Transcript - Episode 83: Shivanee Ramlochan
Hey everyone, I just wanted to give you a quick heads up before the show starts: if you’re listening to this on the day the episode drops, there’s still time to check out the Kickstarter for my new podcast project, LikeWise Fiction, where I’ll be reading short stories written by women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ writers. The campaign ends at 9 AM on Thursday, February 28, 2019 so if you’d like to make a pledge just head over to keepthechannelopen.com/kickstarter or click the link in the show notes. Thanks!
Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa, and this is episode 83. Today’s guest is Shivanee Ramlochan.
Hey everybody, welcome to the show. Today I’m pleased to bring you my conversation with Shivanee Ramlochan. Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and book blogger. She is the Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine. Shivanee also writes about books for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean's largest literary festival, as well as Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad and Tobago's oldest independent Caribbean specialty bookseller. She is the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.
If you’ve been listening to the show for a while you may have heard Shivanee’s name before. Back in episode 68, Richard Georges mentioned her book Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting at the end of our conversation, it was one of the answers he gave for my last question, when I asked him about some work that had mattered to him recently. What he said in our conversation was “Shivanee’s book is an accomplishment and I think she’s one of those voices that’s going to be here to stay. She has this unflinching way of just peeling back the layers and dimensions of her soul that is just arresting.” I had the opportunity to read the book myself at the end of last year and I have to agree, it’s just an astonishing collection of poems.
Poet and writer Alice Hiller wrote about Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, “Coloured by desire, unafraid of rage, or terror, aiming hard at redemption, Shivanee Ramlochan’s work, written out of Trinidad, as a queer woman of colour, looks at topics – including infanticide, and rape – which many would prefer to deny, or at least avert their gaze from. The poems also witness loves, and lives, which have had to assert their right to be, a path that has led to “scorched wings” at times, as Shivanee admits.” And in a review for The Guardian, Sarala Estruch wrote “This astonishing debut gives voice to sufferings and struggles of women, the queer and non-binary, reminiscent of Audre Lorde’s call for “the transformation of silence into language and action”. But what makes this collection truly revelatory is its bold envisioning of a Trinidad – and, beyond that, a world – in which identities and hierarchies of power are fluid rather than fixed.” I found these poems to be a powerful experience, and I’m grateful to have had the chance to speak with Shivanee.
For those of you who are either listening from the Caribbean or who might be visiting in the near future, "The Red Thread Cycle" from Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting is currently on display at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, as part of a collaborative book and sound installation with Bahamian artist Sonia Farmer. You can read more about the installation at Sonia Farmer’s website, and there’s a link in the show notes for that. The work will be on view at the NAGB as part of the 9th National Exhibition, “NE9: The Fruit and The Seed” through April 7th, 2019. I’ve also included a link to the exhibition page at the NAGB website, so check that out as well.
For subscribers to the KTCO Patreon campaign, Shivanee was kind enough to add a reading of her poem “I See That Lilith Hath Been With Thee Again” to our archive of bonus audio. That joins readings from writers including Ada Limón, Franny Choi, Rachel Lyon, and David Naimon, just to name a few. If you subscribe to the Patreon campaign with a monthly donation in any amount you get full access to all of the bonus readings, so check that out at patreon.com/sakeriver.
Alright, before we get started just a quick content warning that our conversation does include a poetic reading and discussion about sexual violence, so just something to be aware of. As always, if you’d like to join in the conversation you can use the hashtag #ChannelOpenPoetry to live-tweet the episode. And now, here’s my conversation with Shivanee Ramlochan.
Mike Sakasegawa: So how are you doing today?
Shivanee Ramlochan: I'm good. I'm extremely excited to be talking to you, so thank you for having me.
MS: I'm pretty excited as well. So, if we could start with a reading that would be great.
SR: Sure. This poem is the first in the central series of my book Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting and that series is called "The Red Thread Cycle." Those are seven poems that look at sexual assault and the process of surviving it. The first poem from that series is called "On the Third Anniversary of the Rape."
Don't say Tuna Puna Police Station.
Say you found yourself in the cave of a minotaur, not
knowing how you got there, with a lap of red thread.
Don't say forced anal entry.
Say you learn that some flowers bloom and die
at night. Say you remember stamen, filament,
cross-pollination, say that hummingbirds are
vital to the process.
Give the minotaur time to write in the police ledger. Lap
the red thread
around the hummingbird vase.
Don't say I took out the garbage alone and he grabbed me by the
waist and he was handsome.
Say Shakespeare. Recite Macbeth for the tropics.
