by Julie Philips Brown, PhD

&

prayer
dear anastacia renee anastacia-renee –renée –reneé, dear luna dear alice o, saraphina. dear super-shero,[i] queer shero of color, dear play(wright) muse(maker) painter & civic siren. dear poet, moon(light) with me us you. when we arrive at the river drowning. body floating like a lily pad, heart gurgling for air,show us how to stand how to draw ourselves up to finish upon the earth, halcyons burning — [ii]

Let us begin with an invocation to our muse, whose mythic force has only just begun its glorious thunder. The author of four books, Anastacia-Reneé published three of them within a matter of months in 2017: Forget It from Black Radish; Answer(Me), a Winged City chapbook from Argus House Press; and (v.) from Gramma Poetry. Each of these collections demonstrates the poet’s remarkable range, and together they chart a richly evocative oeuvre whose sudden, almost supernatural arrival belies her long years of labor and care for her craft.

These poems throb with what is most human in all of us: our selves, children, families, lovers, and communities — our matterings and our survivals.

These poems throb with what is most human in all of us: our selves, children, families, lovers, and communities — our matterings and our survivals.[iii] To experience Anastacia-Reneé’s poems is to marvel/wonder/wander in their exquisite architecture, their tangled roots and branches, their involutions and unmakings of identity, consciousness, and the ontological certainty of things. Each collection proceeds according to its own aesthetic logic and narrative particulars. Forget It is a cross-genre, fictionalized memoir, its oblique recollections of miscarriage, divorce, surrenders, and resurrections told in lyric prose poems, as well as surreal dream texts, subterranean subtexts, annotations, confessions, dialogues with alter egos, and asides to the reader. Answer(Me) rollicks in the intricacies of two women’s love affair, celebrating and lamenting the passages of pleasure and plight between them. Tyehimba Jess has described (v.) as “a blackgirl womansong” (Publisher’s Blurb). Inflected by the long history of violence against men, women, and children of color in America, as well as the white supremacist resurgence following the 2016 election, these poems respond to the current crisis of race, and especially to the perils and precarity of Black women, with an historical awareness as deeply rooted as this nation’s original sin. In each of these collections, Anastacia-Reneé complicates prevailing notions of the self and proposes a fugitive poetics. Through her annotations, asides, silences, and narrative disjunctions, she splits self from self and shows her readers a way to survive — as super-shero alter ego, as lover, as civic siren, and as mother to “her daughters,” i.e., future generations of young Black women.

* * *

answer

Anastacia-Reneé seems to say “forget it” to remind us to forget ourselves as we are — as we think we truly are — and to greet an image of ourselves as redeemed, complete, and sheroic.

& she came (came, naked & unashamed) by moonlight (lord thank you), the heart a tenant, the heart a house. heart(broken) she came to tell us the city, a tired woman after a long day of being black, to low for the pelvic bones. then went away again. she is / was / be here, she is inside the mirror she does not reflect she is any real thing she _____ me us her, for real & so much.[iv]

never tell a story without a beginning middle or end or annotations or footnotes or translations or or or or never let it be headless like a horseman riding through the days night. tell it not as your [sic] remember it but as it truly is/was/be///for this (namaste) get inside the mirror so as not to be a reflection of any real thing so as not to see your true self only an image of who you thought you were to be. never stain a walkway or a person only mark yourself (31).

Though these words come from Answer(Me), they serve as both ethical edict and ars poetica for much of Anastacia-Reneé’s work. Never tell a story without structure, but never tell it, too, without exceptions, contextualizations, subversions. Never let your story be haunted. Against the vagaries of memory and reflection, Anastacia-Reneé proposes what “truly is/was/be” and the ontological certainty of “any real thing.” The difficulty, if not the impossibility, of such a proposal is evident in her temporal conflation of the simple present, simple past, and present (or is it future?) continuous, as well as the cryptic modifier “truly.”

For the poet, recognition (of “any real thing,” or of the self, though not “your true self” but rather “an image of who you thought you were to be”) depends not upon remembering, but forgetting: “for this (namaste) get inside the mirror” [my emphasis]. Within the very word “forget” lies “namaste,” a term that blesses and recognizes an other, but also a word the poet deconstructs as “namaste. nah ima stay. ima stay. stay”— and therein, too, lies equanimity and salvation. Anastacia-Reneé seems to say “forget it” to remind us to forget ourselves as we are — as we think we truly are — and to greet an image of ourselves as redeemed, complete, and sheroic.

* * *

Forget It. Anastacia-Reneé’s cross-genre, fictionalized memoir begins with this counter-intuitive imperative: forget it. Forget what, and why? How? The book begins in the mode of “pre-memoir,” perhaps a pre-conscious state in which “you dream of alice,” and find “alice says / she’s dreaming of you” (3-5). Almost immediately, it is clear that the reader has followed Anastacia-Reneé into her dreamworld, a kind of mythological present in which alice has always already been waiting. Certainly, she is the Alice of Wonderland, but more pressingly, she is the alice metropolis of Anastacia-Reneé’s recent play, 9 Ounces[v] (she also appears in (v.) with Luna, her younger compatriot from the play). In Forget It, alice becomes the speaker’s primary interlocutor, a half-dreamt, half-remembered alter ego whose voice sometimes blends with that of the speaker.

