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T&T’s Capildeo takes the Forward

Published: 
Sunday, October 2, 2016
T&T writer Vahni Capildeo has won the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Collection for her book Measures of Expatriation.

T&T-born, UK-based poet Vahni Capildeo said she was stunned at the announcement that she had won the £15,000 2016 Forward Prize for Best Collection for her book Measures of Expatriation. 

Winners of the prize over the years have included such names as Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes. Jamaican poet Kei Miller took the honour two years ago, and his compatriot Claudia Rankine, last year. 

Capildeo said she was mentally prepared to show the students she had invited to the prestigious awards ceremony on September 20, in London, how to “lose with grace,” as she was certain she wouldn’t win.

“At least two of the other poets (shortlisted) have been active influences and are people I look up to in my own poetic practice, so just in a sort of purely non-Western-hierarchical-respect-for-elders way, I almost felt that something out of time had happened.”

When the shortlist was announced in June, chief judge Grenadian/ Guyanese/UK poet Malika Booker said of Capildeo’s work, “It’s definitely pushing boundaries. It’s poetry, it’s prose—it’s very dynamic.”

Still the victory shocked Capildeo.

“I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have to look happy, but I don't know what just happened’—because I had prepared to congratulate any of the others, really.”

Capildeo applauded the courage of the judges who made the decision to choose a book of poems by a “small brown woman,” as well as the awards for Best First Collection and Best Single Poem, which went to other women writers of colour. 

In a piece in the UK Guardian praising Capildeo’s win, Forward founder William Sieghart wrote, “When I founded the Forward prizes in 1992, it was perfectly standard for anthologies of contemporary poetry to contain four times as many men than women—all, or almost all of them, white.”
Times have changed, somewhat. 

Capildeo said of this year’s Forward winners, Tiphanie Yanique and Sarah Dugdale, “All three poets have got either mixed languages or a mix of nations always in their imagination. What's most interesting is the three books are not alike, so there isn't an idea that there's one kind of poetry (…) poised to take over the world, it's more the idea that there is certainly room enough for widely different voices. 

“I was very heartened because I realised the judges were reading each book on its own merits and not worrying about what people would say, especially as the last two winners of the prize, Kei Miller and Claudia Rankine, were also from the Caribbean, so by allowing the statistical pattern to emerge, the judges have been fearless in exposing themselves to critique.”

Capildeo said these 2016 choices were a victory against pro-Brexit interests. “Brexit mustn't be allowed to eat all the cultural production, because it would be a real win for racism if—in the wake of what was a racist referendum, fought on racist grounds—all cultural production were then considered to be contained or defined by that. It isn’t; they haven't made the rules; they haven’t circumscribed the world.” 

Carcanet Poems, the imprint under which Measures of Expatriation was published, describes it in fulsome terms on its website: 

“In Measures of Expatriation Vahni Capildeo’s poems and prose-poems speak of the complex alienation of the expatriate, and address wider issues around identity in contemporary Western society. Born in Trinidad and resident in the UK, Capildeo rejects the easy depiction of a person as a neat, coherent whole—‘pure is a strange word’—embracing instead a pointilliste self, one grounded in complexity. 

“In these texts sense and syntax are disrupted; languages rub and intersect; dream sequences, love poems, polylogues and borrowed words build into a precarious self-assemblage. ‘Cliché’, she writes, ‘is spitting into the sea’, and in this book poetry is still a place where words and names, with their power to bewitch and subjugate, may be disrupted, reclaimed.”

Capildeo said she did not consider her book a Caribbean one. “There's a whole section of my book where I do almost a spirit channelling of the histories of the landscape in England, where I've lived for 25 years, and I write about the Romans, the medieval Jews, Thomas Beckett. Nobody mentions that. 

“Part of Trinidad’s heritage is French, which leads me back to France, so there's a series of poems about the artist Louise Bourgeois which mix French and English and people hardly ever look at those; they want to fix everything in a single identity box.”
She said Measures of Expatriation took six years to write. 

“I knew I needed to be able to deal with big blocks of things, like that idea of the history and landscape of England. Some of the actual poems resulted from commissions, where they were in sync with what I wanted to be working on anyway, and I was very lucky to get those. 

“Then there were also the lucky fact of having places where the work would go, because I often had irregular employment. I was commuting between two or three different cities a week, generally in miserable conditions, and so to have some external force which would let the book crystallise was often the most important thing. 

“There would be people or circumstances or commissions which would almost give me the excuse to go and work on it, when I didn't have an external reward, like a prize or a job or a regular magazine outlet. It was a way of being able to shut my door and say, well, I'm doing this for this. 

“The external conditions for writing each book count a lot more than people realise, not only the internal impulse or imagination, but the actual externals of where can you sit and for how long.”

One of Capildeo’s main inspirations for writing poetry was her late father, Devendranath Jawaharlal Capildeo, who was a self-published poet in T&T when she was growing up. 

“His books were on sale and his poems are in anthologies like Art for Stars, so the whole idea of writing poetry being an activity comes from seeing him do it.” 

She said it angers her when journalists erase his memory in favour of VS Naipaul, who was her father’s first cousin. “It's not like Trinidad has produced only one writer, and in some ways the writers who make up the texture of the collective language are often the ones who are not famous abroad, or not even famous here, but the work is done.”

Capildeo went to Oxford University at age 18, where she studied for her BA in English. There, she earned an Overseas Research Student Award to complete an MSt in English medieval studies and a Rhodes Scholarship to continue to a DPhil in Old Norse. 

She decided not to go into academia. “People used to mock me for not doing post-colonial studies. I realised that the time other people spent doing the work, I would spend trying to assert my right to be doing it. I didn't have the energy to do that and also be a poet.” 

And, contrary to what the UK Guardian erroneously reported when it announced her Forward win, Capildeo has never been a professor at Glasgow University. She remained in the UK mainly due to a 12-year on-and-off relationship with an Englishman. 

“It was always dysfunctional, but I kept trying to make it work. People who think that I fled for fame or fortune or whatever don't seem to realise how much I was just living year by year—and then you look around and realise it's been 12 years.” 

Of course these experiences contributed to her work, she said. “I think it was in some ways a strange kind of luck to have such a bad relationship, to have such irregular employment and been treated badly by the Health Service, because it meant I had all kinds of experiences and all kinds of languages passing through me” 

Measures of Expatriation is dedicated to Jeremy Noel Todd, who published her first pamphlet and has been a friend of Capildeo’s since 1998, but the first and last poems are dedicated to the author KM Grant, who saved Capildeo’s life after a bout of norovirus and later became a great friend.  She said while the prize money may seem like a lot, her rent and utilities alone before food are £1,000 a month at her current residence, so she will almost definitely have to move. 

Capildeo is currently working on two books as well as some performance texts, as she has recently become interested in theatre and performance instalations.

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