The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our ‘Poet of the Month’ for May 2018, the bravely-beautiful Canisia Lubrin.
Canisia Lubrin is a writer, editor, critic and teacher based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Room, Brick, The Puritan, Vallum, Best Canadian Poetry 2018, The Unpublished City, The Globe and Mail,and other publications. Lubrin was named to CBC’s list of 150 Young Black Women making Canada better in 2017. She is poetry editor at Humber Literary Review, advisor to Open Book and is co-host of Pivot Reading Series. Her remarkable multiple-award-nominated debut poetry collection is Voodoo Hypothesis (Wolsak & Wynn).
Natalya: Hello, Canisia. I’m so glad to finally meet you. Let’s talk about poetry. How did you come to write poetry? I understand you were born in St. Lucia, and came to Toronto, Canada in your late-teens. Did that inform your poetry at all?
Canisia: Hello, Natalya. We made it to our conversation destination at last! I was born in St. Lucia – in the country, not in the city – into an orally-rich cultural tradition. A lot of storytelling, folk tales, and community theatre. What I like to think of as embodied art. For me, art is something that has always been intimately tied to the voice. And St. Lucia is largely mountainous. The landscape itself is loud, dramatic. What I inherited is in no way minimalist. This has to have translated into my writing, into poetry that mirrors those experiences.
Natalya: You’ve spoken about your grandmother and her awakening the poet in you. Was she your only influence or spark?
Canisia: Yes, many influences: Derek Walcott, Sam Selvon, Toni Morrison among them. But to me, my grandmother was the master storyteller who made me. I lost her early in my life, but her influence extends into all the good parts of me. I’d like to think that I was a good student, the best kind, but everything I needed to become a writer, a good one, I learned from being her granddaughter. Her generosity, her insightfulness and respect for language, her charm and humour and compassion, her knowing when to be serious and playful, and when never to yield. She is the person I think of when I am reaching for clarity. She’s the one I’m speaking to. If the backdrop of this place and its histories that I no doubt carry within me – that dramatic landscape I alluded to earlier – translates into the metropolis, into Toronto, – where I’ve now lived for exactly as long as I grew up in St. Lucia – then it’s about finding that space where two confluences can flourish. It took a long time for me to get to that place. I’m still at a very interesting crossroads. I always wrote, but it was not until I read Dionne Brand that I truly, really, found my voice. She is the greatest living writer, and if there were any justice at all she’d have already won the Nobel twice.
Natalya: Ms Brand is a special kind of power.
Canisia: I was an undergraduate student at York University and enrolled in a satire course. Nearing the end of the term, my TA said to me, ilisten, have you ever read Dionne Brand? I think you should read her. There’s something in your work and you should read her. Do it today. And I went to the library and took two of Brand’s books home with me. My heart got real busy. And my whole skin just opened up, lifted off my body, and my mind went to vast spaces. I owe a great debt to Dionne Brand who, by some fate, ended up being my poetry professor in graduate school.
Natalya: How did studying with Dionne and other teachers in Toronto feel?
Canisia: I don’t think I wrote a single poem that entire semester, which I thought worthy of Dionne’s instruction. But maybe that is just me placing very high standards on learning as much as I could in the short time I spent in the master’s classroom. Other teachers were also a good help and encouragement, but with Dionne I found a deeper language with which to do the work. And as I’ve said, it was like coming home.
Natalya: I can only perceive this as a white woman, so the perception is limited, but I used to live in a fantasy where Toronto and Toronto’s writing community was super multicultural and inclusive. As curator of The Poetry Extension, I’ve noticed that, in fact, the city might, at times, just be politely racist. The attention we receive for poets of colour whom we feature is low, but it is particularly low for Black poets. Very low.
Canisia: Your estimations about the Toronto scene might be correct, insofar as you can perceive, as you said. There are significant barriers for Black poets. There always have been. There continues to be. We are in a place where writers of colour are more forthright, more bold, and the truth is that there are many more of us now writing and publishing. Social media may have something to do with how things are shifting. This has allowed for more voices to filter into the conversation.
Natalya: How has this impacted you and your first collection, Voodoo Hypothesis?
Canisia: The barriers I encountered are significant, and they are overwhelming. And I won’t bother getting into them here, now. I believe the work speaks for itself, though. The book arrived, kind of like “Gandalf” – precisely when it meant to, even as I was intent on doing it my way. The traditional models or traditional structures meant very little to me.
Natalya: Maybe we, as writers, should focus on being human instead of ‘woman’ or ‘person of colour’ or ‘female poet of colour’ and just be a person presenting a body of work?
Canisia: Yes. I hear you and understand what you mean. But the terrible things aren’t that we are women or persons of colour or female poets of colour. Those are great things. The terrible things are all the real anarchic qualities that are holed up in those labels because of nihilistic, exclusionary, hierarchical histories, and that folks and systems continue to thrust upon the human who lives those realities. Things that belittle and dehumanize rather than celebrate and value.
Natalya: And in that light, tell me how Voodoo Hypothesis took its shape. Did the poems challenge you? Were you jarred? Did you have to move with them as a dancer does the music in order to grapple with them and bring them to their final composition?
