Sentinel Poetry (Online) #38 The International Journal of Poetry &
Graphics Monthly ISSN 1479-425X
Sentinel Poetry (Online) #38
The International Journal of Poetry & Graphics Monthly
Exile is Not My Name
Interview with OLIVE SENIOR by Amatoritsero Ede
Amatoritsero Ede: It is great that you are taking time off from you busy schedule to give this interview. I would first like to ask you what the experience of writing from, well - shall we say exile - for want of a better term; in how far has this cosmopolitan experience influenced your writing?
I reject the term ‘exile’ since my living in
A.E.: We know there are examples of writers who started out as journalists: Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, Truman Capote and so on. Journalism and creative writing has a thin dividing line. Has your experience as a former journalist informed some of your creativity?
don’t know if it has informed my creativity as such but I do think it
helped me to be a better writer. I only became a journalist because I had no
role models for writing in
Writing from the margins, that is, as an immigrant in
O.S.: I came
had the advantage of carrying your English – which I refer to as a
‘step-mother tongue’ – with you to
Actually my use of patois – or ‘Creole’ as the linguists call
it – is far more pronounced in my fiction than in my poetry. Like many
A.E.: Altogether what has been your experience as an immigrant writer in Canada?
problem of just finding my feet, I guess, finding ways of earning a living. Of
course I have since come to learn that most writers in Canada do have the
problem of working at other things to support their writing. But when I first
came I didn’t have a network of people who might have made that
transition smoother or given me advice on directions in which to go. Like every
other newcomer I didn’t have ‘Canadian experience’ and my
failures in finding myself on the job market discouraged me. But I did have a track
record and I was fortunate to have my first two books in Canada published by
McClelland and Stewart that brought me to a wider audience. But I’m still
not writing out of the ‘Canadian experience,’ which is problematic
for some people. And my chosen genres – poetry and the short story
– make it difficult to find publishers. As a writer I am probably spread
too thinly because I write in different genres and have publishers in several
different countries, which means that people in different places, including
Canada, know only a small part of my work. For instance, I have non-fiction
books such as the Encyclopaedia of
Jamaican Heritage and Working
Miracles: Women’s Lives in the English-speaking
A.E.: Has the immigrant condition, the question of roots and place and identity ‘coloured’ your poetry.
O.S.: If by the ‘immigrant condition’ you mean my living in Canada I would say no. Because I come from a part of the world – the Caribbean – where the ‘immigrant condition’ or the condition of ‘displacement/exile’ is one of the outstanding themes of life and literature, since this is a region characterised throughout history by both immigration (including that enforced by the slave trade and indentureship) and emigration. People in the Caribbean are constantly on the move and these are the proto-typical multi-cultural societies. So I was asking questions about ‘roots’ and ‘identity’ long before I came to Canada and these questions have indeed coloured my work, though in a largely oblique way, especially in my poetry. I hardly ever engage with this experience in a direct way but through a discursive navigation of the society through proverbs, sayings, fables, folktales and so on and of course through the language of metaphor.
A.E.: You were just nominated for Canada’s Governor-General Awards for the poetry collection, Over the Roofs of the World (Insomniac Press). Could you tell us a bit about the thematic thrust of this work?
O.S.: In this book I am using the central images of ‘flight’ and ‘thread’. They come together in the final poem in the book, the long “Ode to Pablo Neruda”, which is the key poem. Here I am dealing with the craft of poetry and the requirements of the craft, taking as the starting point Neruda’s admonishment to the young poet to write about anything, even thread. So thread and its many uses in ‘craft’ (poetic and otherwise) runs through the entire book as does the notion of flight, of birds, of kites, of shamanic flight and so on. Here the birds represent themselves – they even speak directly to the reader at times – but they are also related to the winged flight of the spirit and the development of the poetic psyche, which is one of the notions that I explore.
A.E.: In what way do these depart from or cohere with the preoccupation of your earlier poetry collections.
O.S.: I seem to use the natural world as the basis for my explorations in poetry though I was not conscious of that trajectory until fairly recently. My first collection was called ‘Talking of Trees’, the next was ‘Gardening in the Tropics’ and a fourth collection that I have just completed is called ‘Shell’ as it explores all the permutations of that word. Although each book stands on its own and they were written at different periods in my life, and indeed in different places, I do think there is considerable overlap among them since in each I am using nature to explore the nexus between history and contemporary society, which is part of my engagement as a writer.
A.E.: Now, one wonders if there is a politics of gender identity informing your worldview and your work; feminism for example? I know there are ‘shades’ to this, to put it finely.
O.S.: I suppose there is a lot of what people would identify as ‘feminist’ in my writing and I am an inner-directed woman, which means I go my own way. That of course goes against the received notion of how women ought to behave. But I prefer not to put labels on myself. My personal mandate is to explore society in its widest sense, so that includes an exploration of what is nowadays called ‘gender relations’. In other words I am interested in the interactions between men and women and how these interactions are shaped by the wider society.
A.E.: Where you or are you ever influenced by the idea of carnival on the one hand, and the ‘carnivalesque’ in that Bakhtinian sense of “the view of carnival as participatory spectacle, a 'pageant without footlights' which erases the boundaries between spectator and performer” - as we find in Selvon’s Lonely Londoners or as African American Harlem Renaissance poetry was influenced by jazz? I am thinking of Langston Hughes particularly.
I wouldn’t put it in such post-colonial terms myself but I do think the
idea of ‘performance’ infuses the lives of
I myself was shaped by the oral culture as much as the scribal and in my writing I have tried to erase as much as possible the boundaries between writer and reader. So many of my stories and poems are in fact ‘told’ to a listener/reader and I employ narrative techniques from the oral culture – such as su-su or gossip, the use of ‘throw words’ and ‘kas-kas’ or oblique cussing, the use of the implied chorus, etc.
These are issues I have explored in several of my essays to explain the fusion of the oral and scribal in my own work.
A.E.: Thank you for taking the time and more success in your future writing.
O.S. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. And much continued success to you and to the Sentinel Poetry family.