Shivanee Ramlochan: “The poems must have decided on me” | Own Words

Poet Shivanee Ramlochan on her debut book Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting, and why she’s so powerfully drawn to difficult subjects — as told to Nicholas Laughlin

Shivanee Ramlochan. Photo by Marlon James

My mother is an English literature teacher, and when I was growing up books were more my friends than human friends were. There was always an abundance of books, including books I probably shouldn’t have read at the time. I remember at seven or eight getting hold of the unabridged Canterbury Tales. It never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be reading it, or that I shouldn’t have been looking at the Kama Sutra a couple years later.

That’s the kind of person my mother is — open-minded and thankfully tolerant of the person I have become. It started then, when I was young and precocious and too curious about way too many things for my own good.

Writing started helplessly and instinctively, like a rash. It didn’t seem like a big leap to think that I could try to do some of what I saw happening in books. I filled countless school copybooks with stories and illustrations. I still have them, and they’re full of florid and sexually suggestive fan-fiction. I never, ever let anyone read them. They were confessional and exploratory and a whole private world of daring and intrigue and experimentation.

So there was the secret writing I was doing, fiendishly and happily, but there was also the public perception by my schoolmates and educators, based on the essays I had to write for Common Entrance first of all, and then through all my English classes, that I was someone who might one day be taken seriously as a writer. But I don’t think I ever saw the streams crossing between writing in my private life and the school-sanctioned writing that I was committing.

The writers who did the most for me in poetic terms in my youth were not poets. Like Arundhati Roy, whose novel The God of Small Things I read when I was twelve — and then read and reread. The very first poet who sparked something similar was Federico García Lorca, when I was studying Spanish and French in form six. I had a clear sense that there were things that could be said in Spanish and French, and by the same logic in anyone’s native tongue, that could never be approximated in any other language, perhaps especially English. Lorca’s poems I would transcribe by hand in Spanish — I wanted my hand to ache with it. I thought, here was somebody whose work was full of desperation and melancholy and ugly, excessive, nasty emotions, and I could not read anything else.

 

In 2010, when I was twenty-three, I did the Cropper Foundation’s residential writing workshop with Merle Hodge and Funso Aiyejina. Oddly enough, I was accepted for the workshop on the strength of my short fiction — which, seven years later, seems alien to me. I met writers who have remained creatively and personally important to me, like Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné and Andre Bagoo and Alake Pilgrim and Colin Robinson. I thought if I was in community with them, the idea of seeing my work in print might not be such a far stretch.

I always say the poems must have decided on me. I wasn’t actively writing them in 2010, but perhaps a couple years later — certainly seriously from 2012, 2013, and since then poems have dominated the way I think about making evident things I might not otherwise ever say about myself, and what surrounds me, and what won’t let me sleep.

I think I am writing a poem actively for sometimes weeks and sometimes months and sometimes longer before committing anything to paper — which amounts to walking around with it, living with it, living with what it is trying to contain or not contain. It then becomes, at some point, usually a wildly inconvenient one, the thing that I have to do above all else.

Clarity, honesty, and truth are things I’m almost obsessed with, and I think that is because poems are probably the place where I tell the most truth for any given and sustained stretch of time. What are the things in the poem that would otherwise absolutely never be said? Whatever those are become mandatory.

The tattoo on my forearm is a line from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s in Latin, but in translation it says, Be patient and tough, someday this pain will be useful to you. I’ve always been very concerned with suffering well, which I hope has become less colour-by-numbers angsty over the years and taken on a definite work ethic and discipline. I write principally from pain and dislocation and loss — mine, and then pain that does not belong to me. And I’ve found that the best way to be on speaking terms with all of that awfulness is to just get really cosy with it — treat it like an old friend, because that’s what it is. Over time, when you work hard and listen closely, and smile through the suffering — sometimes you get a halfway decent poem.

For so long I’d been concerned with where these poems — which were so strange and so savage and so lacking in any apology for what they are — would find a home. I don’t often talk about mangoes and mermaids and men in straw hats, things that are typically seen as reductive images of the Caribbean. Only, they aren’t to me. I think every image has the power to be transformational — it’s all about how it’s wrestled into a body on the page. All the same, since my work lacks so many traditional elements, I was prepared to do the hard and lonely work of finding a home for the poems that was further away than I imagined.

The Indo-Caribbean community, I’ve often felt, is a place I don’t belong, for many reasons. I think people will claim you whether or not you want to be claimed. But I do think there are things I care about writing that have more than a toe in spaces like that, and I have to accept that some of the work will move and some will draw intense censure — it’s down to what you read on which night in front of which people. I don’t feel responsible, but I feel that poems will carry that kind of responsibility. Ultimately I might not get to decide. I think it’s more liberating than anything else.

Now, people who I had no idea were paying attention to the work are soliciting poems. That makes me make work useful to me, because it fights my procrastination. Ironically, the first place I feel compelled to go is into that troubling and perplexing and labyrinthine vat of Indianness. I’m scared about that, because I’ve never done concerted and specific work about my genealogy. But I figure it if makes me nauseous, there’s probably a good poem in there.

I’m always most interested in any version of the question, what am I most scared to write about? I try to answer it as honestly as I can every single time, and I often discover it’s something I did not know about myself, which is thrilling. I think that’s the direction I need to run to.