Sunday night, I attended the T.S. Eliot award readings at the Southbank Centre. Each performance was intensely alive. With care, and precision, ten poets walked across to the podium to give themselves, and their work, to the audience. I had been on a different floor of the same building a few months earlier, to take part in a workshop organised by Spread the Word with Shivanee Ramlochan at the National Poetry Library.
In that quiet, afterhours space, surrounded by shelves of books, Shivanee Ramlochan had shared with us as generously, and as memorably, as the T.S. Eliot poets I watched on stage. The impact of Shivanee’s first collection, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, on the UK poetry scene was evidenced by the number of people who came to find me after the readings – to ask when the interview about ‘saying the difficult thing’ would be published. Imminently, I promised them.
When I got up Monday, it was waiting like magic in my inbox. Without delay, I read Shivanee’s answers to my questions, and then read them again, more slowly, more carefully, letting her take me through Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, and the life which gave rise to its powerful, beautiful, uncompromising poems.
Coloured by desire, unafraid of rage, or terror, aiming hard at redemption, Shivanee Ramlochan’s work, written out of Trinidad, as a queer woman of colour, looks at topics – including infanticide, and rape – which many would prefer to deny, or at least avert their gaze from. The poems also witness loves, and lives, which have had to assert their right to be, a path that has led to “scorched wings” at times, as Shivanee admits.
As someone writing about making life in the aftermath of sexual abuse in childhood, Shivanee Ramlochan has long been a hero of mine. I am honoured to give you – our readers, our collaborators – the words she has entrusted to me with in this opening interview about ‘saying the difficult thing’. Please share them, and join with us in the work of challenging silence:
Shivanee, part of the project of the ‘saying the difficult thing’ interviews is to help poetry feel more approachable. I’m interested in people’s different ways in. Can I ask how, and why, you started writing and performing?
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Alice.
I began writing because it never felt like I had a choice: from the age of five onwards, everything in me compelled me to tell stories – strange, dark, pleasurable things – on paper, for myself first and alone. The idea of writing as public performance didn’t present itself to me til my eleventh or twelfth year, and though I’ve grown in my capacity to read my work aloud, I’m no trained performer. So much of what I write now, at thirty-two, are strings of words I still can’t believe I’m allowed to say out loud.
Were there people, on the page, or in the flesh, who encouraged you?
My mother is my first true encourager. She wouldn’t choose for me the poems I now choose for myself, but she’s never suggested my life would be better, or happier, if I were a doctor or lawyer. The opposite, in fact: she knows this business of wanting to write is precarious, uninsured, often thankless, and has assured me I’m more than welcome to take parental loans if I ever need them (and you know I’ve needed them over the years. Dental bills, alone…)
How long were the poems for Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, in the making?
Your opening poem, ‘A Nursery of Gods for My Half-White Child’, suggests that we can claim and inhabit our heritages, but also remake them. I’m thinking of the last three lines:
drown me to sleep with the names of the gods you have made
shrieking, floating, bastarding into birth
called to the world of the living between the harvest of your thighs [p11].
‘Nursery’s’ strongly female, and bodily, image of making is particularly impactful in the context poems which follow, spoken in the voices of “The Abortionist’s Daughter”, and then her “Grand-daughter”. Abortion is currently still illegal in Trinidad and Tobago?
The first of these poems, ‘The Abortionist’s Daughter Declares her Love’, deploys the heart-breaking aphorism “Never give a woman more sadness than she needs” [p13]. It holds millennia of female struggle. I wondered if you wanted to say something about your use of a detached, authoritative voice for such potentially devastating material?
Everything I write, I give access to devastate me first. Maybe there are easier ways to perform that transaction, writer to poem, but I don’t know them, and I’m not convinced I’d ever want to learn how to do it easier, to make it easier on myself. I don’t think I can make a poem I can trust (or mistrust in totality/in part, but still find necessary) through perfect ease.
That’s true for the Abortionist poems in Haunting. They’re some of the earliest works in the collection, in terms of when they were written, and I was still struggling with asking permission in some specific ways that I’ve since shed. (I still ask, but mostly now, I ask myself.) I knew then that I had to write about women doing dangerous work, and to ask each of these poems to contemplate why that work was dangerous: was the labour inherently damaging, or were the women who worked at it menaced by external evils, expectations, cruelties? I wanted, too, to explore how dangerous working women differed in how they performed labour across generations: would the same salve suit a granddaughter, as it did the grandmother who invented it?
I say this to say that even in seeming detachment – even in the use of a narrator-as-curator, a narrator as observer, there is pain, and I trust that. I believe you must pay what you owe to the work, and each work demands something different, calls for its specific tithe in blood or lots and lots of bad lines, til you get it right.
‘My Sister of the Coral Mouth’, follows the first two ‘Abortionist’ poems and presents an infanticide committed after rape. The grief, and rage, of a “daughter who drowned her wrong child/ at our ocean’s worse fault” [p16] enters the erasing movements of the weeds and waters – but the poet also holds the difficult memory irrevocably present:
I carry your son’s name under my tongue in a barbed suture.
You wanted my speech to keep his first memory safe [p16].
Do you feel that the work of witness is part of your role as a writer?
Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting occupies multiple resisting perspectives, rather than speaking exclusively from your own position. I’m interested in the impact on you, personally, of giving yourself creatively to so much dark material.
Have you seen Chilling Adventures of Sabrina? Mild spoilers below for those who haven’t.
So half-witch, half-mortal Sabrina’s been struggling all season with the directive – an order, really, that she wants with all of her being to reject – to pledge allegiance to the Dark Lord Satan by signing his official ledger. It’s an act that would make her greatly powerful, but also bind her to his will. This is exactly what I think of when you so searchingly ask about giving myself creatively to so much dark material. Because there’s no way you get a halcyon happy ending from that equation, right? Which is why, much like Sabrina, I turn more and more to definitions of my life outside of happiness. My tendencies are dark, and often disastrous, and it makes me smile when readers who profess themselves deep admirers of my work are stunned, not always for the better, by ‘Shivanee in real life’. What’s more real life than a book of poems? And where do people think it comes from?
I love happiness, but my objective isn’t to be happy. I haven’t signed my name in any sepulchral ledger, but let’s just say I understand the impulse. Whether I’m writing poems or doing off-the-record deviations, my curiosity always gets the better of me – that’s the core of the dark surrender we’re discussing. I’m that Pandora, that Icarus, that intrepid sinner who knows better and risks it anyway, to see what I can learn. So many of my poems are scorched wings: investigations into what happens when you push too hard at the envelope of your own luck.
In ‘Duenna Lara’, the poem where the title line occurs, you write, graphically, ‘I take the four rivers of the forest by throat and algal sinew,/ pump the waters into my lungs.” Could you say something about the Caribbean landscapes in your work?
The Caribbean is indivisible from anything I write about anything. I used to think I belonged anywhere but here. Now I know that at least in this lifetime, here is where I’m from more than any other place. So it became mountingly important to inhabit the terrain of the places I used to reject out of the inherited colonial curse of self-hatred, to take those places – mountains, markets, rumshops, rivers – and call them by their names, for everyone to see.
‘The Red Thread Cycle’, which makes up the collection’s second segment, has been personally valuable to me, as someone who was raped in childhood. Can I ask you about the work done by the beautifully controlled language in the first poem, ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’. I’m quoting the opening lines:
Don’t say Tunapuna Police Station.
Say you found yourself in the cave of a minotaur, not
knowing how you got there, with a lap of red thread.
Don’t say forced anal entry.
Say that you learned that some flowers bloom and die
at night. Say you remember stamen, filaments
cross-pollination, say that hummingbirds are
vital to the process [p35].
Was there a reason you chose to write this poem as a second person set of instructions, as opposed to a first person account?
Thank you, Alice, for your sharing here. It means so much.
I talk sometimes about the distinction between poems that come, seeming-unbidden, and declare themselves with such assurance on the page – between those poems, and others that require more slow, methodical finessing. ‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’ has always been a poem that belongs in the first category. Because it announced itself to me with such certainty, I used to think that I hadn’t worked for it. It took a reminder from the consummately kind, searingly intelligent Abigail Parry to show me that, in fact, I’d been working on it by living with the inhabitation – the very haunting – of that poem, riveted and tattooed by its imageries, for months before it was written.
The instructions of the poem – the poem as its own instruction – is me speaking to myself. This goes beyond the question of whether the events in this poem happened to me, as they are laid out. What I have always hoped ‘Third Anniversary’ does is to speak where all other speech fails. I turn to it when I find I can say nothing else, and it has never failed me.
The officer to whom the rape is reported, is portrayed as a “minotaur”, and linked to the crime by the length of spooled red thread. What led you to create this suggestion of a second assailant?
Rape is an underreported, misbelieved crime. I wanted to speak directly to the faces of those people put in positions of authority who do not believe survivors of sexual assault, who compound that assault with their refusal to witness that violation, to treat with its aftermath with compassion, care, and mercy.
The six poems which follow respond to different facets, and instances, of rape. You write in the second poem, ‘Nail It to the Barn Door Where It Happened’
Use your mother’s scissors to cut out the words
[father] [minister] [boyfriend] [wife]
Pick the right word, and nail it to the barn door
where it happened [p37].
Could you say something about how your writing works with decoupage, and nailing Shivanee?
I can speak to it directly in this poem: the cut-out and assembly of bracketed words in ‘Barn Door’ was another direct act of speech. I wanted to address those complicit in assault. I wanted to show that often, the most beloved and venerated amongst us – those in positions of familial and socio-religious power – corrupt their influence by raping and sexually subjugating those in their care. Nailing or bolting acts as a form of signifying here: a way to designate, to point the finger at the hooded assailant, to tear the mask off, to declaim – here, right here. This is the one who did it. They will not, thank the Goddess, be allowed to flee.
You shift towards agency in the final two poems in this central sequence, which are spoken in the first person. The last one, ‘The Open Mic of Every Deya, Burning’ states “I lit hurricane lamps with the lucifers of the stake he splintered/ six inches inside me” [p45]. It’s an amazing transformation of darkness into light, without denying the pain at the core of the image. I wondered if you would comment?
Working towards redemption became one of my primary goals as I worked on the Red Thread poems, which were not written consecutively, though ‘Third Anniversary’ was indeed written first. I went through many interior, often conflicting cycles of emotional travel with this series, over the years – so much of it might forever be past my power to fully articulate. One of the points of recognition on that journey was learning that I wanted a narrative arc that could, and would, tilt towards sovereignty. ‘Open Mic’ isn’t the original ending I devised for the Red Thread poems, but it’s the right place for those poems to loop back to themselves, to take their own temperature and declare themselves all survivors. I came to understand this as my duty of care to the work: to not only present the future as viable, in the face of such shattering trauma, but to manifest the future as an active catalyst, the future as present and viable and full of agency.
I don’t know if trauma can be cured, but I do know I believe in alchemy. Moving towards the deya reminds me of my own personal favourite form of magic: holding all the light I can, on Divali night. I’m humbled that the poems brought me there, and let me hold their light.
‘Open Mic’ also sets up a cathartic, healing reaction between performer and audience, and by implication poet and reader:
Each line break bursts me open
for applause, hands slapping like something hard and holy [p.45].
The third, untitled section of Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting explores queerness within the shifting histories and politics of our embodied identities. I understand that homosexuality was decriminalised in Trinidad and Tobago by Justice Devindra Rampersad on 12 April 2018, following the lawsuit initiated by LGBTQ+ activist Jason Jones?
It was therefore still illegal when the poems in the third section affirming and exploring queer identities were written, and indeed when your collection was published in 2017?
The first poem of the third sequence, ‘All the Dead, All the Living’, celebrates and reclaims the covert identity of an unnamed “public servant”. She wears “sensible slingback heels” to the office – but has a night-time, carnival patois self of “curry-gold battyriders” and “breasts swinging under electric tape nipples” [p49]. Are concrete, tangible things a valuable creative resource for your work?
Absolutely. The sensory memory of objects I have loved and feared has stayed with me all my life, from my earliest recollections to the present day. No doubt the images have been transmogrified, but they persist, and so many of them, gleaned from my most private encounters, have found their way into Haunting. I love that you ask this question in relation to this poem, because curating the tangible in my poetic practice is how I both hold onto my beloved dead, and vouchsafe my fidelity to my beloved living. It’s a secret act of service that I choose to make public-ish through the work, immersing my own material archive into the realm of the fictive. What emerges is a non-binary catalogue of memento mori, talismans, tricks and trinkets, wards and relics, weapons of conjure. Are they all a part of my life? Yes. Do they all belong to me? Oh, no.
‘All the Dead, All the Living’ understands the “wetness” from the public servant’s aroused, dancing body as a healing “purgatory-unction”. You make her embodied sexuality a source of identity – and salvation – which allows her to be “turning wolf/ to woman/ to wolf again.” [p.50] Is that something you wanted the reader to feel transformed by?
This is a poem of Trinidad & Tobago Jouvay, a part of my country’s annual Carnival. I’ve written extensively about the craft of this poem for Poetry School, where the full poem can also be read. Jouvay and Carnival are acts of ultimate shapeshifting. In islands so often hemmed by conservative and orthodox rhetoric, this festival represents for so many of its revellers a chance to ‘play a mas’, to perform and inhabit and exult in their chosen manifestations of good, evil, or one of the innumerable stations of love and excess in between those moral poles. So many of the optics of how Carnival is produced and consumed make me uncomfortable, as a fat woman, but when I strip my love for this festival to its bare, beating heart, I see an island of shapeshifters, shedding their skins, and I’ve never known any power that pulses to that specific, exceptional rhythm. It feels like, and is, rebirth.
You write organically, and powerfully, of erotic desire between women in ‘Catching Devi & Shakuntala’.
your daughter’s darkmouth on her lover,
their hair in oiled snakes weeping bright, [p51].
Is this something you choose to make visible?
I am as queer as the day is long, as the world turns, as salt brines on the tongue. Even now, this remains something I never feel I can say easily without looking over my shoulder, without balling my fists in anticipation of self-defense. I have played the long, tiring game of self-cloaking my queerness for so many reasons, ever since I came into the knowing of myself as non-heteronormative. I determined that I wouldn’t ask my poems to enact that same dance. The queer inhabitants of my poems may, and do, feel earth-shattering conflict, but the truth of the queer poem as an active, evident, self-sustaining reality in my work? I will never, not ever, deny that.
‘Good Names for Three Children’ speaks with compassion to those still “feeling filthy for the way you love”, and warns against this form of self-hatred? Was there a context to this poem?
The earliest written poem in the book, “Good Names” was, though of course I didn’t know it at the time, to become a kind of manifesto for how I hoped I could proceed, and grow, in poetry. It belongs to that era in which I found myself asking permission for the spaces I entered, including allegedly safe territory, and it is a gentler sort of poem in many ways than the work I’m making, right now. I feel tenderly about it, because as you say, it moves towards compassion, and is unafraid of the kind of gentleness that is so often stripped, beaten, exorcized and educated out of us when we are either innocent or young.
The final poem, ‘Vivek Chooses His Husbands’, is a fierce celebration of love and desire felt by men for each other, and includes the stunning image
You cling to the backs of his knees
and let the temple peal bells of bright orgasm over you.
After so much darkness, was it a deliberate decision to end in beauty?
More than that, I wanted to offer the truth of darkness, too, as that which is beautiful: the idea that, though the darkness can cut and bruise you, that the instruction you receive from your wounds can be, often is, the very inheritance that keeps you alive. That’s frankly gorgeous to me, the fact that we can, and do, survive the onslaught of unspeakable terror, that we are wound up in mobius strips of displacement, desecration and refuge from the danger. The danger is always, always with us. Sometimes, we are the danger. I know I am, to no one more so than myself. Yet if I’m that, then I’m also my own foul-mouthed, foul-minded, imperfect, incredibly imprecise cure. So if we always carry the danger, then we chemically, scientifically, might never be far from its antidote.
Besides being a poet, I know that you are an editor, blogger, legendary leader of workshops – and of course performer. What are your plans for 2019 Shivanee Ramlochan?
In response to Zora Neale Hurston’s wisdom, I believe this is an asking year for me. I admire and am even slightly envious of poets who can, and do, produce a new volume each year, but I’m not of their prolific ilk. I set myself the mission of reading 219 books in 2019, and I think this, primarily, is how I will do my asking: at the feet of other writers, living and deceased, with a specific focus on trans and nonbinary literatures; works produced by incarcerated writers; books that come from underserved communities in the global south; all poetries of brown and queer politics. I’d also like to interrogate and amplify the ways in which I critically engage with what I read, and to write about as much of it as I can at Novel Niche.
Buy Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting from Peepal Tree Press here.
Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, arts reporter and book blogger. She is the Book Reviews Editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine. Shivanee also writes about books for the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, the Anglophone Caribbean’s largest literary festival, as well as Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad and Tobago’s oldest independent Caribbean specialty bookseller. She is the deputy editor of The Caribbean Review of Books. Her first book of poems, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, was published by Peepal Tree Press on October 3rd, 2017 and was shortlisted for the 2018 Felix Dennis Award for best first collection.
Shivanee Ramlochan will be reading at the Ledbury Festival 2019.
Further details here.