Canisia Lubrin, finalist for Griffin Poetry Prize, deconstructs the 'self'

Acclaimed poet Canisia Lubrin doesn't have much interest in the "autobiographical self." But perhaps she won't mind letting you in on a few details about her esteemed resumé, if only to contextualize the Griffin Poetry Prize finalist's rise as a wordsmith to watch.

The Whitby, Ont.-based writer, critic, editor and teacher became a regular on awards lists for her 2019 debut book of poetry, "Voodoo Hypothesis," a subversion of the imperial construct of "Blackness" expressed through an intricate blend of Caribbean Creole, English patois and baroque language.

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Her sophomore collection, "The Dyzgraphxst," published by McClelland & Stewart, takes the disruptive possibilities of language to new heights with an expansive deconstruction of the "self" as it exists in relation to the ills of the modern world.

After the book's release, Lubrin was named among this year's winners of the Windham-Campbell Prize, which is administered through Yale University, and provides US$165,000 for each recipient to focus on work "independent of financial concerns.''

"The Dyzgraphxst" was also a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry and the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. And on Wednesday, Lubrin will be one of three Canadian contenders vying for the $65,000 Griffin Poetry Prize.

Lubrin talked to The Canadian Press about how her work pushes back against modern ideals of individualism and meritocracy, even as she's exalted by an awards culture that upholds those same values. Her responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

CP: What does "The Dyzgraphxst" mean and how does it frame what you're exploring in the collection?

Lubrin: "Dyzgraphxst" is a made-up word; it's a neologism. And it is based in the concept of dysgraphia, which in its Greek orthography means difficult writing or to have difficulty writing. And initially, I thought that's really interesting for a poet to be someone who experiences that kind of phenomenon.

But it is really metaphorical in the way that I apply it to the book. It's based on (York University professor) Christina Sharpe's concept of what she calls dysgraphia as the "orthography of the wake." And she theorizes that the wake, as in that period of mourning after someone dies, is central to the experience of Black people post-transatlantic slavery....

I thought this is a really interesting jumping-off point for me to think through ideas of personhood and the self, and what kind of legibility is demanded for people to live in a world that is full of catastrophes such as climate catastrophe, increasing fascism and nationalism and all of that stuff happening. And we have to be legible in that kind of world in ways that, to me, just seems to be really reductive.

CP: Who are the central characters, or 'selves' perhaps, in the collection and what different roles do they play?

Lubrin: There's really one character in the book. But what I've done is use a sort of mirroring technique — like when you enter one of those funhouses with a million mirrors in them, and you get split in 75 directions.

And so the character "I," there's only really one character in there, doing that kind of literary work. But it is carrying a chorus, or a collective, or community or even the whole world within it, simply because of the nature of the "I" as a pronoun. And so anybody who says "I" sort of fits into it....

I split the pronoun "I" in first-person, second-person and third-person syntax. But I just use it as a single person, and then it's the self addressing the self as a self in the world, but it's all of the selves together, and where all of the selves come together is in the figure called "Jejune." And so she is carrying the split address of the characters in the book, which are really one character, but one within many or many within one.

CP: In some cases, it seems like the "I" is a stand-in for modern ideals of individualism. What interested you in that?

Lubrin: My sense of the world is that so much of it is warped by these modernist ideas about individualism and meritocracy. And you're only worth X, Y or Z as a human being if you can be put to use in a particular way.

That is the framing for much of how individualism has come to be the measure of human worth, and we can go all the way back to European humanism, and how that is what underwrote the transatlantic slave, it is what underwrote the most recent iteration of colonialism, which we're still living through....

I think individualism is one of the more lasting mores of that history, and so it continues on. And my sort of pushing back against that, and the transparency that it demands from people. If you're not allowed to be a complex, mysterious, contradictory being in the world, because you have to be orchestrated toward the reductive. And in the reductive, you can be exploited towards capital. That's my thinking through those ideas and doing it with the materials of poetry is its own kind of high-wire act.

CP: Many of the literary institutions that are celebrating you and your work are entrenched in the systems of individualism and colonialism you're pushing back against. Do you feel there's a tension there, or are you dismantling the system from within?

Lubrin: I don't know that I can dismantle the system from within, but I think my work itself is an argument against it. And that contradiction is certainly there....

The structural work of dismantling is not something any one individual can do. And so I hope, in a sense, that what can push against the tides in effect is to think across difference, think through those complexities that are being distorted again and again and again....

People have been fighting these fights for decades, for maybe even hundreds of years. And so a person comes in and makes their own contributions, and hopefully there's a kind of collective effort that can be put into it.

And this moment of racial reckoning that has happened in the last year has caused the needle to shift a bit, and that is only because the structural was brought into view.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 22, 2021.

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