Caribbean-poet Christian Campbell addresses climate change, colonialism through his art

Poet Christian Campbell
Poet Christian Campbell reads at the Chicago Poetry Foundation, Feb. 21, 2020.

By Seb Peltekian
Medill Reports

“My friend from Guyana
was asked in Philadelphia
if she was from ‘Iguana.’”

Caribbean poet Christian Campbell read the lines to the audience of about 100 people. The audience, including many college students, chuckled at this clever word play and the absurd misunderstanding presented in the poem.

Campbell’s poetry captures the beauty and centuries of pain of his tropical islands. The current threat of climate changes and the legacy of colonialism, genocide and racial stereotypes weave throughout his work.

The Chicago Poetry Foundation hosted Campbell as part of their Poetry Off the Shelf readings series this winter. Campbell, 40, a writer-in-residence at the School of the Art Institute, read a selection of his work that transported listeners from the snowy streets of Chicago to the warm waters of his native Caribbean.

Poetry and language have long been a fascination for Campbell, who attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and received his Ph.D. from Duke University. He also tied his approach to poetry to his background. “In terms of my Trinidadian family, and Trinidadians in general, there is this incredible love of the play with language. So I’ve always been just fascinated with language as a material, as a force that moves, as an organism, as a living thing,” Campbell said. “In my own background, thinking about the relationship between all of these different creoles and vernaculars and what you could do to language, how language could work on you and how you could work on language.”

Not only is Campbell’s love of language influenced by the cultures from which he comes but so are the themes and imagery in his poetry. Campbell pays homage to New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in his poem “J.M.B.’s Dehistories.” He ends the piece with an imaginary, playful email exchange between the poet and Basquiat, who died in 1988. Like Campbell, Basquiat came from a mixed-Caribbean background.

Acclaimed poet Christian Campbell is currently a writer-in-residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Campbell is also an essayist and scholar, who has appeared on “Democracy Now!” and on eco-politics panels to discuss climate change. (Seb Peltekian/MEDILL)

In the opening lines of his poem, “Feel For the Water,” Campbell makes cultural observations that harken to his own multi-racial background: “How swimming really began was with the Native Americans/who invented the crawl/then the white men learned it and forgot them/then the white men called that style “Australian crawl”/then they called it “free”/How swimming really began was with the Indians/Matsya fish avatar of Vishnu/steadied and guided the ship during the Great Flood/Who could tell where the water ended and where his blue skin began?”

The poem, “Iguana,” quoted up top, starts with somebody mistakenly confusing “Guyana” (the country in northeastern South American) with the “iguana” of the Caribbean. Campbell uses this as a springboard to crisscross the Caribbean geographically. He mentions the various indigenous peoples of the Caribbean islands —the Carib culture (“my grandmother’s people,” he adds in the poem), the Arawaks (from which the word “iguana” derives) and the Lucayans. The poet says that “the world is on the back of an ageless iguana.” While the piece begins on a humorous note, it ends on a more somber tone, saying, “And all the iguanas scurry away from me/and all the iguanas are dying.”

Campbell participated in an eco-politics panel at Wesleyan University last year and is very aware of the effects of climate change. His uncle, a preacher, lost everything he owned in Hurricane Dorian in September. Other family members lost houses as well. Although Campbell grew up with hurricanes, the frequency and severity of recent hurricanes is not something he has ever experienced. Campbell sees this as a continuation of the colonialism imposed on more vulnerable populations.

“The emissions of CO2 that generate climate change come out of [the U.S.] and bigger countries. But [the Caribbean countries] take the biggest brunt,” he said. “With that kind of apocalyptic reality … it makes me want to sort of archive everything I can before it goes.”

He refers to the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, which are linked to global warming.

Not only is poetry Campbell’s way of addressing and preserving the past, it is also his way of grappling with the issues that face “this burning world” of today. “[Poetry] has also been incredibly urgent because of the sort of visibility of political crises globally and trying to figure out new languages and new vocabulary for human turmoil and violence and disaster but also potential and survival,” Campbell said.

Abigail Miller, 23, who attended Campbell’s reading, picked up on his social and environmental commentary. “I appreciate that the subject matter [is] very biographical and very in-tune with identity and history and making all those references,” said Miller, an aspiring poet herself.

Photo at top: Poet Christian Campbell reads his work recently at the Chicago Poetry Foundation. The reading was part of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Off the Shelf series. (Seb Peltekian/MEDILL)