“Do the Damn Thing”: Letters After Trump: An Interview With Canisia Lubrin

by E Martin Nolan

E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s Interviews Editor at The Puritan. His work has appeared in Lemon Hound, Arc, and The Rusty Toque, and Canadian Notes and Queries, among other places. His collection of poetry, Still Point, will come out with Invisible Press in Fall, 2017.

E Martin Nolan: Poetry is not always intended to be beautiful. It is often beautiful in ways we might not expect. Donato Mancini once described to me his concept of poetry’s musical effects: “‘interesting’ is sometimes lulling and soft, sometimes dry/crisp, sometimes gratingly harsh, etc.” The point is that there’s no one concept or experience of beauty and no guarantee that a poet will be invested in beauty at all.

But when I read you, and hear you, I think you may be questioning a lot of things, and there is harshness in the poems, but the beauty of language is not questioned. The oral quality is key. From “Voodoo Hypothesis:”

did you not land with your rocket behind
you, hope beyond hope on the tip of your rope
& the kindness of anti-gravity slowing you down
you, before me, metal and earthen. But I am here to
confirm or deny, the millions of small
things that seven minutes of success
were hinged upon when I was little more than
idea and research, in the hypnotic gestures of flame and Bunsen burner
and into parachute
no one foresaw, the bag of rags at the end
of the tunnel

I note the repetition (“you”) the progression of clauses of varying length, the use of commas to cause a breath, the unpredictable rhymes (hope-rope, things-hinge, “bag of rags”), the assonance (small-seven-success). There’s an iambic tendency in the first two lines, then trochaic in the fourth, and the penultimate line comes back to the iambic. I sense a free but controlled attention to sound. Though you do make use of refrains in other poems, the most prominent characteristic is long-form improvisations that have a tendency to utilize noticeable, and pleasing, musical effects.

What, for you, is the relationship of language to beauty? How did your concept of that relationship develop? Am I right to presume you think of language as a vehicle for beauty?

 

Canisia Lubrin: Poetry is a paradoxical place where I attempt to transcend and transgress things that confound me. I have always been rapt by the sheer abundance of mystery in the world: its vast possibilities and enervations. For me, language falls right in the middle of this figuring. I think my relationship with language changes every day, but it is still imbued with my sense of place and the modes of art that I inherited: born and raised in tiny bi-lingual St. Lucia in its awe-inspiring Caribbean, its mix of African, European and to a lesser degree, Asiatic oral histories and traditions.

This is language as a kind of trauma in itself but it is still a beautiful thing.

My grandmother, whom I lost early in life, incited my love for language, music, story, for just doing the damn thing—whatever it is—beautifully. She was the master who trained my ear to the various rhythms of the oral arts. So, my relationship with language and beauty stems mostly from the fracture and multiplicity of that inheritance. Even so, I experienced often some pull of instinct that complicated my outsized sense of loss and although I did not have the expression for it, I knew it had something to do with language. I had as a child read and listened to poetry: in the many Caribbean folk songs and theatre and stories that moved and broke like some of the world’s well-known great epics. I’d found drama and tragedy in the few poems and plays of Shakespeare and Walcott and maybe Angelou that we studied in school. I’d found rhythm and wordplay in the calypso and soca and la komette and reggae, the full musical legacy of the Caribbean and its import: pop culture mainly from the U.S. and Europe. So that sense of language as feeling, as energy, is something that I became hyper-aware of in my childhood. Looking back, I think that although I did not learn of the colonial legacy of the Caribbean until quite a bit later on, I always felt some great loss in the everyday register of English insofar that its relationship with Creole bore what I eventually understood as a fraught politic of self-preservation.

