Issue 13 marks two years of Pseudo Mag! To celebrate the Pseudoversary we interviewed three of our favourite writers and artists.
Vladimir Lucien is a writer and critic from St. Lucia. His poems and criticism have appeared in The Caribbean Review of Books, PN (Poetry Nation) Review, Wasafiri, Bim Magazine and Small Axe Journal among others. We first saw him at the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017. We immediately fell in love with his writing and found his talks there extremely interesting. We even passed him by once, but were too star struck to actually talk to him! We did get his debut collection of poetry, Sounding Ground at the festival bookstore though, and discovered some magical and touching works of poetry in it. This time we managed to move past our star struckness and got in touch with him. The interview that followed was truly amazing.
How did you first start writing? And why poetry?
I remember trying to write early on. Because my father wrote, and because I’ve always found myself with a strong inner compulsion to “fall into a line” and feel my place in the world, my cosmic cardinal points as it were, I would do everything that my father did. I remember writing poems and leaving them about the house— not deliberately. Sometimes I would give them to him. He didn’t give much comment on them. Until later on, after a friend of mine had died, and I wrote a small poem while sitting by the water at Pigeon Island, called The Tide. Like the other poems, I ended up leaving it somewhere around the house, and some time later, my father told me about it— that it was good. The word was good! I think this could be a kind of Genesis for my poetry, though I’m sure there are others. It’s never really one thing.
Who are some of your literary influences and how have they shaped you as a person and a writer?
Well these things change, and for me, my growth as a writer — as I’m sure it is for many writers— has included both literary and extra-literary influences. And at different points, certain writers, certain works become more important for you. My father gave me my earliest influences with whose work he decided to recite to us, his children. T.S. Eliot’s MacCavity always helps me to remember fondly my childhood. Derek Walcott’s As John to Patmos. Martin Carter’s This is the Dark Time My Love. Wilfred Owen’s Exposure. Later on my own, I took to, and always return to W.H. Auden. When I was introduced properly to Caribbean literature, Kamau Brathwaite, Linton Kwesi Johnson, C.L.R James became important influences. There were several others. I think around that time I was interested in writers that possessed a certain kind of “social consciousness” and were using and seeing poetry as a means of creating change.
Of late, I’ve found myself reading works that take me out of “society” as a defining category within which all human action is to be read— society and its bedfellow “History”. These are not to be discarded entirely, but over and above all is the cosmic. So Toni Morrison (particularly in Beloved, and that scene when Baby Suggs, holy, throws a party that “put Christmas to shame” especially); the scene in Genesis in which Jacob wrestles with and prevails over an angel; Erna Brodber’s Myal, Ma Sia and Fond Zonbi in Simone Schwartz-Bart’s Pluie et Vent sur Telumée Miracle; Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day; Albert Murray; Kendrick Lamar; D’Angelo (specifically the Black Messiah and Voodoo albums); Sun Ra; Kamau Brathwaite’s later work like MR, Dreamstories and Strange Fruit; Esoteric Literature has become very important for me: Secrets of the Psalms etc. because — to me, especially in a place like the Caribbean and African diaspora, and really all over— this must have, consciously or unconsciously, affected our attitude to the word. I realise I’ve strayed from poetry, but the work of my mentor John Robert Lee, Lorna Goodison, Kwame Dawes, Seamus Heaney, Czeslaw Milosz, Tracy K. Smith, Anthony McNeill. A lot of poetry has of late found itself trapped within “society” and has forgotten its duty to and origin in cosmos. So it is discussed differently, approached even as an artefact— it, and its writers are facilely categorised, defined and stored away really.
I find myself looking for that effulgent moment of contact where the magic happens in whatever I read. Sometimes it’s in writers oeuvres, sometimes in a particular poem/book, sometimes it’s a particular moment in the book.
What is your writing process like? Do you keep any specific audience or people in mind when you write?
