinidad and Tobago. Doyle states that because Trinidad and Tobago is the southernmost island of the Caribbean, it was “largely neglected” by colonial powers and “things were allowed to happen there that weren’t allowed to happen in other spaces that were much more powerfully controlled.”
In her poetry about her identity and ancestry, Doyle incorporates Spanish and Trinidadian French Creole (called Patois). She emphasizes the importance of using “languages that we sort of made our own, like Patois,” and also using languages “that are imposed on us.”
Doyle also read from “Lifting Daddy Floating” which talks about being a child of immigrants. In “Victims of Unreason,” Doyle focused on gentrification by writing about the people in her neighborhood in Brooklyn where her family lived in a house which she says is now worth $5 million.
Doyle ended the VOICES reading by discussing a project she is working on with two of her cousins that she calls a “three-part investigation into our family.” They are doing work gathering oral histories, documents and research to look into the “very early origins of [their] family in the Americas.” Their family history includes Spanish missionaries that took their indigenous relatives from Venezuela to Trinidad and Tobago as well as Chinese indentured laborers. The project includes connecting all the family origins through missionary records, marriage records and any other documents. Doyle stated that her history includes people who were slaveholders, enslaved people, people of color, revolutionaries, enslaved Africans and all are “part of the history that lives inside of me.”
In their journey to discover and document their family history they have discovered ancestry that was “complicit as slaveholders” as well as “free people of color who also enslaved people.” This part of their history was “very painful for us to learn as a family, but Doyle encouraged the audience to ask questions about their family and ancestry while they can. Doyle ended with the sentiment that “once we start asking the questions, we don’t know where it’s going to lead.”
The next reading is An Evening to Honor the Legacy of Lucille Clifton on Feb 29 at 7:30 pm in St. Mary’s Hall, an event presented by the Office of the President and the VOICES Reading Series. The event will feature poets Naomi Shihab Nye and Danusha Laméris.