By Keisha Allan, PhD


Malika Booker, an “ex/isle” writer of diasporic literature,  interrogates colonial inheritances that have historically dispossessed Black women in the Caribbean. Booker’s first collection of poetry, Pepper Seed, explores the marginalization and vulnerability of women confronted with colonial legacies of violence. Booker verbalizes the pain and trauma of intergenerational wounds inflicted on women’s bodies and psyches. Tragic, brutalized, and wounded female figures testify to the lineage of psychological, emotional, and physical violence perpetrated against the Black female body.  Although Booker’s collection explores the pain of Black womanhood, her poetry also abounds with depictions of female personas as heroines, survivors, interlocutors, and visionaries. Booker’s collection moves beyond legacies of pain and trauma towards narratives of resistance and survival. In Pepper Seed, Bookerenvisions Black womanhood anew, using the Black female body as a site of anticolonial resistance.

Pepper Seed reflects Frantz Fanon’s description of the psychological impact of colonial violence on the colonized subject. In The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon posits that colonial rule is “the bringer of violence into the home and into the mind of the native” (38). Commenting on the impact of colonization on the colonized, Fanon insists that the colonial subject is brutalized by the sadistic practices of the colonizer to such an extent that it “turns him into an animal” (42). The colonizer deploys violence to force the colonized body into submission. Consequently, post-colonial societies that emerge from legacies of violence repeat the former colonizer’s brutal practices.

 In Pepper Seed, Booker links colonialism to the endemic violence in the Caribbean. Booker traces a lineage of pain from the colonial to post-colonial era through vivid depictions of domestic violence in the Caribbean, which allows readers to bear witness to the violence that afflicts the lives of Black women. Pepper Seed interrogates the ways in which colonial violence is resisted, reproduced, and appropriated in familial, personal, and intimate relationships in the postcolonial societies.

 Black women perpetuate colonial violence through their disciplinary practices, using the maternal whip to correct deviant behavior. The poem, “Pepper Sauce,” depicts a grandmother’s vicious assault in response to her granddaughter’s theft of money from her purse. Reflective of the colonizer/colonized relationship, the grandmother exploits her position of authority in her granddaughter’s life and uses corporal punishment to cultivate an atmosphere of fear and submission in the household. The poem begins with the grandmother diligently grinding peppers marked for corporal punishment:

I pray for that grandmother, grinding her teeth,
one hand pushing in fresh hot peppers, and all, turning
the handle of that old iron mill, squeezing the limes, knowing
they will burn and cut raw like acid. (15)

These peppers have been specially prepared to inflict pain on the body of her granddaughter, Anne. The granddaughter assists with the preparations, oblivious to her grandmother’s violent intentions. The grandmother ties her granddaughter to the bedposts, rendering her powerless and vulnerable to insurmountable torture:

I hear she spread she out, then say,
I go teach you to go and steal from me, Miss Lady.

I hear she scoop that pepper sauce out a white enamel bowl,
and pack it deep into she granddaughter’s pussy I hear there was

one piece of screaming in the house that day. (15)

The image of Anne naked, defenseless, and tied to the bedposts, mirrors the cruelties enslaved women suffered at the hands of the slave masters. The grandmother’s rampage of torture culminates with sexual violence. The pepper sauce burns Anne’s genitalia, scorching her skin, inflicting brutal torture. The pain is so excruciating that she screams incessantly, emitting sharp, piercing cries that resound throughout the house. The grandmother ignores her granddaughter’s cries, subjecting Anne to relentless torment. Granny inflicts vicious punishment beyond the bounds of “moderate correction”—akin to the malicious and sadistic practices of the slave master who imposed excessive punishment for minor infractions. Anne’s physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her grandmotherlingers in the mind long after the poem has been read, leaving the reader with the bitter taste of the raw, hot pepper seed of pain.

 “Red Ants Bite,” depicts another grandmother-granddaughter relationship fraught with violence. The speaker is tormented with memories of her verbally abusive deceased grandmother who constantly unleashed a barrage of vitriolic attacks. The poem begins with the speaker’s recollection of her grandmother’s abusive rants:

You will be a whore just like your mother
Granny told me all the time,
Like saying good morning. (10)

Here, Granny perpetuates colonial perceptions of Black women as “promiscuous” and “untamed” which provided the moral justification for the control and abuse of the Black female body. The grandmother’s incessant use of violent language inflicts emotional and psychological distress:

I tried to make her love me,
but her mouth was brutal,
like hard-wire brush, it scraped me,

took skin off my bones, made me bleed
where no one could see,
so I’d shrink, a tiny rocking foetus (10).

Her grandmother’s venomous words “took skin off her bones” and “made her bleed,” leaving scars hidden beneath the skin. The speaker yearns for her grandmother’s love even though she suffers under the weight of her acerbic recrimination. Emotionally battered by her grandmother’s vitriolic attacks, the speaker regresses—emotionally and mentally—to a “tiny rocking foetus,” retreating to a protective space, impervious to her grandmother’s verbal assaults. Here, the speaker describes the psychological impact of colonial inheritances of violence on women’s bodies and psyches.

Connecting the personal to the political, the speaker illustrates how Granny’s viciousness is born out of her own past oppression under the brutal conditions of Caribbean plantocracy. In the final section of the poem, the speaker gives voice to her deceased grandmother’s personal story of sexual abuse:

I lived till me turn one hundred and one,
live through back-break in backra sun.
I was a slave baby mixed with plantation white.

This creamy skin draw buckman, blackman,
coolieman, like prize. And if you did hear sweet talk,
if you did see how much fine fuck I get. (13)

Conceived through the violent act of rape, “a slave baby mixed with plantation white,” (13)Granny’s body was burdened by the trauma of sexual violence. Brutalized, commodified, and appropriated, Granny was exploited to satisfy the desires of the white slave masters and, in a vicious cycle, the violence of plantocracy shaped Granny’s disciplinary practices with her grandchildren. Emotionally, physically, and sexually assaulted under the brutal conditions of slavery, the speaker’s grandmother repeats the violent practices of the colonizer.

The perpetuation of violence continues in intimate relationships where male partners wield their power over women’s bodies. In “After Liming in the Local Rum Shop on Diamond Street,” the speaker exposes the wanton violence to which women are subjected by abusive male partners:

He slashes his cutlass across her face,
Her raised hand failed to shield
Against the second blow.
One finger cut clean off. […]
She took him back in. I hear no apology left his lips. (60)

Here, the female persona is subjected to relentless violence, rendering her permanently crippled. Yet, the woman’s posture of resignation illustrates how violence is intimately connected to social and cultural norms in the Caribbean.

The poems in Pepper Seed juxtapose the paradoxical combination of pain and violence with enduring depictions of feminine resistance and survival. In addition to the tragic, brutalized, or moribund female figures that permeate Booker’s collection, the poems also portray female personas as heroines, survivors, and visionaries who use their bodies as sites of anticolonial resistance. In “Death of an Overseer,” Booker depicts the jubilation that erupts on the plantation when the brutal overseer meets his death. The death of the tyrant inspires“women to raise up they red petticoats and dance, trampling he grave, while machetes pound stone, lips drown rum and burn on highwine” (16) in an act of anticolonial resistance.

Booker’s collection illustrates how Black women adapt, revise and appropriate the colonizer’s violent practices to protect their bodies from gendered violence. While the female personas learn violent behaviors from their grandmothers, strategies of survival are also passed down from grandmothers to granddaughters. This links both legacies of violence and resistance to matrilineal family structures. In “Warning,” the speaker recalls her grandmother’s stern advice on how to respond to abusive male partners. The grandmother encourages her granddaughter to castrate her male abuser, stripping him of his manhood, rendering him powerless and submissive:

Some great grandmother told her daughter,
Never let no man hit you and sleep,
pepper the food, boil hot water and throw,
use knife and make clean cut down there,
use cutlass and chop, then go police.
Each daughter told over and over,
like brush your teeth, till it stick. (41)  

The poem illustrates how colonial inheritances of violence incite women to imagine ways to shield their bodies from abusive male partners. Drawing inspiration from the colonizer’s barbaric practices of corporeal mutilation, Black women devise violent strategies of resistance against patriarchal repression. The speaker foregrounds the Black female subject’s survival rather than her oppression at the hands of men. Ultimately, the speaker heeds her grandmother’s warning when she invites an inebriated male friend to sleep over:

I felt something in his look, he and I
alone in that room, and my blood raised up.
My pores swelled, I went to the kitchen,
took down that knife, marched upstairs,
told him, I cutting it off if you lose your mind.
Don’t think it and if you do, don’t sleep. (41)

Here, the survival strategies shared within generations and across different generations of women empower the female speaker to confront and fight back against threats of gendered violence.

In Booker’s work, we see a relentless preoccupation with dismantling colonial inheritances that have been used to regulate Black female bodies. Booker’s female characters also deploy their erotic power to strike back against the societal censure of female sexuality. Audre Lorde describes the erotic as a resource of feminine power that can be deployed by women to resist social and patriarchal oppression. She posits that “the erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feelings” (53). In “Sweet Liquor,” Booker’s speaker embraces her sexuality and eroticism, which Audre Lorde characterizes as “the lifeforce of women” (55). The narrator of this poem describes a fete scene in which she indulges in carnal pleasure:

girl, if you see thing! the way they does pile in here when fete door bus open on saturday nights. pour in like animals. looking sweet too bad. girl if you see the way they does parade and carry on i does close meh eyes and lean back on them hard bodies and wine. (45)

The speaker indulges in “a host of unruly joy,” transgressing gendered mores of female propriety. She assumes the role of a voyeur, disrupting a practice that is accorded to men. Here, the male body is objectified and sexualized under the female panoptic gaze. In “Sweet Liquor,” the speaker is endowed with agency, allowing her to create her own alternative world of female desire.

Similarly, in “Notting Hill,” the Black female body is deployed as the central site of resistance against colonial mores of female propriety. The speaker catalogues carnal delight through pleasures of the flesh. Meanwhile, the speaker’s aunt sinks into eroticism, using her body for her own personal fulfillment. She joyfully indulges in Notting Hill carnival celebrations, gyrating her body to the sounds of the soca music:

Those old hips shake your pleated skirt today, aunty.
You are no church girl. All day you jamming
Behind big truck, laughing, bottom rolling for so,
Feet chipping, skirt swaying as if for its blasted self. (22)

The speaker repeats the lines, “You are no church girl,” illustrating how her aunt experiences carnal delight by engaging in forbidden acts of pleasure. Commenting on the nexus between Black female sexuality and empowerment, Myriam Chancy notes that, “our bodies have been the source of our commodification in art, the site of physical and sexual abuse under slavery and neocolonial “domestic schemes,” it stands to reason that it would be through the body that we might regain a palpable sense of our own identities” (123). In Booker’s poem, the speaker illustrates how women’s bodies provide avenues of liberation from colonial mores of female propriety.

In the poem “Prayer,” corporeal resistance against colonial violence is enacted through the womb of the Black woman “whose exploited sexuality fueled the economies of slavery and colonialism through forced reproduction and labour” (Hobson 101).The speaker renounces the maternal role ascribed to women, using her body for carnal pleasure. She “danced through life,” “deaf” to familial and sociocultural constraints that confine women to motherhood, liberatingherself from colonial legacies of forced reproduction.