Lady Macbeth was the Queen of Carnival
and she stabbed Banquo with a vagrant’s shiv during J’ouvert.
She danced a blood dingolay and gave her husband a Dimanche
I am in mud and glitter so far steeped that going back is not an
Don't say rapist.
Say engineer of aerosol deodorant because pepper spray is illegal,
anything is illegal.
Fight back too hard and it's illegal
>your nails are illegal.
Don't say you have a vagina, say
he stole your insurance policy / your bank boxes / your first car
he took something he'll be punished for taking,
not something you're punished for holding,
like red thread between your thighs.
MS: Thank you.
SR: Thank you.
MS: So this particular poem certainly stood out to me, and the sort of middle section of the book in general, The Red Thread Cycle, is probably the part of the book that has stuck with me the most since I first read it and that I've spent the most time sort of turning over in my head. I would imagine that that's probably true for a lot of readers. Have you found that?
SR: I have. For a long time, these poems existed only in my head space. The entire book took five years to write, but only two of those years were active. And some of the earliest poems in the book happened to be from The Red Thread Cycle. So I've lived with these poems—certainly the first three—for literal years. And it was the experience of sharing them out loud through reading that really gives me a sense of how other people who are not me live with them. And one of the, I suppose, most illuminating things and the most humbling things that I've received, are the responses of mainly women and female-identified people who come up to me after readings and with their eyes full of tears, tell me unbidden their own personal stories with trauma. And I've had to learn a great deal about how to navigate that, because I'm not by nature a forthcoming or emotionally effusive person with people I don't know. But I think I've come to realize that the poems have their own duty of care, almost, even if I don't personally. So it's important to me to listen to what those other stories of trauma are even when I feel honestly sometimes very ill-equipped to do so.
MS: I mean, it's something that I think about a fair amount, you know, because so much of the work—whether it's photographic or or poetry or fiction or whatever—that has been really meaningful to me, especially recently, has been work that is very personal work that comes out of someone's life, the artist's life, and often which at least contains within it some form of traumatic experience, in whatever shape that might take. As the reader, I often find that when I can see echoes of my own traumas in someone else's work, that that makes me feel very seen. It makes me feel less alone in the world. But it also—something I've been thinking a lot about lately, especially because I know in particular this seems to happen to the women that I know that make this kind of work that engages with personal experience and personal trauma, that there's almost this expectation from a lot of readers that the artist is there to do something for them. You know? And that seems like kind of a fraught relationship. You know what I mean?
SR: I do. I think I couldn't know how true that was until I really started performing—and performance such a deliberate word in this case—performing these poems out loud in public spaces. I'd be the last person to ever deny that this particular work is heavy to hold. In fact, one thing I didn't expect to hear when this book was published in 2017 was that many people who came to it—who did have, for the most part, previous understanding of how my words worked—still found that they had to take the book very slowly. So they told me about reading one poem or two, then putting the book down and sometimes not being able to return to it for days or more. And it wasn't the response that I expected, but it's one that I definitely came to understand. So I tried to think about how I also live with work that I find both heavy and completely necessary, which to be honest, is probably most of the works that I read or I'm drawn to. I think because I understand myself best both as a writer and as a human being through, as you say, people's expressions of pain, whether it's 100% factual in the sense of having happened to them just that way or as is more likely the case, something that's threaded with factual lived experience and realms of the fictive. And, you know, that we often fictionalize or make our pain speculative just enough to be able to bear it. I think that the poems in this book, that's absolutely true of them. I couldn't say for a lot of them, if someone wanted me to put up a pie chart of what was fact and what was fiction, that I could draw something perfect and scientific anymore. I certainly know at the point of making the poem, but I think as the relationship that I undergo with each piece also becomes strange and open to suggestion as the years go by.
MS: So I'm really sort of just stuck on this idea of the thing that you said, that some times readers will say to you that they had to put the book down and come back to it. That's an experience that I can relate to, and many of the themes that you're sort of dealing with in these poems are very heavy themes. But I guess I've just always sort of wondered, what [is] supposed to be communicated when someone says something like that to a writer? Like, "I had a really hard time reading your book."
