The Chat with Canisia Lubrin

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TREVOR CORKUM cropped

Today on The Chat, a conversation with Canisia Lubrin, author of the superb debut collection of poems, Voodoo Hypothesis. It’s a collection that Lubrin's publisher, Wolsak and Wynn, says “pulls from pop culture, science, pseudo-science and contemporary news stories about race .... Lubrin has created a book that holds up a torch to the narratives of the ruling class, and shows us the restorative possibilities that exist in language itself.”

The Toronto Star says “Lubrin’s poems are dense with ideas and striking turns of phrase, as she attempts to chart the “maps of speechless centuries” and “the Morse events of smallest things.” This density makes her work ... immensely rewarding.” 

Canisia Lubrin is a writer who has published poetry, fiction, non-fiction and criticism in Arc Poetry Magazine, Room Magazine, The Puritan, the Globe and Mail, and others. She serves on the editorial board of the Humber Literary Review and as an advisor to Open Book Ontario. Lubrin holds an MFA from the University of Guelph-Humber and teaches English at Humber College. She was born in St. Lucia and lives in Whitby, Ontario.

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THE CHAT WITH CANISIA LUBRIN

Trevor Corkum: Congrats on the publication of Voodoo Hypothesis. It’s riveting and powerful. What’s it like to have your first collection out in the world?

Canisia Lubrin: Thank you. I am still not sure if I am dreaming or if I am awake or if I am awake and dreaming. The reception of the book has been generally far greater than anything I anticipated so I am taking things as they come. 

TC: You thank Dionne Brand in the acknowledgements. Reading many of the poems, I couldn’t help but feel the influence of Brand: the lush lines, the concern with politics, the simultaneous push and pull of migration. Can you talk about your relationship with Brand and her work?

CL: I probably don’t need to say much beyond that Dionne Brand is the only writer whose work has its own dedicated shelf in my personal library. I did not truly believe in or realize my potential as a writer until I read Brand’s work a little under a decade ago. Since then, I’ve had the great fortune of being one of Brand’s graduate students at the University of Guelph and of having her as a mentor (as I suspect she’s a mentor to several). And her friendship is the stuff of legend. I can go on for many decades about Brand’s influence on my work, but let me clarify how I engage with her teaching.

Much like all myths, the myth of the Black Other was invented. And nowhere in recent history can we find more compelling proof of the enormous cost of this value-(de)engineering than the Transatlantic Slave Trade. This was Black west Africans turned into the machinery that powered the economic ambitions of the ruling class through European colonialism. While there’s some work to deconstruct the meanings and effects of “migration” in Voodoo Hypothesis, I’m more specifically auditing what I can of the afterlife of the Middle Passage rather than migration. Anyone who has read Brand can certainly find in her works wide-ranging evidence of this engagement with Black diasporic life. Descendants of survivors of the transatlantic slave trade exist in a kind of transitory, ever-shifting sense of geography, what many have coded as rootlessness, the nomadic, even psychological nationlessness. This is partly why I reject the notion that folks like me are settlers or immigrants—which, among many uncritical ideas, suggests that we had control of how we came to residence on these lands.  

Descendants of survivors of the transatlantic slave trade exist in a kind of transitory, ever-shifting sense of geography, what many have coded as rootlessness, the nomadic, even psychological nationlessness. This is partly why I reject the notion that folks like me are settlers or immigrants—which, among many uncritical ideas, suggests that we had control of how we came to residence on these lands.  

I’ve learned a lot more from Brand and one of those important things is how to trust the reader to do the work of the reader. As the writer of Voodoo Hypothesis, I’m asking the reader to look at the ethical priorities of their country/society/world alongside their own and, further, to be critical of how the things they observe apply to the humanity of Black peoples.

TC: Voodoo Hypothesis is such an evocative, sharp title. Tell us more about why you chose it.

CL: For me, so much is bound and loosed in that title. The literal story is it is the title of one of the poems in the book and my editor suggested it for the collection long before I realized there was nothing else I could reasonably call the book. Conceptually, however, I appreciate and rely on the deconstructive, juxtapositional work that Voodoo (an ancient West African form of worship rooted in non-hierarchical practice but based on non-patriarchal structures, the fantastical/magical) and Hypothesis (a question, a suggestion for further inquiry that rests on what can be imagined) together create. If I reach for a possible translation of the complex thing at work here, the title might assert that the potential for living a fulfilling life extends from human value as solipsistic, so any work that values Black peoples should challenge and expand the possibility of and for our equality. On another level, this is part of the context of the psychogeographic dislocations and dispossessions of diasporas of Black people post Middle Passage vis-a-vis European colonialism. In terms of the work I wanted to do, the book itself is a reasonable tool for engaging with intersecting ideas and seemingly disparate disciplines in deconstructing toxic power structures.

TC: One of my favourite poems in the book is "The Mongrel." Like many of the poems in the collection, it deals with the pain and trauma of Black history. In what ways does history inform your work?

