Preserving Guyana’s Literary Heritage and Contemporary Literary Scene

By | Stephanie May McKenzie, Memorial University of Newfoundland (Grenfell Campus)

There are many stories in life that need to be told, and with this gift of writing that I’ve been given, I’ve vowed to play my part in writing my part of history so that it’s added to the bigger picture of life. —Yaphet Jackman

yaphetI began this interview with Yaphet Jackman when I was living in Georgetown, Guyana on sabbatical, between January and June 2014. I was impressed by the hand Jackman played as an artist and young producer helping to keep the poetry and spoken-word scene alive in Georgetown. Having travelled extensively throughout the Caribbean and having lived in Jamaica for different periods of time—and having been part of scholarly, as well as other, circles in the Caribbean over the years—I also noticed that, in relation to the rest of the Caribbean, Guyana is significantly under-funded and under-represented in the arts. There is an extraordinary pool of artistic talent in Guyana; however, archives and libraries need attention, and the literary heritage and contemporary literary scene of Guyana must be honoured and preserved. Hopefully this interview will help to draw attention to the richness of talent that exists in Guyana and the need for scholars and funding bodies to focus carefully on Guyana’s literary records. This interview reflects the time during which I met Jackman— when Upscale readings were still booming—and when these readings/performances rapidly disappeared. Jackman and I began discussing the arts in Guyana and Upscale in January 2014. I sent him the following questions in May. He moved to Ohio in early June, and I left Guyana in July. I received full replies to the questions in October, and it was at this point that I learned the Upscale readings had folded the month Jackman left Georgetown; the final show at Upscale was a tribute to Jackman and a precursor to renovation. After these readings ended, the event and restaurant were permanently closed, and poetry night in Georgetown no longer exists. My interview, then, is a potent reminder of the need to foster and preserve the arts in Guyana. (Stephanie McKenzie) Yaphet Jackman is an MFA film student and graduate assistant at Ohio University, College of Fine Arts. He is a young professional independent filmmaker, poet and event coordinator who has worked mostly in the Caribbean region. He is also a Global Shaper of the Georgetown Hub in Guyana, where he served as the first vice curator of the Hub. The Global Shapers Community is a youth affiliate of the 2 Postcolonial Text Vol 10 No 2 (2015) World Economic Forum, based in Geneva and run by youth between the ages of 20-30 from around the world. He has sixteen years of media industry experience and worked his way up from camera operator to studio manager at the corporate level. His work and expertise have gained him senior positions in the Caribbean Broadcasting market, more particularly in St. Vincent and Antigua and Bermuda. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Studies from the University of Guyana and has served as the Special Projects Coordinator for the W&T George and Company Ltd. where he curated, planned and hosted several “open mic” night events. These events were based mostly on the visual and performing arts that later became a staple in the Guyanese arts industry. Spoken-word and poetry recitals had been at the Upscale Restaurant and Sports bar—an entity under the W&T George umbrella—for twelve years. Jackman coordinated and hosted six of those twelve years. He worked as the lead coordinator for these events with the help of the directorship, management and staff of W&T George, along with artists, performers and enthusiasts of the arts. The show’s popularity led him to merge his love for television and film and to create a television series of the live show. The show, Verses & Flow, quickly became a hit that set the precedent for local entertainment television. This genre, of course, branched into a social media program, establishing its own Facebook & YouTube pages. Jackman is also a spoken-word performer and writer, currently working on a collection of work through music and new media.