SR: Yeah. Like "You traumatized me." [laughs] I do get a lot of that and I try to take it in the spirit in which it is given, which usually does not seem resentful. I don't know what I would do if someone actually came up to me and said they were truly hard done by—like deeply scarred and excoriated by the experience of reading Haunting... I'm not sure how I would hold or process that. But I think, you know, if it were their truth, I would have to make room for it. How much room and where it would go, I couldn't say. But I will admit that for as long as I have actively been writing poetry in the public eye, which is less than 10 years, I have been very envious of poets who are seemingly effortless with funny poems. I have real green eyes when it comes to a poet who can just bring the house down with complete laughter. And I think, "Oh God, if I go after them, everyone's going to get so depressed." So, you know, there are a couple of poems—really only a couple in my book—that lean towards some kind of levity. I often almost feel abashed take any credit for them. I think, "Well, I couldn't possibly have produced this intentionally. It must have been a happy accident." But those are the poems that people often tell me they were so relieved that they were in there because they felt like a respite from almost unremitting pain. I felt like that's a fair assessment. I could see how they come by that.
MS: Yeah. I mean it is... I just, you know, I relate very strongly to what you're saying. I also have a really hard time being funny on purpose, especially with my work. I find that with my own work it's very natural for me to have a certain sort of emotional earnestness to my work. You know, it's easy for me to talk about things that are painful in my work, whether they're sort of small, mundane pains or big, traumatic ones. But, you know, doing things that are funny, it's just such a hard thing to aim at on purpose, at least for me. So, yeah, I definitely relate to that. It was interesting too, you know, I wouldn't have put it exactly that way, that they're a respite, exactly. But there are a few poems in the collection that are a little lighter in tone and have a certain humor to them. And I was sort of interested in how those function. You know, one of the things that I often think about—this is always important for photographers who are putting work in series, how to sequence it all and how that functions. And it's something that I find myself thinking a lot about with poetry collections as well, how the sequence and the arc of the whole collection functions. And so, thinking about how those poems worked in the collection, that was something that occurred to me. And thinking about those poems also just led me to thinking about—because, like I was saying at the beginning, The Red Thread Cycle is what has stayed with me the most, and when I find myself thinking about the collection as a whole, I'm first thinking of those poems. And there are many poems throughout the book that come back to the same themes of sexual trauma, sexual assault, and also just the ways in which the world is horrible to women and to queer people. But it's not just that, right? Like, if it were just that, that might... I don't know, there are poems in here that also have a feeling of tenderness. There are poems in here that also have a feeling of levity there. There is a multiplicity of emotional experience throughout the collection and I found that an interesting experience. You know what I mean?
SR: That is a wonderful thing to hear, Mike, thank you so much for saying that. It's one of the things I felt most concerned about because most of the work in terms of poetry that's stayed with me and will continue to stay with me, most of the work I consume and keep within me that way are painful poems. And there's, you know, a lot being said about women who perform their own pain as spectacle, usually by cis male poets and other writers, which I frankly don't have a lot of time for because the expectation then becomes that if you predominantly create work that focuses and centers your own trauma and the trauma other women, that you are doing it in a gross, ugly, performative way. And that's in itself an ugly, very telling accusation. I think it reveals this preoccupation that women must serve at the pleasure of men, even in poetry. Sometimes, maybe especially then, because if the woman poet isn't palatable in a certain way, of her verse isn't also light enough, also self-deprecating enough to appease many a male standard then I think in their eyes, you know, what is it good for? And it sounds almost like it's the most astonishingly awful kind of satire you can't believe is true until you go to poetry festivals or until you're in panel discussions with male and male-identified poets and you realize it is incredibly true and they have no trouble telling you about it, you know?
MS: Yeah. And it's really telling, too, that the same charges are very rarely leveled against male or male-identified artists and writers. That there's always such a double standard. I find this with my own work all the time, that my work—often it's centered around, for example, my experience of family and my experience of parenthood. And so if I make photographs about that, I find a lot of times that both women and men will say to me, "Oh wow, that's really great to see a man making work about family," and things like that. But you know, some of my mentors and friends and biggest influences were women who were making work about their own families. And so often they are just written off as frivolous. It's the same thing here, right? But also I feel like there's... It's not just the dismissiveness but it's also that these men who say these things are really being unwilling to grapple with their own complicity and being willing to sit in it an uncomfortable place. Right? Because if women are writing stories about trauma, and in many of these cases these are traumas that were inflicted by men. I mean that's something that's worth considering, right? But I think that this discomfort that people have where you don't want to feel uncomfortable with yourself so you'll just sort of put that back on the other person and say, "Well you shouldn't have been talking about that," that is a really profoundly problematic thing to do. I hate the word "problematic" because it feels a little overused but, you know, it's an irresponsible thing to do, I feel like.
