writer on writers: Sonia Farmer

toto: Here we are with Sonia Farmer, co-winner of the Small Axe Literary Prize for Poetry. I just want us to talk. I want it to be a conversation, a little bit about Small Axe, the Small Axe competition, the fact that you are the co-winner. So just talk about it, the process, the application, and then the fall-out, if we can call it that.

sf: The poems that won the Small Axe competition are from my manuscript Infidelities, which I started to write in 2008 and completed—well, I’m still working on it, but for the most part it was completed in 2009 as part of my thesis, my poetry thesis at Pratt Institute. I won the Poetry Thesis Award at Pratt Institute for that collection. Since then I’ve been publishing them, or sending them out to be published here and there, and a couple of them are on tongues of the ocean, for example, Poui, The Caribbean Writer. 

I entered Small Axe with poems from my manuscript, Infidelities, which is as yet unpublished in its entirety. This was the first time that I entered it in a competition. Because so many of the poems had been published in this manuscript already I thought I wouldn’t enter Small Axe because I didn’t have enough great poems to enter, or so I thought, anyway. But Christian Campbell asked me to open for him at his book launch here at COB. He asked me and the fiction writer Emille Hunt to open for him, and it was great. It was an awesome experience, and I was just so grateful to Christian for letting me open for him. He is such an amazing poet and academic and I was really honoured. So I shared some of the poems from Infidelities, and afterwards Christian said, “So, you are going to send these to Small Axe, right?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know, Christian, because I don’t think they’re good enough, or I don’t have enough of them unpublished”—because to enter Small Axe they have to have all been unpublished, right, up to ten pages of poetry, and he said, “No, no, you must.” And so I thought, “Okay, if Christian says so, I’m going to do it.” And I just selected all of them. I had a couple of what I thought were good ones left, and then I sort of supplemented a few others and, and I won! It’s kind of amazing.

What’s funny was I entered it, and I— silly, I had an old email address that I had since changed, because the time between when you enter and when you find out is like four months or something, and I had to change my email. I checked back with my old email here and there and I heard, it was October and I heard from Lynn Sweeting that they had chosen the winner, so I thought, “Let me check.” And I checked and I didn’t see anything, and I was like, “Okay, well, you tried, at least you can say you entered and got your name out and everything.” Small Axe is such a big deal. And then, I don’t know, like two weeks later, I opened the email to double-check something else, and there was one of the editors of Small Axe asking me confirmation for my P. O. Box for the cheque! And I said, “The, the, the, the cheque? Did I win?” And he said, “Yes!” [Laughter]

I actually tied. I tied with another Caribbean poet—

toto: Danielle McShine.

sf: Yes, Danielle McShine. She’s been in tongues of the ocean, and I remembered her work and I loved it. I loved her work and so it’s really exciting. I think this is the first time they’ve given two first places in the poetry and split the award money, and so that’s really cool.

I feel like it’s a sign for me to get my, to get going on getting this manuscript out there because I’ve been meaning to publish it for some time. I did enter it into a manuscript competition with Four Way Books, which is a small press in New York City which I love. They’ve published work by a lot of writers who I admire, like Sarah Manguso and Priscilla Becker, and I thought, I’ll enter it there. It’s this intro prize to poetry that has a different judge every year. But I didn’t get it last year, so I’m going to try again this year. And then if not, I’ll look into other small presses I admire. I don’t think I would publish my own manuscript here. I sort of like the idea of exchanging manuscripts with small presses I admire, if they’ll have me.

toto: Can you talk a little bit about the process of creating the poems. I read the manuscript a while ago—

sf: I’ve been revising for years.

toto: What impressed me about it was the complexity of the poems and the depth of the poems and the depth of the concept behind it. Very often Bahamian and regional collections are: these are the poems which I’ve been writing and I’ve pulled them together into a collection. And that’s not what you did. Talk a bit about this process.

sf: Well, Infidelities sort of grew out of two things. When I went to Pratt Institute to study writing I actually wanted to go into journalism. And I have, but I thought I wanted to be a journalist, a news journalist, do like amazing things in journalism, and now I’m in features, which I love, and it’s fine, but somewhere in my third year I had a teacher, Christian Hawkey, who really pushed my poetry and I realized that I could write poetry, and I had resisted in all my creative writing workshops addressing the Bahamas and my Bahamian heritage or heritage in any way, Bahamianness, didn’t set my stories there, didn’t bring it into it, and I think it was an act of like separation and wanting to create this North American voice, and he sort of broke me out of that, and I started to write from my place, you know, and I realized that I had a lot to say.

