Poetics of Andre Bagoo

A Coolitude interview

Andre Bagoo: PC Marlon James

Andre Bagoo is a Trinidadian poet and writer. He is the author of Trick Vessels (Shearsman Books, 2012), BURN (Shearsman Books, 2015) and Pitch Lake (Peepal Tree Press, 2017). His poetry has appeared at Boston Review, Caribbean Review of Books, Cincinnati Review, St Petersburg Review, The Poetry Review and elsewhere. He was awarded the Charlotte and Isidor Paiewonsky Prize by The Caribbean Writer in 2017.

Rajiv Mohabir: Pitch Lake is your third collection of poems, in which your voice is tightly refined, echoic of contemporary British poets. I was wondering if you could speak about your artistic influences or muses that plagued you as you put this collection together line by line.

Andre Bagoo: Poetry is its own nation. I read whatever I want. There’s a line in Tristan Und Isolde, “I myself am the world.” That sums it up. Trinidad is a great example of multiculturalism. Our ties to the world are dizzying, be it to Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America, you name it. Donald Trump and Barack Obama have both visited.

Towards the end, the biggest thing lingering over the publication of Pitch Lake was the place itself. The book is named after the world’s largest commercial asphalt lake, located at La Brea, Trinidad. Its pitch has paved roads and airport tarmacs all over the planet. Though well-known locally, the lake is mysterious: it spits out centuries-old objects, swallows trees. We don’t know how long it will take for the asphalt to run out. Microbial organisms live in it, amid conditions which have been likened to the surface of Titan — Saturn’s moon. Trinidadian writer Alfred Mendes wrote a novel called Pitch Lake in which the lake is only mentioned once in passing. Yet the myths about the place, the belief that it has spiritual ties to indigenous populations, looms over his book, cursing his characters. I took away this principle and decided to turn everything into the lake by keeping it out as much as possible, letting language disperse its glittering broadcast.

Mohabir: Last time we met you had some very interesting things to say about creating a poetic arc in a collection of poems. I was wondering if you could repeat it, for the record. It was something about the organization of the text has to propel the reader forward … or something like this. How did you come to this theory?

Bagoo: Clearly I was drinking too much coffee that day, dear Rajiv. I had just finished putting together Pitch Lake — which was such an enjoyable process for me. It was good to return, yet again, to the dynamics of a poetry book. It’s like film. The filmmaker can record two completely different images. Each image says something. Then, when the images are placed together something happens. A third space opens. When you put poems together things begin to happen. You create interesting spaces between them. Relationships appear, echoes, cross-pollinations. A poem is one thing, a poetry book another. It has its own ecology. So in Pitch Lake, there are poems about a common bird, the kiskadee. The bird makes a beautiful echoing call. I titled the kiskadee poems “Kiskadee,” gave them rhyming couplets and sprinkled them throughout the book in homage. There is no blurb at the back of Pitch Lake, only one of these kiskadee poems.

Another thing I did: I envisioned the book as a small Carnival band. I arranged poems into mas sections. One section for lyrical poems, another for intersemiotic poems dealing with queer sexuality, and a third for prose poems. But there are interlopers: some of the poems fall out just as masqueraders might fall out of line during the revelry of Carnival Tuesday in downtown Port of Spain. Sheesh, typing this made me realize something. I need to get out more. Smh.

Mohabir: In BURN, your second collection, you speak directly about Ramleela in Trinidad, where you render a complicated racial politics in an economized line. The result is striking and dense. What role does Trinidad’s complicated colonial history play in your poems apart from being a backdrop?

Bagoo: But the backdrop is everything isn’t it? Nothing functions outside of context. Not even language functions outside of language. Derek Walcott’s Nobel Lecture, ‘The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory’ has always had a profound impact on me. He speaks beautifully about Ramleela and his insecurities over something we all know about: our limited knowledge. For me that poem reinforced the freedom of the individual to cross boundaries, even internalized ones. The poem’s opening line, “We arrive,” is polyvalent: it is reflective of the journey across the kala pani, the journey to Felicity, and the journey inside me. Though my mother was Hindu, I was raised Roman Catholic. Ramleela was something in the background, something taken for granted. Until finally I decided to experience it: to see firsthand what Walcott had written so movingly about. Sometimes you write from a desire to explore. Sometimes you want to replicate something you have felt. Either way, a poem never fully reaches that internal sublime: you never perfectly conquer the ache. But there is a freedom in letting go and allowing yourself to cover terrain that seems unfamiliar. Who among us is truly one thing or another?

Mohabir: How do you read Khal Torabully and Marina Carter’s ideas of Coolitude against your poems that draw from or problematize their diverse sources?

Bagoo: Despite what the term Coolitude suggests, Torabully aims to embrace all races. Coolitude is a way of looking at history: giving a central role to the sea. All races and societies have crossed oceans — literally or metaphorically — at some stage or were shaped profoundly by the effects of such voyages. It’s basically the concept that we are all migrants.

I sometimes think of my poetry as one might think of family houses. Often, you move out into a completely alien space. After a while that new apartment is home. Sometimes in the new space you replicate “homely” traditions. Sometimes you do the opposite. So too anything built out of human endeavor — whether poetry or nations. What if one day we all have to migrate? From space, poets look the same no matter their diverse sources.