SR: It deeply, deeply is. And, as you said, there are many other emotional experiences to be had in my collection and the collections of many other women and nonbinary writers besides pain. I get and can make some room for the fact that to sit with pain and what can feel like an unremitting series of gestures is hard. It's certainly hard to write about and so of course it must be hard to receive, but that isn't all there is. And that was actually... Even within the Red Thread Cycle, it became increasingly important for me to make room for the possibility of joy and that's something I came into, I would say, the long way around. The first time I conceived these poems, they were very much exercises in unremitting pain and I thought that that would be their ultimate purpose. When I lived with them some more... The last poem in that movement that reaches for not just a suggestion that women who are raped deserve joy, but that they can be active agents in pursuing it. That poem didn't exist for a long time and I think I just had to... I might sound hyperbolic, I just had to live a little more to come to the understanding that that was possible. That it was possible in life—if it's possible to live that way, it certainly was possible to write about it. It was almost like I had built myself a very self-regulated prison of what I thought was rigid muscularity in poetry, and I felt like I could trust the exercise of those poems that seem so unrelenting, that are so solid and almost unbetrayable because that was a kind of writing that I had apprenticed myself to very really on. And for that reason I didn't trust what I thought of as soft poems if they came from me. Like, you know how it is with a lot of people who are stoic by nature, like everything they can accept for other people, they cannot give to themselves. Because the idea you could countenance even a shred of mercy or softness or tenderness for yourself just goes against everything you've either been taught or taught yourself about how to survive. But then I realized I would actually survive better if I let myself have something gentle. And so that slow dawning, transferred over like a sunset bleed to the poems themselves. And I'm glad that they did.
MS: Hmm. That's such a... I feel like I'm having a little bit of a realization for myself.
MS: I mean, in general I have always recognized this impulse, right? That it's easier to be generous to others than to myself. But I hadn't ever really considered the degree to which that is a thing that I might have taught myself as a survival mechanism. That feels profound to me. It's interesting to hear you talk about having to take time to grow into the ability to write those poems. What it reminds me of is there's a—one of the guests that I had just recently had on the show, his name is Jerry Takigawa, he's a photographer, and he was saying this thing that you can't be a better artist than you are a person, which I've been really turning that one over in my mind a lot lately too. That I feel like there is a way in which oftentimes when I returned to older work of my own, even if I still appreciate it, there are times when it can feel... Naive is not the right word, but it's like I don't feel that way anymore. And I feel like the way that I've grown as a person in the interim between when I made this older work and where I am now, that I feel like I understand things better now. And that maybe if I were trying to write about the same experiences now or make photographs about the same experiences now I wouldn't do it in the same way now. And I feel like that's sort of what you're talking about. Yeah.
SR: Yeah, definitely. And time was important. And deciding when this book should be published, because, like I said, the work in it spans five years and I know the poems that are older and the poems that are newer. Not everyone can tell the difference and that's fine. I don't necessarily need them too. But for me, I realized that I was making new work because that was moving in a very different, sometimes diametrically opposed direction. And if I didn't publish those poems, then they probably would never have been published. So it felt like a responsibility for the work that was. Even if I never returned to that way of first seeing the world through that lens and then documenting it in that way, it was still an experience that mattered deeply to me five years ago. And there was also work that had been shared in public space, that people responded to and then I knew expected to see. So it did feel like a dual responsibility, maybe not completely an evenly yoked distribution of the "why" of publishing, but it was important to give those poems or space. And I'm glad that I did.
MS: Yeah. Well, me too. You mentioned sometimes people can't tell the difference between the earlier—chronologically which ones you wrote first. You did an interview with Alice Hiller a little bit ago?
SR: I did. Very recently.
MS: Yeah. And that was something that came up a little bit in that interview, was, you know, one of the later poems in the book is one of the ones that you actually wrote first.
MS: And it does have a sort of a different feeling. That's one of the poems that is a bit more tender than some of the other poems. And I find it interesting, thinking about that also in the context of what you were saying about having to grow into writing towards a certain joy as well. Because, for me, one of the things that I've been kind of struggling with here is that I have these sort of twin impulses and I feel like having a true generosity towards myself sort of involves allowing myself to engage with both of them. And one of the impulses is towards allowing myself a softness or allowing myself a happiness, things like that. But the other one also is allowing myself to admit, you know what, these experiences really did hurt me and I really need to talk about them in a way that is... If I'm going to make work about those experiences, I need to make it in a way that reflects the brutality of the moment. You know what I mean? And that that is also a way of being generous to myself and allowing myself to admit those things is also a form of generosity towards myself. Does that make sense?
