by I. Augustus Durham
IAD: Early on in the book, you give an overview of how the name of the collection emerges: “The word ‘cannibal,’ the English variant of the Spanish word canibal, comes from the word caribal, a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies, who Columbus thought ate human flesh and from the word ‘Caribbean’ originated. By virtue of being Caribbean, all ‘West Indian’ people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage.” How do you understand your own cannibalism, and how is the book itself a cannibal?
SS: How do I understand my own cannibalism—do you mean in the linguistic sense?
IAD: Sure, in whatever sense you think emerges.
SS: I have been thinking a lot about savagery, and how people of color, certainly, in the media are labeled as “savage”; we are bombarded with these images of us as savages, the black body as a threat, and what does that mean—to be a savage? So I was engaging with this idea quite a bit, and I found this etymological link between the words “cannibal” and “Caribbean”, and it was very obvious then that this was the title of the book and this was the frame of the book, even if I hadn’t always known that when I was writing the earliest poems. I wanted to explore the fact that when Columbus came this archipelago and encountered the natives, the ones who were resistant and fought him, he classified them Caribes; and the natives who were kinder to him he classified Taínos. And so this idea of the identification of the other through this western, white gaze is a really potent one to think about because then that means to be caribes or caribal or cannibal or savage means to resist the oppressor. And if to be savage and cannibal means to resist the oppressor, then that’s how I understand my own cannibalism—I am cannibal. And the book itself is trying to resist the language of the oppressor, which is English, just as much as I’m trying to define myself while thinking and writing in that language, while unravelling all of that as a Caribbean poet in a postcolonial world.
IAD: In the poem “Pocomania,” you do a sustained riff on the parent, and I cannot help but hear resonances of melancholy. Does the location of the parent signal a kind of loss, a loss one is always trying to repair? And if so, how does Cannibal engage in that reparative work?
SS: Thinking about loss, as it pertains to a parent, seems to always happen for me, on the page anyway, through the father. I have always felt this disconnect for societal or cultural reasons between the father and the daughter, certainly in my family life and in my childhood. It is a theme I am always circling back to in the poems. I don’t know if that circling or ruminating that I am doing is reparative in any way, maybe in the moment of writing the poem, but it is something I keep coming back to. So even if the wound is repaired, but for a moment, it gets torn again and I come back to it again on the page.
IAD: Speaking of fathers and daughters, throughout the collection you make illusions to girls and girlhood, even your own, in poems such as “Autobiography,” “Spectre,” or “In Childhood, Certain Skies Refined My Seeing.” So to your mind, and in your work, is black girlhood generatively dangerous? I say that in juxtaposition to a poem like “Portrait of Eve as the Anaconda,” precisely because conceptions of whiteness, namely white women, would never presume Eve to be duplicitous or deadly. So you have white women as duplicitous or deadly, and black girlhood as generatively dangerous.
SS: Okay, so you’re fracturing girlhood versus womanhood. White women do not populate my lyric imagination, so I couldn’t articulate the girlhood of my poems against their notions. Any woman I speak from or dream into is a black woman. She is the lyric “she” of my poems. The original woman. For me, our girlhood is a site of many violences, and not just the body—the spirit, the self. And I feel in so many ways, that so many factors are coming to crush you that you feel exiled from yourself. I try to write myself out of this feeling that the black female body is the first site of exile, and I have felt that way for a very long time. So I do write about girlhood through these many violences—historical, linguistic, literal, familial—as a way to escape it. And when I write about womanhood, it’s about subverting that violence; it’s about inhabiting that danger and violence as a source of strength and power. It is a way of turning of that historical violence on its head to say that the danger is not from without: now it’s within. That to me, in some way, is powerful.
IAD: Can you speak about Virginia in the collection? If I consider your own cannibalism, the poems in which you repurpose [Thomas] Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia bring to mind a reading of European encounters with cannibalism in Fiji: “ . . . it was believed that the spirit of a dead person remained with the body for four days, and that if you ate the corpse before this time elapsed, you ‘prevented it from ascending to the spirit world and becoming a source of power and guidance to your enemies.’” It seems as if you are engaging in cannibalism in reverse in that you eat Jefferson, having been in his “home” over a span of two years instead of four days.
SS: Okay! I never thought about it that way because you know, the cannibalism in Fiji also led to genetic madness. But your notion is also an interesting thing to think about—consuming your enemies, right?
