A scribe of our times

  • Yesha Townsend (Photograph by Roseli Johnson)
  • Powerful prose: Yesha Townsend will represent Bermuda in Barbados when she performs at Carifesta (Photograph by Roseli Johnson)
  • Yesha Townsend (Photograph by Roseli Johnson)
  • Yesha Townsend (Photograph by Roseli Johnson)

Nobody cares about poetry.

As a poet, Yesha Townsend doesn’t let that stop her from writing it.

Next week she will head to Barbados with a group of Bermudian writers, artists and musicians for Caribbean arts festival, Carifesta. She will perform spoken word and read her latest prose.

“Poets are scribes of the times,” Ms Townsend told Lifestyle.

“You have Seamus Heaney who was doing the Irish revolution; Shakespeare; people like Lucille Clifton, Audrey Lorde who was coming up with black women issues in the 40s and 50s.

“Hopefully, I’ll be a scribe of the times proliferating the idea that we as humans matter and that life matters.

“I write about home because home matters.”

Ms Townsend has just completed the first year of her masters in Fine Arts in creative writing at Minnesota’s Hamline University.

A cedar-bound chapbook called The reappearance of Atlantis made for her vision and poetry class looks at home.

“Our final project was to [focus] on some form of obsession and my obsession is Bermuda. And not just Bermuda — the concept of home,” she explained.

Poems about Sally Bassett, Mary Prince, road rash and cedar make up the pages. One adopts the form of the environmental protection act; another mimics a hurricane and is laid out counterclockwise.

The opening poem, Index of a Sycoraxian islet drowned by wind, rocked by reef and bone of blood born humanoids, was written in response to Graham Foster’s Hall of History.

“It’s dated. If you look at the piece it goes around the room chronologically, so I wrote this poem as an index so that you can move to any date and find what I’m talking about,” she explained.

After her MFA, she plans to pursue a PhD in comparative literature where she can further “stretch [her] historian muscle”.

“I do a lot of research — Bermuda, culture, history, folklore, everything,” the 30-year-old said.

“There is a lot of magical realism in my prose writing where I explore a lot of Bermuda’s myths and I create myths.”

In Sally Bassett answers The Sun, the executed slave is reimagined as a mythological being.

Similarly, the reappearance of Atlantis makes Bermuda the mythical island that sank.

“Of home is the one thing that I keep returning to in all of my works, across genres.

“I used to write a lot of poems about my mom, but then I realised I was writing about displacement and abandonment and home — of having one, of finding one, of losing one.”

Her mother, Donna Hollis, died when she was 19.

Ms Townsend credits her for her love of reading and regularly trawls bookstores on her time off. “That’s where I spend all my money,” she laughed.

During her undergraduate, one particular book would catch her eye.

“I would go into the bookstore every week and every time I would pick up a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I would never buy it,” she recalled.

After returning to Bermuda for the summer, she went through her mother’s collection and there it was.

She thought it divine.

“[I thought] that’s why I never bought it because I was being thwarted by the universe,” she said.

“I was so geeked because I had her copy now. I grabbed it and threw it in my suitcase.”

When she unpacked at the other end, she was met with a surprise.

“I pulled it out of my suitcase, looked through it. It wasn’t her copy; it was my copy.

“She bought it for me before she died.”

Inside was written: “To Yesha, I hope you continue to grow with integrity.”

“I was flummoxed,” Ms Townsend said.

“My mom was a big part of my literary growth. She bought me books all the time, but I don’t remember her ever giving this to me.

“She had been dead for five years [yet] found a way to give me a gift so long after she was gone.”

The treasured book has since disappeared after her former landlord thought she wouldn’t return.

“The landlord was so remorseful. He said, ‘We thought you were never coming back; we got rid of everything.’

“Every bookstore I go into — new, used whatever — I pick up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I look inside.”

Her poem, A tree grows, addresses the loss.

“It says, ‘I lose things ... You lose yourself looking through the leaves.’

“We lose things as humans. We lose people. We lose stuff that matters. And that was a thing that mattered very much.”

Yesha Townsend is performing at the launch of the inaugural Think Fest on Sunday at 3pm at the World Heritage Centre Theatre. Tickets can be purchased online at or on the door.