SR: Completely. I think particularly if you're anything like me, the page or the photograph, the vehicle that you choose is likely the only place you're going to allow yourself either of those things. Either extreme access to brutality or extreme tenderness. I have the experience increasingly of people who have an idea of what I am based on the professional work that I do here at home in Trinidad, who are completely... I think they are legitimately disturbed when they hear the poems, not just because the poem that they read are often disturbing, but because their cognitive dissidence at being totally unable to reconcile the palatable, domesticated, manicured version of me as me with the reality of the poems completely does their head in. And I have to admit sometimes that is slightly satisfying, not because I like to torment people as a matter of course, but because it's very offensive to be labeled as what people automatically assume is demure and self-effacing just because one is polite or just because one is diplomatic in work circles and the kind of work that I do. I do a lot of arts advocacy and our development in Trinidad, in the Caribbean because that is such, I think, by necessity a giving and generous occupation where you, yourself and the incendiarism of your own ego is not center stage. I think people can mistake that for the fact that you might not have a much more quiet, brutal inner life that is dark and dangerous and, you know, has every right to be. Because, I think I mentioned this when I was speaking to Alice, that a lot of people are deeply moved by the poems, which is incredible. And I don't feel that I ever own anyone's response to my work or that the author can own a finite interpretation. But then there's also the reality of people being confused at my own tendencies for darkness. And I think, "Well, where do you suppose the work it comes from? What do you think might be necessary to feed that kind of process? It doesn't come from nowhere." And I think, and I firmly believe that something must be paid to give it and to make it, and you really cannot have one without the other.
MS: Yeah. The other thing that occurs to me, too, is how often this kind of expression of shock or amazement is directed at women and particularly women of color. So that there is this expectation generally—and it seems to go across national lines too, you know? It's not just an American thing or a British thing, it's everywhere, that that expectation of of women being quieter and being demure,that that is a real thing. Yeah. So I have like 10 pages of notes here that I wanted to get too, which always happens, but we need to take a little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.
SR: Great. Sounds wonderful.
Mike Sakasegawa: Okay, so for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which can be whatever you'd like to talk about, whatever's on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Shivanee Ramlochan: So there's this expectation in the Caribbean that there's only room for, perhaps in every generation, one incredible poet, or one phenomenally talented short story writer, or one outrageously good novelist to, you know, in inverted commas, "make it." And there's only room for one because there's usually only room for one diverse element in any setting. Like a publisher might say to you, very candidly, "We've reached our quota of black writers for this publishing cycle," or "No, we already have an Asian woman poet, so we can't have you." And so that in a space where talent and the willingness to work hard in the creative arts is immense, but the opportunities are few because there are just not that many fellowships, there's not that much access to grants or endorsements or things that enable writers to try to live their best lives. It can breed a certain unfortunate kind of complex envy slash admiration. So, and I think a lot of people don't like to talk about this because it reveals personal feelings that they think shouldn't be voiced. But I think it's incredibly important to acknowledge among Caribbean artists that it is the industry that compels this kind of competitiveness where it might not otherwise exist. I work for a literary and arts festival called the NGC Bocas Lit Fest that has become a year-round endeavor. And the festival is moving into its ninth year this year and it does Herculean work. I'm not just saying that because I work with them, but it has established prizes that have become tremendously important to identifying and celebrating Caribbean writers who live and work in Caribbean space. And that, you know, "Caribbean space" is as much a psychogeographical concept as a literal one. But for the definitions of the prizes it does mean people who live physically and work physically in the Caribbean. And before the prizes that the Bocas Lit Fest established came into being, there were seldom few opportunities. So now in 2019 I think it's more possible than ever to be someone who lives here and works here and can quote-unquote "make it" in the bigger arena. Not without the necessity of some travel, but it's far more possible, it seems to me, than it ever was. And so last year my book was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and I went to the UK for a six-week tour that included that appearance as one of its highlights. The tour was overwhelmingly positive. I can't say that any of the 17 engagements that I had were overtly bad or that I was mistreated. I was treated respectfully and with a lot of admiration with the kind of positive feedback that frankly I wasn't expecting to be so vociferous or so sustained or so generous, and so it feels a little ungenerous of me to include an "and yet" to that. But... And yet, I think a good example of how this was a fascinating trip in so many ways is that I almost consistently never had my name pronounced right. I have been thinking about that a great deal, including cases where very kind and sensitive people ask me beforehand, before they introduced me, "How do you pronounce your name? I don't want to get it wrong," and then proceeded to say it wrong anyway. And so I kind of felt... Not even mildly irritated. Bemused. Bemused because then why? Why would you even bother to ask? It actually came to the point where about midway through the tour, someone asked me how to pronounce my name and I gave the wrong pronunciation to her. I had been so accustomed for the past three weeks at that point to hearing it handled in all kinds of contortionistic ways. And, you know, I don't think that my soul is aggrieved by this and I can absolutely make room and have empathy for the fact that people can be flustered when they introduce others and they might have many other things on their mind. And yet it's something that has stayed with me because for six weeks the only time I truly heard my name pronounced the right way was when I spoke to my mother on the phone. And you know, there's probably a poem in there somewhere. Right?