Mohabir: Does racial identity bear on your poetry’s reception in Trinidad or abroad? If so, how?

Bagoo: Trinidad is a callaloo. The mixed-race segment of the population is large. We are like Rorschach blots: people see what they want. I get to claim many identities yet none. Race is definitely a big part of what’s happening here. Where is it not? However, I feel being a poet in Trinidad is the most radical thing I could have ever wanted to do. My desire to write, in a society like this, seems to be the most provocative thing about me.

Mohabir: Speaking of identities, you have poems in this book such as “Catullus in Libya” and “Langston Hughes in Trinidad — A Closet Drama in Five Scenes” which uncover obscured histories. What is the role of the poet in exposing queer histories in the Caribbean? How does form help or transform this?

Bagoo: Langston Hughes, too, came to Trinidad. (He met Derek Walcott, whom he described in a letter as a “very good poet.”) This sequence happened after two years of contemplation. I was drawn to the debate over Hughes’s sexuality. Sexuality is such a fraught thing. How do we define it? By one’s unexpressed preferences? Actions? Affirmations? We don’t leave evidence behind: there is no paper trail. Even evidence of a sexual act is not enough. Do all our actions reveal our innermost impulses?

Still, in the case of Hughes I believe we have enough evidence to assess, with a high degree of probability, that he was gay. He surrounded himself with gay men. Very early on he formed intense attachments to figures like Alain Locke, attachments that cannot be explained solely in platonic terms. Far from being asexual, Hughes had sex. He caught a sexually transmitted disease at least once. On one occasion, he even told a secretary he had slept with a sailor on a foreign trip. This iconic poet was most likely a character we know well: someone on the down-low; someone who dates women but who also makes room for relationships with gay men, viewing these relationships as strategic; who tells himself he is using these men to advance himself when, in fact, this is a rationalization of an illicit desire he will not acknowledge. Such a person views gay people as inherently weak, and therefore, in addition to the normal social pressures, has a profound incentive not to claim allegiance to the queer. 

While this issue was considered in Isaac Julien’s beautiful film Looking for Langston, I thought it more appropriate to address the poet’s sexuality in his own medium. I liked the pun of the term “closet drama” and felt a sequence would yield a kind of investigative poetic meditation. With a few exceptions, each line in the sequence is a fact culled from the publicly available material on Hughes. I felt I owed it to the list of gay men who just so happened to have fallen deeply in love with Hughes and to Hughes himself, who was obviously laboring under conflicts that are still pertinent to members of the LGBT community today. 

Similarly, with the Catullus poem. In the course of researching Catullus for an anthology, I was struck by how his homoerotic lines have been censored in much of the critical discourse. True, this is not surprising. But what struck me was the degree to which some commentators have been willfully blind. We are not talking about one or two ambiguous lines in the poems that can be explained away by our different understanding of sexuality. We are talking about blatant, ribald poems about man-on-man action. Today some people still say Catullus is most famous for his love poems addressed to a woman named Lesbia. Need I say more? I took phrases from the poet’s own poems and strung them together. Every line refers to his own writing or myths about him.

What’s behind all this? I can only do what satisfies me and go wherever it takes me. As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Every age has its own poetry; in every age the circumstances of history choose a nation, a race, a class to take up the torch by creating situations that can be expressed or transcended only through poetry.” I know in some quarters it is unfashionable to have even a whiff of politics in one’s work. But language is political. Art is political. Jameson Fitzpatrick has a wonderful poem that opens like this, “I woke up and it was political.” What use is art without integrity and justice?

Mohabir: Pitch Lake is your third collection to be published in Britain and the first to be published by Peepal Tree Press. I have noticed there are not many opportunities for poets to publish their books in the West Indies. Can you tell of your experiences routing your poetry via Britain to Trinidad? What are the pleasures and anguishes involved in such a transnational voyage?

Bagoo: Language has crossed, crosses, and will cross boundaries. The publishing dynamics of today reflect deeper changes. Words can now leap across oceans with the click of a mouse. Oceans no longer seem to divide us but rather unite us. The more publishers the better and the urgency of this need is certainly heightened by the rhetoric of the post-Independence era. At the same time, in the world as we experience it today, what anguishes me more is whether there is an audience for poetry at all — wherever the books are made. There is certainly a role for poetry. But whom am I writing for? The living? Or a constellation yet to come? 

Mohabir: What are your current artistic projects and obsessions?

Bagoo: The films of Jacques Audiard. On paper, the story in Rust and Bone does not work. But Audiard has such a strong grasp of the language of cinema. Which is rare. His films are set in urban landscapes but we end up in unexpected places: beneath a massive killer whale; at the feet of a majestic elephant; or following a herd of deer on a dark road. He shows us drama as conflict within our natural world. I know with Dheepan some have said: how dare a white man make a film about Sri Lankans? But I think that film is about freedom both in form and substance. The filmmaker can go anywhere, just as the poet can. “Every man,” John Donne wrote, “is a piece of the continent.”