The Operating System and Liminal Lab


nicholas laughlin manausThe writing looks hieroglyphic: all caps. The envelope opens to release a Persian lion; a dancing rabbit; an Ethiopian prayerbook half the size of a matchbox; or, again and again, a handmade quasi-business card with no name, nothing but a line or two like the riddle a dream leaves behind for a late waker –ALL I CAN SAY IS WHAT I CAN SAY / WHAT I CAN SAY IS ALL I CAN SAY – maxim, refrain, or epitaph version of selfie?
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If I think of the craft of words anywhere in the world – the craft involving maker, writer and reader: painted buses or samizdat posters in South America; old books; citizen media; independent presses in Kenya: I think of Nicholas Laughlin. For me, the poetry of his influence is everywhere.
Nicholas travels incessantly. If you are so lucky as to meet him, he is probably on foot. At the time, you will not notice what he is wearing. Later, you will remember he was dressed in sea-colours, lizard-colours, ferrous earth-shades…the palette of the islands. Almost certainly, he will have been running at full Ariel tilt –from his office to Alice Yard, the revolutionary arts centre he co-directs; from a reading he has organized as Programme Director of Trinidad’s international Bocas Litfest to a meeting about Caribbean Beat, the magazine he edits. I only succeeded in colliding with him because he was tasked with interviewing me way back in the 2000s; we walked through and through the Botanic Garden in Oxford, UK, and his eyes and questions, quick and green as any leaf, had all the insight of the poet I did not then know he was. It was the least annoying yet most surgically perceptive interview that I’ve ever undergone. Despite the busyness, Nicholas is careful to respond to messages from his unofficial flock of writers who turn to him for advice and a crystalline editorial vision. He listens without rest for new thoughts, new voices; it is a work of years; he tends and connects them.
Yet this traveller is intensely Caribbean; this facilitator is an originator. Like the 1980s school textbook version of the climate of the birth island we share, Trinidad, as a writer Nicholas Laughlin goes through dry spells, white heat, hurricane seasons, daytime blackout rain and the occasional ‘Petit Carême’ (Little Lent) a golden let-up from scheduled downpours. When Nicholas first divulged that he himself had, not one or two texts that I might look at, but an entire manuscript of poems, I could not imagine what – out of his depth of knowledge and variety of experience – his texts would be like, even formally. On that readerly trip, I accelerated from curiosity to enthrallment in under ten seconds.
Nicholas’s poems are grouped into sequences. ‘The Strange Years of My Life’ unsettles like the imagistic refraction of a John Le Carré or Graham Greene novel. Its linguistic timbre somehow also resonates with the often exquisite travel writing of the brutal era of ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’. It brings Caribbean lyric consciousness right up to date, without being overtly political; touching on hypersensitive narrators’ shadowy fights and flights, their vulnerability to beauty and betrayal. Like the narrators, we feel inside criss-crossing webs, without having the clues to ‘the whole story’. In this excerpt, note the wit and frustration of the speaker who remains oddly at home in his doubled language whilst making rags and ribbons of the tail-ends of the too rapidly spinning world at which he clutches and which he decorates even as he disavows it.
Je Vous Écris du Bout du Monde
Damn these fevers. Damn these speechless days.
Damn my old friends.
Damn my gambled treasures.
My frogsuit of jade.
My eighteen leopards.
My pretty crown of thorns.
There are only twenty-nine hours in every day,
only sixteen months in a year,
I only have twelve lives.
Damn this country, pretty on the map,
frontiers of crinkled scarlet.
There are too many wrong countries in the world.
I did not invent the magic lantern.
I did not invent the hot-air balloon.
There is only one day in every day.
Related to this sequence, the hunter-hunted ‘Lamps, Clocks, Mirrors, Maps’ (First published in St. Petersburg Review 4/5, 2012 ) switches between alert and incantatory. Hear how it begins:
Lamps, clocks, mirrors, maps,
etc., props all drowsy with dusk.
The windows roped open, the breeze outside
launching brief arias of leaves and plastic bags.
I found your list snug in an unread book
(no one reads poems, no book could be safer),
the names crossed out.
The sense of quiet, fiercely apprehended enigma pervades ‘Small Husband’, another of the sequences. These poems seem jewel-toned to me (hibiscus or ruby reds, ocean or sapphire blues, absinthe or jade greens):
Small husband, you hide among the ants,
you wait among the thorns, your eyes green as the setting sun,
a heartbeat hunting a red stone under the leaves,
electroplectic fidget.
Small husband, is this where you will drink?
(From ‘Roitelet’)
Love or anti-love poems, or self-interrogation; who or what is the ‘Small Husband’ whose image nests in these tightly woven words? Again, the poems do not yield or entwine us in a story; desire is compressed into them, and – not solitude – the far rarer quality of solitariness, and (like a world in a pebble or magic dress in the kernel of a nut) the philosophically immense questioning of an Antillean Hamlet.
So, how do you get hold of the poetry? There is a fair selection online; but Nicholas, while continuing to create, and to facilitate creation, in many forms – often site-specific or ephemeral, living in the memory – continues to resist publication in book form. This is a loss to the rest of us, for he registers, more acutely than many ‘book-poets’ I’ve read, a twenty-first century global individuality rooted in its locale and cross-pollinated with centuries of world literature. You will have to go to Trinidad and perhaps become a recipient of his trace objects. You will, perhaps, have to wait. Keep Googling, and dream with the Antilles. For me, the influence of his poetry is now everywhere in my own work: in the chosen or exploded reticences; in the geographical allusions and linguistic risks. ‘Small husband, I can be hungrier than this.’
