DOGBYTES Interview: Safiya Sinclair

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Safiya Sinclair is a poet and librettist born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She is the author of Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Addison M. Metcalf Award, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry. Cannibal was selected as one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year,” and was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, as well as being longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize. Sinclair’s other honors include a Pushcart Prize, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, among others. She received her MFA in poetry at the University of Virginia, and is currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. Hear Safiya Sinclair, Tim Seibles and Jacqueline Allen Trimble read new work on Tuesday, October 9, 2018, 6:30pm at The New School.

Can you speak to the intriguing cover art for your debut collection, Cannibal? How does the image help to convey the book’s concern for postcolonial identity, racial politics in the United States and Caribbean and womanhood, among other things?  

The image is a piece by Wangechi Mutu, an incredible visual artist from Kenya. I absolutely love and admire Mutu and I find her work so powerful and closely concerned with the same themes that interest me as a poet. So much of her work succinctly captures what I want my poems to do—the lush, textured tropics of their interior landscape. She masterfully interrogates the black female body, subverting imperial violence by weaponizing our beauty, our hybridity, our mythification. She is the architect of my fevered dreaming. I knew that I wanted cover art by a black woman artist, and once I saw this particular Mutu piece, I knew it had to be the cover of Cannibal. The image interrogates both womanhood and black postcolonial identity, playing against these stereotypes of blackness being monstrous and womanhood being repulsive, while also reclaiming those ideas of savagery. Half of the cover’s collage is the female body seen through a gynecological and anatomical study; meanwhile, the other half is a black face with red lips that function as a critique of minstrelsy, while also exploring the fetishization of black womanhood and western standards of beauty. We have a shamanistic genderfluid Calibanesque figure assembled as a collaged intersection of these things, while the third eye, of course, is a vagina. That vaginal third eye reframes these ideas of a woman’s body being grotesque, sinful, or somehow inferior, and in a transgressive turn, it is here in the vagina that all the power is centering. Mutu’s image reclaims the monstrous as a source of power, lingering always on the feminine experience, its fertile gaze.

How does Cannibal challenge discourse on the female body and womanhood, most especially with respect to Caribbean vs. American notions of these concepts?

I can’t really speak precisely to American notions of womanhood, especially since there seem to be many different Americas and many variant definitions of womanhood between Black Americans and White Americans alone. As a Jamaican woman I can speak to my own experiences being raised in a strict Rastafarian household where the gender roles were suffocatingly fixed and women were relegated to child-bearing, child-rearing, and housemaking. The female body was to be covered completely, without a choice given to the women, birth control was forbidden without a choice given to the women; the female body was never to be discussed, especially if there were men present. As a young woman in Jamaica I often felt ashamed of my womanhood, of my biology, of my sexuality. This body was a body of sin. Women on their periods were thought to be unclean, were not allowed to touch Rastamen or enter the kitchen and were sometimes sequestered to sleep in a different room. A Rastaman’s spouse or partner was called his “Daughter.” Very early on I sought ways to dismantle the patriarchal boundaries that were diminishing me, and since I was not allowed to share my dissenting thoughts at home, I nurtured them on the page. That lyric revolt born out of silence sustained me for a long time, and it’s from that sacred place that the poems exploring womanhood emerge in Cannibal. Celebrating my womanhood through poetry has been a crucial part of my survival. In Cannibal, as in most of my poems, I write with a naked gallop towards a cunnicentric poetics—what scholar Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley describes as “an aesthetic appreciation for colours, shapes, and textures associated with the vulva and vagina”—where the feminine erotic is not only tied to its own way of seeing, but is inseparably linked to ritual, to primal language, to bare and unfettered emotion. And like Audre Lorde says, there is boundless untapped power in the feminine. Through these poems I can live full-bloodedly in that nuclear energy, by celebrating my womanhood instead of being erased by it.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

I’ve been reading a lot of prose this last year, and I decided to read only women. I loved Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What it Means When A Man Falls From the Sky, Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Naomi Alderman’s Power, Tara Westover’s Educated, and I really loved Shara McCallum’s poetry collection Madwoman.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

My mom’s love of poetry indelibly shaped my life. She is the biggest poetry reader in my family, and she is the first person to introduce me to poetry and give me books on prosody. When my siblings and I were younger she would encourage us to recite poems and sing, to dive into the wild river of creativity, wherever it may take you. For many years we survived on her love of knowledge and the wide universe of words. She taught me the incantatory power of language, the magic of poetry, the electricity of speaking a word out loud, being struck by its meaning. This shared ritual of poetry between my mother and me transformed and nurtured the poet I am today.

