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Alice Hiller introduces guest reviewer Isabelle Baafi

From time to time you meet a writer – on the page or in person – whose work gives off an electric charge. Isabelle Baafi’s poems have this quality. She won the 2019 Vincent Cooper Prize in The Caribbean Writer, amongst other distinguished awards, and her deep creative connection with the region is evidenced in her radical and penetrating review for issue 4 of harana poetry about Shivanee Ramlochan’s Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting and Safiyah Sinclair’s Cannibal.


Exploring collections with which she has lived for years, rather than months, and also written in response to, gives Baafi’s insights a depth of reflection and comprehension. It also shows how books can sustain and transform us, as readers and writers, over time. Because this is her first published review, I wanted to ask her briefly about how it came into being, not least to make the path seem more possible for other poets considering reviewing.


Alice Hiller: Can you say something about how this review came into being, Isabelle? I know you have been keeping it in mind for several months.


Isabelle Baafi: First of all, thank you for the opportunity to contribute to harana poetry. It’s an amazing journal and writing this review has been an amazing experience. I first encountered Shivanee Ramlochan’s collection in October 2018 – and it has stayed with me ever since. It’s truly incredible. I read Cannibal last August and it had a profound effect as well. It’s hypnotic and dense, and so ambitious in its goals. I brought Ramlochan’s ‘Duenne Lara’ and Sinclair’s ‘Pocomania’ to our stanza group in September, because I thought they were really strong, complex poems, and because I thought they would stimulate interesting discussions – which they did. Afterwards, when you invited me to review the collections, I was glad to stay with them a little longer. I feel like I’ve learned so much.


AH: Shivanee Ramlochan and Safiyah Sinclair have been transformative writers for you. Was it important to share your understanding of them?


IB: I am an ardent fan of Shivanee’s work and I have a profound respect for Safiya’s also. It was important to me because I feel like both of these collections have received a lot of praise and attention – and rightly so. But there were certain aspects of their composition and excellence that I noticed and didn’t see anyone else write about in depth: Sinclair’s reclamation of savagery, Ramlochan’s use of Creole, or both of their explorations of the landscapes as witness, wound and abettor. To others, these aspects may seem small, but they actually hold so much power, and have a huge resonance.


AH: The voice of your essay, with its heightened, imagistic, language, and fierceness of articulation, seems to have entered into a creative conversation with the works of the two poets. Was that a deliberate plan, or did it come about organically?


IB: Thank you for saying so! I think most of all, I wanted to honour the works I was reviewing. Like I said in the essay, these are not easy worlds to navigate, and there are poems in them which I really had to wrestle with to gain a solid, cogent grasp of. But the more I studied them and wrote about them, the more enamoured I became with all of them.


AH: As a writer whose heritage derives from both Africa and the Caribbean, you bring a depth of feeling, and clarity of understanding, to the geographical, cultural and historical subject matters of Ramlochan and Sinclair. Did you experience a sense of recognition, engaging with their work?


IB: Yes, definitely. Their poetry resonates with me a lot because I am always interested in interrogating language. As a black woman born in London, I speak, first and foremost, a language that has designed itself against my existence; a language which is embedded with hatred and violence, and which often negates, marginalises, etc – and sometimes in the most unexpected ways. For instance, I couldn’t believe it when I found out that Thomas Jefferson [a slave-owner] invented the word ‘belittle’! And so I am always suspicious of language, and seeking to discover new meanings in the words we use every day, or to transform them into something alchemic through their alteration. And that is something both poets do in amazing ways.


AH: harana poetry explores languages and language systems co-existing with English for the poets it features and reviews. Did you want to draw attention to the multiple languages within the Caribbean, and the historic forces shaping them, particularly insofar as they impact female identified and queer lives?


IB: The influence of multiple cultures on the languages and dialects of the Caribbean is a really beautiful and powerful thing. Their meeting may not have been on pleasant terms, but even in the midst of conflict, and out of suffering, the peoples of the Caribbean managed to craft new forms of expression that have so much musicality, humour and warmth.


AH: Are there other Caribbean writers who resonate with you and you might recommend to harana poetry readers?


IB: That’s a good question! Caribbean poetry is a world I am still exploring myself, but I think you can’t go wrong with Grace Nichols, Kamau Braithwaite, Aimé Césaire and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Also Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné is another great contemporary poet.


AH: Thank you, Isabelle.

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