Christian Campbell: A Brief Interview with Repeating Islands

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In commemoration of the anniversary of Stuart Hall’s birth (February 3, 1932) and death (February 10, 2014), here is an interview with Christian Campbell about his poem, “Sculpture with Fragments of Stuart Hall.” [Interview by Ivette Romero.]

In October, the Academy of American Poets published “Sculpture with Fragments of Stuart Hall,” a poem by Christian Campbell. The first version of this poem was composed as part of a multimedia collaboration with artist Kara Springer—Translations, which addressed a range of issues including memory, the archive, aesthetics, and interdisciplinary practice—within the framework of the 2015 exhibition “The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding” (held at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery). Campbell explains, “John Akomfrah’s three-screen essay film on Hall, also titled The Unfinished Conversation, shifted me. Both Hall and the artist Terry Adkins passed away the year before the show opened. This elegy for Hall, one of the great thinkers of our time, is also a Windrush poem in this year of the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush, emblem of Caribbean post-war migration to Britain, and this year during which members of the Windrush generation are being framed as ‘illegal immigrants’ by the state.”

Here is Campbell’s poem, followed by the interview:

Sculpture with Fragments of Stuart Hall,” Christian Campbell

“I would have gone back,” the voice
full of shells, gravel, liquid washing
stones, back meaning lost island

or calendar, a thing rigged
with bones unbending, unfolding past
the hard symmetry of clocks,

vertebrae of thought moving now
in real time, home a word hollow
as the bone of birds–tody, cling cling,

gaulin, euphonia— “That dream was over.”
Such oneiric geometry, “The Blue Room”
built by Miles, his horn a grail from which

you sup the saudade of marine might-have-been
never-will-be, embouchure unthought,
no better than Vidia for leaving.

So we leave, skein of shadows,
silent psalms for how our scourge
was beauty, home; brightboys fleeing

the estate for another on that other
island, jolted by the freight of shame.
Mas Hall, thanks for the company

on the volte-face voyage, stingy-brim
on which we sailed, migration of monarch butterflies.
Landfall at Port of Avonmouth in a scene

from Hardy, landfall at Tillbury Dock
to step off the caravel in white gloves,
stout ties, leave to remain vagrant.

Lonely Oxonians together,
oak hatch of the Bod we’d shade,
then off to All Souls to cram

for mods, toiling in Codrington
we leaf through Thistlewood.
And so we are marked. Is it Marx

or Douglass with that beard? Bound
to become Judas-Brutus, blood
diamonds paid us in arrears to try

the line of Hopkins, Auden, Eliot, Donne.
Evensong at New Chapel to ease
the medieval weight of failure in the refrain

of white robes, one brown seraph alone:
“O hear us when we cry to Thee
for those in peril on the sea.”

’Gainst the towers most colored I feel,
dear Stuart, in these duds, our hide,
sub fusc aeternum. You grasp browning leaflets

on the stump; O betraying beauty of brown:
bankra, Barbancourt, Venetian ducats, dhalpuri,
khaki, Gauguin. Remember the strange fog a night

on Broad St. as if below Friedrich’s Wanderer?
But, as you taught, who more Wanderer than we,
the evicted on the victor’s turf, playing the past,

loss a force centripetal? All praise
to your mind a sextant, darklit as Diwali.
You bless our kin severance. How I wish

to forget your sister strapped to the sugar mill,
charged with spoiling the color scheme:
sedition. Ah, compay, even leaves of the croton

sprout from our eyes. There is no going back.
Thinking translucence you say, “Bend the stick,”
different than Lenin or United Fruit. The rank of Bombay

mangoes exceeds all migrations. The lignum vitae
insists on itself. Navel string toughens to twine
with the rhizome, portal in the ground.

1932-2014

—with Kara Springer’s “Repositioned Objects, I,” primer on wood.

[Copyright © 2018 by Christian Campbell. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on August 3, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.]