Born in Port of Spain, Vahni Capildeo, a freelance writer, is the daughter of Leila Bissoondath Capildeo, who told her stories of East Trinidad, and the late Devendranath Capildeo, a poet. Capildeo’s other formative influences include Indian diaspora culture (notably a preoccupation with boundaries between the human and the natural), French, and pre-1500 English literature. Capildeo read English Language and Literature at Christ Church, Oxford. Her awards (the Charles Oldham Shakespeare Prize; Viking Society Prize for Northern Research; Rhodes scholarship) reflect the intensity, variety and adventure of reading encouraged by the tutorial system. Shortly before her final examinations, she was struck by a speeding police car. During her convalescence, she could not read. At this time, she formed the friendship with medieval musicologist Emma Dillon which led to an enduring interest in the musical possibilities of poetry and prose. While remaining at Christ Church to work on a doctorate in Old Norse and translation, Capildeo had her first poems published in student magazines such as Jeremy Noel-Tod’s Zero. During this period, she completed and destroyed a first poetry manuscript. Capildeo subsequently won a Research Fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge. The inspirational leadership of Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern allowed Capildeo to intermit and spend essential months immersed in the cultural and family environments of Trinidad and Jamaica. This led to Capildeo’s first book, No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003) and the draft of her dramatic pamphlet Person Animal Figure (Landfill, 2005). Despite her preference for crossing over into rather than working wholly within academe, Capildeo has taught at the universities of Glasgow, Leeds, Sheffield, Kingston-upon-Thames and Greenwich.
She is grateful for the poetic guidance of Professor John Whale and the conversations with a brilliant set of students while she held a Teaching Fellowship in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds. The landscapes of Yorkshire can be found in her second book,Undraining Sea (Egg Box, 2009), which was Highly Commended for the Forward Prize (individual poem category, 2009) and shortlisted for the Guyana International Prize for Literature (2011). The University of Sheffield introduced two more important creative friendships to Capildeo’s life: with Professor Adam Piette and Dr. Alex Houen, editors of the innovative e-zine Blackbox Manifold, for which Capildeo is a contributing advisor. Capildeo enjoys collaborating with artists from other disciplines, co-creating performances with the Oxford Improvisers and the DEC Collective, and working with Andre Bagoo on a text/image project on urban decay in Trinidad, recorded in the art book Disappearing Houses (Alice Yard, 2011). Capildeo is a keen writer of prose as well as poetry. Her unpublished memoir, One ScatteredSkeleton, was chosen by UK blogger and journalist Ann Morgan as Trinidad’s representative book in the ‘Year of Reading the World’ project.
Her work in various genres has been widely anthologized, for example in Iain Sinclair’s London: City of Disappearances (Penguin, 2006) and Trinidad Noir (Akashic, 2008). Like Utter, Capildeo’s Dark & Unaccustomed Words (Egg Box, 2012; shortlisted for the OCM Bocas Poetry Prize) was inspired by her time working in the Etymology Group and the Research Group at the Oxford English Dictionary. Capildeo’s volunteer roles at Oxfam Head Office and the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre helped prepare her for her role as Senior Programme Officer with Commonwealth Writers, the cultural initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation, an intergovernmental organization supporting and promoting participatory governance. Current projects include object-based public poetry tours with a group of fellow poets at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and a new collection, Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis.
No Traveller Returns (Cambridge: Salt, 2003); Person Animal Figure (Norwich: Landfill, 2005);Undraining Sea (Norwich: Egg Box, 2009); Dark & Unaccustomed Words (Norwich: Egg Box, 2012);Utter (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2013).
Vahni Capildeo’s prose and poetry has appeared in numerous anthologies, including London: City of Disappearances (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006); Trinidad Noir (New York: Akashic, 2008); The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse (Oxford: OUP, 2009); Out of Bounds: British Black and Asian Poets (Newcastle: Bloodaxe, 2012); The Arts of Peace (Reading: Two Rivers, forthcoming 2014).
[Editor’s note: in July of 2012, we received a submission for our print magazine from Andre Bagoo, who introduced himself, as in his bio, as: “a poet and journalist working in Trinidad and Tobago.” I was immediately curious about how he wove these two together – and also I loved his poems, one of which was included in the second PRINT issue of Exit Strata. Excited by his work, I invited him to be part the FIELD NOTES series (here’s his excellent entry, “Interrogating Truth“), as well as the Poetry Month series.

This year, he returns to write this piece on Derek Walcott, as well as passes on the torch to two other poets from T&T, Shivanee Ramlochan and Vahni Capildeo, whose wonderful piece on Nicholas Laughlin you’ve just read. It just so happens that Ramlochan, unknowing, also chose Capildeo as her subject. I am so grateful for our connection, and this bright window of opportunity to widen our awareness of poetry elsewhere, to feel more human, more same, through this medium. Then, and now, I am astonished at this magic that has become so ordinary in our lives: the erasure of 2,383 miles between community members that can begin with a pause, a few words, and an instantaneous click. – Lynne DeSilva-Johnson]
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