Canisia Lubrin evokes the folkloric magic of St. Lucia in a poetic takedown of contemporary racism

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A report by Jane van Koeverden for the CBC.

Alight with magic, Canisia Lubrin’s poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis traverses time and space, exploring topics of race, oppression and colonialism through a folkloric lens. This, she explains, is the result of her Caribbean upbringing, listening to fantastic tales and learning the power of language on her grandmother’s lap.

Below, Lubrin discusses the process of writing her new poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis.

Reaction to oppression

“A lot of news stories in the last couple of years relating to the oppression of Black people and various injustices of that nature intensified my attention to Otherness. The whole idea of living and being and existing in the West as a person of colour, a Black person specifically, became my central attention. Those news stories and the books that I was reading and the conversations that I was having with people in my life were the main sources of inspiration for the collection.

“For me, the theme of the book is: Why is Othering so essential to Western mythology? I became interested in how this Othering plays out in its own mythologizing of being and nonbeing. How can I trouble the surety of mythology and still hold space for a newness that doesn’t prescribe? I think the pivotal moment for me was the shooting of Philando Castile, with his partner recording the entire thing and his daughter in the back seat of the car. That was an emboldening moment. It was a moment of profound grief, of incisive anger.

“At the same time, it propelled me toward celebrating small joys and looking for those moments where the lives of Black people are not entirely taken up in the gravity of tragedy. So that was a pivotal moment. But I don’t think there was any moment of complete rapture for me. Writing this book was extremely hard.”

Family matters

“My earliest memory of having a certain life and being and language was in my grandmother’s lap. As a very small child, she used to tell my brother and I folktales every night. She was the one who incited my love for language and storytelling. She was an amazing storyteller. This was before I turned five.

“Then I lost my grandmother, first to some kind of memory loss. She couldn’t remember much of anything and so the stories waned. But it was enough to set me on a path for appreciating language, having faith in language and understanding what language means to us and what language can do.”

“I was born in St. Lucia, which during my childhood was still very much a hyper-oral place. What we inherited, many of the oral traditions that were passed down from generation to generation, are significant parts of my writing. Being from the Caribbean and growing up there until my mid to late teens meant that I inherited a tradition of the otherworldly, of the fantastical and the dramatic. There’s a rich multiplicity there that European modes of writing do not tolerate. The sheer physical beauty of the place inspires a kind of magic. So the default for me was appreciating and wondering how the physical space and place of language and of being in the world inspires us to think beyond the mere physicality of it. Because in the collection I’m talking about various modes of oppression, the historical and contemporary implications of colonialism, my sense to expand our experience of life beyond those things landed me in that place naturally.”

Chaos to clarity

“My relationship with poetry is distinct from all the other kinds of writing that I do. Poetry happens for me in a moment of arrest. I am literally captured by an instinct, by a feeling, by a thought, by some frequency of poetic energy. I don’t want to sound too mystified by this, but that’s the closest I can come to rendering what my relationship with writing poetry is like. So it’s that moment of arrest, when I’m in a space of clarity or existing within a chaos that can take me to clarity, and I feel confident that there is some poetic expression to mine from that. I relent. I basically give into that.

“I have found myself in situations where I’m just not available to the poem that needs to be written and then that moment is gone. And that’s OK. I don’t lament that. But that moment of arrest for me usually happens with my being attentive to the language and what the language is taking me towards. Then I just write. I don’t worry about the craft so much when I’m drafting poems. I just write what comes and then I go back and edit for craft and clarity.

“I have a sense that the poem is complete when I have been taken closer to a certain clarity of expression and I can feel that the language is alive and there’s meaning pulsing through the poem. The other very important thing for me is to rest with the failure of the poem because some poems, they fail.”

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