Writer in Residence

The Writer in the World: On Beauty and Poetry

By Canisia Lubrin

A Conversation with an anonymous poet.


For this part of The Writer in the World, I am honouring the request of a poet to keep their identity undisclosed. 


Canisia Lubrin: I've been asked whether the tension between "beauty" in language and writing about trauma is one that can have an adequate  balance or resolution.

Poet: I want to say that beauty is simply what you accept to look long at, that you don’t turn away from.

CL: I supposed I should start by disclosing why I don’t subscribe to the idea that beauty is the absence of ugliness. And I don’t know that this can ever limited by the senses. Beauty is sensuous, pan-sensuous, intra-sensuous, extra-sensuous. One central consideration is why such binaries could be or is or has been unhelpful to the poet. Let us take stock of imagery (sight) in this brief study: imagine what you can about Hurricane Irma, with its destruction of whole towns, whole countries, whole lives--things by all accounts that call up in me the expression of the catastrophic. Then I see Irma in an image (caught moving across the crown of the Atlantic). Irma as photography, as painting, cinema, as language--and the first few moments of this encounter without my willing it, produces something beautiful. It is a beauty that breaks. This is the thing about art that I find a bit unnerving, further, how art transmutes the obscene into a consumable thing is hard to deal with. This tendency, often bound up in the redemptive act, would seem to make hegemonic things that call for such meaning. But, of course, we all know that not everything is worthy of such treatment, some things need repudiating.

I feel a deep toll in me when I consider, Poet, your assertion that beauty is what you accept to look long at and maybe, Poet, you are right, maybe the safety of sustained attention is what allows for beauty to rise to the surface of things. But, this sustained attention to me is also how the possibility of visibility in a place that wants to keep you invisible, prohibits erasure of some kind. The passing thought as a kind of erasure or at least a kind of failure to understand--is allowed to extend into consideration. This is the hard reality: we are locked to our senses, to how we perceive. Yet I think, ultimately, that beauty is the terrible salvation of art not simply because of something immediately apprehensible in art, but because of art’s multiplicities.

The artist who is in solidarity with beauty is not the artist who sets out to undermine the trueness of the treachery of things, but the one who knows that in spite of treachery, we are elevated towards saving--or hope.

While writing Voodoo Hypothesis, I struggled with how hard it was for me to keep inserting myself into the poems; I am a private person. And I have been told that this is ridiculous for a poet--a thing I know. Eventually, I had to relent because the poems demanded it. My approach became one of dislocating linear time and through that I found a true-fictional “I” speaker. And I don’t know how exactly I came to this but I kept reminding myself not to disavow, distort or undervalue the psychic breadth of the things I perceive, the world that my great, great, grandchildren will inherit, the inheritance that is mine and my children’s, the traumas and exigencies of exile and migration. I needed to find in them spaces where my-self and my life and the lives of those I know and love are in echo and this was my way to wrap myself in.

I reached through centuries, I wandered through this nowness of my being, and imagined as far as I could into a future. Then I wondered how my great, great, great grandmother and my grandmother and my mother and my great, great, grandchild might have or will experience their being through a grief, or a joy, a moment of liberation or resistance and in what place and space and time and geography and what would my peopled self have to say to me now. I found that I could contain all of this in the vein of poetry.

Upon arrival at the negotiation of, as Dionne Brand suggests in Versos of Eleven, “how much to include”, especially with contemplating violences that are not immediately mine (Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland etc.) I was sure to weigh these into the things that I’m experiencing in my own life--such huge ethical concerns. In the end, I found a balance that felt true.

Poetry takes us past all of these things while at once demanding that we attend to them and this is how it shines a fierce light on what is possible. So I do believe that this negotiation of what to withhold and what to say is part of this necessary liberation of writing the true thing.

Poet: Writing in a lyrical vein, here, in this time and place, you risk writing within a system that values only one beauty. A system in which light, moon, water, are images that must carry you towards a narrative of forgiveness. What is a beautiful image, what is beautiful language?

Withholding is an act of resistance, of doubling knowledge with questioning, an insistence on questioning, of not settling on knowledge. It’s a tension, an undertone, beneath the words. An overtone.

You feel as though you are reading the underside of thoughts.

Poetry is partly about that negotiation of the private, the private, interior imagery and mythology of our selves in this complicated relationship with a vast, public, political realm we can’t ever wholly grasp. A realm in geologic and genealogic time. And to struggle to be vulnerable is to allow the world in its immensity to pierce you through the poem, or for you in your smallness to pierce the world even if it doesn’t know it.

In that same lecture, Dionne [Brand] also says, “I have withheld more than I withheld...What is withheld multiplies.”

“The huge ethical concern” of relating my own experience to other, larger, older traumas - yes, I relate to that. In that sense the withholding becomes a way of considering. The same, not the same. That is where complicity enters for me. The tension emerges from complicity, too. Yet, I’ve written what I felt complicit writing.

As for beauty - it’s easier to see what beauty is if you consider that we disregard what we believe is ugly. We regard what is beautiful. But something I would add is, to regard, to ask ourselves to regard, to teach ourselves to regard, to practice the look long - that isn’t safe in and of itself. It may not be a safe act. And there needs to be a willingness to risk safety, and at the same time to create conditions of safety, for the one who is seen, and for the others who want to see with you.


*Poet’s words have been condensed and edited.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Canisia Lubrin was born in St. Lucia. She has had work published in literary journals including RoomThe PuritanThis MagazineArcCV2and The City Series #3: Toronto Anthology. She has been an arts administrator and community advocate for close to two decades. Lubrin has contributed to the podcast On The Line, hosted by Kate Sutherland for The Rusty Toque. She studied at York University where she won the President's Prize in poetry and the Sylvia Ellen Hirsch Memorial Award in creative writing. Lubrin holds an MFA from the University of Guelph and teaches at Humber College. She lives in Whitby, Ontario.

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Voodoo Hypothesis

Voodoo Hypothesis is a subversion of the imperial construct of "blackness" and a rejection of the contemporary and historical systems that paint black people as inferior, through constant parallel representations of "evil" and "savagery." Pulling from pop culture, science, pseudo-science and contemporary news stories about race, Lubrin asks: What happens if the systems of belief that give science, religion and culture their importance were actually applied to the contemporary "black experience"? With its irreverence toward colonialism, and the related obsession with post-colonialism and anti-colonialism, and her wide-ranging lines, deftly touched with an intermingling of Caribbean Creole, English patois and baroque language, Lubrin has created a book that holds up a torch to the narratives of the ruling class, and shows us the restorative possibilities that exist in language itself.