When later I came to write poetry, my language struggled in its rhetorical firings. There was little craft-specific discipline to hold the subjects that I naturally gravitated towards: the horror, the suffering and troubles of what I could perceive of this life up against any sufficient sense of beauty in the illusory surety of language. For me this was often akin to not being able to speak at all: there is vice and unrest in such a thing as “beautifying” tragedy, yes. But it is a necessary trouble. To think of how to use the language of the colonizer to decolonize. To think of my Creole—the language of the colonized—invented by slaves whose very survival bred this linguistic creativity, a liberty twisted up in their need to communicate external to their masters, in spite of their subjugation. To think of language as a place of freedom for my ancestors: even as their ancient tongues were sliced from their mouths, they grew new speech. I think of what this means for me, the possibility of this dual inheritance. My Creole and my English, like language estranged. And nothing seems more true and cruel to me: both exist in me at once. This is language as a kind of trauma in itself but it is still a beautiful thing. I’m trying to negotiate the larger world that becomes, in fact, divisible because of language. And I often think that the relationship between language and beauty cannot be adequately considered without deconstructing the silent suspicions of inferiority that lead to the dichotomy in the first place. Is it really a contradiction that language contains its own right to be pleasing? Or is it how a poet becomes self-indulgent?

But I found that in order for me to write poetry, I had to give up the anxiety that beauty—in language or a poetry whose mostly chosen business is to wrestle the horrific—is a corrupting force. In “What The Twilight Says,” Derek Walcott, one of my greatest influences, writes that in the tropics “deprivation is made lyrical, and twilight, with the patience of alchemy, almost transmutes despair into virtue […] nothing is lovelier than the allotments of the poor, no theatre is as vivid, voluble and cheap.” My artistic impulses live in this paradox. And I realized at an early age that I enjoyed this challenge, that I am, thankfully, not one of those people who falls easily beneath paradox’s overwhelm, that I am willing to accept the world as dread and loveliness side-by-side.

Everyday, I am pushed and pulled in (un)equal measure, not towards answers but towards a blank space. So I am fraught with intention that translates in my work as doubt. I am not concerned with the business of poetry so much as I am obsessed with finding new space, going deep into the wrecks, finding invented space even. And this is daunting enough on any given day, but doubly so when the poet attempts to create from this chaos. So the beauty of, and what I think is my responsibility to language itself, conspire daily to hold me up.

 

EMN: I’m struck by the potential double meaning of that last sentence, and in particular the phrase, “hold me up.” It could mean you are supported, or robbed at gunpoint, by language. Even were that not intended, there is no shortage of what you term “paradox’s overwhelm.”

I wanted to bring up Adorno’s claim that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This is often misunderstood. Following this analysis, I take it to mean that the Holocaust had revealed the world to be barbaric, and that a more useful quote from Adorno is that the “sole adequate praxis after Auschwitz is to put all energies toward working our way out of barbarism.” So the poet’s job is not to quit, but to realize that one writes within a barbaric whole, and so whatever one writes will be barbaric, though it can be done with the intention to “work our way out of barbarism.” He did not expect that project to necessarily be achievable—but what else is one to do?

We have no shortage of barbarisms to confront: the legacy of the Middle Passage and slavery, the brutal conquering of North America, the ongoing pillaging of the Earth… . I wonder how that confronts the aesthetic, though. Having heard you read and getting from that a very unified impression, I was a bit surprised, when sitting down to read your work closely, at how slippery it can be in terms of argument and meaning. Yet the sound always holds it together.

I want to do the damn thing authentically.

Do you find there to be a tension between the beauty of language and your “responsibility to language”? Is the latter more related to the horror side of the beauty-horror paradox, the one that forces you to cultivate doubt and leave the reader/audience in an incompletely resolved “blank space” somehow also holding beauty? Put otherwise, does a wokeness toward history force you to constantly challenge your grandmother’s dictum to “do the damn thing beautifully”? Can the deprivation Walcott alludes to ever be simply lyrical, or must it remain stalled in stages of “almost transmut[ing]”?

