Vahni Capildeo at Creative Conversations review by Pat Byrne
4 December, 2017
It was a pleasure to see Vahni Capildeo back at University of Glasgow, performing at Creative Conversations. Vahni is a poet and prose writer from Trinidad, who now lives near Edinburgh. A few years back she taught for a spell on the M.Litt Creative Writing Course at Glasgow. I was lucky enough to have her as a tutor and, whilst I cannot claim to be the most avid reader of poetry, I’ve always appreciated Vahni’s enthusiasm for literature, language and the ease with which she shares her novel ideas.
She was in fine form at Creative Conversations and looking back at the event, it seems almost impossible that in just one hour she not only read a diverse selection of her work, but encouraged by the host and poet Colin Herd, Vahni extensively shared the philosophies and inspiration underpinning her work.
‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. It is ineluctable, variegated and muscular.’
Vahni spoke about ‘the sense of never being quite at home’ and the idea of ‘belonging’, which can be ‘over emphasised’ – provoking questions as to ‘who belongs where and where belongs to whom’? She dwelt on the importance of language and how people could be stripped of everything but still carry language internally; using specific terms of endearment and diminutions for affection.
This question of belonging is central to her book ‘Measures of Expatriation’, which won the 2016 Forward Prize. This collection of poems and prose, which took six years to write, addresses issues of identity – for the exile, the migrant and the refugee.
‘Measures of Expatriation’ is in the vanguard of literature arising from the aftermath of Empire, with a fearless and natural complexity’ (Rod Monaghan}
There’s no denying that Vahni pushes you to consider some very complex ideas. However, she is no dry academic but a lively, engaging and entertaining speaker. The audience in the University Chapel were fascinated by the discussion regarding the process of collaboration, where Vahni presented the intriguing notion that this can involve inanimate objects as well as other humans. She presented the view that ideas might arrive through conversation and observation such as ‘the random texts on pieces of masonry’ that inspired her writings on the Antonine Wall. A particular observation, which Vahni spoke of, made me smile – the fact that Welsh volunteers had adopted the hairstyle of the Roman soldiers.
THE ANTONINE WALL
Rome’s North-Western Frontier: Invitation to a Civilization
Imp. Caesar’s invitation to the ballista ball
by way of white lead acorn-shaped sling bolts arrives
via red-hot correspondence personally stamped,
launches like a no-shit eagle wreathing overhead;
promises ornate south-facing distance slabs, burnt wheat.
Come on. For ages some of you’ve aped our style, pleading continuity in Ciceronian Latin
taught at your good school in Wales. You look Celtic and sound
dead. We were hardly dancing when, from the Forth to the Clyde,
thirty-seven miles, evenly, with our different feet –
Roman contingents of Syrian archers, Roman bands
of Tungrian horsemen – we paced off, or measured, squares.
Now from within the water-to-water wall patrolled
at sky height and from the adverse mouths of platformed fires,
we, between micaceous sandstone pillars, glittering,
ready with an ecumenical famines,
you, wild solitary, crafty, literate tribes
invite to a civilisation. You understand.
Stone flows from the hair of snakes where gorgons’ heads adorn
both knees of Mars advancing. You’re still good on the ground.
Her style of writing is diverse and, albeit, Vahni might be described as fiercely intellectual, at times her choice of language and the cadence of her writing acquires a simpler more childlike tone:
Everywhere as nowhere
songs that brink
on flippant choice
Orange through blue
punk to decadence,
falling, some sense
of death as life’s outward;
and so lizard blends.
She has the ability to absolutely capture the essence and image of her subject, so well displayed in
For Metu Miller
Familiar in a household of one,
A safte Cleopatrician.
Licker, shredder and examiner
of whatever covers my floors.
At odds and evens with heat
gliding, whiskery information
through red walls.
I am my own cat
my work equipment’s corners
rub]my moulting hair on sofas
along the top of doors
that when bipeds try to exit
nose over tail, am a world
of my own, in my own world
(herewith they do concern me)
flitting, twitting, trotting things.
Freedom I taste in them, joy.
I loosen my ribs,
roll sound like no others.
A household of one is no stranger.
I have adapted enough.
The Q and A Session
The Q and A Session was as entertaining as the readings and discussion. People were interested in Vahni’s approach to writing, where she introduced yet another fascinating idea – the concept of ‘active silence’. Vahni explained that ‘in order for a book to begin internal silence is necessary’ and this does not always mean being alone. She gave the example of being able to ‘zone out’ on a busy train where there is ‘white noise’.
She also spoke about ‘the voice of a place’ and how over many years she has developed the knack of ‘tuning in.’ Her sensibility was certainly been acquired from a young age, listening as a child to her parents, Leila and Devendranath, reciting poetry in different languages. However, Vahni’s own qualities come into play in her insightful, witty, lyrical writing. She has an immense openness to tuning in and embracing talent at all levels. When discussing her work, Vahni is as likely to refer to current and past students at Glasgow University (Katy Hastie and Laura Guthrie) as esteemed and established writers such as Gertrude Stein, Peter Gizzi and Dorothy Richardson.
As a poet and a teacher Vahni Capildeo is both unique and inspirational.
Pat Byrne, 1 January, 2018
Vahni Capildeo’s poetry collections include No Traveller Returns (2003), Undraining Sea (2009), Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012), Utter (2013), and Measures of Expatriation (2016)
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