Vahni Capildeo

b. 1973

Vahni Capildeo was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2019.

Vahni Capildeo’s recent books include Skin Can Hold (Carcanet, 2019), poetry which arose from collaborations in various forms of performance and is intended for re-adaptation; Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018), poems which centre on ‘things’ in the tradition of Francis Ponge and Gertrude Stein, with an index of places at the back for readers who might wish to visit the poems’ subjects; Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, 2016), which crosses the borders between prose and poetry; and Utter (Peepal Tree Press, 2013), inspired by lexicography and the sense of language as multifoliate, not monolithic.

Capildeo’s interests in cross-genre writing, multilingualism, place, memory, and other voices are established from their first published book, No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003), completed during a Research Fellowship at Girton College, Cambridge. Their longstanding commitment to non-fiction continues to produce work such as pieces on microtravel, for Granta; cocoa growing in Trinidad, and an English feminist gardener in Kenya, for Commonwealth Writers’ online outlet, adda; citizenship in Brexit Britain, for The White Review; poetry and offence, for Poetry magazine (USA) and Poetry Review (UK); and a regular report for PN Review. Capildeo is a contributing adviser for Blackbox Manifold (Sheffield).

Capildeo lives in Scotland, and often returns to Trinidad, their birthplace. Capildeo was educated in Port of Spain at Dunross Preparatory School and St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain (Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny). Their father, the late Devendranath Capildeo, was an English-language poet who also recited in Sanskrit and Hindi. Their mother, Leila Bissoondath Capildeo, had studied French and philosophy, and taught them many concepts, stories, poems and songs. Capildeo was introduced to Trinidad’s performance traditions at the age of two, ‘crossing the stage’ at Queen’s Park Savannah’s Grand Stand in the Kiddies’ Carnival competition. Capildeo has a passion for Trinidad’s traditional masquerade, exploring the characters of Pierrot Grenade and the Midnight Robber as well as being a band member of Belmont Exotic Stylish Sailors. Caribbean Beat magazine featured their account of the ‘fancy sailor’.  

At Christ Church, Oxford, Capildeo read English Language and Literature, winning an Overseas Student Research Award to do an MSt in Medieval studies and a Rhodes Scholarship to pursue a DPhil in Old Norse and translation theory. Capildeo has worked within and outside academia, for example as a (Senior) Programme Officer at Commonwealth Writers, and as a volunteer with the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre. They are grateful to have benefited from the Judith Wilson Poetry Fellowship at Cambridge; the Harper-Wood Studentship at St John’s College, Cambridge; a residency at the University of Canberra’s Poetry on the Move festival; a Douglas Caster Cultural Fellowship in Poetry at the University of Leeds; and a UNESCO Poetry Fellowship at UEA in Norwich. Capildeo has served as a judge for a number of literary prizes. Their writing has been recognized by awards including the Forward Poetry Best Collection Prize, and a T.S. Eliot Prize nomination, for Measures of Expatriation (2016), and a Cholmondeley Award (Society of Authors).

Image credit: Hayley Madden