I’ve always been really interested in the history of Anne Bonny as a female pirate. Also Mary Read. She has her own story that is just great, and I just love the idea of a female pirate, and there were historically many of them, but specifically those, because in our Bahamian history classes in high school, we touched upon pirates. And that in itself was amazing to me, that we just sort of said, “Ah yes, pirates were here once, between this time and this time, and it was very scary. They ran Nassau. But we’re better now, thanks to Woodes Rogers.” And, uh, yeah. That was kind of it, you know? And it’s just fascinating that we have this history that was just like compiled of so many different places and people and identities and lawlessness and it is factored into what we think of ourselves now. So I researched that and I wanted to  know more about it and I wanted to bring it up as something that I guess we didn’t touch upon in my history lessons. And Anne Bonny in general is a female pirate who defied gender expectations, really surprised all the authorities, really upset all the authorities more than pirates in general. A female pirate on top of that was just unheard of, you know.

toto: And a female pirate who was—

sf: —educated.

toto: Educated, and rebelling against all—

sf: All.

toto: —of her upbringing, as opposed to someone who was thrown into it by accident, you know.

sf: What’s interesting is, in Mary Read’s story—I mean, the story is, because the story of pirates has been sensationalized throughout time and history, and now Pirates of the Caribbean is a sensationalized tale of piracy. Piracy was actually not that glamourous. It was pretty, it was pretty sucky, you know, stuck on a boat, you get into, you know, gunfights, and boats sink. I mean, think about it. And think about a female pirate in that era. What happens for her menstrual cycle, what happens when you go to the bathroom, when you sleep, it’s kind of like all of these really deep subjects that we really don’t want to think about when we glamourize piracy and the pirate life, you know? But that it was indeed a really hard-going life. But with Mary Read it’s interesting because she was dressed up as a boy from a very young age because her mother wanted the inheritance for her male child which died. And the tale is that Mary then went into the Navy as a male, and then eventually piracy. But with Anne, she was an illegitimate child by her father and her father’s housekeeper in Ireland. And they moved to the Carolinas, which was a colony at the time, and had this very posh upbringing. I mean, she’s going to have a suitor and there was a plantation, a really nice house, she was given a great education. But of course the sensationalized story of Anne Bonny is that she was very feisty, you know, she stabbed a servant girl, and she beat up a suitor who tried to rape her and all of this business, which may or may not be true, we never really know. But it’s interesting how we construct the identity of female pirates in order for them to, in order to explain why they become female pirates. Ah, yes, her feisty red hair, that must’ve been a sign that she was going to be a pirate, you know?

toto: As all red-haired women become.

sf: Of course. So I was interested in that and I was interested in exploring that because I wanted to explore the language we use to define, or to make myths, and history. But then on the other side of it there is more of a modern narrative, and I bring Anne Bonny up to the contemporary time because I explore the idea of gender roles and identities. and the way that desire motivates us within these roles and identities. So I guess desire and language are the two overarching themes in the piece. I’ve really always been interested in, like Marguerite Duras, between that sort of line between destruction and desire and how often we cross it and that was like the modern narrative as well. Because what’s interesting about Anne is that she used men to get her wherever she needed to go and played the part she needed to play because that was what she could do within her choices and what was presented to her in her life. She married a sailor to get away from the Carolinas and then she ran off with Captain Calico Jack to the high seas and then in the end she was betrayed by him. I mean, so history says. And I wonder what that does for identity and how we define our lives through others as well.

toto: All of the poems in this collection are not about Anne Bonny. All the poems that won you the Small Axe prize—

sf: Are the second narrative.

toto: That’s right. They’re not from that section. So what I’m interested in is how you connected, what’s the connector between the two? The same themes, but these are much more personal.

sf: Right. The second narrative sort of comes from my, my own headspace, and sort of my narrative, I guess. Because just like I only in my third year began to really write from a Caribbean place, or a place of Caribbeanness, and Bahamianness, I think that both of the poems are tied together in this sort of way that we reject but also fiercely cling to our loaded identities. In my case it would have been femininity and Caribbeanness and what that means, because I’m like a white person from the Caribbean and that has its own complications, both at home and abroad. You sort of never feel like you have a place anywhere because at home people think you’re from abroad and then abroad people still recognize that you’re not one of them, you know, because of something, you know, I owned one sweater, or I spoke with an accent that was just a little off. They often asked if I was Canadian! Pretty funny. So I guess that’s the way I looked at it because I felt that examining Anne’s life was a way to access that as well, the idea of exploring our identity and how it changes with where we go and who we’re with.

toto: What’s really interesting in where this is leading me is that the only literary model that a white person from the Caribbean has, and particularly a white woman from the Caribbean has right now is Jean Rhys. But you don’t choose madness.

sf: Not yet!

toto: I mean as a trope in your work. Whereas she did.

sf: What’s interesting about that, about Wide Sargasso Sea, is that is extension of another story, of Jane Eyre, right, where she decides to write about the wife of Rochester. And instead of just accepting the Jane Eyre story as it is said, what about her story and what happens. And I think that I do a similar thing and I think what about Anne’s story, because so often she just exists in these like couple of sensationalized titbits we get from books. And I think, well if records show that she had a child, if records show that she lived in Cuba, what happened? If records show that she was never executed—because we know Mary died in gaol, from childbirth or fever or both, we’re not sure—but Anne just disappears. What happened? What happened with that? So I think that the idea of accessing possibility and seeing possibility in existing myths and stories and bringing that out is maybe what is similar I guess to Wide Sargasso Sea for me and my collection.

toto: I want to explore the idea of white Caribbeanness. It’s something that in the Bahamas has been taboo. Or discussing it honestly has been taboo. We have a tradition of demonizing and justifying and not considering what it actually means. But I think you’ve started to open that door, and it’s a really interesting way of opening it.

sf: I guess that’s why … I touched on that a little bit. I had to write a critical introduction for this collection at the Pratt Institute and I touched on that a little bit because I obviously had to give these instructors some serious background information on where I’m, what period of history I’m talking about, and how that laid the foundation for our tourism industry, and that, yes, we’re a nice safe place, there are no more pirates here, come visit, and what that in turn has done for cultural development or not for cultural development, and then also the idea of white Caribbeanness. And I think I said in there at some point that my choosing Anne Bonny who is a European figure is probably not by accident. But I think I was interested more in her, in the way that she could enter into a dialogue about gender more than race.

toto: Knowing what little I know about piracy, it was one of the first equal opportunity professions you could go into.

sf: Yeah. It was one of the first acts of democracy and I think a couple of books I read said that it inspired the revolution in the US.

toto: It was colour-blind, it was gender-blind to some degree.

sf: It depended. There are lots of conflicting reports when it comes to gender-blindness, because in some instances they say that Anne Bonny and Mary Read’s identities were kept secret, but in others they say, no, they were out in the open being female pirates, you know.

toto: How do we know that it’s not some reinterpretation. I mean, how could they possibly be out? They have to be hiding.

sf: They have to be hiding. And they definitely also have to be lesbians. There was just this narrow way of looking at them and their desires as women in this world. I researched for a long time before I wrote the collection, and I actually initially wanted to do something that brought in a lot of ocean figures like sirens, the tale of the sirens, which I’m actually saving for something else. I’m still researching sirens. But I decided to keep it onto pirates. And I read a lot of books and articles that talked about they would just, whenever pirates ransacked a ship, whoever wanted to sign on to their records and be part of their ship could, including the slaves that that ship was carrying, and that was just how it was. It was really interesting.

toto: Thank you very much for talking with us.

sf: Thank you for interviewing me!

•••

Sonia Farmer is the founder of Poinciana Paper Press which publishes limited-edition, hand-bound and letterpress-printed chapbooks by Caribbean writers out of Nassau, The Bahamas. She’s the author of two chapbooks whose work has appeared in numerous journals including Poui and The Caribbean Writer. She recently won the 2011 Small Axe Competition in poetry. She holds a BFA in Writing from Pratt Institute. 

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