FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
SHIVANEE RAMLOCHAN: I’ve said in one of my most vulnerable interviews that “writing started helplessly and instinctively, like a rash”. My mother, Deborah, is now in her final year as a teacher of English Language and Literature: I grew up surrounded by books, and learned to become more comfortable with the multiple worlds inside them than I suspect I ever fully am, with the one world outside. Poetry was part of my earliest experiences in reading, so that I remember books that were not poems as though they were: in condensed, electric images, in deft and sharp language that may never have been the actuality of the text. This unreliable memory of mine turns first to poems, as if through some uncommon means of trust which actually mistrusts everything except the brutality of the line.
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: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?
SR: It is an unbelievable honour – in that, I don’t know how fully I believe it’s happened yet. Perhaps one of my greatest conceits about my own poems is that I’ve always felt them to be outliers, peripheral shadow-walkers far too invested in blood and baskets of skeletons, sewing needles and spirits in cupboards. This implies a kind of unconscious vanity, an alert that suggests I’ve been thinking too much about my own perception of the poems, when all I should allow them past publication is freedom, especially from myself.
What most moves me about the Forward Prizes is the intense, inspiring faculty of poets they assemble, every year: the robust and generous dialogue they enable between books of poems and their writers. I am deeply, giddily excited to read every book on this year’s lists, every single poem. What an invitation to think about language and its uses, to explore the agency of the poem in perilous ages – the ones we’ve recorded strangely in our history books, the strange histories we’ve yet to enact – and to learn, unmuzzled.
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.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
SR: I know the name of my next collection. It whispered itself to me, and I wrote it down, awestruck and utterly bewildered. What remains is the work, and the witness.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
SR: Be open to pain.