Alice’s most important function in the narrative is to embody the possibility of survival, if not outright resurrection. In Part V of the book, “Re(member),” the speaker “meet[s] alice” in what “is not a believable / fairy tale,” and here remembering is not only recollection, but the reconstitution of the body and the self (55). The prose poem “No Fairy Tale (2)” depicts an Opheliac scene, in which a young girl almost succumbs to the river, only to split from herself and raise herself up again:

once upon a time a girl met herself at the river when she nearly drowned. her body floating like a lily pad. her heart gurgling for air. when she felt herself begin to slip. she, herself rose from the river to save her. self. & this is the tale we tell our daughters. the ones we never push through our heavens. the ones we meet along the way in classrooms, coffee shops or crisis hotlines. this is what we mean when we say love. yourself. (58)

This “she” is of mythic origin: “once upon a time.” If “this is the tale we tell our daughters” to teach them to survive and to love themselves, then it is also the tale that testifies to the power of narrative, and to the ways that poems see us through the gravest of circumstances.

The struggle to survive, especially for Black girls and women, is as old as the fairy tale itself, and in the way of most traumas, the cycle of peril persists and repeats, again and again. Thus the speaker finds herself at the river, drowning:

my body floating like a lily pad. my heart gurgling for air, myself, she too. was drowning. & when we both thought we were sinking. to the bottom of our lifetime many little girls drew us. back to finish upon the earth. & this is what i will tell my daughters. the ones i won’t push through my heavens. the ones i won’t meet in classrooms, coffee shops, or crisis hotlines. i will tell this tale to the daughters who are bent. open. whose exhales are wedged between fetch & swell (58).

Though the tale repeats itself with a grim, relentless certainty, it does so with a critical difference: this time both the speaker and her alter ego are drowning, and neither alone seems enough to save the other. It is only the thought of the “little girls” before her and after — the ancestors who lived, and the daughters who will survive her — that calls the speaker and her self “back to finish on the earth.” And somehow they do come back — perhaps that’s just the sheroic thing to do.

* * *

No single word suffices to describe these poems: they are sumptuous, playful, wry, pointed, pert.

Anastacia-Reneé’s chapbook Answer(Me) is a deftly structured text, both in its visual presentation and its dramatic narrative. The collection recounts the (un)couplings of two lovers over the course of three acts, “Debut,” “Milieu,” and “Fin,” with each act presenting a series of contiguously numbered scenes. Most of these scenes are further divided into four parts: a prayer, an answer, a proverb, and an aside addressed to the collection’s “dear reader.” No single word suffices to describe these poems: they are sumptuous, playful, wry, pointed, pert. They flirt and plead unapologetically in their supplications to various female deities, such as the “goddess of magical realism & chocolate dipped in truth on a waffle cone” (11).

The poems are particularly unabashed in their evocations of the female body and the unparalleled pleasures the two women lovers find in one another. Early in their relationship, the speaker pleads for one more sleepless night, so much the better to enjoy her lover:

dear sleep goddess don’t come to our garden tonight. (s’il vous plaît) do not use your powers of the sand and secret dust. we have to fuck (all night.) & we are not adam & eve about this—no shame in our desire to stay/lay/pray/gay awake, eyes/arms/legs (wide open) (15).

Of course, these lovers are not “adam & eve about this” — they are two women, unashamed, and, as the text makes clear with its visual pun, “(wide open)” in the throes of their sensual delight. Everywhere in this prayer, and in its answer, the sacred and the profane meet: Lo, the speaker seems to say, “& sleep did not show herself until we called her … & we did not know she draped herself upon us until we church-fanned the next day (lord thank you)” (15). What better image than church fans to conjure the subversive ecstasy and exhaustion of their passion?

Later, in “Fin,” we find the lovers still together, but also no longer untouched by the risks of intimacy. As the speaker later warns in the language of her francophone lover: “Ne jamais tomber amoureux” (30). Never fall in/to/(ill) with love; it is sure to be your downfall. For Anastasia-Reneé’s speaker, it is clear that sustained intimacy leaves her vulnerable to profound longing and therefore risks the integrity of the self:

dear readers have you ever missed someone in the way you miss yourself & you say where oh where have I been? & you look for yourself in your clothing & you look for yourself in your job & you look for yourself in yourself & yourself looks back at you & tells you she is unavailable asks you to please leave your number & a message (25).

What a peculiar turn this speaker takes: to pursue her own self like a would-be lover whose affections go unanswered. Anastasia-Reneé literalizes this conceit, insisting on an absurd situation in which she calls her self, leaving this message “at the beep” (25):

hey self, I want to let you know
I found you! you tucked yourself
away inside your lovers black hair
in a bobbi pin around your
favorite curl & for this reason
you will never be lost or forgotten
or misplaced because your lover
has a thing for bobby pins … . (25)

Ghosted by her self, the speaker nevertheless takes comforts in the “bobbi pin” and the slight, “favorite curl” of her “lovers black hair.” These might seem too passing a place to call home, but perhaps it is as good as anywhere. At least there is this: the vulnerability of greeting and recognizing the beloved, of declaring “nah ima stay.”

* * *

… the poem leaves us with this knowledge, too: there is no single, individual super-shero who (with)stands alone. The super-(s)heroes among us are the anonymous, amorphous selves of the we, the us, together.

In the book’s afterword, Rezina Habtemariam describes (v.) as “a raw meditation on the politics brutally imposed on the bodies of Black girls and women,” in which the poet “interrogates what she poignantly describes as small deaths and the fracturing of selves they cause” (122). The signs of violence, death, structural racism, and misogyny are writ everywhere throughout these poems, though they astonish in their range of style and subject matter. (v.) includes paeans to “Becky the Patron Saint”; anti-fairy tales and anti-lullabies; autobiographical lyrics wrenched by microaggressions; blues poems; dramatic personae poems; orthographic deconstructions; vodun incantations and zombis; multiple-choice test questions; letters; glossaries; nature lyrics; and a long poem for Skipper, Barbie’s younger sister. These poems are by turns flirtatious, hilarious, plaintive, rage-filled, distraught, tender, resigned — they are as generous and tumultuous as the lives they imagine, represent, resent, remember, and memorialize.

