Forward Arts Foundation speaks to Shivanee Ramlochan about her experiences, development and future as a poet, her reaction to being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection, her poetry collection—Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, Caribbean literature, and her sources of inspiration. Here are excerpts:
[. . .] FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
SR: I confess that my own estimation of myself as a poet, or virtually anything else, is treacherous. It’s difficult to say whether I am a poet anymore than I am, for instance, a failed pianist, or a non-practicing martial artist. If poetry is intention, is yearning, is desperate hunger, then I am a poet every day, a poet as I write to you, right now. My development as a reader, however, is something I don’t feel that kind of identifying conflict about: I’ve been reading and reviewing books of Caribbean literature for eight years, and it’s been my privilege to live so closely with the poems of Caribbean writers, from those revered by the canon, to that category frequently labelled as ‘new’ voices. While I resist canonic/emerging dichotomies, I am a faithful, eager student of what these poems might teach me: the gentle wonder of Richard Georges; the inscrutable covenant of Vahni Capildeo; the playful viciousness of Nicholas Laughlin; the teeth-bared forests of Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné. If I develop anywhere as a poet it is always ardently, like a worshipful ninja, in someone else’s verse first. [. . .]
FAF: Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?
SR: To write Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting I had to both embrace and jettison myself, in separate chambers of the heart and spleen. There are many poems in the book for which I might have been expected to ask permission: from anyone who has notions of what good Indian girls living in Trinidad should write, what things I might be relied upon to tell, or to keep secret. I’ve never asked any permission, but that doesn’t mean I’ve been less afraid. My own terror was my greatest obstacle. I don’t know whether I’ve overcome it, but I know it becomes increasingly important to let the poems be what they are, without apology.
Every poem in the collection has earned its place. That said, “The Red Thread Cycle”, which addresses survivors of sexual assault and their attendant trauma, was the only gathering of poems I knew I would name as a section. The writing of it spans five years. Some of the poems are as they emerged, almost as if gifted, with me as a startled conduit of interpretation. Others have been worked and reworked, finessed, hewn and shattered and restitched, to say what they must. When anyone asks where the spine of the collection lies, I point there. [. . . ]
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
SR: In April, which is largely thought of as National Poetry Writing Month in the United States of America, I embarked on a parallel project of daily interrogation into poetics: a Caribbean Poetry Codex called Puncheon and Vetiver. My goal was to offer a close reading of one poem per day, written by a Caribbean poet residing either in the geographic Caribbean or its diaspora. I wanted to immerse myself in the underserved body of Caribbean poems, to ask: why are there fewer readers for this richness, this spectacular density, than for other global literatures of the Americas and beyond?
The answers are multifarious. The destination, however, is never far from home: I read any poems that come to my door, demanding I pay attention, but I know now what I didn’t know with confidence ten years ago: that the Caribbean fuels my readership, my imagination; that I do not need to leave home to find what I need to keep me alive. This fraught, complex place – a place composed of a million other intersecting places, both physical and psychogeographic – makes poets, or finds poets making themselves here, whose work I want to be reading always: the quartet I’ve already named, plus Rosamond S. King; Colin Robinson; Gilberte O’Sullivan; Roger Bonair-Agard; Dionne Brand; Rajiv Mohabir; Olive Senior; Loretta Collins Klobah; Fawzia Muradali Kane; Malika Booker; Safiya Sinclair; Andre Bagoo; Tanya Shirley; Soyini Ayanna Forde; Brandon O’Brien; Anu Lakhan. [. . .]
For full interview, please see http://www.forwardartsfoundation.org/forward-arts-foundation-in-conversation-with-shivanee-ramlochan/
[Photo above by Marlon James; from the artist’s page: https://shivaneeramlochan.com/.]