A Conversation with Vladimir Lucien
Poetry's so-called "resurgence" as a form of public/social capital seems to reveal today something new of the role of the artist in the world. This new thing, to me, is laregly technological. I used to think that poetry was an uncommodifiable thing. But this is mainly to do with what I was taught about poetry and the time and place in which I became that thing: a poet. I can’t tell you how long it took me to identify as a poet. If anyone asked, I’d say I’m a writer. And whatever pressures I felt to pick a category and stick to it always came from outside of myself. That force I would eventually recognize as the market and, in many ways, the academy. It’s business, it’s very little to do with the work. But what is this work?
The following conversation was intended to help illuminate possible real-world effects of the poet's work, considering something that James Baldwin expresses in his essay "The Creative Process." Baldwin says that the states of birth, suffering, love and death are extreme, universal and inescapable states—and that this knowledge is something we’d rather not know.
As you will see from our conversation with poet, critic, actor and educator, Vladimir Lucien, the poet in their natural habitat is a somewhat dangerous thing.
Canisia Lubrin: James Bladwin states in “The Creative Process” that the artist exists to correct those delusions to which we fall prey in our attempts to avoid the knowledge of our impermanence: the extreme states of birth, suffering, love and death. In that, the entire purpose of “society” is to create a bulwark against such inner and the outer chaos that the artist then uses to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive.
This is a lot to think through. I wonder how you view “the artist’s responsibility to their society.”
In “Sounding Ground” your poems are socially-engaged yet rooted always in an ordinariness. Your speakers are, as Safiya Sinclair says in one of her poems, “in the mud” with everybody else. You don’t seem to exist in some pernicious high place that a lot of poetry seems to come from. Contrast this against the predominant/potentially paralyzing attitude that poetry doesn’t really do anything in the real world.
Vladimir Lucien: In contrast to Baldwin, who as a prose writer arrives at his understanding of the artist’s role through “themes”, I suspect it may be a little more difficult for the poet. For the accusation against the poet, of “superfluity”, is also concerned with how s/he says things, not just what s/he chooses to talk about. So in a sense we are called to answer for our craft. But this accusation can only be made if poetry is considered as merely a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. So this led me to consider craft, how to justify craft-- not merely why it exists, but why it exists how it exists. Poetry does not usually escape, nor does it strive to eschew the issues of the day, but the “issues of the day” are much broader than we think, and it is poetry that reminds us of that. Is “joy” or “play” an issue of the day?
However, a devotion to craft --- this strange quirky thing of rhyming speech, of metre, or whatever form it takes -- is also a devotion to a way of seeing and behaving in the world that is not easily digested by the norm-al social-realist utilitarian progress-engined beast. It--poetry-- remembers Man as homo ludens, it remembers life/art as being equally about stylization and not just the basic animal comforts of food and shelter. It affirms that one is able to respond to stimuli beyond the well-studied, simplifying frames in which human behaviour is increasingly read. It situates man not within “society”, not within political or economic systems ruled by men, but in the acephalous universe (which need not exclude these systems, but is bigger than and contains them), situates her deeply in her own deep-down life and sovereignty where a difficult freedom resides.
CL: Baldwin also wrote some poetry but I take your point. I, too, think this idea of rejecting knowledge as a means of survival is a way of affirming the broader deep-down life that you’ve pointed to--the things that we don’t or can’t perceive with the same old tools and the same old discourses. So, while we can draw lines between discourses and their evolutions, we ultimately must find our own--the one that fits our time. This thing we call life/being is a thing unfinished, after all--so it is a kind of searching and attention that we’re after. But at what point can we say the artist is responsible for holding these states up as a reminder to her society.
I think Baldwin is resolved that chaos is part of being alive and that our need to be protected against the chaos is a real thing that artist can achieve with their crafts. So, it may be true that the artist who gets this done is the one capable of marrying style or pleasure with the shaping of the chaotic into art--towards making this harsh reality bearable. There’s also what we like to call the zeitgeist. For me, a poet, I always think that this shaping is more about clarity than answers, because what might seem an answer today may be a pitfall tomorrow. And this is why I believe poetry, good poetry, resists absolutes. I’d like to think that my work does something in the world, but I am prepared that maybe, it does nothing, except provide a buttress against personal collapse, and that sometimes what we need to do is shake things up.
I’m particularly pulled into your question of whether “joy” or “play” is an issue of the day. If states of being are issues then we probably don’t need to be having this conversation at all. Perhaps I’m being a bit crass here, but it certainly isn’t at the risk of redacting my own understanding of art as a thing--that in its particular way--gives pleasure. I will be the first to admit that writing Voodoo Hypothesis, existing in its intellectual and imagined space was damn hard. It deals with difficult things, the difficulties of being othered in a world that has a very fraught relationship with black being and its inimical forces of particular histories persisting through the present. So I write towards that difficult freedom that you poignantly touch upon above.
