FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH TIPHANIE YANIQUE

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

TIPHANIE YANIQUE: It seems to me that all children are natural poets. Now that I have three of my own I see that they speak in metaphor, that they hunt down language as poets do, that they use their vocabulary limitations the way poets might use the limitations of poetic form—to find a way to say something anew. The problem is that often that innovation isn’t rewarded in kids. We keep correcting them, which we sometimes must, but we can over correct.

My grandparents raised me. I was lucky in that, though my family grew up very working class in the Caribbean, we had lots of books. My grandmother had been a librarian and though she corrected our West Indian-ized grammar, she also recited poetry constantly. Poems, of course, create their own grammar. So I learned to speak “standard” English, but she also taught me how linguistically subversive poems could be.

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.

TY: I really don’t know myself before writing. I don’t remember learning how to read or write. I remember writing “books” in my first grade composition books. Maybe those novels and collections of poems I was writing were just scribble scrabble. I don’t know and I don’t have them anymore. But my grandmother also praised the nonsense I wrote.

I didn’t have a sense of myself as a professional poet (whatever that means) until I went to graduate school for creative writing and started thinking about publishing. But before that, “poet” was just part of my identity. When asked to give three words to describe myself (and this was asked of me and my classmates constantly as an exercise our English teachers always employed), I would say, “Caribbean, girl, writer.” Maybe not always in that order.

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?

TY: Claudia Rankine, who won the Forward Prize last year, was my teacher. So for me, the most amazing part about this is that she and I will both be Forward alumni! To share that space with someone who has been a teacher to me (in the most grand sense of the term) makes tears well up in my eyes. I think there is something just magical about the teacher-student relationship. Something that should be treated as though precious. Teachers can destroy you or they can build you. Sometimes they do one in service of the other. But no one makes anything without guidance, without mentorship in some form. Being in the same community with my teacher seems to validate what I think about teachers and students. That it’s a relationship so necessary that there should be ongoing communities that reflect it—even after leaving the classroom.

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?

TY: Wife took a very, very long time to write. This, it seems, is how I work. I take years and years to write a book. Some of the poems in Wife were drafted in 2000—such as “My brother comes to me.”

I have never felt that I needed to have a published book in order to validate myself as a poet. I wrote poetry. I wanted to get better, stronger, deeper at writing poems. I wanted to communicate, via poems, with other poets. I suppose that craft and community were the most important parts of poetry to me. Eventually, striving for better craft and deeper community might indeed lead to a published book. One gets better at craft and so may then find publication opportunities. One wants to communicate with dead poets or not yet born poets—and publication is a good avenue for this, too.

At some point I realized that many of poems were clustered around the same themes of feminism and how a feminist posture might push against even the most desirable forms of male-female love. Once I realized that, then I started writing poems targeting that idea more directly. So later poems in the collection are more clearly about the complexities of heterosexual marriage, like “Zuihitsu for the Day I Cheat on my Husband, to my fiance.”

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

TY: I have a deep admiration for the work that Claudia Rankine has produced. Her books are beautiful, devastating—brilliant and dark. I love the way she screws and bends form to say things that otherwise might be impossible to say.

A very early influence on my work was Dionne Brand. When I first read her No Language is Neutral it was like receiving a message in a bottle from the distant shore that you know to be your true homeland. I had been reading so many wonderful poems from Europe written during the prolific periods of the Renaissance and the 20th Century (particularly poems connected to the horrors of the two World Wars). I had learned, from those poems, quite a lot about writing for history, writing towards history. But then Dionne Brand, this Caribbean-Canadian, shows that looking at the intimate, at the personal, is equally as vital. She writes that the intimate is political, is even historical. And her turns or phrase, her poetic grammar—all blew my mind.

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

TY: There’s an unfinished project buried in Wife that I want to return to. This is one most exemplified by the more obviously family poems, such as “Things the Baby Put into His Mouth,” and the poems about Virgin Islands colonization by the US, such as “Dangerous Things.” I have a lingering feeling that there is more I might be able to discover about the ways in which being a woman inside of a family and being an island inside of a nation are connected.

Maybe that is always how new books of poetry come into being. A sense of there being unfinished business.

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

TY: Read. And when you get tired of reading, go live. Be wide-eyed in observing the originality there is in every life and aspect of life, no matter how banal or brutal. Then go read some more. Then, maybe, write a poem. Repeat and repeat.