Interrogating the English Language with Safiya Sinclair
I remember Safiya Sinclair from my time at Bennington College, though I’m sure she doesn’t remember me. She was one of the serious literature students who graduated my freshman year. I’ve kept up with her work since then, admiring her astonishing poem, “Center of the World,” which rhymes “hunt” with “my incandescent cunt,” in a 2015 issue of Poetry magazine, and seeing her read at an offsite AWP event in Los Angeles this past April. Her first collection, Cannibal, with its starkly violent title and mysterious cover that moves in collage from face to anatomical map, has been well worth the wait.
Sinclair explains at the beginning of the collection:
The word ‘cannibal,’ the English variant of the Spanish word canibal, comes from the word caribal, a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies, who Columbus thought ate human flesh and from whom the word ‘Caribbean’ originated. By virtue of being Caribbean, all ‘West Indian’ people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.
Sinclair’s poetry addresses this supposed savagery with a linguistic wildness, both in her lyricism and her subjects’ tendency to shape-shift and transform. Hers is a poetry concerned with womanhood, with exile in various constructions (exile from the homeland, from the prevailing culture, from one’s own body), and with reclaiming a place in the world. In Cannibal, women alter their bodies by bleaching their skin, or, in one case, by removing the extra fingers they were born with. Cannibal confronts the fear of the other (white America’s fear of Blackness, man’s fear of woman), fear of the self, and how power is negotiated. These poems feel dangerous, chimerical, and deeply intelligent.
Well-versed in a classical education, Sinclair engages with texts often to subvert them. The book contains echoes of The Tempest, going so far as to include poems in Caliban’s voice, and frames its five acts with Shakespearean lines. But the historical references are not limited to texts we revere. A series of poems takes its jarring title from a more disturbing historical source: One Hundred Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof, while another poem pulls its title, “Crania Americana,” from an 1839 text on eugenics. Threaded with dialogue belonging and referring to Caliban, Sinclair repurposes these awful relics of the past, and shows us that they’re hardly past.
We began our conversation over email, before deciding we needed to continue the conversation in person. We met when Safiya arrived in New York for her book launch in September.
The Rumpus: When and how did you become a poet?
Safiya Sinclair: I must confess I always have trouble answering the question of “when”—it seems nearly impossible to pinpoint a specific moment one becomes a poet, mostly because I think nearly all poets are simply born with poetry. There is some intrinsic way of seeing the world, call it a “fault of nature,” negative capability, or some strange, unquantifiable mental wiring, that makes it impossible for a poet to live without making some sense of the world, and self-in-the-world, on the page. The best poets have found that poetry is not optional, but is rather an act of survival.
I began writing poetry very early (around ten or eleven years old) to combat the strange sense of exile I felt within my body—black, female, exotified, Rastafarian—an exile I felt at home, and even in my own country. I relished early the exploration and invention of my own landscape, instructed not only by Jamaica herself but the ghost meter I found calling to me from the sea. Writing it down seemed the only way to go forward; honing a voice and a home, and speaking it into existence rang with urgency.
At Bennington College, facing an impossible whiteness of peers, professors, and curricula, I became very certain of what kind of poet I wanted to be. Which is to say, I wanted to interrogate the imperial history of the English language, the continued erasure of the Black experience from these Western spaces, and to reaffirm the Caribbean voice as capable of writing across oppression, invisibility, poverty, by forging my own version of this strange dual-self (of English language and Jamaican patois). Cannibal, most of which was my MFA thesis at the University of Virginia, circled around these themes and experiences I’ve lived with all my life—the dangerous stereotypes of blackness, the diminishment and objectification of this body, pervading ideas of “savagery,” and the heavy silences of unspoken history and selfhood that Caribbean women carry with them. If I could invite a reader to enter this rich landscape, what would it look and sound like?
Rumpus: I’m interested in that phrase you use, “a fault of nature.” That seems to correspond to the presence of The Tempest in your work. (Nature as in the landscape of the natural world in the play, and of course, aside from scenery, the phrase “human nature.”) When did you begin writing poems inspired by The Tempest? How did you respond to a work written four centuries ago, and find that you could incorporate it into your own poetic voice—that Shakespeare had something you could use, and subvert, about being a woman of color writing today?
