Vladimir Lucian’s Poetic Masterpiece

Poet Vladimir Lucien at last July's Saint Lucia launch of his book at CDF. [Photo: Stan Bishop]
Poet Vladimir Lucien at last July’s Saint Lucia launch of his book at CDF. [Photo: Stan Bishop]

EVER since Vladimir Lucien launched his first published book of poems, “Sounding Ground”, last year, there has been a certain vibe in the local and regional literary community that the young writer was onto something big. Apparently, everyone was right as Lucien’s poetic offering has become a hit.

The riveting, unputdownable collection of poems has won several accolades to date, including:
•Making CARIBLIT’s “10 Books To Read For The Summer” list
•Winning the Small Axe Prize last year
•Translation of poems from “Sounding Ground” to Dutch that were featured in a Dutch literary magazine
•A review in Trinidad Newsday by Trinidadian poet/journalist, Andre Bagoo
•A review in the Jamaica Observer by Dr. Stephanie McKenzie
“Sounding Ground” also won the poetry category of this year’s OCM Bocas Prize and is now eligible to vie for the overall prize which should be announced in a few weeks.

Lucien started writing the book while studying at University of the West Indies some years ago in Trinidad where he said he was really observing West Indian poetry – both from back then and what is happening now. He soon got in touch with the real contemporary scene.

“I was just looking at ways in which people were using poetry as well as the kinds of things they were able to chart and make sense of using poetry,” he told me. “In some of my earliest poems, I was trying to use them for the very issues I wanted to explore. Some of them had to do with ancestry, while others addressed the complexity of living in a post-colonial society — even things as mundane as love.”

Lucien said he generally wanted to look at Saint Lucian society. However, since he was based in Trinidad at the time, part of “Sounding Ground” – which is published by Peepal Tree Press — takes in some of his experiences there.

“I think I was dealing with Trinidad as a Saint Lucian looking back at Saint Lucia,” 27-year-old Lucien said. “But I really would not have been able to complete the book had I not moved back to Saint Lucia and that’s because I made changes when I got back here.”

The book took four years to complete. However, Lucien indicated that in the beginning he had no idea that he was actually working on a book. “You’re just trying to see what this poetry thing can do and so on. But some of the earliest poems would be about four years old,” the Gros Islet resident explained.

While in Trinidad, Lucien attended and participated in many poetry readings, accounting for the reason why he’s still more widely known in Trinidad than in his native Saint Lucia. He’s read at art galleries and at the West Indian Literary Conference in Trinidad.

He even attended the Bocas Lit Fest when it just started, long before it became the premier literary festival in the region. Last year was his third time reading at the festival but even more special for a simple reason — to launch his new book, which preceded other launches in May in Barbados and England and later The Netherlands and New York. He even did an interview with poet/literary critic Kwame Dawes. Despite the obvious differences in pace and appreciation for the arts in both islands, Lucien credits both islands for his literary development.

“Of course, there’s a lot more going on there in terms of actual events for the arts. Nevertheless, here in Saint Lucia it’s getting much better with Headphunk and Ponm Damou Kreations, the National Arts Festival and so on. But at that time, Trinidad was certainly way ahead in terms of having more events for artists to showcase their work. I was also able to rub shoulders with quite a few people on the literary scene,” Lucien explained.

There’s an epigraph in the book with a quote from C.L.R. James which reads, ‘Essence is movement. It is the analysis of Ground which tells us exactly what that movement is: Our abstract little spirit who didn’t know what he was by his futile becomings was by degrees establishing some Ground.’ Lucien explained that there has been a kind of discourse about what is essentially a black person, a Saint Lucian person and a Caribbean person and the reason for coming up with the book’s title.

“There have been people who have rebelled against that kind of essentialism,” Lucien said. “They say that people are people. But I’ve always believed in a certain kind of essence. But this made sense for me. Essence is not that you were born and had this thing in you but the journey. This is analyzing the ground in the sense of both the ground I have journeyed and the line I see myself in, the line as in ancestors – creative and consanguine – as a Caribbean person, that way of analyzing some ground. So that was the idea for me choosing the title.”

When asked whether the book’s title reflects the voices that come out of the environment to which the writer belongs, Lucien responded in the affirmative, adding that it was “very much oriented to looking at Saint Lucia because I actually wanted this collection to be very much me looking at Saint Lucia.”

“Everybody else is looking at their own society. My sensibility is very much Caribbean and that’s how I started off but I wanted a specific look at Saint Lucia and me as a Saint Lucian. Nevertheless, I have poems about me being in Trinidad,” Lucien said.

While at university, Lucien was part of a spoken word group, “UWI Speak”, which was predominantly Trinidadian. That group, he said, influenced him significantly, especially since he was amazed by the way Trinidadians were using language “in a less constrained space than Saint Lucians where you have very strict boundaries between a kind of fluid dialect and a kind of Standard English.” The differences, he said, produced much fodder for “playing around” with languages to create something beautiful on the page.

“The way in which I was able to experience Trinidad’s language was acutely different from how the Trinidadians engage it simply because I am from Saint Lucia, a more linguistically-constrained space. So they both provided something rhythmically and in the organization of the line and so on in the book which was very much influenced by playing around with that kind of constraint as well as the constraint meeting the freer space,” the young author explained.

Some of Lucien’s earliest poetic influences include Dylan Thomas, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney and Federico Garcia Lorca and he cited the way they used imagery as one of the principal reasons why he admire their work.

I asked Lucien about some of the themes he would have used in the book. However, he refrained from offering any, saying only that he would not pin the book down to any ideology. The book is not a propaganda pamphlet, he told me, just a diligent poet trying to record the things around him – and us.

“It’s me just looking honestly at various aspects of life,” Lucien said. “There are poems about my grandfather, my journey through academia, love and so on. In ‘Ebb I’ and ‘Ebb II’, I speak about my experience when I had just returned to Saint Lucia and the disappointment I felt. Trinidad is not a tourist society and is not dependent on tourism that way. So these two poems look at the fraught relationship with Saint Lucia as a tourist destination and all the things that come with being so dependent on being fed by an industry like that.”

Lucien said he’s astounded by the response his award-winning work has received thus far, especially since it’s his debut collection. As he tells it, “these are the book’s victories more than they are mine.” He also spoke of the inspiring journey the book has taken him on – both mentally and geographically.

“From before the book, I was humbled by the anticipation that surrounded its advent and upon publication, it took off, and lugged me along behind it to the Netherlands, Barbados, Trinidad, England and New York within a matter of months,” Lucien said. “It was hailed in major newspapers in the Caribbean as a genuine accomplishment. I am extremely proud of all this, gratified and grateful.”

Above all prizes, Lucien said the Bocas Prize was the won that really meant more to him, “the prize that I really wanted to win, adding that he wrote the collection “to the Caribbean as audience, as community and really to no one else. To beat out fellow great writers for the coveted prize, he said, was a noble and humbling achievement. He also credited editor, Kwame Dawes, and Peepal Tree Press for giving the book a chance to prove its worth.

Stan Bishop began his career in journalism in March 2008 writing freelance for The VOICE newspaper for six weeks before being hired as a part-time journalist there when one of the company’s journalists was overseas on assignment.

Although he was initially told that the job would last only two weeks, he was able to demonstrate such high quality work that the company offered him a permanent job before that fortnight was over. Read full bio...

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