Safiya Sinclair: National Poetry Month

Picture of Safiya Sinclair Author: Safiya Sinclair

We would love to hear more about your life and interests. What is your day to day life like?

I’ve been living in Provincetown the past six months, and my daily life consists almost exclusively of writing my memoir, or thinking about writing my memoir.

What are some things you find inspiring or really enjoy doing regularly?

I’ve started going to Zumba for the first time, and I enjoy doing that regularly—it’s not something I would have done if I weren’t here and had the time to do it! I also enjoy cooking every day, which is very new for me. Being here in Provincetown has given me the time to consider other parts of myself and explore other interests, to find my creativity blooming through in other ways.

Where is the place you feel most content in the world?

Home—under a shady tree, within earshot of the Caribbean Sea, toes in the sand, with a cool breeze blowing.

How long did you spend writing Cannibal?

In some sense, I’ve been writing this book as long as I’ve known I was a poet. The poems have always been with me, just as the experiences in them have shaped me. And I’ve only recently decided that the book was done, that it was time to let it live in the world and do its thing. The earliest poem in Cannibal is from my time as an undergrad at Bennington College, though it’s since been tweaked and rewritten. Most of the book was written in about two years, with the heft of it coming during my MFA at UVA, and the final poems written early last year while I was living in LA.

What is the story behind the name Cannibal?

The book is called Cannibal because of the linguistic history of the word: The word “cannibal,” is the English variant of the Spanish word “canibal,” which originated from the word “caribal,” a reference to the native Carib people in the West Indies, whom Columbus thought ate human flesh, and from whom the word “Caribbean” originated. By virtue of being Caribbean, all “West Indian” people are already, in a purely linguistic sense, born savage. I wanted to address and challenge these ideas of the “savage” native by attempting to correct the ugly narrativization of our history.

What was the most challenging part of writing Cannibal?

 Letting go of the book was probably the most challenging part. Fighting the urge to keep editing, to replace words, revise, or reshape an image or metaphor. My biggest challenge was finally saying to myself Yes, this is finished. Let it live, let it breathe, and then start to move on to new projects, new poems.

What did you do the moment you found out your book was going to be published?

I was on a trip through Europe all last summer and had no cell service, so I had an email from Kwame Dawes saying “Please call me back, it’s urgent.” When I called, I found out that I had won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and that my book was going to be published. My friend and I were in a Hungarian restaurant squealing and celebrating, while everyone else there stared at us like we were crazy. I remember skipping through the streets of Budapest that night.

What was the worst part of having your book published?

There’s a kind of bittersweetness in the finality of publishing the work—to have something you’ve laboured over and nurtured come to a fixed end. There is a sadness in cutting the umbilicus and sending this book into the world to live and breathe full-bloodedly. But there is a kind of joy too, in letting go, and letting your words make sense of themselves in the world.

What advice do you have for poets trying to get their work published?

The same advice I hold close myself—keep reading, keep discovering what anchors you to the page, find what takes “the top of your head off”—and nurture that. Challenge yourself, challenge the world, and keep writing.

What else are you working on? What else do readers have to look forward to? 

Right now I’m working on a memoir about my childhood growing up in a strict Rastafarian household in Jamaica, chronicling my struggles with my father, all while feeling estranged not only at home, but also estranged in my body.

 

Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Her first full-length collection, Cannibal, won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry (University of Nebraska Press, September 2016). She is also the author of the chapbook Catacombs (Argos Books, 2011). Sinclair is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a 2015 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a winter fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Amy Clampitt Residency Award, an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, and won the 2015 Boston Review Annual Poetry Contest. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, The Kenyon Review, The Nation, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in poetry at the University of Virginia, and is currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.