Nationality: Canadian. Born: Canje, Berbice, Guyana, 15 October 1945. Education: St. Patrick's Anglican School, Berbice, Guyana, 1951–58; Lakehead University, 1970–73, B.A. in English (honors), 1973; Queen's University, Ontario, 1973–75, M.A. in English 1974, Master of Public Administration 1975. Family: Married Claire McCaughey in 1989; one daughter. Career: School teacher, Berbice, Guyana, 1961–70; lecturer in English/communications, Algonquin College, Ottawa, 1976–81; race relations specialist with municipal and federal governments of Canada, 1984–99. Since 1987 lecturer in English and creative writing, University of Ottawa. Awards: Sandbach Parker Gold medal for poetry in Guyana, 1964; A.J. Seymour Lyric Poetry prize, Guyana, 1967; Queen's University fellowship, 1973–74; Poet Laureate of Ottawa, 1984–87; Certificate of Merit for contribution to the arts, Government of Canada, 1989; Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council award for writing. Address: 106 Blackburn, Ottawa, Canada KIN 8A7.
Goatsong. Toronto, Mosaic Press, 1977.
Distances. Vancouver, Fiddlehead Press, 1977.
This Planet Earth. Ottawa, Borealis Press, 1980.
Heart's Frame. Cornwall, Vesta Publications, 1982.
Islands Lovelier than a Vision. Leeds, Yorkshire, Peepal Tree Press, 1988.
Elephants Make Good Stepladders. London, Ontario, Third Eye Publications, 1986.
Coastland: New and Selected Poems. Toronto, Mosaic Press, 1989.
Stoning the Wind. Toronto, Tsar Publications, 1994.
Born in Amazonia. Toronto, Mosaic Press, 1995.
Discussing Columbus. Leeds, Yorkshire, Peepal Tree Press, 1997.
Dark Swirl. Leeds, Yorkshire, Peepal Tree Press, 1989.
The Wizard Swami. Leeds, Yorkshire, Peepal Tree Press, 1989.
Sometimes Hard. London, Longman, 1994.
Still Close to the Island. Ottawa, Commoners Press, 1980.
To Monkey Jungle. London, Ontario, Third Eye Publications, 1988.
Jogging in Havana. Toronto, Mosaic Press, 1992.
Black Jesus and Other Stories. Toronto, Tsar, 1996.
Berbice Crossing. Leeds, Yorkshire, Peepal Tree Press, 1997.
Editor, A Shapely Fire: Changing the Literary Landscape. Toronto, Mosaic Press, 1987.
Editor, Another Way to Dance: Asian Canadian Poetry. Toronto, Williams-Wallace, 1991.
Editor, Another Way to Dance: Contemporary Asian Poetry in Canada and the U.S. Toronto, Tsar, 1997.*
Critical Studies: "The Poetry of Michael Ondaatje and Cyril Dabydeen: Two Responses to Otherness" by Arun Mukherjee, in Journal of Commonwealth Literature (London) 26(1), 1986; "The Fictions of Cyril Dabydeen," in SPAN: Journal of South Pacific Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies 36, 1993, and "Cyril Dabydeen: from National to Multicultural Voice," in Commonwealth Essays and Studies (Dijon, France), 19(1), 1996, both by Alan McLeod, and "Cyril Dabydeen: Remembrance of Things Indian," in The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, edited by McLeod, New Delhi Publishers, 1999; "Cyril Dabydeen: Here and There" by Frank Birbalsingh, in his Frontiers of Caribbean Literatures in English, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Cyril Dabydeen comments:
I began writing in a colony in South America—one considered part of the English-speaking Caribbean geographical, social, and historical milieu. Thus, from early on all the major British (and American) poets became my accustomed reading material: Louis MacNeice, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Eliot, Whitman, Lowell, etc. Many of these authors' works I would come across in the British Council Library reading room in New Amsterdam, Guyana. At the same time, in the midst of political and social turmoil in the Caribbean and the third world as a whole, I became strongly imbued with the sense of nationalism and self-identification and self-assertion manifested in the arts; thus, the powerful voices of Caribbean and other third world poets and thinkers became my regular reading: Martin Carter, A.J. Seymour, Derek Walcott (of the poets), and essayists and novelists such as Sam Selvon, George Lamming, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fannon, etc. (See my article "Where Doth the Berbice Run," World Literature Today, summer 1994.) In Canada my writing has become more direct, perhaps less metaphorically wrought. I also read a great deal of the contemporary confessional poets, such as Sexton, Ted Hughes, Lowell, Roethke, Sylvia Plath (I wrote an M.A. thesis on her), and became immersed in most of the major and minor talented Canadian poets as I interact with them and share "the stage" with them as a reader of my own poetry. This includes poets such as Michael Ondaatje, bpNichol, Seymour Mayne, Dorothy Livesay, Miriam Waddington, Rienzi Crusz, and Joy Kogawa.
I am now concerned as a poet with evoking hinterland landscapes and memory and in giving voice to experience that is still muted, silent, which hopefully would become part of the currency of wider experience and therefore universal. I also draw from my (socalled) three identities—my Indian heritage, my South American-Caribbean roots, and my Canadian (Great White North) influences—all of which fuse and become embroidered or symbiotic in verse and fiction. Movements of peoples and all of our common ancestry take shape and form in my quest to depict inner selves and manifold experiences of place and the human spirit. (See my article "Places We Come From: Voice of Caribbean-Canadian Writers and Multicultural Contexts," World Literature Today, spring 1999.)* * *
Two cultures enrich the poetry of Cyril Dabydeen. There is the culture of his homeland (he was born in British Guiana, now Guyana, in 1945), and there is the culture of his adopted land (he settled in Canada in 1970). Movements, rhythms, sensations, emotions, and images from the Caribbean, from South America, and from Canada enliven his poems. Such emotions as loneliness, homelessness, displacement, and anxiety may be said to lurk between the lines. That Dabydeen has had acceptance in his newfound land is borne out by the honor he received when he was appointed the first poet laureate of Ottawa (1984–87). As Jeremy Poynting wrote in the preface to Dabydeen's impressive collection Coastland: New and Selected Poems (1989), "He is truly a poet of the New World."
Coastland bristles with energy and bursts with light. It is a generous book that brings together the more than eighty poems the poet wished to preserve from the years from 1973 to 1987. Yet, after reading the collection, one is left with the paramount impression not of reading a book of separate poems so much as of sampling a single long poem that has been broken up and offered in short bites or takes—a kind of odyssey or record of Dabydeen's impressions and images.
Despite the shapeliness of many of the poems, the work as a whole feels somewhat ungainly, rushed, improvised. Ungainliness is not necessarily bad. After all, Walt Whitman pioneered the ungainly, sprawling, occasional, personal style. While Dabydeen may lack the range and resources of a Whitman—he is not alone in this—he does not bring to the manner anything that is stylistically new or interesting except his own enthusiasm and personality.
For this reason Coastland, as representative of all of Dabydeen's writing, is a collection of occasional poetry that is more interesting for the author's impressions than it is for his ideas. Yet on this level it is an engrossing work. No Canadian poet gives better expression to what Dabydeen calls "all our fateful diversities." Coming from the South, living in the North, he continues to cast about for some place under the sun that will correlate all of these diversities. He writes about this in "Passion Play":
Heart, take me there where I know myself—
Take me to the wide rivers once again.
Brown, the waters, the raft plying,
The shadow of the hand, mighty oars; take me
Where I am also the flower bursting out
From a ribbed cage
The boa-constrictor coils and uncoils.
Places "where I know myself" are plentiful. There are evocations of Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Soweto, Havana, Florida, and places closer to home—Newfoundland, Halifax, the Fraser River, Lake Nipigon, and Atikokan, among others. Locales are evoked in phrases. In one poem the poet happily comments that "green is green / in a forest / nondescript / as coconuts." Coconuts may be nondescript in tropical forests, but in Canada they are to be remarked on. He may be a too well seasoned traveler, for he writes as follows in "Foreign Legions":
This is a surfeit, believe me—
I am circumscribed in the desire to traverse
whole landmarks …
Dabydeen has emerged as a fine writer of travel poems and of poems of local color who catches a salient characteristic of a place through a characteristic response to its appearance or its culture. Curiously, for all the traveling, there are hardly any references in the collection to Ottawa, Dabydeen's adopted city, which is too bad.
—John Robert Colombo