Sinclair: Yes, and “fault of nature” here is deliberate, and very much in quotes. A lot of the collection seeks to subvert the history of propaganda, of pseudo-scientific texts that reinforced ideas of barbarism, savagery, and the supposed lesser intellect of people of color. More specifically, I’m interested in exploring this idea that in the tropics “nothing grows politely.” It was important to me to take control of these pervasive ideas of wildness and savagery and re-narrativize them on my own terms as a Jamaican woman. I wanted to write poems that reflected the fertile landscape of Jamaica as a mirror to the landscape of the black female body—untamed, “frightening,” and unknown, while celebrating the nature of that “savagery” as a vital and beautiful part of Caribbean selfhood.
It’s hard for me to think of representations of the “savage native” in literature without also thinking of Caliban, whose very name is a Shakespearean anagram for the word “canibal,” the Spanish variant of “cannibal.” I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about The Tempest, not only because it reflects different aspects of the African diaspora, colonization, and slavery, but more specifically because at a very young age I identified with Caliban as a representative of the linguistic and psychological exile of the Caribbean self. To be forced to speak in the language of the colonist, the language of the oppressor, while also carrying within us the storm of Jamaican patois, we live under a constant hurricane of our doubleness. In many ways we will always be stranger to ourselves—as Walcott says, “our bodies move in one language and think another.”
Following the inspiration of authors like Kamau Brathwaite and Aimé Césaire, who each rewrote The Tempest through the eyes of Caliban to represent all aspects of this exile and loss of selfhood, while also reaffirming Caliban as a source of linguistic rebellion, I soon realized (after working on the manuscript for two years) that many of the poems were directly and indirectly confronting these ideas through the frame of The Tempest. The word “cannibal” kept popping up in certain poems, or indirectly in the meter of the sea in the poems. I wrote “Dreaming in Foreign” after Caliban’s dreamy monologue in the play. He has a very lyric speech where he muses on reconnecting to the island through his dreaming, and reclaiming the music, magic, and landscape that had been stolen from him, just as his language and culture had been erased. It’s my favorite part of the play, and in Caliban’s wistful hunger for what had been taken, I found a reflection of our macabre history, what was irrevocably lost, and a struggle so similar to what Jamaicans still experience—trying to re-centre this Western idea of our island as someone else’s idea of paradise. It has always been my hope that beyond the margins of The Tempest, Caliban might find something beautiful and powerful in his own nature, “flawed” or not. So I decided to colonize The Tempest and alchemize that hope for myself. Why not?
Rumpus: When did you first move to Vermont?
Sinclair: I moved to Vermont in 2006, when I started at Bennington College. My poor mother didn’t even know where Vermont was, she asked “Why are you going all the way there?”
Rumpus: How did you decide to go to college with only six-hundred students?
Sinclair: I never got to visit. I didn’t know then, but I know now, that visiting prospective colleges is something most people do, who have the luxury to do so. But I couldn’t visit colleges. My brother and I went to a college prep after school [program] where we were advised on colleges in the US, and Bennington was recommended to us. When I researched the school, I thought creating your own academic plan sounded interesting, because I already knew that literature was what I wanted to study, that creative writing was what I had to do. So I applied. I got in and my parents weren’t able to pay the tuition, so we paid the enrollment fee instead, and my mother and I thought we’d just hope for the best and see what happens. You could defer your admissions for three years. So I kept deferring every year, because we still didn’t have enough money. And the last year they wrote us and said “This is the last year you can defer; are you coming to Bennington?” So my parents told them that we still didn’t have the money, and they replied “Well, how much do you have?” My parents named the very minimal figure of what they could pay, and Bennington said, “Okay, let’s do this.”
Rumpus: The essay you published in Poetry Magazine about Caliban, Bennington, and the writing of your first book was really fascinating. Could you talk more about what it was like to go to Bennington? It seems like it didn’t live up to your expectations.
Sinclair: Well, I didn’t know what to expect. Before I went to Bennington, I’d been to America twice. The first time I’d visited, I went for modeling. I flew to New York and then Miami a couple of days. And the second time, I went as a global young leader, where I was representing Jamaica in a program called the Global Young Leaders Conference. So they took us to museums and historical sites, they took us to Washington, DC. We went to Congress, and went to New York, to the UN. So the first two times I’d been here it was very much just sightseeing, not really interacting with Americans very much, like I did when I went to Bennington.
So I didn’t really know what to expect there. I just thought, I’m finally going to college and this is my chance to make something of my life. It was all new. I got there at the end of August; I didn’t have a coat. My mother and I were freezing. Very quickly I felt strange. I was one of very few black students there. I think that first year it was maybe two or three black students in total. And I thought, Oh my god is it always going to be like this?