Throughout her collection, Booker illustrates how anticolonial resistance can be both real and imagined. In “Sin Visits Me,” bodily resistance is enacted through erotic fantasies, invoking unbridled acts of carnal delight. Under the influence of moonshine, the speaker dialogues with a female specter, reminiscent of the La Diablesse, a shape-shifting she-devil who seduces her admirers. The speaker describes the dead woman as a “sensual woman” who indulges in the pleasures of the flesh: “You chew chilies raw, laugh, and spit the seeds, then tell me of the joys/ of sitting on a big stone under Concord waterfall/ watching the near naked boys leap off moss-green cliff” (55). In a symbolic act of anticolonial resistance, the dead woman “chews” the bitter chili peppers of pain synonymous with Black womanhood and “spits” out the seeds of oppression. Booker’s Pepper Seed enacts the pain and trauma of intergenerational wounds, deeply rooted in gender norms and power dynamics. Booker’s female figures testify to the lineage of psychological, emotional, and physical violence inflicted on the Black female body. Yet, Booker’s collection offers possibilities for resistance against colonial legacies of violence through corporeal acts of rebellion. Booker’s poetry also depicts women who break free from colonial inheritances that have historically dispossessed Black women in the Caribbean. Booker’s heroines create themselves anew, deploying their erotic power to disrupt social and cultural norms that restrict their freedom. Through her poetic portraits and narratives, Booker imagines alternative futures for women—far away from masculinist monolithic definitions that impose constraints on women’s bodies—and envisions a new generation of women who break the cycle of violence inscribed on Black female bodies.

Works Cited

Booker, Malika. Pepper Seed. Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2013.

Chancy, Myriam J.A. Searching for Safe Spaces: Afro-Caribbean Women Writers in Exile. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963.

Hobson, Janell. “The “Batty” Politic: Towards an Aesthetic of the Black Female Body.” Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy. 18(4), 87-105.

Lorde, Audre. “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in Sister Outsider. California: Crossing Press, 1984.

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

Dr. Keisha Allan is an Assistant Professor at Baruch College. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the department of English at the University of Maryland and her broad area of interest is twentieth-century Caribbean literature. Within this field, she examines Caribbean literature by women writers who critique social and political inequities in their societies. She examines how selected female authors from the Caribbean create fictional worlds that have the effect of subverting patriarchal perspectives and paradigms in their postcolonial societies. She interrogates society and artistic responsibility, with women presented as creatively engaged in revolutionary activities aimed at reshaping ideas and perspectives in the national imaginary.

by Lauren K. Alleyne 


It is the keen attention to voice that is the distinctive forte of Malika Booker’s work. In her poems, the pitch and tenor of the Caribbean rings true—whether through characters caught in the Windrush return or summoned to the region via the King James bible, or Booker’s own lyric voice. This precision operates as more than simply musical acuity. Booker also understands voice as a vehicle of culture, and so within the poems’ rich dictions, too, are Caribbean concerns, consciousness, humor, and critiques. Her poem, “Nine Nights,” which was shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize in 2017 delightfully transplants the biblical story of Lazarus into the Caribbean,

“When Lazarus fas up and step cross the threshold of he own wake, rank with corpse stink, the wake bruck up. Who put foot out of door quick time. Who start pray fast fast. Who faint and get revive with smelling salts. Miss Gibbs forget she hips bad, till she tek two steps and fall Bra-tap. Mr Power start moan bout the good good money he dash way on pretty funeral frock for Betty and now she can’t even use it. Uncle Johnny start fling rum shouting  You      dead     man,     you     dead! like libation have any power over the resurrected.”

The language here carries the weight of the entire conceit—Lazarus truly becomes a dreadlocked West Indian man, and his friends and neighbors, through the speaker’s voice as well as their own speaking, are fully of the space and of the story. Booker’s rendition of the Caribbean demotic here both grounds and elevates the poem. At the same time the Caribbean consciousness is revealed. Between the speaker’s description of Lazarus as a “fas up” resurectee, and uncle Johnnie’s desperate weaponizing of the ritual of libation, the biblical “miracle” in Caribbean consciousness reads, in turn, as terrifying, demonic, economically inconvenient, and hilariously, in Uncle Johnny’s perspective, a perversion of the order of things. This juxtaposition serves both entities: the biblical story is re-animated (pun intended), lifted from the worn familiarity of its long re-telling by the vocal performance of the poem’s speaker and characters; while the Caribbean and its people, set as they are in this familiar narrative, are lifted to visibility, seen and known.

Through the generosity of the Amazon Literary Foundation and the Academy of American Poets, Furious Flower was able to host Malika Booker in Harrisonburg for a week of readings and workshops. She engaged with 242 middle school students and 39 high school students, gave a reading attended by around 200 campus and community members, and worked with around 60 James Madison University students, faculty and staff. Her visit culminated with this in-studio interview for The Fight & The Fiddle, which has been edited for clarity.

Malika, it’s so wonderful to have you here. Welcome to James Madison University. Welcome to Furious Flower. Welcome to Harrisonburg. So, you’re a UK writer, you’re a Caribbean writer, you have family in New York— you’re very cosmopolitan and dashing. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and also what that self brings to your poetry? 

Okay, big question Lauren! My name is Malika Booker and I am a Black British Caribbean writer; I’m a writer of Caribbean descent. My mom and dad are Grenadian and Guyanese. When I was born, it was so racist in Britain that they didn’t want to bring up a child there, so they went back to my father’s country. We were there until I was 11. When they separated, I moved back to England. My mom and brothers were going to come, but the citizenship laws changed under [the prime minister, Margaret] Thatcher, and so they went to Grenada while they were trying to figure out what that meant for two boys born in Guyana. My mum got a job in America and, by then, it was too late to uproot this child again from school and start her in an American system. So, I grew up with my aunt in Brixton, England. I suppose Brixton is very relevant, because it’s such a Caribbean hot spot—I kind of grew up in the Caribbean in Britain! And then I would go to Grenada or Guyana, or Trinidad or Brooklyn, wherever the family were. So, it was a cosmopolitan, diasporic, Caribbean upbringing. I didn’t know for a long time that Brooklyn wasn’t Caribbean, because I went and all theGuyanese family were there and the Grenadian family were there.

I think that’s informed my writing. My writing tries to capture all these places. I think because of my formative years being in Guyana, the imagination conjures up imagery and images from there. I think having such a very strong female-centered upbringing, the work really looks at, talks to, and tries to create the Caribbean woman on the page with all her complexities—the way she has to navigate the world and the legacies of plantocracy on the Caribbean body and also the diasporic body.

It’s interesting, because you’re saying “plantocracy,” and I’m thinking of you being rooted in England—the orchestrators of that system in many ways. So, you’re in the source, in the aftermath, and you keep moving between them… That’s definitely in the work as well.

Yes, yes.

I’m curious about voice. You talked about trying to capture “create the Caribbean woman on the page with all her complexities,” and I think the primary way you do that is through voice. And I’m curious about how or if that voice shifts from space to space, or if part of it is putting your voice in an unusual space? How do you navigate that idea of space and voice and “capturing” in the poem?

When I was growing up, what I was struck by, is a kind of bilingual English that I lived with. And I’m always interested in the musicality of the language. So, when I’d listen to my Trini cousins, they kind of go [makes sound effect]. I really like the lyricism of the language. My upbringing with my mom was through air mail and telephone, so I love the way that my mother would answer the phone. Because she was part of the Windrush generation—she grew up and she worked for a long time in Britain—she would answer the phone in this really posh English voice, and then as soon as she realized that it’s me, or a relative, or a Caribbean person, she would slip effortlessly into the Caribbean vernacular. I’m really interested in that kind of movement. And the difference is…the English is very clipped. Or if it’s Cockney, or working class, it’s very musical in its own way. And I’m interested in the shifts of those musicalities. I think I attack voice through sound. I remember I was writing a poem called, “Heathrow Immigration.” They had turned back a whole planeload of Jamaican people, and I was thinking, well, a whole planeload of Jamaicans? The whole plane could not have been problematic! And I thought about people having to get visas to come, and then being turned back after they spent all that money on visas. I wanted to do this Jamaican accent, so I kept listening to my Jamaican friends, and just kind of noting the high note and the low note—it’s a bass really—and then using that: “When she hear them say dem haffi go back, / Charlene start feel like dark night[.]” Although, because I’m Eastern Caribbean, Kwame Dawes, who is my mentor, pointed out that instead of “she” in terms of grammar, it’s “her.” Them say “’er” as opposed to “she.” We put “she” in there. I’m interested in the musicality of language, and poetry that enables you to do that.

I’m curious about your own journey to poetry. How did you discover the genre, discover that it was the thing you wanted to do? What was that ride… that road?

This is such a complicated one. I start by telling people I was always a reader. I’m the child who would be under the bed. My brother would do my chores, because he’d be like, she ain’t coming out from that bed and Mommy’s gonna come home and she didn’t do nothing that she was told to do. I’m that child who would be reading, and reading enabled worlds for me. It opened up worlds. I really love Blake. I loved, in school, having recitation and learning work. And also, I’d want to go last because, you know, I wanted to make points for my house, and I could feed off everybody. I’d be like, oh, she did this, oh, she did that, because you all have to do the same poem. I loved the sound of the poetry in recitation and bringing it alive, and how in recitation I realized that all these people are doing the same poem but it sounds like a different poem. So that’s one. Two, I wanted… I didn’t see myself in those poems and in those books; in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, in the Blake poems, in the Wordsworth poems. I didn’t see myself. So, part of it was wanting to place that. But I thought I wanted to be in the arts. I didn’t realize that this thing that I was doing for myself—to express myself—was something that I would do later on.

Also, when I came to England, it was quite traumatic on the playground—the racism. And one of my teachers—my two favorite teachers were Mrs. West, my English teacher, and when I went to sixth form at St. Francis Xavier College, my [other] English teacher—and they would encourage me to keep a journal and write these thoughts because they could see that I was quite bright and I read a lot. I was always in the library. I was always reading books. But I got quite withdrawn, so they encouraged me to write. So, there’s a thing with writing as expression, with writing as trying to bring people out, you know, to kind of capture the color and the flavor of these different households that I lived in and moved throughout.

Do you think it was also a way of belonging and placemaking?

Yes. I’m an outsider in all those spaces, right? So, the only time I was inside something was when I was between the ages of one to 11. Then I was inside, even though people said, “You grew up in England and you’re English,” but I was outside. But since then, I’ve been in these spaces, but outside and you have an observer kind of mentality— you’re in there, but you’re observing. You’ve gone to visit your mom and your brothers, and you’re part of that family, but you’re still outside. So, you’re always kind of looking and observing, and I think that makes good poetry, or a good poet [Laughs]. 

I’m interested also, in the role of community in the work. There’s Malika’s Kitchen, and I know you were a part of Cave Canem here in the States, so how has community been informative or instructive or impactful for your work?

I think there’s this thing that the writer writes on their own. I think when you’re growing as a writer, you’re hungry to learn, and there’s no coincidence that movements and people start from an age group or generation of writers working together. We were hungry to grow a poetics in England. Roger Robinson—a British-Trinidadian poet who just won the T. S. Elliot Prize—and I were speaking in my kitchen; we were really good friends. And we just finished doing Afro-Style school, which was a workshop put on, that was organized by an organization called Spread the Word, Kwame Dawes taught. And it was a foundational experience. All of us had been going around doing poetry quite ignorant. And when it finished, I wanted other people to experience that. And I remember I was sitting with Roger in my kitchen, and I said, “Oh, I’d love– we should have that, and put food, and then we should create a space where people can critique each other, give feedback, bring their knowledge as well, and also grow together and create a community—and we will look at things like the Harlem Renaissance, the Negritude movement, and stuff like that.” And Roger said, “Let’s do it.” And I said, “When should we start?” And he was like, “Next week.” And I was like, “Where?” And he’s like, “Right here in the kitchen, like right here in the house. What should we call it?” Well, “Malika’s Kitchen.” (It’s called Malika’s Poetry Kitchen now). And then it was like, “Okay!” So, we just asked people to come. The first week, one person came and sat between us, and did an intense workshop. The next week, people started coming, and it’s been going for 20 years. It’s a space for us to grow— if someone discovers something, to bring it in. We write, we give feedback to each other, we encourage each other with prompts, we bring knowledge that we learn about poetics. And we support each other outside of the space. That kind of growing—and it’s a healthy competition— also makes you work because you think, Ooh, you did that? You did that in your poem? I’ll do that.

