Poet of Curaçao: Hemayel Martina interviewed by Lee Bob Black
One month before he died, Hemayel Martina gave me a copy of his debut poetry collection. We were living in South Africa and had known each other for only a day when he gave me Worried Ancestor Rest In Peace (Ansestro Preokupá Sosegá), his poetry book about the people of Curaçao, his island nation.
That first day we met, we were clearly on the same literary wavelength. For instance, we both believed that even though writing poetry was an ongoing hunt for perfection and a battle between feelings and the intellect, it wasn’t something that you could get wrong.
I read Worried Ancestor Rest In Peace slowly during our first week together; the haiku-like precision of Hemayel’s insights and explorations being too meaty to digest quickly. The book consists of 39 poems. Each poem is titled with the name of a deceased person from Curaçao, appears side-by-side in English and Papiamento, the most widely spoken language in Curaçao, and is accompanied by a photo of the ancestor in the poem.
Over the next three weeks, Hemayel and I lived together in Durban, and volunteered for a rural women’s organization. We traveled to rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal and interviewed women about abductions and rapes and forced marriages. In areas of dire poverty and no running water, we were met with unbridled happiness and generosity. And we experienced first hand—sans theory—the need for women’s rights and food safety and sustainable development. We also played with kids, kicking soccer balls, giving shoulder rides, chasing the kids around, playing zombies and human planes. To the kids, I’d like to think that we were a breath of fresh air, that we listened to them, that we were role models. But then our time was up. We had to leave. We gave our thanks, hugged, and waved goodbye from the minibus.
Back in the city of Durban, I learned more about Hemayel and his beloved island in the southern Caribbean Sea. I learned that he had never tasted the blue liqueur grown from citrus fruit on Curaçao. I learned that people from his island don’t really call themselves Curaçaon, they call themselves “children of Curaçao.”
In January, Hemayel’s time in South Africa was interrupted by a family death. He flew home to Curaçao to mourn his uncle, and to surprise his mother on her birthday. He had planned to stay only a week, and to return to South Africa to continue his volunteer work, and to do some more interviews with me.
However, a car crash in Curaçao intervened. Hemayel Martina was taken from us, and taken from the children of Curaçao.
His time had run out.
His name is now followed by brackets, a birth date, and a death date.
Hemayel Martina (October 24, 1990 – January 29, 2011).
He was twenty years old.
He has become one of Curaçao’s ancestors.
Watching our interview below, recorded just eighteen days before he died, some of his words seem prophetic and haunting, such as how he wanted his next poetry collection to be an anthology, and how his goal was to encourage students to interview people about their loved ones who have died and then to write biographies and poems about them.
Lee Bob Black: Why are you a poet? [00:11] [Note: these are the time codes that match with the video.]
Hemayel Martina: I’m a poet because I think poetry is the easiest way for me to convey my passion, my love for my island [Curaçao]. That’s first. And also [to] convey my concerns for my island. That’s why I’m a poet.
It has certainly to do with my relationship with not only my island, which is what my book is primarily about, but also with my personal relationship—I just write my feelings, which is easier sometimes than even saying it.
LBB: Do you write more from your heart or your head? [01:07]
HM: There are instances [where] it’s a combination of both for me, and maybe sometimes even a struggle in the poem to seek the balance and see which way to go, what to follow, your heart or your mind.
LBB: In English your book is titled Worried Ancestor Rest In Peace. And in your language, Papiamento, it’s Ansestro Preokupá Sosegá. Why did you name your debut poetry collection that? [01:28]
HM: It has to do with my personal relationship I had with my grandmother. The title is Rest In Peace, and, hypothetically speaking, she was observing everything that I’ve been doing since she passed away. On plenty of occasions, I think that she would have been worried, concerned. At a certain point, it was actually not because of her, but in respect and appreciation of all the sacrifices she did for me and my family, I said, “Ok, I’ll try to be a better man, and do my best. And in that case, you should just rest in peace, Granny.” So the title—that’s why it’s Ancestor, which is really like, Granny, just rest in peace, and then I put it on a more national scale and added more ancestors in the book.
The second reason why I titled it Worried Ancestor is to emphasize one of my aims with the book, which is to reflect on the good deeds of plenty of our ancestors that contributed to the development of my island, Curaçao. In that case, I thought it was a good idea to have the word Ancestor there.
LBB: Do you think your poetry focuses too much on the good things about the people of Curaçao? [03:41]
HM: The book, Worried Ancestor Rest In Peace, consists of short biographies of one paragraph of the ancestors, and a poem that’s from the perspective of the ancestor. In the poems, I questionize [sic] things that I think we should change, from the perspective of my ancestors, assuming that they will say this, or think this, because this is the life they conducted, these are the things they did.
So, the bad things, I’ll say, are somewhat in the poems. It’s not really clear there. It’s a bit hidden between the lines. I really talk about the things that, if someone from Curaçao reads it, they will know immediately, and say, “Yeah, yeah, that is what he is talking about.” But I didn’t have a direct approach and say [that] I’m criticizing this particular project, or this particular person. It was more a metaphor.