Well, hitherto I could not speak of a process. My writing happened in a terribly desultory manner. Well not as much desultory as constrained by the mundane, the demands, again, of society. Now I am not “anti-society”, but I hate the hegemonic status it has in our understandings of what we do. But I do see the poet as a kind of oath-breaker as far as society is concerned. Any poet who is going to be more than very good better be prepared to disappoint, upset, puzzle or even scandalize some people. Because writing— that is something more than creating an artefact of who you are or where you find yourself socially— is going to require things of you. It may require you to be particularly rude and leave a dinner table abruptly. It’s going to make you not do your chores. It may make you leave your wife, your job, even some responsibilities. Because whilst you’re seeing all these things in front of you, you are also seeing through them. It’s what you do in the poetry, so don’t think you are going to escape that kind of seeing (and the action that comes from such seeing) in your mundane life. But poetry is interested in society, but knows that society is not THE reality. So there is a kind of invisible morality, invisible ethic that poetry abides by that sometimes may find itself at odds with society in ways that may not always be understood.
So to answer your question, I have moved toward a kind of process, after becoming okay with the fact that I would have to be a sort of oathbreaker. I would have to strike some half-arsed covenant with the world, with society, and with people that I would have to break. If you’re serious, you’re developing quickly, quicker than your fans or readers or whatever can keep up with. So I always have people pointing out “who I am” to me, and how something I’m doing now does not align with their idea of who I am. So there I am, unapologetically breaking that oath even, apparently, to “myself”. To be me. We veer, as poets, between that embrace of people, of world, of the need to contribute to healing, and the need as well to let go of people, let go of the world, to break oaths and move on. And both are necessary you see: The settled all-encompassing all-embracing sense of God, and the rupturing, and the wounding of the whole and the beauty that finds its way into the cracks of such cosmic fragmentation, which is Satan. Or Hermes may be easier on the ears; Hermes who gives us the lyre, the lyric. You see beauty, which is poetry’s chief business, originates in all forms of fragmentation, and brokenness— all manifestations of that cosmic fracturing; combined of course with the strong desire for wholeness.
I am at the point now of clearing room in the world’s time to engage the transcendent, the work. As Sun Ra said, not interested so much in freedom (paraphrasing: “hear a lot of people talking ‘bout it and dying for it, but never seen nobody with none”) as I am in discipline on every level. I imagine the process I arrive at should include not just the mind, but the body, diet etc. It has to be. (And already, speaking of diet, I write best when I drink!)
In terms of audience, the Bible — which fortunately for me I really began engaging not too long ago, and in a profound way after I had read, as I think of it now, a whole lot of esoteric literature, has influenced deeply, my sense of audience. I believe in a vague sense of the work being received by a “race”. A people for whom a gathering of writings is deeply connected. I am interested in these and other kind of “forms” and “units”(not the best term for it) that works like the Bible show us. “Race” has been relegated to some narrow, colour-sensitive really quite stupid, sterile and destructive (as we can clearly see) concept, created out of convenience, as a sort of secondary rationalization or limp defense of some people’s bad behaviour. Although I don’t know who they are, I like to think that I am writing to such a race of people. I do think my writing, thus far, has addressed issues related to “Black” people, but I don’t think that right now, when I say Black people, and other people I hear say “black people”— I don’t think we are talking about the same thing. For me “black”, if anything is a term always on the move, always growing, protean, even while it is the more social category which does have real life consequences etc. What we cannot allow to happen, you see, is to let people’s narrowness stop us from defining ourselves more transcendently, to define ourselves beyond our social, economic etc. situations. We ought to be able to have that capability for simultaneity, to exist in both a worldly space and a space beyond it. So my sense of who I am writing to is I think constructively vague. But I do believe in the form of race, I do believe that plays a major role in good art. That kind of useful provinciality, that ability to see in a smaller formation like “race” or “family” or “community” an entire world. To find the wide multi-verse, the wide cosmos, in a smaller form. (I’m not into the false and thin cosmopolitanism of “I’m writing for the world, or “I’m who the world needs right now”, cause those who are talking about “the world” are still speaking very narrowly, very provincially— are they EVER talking about the Caribbean, when they say “the world” for instance??) The world in a grain of sand, as Blake would have it. But we can’t forget that a grain of sand is one manifestation of a “form” or “thing” that manifests in several other ways (which is what metaphor is always telling us). So we would be the biggest fools on earth to allow this narrow sense of race to dominate how we see things, how we see ourselves. But I think it, personally, equally foolish, to throw the baby out with the bath water. In the Genesis there is both the expansion of the race (under the correct terms) and the contraction into a narrower more protective sense of the race (the evolutionary and cosmic, and the more social and worldly— both equally necessary): Genesis 34:16 says “Then will we give our daughters unto you, and we will take your daughters to us, and we will dwell with you and we will become one people.” Then later, after the defiling of Dinah, that breach of the covenant, we have Levi and Simeon slaying Hamor and his son “with the edge of the sword” saying to their father who berated them “Should he deal with our sister as with an harlot?”
