writers on writers: Christian Campbell

Christian Campbell
Christian Campbell by Toni McRae

TOTO: Why do you write?

The Babel-babble of a streetcar in Toronto or downtown Nassau.

The beauty and the failure of this polyglot.

Not English, not Spanish, not Yoruba, not Hindi, not Creole but what is made out of their cutting, mixing, scratching, looping and, above all, the need to create my own language with which to make sense of myself and the world.

TOTO: Who are your literary influences?

Neruda, Césaire and Exuma the Obeah Man drinking Barbancourt and sharing a roti on a boat made out of cassette tapes and CD’s of jazz, soul and 90s dancehall with a sail patched together from secret letters between Robert Hayden and Elizabeth Bishop. Sarah Vaughan is there too, smoking something with John Keats, cussing and shouting to the crew: “LET’S GO!”

TOTO: Bahamian writer Keith Russell has said, writers “imaginatively examine the world that is, and story a world that can be.” Do you agree? What do you feel is the writer’s role in society?

I love the Bahamian verbing of “story,” to tell a lie artfully. It forces us to be fully present to narration as action, as active process of indirection and creation. “Story a world,” as Keith said.

I want to resist being prescriptive and narrow but a writer’s role, it must be said, is to write. Sometimes we must clarify, sometimes quarrel, sometimes we must hold up the mirror, other times we must smash that mirror into many, many pieces.

But I lie, I do want writers to relentlessly insist on the human.

What’s tricky and interesting about this question is its political and ethical undercurrent. I like the way Elizabeth Alexander put it: “good poetry is scrupulous.” In this sense, I overstand the ethical commitment and political work of the writer (the poet specifically) as having to do with the precision and rigor of carefully choosing and arranging language in the service of illumination.

TOTO: Some people believe that poetry is an outdated art form, especially poetry written for the page, which has been supplanted by the spoken word. What is your view on this position?

Interestingly enough, I’ve just been having this conversation with friends. There is too much to say here except that the division between “poetry” and “spoken word” is false. We must call this out in the way that being Caribbean is about actively resisting dichotomies. If we remind ourselves about all the places and all the ways that poetry lives and makes life, then we will be able to halt the obituaries and ease up the weeping and wailing.

TOTO: T.S. Eliot states that poetry is more national than any of the other art forms? what is your response to this statement.

I find Eliot’s commentary suggestive particularly when we think of the way in which the study of literary nationalism has focused primarily on the novel (a la Anderson’s Imagined Communities and Bhabha’s Nation and Narration). Eliot reminds us here of the centrality of poetry for national expression in European Romanticism and the Black Arts Movement, for instance. At the same time, I prefer Eliot’s description of poetry as more local rather than national (and “local” can certainly be shaped by the “global”). Ironically, his own work is a case in point about how poetry often violates national boundaries: “British” or “American”?

TOTO: How does your scholarship and teaching of English Literature, in particular, Caribbean Literature, affect or influence your creative process in poetry and vice versa?

I come out of traditions that do not make hard and fast divisions between “the creative” and “the critical.” To rigorously examine the Caribbean, we need both tools. When I teach, read and write about culture, I’m looking for many things at once: political and theoretical issues, craft, inspiration, ideas. In the classroom, I’m always challenging my students’ assumptions about what is theory.

Poetry is inquiry.

Academia’s anxiety’s about boundaries creates a tension between my work as a scholar and a poet, but I try to learn from that tension and use it. I approach literature and culture with the sensitivity and authority of a poet while I approach the poem with a scholar’s analytical rigor.

I’m making up my processes as I go along. It’s all about translation. And I am clear about the fact that academia is both a productive and problematic space that I constantly must flee and return to.

TOTO: How do you feel about Running the Dusk being shortlisted for the Forward prize? What is the significance of this shortlisting for your work, to the Bahamas & the Caribbean?

I’m very excited about it. I see it as both affirmation and challenge. I’m looking forward to the unexpected spaces it will open up for my work.

I’m only the second Caribbean poet to be shortlisted for the prize. The first was Kwame Dawes in 1994, who went on to win the prize. It’s astounding to think that, in 2010, Caribbean poets rarely get serious international attention. It’s not enough to be aware of one or two of the greats but completely unaware of the rich body of work that is the legacy and the present of Caribbean poetry.

•••

"Running the Dusk"Christian Campbell is the author of Running the Dusk, which was a finalist for the Cave Canem Prize and is currently shortlisted for the 2010 Forward Poetry Prize for the Best First Book in the UK, and a recipient of a Lannan Residency Fellowship. He teaches at the University of Toronto.

6 comments

  1. Reply

    “I’m only the second Caribbean poet to be shortlisted for the prize. The first was Kwame Dawes in 1994, who went on to win the prize. It’s astounding to think that, in 2010, Caribbean poets rarely get serious international attention. It’s not enough to be aware of one or two of the greats but completely unaware of the rich body of work that is the legacy and the present of Caribbean poetry.

  2. Reply

    “I’m only the second Caribbean poet to be shortlisted for the prize. The first was Kwame Dawes in 1994, who went on to win the prize. It’s astounding to think that, in 2010, Caribbean poets rarely get serious international attention. It’s not enough to be aware of one or two of the greats but completely unaware of the rich body of work that is the legacy and the present of Caribbean poetry”.

    What new can we say man, after the tourist been seeing what we offer for centuries, what can we tell them in our poetry that they do not already know, and can tell we lying when we do write anything. What will we wrote about? Steel pan, what? The British, French, Dutch? About slavery? That road so beaten it need paving.

    It is time for a new outlet, it is time we get rid of words on paper, it is time we started writing scripts, it is time for Cariwood, people want see, dem no want read bout we, dem see were we live and we too often in what we offer.

  3. Reply

    I second Penelope’s comment: I love the way Christian uses language.

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