Sarala Estruch Interviews Vahni Capildeo

Sarala Estruch Vahni, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I am so excited to talk to you about your new collection, Venus as a Bear, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I particularly loved how you brought animals, objects and ‘things’ to life in this collection, giving ‘voice to the voiceless’ in a more literal way than we usually mean when we use that expression. Can you tell me a bit about this? What drove you to write about ‘things’ in this way?

Vahni Capildeo The drama between an ‘I’ and a ‘you’ in poetry is always accompanied by the drama between an ‘I’ and an ‘it’, or an ‘us’ and a ‘that’. Even in an intense love lyric or solipsistic monologue, human speakers often call on, or decry, the non-human elements of their environment: stars, aeroplanes, grains of sand, guns. I became fascinated with the notion of these elements deserving and having poems of their own. Personally, I also experience non-human animals, objects, and places as having overwhelming vibrancy; they are compelling and unknowable.

SE I also felt that many of these poems contained political messages, particularly about those who are silenced – I am thinking especially of ‘Novena Body Parts’. Can you tell me more about the thinking behind this poem in particular?

VC It’s interesting you say that. Utter, my 2013 book from Peepal Tree Press, does contain many such messages; for example, ‘Creative Writing Lessons’ was written with the international media responses to Venezuela in mind, while another poem ostensibly about crabs and hibiscus was about the government then in power in Trinidad and Tobago. If such messages continue in Venus as a Bear it’s because they are part of my way of thinking – a credit perhaps to the ongoing effects of being trained up at Commonwealth Writers (where I worked briefly) as their focus is on ‘lesser heard voices’. Venus as a Bear really was just trying to be about ‘things’. However, ‘Novena Body Parts’ is a reworking by erasure, repetition and rearrangement of words and phrases from a sequence by Loretta Collins Klobah, in her debut collection The Twelve-foot Neon Woman. This reworking represents my part of a collaboration with Alys Conran for the AHRC-funded ‘Expanded Translation’ project. Our full collaboration appears in Poetry Wales. It’s likely that my focus on ‘translating’ Loretta, whose eco-feminist poetry is strongly grounded in Puerto Rico, allowed me to channel some of her preoccupations, which certainly are to do with the gendered and geographical silencing of voice and place.

SE The second section of your book includes extensive use of ekphrasis. This was interesting to me, because I felt that many of your poems were like paintings (or sculptures) themselves. Several of your poems also explore how words can be inadequate, for instance ‘Day, with Hawk’. Can you tell me about the process of ekphrastic writing for you, and the significance of these poems to you?

VC Ekphrastic writing for me requires time in which, through open and careful attention, I become imbued with what will go into the poem. It is not a descriptive process, but an attempt to respond by making something new and different yet of an equivalent complexity and with a kindred quality. I like the ancient approach to ekphrasis, which takes in a building, ritual, procession etc. rather than static works of art. The significance of these poems for me is that readers can in most cases visit what occasioned them, and explore their own responses. The poems are not memorials or definitions. They are lover’s tributes to the vibrancy of it-ness.

SE In the collection, many of the poems are dedicated to fellow writers/friends. Is the book a kind of conversation across space and borders and aesthetics/creative imagination?

VC Thank you for noticing that dedications can work as a conversation! Certainly in my earlier books, this was true. In Venus as a Bear, the dedications are a little different. During my transition from Cambridge to the North and Scotland, I ‘depended on the kindness’ not of strangers, but friends. Sometimes I wrote a poem as a gift or made a poem into a gift, as a still-inadequate but real way of expressing gratitude for their care and understanding which made it possible for me to live and write. In all my books, the dedications and acknowledgements also record people who had a strong impact on the ‘history’ of the book, strong enough to bend and break what I could do, think, or write, whether that impact was positive or negative.

SE How did you feel writing this book after Measures of Expatriation? How is it different/similar to you? And how do you feel about how books link up/connect with each other?

VC In fact I wrote a good deal of this book while writing Measures of Expatriation. In many ways, it was the book I wanted to be writing instead. Measures of Expatriation plays out the arguments that arise from tense relations with ‘the world’: approach/alienation, being both ‘wanted’ and ‘disowned’, to quote one of Nicholas Laughlin’s poems. Venus as a Bear steps past or through argumentation. It is more ‘being’ than ‘doing’.