So I’m writing with a race in mind, but the contours and colours change.
What has your experience been as a Caribbean writer who writes in English? Have you ever felt the pressure to write through a lens that caters to a “global” audience?
Well I am not sure I had the option of writing in another language. Certainly not when I started writing. I learnt Kwéyòl— St. Lucia’s mother tongue— at University, at the same time when I started writing seriously, so I was certainly not at a point where I could do much with it creatively. Or I’d merely be writing English poems in Kwéyòl but not of it. The good thing about writing in English is the community it gives me. A wide community. Audience yes, but also other writers and people. I’m not concerned with the “global” thing much to be honest. I do have a very human need to be acknowledged, but I see the focus on the craft as both a useful distraction from that, and a necessary focus that gives you that semi-independence of “things as they are” that you need to be a good writer. Craft as a focus (and by craft I mean your purpose, your path) both connects you deeply with people but gives you the ability to disconnect where it becomes necessary. The all embracing whole and then the rupture, the tearing away. It’s even replicated in the poet’s life. He is among company. He is and makes good company. But he eventually tears away, whether physically or mentally, to another space where he remembers this wholeness and yearns and howls for it in poems and songs and so on, even when he is talking about “the Times” or “Society” or “Love” or “Politics”. In the true poet is replicated the Genesis of the world and that thing that precedes it, that point of such wholeness that things are indistinguishable from each other. That is where metaphor comes from. At all points of action, he is doing that. His truest and deepest audience are those who can see that. He may never be able to delineate this audience, but it can come through engaging a particular and provincial experience of people at such a level that they both recognise themselves in their more limited and then their limitless form.
You have previously mentioned regarding your poetry collection Sounding Ground that you had to find your way out of seeing ‘essences’. Could you elaborate on that?
I guess, in hindsight, I wanted to move away from “solid things”. Away from too solid and therefore dead definitions. Away from the solid or matter as the basic unit of reality and moving more toward spirit— which is fluid. I was coming to a realisation of simultaneity or “contradiction” as some would have it, as the thing. As the lot of man. As the burden of man. As his gift. Not “definition”. Not “meaning” as we understand it to be. So, to be simultaneously one thing and another, you have to draw boundaries that are always on the verge of being redrawn. To be both ancient and modern, both God and man, both man and woman. Our problem is we keep needing to draw boundaries or rather believing too much in those drawn boundaries, whether drawn by ourselves or others. Including the so-called radical re-drawings of gender and sexuality are enacting the same boundary making, albeit theirs may seem “new” boundaries, new “definitions”/ death-finish-ions. So we cannot accept or see a woman inhabiting a man’s body— I mean both the society and the individual experiencing this, or more accurately the interaction of male/female within one being that is always there. I mean we had people now even harking for and competing for the categories they sought to contest, whose reification they sought to undo— like that drama with Chimamanda Adichie and her fans-turned-antagonists. We cannot see Black people and black ways as both “traditional” and absolutely modern. We cannot see angels. We cannot see ancestors who have returned in the bodies of babies. We just always NEED to draw these boundaries, and to create opposition between concepts— to define, to name, to label. Perhaps we need to talk a lot less. Certainly need to do less arguing. Less of that need to own knowledge and the behaviour that breeds— behaviour that exists among the well-meaning activist as it does in the tyrant. Because we haven’t changed the MODE of interaction, the basic premises of what our reality IS. We are still very materialistic/MATTER-REALISTIC societies.