LBB: Did you ever write love poetry? [05:10]
HM: Yes I did.
LBB: Did you give it to your girlfriends?
HM: Yeah, actually what happened was that I had a whole collection, it was bigger than this collection [Worried Ancestor]. The relationship was almost at an end. It was difficult for me to say what I wanted to say. I didn’t know where to start. And I wrote it, and just said, “Here is where I am. You decide where you are.”
LBB: The population of Curaçao is about 140,000 people. And your poetry collection has sold 800 copies to date. That’s wonderful. How did you promote Worried Ancestor Rest In Peace? [06:53]
HM: For me, poetry is about perfection. Sometimes it comes naturally, and it’s like, boom, the best. But for me it’s really about perfecting it and perfecting it and taking time. But in this case, what I did, I just wrote it, what I felt, it just went really smooth, and I didn’t edit it at all. So it was really clear. From your heart to the paper, boom.
The whole process for me is feeling it. It has to do a lot with feeling. I first feel it. And then I reason it. The perfection part of it is more the reasoning part, and then, at the end, the combination of feeling, because I think at the end, when you read it, you have to feel it. That is for me the part of perfecting it. I’m talking about this particularly topic, but my public can relate to that in one way or the other.
This is my first book. And poetry is not something that everyone will leave their home and go and buy it at a bookstore.
The marketing was one that we choose—we went to the people. We had a holistic approach with the message of the book. We had music. We had art. And we had short lectures. We went to high schools, middle schools, and three primary schools. And we just had fun with the kids. It wasn’t that much about the book. It was about the message that was behind the book.
It wasn’t that much planned [sic]. It was me and my friend, Levi Silvanie, a well known singer in Curaçao and Holland. He had his guitar. We had little presentations, with me reciting some poems, and he singing his songs.
It was really that all the kids live with us [sic], so what we managed to do was bring a topic that maybe is boring—talk about history, ancestors—and make it more lively, more colourful. That really helped.
When the kids went home, they told their parents, “Hey, we had this at school.” So, the ones who have the money to buy it, know about it.
Another thing we did was we shot one video clip, and we really wanted the kids to be part of it. So when we went to the schools, we encouraged the kids to come to the [video] shooting, and they involved their parents in it.
Another aspect of the marketing approach was we had an extensive media tour, a hectic one. We approached it as a CD, as this book is a song. Because the management team, it’s their first experience distributing and marketing a book, and they have plenty of experience with bands and solo artists. So they had that same approach in the media tour with me.
We went to all the TV shows. It was funny because at programs that are really about gossip, we turned the whole spirit [around], and made it a little more conscious, [we talked] about the issues of our island.
We had a show that was the first time in Curaçao where you had one night of only poetry and song. In terms of me and my friend, Levi Silvanie, planning it was really simple. It really came out of our hearts. He came with a song. I came with a poem. It was full. Everybody lived with it. That was the most rewarding experience of all. It was unbelievable. It’s still difficult for me to comprehend why people thought it would be great in the first instance, and then to come there and feel it.
LBB: After Worried Ancestor Rest In Peace (Ansestro Preokupá Sosegá), what's next? [11:01]
HM: I have a couple of ideas for the second edition of the collection. But I also have some plans with regard to this collection, because the idea at first was it not to be just a book. It has a whole project around it. This year we will focus on the project so that at the end of the year, or next year, the second edition can come [out].
The project is the following.
First, to work with schools where it will be part of the curriculum for children to search [for] and interview their elderly neighbours, elderly people, and their family about their family or people in Curaçao who have passed away. And, based on [those] interviews, have some short paragraphs—similar as we have in [Worried Ancestor]—and then post it on a website where it will be like an archive. It won’t be only the short biographies collected by the students, but it will also be a poem. It will be the concept of the book, getting it into schools, and getting schools to work with us in the process of collecting as much information [about] the elderly people—their time—the clock is ticking. To get them, and get as much as information from them, and involving the youth.
Another part is a summer school where for about three weeks young kids will come, and we’ll have historians come by to give lectures about our history, we will have music in it for sure, and [the students] will go to historic places, they will also write, produce. It will be like a writing summer school. We will [also] have known writers in Curaçao that will contribute to that.
From the work of the students, it is the idea to come with a second edition. So it won’t actually be my full input. It will be more the input of students.
Interviewee: Hemayel Martina (October 24, 1990 - January 29, 2011).
Interviewer: Lee Bob Black, www.LeeBobBlack.com.
Date of interview: January 11, 2011.
Location of interview: Durban, South Africa.
Credit: A website called Frontier Psychiatrist published part of this interview in February 2011; that website is no longer available.
Following are some photos of Hemayel Martina and Lee Bob Black taken during the interview, Durban, South Africa, January 11, 2011.