So, I think community is very, very important. Especially when you are marginalized in a country where, really, you’re trying to find a poetics that’s very much trying to capture a vibrant country and community. You’re looking to writers in the Caribbean and to African and African American writers to enable you to write. Because the spaces that you’re in, in that country, are not facilitating that [kind of writing]—the poetry is an object, and about subtlety. You can’t do a Caribbean woman and be subtle! [Laughs.] I think community enables you to discuss poetics, to discuss thoughts, to form yourself, and also to have people focus on the work. Sometimes, within other communities, people focus on the erotic or exotic or go “oh, this is performative”— all these terms that are used, which means that we don’t look at the work itself.

When I went to Cave Canem, I felt seen. It was the first time I’d ever been taught by Black writers who were not my peers, and, it was the first time that I was receiving. I was being taught by these people whose books I used to learn [craft], you know, by Terrence Hayes, by Patricia Smith, you know, by Toi Derricotte. By Toi Derricotte, oh my god! I remember when she sat next to me in Cave Canem and I was like, in my head I was like, “I’m sitting next to Toi Derricotte!” I nerd out and kind of go weak with writers. You know, some people do it with pop stars. I do it with writers! But yes, writers need a space to cultivate, need a space to… commune. It’s almost like church.

You mentioned Toi and the writers that you used to teach yourself. Who would you call your poetic ancestors? Go as far back as you want to go, because you said Blake earlier too, which tells me, especially being from the Caribbean, the ancestral lines are quite diverse… or maybe not. Tell me, who are yours?

I really loved William Blake, because I felt like he talked about social things. And also, there’s this religious element to his work. Sharon Olds enabled me to try and figure out how to write the woman, the domestic. I was a Sharon Olds fanatic; I could tell you about several of her books. It was biblical, and I wrote a lot of poems after her, trying to figure out how she did this conversational tone. But then, the language would just… I don’t know… climax or crescendo with an image that just turned everything. Toi Derricotte, as well, in that same vein. Yusef Komunyakaa. Gwendolyn Brooks was later on—my friend Peter Kahn, who is a poet, introduced me to her. Patricia Smith. Lorna Goodison. Merle Collins, Valzhyna Mort, although, you know, more recently.

That’s the thing about influences; they don’t stay put, right? We keep being influenced!

Yes! It moves and moves! Recently, it’s been Kamau Brathwaite; I’ve been reading all his work. One minute it was Elizabeth Alexander. The next minute it was Natasha Trethewey. The next minute it was Tanya Shirley, a Jamaican writer. Kwame Dawes. Two of the foundational influences before poetry were [Ntozake] Shange and [Toni] Morrison, because I really knew I was trying to write women, so For Colored Girls was really, really important. But most importantly, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo was so important. Sula was so important. Paradise was so important. Toni Morrison gave me a hunger to try and capture that Caribbean psyche, that Caribbean mentality with all its complications, because her characters are so complicated. And so, they’re two foundational people I really, really go back to all the time. If I’m going to write a play or a monologue, I pick up Shange. 

Speaking of plays and monologues, you’re not just a poet, but you also write for stage. What’s the movement, the overlap? Where does it diverge from or converge with what you try to do with a poem—to write a play, to write a monologue, to write for stage?

So sometimes, I’m trying to write a project and it’s like, I’m not a poem. I’m not compact. The poem is a very compact form. It’s the essence of something. And sometimes I want to explore bigger issues, bigger themes—and sometimes it’s things that I’m not equipped for. The last thing I did was a love story between a gay couple who were having a relationship at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean. That could not be covered in a poem. You need to go and research writing plays; you need to go and research the AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean; you need to go and do research around gay men in the Caribbean who are coming of age during this time because you know absolutely nothing. But this story really wants to be written.

I often think that there’s something more self-to-page, and that wrestle, that is about writing the poem. But the play, the drama, has to have room for the audience, for the other actors, for the collaboration between the person writing it and the people who are going to enact it, who are going to embody it, right?

And space for letting go. You have to let it go. Because you go into the rehearsal space and, for the first day, maybe, the actors will actually ask you your intentions. And then afterwards, it’s a collaborative process. That piece was also looking at what happens when language fails—it was looking at movement, and so it had a movement director, and it had a script director, and it had the two actors. And so, they, then, begin to make this thing. They, then, begin to imbue the characters. So you have to be able to let go. It’s so different from the poem, where every deliberate intention is there and you’re in control of it.

We’re here in America and, you know, part of what brought you here is Peter Kahn’s commitment to Americans knowing more about Black British writers. Who are some of the writers that we, over here, may not have heard of that you think we should know about?

First of all, there are two people that I forgot to mention—foundational—that I have to mention, and that’s Paul Keens-Douglas, who’s a Trinidadian writer, storyteller and calypsonian. And then Louise Bennett. When I was growing up, they were on the radio, so you heard them on the radio telling stories, right? I grew up with that on a Saturday morning; where people had comics, or cartoons, I had the radio.

There are such amazing writers coming through in Britain! There’s Roger Robinson. About a year or two years ago, just at the beginning of lockdown—COVID has taken away a sense of time—he won the T.S. Eliot, which is the biggest prize [in the UK], for A Portable Paradise, his book. And A Portable Paradise is such a beautiful book. The key poem is the fact that his grandmother said, “wherever you go, you can take a piece of that ‘portable paradise’ with you.” The immigrant is a kind of portable paradise. Also, he writes really amazing poetry that captures the nation’s sense of loss; for example, when we had one of the biggest fires that killed a lot of immigrants—the Grenfell [Tower] fire. We’ve got Raymond Antrobus, who writes from a deaf poetic. He’s someone who has hearing impairments, and is trying to figure out writing from mixed heritage, Blackness, and also his hearing impairment and what that suggests, and what that does. You have Karen McCarthy Woolf, who writes very hybrid, very experimental work. Her first piece of work was actually about a loss of a child. I mean, it’s beautifully lyric. You have Anthony Joseph, who hails from Trinidad originally, and he’s just written this book of sonnets for his father; he’s a very experimental writer and doesn’t only write poetry, but also writes fiction. And Warsan [Shire]—she is Somali-British now turned American; her book has just come out and has been shortlisted for a prize.

Is there a resource where one can go to learn more about British writers and British writing, especially diverse kinds of British writing?

Nick Makoha, another poet, started up an organization called Obsidian Foundation to develop writers, and what he’s been doing is also thinking about archiving writers. He started a partnership with Poetry Archive, archiving some of these writers, and then you would have access to their books, access to their publications, and access to their poems online. So that’s one space. The Complete Works was a developmental program that was started because publishers were saying that they weren’t publishing the work of Black and people of color because of the quality of the work. Bernardine Evaristo—who is also very much an activist for writers—was running Spread the Word, a development agency, with the Arts Council, initiated a nationwide report and the report found that there were all these Black writers writing and all these people of color writing, but less than 1% were being published. So, the Complete Works Program was born. At the end of the program, they published an anthology where they would have the poets that were involved, but also essays about poetics from their mentors, and that was to address that thing of “what is the poetics doing?” 

If you had to write the job description for a poet, what would it say? 

It would say “eclectic.” [Laughs.]  It would say, “Be prepared to do a variety of different jobs. Observe, write, teach, mentor, market.” [Laughs.] “Publicity, publish, edit, write blurbs for other writers.” The list goes on. Understand practicing stillness. Understand that reading is part of writing.

I think, maybe, that’s why I’m a writer, because I get to read; I think I like the reading more than the writing. So I get paid; I have a job where I read. But I would say that, yes, understand that you’re writing poetry and there’s all this work that goes into writing poetry. And that actually the pay that you get for the work and the investment that you do is this little thing. Don’t think poetry is easy, as well; it’s not the easiest of art forms in order to be so compact. But also understand that poetry is what will put you in the world, but that there are all these other things that you will have to do in order to maintain it and sustain it. That’s not a job description, that’s kind of an advice column. [Laughs.] A poetry agony aunt advice column. 

[Laughs.] That’s awesome, we need one of those! I’m curious, too, about teaching. You teach at Manchester Metropolitan University, so maybe you want to take an opportunity to do a little plug.

I’m a lecturer—a creative writing lecturer—at Manchester University. And we have one of the biggest writing departments in the world, the writing school, and we look at all different genres from YA novels to publishing to fiction to nonfiction to playwriting, we do all of that. And we do, you know, MA’s, MFA, PhD. And you have different strands that you can take; you can do a low-level which is low-residency, or you can come to Manchester, of course, in person. And also, you can do it from where you live, so you can do it online, as well. It was started by Dame Carol Ann Duffy and she’s still there, and teaches on the MA [track], so a lot of people come to do the MA with her. Andrew McMillan is a brilliant writer, writes a lot about queerness, and the body, and masculinity. He’s my fellow poet, and we’re teaching poetry and writing this term. I really enjoy working there. Oh, and we’ve got the biggest poetry library in Britain, which just opened as well! So, there’re some exciting things at Manchester.

I know that you’ve also taught through Malika’s Kitchen, at the university, you do community teaching, you’ve talked in the schools—here in Harrisonburg, you went to the high school and middle school, and you taught faculty. When you teach poetry, and especially in those limited encounters of one class session, what do you try to give? What’s the thing you’re trying to impart that they can walk away with, if they’re not around for an entire semester? 

Right. Well, first of all, at the heart, I’m a poet evangelist. So, my thing is that when I leave, I’ve converted somebody to poetry. That’s a personal thing. And that’s also when you read. When you have some friend who dragged somebody kicking and screaming to a poetry reading and they’re like, “Oh, God…” and then at the end, they go, “I didn’t know poetry was like that.” I think, “God, our job is done.”

In terms of teaching, first, I think about fun. And then I think about: what is it that this group needs at this precise moment? Not everybody really likes poetry, not everybody wants to be a poet. But what do they need? Sometimes you don’t know your needs.  one of the things is, they might need to hear poetry that’s contemporary, that challenges what they think poetry is about. They might need to be given permission to say, “I don’t like this” or “I like this” and not have to think about theme, what the poem is saying. I also think how can I be in here as an artist, and not as a teacher? As an artist teaching true craft and practice? And then I think, what are the skills that are transferable? So they might want to think about image-making. Or there are people in here who might have problems or find it challenging to face the blank page, so what strategies can I give them that I know that they can use if they’re creative writers, or playwrights, or artistic that it’s like, “Yes!” And if they’re not, they can go, “Oh, this is something—I didn’t know it would be this easy. I didn’t know that this is how you could do this.”

If I’m working with groups who are migrants, what can we do that can enable them to feel in control of language, and to feel that and to enjoy this feeling with a poem. So it might be that I find poems that are in their language and in English, and they read it in their language, so in that way, they become an authority. And they tell us in the translation, we can talk about, you know, what is left out, what is not there. Because they go—“It’s not capturing it enough!”—and they get a sense that they are authorities on something; a lot of times people think I don’t know English, because English is very self-centered. So I think about the clientele that I’m teaching: what are their needs? What do they want? And how can I facilitate that and facilitate a learning that’s a life learning and skill that they want, but also, at the heart of it, an advertisement evangelizing poetry.