Rumpus: I think it’s gotten better since then. You and I overlapped for one year [2009–2010].
Sinclair: I mean, I was just at Bennington. It’s maybe like seven to ten black students now.
Being a Bennington student was definitely a learning experience. It was a very quick way to figure out how to be a black person in America, not just to fortify myself, but to also become keenly aware that I was now both very seen and unseen to others in this country. That was not something that I’d ever considered before—the alienation of the white gaze. The US government literally designates me as a “non-resident alien.” So this otherness was something I had to think about constantly.
Rumpus: You mentioned writing a manifesto in your Poetry essay, and it sounded like you were in the Senior Projects class [a workshopping class in which literature students work on a creative or critical thesis].
Sinclair: Yes, I was in Senior Projects. That’s where I wrote the manifesto.
Rumpus: It’s a great manifesto.
Sinclair: Thanks. They didn’t think so.
Rumpus: What was the experience like of being in workshop after that?
Sinclair: I think they got over it. They certainly didn’t go home and think about it and agonize over it the way I did. Because that’s just the truth of white privilege, right? To them it was just another day, some black student acting up. A mild annoyance. I’m sure to this day, they haven’t given it second or third thoughts, but it affected me, it stuck with me.
Rumpus: It reminded me of something Junot Díaz once said. “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.”
Sinclair: Yes. Here I was, reading and engaging with countless poems and stories that had references to American culture and geography, American references that I was just expected to know, as if they were some kind of universally acknowledged norm. But I tried to educate myself. If I came across something that I didn’t know, then I would look it up. I would inform myself. I would never say change this reference because I feel alienated by it, or because I don’t quite understand these lives. I tried to read the work as anybody else had, for its merits and faults. In turn, I was constantly reminded of the limits of the white imagination. This very dangerous and pervasive way of thinking that the white perspective is the norm and everybody else, and everything else not written within these confines is an other.
Rumpus: Then what was your MFA experience life?
Sinclair: Again, it was very strange.
Rumpus: Because you went to an even whiter place, possibly?
Sinclair: Even whiter, more Southern, and smaller. A program even smaller than Bennington.
Rumpus: Founded by Thomas Jefferson.
Sinclair: Founded by Thomas Jefferson. So again, I felt like I was in this alien place, where the students at UVA referred to Thomas Jefferson as TJ. TJ said this, and TJ built that, and I thought What have I done? Where am I? Someone told me that even to this day in boardroom meetings at UVA, when they’re trying to make decisions about the school or where to erect a building, someone in the boardroom pops up and asks but what would Thomas Jefferson want? And I’m thinking like are we really in 2012, 2013?
Rumpus: That’s bizarre.
Sinclair: So I was the only black poet in the MFA.
Rumpus: Of the five of you?
Sinclair: Of the ten of us, first and second year. And there was one other black student on the fiction side. She was Nigerian, another “alien” like me. Very quickly we were like, okay, we’re the only ones. But on the poetry side it was only me. So there were days when I would go to class, go to my workshop at UVA, and not see another black person, except on the days I might see Rita Dove.
Rumpus: That’s isolating. I wonder what she thinks about that, being in a space like that.
Sinclair: I don’t know. When I started teaching I would have all these black students who were nearly all student athletes, who were having similar problems of feeling out of place. There’s already so much of an issue of student athletes and the issue of exploitation, but then I would meet with students from the business school who would talk about “slavery as a business model” without irony, and when I would try to talk about the separation I perceived in the town they’d say, “We don’t see that.” But this is a place where a frat house spray painted “We don’t want any n—–s here” on a public bridge. For years there had been a lot of redlining where they’d moved the black community first to the other side of the train tracks, and then to the fringes of Charlottesville. So the black community of Charlottesville actually commutes to Charlottesville to work. And most of the people actually living in Charlottesville are rich college students. So it was odd to then have Monticello as some wonder on the hill and hear people talking about “TJ” like he’s a god. I couldn’t help but think, no, hold up now, let’s take a look behind the curtain, who built this college? Who built the Rotunda? Or let’s talk about the revolving door built into the dining room of Monticello where the slaves had to stand and serve food out of sight, so that they wouldn’t be seen by the white guests, so that their presence wouldn’t upset them.
Rumpus: I think you mention in one of your poems the slave quarters of UVA, or was that at Monticello?