In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Caliban is a character, largely portrayed in a negative light, who is native to the island that is the story’s main setting. Because the Caliban figure has been written about widely in academic circles whether through literary criticism, postcolonial thought, or Caribbean philosophy, can you describe what your research process was like when writing your book? 

My research process has been one of a lifetime of reading. I first read The Tempest in high school, and was drawn in by the familiarity of the landscape, the island with its “thousand twangling instruments,” its “sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.” I came to the text again a few years later when a poetry mentor suggested there was some vital meaning in fact that The Tempest was one of Shakespeare’s last plays. This was when I first began to consider the character of Caliban, whose mother was banished after her magic was stolen by the shipwrecked Italian Prospero, who then captured and enslaved Caliban. Over the years I kept reading The Tempest, each time with a more critical gaze. I encountered Caliban as a father figure of postcolonial rebellion, as found in the critical and creative work of Kamau Brathwaite and Aimé Césaire, Roberto Fernández Retamar, and Sylvia Wynter. Brathwaite’s Letter SycoraX and Césaire’s Une Tempête were particularly instructional for me, searing in the way they decolonized Shakespeare’s text, how they had Caliban speak in his own words from a Black Caribbean perspective. With Cannibal, I was interested in continuing this Caribbean tradition of decolonization by bending Caliban through a feminine gaze, to enfold Caliban’s “savagery” as a part of Jamaican womanhood. I was also interested in translating Caliban’s rebellion through the Rasta-poetics and insurrection of the Rastafari movement in Jamaica. Through these years of reading and researching, I aimed to renarrativize Caliban’s poetry in the world, to recast the spells in our words, to reclaim our magic.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  1. Find your people—one of the most vital things poetry has given me is a tribe, my dearest poet friends, tried and true, who I can turn to for advice, for tea, for laughs. These are the people who inspire me and push me, who teach me. It wasn’t always apparent in my MFA that I would ever find other black poets who understand me before I even say a word. But when you find your tribe, you find your best readers.
  2. Take your time and read everything. Read things outside of poetry, read something you never thought you would like. Prosody matters. Study the foundations. Read everything that came before you—study the blueprints so you understand how best to burn down the house.
  3. Ignore the white noise. This one I learned the hard way, being in workshops with poets who clearly did not understand my experiences, nor could they recognize the scope of my vision, or why it mattered. For them poetry was a hobby. For me, it was a matter of survival. Learn how to tune out bad advice, ignore revision notes that seek to cull the wildness of what you are growing. And if you have your tribe, none of the bland static matters.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

My mother is a tremendous influence, and she appears in my poetry quite often. She is the best storyteller I know; I turn to her now, and all my life, for the oral folklore and history that sustains and inspires me. I think of her always trying to find the sunshine in people, in places, trying to find the sunshine wherever she goes, and I am always trying to live and write that way—chasing the sunshine underneath the line.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I’m writing an entire book of prose for the first time as I work on my memoir, How to Say Babylon. It’s daunting work, rearranging the poet’s brain long enough to plan for blank pages months ahead of me.

When you’re not reading or writing how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Traveling. I love to travel and do it as often as I can. I love spending my time in the long dreamy avenues of a new place, absorbing the culture and history, the landscape and seascape there. I try to visit at least one new country every year. I’m incredibly lucky that I’m able to, and so often it is my poetry that takes me to these new places. There’s nothing more joyous than poetry being a common language, a common currency in parts of the world this Jamaican girl never dreamed of seeing.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

She, that young king of my heart, has given me her awestruck wonderment at nature. In my poems I live in the tangles of the burst-and-bloom tropics of my youth. I swim toward the pensive singing of the sea. I always write towards that love of what grows wild, aching for that greenery that I hope outlives us. Every poem is rooted in that youthful curiosity, rising every morning to ask the meaning of every living thing.