Venus as a Bear is published by Carcanet, and was shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize for Best Collection.

Sarala Estruch is a freelance writer, poet and critic. Her poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and reviews have appeared in Wasafiri, Mslexia, and The Guardian, among others. She was a winner of the 2017 Poetry School/Nine Arches Press Primers mentorship and publication scheme, and a pamphlet-length collection of her work appears in Primers Volume 3 published earlier this year. Sarala is also a Ledbury Poetry Critic, an innovative mentorship programme designed to redress the diversity imbalance in UK poetry reviewing culture.

This interview was originally commissioned by Mslexia. Excerpts have been previously published in Mslexia, Issue 78.

Review: To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus

To Sweeten Bitter by Raymond Antrobus
Published by Outspoken Press, London, 2017
49pp. £8.


To Sweeten Bitter, Raymond Antrobus’ third pamphlet, is a deeply moving and important collection. Within these twenty-one poems, Antrobus deftly interweaves personal grief and the individual struggle to reclaim a sense of identity after his father’s death with postcolonial grief and the continued struggle for a sense of identity among persons of dual heritage living in a postcolonial world.

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My Latest Literary Crush or Notes on Reading Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu Kapil's The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers

Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers

I discovered Bhanu Kapil in January this year, by chance, when reading a Laura Mullen interview in which she discussed experimental poetry and hybrid forms of literature (it is an excellent interview, by the by). I Googled Kapil and found extracts of her work on (these are the exact links: here and here) and let’s just say – it was love at first read.

The vivid sumptuousness of Kapil’s language, the unconventional daring of both content and style dazzled my senses, left me dizzy for more. I went and purchased all of her books, and I’ve been slowly working my way through them – very slowly, in fact, because these are the kinds of books that you simultaneously want to devour and never finish; the kinds of books in which each sentence could be unpacked for hours or days and still be powerfully rewarding.

Recently I stumbled upon notes I had written while reading Bhanu’s first novel, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), and I thought that I would share them here.

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Not Keeping Mum: On Motherhood and Writing

Cover Photo

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”
– Virginia Woolf

This is it – this is precisely what is most difficult about being a mother of young children. I was speaking with a friend the other day who summed up motherhood perfectly: ‘Lots of time for reflection; little time for action.’

As a largely unpublished (female, minority ethnic) writer, a writer who (like Toni Morrison states in her Paris Review article) has been given the permission to write by ‘No one’, I am already a slow writer. I doubt myself; I hesitate. Motherhood takes away the luxury of time – tells you, If you’re going to write, you have to do it now! No one is going to hand you a slice of writing time on a plate.

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The UN initiative is backed by NCVO chair Sir Martyn Lewis. Photograph: Dan Wooller/REX/Shutterstock

Listening to Radio 4’s ‘The Media Show’ this afternoon, I completely agree with Martyn Lewis’s notion of ‘constructive news’, even though both the interviewer, Steve Hewlett, and Joan Smith, the other journalist being interviewed were (pretty obviously) against it. This has got to be one of the main things wrong with society today: the proliferation of ‘bad news’, making the average individual feel disempowered and apathetic (‘everything is so bad, what can I do to stop it?’): it also makes people feel hopeless and sad, which can be seen in the prevalence of various forms of melancholia in today’s society. As Lewis said, it makes people feel as if the world is going down the plughole. (And people do feel this way, even though this was met with a laugh by Smith.)

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Blogging for Creatives

emily benet

Blogging can be a great way to establish yourself in your field, whatever your creative pursuit. It can help you to develop your brand and can gain you an audience for your product/s.

Last Thursday, I attended ‘Blogging for Creatives’, a workshop organised by Southwark Arts Forum and led by blogger and published author, Emily Benet. Blogs have been crucial to Benet’s success as a professional writer. Her first blog was published in book form in 2009 as Shop Girl Diaries. Benet is now the author of three books. The Temp (her third book) is due out this year.

Here are some gems I gleaned from the event about how to write a successful blog:

Choose a niche subject, something that you are an ‘expert’ on and that will be of interest to other people (besides your Mum).

This does not need to be something complicated or fancy. A cooking blog with a large readership, Joy the Baker, was started out of Joy’s obsession with cookies and cakes. Benet started her first blog because she was working full-time in her mother’s chandelier shop and therefore was an ‘expert’ on what it was like to talk to people who come into an unusual shop. As a writer, Benet used her niche subject to both entertain a readership and showcase her writing skills.

