Interview with Vahni Capildeo

Could you reflect on your relationship to the telephone, in the past or in the present, and say something about how this might have informed your poem?

How does anyone have the courage ever to ring anyone else at all? With all that goes on or might be going in others’ lives? Isn’t it the ultimate ‘Person from Porlock’ situation? The possibility of spontaneous video-calling via mobile phone terrifies me, as I frequently am doing several tasks at once and am often not fit to be seen.

Phone fears aside, my first ‘poems’ were scribbled on a telephone pad. In my mother’s house in Port of Spain, we still have an old-fashioned unit with a rotary dial, where it always was, in the kitchen. Next to it there is sure to be a pen or two, along with carefully saved clean or clean-ish paper torn into scraps, and sometimes a real notepad – perfect for the kind of doodling that sends the mind into the poetry zone. I used to hear one of the phone extensions in the house click if anyone tried to have a long conversation with me when I was at school – someone else picking up, listening in to ‘my’ call, silently checking up on me. Not wonderful for a teenager.

What informed my poem was how the phone is private yet public: doubly vulnerable. In my first year at university in England, which also saw the first nights I ever spent away from my family unit, the main way to keep in touch with Trinidad was via a pay phone on the wall of a staircase landing in a tall Victorian college building. Whatever I said was fed up and down the stairwell air currents, through the opening and closing doors of students living four to a floor, past their quick and noisy bodies.

The thing about living a few hundred or a few thousand miles away from people who feel ‘close’ is that sometimes the hiss and crackle of dust in the handset, the faint twangling of a crossed line, or the unmuted chatter of an operator, accompany the most urgent words. Death, for example, not just as an announcement, but the voice of the dying, can make itself heard this way, the voice on the line shadowing the voice in and from heart and heart.

How did you go about producing the work for this project? Were there any materials, anecdotal, literary or otherwise, that proved generative for you?

When Sarah Jackson and Sam Buchan-Watts contacted me about the project, their messages set off a flow of memories and images. Knowing that the two people commissioning the poem were also poets enabled me to write freely and associatively without fear of sounding too wild! I ‘looked into my heart’ (as Philip Sidney artfully recommends in the first sonnet of Astrophil and Stella) and found that the mix of Oxford cathedral bells with faraway and nearby voices had imprinted a reverberation. This reverberation had depth and length: the telephone cable which allowed me to communicate with home was undersea and transoceanic. I started to look up the names of transatlantic cables, the perils they suffer (being bitten by sea monsters!) and the techniques and terms of bell-ringing.

How much was the recording of the poem, and the format(s) through which the poem will be reproduced (i.e. a public phone booth and mobile app), a consideration in the composition?

I was utterly charmed to think of becoming a random and effectively anonymous voice!

I’m sure that people will enjoy the project for the whole experience of it. So they may remember being in the phone booth, and then maybe a scrap here and there from the poems to which they listen. Will they memorize everything about the poems and who the poets are? No; however, they probably will pursue old and new favourites.

Anyway, it is by ‘orts and fragments’ that poetry grafts or garlands itself into memory gardens. My own mind enjoys its scrappy memory garden of poem-cuttings. I believe that everyday access to the communication of crafted language makes it easier to tap into the ‘poetry zone’, as a writer. Further, we are welcomed into something like a shared or collective imagination. I’ll stop here before mentioning ‘empathy’ or ‘civil society’, but this is a project with treasurable communicative implications. 

Do you have any thoughts on how the project might have affected the way that you think about the relationship between poetry and telephony, or between writing and technology more broadly?

So far it hasn’t made me less phone-shy! I do think the project is admirable for being both cutting-edge and comforting … ethereal and embodied; the use of new and older technologies offers the chance of physical contact with poetry as real-time soundwaves.

Via the apparent abstractions of technology and writing, it’s paradoxically possible to be intensely in body and mind at one and the same time. I’d die rather than accept split and fracture as ‘the way things are now’. There is a valuable, healing sense of reaching across in the voice-to-ear mode.

Are there any other reflections you can make about the process of producing the poem, or your participation in the project?

I dearly hope to be able to visit the phone booth. On a brief visit to Nottingham some while ago, I didn’t have time to tour the caves beneath the city, but I like the thought of a literature and telephony occupying the overground space … airwaves marrying with the subterranean.

May 2020