 

CL: I did not intend the gun analogy, but why not? Yet, the tension we’re talking about is at its root a question of whether ethical limitations in representing the horrors of the past in art can have an all-applicable standard. I think this question is also entangled in the ambiguity of Adorno’s claim. My attention to history is partly instinctual (a hyper-awareness of my reality) and partly the result of the shock of learning these deeper-past histories: they stick with me and I am arrested by a sense that history as a sum is yet another polyglot waiting for the unrest of artistic interpretation to hold it to account. Still, even as this sounds like an impossible thing, and while owning an absolute praxis about creating art seems ideal for many artists, I tend mostly to give myself over to instinct when I write. This is a way of seeing; a mode of saying that what first involves calculation and presupposition very quickly becomes the opposite of instinct. And for me the allure of this over-shaping can lead to something that is all representation and no inquiry, or something particularly overburdened with intent. I think this calculation, if it is absolute, risks becoming dangerously inauthentic, because art is the product of both instinct (or what folks like to call talent) and form (or what is learnable and teachable). But at some point we have to take the facts somewhere and give them wings. I believe more than anything else, I want to do the damn thing authentically, and the necessary trouble of that involves navigating immense contradictions.

I haven’t yet in my few years on Earth encountered any human-created anything that doesn’t have at its germ something contradictory. So, I don’t find that I’m in conflict with tending towards the beauty in language, because this is how I come. I can only hope that you—the reader—will find it beautiful, because you have brought your own range of decoding skillsets to the task of finding whatever beauty lives in the thing for you. It’s important to note that beauty need not mean saccharine and I find that people often conceptually confuse the two. I still believe that beauty is part of a poem’s integrity and that beauty is not dressing and it can be naked and vehement. But, do I want you to be disturbed by the supposed tension of this paradox? I do. And I am. So, to me, Adorno’s dogma rings true: if art is a mode of revelation—particularly after historical horror—should it be more than just a depository for the barbarisms of history? Art in this context should rile against treachery and against a silence that prohibits and erases. The implication is the more we know, the more defiant we become in the face of atrocity because this world is terribly unbalanced. What leads us to, at the very least, say hell, never again? But I also I think that’s a nuance that makes it acceptable for an artist who looks to history for content to not be socially engaged in this way.

Historical consciousness portends that conflict is part of art’s ongoing dynamism.

Coming to the idea that a poem should have a unified argument or meaning, I find myself thinking that this may be an impossible standard to hold poetry to. There’s room for thoughtful meaning and complexity to co-exist with the poem’s supposed provocation. Poetry attempts to communicate what is, and that can include a string of impressions or a single impression, and the stuff of much experimental poetry. To take Dionne Brand’s “No Language Is Neutral” as only a meditation on the intersection of place, identity and black female language politics misses the million other things it could mean to a million different readers. For me, history is also a matter of interpretation, not so much to upend history’s events but to confront popular/accepted/expected historical narratives that research and revision have proven to be incomplete and sometimes false. And here’s a wonder: what counts as an historical event and by whose standards is history measured, understood, recorded, disseminated—and to a larger extent—judged? There is the question of what happened, sure, but the associated repercussion of historical domination that is often rendered as “erasure”—the headless horseman of colonialism—involves: who got to do the talking? Who are history’s ventriloquists? To do this question any justice in the work, I’m also given over to anticipating a future: sometimes this demands my decolonizing psyche to suspend time and aesthetic and even argument but never meaning. I appreciate the code-switch. There’s also room in the ruined house of poetry to let the reader sit with a thing and surmise her own meaning, but the subject is offered in particularity, whether in irony or through some other suitable aesthetic.

If I am arrested by a historical presence, it’s the one that goes after the history that is hidden.

We’ve all been indoctrinated into the school of make it new. This also extends to what poetry means in a public context. Reading poetry is performance nonetheless and the poet can choose to take you to a particular door with a certain poem that if you are willing you will enter. Then you experience that same poem without the intrusion of the poet’s actual staged voice and suddenly you are in new territory and you begin to wonder what else is there.

Still, there is lack: the reader and poet are often locked in a particular range of possible interpretations. History offers the “exhaustion of distance” as Walcott states in his Nobel Lecture Antilles: Fragments of An Epic Memory. This entropy allows for time to be rewound enough that we can see history’s vestiges after which I hope the poem can offer a glimpse of what happened but with enough propulsion in the narrative that the reader is not captured by an expectation of historiography. I’m no historian but I think that whatever we think of as the present becomes myopic without acknowledgment of history’s role in our continuing narrative. The hope is for a looking around, a looking inward, and a looking forward to what can be—beyond the largely imperial dominance of singular history. Yes, the barbarism of, say, the Holocaust or The Middle Passage or The Crusades were perpetuated by folks wielding ideological contradictions, supremacists whose narrativizations make them seem all-powerful to us folk who are constantly looking back. Yet, the minute you capture a thing and transform it into art, it is necessarily changed by virtue of whatever representation you give it. If I am arrested by a historical presence, it’s the one that goes after the history that is hidden.

It’s interesting that people find our current climate of alternative facts so demoralizing. I don’t think many people of colour feel displaced by this need to always be suspicious of the information dominating our social and cultural institutions. This is exactly how hard people of colour have had to work to find ourselves in much of the world’s content every day. De-factualization is nothing new. The same desensitizing narratives that would have us think the negro a backward, hollow brute waiting to be filled with high culture, that historically there was nothing to excavate in them (who could not possibly be real persons) other than sheer physical strength and their reproductive vivacity, that negroes were found begging for subjugation from the black door of their mud huts. What is truer is the entire history interrupted, and I don’t need to leap too far to imagine the ingenuity of, for example, Black African tribe traders devising and negotiating how to profit from the commerce of slaves, those who sold other black Africans into slavery. What would history tell us today if this complicity wasn’t a wind in the sails of African enslavement in the west? If we knew readily of stories that serve as anchors against colonialism’s prevailing winds? I want the reader to be implicated as witness if she is willing to believe me, and who and what I evoke—even imaginatively. I want the reader to question and to go where it is uncomfortable to go in order to find the real presence. Real as George Washington Carver, real as Sojourner Truth, Katherine G. Johnson, Ida B. Wells, Michelle Obama, real as LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Shirley Chisholm.

 

EMN: So there is ambiguity and paradox, but not a predetermined kind (as it might seem from the reader/critic’s point of view looking at a poem as it lies on the page). The making of art, and the appreciation of it, is not totally some “overshaped thing” to quote you above. Art might go at something on purpose, but then it’s also a living entity that takes on its own kind of becoming. This takes me back to what shaped my idea of what art should do, and that is New Orleans music, which I was lucky enough to see a ton of as a student there from 2002-7. Like all the great practitioners of what is called “free jazz” the musicians I loved there were by no means free. Like John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, later Miles Davis, etc, they were not constrained by the established jazz forms. A lot of jazz songs start with the head (or chorus), then everyone solos over the chord changes, then they return to the head. There’s some determined order there. This is not what I’m talking about, but they also weren’t playing in total chaos. These songs would more often than not be funky (in New Orleans you’re never far from the second line street beat), and there would be a cohesive form that one could sense, and which took a real mastery of jazz and other musical forms to contain.

Now, a lot of poets try to imitate the freedom of jazz, but I think they often mess up because they take the freedom but fail to also be funky, to have that tightness in their verse. When I moved to Toronto, I missed this mode of music. My brain missed having those patterns moving around its neurons. The thing that first drew me to Dionne Brand’s work was when I heard her read from Thirsty and I could hear her setting up rhythmic patterns, returning to them but with subtle substitutions, and generally achieving in poetry the kind of tension between freedom and constraint that I was missing from the music. And yes, as you say, to boil her work down to its content, its argument, would be to dismiss the musical/formal joy of it, and the ambiguity and openness that her approach makes inevitable. I think your poem “Aftershocks” (for Dionne Brand) gets at this:

Now hold her with whatever is left
Whatever trembles with a noise
Nobody but the radiator makes
No usual sound of crickets, frogs
& chorus of beetle

It’s not about explaining something like history, but “trembl[ing] with a noise” at its presence. I think that’s both more authentic, but also makes for better art—ambiguity and paradox being more intriguing than certainty.
This also makes me think of Tanya Tagaq, who manages to have huge historical resonance, even while a lot of her music does not have lyrics. But like the musicians I mentioned above, she works in a controlled freedom. When I saw her at Massey Hall, I had an old New Orleans feeling: I got totally taken up and lost within her improvisation. In this type of experience, I find it’s like time stops, or slows. It strikes me now that it’s maybe a kind of forgetting, and of getting out of time, but at the same time the very expression of this freedom and power is inherently historically resonant. It’s a statement against historical barbarism, a re-telling of the narrative, just as Charlie Parker’s revolution in improvisation was a powerful retelling of both his present and his people’s history. But it can also be this amazing release from time and history, maybe the thing Joyce was longing for (history as “nightmare from which I am trying to awake”), if only for a moment.