In certain poems, such as “… kill us,” the traumas recalled are at once personal, cultural, and historical. Following news reports of the shooting of Korryn Gaines[vi], the speaker is overcome not only by her sense of unfathomable loss, but by the insidious, terrifying ways that public discourse frames, accounts for, and ultimately dismisses that loss:

you are not sure how to process a baby
wrapped in mama’s arms & her being shot & it
being all over the news & people are keeping tabs
about what she did wrong about her sanity
crazy black bitch
about if she had a right to be angry or to have

weapons if she had a right to be human (81)

The court of public opinion weighs — feels entitled to weigh — not only Gaines’s sanity, but her humanity and her right to her own life, to her son’s life. The verdict is rendered in an instant by her killer, by the social media mob-mind, which shouts, “crazy black bitch.” The speaker is painfully aware of the cultural and historical dimensions of this tragedy, that “this is not the alpha or omega / of this” loss. Rather, the murderous “they” recalls the drowned bodies of the Middle Passage, and now the speaker keeps “tabs” and remembers that this terror is always ready, in an instant, to “be true for / you & yours too”:

& you know “they’re
trying to kill us” is trapped at the bottom of all
oceans is overboard & above & in between
time & you feel like (keeping tabs) it could be true for
you & yours too, “they’re trying to kill us.”
“they’re trying to kill us.” “they’re trying to kill us.” (81)

In this poem, and beyond, Kodi Gaines’s words — and the piercing accuracy of his perception — will echo for all eternity.

The traumas of history are never far from the present in (v.). One prose poem in particular, “Master Tale,” simultaneously evokes chattel slavery in the fields of the past and economic drudgery in the corporate plantations of the present day through a series of spliced images and double-meanings:

we hid our accents (act/sense) never wanting our masters to know (no) who we really were. we dressed (the part) & made/maid our hair as perfect as perfect could be. when it was time to separate us, first by color, then by body type, we tried very hard to appear stone-faced and complacent, always texting each other & emailing our disapproval in code. i guess i should feel lucky — my master plans on giving me a 401(k) and time off after i have my child. he laughed and said, can’t wait to have that one on board with the company too (80)!

The slave and corporate “masters” judge and separate each body, and imagine unborn generations already bent in slavery, oblivious to the coded messages the anonymous “we” shares amongst themselves. In both times and realities, these speakers confront the dehumanizing white gaze through evasion, silence, and withdrawal. Their ultimate recourse comes in community, and in the quiet, unseen work of holding each other up, holding each other together:

& we try our best to hold each other up    we try our best to cover for each other when one of us is down down down way deep in the fields when one of us has lost all shuck & jive & accidentally returns from lunch late with a feather or two & a bit of blood soaked through our cotton shirts (80).

What then, when one is “down down down way deep in the fields,” when the “shuck & jive” falters? Not “if,” but “when.” The poem leaves us with no easy resolution. If this is survival, it is the long arc of cultural survival, and it is a bloody, vicious one. Thus the poem leaves us with this knowledge, too: there is no single, individual super-shero who (with)stands alone. The super-(s)heroes among us are the anonymous, amorphous selves of the we, the us, together.

(pro)verb

sometimes a heart is a tenant & sometimes a heart is a house. neither knowing which is which until the house or tenant vanishes.
       or
we church-fanned the next day (lord thank you).
       or
we are already walking
dead we are already
ghostly bodies risen
& risen again & again[vii]

Let us give thanks for our muse and these poems. If you meet yourself at the river, drowning, forget it — go back, keep reading, and finish upon the earth with her.

Fin.
(Debut)

* * *

[i] In her biographical statement accompanying Forget It on Black Radish Books’ website, the poet describes herself as “a full time queer super-shero of color moonlighting as a writer, performance artist and creative writing workshop facilitator.” I offer this invocation, and the answer and proverb that follow, as one poet’s humble tribute to another.

[ii] The quotations in this “prayer” (indicated in Roman text) come from Anastacia-Reneé’s “No Fairy Tale (2)” in Forget It, p. 58.

[iii] Though I say “our,” I do not wish to elide the differences in privilege and pain experienced by the poet and myself. As a straight, cis-gender white woman, I am by definition an outsider to many of the experiences that Anastacia-Reneé recounts. These are poems for Black girls and women, first and foremost, and so I am grateful even to be a small party to this conversation.

[iv] The quotations in this “answer” (indicated in Roman text) come from Anastacia-Reneé’s poems “4” and “14” in Answer(Me), pp. 15 and 31, and her poems [“today alice is a marshmallow],” “The City (1),” “No Fairy Tale (2),” and “No Fairy Tale (3) in Forget It, pp. 32, 43, and 58-9.

[v] Perhaps alice metropolis is Anastacia-Reneé’s answer to W. C. Williams’ Paterson and Charles Olson’s Maximus, though she also seems to hearken towards the poet’s own term as a Hugo House writer-in-residence and Civic Poet of Seattle. Indeed, alice metropolis’s refrain in 9 Ounces, “keep it moving,” echoes and overturns the original meaning of Olson’s famous exhortation, “Keep it moving, Citizen,” from his 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse.” Whereas Olson’s phrase is in homage to the speed, privilege, and compass of his (assuredly white, assuredly male) citizen, Anastacia-Reneé’s revision emphasizes movement as a means of survival for black bodies in hostile public spaces. For more on 9 Ounces and “Projective Verse,” see Rebecca Garcia Moreno’s review of 9 Ounces­­.

[vi] Korryn Shandawn Gaines, a 23-year-old mother of two, was shot while holding her son, Kodi, by Baltimore County police officers during a stand-off at her apartment. The words “they’re trying to kill us” are Kodi’s and were originally broadcast on Instagram during the stand-off. Gaines’s murder received national attention and ultimately garnered a $38 million settlement for her wrongful death, as well as the injuries Kodi sustained in the shooting.

[vii] The quotations in this “(pro)verb” come from Anastacia-Reneé’s poems: respectively, “No Fairy Tale (3),” “4,” and “Dead to You” in Forget It, p. 59; Answer(Me), p. 15; and (v.), p. 30.

Works Cited

Anastacia-Reneé. Answer(Me). Winged City Chapbooks, 2017.

—. Forget It. Black Radish Books, 2017.

—. (v.). Gramma Poetry, 2017.

Jess, Tyehimba. Publisher’s Blurb. Gramma Poetry, https://gramma.press/bookshop/v/. Accessed 18 June 2018. 


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


jpb_authorphoto

Dr. Julie Phillips Brown is a poet, painter, scholar, and book artist. After earning an MFA and a PhD at Cornell University, she served as the NEH Post-Doctoral Fellow in Poetics at Emory University’s Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Angels of the Americlypse, Columbia Poetry Review, Conjunctions (online exclusive), Contemporary Women’s Writing, Crab Orchard Review, delirious hem, Denver Quarterly, Interim, Jacket2, Mixed Messages, Peregrine, Posit, Rappahannock Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Talisman, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Lexington, Virginia, where she teaches creative writing, studio art, and American literature.

 

by Anastacia-Reneé

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

we negros walk the path of self enlightenment
sweaty-holding brick light bulbs
with tiny watching white men as switch
                  on                    off
let them mark us in the day
with this thing & that thing
& this is what i mean to say when i say negro
say negro as in not black
but not human
& this is what i mean to say when i say nigger
as in not black & not human
& this is what i mean when i say walk the path
for the path is not a path
but a thorny renditition of woodsy

what i mean to say is we walk it
while running with out cerebellum shoes untied
as in we do not take heed
on                    off
we do not listen to what we are hearing (on the flipside)
as in do you hear me
as in are you listening
as in if you call upon me i will tell you my story
as in my story could be your story
if you only read what i was (not) about
but you as in your generation do not read anymore
your lifes s(spores) germinated atop links
& htmls & videos & i mean to say
i am not judging you but i am

& i wonder fellow children of my alphabet fucking
if you really miss me the way you say you do
if you really hold me in high esteem
on                    off
the way you do your coveted internet
if you would snatch me from a burning building
or watch my baldwin burn there
on your minimalist couch

 

Poem copyright 2018 by Anastacia-Reneé. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Anastacia-Reneé debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle:
on being free and The Mother Ship is Purple


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

by Anastacia-Reneé

you want to tell all your people the mother ship is swooping
that she landed on top of a red mountain of vegan gravy
that she is dripping in beggary saying sop me up sop me up
you want to drag them by their anxious hands & say ya’ll
our time has come. look up yonder. & you want yonder to be
a 60 degree place of no wanting — as if the yonder knows
<                   what you need                    >
& what you need is a land with no white cops dangling
pavlov fingers or pow-powing guns as synonym for
the truth the light & the way to kill a nigga
want to tell your people to gallop to the mother ship
like giraffes or gazelles or goliath — goodtimes, we
finally got a piece of the pie eye     eye     eye     eyeeee
                         run ____________ run.

 

Poem copyright 2018 by Anastacia-Reneé. All rights reserved.

&amp;
See more poems from Anastacia-Reneé debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Conversation with Baldwin and on being free


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

by Anastacia-Reneé

the eagle flies by
& you wonder
what it might
feel like
to be so free
so american
so present
how it can
dive right down
right in
right by
(pain)
as if
it were
a regular sky

 

Poem copyright 2018 by Anastacia-Reneé. All rights reserved.

&amp;
See two more poems from Anastacia-Reneé debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle:
Conversation with Baldwin and The Mother Ship is Purple


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

by Lauren K. Alleyne

&

“VIOLET    VIOLENT    VIOLA    VIOLATE”: This sequence of “v” words closes Anastacia-Reneé’s poem “Dear Little Girl,” from her collection (v.). The range of connotation and the suturing of meaning through sound and music that create the poetic impact of this list — a flower colored both twilight and bruise; the definition of fatal force; a musical instrument; a breach of boundaries — is a hallmark of Anastacia-Reneé’s work. With a poetic sensibility simultaneously cutting, vulnerable, wry, and audacious, she produces poems that are both expansive and targeted. While the poems are unapologetic in their Blackness, their womanness, their queerness, and their hybridity, they are also clear in their invitations to those outside of those perspectives to consider them. Her hilarious and sarcastic poem, “I Just Love Her So Much,” is an excellent example of this. Through a stunning ventriloquism, Anastacia-Reneé demonstrates classic Black double consciousness by describing the experience of being around white women who “dote and coo over Michelle Obama” while treating the speaker like “an everyday nigger,” which is to say, ignoring her completely.       

            … and they must have said classy & strong & strong & classy & humble & smart & classy & strong & graceful & witty & intelligent & classy & strong (not feminist) a million times (sitting next to you) & there you are & they never even say good morning (hi, hello, go to hell)

The repetition in the poem, both comedic and relentless, serves to confirm the experiences of ordinary Black women who most likely recognize the situation, as well as reproduce it (in all its grating glory) for those to whom it might be unfamiliar.

The speaker’s saltiness serves as entertainment on the surface, but as in many of her other poems, Anastacia-Reneé fully utilizes the power of voice as a meaning-making device. In this poem, the speaker’s openness and transparency allow us to see multiple levels of harm and outrage. First, there is umbrage taken on behalf of the ignored speaker (that “hi, hello, go to hell” can work both ways!), but it gives way to weariness as she wonders “maybe you are not strong or classy or lulu lemon enough.” However, the speaker also expresses sisterly outrage on behalf of the “strong & classy” Black women so beloved by the white women as she side-eyes the way they “talk about Michelle as if they are on a first name basis with her.” The poem’s ultimate recognition is that while invisibility is demoralizing, visibility also comes with a price: “you are not the kind of woman of color who will hang on any white person’s wall (with thumbtacks).” Most powerful, however, is the claim that undergirds all of Anastacia-Reneé’s poetry — despite all insistences to the contrary, we are all worthy.

Anastacia-Reneé was a featured poet at Furious Flower’s fourth biennial Collegiate Summit, which explored the theme “Poetry without Boundaries” for three days with undergraduate students. It was my great pleasure to speak with her in the studio at JMU about her path to poetry and her three recently published collections.

So first I want to talk about your path to poetry. It’s pretty nontraditional, so why don’t you tell me a little bit about how you got here?

I am a late bloomer; I tell everyone this. I was always writing in high school and some of college and elementary school, but as far as really taking myself seriously, that didn’t happen until my first child was about two years old. I started writing profusely. It was just like something poured out of me, and I couldn’t stop. And I would — once Brandon was asleep — I would write until I couldn’t write any more, and then I would get up and start the day, and still I was like, “Oh, this is nice: you’re such an awesome and dedicated hobbyist!” and “Wow! You do this thing often, hmmm.” Then it became “Oh! You have seventy poems, so maybe this is pretty serious.”  And still I was in a bit of denial.

I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree until my children were in school. I worked a full-time job, and I went to school full time, and I raised my children — and I got my bachelor’s degree in English with emphasis in creative writing. But I had children young. I had children in my twenties, early-early twenties (20, 21), and all my now-colleagues were out partying, or going straight from their bachelor’s to their MFAs. And I didn’t do that thing. I didn’t have that track, so in some ways I felt like I was missing out — I didn’t have the academic connections, I didn’t have mentors, I didn’t even know what a writing residency was!

When I found out people actually go places to write for concentrated amounts of time, I was like, “This is a joke! How did I not know about this?” And then I stumbled upon something called Cave Canem, and I really thought this was hilarious.  I remember reading the literature thinking, “What are you talking about? A home for Black poetry? Is this a joke?” Because I was in the Midwest; I was in Kansas City, Missouri. I mean, growing up they didn’t even talk about Black poets. I was only told about Maya Angelou during Black history month. Or James Baldwin. I had to learn about Audre Lorde and Lucille Clifton on my own and from my mom being a librarian. So when I read this, I was like, “Wow! I need to figure out what this is about and if it’s real.” I was still very skeptical; I thought, “This is a joke,” and it wasn’t! So I applied. And still, still, still … by that time I even had a couple of editorial essays published in credible magazines. I’d won the San Diego journalism press club award for an article called “War Torn” about being the daughter of a Vietnam vet, but I still was like, “You’re not really a writer writer,” whatever that means.

I spent three years learning forms so that I could break them. I just decided, you know, I’m gonna get this for myself, in a way that I can do it. I just became a secret forms studier …

But I applied to Cave Canem, and when I was accepted — I remember sitting on the edge of the bed trying to explain it to my children, and I remember them being so full of joy for me. It’s like I could see the joy reflected. I was so excited! And that Cave Canem, I met Patricia Smith and Yusef Komunyakaa and Ed Roberson and just some amazing amazing amazing amazing writers, and that’s when I said to myself, “Wow, I am one of those people.” Again, late bloomer. Most of the people I was there with had already published a few books, or somebody was their mentor since forever who was an accomplished writer, and I just didn’t have that story, so sometimes I think I let self-doubt get in the way of the goals that I set for myself. I always battled with that part, being the oldest of my colleagues, but some of my colleagues having it look like they were much more successful than me.

Tell me a bit more about what organizations like Cave Canem and Furious Flower have. When you say “one of those people,” what was that connection, and what was that like?

I needed to see people who were similar to me but not me doing the work. I needed to be around a group of people who would test my craft ability, not ask me, “How is this subject relevant in the world?” I needed to be around people who understood the poem — we didn’t have to talk about what I meant at the heart of the poem. It’s something about the comfortability of being around someone that says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all about that, but is this the format you’re comfortable with? Cause how’s that gonna be?” I craved that and didn’t even realize it, and once I got it, the biggest thing that stuck with me with those workshops and even Callaloo, which I heard a lot about, was that I took the spirit of that with me outside of those places. All these places were so near and dear to me, and they’re so powerful, and I have that within me! So then I started going out mentoring other people, you know? “This is great, but what about this? And have you heard about this organization?” Something in me wanted to be a crusader for other people. I felt like, “I can’t be the only one who doesn’t know about this.” I wanna tell everybody, and that’s what I’ve been doing.

You had a first book around 2000 and then a gap. You had a couple chapbooks and then in 2017 you had three books come out. The persistence paid off, so what are some of the internal and external things you did to keep yourself going in that in-between time?

To be honest (and I’ve never said this out loud) I stole — okay, not stole, but borrowed — a lot of curricula. I wasn’t able to get my master’s or MFA when I wanted to, so I would just ask people, “Can I see that? Can I see your syllabus for your class?” And the classes that I found interesting — I would hoard all the books. I just taught myself a lot of things. I spent three years learning forms so that I could break them. I just decided, you know, I’m gonna get this for myself, in a way that I can do it. I just became a secret forms studier, and someone would mention a book, and I would listen intently, but in my mind, I’m like, “All right, you’re gonna go get this book, everybody’s talking about it, you’ve never heard of it, you’re gonna go get this, you’re gonna read it, you’re gonna study it, and you’re gonna come back and have this conversation.” I just decided I wasn’t gonna let barriers stop me.

But I have to also be honest: I spent a lot of time alone, feeling like I’m never gonna be up to snuff, like someone’s gonna ask me a question and I’m going to say, “I — I — I — I don’t know about that,” or “I’ve never heard about that writer.”  I battled with yes you can do it; you’re just as great, and no, maybe you should just stop this thing. But I did keep going. And I can’t stop writing. That’s how I knew I wasn’t a hobbyist — even if I wanted to, I could not stop writing.

And then I started doing this thing called “the grind”: we write every day. It’s just basically accountability. I’ve been writing every day since August 2010. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a word. Sometimes it’s a line, sometimes it’s a whole poem, sometimes it’s flash fiction, and sometimes it’s an essay. But I was committed to that, and so these books weren’t all born for me last year; it’s a culmination of things. It just so happened that they were all published in the same year. I keep telling people, “You show me someone who can write three books in one year!” If that was the case I’d have a million books! These books were gestating a while.

I will start out writing in form and just immediately break it; something is rebellious in me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a late bloomer. I don’t know if it’s my way of reacting to oppression. I just am like, “This is a great sonnet and now I want it to be a sonnet-couplet-tonka-haibun!”

The books are distinct, so did you find you were working on one and then another and then another? Or did you kind of piece them together? How did each of these books come to be?

I knew when I was writing Forget It, because Forget It is a fictional memoir …

Fictional memoir?

Yeah, I think I made that up. I’ve been saying it, and people are always like, “Huh?” Maybe I did. I don’t know. I knew that I wanted to be brave and tell a story about a series of events that happened in my life, but I also knew I was scared. I was like, “I don’t really wanna tell all of these things.” I needed some help, so I decided to pull from one of my fictional characters from my one-woman show, “alice,” to help me. I was like, “Homegirl, help me write this, these true things that hurt.” So I knew — I actively knew — when I was writing Forget It, because it was true. Forget It was like, “Ahhh! You again! Ahhhhh, this again! Oh, that memory,” you know? Also, Forget It involves my children, um, in a not vague way. Some of the poems in (v.) I could be like, “It could be your child, too,” but Forget It, they’re very much mine.

(v.) is just a compilation of poems. There was a set of poems that I’d written and pieced together, and then some that I was like, “I have to talk about the election. I have to talk about these things; they have to be in there.” Answer(Me) is about heartbreak and love, and I knew I was writing Answer(Me) because of the form and the shape. But I will say they all felt different in my body. What I didn’t know was that I was going to publish all three books — because, again, I’m just writing because I have to, because I have to do it — and then I got to a point where I was like, “Even for me this is a lot of work. Maybe you have some manuscripts here.” And that’s when I was definitely able to old-school print everything out and say, “This goes with this; this goes with this; this definitely goes with this.” But something about Forget It feels different. Even when reading it in open space, I have to prep myself to read from Forget It, whereas with (v.) I usually let the book tell me. But with Forget It, I’m very hovery-mothery, like, “I guess they can handle [this], or maybe I’ll share that.”

You talked about the form of Forget It, and you have footnotes in (v.), so I’m interested in how you conceptualize and utilize form. What’s your relationship to the poem as a form on the page as a visual?

I work really hard, and sometimes I laugh at myself.  A poet right now who I admire form-wise is Tyehimba Jess — I just look at the books and I’m just like, “Wow.” This is what I love about him: he maintains form, and there are so many other writers that do. For me, I will start out writing in form and just immediately break it; something is rebellious in me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a late bloomer. I don’t know if it’s my way of reacting to oppression. I just am like, “This is a great sonnet and now I want it to be a sonnet-couplet-tonka-haibun!” And I don’t care if the reader is reading a poem and going, “Huh? This is kind of haibun.” I’m not interested in if the reader can recognize the forms or not. I want the reader to feel like the poem has taken a shape on the page and has its own form. I do feel like when you do write in form, and people recognize it, it can potentially be better. But I don’t, and I actually don’t want readers to get caught up in that; I want them to feel and see the shape of the poem. 

So it’s interesting, though, because you say you start in form. Why not just start in free verse?

Sometimes I start in free verse, but because I spent years like, “You will learn this, you will know this,” I find myself writing in form even when I don’t want to. That was a hard-core time for me, making myself do that, and I when I write in free verse — what I think is free verse — I actually see my kind of form, if that makes sense. So then I sit there wondering like, “Okay, so technically you’re creating a form, and now you’re abiding by your own form,” and then I say to myself, “And now should you break your form?” And I do, so I guess it’s a multiple form breaking. There are many poems that are written in Forget It in the same style, and something about Forget It I chose — I’m like, “I like this form that I created and it’s safe. I created it and it’s safe and it can hold this. And it can hold it because I already don’t want to write about these things. I already don’t want to do it,” so I needed that. But for (v.) and Answer(Me), I didn’t need that.

You’re a performance artist, also.

You know, I’m so happy you’re bringing this up, because in the last three years I’ve refused to be called a “spoken word poet,” for these reasons: what I’m noticing is, and I don’t want to just say it’s typical of where I live, but … I could be on the bill with four other accomplished people, but who have less books than I have, and they will be referred to as “writers,” and I will be called the “spoken word poet.” In most cases, I’m the only brown person, and what was happening was I felt like my craft and my work wasn’t being celebrated. It’s not my fault that when I get on the stage and choose to share my work with you — that I worked hard on, that is crafted — that I want you to feel it. You should be honored! I struggle — I struggle a lot. I just feel like any writer who is sharing their work should be honored for their writing craft. I think there is a community of people that, when they hear “spoken word poet” or “performance artist,” they don’t think about the time it took to make the words that are spoken to the audience, right? It’s not improv! I really respect people who can improv and, like, stand-up comedians and free stylists, but I wrote this piece, you know? And now I’m sharing it with you in a way that I deem worthy because I want you to experience something. I want you to feel something when I’m sharing it with you, but I’m not performing it for you. I’m sharing it with you.

I was thinking more in terms of the one-woman show and the plays: how do those non-poetry and actively in-space performances inflect the poetry?

Yes, 9 Ounces is a play, a one-woman show, but I think the desire, again, to make the audience feel something makes me want to share the poem in the best way. I feel responsible: I don’t want to just get on the mic and read it. I want you to feel something. Even if you’re repulsed, I want you to feel something. There’s a poem I read, “WWBD (‘What Would Becky Do’),” where many women have walked out on the piece, and it used to hurt, but now I’m like, “Good! You feel something!” But if I just get up with a book and read the words, I feel like I’m not being my best self. I need my, our, writing community to know that just because you choose to read and I choose to share it ferociously doesn’t diminish my work and my craft and my talent. We are the same.

 When you share these ferocious, amazing, crafted, gorgeous, important poems, and let them loose in the air for the audience, what do you hope for? What do you want them to do?

 We’re overusing the words, I feel, “social justice,” “change agent,” whatever, but I feel a responsibility to talk about things that make people uncomfortable, and I feel a level of responsibility to speak up for marginalized voices, or for people who maybe won’t ever be in front of a microphone. Because of that, I want them to walk away changed in some way. So if you feel something, great.  If you changed after you feel something, even better. Those are the two goals I’m going for. Lastly, I want the young poets to read and just listen to other poets. I think while we’re in a somewhat free world and we can still do that, that is the best gift ever. I was transformed by reading other people’s work — dead people, living people, other writers — and I want one day (it’s corny), but I hope one day to be a part of a poetry legacy; I want someone to say, “Man, [reading] Anastacia-Reneé’s (v.) for the time was X Y Z.” 

Who are you reading right now?

I must admit, I just came from AWP [Associated Writers and Writing Programs] which means I can’t mention all the names, but I grabbed quite a few books from the Cave Canem table. And so I’m reading at least 10 poetry books, and I’m rereading Octavia Butler’s books.  I’ve read them before, but something is pushing me to read, to take a second and third look at them, so I’m reading those. And lately I’ve also been reading short essays by random people. I’ve been making that part of my daily routine, just to read a really short essay, just to change it up a little bit.

If you had five candles on your poetry altar, which poets would they be burning for and why?

Living poets or dead poets?

They’re your five candles — whoever you want!

Sigh — always Audre Lorde. I wish and wish and wish and wish and wish that she would come from the spirit world and we could have lunch together. Always Audre. June Jordan and James Baldwin and, oddly enough — I know this is gonna be strange — Shakespeare. I want to understand what he thought he was creating and what he thought. Did he have any idea he was gonna be, like, number one in the canon? I just kinda want to interview Shakespeare: “So tell me how dost thou do this?” I want to do that.

What is that, four? My God, I need like a million, a million, a million, a million! But I think I will reserve the last candle for the poet right now that’s writing, that doesn’t think they’re ever gonna amount to anything.  I used to be that poet.

I love it: A candle for the unknown poet.

 Yes, candle for the unknown. You’re such a poet! A candle for the unknown poet.

So you are here at an event at Furious Flower called “Poetry Without Boundaries.” What are some boundaries that you think poetry encounters, and why is it important to traverse those boundaries?

I think some of the boundaries are old boundaries, and they end up being just systemic. I really do believe there is a such a thing as racism in poetry, and I don’t know necessarily how to put my finger on it, but when I go to Barnes & Noble just to look and see what’s on their shelves for their top 10 poetry books, or when I look at the best sellers, there is still quite a disparity in terms of diversity, and I don’t know if that’s because of the subject matter or that’s because of the writers, but I still think that is a huge huge huge boundary. I also think there is a genre-bending boundary  (I’m a cross-genre writer), and though we’re getting better — people are making up words for it, people even solicit, “Hey we want your hybrid work” — I think there’s still a certain group of people that think poetry should be one way, and if your poetry is not that way, you will not be published. You will not be asked to read. You will not be in the top 10. You will not win an award. And the way to bump up against that boundary is to compromise, but I’m not willing, so I have to deal with what that means. If that means compromise, and I’m not willing, then I need to move on for that particular boundary. Another boundary is just access. I think that there are so many writers that are amazing writers but just have no idea how to get past the “I have a journal full of poems and I don’t necessarily know how to make that better.” I think that’s a big, big, big boundary.

I know that you’ve taught a lot, so what do you try to gift your students? What do you try to gift that student who has a journal full of writing, or the one who hasn’t even started to journal yet? What do you try to pass on?

I try to pass on internal confidence: I really want a person to leave thinking, “I can do this.” So I’m always trying to give tools. I would rather give you the tools than do it for you, so I stuff a lot of information into students, like, “These are the secrets; these are things you should know at 15 or 18 that nobody ever told me.” So that’s one thing. Also I like to tell them things, small things, like, “Maybe you should write every day,” or “You don’t need to pay money to have a group of friends to workshop and critique,” or “Request certain books at the library and they’ll get ’em.” I usually try to give my students 10 good things, 10 rules to follow, or 10 tips. It’s one of my favorite things about teaching, and then I feel like we’re both winning — I told you some things I wish I had known, and now you know the things, and now you can tell somebody, and you can do the things. 