MS: I can... I mean, it probably won't surprise you to find out that with a name like Mike Sakasegawa I have a fair amount of experience with people mispronouncing my name. And it's, like you say, it's not like this is wounding me deeply or anything like that. And certainly I can make some room for the idea that it's an unfamiliar name to a lot of white people, or even nonwhite people who just aren't Japanese. But at the same time, even if it's not the biggest of deals, it does, I feel, sort of say something about the experience to have people consistently mispronounced your name or misspell it or any of these other things, that it's not exactly a disregard for me, but it does sort of highlight the fact that to these people I am the other.
SR: Yup. That's absolutely right.
MS: Yeah. It's a strange experience.
SR: And so I try to square that, the need to speak about that at least—at the very least—if not to complain bitterly about it, but to vocalize the fact that this is something that preoccupies me. How do I square that against the perception that comes from, both at home and abroad, that I am a young writer of the present generation who has or is in the process of making it, you know, how does that sit with the gratitude I'm also expected to perform? And gratitude and being grateful for opportunities, for being well-positioned to progress in the literary world is something I'm never insensible of or insensitive to. But I also find that, again, both at home and abroad, if you don't produce it in a way that makes people happy, they think you are ingrateful or they think that you have lost sight of the fact that so many other writers, who they may or may not think are better than you, do not have the experience you do, have the access to institutional support that you do. And because I work with the Bocas Lit Fest and other literary and arts organizations in the Caribbean, the perception probably is that maybe I haven't made it entirely on my own strengths. But then I think a lot, Mike, about what's required to to make it as a writer and the fact that for as far as we've come in the Caribbean space in promoting and supporting the lives of writers to do what they do practically, there is still no real comparison. There is still overwhelming pressure for young creatives to to migrate to the US or to the UK or Europe to pursue their literary dreams. And it all becomes a pretty complicated soup of "where do my lines get drawn" as someone who both works in the arts and as an artist, how does the public performance of both of my gratitude and my commitment to doing this work square against what I might in my lowest moments feel privately about the pressures of doing both. And then—I don't even think it's right to say "at the end of all of that"—in the midst of all that, where do I claim time to, write precisely the kind of poetry that I need to?
MS: Mm. I mean, it's a tricky thing. I feel like there's a lot here, right? On the one hand, there is the way in which marginalized people are always expected to perform their gratitude to the exclusion of all else, which really to me has always been about the idea that that privilege is supposed to be comfortable. One of the things I think about here with like the NFL, the American football and people like Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to protest a very legitimate issue of police brutality.
MS: But then people here—you know, mainly white people—are consistently criticizing him, saying, "Well, he should be grateful because he's a paid athlete and he's having all this opportunity that nobody else has. So he shouldn't be protesting. He should just be thankful that he has what he has." Yeah, that's one thing. But then the other thing, too, which to me like feels maybe even more salient but also more complicated. This thing that you were saying about what is your responsibility, what is anyone's responsibility to perform, to show other people? Whether you are allowed to be just yourself or whether when you attain a certain level of success, whether that puts on you some responsibility to be a symbol, you know?
SR: Yeah, definitely.
MS: Yeah, I think that one's really hard because I think anybody from a marginalized community, anyone who has experienced oppression in any way is going to be very mindful of the ways in which having a bigger platform personally can help their community. And I think most people will feel some responsibility to want to try and make things better for other people. But at the same time there is a way that that's kind of dehumanizing, and that's hard to reckon with, I think.
SR: It is. I never would have imagined that I could become someone who in the literary and cultural arts of my island could ever be considered a gatekeeper, which I find a difficult word in and of itself. Even though it is a very real thing. But more and more I realize I have come to, whether by design or by overt intention or by the luckiest of happenstance, I've come at least to stand by several gates and I can't deny that that is true. I wish there weren't gates. I wish that the structure of the industry weren't—I think sometimes by necessity, by the design that keeps you safe—weren't always so seemingly forbidding. But they are. Because I think... I'll give an example of what I mean by that, is that on my writer's website my telephone number is listed. And I don't think I thought much of it at the time, but for the first time, this month, I was called from another Caribbean island by someone who... I wouldn't say that they were engaging in harassment, but it... The exchange left me more than a bit bewildered. And when I mentioned it to one of my colleagues, he said that he was surprised it hadn't happened sooner. Because people—I think this must be true of writers everywhere—are desperate sometimes to have the assurance that their words are being heard, that there was space for the work that they've done, which is deeply important to them. And so they look for who they can reach to. And sometimes that person will be me. I guess I didn't expect it to happen via telephone call at six in the morning, but that is how it happened. And so I think a lot about whether or not these interactions will always be safe and how do I mitigate them becoming unsafe in the future. I think this might sound like an exaggeration, but the truth is Trinidad and Tobago is the second most criminally violent Caribbean nation, second to Jamaica. And so violence becomes a necessary part of how I interface with all aspects of my life, including this one. So that must be a part of how I navigate my responsibility to other writers. But I am book review editor for the in-flight magazine of Caribbean Airlines, I work with the festival, I work with Trinidad's only specialty Caribbean literature bookselling shop. And these to me never seemed like positions of privilege. They all seemed like five different jobs that would amount to one real salary in the arts. And so I took all of them. But I think I have had to learn to think outside of how I see myself in many ways, including this one. And it now makes perfect sense how someone rightly or wrongly could look at me and think I am a gatekeeper and that's, you know, that's their response that I can't police and wouldn't wish to. It kind of is enforced to me to think about how am I going to engage with that and how much of that assessment am I willing to take on. And even if I don't like the label, if I do have the power, I have to own up to, I have to think about how I'm using it ethically and equitably.
MS: Yeah. I mean, I think that that's an important thing for anybody who has any kind of power or privilege needs to try to have some kind of awareness of, of what that means and what responsibilities that brings. But I really feel like there's sort of a balance of responsibility, right? Because I feel like... I want to be a little careful because I don't want to ever make it sound like someone hearing me say something like, "Oh, it's really hard to be successful." Because that's not what I mean. And, you know, to whatever extent I actually am successful. But I mean it's difficult, right? Because in a lot of ways, one of the reasons that I even started this show, for example, was just because I didn't have any other opportunities to talk to other artists, because I wasn't part of an artistic community in person. And so I was just trying to make some space for myself to be able to have the conversations I wanted to have. And as the show has continued, it has become the type of thing where now I have to sometimes say no to people, and that has been an uncomfortable thing to navigate. And to think about, "hat is my responsibility as the host of this?" If I'm only going to release 26 episodes a year, how many of those do I want to spend talking to straight, cis, white men? You know, it's not necessarily going to be zero, but I don't... You know, it's something to think about. But at the same time, I always want to be mindful of these things, right? I want to be mindful of, and I want to remember what it felt like to be an emerging artist—which in many ways I still consider myself to be—but to remember what it felt like to feel like I had no opportunities, and not lose sight of that feeling and experience. But at the same time I also feel like there is a way in which people—and certainly not all artists are like this—but some artists can sort of feel like they are owed something by... Like the fact that somebody else has been successful means that that person now owes them something, and that's something that I find a little difficult, right, because sometimes even talking about it feels like I'm saying, "Oh, you should feel bad for me in this situation," which is not really what I mean. But I just, you know, this thing about expectation that I just feel like there's something, it can't be completely one-sided. You know?
SR: Definitely. I created my book review blog, Novel Niche—which is also almost 10 years old—out of an I suppose innocent desire to talk about books with people I did and didn't know. I was not in any way at that time connected. I wasn't in the know about who was doing literary things on island. I just wanted to write about books. And a lot of my professional life, if not most of it, if not all of it stems from that decision. I didn't design it that way, but I was reached out to on the basis of it. And so I often think what would happen if I woke up tomorrow in some parallel world and I was stripped of all of my connections, all of my influence, all of my power. Would I still want to write book reviews on my WordPress blog? I think I would. I think I would deeply enjoy still doing that. And even leaving room for the possibility that I might change completely and want to be a deep sea diver or a lawyer, knowing that I am still deeply proud to call myself a blogger—a book blogger—it does anchor me. It does bring me to a point of knowing that I don't ever want to do this for the likes. I find fame to be a terrifying concept. A lot of people now say that I am famous with, I suppose, a mixture of levity and seriousness. Fame is the one thing I think I'm most mindful of avoiding because I think it's... It is definitely attractive. I don't want to pretend to be so noble as to claim that I'd never want it. But I have seen how fickle it is. I've seen how it runs itself on the really unsteady wheels of public perception and how being famous almost makes you indebted, possibly against your will, to the opinions of other people, and I don't want that for myself because I don't even think I could write the poems that I do if I felt that way. If I thought too hard about how all of my uncles would react or the people who taught me religious education in primary school, if I thought too much about how they would feel if they saw the poems that I write, I might never write anything. And I can't afford to do that because I did promise myself when I started taking the life of a poet—whatever that means—seriously that since I spend so much time apologizing for things in my everyday life and making myself small in so many ways to suit the expectations of what a good brown Indian girl should be, that the poems would be something I would never, ever apologize for. I would never say sorry for them. And so far, I think I'm doing okay.