I’m curious about what has been different, most strikingly different, in your experience here in the states, in the classroom, or just in general?

So, one, we don’t have security guards in our schools. Two, the schools here are huge! They’re just gigantic. Teenagers and young people are the same everywhere; they’re just the same. If they’re year sevens or grade sevens, they’re going through the same thing. I think what I liked about the schools that I went to in Harrisonburg was having really good conversations with the teachers around the fact that this is a—is it a haven city? A sanctuary city! And that the sanctuary city means that there are people from all different walks of life. And so, people come in at different levels with languages, and the teachers are thinking about trying to be inclusive in that space and then enable those students, and are very proud of the diversity of the school. I found that quite fascinating, because I think sometimes, in some schools in England, there’s this notion that we want you to learn English and English is the thing. And I love the clearing of that. I’ve been in loads of schools in inner city, London, where there has been that, but I think that’s been something London’s been grappling for a long time. It felt like this is something that is new, is recently being grappled with [here]. And how do we look at that? And how do we kind of think about that in our curriculum with the curriculum demands? So that has been interesting, but students are mostly the same everywhere.

You were unphased by 250 middle schoolers, is what you’re trying to tell me? [Laughs.]

Yes, I was. Before they came in, I thought, oh, my God, are we going to understand each other? Because I know when I was teaching in Columbus, Ohio, I said, “so you know, you sit down and you start to write and then you get bored, and then you wanna hoover.” And everyone was looking at me, like “Hoover?” Peter Kahn was there and he said, “vacuum.” So, I thought, okay, there might be moments like this. But I’ve been doing workshops in schools, universities, prisons, and some spaces that, once you’ve done them in those spaces, you can do them everywhere. I’ve done them in, you know, Brazil, Singapore, India. You realize students are the same, you just have some adaptations to make. 

I want to turn to your practice as a writer: What does it look like from notion to finished product? How do the poems come? How does the work come, if it’s not a poem?

So, one, for years, I don’t write alone; I’ve written in community. I’ve written with groups where we put up prompts, and we work together, and we send each other the drafts of the poems in closed groups on Facebook. There was group for several years, every time there was a 30-day month, we would go, “Is anybody up for doing 30/30? We need seven people to prompt,” and people would put up the prompts. And what that means is that if I’m working on a particular project, the prompt is going to force me to go outside of my comfort zone, because I’m still going to be trying to meet the demands of the project that I’m working on, the theme I’m working on. But this prompt this person puts up might challenge me or get something different. It means that when I’ve been doing that, I’ve been also always in the practice of writing.

Also, I practice a lot of reading, as well. Sometimes I’ll try and read a poetry book collection a day, so that means I wake up in the morning and read a poetry collection before I do anything else. And that way, for some reason, when I’m able to do that—and that’s not maintainable, it’s not sustainable—but, when I’m able to do that, I’m able to write easier. When I don’t read, I’m not able to write. So, if I haven’t read for a long time, I find it difficult to write. And then sometimes it’s quickly responding to a prompt and then going back to it. I have writing buddies or a writing buddy and sometimes we’ll call each other…when we lived in the same city we’d go writing together, we’d go to the poetry library in the South Bank in London, and we would just sit down and say to each other, “Okay, I’m going to be working on this.” We used to be there for four hours, or something like that. There were times when I was writing at the Southbank [Centre] in the evening, I would go down, they would write, two writers. I think Warsan [Shire] was one of my writing buddies at one case, and we would meet up at the Southbank [Centre] and we would write in the evening. We would just say, “Oh, I’m working on this project. We’re gonna write.” And just the idea of another body writing helped. Those are those things that have helped.

And then there’s the getting up, going to the desk. And then setting timers, working against time; I get easily distracted, so I work with timers.

And the poems all depend on what’s happening. Some poems, they’re there and it’s just really to be whittled through. I’m in several master classes where I bring poems to get feedback. So, I get feedback from peers around poems, and I trust them, and they’re vicious, and they’re hardcore, because we’ve been doing this for a long time. And I’ve got mentors who kind of look at the poem and they’re like, “No, you’re taking the easy way out,” and stuff like that. So that always helps. And, you know, I’ve got cohorts, we discuss poetry, we talk about poetry. I mean, you and I have been mentors from overseas. And it’s not that we write together, but it’s just like, “Okay, over this week, we’re going to read a certain number of books.” Because our life is busy and just making a commitment to someone enables us to be able to do it. And yeah, in some poems I know what’s happening. In some poems, I’m trying to figure out what on earth you [the poem] want to be. In some poems, I think it’s nice, but then when I put it against everything else, it’s just the draft and it just helped me. And sometimes I go to my desk to try out things that just go, You know, I don’t… I’m not writing today, I don’t feel like writing. So maybe I’ll try to compose some sonnets just as an experimental space, so the desk can become an experimental space sometimes as well. I hope that answers your question.

It does! Tell me a little bit about publishing too. At what point do you start thinking about, or do you start, at some point, thinking about where you want the work to land eventually?

No, what I do is—and that might be my problem. What happens is, you know, friends of mine go, “You’ve got enough work! You’ve got work!” I will be there thinking, How do I need to gather this work? And I have a false insecurity about the work, the amount of work that I have. When I do think, Okay, I’m starting to work towards publication, what I start to do is polish the poems and send them to places. A lot of times people ask me for poems and I don’t have poems for them; I have a lot of drafts. So that means I’m on my way to thinking about publication because I’m sending them out. And if they’re being accepted in places, because, as a poet, you know rejection is more than acceptance, then I’m like, Okay, those are ready; those are fine. So that’s the way. I’ll tell you more after this next book is published!

I do want to talk about books. Pepper Seed is almost 10 years old at this point. I’m curious about what you still remain proud of when you look at Pepper Seed, and what, when you look at it, is something you wish you’d known or done differently?

No, no. I had a pamphlet out called Breadfruit, before Pepper Seed. And everyone would say to me, “When is the book coming?” And I’d be like, “When the book comes, I want it to be good. I don’t want to have an embarrassing first book.” Like, I just didn’t want [one]. I went through this phase where I was studying poems, poets, and I would get all their books to read how they develop from collection to collection. And I realized that sometimes there were poets who did not mention their first book. They took it off their bios and everything like that, and just did not mention their first book. And I’d been in such an abrasive, really hard environment around the poetics of my type of work, I feel like there’s an insecurity in me about my work. I wanted Pepper Seed to be ready. Also, I was being mentored by Kwame Dawes, so I’d give him a pile of poems and he’d be like, “Mmm, it’s not ready yet.” There’s a grandmother poem in Pepper Seed that’s really hard, and that actually started in the second or third workshop in Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, where Roger told us to write about the taboo—about something that happened in our family that we don’t even remember, that we just don’t want to talk about, it’s so taboo, it’s so hardcore. And that poem doesn’t have to become public. But that poem when I read it out in that session, everyone was like, “Whoa, that’s mad.” And I think with the evolvement of the poems for Pepper Seed, I would come back to that poem and not be able to work on it. And I think when I was actually able to write that poem, and not a horrible draft, going, Oh, how do I put this? Because it’s such a difficult subject. That’s when I knew Pepper Seed was ready. I’m actually very, very proud of Pepper Seed.

In the British environment, I think if Pepper Seed had come out at a different time, it would have landed in a different way. And actually, Pepper Seed fundamentally doesn’t die as a book. People discover it and it’s almost like they’re talking about the book as contemporary. It doesn’t feel like an old book to people when they discover it. And people discover it. And I’m really proud of it as well, because in our country, a national curriculum is the national curriculum—it’s for every school. And Pepper Seed, the collection, has this year just been accepted onto the curriculum. So that means that every school will study Pepper Seed. So yeah, I think the book is now coming into its own.

It’s a phenomenal book and it’s a tough book. And you said that when you were able to edit that one poem, the thing the book had been circling around, you knew it was ready. And having had a similar experience, I’m curious what you think about the ways in which the poem helps the self to grow. Sometimes you think you are writing the poems, but isn’t there also a way in which, sometimes, the poems are writing us?

Yes, yes. And actually, sometimes the poems are… and so there’s two things that happened. One, Pepper Seed is such a hard act to follow. In terms of writing poems, it’s such a hard act to follow. And for a long time, it’s like, what can I do? And I knew I didn’t want to do autobiographical work anymore, because Pepper Seed was autobiographical. But also, the caliber of poems that I’m writing now, I can’t judge Pepper Seed by them, because that’s where I am at the moment in terms of where I’ve grown as a woman. Where I’ve grown looking at gender. Where I’ve grown thinking about certain things. Pepper Seed wasn’t written post-pandemic, where brain fog affects you, weariness affects you in ways that also affects your creativity and your productivity. So, I think it really is different. You do grow. And actually, when you write— I urge my students to do this—if you really want to be a writer, study the journey of writers, study their body of work. Read it in chronological order from the beginning to end and you will see such big growth. Someone like Terrance Hayes is interesting to study because each book is a project in itself and it’s not replicated. And so, he adheres to the demands of that project. But certain people like Patricia Smith, look at her first book to the [last] book. Look at Sharon Olds’ first book, too, and you’ll see the confidence. Look at Lorna Goodison’s first work to her work now— look at how sophisticated it gets. I think you’re able to see, to understand, as well, that you will have this development.

What non-poetry activities feed your practice?

I have two great loves: poetry and carnival. Carnival is my pilgrimage. Not being able to do it for two years has been really frustrating. Carnival is my pilgrimage and my therapy. It’s also a space where, sometimes as you begin to write the poem, you lose yourself. And then you start to think about what the poem demands. You no longer go, I want to do this. You go, Ooh, this is interesting, what’s happening at Carnival. It’s a bit like that. You get up in the morning, you start putting on your costume and you become a different person, you become someone outside of yourself. And then you become part of this big spectacle, this big art piece. You own the road. You conquest the road. And I think Carnival has been going around in all these urban settings from New York to LA, … it happens in Grenada, in Trinidad, in Britain—Notting Hill, Leeds Carnival. All these Carnivals, all these places where Caribbean people are owning the road. And there’s something around space, land, feet pounding the ground. There’s something around the procession. And I could go on and on about Carnival. Carnival and Soca music is my other love, is the other thing that fuels me.

You mentioned the pandemic a couple of times. For someone so community-based, how did the lockdown, the ongoing pandemic time, impact your practice and your personal understanding of what it means to be a writer?

When the pandemic first occurred, I couldn’t write. I cooked. I was cooking recipes; I was going online and doing cooking. I was also going to a lot of Soca parties online. And then I got into hanging out with my friends on Zoom all day. But it wasn’t the same way that you use Zoom for work; we would get on and we’d say, Okay, today, I’m going to do this, I’m going to clean the kitchen, I’m going to do this piece of work. One of my friends is in Trinidad, she was planting little plants and looking at the seeds budding, and then we would have it on and we would go about our business. Because two of us in that scenario were single—were living alone in our houses and you couldn’t go out your house—that was a way to have company and to do things.

And then realizing I just couldn’t write and some of my other friends couldn’t write as well, we started an online group. The first year we did it, it was just every morning you wake up, you write about something, it doesn’t matter what, and just put that draft [away] and at the end, you send five to seven drafts to each other. It didn’t matter how raw it was, it was just to get us in the act of writing. And then it got more sophisticated. The next year, it got to where we would check in at the beginning, all of us. Where are we at? What’s happening? What’s challenging us? Being in the house with the children was challenging to some people—trying to work, trying to be a lecturer, being in the house with the children. For some people it was just, I’m overwhelmed—all this is happening with family and I can’t write, my head is full. For some people it was having been sick. So, we would talk about and [give] feedback to each other about that, and then, each day one of us would set a prompt, and we would go on and do the prompt. We would set a reading as well and bring some of what we’re reading. And then we’d have a check in at the end of the month, and we would talk about reading, talk about writing, talk about whether we were able to do it or not. And that way we could still create a space to nurture that creative growth, and some really good poems came out of that. But on the whole, some really terrible things that will never come out, but actually, the practice of writing—it was good.

