Hope is an Act of Faith
An Interview With Marilene Phipps
Editor's Picks: Do you recall an early encounter with language (oral stories, books, verse, etc.) that made a big impression on you?
Marilene Phipps: I do not. However, I remember the encounter with English—six years old?—the wonder of sounds that carried meaning I could not understand, the music of it, the mystery. I remember dancing around creating sounds that sounded English to me. I remember coming up with the word 'window' and my father telling me that sound had a meaning and which it was. In that line of thought—first significant encounter involving words— the more significant encounter was with the brook near where I grew up. We called it a 'river' ("the arched metal door to the river "). Sitting next to it, six/seven years old I remember trying to craft my first poem. I remember the light shimmering over the moving water, I remember the soft round back of pebbles and wondering how it must feel to have this cool water glistening on your back while the sun above is so bright and hot. These are the images and thoughts I tried to capture in my first poem. I remember the satisfaction and pride I felt from the attempt. I would therefore say that my first memorable encounter is with the emotions, the images rather than the words, and finding a way to translate these.
EP: Are there any particular poets you find yourself returning to for inspiration when you are writing?
MP: Elizabeth Bishop. Pablo Neruda. T. S. Eliot. Also, Emily Dickinson and Steven Dobyns. William Carlos Williams. Philip Larkin.
EP: Are there specific Haitian writers (Danticat, Gaillard, etc.) who have influenced your poetry?
MP: No. However, I have come to really admire Frank Etienne (playwright) and Sito Cave (poet). Both write in Kreyol (Creole). But the people of Haiti themselves have influenced my work. They have inspired my love for them and for the country. This culture of oral tradition gives birth to numerous natural poets. The Irish, also, make me feel this way—their eyes, their warmth, every simple sentence is full of poetry and vitality. The Kreyol language is expressed in, and sustained by, an incredible sense of imagery.
EP: If the making of a poem is part inspiration, part perspiration, what is the typical mix for you?
MP: 80 inspiration. 20 perspiration. Most of the time. Sometimes the poem feels like it descended on me. I work it mentally, letting it float a long while, memorize it as I go along. Then I put it down. Then I look at what it does on the page.
EP: How has your approach to writing poetry changed over the past several years (if it has) and why?
MP: I don't know that my approach has changed, though the poems may change. "Man Nini" is one of my most crafted poems (in the way that I like to craft). See how it differs from the last poem of the book "Niska and the Snake." However, my first writing was done in French. I eventually had to switch to English—living here, breathing here, communicating here.
EP: You are both a painter and a poet. I found myself recalling this when I would encounter particularly vivid images in your book. From your perspective, how has your experience as painter affected your life as poet and vice-versa?
MP: I am not sure it is my work as a painter that affects my work as a poet. It is rather who I am that affects both. But as art forms, they are the result of the same concerns for composition, expressiveness in line or words, dosage, rhythm, texture, color, imagery, a balance between harmony and tension, etc.
EP: I have a couple of linguistic curiosities/questions: First—any difficulties or awkwardness interjecting French and Creole words and dialogue into a book written primarily in English? Did you ever feel you had to compromise to make the book clearer to an English-speaking audience?
MP: No, I did not feel I had to make the book clearer for an English-speaking audience. I interject Kreyol or French when I feel it necessary for what I want to evoke or invoke.
EP: Also, I noticed alternate spellings for several place names ("Neret" and "Nerette" for example), as well as alternate spelling for terms I had seen in other books on Haiti ("lwa" versus "loa"). Is there controversy about the translation of Haitian Creole words into English?
MP: The controversy about the spelling is not an issue of Kreyol to English but of Kreyol spelling itself—from the past influence of the French spelling for French-derived words to the proper established modern orthography. The difference in spelling showed my own ignorance and French influence. I fortunately had the advice and help of a linguist knowledgeable in that correct modern orthography just in time for the publication of the book. God is watching!
