Peepal Tree Poets Speak

sx salon interviews Tanya Shirley, Ishion Hutchinson, and Christian Campbell

• June 2011


Three young poets, each riding the wave of a successful first collection recently published with Peepal Tree Press, agreed to answer some questions about process and publication for this special sx salon discussion of Peepal Tree.

Because this is a discussion related to its twenty-fifth anniversary, I will start with, Why Peepal Tree Press? That is, why Peepal Tree Press for you, and (why) would you recommend the press for other first-time writers?

Tanya Shirley: I chose Peepal Tree Press for several reasons: I did not want to go the route of entering a “first book” contest and waiting several months just to hear if I had won and then if I hadn’t won, having to start the process all over again; I took a master’s workshop with Kwame Dawes through the Calabash International Literary Festival Trust and I believe it was around that time that he became Peepal Tree’s poetry editor and I liked the idea of submitting to a press that would already be familiar with my work, particularly my voice; and finally, from what I had seen and heard, Peepal Tree seemed interested in following the career of a writer. I didn’t feel as if they would abandon me after my first book, as is sometimes the case with other publishing houses.

I would definitely recommend Peepal Tree to other Caribbean writers. I was fortunate enough to participate in the Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad in April, where Jeremy Poynting gave a presentation chronicling Peepal Tree’s journey over the past twenty-five years. They have grown considerably. The covers look better, the books don’t fall apart, they have more staff and I think they are even more committed to showcasing the talent of Caribbean writers.

Ishion Hutchinson: Peepal Tree Press because it was an act of grace, made possible by Kwame Dawes, who besides being a poet is a miracle worker. I never thought of Peepal Tree Press for me—nor any other press, for that matter—but when it happened, I quickly realized I have been fortunate to have my first effort handled by an entity committed to only quality writing from the Caribbean. That agenda alone is cherishable and exists only at Peepal Tree Press, and that is one main reason any ambitious young poet from the region should, after breaking head and heart over his manuscript, pray Peepal Tree picks it up. You will realize immediately, however, that though Caribbean identity and Caribbeanness command a great deal of what Peepal Tree is about, you have entered into a broad-reaching, serious international organ.

Christian Campbell: It’s all about timing. I met Jeremy Poynting in the UK while I was a grad student at Oxford and then again in Trinidad at the West Indian Literature Conference in 2005. He generously asked me to send my manuscript to him but it wasn’t the right time. Kwame Dawes approached me years later after he came on as poetry editor of the press and it was the right time. Kwame spoke candidly about his experience as a Peepal Tree poet, his confidence in Jeremy and Hannah and the direction of the press. I was excited to put my first book out with a press that could give it an important context in the broad-broad aesthetic scope of the Caribbean literary tradition (one of a number of traditions I’m wrestling with in my book). I especially admire Peepal Tree’s mission to restore out-of-print Caribbean classics as they publish the best of new Caribbean poetry and fiction. There’s an exciting generational quarrel happening between books.

What did you do when you got word of the book contract with Peepal Tree Press?

TS: I don’t remember what I did when I heard. I had worked on that manuscript for so long that I think I would have been more shocked if they had rejected it. There are a few poems in She Who Sleeps with Bones that had their skeletons in my MFA thesis way back in 2000. I also waited until I felt the work was truly ready before I submitted, so probably you should ask me what I would have done if Peepal Tree had rejected the manuscript.

IH: I read it and waited a few days and told a few friends. I signed it sometime after and went elbow in on the manuscript.

CC: I was doing a talk in Leeds and went over to Peepal Tree’s headquarters to get the contract from Jeremy and Hannah [Bannister] and check out the digs. They bought me a masala fish curry.

The Peepal Tree Press spine on a book of poetry is easily recognizable, but each of you has a quite distinctive (and striking) cover. How did you each choose the cover image for your book?

TS: I always knew I wanted a red book cover. As much as I love art, I envisioned the cover with just the title and the red background. It was Jeremy or Hannah who suggested that I include artwork on the cover. Once that was decided I set about finding a piece that I loved. The painting on my cover is by Solomon Sinclair and it was up in my parents’ house for several years. It just had the right vibe.