Sinclair: That was at UVA. On the Lawn there are “historic” student dorms that have been there for more than a century, and they uncovered slave quarters in the basements of these dorms, where the slaves attending to these students once lived. These basement slave quarters were bricked off at some point through the years, very much like the paved-over slave cemetery at UVA, both of which were recently “rediscovered.”
I would walk through Charlottesville and here is a big statue of Stonewall Jackson, there is a big statue of Robert E. Lee, then across the street there is a small unassuming plaque on the ground that read: Here on this day was a slave auction block, where slaves were sold. I was very overwhelmed by that. When my mom came to visit from Jamaica, she couldn’t get over it, being so up-close to not even remnants of injustice, but actual monuments signifying how that injustice still thrives in plain sight—the plague, the slave quarters, the Confederate statues, Monticello. To this day she shakes her head and talks about visiting Charlottesville and that plaque we found on the ground, just matter-of-factly announcing its horrors. A little plaque on the ground that people walk over.
Rumpus: That’s strange. I don’t know if it’s better to have a plaque to acknowledge that it happened, or not, because it’s too offensive the way it’s phrased and where it’s placed.
Sinclair: This is Charlottesville; my neighbor had a confederate flag. The town has a huge monument to Lewis and Clark that says: Lewis and Clark, Who Discovered the New World. And behind them, if you go around to the back of the statue, you see crouched down like this, is Sacajawea, in a grotesque kind of pose.
Rumpus: Like a Caliban pose.
Sinclair: Yes, like a Caliban pose. There were so many moments where I thought, Where am I? And can I survive this with my sanity intact? And part of that survival was writing poetry and making sense of what I was seeing and experiencing, on the page.
Rumpus: I like the way you describe Caliban, how you’ve been thinking about him for fourteen years, and how your interpretation of the play has changed. When did you write your first Caliban poem?
Sinclair: There were times I didn’t know I was writing a Caliban poem, until I realized that I was going to frame the book through The Tempest. But he was always there, in the twanging music, with the voices and the wind and the sea of The Tempest in the background. The poem that I wrote after Caliban, “Dreaming in Foreign,” is the first poem where I’m directly thinking about and inhabiting Caliban’s experiences; his monologue about dreaming and longing for a home that has been lost.
Rumpus: And how did you decide on the cover?
Sinclair: The cover is a Wangechi Mutu piece that I am so blessed to have. She is an amazing artist from Kenya, and I first made the connection for the cover when Cathy Park Hong wrote this really beautiful commendation for my poems in the Boston Review. She said “Safiya Sinclair’s poems remind me of Wangechi Mutu’s collages,” and she went on to talk about the similarities of our work being multi-textural, of the connective threads of Afrofuturism in Wangechi’s work and in my poetry. After that I knew the cover had to be Wangechi Mutu. I obsessed and pored over all of her work until I saw this piece and I knew: this is the cover, this is it, I want this. The University of Nebraska Press had me fill out all these questionnaires about the book, one of which was Do you have any images you might want for the cover, tell us why. And I wrote this essay on why this should be the cover, because I didn’t know if they would go for it, because obviously half of the collage is the female body seen through a gynecological and anatomical study. But they said yes, and Mutu said yes, so I was thrilled. The collage itself considers the fear and shame thrust upon a woman’s body while also subverting ideas of savagery in African culture, playing against these stereotypes of blackness being monstrous and womanhood being dark and mysterious. By having a point of reclamation where that monstrosity is actually a source of power, here is a shamanistic figure created from the collage of these two things, empowered with a vaginal all-seeing third eye. Here is the center of the world; by reframing this gaze of shame cast on the female body, this is where the power is centering in the figure; here is her unstoppable magic.
Rumpus: Your poems deal with women being monstrous; do you think that there can be power in that? Like you have the Eve/Anaconda figure. Or in “How to Be a More Interesting Woman: A Polite Guide for the Poetess” you write: “Call me Mary. Call me Sophie. / Call me what you like. / I’ll answer to any man who looks / at me right.” And then there’s a wild role reversal at the end, where she has all the power. And the trappings of domesticity suddenly seem menacing: “I will take your name. / I will take your home.” How do you navigate that shifting balance of power in your poems?