Introduction to the Background of Upscale and Production in Guyana

The Upscale Restaurant and Sports Bar—one of six entities under the W&T George and Company Ltd. Umbrella—was a restaurant that provided both local and international cuisine, along with a sports bar, in a comfortable and relaxing environment. It also provided some of Guyana’s leading poets and comedians with a stage to perform for the Guyanese people. Apart from being a restaurant and sports bar, the Upscale Restaurant had served as a generous social contributor to arts and culture in Guyana by creating a forum for expression through the visual and performing arts. The Upscale Restaurant started its poetry and comedy events in 2002. The directorship of the company, more particularly, Mr. Asafa George, recognized the apparent opportunity for more cultural entertainment shows that were lacking in the creative industry. At that time, the Upscale Restaurant was the only business that consistently hosted such cultural events and soon became the home of spoken word and comedy. It was one of the few private businesses that hosted wholesome family entertainment attracting diverse people. The events grew from humble beginnings to overflowing audience attendance at each monthly show in 2014. The “open mic”—held the first Tuesday of every month—and the comedy shows—held the last Thursday of every month—evolved from basic 3 Postcolonial Text Vol 10 No 2 (2015) solo artist performances to more intricate shows involving multiple local and international performers. The Upscale Restaurant had been directly responsible for the growth and development of the performing arts through poetry and comedy in Guyana. Because of its consistency and contribution to the arts, Upscale had birthed some of the most famed poets, artists and comedians who are recognized in and around Guyana, the Caribbean and further afield. Unfortunately, the cost of sustaining such shows inevitably added up, which caused the organization to make a harsh financial decision to liquidate the entity and its associated events just recently—in August 2014.” (Yaphet Jackman)

What is critical to recognize is that a number of these shows— boasting a wide selection of Guyanese poets, writers and spoken word artists over the years—have been filmed by Jackman and others. Thus, recordings exist of a Guyanese literary heritage that is vibrant and vital but on hold in a way as of now—because of the cancelling of the Upscale poetry night. It is imperative that these records be preserved somehow.

SM: Yaphet, I’m very interested in and impressed by the work you do as an organizer and producer of the poetry readings at Upscale here in Georgetown. I’m wondering if you could tell me about the history of the Upscale events and describe your role in them.

YJ: Thank you much! The history of Upscale poetry has still not been fully captured in my mind due to the numerous people who have all contributed to this legacy before my time. Poetry night began as a oneof-a-kind event in 2002. Since its beginnings, it has attracted likeminded lovers of poetry, writers, musicians and performers from all walks of life. I began attending these shows in late 2003 and was an ardent attendee until I left Guyana in 2007. Upon my return to Guyana in late 2008, I inquired about poetry night, only to be told that it had lost its momentum. It was in September 2008 that I took over the Upscale poetry night event and rebranded it as “Xpress Yoself GY” under the Blue Bucket Entertainment brand—with my business partner JP Schwmon, which was based in St. Vincent while I lived there. Xpress Yoself GY ran successfully for one year—this was the duration of the contract that I made with the Upscale Restaurant. The show evolved from a recital/performance format to a musical, visual art and spoken word format. The thinking behind expanding the format was based on the notion that the Guyanese public deemed poetry as “bland and boring.” The inclusion of music, song and dance attracted people who would not have normally attended a poetry show. These pull factors worked well. Attendance grew rapidly for the shows as the months rolled on. The Upscale restaurant quickly became too small for the numbers of people who religiously came to poetry nights on a monthly basis. After the year of Xpress Yoself, I handed the show back to Upscale’s administration. It was at this time (2009/10) that the poetry committee was created. My role from then to now is coordinator and host of the show. The committee is now responsible for the planning 4 Postcolonial Text Vol 10 No 2 (2015) and execution of shows and workshops for both the poetry and comedy events of the Upscale Restaurant. Though there is no formal chair of the committee, they have often looked to me for leadership on logistical issues and decisions that needed to be made in the best interest of the events. The coordinator/host role basically organizes the show, its cast and the flow of it all. Coupled with planning for the shows, I was afforded several opportunities to network with regional and international organizations and groups that would’ve benefited the entire fraternity. I’ve served as an ambassador for the Upscale family, representing and propagating sound relationships with other organizers and promoters of the arts to ensure that our performers, writers and musicians all get continued opportunities to perform on several stages in and out of Guyana.

To read the entire interview with Yaphet, click here.

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