Canisia Lubrin uses the language of the past to explore the future in the poetry collection The Dyzgraphxst
The Dyzgraphxst won the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize
Pronounced "Diss-GRAFF-ist," the book is set against the backdrop of contemporary capitalist fascism, nationalism and the climate disaster, where Jejune, the central figure, grapples with understanding their existence and identity.
Lubrin spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote The Dyzgraphxst. The collection also won the 2021 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and Lubrin was named a recipient of the 2021 Windham-Campbell Prize.
A place of knowing
"I write from a place of awareness — of being aware of the world that I live in. In that sense, writing is part of the rhythm of my life. I attend to the world. So it's hard to say what I want to accomplish with this book. What does one do in language — and in writing and in books?
"One thinks, one attends to thinking and, of course, all the other forms of communication that we want to ascribe to it. For this project, it was a way for me to engage with this modern idea of extreme individualism and meritocracy — and how those things are tied into the way people are valued. And how that produces all kinds of distortions in our lives and in the world.
Writing is part of the rhythm of my life.
"Rather than observing the full complexity of people — observing that we are part of a broader world, an ecosphere that is rooted in interdependence, that is rooted in collectivism and community — we are distorted into these abject individualist machines.
"It serves, really, the people in power, the people who are invested in money. Those things are given different kinds of scripts, like citizenship, like nationalism, like borders. All of these things morphed into this idea of the magnanimous individual.
"Donald Trump is a great example of that."
A frame of reference
"I was reading Christina Sharpe's In the Wake: On Blackness and Being right at the end of editing Voodoo Hypothesis. Sharpe talks about what it is to exist as black people post-Transatlantic slave trade, and the kinds of grammars and vernaculars that are applied to racist ideas about black people, located in a kind of pathologizing over time. It produces a kind of dysgraphia, she theorized.
"That spills into everything, especially in news and other kinds of popular media. These tropes and archetypes that we get a lot of the times are linked to the pathologizing of black people and blackness.
"There is an evolution from Voodoo Hypothesis to The Dyzgraphxst. What was going on when I was writing Voodoo Hypothesis was attending to this sort of rapid proliferation of violence, especially state sanctioned and institutional violence against black people.
That spills into everything especially in news and other kinds of popular media; these tropes and archetypes that we get a lot of the times are linked to the pathologizing of black people and blackness.
"There was a lot of murders of blackfolk going on at the time that I was writing by the police, et cetera. I was tending to a kind of sociality, but it cannot be just that. Because it's poetry, the things have to be elevated to a degree of art.
"[WithThe Dyzgraphxst], I was paying attention to that, looking at how these past racist ideas continue in the present and create all these kinds of entrapment and continuing violence."
"How I came up with Jejune was, when I had half of the book written, it was still nebulous. I was looking at the 'I' — not just the 'I' of the self, but the 'I' that is represented. I'm looking at the pronoun 'I' as well. I took that 'I' and split it three ways; so looking at it as first-person, second-person and third-person, without saying, 'I, you, we.' There's a prizing of autobiography and individualism that replicates in a lot of the places in our lives that we value.
"So literature for example: there are a lot of books out there that are written by black people and people of colour that are in response to the market and not really in response to the work itself. The market asks for narratives of trauma, of oppression. It's constantly flattening — it's that same dysgraphia that Sharpe theorized that is produced everywhere.
There are a lot of books out there that are written by black people and people of colour that are in response to the market and not really in response to the work itself.
"I took that idea and split the 'I' three ways — how can I hold the 'I' if I'm speaking primarily from that sort of insular, singular place. What happens if I put it in an address that is one person to another? And then what happens if I then pluralize it entirely and bring an entire community, an entire series of voices into it.
"But that was too nebulous; I needed to ground it somehow.
"The dramatic structure follows through the theme of the self as performance: that's why I used the play structure of acts. So [the book looks at] the performances that we tend to inhabit in order to fit into those scripts that have been prescribed for us. To be the self as a series of performances, I'm addressing 'Jejune'…meaning 'I' the young.
"It's a deliberate misspelling of that — just like The Dyzgraphxst is a deliberate spelling of dysgraphia. So I replaced the 'I' in the Dyzgraphxst with the 'X.' We know that 'X' has been done a lot of diacritic work over the years… people of colour like to put Xs in place of things: Malcolm X, et cetera. The structure came out that way: it's the self addressing the self as the self in multiple ways.
"Jejune is the main iteration, the protagonist that keeps all of the 'I's' of the book together. I needed something to ground it that way. It's not linear at all — it's not a linear poem."
Canisia Lubrin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.