So, the question becomes, what effect will this have in the hands of readers? Maybe it affects how people think about race, certainly, but more precisely about humanity. Maybe readers a new chance to try and look and really see something that hadn't occurred to them--or that they believed themselves already able to express.
VL: What the artist affirms is the deep, ambiguous complexity of the human spirit where issues of the day threaten to turn this fluid spiritual life into reified, simple “matter/s” or “answers”: man as an economic animal, or a mere product of Culture, or Race. (Baldwin offers us another way of seeing yes, and seeing through, the issues of the day, above). Through craft, the poet imposes upon life (and upon herself) the state of “play” which is the creative and human response to mystery and reductiveness (and the despair it may sometimes engender) and is elemental to specifically human life. Which is what ritual does: Baptism, Funeral, Marriage, Vigil. And poetry too: Oriki, Epithalamium, Panegyric, Elegy or Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night! So we respond to Baldwin’s “Love, death, birth” etc..
Play is the human response to mystery (which is, I suppose, my version of what you refer to as “chaos”) in life. Play is a science really, but one that does not claim to expunge mystery, one that does not want to. Art is essentially, serious play. Poetry embraces the mystery behind human be-ing even while it strives for clarity and understanding, because clarity and understanding of the world must and will always continue to include mystery. We understand this. So I would say, if “play” is going out of poetry, then so is hope, faith and joy. And life will imitate art in short order.
We are dealing with similar issues as other persons around us. But we cannot let people who are not involved in this kind of process, force us out of what is at the centre of what we do. So yes, I think poetry can affect how people think about things like race, but how does poetry do this as poetry specifically, in a way that is different than say, philosophy or something else? What is the specific thing that we, as poets, or artists, do? My feeling is that we don’t only remind society of these “states” Baldwin mentions, or affect their thinking about issues, we remind them of the way in which humans have always responded to, and in a sense negotiated the mystery inherent in them and in life at large. And that is its power. I suspect you are right in a way--- that this act may be a buttress, not just for you, against the mismanagement of mystery: collapse, violence, tyranny, madness and the placebo of commoditization.
CL: Yes, play can certainly include the chaotic. I have many a bruises to prove this. Yet, I can think of many things, which resist being characterized as chaotic, yet, which are still quite rife with mystery. Maybe because I just can’t perceive their chaos. A mango, for instance. It’s a simple pleasure for me to the point that I actually think I was a mango in a past life, that, naturally, I fell in love with another mango and then, maybe we got married, and then I ate the love of my mango life. I was then reborn human as punishment, obviously. Still, I look at a mango and I don’t see chaos. I see beauty, simplicity, desire, mystery, yes, but mostly I see delicious.
If the task calls for it, I can call upon my relationship with the mango and attempt to use its metaphorical power to reveal things about being alive that I may not have perceived without having this deep, ridiculous love for the mango.
It’s very easy to romanticize the perceived nature of the things we spend our lives doing--poetry being no exception. So, when I really think about it, pitting poetry against philosophy or mathematics or science often reveals false distinctions. Poetry includes philosophy and mathematics and science and all systems of inquiry and thought for that matter, because poetry is a way of thinking about things, including all of the things that these systems and disciplines depend upon; conversely, philosophy or math or sociology need not be poetic. I find this is where poetry becomes that oft-theorized chameleon. It’s the ultimate Chameleon (it can take take the result of A.G Bell who gave the world the telephone, Alexander Fleming who gave the world penicillin, R.E Khan who gave the world the internet, the mysterious histories that invented religion, Dante who invented the terza rima--and transmute their effects into a certain clarity that takes us closer to our expansive selves).
Maybe we can’t measure what poetry actually does in the world because it does what it does in spite of our ignorance. And because we can’t measure it we also have trouble naming it. So we can agree that poetry’s work is multifarious and that it is at least/most a buttress against treachery, that it is serious play, a management of mystery as a fact of life. It is just as true that we who create poetry have no practical way to measure its effects outside of ourselves--maybe. After all this, our most precise resolution is that we have no answers.
VL: As I say, I think “play” is a science and vice versa, though science thinks it would not be “Science” (capital S) if it admitted that it possessed elements of serious play, like ritual or Obeah. Of course poetry includes philosophy. What would T.S. Eliot have been without Henri Bergson? But also what would he have been if he allowed Bergson to triumph within him, over Dante? My point is that I think there is merit in particular forms. There is something that poetry gives us that theatre won’t, and vice versa. What I am saying really is that poetry (and each poet), no matter the numerous influences on it, or the various forms it takes, should always be resolute and faithful about/to what it, specifically, gives to the world.
Vladimir Lucien (born 1988) is a writer, critic and actor from St. Lucia. His first collection of poetry, Sounding Ground, won the Caribbean region's major literary prize for anglophone literature, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, making Lucien the youngest ever winner of the prize.
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 Room, The Puritan, This Magazine, Arc, CV2and 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.