IAD: Yes, to make sure that the spirit didn’t . . .
SS: You’re not moving on.
SS: You are not going to heaven! I am very fascinated by historical texts because so much of our world, language, and culture today is rooted in the historical. A lot of people fail to examine this and know where some nefarious views originate—the words we use, the social practices we have. For example, speaking of words, I was interested in this idea, that Thomas Jefferson first used the word, “belittle,” in Notes on the State of Virginia. I kept thinking about him first coining that word, so I thought I would write a poem that centers itself around this sense of exile I felt still while living in Virginia, living in the shadow of Monticello, where he is worshipped in a fervent and tone-deaf way that I couldn’t understand. Very much in the same way I’d thought to myself, “Why shouldn’t I colonize The Tempest?”, I thought again to myself, “Well why shouldn’t I repurpose Thomas Jefferson?” I guess that is, in some way, cannibalizing the idea of him and his ideas, but I never thought about it as its own kind of cannibalism. But I could see it like that: it’s re-centering the master’s words through my own mastery. This is something I have been trying to do with the work; I don’t know if I’m succeeding but that’s what I’m aiming for.
IAD: In thinking about repurposing the master’s words for your own work, and I think too when you bring up the ways in which he is still revered in Virginia, that brings up a valence of the religious that also traffics in the collection. Do you think that by repurposing the master’s words to have your work come to be—subverting these norms—there is a manner in which you are engaged in exorcism?
SS: And what would I be exorcising?
IAD: It could be the ghost of Jefferson that still resides in Charlottesville. In our conversation about girlhood, it could be an exorcism of the fear that exists around that.
SS: I guess I do engage in some kind of exorcism often, exorcising or excising, when I find something to be dangerous or cancerous to me, my selfhood, and my being. How do I interpret that as a poet? How do I come to that ritual on the page? I guess my way is to be savage about it.
IAD: Throughout the collection, you invoke Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as well as Césaire’s reimagining of the play. Of all of the work by either man, why those pieces?
SS: Being from the Caribbean, the play about a shipwrecked European coming to an island, claiming this island for himself after learning the magic from the native witch who lived there, then expelling her from her home—it is begging to be excavated and reexamined. This idea of living in a place that’s not quite yours with rules and a language that’s not yours, that’s just been given to you, and to have to live with this fact that so much has been stolen from you. How do you process that? How does Caliban make sense of that? And so I was fascinated not only by the links between the Caribbean people and Caliban himself—and of course many postcolonial scholars have also come to this link—but how could Caliban now enter this conversation through a female gaze. Could I grow a limb of myself from Caliban, who has been so decidedly male in the scholarship? Couldn’t the strangeness of his body also be my body? So The Tempest was an obvious choice for me. And thinking about forces of nature—the hurricane, the storm, a violence that then gives birth to something—is interesting for me, too. I start the book with this quote from Brathwaite—“The hurricane doesn’t roar in pentameters”. Again, that turns The Tempest on its head, in that it upends this Shakespearean idea, his western prosody, the pentameter. In the Caribbean, everything is chaotic and lively; we live in the tropics, the jungle, right? So the ordered pentameter is not how we would naturally assemble ourselves poetically on the page. Thus, a lot of my work is trying to find the balance in this—because I have received this western prosody as a poetic foundation, while also dreaming and speaking in the natural chaos of the Caribbean, and what does that balance sound like or look like? Through sound and music and imagery, populating these poems in a way that all their life is bursting off the page. The Tempest was always a play I kept coming back to, thinking about Caliban and the anger stemming from so much loss.
IAD: It’s funny because in my program, you have to do these things called apprenticeships; my first one was in a class on Shakespeare’s romances and comedies, and we read The Tempest. It was interesting that when we read it, the students could not fathom Caliban as a redeemable figure; they could only ever read him as violent.
SS: But they couldn’t understand where the violence came from.
IAD: They could not grasp: wouldn’t one be violent if his home was invaded? For them, it was more that he’s violent and, ironically, he is so toward these women. And as apprentices, we were thinking but his mother and his home and his magic—all of these things are co-opted and taken—and they couldn’t grasp that he would be angry and rightfully so. So hearing you think about it that way is intriguing because in a lot of other spaces, people are thinking, “Oh no, that would never be how you would read Caliban!” As if to say he is unredeemable, which is why the Césaire is important, because he redeems him.
SS: Yes! And he gives him autonomy, and he gives him a voice. And I use this Césaire quote (from Une Tempête) in Cannibal where Caliban sort of unnames himself (“Call me X”), because the name he’s been given is Shakespeare’s name, is Prospero’s name, which goes back to the history of our language and its dark roots. But yes, Caliban’s anger is my anger, is your anger, our father’s anger, etc. It wasn’t hard for me to understand because it is something I’ve felt since I was born.
IAD: Having provoked Césaire, the last poem in the collection is “Crania Americana.” When reading it, at the end, I could not help but think about Langston Hughes’s “A Dream Deferred” in that the poem also ends with a question. As well, it brought to mind the black radical and aesthetic traditions with relation to how the provocation of questions pervades, like say Sojourner Truth, Saidiya Hartman, et al. This equally made me ponder the work of the canon in the collection insofar as it seems that one’s mastery of the “tradition” is wholly contingent on one’s exposure to it. What I mean is the fact that I can see Langston Hughes in that last poem and also see the limits of Shakespeare’s reading of blackness suggests to me that one, that ever nebulous category, or more specifically black readers writ large, has to discern varying modes or genres before they can even have a seat at the table. How does your own discernment of the canon, vis-à-vis Jefferson, Shakespeare, O’Hara and my insertion of Hughes, create Cannibal, and to whose canon does the collection belong?
SS: Well, I’m really interested in your earlier notion around cannibalism where I drink the blood of my enemies, to prevent their dissemination. To make sure that there is no future for sinister ideas and ideals going forward in this book. It is a kind of transfiguration—I am taking this one thing and making something else, and I like that! But it is true that you have to hold all of history inside of you in order to make any sense of it and before attempting to make a future. It was really important for me to end the book with a question because I think a lot of my poems end very closed, with finality. The gesture of ending on a question is not one I do often. But it seemed right to do at the end of the poem where the question is: “Master, dare I unjungle it?” It is a question, but it is also a threat.
IAD: And a conversation.
SS: And a conversation that is moving toward some kind of futurity. So all the past and the history of the entire book is behind me and I’m moving forward—what’s next? It is finding power in the self. Whenever I think about Caliban, I want him to find power in himself, which I don’t think he ever finds in Shakespeare’s pages, because he moves from one master to two drunken masters; he never finds power in himself and beauty in his nature. So I want us to find beauty in our own nature—savage or not—and accept that the threatening parts of us are also beautiful and make us who we are. It is also still playing on the idea of being called “savage” but turning that and saying, “Yes, that is a beautiful and powerful thing!” And in terms of canon, what do you think?
IAD: Well there’s a way in which one could say, considering your sources, it is very Shakespearean.
SS: Do you think it is?
IAD: I don’t think so. One could make a claim it’s quite emblematic of a certain negritudinous tone.
SS: And that’s not a bad canon to be a part of! Put me there!
IAD: For sure! So if I think about the kind of Shakespearean nature of the collection or its negritudinous register or its black American vocality, it’s quite a diasporic project.
SS: Right, but I don’t claim black Americanness.
SS: But I like this idea of being slippery. It is its own chimera.
IAD: And one of the poems.
SS: Right. So it’s a creature that is patched together from all the different things that make me who I am but it’s uncategorized; you can’t really classify it. I like being . . .
SS: Yes, unclaimable. Or untamable.
 Richard Sugg, “Eating Your Enemy”, History Today, Vol. 58, no. 7 (July 2008).
Safiya Sinclair joined us this year for the Little Corner Reading Series in Durham, NC to read from her latest work. Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Her first full-length poetry collection, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016), won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and a 2016 Whiting Writers’ Award.
Sinclair’s poems have appeared in Poetry magazine, the Kenyon Review, The Nation, New England Review, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, the Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, the Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Amy Clampitt Residency Award, an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, and won the 2015 Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest. In 2015, she was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Sinclair earned her MFA in poetry at the University of Virginia, and she is currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.
I. Augustus Durham is a rising sixth-year doctoral candidate in the English at Duke University. His work focuses on black studies from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, interrogating the construction of melancholy and how that affect catalyzes performances of excellence, otherwise known as genius. He has published articles in Black Camera: An International Film Journal, Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, and