“I must make trouble for the nation”

Christian Campbell talks to Lisa Allen-Agostini about shaping a poetic voice and his debut book, Running the Dusk

Christian Campbell

Christian Campbell. Photograph by Sammy Rawal, courtesy Peepal Tree Press

“Raised by a Bahamian and a Trinidadian and . . . raised as a Bahamian and a Trinidadian,” Christian Campbell is a poet whose debut book, Running the Dusk, was recently shortlisted for the British Forward Poetry Prize for the best first book published in 2010. His work was previously included in New Caribbean Poetry: An Anthology (2007), edited by Kei Miller. Campbell has been a Rhodes Scholar and a Cave Canem fellow, and he is also a recipient of a Lannan Residency Fellowship. He currently teaches at the University of Toronto.

In August 2010, Lisa Allen-Agostini interviewed Campbell via email about Running the Dusk, the origins of his aesthetic, and the directions of his latest writing.

Lisa Allen-Agostini: Your voice in Running the Dusk is very strong and sure — a post-postcolonial combination of Caribbean musical forms and richly layered blank verse that seems to sing or chant a tribute to regional poetry masters while looking towards a new expression. A big mouthful to ask: what are your influences in this collection?

Christian Campbell: Give thanks. Interesting that you say “post-postcolonial”: whatever else it may mean, I think that may be one way to locate my work generationally. I am very much a post-Independence (and post–Civil Rights) baby. What are the tongues for these times?

There’s something about “tribute” that I certainly resist. Yes, there is praise and there is also play. A sense of critical play. The book is a quarrel with self and ancestor. The question of influence is as loaded and tricky as the question, “Where are you from?” Maybe they are the same thing. I’m certainly in conversation with Walcott (a first love), Césaire, Brathwaite, Lorna Goodison, Martin Carter, NourbeSe Philip, et al. But when we talk about the blood of my poems, Spanish and Latin American poets reign: Neruda, García Lorca, Vallejo, Machado.

The poetry pulls from everything available, everything it can, to be what it needs to be. Elizabeth Bishop, Larkin, early Robert Bly, Arthur Rimbaud, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Yusef Komunyakaa, Seamus Heaney, Keats, Eliot, Emily Dickinson.

LAA: Your poems also frequently refer to music generally, and to specific musicians and songs.

CC: Poetry is a mimetic art. It is desire, nearly a kind of envy, that drives the work. The desire to be a great singer, musician, painter, athlete, and so on.

I owe so much to the great jazz singers, the greatest of interpreters: Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Dinah Washington, Shirley Horn, Carmen McRae, Abbey Lincoln.

Dennis Brown, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Bob Marley, Chaka Khan, Exuma the Obeah Man, David Rudder, Buju Banton, Bounty Killa, Lady Saw.

I’m an audiophile. I’ve learned what I know from listening to so many voices and sounds and ultimately listening for and trusting my internal metronome.

A great deal of Caribbean art . . .

Frida Kahlo and her organs.

The great swimmers Alexsandr Popov and Kosuke Kitajima.

The sky. The sea. Any experiences of embodiment, possession,
transcendence . . .

Being a nomad that comes from nomads — a Bahamian/Trinidadian who has lived in the Caribbean, the US, the UK, and now Canada.

All the Africans, Amerindians, East Indians, and others that made me.

LAA: And how would you describe your voice?

CC: Perhaps I’m something of a Protean poet, a shape-shifter (in this book about shape-shifting). “Wonder” is a word I love. By “wonder” I mean both the quality of astonishment and that of uncertainty. A kind of (ir)reverent questioning. “Wander” is a word I love . . .

LAA: The book is shot through with references to the physical, to appearance, to the body — sometimes your own body. In “Goodman’s Bay” you write: “We have / given our bodies an atlas,” and in “Give Thanks in the Morning” you describe coming home from a morning workout to “look at how muscle / is like a rose.”

CC: Poetry is a form of embodiment.

Yes, I did draw from a kind of in-the-flesh knowledge to make this book. I wanted Running the Dusk to be its own world, and when I thought about peopling this world, I thought a lot about visual art, the visual broadly, texture. When you are a Caribbean person, you are overwhelmed by colour.

The book is not only mapped by many places but also by an archipelago of bodies, some live and moving, some dead (and sometimes moving).

The body is miraculous, what it can do, beyond what we think is possible. Maybe that comes from my being an athlete and, above all, from our history. What happens to the body and what is done to it is a terrible beauty.

LAA: Are any of your contemporaries writing like this? Who among them are you reading, if any?

CC: I don’t think I can answer that. I’m reading so many of my contemporaries! It’s almost unfair to name names, because so many of them are full of light, but I’ll say that two books by contemporaries that I return to are Aracelis Girmay’s Teeth and Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa.

LAA: What is the “biggest” poem in Running the Dusk for you, and why? (Mine is “Old Man Chant”, but I confess I find “The Empress of Slackness” wicked too: “Parting your legs / like wings, flying, // even strobe lights / cannot catch your skin.”)

CC: I didn’t forge this collection with a centrepiece in mind, a long poem at the centre (though I am interested in the long poem in my next collection), so there isn’t an obvious “big poem.” Maybe I will say “Iguana”; maybe it’s that poem that embodies the way in which my work is as much elegy as it is etymology.

LAA: What was the origin of “Iguana”?