IH: There is a tall tale version I will spare you, but the current cover is due to serendipity. Albert Huie’s work I have long loved and known from my first encounter with Jamaican painting, so I chose this image for it is the kind of landscape many of the poems in Far District try to capture: hills, bush, clouds, sky, light, some rough houses, and I like how the green in the middle of the painting darkens to suggest a river or a sea, two elements framing the collection.

CC: I took some time off after grad school in England and worked as an editor/journalist in The Bahamas. It was a formative period for me and I did a lot of work with visual artists. In 2005, the artist John Beadle gave me a private tour of his recent exhibition and I saw his astonishing painting Bush Fire: This is the Dry Season. I was drawn to John’s lyrical painting and spiritual vision. The figure in the painting is otherworldly yet of the earth. I knew it was the cover of the book.

Like Kwame Dawes, whom you all credit as part of your reason for choosing Peepal Tree, all three of you participate in some way in academia, and I find that several of the young writers I have encountered recently have also chosen the PhD route (many times after or concurrent with earning an MFA). Why do you think this is becoming more common (or maybe just more noticeable)? (How) Does this affect your poetics? Does your “academic hat” influence your approach to your work, or give you an additional perspective on Caribbean publishing?

TS: I am in the process of navigating my position as an academic and a creative writer, that is, I have yet to find the right balance, and these days, particularly because I’ve been on study leave for a year, I feel like more of a creative writer. Perhaps when I get back to teaching in September that will change. I’m thinking of Lorna Goodison’s poem when I say, I feel like a “tightrope walker.” I like the world of academia even though I’m sometimes intimidated by the dissertation writing process; however, I think, like many poets these days, I am working towards a Phd primarily to ensure that I can get a job in this competitive arena. I am not sure what the future will hold but right now I am comfortable in Jamaica and I know that UWI will not afford me the luxury of teaching only creative writing and earning a decent salary.

This tightrope walking is especially difficult during the academic year when I’m teaching. I probably write one poem for the entire semester even though I walk into many lectures with poems floating about in my head and I wish I could simply say to my students, “You give the lecture while I get these words down on paper.” However, the benefit of teaching literature courses is that my sense of what is possible in a poem is more expansive and I am more aware of the way in which my poetry can function as its own theoretical map. I am more inclined to write poems that speak back to the books I am teaching and to play around with how my poems can deconstruct that line we often draw between theory/academic work and creative work.

IH: I am not an academic. The scholar-poet is not new; it may seem somewhat pronounced now (though I don’t believe it is; all depends on what one really means by academic, and who, for instance, are those poetacademics), primarily because poetry has been institutionalized into universities, and for poets to make a living doing poetry, it means teaching in universities, a profession which comes with a slew of academic obligations. For me, after finishing my MFA, I needed more time and a better sense of security to finish my manuscript. The PhD appealed to me for this reason. The other reason is purely for the sake of reading, something that is always done on one’s own time and leisure, but I would not have read a great portion of the literature I had to, going before the seventeenth century while at the same time reading most recent books, with such close attention. While doing the PhD, I discovered I missed the essay form and it was stimulating having to thrust back into its demands right after years of a completely creative existence. In that sense, the PhD provided the grounds for me to bring ideas I have on literature—life—into sharper focus.

The PhD has given me added notions of the poetics I am most interested in, as well as those I don’t care for too much. It does not affect the way I write poetry; they are two different activities, intellectually and spiritually. The academic has objectives to fulfill, and tries to do so using rhetoric, an argument that presupposes a listener—so the world is there. The poet does something else—he, or poetry, “reveals the world, creates another,” in the words of Octavio Paz.

As far as influence, the experience of reading is a constant discovery, and the PhD opened many strange doors that might have otherwise remained closed to me. It is the PhD that made me read, to cite one example, the works of Christopher Smart. Suddenly the eighteenth century looked more disturbing than even Pope’s satirical representation of it. A good deal of what I read finds a second life in what I write, but it has been so sublimated under my own experiences and imagination that I am not sure anymore it can be said to be an influence. It would be absurd to deny the influence of anything—which is not what I am saying—these things are just there now, as an “another” in Paz’s use of the word.