Ivette Romero/Repeating Islands (IR/RI): In The Poetry Archive, which, in turn, quotes from an interview with Lisa Allen-Agostini in The Caribbean Review of Books, you describe yourself as “a nomad that comes from nomads.”  Emily Berry writes, “Campbell has lived in the Caribbean, the US, UK and Canada; his background and itinerant lifestyle have had a powerful influence on his work. Asked about his voice in Running the Dusk, in an interview with the Caribbean Review of Books, Campbell responded, ‘Perhaps I’m something of a protean poet, a shape-shifter (in this book about shape-shifting). “Wonder” is a word I love. By “wonder,” I mean both the quality of astonishment and that of uncertainty. A kind of (ir)reverent questioning. “Wander” is a word I love . . .’” This brings up so many questions that relate to your latest poem, the Windrush elegy entitled “Sculpture with Fragments of Stuart Hall.” First, I would like to ask you to speak about the title and how the poem emerged.

Christian Campbell (CC): A story—before the great artist Terry Adkins passed, we were in serious talks about collaborations. He invited me to perform and record a poetry and jazz album with him and I deeply regret that we didn’t get the chance to do so. Terry was the one who introduced my work to Gaetane Verna, Director of the Power Plant Gallery, and suggested that we do something for the upcoming exhibit, The Unfinished Conversation. Gaetane eventually invited the artist Kara Springer (who is also my partner) and I to make work in conversation with the exhibit, which was inspired by the work of Stuart Hall. I also participated in the symposium to talk about Terry’s work. So the poem is an elegy for Stuart Hall, but also for Terry Adkins in a secret way.

I would say that the poem comes out of the art of friendship and the aleatoric and grace in the fray. I couldn’t have written this poem without conversations with so many brilliant people like Kara and Alissa Trotz and Honor Ford-Smith and Andrew DuBois and Pat Rosal and Caz Phillips and Hillina Seife and Norman Chea and Idara Hippolyte and Kim-Marie Spence and Yusef Komunyakaa and Vladimir Lucien and Tiphanie Yanique and Garrett Hongo, just to name a few. The poem is a way of studying and making something new out of grief, fear, failure and shame. And love. The poem, like much of my recent work, is a study of apostrophe—how do we address our dead?

As for the title, I was very moved by Kara’s sculpture, “Repositioned Objects I”— it’s a wooden structure that could be a chapel or doorway or memorial that “mirrors” itself horizontally on the ground. I also love the bewilderment of the way the snow and frozen lake “pass” for white sand and the sea in the image. Of course, the poem is significantly engaged with the films of John Akomfrah, so the title works in a number of ways. It asks you to see the poem as a sculpture.  I like how Fred Moten puts it: “Sculpture is ways of arranging air.” And the poem literally uses fragments from a Stuart Hall interview.  There is also this other sense of walking through a museum of sculpture fragments from antiquity— noseless busts, headless bodies, handless bodies, torsos.

Lakeshore1

IR/RI: How does your self-identification as a shape-shifter also apply to the Windrush generation and Stuart Hall in the context of this poem?

CC: Honestly, I don’t know. I would really want someone smarter than me to make connections between the poem and the hell that Theresa May has helmed for the Windrush generation.

This has nothing to do with what you just asked me but thanks to Honor Ford-Smith, the brilliant historian Catherine Hall, Stuart Hall’s widow, saw and appreciated the poem. That means a lot to me.

Another thing is that there was a fascinating (mis)reading of the poem that Stuart Hall and I were friends. I love that because it means the friendship between the speaker and the imagined Hall is emotionally real. Of course, I took the same strange journey to Oxford fifty years after Hall so we couldn’t have been cohort (his cohort included Naipaul!).  I only met him twice in life—first at a conference at Duke and then at Oxford. He was scheduled to give a talk and I looked up his number in the phonebook and called him to thank him for his work. Then I met him after the talk.