CC: It is a “found poem” in a sense. At a conference in Philadelphia, a Guyanese friend of mine (who lives in Toronto) said to me, “I couldn’t live here. Somebody asked me if I was from ‘Iguana.’” I couldn’t stop laughing! And then I thought, “This is ripe for the picking!”

In History we learned that Lucayans
ate iguana, that Caribs
(my grandmother’s people)
ate Lucayans (the people of Guanahani).
Guiana (the colonial way,
with an i, southernmost
of the Caribbean) is iguana; Inagua
(southernmost of The Bahamas,
northernmost of the Caribbean)
is iguana — Inagua, crossroads with Haiti,
Inagua of the salt and flamingos . . .

In a wonderful lecture, Walcott spoke of the marvelous ignorance of poetry, the significance of “accident as illumination, error as truth, typographical mistakes as revelation.” The Caribbean is shaped by error, rupture, violence. It is the poet’s job, then, to figure and disfigure, to stay in the break (“Break a vase . . .”).

LAA: Sidney Poitier also shows up in Running the Dusk — what’s his significance for you, apart from being your countryman?

CC: He grew up with my paternal family in Cat Island. My late grand-uncle was his childhood best friend. I’ve always found him to be a fascinating, complex, familiar, often misread figure. He’s such a touchstone for larger conversations about race and representation. I’ve interviewed him a few times, and am slowly working on a book about him.

LAA: What is the single underlying theme of Running the Dusk, if there is one?

CC: Not theme but texture. I tried to write this book with a certain quality of light. The crossroads and crossing that is dusk. Dusk shapes the work spiritually and metaphorically, so whether I mention dusk or not, you end up asking (as a friend did), “Where is dusk in this poem?”

LAA: At the Calabash Literary Festival earlier this year you joked about how long Running the Dusk took to get to print. How long did it really take, and what was the keep-back?

CC: Hard to say when I could call my early gathering of poems a manuscript, but I sent out Running the Dusk for the first time in 2005, and it was chosen as runner-up for the Cave Canem Prize. This book could have come out five years ago, but I decided to try my hand at sending the manuscript out to a number of publishers in the US and UK. I took the time to work on craft and, most of all, to work on being powerfully myself. As frustrating as the rejections were, they forced me to look at my art with fresh eyes, to re-think, re-arrange, re-write, take time. It was the time the book needed to become itself.

LAA: How does Running the Dusk fit into contemporary Bahamian writing? Do you think the Bahamas has found a new voice in Caribbean literature, and where do you fit into that voice?

CC: It’s part of a larger body of work that is critiquing the dominant, neo-colonial image of the Bahamas and the wider Caribbean as a tourist trap, a paradise, a wasteland. There is also a lot of interesting work that re-thinks the Bahamas through the complex relationship to Haiti.

I don’t know about finding a new voice, but this is a moment of tremendous productivity and excitement for Bahamian writers and Bahamian artists broadly. My book may be a bit different in the many cultural landscapes it moves through; it’s a nomadic book.

LAA: You have Trinidadian roots also, and some of your poems crisscross the Caribbean — as you say, Running the Dusk is a nomadic book. How does that sense of a Caribbean heritage rooted in several locations inform your work?

CC: I was raised by a Bahamian and a Trinidadian, and I was raised as a Bahamian and a Trinidadian. There’s also Grenada and Colombia/Venezuela (to open up the arc), and there’s likely Haiti somewhere down the line.

My breed of Caribbean person is not strange at all. I’m a UWI baby — my parents met at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. In the diaspora, and Toronto in particular, it makes perfect sense, because there is a lot of this cross-Caribbean mix-up business. The thing is, we haven’t really talked enough about what this means.

At a very early age, I knew the troubles and limits of nationalism and I know that I must also make trouble for the nation. My heritage gave me an innate sense of the broadness of the Caribbean and the many Caribbeans — “broader than Broadway,” as Barrington Levy would put it. It grounds me in my ability to fully draw on the spiritual resources of all the Caribbeans. It’s all mine.

LAA: Now that your first book is behind you, what direction is your writing heading in?

CC: I’m more and more interested in engaging with other art forms — music, theatre, dance, visual art. I’m looking forward to doing more multimedia collaborations. I was recently commissioned to compose original poems in response to a conceptual art exhibition, 30 Seconds Off an Inch, at the Studio Museum in Harlem. I was also commissioned to collaborate with artists in a programme called “Figure of Speech”. Musicians Alec Dempster and Kali Nino Mendoza of the group Café con Pan, dancer Mayahuel Tecozautla, cellist Nick Storring and I created and performed dreamcoast: orilla del sueño. Café con Pan plays son jarocho music from Veracruz, Mexico. It was an amazing multidisciplinary, cross-cultural experience.

I’m working on a number of book projects — a new book of poetry about black swimmers and the intersections between swimming and writing, a critical book on the black diasporic lyric, etc.

I’m looking at the long poem, longer lines, and thinking about narrative more explicitly, for instance. In my next projects, I want to be more ambitious, and challenge myself in new ways, take risks.


The Caribbean Review of Books, July 2010

Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She co-edited the anthology Trinidad Noir (2008), and is the author of a young adult novel, The Chalice Project (2009). She also administers the Allen Prize for Young Writers, a non-profit organisation dedicated to rewarding, training, and publishing teenage writers from Trinidad and Tobago.