by Sheryl Gifford, PhD

Kwame Dawes’ City of Bones: A Testament (2017) evidences the poet’s characteristic multiplicity of voice and topical scope. Throughout the collection’s four parts, Dawes excavates the skeletons of personal and collective Black histories in starkly rendered poems that depict lives informed by a legacy of slavery. The collection’s first poem, “Crossroads,” initiates a narrative about the inheritance and consequences of this legacy for Troy Maxson, the son of a former slave whose development of identity has been displaced by the hegemony of slavery. Concretized in “the foreman’s bark, the burden / of cotton” (13-14), this hegemonic displacement of identity corrupts the father’s autonomous development of Black masculinity. The father transmits this legacy of masculine identity — one “blighted” by the aggression and violence of the patriarchal system that had enslaved him — to Troy in a crossroads conflict that replicates slaveholders’ emasculation of male slaves through sexual dominance over the latter’s female partners. Troy’s inheritance of the father’s corrupted masculinity is realized in poems that depict his own patriarchal identity, particularly in relation to his sons Cory and Lyon. Whereas Cory’s masculinity bears the aggression that characterized his grandfather’s identity, Lyon’s masculinity is tempered by artistic sensitivity. Dawes utilizes form to convey the viability of each son’s model of masculinity, ultimately depicting the restoration of Black masculinity through art and reiterating the poet’s role in ordering the fragments of Black identity.   

Dawes’ use of form to chart the course of Black masculinity is most evident in “Hope’s Legacy,” a sequence comprised largely of sonnets dedicated to Troy’s wife Rose Maxson, his sons Cory and Lyon Maxson, his friend Jim Bono, and Raynell Maxson, who may be Troy’s illegitimate child. “Hope’s Legacy” follows “Plot,” the first of two poems in the collection with the same title. The first “Plot” poem reveals Troy’s adultery, a transgression which replicates the father’s violation of a sexual boundary, “shatter[s] order” and leads Troy’s children to “lament the sins of their father.” This is most evident in “Cory Maxson,” the first poem in “Hope’s Legacy.” The primacy of Cory’s 14-line poem in the sequence mirrors that of Troy’s in the collection, emphasizing that the “sins of the father” have historically characterized the development of Black masculinity.

This idea is reinforced by the form of Cory’s poem, which is rendered in unrhymed couplets that replicate those in “Crossroads,” and by their tenor, which evidences both speakers’ explicit hatred of their fathers. The couplets visually represent the tension that characterizes both father-son relationships, the white space between them signifying the hegemonic system of slavery which produces a model of masculinity rooted in the dynamic between slaveholder and slave – men and “boys” — and asserts itself through violence, displacing the autonomous development of Black masculinity and forcing the lineage of father and son apart.

Dawes utilizes form to convey the viability of each son’s model of masculinity, ultimately depicting the restoration of Black masculinity through art and reiterating the poet’s role in ordering the fragments of Black identity.   

Cory describes his relationship with his father as an “exquisite hatred” generated by “the thought of someone taking the heat / for someone else, or the word ‘father’ ” (3-4). The placement of the word “or” suggests that “father” is an alternative for one who accepts someone else’s sins as his own, reiterating the idea in “Plot” that (Black) sons embody their fathers’ sins, namely through their inheritance of their fathers’ corrupted masculine identity. Indeed, Dawes’ structuring of Cory’s poem in unrhymed couplets underscores its elegiac quality — its lament the absence of Troy’s model of masculinity, albeit blighted, and its consolation Troy’s dog Blue, who “loved [Cory] next, without a fuss” (14).  The linear couplets of Cory’s poem represent the parallel sides of a track that foreseeably will never meet, an ironic reference to the crossroads at which the division between father and son was established. Just as this division rendered Troy’s identity liminal and rootless — he describes himself at the South Carolina crossroads as being in a place “where everything is dark / and home don’t have a sound / no more” (60-62) — so too does Troy’s death preclude any negotiation of their adversarial relationship, rendering Cory’s identity similarly liminal and rootless: “Emptied of you / I have no one to hate” (8-9).

In contrast to the seven unrhymed couplets that constitute Cory’s poem, Dawes constructs Lyon’s poem (“Lyon Maxson”) as a sonnet that replicates the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean form and the thematic organization of the Petrarchan form. His use of the Shakespearean form’s rhyme scheme, which distinguishes ideas in three quatrains before synthesizing them in a rhyming couplet, suggests Lyon’s cohesive integration of his identities as man, son and artist. Whereas Cory’s poem emphasized the opposition between father and son, the rhyming couplet that concludes Lyon’s sonnet suggests that his synthesis of identities is rooted in a bond with Troy, who is idealized within its final lines as an affectionate, protective father: “laughing, he will say my name softly, / give me some money, and even hold me” (13-14). In contrast to Cory’s elegiac reflection, Lyon anticipates Troy’s loving gestures; this visionary perspective, a quality of the prototypical artist, suggests that Troy’s identity is founded upon creativity rather than masculinity. His sonnet’s cohesive form reinforces his identity’s stability, which contrasts his brother’s liminal, rootless identity as a result of “hav[ing] no one to hate.” The enjambed lines in Lyon’s sonnet also suggest his identity’s stability by evidencing a seamless transition from thought to thought. The continuity of ideas in Lyon’s sonnet contrasts the clipped syntax and separated couplets in Cory’s poem, again highlighting Lyon’s security in his creative identity.