IR/RI: I am fascinated by the way in which (in your interview with Allen-Agostini on Running the Dusk) you point out the duality of the word “wonder” as connoting astonishment, uncertainty, “(ir)reverent questioning,” and, after reading “Sculpture with Fragments of Stuart Hall,” I would add, dreaming (“That dream was over;”oneiric geometry”). In the context of this poem, I think the element of “wonder” also applies, but seems to be infused with a sense of trauma and pain rather than with a positive, hopeful sense of gazing upon something new and amazing upon arrival. Although the poem ends with the toughening of the navel strings/rhizomes with the strength of lignum vitae, most of the wondering seems tied to loss (“the saudade of marine might-have-been never-will-be”) and the sadness of Miles Davis’s “Blue Room.” Could you unpack your use of this type of wondering—what “might-have-been never-will-be”?

CC: What is the tense of diaspora?

The poem is actually a failed terza rima (so Dante also haunts) and the tercets are talking to and embodying some filmic strategies in Akomfrah’s three-screen film, “The Unfinished Conversation” and documentary “The Stuart Hall Project.” So rather than thinking of ekphrasis as mere description or even transcription, it is more of an embodiment, a drag, a sort of evaporation of self and saturation in an other-else that then alters all. Ekphrasis is really a becoming (a very Hallian word). But back to time—I’m intrigued by how film can move quickly across time zones, but there is something to be said about how Akomfrah’s three screens aspire to a simultaneity that is already possible in the techne of poetry. And I should call Akomfrah’s “The Unfinished Conversation” a lyric film rather than an essay film.

I took Hall’s fragments from an interview he did with Kuan Hsing-Chen: “I would have gone back, had the Federation lasted, and tried to play a role there. That dream was over at the moment in the 1950s when I decided to stay, and to open a ‘conversation’ with what became the New Left.” I was fascinated with the past unreal conditional of “I would have gone back” (not to mention the phrase’s meter). I wanted to play those notes with Miles, and register that melancholy—Hall’s, mine, perhaps all diasporans. I was fascinated with this thing of “going back,” which is possible and impossible, physical and metaphysical. The “might-have-been never-will-be” deals with the alternate lives of the diasporan. I mean, there is a parallel universe with an alternate Ivette who never left Puerto Rico. Who is she? In a way it’s a terrifying question to ask.

As for wonder, that is an old-ass interview! I can barely remember what I said then. I will say that the space loss opens up in us is also a space of potential even as it devastates. Maybe that’s a way to think of the portal in the ground.

IR/RI: As should be expected from a poem about Caribbean migration to Britain, the poem is full of references to movement, journeys, and wandering—both leaving and returning. Once again, the sense of loss (“lost island”; “home a word hollow as the bone of birds; “brightboys fleeing”; “freight of shame”; “to remain vagrant”) is prevalent. One is left with the pain of knowing that there is no “volte-face voyage” and this is not like a migration of monarch butterflies, which go back to lay their eggs in the spring: “there is no going back.” How is this difficulty broached in Hall’s work? In your opinion, wherein lies the possibility of redemption, deliverance, or restoration for the Windrush generation, and more broadly, for us, the brown evictees (“who more Wanderer than we, the evicted on the victor’s turf”)?

CC: I don’t know if what I’m doing in this work is as grand as that. A brilliant scholar like yourself would be better suited to answer these questions! I want to present something, question something, point to the ineffable, rather than translate or transcribe theory or offer solutions.  To wonder. And wonder maybe is also a kind of luminous unknowing (unknowing being my engine). I want to register the brutality of knowledge, the limits of knowledge. What is the price of knowing? What is the price of acquiring the skills I needed to write this poem? That’s what this poem is about in a sense. I was talking to the historian Hillina Seife about needing to have a generational conversation about the price of being “the hope and dream of the slave.” What are the psychic costs of these journeys we take? There is a generation of us with this cultural and political ambivalence, and I want to articulate this generational feeling that binds us globally. It’s hard to even say this out loud because it can feel like ingratitude to our ancestors.

I want to say that like us, the poetic line always exists in multiple dimensions at once. So we have to think of the polysemy of “home a word hollow as the bone of birds” (which I didn’t realise until long after I published the poem)—home can be both a noun and a verb here. The other thing is that while “hollow” evokes loss for you, the paradox is that the hollowness of a bird’s bones is precisely what allows it to fly. The poem is often in tension with itself or turns back on its own rhetoric. The poem says “there is no going back” but it does go back. I love how poems carry and use contradiction, like the body.

