Poetry is a way for women to survive: Canadian poets in conversation

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The following is an excerpt from What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, published by Nightwood Editions in November 2018. The book features conversations between twenty-two of Canada’s top modern poets. In this interview, Canisia Lubrin and Sina Queyras discuss how poetry relates to activism. 

Canisia Lubrin: I remember the moment in which I first read Audre Lorde’s essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." I remember what I was doing, what tea I was drinking, what I was wearing. This was a visceral opening up of something vast in my mind. You're likely familiar with it and how she posits her idea that poetry is in itself a way for women (especially those historically and contemporaneously marginalized) to survive because poetry offers a particular kind of freedom: emotional freedom. That the woman's voice and voicing(s) and the woman’s feelings are radical and can be put to revolutionary use.

In Lorde’s expressed relationship with poetry, I met my own preoccupations with poetry's activist invigorations and ceaseless reach. I knew much of the same stuff instinctively and could practise its modes within the contours of my own sense of poetic time and urgency. But when I approach a poem, I expect turbulence; I expect the turbulence of reaching for a freedom that is in itself undefined, to, in a sense, disrupt the process of writing. So here I am in some kind of practice that is interminable because the work of liberation is never done. There's always more freedom to go after and for me this is a searing kind of joy and trust in language in which everything is bound up. That there will always be poems to write is a thing that brings me immense purpose.

Sina Queyras: That essay was published when I was in my early twenties. All the women I knew were busy doing social or political work. We worked in shelters with street kids, with women in the courts, defending women in divorce, helping to start community credit unions and co-op housing. I have this image of a long line of women drinking tea but with their fists in the air. Helen Portrebenko was the local poet everybody read then, and Adrienne Rich of course. It was freedom, yes, but also a lot of work. Everyone had a poetry broadside on a wall in their kitchen. Poetry was not about prize culture. Poetry was certainly not a luxury; it was about surviving.

I like what you say about each poem finding its reader. I was moved by the poetry I was surrounded by at the time, but I didn’t feel joy, or even a glimmer of my own voice until I discovered Virginia Woolf, and that was very, very difficult because of the class, the privilege: reading Woolf was like reading a foreign language. The narrative seemed to be taking place above my head. But hers was a language that unlocked an entire ecosystem in myself that I had never been able to access. I lay on the floor in my small house on Vancouver Island, absolutely, beautifully perplexed by Woolf's novel The Waves. It was my before-and-after book and I went on to read everything over and over again. My love of Woolf was mysterious for many, many years and it fed me. It was a tremendous motivator just scrambling after her, and then realizing I was actually scrambling after myself.

Lubrin: That image you invoke of a long line of women drinking tea with their fists in the air characterizes, for me, what underwrites your opus. I am imbued with that sense of defiance and carrying-on-living in your lines and that makes for some radical awakening in language. My moment of rapture came with reading Dionne Brand's No Language Is Neutral. My ecosystem, if I can borrow your phrase, was completely lost in a darkness I could not ever be compassed out of until that moment. I realized my own oddities, my own queer and troubled cohabitation with language as I had been conditioned in.

So in Voodoo Hypothesis I arrived at an awareness that I was staring into something inimical and attempting to dismantle it. The poems in the book exist in nonlinear time like pinballs, searching for brief illuminations to their questions before quickly moving on to unknown dispersals of their/my family tree before they must, inevitably, end. But there is nothing to hold the poems and lines too long in place. No guarantor to afford them a cleanly locatable thesis about what they mean to be. To have faith or to belong, to be free, to really live, is the greatest hope. An irony is the greater teacher, though. This suggestion of unbelonging can in some ways scaffold one’s sense of truer positioning.

The stuff that determines a belief in belonging extends to speech. And since language is inherent to the project of poetry, whose every ache and luminosity is music, the song and celebration premised in the mode of its creation is troubled by a faith in words. Offered here are the polyvocal rhythms of tracing the creolized landscapes that riddle the West through the immense gravity of our colonial history.

Offered, too, is a geography peopled through the very act of mining the complexly unique, simultaneously exilic and concentric circumstances of diaspora. People charged by their own insistence to be alive and to be. But with a place to disembark, yet without a place to claim and to be tethered to, here is, eventually, to reckon a re-entering into humanity, into speech, into body, into life beyond the trauma of unbelonging and even death. The Black body, then, is undeniably always the modern self. This is the project of Voodoo Hypothesis and it is one that resists any sure categorization because to be alive in the Black diaspora is to be in constant, "conscious" flux.

Queyras: Yes, yes, yes to Dionne Brand, and yes to that experience of discovering No Language Is Neutral. A very important book. And it's fascinating to me the way you describe bodies pinging off of colonial structures -- I get that sense in your work completely and quite distinctly. The endless surf/state/corporation pounding. It is the way capitalism, which so often seems just a stand-in for whiteness, appears to subsume everything and break whatever commodity it accumulates into ever smaller portions to sell back to itself.  Poetry can be a way to stop and turn and confront that force. A way to resist. Or, as Anne Boyer said a while back, "Capitalism couldn’t work if souls did…"

In a sense, for me, these moments mine that early plunge into a non-linear world. The mind-meld of a poem offers oxygen. A way to "wake up" as the Buddhists say. And the counter-intuitive logic of letting go is so important. Of doing nothing. To not reach out, but to remain stable but fluid (I’m thinking of Sloterdijk’s idea of the foam). To breathe. To feel. To face. Facing the moment is freedom. I love that line in Lorde’s essay about "the white fathers" who "told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us -- the poet -- whispers in our dreams," asserting "I feel therefore I can be free." Not to decouple thinking and feeling, but to understand their essential relationship, which is, I think, poetry, or to my mind, the potential of poetry. The potential to be beautiful but resist ornamentation.

Obviously this is distinct from activism. Distinct from putting one’s body on the line. Speaking metaphorically, this is the body, but also the poem. All of this relates equally to both. The line we walk in our day, the lines we write in our poems. Like you, Dionne Brand's No Language Is Neutral blew my pores open. Her vital moral presence vibrates in every lush syllable. And this question of dancing between joy and activism is found there and in Juliana Spahr’s Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You or Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric or Lisa Robertson's The Weather, which I felt like an apprentice to for a few years and now cannot read without feeling in conversation with Dionne Brand.

Each of those writers has a natural rhythm that is incantatory and powerful in the way it accumulates and brings in and holds everything both outside and inside -- the interiority is vast and vertical, but the sweep is so wide and generous -- that sums up my goal as a writer nicely. No fear. Open to everything.

Excerpted with permission from "There’s Always More Freedom To Go After: Sina Queyras and Canisia Lubrin" in What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation.

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