My PhD had nothing to do with publishing in general, so I have not gained any additional perspective on Caribbean publishing. If you are asking in terms of if it has affected the way I read Caribbean writing, it would be hard to say. It has affected the way I read, in general, very positively because I now have a wider reference field. I see a bit more where certain contemporary writers are stealing from, and that is fun.

CC: Of the three poets, I’m most identified with the label academic. I never did an MFA; I have a PhD and work as a professor in a (primarily) scholarly position at a major research university. Interestingly enough, I don’t identify so much with being an “academic.” Poets do the PhD ’cause they need to eat. I wanted to eat and I couldn’t abandon books. I was interested in being a poet as well as a scholar and cultural critic and saw grad school as a kind of literary apprenticeship. What I struggled for all those years and what I continue to struggle for is how to forge a critical voice that has flair, has texture, respects Creation, reaches for the human, does not estrange, does not destroy.

The two worlds are both at odds and in love. It’s a challenge sometimes, especially in terms of energy, when you must continue to trespass. But I prefer to think of myself as an artist that has a range of tools available to me, each project demanding different tools.

What advice, if any, can you share with currently unpublished poets in the Caribbean and its diaspora who hope to publish a collection?

TS: I know there are some people who are just born with exceptional talent, but for the rest of us, I recommend workshops with reputable poets, constant revision of the work, an openness to criticism and an insatiable desire to read poetry. I read poetry every single day and I think reading poetry ironically helps to strengthen your own voice. Your voice becomes a refreshing combination of imitation and originality. You are training your creative mind to write something similar to what you are reading but at the same time you are exposing that mind to what is absent in the universe, and your work, on its own accord, begins to fill the spaces and gaps in between the words of others.

IH: There are many useful things many other young poets have said (and senior poets have said better), and I feel I would only repeat them, plus I am still at crouch level. I will say, however, that a book is only a means to the poetry, not poetry itself, so don’t allow yourself to be discouraged and disappointed over a material that can go up in flames easily. If it will happen, it will happen. The most vital thing now is to prepare yourself to be a good poet, work on that, and do not be mediocre, for whatever reason.

CC: Well, there is so much that we are not taught about living as a writer. What does it take to be as excellent as we need to be? This is a world of joy, jealousy, disappointment, rejection, pleasure, resentment, pain, exhaustion, exhilaration. It’s hard as hell and it’s a challenge to be disciplined and healthy and productive. Writers need to talk more about wellness. It’s real.

For me, exercise is a really important way of keeping centered and sane. I also have to constantly keep myself centered in the rat race of the writing world where competitiveness (whether it’s internal or external) can be very distracting. Don’t watch nuttin’! (I’m learning.)

It’s a world in which you can gain and lose friendships quickly. What matters? You must constantly return to Source, both when you achieve something significant and when you are passed over.

And nothing (nothing!) will cut the terror and possibility, the endless horizon of the blank page.

What are you working on currently?

TS: What am I working on now? It’s top secret. [smile] I’m just happy that at this point, I have the time to write. So I’m working on writing as much as I can before I go back to teaching and the dry season.

IH: New poems for a collection that is taking shape called Centaurs.

CC: A scholarly book on Caribbean poetry. Drafting poems. Other things bubbling.

 

Tanya Shirley teaches in the Department of Literatures in English at the University of the West Indies, Mona. She was awarded an MFA in creative writing from the University of Maryland. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and in 2009 she won second prize for poetry in the Small Axe Literary Competition. Her first poetry collection, She Who Sleeps with Bones, was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2009.

Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. His work has appeared in several journals in the United States and abroad. He has received the Academy of American Poets’ Levis Award and has been nominated for the 2011 PEN/Joyce Osterweil award for poetry. Far District, his first collection, was published by Peepal Tree Press in 2010. He is a Pirogue Fellow and currently teaches at the University of Baltimore and Maryland Institute College of Art.

Christian Campbell is the author of Running the Dusk, published by Peepal Tree Press in 2010. The collection was a finalist for both the Cave Canem Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for the Best First Book in the United Kingdom and won the 2010 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. A recent recipient of a Lannan Residency Fellowship, he teaches at the University of Toronto.

 

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