FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
VAHNI CAPILDEO: As a child, I believed that everyone ‘played poetry’ at home. My mother recited poetry by heart (in French, various Caribbean dialects, and English), for the love of it, as did my father (in Hindi and English). My father, Devendranath, was also a poet. I scrawled rhymes as part of learning to write.
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.
VC: I remember being very serious about my copybook of poems when I was six… However, I do not feel that I am a poet, but that poetry is something that I have a tendency to make. There were restrictions on the availability of books, and of course no Internet, in 1970s and 1980s Trinidad. So I grew up with strange ideas, which proved strangely liberating, for example that prose poetry was or could be as ‘mainstream’ in English as it is in French. Certain people have been significant: the late Madre Marina Barbero, a highly literary Spanish nun, retired from teaching, whom I used to pester to talk about books, food and embroidery when I ought to have been in school, and who discussed literature with war-vintage seriousness and passion; Nicholas Laughlin, the astonishing voyager-editor-poet, who keeps a kind of ecological watch on Caribbean writers’ development, so that the birds continue to sing in the forest. It never occurred to me to make a career in poetry, and apart from the kindness of Bernard O’Donoghue and the acuity of Jeremy Noel-Tod in Oxford, my uninformed and hundred-year-out-of-date style of making rare approaches to other poets for conversation did not meet with much welcome, until Brian Catling and Rod Mengham fearlessly adopted me.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
VC: It is a bewildering honour. There are so many books from which the judges have to choose.
FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
VC: Measures of Expatriation took five or six years to write. I knew that it was forming. No Traveller Returns, my first book, had a similar feeling of being like a shelf in the sea; the subsequent books rippled out from that (apart from Simple Complex Shapes, which precipitated out as a series of forms that almost imagined themselves). Measures of Expatriation represents another change of level. It deals with longer currents and, sometimes lightly, sometimes not, with heavier material. The prose sequence ‘Too Solid Flesh’ is important to me because it arose out of conversations with the poet Anu Lakhan. This helped with the sense of coexistent distance-in-presence, presence-in-distance, which is so typical of virtual communication today but also of how travellers carry elsewhen as well as elsewhere in their heart. Similarly, ‘All Your Houses’ originally was a co-creation, accompanying images by the poet and journalist Andre Bagoo. The poems dedicated to K.M. Grant frame the collection as I quite literally owe my life to her, by what proved to be a happy accident.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
VC: It seems unfair to name the living without naming an entire collective. I would say again Nicholas Laughlin, for the crystalline intelligence of his work; lyrics distilled from the fever sweat of a spy novel, with global range and a Caribbean sensibility. Naming him is like citing the entire contemporary Caribbean diaspora and so much beyond – I owe the Madagascan influence of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo in Utter to his recommendation. This is an epic age: Vivek Narayanan’s innovative reworkings of the Ramayana (in progress), and Karthika Nair’s female revoicing of the Mahabharata, Until the Lions, have changed the landscape of my mind. At the moment, I am thinking a lot with Francis Ponge. I admire writers like the translator Tony Frazer and the poet Peter Hughes, whose poetic insight informs their activity as publishers. Christian Campbell is an indispensable touchstone. These are not poets, but the calypsonian the Mighty Shadow and the singer Jacques Douai are never quite switched off in my head. Sharmistha Mohanty of Almost Island writes in a language that perfectly unifies poetry and prose; she taught me how to feel time.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
VC: For quite a few years I have been writing thing-like poems which did not belong in any of the recent books: moss, glass, lizard words. These now have space to grow into their own thing.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
VC: How am I placed to give advice? Poetry is so much trial and error. People would need different hints according to the kind of poet he/she/it/they seemed apt to turn into. They need to be attentive to their own path, not cut themselves to suit an approved path. They need close people, non-poet-people too, who will read and be truthful.