I just want to close out with asking about what’s ahead and what’s next?

I’m working on a biblical project that’s epic. It’s so different from Pepper Seed. I asked myself a question: what happens if the King James—it’s particularly the King James Bible—what happens if the King James Bible, if the geography, the characters, the language, was situated in the Caribbean? What would occur? How would we be able to read this? What would happen in terms of plantocracy? What would happen in terms of gender? What would the women say, if some of these women were Caribbean? What kind of meaning would they allow us to make about the society and people? That’s the broad stroke. What happens to Lazarus if it’s a Caribbean funeral, it’s a nine nights wake, and on the fourth night, Lazarus comes back alive into the wake. What happens in that cultural setting? Or what happens if Mary is a Caribbean young girl—and we know how Caribbean young girls are policed, their bodies are policed and protected by their family—comes home and says, “I am pregnant, but it’s not Joseph’s.” And then saying to the mother, “It’s God’s.”

Sometimes I’m listening to The King James Bible and then all of a sudden, something will strike me. And then I’ll be like, what happens if… and then a questioning starts. And then the answers start to develop in the poem. Sometimes the poems take unusual avenues: what happens if Jesus is a Black man and he’s in the Garden of Gethsemane and it’s the night before [the crucifixion], what does he really want that night when he tells these people not to sleep? Maybe he wants a wake? Maybe he wants rum and dominos. Maybe he wants a lime (a Caribbean party), you know? Sacrilegious. But, you see, when you ask that question, and you place Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and in a Caribbean setting…he knows he’s gonna die and it’s night and he wants his friends to stay up and not sleep and they’re out in the open in a garden… Well, that’s ripe for a wake, isn’t it? So, yeah, that’s kind of what I’m working on.

The King James Bible is such a sacrosanct object in so many Caribbean households. I’m curious if this project has changed, altered, deepened that relationship for you?

The King James Bible has never not been in my life (and most time we just call it King James). So, you know, people say if you hear someone calling your name in your sleep, it’s someone trying to take you to them, so always sleep with a King James at the side of your bed, [and if that happens] put your hand on the King James, and say, “I rebuke you! I rebuke you!” or say the 23rd Psalm. So that’s quite an embedded response, and it’s the King James particularly.

Everybody’s house that I knew had a King James. I remember when I was talking to someone and they were like, “But your family is Catholic, you had the King James?” But the King James is not necessarily seen as a Protestant book; it’s just like, you have the King James. People have their genealogy in the King James, people had King James that was passed down, like this was my great grandfather’s Bible…

But yet there’s some places in history where you weren’t allowed to read the King James. Or to read. And there’s also the fact that some of the rebellions that happened were around the Bible and religion, and around giving these unruly enslaved people, this book to read and allowing them to empower. There’s also the fact that some of these books were extracted because they didn’t want people to read Exodus and read themselves in it and to get too uppity, right? So how the King James was used in the colonial experiment, how the King James was used to justify the Middle Passage. And then in Carnival, the midnight robber—one of the Carnival characters who can speak—draws his speech, his eloquent speech, mostly from Genesis and Shakespeare, you know: “When I was born, you know, on the ninth night of the 10th day, the world changed…”

But I had problems as a girl in Sunday school. I was always like, “Well, why’d that happen to the woman? Why do they want to stone her? But why is she turning to salt?” I was really, really upset about Lot’s wife turning into salt, because as far as I was concerned, every time I saw statues, they were of men. And the one time I experience a woman turning into a statue, it’s salt. It’s washed away. She’d just disappear!

Also, as a poet, I love the language. And then there’s the history of the King James, where King James solicited all these scholars to come and translate this Bible, and create this King James version of the book. But the other thing that’s really fascinating is that there was a knowledge that it was being created for an oral audience, for an audience who couldn’t read, so when they finished translating it, they sat down and read it out to hear how it reads; isn’t that what we do with a poem? When you finish a poem, you sit down and read it. So, I think it’s all of these things that fascinate me about the King James. And I’m able to explore some of them in there, but it’s a complicated book, and I have a complicated relationship with it. I have a love-hate relationship with it. But of course, I’ve got my King James Bible at home.

And you know, what I love and what I’m hearing too is, at the end of it, it’s about that ownership, right? Which is to say, the authority one must have to say, “I’m going to reach into this Bible and reshape and retell some of the stories.” It’s also a testament to how much it’s your Bible, right?

Right! Well, and since I’ve been listening to the King James Bible over and over, I find I would put on a reggae song and hear it differently and realize, Oh, my God, actually, what I’m doing is what reggae artists have done with the King James, you know? You listen to Bunny Wailer or you listen to Peter Tosh or you listen to, you know, some of the old reggae artists…

Buju Banton

Yes! So in a way, maybe I’m furthering that poetics embedded in Rasta ideology, and that’s something to think about…

I’m excited for this book, Malika! It was just such a pleasure having you here this week. It was so enriching for our community.

Oh, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

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 dawn lonsinger, PhD


In Khadijah Queen’s Anodyne, we encounter the irreducible inextricability of point-blank pain and layered love, language threaded on the filament of lines so perfectly that it sings and stings. The poems therein are a warning and a wish, a reckoning and reclamation, ode and erasure. It is a boldly constructed collection about the heartbreaks and body-breaks of life in late-stage capitalism, amid grind culture, war, the endless wake of white supremacy, patriarchy, malady, the everyday losses and consonant sadness, etc., but also about the sharp-yet-sating ache of desire, kinship, herbaria, family, art, and relationships. The gutting and gathering power of the poems often emerges from their ability to hold these many realities at once, showing us how contrasting spheres of being intersect our lives and bodies. Queen indicts our cultural and individual “avoiding / evidence of suffering at all costs” yet also keens for an expansiveness within which she could “stop the false / fight for my humanity, en masse, [is] allowed to share / a history of anything but suffering” (2, 14). Anodyne is full of what I’d like to call a Poetics of Exhaustion and a Poetics of Relationality, wherein the poet is tired of (and tired out by) the unrelenting violence and strains of this, our, world – “what severs / the head of connection in the time of least” – and its attendant losses. Nonetheless, she seeks out cracks in what is through which another way of imagining ourselves and our relationship to each other might emerge (25). It’s an aria of “ands” and caesura, tracing the intractable distances and intimacies of now. These are vibrant-yet-harrowing poems full of touch and terror, abduction and desire, beauty and domination, entrapment and escape.

We enter into a landscape replete with “common miracles” but also “endless / sentences about oppression,” and throughout, we learn how inextricable these are from each other, often contained in the same form or instance as in “chrysanthemums the rust of blood” (Queen 71, 76, 49). It is, in part, these entanglements of beauty and harm that is exhausting to navigate. These poems glow with a devotion to the particularity of lived experience, but this is amplified and unsettled by the elegiac – a brother lost to murder, a mother declining from dementia, the depression and suicidal ideation of a son “whose brilliance / isn’t understood yet,” who wonders “Why can’t I be myself in this world” (68, 3). In these poems, we encounter the human as the perimeter between what roils inside and what roils outside. One’s body is a kind of em dash, mote, hatchet, net, and, when lucky, a site of pleasure, reprieve, and connection. Queen explores the body as a site of contention for all the forces and dogmata of the world, and also as a source of irreverence and imagination, the “body ever in revolt, a red centimeter of a mouth / asking what else” (6).

We learn early in the book that the speaker is tired, but cannot sleep; as we move through the layers of experience and accreting chasms between self and outcome in subsequent poems, that tiredness grows colossal and endless, the speaker ever-calibrated to “what might exhaust this [her] brittle form” (68). Loss haunts and contemporary life threatens, and restlessness ensues and ensues. It’s literal restlessness and figurative restlessness – the restlessness of the unresolved, the revenant, the used, the misused, the used up, the vulnerable.  In a formally startling poem, “Synesthesia,” parentheses mirror the wounds of loss and make space for the ghost of the murdered brother to speak in a language we do not understand but can hear/see:

First, I was twenty-five with no sleep     (                     )

&         my body said   feel this                        And I didn’t

want to            (           )  then              It turned into a constant &      (     )

burned to be felt                      I couldn’t harden

away from it                 couldn’t ease                     (                  )

or sleep            or not-feel        my way away      because (                   )

It was myself & (Queen 30)

The self is riven with sorrow, not distinguishable from what injures it. The space between lines and the many caesuras within the lines, like the faults in logic or sense-making, serve to replicate how grief perforates and how navigating that loss in language might allow for a painful but paradoxically satisfying kind of coherence. Inherent in the wish to sleep, is the wish to reconcile with and transform one’s helplessness by dreaming of alternative endings, wherein the speaker “sang hush to a wounded man // (          ) // (          ) // gunshots, my brother                       (          )            and he lived” (31).

Likewise, in the later poem, “NJ Transit Passenger Ode,” the speaker confesses, “I want to sleep at night” perchance to dream “my family all lived // in the same place / long enough to grow daffodils & safe babies” (66). The final poem of the collection – an anaphoric litany of all the places and ways that the speaker has, in fact, slept – promises to offer some resolve or relief from the earlier disquiet, but the sleep, too, is punctuated by the harsh details of an exacting world – “a steel bunk in Illinois winter next to military / strangers,” “with a view of an abandoned lot overgrown with weeds & drug trash,” “in a bathtub dispossessed,” “with love & treated myself to unkindness,” [listening to] “nameless strays killing what they eat,” “with a man who hated himself,” wrapped “in a crochet blanket & / sorrow,” “in senescent lake muck,” “in my car on the side of Fountain Street at dawn,” “in a world I forgot to love sometimes,” “& more than once I didn’t close my eyes” (81-83). Queen is not interested in suggesting we have reached resolution or solace. There is, however, amid the long lines of troubled sleep, an instance of grace: “I slept inside a song with a Blacker voice than mine which meant I slept good” […] “I slept in a place of brilliant bones & the future of Blackness / I slept in a system outside of every law but one […] I slept in a simple way / I slept in a place just for us / I slept where I could see it” (82-83). Queen ends not on a simplistic note of hope, but on the edge of everything that currently is, where she can glimpse and presage an alternative world where Blackness has its own music and space.

* * *

In calling this book Anodyne, Queen is asking us to think about what might allay or soothe the many pains of contemporary life, which are often lessened or amplified according to the body you inhabit, the betrayals that come from the inside (as with chronic pain), and those that come from the outside (as with the supremacist ideologies and actions that compel Black Americans to “only ask     that you not kill us”) (25). Thanks to Queen’s deft experimentation with and handling of form and recurring motifs, we glimpse the ways these inside and outside betrayals have something to do with each other.