I also think talking to students about how to be active listeners: How can you be a poet-ally?  I didn’t know, and there was no class. I don’t really think I learned what that could potentially look like until I went to Cave Canem in my thirties! I don’t want somebody I’m teaching to be 31 before they realize, “Oh, this is how I can support another writer,” or “This is how to be an ally.” And then I hope that translates and transcends into the bigger picture. When I think about it, those are pretty lofty, but those are always my goals going into any teaching setting. It doesn’t matter; those are just always my goals.

Who is the work for? Why am I writing if it’s not meant to tell a whole truth? What is the point of telling the half?

Again, I’m interested. I want to key in on the listening: tell me a little bit more about that.

I usually give a short exercise where a person says a line and the other person does not respond.  They just need to sit there and look and listen. They hate it. It’s uncomfortable. Then I usually have the person deliver the line, and I ask the other person to make a comment about the work — not about the person, not about the delivery of the work, not about anything but the work. Then I ask the person to read the line again, and I ask the listener, “Can you repeat the line? Is there something you remember?”

I just feel like technology and so many other things are stopping us from being active listeners with our mind and our hearts, and I think we’re just like, “I’m not gonna feel anything. I’m too busy to feel. I don’t have time to be sad or happy. I just need to get to the next thing.” So I really try to work on what that looks like. Then we get into it: is there something that you liked about it? Is there something that you would change? More specifically, not something you would change because you’re the writer, but something you would change about the way they wrote it.  I guess it’s also not letting the listeners be the center of the critique. I just feel like we don’t really — I’ve been a teacher for a long time — we don’t really have a class for that. We’re not teaching it very much.

What was your most memorable poetic encounter? Either with a poet or a poem?

Just one?! Ah, oh, my gosh. I have to say for the record there is not just one —

(Laughs) For the record: noted in the record.

There’s many. But my most outward, active, uncontrollable, physical thing related to poetry happened at Cave Canem in a workshop with Toi Derricotte.

Of course it did.

It’s so funny! Okay, so I’m loving, I’m mushy, I’m not aloof, but I do have the ability to say “You know, I’m not gonna go here. I’m going to active listen; I am not getting in here with my feelings.” And so I listened to her say, “Write about the hard stuff. Tell the truth,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s cool; this is all great.” And I listened to everybody else’s work, mm-hmm, and then when it got to me, I couldn’t read my poem. I couldn’t read my poem because I did not write the full truth. It was the first time I said to myself, “You have been so busy trying to write like the canon or please others or do it in a form, or not hurt anyone, you have been taking away 50% of your personal truth!” And so when it came to me and I couldn’t read the poem, I instantly realized that’s what was going on, and I just lost it. And then she was just like, “Good! Good! Now read us the poem.” And I was just like, “But it’s not …” and she was just like, “No, read the poem.” And I was able to say what the things that I omitted were, and the reason it changed me is because it made me realize, you know, you’re never gonna please everybody. Who is the work for? Why am I writing if it’s not meant to tell a whole truth? What is the point of telling the half? It just brought up so many questions that I still ask myself, and so for that reason I would say it changed the trajectory of where I thought I was headed as a writer, and that’s not where I was headed at all. Not at all.

If you had to give readers a key to your work, what would it be?

I’m visual, too, so I would have a blue star that would say, “Some of these poems are scary or sad or might make you want to turn the page,” and in parenthesis it would say, “Stay there.”  Just … just stay there. I would have a little sunshine that says, “Some of these poems are ridiculously funny and absurd, even when sad things are happening, because we need humor.” And I would have an ellipsis to say, “There’s some blanks, so that you, reader, have some agency.” Not a mistake; it’s blank so that you can figure out how you feel about a thing, if you were in the situation. And lastly, I would have a long list of writers that I would thank immensely just for having conversations with me, just for sharing their work with me. I just don’t think we lift each other up enough. I would spend pages and pages on conversations and quotes so that other people could see and read those things. Another part of the key would say, “The writer is imperfect, and I am okay with that.” I used to believe that to be a writer you should be striving for perfection, but I don’t. I’m okay with the reader watching me fall.


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


downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press and is forthcoming in April 2019.

by Yusef Komunyakaa

When I first went down South
I heard folks humming “Dixie,”
half lost in Tin Pan Alley.
Back then I’d tap the root
of a feeling, turn it over
& jot an X on the devil’s
left foot to hoodwink
phantoms in cobalt ash.

Yeah, I was only a boy
from a company town,
one side of my street
brown-jug square dance
& the other side jitterbug,
but as I rocked on my heels
a brand new healing song
sprung outta night’s clay.

When I came back to town
I said to cousin Bright One,
Why are these outlaw drugs
on every neon corner?
With hands on wide hips,
she gazed up at noon, grinned,
& said, Brother Man, don’t you
know who runs the jolly boats
& twin-engine planes, who lives
in a gated cabal of plush green
lawns once big fields of soybean
& corn or landing circles for UFOs
decades ago? Can’t you taste war
in the water, in burning air? Yeah,
you must follow me back to what’s
rooted in black soil along a creek
where you can conjure a cutting
hoorah of birds singing baritone.

Yesterday I took an evening walk
along the West Highway bike path
overlooking the Hudson, as her torch
brightened the city’s mood swing,
& I said, What’s a damn heel spur
anyway? Is it stony, does it work
into a man’s brain? I know my feet
still remember the weeds & gravel
of country roads. My left leg is good,
but the spring of others undercut
my pace, & I think there should be
a real sharp pain in my right foot.

Yeah, I say, “Stars Fell On Alabama”
last night & slew the judge who rode
his horse Sassy to the poll, & dammit
I feel like laughing up a fury,
eating a bowl of blackberries.

Poem copyright 2018 by Yusef Komunyakaa. All rights reserved.

&amp;
See more poems from Yusef Komunyakaa debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: The Mountain


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