Alumni News

Five Questions with Safiya Sinclair '10

Poet and Memoirist Safiya Sinclair ’10, author of the memoir How to Say Babylon, a National Book Critics Circle Award Winner and one of the most notable books of the year according to the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, TIME Magazine, and many others, will address the 89th graduating class at the conferring of degrees on Saturday, June 1. We connected with her to learn more about her time at Bennington and how it influenced her career.

Safiya Sinclair '10

What was the focus of your Plan while at Bennington, and how did your experience studying here set you up for your future academic endeavors?

My focus of study at Bennington was literature. I took a lot of creative writing and literature classes as an undergrad. I came to Bennington already knowing what I wanted to do, since I'd already published poems in Jamaica. And so by the time I got to Bennington, I said, ‘Okay, now I'm here. I'm going to college. I'm going to continue my education in literature and hone my craft as a writer.’ And that's what I did. While I was here, I was lucky enough to have some really great literature professors who expanded what I was reading and the ways I thought about contemporary poetry and expanded the possibilities of what kind of poet I could be. That really gave me the tools to begin writing the poems that set me on my way publishing my first book and going into my MFA.

Is there a faculty mentor or course you’d taken during your time at Bennington that had a particular influence on the way you’ve come to write?

My favorite professor was Mark Wunderlich. He was my advisor. I remember when I arrived, we discovered that we both had this great passion for Sylvia Plath. It was one of the first things we bonded over. Mark was such an amazing professor that he actually created a seminar about Sylvia Plath while I was here. And I remember that was one of my most extraordinary classes at Bennington, where Mark and I would geek out about Sylvia Plath every week! Later he told me he created the class for me. How lucky was I to have a professor who wanted to encourage my passion for literature in this way, who would go so far as to create a class, to find an avenue of further discovery for this writer that we love so much? It was really in Mark's poetry classes and his workshops that I first began to think about honing my poetic voice and the potency of the lyric. He expanded my world. I sharpened and developed and evolved into the poet I am. I'm so grateful to him. 

How to Say Babylon has been garnering a lot of attention. Of all of the positive press, is there a particular accolade that has meant the most to you? 

It sounds like a cliche, but I really don't think about accolades too much. I feel very grateful that my story has resonated with readers. I will say the one thing that happened that was totally surreal was when President Obama chose the book for his [best of 2023] list. I was with one of my sisters when it happened, and I asked, ‘Is this real life?’ And she said, ‘It's real.’ So that was a really lovely day, and it felt almost incredulous to imagine. Like, ‘Oh my gosh. The president read my book and likes it.’ Of course, the recognition from the reviews and the awards and all of that is lovely, but the thing that has meant the most to me is the reaction from readers. I get notes every day from women across the world who've read the book and who have such touching things to say about the way my story has resonated with them, how similar it is to their own lives, and how much it has meant to them that I've shared my story. That's when I feel the most moved and the most grateful for the book being out there and making its own way through the world, making its own life by finding these readers that need it the most. That's what I feel most grateful for. 

You’ve been well recognized as a poet, but this is your first memoir. What surprised or challenged you about working in this genre? 

It was challenging to switch, because I'd never written book-length prose. I'd written some essays. I wrote my first lyric essay at Bennington with one of my other favorite professors, Becky Godwin. It was in her class on the personal essay that I first wrote about home and my childhood in prose. After that, I met a poet named E.C. Belli, who worked in the Communications Office at Bennington, who’d read that essay and wrote to me saying, ‘Hey, I co-founded this small press, Argos Books. I would love for you to publish a chapbook with us.’ And so, it was through being at Bennington and writing this essay that I published this chapbook, Catacombs. And that lyric essay in Catacombs ended up being the beginning of How to Say Babylon

Expanding that into a book took a lot of work, because with my poetry, I can hold the entire poem in my head. But the first challenge in writing the memoir was realizing that there's no way I can hold a 350-page book in my head; I had to just take it paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. I had to think about a narrative. I had to think about dialogue and making scenes. It was a welcome expansion of my tools as a writer, and I relished the different possibilities prose offered me as a writer, things that I couldn't do with poetry. For example, I don't write dialogue in my poetry, and that was actually something I really enjoyed doing in the memoir. 

Stylistically, my poetry informed how I constructed the sentences. I really wanted it to read lyrically. I wanted the reader to feel the landscape of Jamaica, the seaside, the warm air of the island through the poetic lens. It was important to me that the prose and the sentences would really mirror the landscape of Jamaica. That's where the poet in me really came out.

Overall, the most challenging thing about writing prose was learning to be edited. When I write my poems, it's done very much in solitude. I work on the poem by myself, and I submit the poem, and usually, a magazine or the editor or the publisher will say, ‘Thank you for this poem.’ And it didn't work that way with prose. I had to write a manuscript, and then my editors would send me an edit letter to say, ‘This is really fantastic, but here's some notes we have for revision.’ And I was like, ‘Revision? This is new. Okay.’ It was a fruitful act of humility, a lesson in being okay with imperfection, and working collaboratively. I had to train the prose writer in me to see how some of those notes and suggestions for cuts would actually make the manuscript better. And slowly I could see the manuscript evolving into its best form. 

What advice do you have for current Bennington students? 

To current students, I would say, really take advantage of everything Bennington has to offer. Explore classes outside of your comfort zone and things you might not have thought you’d want to study. For example, when I was at Bennington, I took acting classes. I was in plays. I’d never done that before. I got to Bennington, and I was like, why not? And that was some of the most fun I had, but it also informed my writing and the way I thought about character, the way I thought about writing lines and making imagery. Inspiration is sometimes found where you least expect it, go seek it as it seeks you!

Safiya is working on a second poetry collection, Planet Dread, about the intersection between linguistics of the Rastafari and her own “feminine rebellion.” She is also under contract with Simon & Schuster for a historical novel that combines 600 years of Jamaican history with the oncoming climate crisis. “Islands like Jamaica,” she said, “have the smallest carbon footprint in the world, but we will be the first affected by the climate crisis. We will be among the first climate refugees. I feel compelled to write toward some kind of awareness and preservation of the sea and the beachside and the landscape that I love so much.”