In terms of movement, Hillina Seife and I had an amazing conversation about gender in the poem; her reading is brilliant. She pointed out that the poem is an exploration of masculinity. Think of Richard Hoggart’s “scholarship boy” but of different shades, different places. Re-reading it, the poem is addressing Stuart Hall and goes to Miles Davis, Naipaul, Hardy, Thistlewood, Marx, Douglass, etc. She said that by the time we get to the lines –“How I wish/to forget your sister strapped to the sugar mill,/charged with spoiling the color scheme://sedition.”– all the violence embedded in the preceding images (obfuscated of course by colonial power) jumps out! So the woman’s body is, as usual, the sacrifice, taking the punishment for transgression of the imposed bounds. Hillina says that what is powerful is that she, the sister, is visible. And the speaker admits to wanting to forget her or the image of her.

That section comes from a story that you probably know that has haunted me for years and years. I heard as a student that Stuart Hall’s sister was in love with a black Bajan doctor but due to the aspirational, painstaking demands of “brownness,” the mother forbade her from marrying him. The sister had a nervous breakdown and had to get electroshock treatment and never recovered. And the deadpan way Hall recounts this story in “The Stuart Hall Project” lets me know this is a primal scene for him. This is the undercurrent of all his work. In the poem, the sister is strapped to the sugar mill as a kind of metaphorical electroshock and electric chair. Hillina and I talked about how in a poem that is so much about mobility– of birds, butterflies, Windrush migrants, scholarship boys– it is the sister who is strapped, immobile. Hall escaped and she did not, could not.

IR/RI: I find it interesting that you chose to include and mix together elements and words from different regions/traditions/languages related to the Caribbean and beyond (besides the European and African references): tody, cling-cling, gaulin, euphonia, bankra, Barbancourt, dhalpuri, khaki, Diwali, lignum vitae, Bombay mangoes, compay, saudade, etc. As a reader, I find these elements to be highly enriching, providing texture as well as opening up the stage of wandering/travel/migration to show a movement that reaches across/away from/and back to the archipelago. How did these resonate for you or what function did they fulfill as you constructed the poem?

CC:  Ivette, I am not surprised that you made this connection given the way that you and Lisa re-think the Caribbean in the largest possible sense in your work with Repeating Islands. In one sense, the words you list are simply objects and energies in my world. I’m a black Trinidadian-Bahamian of multiracial and multinational background who has lived all over the world and comes from the world or, rather, is “a little world made cunningly.” There are many sides of this as there is probably not one “group” or “identity” for which I have claim that has not denied or questioned my claim in one way or another. At the same time, I am very clear now that my insider-outsiderness is a power to be harnessed, a deeply distinctive way of seeing.  My bloodlines probably embarrass my intellectual repertoire so I have work to do. I also hope that none of my work is read in the tiresome, po-co, Empire Writes Back, Afro/Euro binary. It’s boring as hell.

On a different note, the scholar of geography Nalini Mohabir gave me a gift when she explained why the last lines of the poem move her: “Navel string toughens to twine/with the rhizome, portal in the ground.” She said and I must quote her: “It is the dilemma of the diasporan at the end of life, where is the final resting place (of the body, of the imagination)? It is intertwined (a tough twine at that) and in relation with exile as well as the seeds of multiple homes.” I am still shaken by this profound reading in part because I never thought carefully about this for my family and myself—a real diasporic dilemma indeed. But what is beautiful and I didn’t do it consciously, is to think then of the poem as a funerary rite that gives Stuart Hall a second burial, a return of the body (if only the navel string that was there but forgotten), to be buried at “home,” with the croton and Bombay mango, beneath the lignum vitae tree.

[Images: First, a still from John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation, accessed via https://www.moma.org/collection/works/202991. Second, Kara Springer’s “Repositioned Objects, I” was accessed via https://www.narsfoundation.org/karaspringer/.]

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