writers on writers: Olive Senior

TOTO: Some people believe that poetry is an outdated art form, especially poetry written for the page, which has been supplanted by the spoken word.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

I think these either/or notions are quite absurd. Poetry exists in many forms – the spoken and the written as well as the visual. There will always be a variety of readers/listeners who prefer one thing over another just as there have always been poets who approach the subject in different ways. Poetry is the oldest art form and will never be outdated because it is closest to the pulse of humanity. We should simply receive the poem on its own terms and decide for ourselves what the poet is bringing to the table and react accordingly. Is it old, stale, cliché ridden and outmoded? Or is it a fresh new take that will force us to take notice. The proof, as always, will be in the connection the poet is able to make with reader or listener.

TOTO: How has your poetry changed?

I really can’t say how much my work has changed. I think it is for my readers/critics to decide. Of course I’d like to think that my work gets better as I go along. And over the years I have become much more conscious of what I am doing, of the techniques of writing. But from the beginning – even when I didn’t know what I was doing – I’ve been interested in exploring ways of writing and I’ve continued to do so. I see what I am doing as part of a continuum since I first started to write, rather than any radical departure. The setting for my fiction has remained largely Jamaica while my poetry has continued to be wider ranging, as it has always been. I’m certainly going deeper into the subjects that have always interested me – the natural world, history, mythology and the human response to these. And I continue to try out new ways of exploring these. I’ve never been complacent about my work and I see its continued refinement as a challenge. This is what I hope will come across to the reader.

TOTO: What are you working on now?

My novel – Dancing Lessons – as well as an illustrated children’s book – Birthday Suit – are scheduled for publication in 2011. I have other projects in the works, including a guide to writing poetry – from a poet’s point of view, naturally. And I continue to write poetry and fiction.

TOTO: What is your vision for the future?

Lots of new and brilliant writing by people from or of the Caribbean seem to be popping up everywhere. The big problem is, where do we find it and how can we manage to share what is happening with each other? Much of the literature is still published in isolated pockets—whether on the islands or the metropole, and it is often hard to know what is going on much less access it. Although there are a few committed publishers and bookshops and nowadays literary festivals, there is a real problem of distribution throughout the region. My vision for the future would include the mechanisms to support publishing and distribution that would make our work accessible to each other and help define and support the notion of a ‘Caribbean literature’.


Read more – click here to read Olive Senior’s Lecture at Bahamas Writers Summer Institute, July 2010


A Jamaican now resident in Canada, Olive Senior is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction; her latest is the poetry book Shell. Her novel Dancing Lessons and a children’s picture book, Birthday Suit, will be published in 2011. Her short story collection Summer Lightning won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and her poetry book Over the Roofs of the World was shortlisted for Canada’s Governor-General’s Award for Literature. Her other books include Arrival of the Snake-Woman, Discerner of Hearts (fiction); Talking of Trees, Gardening in the Tropics (poetry); Working Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English Speaking Caribbean and The Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage.


  1. I came across Olive’s title above, “Birthday Suit” and recalled that Sylvia Plath has a short story for children with a similar title. It was discovered after she died and was published posthumously. What is interesting though is that trying to locate Sylvia Plath’s title in my head made me realize with a delightful jolt that a birthday suit is actually no suit at all. It is to be wearing ought but the skin you were born in – the wonderful best fitting outfit that that is. How therefore is a naked child or a naked anybody going to help me to recollect Sylvia Plath’s title to do with a mustard colored suit a tailor or somebody made which, in Plath’s story, is altered again and again to fit a number of different bodies? I’ll cheat. I’ll google. Its title is: The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit. It was published by Faber & Faber in 1996. I dun could hardly wait until next year to read Olive Senior’s Birthday Suit and her novel, Dancing Lessons. This latter title calling to mind the film, “Hable con ella” by Pedro Almodóvar.

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