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Margaret Atwood at the Southbank Centre on Tuesday 27th August 2013

Atwood The moment she stepped onto the stage I was filled with the thrill of being in the same room as one of the bravest, most prolific and talented writers of our time – Margaret Atwood. Of course it was a rather large room (a hall in fact, the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre to be precise) and I was sitting with several hundred others, but the thrill was there nevertheless – the frisson of being in the presence of a great mind.

Margaret Atwood was in conversation with Peter Kemp, Literary Editor for The Sunday Times, who was profuse in his praise but who didn’t seem to quite be on the same page as the author when it came to political views – which made for interesting entertainment. At one point, Atwood brought up the recent furor surrounding the absence of female figures on English pound notes (bar the Queen of course!), for instance, the fact that Charles Dickens has featured on the notes, but not Jane Austen. Kemp guffawed and said, ‘So much fuss about something like that’. Atwood rightly reminded him that this recent event recalls the late Sixties and Seventies when ‘much fuss’ was made about lots of things that people would never have imagined people could make a fuss about (equal pay for women and men being one of those things – although, of course, parity of income between the sexes is sadly still an issue that is far from resolved today!).
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A review of ‘The Lady of the House’ – winner of the inaugural White Review Short Story Competition

The_White_Review_Short_Story_Prize-257x300 So I finally got round to reading the winning story of The White Review’s short story competition (2013), ‘The Lady of the House’ by Claire-Louise Bennett and it is so fantastic I simply had to write about it.

‘The Lady of the House’ is a refreshing change from the slew of contemporary short stories out there. Bennett bravely attempts to capture the workings of the mind as it goes along living its life in the moment – and succeeds. The story is securely lodged in the mind of its narrator, tracing an unnamed character’s thoughts in a superbly modernist style and yet the subject matter is firmly contemporary. The way it deals with the humdrum details of the everyday, like cycling to the supermarket, tidying up the kitchen, putting out the rubbish, is simply fantastic. The story is grounded in the everyday, and related in fresh, vivid language that keeps the reader hooked. The banal is juxtaposed with more philosophical musings on the nature of thought itself and the way the mind works.

‘The Lady of the House’ strongly recalls the works of Virginia Woolf (To The Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway) but the modernist mode does not feel stretched or redundant – it feels utterly suited to contemporary times. As Anna Hope, writer and alumnus of the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck, pointed out when she came to talk at Birkbeck this summer, it is interesting that in our postmodernist age, the mainstream mode of literature is still Realist. The White Review seems to be out to change this – and I will certainly be following their adventures.

To have a read for yourself, click here.

Talk at Birkbeck by a literary agent and consultant

Last week Tuesday, I attended a talk by a literary agent and consultant as part of the Creative Writing MA course at Birkbeck University, which I am currently undertaking. It was an informative talk about the marketplace and how to get published hosted by the Creative Writing MA Programme Director (who is also a prolific novelist).

One thing that irked me, however, was the agent / consultant’s view of the marketplace and, while I’m sure that his words accurately reflect his many years of experience in the field, it was very black-and-white the majority of the time while at other times he would admit that every so often a writer comes along and blows all of the rules out of the handbook – in short, it felt like he was contradicting himself. One of those times was his answer to my question:

‘You spoke of a revival in recent times of the short story genre. Is it still the case that an unpublished writer will be turned down if s/he approaches an agent / publisher with a collection of short stories, and encouraged to write a novel, instead.’ (Or something along those lines.)

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Elizabeth Fremantle on creative writing courses, balancing writing with mothering, and being a writer

Birkbeck alumnus Elizabeth Fremantle has been interviewed on the (fabulous) Writer’s Hub website. Here are a few of the gems she had to share:

‘I suppose for me studying for an MA in Creative Writing was a commitment that allowed me to start to think of myself as a writer, or certainly as someone who was striving to be that.’

‘Much of writing is about dull things like discipline, solitude and cogitating on the seemingly insignificant aspects of life, and some people do seem to have a greater propensity for those things. I do not really believe that there is any great mystery to writing; I’m afraid I’m too much of a pragmatist for that and the adage that it’s 3% talent and 97% hard work (or in the case of a recent Tweet I read, 3% talent and 97% not getting distracted by the internet) is true.’

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