Crossroads and Unholy Water
EP: The phrase "unholy water" in the title of your book is a very provocative one. There are many allusions to the holy and unholy throughout the book. For example, in "Caribbean Childhood," when a cross of holy water is traced upon her head in church, the young girl, who is the speaker of the poem, thinks, not of purification, but of the bacteria that are possibly swimming in it. The most holy water for her seems suspect. In contrast, in the poem "Run for the River," a river full of " donkey shit, goat shit, people shit—//with garlands of greenish angry flies milking it" seems quite a holy place indeed:
There it is!! The arched metal door to the river!
splash their brightly colored plastic sandals
to wash soiled worn clothes,
splash their brightly colored plastic sandals
to wash soiled worn clothes,
You seem to be reminding us that the holy and unholy are not always found where they are expected.
MP: The title was delivered to me in the same manner the poems most often are. I think my subconscious had already understood the underlying themes and significant connecting elements in the book and expressed that understanding in the succinct way of what now is a title. The title came way before the book was even a book. Both poems and title come from my being assessing itself. If you recall, my first poetic/aesthetic expression was of water.
Yes, I keep reminding or being reminded, or realizing, that the holy and the unholy are not always where expected. I keep realizing that the unholy/profane is often quite intensely sacred. I see all water as a vehicle for some kind of life or an expression of such life, whether in the physical domain, the emotional or the spiritual. As part of the physical domain, in the natural world, it encompasses rivers, oceans, rain or the like. Water harbors; it enhances or promotes life.
In the human body we have the overlap of the physical and the emotional domains. More and more we come to understand that they are only one. The human body has its owns waters—tears, perspiration (see "Old, Useless and Ugly"), saliva, and, of course, the waters of giving birth— that express powerful emotional life.
Finally, in the spiritual domain, water is a vehicle for the sacred—offerings (see "Marassa Spirits of Haiti"), healing, communication. Vodou, as a religion, has long been denigrated and misunderstood, perceived as most unholy. Yet, as a vehicle for the divine to intervene in our lives or as a place of residence for the Spirits, water is revered as holy though not in the same way that Christians, for example, may think of holy water. The belief in the presence of Spirits in various bodies of water—Simbi in streams and rivers, Agwe, La Siren (the mermaid, see "Our for Some Bread on Flatbush Ave."), and Klermezin in the ocean— makes the water sacred and a place of worship. Also, various forms of cleansing are religious metaphors which imply a making holy of and through the water (see "Blue Amanie" and "Laundry" in "Caribbean Childhood").
Yet, some waters are truly unholy at least in the way they affect our lives (see "Run for the River": "Father has fought the river all his life", etc.). I am referring to water as a force of nature described in insurance documents as "act of God." Still, even these destructive waters of God's passion can be seen as holy in the ways that they transform us—we try so hard to overcome their effect that we grow in the process—the curse becomes a blessing. We equate holy with gentleness and luminousness but what is the epithet for the body of water which Moses parted and later destroyed the Egyptians? (But, what to make of Niska's pond with a "Biblical" snake in it? What of the "piss" water in "Pigs and Wings"?).
EP: Another ongoing theme in the book has to do with how we can maintain faith in the face of terrible losses and suffering. For example, in "Ti Kikit," a young girl who has no choice but to turn to prostitution to survive. Men of principle are routinely exiled, or suffer actual, or spiritual, death (for example, as in "Haitian Masks"). Yet despite these tragedies, your book seems more one of hope than despair. How does this hopefulness reflect your own world view, or that of the Haitian people, or both?
MP: I find Haitians a very hopeful people. Hope is an act of faith. Haitians are a very spiritual and religious people as a whole. Other people have commented on this hopeful aspect of the book which, though at times savagely sorrowful, is on the whole hopeful. People have said they close the book feeling hopeful. I am glad about that. The desire to do that led me to chose "Niska and the Snake" as the last poem—a frightful spirit, she wins in the end. After subjecting my reader to an array of emotions, some of which are disquieting, to say the least, I wanted, as an act of gentleness, love, and respect, to leave my reader filled with hope and energy. We win with Niska!