Interview with Safiya Sinclair


Safiya Sinclair was named the 21st recipient of the Amy Clampitt residency. For over a decade, the program has provided poets and literary scholars a paid six- or 12-month stay at Clampitt's former residence near Lenox, Mass., where they can focus exclusively on their work.

On Thursday, November 10 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m., Safiya will read selections from her new collection of poems, Cannibal, at The Bookstore in Lenox, Mass. (11 Housatonic Street). Visit The Bookstore's website for additional information.

Tell me about yourself; where did you move here from and what were you doing before this residency? 

Sure. I was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, and I moved here to complete my undergraduate degree at Bennington College. After that I completed my master’s at the University of Virginia, and then almost immediately I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California. I came to the Berkshires indirectly from USC – I was in Provincetown last fall for a fellowship and I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I’m a nomad [laughs].

What was it like growing up in Jamaica?

I can't say that I had a typical Jamaican childhood. My siblings and I always felt othered because we were raised in a strict Rastafarian family, and in Jamaica Rastafarians are a minority; Jamaica is a largely Christian country. So when my siblings and I were young we had to create our own kind of society amongst ourselves. Very early on I turned inward to reading and writing because I wasn’t really allowed to interact with the outside world or fit into normal Jamaican society.

At school, we were always seen as very strange because we were the only Rasta children at our school. That's when I started writing. I realized that there were different ways to express what I was going through – a way to understand myself on the page. I published my first poem in the national newspaper in Jamaica when I was 16. There was a Caribbean poet who took me under his wing, and that's when I realized that this was actually something I needed to do. For me poetry in a sense has always been an act of survival. 

Coming to America – especially going to the schools that I've been to – has been strangely instrumental in who I am now as a writer, because I constantly found myself in all these very white spaces. There were maybe four students of color at Bennington College the entire time I was there. The moment I came to America I realized I had to consider my blackness in a different way than I had in Jamaica, where the majority of people are black. In my courses I would write poems and stories Jamaican folklore and Jamaican life. I would write in our patois dialect and I would constantly find pushback to that in workshop. I once had another student ask me, “Why can't you write this in English?” 

What was your response to a question like that?

It was anger. Anger was my original response. I had to immediately understand all these different cultural references that were very American, very white.

I feel like people weren’t encouraged to be outspoken about issues of visibility and diversity. A lot of times I felt like I was the only voice. The following week I came back to class with a manifesto I had written about how I'm not going to change my work, and not going to have my language or identity colonized by anybody in this classroom. And, well, my peers did not take it very well. They were very upset.

Did you always plan to come to America to earn your undergraduate degree?  

The hard truth is most Jamaicans have an unspoken understanding that - especially if you're born poor - one of the only ways you're going to change your station in life is through education. To do that you need to immigrate to either the United States or England or Canada. For me, I'd always felt like an outsider. I felt like I had to move away to come to a different understanding of myself and to do the things that I wanted to do.  

Poetry in Jamaica didn’t really live and thrive very much outside of the faraway crowd of Kingston literati, and since I was from Montego Bay it was very lonely. I couldn't go into a bookstore and pick up a book of poems. It was a very limiting world to live in, and for a long time I wanted to move away to see what else was out there in the literary world, to find my own community.  

Did you ever consider other forms of writing before settling on poetry?

I think I've always been very poetic in my thinking, living not always on one straight line but leaping from point to point. Whenever I approached the page that was how the poetry assembled itself. But I write fiction and non-fiction too, and continued to explore that while I was at Bennington.

Who are your poetry influencers? 

I love Sylvia Plath. I also love James Baldwin, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Audre Lorde, Lorca, Paul Celan, Natasha Trethewey.

You have quite a list. 

Yes, their collections are all lined up on my desk - they're with me when I write [laughs]. 

Can you describe a day in the life of a poet? Outside of this residency do you have a routine?

