This has been a good year for poet Canisia Lubrin. First, she won the prestigious Windham-Campbell Prize (worth US$165,000) from Yale University in March. And earlier this week, Lubrin won the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, too. Raised in Saint Lucia, Lubrin later moved to Canada and studied at York University and the University of Guelph. She now teaches creative writing at OCAD University and poetry at the University of Toronto, and is the incoming poetry editor for publisher McClelland & Stewart.
The Globe and Mail caught up with Lubrin to discuss The Dyzgraphxst, her winning poetry collection that the Griffin jury dubbed “a spectacular feat of architecture called a poem.”
What does The Dyzgraphxst represent to you?
It’s about a lot of things: I wanted the poetic consciousness of the poem to carry love, loss, death, family, politics, belief, theory, history, power, childhood, maps, geographies, the sea, the sky, the storm, the ego, doubt, science, music, birds, kinship, colonialism, borders, time, place, breakage, queerness, contradiction, failure, mystery – how one lives through not fully understanding, not fully knowing; and being palpably, significantly aware of the world.
The book is a long poem – divided into seven acts with a dramatis personae, prologue, monologue and epilogue – and doesn’t follow a linear narrative. How does the book’s dramatic structure figure into its themes?
The structure and the themes are codependent. The book’s unusual lyric is due to that fact. The splitting of the lyric subject is fused to the reconfiguring of the core questions that become the seven acts of the book. But I’m not guided by themes. When I write, I try to create a sense of ‘liveness’ that, to me, is crucial to the way art functions as a force of living. In that way, perhaps what I mean is that themes come together in an organic way when I am focused on the exploration inherent in the form and the mode and the aesthetic of the thing. I’m trying to create an experience on the page. I seem to be the kind of writer whose focus is both granular and structural, creative and critical. If there is a clear question that brings the themes and the theatrical structure into a kind of thesis, it would be a question: What does performance reveal about the self and language and character under the overlapping pressures of today’s world? Jejune puts constant pressure on the illusion of the universal, and so each part of the book highlights what has changed from one act to the next. What is linear or nonlinear is not so important.
Jejune is situated as a sort of a protagonist, both a pluralized one and a series of voices. Was there a sense of writing not just from a place of “I,” but toward a more community experience?
My interest is in refusing the degraded, reductive subject position of the “I” by working through some ideas about personhood and relation and language and poetry itself. Jejune is the literary embodiment of that exploration. Jejune is who invites the reader into their own experience of the poem. So what Jejune means to me will differ from what Jejune means to you or to anyone else who reads the book. That is the experience I aimed to facilitate. And this means that if you’re looking for a meaning – or the meaning – you’re likely going to be frustrated because you are the meaning.
How does your poetry attend to issues of racism and violence? Why is it the art form you’ve arrived at?
Poetry is its own unique mode of learning and processing and knowing and thinking and dreaming. It can handle any weight.
What do you hope readers take away from The Dyzgraphxst?
A reader is in control of their reading. The imagination is a great – and troublesome – guide. I would hope that the reader lets their imagination lead.
Were there particular poets whose work you read while writing The Dyzgraphxst? What works are you reading these days? What would you like to read more of in Canadian poetry?
I don’t read poetry while I write it. I need to hear a different kind of language and music. Things that are related but not the same are usually enriching. I appreciate contrast – and I resist silos. With regards to Canadian poetry, I don’t tend to make pre-emptive demands of poetry. Part of the great gift of poetry is that I never know what I’m going to find. That very thing keeps me connected to the wild unpredictability of what is honest and creative.
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