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Mervyn Morris first Jamaican Poet Laureate since Independence

BY BALFORD HENRY Senior staff reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, April 16, 2014    

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PROFESSOR Emeritus at the University of the West Indies (UWI), 76-year-old Mervyn Eustace Morris, was yesterday named Jamaica's first Poet Laureate since independence in 1962.

According to the National Library of Jamaica, the first Poet Laureate was Tom Redcam (Thomas McDermott) who was posthumously awarded the honour by the Poetry League of Jamaica in 1933, and the second JE Clare McFarlane, a former president of the league, who served between 1953 and 1962 when he died.

The local poetry league, an offshoot of the Empire Poetry League, a British-based organisation founded in 1917 and which attracted a number of leading British literary figures, including GK Chesterton, seemed to have died with McFarlane, although there has been a claim that George B Wallace, who wrote books and poems for local newspapers, was once Poet Laureate in the 1980s. However, the national library has no record of this.

Jamaican Poets Laureate were appointed by the Poetry League of Jamaica, so Professor Morris has become the first to be appointed to the largely ceremonial position through the actions of the Government, and the first time the appointment has been seen as a national honour.

Speaking at yesterday's function to announce the winner of the competition to select the Poet Laureate which started last December, Minister of Tourism and Entertainment Dr Wykeham McNeill explained that it was a collaborative process with the National Library of Jamaica, the Entertainment Advisory Board of the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, and the Ministry of Youth and Culture.

Dr McNeill thanked executive director of the National Library, Winsome Hudson; Justine Henzell, chair of the Sub-Committee on Literary Arts on the Entertainment Advisory Board; the Entertainment Advisory Board; and the members of the nine-person committee which selected the Poet Laureate from a pool of applicants.

He explained that the National Library will be the secretariat and focal point for the Poet Laureate Programme. The Tourism Enhancement Fund (TEF) contributed $3.4 million to the literary programme.

"I anticipate that after these first three years, which is the term of office for the Poet Laureate, other entities will also believe in the importance of this literary renaissance and support the programme," McNeill said.

According to Hudson, while the appointment is considered a national honour, it is not in the same league as national honours bestowed annually by the nation through the Office of the Governor General. Asked whether Professor Morris will be paid, she said that there is no salary for the post, but there is a stipend which will be handled by the TEF.

Morris was born in Kingston and studied at the University College of the West Indies, and as a Rhodes Scholar at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. In 1992 he was a UK Arts Council Visiting Writer-in-Residence at the South Bank Centre. He lives in Kingston, where he is Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing & West Indian Literature.

Morris has taught at the UWI since the 1960s. In 2009, he was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit, the country's third highest national honour.

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