UEA Poetics Project Reading Series #2: Vahni Capildeo
by Jeremy Noel-Tod
Vahni Capildeo (b. 1973) was born in Port of Spain and grew up in Trinidad. She came to Britain in 1991, where she read English at Oxford University, and wrote a doctoral thesis on Old Norse literature. She has been a Research Fellow at Girton College, Cambridge, taught creative writing at various UK universities including Glasgow and Leeds, and from 2014-15 was Judith E. Wilson Fellow in Poetry at Cambridge.
Capildeo’s first collection, No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003) introduced a sophisticated writer, drawn to working in sequences and multiple voices. ‘Anything which looks like a neat language’, she has said, ‘is a translation’. Her cosmopolitan imagination is capable of exuberantly satirical humour on questions of identity, as in the ‘Person Animal Figure’ monologues from her second collection Undraining Sea (Eggbox, 2009). Dark and Unaccustomed Words (Eggbox, 2011) was shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature. Taking its title from George Puttenham’s The Arte of Poesie (1589), and an epigraph from the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, it offers formally inventive lyrics to friends and fellow poets, as well as the meditative prose poetry that has become one of her most distinctive modes.
Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013), Capildeo’s fourth collection, drew on her experience as a lexicographer at the Oxford English Dictionary, and displayed her many kinds of verbal playfulness, which can be both sharp and sweet: as she puts it in an experimental translation of the Old English poem ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’, the lyrics here are ‘a Stanley knife lullaby score’. A fragmentary pamphlet sequence, Simple and Complex Shapes (Shearsman, 2015) was followed by Measures of Expatriation (2016), her most ambitious and accomplished book yet, which blends dream, memoir, rhapsody and argument in, as she says, ‘one binding’ of verse and prose. It won the 2016 Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection.
The text for this reading in Norwich on 17th February 2015 was written to mark Carnival Tuesday in Trinidad and performed through the person of ‘Pierrot Grenade’, a hooded jester with a painted face who is dressed in a gown of coloured rags and revels satirically in his learning.