In ‘beginnings of bluegreen’, the second poem in Odyssey Calling, Vahni Capildeo describes a ‘series of experiments with breaking away from poems on the page to create immersive installations.’
Recognising that many people find the experience of reading poetry difficult (this word is a placeholder, to which I’ll return), Capildeo tried something new: ‘I desired to create active silence in a room filled with happy concentration. The intention was not to abandon the poem, nor to illustrate it, but to offer a magic gift: a relaxed, humming brain-cave you can step into.’ With a team of collaborators, Capildeo co-created an environment of ‘Azure Noise’ and ‘Kinetic Syntax’ within the Judith E Wilson Drama Studio in Cambridge: an oceanic soundscape in which colours, mirrors, ice, and voices swirl and swell; an invitation to dance with poetry, to feel the rhythms of words, lines, and forms in the body, to know through experience rather than literal interpretation. Alongside recordings, dances, and various flowing and lustrous objects arranged in the studio–audience members wandering in and out, playing and lounging–Capildeo read water poems from a hidden platform: ‘Few would go away with “a meaning”, but rather with the memory of an enriching atmosphere, and perhaps, imperceptibly, a little changed in their access and approach to poetry.’ The setup depends in part on the body of the poet out of sight, their voice whispering and resounding in the black box theatre.
This setup feels apposite to Capildeo’s work. Theirs is a poetics of overlapping voices, references, contexts; reading any of their pamphlets or books is embarking on a journey in multiple parts, in which you might tumble through time zones or dictionaries or magic pools. It’s highly likely you’ll wake up in the midst of a poetic event and have no memory of the crossing. It’s difficult, or, it might be described that way when a reader is unsure how to get into poetry, let alone get it, and for whatever reason hasn’t acquired what Capildeo terms ‘the technical ease of slipping fearlessly into [its] deeps’. The multimodal installation in Cambridge was built to support people to slip into poetry without having to read poetry, and, I venture, without having to read the body of the poet. In a conversation with Vidyan Ravinthiran, Capildeo approaches the twofold issue of writing from the body and being read as a body via the subject of pronouns:
‘I go into a state which feels like a state of it-ness or they-ness and when I write, I try to be in a position of active listening or channelling. … It’s not that I deny the body, but that I inhabit some really peculiar trans-temporal space. So, in everyday life it’s a bit of a shock when people describe me as “she” because I don’t feel I’ve been a “she” for most of the day. The other thing about “she”, I think to inhabit “she” as a non-white woman … comes with a different set of stereotypes. So, I’m expected to be tougher and more deceptive and more hotly sexual and more submissive. There’s a different set of constricting polarities in that coloured “she” as distinct from the invisibilised “she”.’
In ‘Myriad Minded’, which precedes the conversation, Ravinthiran draws out the ‘racial travails’ of Capildeo’s work, considering the ways in which the poet’s race may inflect the reader’s judgement of difficulty, as well as the ways in which Capildeo’s linguistic ingenuity and political acuity anticipates and defies such judgement. He asks: ‘What it’s like, for instance, to have someone look at but not really see you; to nod at your words, and spuriously respond, but without hearing what you wish to express. Capildeo also articulates the deep, sometimes self-attacking sadness that comes of seeking, following such encounters, an impossible justice.’
Azad Ashim Sharma thinks with Odyssey Calling in an essay for Spam Zine, critically and affectively reverberating with its last words: ‘indigo blue bassline’. Responding to the pamphlet’s call in earnest by developing a methodology of listening, Sharma hears in Capildeo’s ‘Azure Noise’:
‘a sound that laps at the body bringing it into grounding and into a liquiform murmur … the sound of gratitude as much as it is our riotous cry against the erasure of our history. … an openness and willingness to hear and to summon the spirits, of those who have passed on, those who have been killed before their time, and those to whom we are responsible.’
Sharma hears voices calling out from within and beyond the pamphlet; he spins out themes and motifs of birds, journeys, migration, only to ground them in the contexts of Brexit, Grime and UK Rap, and the death of Kamau Brathwaite (a source for the final poem in Odyssey Calling). Capildeo’s poetry invites this sonically attentive reading practice, in which I’d like to dwell, having followed Sharma into the ‘relaxed, humming brain-cave.’
Prioritising the sound of poetry is not to neglect its meaning; yielding to a poem’s rhythms is not to evade its obstacles, be they unfamiliar words or references, complex images or syntax. One might drift with, for example, ‘Zeus, god of strangers’ in the sequence ‘Odyssey Response’, allowing the long undulating lines to carry your listening body without critical resistance:
‘Stranger, how are you cast away, cast upon your own
resources, cast on wildly different styles of hosting?’
‘Slaughter and laughter cross your threshold
in your absence. Slaughter and laughter at a distance
shadow and echo you, no matter how you set off’
I haven’t read Homer’s Odyssey and am surely missing some important references as I drift with this poem–reading it silently, hearing it in Capildeo’s voice, hearing it in mine… Idly wondering about passing shapes and shadows: pop-up maps, duelling Norsemen, the Queen of the Dead… Detecting echoes without turning to look back… Some interpretations crystallise on the surface of the poem, like flotsam and jetsam bobbing up from the wreck. Other interpretations feel like icebergs; it is my body crashing into the final line: ‘Time Traveller, if you see Columbus, shoot on sight.’ Whatever I might have missed in this poem regarding histories of colonialism, exploitation, apocalyptic contact come into focus, become outrageously felt. Every time I read Odyssey Calling, I wake with a start at this line; it screams in its composure as it leads into the sequence ‘Windrush Reflections’. Other readers will wake at other moments in other moods, which is the wonder of this poetry.
To honour Sharma’s sonic reading that honours Capildeo’s invitation to listen–their bluegreen offering–I’d like to spin out further, to respond to these calls in kind, with ‘liquiform murmurs’ as in Sharma’s beautiful turn of phrase.
- Whilst writing this, I read Pratyusha’s pamphlet Bulbul Calling, recently published by Nina Mingya Powles’ Bitter Melon, imagining a call-and-response between epic journeys and flaming songbirds. As Capildeo writes a list poem ‘in praise of birds’, Pratyusha writes of words ‘foam-shorn, godspeed, breaking at the shore’; their poems sing and roar in conjunction.
- The latter quotation is taken from Pratyusha’s ‘name gha/zal’, after Agha Shahid Ali. In the conversation with Ravinthiran, Capildeo talks about the double meaning of the poet’s name ‘Shahid’ as ‘witness and beloved.’ They describe witnessing as an act of love, calling attention to the ways in which an already oppressive military occupation in Kashmir is compounded by the global pandemic.
- Sharma’s poem ‘Like Agha Shahid Ali, I too saw Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight’ is published in Issue 21 of Gutter, which is ‘the first ever Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic feature issue of a Scottish literary magazine’, edited by Alycia Pirmohamed and Jay G Ying. Also in this issue is Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s poem ‘Reading Agha Shahid Ali in Northern Ireland’.
- Pratyusha’s pamphlet Night Waters was published by Zarf, which is currently based in Glasgow with editor-extraordinaire Callie Gardner. Callie’s book Naturally, It Is Not was published by The 87 Press, edited by Sharma and Kashif Sharma-Patel. Pratyusha is an editor too, working with Katy Lewis Hood on the eco/world poetry magazine amberflora. This spin is to say support small publishers!
- The words ‘indigo blue bassline’, which reverberate so powerfully with Sharma, remind me of Capildeo’s essay ‘Punishable bodies: poetry on the offensive’ and their discussion of Trinidadian poet Shivanee Ramlochan’s heart-disturbing reading and a smiling, clapping audience in New York. Capildeo writes of this incongruous response to Ramlochan’s ‘transgressive poems’: ‘It was as if the bass on a sound system had been turned too soft.’
- Capildeo references Kamau Brathwaite’s theory of ‘tidalectics’ in Odyssey Calling, which Tiffany Lethabo King thinks with in The Black Shoals: Offshore Formations of Black and Native Studies: ‘Of the Caribbean people and their tidalectic movement against Western linearity and progress, Brathwaite writes: “Why is our psychology not dialectical … in how Western philosophy has assumed people’s lives should be, but tidalectic, like our grandmother’s–our nanna’s–action, like the movement of the ocean she’s walking on, coming from one continent/continuum, touching another, and then receding (reading) from the island(s) into the perhaps creative chaos of the(ir) future.”’
- Scottish-Barbadian artist Alberta Whittle engages deeply with Brathwaite’s theory, as she discusses in this interview for Africanah: ‘[It] invites us to approach our understandings of the world with an oceanic worldview. Connected to his theories on sound and “riddems” as methods to approach the contours of history is the limbo, constructed aboard slave ships and in plantation yards. … [The] limbo becomes a visualisation of ways in which, we, as people of color, we Black people have to manoeuvre in order to survive in the face of white supremacy–we have literally had to bend our backs to survive.’
I’ll conclude this spinning sequence with Whittle’s words about the manoeuvring and shape-shifting that is necessary for the Black body to survive, and some links to campaigns and organisations to support Black and brown people in Scotland: Ubuntu Women’s Shelter; Justice for Sheku Bayoh; Scottish Action for Refugees.
Nisha Ramayya is a poet and lecturer in Creative Writing at Queen Mary University of London. Her book, States of the Body Produced by Love, is published by Ignota, 2019.