Lyon’s ability to revise his father’s feminizing humor as loving, tender gestures typically associated with femininity also enables Lyon to enact his identity as Troy’s son, which creates an opportunity for Troy to assume the identity of an affectionate father.

Dawes’ use of the Petrarchan sonnet’s thematic structure to convey Lyon’s relationship with his father promotes the idea that Black identity can be reconstructed through art. He reiterates this idea throughout City of Bones in allusions to the Petrarchan sonnet form. One example is the allusion to Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “God’s Grandeur” in the epigraph to “Shod,” a poem that voices an enslaved man’s desire to direct the nature and trajectory of his own life’s journey. Hopkins’ sonnet presents nature’s inherent generativity, “the dearest freshness deep down things” (10), as a resolution to the problem of man’s destruction of God’s creation. Similarly, Lyon’s creativity enables him to imagine the potential in Troy’s identity prior to its displacement by his father’s corrupted masculinity. Whereas the other poems in “Hope’s Legacy” frame their respective speaker’s or subject’s relationship to Troy with his sin of adultery, Lyon accepts his father as he is. Though Troy emasculates Lyon by ridiculing his artistic nature — “He calls me a waste of sperm, a dreamer / a fool, a boy with only music to show / for it all” (10-11) — he knows that “somehow, deep down” his father’s identity is more a creative medium than the model of masculinity that disappoints Cory. This is evident in the location of Lyon’s “deep down” intuition at the sonnet’s turn, which offers an alternative to the dilemma of Troy’s masculinity depicted in the octave. Lyon’s ability to revise his father’s feminizing humor as loving, tender gestures typically associated with femininity also enables Lyon to enact his identity as Troy’s son, which creates an opportunity for Troy to assume the identity of an affectionate father. Lyon’s ability to balance the failures and shame associated with Troy’s masculinity with his potential as loving father is reinforced by Dawes’ choice of a Petrarchan thematic structure, the octave’s problem being the displacement of Troy’s autonomous development of identity and the sestet’s resolution Lyon’s redeeming perspective.

In “Hope’s Legacy,” Dawes perpetuates the idea that art creates a space for the recovery of identity. Perhaps there is something of Wordsworth’s ideal poet in Dawes’ construct of the creative persona embodied in Lyon Maxson, for in “Hope’s Legacy” Lyon evidences a similar tenderness, knowledge of human nature and “comprehensive soul” in his redemptive perspective of Troy’s masculine identity. But there is something more: a generosity of spirit that unearths “the dearest freshness deep down things” and brings them to light. In this way, Lyon is not unlike his creator Dawes: both inhabit the liminal space of a sonnet’s volta, its precedent a history that culminates in crossroads battles between fathers and sons and its potential in creative production, “a universe, a sea / of stories, worlds and worlds” that offer “clue[s] to the impossible” (8-9, 11-12).

Works Cited

Dawes, Kwame. City of Bones: A Testament. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press, 2017.

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur.” In Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Penguin Classics, 1985, p. 27.

Wordsworth, William. “Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads.” PoetryFoundation.org. www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69383/observations-prefixed-to-lyrical-ballads. Accessed 12 Oct. 2018.

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


Sheryl Gifford

Sheryl C. Gifford is a senior instructor in the Department of English at Florida Atlantic University. Her research interests include Black poetry, Caribbean literature and art, environmental art, and interdisciplinary pedagogy. One of her recent projects contextualizes Jason deCaires Taylor’s Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) underwater installations within Mexico’s tourism industry; another examines how Kwame Dawes’ collaborative works Hope’s Hospice and the Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica digital project utilize interdisciplinarity to reflect the ravages of dis-ease on a regional body and broaden the platform for social justice interventions.  

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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Reading a poem by Kwame Dawes feels like traveling in two directions at the same time: the poems are always anchored in the sensory — rooted in rich, delicious detail that grounds one firmly in the poem. However, the poems simultaneously carry an undercurrent, or perhaps it’s a reaching — something larger than you that pulls you toward itself, demanding you abandon yourself and follow it. Over the course of 21 books of poetry (perhaps 25 by now, as Dawes seems to produce and publish books faster than is humanly possible) Dawes’s concerns, of course, shift and evolve (he has written on family, on the HIV epidemic in Jamaica, in the voices of Gullah women and of the sober histories of the American South) but never lose their commitment to transport, to expand the consciousness of all who encounter them. The following lines from the poem “Debt” in his 2017 collection, City of Bones, offer a dramatic example of Dawes’ dexterity in moving his readers between opposing poles of feeling:

… How happy
he was to see her glow with the swell
of the child in her, and then the way
she slipped away, a mattress soaked
in blood, the baby, the girl wailing,
his hands too clumsy to hold this
flesh, what is owed an ordinary
black man with nothing to show for his life?