Which brings me to something I wanted to ask about. In “Centre,” on Tagaq’s latest album, Shad raps that “to remember is to enter in reverse.” We’ve been talking about paradox and ambiguity, and history. I’ve been mulling this one over for a while now. “To enter in reverse” would not be to “go back” to a past time. It’s to recreate the very act of entering, but in reverse. I don’t understand it, and I don’t think that’s the point, but I feel like the quote is saying something about the experience of encountering historical terror with art, and with beauty. What do you think?

 

CL: Dionne Brand is one of my great literary mothers. Her influence on my work and writerly identity cannot be overstated. She’s one of the poets I most often imitated when I first started writing poetry seriously. I was completely taken by her sensuous musicality, her incantatory facility with language, her ability to keep her subjects raindrop-clear through a swiftness of intelligent narrative still uncommon today. Her unapologetic bravery is radiant with its contention of established politics, narratives and pejorative histories. I could go on all year about this—yet, that controlled freedom in Brand’s rhythms, which you identify so precisely, is a major feature of her work that immediately allows me into to the interior life of her poems. My relationship with poetry is very deeply connected to music, though I don’t often set off to make any conscious musical decisions, you know—the idea that I want to create this iambic thing or that trochaic thing or to go after a quatrain in this or that manner, etc.. Sometimes I end up in a Shelleyesque colossal wreck of rhythm and need to abandon the poem until I am ready to navigate its supposed dissonance.

What startles me is the particular way ‘Centre’ gives consequence its own consciousness.

It’s funny. I remember many times as an undergraduate, being referred to as a jazz writer, and being quite confused about the label. But I know that my way about the enormity of writing is nonlinear. In fact, most times I find that Davis, Simone, Sessenne Descartes—that Trane or Thelonious Monk—in a poem’s initial dialect and I enter and make myself at home, hoping to face its upheaval and respond authentically to its tone, pitch, the height and depth of its intricate sounds and rhythms.

So, I’ve loved New Orleans from afar for as long as I’ve known about the place, and it is one place I am most excited to visit. I believe that an artist’s sensibilities can’t be divorced from their sense of place; and, for artists whose work involves language this relationship becomes even harder to pin down. And for artists who make home a place apart from the physical space of their becoming, even more so.

It’s interesting that you’ve brought up Tagaq and Shad’s ethereal collaboration. Beyond the fact that I find “Centre” a fine origin myth, I’m tempted to avoid a specific totemic response. And the irony isn’t lost on me, given the song’s obvious symbolic breadth, heightened by Tagaq’s metonymic gifts. I would hate to limit the song’s bucolic, metaphysical scale, but everything from the pastoral to the surreal seems contained in every line: “the centre of the centre of the earth/entering the entrance of a birth/…the universe’s dot in the centre of the first.” Yet, I think what startles me is the particular way “Centre” gives consequence its own consciousness. Its memorial lens aptly problematizes the act of remembering itself. What we’re left with is an interiority that doesn’t give us anything explicit to remember. This is content contained in form, which as we know, is hard to pull off. There’s always a tension with conjoining past and present in any single action, especially if the motive is to create art. So, what you identify as recreating the very act of (re)entering, I believe, is attributed to the imperfect synthesis of past and present in memory.

