‘The interesting thing about a map is always what’s not on it.’
So said poet, novelist, and essayist, Kei Miller, at his Words and Poetry event at the Cultural Exchanges Festival.
Maps, place names, and languages were the focal point of much of the discussion that followed his reading. His inspirations, and anecdotes from his travels punctuated readings from his latest poetry collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion.
The sequence of poems follows a conversation between a cartographer and a Rastaman, as they deliberate the nature of mapmaking, and how a person can know a place – two very eclectic characters brought to life through Miller’s animated readings.
Miller touched on his fascination with etymology – particularly in place names – and how language, dialects and history can affect them. A particular favourite of his was Shotover, Jamaica; while locals prefer the story of slaves being shot at, the most likely origin was the French Chateau Vert.
Miller explained how he finds it hard to write individual poems, preferring to create sequences in which he can get the most out of one idea. An academic as well as a poet, his enthusiasm for research and reading usually culminates in one furious writing period, as he aims to show the spectrum of different ways you can see one thing.
As the evening drew to a close, one question was surely on everyone’s mind: How would you map a place?
A. L. Whitaker