Canisia Lubrin focused on the self to speak a universal truth in her latest poetry collection
This interview originally aired on Sept. 26, 2020.
Pronounced "Diss-GRAFF-ist," the book is a study of self and language. It's 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 is a Canadian author to watch: her debut 2017 poetry collection, Voodoo Hypothesis, was longlisted for the Gerald Lambert Award, the Pat Lowther Award and was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award.
She spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Dyzgraphxst.
Inhabiting the "I"
"The poem began, I think, before I had any conception that I was actually writing this particular poem. I'd always been very uncomfortable inhabiting the lyric 'I' in my studies as a creative writing student and an amateur practitioner of poetry.
"The 'I' was something that I always felt a great deal of suspicion toward. Many years of maybe just sweeping that suspicion aside led me to The Dyzgraphxst.
"I was in Dionne Brand's master's poetry class, and she said to me, 'Canisia, where is the 'I' poem? I haven't seen an 'I' poem from you this whole while.' And in my mind, I was thinking, 'What even is an 'I' poem?'
It's about the legibility that reduces people to produce, to work, to be consumed in different forms and fashions.
"Reading Christina Sharpe's In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, where she theorizes what she calls a dysgraphia — which is produced by a rapid and repetitive dissemination of images and narratives of Black people reduced to criminality, pathologies and other kinds of tropes and stereotypes — and how those things just proliferate wildly via the news and social media. She calls that as creating a kind of dysgraphia.
"For me as a poet, thinking of dysgraphia and its Greek etymology, which is 'difficult writing,' that, for me, crystallized this idea of selfhood and selfishness — and how the categories of humanity force people into a kind of legibility that has almost nothing to do with the fact that we're complex beings.
"It's about the legibility that reduces people to produce, to work, to be consumed in different forms and fashions."
Clear and present danger
"For someone who has always had a particular sensitivity and awareness to these very issues [of anti-Black and systemic racism] — what is happening now is very different than a lot of movements that have come before it, certainly in scale. All of my work is committed to looking at the conditions that create, sustain and perpetuate different forms of oppression and other kinds of modernist nightmares.
"The fact that the global pressure on this call to confront anti-Black racism, that seems new for me in a way that I've never seen so many white people, so many people of different ethnicities and races out there making demands for a better world.
All of my work is committed to looking at the conditions that create, sustain and perpetuate different forms of oppression and other kinds of modernist nightmares.
"The thing that makes me a bit nervous is how systems of power are co-opting the symbols and the arguments that the people are making in order to quell those calls. While what is happening is great, there's this very real threat to lasting change.
"I hope that, in the midst of this global catastrophe and a global pandemic, it's something to see people put their lives at risk, to say we deserve a future in which everybody can live their humanity fully and completely."
Canisia Lubrin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.