But what do we as a species that consumes and produces art owe to the past? Can we at all avoid the turbulence of reaching for historical exactitudes? And I’m really asking myself this question because I regard “history” in its general sense with such vex and suspicion. What I know for sure is that the consequence of whatever we call historical art should veer as far away from re-injury as possible. When I think of the sense of loss and the sense of wonder that simultaneously inform the interior life of the stuff I write, I am heartened by a hope: that maybe the work itself can be a little redeeming.

My identity as a black woman—born and raised in the Caribbean, who has experienced both the traumas and regenesis of migration, who knows poverty intimately, who has lived along many margins: social, cultural, political, professional, historical etc., and who, all her life, has had the resonance of poetry, its freedom as a guide—gives me over to a particular appreciation for the semantic risks of poetry, its problematic struggle against illogicality. All of this, for me, takes place in a highly improvisational personal space.

 

EMN: I’m brought to mind of a line from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises that has always stuck with me: “I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it.” I think that’s what you’re saying about “Centre”: that you don’t want to venture an understanding of the song, but rather to have a way to experience the tension that the song “contain[s] in form.” All of that brings us back to this idea that art embodies uncertainty, ambiguity.

Yet, I think that all quests contain something of the spiritual alongside the macabre.

We talked briefly once about Voodoo, and the role it plays in your thought. It’s also in the title of your upcoming book, the title poem of which appeared in this magazine and is quoted above. From your brief description I gathered that your conception of it makes it similar to jazz, in that both are melds of African and European culture that were combined post-middle passage in the “New World” and that both are responses to the rootlessness (or semi-rootlessness?) described by Walcott.

I’d like to hear more about Voodoo, and I’m curious about its connection to poetic form. The willingness to let form contain content in a semi-controlled manner strikes me as spiritual, or (speaking loosely) religious. It suggests a kind of sacredness to me, in that it is embodying and responding to the kind of mysteries that have always given life to sacred, spiritual and/or religious belief and life. Certainly Tagaq calls up that feeling.

So, do you see the urge to understand our place in history as a spiritual quest, and if so, does that make poetry in some sense sacred? You mention the potentially redemptive aspect of art, which to this (lapsed) Catholic has religious implications—at least in a vague sense, aside from institutional history. Is it a mystical knowledge you seek when you ask, in “Tonight, the Mayfly” for “any stake in a calling/ higher than my double-visioned self”?

 

CL: Our place in history is now and I think it is useful to conceive of having—so to speak—a place in history characterized by an ongoing participation in this protean business of being human. Yet, I think that all quests contain something of the spiritual alongside the macabre. Because, here you are giving yourself over to uncertainty—in a sense, this is what we like to call faith, a thing that comes with its own brand of fear, so there’s nothing pure about it. The impetus to even pursue understanding of any kind depends on a trust, however limited, in the imagination. And because everything is essentially bigger than we can imagine, the biggest thing in our arsenal is imagination itself, which is also why our base human actions have their foundation in metaphor, that is, in representation.

I discovered that “vodun” (originating in Benin, West Africa) shares many of the antecedents of Judaism and Christianity—and that the uprooting of Africans and their horrific transplantation into the West created permutations of this religion, now referred to as voodoo, a small offshoot of it involving what is commonly misunderstood and feared as negative spell-casting, things like zombification—the dark arts. But, like everything else this history, legacy and reality are a lot more nuanced. Remember that nothing in the decimated cosmogony of African slaves could possibly have accounted for their new reality in the west, so how could their descendants escape this unrest?

I have no personal experience of or with voodoo. I, too, am an outsider. From this marginal space, my use of the word voodoo in the title of the book departs from its pedestrian English orthography. Without insisting on the explicit anthropology of “vaudou” or “vodun”, which is that ancient form of worship referred to earlier, unspoilt by the outsider’s typical or reductive and dismissive engagements with voodoo, this book leans gently into a mere utilitarian grasping at voodoo’s symbolic centre: it is a practical tool for me to explore the power of words and what, if anything, lies beyond. But if there is a mystical seeking in “Tonight, the Mayfly,” it is both a redundancy and a paradox. I don’t want to over-symbolize the Mayfly but it is an acutely useful lens for presenting the largely haunted, second-class existence of people of colour, particularly in the diaspora we’ve come to know with all of its double standards. What does it really mean to be rootless, subject to random and more extreme systemic violence, to be constantly under threat of more intense impermanence that the Mayfly’s fated short life could be seen as a thing of envy?

