Safiya Sinclair: ‘There’s something so potent in the poetic form’

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A report by Katherine Abbott for The Berkshire Eagle.

In the days after the election, Safiya Sinclair sat in a quiet study and wrote new poems. She was walking around scared and depressed, she said. The feeling is strong, and it is also familiar.

“Some of America is waking up to what is a commonplace reality for many people,” she said, “feeling like you’re in exile in a place that is supposed to be your home. What makes it terrifying is that now it is mandated into law at the highest level of government.”

In the year, as her first book of poetry has won awards for her tough and supple invocation of life in the Caribbean islands, she has come as poet in residence to the Amy Clampitt House in Lenox.

She has been writing a memoir here about growing up in Jamaica in a conservative Rastafarian household.

And this week, she has turned to poetry to channel fear and pain into writing.

“It’s a good way to make sense of things that happen in the world,” she said.

She has held on to it since her high school years.

“I had always had a longing, curious mind,” she said.

When she graduated high school at 15, she had no means of going to college. She submitted a poem to a national newspaper, and a Trinidadian she names as the Old Poet reached out to her and mentored her.

She would beg visiting family to bring her books, she said.

She memorized Keats and Wallace Stevens and Sylvia Plath. But the few books she could get were Western, European and almost all written by men.

“It was fantastic poetry, but I still had to make my own education,” she said.

And she found the same in the U.S., when she came to Bennington College on a scholarship.

She found herself one of a small number of black students, and the same at the University of Virginia, where she earned her MFA.

At Bennington, she said, she was only taught about one black writer in her years there.

At UVA, she met a poet she loves, Rita Dove, who has become a mentor to her, and she has found writers on her own – Audre Lourd, Lucille Clifton, James Baldwin – who have given her strength and a sense of community, of not being alone.

But she has found very few Caribbean writers, she said, and even fewer of her own generation.

“A lot of extraordinary circumstances have to happen, by chance or not, for a Caribbean writer to come to literature as a thing you decide to do against the odds, and then to thrive at it,” she said, “A lot of circumstances outside our control.”

So she speaks from a perspective she has rarely seen in print, as she is now.

Sinclair is a doctoral fellow at the University of Southern California, and her first book, “Cannibal,” published in 2016, has won the Whiting Award and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in poetry.

She has chosen the title carefully – reclaiming it.

She explains in the book: “The word ‘cannibal,’ the English variant of the Spanish word canibal, comes from the word caribal, a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies.”

“I discovered this root myself,” she said. This kind of language “still shapes the way we say and think about things in ways we don’t understand. I am a Caribbean woman, but ‘Caribbean’ itself is rooted in this word.”

When Columbus fought to subdue the people of the islands, she said, the people who resisted he named Caribes, and the ones who were more welcoming he named Tainos.

So, she has turned the word on its head to find beauty and independence in it.

“In the tropics, nothing grows politely,” she said. “It’s part of our culture and our roots. If resisting white supremacy and post-Colonial evil makes me caribes, then yes, I claim that.”

She writes the life of the islands in visceral images – conch shells and coral, lizards and jackfruit, Jumbie birds and poinciana trees, the hard wear of physical labor, the wreck left by Colonial violence and the slave trade, and the rhythms of Jamaican patois.

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