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The Radiance of Materials: An Interview with Fawzia Kane

In a sense, considering the raw material folds time back in on itself, holds it in suspension: what can this substance become?

The poet Fawzia Kane is the author of “Tantie Diablesse” (Waterloo Press, 2011) and the illustrated pamphlet, “Houses of the Dead” (Thamesis Publications, 2014). This term, she’ll be teaching a new Poetry School course, The Radiance of Materials: Stone / Wood / Glass exploring the origins of our stone flags, unraveling our timber stairs, and deciding whether glass is, in fact, solid. We sat down for a quick chat with her.


In your collection, ‘Houses of the Dead’, you write about complete (though abandoned) houses – how does that differ from writing about their raw materials, as you will be doing in this course?


An abandoned house begins to corrode and decay into new elements. But when new, the touch of the craftsperson should be obvious (even with poorly finished examples).

In a sense, considering the raw material folds time back in on itself, holds it in suspension: what can this substance become? There are so many ways how the sources of building materials are treated- crushed, ground to gravel or powder. Sand reacts with lime to make mortar. Stone is carved and polished to enclose. Wood is spliced to create a roof.

So the writing would look at process as well as the finished product, how the act of transformation via human contact affects the material, and how this can be reflected in the poets’ work.

Of course, all this links with your work as an architect. Back in 2012, you did an interview with ‘I Don’t Call Myself a Poet’, and said “I used to try to keep the 2 disciplines separate, but it’s an impossible task.” Is that still the case?


Yes. A few more architect colleagues now know I write, and my publishers tend to define me as an architect who writes. There seems to be a view in both professions, that nothing less than full-time attention means you can never be a serious practitioner.

But one side will always infect the other. There is always a battle to find some guilt-free time for one or the other. As architecture is my main means to make a living for now, writing has to be in short and intense bursts, valuable thought-time, too far apart these days.

In one of your previous Poetry School courses, you visited Brogdale fruit farm for ‘Hanami’ to write about the cherry blossoms; in this course, you say that “some sessions may take place outside the classroom”. How important is it to your writing process to visit, to see?


It is essential, and I mean much more than a flaneur. I ask students to record what happens when all their senses are used in the observation exercises, without emotion or judgement- no “I think/feel” or similes are allowed in their notes — more robot, less monkey brain. This technique begins to undermine the subject being observed (and the observer sometimes!). I’ve seen amazing notes produced with just looking at the light changing from day to night, or the fall of blossom or the way the river washes along its banks. The ordinary becomes iridescent.

In your biography (see below), you mention ‘Robber Talk’, part of the literary tradition of Trinidad and Tobago where you grew up, in which “real objects and events become hyperbolized into fantastic versions of themselves.” Is that linked to your concerns in ‘The Radiance of Materials’?


This is something we’ll definitely explore in the class. Storytelling may be part of the plan. I’m hoping to see experiments with the textures produced by words that go beyond anthropomorphism.

There seem to be some connecting threads in your work: taking on voices, as in the Tantie Diablesse poems; the central importance of talismans and images, like your poem after Klee’s Angelus Novus; and folklore or local knowledge. Your most recent collection, ‘Houses of the Dead’, for example, includes the voice of ‘the surveyor’, photographs of dilapidated houses, and hidden snippets of real history. Are these continuing interests for you?


Main characters in grandiose sets dominate the limelight. I’m interested in the support acts, the quieter voices of the background, and their contexts. Tantie Diablesse was an immortal witness of Caribbean history, and The Surveyor catalogued the physical emptiness of spent lives. But these witnesses had their own inner turmoil, which in turn mirrored their external worlds, a sort of Droste effect of their subconscious.

You’re our next-door neighbour here at the Poetry School, and you kindly included us in the acknowledgements for your first collection. What can poets get out of teaching, and being taught?


I do believe that we should live to our last breath as perpetual students, always open to learning something new to ourselves. I also believe that we can sometimes produce our best when we test ourselves outside our comfort zone. How else can you know what you can really do? How far you can go? What you really are? Some students find this uncomfortable, and resist, and that is their choice. But those students who do keep an open mind about themselves, and these courses, always produce something that exceeds all expectations. This is not about the embarrassment of loss of control, but poetry is a creative art, and (at least for me) should be taught as just that.

Finally, what’s next for you as a poet? I heard you were interested in the concept of time in the English language…


Maybe because English is a bricolage of several other languages (I don’t know, I’m not a linguist), but English grammar seems to control a precision in the time-line, that some other languages seem to lack. I began to see time as a catalyst for transformation: re/birth, death and decay. With Tantie, I tried to ask: how do you change if you are immortal?

I was a student in Roddy Lumsden’s excellent “Writing The Tempest” course at Poetry School last year (2015), and from this I am now working on a long sequence in the voice of Sycorax. As Roddy noted, she is the only major character in the play who is absent. These poems will hopefully give her a voice as she had no means to defend herself or reputation.

Fawzia Muradali Kane was born in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago at the cusp of the country’s changeover from being a colony to independence. Kane came to the UK on a scholarship to study architecture. She practiced as an architect in Trinidad for some years, and now lives in London. Along with Mike Kane she is co-director of KMK Architects.

Kane’s poetry has been published in several journals including Agenda, Brittle Star, Poetry Review, Poetry London, Poetry Wales, and Rialto. Most of her early work is in the form of dramatic monologues, mainly in the voice of the character “Tantie Diablesse”, a 300-year-old ex-slave from Tobago. The storytelling tradition is still strong in Trinidad and Tobago, with set orders and rhythms in the narrative, and this is a feature she tries to instil in her poems. One sub-set of this tradition, also of interest, is called “robber talk” where real objects and events become hyperbolized into fantastic versions of themselves. “Tantie Diablesse” (Waterloo Press 2011) is also the name of her first collection, which was a finalist in the poetry section for the 2012 Bocas Lit Fest prize. An illustrated long sequence of poems “Houses of the Dead” is now out as a pamphlet by Thamesis Publications in 2014.

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Image Credit: Eryn Vorn