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Poet

Vahni Capildeo

Vahni Capildeo

Vahni Capildeo

(Trinidad and Tobago, 1973)
Biography
Vahni Capildeo is among the most respected and loved poets writing in the UK today. Opening any of their many volumes will demonstrate why, but no single collection shows the huge breadth of their range – for Capildeo’s reputation is based on ceaseless innovation and exploration. Their first book, No Traveller Returns (Salt Publishing), appeared in 2003 and the latest, Skin Can Hold, will be published by Carcanet this spring. In 2016 Capildeo won the Forward Prize for Best Collection with Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet): “[…] a book that no one else could have written […] Every time you open that book, you’ll find something peculiar, something exhilarating, something new, something exquisitely crafted” (Malika Booker).
While they now live in Scotland, Capildeo was born in Trinidad and in Measures of Expatriation Capildeo mixes poems and prose-poems to address issues of expatriation and identity, electing for complexity and disruption over a simplistic and cohesive idea of a single self: “I wanted […] to convey a sense of ‘so much’ and ‘everything, anything’” (interview in The Wolf).

Lyrics, often addressed to named individuals, are interposed with what we might call personal essays. The poems skip between past and present as well as places and Capildeo’s work is dense with allusion, always informed by historical understanding as well as personal experience:

Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. It is ineluctable, variegated and muscular. A flicker and drag emanates from the idea of it. Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. It is as if language places a shaping pressure upon our territories of habitation and voyage; thrashing, independent, threatening to drive our known world apart.

(‘Five Measures of Expatriation’)

This intimate and intricate relationship with language is at the heart of Capildeo’s work. Their poems often have the strong sonic qualities of the Old Norse which they studied and an understanding of etymology from having worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Capildeo both revels in language and is aware of its slipperiness and the way it can be used to yield and enforce power: “Language is my home, I say; not one particular language.”

The weightiness and density of Measures of Expatriation contrast formally and thematically with lighter, more limber lyrics of Venus as a Bear which followed in 2018 and which was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Here the focus is on the non-human, with objects (several poems are written in museums) and nature coming to the fore. In ‘Brant Geese’, the seriousness of linguistics is swapped for the joyous play of sounds which swell in the mouth and seem to transport us beyond our human selves:

open a bubble of babble
swagger and swallow a vowel
turd it turn it shine it slime it
give it wings stretch it – a gaggle,
putting it bluntly […]


But Capildeo’s work delights and captivates because it is always complex and multiple, so on return we might reflect on the nature of Brant geese as a migratory species and the ways in which sound and sense work to ‘transport’ the reader.

Capildeo has spoken of working on several projects in parallel. Each collection seems to follow a particular strand, so that each has its own identity (or rather identities); compare the lyrical, lexicographical poems of Utter with the more visual structures at work in Simple Complex Shapes, for instance. There’s a sense of freedom from a narrowness of vision or technique, combined with a range of interest and engagement with issues which enlivens everything which Capildeo does. Capildeo’s latest work, Skin Can Hold, is the result of collaborative experiments in performance, including dance and theatre, and shows that their capacity to surprise and challenge readers continues to grow. As Shivanee Ramlochan says “It is through work such as this that we find ourselves revivified to a thousand electric possibilities.”
© Emily Hasler
Selected Publications
Skin Can Hold. Carcanet, Manchester, 2019
Venus as a Bear. Carcanet, Manchester, 2018
Seas and Trees. Canberra: Recent Work Press, ACT Autralia, 2017
Measures of Expatriation. Carcanet, Manchester, 2016
Simple Complex Shapes. Shearsman, Exeter, 2015
Utter. Peepal Tree, Leeds, 2013
Dark & Unaccustomed Words. Egg Box, Norwich, 2012
All Your Houses. Alice Yard, Trinidad, 2011
Undraining Sea. Egg Box Publishing, Norwich, 2009
Person Animal Figure. Landfill, Cornwall, 2005
No Traveller Returns. Salt Publishing, Cromer, 2003

Links
Capildeo in conversation with Nicholas Laughlin for the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars

Interview with Poetry Spotlight

Interview with Sandeep Parmar in The Wolf

Capildeo reading for Bodmin Poetry Festival 2018

Capildeo reading from Measures of Expatriation for the T.S. Eliot Prize

Capildeo’s essay ‘Punishable bodies: poetry on the offensive’ for The Poetry Review
Sponsors
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Ludo Pieters Gastschrijver Fonds
Hendrik Muller fonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Literature Translation Institute of Korea
Partners
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère