by Lauren K. Alleyne 

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Tim Seibles’ work pays impeccable attention to the world — its beauty and humor, its grief and pain, its infinitely wide-ranging and nuanced possibilities. The bedrock of his work is its keen imagery, at once familiar and surprising, and always exquisitely crafted. In his sensual poem, First Kiss, for example, Seibles captures the anticipation of the moment with a tsunami of detail, the senses wrapping into each other like the young lovers’ tongues: sight and song describe her mouth, which arrives “like a baby-blue Cadillac / packed with canaries driven / by a toucan”; touch and taste mimic the motion of lips, as the speaker declares, “it was as if she’d mixed / the sweat of an angel / with the taste of a tangerine.” Like the amorous pair, the language is alight with heat and longing, its repetitions circling readers’ minds like the kiss itself, which turns the speaker “into a glad planet— / sun on one side, night pouring / her slow hand over the other: one fire / flying the kite of another.” We all swoon.

While the immersive impact of Seibles’ images often offers intense delight, that quality also is deployed in the poems to confront injustice, and to articulate the speakers’ feelings about the state of the world with cutting clarity. In “Vendetta,” he observes the hollow machinations of politicians with contempt:

Look how they

work the stage
like cool comedians,
ribbing the nations this
way, then that—

gaff after giggle
filling the auditoriums
with the empty
skulls. 

“Cool” is in tactile friction with “ribbing,” (though the proximity of their sounds simultaneously summons the notion that these clowns (“cool comedians”) are “coolly robbing” the nation, as well). The alliteration of “gaff” and “giggle” creates appealing sonic activity, even as the poem tells us it is meaningless and “empty.”  Seibles’ controlled, but significant fury towards the status quo is effectively rendered in the image that follows, which is similarly biting:

I have held
my rage on a short
leash like a good,
mad dog whose bright

teeth could keep
the faces of our enemies
well lit. 

His frustration, rage, and restraint thrums — sharp, dangerous and precisely rendered in the image of the restrained “good, mad dog” and its gleaming “bright teeth.”

Whether rhapsodizing on the beauty or brutality of the world, Seibles’ poems operate from the mission he articulates in his poem, “Faith”: “[t]ell the truth. If you can.”

Tim Seibles judged the 2022 Furious Flower Poetry Prize and read with the winner and honorable mention here at James Madison University. In the studio, we discussed the evolution of his poetics, his influences, the writing advice he didn’t listen to, and his commitment to writing both the struggles and the joys of being human. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Welcome to JMU, to Furious Flower, and The Fight & The Fiddle. It is such a pleasure to have you here and to be able to have this opportunity to talk with you. Somebody asked me this question yesterday, actually, and I’m gonna pass it on to you. Your work is a festival of the senses — the images are always so rich and so wonderful. What is your entryway? What is your entry into that particular modality? Where do your images come from? How do you begin?

Well, that’s a funny question. I think you begin, really, with the poets that you loved when you were first writing. You know, and people like Pablo Neruda for example, Yusef Komunyakaa, for example, Gwendolyn Brooks, for example. There’re so many people who have affected the way I think about what poems can do. Anne Sexton, for example, is another one—really rich images. And so, I think when you find in other writers that you admire things that resonate with you, that makes you want to be able to do something similar. And I don’t know whether it’s deliberate or not, but at a certain point, you begin to think in terms of images. When I’m writing, I don’t say I need an image here, necessarily. You know, you’re writing and it just seems to… if there is something you’ve said, that seems that you need to deepen the illustration, well, if you’re lucky, an image will come. And it doesn’t mean it comes, as you know, the first time. You could write and then go, that’s not what I mean. But you keep working and, I think at a certain point, the creation of imagery in language becomes a habit of mind. A lot of people think, Oh, where did you get such a simile? Well, if you, if you read a lot of things, especially you think about someone like Neruda, who was wildly rich with similes and strange images; after a certain point, if you’re lucky, it planted a seed in your own head.

And so over the years — I’ve been trying to write for around 40, 46 years now, thereabouts — bit by bit, I think your mind becomes a certain kind of place. And so, there’s all kinds of pictures in my head and connections, and so on, I’m writing, sometimes those things, if I’m lucky, if I’m having a good day, those things come kind of quickly or readily. As I said, it doesn’t mean it’s right the first time, but it’s just that I’ve never, or at least not in recent memory had a moment when I thought, I don’t have any images in my head. It feels like I’m overwhelmed. It’s selection: it’s too many images in my head. It’s a matter of finding the language for them. In fact, that’s where, of course, the revisions come in, and you know, you want to get the language, right, even if the image might be right, the language is suited, in a certain way. But that’s, that’s really the story of my life, in terms of imagery. I just think the people that I’ve loved, knew, have made my mind a different kind of place.

You just put together this New and Selected, and you’ve had this expansive experience with poetry. I’m curious: what did you groan or blush about in putting together this book? Or what surprised or delighted you about looking at the work from the beginning, all the way through?

Well, even the early things — things that I probably would not, or could not write at this age, you know — you see yourself in them still. So I still feel a tenderness toward all these crazy poems. There are people who are like, “Oh, I throw away all my early work.” I would never do that! Because it’s like a stepping stone. It’s like a staircase, right? You can’t get to the top if you don’t have the bottom steps! [Laughs.] So I’m still climbin’, you know? And so, you can’t disrespect those early poems. I mean, plus most — many, if not all — many of those early poems really are reflections of the people I was in love with. That I was reading as I was just learning, getting a sense of how poems work. How does imagery work in relation to abstraction? And so, I’m reading Merwin and Sexton and Komunyaka, and I mean, you can go down the list. There’s a poet by the name of Ralph Dickey that very few people know about because he committed suicide early in his life, a Black poet, I think he was probably gone by age 30. But man, you know, you’re talking about intensity and imagery. He was another one, but I don’t think anyone really knows about him. So, these are the people who were, you know, moving through me as I’m starting to just get my hands around how you can, you know, move from abstraction to image and also tell a story. Not that every poem is narrative, but there’s a sense of telling, and you want clarity, but you also want resonance. And so those are the poems that, if I look at, I can often say I know who I was trying to be — something like them, you know — not that I was succeeding, but they were clearly affecting what I was thinking about images and stuff like that. So I liked doing it, but the things that I found the most painful were having to leave poems out. You know, there are a lot of poems that I thought, ‘Oh, I really like that poem!’ but you just can’t put them all in the book, you know? That book would be this thick [Gestures.]. You’d be like, “oh, it’s a collected!” It’s not a “selected” if I put everything in there. So it’s really hard to be sure, but what I hope is that, as I read this book now, look at it now, is that it’s at least a reasonable cross-section of what I’ve tried to do with poems over the years. And with that, I can kind of be at peace with the fact that not every poem that I love is in there. That’s just the truth, you know?

And we can go back to the collections. [Laughs.]

That’s what I was going to say! Go back to the collections and find the other ones! [Laughs.]

Did you learn anything in putting those together? Was it instructive in any way?

I think what happens when you’re putting together a collection like this, is that it becomes very clear that you are developing and changing as a writer. When you’re doing it, you’re just doing it, you know? If someone had said to me before I wrote this book, would you say you’re changing as a writer? I would say yeah, I think so. But I mean, when you look at that [the collection], you think clearly you are changing as a writer, and part of it is, you know, as you get older, you start to, of course, close in on your own mortality. That’s one thing that begins to shape the way you think about everything, but certainly about poems. But also, you hopefully have gained a little bit of wisdom and it changes the way you write because maybe you know better about certain things, you know? And if you read a lot of people, and you’ve been, you know, thinking hard, hopefully, about what poems can do, then, you know, you can begin to kind of push boundaries and do things that maybe you haven’t seen other people do. And so that would be something I noticed — at a certain point, as I get later in this, closer to the present, I think, Boy, these are some poems I would have never thought to write when I was 30 or 40. I would have never thought to write this poem. And then you see, oh okay, so you know, your mind becomes, ideally, a richer, more capable place. And also, your mind becomes more efficient. I mean, I would liken it to the way a piano player who was very good at 30, at 60 can do things without even thinking about it because of the habit of working in a certain way with the piano. And I think it’s similar with language, I think at a certain point, there’re things that are just foundational in the way you think about words and composition. Whereas when I was 30, I think everything was more deliberate; I’m still thinking, okay, I’m trying to do this and this and this, but some things, after a while, are just there. Just as right now, I’m not thinking about how to talk. It’s just part of the way my mind works. And I think that happens, too, over the years in writing poems, there’s certain things you just understand beyond consciousness about composition and the way words can move from one thing to the next. And so that would also be something that’s probably helped me and changed the way I write also.

I just have this line written from “Dragon,” in the first section of this book; the line is “we must perfect our illusions.” It’s a haunting line, and I’m so curious about that idea of perfecting our illusions — how does that operate as a poetic tool?

Wow, I probably need to stop for an hour and just…  you know, I’m not sure. It seems that much of what gets us through the day is based on, if not wishful thinking, at least a certain biased perspective of life, and what’s meaningful, and what’s not. And I think in absence of that— whether it’s a religious perspective, or whether it’s a matter of how you just feel about breathing — in the absence of those things, it would be almost impossible to live as a poet. I have this immense affection for and faith in language and its capacity to create community. I think that may be insane, you know? I mean, I think sometimes, You know what, man, people don’t think about language, you’re just out of your mind. But for me, it’s a thing that, first of all, sustains my practice as a writer. But also, it allows me to feel that my life, as someone who believes in words, is meaningful. Whether it’s an illusion or not (I think it can be argued), even if it is completely a fantasy in my head, it still allows me to do the work that feels important to me. And that’s, maybe that’s as close as I can do to giving you a poetic justification! [Laughs.]

Can you talk to me about how a poetics of witness enacts for you? How does it transfer to craft and practice?

Well, again, I would go back to poets that influenced the way I think about writing. And, of course, I came of age during the Black Arts Movement. And so I’m listening — I mean, I didn’t have any clear context of all that was happening, but I’m listening to a lot of Gil Scott Heron, and Nikki Giovanni in her really militant stage, and the Last Poets. And so, at least to my young sensibility, they were trying to talk back to the world, they were trying to say, I see this, and this is nonsense. I see this and this is necessary and true. I see this, which other people do not see, do you see what I see? This is what I was getting from them. And some of those poems, as you probably know, are pretty wild. “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” for example — “Ferocious Peace!” — and then “Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni. I mean, those were on the radio when I was a kid, you know? And at that time there were still stations that would consider themselves Black radio stations; by then it was really that you just simply weren’t going to hear certain things if you weren’t listening in Philly. It was WHAT and… was it WDAS? I’m not sure, it’s been a while… but those were stations where you would hear “Ego Tripping” or The Last Poets, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” And so I thought, that’s what poetry is supposed to do, at least in part. It’s supposed to say, This is unjust. This should not be happening. This should be happening, or, Have you seen this? If only to invite other people to just be engaged by something you’re engaged by.

As I said earlier, poetry is a community building tool. And so when I said when I try to write something that would be a poem of witness in which I’m trying to say, Look at this, I’m hoping that other people who read the poem will say, I see what you see and I understand why you feel the way you do, or I disagree with how you feel. But the whole idea is that there will be genuine engagement. And part of the way that’s accomplished, I think, anyway, is by being as clear as you can with what’s at stake, and what you see, so that people don’t walk away thinking, I just don’t understand what you’re talking about. I don’t want to give people that option of slipping out of the poem, because there are a lot of people, as you probably already know, that’s how they dodge poetry: I don’t want to know! I don’t understand it! When what they really mean is I’m afraid to understand it. That’s what they really mean. I’m afraid if I understand it, I might have to think differently. I’m afraid if I understand it, I might have to question my own life. That’s what they really mean. And so, for me if you write a poem of witness, or any poem truthfully, but specifically we’re talking about witness, you really don’t want to give people the option of “well, it sounds interesting, but I’m not doing that.” I don’t want to give you that option.

And when I listened to those early poems by some of the Black Arts Movement poets — Amiri Baraka, who would have been LeRoi Jones when I was a teenager. And then if you jump back to the Harlem Renaissance, this is very similar. Of course, the stakes are a little different, because the Harlem Renaissance writers, in many ways, are just saying Hello, we’re here. Black people are human, did you ever think about that, people? You know, they’re trying to just get the barest foundation, like we’re here, we’re real, you know? Our pains are real pains. Of course, by the Black Arts Movement, people are saying, We’re here, we’ve been here and we’re really getting tired of the way you’re treating us. That’s a very different angle, and different kind of tone. But in each case, though, there weren’t really a lot of places to dodge, you won’t find a bunch of really complicatedly obscure poems in either of those, not many, there’s some that might be more mysterious than others, but most of them are pretty much head on, one man, one woman talking to another man, another woman. They’re just talking and saying the things that I think can’t be reduced to, I don’t think I see it or you. You just can’t get around it, you know? “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”—think about early Hughes, you know? No one’s confused about what he’s trying to say about this woman’s life. You know? So that’s, to me, part of it. If poetry has real muscle, and I think it does, that’s where its power is in. It’s in clarity. And it also, hopefully, on the page, staging something that is clearly part of shared experience, whether you want to share it or not is another question… But it’s part of shared experience.

I mean, people don’t necessarily want to hear about certain things. There are poems I’ve written I’m sure people don’t necessarily want to hear — particularly, if we’re dealing with a critique of a larger mainstream/white society, and not everyone can deal with that. But if you are going to be an artist of any integrity, you gotta to say what you know. And if people like it, that’s wonderful. If they don’t, that’s part of life, too. You know, you have to just keep on walking.

I’m interested in, too, a slightly alongside question around witnessing joy. You mentioned in the opening “Open Letter” that now there’s another sort of almost burden on the Black writerthat we’re only meant to witness a certain kind of pain, experience, struggle, and that has become synonymous with the Black experience. So I’m curious then: what’s the other side of that?

Well, I mean, you referred to the “Open Letter,” and I think certainly as people of color, we have plenty to complain about. I don’t want to, by any means, understate that. But the thing is — I really don’t think any of us Black people want to forget about the joy we take in being alive. What’s the point of being alive if we don’t understand why it’s lovely to live, you know? And so I think, to some extent, and this probably earlier in my life, I made a conscious decision to try to write poems that were funny or mischievous, and poems that were just fun, pleasurable, you know? The poems that are erotic, for example, are me kind of insisting on a certain kind of delight in being a human being and being physical. And the fact that we’re here, embodied, at least for a little while, you know? I don’t know if I’ve answered your question well, but those are things that I think about a lot.

At this point, the balance seems to come more or less organically, I don’t really have to say, “Uh oh, I’ve been writing sad poems, I better write a happy one!” I don’t really do that. And so early on what was funny is, I didn’t know what to do with real grief or rage. In my early life as a writer — this was before I was writing anything that was probably publishable — I would write only funny poems, you know? Just poems that were on the lighter end, they might have been a little bit more; hopefully, they were somewhat imaginative, but they were mostly light. And then I thought you’ve got to try to write things that are a little more true to the difficult parts of life. And then I wrote this poem, I was probably 19, called “The Funeral.” It was the first time I wrote this very heavy poem about death and dealing with death directly. And from that point, I began to be able to move in both directions. Now, again, I don’t know if I was doing it effectively at that age. That’s a different question. But I like to laugh. I do. I like lots of things about life. But there’s this other thing that we have to deal with, too. And I say this in “Open letter,” as well. It’s not only for Black folks or people of color, you know, everyone will be better off if we deal with reality in an honest way. We can all be free if we finally embrace the facts of the history in this country, and if we allow everyone to feel the fullness of humanity. I’m just trying to make a case for that. That’s all I’m trying to do, really.

But I like funny poems and some of the poets I liked as a young guy were funny. You don’t know the poems of Russell Edson by any chance, do you? You wouldn’t, necessarily; I was lucky. I had some pretty wild teachers when I first started studying, and Edson’s poems are just crazy and funny. I saw him read once — everyone was dying in there. And it’s not stand-up comedy. No, it’s more complex and strange than that. And I thought that if I had any doubts about whether I wanted to be able to use humor, man, it was over. I want to use poems that are funny and crazy and strange, too. But also, at the same time, you have to write poems that are dealing more or less directly with difficulty and things that enrage you or make you very sad. But I do want to keep that current alive. And all of us that can laugh and dance and, for a moment at least, not feel worried or put upon by the insanities of the larger culture.

You mentioned a lot of the folks you’ve paid attention to and been inspired by; what’s the best poetry advice you didn’t listen to?

Well, early on, I got the impression — but I can’t say this was true of all the workshop leaders — but from some of them, I got the impression that they felt that one’s work should always be beholden to other readers; that somehow there should always be an “Overmind” when you’re working. And I can be very hard-headed, you know? That’s probably reflected in this book as well. And I thought, no. At a certain point, I’m gonna write the poems that I want to write. I don’t really need anyone else’s sanction or approval. I don’t need that. So that was probably something I might have abandoned too soon, truthfully. But really, I really felt that my love for poems and for words would oblige me to learn the craft well enough to write the poems I felt needed to be written. And at a certain point, I just thought, you know what, I don’t believe I need someone else to make sure I did it right.

I used to love Merwin when I was in college. I still admire him. He’s long gone now. He said someone asked him about workshops, and I’ll never forget this because the workshop leaders in the room were not that crazy about it, but I understood what he meant, and I didn’t take it as a harsh critique of the workshop, necessarily. But maybe he was suggesting that there’s a point at which one might let those things go. He said, “No one can tell you how to listen for what only you can hear.” And I’ll never forget that. I think the workshop leaders were thinking, Are you saying we don’t need workshops? and I don’t think that’s what he meant. I think, of course, as young writers, we need someone to give us some shaping, but I think at a certain point, your sensibility is formed. And it’s really up to you to make sure what you understand or know or feel is made beautifully manifest in language. If you don’t do it well, that’s a craft issue. And it’s not like someone else can help you not make certain mistakes. Also, you think about, let’s say, take someone like Wayne Shorter on saxophone—at what point did he stop in the middle of a solo and say Am I soloing, right? Does this sound good? He’s playing what he believes must be played. Now, does everyone love it? Probably not. But some people do. And for him, it’s a clear manifestation of what he knows in his heart and soul. And for me at a certain point, that’s what a poem is, too. There’re certain things that I believe, however delusionally, that I know or see clearly. And so, I’m trying to say, Here, here’s what I think. And if I have integrity, then I’ve written carefully and revised and thought and thought and made the best thing I can make. I don’t need anybody else’s approval. I don’t need anybody looking over my shoulder, you know? And if you like it, great, and if you don’t, maybe you’ll like the next one?

I love that term, the “Overmind’’

Yeah, I really reject that. 

You’ve been a teacher for a really long time, and you’re here as a judge for the 2022 Furious Flower poetry prize. And I’m curious about what’s interesting and engaging to you about the younger, newer, emerging poets, you’ve had the opportunity to see and read and be in contact with.

Oh, man. Well, I tell you, if we just talk about the poets that I saw in the Furious Flower contest, what you see is — and I know, these are writers, you know, they are not by any means beginning writers, if they were, I’d be terrified. If you’re beginning this way, Lord, you’re already way past me. But what I see is that their understanding of craft and the width of their reading is clearly different than what it would have been when I was a young writer. I tried to read widely and so on, I certainly did. But I just think what I saw, particularly in the Furious Flower prize, among those poets and poems, you know, there was just so much going on. That was, I mean, not absolutely brand new, but certainly they were heading out in directions that were clearly related to what poets have already done, but clearly, they’ve kind of taken on their voices in a way, with a kind of competence that I think would have been harder to find when I was a younger writer. There was a sense that they were really headlong after something, and it was just a matter of degrees to which their knowledge of craft would allow them to make it manifest. But that would be something that’s different.

And I do think the spoken word community has impacted, for better I think, mostly, the poetics that people work with on the page. I really think that’s an important shift, too. There was no spoken word as we now know it, when I was 30, for example. You, of course, had Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets and other poets who did what might have been called spoken word, but there was no general community of people who got up on stage and said poems — that just didn’t exist. And I think that did a couple things. One is, I think it gave writers, who are not necessarily “trained” courage to raise their voices. And also, I think it allowed people a larger understanding of what might be said, that poetry doesn’t have to be tame, or polite necessarily. I wish there was more rambunctiousness, as you saw in the introduction, but I like that about poets. But it’s also true that it feels like writers who are early in their careers are more sophisticated than I or my peers who might have been 30 or 35. I don’t know. That’s my sense of it.

Well, I wonder, too, and this is not flattery. But I wonder, too, if that is a product of like, you point out to the spoken word for sure. But like just the expansion of [unsure], because they got to read you, Tim. [Laughs.]

Well, I hope that my work has contributed to opening a few doors to other possibilities. Just like other writers did for me — you see things that you couldn’t have seen without their work. And I hope that my poems offered that to some writers as they were coming on. I certainly do. And then, of course, as you know, many writers, yourself included, who are doing work that will do the same kind of thing for upcoming poets. They will say, “Oh, look, you know, Lauren did this! I could rip off and do that!” You know, I think that’s a part of the torch that we’re passing as we live and write. You hope that what I did, you know, contributes something. I mean, I think about, you know, people with the gigantic names, Terrence Hayes or Tyehimba Jess, or Tracy K. Smith, you know they are gonna leave a huge, bright path for younger writers to begin to engage and so on.

And then of course, we must, you can’t forget, of course, all our predecessors. And when we go back to Gwendolyn Brooks, and even if we move out of poetry, people like Zora Neale Hurston.

I mean, if you read, if you take it seriously, the life of reading, you will find the possibilities infinite, you know? I cannot say enough times: that, if anything, is what has sustained me and what taught me early on as much, as easily, as anything I learned in a workshop. Just seeing what other people could do. Take Georgia Douglas Johnson with “I Want to Die While You Love Me.” I was really young when I read that poem, and I’m thinking, That is very soulful. Even though I had no experience about what it meant to “die while you love me.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it felt so passionate. And I think all the way back, and if you go back as far as you want, you know, go back, you know, to [unsure] or Whitman, or, you know, you keep going back farther and farther, you keep finding this current of passion and a wish to expand what we call our humanity. And I think that’s what I have taken from the people I’ve read and you hope that something you’ve done, like, my work over the years, did some of that for some other people. I mean, if I leave anything, that would be a nice thing to leave: some doors open that other people couldn’t have seen without my efforts. That would be good.

What was your most magical encounter with a poem?

That’s a very complicated question. There are so many poems that I really, really admire. I’ll tell you, the one poet that had an immense effect on me though there are many who did: Ai. Her work in persona, just generally speaking — just the way she could inhabit other figures, be they historical or present or invented. I had never imagined such a thing. I mean, I just didn’t. I remember reading some of those poems thinking she must have known this person or something, because they seem so completely true. And you know, of course, sometimes she’s writing historical poems, and she clearly didn’t know the person. Or like when she wrote that piece with J. Edgar Hoover speaking — I know she didn’t know J. Edgar Hoover — and they just seem utterly convincing. She was someone who really had me by the throat in a lot of ways. I don’t think anyone mistakes me for Ai, but she certainly gave me a window into a set of possibilities in terms of inhabiting other voices that I’m not sure I would have conceived of otherwise. And that’s one bit of magic, of many.

What are your favorite ways to enter the poem or the writing? What is your habit of writing?

Normally, this would be the time of day during which I’d be writing.

Sorry, poems! [Laughs.] I borrowed him!

Oh, believe me, the poems are grateful for a little rest. They’re like “Leave us alone.” [Laughs.] When I really have it together, I try to get up and go to a coffee shop. I have these headphones — not for music — they’re just like the headphones that people who work with power tools use. And I just put them on, which makes everything kind of far away. And even though I can feel people around me, which I really like, I can really hear and think about certain lines. I like to do that first thing in the morning. As I said earlier, what sustains me, of course, is my sense of being in dialogue with so many poets that I love and admire and other writers who are fiction writers and nonfiction writers. But in terms of how I enter the poem, it depends on the day, you know? Some days your mind just seems like it’s just alert in a different kind of way and you think I know there’s something that’s going to happen. And other times I’ll just sit down because I like the idea that maybe I’ll write. If I have one of those days where your mind is just on edge, you know, then something usually just springs onto the page. But other times I don’t have anything that’s driving me to speech, and I just think I’ll just write something. If you’re lucky, something takes and then you begin to push and work and scratch in and scratch out and rewrite it. That’s how I enter.

I love that. Just sit there and hope something happens. 

Yes, yes. There are days like that. You just show up.

Thank you so much, Tim.

 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

&By Cherise A. Pollard, PhD

Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto: New & Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2020) spans four highly productive decades and features work from Body Moves (1988), Hurdy-Gurdy (1992), Hammerlock (1999), Buffalo Head Solos (2004), Fast Animal (2012), One Turn Round the Sun (2017) and new poems from the manuscript, With No Hat (2020). While the text is marked by loss — the pandemic, the poet’s retirement, his parents’ recent transitions in 2019 and 2020, the speaker’s ruminations about aging and death’s eventuality, America’s dance with late-capitalist demise and the looming collapse of democracy — there’s an abundance of humor, the delights of imagination, the beauty of play, the glory of sports, the sweet promise of Black boy joy, the marvel of a woman’s legs, and the wonders of the kiss.

Seibles’ distinct perspective, the focus of his creative attention, as well as his intention to upset the status quo necessarily means that his work cannot be easily categorized on the levels of content, form, or language. Voodoo Libretto offers its readers formal diversity. There are free verse poems as well as ballads and villanelles. There are short lyric poems and long narrative poems with gorgeous turns and abstract, reflective passages. Language is dynamic in Voodoo Libretto; it is alive in the surprising ways that the poet employs figurative language and rhyme, musicality and word play, invention and highly focused description. In the preface, “Open Letter II,” Seibles makes a strong argument for an attention to craft that disrupts the status quo: “For me, poetry is the place where — if I am not intimidated — I can say the most dangerous, most tender, most mysterious things I know, where I may find the same in the work of other poets … Such crucial speech sustains my hunger to see more than the way it is — more than the way it’s been. I’m talking pure voice, the untamed voice, the voice with no rider, no bit in its mouth” (xxvi-xxvii). On the page, this desire manifests through the way that Seibles plays with language through his invention of new words and his use of vernacular expression.

Of course, themes shift, emerge and return, there are preoccupations that the poet continues to ask and answer. There is being human, and being a human that is Black, and being a human that is Black and male, and being a human that is Black and male who comes of age during the sixties with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and integration shifting the foundation of one’s life. Voodoo Libretto features the work of a poet who has been keenly aware of his cultural, historical, political and social contexts. Born in 1955, the year after the crucial Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a decision that made integration the law of the land, as well as the year a young Black teenager, Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, Seibles grows up during the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia. He came of age in the sixties, during a time of cultural upheaval that includes the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968),  and Robert F. Kennedy (1968). In the late sixties, he witnessed cultural change brought forward by the Voting Rights Act (1965), and Roe V. Wade (1973), as well as youth-driven social movements that pushed for this legislation: Black Power Movement, anti-Vietnam War Protests, Women’s Movement and the Sexual Revolution.

A child of the sixties, Seibles is truly oppositional to conservative American politics, and is deeply skeptical of organized religion. His work critiques capitalism, American militarism, political corruption, The Cold War, Reaganism, The Bushes (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), Desert Storm and the perpetual War on Terrorism that followed 9/11. Throughout Voodoo Libretto, readers will notice a sharpening political critique — at first it may simply be a quick mention of republicans in the poem “The Apple Cake” (Seibles 88), or a slight reference to white people who may not be as trustworthy as one imagines in “The Further Adventures of Tooter Turtle” (131),  but then one notes a shift in later work to extensive critiques of conservative politics that develops into an outright damnation of Trumpism and MAGA politics as in “MAGA Hat III Strategy ” (283).  In “Not Nearly Enough” (285). the speaker asks a rather provocative question: “Tell me, how did we let these fuckheads run the world / off the road?!” (lines 34-35). In a post-January 6th 2022 society, it’s not clear that anyone has an answer that makes logical sense, but Seibles’ work asks the necessary questions.

Voodoo Libretto charts the transformation of a poet who becomes more comfortable with the fact that he must say what needs to be said to wake up America. Seibles explores the ways in which these historical events, cultural shifts, and politics affect the way the poet sees himself and his world. It is also work that is shaped by a poet with a unique perspective who does not shy away from introspection and imagination. Throughout Voodoo Libretto, we see the direct impact that these historical movements had on young Seibles’ life. Lost childhood innocence is a strong theme in this collection. There are several poems such as “Trying for Fire” (Seibles 11), and “Terry Moore” (163), that focus on his childhood, particularly his experience of being one of three Black fourth grade boys who integrated an elementary school in Philadelphia. His relatively happy, sheltered childhood changes abruptly.  In “The Word 1964-1981” (11), the speaker visits the school, wonders about the Herculean task placed on a boy’s small shoulders:

In Philadelphia
I went back to the school
we integrated. The bunch of us
had no idea how big a deal it was —
our parents behind us saying
Be good now. Stay outta trouble.
But we were fourth-graders

and the teachers didn’t want us.
What could we do? (lines 1-9)

Integrating that school changed the community, and the little boys who grew to be men under the pressure of institutionalized racism. Often, we encounter grand integration narratives haloed by notions of heroism in the face of blatant racist actions. Here, we see a different version of that lived experience in the northeast, where institutionalized racism emerged, some might say, in a more subtle dynamic. Seibles gives us no clear-cut battles, but shows us something different in his depiction of Black boys who “have no idea how big a deal it was” (line 4) who are forced to go to a school where “the teachers didn’t want us” (line 9). The psychological, cultural and social impact of these actions was not anticipated. Those boys and their families were not prepared for the trauma either they or their community would endure. His visit to the old school grounds is bittersweet. He is reminded of some joyful memories of playing sports that seems to balance the trauma. There seems to be hope, or at least distraction from pain: “but the field is still there” (line 21). But the trauma is not mediated for long. The poem closes with “On some / of the side doors you can / still find the word Nigger” (lines 24-26) The trace of racism remains in the structure of the building, in the institution’s landscape.

In “The Hilt, Second Session” (Seibles 209) the speaker’s imagination, spurred by childhood memories, returns to the playground.  This long poem moves back and forth across the page, like “The see-saw, I remember — ” (209). The speaker revisits a memory of playing with his brother behind their church, wearing his “fake tie clipped to / my stiff, white shirt” (209). This scene rouses the speaker’s anxieties. He is not sure who he is anymore, or what he has become:

Having ushered you into the who-knows-what that waited in the world,
having seen your face before that first hard glint hacked your eyes,

 when they look at you now, do your parents find anything familiar? (209)

Here, the speaker understands that the experiences that he has encountered have forged him into a man who seems to be so different from his boyhood self. At this point in his life, some thirty years after the publication of Body Moves (Seibles 1988), the speaker tries to take some measure of himself. Who is he, if he is not recognizable to himself, or those who knew him, raised him? Reeling in self-doubt, the speaker seems unable to gather himself, to articulate the meaning of his life.  He sees himself, accomplishing things, participating in the world, but feels distanced:

getting
a sandwich
starting the car
calling somebody
calling back —
bizzy. (210)

Throughout the collection, in the later books, one notices that Seibles invents and employs the word “bizzy” to highlight the ways that the Protestant work ethic that fuels American capitalism stands diametrically opposed to any meaningful existence. He realizes that he has gone through the motions, in all of the busy-ness of daily life, he is traumatized: “the way you walk — some sign / of a lifelong shove: your mind / a shy animal, force-fed, skinned” (Seibles 210) As if in a daze, the speaker thinks,

The self is real, right? — this who-you-are, this
soft-wheel: these chronic recollections –

Does it feel like a trick? This thing  

you’ve become: some dream re-running
in your veins, what you believe, (210)

In the section that follows, we realize that he is experiencing a trauma in the aftermath of the police shooting of Tamir Rice on a playground in Cleveland.

In the video

before the
police came
Tamir Rice
was a kid

playing a –
lone in a
park near
the gazebo. (211)

In the context of Seibles’ body of work, one of the themes of which is childhood nostalgia and the reckoning of masculinity, this section of the poem resonates — here is a Black man taking stock not only of his boyhood and lost innocence, but grieving for a boy who loses much more than innocence. He remembers, “I used to do that. / I’d have my football with me, a water gun in my pocket, / maybe some Sugar Babies” (211).  The speaker wonders:

do you
think that
boy had
any idea

his story
was al-
ready
written?” (211).

The speaker’s reflection on Tamir Rice’s death echoes his own trauma in “The Word 1964 -1981” (Seibles 11) when he says that he and his friends “had no idea what a big deal it was” (line 4) when they integrated their elementary school. There is a sweetness in his boyhood memories, playing on the playground, playing with Legos in the basement, watching cartoons that does not match the terror that lurks on the margins of his life — a terror that visited Tamir Rice on the playground.

In Voodoo Libretto, play is kaleidoscopic. There are so many ways that Seibles indulges in serious play — child’s play, sports, word play, imagination, dreamtime and flirtation. For Seibles, play pushes the boundaries of our expectations, challenges us to reconsider our beliefs. From self-proclaimed class clown to adult trickster, Seibles’ imagination invites the reader into investigative distraction. In several poems, playing football and basketball is a way for the speaker to connect with his buddies, and a pathway to masculinity. In “Nothing But Football” (Seibles 22), the speaker remembers the joy, bordering on religious ecstasy, that playing football with his friends brought into his youth:

trying to stop us. They couldn’t stop us:
you stutter-dipped. I snake-slipped, anything
to spin-shimmy away clean as light,
slick as sweat, holy thieves in a forest of moving trees (lines 16-19).

The language is alive here with the slippery consonance of “s.” The hyphenated words give us the sense of collision on the field — mimics play action.

It is also important to note the crucial aspect of fantasy and escapism that play brings into the boys’ lives. In the shadow of racism, and their parents’ watchful eye, play gives the speaker and his friends a way to be. This play is transformative, it opens up possibilities for their future — for the men they will become. Later, in “Trying for Fire” (31), Seibles admits that his NFL dreams did not come true, “I never did play pro-football, / never got to do my mad-horse, / mountain goat, happy-wolf dance / for the blaring fans at the Astrodome,” (32), but the dream makes real world survival possible; it gives the speaker and his boys something to be hopeful for beyond the rules and restrictions of their daily lives.

Ever the inventive poet, the form of the villanelle becomes a playground for Seibles. Working within its constraints, he plays with rhyme and meter in ways that lead to surprises for the reader. Several pop culture references such as Oprah, CNN, Beatles lyrics, Wonder Bread, Sponge Bob, Yoda, zombies, and the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” are either the focus or make special appearances in some of his villanelles. In “Extra Bright Blues Villanelle” (Seibles 289), the speaker humorously reflects on the idea that others might not consider him to be very smart; it is ironic because the entire poem stays true to the villanelle form and references Dylan Thomas’ classic work, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The combination of the literary and popular cultural references as well as the poet’s experimentation with variations and imaginative stretches that facilitate the rhyme scheme result in a villanelle that demonstrates the speaker’s brilliance. The repeated lines are found in the first stanza:

Sometimes I guess I don’t seem extra bright  (A)
Nobody tol’ me not to stand behind that horse (B)
Always thought the moon had its own light. (A) (lines 1-3)

In a villanelle, the first and third lines repeat as the end lines of each of the five tercets and are the couplet at the end of the last quatrain of the poem. Seibles uses slant rhyme for the A and B rhymes: for the A rhyme, “bright,” he brings in “light,” “fight,“ ”night,” “sight,” and the slant rhyme “life.” For the B rhyme, “horse,” he substitutes “remorse,” “force,” “of course,” and “off course,” as well as slant rhymes: “for,” “door,” and “more.” The speaker’s riffing on various words and their meanings makes the poem humorous: “Really don’ know if I’ll ever get right / Been charting the stars like a Martian off course. / Sometimes they don’t think that I’m extra bright” (lines 16-18). The space theme shifts into the speaker thinking of himself as a lost Martian. By the end of the poem, the speaker binds all of the logical threads together:

You ride with no hands when you ride with no bike
Where’s Yoda at  when you’re needin the Force

Sometimes I bet I don’t seem extra bright
But, I’m pretty damn sure the moon had its own light” (lines 22-26).

Here, the speaker brings Star Wars references into his argument — with “Yoda” and “the Force”. These references ground the poem in popular culture, in effect, reinvigorating the form for contemporary audiences. These often delightful substitutions also highlight the limitations of form — that in order to stay within its bounds, Seibles must stretch the argument conceptually.

Seibles tackles racial and political issues with humor, too. In “The Further Adventures of Tooter Turtle” (131), Tooter Turtle tells Mister Wizard that he wants “to be black in America” (131). Mr. Wizard cautions against this desire, tells Tooter,

But, Tutah, look: the republicans are on a rampage,
white people, in general, seem like dangerous playmates
and the black community is riddled with  with
self-inflicted wounds! (131)

But, Tooter is drawn in by Black culture. He believes that circumstances must be improving. He says, “Well, gee, Mister Wizard, times have changed. / It might be a little rough, but I’ll be down / with the brothaz — they’ll show me the ropes” (131). Tootah wants to be Black because: “Black people are bold and resilient” (131). Well, the incredulous Mr. Wizard grants Tooter’s wish with this spell:

Two parts laugh and three parts pain
Cutting lash and hard-won pain

Thumpin bass and rumble drums
Dr. King and drive-by guns

Skin of dark and spark of eye
Sade’s grace and Pippin’s glide

Purple Heart and might of back
Time for Tutor, to be BLACK! (131-132)

After ten minutes of being Black man in America, the transformed Tooter Turtle yells, “HELP, MISTER WIZARD!!!” (132). This poem is funny because it reveals the disconnect between the romance of blackness — the culture, music, the narrative of survival against the odds — verses the reality of oppression and violence. It is one thing to see it as an outsider, it is quite another to experience the crushing effects of institutional racism.

Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto is a seminal text. In it, we see the power of Black interiority — the matter of Black lives — clearly. Seibles’ work chronicles the intricacies of being and becoming a Black man in the late twentieth century and the ways that masculinity shifts as the poet’s life circumstances change. One could easily say that Seibles’ influence is seen throughout contemporary African American poetry — the humor, the risk taking, the performance, the interiority — have opened up space for early twenty-first century poets to experiment in their work. Voodoo Libretto is an important text for scholars of contemporary American poetry who seek a unique perspective on craft, word play, invention, reflections on being, representations of Black boyhood and masculinity, the psychological impact of racism and integration, as well as American cultural politics and popular culture. Seibles’ voice adds an important resonance to the chorus of African American poets speaking to the diversity of Black experience.

Works Cited

Seibles, Tim. Voodoo Libretto: New &Selected Poems. Etruscan Press, 2020.


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


cap photo 071622Cherise A. Pollard, Ph.D., is Professor of English and Director of the Poetry Center at West Chester University of PA. where she teaches African American Literature, Creative Writing and  Composition/Rhetoric.  She earned her PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. A 2012 NEH Fellow who participated in the Summer Institute in Contemporary African American Literature, Pollard has published several articles on contemporary black women poets and novelists such as Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sapphire, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Lucille Clifton.  A scholar who focuses on Popular Culture, African American Popular Fiction, the African American Women’s Historical Novel, and African American Poetry, her critical essays have appeared in journals and edited anthologies including Theorizing Ethnicity and Nationality in the Chick Lit Genre (edited by Erin Hurt), Black Female Sexualities (edited by Joanne Braxton and Trimiko Melancon) and Forecast. She has also published Reader’s Guides for two of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novels, Sally Hemings and The President’s Daughter.

(more…)

 

&

A hallmark of Tim Seibles’ poetry is its sense of play. The humor, mischief, delight, and pleasure that run through his poems perform the work of reminding us why it is wonderful to be human beings alive in this world, even as they acknowledge the challenges we face. This prompt invites you write a poem that teases, flirts, tells a joke or laughs out loud — a poem that makes you smile as you write it and makes your reader smile, too. Don’t be afraid to be the class clown!

 

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

by Tim Seibles 

It was already on when you came in:

a two-lane road, the car’s high beams
blaming the dark.  In the rearview mirror,
the downtown of a city—familiar, but not.

Because you have found yourself
cast in the world without your consent,

you think you must be something
like other people—like the dude
two rows back with his face lit by a phone

or maybe like the star    behind the wheel:
one eye swollen, the other tight in a squint. 

You want to know what happened,
what’s happening and where the road
will go and when and soon

she’s standing outside a 7-11
filling up her dusty, dark-blue Mustang.

Early sun steams the back window.
Maybe she drove all night—

her voice: part sorrow, part wind
under the overhang.  Why didn’t I  

see it before, she asks aloud
for everyone, flexing the engine,

ready to go.
This is the story of what

happens when what
has seemed one way

turns out to be another way:
like a priest.

Even when the day is sprung,
and you wake up trapped
in everything, you want this face

on screen: cool, without a flinch.

Even the way she steers
is a declaration—you want to drive
like that. 

You could drive like that:

like somebody in charge,
somebody who “knows the deal.”

 

On the passenger seat,
half-stashed in her scarf, a .38.

Your mind moves to revenge: how

your circumstances    just don’t
make any sense.  You want

to know who made it this way

and one chance to make them
back down and beg: the reversal,

sizzling with drama and music
that means you were right

 all along.  That’s why you

keep watching—like everyone else
holding their sodas in the dark.

She could be a friend,
A nice person who deserves

some goddam justice.  You
can tell she’d like another life:

without so many
hard decisions adding up

to only one.  Maybe

you really are the character
other people think you are,   

even though they can’t hear
what’s playing in your head.

After the movie, you walk
back into the mall wondering

if you could do what
she did.  That was  

pretty good, you mutter
with no one nearby  

 and light all over your face.                                                 

 

Poem copyright 2022 by Tim Seibles. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Tim Seibles debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: “The Last Black Cargo Blues Villanelle,” and“Naive.”  


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

by Tim Seibles

                                          I love you but I don’t know you  
                                                          –Mennonite Woman

Sometimes somebody says something
and a lost piece of your life comes back:
When I was seven, I would walk home
with Dereck DeLarge, my arm

slung over his skinny shoulders,
autumn sun buffing our lunch boxes.
So easy, that gesture, so light—
the kind of love that lands like a leaf.

I’m trying to talk about
innocence: two black boys                                                                                     
whose snaggle-toothed grins
held a thousand giggles. 

Remember?  Remember
wanting to play
every minute, as if that
was why we were born?

Those hands that bring us crying
into the world, that first
hold us    must be like wings,
like gills. Though this place

is nothing like where we’d been,
we arrive almost blind, astonished
as if to Mardis Gras in full swing.
There must be a time

when a child’s heart builds
a chocolate sunflower—
the air, invisible velvet
touching his face.

I remember an inchworm
walking the back of my hand,
the way the green body bowed.
I tried to keep it with me all day. 

The change    must’ve come
slowly—the way insects go
silent with the autumn chill.
I want to understand

how each day ice grows
and thins beneath our feet:
This itching fury that holds me
now—this knowing

the soft welcome
that once lived inside me
was somehow sent away,
how I talk myself back

into all the regular disguises
but still walk these
American streets
believing in the weather

of the unruined heart.
Love: a secret handshake,
a password I just can’t recall.
My friends—their eyes

cornered by crow’s feet—
keep looking for a kinder
city    though they don’t
want to seem naïve.

When was the last time
you wrapped your arm
around someone’s shoulder
and walked him home?

 

Poem copyright 2022 by Tim Seibles. All rights reserved.

 

&
See more poems from Tim Seibles debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Movie” and “The Last Black Cargo Blues Villanelle.”


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

by Tim Seibles
                                                   with Cudjo Lewis

Can’t unnerstand how we fit in dis scene
The day fall down like a man wit no bones
Don’t look like dis the dream I tried ta dream

Not sure what make dem white eyes so mean
Spent most’a my life tryin not ta cry alone
Can’t hardly see how I fit in dis scene

Pockets so empty even springtime ain’t green
Look like my best chance went off on its own
‘Cause dis ain’t the dream I been tryin’ ta dream

I bet dis the saddest place I ever seen
Me and my heart prolly destined ta roam
How’d I get caught up in dis scheme?

Guess some hammer done fell on my dream
You know how it go when your good luck get gone
Who want dis place ta be like it be?

You hear what I say    but dat ain’t what I mean
Been grindin so long my song scrape like a moan
Gotta get myself outta dis scheme

They say when I die leas’ my soul be clean
Maybe they think my hard head turnt ta stone
‘Cause dat ain’t the dream I been tryin’ ta dream

Dis country roll on like a floodwater stream
Nothin much left’a my body but bone

Look like I’m fit’n’ta die in dis scene
But sher ain’t the way it was s’posed ta be

 

     Note: Zora Neale Hurston’s recently recovered book, Barracoon, features a series of
              interviews with Cudjo Lewis (born Kossola Oluale in West Africa) in which he
              describes his life before and after being captured and shipped to the
              American South to be made a slave.

.

 

Poem copyright 2022 by Tim Seibles. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Tim Seibles debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Movie,”  and “Naive.”

 


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

by Amanda Johnston

for Shamika Wilson, mother of Draylon Mason

and one day the sky opens and a voice says now and after decades of church on sunday bible study on wednesday grace and faith over every meal and heads bowed you look up and scream

no

and it is done the hand that hovers eternally points its long finger and touches the body and the armor wrapped with faith wrapped with prayer wrapped in the blood now soaked in loss and grieving goes quiet so quiet you could fool yourself into thinking it is all a dream

Poem copyright 2022 by Amanda Johnston. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Amanda Johnston debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: It Begins,”  “Two Americas,” and “How Do I Explain.


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

by Amanda Johnston

 

A friend says online shopping is great!
You come home and there are packages
waiting for you like little gifts.
You should do it.
You deserve it.
It’s so much fun!

My daughter is afraid to open the door.
I check the front yard for tripwire, mumble
a little prayer– take me, take me.

 

Poem copyright 2022 by Amanda Johnston. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Amanda Johnston debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: It Begins,”  “untitled,” and “How Do I Explain”

 


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

by Amanda Johnston

         
            March 2, 2018, the first package bomb detonates in Pflugerville, Texas

 

What does a bomb sound like when everything is exploding?

The coffee pot drips into mourning with the eerie buzz

of cars on the verge of collision. The world and its infinite

brink of life and breath, in and out, small bursts of the day-to-day.

And then a loud note cuts through a quiet street

announcing a terror, that has always been—is—

awake and hungry.  

 

Poem copyright 2022 by Amanda Johnston. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Amanda Johnston debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Two Americas,”  and “untitled,”  and “How Do I Explain.”


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

By Laura Vrana, PhD

&

Over the recent holidays, I found myself struck by a poet-scholar’s query on what many of us — in a tone suffused with affection and/or disdainful disregard — dub “Poetry twitter.” While compiling a list of forms invented by Black poets, she found herself centering products of male writers, so she was seeking more invented by women. Enthusiastic replies poured in, citing (among others): Ruth Ellen Kocher’s “gigan,” Tara Betts’s “4-1-1,” Allison’s Joseph’s “sweetelle,” Nicole Sealey’s “obverse,” and Ashley Lumpkin’s “disciple.” Too, poets and scholars used this thread to engage generatively about how to define an invented form, suggesting Claudia Rankine’s “American lyric,” or Patricia Smith’s “triple sestina,” or works “undoing traditional forms” like Tiana Clark’s “broken sestinas,” could qualify. I wondered: what, and who, do those of us who research and teach Black poetics include and foreground when considering innovation?

This query was particularly on my mind since I was about to begin writing a piece on Amanda Johnston, so I was struck when Johnston herself chimed in on this very back-and-forth unobtrusively mentioning her “genesis”. She describes the form as “comprised of seven poems. Five individual poems create a sixth prose poem, and italicized words create the final seventh poem when read independently as a visible erasure.” Johnston’s tone, putting herself forth for consideration yet doing so quietly and briefly, encapsulates the simultaneous humility and well-warranted braggadocio with which Black women poets today innovatively “make poetic culture in their own images” (Leonard 27). I mean “braggadocio” not as a critique. Instead, I hope it and this piece will celebrate Johnston, even as I suggest that innovative precursors paved the way for her triumphs. Johnston recognizes this lineage; readers should also situate her work against this backdrop to fully understand her contributions to contemporary African American poetics.

One of Johnston’s most vital ancestors came up recurrently in that thread: Gwendolyn Brooks. One scholar posited that Brooks’s “sonnet-ballad” and “anniad” are invented forms; others highlighted that Terrance Hayes’s “golden shovel” could never have emerged without Brooks. In these meditations, I want to argue the same of Johnston: a boldly innovative versifier herself whose works come into sharper relief when seen as partially descended from Brooks.

Like Brooks, Johnston is equally adept on page and stage. She has won honors for slam and performance work in venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café and has published in journals like Callaloo and Poetry, along with two chapbooks (Guap and Lock and Key) and her full-length collection Another Way To Say Enter. Many “slammers” like Johnston engage in textual innovation encouraged in part by their training in MFA programs: Johnston earned her degree at the University of Southern Maine. Yet these innovations are equally indebted to Brooks’s model of poetic invention. In addition, she and Brooks share extraordinary accomplishments as poets and tireless advocates for their peers. Johnston devotes herself to opening doors for Black authors: she has served as Board President of Cave Canem, co-founded the reading series / social media campaign #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and founded Torch Literary Arts to promote Black women’s writing. Through these labors, Johnston, like her foremother, links poetry to social change.

More should be said about Johnston’s labors on behalf of Black writers as well as about her performance work. But I will focus here on her written texts, particularly how they derive inspiration from Brooks in treating centrally the variegated subject of Black motherhood. Countless Black poets have penned riffs on their foremother generally and especially on her works on this topic (including Robin Coste Lewis’s “the mothers”). However, Johnston’s entire oeuvre centers motherhood in modes topically and formally inspired by Brooks’s “the mother” (1945), locating her as a modern poet of Black motherhood. Johnston’s body of work addresses how the experience of shepherding a young life into and through a world that subjects Black children to additional forms of precarity yields internal conflict and heightened raging at social (in)justices.

Her speaker(s) return(s) repeatedly to dwelling on her/their mother(s). The ars poetica “With Apologies to the Poem” from Lock & Key, for instance, apostrophizes her verse with sardonic audacity a lá Brooks (or her foremother domestic poet extraordinaire Lucille Clifton). It opens: “you complicated flutter of sound / broken and bent meaning / all the best,” then continues in ironically self-aggrandizing self-effacement: “I can’t // connect the sky or birds / to my mother // I tried // as you did” (8). These lines via paralipsis do connect “sky” and “birds” to the speaker’s “mother,” insinuating that the poet-speaker finds this character, and, I argue, this theme meaningfully unavoidable.

On top of this returning to one’s own mother, Johnston’s full-length Another Way to Say Enter reflects a pervasive preoccupation with the speaker(s) as mother. Numerous poems overtly address being a mother, from the haunting narrative in “When My Daughter Wasn’t Assaulted,” to “What We Dare Not Say” positing that “unconditional / motherhood / could be driving / your young into the sea” (27). Even in poems not specifically addressing motherhood, images like describing the domestic task of peeling potatoes through a simile equating the vegetables to “a newborn baby’s head” (23) raise the specter of this role.

I will unpack just two of these motherhood poems: “My Beloved Be Loved,” and “We Named You Mercy.” The former revises Lock & Key’s “My Beloveds” and appears in Enter with the epigraph “after Toni Morrison,” situating it as allusion to Morrison’s novel and embracing Morrison’s influence on her representions of Black motherhood. This poem stunningly lyricizes Sethe’s decision to perform matricide, inhabiting this mother’s consciousness and rendering her supposedly monstrous choice explicable in just six couplets. But its treatment of the so-called choices involved in Black motherhood also has roots in Brooks’s “the mother,” especially in how skillfully Johnston extracts maximal ironic effect and societal commentary from small-scale devices like punctuation and diction.

For instance, Johnston expands Brooks’s devotion to exploring exactly what the action of “love” — a verb she features prominently thrice in the anaphoric, haunting final stanza of “the mother” — means to Black mothers. To do so, she excludes the comma that should appear for clarity in her title between the vocative “My Beloved” and the imperative. This absence (like Brooks’s brilliant double-edged meanings of “in my deliberateness I was not deliberate”) provokes readers to recall that the former, often-saccharine endearment “Beloved,” is etymologically equivalent to the latter passive construction, “Be Loved” and that true maternal love involves action, not mere words. This immediate juxtaposition also highlights that white supremacy attempts to leave Black mothers powerless. But against such passivity, the piece centers verbs: “I grab,” “I know,” and “I will hand.” Thus, the poem emphasizes that Black motherhood always centers maternal care enacted in action — even if that mandates matricide or abortion, and even if others view these women warranting confinement in the poem’s “cage[s].”

Johnston’s “We Named You Mercy” extends this Brooks-inspired work of depicting mothering complexly via minute, deliberate formal details. “Mercy” is written “after Gwendolyn Brooks” and transports the “mother,” discussing abortion into our century. Despite the homage, a stark contrast differentiates Brooks’s piece from Johnston’s. Readers can infer that Brooks’s 1945 speaker likely obtained the abortion(s) before and without revealing her pregnancy/ies to others, to retain some modicum of control, perhaps thanks to physical or socioeconomic necessity that others might devalue. Johnston’s speaker instead induced abortion out of medical necessity; it remains unclear if only the child’s health or also the speaker’s was imperiled. In addition, this would-be mother inhabits different domestic circumstances and shares the experience with a partner: clearly, they both longed for and “love[d]” this unborn and so only chose abortion to express “cold mercy.” In light of these conditions, Johnston’s speaker’s emotions become even more double-edged than those of the speaker of Brooks’s poem. Both poets depict the children in ghostly terms, but Johnston tonally describes the child in beautiful natural imagery and alliteration, its “toes” “small petals,” its “closed eyes” “pulps of possibility” (5).

Juxtaposing her work with Brooks’s emphasizes that Black women may, regardless of circumstances, view abortion as hardly wholly their choice and as a result experience conflicting emotions. That Brooks’s speaker endures her loss in silence (except the outlet of this poem) becomes pronounced in her mournful final repetition of the singular first-person: “I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you / All.” While Johnston’s speaker has recourse to first-person plural, society nonetheless still veritably forbids speaking publicly about miscarriage, medically-induced abortion, and concomitant mourning; this remains somewhat true even if others beyond one’s domestic orbit knew of the pregnancy, as may be the case for Johnston’s speaker. Such taboos make it difficult for Black women to process guilt, shame, or self-doubt.

Yet “We Named You Mercy” violates these taboos in content and via aesthetics used. Johnston’s tools for representing her speaker’s sense of self-blame and culpability mirror Brooks’s: both center compound neologisms and pose unanswerable rhetorical questions. Johnston’s neologisms like Brooks’s create an overall indeterminate mood. Her first-person speaker declares: “I saw your face once and, yes, I did / kiss your cheeks and cry for your sweet not- / quite nose, not-quite lips” (5). Brooks’s “sucking-thumb” and “gobbling mother-eye” condense memorably the haunting experience of envisioning the unlived lives of (a) child(ren) aborted; Johnston’s adjectival “would-be” and “not-quite” and nouns “almost-children” and “half-wing” operate in parallel to summon the children into pseudo-embodied form. Like those ghostly phantasms, these linguistic neologisms might seem mere fabrications to those around the speaker; this liminality parallels how others denying her anguish validity might increase its keen ache. Johnston’s speaker also blames herself in the same form as does Brooks—unanswered interrogatives. “the mother” poses two haunting questions: “Though why should I whine, / Whine that the crime was other than mine?” and “oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?” Johnston expands this to five. Her speaker queries early on: “Would I get / another chance to see you if I held the knife? Cold, the sterile / the taker’s tools” (5). Near poem’s end, these questions accumulate in an accelerating, frenetic compilation: “Did you see me? The one with / empty arms stretching to embrace a / a [sic] silhouette of you? … / Or / did I make that up to keep you with / me a little longer? Did you stay until the no / I set upon your body untangled itself from sprigs of hair / and released you from the softness that tethered you to the / love in our cold mercy?” (5). In these rapid-fire queries, the speaker questions her complicity and sanity.

She also blames herself when she imbues speech with the capability to enact the abortion, describing it as a performative utterance, the “no / I set upon your body.” Thus the “mercy” extended feels tepidly “cold” indeed, directed at the unborn fetus and thereby denied the mother herself. It is fitting that Johnston also implicitly evokes Morrison here: her final image of “almost milk that did not swell, but was light as air” (16) recalls Sethe’s last days at Sweet Home, when her “swollen” breasts tortuously subject her to abuse by white enslavers and serve as material reminder of the child sent ahead whom she is desperate to follow. Johnston’s poetic invocation of milk-laden breasts are an absent presence, “airy,” yet real — like that “ghost” of possibility provoked by holding the lifeless child.

Too, Morrison often ruminates on “mercy” ideologically. Her A Mercy (2008) describes a mother begging a white man whom she judges likely to treat her daughter humanely to “take” her into enslavement, an attempt to protect her from their present master’s rapacious sexual abuse. To her, his accepting “was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human” (195). Farah Jasmine Griffin glosses this passage:

For the mother, the white man offers a gift of mercy, but is the mercy an act granted to the slave child by the man Vaark, or one granted to the white man to whom she is given? Is the act of mercy his ability to see Florens as a child and not only a piece of property over whom he has power? Or is it God’s mercy that the enslaved mother sees Vaark as a human being who might do right by her child and not as a monster who would cause her great harm? All she knows of white men would lead her to see them, to believe them, to be monstrous and evil. Yet, she sees this one as a human being, capable of kindness (28).

We might similarly ask in Johnston’s poem: who requests mercy — child, mother, father, poet? — of whom — child, mother, father, poet, readers? If even trading in humans can seem merciful depending on the relative situation, then (Johnston suggests) the choice to prioritize an unborn child’s quality of life over the mother’s well-being qualifies, too, as an act of mercy. The unborn “Mercy” embodies such grace to her mother — Griffin also asks: “Who can be more deserving of mercy than a child” (29) — even as this speaker serves the God-like role of extending her offspring mercy. The body of the poem only incorporates its key word “mercy” once: in the phrase “our cold mercy” that thus carries tragically key dual meaning. In context sans capitalization, it primarily describes the parents’ tortured decision. But read in light of the title, this phrase also evokes corporeally encountering the corpse of the child.

As parallels between these two poems evince, tortuous cycles persist for twenty-first-century Black mothers denied equal access to resources and exposed disproportionately to environmental and institutional hazards that make them and their children precariously vulnerable to negative health outcomes. “We Named You Mercy” is not only a potent document of personal trauma. It is also a rallying cry to rectify such circumstances, or at least to grant Black women platforms to express losses and to advocate implicitly for reproductive justice.

For the ability to hold the child, to write this verse, and to lyrically name the child does proffer something to this despondent speaker. That the name is “Mercy,” however, ultimately encapsulates the tragedy of the loss and the parents’ feelings. Johnston’s speaker experiences the “cold” comfort of sharing her burden with a partner and writing in a somewhat more accepting era. Yet it is undeniable that Brooks’s formal and thematic innovations, as well as her meditations on this under-discussed facet of Black motherhood made a pathway for Johnston to follow in her own work.

Before closing, it seems worth thinking about the choice on the part of this poet of motherhood to dub her created form the “genesis.” This audaciously positions her as fertile and god-like, authoring creation and the text representing it. This mirrors Nikki Giovanni’s tone in “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” when she declares: “I turned myself into myself and was jesus.” Both poets make Black women, so often societally abjected, godly. And rightly so, for Johnston’s invented genesis is itself a wildly creative hybrid form, demonstrating her formidable talents and demanding fresh reading strategies. She formats the five separate pieces, spread across multiple pages, as individual columns for independent reading. But they also together, read left-to-right and up-to-down across the columnar divisions, create a sixth longer poem. Finally, she invents a new sub-genre, the “visible erasure,” by asking readers to identify the seventh poem hidden in plain sight. Each columnar poem contains italicized phrases; assembling these left to right across the two-page spread comprises a seventh poem. But locating this invisible (yet hyper-visible) seventh poem asks readers to do the impossible: ignore the roman typeface text they have already read. Those words haunt this seventh piece interpretatively. Reading such work — let alone innovating such a form and writing effectively therein — certainly requires and displays capacious, generative poetic thinking.

Thus, Black women poets (Johnston among them) indubitably deserve treatment as creators of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American verse. That Twitter thread ultimately helped me continue dwelling on key broader matters in twenty-first-century African American poetics. Many assert that now that Patricia Smith won the Pulitzer and “slammers” (with other types of Black poets long held in abeyance by the academy and literary establishment) are being increasingly recognized, these poets now exercise full freedom. Although “gatekeepers” initially “pushed” slam and its “artists to the margins or jettisoned it” (Johnson and Blacksher 170), such institutions have begun to “recognize the literary merits of slam” and “bring slam and spoken word poets” into their legitimizing spaces (Johnson Killing 2). Keith Leonard recently asserted that twenty-first-century Black poets can wholly “create as they please” (29). Amanda Johnston’s career gives me (qualified) hope that he is correct, or soon could be. For she is to some degree recognized by the establishment on stage and page, and collectives like Cave Canem and the Affrilachian Poets help her reach broader audiences and craft her own platforms.

However, reading her as poet of Black motherhood and emphasizing her innovation remains in order. As Brooks’s brilliance is kept at the fore through the tireless labors propagated by the Furious Flower conferences and center, among other efforts, so I am delighted to have this opportunity to bring Johnston’s work before readers and position her as a modern daughter of Gwendolyn Brooks in these pages, where we with the writers tend and foster African American poetry.

 

Works Cited

Johnson, Javon. Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2017. Print.

— and Anthony Blacksher. “Give Me Poems and Give Me Death On the End of Slam (?).” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 169–79. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. New York: Norton, 2021. Print.

Johnston, Amanda. “About.” Amanda Johnston. https://www.amandajohnston.com/about. Web. Accessed 1 Feb. 2022. Electronic.

Leonard, Keith. “New Black Aesthetics: Post-Civil Rights African American Poetry.” The Cambridge Companion to Twenty-First-Century American Poetry. Ed. Timothy Yu. New York: Cambridge UP, 2021. 17–30. Print.

@nadia870. “Hey poetry Twitter, what forms do you know of that were invented by Black women poets? As I begin forming a list of forms created by African American poets, I realize that none of the folks I’ve found so far are women. Please help!” Twitter, 29 Dec. 2021, 10:51 a.m., https://twitter.com/nadia870/status/1476234444625358851.


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


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Laura Vrana is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Alabama and a proud alumna of Penn State, where she earned her Ph.D. in English. She researches 20th-century and contemporary Black poetics, and her publications have appeared or are forthcoming in outlets including MELUS, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, College Literature, and Obsidian and the edited collections Some Other Blues: New Perspectives on Amiri Baraka, Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, and two volumes of the Cambridge African American Literature in Transition series.

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