I made my pilgrimage up through the countryside to St.Andrew’s for the 20th anniversary of the StAnza poetry festival. Its quietness and charm lends itself perfectly to days dedicated to poetry, and there’s a special thrill to slipping through an archway, down a cobbled lane to the beautiful, warm and very modern Byre Theatre. The warmth continued inside, with an almost family-like informality among the audience; everyone mildly teasing and joking with one another. The last reading of the festival, with such prize-laden heavyweights as Vahni Capildeo and Elaine Feinstein should have been a sell out like the others had been over the past four days, but it was late on a Sunday evening after all. Others’ pilgrimages were longer than Edinburgh.
It made sense for the two women to be reading at the same event. Both poets are published by Carcanet, both winners of prestigious prizes, both trailblazers, both writing from a place of complicated and multilayered identity; fighting back against any marginalisation or categorisation by firmly and triumphantly taking the centre in life as well as in their work. Capildeo’s readings took us back and forth across oceans, to reflect the Caribbean experience; creating a web of experience from Trinidad, India and the UK. Feinstein, of Russian Jewish descent, and twice the age of Capildeo at 86, read us poems spanning the world, decades of social change, and the trajectory of love and loss over a long, rich life. Feinstein, anchored us with her intimate yet more familiar observations of marriage, family, ageing and loss. Comforting, after Capildeo had taken the ground from underneath us by quietly severing any sentimental attachments to preconceived notions or worn out power structures with her precise and powerful poems of politics, identity, migration and love.
Capildeo, the Trinidadian-British winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Poetry, won for her exquisite fifth collection on matters of migration and identity, ‘Measures of Expatriation’. She read from this of course, but mixed it up with poems from a 2013 collection, ‘Utter’. She kept the audience close; by throwing out some dry meta-comedy beloved of people blessed with great intellect and a sense of mischief, gently teasing the audience while encouraging them to stay with her, lifting the listeners with laughter before dropping the next brick of a poem. A huge range of subject matter: from Molasses, about slavery, a spellbinding reading of Possum, about ‘personal’ identity, Laptop Blue Screen Realization bringing recognition, laughter and claps, and ending with Felt Pen, a ‘commentary on the commentary’ of a fellow artist’s creative process. A very Caribbean tradition in fact; lightening up the heaviness of life and a painful history with a joke or two. Capildeo uses similar searing precision in the choosing and placing of words as fellow Caribbean poet and Forward Prize winner Kei Miller. Capildeo delicately guides us through with the power and responsibility of acknowledging layers upon layers of history when writing for oneself, and whoever else should understand it, but also the liberty of inhabiting a creative space free from the burdens of history.
Unfortunately for Feinstein, as mesmering and wonderful as it was having a full hour with Capildeo, the interval cut into her time slot significantly. A winner of too many prizes to mention, we were enjoying the friendly sharing of the snapshots of her life; the explanatory stories sandwiched between poems rather like the ones you’d share over tea with a close friend; her bittersweet marriage and subsequent widowhood. Poems about her marriage and widowhood were particularly poignant, especially as she recited her elegy to her late husband by heart. Slightly flustered as she realised how little time she had left, she made sure to finish with an elegy each to both parents, leaving us with touching snap-shot portraits; of her father, ‘to the end you were uncowed’ and mother, with Mirror Talk, as she has forged her way to ‘be the life she never lived’.
Both poets met with great applause and warmth. Knowing how exuberant even middle-class, intellectual Caribbean audiences can be, I wondered if the lack of call and response from the crowd had bothered Vahni Capildeo. “I thought they were a responsive audience,” she said, as she graciously signed my copy of ‘Measures of Expatriation’. “A Trinidad audience might have given me a lot more backchat.” Both of us half the age of Feinstein, I hope I’m around to hear what she has to say in another forty years’ time.
Reviewer: Lisa Michel Williams