by Lauren K. Alleyne 


What is consistent across Kei Miller’s impressive body of work is his project of writing the Caribbean space—its landscapes, its people, its culture, its history—both honestly and lovingly. Sentence after sentence, line after line, novel after poem after essay, Miller both documents and creates a language that can hold the complexity of this palimpsest of a place; a language that is alive to the resonances of the Caribbean’s varied and multiple encounters, that deftly handles the apparently competing realities of its violence and joy, its past and its insistent present, its seen and unseen—all of it summoned, witnessed, revealed. In “The Understory” from the collection In Nearby Bushes, Miller connects the language and landscape demonstrating how the one emerges from the other with attention and careful listening:

the unplotted plot, the intriguing twist of vines,
the messy dialogue – just listen
how the leaves uh & ah & er nonstop. (8)

A global citizen, Miller not only writes the geospace of the Caribbean, but also brings his writer’s eye to the colonial spaces of Europe and Britain, to the continent of Africa, and to spaces throughout the global south, always seeking “the place beneath the place.” In his collection, An Anger that Moves, for example, Miller explores the space of the metropole, portraying, among the many impacts of colonialism on England, the way its new inhabitants transform the place. In “The only thing far away,” he writes:

…Walking through Peckham In London.
West Moss Road in Manchester,
you pass green and yellow shops
where tie-head women bargain over the price
of dasheen. And beside Jamaica is Spain
selling large yellow peppers, lemon to squeeze
onto chicken. Beside Spain is Pakistan, then Egypt,
Singapore, the world… (13)

The poems also consider the places within place: in Miller’s work, the body is a place; the mind is a place; history is a place; memory is a place; Zion is place, as is the unwieldy heart. He reminds readers again and again that place is an agreement of meaning, and that as the power to make, enforce, enact, or challenge these meanings shifts, so does the very idea of place itself. The long poem in Miller’s collection The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, highlights this tension of place and power as the “Cartographer” seeks to use his European worldview to contain and civilize the resistant and rebellious Jamaican landscape—to “untangle the tangled” (17). The Cartographer is challenged throughout the book by a native “Rastaman” who rejects the Cartographer’s epistemology, saying “there are maps / and then again there are maps” (22), insisting that the geographies of history, experience and belief are also valid spaces from which to know and belong to a place.

Kei Miller was the judge of the 2020 Furious Flower poetry prize. While sheltering-in-place in the UK, in lieu of a campus reading, he read as part of our Facebook Live reading series. In 2022, Miller came to James Madison University where he conducted a workshop with students and sat for this interview. This is an edited version of our conversation.

Thank you. So first of all, welcome: to Harrisonburg, to JMU, to Furious Flower, and to The Fight & The Fiddle. I just want to start with a history of becoming “Kei the writer.” I would love to know: what were the things that brought you to this country of words?

Oh, wow. I think the answer to that is, you know, writers, we’re writers, right? So, we like to invent stories. And as I age, I keep on being suspicious of the origin story that I invent for myself. So, there are a couple of them. One of them is that I, like everyone, I have two grandfathers. One of them was a writer, the other one was a preacher. And I think that’s a weird combination of these two strains meeting in me, you know. But I never met one of those grandfathers, so. And the other one, you know, I knew him but…I don’t know if…that that was how I got into it—I know that’s my ancestry. I think a lot of it comes from church. Sitting in church in Jamaica, I think I was learning to be a writer. And again, this isn’t true, because I knew I wanted to write even before that, but I think a lot of the lessons I learned, I learned from that space. It was how the pastor would go up and he would oftentimes put—this is how I thought of it—he would put an unlikely verb to a dissonant noun, and so the noun begins to behave differently. And so, when the pastor says, “the mountains trembled,” because mountains don’t always tremble, or, “the moon bled,” all of a sudden, you make the noun—you energize something in the noun and the noun does something that it doesn’t usually do. And whenever that happens, the congregation always shivers. That is when Sister Sybil behind you goes “Hallelujah!” That’s the power of words. I don’t know if the pastor knew technically what he was doing, but I was always fascinated by those techniques. And so, I think I just sat down and I listened to these artists, people who were interested in not just words, but how words existed in a space with fellow humans. How do you put words into that atmosphere? To move something, to create something? How do you get Sister Sybil to shout, to be moved? That always intrigued me, but it intrigued me on the level of technique. I think that those pastors were some of the most sophisticated people with language. And I thought, By God! You don’t even know what you’re doing or how you’re doing it. But I wanted to take those lessons.

I’m curious about how that relationship to religion and faith carries or continues to carry, how it evolved. Can you talk a little bit about how that history of religiosity and faith still influences the behaviors and movements of the work?

Yeah. So, the end of that story is that I, when I was young—in the latter part of my teens going into my 20s—I was so involved in church and still in those spaces that I often got invited to give a sermon. Of course, I’d be like, yes, I know what I’m doing. And those experiences went really well…. and went too well. So oftentimes, at the end of me giving a sermon, you know, Sister Sybil, she would come up, and she’d say, “God was moving through you today,” and I’d say, “No, it’s the verbs.” I feel a bit of a fraud, because when you listen closely enough to the technique, you know how to do it. So, yes, you know how to create that atmosphere, you know how to create a certain kind of breaking. But this is the odd thing, even though I knew what it was—I knew how technique contributed to that—I have always believed in what the experience creates. Like, I deeply believe in words showing you, or exposing in you, a level of brokenness. And even while you experience the brokenness of who we are, being connected to something higher that says, “You’re still okay, it’s okay to be this person.” I believe in that. I believe in the power of words to both create, in a simultaneous moment, a breaking and a healing. And I’ve always looked for that, and I’ve always looked for poetry to create that. So, even though I stepped away from church because all of that whole process was wrapped up in a certain kind of dogma that I don’t think I believe in, those moments, I do believe in. I do believe in the breaking that happens in church; I do believe in those moments when the pastor created something, and everyone is weeping their eyes out, but they think, but in the middle of this, God loves me, in the middle of my failings, I am okay; In the middle of all of this mess we are just human, and we’re going to be okay. I think that is what I’m always after, in the middle of writing. And I think that comes from a religious upbringing, that I’m still trying to look for those experiences and recreate them in another way. Not necessarily in the way of Pentecost.

I’m thinking about performativity as one of the things that you are maybe critiquing or acknowledging, and I’m wondering about how one deals with that sense of uncertainty versus certainty, right? Because on the one hand, you’re saying part of what kind of rang untrue was that, feeling of I know what I’m doing and I know how to do it. And then the other part of it is the mystery of it all. And so, I’m wondering if you can think a little bit about how that works out on the page, that tension between knowing what the language can do, and yet some element of uncertainty to move it forward?

