SAFIYA SINCLAIR, PRAIRIE SCHOONER AND THE UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS

May 2nd, 2017

SAFIYA SINCLAIR, PRAIRIE SCHOONER AND THE UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS 

Kwame Dawes

I first heard of Safiya Sinclair when she was just out of high school in Jamaica. At the time she was part of a literary circle that had formed around the late Trinidadian poet and writer, Wayne Brown, who was conducting writing workshops with this varied group of writers. Even though she was one of the youngest in the group, she was spoken of as one of the most talented. Over the years I would continue to hear good reports about her work. The truth is that I actually first met Ms. Sinclair two years ago at the Association of Writers and Writing Program (AWP) in Los Angeles. My engagement with her work, as I have said, goes farther back.

Safiya Sinclair is now solidly positioned as one of the most exciting voices in Caribbean poetry. This no small compliment given the company with which I am associating her work. Names like Ishion Hutchison, Kei Miller, Colin Robinson, Roger Robinson, Vhani Capildeo, Tiphanie Yanique, Vladimir Lucien, Tanya Shirley and Christian Campbell are just a few of that generation of remarkable poets emerging from the region. The fact that we have had the privilege to publish her as part of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize series is no small thing. Indeed, we have been given the chance to be associated with a writer that I believe will come to be spoken of a great deal in the future. 

I had the opportunity to read some of Sinclair’s poems about eight years ago and I was struck by their sophistication, and their intellectual strength. Her work was also daring, boldly engaging themes of gender and race, but always taken by the rich possibilities of language. It was clear that like many Caribbean writers, she had chosen to take an apprenticeship with the poetry of Derek Walcott. The best of such writers would eventually shake that shadow and emerge the better for the tutelage of Walcott’s fecund language and muscularity of idiom and allusion. Safiya Sinclair has emerged as among the best of that lot. 

Last year, Safiya Sinclair submitted a manuscript, Cannibal to the Prairie Schooner Book prize. The judges were unanimous in selecting her work as the winner of that award. The collection was published by the University of Nebraska Press last year. A week after its official launching, the book already sold some 1,500 copies and it has continued to do well in the year since publication, and it promises to be an extremely popular collection. However, the critical response to the work has been impressive. This is understandable given the ambition and accomplishment that is apparent in her work. 

Her decision to enter the Prairie Schooner Book Prize presented an opportunity for me to read her work again. I have since concluded that she is one of the most exciting new poets to emerge in the US in the last five years. It was no surprise to me that the Whiting Foundation would agree with me, having granted her one of the coveted Writing Awards earlier this year. Over the past few years she has won a cluster of important awards including the Amy Clampitt Residency through the Amy Clampitt Fund, and the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship, both before the publication of Cannibal. As the Editor of Prairie Schooner, it was my task to secure blurbs for her book, and it was quickly clear to me that her reputation had gone before her. The book is blurbed by Major Jackson, Cathy Hong Park and Ada Limon, all poets of significance in the poetry world today.

The University of Nebraska Press has been a superb partner in this work for a number of years. The Press takes the series quite seriously, and gives a great deal of attention to the production of the work to ensure that it has a good standing in the world.  The arrangement for the series is that the work undergoes a careful edit with the Editor of Prairie Schooner, and then it is taken through the wider system of the Press. The design for Cannibal is one of its startling qualities. Over the years, we have worked with the small and gifted group of designers at the University of Nebraska Press, which includes the remarkably innovative Nathan Putens who designed Sinclair’s cover. Prairie Schooner has made every effort (sometimes finding the funds for entry fees) to ensure that the books are also entered in major awards around the country. Cannibal has reminded me of just how valuable this process can be. Since I joined the journal six years ago, the University of Nebraska Press has partnered with us on some important projects including the work of the African Poetry Book Fund, and what has resulted are some extremely beautifully produced books of poetry that are, as UNP like to say “contributing to the world’s library”—a seventy-five year tradition.

Cannibal is brilliant. Sinclair writes elegant lines of verse, full of music and full of the kind of copiousness of language that suggests a poet with a voracious appetite who has paid a great deal of attention to the broad range of poetry written in English in the last several centuries, while gladly immersing herself in the great works of literature from the Western canon and from the alternate “other” canons of postcolonial discourse. Her book is essentially a sophisticated quarrel with Shakespeare’s construction of Caliban and everything that this may represent. But her interest is in the body of the black woman and how that body is understood, read, misread and challenged by the history of western culture. At the same time, Sinclair writes lyric poems that draw on her own experience as a woman raised in Jamaica in what would have been a marginalized community, the Rastafarian community. Importantly, she grew up in a community that had invented its own complex religion, which managed to completely capture the imagination of the world through the music created by those who held to the tenets of that belief system—musicians like Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Rita Marley and Bunny Wailer. She also grew up in a community whose very sense of self and identity was rooted in a conscious engagement with Africa, an active enabling practice of myth-making, and a collective principle of language that involved the willful and revolutionary deconstruction and critique of the English language. Rastafarianism represented that proto-Caribbean cultural moment that Kamau Brathwaite would describe as being “something torn and new.” At the same time, this community was highly patriarchal and heavily inscribed in Judeo-Christian apprehensions of gender. Safiya Sinclair’s poetry represents a healthy engagement with this culture, and a complex desire to resist it, even as she embraces its revolutionary ideals. 

In Cannibal, she finds power in women who defy the male-centered structures of the society. But she is also deeply interested in working out the various loyalties that she believes she has around the issues of language and identity. Her poems like “Pocomania” explore the rich presence of Africa in the Caribbean, and tease out the ways in which this presence has brought with a legacy of trauma, resistance, and improvisational creativity as a means of survival. Simply put, Sinclair is embarked on a big work, but she has done so having been trained by some quite important institutions and writers. She completed her MFA at the University of Virginia and she is currently working on her Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. 

Safiya Sinclair is already intensely engaged in her new book project. She is fascinated by ideas of place and identity in the Caribbean, but also the position of women, within the narrative of exploitation and violence in the “New World.” The collaboration that has been going on for over a decade between Prairie Schooner and the University of Nebraska is just one of many exciting and dynamic publishing projects that have effectively made UNP one of the most innovative and resourceful university presses in the country. At the end of the day, it is the books and the authors that are published that assure us of the value of any publishing enterprise. It is sometimes impossible to dictate who will come to a press, but what a publisher can do is be open, engaged, professional and strategic about creating a space that will welcome the best writers.  Safiya Sinclair joins an impressive list of such instances of good fortune that have secured the reputation of the University of Nebraska Press as a vital part of the publishing world. I am pleased to be a part of this enterprise.