Image Credit: Carcanet Press Ltd, 2016
Vahni Capildeo is the new Writer-in-Residence for the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York, as well as a Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Fellow at Queen’s University, Belfast. An exciting and experimental poet, below is a Q&A with Vahni covering topics ranging from their childhood in Trinidad to how they'd describe their current living situation through a pair of shoes.
For those who aren’t familiar with you, please introduce yourself.
My name is Vahni Capildeo, and I was born and grew up in a Hindu diaspora family in Trinidad, in the Caribbean, where I was educated at St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain (Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny). Music was far more important to me than anything else, and I had less than 75% school attendance by the time I sat my A levels, as I was always running away, going home to practise, and to hang out with my cool parents.
At Christ Church, Oxford, I read English for my first degree, going on to medieval studies, then a DPhil in Old Norse and translation theory. This was when I started travelling on my own, beginning with a trip to Iceland in the winter, the first of many to that beloved place and dear friends there. Feeling how beloved places and people may be distant from each other in time or geography, but layered and in present in memory and hope, influenced all my later writing. The invisible world both exceeds and embraces the visible.
My interest lies at least as much with non-fiction as with poetry. I’m very pleased that my current research on silence finds a home at York. The opening theme of my residency is ‘Silence, Crisis and Excess’. The University website is running a series of ‘slow readings’ and ‘surround silence’ which I’ve put together as a public resource which people might use to find a little mental space during the pandemic: https://www.york.ac.uk/english/writing-at-york/active-silence/
How are you finding York so far?
York, at present, exists for me via the online community. I’m impressed and thankful beyond words to see the compassion and humour with which my new colleagues and students are negotiating lockdown. My decision to apply for a post in York has a variegated history. While quite a lot of my current poetry comrades live in or near the city, my earlier impressions of York date back to the 1990s, when I visited with friends who were local to Leeds, and the 1990s-2000s, for Viking research conferences. These first encounters were fragmentary and idyllic: peacocks in parking lots, curd tart at Betty’s. Archbishop Wulfstan of York’s dashing writing style impressed me during my undergraduate degree, and attracted me to ‘his’ place. With luck, we’ll all meet in person before too long, and be reunited with the waterfowl and wildfowl by the lake on that extraordinary campus.
What has been your favourite book, play or anthology that you’ve read recently?
Undoubtedly St. Augustine’s Confessions, in Henry Chadwick’s translation (always credit the translator!). It was an absolute, almost shocking delight to come up against such a strong and witty speaking voice, satirizing all too familiar issues (competitive literary culture; the seductions of violent spectacles; astrology). Of course, St Augustine also speaks with flair and sometimes self-lacerating truth on a range of topics from silence to our perception of and existence in time. I hadn’t expected the more human side. It’s clear why it was a bestseller during and long after his time.
How did your writing journey begin?
My father was a poet and I’ve written for as long as I can remember. Friendships played an important part, for example with Jeremy Noel-Tod (who’s now Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia); he published me in a little magazine back in 1998, when we communicated by postcard. To an extent, we still communicate by postcard. Now there are too many writer-friends, editor-friends, publisher-friends to name. My ‘journey’ began in family relationship and continues through these other types of family. There’s nothing I write that isn’t grounded in this community, its reality or its recollection.
Measures of Expatriation explores identities of expatriates. Did your childhood in Trinidad influence your writing, and does it continue to do so now?
Measures of Expatriation explores, among other things, the way identities are forced onto people who, whether as embodied beings or as creatures of language, experience themselves with more complexity and nuance than ‘the world’ sometimes allows. It opens with a love poem spoken by an unnamed Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn, coded by a falcon. It closes with another love poem, about the fatal identification of deerstalker and stag. In between everything happens, from war on Iraq in the news to sandcastles being built on a beach. There are lots of voices, almost never ‘my own’. I’m interested in channelling, not in self-expression.
Often your work is dedicated to people, whether famous or historical figures, other poets, or friends. What is the reasoning behind this? Do the figures themselves inspire the work?
It’s different in different cases. Sometimes people have been very kind and shown me something special to them, or given me house room or a meal, and the dedication commemorates that. The poems are gifts. At other times, I want the dedication to function more like a citation, that will encourage the reader to look up another writer or text that’s in dialogue with the poem. This second reason is why I’ve dedicated books to the memory of Martin Carter, the Guyanese writer, revolutionary, and politician, and to the memory of Winston Bailey, better known as the calypsonian Shadow.
You invite readers to apply their own interpretations to your poetry; when writing, do you think about how people will interpret your words?
No! I couldn’t! Writing would be impossible! I strive to access a kind of interior silence, and ideally perceive patterns which seem external to me, though I’m not going to argue for that here. Sometimes I go on ‘retreat’ to do this; for example, three days on a stormy Lindisfarne, to finish Odyssey Calling.
Throughout your poems are references to mythological figures, such as Medusa and Zeus, as well as passages in other languages. Why do you feel including such references in your writing is important?
Biographically? I grew up as the descendant of priests of an ancient polytheism, then was schooled by people who believe in the communion of saints... Truly, to try to be adequate to the multiplicity of voices in all of us, in any reader; and because I’ve learnt from many traditions and their symbols, methods, and stories, that art offers more profound or transformative visions by going beyond the ‘realistic’, when in search of the real.
In ‘Investigation of Past Shoes’ you suggest that shoes create identity and represent different eras of life. How would you describe your current situation in life, in terms of the shoes you wear?
That poem was inspired by a surprise invitation from a shoe museum, who somehow had decided I would write well about shoes. Here in Trinidad we’re on lockdown, and I’m barefoot in the house; wearing battered rose gold Birkenstocks to hang out laundry and water plants in the yard. Stripped down for quarantine, I’d say; sturdy in ever so slightly glam hermitage.