Author Explores the Memory, Poetry of Life

CSM kicks-off the fall 2009 Connections Literary Series with international poet

U.K. Poet Fred D’Aguiar Reads for CSM’s Connections Literary Series Oct. 16

The delicate dance of words that form the best poetry can often be seen in those moments when you can feel the paint splinters beneath your hand, smell the bitter sweetness of fresh tar and hear the inability of words to make sense of a tragic student death. It is with words that we dare to dance, to wade in and experience all the edges of a poet’s world and in this case that of Fred D’Aguiar’s “Continental Shelf.”

Born and raised in London, D’Aguiar lived for nearly a decade in Guyana. He is the author of several poetry collections including “Mama Dot,” “Airy Hall” and “British Subjects.” He has also authored four novels including “Feeding the Ghosts,” three plays and “1492,” a radio play which was produced by BBC Radio 3 in 1992. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Minority Rights Group Award in 1983, the Guyana Prize for Poetry in 1989 and the Whitbread Award.

D’Aguiar holds a bachelor of arts from the University of Kent at Canterbury and he was trained and worked as a psychiatric nurse before teaching at numerous colleges including Cambridge University, Amherst and Bates. Presently he teaches English and writing at Virginia Tech and is working on a novel about Jonestown, Guyana. His latest collection of poems “Continental Shelf” includes the poem “Elegies,” a reflection on the April 16, 2006 shootings at Virginia Tech and the death of one of his students.

As part of the College of Southern Maryland’s Connections Literary Series, D’Aguiar will read from “Continental Shelf.” The reading will begin at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16, at CSM’s Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium.

In preparation for CSM’s Connections program, D’Aguiar discussed “Continental Shelf,” the changing perspective of memory and the importance of poetry in school and life.


CSM: How hard is it for you to write from the perspective of your childhood? I am thinking in particular to the poems, “Ledge” and “Leaving” where you are reliving events from your childhood.


D”Aguiar: The trick in recalling an early experience is to court sentimentality then shun it the moment it lowers its resistance to your formal advances. “Ledge” rehearses this sense of being poised on the brink of something frightening and dangerous. It hints at a ledger, too, the bookkeeping side of writing poems, of measuring the past for emblems of self-understanding and then understanding of the wider world.


“Leaving” has a twist of sorts in that the poem switches the place of the mother and the son so that she ends up leaving the child behind. Neither position is easy, of course, but the rehearsal of both creates this affinity of loss shared by both parties, whereas back then I felt like the aggrieved subject. The bread image in the poem is really about sustenance and comfort provided by food, and the sensuous, in the absence of the real thing that was wanted then, that is, parental love.


CSM: In a Poetry Kit interview you talk about poetry and music being tools for generating black pride. Do you see any artists today who are using words and music to push boundaries, make political statements or shape the way cultures are seen?


D’Aguiar: In that interview I tried to make a claim for listening to music as a teenager in London, say, Bob Marley, and becoming a poet. Marley’s unique blend of a musical aesthetic with an astute politic awareness proved instructive for me at that time. It seemed crucial to view a poem as simultaneously about aesthetics and politics.


CSM: How so?


D’Aguiar: Well, to me, a poem is a beautifully made creature and it should take a moral stance in the world, moral as pertaining to politics, rather than the Keatian sense of beauty for its own sake. I tend to read poems and stories which engage with the world of philosophical ideas and social policy.


CSM: How are reading and writing connected for you as an author?


D’Aguiar: I read as a writer and I write as a reader, that is, I read and take what skills I can discern from others and I often end up writing something as a direct result of a book I am reading at the time. I read to learn and this keeps me reading and it helps me to account for what I’ve read before a skeptical audience.


CSM: As someone who teaches writing, to what extent can writing be taught? Are there some elements of craft that can't be learned?


D’Aguiar: I do not subscribe to the binary simplicity of whether writers are born or made. I teach students how to read and write and some go on to be successful while others turn their reading and writing skills to other ways of being in the world. Craft is a matter of habit of practice of continual return to the labor and compulsion of daily writing. Ultimately, we are engaged in an art form, which is something of a mystery to me.


CSM: How can and should writers make poetry more accessible to readers? How can the reading of poetry be encouraged, particularly in K-12 classrooms?


D’Aguiar: I think the best recipient for a poem is a child, the child in the adult, and I know that intuition rather than intelligence drives the poem as a felt and corporeal thing. Every school should have a reading series and a poet in residence, every school in the land. Poetry is more than an art it is a way of life.


CSM: Your work is very reflective of personal and historical perspectives. How does your exploration of characters and history shape your understanding of your place in time?


D’Aguiar: I find the measurement of time to be the most illusory thing in my life and the firmest confirmation of my mortality – both at once. I do not view myself in history, since I count for nothing in the larger scheme of the earth’s population and the earth’s trajectory as a limited resource earmarked for exhaustion by human habitation. I see history as a part of the air and so I am indistinguishable from it. Therefore, the personal emerges from this history just as history emerges from the personal.


CSM: In the poem “Elegies” you reflect on the tragic events at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2006 and you are often interrupted by memories of your childhood, the daily routine of being a parent, your jog and explorations of language. How does playing with time and form in this and your other works free you as a writer? Have you found limitations?


D’Aguiar: A student from my Caribbean class was shot in her French class. I was in grief about her loss and the pointless deaths of so many others. My gaze in “Elegy” roams widely as I sought ways to commemorate the deaths and create a good poem. The sonnets, loosely made for the most part, loosely engage with the history of the sonnet in English and time in the poem is lyric rather than linear. Articulation does have its limits, especially when it comes to grief. So I may have foundered a few times during the course of tying together Guyana (where I spent my childhood), the UK (where I was born and returned to as a teenager), and the U.S. of my adult working life. It was hard to write about my student, her loss and the loss of 32 others with anything less than a total commitment of my art and life. The formal approach is hidden (a history of the sonnet) beneath the primacy of memory as a pathway to empathy that forms a lasting connection. And in retrospect, I struggled with the idea that the dead do not care one bit about my agony since they are beyond perception.


Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $3, general admission. Tickets are available the night of each reading. For information call, 301-934-7864 or 301-870-2309, Ext. 7864 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7864 for St. Mary’s County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 for Calvert County or visit



Excerpt from “Leaving”

“… For her head, long neck and round/ Shoulders I cried without sound./ For her arms waving, I bawled./ for her torso and breasts imagined/ As mine for months after my birth,/ I shouted her name Mum, Mum./ For her waist that gyrated to calypso/ As she carried me in her belly and/ In her arms when the transistor played/ her favorite tune on the hit parade,/ I begged her to keep me with her,/ Between coughing fits and sleeving/ My eyes so that I could make her out/ Among cloud. And for her long legs/ As she turned off the road to amble/ Over log bridge, back to the house,/ My head in my arms and my feet/ Stamping the yielding rubber mat/…”

– Fred D’Aguiar, 2009



CSM Connections: Poet Fred D’Aguiar. Oct. 16, 7:30 p.m., College of Southern Maryland, Leonardtown Campus, Auditorium, 22950 Hollywood Road, Leonardtown. CSM’s Connections Literary Series presents poet Fred D’Aguiar as he reads selections from his collection “Continental Shelf.” $3. Tickets: 301-934-7828 or 301-870-3008, Ext. 7828 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7828 for St. Mary’s County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7828 for Calvert County or For information on the Connections Literary Series visit