The word “anodyne” also brings to mind all the analgesic forms people use to render painful experiences less so by dulling their senses, as in Kendrick Lamar’s “twilight” used as epigraph; think nightshade, opium, camphor, Vicodin, saffron, wine, consumerism, etc. These poems honor that desire for the absence of pain, but also suggest that a heightening of ones senses, “a spirit of play” (as broadcast in the Anne Carson epigraph), attention, care, and deep engagement might offer a brighter balm, an antidote. So, this book woefully admits the need for constant painkillers and the longing for the anodyne to end anodynes (to be free from “made-up valor or resilience”), but also offers itself up as anodyne (1). To read these poems is to feel as if you have entered the many abysses of modern life and the ways histories of harm enter the body and home and mouth, but also as if you have been offered a amulet of protection in Queen’s conjuring attention and susurrant words, sung “sharp as blades” (2). We are given not just “repositories of beauty,” but the Ariadne-like string that might help to lead us out of the labyrinths of loss and cultural misappropriations, wherein we find that just beyond simple loveliness is the “untidy, untended, loveliness of the forsaken, / of dirt-studded & mold-streaked / treasures that no longer belong to anyone / alive, overrunning” (1). Despite having felt the pain of being made “smooth from pain,” one’s “interior [made] to hold the ruin,” the speaker of these poems is still on the lookout for “a good atonement” and “how to live exuberant with settle,” “stretch[ing her] insides / across pages until [her] pain is upside down” (Queen 51, 20, 17, 13).

* * *

Like the lemon added “to the cool / water in a faceted glass” from the poem, “Declination,” about desire and its acquittals, Queen’s writing is sharply, vividly, refreshingly investigative, arriving in versatile multifaceted forms with unconventional cadences. It pushes language to its limits in order to articulate the intimate specifics of daily defense against onslaught, and how one does this without losing one’s openness to intimacy (43). Queen clearly loves language – its heft and sound, texture and malleability – but also wants us to remember that language is limited and fails us all the time – “the violence of language in every space / I enter & think I am losing everything but my mind” (79). Thus, Queen goes to extreme measures to say the unsayable, using potent imagery, the page as a field of experimentation, surprising syntax, the invention of words, juxtaposition, etc. These poems go to the edges of language, emotion, experience, and artistic tactics, connecting unlike things to get closer to that third interstitial entity. Her poetic techniques multiply the meaning of words to go beyond the literal, giving readers an impression of an idea or feeling, an experience one can’t quite put into words but knows is real. There’s a figurative radiance here, sun-like in that it’s at moments life-giving and illuminating, and, at others, hard to look at, full of risk.

Narrative is one of the ways we catalogue or think of or experience our lives. But it is not the only way. Queen’s poems invite us to ask hard questions about how our experience of the world is mediated or transmitted. Do you experience your body as a part of a story? Do you understand “that molten underground we swim the surface of” (5)? Being so brave you almost die? A brother turned into dust? “How to use the word love, mean it” (20)? This is poetry that rearranges how you make contact with the world, is not a lesson or bit of wisdom, but something much more expansive and heterodox.

In this collection, compression and elision create an intensity that does not abbreviate; rather, it moves in the direction of complexity and multiplicity, toward not letting meaning or conclusion or dichotomizing clamp down, kill for the sake of understanding or satisfaction or a clean arc. In this way, it is foundationally deconstructive. While there are narrative threads in these poems, Queen’s poems are discernibly not tethered to narrative. Rather the lyrical provocations and pleasures of these poems are linguistic, imagistic, musical, philosophical, emotional, intellectual, formal, visceral, metaphysical, thematic, contrarian, figurative, and textural. They are sonically gorgeous and unrelenting, “boom[ing] with basalt,” and riveted with resonant insoluble questions like “Can I collect my fragments, / fragile now in the gentleness” (5, 37)? Her poems are plangent and you feel in the many forms – erasure, eclogue, grid, sestina, ode – and the tide-like lines an unruly roving attention, within which language is a depot for discovery and deliverance.

* * *

While the world keeps apprehending the speaker, across poems, through diminishing culturally constructed (but materially consequential) lenses – as woman, as Black, as professor, as ill, etc. – the personae poems in the collection try to disabuse us of this gisting error. Queen reminds us, rather, that she is only “disguised as an I (no direction),” is not a singular easily-diminishable category or self, but is of “disarray,” “flux,” made up of “opposites [that would like to be] allowed to oppose in peace” (9, 80). The personae poems reject essentializing or lessening how multiform and capacious the self, with its miraculous “starlit” and “drunk off sea liquor” origins … “our scatter / Expansion—openness, inexact song” (9, 26). They also call out all the ways that one – especially if relegated by a hierarchical culture to the margins – is abridged by and beholden to a “subaltern superstructure” and its “apparent psychological systems,” where whole populations are socially, politically, psychically, and geographically excluded and oppressed, strung out and along by “merchant discipline,” woefully “used up by the wrong power” (Queen 9-10). The personae poems remind us that we arrived differently than where and what we now find ourselves, not yet divisible and decided upon, but “via unpredictable route / via safer lacuna” to “shell the day-cold / bone-filled, language-less,” full of “varied intensity” (54). Thus the perpetual paradox and tension of living now, when “it feels strange to smile in a fascist era—grief / dammed up, ancient energy held back” (55). We are reminded we are made of greater wider various stuff, how we are drawn toward possibility, even as, when Queen writes in “Epilogue for Personae”:

who can feel the possible
in their bodies & not break
toward it—  (55)

The brilliance of the line break on “break” is that it suggests there is heartbreak and body ache when we come up against all that dilutes or delimits our possibility, but that if we get past that interruption we might “break toward” a further terrain of leeway and imagining.

There’s rage but it’s quiet; there’s hope, but it’s quiet. What’s not quiet is the intensity of interrogating a too common complicity, and the search for seams at the margin of harm that might be opened up into other worlds or possibilities. She calls the mercantile world and individuals out for what they have done to beauty, “trash[ing it], see[ing it] as glut, usable” (56). And in “Antediluvian,” there is a necessary inquisition of white people and their attendant gods:

Where were you when the truth disappeared or
when the truth battered us […]  Where
were you when strongmen told us to die &
blasted us into nothing.    Were you downtown
to witness the smooth mirage    stagnate in sky-
scraper shade & neon glower  (24)

* * *

But there are other everyday anodynes, which Queen underscores. Throughout the collection, nature, food, and animals are tranquilizing counterforces to cultural degradations. “Breezes peel blush and white petals from her magnolia, / lacing unruly roots in the spring grass,” seasons stretch out of shape amid “the opulence of acres,” the world continuing to make and unmake itself (23). And food is everywhere – “poblano soup & spicy / slaw on bootleg street tacos,” “fresh peaches / simmering in syrup,” “a tuna melt / cut in half,” “vegetarian gumbo,” “snapper & trout blackened on the spit” – climaxing with the grandmother’s cut potato, an old-world magic, used to cauterize injured skin: “Repeat / until it looks like nothing ever happened” (Queen 76, 78, 36, 65). Animals arrive as insight that is immune to rational understanding – “disappearing pattern— / Quarrel of sparrows // Branches beam[ing] full green” – with images that hit us at some subterranean and arterial level (71). But nature – with its ongoing aria of movement and transmutation – is also frequently formally elegiac, full of “falling star[s],” “erosion,” and “cracked bone [stitch]ing itself a whitened scar / over and over” (71, 5). But, for Queen, this natural kind of recursive dissolution or eventual death is what makes the body and mind electrically alive and present to its own inimitable being, like her own “animal glow—sacred rot” (20).

Anodyne mines the apocalypses that have long been underway, and all that might sate or save us amid them, like “resurrect[ing] the excised archive of […] relatives,” acknowledging that merely managing the aftershocks is not sustainable (20). Queen’s writing is so powerfully her own that it reminds us that we cannot replace a poem with our interpretations of it anymore than we can or should do that to others. She unseams the unseeming to figure out how to go on living. Her words make a circle around her coven. At their best, great poems give us new ways of saying, thus new ways of seeing, which ultimately suggest new ways of being. Audre Lorde wrote “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Queen’s Anodyne is one such bridge, a gift from the intersections of everything. We are reminded that “no matter / Sound makes space in the throat”; to peril language is to open oneself to sustenance (68). Therein, we are fortified by the consonance and precision of the inconclusive and multivalent:

Who are we? Orion songs, missed evergreens, bodies
Looped into every surface, looped
Insistent into struggle—like heirloom seeds, rising in scatter  (Queen 28)

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

dawn lonsinger is the author of Whelm, and recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, four Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes, the Utah Prize in Prose and Poetry, the Greg Grummer Poetry Prize, and Smartish Pace’s Beullah Rose Prize. Her poems and lyric essays have appeared in American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review, Guernica, Los Angeles Review, Best New Poets, and elsewhere. lonsinger holds a BA in studio art and English as well as an MA in literature from Bucknell University, an MFA in poetry from Cornell University, and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. She recently finished a creative nonfiction book that tries to navigate the consanguinity and dissonance between erotics and robotics in a Tindering world, and is now working on a book of poems, The Long and Terrible Taming, which explores taming and wildness in all its manifestations. She is an Associate Professor at Muhlenberg College.

by Lauren K. Alleyne 


Khadijah Queen’s poems function both as moments of engagement and invitations to engage. The terms of that engagement necessarily differ from poem to poem, collection to collection —there is no “typical” Khadijah Queen poem — and readers are asked to leave their expectations of what the genre is or isn’t, should or shouldn’t be at the proverbial door. Defying the contract of genre, the poems instead offer a contract of mutual presence that invites readers to be — to be open, to be present, to be alert—and to challenge themselves to embrace new modes of understanding.

In return, they offer access to a mind in constant interaction with the world. Voracious in their subjects, modalities, and formal manifestations, the poems are relentless in their observation and questioning of the world at multiple scales and levels, from the internal to the physical to the environmental and political. Sometimes direct, sometimes inscrutable, the poems act as a staging ground upon which we’re invited to witness how these intersecting dimensions co-create the reality of a singular consciousness. At the same time the poems challenge the notion of singularity, and invite us to step in and be a part of the co-creation of meaning.

“Horizon Erasure” from Queen’s collection Anodyne, for example, moves fluidly between internal and external landscapes, offering readers snatches of images that snag the speaker’s attention:

Blue-grey braceleted     Hollow

                               torrent threat

Comes on     cloud shift. What about letting go

                               Ivy clung to passageway ceilings, some grass on

    shoes                  Untied                             

                                                            Blood moon

tried to take my son

Stop refusing to understand

The imperative of the final line is both empowering and insistent—the ability to know and “understand” is ours for the taking if we are open to, and “stop refusing” it.

Khadijah gave a virtual reading at Furious Flower and later dropped by our studio in Harrisonburg where we discussed her practice and poetics. The interview has been edited to ensure concision, cohesion and clarity.

Thank you. I’m so excited to be talking to you.

I’m excited to be here. Thank you for having me. 

I want to just start off by thinking about the poem you just read and the term “experimental,” which is often used to describe your work. How do you think about / own / challenge / resist / embrace that term, “experimental?”

I think I kind of embrace all the things; I don’t feel limited by one aesthetic or another. I just kind of go where the poem wants to go, and listen to that creative impulse. If people want to call it an experiment, that’s cool—whatever helps people understand what they’re looking at, or approach what they’re looking at, I think is okay. I’m not that particular about the labels of it all. I read The Book of Landings by Mark McMorris, and I was watching some stuff about animals and Greek philosophy, and it just converged into this particular poem. I’d never written a grid poem and I just wanted to try it. Some of these phrases are lines that were cut from other pieces, and it’s almost like a collage. I’m interested in how fragments meet one another on the page; I’m interested in visual composition. I’m kind of an art school dropout—some people know that about me—so I do try to make an art out of things and try to approach the making of pieces, without imposition, but just waiting for some kind of a revelation that occurs as I’m doing the alchemy of the arrangements. And the play of it!

I can feel that the visual is really important to you, and that it does do a sort of layering work with the poem. How do you know if something wants to be a grid poem? Or parentheses, etc.? 

