August 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Interview with Vahni Capildeo by Zannab Sheikh
1. How long have you been writing poetry? Why & how did you start?
Even when I was two, I scribbled rhymes on my mother’s telephone pad… Trinidad in my day (1970s-1990s) had a strong oral culture, and also a furious faith in education (available only to the privileged before the 1950s). Added to that was my family’s Hindu heritage: hearing my father chant the Ramayana’s beautiful slokas assured me that illiteracy was not our fate, that we were capable of the highest human expressions of art and thought.
2. How did you get your work published or heard? Did you confront any difficulties?
My parents didn’t censor my reading or writing; they gave me free use of a typewriter (remember this is pre-Internet). I naïvely assumed that publication was somehow in my future. I had few pre-1950s book in Trinidad. So at University in England, I imagined simply landing, Bloomsbury-style, somehow among publishers. This didn’t quite happen; though No Traveller Returns indeed depended on a friend’s kind recommendation. I learnt to be independent, investing in excellent advice from The Literary Consultancy, and consulting handbooks. Amazingly, Southfields (David Kinloch and Richard Price) and Poetry Wales (then Robert Minhinnick) took a risk on me.
3. What is your favourite form or mode of poetry (to read/to write/to perform)?
I experience surprising, omnivorous readerly cravings: the writing mind demanding renewal. While some of my poems are unperformable, many-voiced things, I also enjoy doing personæ with dramatic or humorous voices.
4. What do you enjoy most about being a poet?
Refreshing question; thanks! I’m mostly a craftsman. Poetry is something I do; poems, things I make. Perhaps what I most enjoy is when something is done; when I’ve gone as far as I can, as far as my technique is capable of or as far as the material mysteriously lets me.
5. Which other poets inspire and/or influence your writing?
Sometimes a poet’s work engages me intensely, passing through me like a colour; but I won’t necessarily return to it. I return to Anglo-Saxon poetry, Dante, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Martin Carter. I’m blessed with far-flung writer-friends like Nicholas Laughlin, Andre Bagoo, Vivek Narayanan, Sharmistha Mohanty. Knowing they exist creates my context for creation… Mine is the poetry of the unpoetic: everyday interaction, science, history… Ordinary and specialist terms fuse. The poet distils, but also detects misuses of, language’s power.
6. How has your work changed or developed since you started writing?
The day it stops changing is the day to stop writing. Recently I’ve shown more process in the poem: a room-with-exposed-brickwork approach; untranslated phrases.
7. Is there a particular process you use when writing poetry?
Do what works! And make yourself unavailable until it works!
8. Where and when do you write, especially when writing about strong emotions – is it immediate, or on reflection/from memory?
That’s an interesting question, for practical and artistic reasons. Without a family context, and with variable work patterns, I write where and when I can. Regarding emotion: I’m driven more by form.
9. What inspires your poetry the most, and why? Is there an aspect of your life that is particularly influential on what you write?
The writing mind works constantly. The biggest influence is the practical availability of space and time.
10. At what point do you decide that a given poem is finished?
This has changed, simply because notes accumulate. Recently I found a scrap with a phrase from a 1990s business conversation. That had seemed finished, in the sense of being abandoned. But it started whirring and became a sequence. I distance myself from published texts; one risks revising the same thing forever.
11. Before you publish a poem, do you read it aloud? Give it to someone to read?
Writing is a constant process of muttering. Language’s musicality structures my texts. Commissioned work definitely differs from pure composition. Nobody sees any poem’s earliest stages. Trusted friends (including non-poets) see drafts that have ‘formed’ enough to push back at criticism without collapsing.
12. ‘Titanic’: can you retrace your thought process when writing and/or editing this poem?
This riddling love poem hides the ‘what’ while conveying the ‘how much’. The extreme images are informed by my experience of being knocked down by a car when younger; also by Petrarch’s impossibilia and Puck’s rapid-fire speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
13. ‘A Critic in his Natural Habitat’: how did you bring together the different ideas and inspirations in this poem? (Great poem by the way!)
This is a dramatic monologue based on a smug young academic who disrespected the lives of authors and sidelined his oppressive, breast-flinging wife. I hated, therefore became him.
14. ‘The Task’: is this poem based on social issues? Do you think poetry like this can make a difference in the 21st century?
This recounts an incident in Florence. Poetry achieves renewable acts of noticing, here noticing power relations. The reader, not poetry itself, makes a difference, by participating in a civilization which makes time for poetry, and the human value that implies.
15. Why do you use a particular verse form, mode or style for ‘Call It Simple: Two Exteriors’?
Less William Carlos Williams’s stepped lines than (1) Abstract: the gap between information and interpretation. (2) Concrete: Trinidad’s coastline. (3) Musical: the poem’s tempo; cf. the cæsura in French alexandrines.
‘Coastal, maybe ghostly,
outside, over there,
that’s where the sea steals on,
the place for eating up’.
16. What is poetry – both in contemporary society, and for you personally?
More than the aesthetic, I’m worried by distribution and marketing issues. Poems and readers need to connect globally more than they do.
17. What can you express in poetry that you can’t in another literary or art form?
‘Poetry’ is such a wide term! But extra space around words demands time and concentration. Then language, that thing we can’t escape, shows up, playful, frustrating, speaking the ordinarily unsayable. As an ex-medievalist, I like mixed forms. Any lyric, for example, detaches itself as lyric only against a recollected shimmer of all that is not-lyric (prose; song…), therefore drawing on qualities of what it insistently isn’t.
18. What keeps you writing and sharing your work in a society that listens less each day?
I write because I must. The instant of writing fuses impulse and craft. (And can we generalize about ‘a society’?) Perhaps — deluged, hypnotized, life-avoidant —we listen more, but concentrate less? Poetry is a form of concentration.