MS: I think that there is a way in which of course we want to execute on our responsibilities, but finding a way to do that without compromising yourself, or without taking care of yourself, to me that seems like the real trick. And it seems like that's sort of what you're talking about.
SR: Yeah, that's a big part of that. I'm definitely that person in the whole big, extended family who is a strange one, who is the unconventional-to-a-dangerous-degree one. Like, you know, I'm past being palatably quirky, right? I'm not the kooky older-sister-slash-strange-cousin who is, "Ha ha, she's a bit weird but so lovable." I am the heretical, unorthodox, deeply disturbing, "should she be committed," "why is she so irreligious," "where did she get this whole gay thing from," "is she ever going to get married?" And definitely that one. And I think I've leaned into that role. I've grown to see that there is a lot of value other people derive from being able to try to categorize me, family and non-family. And I think while they're busy doing that, I should be busy making work because it's what I really want to do. It's what I am obsessed with doing. I have seen enough of death to know that—especially in a violent place like Trinidad is—to know that it is easy, it is so easy to not be here. It's so easy to make projections into a week where you think you're going to wake up and then you never will. So I want to make as much work as I can that tells the truths and the lies that it needs to for as long as I can, because I can't guarantee—I don't think any of us can—can do this, can say that we know we'll be writing poetry or taking photographs or making sculptures for the rest of our lives. We might hope that we will and we might feel in this moment that we are passionately convicted to do that but there is no telling, right? And so the poems... I would like people to know that the poems haunt me first and the most as much as they do anything else. I wouldn't... It's like I told Alice, I wouldn't unleash a devastation on people that I wasn't prepared to give to myself first and hardest and most uncompromisingly. That's kind of the filter it needs to pass through to say anything good, to see even one line that's worth saying. So I want to continue to do that. Also, like you said, try—and this is probably the hardest part for me—to see how it can be more self-loving. I mean, I'm even—you can't see it but I'm wincing right now as I say that because it so goes against the grain of how I was taught and then taught myself to fend for me against the world. But, you know, I realize that these poems in this book were not made against the world, but with it far more than I could have known until until I wrote them and then shared them.
MS: So there's one question that I like to end with and that is if there is a piece of art or literature or creativity in some form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you,
SR: One of my dearest and oldest friends in poetry and in the kind of sisterhood that you are not lucky enough to get birthed into but choose for yourself is... Her name is Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné. she is a Trinidadian poet. I met her... Wow, in 2010, at the very first residential writing workshop I ever went to, which was a powerful experience, not least because of the people I met there and her most of all. And Danielle published her first book of poems with Peepal Tree Press, the same press I'm published with, last year. And the book is called Doe Songs. And it is filled with poems that team at the center and the edges with the natural, wild heart of everything we are and everything we pretend that we aren't, but still are. It's full of forests and fauns and ungovernable mothers and quiet, gentle brutalities, and it is a book that everyone should read. Even if they think they won't like poetry, I think they will find something in there that they harken to.
MS: Mm. Thank you.
SR: You're welcome.
MS: Thank you so much for talking with me. I really enjoyed our conversation.
SR: Thanks so much, Mike. It was a real pleasure. Thank you for having me.
OK, so I’ve included links in the show notes to where you can purchase your own copy of Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, which I highly recommend. And as I mentioned at the top of the show, if you’ll be in the Bahamas between now and April 9th, 2019, do check out that exhibition, that’s “NE9: The Fruit and the Seed” at the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas and there are links in the show notes for that as well.
And that is our show. If you’d like to get in touch, you can follow the show on Twitter and Instagram at @ChannelOpenPod, on Facebook at facebook.com/keepthechannelopen, or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like to support the show, a monthly pledge in any amount to our Patreon campaign is greatly appreciated, it also gets you access to our subscriber-only bonus content. You can find that at patreon.com/sakeriver, that’s sake like the drink and river like river. And please leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, that does help new listeners find the show. Our theme music is by Podington Bear, you can find more of his music available for licensing at soundofpicture.com. We’ll be back on March 13th with a conversation with photographer Matika Wilbur, so stay tuned for that one. And until then, remember: keep the channel open.