What you see is what you get with Vivimarie
She tells me, sipping gently on her iced tea, that she was 99.9% sure she would not win the Gratiaen Prize, but then adds unabashedly – “of course, I wanted it.” Her face alight, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten is still riding high on the honour of securing one of Sri Lanka’s most coveted literary awards; and she brings that vibrant energy and a sense of barely trammelled joy to this interview. Of course, the stars in her eyes are balanced both by a poet’s often brutal vision and her own rare candour. She shrugs aside the suggestion that it takes courage to write as candidly – about despair, divorce and death - as she does. “What you see is what you get. I don’t like to play a role – and if someone can’t accept me, that’s their problem, not mine.”
For all that she is not a comfortable poet to read, (if there ever could be such a person) Vivimarie seems to have ridden on a wave of popularity. She appeals to a wide spectrum of readers - you will find her books both on the side tables in distinguished homes, and in school bags, and should you have the chance, you will see how with her quiet, direct voice, she can hold an audience, silent and intent, right in the palm of her hand. As a poet, Vivimarie is above all accessible, and she wears this label like a badge of honour. Talking about her pleasure in having garnered bouquets of approval from several noted academics, many of whom she is “still in awe of,” Vivimarie adds, “at the same time there were people who had never read poetry in their whole lives, who said to me ‘I keep your book near my bed, and read only one a day – it’s like eating one kavum at a time,’ – and all I could say was, ‘wow’.”
“I originally started writing to make sense of the crazy things that were happening to me,” she says, but when people started getting back to her with positive feedback, “it became a sort of celebration.” For all that, many of the poems in ‘nothing prepares you’, the title of her very first collection of poetry, are almost painful to read, not simply because they confront gritty subjects like sexism, depression, racism, xenophobia and conflict but because in her hands language is a sharp edged instrument, more than capable of drawing blood. With humour, and flashes of raw vulnerability, she achieves what all poets set out to do - she shreds the frail curtains that separate my pain from your pain, my joy from yours, you from me. In the lines between, we are all, together, inescapably human.
No one understands this better than Vivimarie herself. She has always been an avid student of literature, having studied English, taught poetry for many years now and Economics at the University of Kelaniya and completed her Masters in applied linguistics at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. She is currently a Ph.D student at the same university, researching in the area of bilingual education and second language acquisition. She also teaches English language, literature and linguistics at the Open University of Sri Lanka.
It is in the last aspect, as a teacher, that she has most often witnessed the extraordinary impact poetry can have on its readers, even on the relatively uninitiated. She remembers a student who would write to her often, and ask, ‘so Miss, what was that poem about?’ In responding to her young pupil, Vivimarie says she was forced to articulate what she was actually writing about. “In one email he asked, ‘so why do you write only sad poems?’” Her response, fittingly, came in the form of another poem – Questions without Answers – in which she asks ‘Is gladness mute/from years of neglect?’ and then later ‘Has sorrow nothing to lose/does it therefore sing?’
In fact, several of the poems included in the collection verge on being meditations on the nature of pain, most explicitly so in the title poem.
Nothing prepares you for
It hits you like a bus
In the street
While you’re trying to shield your eyes from the glare
Of the mid-day sun
While you are thinking ordinary thoughts
Like: “where did I leave my keys”
Her poems can maul you, leaving you bruised and tender. But her balm is humour, and she soothes you with self deprecation. In the poem ‘Decree Nisi,’ she writes about what was obviously a painful end to her first marriage but closes with the lines –
But enough of that
Now, since I cannot desert you maliciously
And adultery is no longer a crime we can commit,
Perhaps we could be friends again.
“I was very glad that I could see the irony in it,” she says talking about the divorce. “I have never been shy to talk about things. My desire there was to get people to accept things. This is not a crime, this is not a bad word, it happens to many people, in fact it happened to me – so what?” Ruefully she admits, “It brings out the activist in me...I am always trying to translate my pain, and my depression – but I don’t want to play this tragic heroine.”
For all that her poetry is often the result of personal experience; it is also very much a work of deliberate creation and art. This was most apparent when she went through the actual process of compiling ‘nothing prepares you’.
The collection includes poems written over a decade ago, and so when the publisher asked for a manuscript, Vivimarie went through every single one of the 52 poems with the eye of a trained critic and re-worked them all. Now that they are published, they will never be entirely hers again; a legion of devoted admirers has their own interpretations of her work. “Reading is not a passive act – you bring to it yourself, your own experiences,” says the poet, “I am very honoured that they interpret it in different ways...otherwise it would be so boring.”
Boring is one thing Vivimarie could never be accused of being. She resists categorisation – in her veins the blood of the traditional Sinhalese mix with the Belgian.Born a Christian, Vivimarie embraced Buddhism when she was 15. “They love to put you in little slots,” she says, “and I’ve always fought against that.” She is likely to keep on fighting, right through a second collection of poetry that she hopes will be published soon. She has found, it seems, her literary form, and is quite content. “So many people ask me to write prose…but I just can’t. I don’t even want to make the effort, it’s not in me. I think that, essentially, without any pretentiousness, I am a poet and not a prose writer.” And it is something that we now all have reason to be glad for.
“A gentle, reflective minimalism which touches the soul, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten’s poetry is like a shadow passing across your face,” says Dr. SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda, Chairman of the panel of Gratiaen judges, in his speech at the awards ceremony which culminates with the announcement that Vivimarie is this year’s winner. As the applause rolls over her, and she smiles, jubilant yet caught off guard by the sudden barrage of flash lights, it is apparent that Vivimarie is not only a poet, but a poet who has finally come into her own.