Photo Credit: Pieter Nixon
Vahni Capildeo is a Trinidadian poet and writer. Her publications include No Traveller Returns (Salt 2003), Person Animal Figure (Landfill Press 2005), Undraining Sea (Egg Box Publishing 2009), Dark and Unaccustomed Words (Egg Box Publishing 2012), Utter (Peepal Tree Press 2013), and Simple Complex Shapes (Shearsman 2015).
Hi Vahni. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest book Measures of Expatriation earlier this year. For the uninitiated can you tell us a bit more about the collection and, now that you’ve had time to live with the poems, what do you feel are its main concerns?
Thank you for the invitation and the kind words. Measures of Expatriation began taking shape in 2009/10. So I have lived with the poems for a long time; they are now moving away from me. During the time that Measures of Expatriation was building, I wrote two other books.
These were Utter, which is lyrical and lexicographical, and Simple Complex Shapes, where the poems arrived as structures and seemed to turn on the page. Those two other books were their own things. So it was always clear when a piece of writing that I was working on belonged instead in Measures of Expatriation.
There were crucial moments of commissioning or collaboration: with poet, artist and journalist Andre Bagoo on the Aimé Césaire-inspired ‘All Your Houses/Disappearing Houses’ for Trinidad and Tobago’s art space, Alice Yard; for the journal Gangway, on expatriation; and with the Delhi-based Almost Island, very much a ‘without whom’.
I’m not sure whether I should speak of the main concerns in terms of form or content, or how divisible those are. As a person who writes, I was concerned by how pigeonholed people were becoming – ordinary social life in Britain had started to focus on identity (at least it seemed so, to me), with the question “Where are you from?” pursued with a geneticist’s thoroughness.
I wanted to dream a world into being in the book where bitterness and alienation have a kind of gutter to run off, and the reader can enter and co-create illimitable cities and landscapes. Not only nowadays with the Internet, but throughout history, with its unrecorded boats and unpredictable crossings, there has been a mixing of languages and peoples.
Of course writing involves selecting and editing. Nonetheless, I wanted Measures of Expatriation to convey a sense of ‘so much’ and ‘everything, anything’. It is technically similar to my first book No Traveller Returns in this regard.
I am grateful for the influences of new movements in Caribbean poetics too, for example the distilled, hypervigilant, erotic and political riddles of Nicholas Laughlin’s The Strange Years of My Life, itself a decade in the making and permeating my consciousness.
The book contains a mixture of longer prose poems and shorter lyric poems structured across seven sections. I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about the process of reaching the final order of the book, and how important do you feel the ordering of poems is to how a reader experiences a collection?
Readers are not to be herded. Even with the best-behaved, most imposing novels, readers will disrespect the chapter order, fall asleep and read things several times over, stop and start again at the wrong place, look at the ending first, somehow randomize the experience.
With Measures of Expatriation, I think I have prepared meaningful surprises for people who are willing to track the indicated paths, but who is to say if or how that would work?
For me, the practical process of reaching the final order requires printing everything out and physically moving it around, scrawling on bundles and swearing at the stapler. An odd thing about Measures of Expatriation and No Traveller Returns was how conceiving the books in thought was different from conveying shaped words to possible readers.
I had a feeling of not being ‘a writer’, but being transformed into ‘that-which-writes’, with a non-human sort of head, one that was in the middle of several time zones and elements; a kind of slightly puzzled, musical giant. I accepted what this experimental thought-creature could see and do.
Then I had to lay out the elements of that, like a mapmaker making a flat chart from a globe. I used writing to get out of thinking about ‘the book’ as an abstract construct and to find ways to make it readable. In this sense ‘the book’ is not the same as what is finally written.
The fourth section of the book contains a sequence which is an ekphrastic response to Louise Bourgeois’s Insomnia Drawings. In places they read almost like sketches too, especially the fragmentary passages at the end. Could you tell us a bit more about the impetus for writing this poem and in what ways you felt an affinity toward the Louise Bourgeois exhibition?
The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh hosted an overnight event, ‘Wee Small Hours’, on 29th November 2013, as part of their Louise Bourgeois exhibition, ‘I Give Everything Away’. This included the ‘Insomnia Drawings’, which Louise Bourgeois made during an insomniac winter and did not intend for display.
She used materials such as red felt pen and music manuscript paper. In those restless nights, Bourgeois combined written musings with images, some of which were figurative, some quite abstract yet evocative shapes.