That’s a great question: I don’t know until I try it. Sometimes you get to a poem that’s not working, and then you move it around into different shapes until it feels right. I think I work through intuition sometimes. I know that’s probably not a popular thing to say, but why not? For this particular book, I was definitely in the mode of why not? and trying things and saying, since people do say that my work is experimental a lot, can I write a bunch of narrative poems and have like, some long lyrics? Can I do that? I feel just a little bit disobedient in that way and in response to constraints that we hear from outside forces, or constraints that we put on ourselves, or how we perceive the process of making. I wanted it to be less precious. I wanted it to allow for some mystery, some mess even—the opposite of perfection. And I think that might be openness. I’m always curious about openness, and how that looks.

You talked about voices and I feel like there’s always—or often—an addressee in the poem. I feel like whether it’s speaking to the reader or directly, often there’s a “you.” Talk to me about that process, I guess, of writing always toward…

Hmm, that’s a good question. My first response is I’m probably just talking to myself! [Laughs.] But I’m also talking to maybe a world that doesn’t necessarily listen to people like me, and doesn’t listen to folks who may not have a public voice, who are quieter. And so maybe it’s both of those things. And maybe talking myself into speaking to the world in some ways. Those may be some of the layers that you’re intuiting.

I love that idea—the thought of talking to a world or even talking yourself into talking to the world, because that seems to be also the realm of the lyric. I am thinking of modality, and how the poems are often lyric, but also often narrative, and sometimes simultaneously, persona. 


And anytime you have multiple addresses to the idea of personas, it talks about your relationship to poetic mode…

I think I’m mostly just trying to have fun. [Laughs.] And to say something that feels like it could mean different things at different times when you approach it: different times in your life, different times in the day, different moods. I’m interested in a kind of encompassing, and a kind of multivocality, maybe, that can be interpretable in many different ways, many different times. I don’t know that I necessarily write in one mode or approach in one mode, but I definitely think in terms of multimodality.

You’re like the poetic multiverse. [Laughs.] But there’s also such an attention to, and also a dismissal of time in the poems. There’s the now, there’s a present, there’s the future, there’s the past that gets pulled in, and you play with time a lot, as well. So that multimodality, and multidimensions of time just seem to be really something you play with. Am I intuiting that correctly?

I think that’s just Black stuff, you know, Black time. We are constantly the present, but we are constantly being made aware of our past and thinking forward to our future in the process of living. In The Physics of Blackness [by Michelle M. Wright], she talks about Black time, the concept of Black time, in those parameters; so I think it was just me being like, really, that’s part of who I am. I’ll also add that I recently found out I have ADHD. When you have ADHD, your sense of time is now and not-now, and your interest in doing things is based on urgency, challenge, novelty, and your own personal interest. And also you see things all in one plane — you can see everything at once—so time is happening at once, events are happening at once. And so, you know, maybe my brain is just able to do it that way. That’s the natural way that it works.

You also said that “the world doesn’t listen to people like me.” And so, I’m curious about that, “like me.” When you say “like me,” what is that identity or that sense of self you’re holding?

I mean, I feel like Black women are not listened to. A lot of stuff could have been prevented if we had just listened to Black women. And certainly, disabled folks are not listened to.  Single moms are not listened to. I could go on and on. I grew up poor and nobody listens to poor people. So there are multiple layers of an invalidation of perspective that I have been made aware of. And yet, we speak anyway. Right? So, I think that’s what’s going on.

And circling back to that sense of disability, of non-normativity. How does that play for you as a poetics? Like, how do the poems circle or hold on to that?

Well, I think there is certainly a refusal to be identified as lesser, even though there is disability. I’m just struggling to write through it now — an essay about poetics of disability — as I’m working on a book of criticism about poetics. The disability poetics is the last essay, and is really, really long and spreading out, and I’m thinking about how I want to refine it. So, I’m glad you asked this question. What I wish… what I hope, is that we could exist in a world that makes room for everyone as the default, instead of being so restrictive and having rigor be defined as exclusionary, or excellence being defined as exclusionary, instead of approaching it from the opposite direction. So how can we challenge ourselves to include more people, include more voices, include more care, in the way we interact with each other, in the way we build public space, in the way we make policy. What would happen if we challenged ourselves to do that? Just thinking differently, turning things around from what’s not working, and recognizing that what works for disabled folks actually works for everyone.

How does that translate to poems?

I think it’s a disobedience in there. [Laughs.]

A dope disobedience!

Certainly! A poetics of refusal—no, I don’t want to do it that way. I’m going to do it my way and figure it out for yourself. When you are disabled, you have to figure out how to make public space or environment or relationship or anything you encounter, work for your disabilities, right? Neurotypical folks, non-disabled folks might just say, Well, you got to just fit in or You just conform. But if you’re disabled, you’re not capable of that conformity. You do need those modifications. And so, in poetry, I think that I’ve been attracted to invention. I’m definitely attracted to what may seem inscrutable. And the puzzle of it all, I’m interested in that. Beauty looked at not as something linear, but as maybe what we were talking about earlier with regard to time — simultaneous, expansive.

You mentioned beauty, and that’s another thing that I think runs through the work so much. I think there’s a commentary on beauty, which, you know, I linked to aesthetics in a certain kind of way, which of course, and I linked to poetry, right. So how does the critique of beauty and the way that society reveres it, weaponizes it, et cetera, et cetera? How does that then work with the idea of art-making and making language be beautiful?

I love that question because it makes me think about how I think about beauty which is as not possessable. Appreciated, encountered, noted, engaged with, but not owned, not harmed, not possessable, but allowed to exist or be respected in its existence.

We have a hard time with that as a species. 

We do don’t we. We like to own things, to thing-ify the world. It’s a problem.

There’s this critique, but even within the critique, there is beauty in the poetry. So the ask then is, if what I’m hearing is right, is to hold that beauty but not grasp it. Right?

Right, we can pause in it. We can recognize that gentleness is also beautiful — that we can gently receive something. That softness is valuable. And perhaps that it might allow us to understand something better than, you know, somebody hitting you over the head with a hammer, right? We don’t have to have the violence part, do we? Is that how we want to reify our language still? Or are we capable of evolving past that?

If we extract violence from beauty what are we left with? Maybe it’s poetry.

Maybe it is.

I’m interested in the prose poem as a form, and what draws you to it: what effects do you enjoy that makes you return to it so much?

I don’t have prose poems in Anodyne, but certainly in, “I’m So Fine.” It took a long time to get to that place, I think. It started out as just a plain old list — just a list of famous men I met in and the outfits I had on went I met them. As I was writing it, I hadn’t even taken it seriously as a poem, it was just something that I was writing. And then when people read them, they were like, Oh, my God, you have to write more of these. Then I started to lineate them like a regular poem, but that didn’t feel right. So, of course, I had to read them aloud. And in reading them aloud, I recognize the younger voice of me, and how I really used to talk really fast when I grew up in Los Angeles. We would just like talk like this and be like, Omigod!. And so, I made it into a prose poem. And then it still wasn’t quite right. So I took out all the punctuation and put those ampersands in there. And then the pacing, and the voice, and the tone all matched. So I think what I liked about the prose poem for that particular book was how it was able to do all of that simultaneously; to tell the story in this consistent voice, in this consistent form, but still kind of disrupt what we think of as a story or poem.

You have a line that I love from “Erosion” that says, “how we fail is how we continue.” And I read that and it also resonates as a possible poetics. Is it?

I mean, it could be. I think if we allow ourselves to recognize how often we do fail, we would understand that we already do continue, even though we do fail. And that sometimes what we fail at can teach us something valuable about what we might better succeed in or what we might enjoy and to accept faults. I think one of the other poems… “I lived in kinship with my faults,” is one of the lines, and I got that from Alice Notley. She talks a lot about the defect. And that was interesting to me to like, just to recognize it, to call it out, to embrace it, to own it — we’re not perfect. We’re not capable of perfection, even though we’re often told in our production/productivity-driven culture that we need to be perfect. It certainly does cost time and money if things don’t go perfectly, but in a poem, you get to make the world that you want. So if you want to talk about imperfection, and to understand that it’s really okay sometimes to acknowledge that and to be vulnerable, and that that can be powerful. I think that’s valuable information. 

There is such a tenderness for the natural world, but also a sense of crisis, also a sense of justice. Tell me more about how you actively or intuitively integrate that sense of eco-awareness into the poems. How does that play out?

You know, I grew up in a city so I hadn’t really thought about it. But when I was living in Colorado—I lived there for eight years — it kind of just snuck in because the natural world is so beautiful there. It was a very transformative experience to see Maroon Bells in person because it’s so old — like millennia old — and I’ve never been anywhere like that with that kind of awareness. I think it unlocked something in me even though I used to be outside when I was a little kid. I was a tomboy. I used to play with the bugs. I used to be in the dirt. So it kind of helped me remember that part of me. And also, to understand that we’re not taking care of our home. This is our home! Why are we messing it up like this? Why are we allowing it to be harmed for the sake of money? Really? Is that what we’re doing? It doesn’t make sense to me. So, I just thought to make sense of things, or, present in the poem, a space where we can see how it doesn’t make sense. In a gentle way, perhaps, but very precise and clear.

What does a Dr. Queen poetic practice look like? What are the habits that you’ve cultivated over all of these years of writing?

It’s changed quite a lot over time. I used to try to fit in poems when my son was little. I would write before work, in my car, on my little notepad—just sit in the car before I had to go in and write a lil sumptin’ sumptin’. I write while I’m reading — I would write when I was reading a lot when I was younger. And when I was writing, I’m so fine, I had a joby-job, and so I would just take a weekend and dive into it — order takeout, wouldn’t answer the phone and talk to nobody, I’d just be in it. There was a time, about six years, I used to write every morning. I had enough stability to be able to get up at five. It’d be an hour-and-a-half or two, just writing. I had a surgery in 2015, and that was the end of that. Now, I think I write more when I travel, because my everyday is very, very busy with the professor stuff and po-biz stuff and cooking — I cook a lot now — so I don’t have a daily practice anymore, other than paying attention. But when I travel, I tend to write almost every day.

It’s the evolution of the practice to write: it just has to adjust…

Yes, adjust. I did mourn that daily practice. I certainly did mourn that. I tried to recapture it, but it’s not happening. So now it’s just okay, surrender. When it’s time for deadline, I do that thing, you know, just get it done.

You mentioned the “professor stuff.” What do you find interesting or challenging about trying to teach the craft or the art or the practice of poetry to students? There’s a range of folks who enter our classrooms: what are some of the things you try to make sure they leave with?

I want to make sure that they’re not afraid of poetry. We make sure they know how to read it, that they have the tools. If you can read a poem, you can pretty much read anything. So they have the vocabulary, they have the tools, and they have, you know, I usually teach The Life of Poetry, the first chapter by Muriel Rukeyser that unlocks why are we afraid of poetry, and it has been received well by engineering students, and poets alike. I just try to open it up a little bit because people have been taught… poorly. [Laughs.]  Maybe that’s a mean thing to say, but they’re taught that a poem can only be read one way. And it’s not like that.

I try to just open it up, make it a little fun — let them be wrong and not call it wrong, and just talk about it. We’ll just kind of massage it, you know, and get into what each element is doing. Identify the parts of the poem: this is an image. And one of the cool things about Rukeyser is she talks about action-based images. So if we can identify the verb and the noun, and what kind of noun is this, what kind of verb is this, and see how it’s acting, then they can see that thing that she talks about in that chapter—the transfer of energy, and what makes a good poem. What is a poem? It’s transfer of energy, whether or not we add that qualifier of “good” or not.

