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The Poet With Soft Things to Sell - Tanya Shirley, Merchant of Feathers

Tanya Shirley reads from The Merchant of Feathers

The lecture theatre at the new Faculty of Medical Sciences complex echoed with music, poetry and praise as Tanya Shirley’s sophomore collection The Merchant of Feathers was ushered into the world. The lively, engaging launch, underscored that there is something decidedly striking happening in the Jamaican literary scene. 

Shirley’s launch was the second such über-successful event that the island had seen in just a few weeks. Members of the literat,i and then some, piled into the room eager to participate in what was evidently an important moment. The launch of The Merchant of Feathers (published by Peepal Tree Press) was hosted by the Department of Literatures in English, the UWI, Mona, Thursday, January 8, 2015.

Dr. Michael Bucknor head of the Department of Literatures in English, played host. In his welcome he named Shirley the newest arrivant to the growing list of graduates of the department who have become internationally celebrated writers, which includes Derek Walcott, Mervyn Morris, Curdella Forbes and Kei Miller.

Tanya Shirley and Kei MillerInterestingly, Miller, was the event’s guest speaker. Though he described his presentation as “a documentation of cyalessness” what Miller presented was more aptly described as a lyrical toast to friendship and poetry, beginning with the tale of the genesis of the title, which happened on the way to the Calabash International Literary Festival. 

“Today is an extraordinary day,” Miller said. “Today the merchant of feathers knocks on your door and says ‘look I have soft things to sell you’.” 

These, soft things, he would quickly explain, can sometimes bear hard truths.

“It’s unsurprising that in a collection called The Merchant of Fathers, the question of commerce comes up,” Miller said, explaining that several of the poems deal with the value of women. “Shirley calls on us to feel uncomfortable with what is traded in these times,” Miller said.

Miller explained that much of Shirley’s poetry hinges on the personal. The lecture theatre was almost at capacity

“Where I tend to hide behind singermen, and rastamen and cartographers Tanya places herself, or a version of herself at the center of her work,” Miller said.Poet Laureate, Professor Mervyn Morris was among the many who came out

“In all the poems we know that Shirley is not just letting us into her art, but into her heart,” he would later add.

Miller, closed by calling out the audience. 

“I say this without apology, if you leave here today having heard what the merchant of feathers is selling and you do not buy this book, then you are a fool.”

Miller was followed to the podium by Djenne Greaves, who, having opened the evening with ‘Night Nurse’ (accompanied by Tafane Buchsaecab) presented a selection of songs including ‘Love Punaani Bad’ and ‘Dude’, hinted that thoughtful slackness was afoot. 

And it was ... because what is the unbridled tongue of a woman, barbed with the eloquence of poetry and the willingness to speak  with equal reverence of the ghastly and the beautiful but the epitome of slackness, or rather that which cannot be tightly controlled. She came bearing soft things, but it is a softness that can kill you.

Shirley’s reading was riotous and touching and riotous and insightful and riotous, haunting and yes, riotous. She delivered a suite of poems including ‘How Dreams Grow Fat and Die’, ‘Flower Girl’, ‘Night Nurse’, and ‘Squashing’.

“Tanya you take my words away,” Bucknor said in his final remarks. It was a sentiment, seemingly echoed by many.