Canisia: I love your analogy of the dancer moving with the music, because it is very accurate for me. This book came out of a year and a half period of psychic discombobulation, where I could not turn away, not for a moment, from a lot of the violence that was being perpetrated against – and being reported on – people of colour, but particularly Black people. This kind of trauma-dealing, which is particular to the Western world’s myth, was enhanced by social media, and consumed by traditional news networks. The book that I was writing became apparent. I followed that intensity, and the poems that I wrote became Voodoo Hypothesis. The sheer scope of the book had been a part of my mind and in my spirit for a very long time. This isn’t merely the work of ‘research’. This is the product of a whole entire life spent in a certain kind of evolving consciousness. I am writing towards a particular kind of duration, of liberation, as Dionne Brand puts it, and I have a huge responsibility to all those lives that I am in communion with in the Black diaspora. There is a certain intent to care for all those murdered at the hands of state and racial violence in that book.
Natalya: I felt, when I was reading some of your work, that there was not only a sense of honouring the trauma of these human lives, but that there was also a cradling and comforting surrounding them. There seemed to be an urgency to offer power in the stance of the right to life, and the right to dignity in death.
Canisia: Absolutely. I think that is part of the power of words and language as a cultural artefact, but also as an evolving humanist tool. We excavate, we build, we do so many things with that tool of language. It’s not tethered to a certain idea. It’s free moving. It’s about holding those complexities around what it means to be alive, what it means to be human. And language is extremely important in this commitment to care, because language stretches beyond amnesia and beyond mere thesis. It tends toward what can be discovered, what can be seen, felt, lived anew. Language is about more life. In this ongoing work that characterizes life post Middle Passage, or “wake work” as professor Christina Sharpe puts it, dignity in death is not opulence, it is tethered to an insistence for dignity in life, especially for those who have historically and contemporaneously been denied it. But we live in a time of great delusion and this basic demand for freedom and dignity that everyone deserves is often lost in amused profundity when folks are asked to face Black people. Many can deal with a single voice screaming for life, but no one wants to face the legions of us who know and demand that we deserve better.
Natalya: How did you hold all of that – contain it within the restraint and craft of poetry – but at the same time allow the intensity, urgency and immediacy of this project and the human lives behind it to flow?
Canisia: For me, Voodoo Hypothesis meant ensuring that I was always committed to the integrity of each poem. If I was able to hold the project as a whole in my mind, it’s because the project of the book became apparent. I had to face the hard work of ensuring it was not insular. I was following the impulses that each poem led me to. Again, I’d like to go back to the dance analogy, because it’s true that you are focused on craft, something that is replicable. But you’re not working toward a rigidity. You’re working toward the freedom that repetition is. It is a posture that leads you to the work. My relationship with poetry is deeply embedded in music, and in movement and in the body. So, listening? Listening and moving beyond my initial stance and impulse.
Natalya: I am completely with you there. The need to bend and shape yourself with the poems as they bend and shape.
Canisia: And the project of Voodoo Hypothesis is one that draws from what, to me, is a disruption of a kind of Western view or idea about what progress is. This is the inherent hypocrisies of a society that purports to have achieved the greatest progresses in human history, but then be in complete denial about what’s happening in an inherently classist (and all the isms in) “society” on the surface and beneath. To be still stuck in this idea and the myth of the other, and of the Black other in particular. And offering no legitimacy to the plight that this othering has created. It didn’t end with the abolition of slavery, and our histories and lives certainly didn’t commence with slavery. So, for me, to disrupt time in a way that allows me to hold these things in a single line, in a single poem, allows the lives in the collection to speak to one another.
Natalya: How did you face such a frightening task?
Canisia: I had to be bold. What emboldened me was that video of the murder of Philando Castile, filmed by his partner, with their daughter in the backseat of the car. It was absolutely surreal. Unreal. And yet real.
Natalya: And ongoing.
Canisia: And ongoing, yes. That moment held a span of history within it. It held a certain contemporaneousness. As many other moments that we encounter from a distance (TV, social media etc. often do), it forced me to face the music, so to speak. We cannot hold trauma and let trauma be what our story continuously is in the Black diaspora. Yes, we carry all the fractures of our colonial past with us, but for me the Black body is always in the future. We cannot be tethered to the circumstances that led us to be subjugated. We have to move beyond that in order to survive.
Natalya: Being able to honour your history but being able to move forward and not be defined by it. To be treated as a human being. A human being who works, writes, lives – “Here is my work. Here is my book.” Not, “Here is my colonial history, and this is all my work could ever be about, and this is why it’s legitimate.”
Canisia: Yes. Exactly. This is what is constantly expected of people of colour. The whole idea of being lumped into something and then having to refuse those categorizations, is extremely important. I don’t do well sitting in a mould. I’ve accepted that the next thing that I write is going to put pressures on whatever mould is there waiting for me.
Natalya: Can you tell us about upcoming projects?
Canisia: I’m appearing twice at the Canadian Writers’ Summit on June 15th. Also, on June 16th, I will be on a panel about contemporary feminism as part of the League of Canadian Poets’ annual conference. I’m writing, of course, always. I cannot wait, simply cannot wait, for the launch of Dionne Brand’s new books: The Blue Clerk (ars poetica) and Theory (novel) this fall. I will be in conversation with Dionne in September at a festival. Look out for that and other announcements.