There’s a Poem for That: Shani Mootoo + Oh Witness Dey!

A collection of vibrant poems, Shani Mootoo’s newest book Oh Witness Dey! (Book*hug Press) considers the ancestry and rootlessness of those affected by colonial labour systems.

Read the poem “Matayla, Matayla” and our interview with Shani, below.

A graphic reading "There's a poem for...the diaspora" with the cover of Oh Witness Dey! and a photo of Shani Mootoo


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There's a poem for that... NPM on All Lit Up.

An interview with poet Shani Mootoo

All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about Oh Witness Dey! and how it came to be?

The cover of Oh Witness Dey! by Shani Mootoo.

Shani Mootoo: The title poem Oh Witness Dey! Was commissioned by Spike Island Gallery in the UK, for the catalogue of American artist Candice Lin ‘s Pigs and Poison traveling exhibition. I did not have a book in mind at the time. My poem contrasted Lin’s work on Chinese indentureship in the U.S.A. with Indian indentureship in Trinidad, where I grew up. Lin’s work references the Witness, and for my poem I, too, called on a Witness. I happened to show the finished poem to Andil Gosine, artist and curator, who, unknown to me at the time, was guest co-editor of the British journal Wasifiri. Andil asked for a poem on the same theme as the Spike Island commission, as “his” issue of Wasifiri was to be on the afterlives of Indian indentureship. After the fact, of course, it seemed inevitable that the research for these two poems would lead to a book that would explore the questions that arose from the poems: how indentureship, why the conditions of indentureship? The question of ancestry, about which I am often asked by theorists who consider my written work in theirs, inevitably arose. Oh Witness Dey! Is my attempt to get to the root of the rootlessness of those of us whose ancestry is mired in the deep and dark waters of the colonial labour systems. 

ALU: What did you learn while writing your collection? 

SM: Before I worked on this collection my knowledge of the so-called discovery of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries came from my high school textbooks and, since then, from more general conversations and debates about discovery, colonialism, and indentureship. But to speak, as I do in this collection, about the years from the late 1400s to the present, I had to read the works of historians, speak with people who are schooled in the subjects, read pertinent poets, and push myself mentally to pull together these sources, my family stories, and my own experiences of immigration. It was a huge experience, learning, reassessing, and unlearning, taking into account and interrogating what one has already been living and has taken for granted. It wasn’t until I began to peer into and excavate my own daily world that I saw the extraordinary in the everyday and ordinary.  

ALU: What sparked your initial love of poetry?

SM: If I am allowed to go all the way back in time, I’d say that my interest in writing poetry started when I was a child. But this particular start is probably true of many children—a child first sees in her introduction to these sparse lines called poetry an opportunity to speak, to state what is going on in her life, without revealing herself. Back then one poured out one’s heart, protected by the obfuscation that poetry seemed to call for and to offer. Poetry was a form of confession and catharsis, a way to create oneself for oneself, it was not meant to be shared, but kept under lock and key. One could love and cry, one could protest and delight, without the fear of contradiction, because how you wrote, this thing you thought of as poetry, protected you. This would eventually change however. So, see the following question for how.

ALU: Has your idea of poetry changed since you began writing?

SM: How and when searching for answers, wanting truths, speaking out and needing to be heard, superseded the childhood need for obfuscation, is difficult to pinpoint. But I do recall an eye-opening discovery: I found a little used book of poems in my school library by Rainer Maria Rilke, and saw that deep emotions were not feelings to fear or hide but, crafted, gave depth to a person, to life itself.  It was at this time I discovered, also, that language is an amazing tool for excavating and understanding, and then for sharing and explaining. To lay it all bare is now the drive behind all of my prose work and poetry. 

ALU: Can you discuss the significance of language and word choice in your collection? How did you land on which words to use?

SM: Oh Witness Dey! Falls into the category of poetry because this collection needed to be held within a genre broad-minded enough to accept its inherent slipperiness. The subject matter I was dealing with could not, to my mind, be clipped, truly reasoned, made precious, or sweetened. As the descendant of people whose language-of-origin was replaced by English, the ripping apart of, and mending back together, aspects of my own history had me wrestling constantly with the “what and how” of poetry for someone who is a product of geopolitical shenanigans and who, as a result, straddles multiple and sometimes conflicting identities. Choice of language, placement of lines, word and sound, and the page itself—as canvas—were all weighed to hold poetry, story, history, identity, and politics.  

ALU: If you were to set your collection to a soundtrack, what song is at the top of the listing? 


Hugh Masakela’s Colonial Man. Here are some lines from it: 

Cortez was a pirate, just like Christopher Columbus, 

He liked discovery, 

He was no friend of mine.  

Henry the navigator, a friend of Vasco Da Gama, 

He loved geography, 

He was no friend of mine. 

There’s a poem for the diaspora…
“Matayla, Matayla” from Oh Witness Dey!

Your once-white too-big dress kept pace 
Cinched at your meagre waist with rope 
That could draw a bucket from a well 
Tie a cow, the feet of a woman, hang a man, oneself 
Upon your head gnats and storm clouds swirled 
Mashed-up black shoes hastened you 
A woman forsaken? 
Vivified by some revolt 
Or divination? 
Clutching a black handbag 
Like a pass, or it carried proof 
Some legal document, a photograph? 
Where did you go? The hospital? 
Cemetery? To see a friend? 
To sit on a bench at King’s Wharf 
Gaze out at the murky Gulf 
Search for a ship you once knew? 

Squatting on pale white gravel 
You scrubbed, washed, scrubbed 
Out of a rusted Klim tin 
What might have been 
Your only piece of underwear 

The stragglers took aim with 
Slingshots and guava sticks 
Your screams incomprehensible 
Water from the well of your milky eyes 
Couldn’t put out the fire 

One to ten, and they came at you again 

From where did you come? 
Were you born on the island? 
Did you come here running? 
Were you dragged? 

Did you know a man who went by the name of King Radio? 
What about H. Belafonte? 
Was it you who took their money and ran Venezuela? 

Everyone called you Matayla. Is that even your name? 

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Shani Mootoo was born in Ireland and raised in Trinidad. Mootoo’s highly acclaimed writing includes the novels Polar Vortex, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Valmiki’s Daughter, He Drown She in the Sea, and Cereus Blooms at Night, as well as the poetry collections The Predicament of Or, Cane | Fire, and Oh Witness Dey! Her poetry has appeared in Wasafiri, Poetry Magazine, and Room Magazine. She has been awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters honoris causa from Western University, is a recipient of Lambda Literary’s James Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist Prize, and the Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award. She lives in Southern Ontario, Canada.

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Thanks to Shani for answering our questions, and to Book*hug Press for the text of “Matayla, Matayla” from Oh Witness Dey! which is available to order now (and get 15% off with the code THERESAPROMO4THAT until April 30!).

For more poetry month, catch up on our “there’s a poem for that” series here, and visit our poetry shop here.