CL: It’s important to locate more precisely the particular lenses that inform my use of history in the book. In any discussion of history’s significance in my thinking about Black life today, I am aboriginally positioned as a descendant of slaves to doubt certitudes of origins. I think this idea of borders and boundaries and origins in the modern West is one that maintains the modern world’s inequities through the nation state’s violence of legality. What I mean is that the rule of law has historically been evoked as “civil” society’s most inalienable standard of morality and as a means for mass control. Yet, we know of the existence of immoral laws and we know of the power imbalances that inform many modern laws. Note that Apartheid, the Holocaust, Canadian Residential Schools, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow laws to name only a few, were all perfectly functional parts of the legal apparatus of their nation states, regardless of the “origins” of its inhabitants.

I use history to deconstruct the notion of the self in relation to power and race. In my mode, I avoid the normative formations of history as we typically like to use it to paint ubiquitous pictures of human development through the ages. I engage in a kind of poetic cataloguing of various disciplines, social systems—mainly (pseudo)scientific, theological, and cultural—folkloric and theoretical schools of thought. It would seem unlikely that anyone can understand these histories and constructions and still claim to be apolitical, and still vehemently deny the consequences and failures of these histories—how their effects reverberate today and will continue to affect modern life by creating dissonant modernities.

I engage in a kind of poetic cataloguing of various disciplines, social systems—mainly (pseudo)scientific, theological, and cultural—folkloric and theoretical schools of thought. It would seem unlikely that anyone can understand these histories and constructions and still claim to be apolitical, and still vehemently deny the consequences and failures of these histories—how their effects reverberate today and will continue to affect modern life by creating dissonant modernities.

But it is still not surprising that this happens. The obvious personal cost of this disavowment is that people continue to believe themselves intrinsically good. Those who are implicated by historical remove want further distance from the barbaric facts of that past. I imagine those who think themselves apolitical also think themselves ahistorical, which is afforded to them through denial as self-preservation. The problem with this paradigm of virtue is that it obscures if not erases the complexities human societies’ structures, how they are consequently practiced and how very real the effects of their oppressions. The other measure of this brutal negotiation of “society” is that it obscures similarly the mechanisms of progress within those systems. In that sense it is possible to theorize what prevents a more corrective course from taking root. Enter:The Mongrel.

Vacillating between the cosmic and the microcosmic, I’m focused on how structures and practice intersect in thought and in the craft of poetry and in the practical work of language to draw optimism outward.  

TC: There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few years in CanLit about diversity and its absence in many corners of the literary world. What’s your perspective on the current conversation, both as a writer and as a literary organizer?

CL: This call for increased diversity in books is a challenge to open up and evolve the traditional structures of literary production to people who have been historically excluded. And remember these are people challenging the institutions in places they call home, so why not? While it is true that attention to the issue of diversity in “CanLit” will undoubtedly highlight its lack, the hopeful thing is to acknowledge the potential for an already existing World Literature within the borders of one of the world’s most diverse countries. But to do this well, it is important to take stock of the many ways that the traditional systems and structures have failed this potential.

 So I don’t think that CanLit means anything concrete to me as a category in and of itself. I am a writer who believes in the power of language to make the strange as powerful to us as what is familiar. I am not too concerned with esthetic hierarchies, or formal niches; I am invested in the work of language and its power to reveal the deeper mores of life, to challenge and elevate humanity and to reach across divides of nationhood, politics, and modes of play. We are likely not impoverished by the suggestion to look toward what we don’t already know.

I am invested in the work of language and its power to reveal the deeper mores of life, to challenge and elevate humanity and to reach across divides of nationhood, politics, and modes of play. We are likely not impoverished by the suggestion to look toward what we don’t already know.

 **

 Of One’s Unknown Body

 

One of these women stuck

on laugh, I, her blunting

chance to see a doctor who’ll

 

advise like the blessed: imagine the English twang

is about making this decision:who are you?

 

Whose argons of lost literatures to keep

Whose arithmetic to set in the formula of

your bones. Except who signs herself

the zealot-way back to zero, a secondary glint down

a devising history, the black gold hills she’s escaped –

 

Unforgiving as the grave,

science and metaphysics confuse –

 

the joke of who jumps out of which empire. Where is the hook?

And deprived, she can call the fall of any year so wished, familiar

with a whipping up, what lifts to hurricane.

 

She is only as true as the age man

spends between here and inventing another world,

another slant asking after the season

where the last five of her breaths rift

 

open the blackened page

and wander with the fisherman

who blights the sea after any ghost of her bones.

 

Our holy ones these salts have kept alive,

whose tales of keeping to water, maps of speechless centuries

 

names her boundaries, as she clasps shore after shore through my combed peninsula.

There, the schoolhouse colour of some lunatic sea,

                        roiling for somebody

 

lapsed on some paragraph of stone. There lights

go off and reappear as cargo of waves,

fronds, fed up of the mind mimicking reprieve, there

in its moon-time pause for the children’s indifferent scold.

There, clout or slave cutlass, cocooned seasons

in absinthe or a scissor bird’s breach of reason.

 

“Of One’s Unknown Body” was excerpted from Voodoo Hypothesis Copyright 2017 Canisia Lubrin. Published by Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers. Poems reproduced with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

February 5, 2018
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