Digging With My Pen: A Conversation With Saint Lucian Poet Vladimir Lucien

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An interview by Nandini Majumdar for The Wire. Our thanks to Robert Lee for bringing this interview to our attention.

“The chief mechanism of a poem has to be vision, and vision has to be connected with people and sharing in their fate.”

Jaipur: Born in Saint Lucia in 1988, Vladimir Lucien won the Caribbean region’s major literary prize for Anglophone literature – the OCM Bocas Prize – in 2015, for Sounding Ground, his debut collection. At the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017, he spoke to The Wire about the need for a writer to be connected to the people, about what it mean to him to be called a ‘Caribbean poet’, and more.

Your work has been praised for its use of local references and language. How do you make the local larger, universal?

I don’t see the local and the universal in conflict with each other. Some of the greatest works of literature were very provincial. They have lasted through time and transcended the context from which they originated. There’s a claim you can make for internationalism, but how well do we know the world as something other than an abstraction? For me, the world is too capacious a place to inhabit, and I think a poet ought to inhabit a place. The chief mechanism of a poem has to be vision and vision has to be connected with people and sharing in their fate.

What do you mean by vision?

A vision of what you want to do. It’s a very vague thing but I prefer it to the more precise language of criticism. If you’re a poet, there is something you have envisioned, emerging out of your situation. The book that won the Forward Prize last year, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, what gave it that form, what made it acceptable as poetry? The answer to that is directly connected to vision.

Have you ever been tempted to leave St. Lucia in search of opportunities?

When you speak of opportunity you speak primarily about economics. But as a Caribbean person, I’m very wary of that, because mercantilism introduced something sinister into the Caribbean by which everything is measured in money. I’m very content to live in a smaller house, to get by. The Caribbean is very sexy at the moment. All of our writers are being employed in US universities. I won the Caribbean’s major prize in 2015. If I wanted to enter that trajectory, I could.

I don’t see distance as necessary to gain a better insight. Being there introduces a texture into your work that is more important than being an ‘accurate’ observer. Opportunity for me has to do with grounding, with spirit, with going back and down into the roots. I’m not concerned with career but with doing something I started off to do. More so than writers and artists I find it a lot more enriching to be amongst ordinary people. I feel very much at home in the Caribbean. Not like a king, not that I’m treated specially, but like I really and truly belong.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. The development of art in Europe had a lot to do with the physical existence of things in relation to each other and the relationship between the seer and the object. Those ideas had to do with the notion of distance as creating wider vision. But other societies did not necessarily see from that perspective. For them, it was not only about the physical. Vision does not only come out of the physical. It comes out of the metaphysical, the spiritual, out of all our ways of seeing.

What does it mean to you then to be called a ‘Caribbean poet’?

The Caribbean is a strange space. Right now where I locate myself is a wider African diaspora than the Caribbean. It is difficult for a black person to inhabit the Caribbean if he does not deal with diaspora. Why? Because in the Caribbean, even though the majority is black, there is still, in the language and assumptions about the way people ought to be treated, a consensus about the inferiority of persons of colour.

There’s a Jamaican writer who says that the African experience is like a skewed stack of plates and if we don’t fix it, all the plates will fall down. That’s how I relate to the Caribbean. If you’re not as much a citizen of the place as everybody else then how do you truly inhabit that place? Unless we deal with that problem, the Caribbean will never properly be home. We have to remove that plate from its skewed position, and then we can truly inhabit the idea, the imaginative space of the Caribbean.

How can writers make that ‘inhabitation’ of the Caribbean happen?

I was at a funeral recently. This man there started to sing a song. The environment that form gave way to was one that everybody, from every walk of life, felt they could inhabit. Everybody could join in the chorus, pick up a bucket and start drumming. It is important to look at the environments that literature creates. If we notice that whenever we organise a literary event, the people who come are those who actually hold literature in contempt, who come only to drink wine, who are there to commodify literature and turn it into some kind of cultural capital, then we need to take a second look.

We ought to be careful and vigilant. The writer can inhabit society by moving within it, being susceptible to the dangerous parts of it. You hear things on the street and incorporate them. Being a vessel, your individual shape is also part of what comes out. The writer is a participant-observer, an observer who is deeply involved.

You’ve spoken before about writing being a kind of ‘work,’ like farming. What do you mean by that?

I live in St. Lucia and that’s a very deliberate choice because I don’t want to be speaking for anybody. I believe in speaking of and speaking with. If an earthquake happens, I want to be a part of the fate of the people. For me, that’s the only way writing can be true.

There are multiple levels of being a worker. An African person had to work very hard in the past and still has to. My grandfather was a middle-class Anglophile, but when I look at him I see a worker in the field, really and truly, because he has to work so hard to inhabit that world.

That word, ‘field’, has a double meaning. The first is the actual space on the ground, the other is less material, but it’s still a ‘field’. Our pens are still implements. If we are able to see ourselves truly as workers, have a revolution of perception, then we will not fall into the same mistakes that have given rise to hubristic and ignorant leaders like Donald Trump and Theresa May.

Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’ captures what I would like to think I am trying to do. I love all his work. Something about it smells of the Earth, of just being there. He came from that experience and he didn’t move far from it, he didn’t see himself as advancing from it. Writing for him remained another version of what these people were doing.

It has to do with the idea of education that we’ve been given, primarily from colonisation. ‘Educated’ or ‘uneducated’, ‘literate’ or ‘illiterate’ – what do those even mean? It means you didn’t get a certain kind of education. I may ask, does the educated person also lack something? He has not inherited the wisdom of his ancestors. What does it mean to create these binaries between human beings? Are they as significant as we make them? Are they biased? What is so fantastically more remarkable about a literate culture, apart from the fact that they have greater reach, just like imperialism than a culture that has remained oral?

It isn’t the ordinary Caribbean person who feels inferior. It is us who have entered some other world through education who do. The ordinary Caribbean is very confident. In Trinidad, we call it ‘grand charge’ – the quality of walking into a space as though you own it.

What about your own childhood? How did you come to these ideas?

My family encapsulates the entire Caribbean experience. My mother came from a poor rural background and my father from an upwardly mobile, professional class. My father would always be watching the BBC. He wrote poetry as well and with that vision he had he was a Marxist, which connected him to international movements.

My mother was connected to the world in her own way, through the certain quality of apprehension she had, which more and more I’m coming to appreciate. More and more I’m moving towards my mother. She inhabits a kind of depth of experience. I’m now reaching for something that comes more from the females generally who have been in my life. They inhabit a rooted kind of space. So the female Caribbean writers who are writing today are the ones who are holding the Caribbean accountable for the ‘little’ things like the treatment of children and the politics of sex. I feel we need more of what the female writers do.

How has your work been received in the Caribbean?

Very well. I think I have reached the people. One of the best things that has happened to me as a writer is the reaction I have had when reading two poems – one made the people cry and the other made them laugh. Ishion Hutchinson spoke about a lack of literary criticism in the Caribbean, but I think that criticism we are talking about is a very distant thing – people talking about issues of craft but who have no love for, no connection with, the place they are talking about.

The civilisation of the dialectic is always prone to argument. Someone writes and someone negates. But we are not a society of the dialectic, we are much more complex. Criticism cannot look the same wherever you go. It may be the reaction from a crowd, it may be the look on a face. It may not be in essay form. You have to be welcoming and embracing of difference.

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