I agree with that. But I don’t know when that ends, or where that begins or where that ends. You can’t possibly know everything that’s happening in a poem. I think there is always a level where you have to be comfortable with that mystery, but I still think that comes with a level of technique. I still think there is an instinct that happens—that I don’t know what this image is going to do, but I know there’s power in it. I’m actually not bright enough to unpack everything, but I know there is a compression happening there. And I trust myself; I trust the technique enough to know that there is enough happening in there—there’s enough tension happening in that—that I’m gonna just put it there and leave it for people who are brighter than me to go, “This is all of how you could read it.” And so, that is the mystery for me: the mystery of not knowing everything that a poem can do, but you know enough to know what to do, to know how to put it in there.

I guess there’s always that fear that if you know too much, it is going to spoil the joys, and I never think that. I think the more you know, it opens up other kinds of mysteries. And it opens other kinds of tension, but you have to know enough to be able to unlock those mysteries. So never be afraid [that if] you know too much, it will steal the magic. It doesn’t. I am so big on—the word that I keep on coming back to— I am so big on knowing every kind of technique that you can use. I am. I’m a big fan of just being technically precise, with every movement in that poem. But I think it’s because it unlocks other mysteries.

When you were with our students here at JMU, you said that “the world is insufficiently defined.” Can you talk a little bit about that?

I think that’s a weird phrase that…that sits in me and sits in the middle of everything that I write. Yes, the world as we know it is insufficiently defined. I think that is at the heart of why I come to the page. Everything that you see, everything you look at, there is always a moment that it reveals itself as being more than you thought it was. And I just love that. And so, for me, it’s what I try to do when I write, but also, I guess it’s me thinking about all the points, all the works that move me deeply. And why did it move me? And I think it’s always because it does that. I keep on going back to well, you showed me something about this thing, about this feeling, about this object that I didn’t know before. And what makes me gasp is the truth of it, is the beautiful exposure. And I guess another thing, I want to do that. I want to be able to show you something that you thought you knew, and show you there’s a lot more here.

If I look back, even between novels and poetry and everything I’ve written, it’s oftentimes that that’s what I’m experiencing—it’s a duality. It’s the Rastaman and the cartographer, who have two very different ways of seeing the world. And both are right. It’s the Warner woman and the writer-man, who are struggling with what is the real story here. And they both have two different versions. I think oftentimes, in my work, I’m bringing together these two seemingly opposing worldviews, and each one of them is going, “but this is what it is.” But putting the two together, it’s not any one thing.

So, you mentioned genre. Can you tell me what makes you pick a genre? How do you decide what’s going to emerge, in what form? How do you see those forms connected, and how they’re very disparate in your engagement with them?

One of the things that I say—kind of facetiously, but it’s because, you know, when I go to conferences with writers from around the world, they always say, you know, you’re with a writer from Egypt and a writer from Syria. And it seems this dedication to single genres always feels like… well, to say it in the most polite way, is a thing that people from developed countries are doing.

It’s a very American, very British thing. This, “I am a this!” And if you come from the Caribbean or, you know, all these other places—Egypt, Syria, whatever—you just find writers who go, “We write what we need to write.” Because here is a landscape that is so… it needs so much writing, there is so much to write about it, that you just don’t have the luxury to say, “I am a ‘this.’ ” No, I am a writer and I’m going to write what needs to be written because my landscape, my culture, needs all of these things. And this is what I bring to this space, is words, and the shape of those words might be different. It might be what you call “genre.” But it’s the project—it’s the project of writing for this space that we belong to, that you have to wrestle with. And that wrestling with it in words looks different. And how the broader literary world makes sense of that is, “Oh, you’re working two different genres.” But I think I’m working on one project of trying to capture this landscape. And that might look different. But that’s one way of putting it; there are other ways.

In another sense, I think I came to different genres just by pure instinct. I have to think I am stricter now about those changes. In this world where everyone is interdisciplinary—you know, that’s just been that kind of buzzword for a while—I do completely believe that disciplines matter. But you have to be disciplined before you become an interdisciplinary writer. It matters what you’re writing. It does matter if you are writing a novel. It does matter if you are writing a poem. And you do have to understand the rules of that discipline or that genre that you’re working in. I don’t think I always did that.

This is why it comes back to me: it’s about how we fix the problems that we come across.

What happens then, if you’re writing a novel, is you come across a problem in the novel. And everything we write, it’s going to throw up problems to us. And when what we write throws up problems, our job as the writer is to fix it. Now, if you’re writing a novel, and you come to it with a toolkit of poetry to fix, it is not going to work. And you see the thing is, I used to do that, and I see poets doing that all the time. And what results is a beautiful, beautiful piece of writing. But those are not the problems; the problems of fiction are not the problems of poetry, the problems of fiction are character, pace, tension. Those simply are not the problems of poetry, you try to fix a novel with a toolkit of poetry, and again, it’s beautiful writing, but it didn’t change the pace. It didn’t change the character development. And so, you have a lot of beauty that doesn’t advance the novel in the way that a novel has to advance. So, I think Augustown [Miller’s own award-winning novel] is probably the first time that I had to be disciplined. I’d come across a problem, and I go, Leave it. At this moment, you have to be a novelist. When you’re just putting things on the page, you can be everything at the same time—you can use all the tricks of poetry, everything, to make it fuller and lusher; you use all of yourself. But when you have to fix that problem, at that moment, you have to be the thing you are doing. You have to be a novelist; and if I’m writing an essay and it has a problem, I have to be an essayist in that moment. So that’s a duality for me—be everything while you’re writing, but be the one thing while you’re editing.

I’m interested in that place where both of those concerns meet and the decision to not address the problems of the novel as a novelist, or to not engage the problems of poetry as a poet. Is there a space, or how do you think about that space where those breakages or undisciplined behaviors might pop up?

Yeah, I just think when it works, it works. But if we switch the lens…So, on one hand, I talk about the problems; the other way I look at it is what are the pleasures? And so, when I’m editing everything, what are the problems of this? How do I fix that problem? But I also think there’s a way when we are working between genres that you have to decide what are the pleasures that I want people to get from it? And if you’ve decided that, “Look, the pleasure from this novel is not going to be character development. I know that’s what you normally look for, but that’s not the pleasure I’m going to give.” If you know that and you say, “Well, the pleasure is simply that this is going to be a lyrical overflow,” and you’re fine with that, you know, I don’t have a problem with that.

If you had to make an altar to writers, who would be the patron saint of what and what candles would you have on there? Who would be in that space?

Dionne Brand. Dionne Brand is the God, the goddess. Yeah, Dionne Brand is number one. And I think it’s because, other than the fact that she also writes across so many genres and does it so well, I think it’s the wisdom. I just… I’ve never met— I mean, we speak by email, but I’ve never actually met Dionne in person. But I think it’s…there’s a kind of writing; Erna Brodber has this quality, too, I meet Erna all the time. I’ve stayed at Erna’s house. I’ve never told her that there’s this weird way in which she intimidates me. And it’s people who I think they are so wise, that they will know things about me that I don’t know about myself. And in their presence, I just feel strange because I think, What do you perceive about me? And you just know it, you know it as a fact, but you don’t need to tell me, you just think, he’ll grow and he’ll figure that out. [Laughs.] You know? That quality, you know, and even from afar, you know, people like Toni Morrison have that. People like Dionne Brand have that; people like Erna—it’s always Black women, right? So yes, Dionne Brand is up there; Erna Brodber is up there. Then there are all these poets who tend to be white American men, for some reason, like, like [Robert] Pinsky, and above all else, W.S. Merwin. You know, I’m probably the last person in that pantheon. So, we have the two Black women and two white men. And weirdly, Emily Dickinson.

I was not expecting that, okay.

Yeah. That is the influence that I’ve never… I don’t know if she really influences me because I can’t see her presence in my work. Oh, the other person I should have said from before, of course, is Lorna Goodison, who is all over my work. But my entry into poetry, the person who, if you were to say any Emily Dickinson poem, I could just tell it back to you. It lives inside me. I just know the work. I’ve looked at the work so often and I keep on coming back to it. I don’t feel the stamp of her, and I don’t think other people can feel the stamp of her in my work. But it’s there; it’s my entry point. So, she has to be there.

I’m interested in encounter, which is one of my favorite words, that is my running word right now, but I feel like that’s one of the things you write a lot about are these encounters of, like you were saying before, different worldviews or spaces and people in spaces and cultures, etc. And I’d love to know about a literary encounter that was significant to you.

Oddly, there’s an excerpt that I deleted out of Things I Have Withheld. I don’t know why, but it was me thinking through—It was an essay called, “In Praise of the Fat Black Woman & Volume.” And I was thinking about, probably living in Britain so long, this obsession with restraint, and what is elegant, and how I always wanted to resist that idea. I mean, we could talk about this at length, how those ideas about subtlety and elegance are always—I mean, it’s an obsession that grows in the 18th century—linked to the Black body. And it’s linked to being different from that body. And so, living in Britain, wanting to resist that, wanting to write poems that were just a little bit louder, a little more, kind of bodacious than you’d expect. I’ve always been interested that. And that is a weird tension in my work because, again, I’m so obsessed with technique. But, you know, living in the UK when I’d read a review of my work that talked about “just how elegant Kei’s work is,” I’d think, that’s not what I wanted… I’m coming to your question.

There is, in me, this wanting to master technique, and an understanding that my work would get praised because I understand it. And like, I do want my work to get better; I do want my work to be good. It means I have to embrace the aesthetics. But even as I embrace the aesthetics, I understand that that whole culture of naming something as “good” or something as “bad” is oftentimes linked to very racist ideas. And how do you wrestle with that? And somehow in the middle of that essay, just thinking about all of these ways in which Black writers deal with a question of volume and loudness and elegance, it made me think of one major literary encounter I had, which was going to the very first staging of [the Jamaica-based, international literary festival] Calabash, and Staceyann Chin went on the stage and read her work. And by the end, I was in tears, and everything about my writing changed. Everything. And I thought, how do I not acknowledge that? That how I write now has everything to do with that encounter. But you don’t hold up—I mean, in certain circles—you don’t hold up Staceyann Chin; you don’t hold up the slam poet as being so foundationally influential.

We have to go back and put her on the altar. [Laughs]

Right? Yeah. You’re right. It was such an important encounter. In that moment, it changed everything. And it changed how I read my poems, it changed—you know what it was? It was that I fell in love with writing, or a certain kind of writing by being in the church. And then I fell in love with reading all these words, and [they] never met. I’d never met a poet who would stand on the stage and own that stage, not apologizing, or not going up to the mic and having this attitude of I’m so sorry that you have to listen to my work, [which] you have with so many poets. And just to walk up unapologetically, I am about to put words into the atmosphere and I believe in them. And Staceyann Chin was the first person to do that. And so, it changed, it just went “these two things can come together.” And yet, it was a literary encounter and a literary influence, even though I think my work diverges so much.

I feel like if one were to do a poll of how many people’s lives were changed because of Staceyann Chin, it would not be a small number. It wouldn’t, it really wouldn’t. Because there’s again, the embodiment part, right? That has everything to do with the poem being—not lifting from the page, riding on the voice, but also emanating from the body.

Yes. And you know, I think there’s that thing, again, often with writers of color. You know, bringing church, again, in poetry, that I think what the Black writer is often after is—that happens in church as well, it’s the same thing as a hallelujah—it’s when you read something and the body naturally just goes “mmm.” And you live for that moment because you go: you are with me.

And Staceyann was the first one who just … you just heard it across the room. And here is this lesbian Jamaican poet, in the most—you know, 12 years ago, 13 years ago—it [Jamaica] is not a pleasant place [for queer folks]. And she just lives in her moment. And to hear that audience go “mmm.” It was moving.

And it’s that mystery thing, too, right? Where you realize that the words can circumvent logic and reason and that they can, in fact, speak to the body. Not only to the mind. Right, and so yes, that happens. Involuntary “mmm”‘s.

Speaking of the body, you’re a Carnival man. [Laughs.] I’m interested in how Carnival has impacted your aesthetic, your thinking about writing, your craft, or your practice. You were talking about discipline earlier and Carnival is about flinging discipline away!

Let’s just acknowledge that I come from Jamaica, so I don’t know Carnival like you, right?

And I am from Trinidad and I have done Carnival maybe twice, so we’re even.

[Laughs.] We’re even.

I don’t know how it impacts the work. I think it’s something that I’m just increasingly fascinated with. And for all kinds of reasons. Probably one of the reasons is, you know, I did Carnival the first time and it was, My God, this is so much fun! You know, the release, the abandon. So, I went back another year. And the third year I did it, I thought, God, there’s something in there that I didn’t see before. And then I became fascinated, like, how did I enjoy this for two years, and not see all of these layers? And then I think that was the kind of…something hit, and that just keeps on happening, the fourth and the fifth year, it was,… There is so much depth here. And so, suddenly understanding the history and blah, blah, blah. So, that’s one of the fascinations of seeing, kind of in Trinidad, and just the fact that it allows visitors to come and be a part of it and enjoy it, and you don’t have to know everything. And as you understand it more, of course, your sense of appreciation grows. But you just think, how did I enjoy it before without knowing all of this? That’s one level…

Sounds like a poem: sometimes we read the poem and you have no idea what’s going on, but you like it, and then, the fifth time, you go back and say, “Oh, wait a minute! This is an allusion to—oh, wait a minute, this is referring to…” and then you’re like, “Oh, wait!”

Right, W. S. Merwin’s “My Friends,” I keep on going back to. [It’s] probably a poem I fell in love with when I was 18 years old. I still don’t get it. But I read it, like, at least once every two months—it’s just always revealing more to me.

But the other thing with Carnival, I guess, has to do with queerness, and what it does in Jamaica. So, my other fascination with Carnival is that it operates differently in different countries. And it means, because I guess, again, this fascination with the body, what bodies are attracted to Carnival and how do those bodies add meaning to it? And does the meaning of Carnival change? So, Carnival in Jamaica is simply not what Carnival is in Trinidad. And people, you know, the purists, will say “But it’s not real Carnival.” But it is! I get it; it doesn’t have the same kind of depth. But yeah, I am fascinated by the meanings that occur in Jamaica, which has a lot to do with queerness and that expression. And so, yeah, seeing Carnival operating in different places—some with less depth, some with more depth. It’s always fun, but it’s what happens beneath the surface, and how those meanings grow year after year. Jamaica doesn’t have the same history as Trinidad, but I think one of the things I say in the essay is that history just needs years. It just needs the piling on of years to happen. And someone to document it. And I feel I want to do that; I want to document how the meaning of Carnival grows in Jamaica. And at the end of the day, even if it doesn’t have all of that—all of it or even if you’re not able to see those layers—it’s still fun! It’s still just wild. And you know, even in that, there’s so much meaning behind the “—this is about indiscipline.” You know? It’s not simply just abandon; there is the history of it is I reject your idea of what discipline should look like, you know? It’s so Rastafari! You know, the idea of dreadlocks. And I’ve heard Rastafarians say “Dread is dreadful,” and that was the meaning of it. My hair is supposed to look dreadful to your idea of what neatness ought to look like! I am wearing this style in opposition of all of those ideas.

Right. There’s defiance to it.

You know, I love being in Trinidad when, you know, when J’ouvert happens and everyone goes out on the road and the disdain and contempt with which people look on cars trying to pass and it’s this attitude of The road is mine!! Do you understand that?? Today is Carnival and the road belongs to me. Do not dare blow your horn now or try to get past me. [Laughs.] I’m not moving and I will jump up and wine down on your car! [Laughs.] There is so much meaning behind that claiming of space, claiming of the road, claiming of freedom. Yeah, there’s one way to call it indiscipline. But again, you know, because the Caribbean is so obsessed with the idea of discipline and who is disciplined and who is doing the disciplining. All of that has to do with slavery. And so, to claim a place of indiscipline, is to claim your freedom and your body.

Speaking of bodies—you’re a world traveler. But residence, right, is indefinitely in Jamaica, the UK, and now the US. And I’m curious, just from somebody who has had experience of being in those places and cultures, what are some of the distinctions that you’ve noticed in terms of being a body in one or the other of those places?

Oh, God. I mean, I think that’s actually an impossible answer. Because those distinctions are, I mean, well, on one hand, that’s the whole thing with Things I’ve Withheld. But there’s so many subtleties, right? And I guess it goes back to, I guess my idea in that book is that the meaning of the body always changes depending on the context. But the question assumes that there is one context in these places, and there isn’t.

And so even in England, depending on which space I am in, the meaning of my body changes in those spaces. And that’s true in Jamaica, as well. And that’s true in—I’m sure, I’m going to find that increasingly true—in the U.S. I’m kind of prepared for that ride of what does it mean to be a Black man here, you know. But what does it mean to be a Black man with a Caribbean accent? Or a Caribbean accent that many people read as British? Because I get that a lot in Miami… I mean, without saying anything they go, “Are you from England?” And what does that mean? I’m not sure yet. But I’m sure I’m treated slightly differently once they hear the accent and they make assumptions of where I’m from. And I actually don’t know how to unpack those meanings. But it will come.

You know, oddly, when I think about border crossing, the bodies that I’m even more interested in are not—it’s not usually my body. I guess one of my big fascinations with that is, oftentimes in the Caribbean, I’d hear people say about people who are light-skinned, or blah blah blah, when they come to America, they will discover that they are Black. I always resented that statement—or I mean, not resented it, because it has nothing to do with me—but fundamentally disagreed with it: When they come to America, they become Black; they weren’t Black before. Because, again, we know that race is socially constructed. And that race means differently in different places. So, this person just simply was not read as Black in their culture does not make them Black, they are not Black. They are something else, you know? And that is fascinating to me. It’s fascinating because I don’t move in and out of races, but I have friends who do. And because I’m so interested in ambiguity, I’m fascinated by those friends who can become something different racially. In America, the one drop rule works in a certain way. So, if you are biracial—I have problems with that term—but people who we call “biracial,” I think they identify as Black. That doesn’t happen in Jamaica. If you’re biracial, you identify as white. And that’s how the culture identifies you. So, you know, brown Jamaicans and white Jamaicans are one thing. And biracial people, they enjoy all the privileges of whiteness. So, you know, it’s hard when you come to a different logic to read it in the opposite way, because your culture didn’t teach you how to read it like that. So, it’s weird for someone to say that; almost like America has a copyright on what Blackness is. Every culture makes Blackness something else, so that’s what’s fascinating.

What’s next on the agenda for you? What are you working on?

K: Well, my [unit] head wrote to me, he said “Congratulations on Things I Have Withheld, that you have written your dozenth book,” and he wrote in parentheses “(I have never used that phrase before.)” [Laughs.] So, what is next? I feel another building. My editors are pushing it—time for the next novel. The Carnival book is there. I mean, I really want to think more expansively about that. I also know what the next book of poems is going to be. I haven’t really started to write it, but I actually know what it’s about.

Well, we’ll look forward to all of it! Thank you so much! This was a rich and wonderful conversation.

Thank you!                    


Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt

Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19

Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Executive Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).

Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh


Both Miller’s recent poetry collections, In Nearby Bushes and The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, feature meditations on the names of places in his home country of Jamaica. The poems tell stories — real and imagined — of how the place names came to be, how their meanings have evolved, and consider the idea of place itself. Think of a place that has meaning to you — tell or invent its story, and write towards discovery of what meaning(s) that place might hold.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Poems

By Samantha Stephens, PhD

“Consider, for a moment,           

the silence — 

this terrible white          


all the things                

we never say, 

and why?” 

— Kei Miller, Things I Have Withheld  

“I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.” 
— Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”  


A thin book wrapped thickly in black ink, Kei Miller’s In Nearby Bushes utilizes and subverts our expectations of color and legibility. The confrontation and experimentation with the legibility of Blackness is made overt in the cover design of his most recent collection, though it is present throughout his oeuvre. In a visual poem that opens his award-winning essay collection, Things I Have Withheld, Miller connects the abstract operations of silence and silencing with its material formations of blank, specifically “white // space” (xi). In doing so, he addresses the politics of Black legibility and physical place/lessness. Covered in columns of newspaper clippings, In Nearby Bushes subverts the sharp white background of the page, as the poet imagines and images the terrible white space of the newspaper reporting the deaths of innumerable people “in nearby bushes.” If you were to tune into the evening news in Jamaica any day of the week, you would certainly hear reports of any number of criminal activities in nearby bushes. Unsettling a trite, commonplace phrase in Jamaican popular culture, Miller’s meditation on the concept of the bush highlights the unseen, silenced, marginalized bodies located in this placeless place.

The book’s cover introduces the subversive poetics of inverted views, where each iteration of “in nearby bushes” is literally highlighted in yellow, highly contrasting the black background. Furthermore, most of the cover displays white text, causing a phenomenon known as halation—a visual fuzzing effect. This choice literally requires the eyes to open wider to absorb more light to see the text in this fashion. Defying, subverting, and resisting the optimal legibility of the traditional black text against a white background, the cover displays the inverse —transforming Zora Neale Hurston’s imagery of Black life in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” referenced in the epigraph. Miller’s engagement with Black death in Jamaica resembles the negatives in photography, a color reversal. What happens when we look through this lens? Miller offers alternative, otherwise, and imaginative ways of seeing the shape of a place by rupturing how we move through language, landscapes, people, (hi)stories and silences.

Mirroring the inverted expectations of the page on the book cover, the poetic form on the white pages within replicates the play with legibility through the typographic treatment of the newspaper entries. First captured in full, and in black ink, a February 2018 newspaper clipping report of the discovery of the “decomposed body” of a young woman “in [Hanover’s] nearby bushes” begins the “In Nearby Bushes” poetic sequence. On the four pages that follow, the report is reproduced with varied typographic presentations. The poet selects a few letters, words, and phrases from the 17-line newspaper report to present in traditional black ink and casts the rest in a light grey that almost blends into the white background of the page. These greyscale pieces gesture to the work of redaction as Miller plays with visibility and silence, creating poems out of the brief and troubled histories documented in the Jamaica Star. This move is in conversation with the concepts of Black annotation and Black redaction discussed in Christina Sharpe’s book, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Positioning herself in the wake of slavery, Sharpe offers anti-colonial methods of ethical viewing practices, or as she writes: “toward seeing and reading otherwise, toward reading and seeing something in excess of what is in the frame” (117). This “otherwise” is a kind of refusal, a practice which tackles the assaults on Black life and counters the legacy of antiblackness. While we may be accustomed to the practice of redaction concerning government documents, Black redaction exploits and celebrates visibility with silence, making alternative viewpoints public instead of obscuring them.  

I argue that Miller’s typographic choices work at the interstices of silence, or redaction, and visibility, or annotation, to rupture our view. With each repetition of the story in the titular sequence, fewer and fewer selections are highlighted, progressively obscuring the original text. The final poem reads, “Here where Blossoms the night”—beginning by borrowing the “H” and “er” in “Hanover” and ending using the “ght” from the “fighting dogs.” A new narrative is created from identical source material with each selection transforming history and journalism into visual poetry. A riff on the visual poem opening his essay collection, these newspaper-poems are markedly thinking about space. However, instead of experimenting with textual size and space, their focus is color and its absence. With Miller’s meditationon silences and white space, publications such as Jamaica Star, Jamaica Supreme Court Criminal Appeal, McKoy’s News, Loop Jamaica, and Radio Jamaica News and their iterations, become visual poetry. And these newspaper-poems take up the silences subsumed by the nearby bushes and retell these stories. Adding emphasis and blurring select details, I see the work as poetic instead of purely historical, providing a referent and so making “some— / thing torn // and new” (Brathwaite 270). This kind of writing aligns with Kamau Brathwaite’s poetics, not only in its play with textual space but also in its interest in Caribbean placemaking in the wake of slavery. While Brathwaite notably composes this image to metaphorize the process of creolization, blending and weaving old roots with new traditions, what happens when this simultaneous tearing/destruction and production/generation is manifested materially? 

Miller’s work does not seek to physically shred newspapers, but it is an invitation to ponder white spaces, textually and otherwise. Considering Miller’s meditation on “the silence— // this terrible white // space” in Things I Have Withheld, a fascinating detail is that these newspaper-poem redactions cannot be found in the table of contents. These silences function as an enactment of placeless-ness—that is, an indeterminable space or location, an almost there or ‘round the corner, and otherwise, etc. These poems and histories are—especially in the case of the first five pages of the “In Nearby Bushes” sequence—in a silence, in a white space, echoing things that have been withheld.

The management of identity and visibility is an overt way Miller engages Black death. A nod to Black redaction is made on the very first page of the poem series, insofar as the name of the victim is literally redacted with the use of six successive lowercase x’s: “xxxxxx” (Miller 43). Yet a deeper look reveals that “x” both marks and conceals. This usage works to show respect and offer dignity to the woman discarded in the real and symbolic bushes: “What is it called — the nameless space between, as if nothing / important happened here. As if no one important happened here” (Miller 36). In this way, her legacy is shifted from the placeless place of the nearby bushes to an otherwise, richly unsilenced space in the x’s. This richness lends itself to Miller’s textual reimagining and re-imaging of the newspaper’s report. His newspaper-poems refuse the detached journalistic voice with the text itself—using color gradations to produce various versions of the story and a different lens with which to view Black life and death.

We might consider the typographical play with the newspapers as redaction and the work of (re)defining as annotation. A striking and relevant intervention Miller offers in this stead is his meditation on the word “autoclaps,” which appears in his 2016 novel, Augustown. Miller’s novel weaves a tragically triumphant story of the community of August Town, centered around the acclaimed and enigmatic spiritual leader, Alexander Bedward, and following the reverberations of his radical sociopolitical ruptures from 1920 to the 1980s. Augustown opens with the promise of “the terrible thing,” a thing that becomes synonymous with the term “autoclaps” (Miller 5). The narrator supplies the reader with definitions and reflections on this Jamaican word: “A strange word, autoclaps … It’s not the kind of word you will find the Oxford dictionary. But maybe if you were lucky enough to find a dictionary that has in it blackpeople’s words, then the entry for autoclaps would read something like this …” (Miller 103). With a disputed etymology, “autoclaps” is layered with many meanings, versions, and intentions. From calamity to heartache with inflections of Greek, German, and Jamaican language, the multiplicity of the word is reflected even in the form it is defined. The imagined dictionary definitions of this slippery term appearin Miller’s novel as:
“AUTOCLAPS: (Noun). Jamaican dialect. An impending disaster; Calamity; Trouble on top of trouble
AFTERCLAP: Noun. An unexpected, often unpleasant sequel to a matter that has been considered closed. In German, ‘achterklap’
AUTOCLAPS: the collapse of the heart; a small apocalypse; the afterclap.” (157-9)

The repeated revision of the term, shifting with each definition, plays on and with the very act of defining by annotating the “original” with new versions and variations. This technique of defining and redefining is markedly creative; it invokes dialogue, simile, rhetorical questions, and repetition. These annotations cause ’ruption as they fracture the impact of “sharp white backgrounds” (Hurston 153).

The imagined dictionary which defines words like “autoclaps” ruptures and collapses the knowledge systems and logics of the Oxford dictionaries, archives, and newspapers. All of Miller’s dictionary entries are like an autoclaps; in fact, “autoclaps” is annotation and redaction working together. This iteration of autoclaps is not from an apocalyptic destruction or even the collapse of one’s heart, but we might understand it more generously by reading it alongside Black annotation and redaction. “Autoclaps” is mobilized in a productive way, towards a destruction of ideas and ideals that harm Black life and living and foreground the silence. For Miller, this practice is intimately linked to place and landscape and is not limited to this novel but is also found quite prominently in Miller’s poetry collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014).

The main narrative interspersed throughout The Cartographer in a 27-poem sequence is an extended dialogue between a cartographer and a Rastaman, who each have different ideological stances to mapping. Yet between these conversations appear another sequence focused on the Jamaican landscape aptly called “Place Names.” The Place Name sequence addresses the peculiar histories of places named and renamed in response to colonial and postcolonial moments. Miller creatively locates “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come” in the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The speaker of the poem draws parallels between the circumstances of the naming of “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come” and its implications with the intrusion of Goldilocks into the “house of bears,” that is: “In plain english: do not enter without invitation” (Miller 26). The format of the “Place Name” sequence is presented as dictionary entries, implying a definitive meaning, but subverting and mocking the format of (Western) epistemology—in effect, redefining and rewriting the Jamaican landscape. The poem ends with a qualifying statement: “just know that this ground, these / bushes, these trees observe you with suspicion many / centuries deep” (my emphasis) (Miller 26). In this poetic imagination, time is collapsed and condensed, and Goldilocks’ presence not only impacts the landscape of “Me-No-Sen”, but the landscape redefines her as “rude pickney” and recasts the ostensibly innocent blonde girl in the position of the colonizer.

Miller’s poetics of inverted views, thus, illustrates how the bushes can produce alternatives as they are personified, observing the trespassers, rather than being relegated to a passive place inscribed with violence. What is unique about this iteration is this place is not quite a place, insofar as it is a space of “refuge that evade[s] the colonial order” (Goffe 10). In her article “Unmapping the Caribbean,” Goffe supplements the toponymic history: “This now-extinct village settlement was established and named by runaways fleeing enslavement on plantations in the parish of Trelawny in 1812.” Now absorbed into the more recognizable Aberdeen area of Trelawny, the archetypal cartographer, Rastaman, and even Goldilocks enter and are made visible in this landscape through the suspicion of the bushes—a practice of autoclaps/afterclap, a rupture of colonial and plantation logic where the Black background is foregrounded.

Miller’s reference to bushes extends the “Place Names” sequence from Cartographer to “Place Name: Oracabessa –”, part of the poetic sequence entitled ‘Sometimes I Consider the Names of Places,’ in the collection In Nearby Bushes. The mock dictionary entry opens with a caveat: “origins disputed but most likely leave-over from the / Spanish” (Miller 34). A much longer form than the autoclaps/afterclap and “Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come,” this meditation on Oracabessa thinks multilingually and speculatively about origins. From the whimsical wanderings of Goldilocks to the linguistic and etymological layers of Christopher Columbus’ search for gold in “Oracabessa –”, Miller’s work is interested in annotating and redacting the “completeness of genocide” on several planes (Miller 34). The poet disputes the silences and erasures located in the white (golden) spaces, inverting them to illuminate the Black background for those willing to open their eyes wider. Places like Me-No-Sen-You-No-Come and Oracabessa are multivalent in their localities, retaining histories and memories otherwise rendered invisible. Playing with color, legibility and identity, Miller showcases an alternative layer of the Jamaican landscape.

“In nearby bushes” transforms from a trite, commonplace term too often heard on Jamaican evening news to a richly dense landscape that embeds theoretical and material practices of decolonial praxis. Considering how place and placemaking can be a violence, even apocalyptic, Miller scars the sharp white background of the page and visualizes Black life and Black death through alternative lenses. Negotiating Blackness with the ink on the page, his work illustrates how the textual becomes political. Miller’s body of work showcases a careful, critical engagement with legibility, identity, landscape and (hi)stories in Caribbean poetry and poetics, bringing a nuanced meaning to “something torn and new.”    


Works Cited

Brathwaite, Kamau. “Jou’vert,” The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy. Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 267-270.
Goffe, Tao Leigh. “Unmapping the Caribbean: Toward a Digital Praxis of Archipelagic Sounding.” archipelagoes 5, December 2020, pp. 1-23.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, Feminist Press, 1979, pp. 152–5.
Miller, Kei. Augustown: A Novel. Pantheon Books, 2017.
Miller, Kei. The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Carcanet Press Ltd., 2014.
Miller, Kei. In Nearby Bushes. Carcanet Press Ltd., 2019.
Miller, Kei. Things I Have Withheld: Essays. Canongate Books Ltd., 2021.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt

Samantha Stephens is a PhD candidate in English and a Doctoral Fellow in Caribbean Literatures, Arts and Cultures at the University of Virginia. Working in the fields of Caribbean Studies and Digital Humanities, her research focuses on Caribbean poetry and poetics with attention to visual experimentation in the digital age. She has published on the typographic innovations of Kei Miller and Olive Senior’s poetry in the Journal of West Indian Literature. Her interest in Black feminist technologies and Caribbean digital archival methods propel her current project, in which she blends literary and artistic practices to reimagine Black Caribbean pasts and futures.


by Kei Miller 

                                 After brutally criticizing the then Government’s plan to build a new highway which would have profoundly upended the life of her community, a Trinidadian woman stood firm in her critique saying, ‘Me eh fraid; I saying it in Big!’

Oh to say a thing in big – in monument,
in syllables more solid than statues;

             to say a thing not in drizzle or rain
but hurricane, in swell and surge,

the centre always still

but outside bands of wind lift
galvanized rooves like a sudden choir

giving back to the frenzied preacher,
his last words; oh,

to say a thing in drum, in what rumbles
across mountains and through canefields,

that trembles the wattled walls
of Quashie’s shack:  behold,

the day of the watchman
is coming; oh

to say a thing in obeah, in the broken
necks of white yard fowls, in the poured blood

of goats, in Sycorax, original
modder-woman walking cross the crest of hills,

pulling the moon till the night sea bubbles
up like a cauldron; oh

to say a thing plain, without if I may
             or should it please the court.
             or with all due respect;

to convene again, our parliaments,
to wear again, our crowns,

to recognize inside us what is dust
and bone and world and star; oh

to gather from our smallness,
that which is large – 



Poem copyright 2023 by Kei Miller. All rights reserved.

See two more poems from Kei Miller debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: A Mathematical Problem I Have Been Unable To Solve,”  and  “The Dead

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

by Kei Miller

In Heroes Park, Jamaica, there is a grave,
and in that grave, there are 26 coffins,
and those 26 coffins share the remains

of 145 women. Let’s go back:
there was a fire – a sudden leap
of orange against the 1 am sky

and then shouts, and then sirens
loud against the warm Kingston night
like the warning of everything

that was to come and that is yet to come.
I was barely two but I remember
my mother crying the next night

over the news report. Let’s go back:
there was a great grumbling
like the sound of flies swarming,

and an election, hovering over
the harsh horizon, lining us up
in the sight of its guns.

Then death began to accumulate
around us in ways we did not know
possible. I was born into this

turfing, this parade of blood, this
extraordinary violence, and this
impossibility to believe in nation

the way my father did.
We were so wary from tending
the dead that the 1am sound of fire

trucks and old women burning
was just the sound of everything
we could no longer bear to hear.

What remains after fire?
What speck of ash is body, and what
board, and what bed, and what bible?

For Agatha Jones, victim #83,
indigent though she was, read
verses each night before sleep –

Agatha – who never acquired
the skill of quiet reading, (too many
noises in her blood), muttered

useless promises to herself
each eventide, “When you pass through
the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not
overwhelm you; when you walk through fire
you shall not be burned.”

Do not say ‘Dental Records’;
what records? Do not say ‘DNA’;
it was 1980 and Jamaica.

No way to distinguish
body from bed, bible from board,
Agatha from Doris from Norma.

All women, all old, all black –
as if they could not be seen except
by fire; as if they could not be heard

except by sirens; as if
they could not be counted,
except by coffins

that did not even equal
the sum of their bodies,
let alone, the sum of their lives.

Poem copyright 2023 by Kei Miller. All rights reserved.

See two more poems from Kei Miller debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: The Dead,”  and  “The Subaltern Dreams of Big.”

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

by Kei Miller 

are only bones and wide
              acres of empty.

              They live
underground; they are, in fact, the ground –  
              the leave by which we walk.

Or else they live in air; they are here
             right now. You might feel them
                          as a sudden draught of winter,
                          a shock of cold against your back.

They are summoned by candles, or by sage,
             or by the holding of hands in a circle –
             whose centre holds the chalk of their names.

Sometimes, they break the frames that hold
             their photographs.

Sometimes, they play pranks by moving
             furniture, the armchairs they once sat in.

             Sometimes they just walk the streets,
                         on J’Ouvert morning, for instance.

Come evening, they raise their thumbs on highways,
             always seeking a ride home. For they

are constant roamers.
             Their roaming lasts exactly nine nights.
                         Or else, 40. Or else, eternity.

They visit us in our dreams.

And they are obsessed with counting. They count each grain
            of thrown salt until morning comes
            and they disappear

to ride in low-swinging chariots. Or on the backs of turtles.

            In the beginning, it is said, there were two turtles.
            One carried the moon; the other carried the dead.
            They plunged deep into the water
            but only the one with the moon resurfaced.

They follow Bin dir Woor who is the first of the dead –
            who having scared away a great bat
            from the forbidden tree
            brought death into the world.

They have returned to the Great Wheel and are waiting
            to be reborn.

They are weighed against feathers.

They are littered across the galaxies.

They live in the stars.
            They are, in fact, the stars. They hold council in the heavens.

They haunt the living. No. They are haunted by the living.

And they are rarely seen, but can be
            if you rub the gunk from a dog’s eyes
            into your own, or if you part your legs and bend over
            to look through the archway of yourself.

They rest in paradise. Or in Power. Or in Peace.
            Light perpetual shines on them.

They are our most certain future.
            And they are always remembered.
            And they are always forgotten.


Poem copyright 2023 by Kei Miller. All rights reserved.

See two more poems from Kei Miller debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: The Subaltern Dreams of Big,”  and  “A Mathematical Problem I Have Been Unable To Solve.”

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

by Malika Booker

I look into night and its black
is a gathering of John Crows, in
shiny black frocks waiting
for morning to pick my son’s bones.
This night I wondering, how I could kill
Isaac, my only boy chile and milk still
in he eye. He navel string not too long
cut and buried beneath that Mammy
Apple tree and my doubts are ringworms
borrowing into my skin, my hand shaking bad,
bad, water springing from my pores like wild
rain. I sweating like the wicked, hands shaking
more bad now, causing big man like me to weep,
bawl like I is a little girl child. Causing
big man like me to hold on to babbash bottle
and swig back hard liquor. As I drink
I thinking how I go tell he mother? How
I go tell she that I kill she only boy child,
and leave he tie up there on a block
of wood for wild beast and old crows
to peck? This night is wildness,
and I here stranded in the wilderness,
lost in misery, me-one, asking how
I could do this thing? There is no\
comfort this night. I want to snatch
up my son and run, hold he to my chest,
I want to lay my body down on that pile
of wood, take he place. Blood, that is
of my own blood, how could I harm him?



Poem copyright 2023 by Malika Booker. All rights reserved.

See also, “My Ghost in the Witness Stand,” by Malika Booker debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

by Malika Booker


A Levite persuades his unlawful wife to return to him – Judges 19


  • The man raided like law was his warrant
  • What right to raid the law like his warrant, his right
  • The man persuaded/ raided/ marriage law his sanctity

–       Substitute dragged; hair clamped in palms
–       Substitute with hand collaring throat
–       Barricade breached, law unlawful to my body
–       His right, his might, my flight – ask why?
–       Picture fist hammering my cowering body, fake Tabanka smiles
–       Picture his smiles at wife with grilled teeth
–       Picture grip, and ignored, glass pressed into skin
–       Picture body in a car trunk
–       Picture body thrown, carted over donkey back
–       Picture punishable death.


This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
The donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.

This donkey can’t drag no damn load.
This donkey can’t drag no damn load.


And it came to pass in those days when
him woo me like dew shine on grass blade

And it came to pass in those days, when
I was pastures green, not ripe to be swayed

And that there was a certain Levite who look to him
steups – not took to him, state instead, “ensnared” 

And that there was a certain Levite who took to him…
that then wore, no, bruk me up like untamed mare

And that there was a certain Levite sojourning
loitering, liming to whistle gal passing rum shop

That there was a certain Levite sojourning
label horner man to woo gal fi fling down hill top

Who took to him a concubine out of…
steups – say took me to him as damned wife thereof.


They have a way he start eye up my body
say he thickening me up like I is rump

            Say he thickening me up like I is rump
            body to disect, slaughter, quarter and cut up

Body to disect, slaughter, quarter and cut up
I was parade each day on        his auction block

                        My parades are pirouettes, toes bloody on wood block
                        is the way he watch me, make I had was to run

Is the way he fists lick me make I had was to run
one foot in front of the other, mi skin put foot

                        One foot in front of the other, mi black skin put foot
                        cos in his words I was a bird to pluck.


Like yard fowl I run    run back                      to mi Poopa     yard
but   but           he welcome     rancid as spoiled         coconut
water. What mek yuh run, come back,  home, little gal?
over and          over like stuck record.            When he          kick   kick
our dog down concrete steps. When palms    bruk  wood  table.      
When blood stained    stained our sheets each morning’s bloom.
But was not poppa’s bosom a rock and hard hard chest!
His vile viper tongue hissed, Sketel,   hissed salope, said, girl
man have right to fling lash    in he wayward wife     ass
finger pointed pointed            to St James scripture, like      Judge’s
verdict,  then fist         hammered wood. Yet I know in these
island villages, when man      shadow have weight heavy so,
is one sleep away from blood hot with rum   to raising cutlass,
over woman prone body, so I hauled up my skirt and put foot.


Man look at my crosses, they scrape my name from story like scaling fish
because as woman is rass to get you name to slip onto they tongues,
when the storyteller ah grind him crusty foot-bottom on top you back.

Because as woman is rass to get you name to slip onto their tongues
when the storyteller ah grind him crusty foot-bottom on top you back
flinging names like runway gal, like whore, like property pon auction block.

When the storyteller ah grind him crusty foot-bottom on top you back
flinging names like runway gal, like whore, like property pon auction block
but though you chain me neck like dog , me mind dances pon ruffled water.

Flinging names like runway gal, like whore, like property pon auction block
but though you chain me neck like dog , me mind dances pon ruffled water
The trees also bears witness and they shake whispering and bawling out my name

but though you chain me neck like dog , me mind dances pon ruffled water
The trees also bear witness and they shake whispering and bawling out my name
Yes I always runway see how much wanted poster nail pon fence

The trees also bear witness and they shake whispering and bawling out my name
Yes I always runway see how much wanted poster nail pon fence
But is not the black woman’s name always soured in the mouth of men

Yes I always runway see how much wanted poster nail pon fence
But is not the black woman’s name always soured in the mouth of men
How they pelt cuss pon my reputation like licks, like peas, like my body is nothing.

But is not the black woman’s name always soured in the mouth of men
How they pelt cuss pon my reputation like licks, like peas, like my body is nothing
History always cast this black body inna horror story and pelt me out of the frame.

How they pelt cuss pon my reputation like licks, like peas, like my body is nothing
History always cast this black body inna horror story and pelt me out of the frame.
Gal how they swallow my name to the bottom of their stinking belly to swim in acid.

History always cast this black body inna horror story and pelt me out of the frame.
Gal how they swallow my name to the bottom of their stinking belly to swim in acid.
Yet feisty and hard ears is like heavy stones lodged in the bass of my belly bottom.

Gal how they swallow my name to the bottom of her stinking belly to swim in acid.
Yet feisty and hard ears is like heavy stones lodged in the bass of my belly bottom.
Is not rass to slip my own name under lay bones, something in me could not be broken
                                                    Nane, name, nema, unname name —                                                                                                         
                                                                                               Name name name
unname name


he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife divided her together with her bones.
he took a knife
he took a knife



Poem copyright 2023 by Malika Booker. All rights reserved.


See also, “Abraham the Night Before the Sacrifice,” by Malika Booker debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt


Booker’s new project engages the King James bible — a popular version of the text in the Caribbean — in the setting of the people, customs, diction and history of her Caribbean community. This prompt invites you to do the same: which biblical character can you imagine as a citizen of your city/country. How would their story change or be understood differently in that context? What would happen if a bible story occurred in your hometown?

Write your own divine story!

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Poems

by Patricia Smith


Blue lash had taught my back the wound. You see,
however, what becomes of one who heals.
A man must learn to skillfully conceal,
and then command, his scars. I disagree
with those who say the night mines deep, that we
are shattered still by yesterday’s ordeal.
When trickster gods commanded me to “Kneel!”
they never heard me hiss the pedigree
that’s brought me to this day—this straightened back,
this silken tie, this collar pressed, these eyes
refusing to relent or guarantee
the lens a pliant soul. Perhaps I lack
a name that’s truly mine, not bastardized.
But reverie is salve. I named me free.




Poem copyright 2017 by Patricia Smith. Photograph courtesy Smith-DeSilva collection.
All rights reserved.

See more poems from this series debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: What Breath Gives Back #3, #8, #19

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt