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In the shadow of Mount
Pelée: Interview with Aime

By Ann Scarboro

Excerpt from "Aimé Césaire:  Poet and Statesman" a
documentary produced by Mosaic Media and Full Duck

Born in Martinique in the French Antilles in 1913, Aime
, poet, playwright and politician, was to become one of
the most influential intellectuals of African renaissance. Along
with Leopold Senghor, the poet and first president of Senegal,
he formulated the concept of Negritude that led to a worldwide
movement of black African cultural pride. Cesaire's criticism of
European civilisation and racism was to have a profound
influence on fellow Martinican and African revolutionary,
Franz Fanon, reflecting in works such as Black Skin and
White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. Cesaire, now
aged 94, was interviewed by
Ann Scarboro, a US professor
and a specialist in French Caribbean, French, and ethnic
literatures with over twenty years of experience as a university
professor and high school teacher. In this short excerpt from
the documentary "Aimé Césaire:  Poet and Statesman" he
talks about his early poetic influences.

Aimé Césaire:  Poet and Statesman (40 minute documentary
of 2001 interview, available in French or in English voiceover)

AAS is Ann Armstrong Scarboro, AC is Aimé Césaire.

AAS:  Césaire spent his early childhood with five siblings in
the small coastal town of Basse- Pointe in the shadow of the
volcano Mount Pelée.  His father, also an intellectual, taught
school in Basse-Pointe.  His mother, an independent woman,
ran the household with a firm hand.  Césaire loved Martinique’
s island landscape of trees, plants, cane fields, rolling hills,
cliffs, volcanoes, swamps and ocean.  He knew all these
elements of nature intimately.  Their images permeate his
entire being as well as his writing.

AC:  When I want to know myself, I read myself in the
landscape.  That is what is important.  Yes.  The tree speaks
to me.  I don’t know if I can talk to the trees, but I know that
they speak to me and they interpret me…. nature, the tree,
the stone, the landscape, the volcano.  But the volcano!  It is
fantastic!  It is prodigious!  When I look at Mount Pelée, this
reserve of energy, this force that comes up from the deep, out
of the depths of the earth, this magma that rises up and spills
out under the sun, it is fantastic.  And there the great lesson
is read.  …..   People say the volcano is dead.  But no, it is
not dead, and that is one of the great lessons, isn’t it?  The
reserve is there.  One of these days……  Well, we too, we are
going to explode like a volcano.  We are not dead.  People
think we are dead.  Don’t believe it.  We are not as dead as

AAS:  Césaire is about to recall the cataclysmic eruption of
Mount Pelée in 1902.  This event left the town of Saint Pierre
in rubbles and killed the entire population except for two men.  
He survived, because his jail cell protected him.   

AC:  And I am happy when I look at the volcano.  You have to
understand why I love the volcano.  Because the volcano is
not solely destructive.  People call it a catastrophe.  But the
volcano is also constructive.  That is what is important.  The
volcano builds.  It builds itself, and it builds us. …. The
volcano, Saint Pierre.   And then right beside Mount Pelée
you see an immense kapok tree.  This tree builds also, and it
brings a lesson as well.  Beside the tree on the mountain
above the town of Saint Pierre you can see crosses marking
graves.  This kapok tree, this protective kapok tree with its
five arms, that too is symbolic.  

AAS:  After Césaire described his affection for this symbol of
endurance and protection,  I asked him if he were still writing
poetry today.

AC:  No. I never wrote poetry as a literary genre.  That is not
my conception of poetry.  If I don’t write poetry now, it is not
because I don’t have the time.  It is because poetry for me is
the inner knowledge of the human being.  It is a call to action.  
And if I liked Surrealism, I understood it in my own way.  What
interested me about Surrealism was the possibility, or the
hope in any case, of going to the deepest part of the self, of
having finished with the superficial, the already done, of
breaking the surface, of descending even deeper than the
ocean floor.  And for me, that was poetry.   

Everybody always asks me who are you?   I don’t know
anything about that.  When I want to know myself, gain some
insight, I re-read my poems.  It is through the poem that I know
myself.  The poem for me is what allows me to descend within
myself, to wander among my phantoms, among my fantasies,
my dreams, my terrors, all of that.  It is through the poem that I
gain knowledge.   I call this “Notebook of a Return to the
Native Land” a first poem.  It is the poem of a battle with
myself, of a sort of internal revolution, and of a call to action.  I
did not call it “Notebook” as a joke.

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