You mentioned several times, “I want to have fun,” the element of play. There is definitely a sense of humor in your work. I have not figured out how to write a funny poem yet. What is the craft of writing humor? How do you write humor into a poem?

I mean, that’s how I lived through trauma. If you live with a lot of trauma, if you don’t laugh about it, you don’t make it. So it’s built in. I think it’s also maybe a habit of avoidance of sitting in my trauma; I can escape it by making light of it, or making light of something else. Having those two things play off of each other is interesting to me. And craft wise, what can I say about that? Just look for the place where you are most uncomfortable, and then find something to laugh about, so that you can get through it.

It’s interesting, because it’s not like a ha-ha humor. But definitely it’s the funny that brings a little bit of trauma in its purse.

Bag of trauma is always there. [Laughs.]

I feel as though that idea of voice is really important to the work. You mentioned it earlier in terms of writing the voice. What has been the process of discovering, owning, shaping, especially if, you were saying, a voice that doesn’t want to be heard? How do you think of voice?

I think for folks who are maybe afraid to speak, persona is a good entryway. Because then you can construct a character to say what you want to say. I certainly wrote a lot of persona poems when I first started, you know, so I could get my footing. So I think that’s one approach. There’s also talking about things that you love, doing that first: what are you passionate about? What can you go on and on and on and on about? and starting there. It doesn’t have to be traumatic. You can write a football poem. I don’t care. I used to tell my football players that. What is it like to get a touchdown for the first time? Talk about that feeling. What is it like sensorily? What does it smell, feel, taste like? So just getting into the body, I think is important. We don’t think about that in terms of voice a lot. But it lives in your body and physical form.

Lips, tongue, and breath—that’s how you make voice happen!

Right? Which is one reason why I try to, sometimes — Eleni Sikelianos taught me this— to memorize a poem. Because then you feel how it lives in your body without the aid of the visual, if you are not too afraid to embody that. Some students, you know, you can’t push them there. But at least you planted the idea. 

You refer to theorists — not just other poets—in your work, and this intellectual tradition is in conversation with your poetry. Talk to me about that interplay of what would almost seem to be antithetical.

I think it all goes together. How do we think about what we think about? How do we think about what we write about? I think, if we have more people, again, whose voices have not been paid attention to, who are shaping that conversation, then we can change what the conversation is and what it’s about. If you can change the way people think, then maybe we can change the way they act. And I know that sounds idealistic and ambitious, but guess what, I’m a poet, so I can do that. So that’s my interest in theory, and why I’m diving into that.

I’m also interested in how the theoretical can appear in ways that are not in a philosophical text. My advisor for my dissertation was Tiana Hardin at University of Denver, and when we were talking about this, she gave me a book called Black Women Writers at Work. And she said, this is what you’re talking about: this is theory. It’s just interviews with Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton and into Ntozake Shange. I was mind blown, like, I can’t even talk! It has so many highlight tabs in it because I don’t want to write on it, but I had all these bookmarks in it because it’s just full of wisdom about how we think, about how we make things, and how we think about how we make things, and how we think about what we think about, and what are the influences of that? And how do we change it? How do we shape it? How do we become more intentional and… do I want to say braver?… more skilled in our communication, and more precise in our language? And that’s in some interviews.

Wow. It’s interesting, too, because you said “wisdom”. And I think of how that is almost not part of the conversation around theory and intellectual thought. It’s almost like folksier…

But folks are wise. And I think theory is for everybody. And also, Fred Hampton said, “Theory without practice, ain’t shit.” We have to be able to put the theory into practice, rather than go round and round the loop. I think that’s what kind of turned me off of theory when I was in school. I was like, well, I don’t like this. This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t want to just listen to you blow hot air and like, pontificate about stuff you half-know and ask questions about it. Okay, fine, but how am I going to use it? I’m interested in how we can deploy theory.

I was thinking about Non-Sequitur and the play form — which of course, is part of Black Peculiar. Have you written more plays?

I have not. I’m sort of working on something I can’t talk about. But yeah, I loved writing that. And it was not a play at first, it was a poem. And I had a friend, who was in my writing group, and she was a director of a theater company that worked with folks in prisons and stuff. And she was like, Uh, I’m reading this and it feels like a play. And I was like, Hmm. And she was like, Have you ever thought about writing a play? I was like, Never. And so, I just started going down that rabbit hole. I turned these objects into characters. It was so much fun. Some of the little snippets are conversations, some are journal entries, and I was lining them up together in a way that felt both dissonant and kind of hilarious and ridiculous and absurd, and also really cutting. That was fun.

You mentioned embodiment earlier, but I also feel like your work is so much about the thinking, and how the play is almost a space where the embodiment and the thinking are enacted simultaneously. What was it like to see that come to life—was it produced?

Yes it was. Fiona Templeton directed it. She was running a company called The Relationship Theatre Company. And the way she solved the problem of the 54 object-characters, was to have one player read them, so you could identify who was going to speak next. It was six actors, I believe, and they were the different characters, and they would be talking. The venue looked like a long runway and it had these stanchions in the middle that were kind of interrupting the movement, but they [the actors] would use them physically — sliding alongside of them if they needed to be sneaky. And it was so much fun to see how she solved that — really brilliantly —problem of the unperformable play. Because I’d been told before that I can’t perform this, this can’t be put on.

What’s next for KQ?

I’m writing a lot of prose, which takes a lot more time than poetry. I’m writing some stuff I can’t talk about, and I’m working on that memoir that I’ve been sitting on since Valerie Boyd, my nonfiction mentor in MFA school, told me I needed to write about my time in the Navy. It was a long, long time ago, like 2005, but I think I’m almost there. But yeah, that’s the next thing. 

Wonderful. Thank you so much. 

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


Formal experimentation is a hallmark of Khadijah Queen’s work. In her latest collection, Anodyne, Queen has several “grid poems.” In her interview, Queen speaks to the value of play and pleasure says simply, “I’d never written a grid poem and I just wanted to try it.” The prompt here is to try one, too!

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

by Khadijah Queen

Les Chartrons, December 2021, after dg nanouk okpik

This horizon’s dawn line makes me curious
enough to wonder if artist-I
could actually exist
sans worry, duty, pain—

Today’s-I makes breakfast for loves—
sweet greens & blackberries, smoked salmon
& sliced baguettes, salted butter & peach jam,
coffee with cardamom & cloves—luxurious

& a never-tiresome river view feast as today’s-I
tidies both table & borrowed kitchen. Loses track
imagining an otherself tracing soft
colors to capture, another life making

mistakes in water media, trapped in practice,
cutting paper the texture of bark, silk,
giddy with ease & industry. In that living
dream I summon the reserve I keep warm
that keeps me warm, fighting
the freeze that’s stalked me since
I first tried to burn myself down.

Refusing what’s aged my insides,
I write down shades to collect—
zaffre, an almost azure, celestial; count prismic
light particles in instant waves, soothing
bitter memories a continent past to lilac
as ships bevel the river surface,
as if holding boldness as quiet—steady.

Today’s-I watches until late fog
makes moonrise over the Garonne lift
light from its own reflection. I pay
specialists to fix me. They can’t.
Somehow I don’t give up.


See two more poems from Khadijah Queen debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Better Living”  and  “Choice

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

by Khadijah Queen


When your mother dies, you’ll think about all the poems you’ve read
about mothers dying. You’ll remember your sister telling you
she doesn’t want to be here anymore & all the familiar sayings ring alien,
harsh-lit, an opacity you are forced to accept: I feel like
she’s slipping away. When your mother dies, she’ll have already
grieved too many losses: her parents, her closest-to-heart sisters,
her baby brother Nick. Her son/your brother.
Steven. The echo of grief lasting
as long as the ache in the bones of a long life, longer than cigarettes
and liquor and stress might invite—


In Spring, maybe I’ll be alive again. In the fall of my future
I’ll circle the square
three times in the City of Fools. Three times
they’ve carved out my core, what they call ruined
parts of me removed and nothing
replaced. Stitches stay
unraveling. In between—

the hail, the rain, sun beating
down. In better memories, the Bay of Nice
at my right, I’ll walk far enough
for my left knee to swell. I’ll arrive in yellow
to eat veal & drink an almost-glass of Sancerre,
take the later evening
to rest. In twin dreams I forget logistics,
forget keys in cars and luggage in trunks.
I forget what goes where & as punishment
I’m stuck where I don’t want to be. I believe
a body is home for the time it breathes.
In between, the pain of what we do to it,
what we allow, refuse, endure. No one ever
told me I could allow pleasure
on my own terms. I had to decide.


In a family of madwomen & mean men
I learned how not to fail in public
but knew it would happen again. The world we belonged to
didn’t want us as ourselves, but as bodies as functions. On a map
a place like that has no ridges. It is invisible, almost—
mapped inside the violence mapped by force
inside men and their brick hands and mortared language
shutting us hard into silence. Once, someone told me
Too much smiling gets a girl in trouble.
If I protect my own teeth from the corrupting air
what happens to everyone else’s?

Once I was a sailor. I talk about it
so I can believe it. I wear all my long necklaces
at once & lace my ears with sunstone
& have only one tattoo. I love so much it all falls out,
not unlike blood from deep cuts. My grandmother
sat at the head of her dining table one Labor Day
& in a lull turned to me & said
all the people I knew are dead. Too often now
I wish for low clouds to fill the echo
of absence, to make it visually
& beautifully undefined, as we’re left
on this side of unknowing, without them

Poem copyright 2022 by Khadijah Queen. All rights reserved.

See two more poems from Khadijah Queen debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Better Living”  and  “Bordeaux Aubade

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

by Khadijah Queen

According to whatever magazine
trying to sell me ________
gloss rules bounty,
happiness, what’s called tasteful
color, arranged
space, minimal, to me
so abstract even in my new
income bracket. On my ninth
birthday the white friends
I invited home for
my party couldn’t come,
their parents finding
our address in the ghetto
I called a neighborhood, a street
where I sped my tassel-handled bike
streaming pink and lavender and light
blue in the whizzing wake of fast cars,
a home with people eating
greens for breakfast and cereal
for dinner and bean soup
when money got low and
everything still tasted too good
because we knew what it felt like
to go hungry. The ghetto a site of invention
even if you only learn
to invent your means of escape.
Sometimes another view
changes your own. When I describe
a thing as ghetto, I mean invented
from scraps, from polluted air, starved
belly squeeze and small body hiding from
stray gang/cop
bullets or family fists
or the smoke that fills
the lungs of those who made you,
whose care singes
and soothes in the span of minutes,
salve and slap. When I say
my mind has ghetto shapes
I mean the chaos panic
I move through like L.A.
Colors-era streets with danger
and death as ordinary a shade
as trees the city
ripped out in the name of close
surveillance. The urban
planning didn’t account
for busing to preserve what
I already knew.
Who I softened into despite
buckled concrete miles I tripped
and ran over in cheap white shoes,
toes poking through too-big
socks folded into necessary discomfort,
who counts luxury
not as owning or labels or jewels
or even bragging rights. I claim a self
beyond place. You can’t know me
or my hood, your language
too small, too fake.
Let a real one tell it.
A self in a place so safe
it must be and can’t be white
can’t help living better.
No one else gave me this
furniture. I bought it, and yes,
on credit. Obsessed with earning
and proving. On Crenshaw,
I learned to skip red, blue, to love
purple. Black. Tightrope
silence when I could
read what my body made
others think they could do
to it. Fighting
for a center without moving.
Afraid of what. I can’t afford it.

Poem copyright 2022 by Khadijah Queen. All rights reserved.

See two more poems from Khadijah Queen debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Choice”  and  “Bordeaux Aubade

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

by Lauren K. Alleyne 


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

“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:

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-
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.