What advice would you give to young writers looking to get published?
I would tell a young writer, coming of age now, to not be too concerned with arguing over what is true, or factual or who is appropriating this and that, or determining any kind of single story. Make your writing your rebuttal, so your “argument” with things around you is not “deconstructing” but creative, con-structive— even if you are writing “criticism”. Some of these things are important but it is not the writer’s work— it is for Socrates and the Oxford Union and them fellas; maniacal whacktivists. And artists have been thrown into their spaces just as art, the creation of art and its sustenance has been thrown into the claws of the University, and no longer the Universe. The writer’s work is to find the open spaces of our humanity. The gasp. The palpitation. The fermata. The sporadic keening at a funeral when the body is going into the grave. The trap door in our voice that falls when we least expect it and the water of our grief and euphoria pours through. This is the writer’s business. Those things. To deal too much in the fight for truth, or fact is to find something “solid” upon which to base your very existence. Which is not advisable. I have found myself at various times, quite randomly and involuntarily in a place, a mood, that i think of is the centre of life. And this place is both an exceedingly tragic and exceedingly comic or joyful place. And I either feel profoundly sad or laugh hysterically. Those are the regions — or places like it, or on the edges of it— that the writer writes from. Not necessarily about, but quietly, from.
What are you currently working on? Do you have any upcoming projects?
For now I feel like I am doing the groundwork for something but I am not sure what that thing is just yet. But I believe it will be special.
What, according to you, are some books most relevant to our times?
Holy Books, myths — but they must be read differently. Not looking for “right” from “wrong” or for “truth” but instead for cosmic processes. Books that accord authority to something more than man. Books about space, and the universe, geology. Self-mastery. Mystery. Books that deal in mystery. More fiction (from all times), less history. (Austin Clarke’s ‘The Polished Hoe’ is at once one of Barbados’ and Plantation-America’s best history books, and best novels). More Magical Realism— not the posturing type. Now more than ever, in the current state of governance and so on, we need books that show us that— as Bob Marley says— “None of them can’t stop the time”. There is just too much Sisyphus around: Too much angst about everything. Angst has to be counterbalanced with an abiding belief in something creative. Like Jamaican poet Anthony McNeill’s line “Love is Earth’s mission/ despite the massed dead.” Books that acknowledge an authority higher or beyond these men and women “in power”, even though this authority is not a personage or something palpable or visible for that matter. Even if this authority is ourselves— not as “supermen” or “saviours” but as good and capable human beings working in our separate vocations where Jah/Yah put we to make our small ant-like difference. Capable in our various areas of endeavour, our unburied talents. Never thought I’d say this, but perhaps some cliché inspirational writing— of human beings facing adversity and triumphing may be useful as well.
If you had to recommend one poem from Sounding Ground to anyone, which would it be and why?
For Jorel. I think it is a poem where I manage to speak from a certain place I am striving for, the beautiful ignorance, beautiful incomprehension which is the mystery of the world. We have a mother in it, struggling with the fact that her son has not come home. That picture of her coming to terms with all the “what ifs” and “coulda shouldas” and even the authority at the end of our belief in how things should be, “because dying was an adult thing to do” (that we should be granted full/long life), but under that, the awe of the mystery of things going not according to plan, its suggestion of something higher than our expectation, sciences, and all the other ways we can or attempt to control things. And in the last image, the mother fighting against that out-of-our-control universe, her frustration expressed in her notion that dying is “something children should be scolded for doing”. And this poem by the way comes from a real story I was told, which begins with that image, of a mother so broken, so terrified by the phenomenon, the sight, the reality, the unbelievable fact of her son (her joy, her all) dying, that she started to beat him as she cried. Beat him as if he had done something like coming home late from school.
Interview by Kimaya Kulkarni and Tanvi Joshi.
Article written by Tanvi Joshi
Illustration by Sawani Chaudhary