[laughs]. Well, like I said, I’m in my third year of a Ph.D. program at USC. They are very flexible with allowing me to accept opportunities like this residency in the middle of my schooling. But at the end of my five years, I will graduate with a dual degree in creative writing and critical theory. I have to write a creative thesis (a poetry manuscript), and also a critical component. I'm also working on a memoir, so we'll see. I’m always writing and revising in my mind.

And you completed a collection of poems recently, correct?

Yes. It's called
Cannibal and the official publication date is tomorrow, actually.

Congratulations! Can you tell me about the cover? (pictured, left)

Yes. I'm so astonished and absolutely grateful to have this cover for my book. It's a piece by the African artist Wangechi Mutu, who is an immense inspiration to me. Her art is exactly how I wish the imagery of my poetry could assemble in someone's mind. 

What was your process of writing the collection?

For me, a lot of the process of writing this was just living, you know? It was impossible to ignore my experiences as a Jamaican woman, as a black woman, and as an immigrant in America, so I knew it was necessary to write them down.

The title
Cannibal is a reference to me being a Caribbean poet. The etymology - the linguistic history of the word “cannibal”- is the English variant of the Spanish word “canibal,” which comes from the word “caribal,” a reference to the native Carib people who Columbus thought ate human flesh, and from whom the word “Caribbean” comes.

By being Caribbean, all people who live in the “West Indies” are already in a linguistic sense born savage. And so I'm trying to examine this idea of black people and people of African descent being labeled as savage or barbaric or still being seen in some way as a threat. I'm doing that through a dialogue with the character of Caliban in The Tempest, who's sort of the father of the linguistic rebellion and represents - for a lot of us - the continual struggles of the African diaspora. He’s a figure of rebellion but also a figure of someone who has been broken, who's lost their land and their name and their place and their body.

Then I'm also, through this examination of my identity, talking about my family and my personal history and talking about coming to America and experiencing the brutalism and racism in America through the lens of an immigrant.

Do you feel like the poems come to you when you sit down to put thoughts on the page? Is it a natural process or have you ever struggled with how you want to say something? 

That's a good question, because I think everybody has a different process of how they come to the page with a poem. Sometimes I won't even write anything on paper unless I feel like there's a line or a couple lines already codifying in my head, you know, becoming whole, and so I’ll keep thinking about it for a few days.

I very much live or die by the first line. If I don't think the first line is good, I'll keep working until I think, ‘Okay, this is a poem that wants to birth itself into the world.’ I still have poems that have come half-formed and then, you know, the struggle is the revision. But that's actually also the pleasure, because then it lives a second life after you've formed and molded it into a finished product.  Sometimes I don't trust a poem that comes fully formed because that seems too easy—I’m mistrustful of miracles 

What is it like living in this house, where so many other poets have lived including Amy?

It's wonderful.  The books especially - I'm always walking around and finding new things to read. For me it's a wonderland. And it’s wonderful to live with the ghosts of those that have come before me.

What would you like to accomplish during this residency? Do you have a specific project you’re working on?  

I am using this time to work on my memoir and so my hope is to have a good portion of that drafted. I think part of the struggle is that I'm not a poet who writes by a schedule. For me it's hard to generate work that way. I circle around this vortex of lines for a few days before I write them down, and I’m finding that prose – even the poetic and lyrical kind of prose that I write – functions very differently than poetry.

What have your days here been like?

A lot of reading, especially in this room. It's so peaceful. I love looking out and seeing all the greenery being surrounded by it. Then I do some writing and go back to reading.

What kind of impact will this residency have on your career? What does it mean to you?

I think it’s a blessing any time a poet is given the space, time and means to sit with their thoughts and to write. I'm very grateful that I can make my way unhurriedly through the days and weeks as I write and make sense of myself.

And after this residency will you return to California? Do you have a vision of what’s next?

That's the plan. I’m not committing myself to anything too far ahead right now. I think for most poets and people in academia the light at the end of the road is teaching. So we'll see. I'm not tying myself to that 100 percent because I do like to have a little freedom. A year from now I want to be on vacation in Southeast Asia, and that’s as far as I’m thinking



Published September 1, 2016


Safiya Sinclair, the 21st recipient of the Amy Clampitt residency.