I was interested in the African sensibilities that subvert the monolithic ideal as a response to the devaluation and demoralization of people of colour. Hemingway takes on this supposed rootlessness and did with it what was in his capacity to do as a privileged white man. For all of his empathy for his subjects, and I’m thinking of his Spanish Caribbean subjects, his gaze is still external to their struggle. And I see this as a kind of modernity, much like voodoo is itself a modernity. But Hemingway’s outsider-gaze is one he is open with and accepts.

Because of the modernities created by human wanderlust and other means of fragmentation, we have eventually to reckon with overlapping histories, including the ones that we ourselves do not own or claim. Religion in the Caribbean of my childhood, and certainly the proverbial west, does not belie the effects of this fact and is, I would argue, even more complicated because of it. Take, for instance, how superstition and religion coexist, though not always in explicitly and easily categorizable ways. True that I still imagine there’s something bigger out there, and whether we call it god or poetry or science or whatever, much of the work of a belief in anything rests on what we can imagine and how much of it can be carried by words. So, for this lapsed Roman Catholic, poetry is as bastardized as it is sacred—you know, the idea that poetry is a challenge to the solipsistic. And although I’ve always thought of poetry as incantation, (and for that it need not be sacred), I think religion, like politics and any hegemonic cultural activity, owes a lot to language. I think the question of what and who is sacred or valued is also central to the dialogue, narrative and music in Voodoo Hypothesis. I’ll add here that even though my knowledge of voodoo is quite anodyne, I have no interest in creating something dogmatic with this work, whether in response or in question.

So, for as much as western voodoo is a métisage of West African vodun and European Catholicism, the central creed remains more or less intact: the embodiment of god within the human frame. No intermediary necessary. And this is what primarily sets it apart from monolithic religions. In fact, the title poem of the collection starts with this creed: “while they go out in search of god, we stay in and become god.” There was for me—upon learning this—a strange rapture in which I came to view monolithic religion, especially the one I inherited, as incredibly elitist and supremacist. The idea that god exists out there, only accessible by a chosen few whose destiny it is to seek out the rest of the world and “fix” them into a particular thing—that broke me in some very complicated ways. I was unexpectedly happy for the disruption of that hegemony I had inherited along with whatever half-life it gave me. Conversely, the voodoo philosophy supposes everyone has equal access to god, really, because the idea of god is in a way solipsistic, because god is within, not out there somewhere for an elite group to disseminate. Still, while it is harder to commodify “a god” in this sense, voodoo is not without its hierarchies.

So I was interested in the African sensibilities that subvert the monolithic ideal as a response to the devaluation and demoralization of people of colour. What is the disruption of toxic power structures—that lead often to discrimination, domination, corruption and a need to further empire—worth? So, in “Tonight, the Mayfly,” like in much of Voodoo Hypothesis, there exists an interrogation of the human, including myself. I, who have stripped myself of a religious identity, incite a conversation with the gods, though not in the ways one might expect of, say, prayer. I want to simultaneously address the powerful and the powerless about the contemporary black experience through the value systems attached to both religion and science. My primary mode is language as incantation, a deliberate planting of voices, of all the selves I invoke, directly into the ears of the gods.

 

Canisia Lubrin was born in St. Lucia in 1984. A member of the inaugural Open Book advisory board, she teaches in the English Department at Humber College while continuing work in arts education and community development. Lubrin, whose work has appeared in journals across Canada,  holds an MFA in writing from Guelph-Humber and is the author of the début collection of poems Voodoo Hypothesis(Wolsak & Wynn, fall 2017).


E Martin Nolan writes poetry and non-fiction. He’s Interviews Editor at The Puritan. His work has appeared in Lemon Hound, Arc, and The Rusty Toque, and Canadian Notes and Queries, among other places. His collection of poetry, Still Point, will come out with Invisible Press in Fall, 2017.

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