An Interview With Claude McKay

This interview was published in the Jamaican newspaper, the Gleaner on October 7th, 1911. A.W. Stephenson, a senior writer, is the interviewer. This profile was taken from Winston James’ A Fierce Hatred of Injustice (165-167).

A Photograph of McKay from the June 7, 1978 Gleaner

The Work of A Gifted Jamaican

A little over a year ago, I discovered an infant prodigy who created quite a sensation. The boy is still looked upon as a marvel, and large audiences are drawn to hear him in the country.

On this occasion, I lay no claim to discovering the genius who forms the subject of this sketch; but I am pleased to be able to bring before the public a promising young Jamaican of whom more is certain to be heard in the field of literature.

I got to hear of McKay through one who had taken a great interest in the lad; and learning that he was a member of the Constabulary Force, and stationed at Half-Way Tree, I took occasion to meet him and have a talk with him.

Modest to a degree, McKay was not inclined to say much about himself.

“I hear you are bringing out a book of poems?” I ventured.

“Yes,” he replied; “through the kindness of Mr. Jekyll some of my work is being printed and will shortly be published.”

“I should like to hear something about yourself, how you came to join the Police Force—something of your early career?”

The young man smiled. “What can I tell you?” he asked.

“Well, to begin, how old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” he said.

“What parish are you from?”

“From Clarendon,” was his monosyllabic reply.

“Tell me about your schooldays; I am sure you were a bright, clever little chap?”

“I first went to a school kept by Mr. James Hill, and then I went to Mr. Watts, and to my brother, U. Theo. McKay.”

“Is Mr. McKay your brother, then?”

“Yes, and all I know I learnt from him, “ he said.

“Can you recall your first success?”

“I won a trade scholarship in 1906, and I came to Kingston in January, 1907—the Friday before the earthquake—to take it up. As a result of the earthquake I had to return home, and I was apprenticed to Mr. Campbell of Brown’s Town to learn the trade of wheel-wright. I next served under Mr. Saunders of Chapeltown, but on account of illness the indenture was cancelled.”

“When did you join the Police Force?”

“I enlisted last June—on the 7th of June,” he said.

McKay was very reticent as to why he joined the force. It is said that the underlying cause is a pitiable love story. I hear he has poured out poem after poem on this subject, but he would not discuss the matter. “I cannot touch the public with my heart,” he said, “it would be of no interest to them.”

I changed the subject and asked him something about his work.

“I began writing dialect verses in 1909, my first attempt being a little thing entitled ‘Hard Times’. Messrs Aston W. Gardner is publishing a volume of 50 poems entitled Songs of Jamaica, and I expect the book will be through the press in time for publication in December.

Mr. McKay was as diffident to speak of his works as he was to speak of himself. Those who have seen his poems express themselves in the highest terms about them. There is a charming naivete in the love poems, and humour, and pathos: rollicking fun, too, when he lets himself go. His versatility is wonderful. He treats all sorts of subjects.

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