Vahni Capildeo

Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Vahni Capildeo’s essay “Punishable Bodies: Poetry on the Offensive” appears in the May 2018 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.

The forecast for conditions at sea used to be a front-page item every day in the Trinidad Guardian, and every day worded almost the same. I cannot remember the exact formula: waves up to two meters in open waters, under one meter in sheltered areas? I would have noticed when it varied, but I never learnt what it was. I took it for granted. Like the beloved face of a very much older relative, it is unreconstructable by memory, missed only when gone. Any allusion to this marvelous tidal regularity is met by a fond chuckle among Trinidadians old enough to remember the seventies and eighties.

They might be old enough to remember when “the newspaper” was shared around. The family’s copy would belong to the head of the house, usually a man. An informal, unspoken pecking order decided who read the “Letters to the Editor” aloud, secretly looking to see if their own contribution had been published; who got their hands on the comics, the horoscopes, and the obituaries, and when; above all, who got to fill in the crosswords. They might be old enough to remember feeling sure about where to go for “the news.”

Where does the news come from, now? In the late winter and early spring of 2018, I directed family and friends to sites such as https://ussbriefs.com for a better answer to So what have you been up to lately, apart from the poetry? The occasional cute social media snap of me standing in damp wool and faux fur holding equally damp pale-yellow paper, or building a genderqueer snowperson with a tannin-red leaf mouth and black and silver headscarf, gave little clue. I had been on strike.

There was mischievously poor media coverage of the long and hard-fought industrial action by members of the University and College Union (UCU). The UCU protests initially opposed Universities UK’s (UUK’s) proposal to change staff pensions from a defined benefit to a defined contribution model, on the basis of iffy figures and broken understandings. However, as the strike time lengthened, academics who were economists, lawyers, historians, sociologists, and journalists had time to dig, to produce or publicize high-quality and precise research on what has been happening to educational institutions in Britain, while students began to join protests or occupy buildings in solidarity. The protests widened: for the decolonization of education, and against marketization. Staff on fixed-term or zero-hours contracts, whose precarious position is not adequately represented by current structures or social dynamics within the union, ceased to seem like part of the monolithic “university.” They shared experiences and strategized with students whose horizon of expectation had been lowered to lifetime precariousness. “Teach-outs” in off-campus venues brought university and townsfolk into the same circles, at liberty to discuss topics that cut across the syllabus. Free association of individuals is dangerous to imposed order. The commercialization of the staff-student relationship, and the intra-university funding competitions that pit hungry colleagues and departments to game against each other instead of working together, were shown up as neither necessary nor natural.

One legendary figure of the picket lines was the absent French friend. This friend was remarkably similar from campus to campus. She—invariably she—called for the burning of cars and blockading of entrances; expressed surprise at the unwillingness to go to jail and write letters from behind bars. Not French, I nonetheless was surprised, at my university, by the to-the-letter legality of the polite and cheery strikers. Some students had the impression that people were giving out leaflets, but that there was (I quote) “no picket line.” This was not universally true. On Twitter I sought out other universities’ union branches, taking heart from their puffs of pink smoke, outdoor debates leading to votes, and organized poetry.

If only there could be a clear line for people to observe: perhaps red duct tape, or some kind of curtain fringe! But where? Major institutions and public sites seem to have grown up, in some cities, as if around a hubristic cult of the human figure. Their proportions and features encourage posing or resting. To inhabit them is to be self-aware, perhaps framed. It struck me by contrast how other workplaces tend to the opposite extreme of architectural non-humanity. The university which currently employs me features bankerish glass in the science blocks, car-access zones around elegant older brick terraces in the arts areas. The layout choreographs dispersion. It is next to impossible for the mere bodies of placard-bearers to draw a palpable, tensile border and hold that space so as to make crossing the picket line feel like a breach. Ironically, student fees (seemingly ever-increasing since their introduction in Britain in 1998, when the government moved away from investment in subsidized education as a civil society good) often fund fancy new buildings, rather than lecturers’ salaries or student welfare.

Did I mention the snow? The poetry event I had organized for a non-strike day had to be cancelled. Trains were being cancelled. Checking the national rail journey planner while in text touch with poets just one county away, I saw live timetable adjustments. Yellow warning triangles and the red lettering of last-minute no-shows replaced hopeful notices of delayed arrival. No trains were crossing the Pennines, the mid-north ridge of England. No trains would cross the border into Scotland. One poet emailed that the “RealFeel” of the weather was minus eleven. We wondered what minus eleven itself really felt like, apart from the RealFeel issued in its name. A polar scientist, comfortable in his boots, volunteered for extra picket line duty. For weeks, blood blisters scaled off the inside of my frost-damaged nose. Comrades and qomrades made racialized comments to me and others who were stand-out or recruitable bodies “of color” in the pervasive pallor of flesh and weather. The shutdowns caused by the strike allegedly damaged students irreparably. Strangely, for the general good, universities could and did officially shut down for snow.

Protest is ekphrasis in action. What else could it mean to be on strike, for a poet with a non-teaching post? Whatever I do in the arts, out in the world, is supported by my university, and contributes to its “impact narrative.” I am grateful to have an office and especially to have the freedom to be absent from it, to be otherwise engaged. Yet it is nonsensical to pretend that I can altogether withdraw labor, whatever I try. Therefore I interpreted “being on strike” as literally standing with colleagues, adding to the concrete and visible realization of a tested and tenuous line, becoming part of a collective of non-fiction fragments. This is not an account written by an expert. My body in the street was my writing. This writing is a gesture to being otherwise/engaged.

Poets in universities: do they (we) belong there? Yes, as much as poets ever belong where we (they) are homed. Poetry is unique among university activities in taking place always and intensely at the hinge between public engagement and private reflection. While I would not define all poems as acts of communication, the poet has to listen to the voice in their heart. Where significant stresses occur within the language and relationships of their institution as during the #USSstrike, poets have a responsibility to their inward responsiveness, not only “to respond.” We (they) cannot hope for the status of the sea in a small-island paper: front-page news. Still, absent or present, they (we) share in the ways of happening.

Originally Published: May 10th, 2018

Trinidadian-British poet Vahni Capildeo was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad. They earned a PhD at Oxford University, where they were a Rhodes Scholar studying translation theory and Old Norse. They completed a research fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge University. In precise, layered poems and prose poems, Capildeo engages themes of...