Sinclair: I grew up in a very, very strict patriarchal, bordering on misogynist, household and culture. Growing up I always felt that the fact of being a woman was something that made me less. Made me dirty. It gave me less freedom in the world than my brother had, than my father had, or any his male friends had. And I couldn’t understand why. After internalizing a lot of that toxicity and still failing to understand why, I realized I didn’t really want to understand at all. I disobeyed many of the rules. I was going to rebel against this, and instead of feeling shamed by the fact of my womanhood, I would try to find power in it. So I think a lot of my poems still stem from that place of very early on feeling like my body was shameful, for no other reason than my gender. A lot of the poems in Cannibal are specifically confronting this idea of a woman being seen as either dangerous or non-autonomous because of the male gaze. And I do find power in playing up that danger and subverting that threat, or playing coy and helpless, only to say actually no, I will consume and devour you, and destroy you.
Rumpus: Eat men like air.
Sinclair: Exactly. So I wanted to re-narrativize my own history through the magic of mythmaking and folklore and saying yes, this is a power source and you should be afraid.
Rumpus: Are you hoping men in Jamaica will read this book, and it might change their perspective on… maybe not totally dismantling the patriarchy, but making them reconsider some of their beliefs?
Sinclair: Well let’s not pretend Jamaica is the only place with a domineering patriarchy. And historically, men and ruin go hand-in-hand all across the globe. In any case I don’t know if I can truly speak for the people of Jamaica and their beliefs. Something that troubles me are the rampant issues with identity erasure and self-hate. Many people in Jamaica bleach their skin. And I touch on that a bit in Cannibal. That’s something that needs to change, urgently. We need much more education and affirmation of black beauty: so young people know it’s okay to love yourself, that there is power in blackness, that you don’t have to eradicate any of that to fit into some Western ideal of beauty.
As for dismantling the patriarchy, I think I’d hope that my father would read some of these poems and get a better sense of what the environment was like for me and my sisters and my mother growing up in a home and a religion that was heavily oppressive. But I don’t know if that will happen.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ll give readings in Jamaica?
Sinclair: I’d love to. A couple of people have contacted me, so we’re trying to put it together. That would be nice.
Rumpus: Are you working on anything now? A second collection of poems?
Sinclair: I’ve been working on my memoir, which is centered around my childhood in Jamaica growing up in a strict Rastafarian household. And the increasing tension and rebellion happening between me and my father, because I couldn’t understand all these tenets of Rastafarianism and why they excluded me as a woman and denied me any power. So I’m writing about that, but also about how strange it was, being part of this Rastafarian sect, which is a minority in Jamaica. Most people think that’s the thing that defines Jamaica, but it’s actually a very Christian country. Jamaica has the most churches per capita of any country in the world. So Rastafarians are a very small minority and for many years the country had outlawed Rastafarianism and had these campaigns to round up and shave, cut the hair, and eradicate Rastas. So my siblings and I were the only Rastafarians in school, and the only Rastas in many of the spaces that we navigated. A large part of the memoir is talking about that alienation of also being Rasta in Jamaica.
Rumpus: Layers of exile.
Sinclair: So many exiles. Thank God I came to poetry. I don’t think I ever had a choice. And thankfully I’ve also been writing poems again. I had to make a disconnect between me and Cannibal, and not think when I’d written a good poem, oh shoot, that should have been in Cannibal. Now I feel that Cannibal is whole, it’s good as it is on its own and now I’m writing poems towards something, (or maybe not), but I’m writing poems again.
Rumpus: Can we talk about the ways you write about violence in the book? How do you approach writing about violence, and potentially making violence beautiful?
Sinclair: Do you find the violence in the book to be beautiful?
Rumpus: The language can be. Like “the bruise of unbecoming” is a lovely phrase but terrible to consider.
Sinclair: I think this is the only way I could come to it on the page, to make sense of that violence. To find some point or some mode of transfiguration so that I’m not stuck there, I’m not stuck in the hurt. I can alchemize that hurt, that it might somehow be useful or helpful to me as I’m making sense of myself on the page, building a life there. I haven’t really thought of it before but I think it is a survival act. A way of letting it go, by writing it down.
Rumpus: Taking control of it by making it into something else. There’s an aspect of transformation in your work. For your next project are you still interested in writing poems that are mythological and magical?
Sinclair: Yes, I’ve been interested in mythification since my very first poems, long before I’d even read or conceived of The Tempest being a framing tool for the book. For some reason I’ve always been drawn to this idea of transformation, of mythological change as a kind of subversion. It’s taking this thing that you’ve been born with and given, you thought you had no control over, when you felt utterly helpless, and making something else of it entirely. By finding something useful and powerful in the self, when others are diminishing you or defining you as something less than what you are. And finding some way to be exactly as you are.