The poet Iain Morrison, who is the Enterprise Manager at the Fruitmarket Gallery, commissioned a poetry sequence and reading from me. There was a beautifully intense atmosphere all night; other participants engaged in performances, drawing workshops, and continuous live writing practice, sometimes breaking into equally intense impromptu silliness, all ending with coffee and croissants at seven a.m.
More galleries should employ poets like Iain. It was possible to look and look again at the Louise Bourgeois work and have time to live with it and have changing responses, during those nine hours.
I felt a great affinity to Bourgeois’s use of music paper, as music was one of my first loves, and I still think of my writing as being scored; prose poems, for example, simply seem to me to have a more thickly scored musicality, rather than being less poetic than the more songlike ones.
I thought of the fragmentary visual appearance of my Insomnia Drawings poems as being musically complete. Spacing out clusters of words was meant to make the page vibrate with words that could not really be read in linear sequence, but would need to be imagined as overlapping sounds.
Just as there are highly specific lines for different instruments in an orchestra, there are highly specific areas (horizontal and vertical) on the page in which I arranged the word clusters – as my poet-editor Luke Allan, who had the thankless job of rearranging invisibilities into print, could attest.
Many people dream in more than one language, or at least dialect or slang, and I loved, too, how Louise Bourgeois’s texts flowed from French into English and back.
I understand you collaborated recently with Jeremy Hardingham to create a new work that premiered at the ‘Radical Shakespeare‘ event in the Southbank Centre at the start of June. Can you tell us a bit more about the project and how did the evening go?
The Saison Poetry Library staff, many of whom are poets, program some excellent and challenging events. Jeremy and I were very lucky to be part of the program, which was first and foremost a celebration of Steve McCaffery’s Dark Ladies. McCaffery and fellow reader Philip Terry had very distinct responses to the Sonnets.
Alan Halsey had both the spirits – comedy and tragedy – running through him, which brought light and balance to the evening. It was interesting to hear how everyone’s readings had resonances of King Lear and there was a good audience.
Jeremy Hardingham is a writer and theatre-maker who manages the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio at the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. I began working with him in 2014, when I had the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship.
I was amazed by his rare combination of three qualities: exact linguistic preparation, for example via textual analysis and exercises in retranscription and repetition, so that in his re-visionings of Shakespeare Jeremy has an absolute and inward knowledge of his source texts (I’ve seen two of his street Hamlet versions and heard about his legendary unfolding of Lear); a natural and trained genius for significant movement; and a peculiarly brilliant ability as a poet, though Jeremy has yet to publish what would conventionally be called ‘a collection’.
We used various methods of ‘homework’ and improvisation, indoors and outdoors, and decided to believe in King Lear/As You Like It as two sides of ‘all the plays’, i.e. to create something which audiences could locate by reference to those two plays, but which draws on the entire œuvre.
My former tutor Peter Conrad’s ferocious insistence on reading everything certainly helped me in this; and Peter’s and my decades-long shared obsession with Othello/Otello crept in. I created five poems like acts, or pillars, with the entr’actes provided by Jeremy as a self-rewritten version of Lear’s Fool.
He was mesmerizing in floating, paint-tainted white, with a stepladder/joint-stool as his companion and prosthetic, and leaves of black paper with silver writing. This is part of an ongoing project relating text to movement in new ways, for which we hope to seek funding.
What does the rest of the year hold for you? Are there any dates in the poetry diary you are looking forward to?
I hope that the rest of the year holds a new job, otherwise some serious reconsideration will have to happen! It’s hard to see beyond September, when my Harper-Wood Studentship from St. John’s College, Cambridge, which has allowed me to travel and write for a year, will end.
I am happily anticipating the Forward Prizes reading on 20th September, not just because I’m on the shortlist (I attended last year, as mere audience), but because there will be the chance to hear several of my favourite poets in one evening.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
I am probably the worst physical student Guillaume has had the misfortune to encounter. However, his relentless and creative approach, and Decroux’s philosophy, have become points of reference in my thought.
After Theatre Re
Your head is a question mark.
Your neck cannot rotate.
Your heart is the laziest part of your body.
Your arms are dust.
Your waist cannot rotate.
There is a champagne bottle between your legs.
Good quality champagne,
not cheap prosecco.
Your head snaps back.
When you tried to be
a little bit unbalanced,
that was nice.