Recently, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented poet Sylvia Hamilton reading from her book of poetry And I Alone Escaped to Tell You. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.
I am not the navigator on this journey.
I am more than a passenger, but not the captain.
Longing for that which is not,
for what could have been,
for that imagined place.
from And I Alone Escaped to Tell You
by Sylvia Hamilton
Sylvia Hamilton opened the discussion of her book of poetry with a statement about her ancestors: “I am because they were.” This feels very appropriate because Hamilton – the poet, the filmmaker, the artist and the person – is grounded in the present but with a deep appreciation of history, of those who came before. For much of her early education, the history of African people in Nova Scotia was unknown to her, but that began to change when she started to do more archival research. Her recent collection of poetry, And I Alone Escaped to Tell You, is in many ways the culmination of a lifetime of discoveries that reveal much about her own journey as well as our own connections to the African diaspora in Canada.
One of the strongest images to emerge from Hamilton’s recent reading for the Canadian Writers in Person series was that of an explorer (or a dreamer) who goes on a great expedition to return with knowledge and insight. The title of her collection is taken from a quote from the Book of Job in which a messenger returns having witnessed the slaughter of his servants, a prelude of much of his suffering. Hamilton is likewise a messenger “on an exploratory journey trying to unlock the trapdoor of memory,” and what she brings back is a more complete story of the Job-like suffering, humanity and beauty of a people than what can be found in the ledgers of history. The impact of her work and our shared history are expressed in the hauntingly beautiful poem that opens the collection, about a passage aboard the slave ship Severn, which ends with the line “the sons of darkness stole our children’s tomorrow.”
Hamilton takes issue with the language in some of the archival documents, such as the Book of Negroes (also the inspiration for the novel by Lawrence Hill), in which 3,000 people were given dismissive and negative descriptors as if they were not individuals. “They were not the language used to describe them,” she said, noting that she was also inspired (and angered) by archival advertisements about runaway slaves. “I outright reject the term runaways. I see courage, cleverness and forethought.” Rather, she uses the term “Freedom Runners” and writes about their experiences, and their descendants, from the intersection of imagination, research and the oral histories of the community.
The poet has been surprised at the attempted erasure, and in some cases denial, of history in favour of something more palatable to the general understanding of Canadian history. This includes her lived experience of going to a segregated school in a poor neighbourhood of Nova Scotia, only to have some people deny this as a possibility in our country (just as the horrors of residential schools were denied for quite some time). Hamilton also rankles when some people question her Nova Scotia heritage, as if she couldn’t be “from there” because she doesn’t look like what “from there” is supposed to be. Yet Hamilton and her ancestors have been there as long as anyone, and belong in a way that can’t be denied. When one student mentioned the connection he noticed between her work and the sea, as if it was clear that she had a fierce attachment to that kind of east coast landscape, Hamilton visibly filled with a kind of proud joy.
After all, her poetry is not just historical but also personal, and the later sections of the collection reflect her own past and present. In particular, there’s a scene where she encounters poverty in Cuba, an image that confronts her from the other side of the lens with a memory of her own childhood. She ends the poem with the reflection “Where am I?,” a question which perhaps considers her place in both personal history and the larger diaspora.
Another student asked Hamilton about the responsibility of the poet and why she chose that form. She said that poetry is about life and imagination, the images that they can express and send out into the world, and that poets can be a witness to the world and its beauty. Rather than the essays she might have written about her ancestors, poetry allowed for the urgency of the voices she heard, tapping their feet, impatiently waiting for her to allow them to speak through her. In response to her earlier question “Where am I?,” we might have said that she was with us that evening, returned from her journey to speak the message that closes her collection: “I am who they imagined.”
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. For a full schedule of upcoming writers for the 2014-2015 academic year, see the Sept. 15 issue of YFile.