The poem’s speaker has lost “the girl who carried his seed” in childbirth and within the space of a single sentence, Dawes moves the reader through the girl’s life, full with possibility, to her death in which she is emptied and exsanguinated — her child-heavy belly and her slight, slipping spirit; the speaker’s happiness engendered by the pregnancy to his anxiety of solitary fathering; the baby, just beginning its journey and the speaker looking toward the end of his life. One would also be hard-pressed not to shudder at the image of the bloody mattress, which graphically represents the mother’s death while hearkening back to the sexual act that would have conceived the child. From line to line, image to image, the reader moves — now here, now there — while still feeling rooted in each place. (Are we not drawn to both the wailing baby and her clumsy-handed father?) The poem’s agility forces the reader to move quickly and unquestioningly between the strange and the familiar, the ephemeral and the corporeal, the past and the future. The poem thus becomes a vehicle for empathy, for expansion, for encounter with what is outside of us and, if we let it, ourselves. 

I think the poem has universal application, because as long as human beings sing, and long as human beings consider what they say, I think they are engaging in the exercise of using language in a certain way. 

Kwame Dawes visited Furious Flower as a part of the launch of his anthology Bearden’s Odyssey and spoke with me at the James Madison University studio. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How do you define a poem? What is a poem to you? What is a poem?

Obviously it’s a difficult question because sometimes we run into this question when we look at something and go, Well, this is not a poem, but I think it has to be problematic, and the idea of the final poetry has to be based on tradition. There is the notion that the poem is directly related to song, to the expression of experience through an organization of language that heightens the articulation of the experience, and that has the benefit of consideration of the way things are said for the way things are said. I think that is really important, and that consideration then relates to the questions: How do we communicate? How do we express things?

The tool we have to express things is language; it is the use of words, the use of all the things that surround words. So a poem strikes me as something that comes down to us through tradition. I don’t think somebody just wakes up having never seen a poem before and decides that after 10 syllables they’re going to stop and then go the next line and then stop — they saw it somewhere. So when people declare I’m so original, I’m like, Nah, you’re not that original. There is a tradition, and the tradition is related, as I said, to song because when we think of all the words we use to describe poetry, to talk about poetry to this day, we’re still talking about things like assonance; we’re talking about rhyme; we’re talking about rhythm. We’re talking about elements that have to do with sound, to do with music, to do with how music is constructed — repetition, refrain, things like that. And we all understand song. It seems to me we all understand the song is again a construction of experience that turns experience and the articulation of the experience into an art, into a piece of art — a thing that we can come back to, look at, return to again and again.  So, this is the most basic way that I understand the poem, and that’s why I think the poem has universal application, because as long as human beings sing, and as long as human beings consider what they say, I think they are engaging in the exercise of using language in a certain way. 

So then over time all our instincts for something fresh, for something that makes us think, and feel, and express, and how we manage language to achieve that become part of the exercise of poetry.  But the judgment of a poem is rooted in what we know, what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard and what has moved us. And, therefore, I think the idea of tradition becomes really important.

I want to hone in on the idea of music, because music is so important in your work.  It’s muse; it’s in the sonic rhythm; it’s in the way you read.  Talk to me about that in terms of your writing.  How do you deploy that sense of music and sound?

Some years ago a woman who was a really great mentor to me when I lived in South Carolina — Ellen Arl, she’s passed away now; she was a Chicago woman who lived and taught in South Carolina for many years — took me under her wing, in her own bullying manner, really to teach me how to teach composition. (I came from a British tradition and students didn’t matter. Here, they did what you told them to do and so she began to tutor me.) But she also was a remarkable poet, and Ellen would read my poems and would talk to me about them. And one day, she was reading through, it may have been Jacko Jacobus, and she said, “I need to talk to you about something.” And she said, “You use sound — there is music and sound in your work — beautifully.” I’d never been conscious of doing this and she started to point it out to me. The two lessons in that for me were, first, there are things that we do by our imitation. The poets that I enjoyed and I sort of paid attention to were people like Hopkins, people like Ntozake Shange, people like Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Lorna Goodison. And if you think about those poets, what draws you to them is rhythm, but also sound and the way that sound is used.  She [Ellen] was pointing out to me something that was happening, and she said, “So now when you’re writing or editing pay attention to all these things that are working and build on that.”

So for me, the other root of that experience, I think, was a fascination with the possibilities of music and a kind of envy of the musician. I think the songwriter is a cheating poet, because of what the songwriter can do — you know, you can take a pretty dumb line and you put a good melody and it’s gonna fly, it’s gonna be beautiful just by the way the line is sung. And so you begin to realize that the sound of a word is as important as the meaning of the word in a poem, and when you get to that point, I think you’re really starting to to enter a space. So I’m trying to replicate melody by the use of assonance, by the use of rhythm and meter because the emotional impact of song is a startling thing. It’s where a melody can move you because of the things that it echoes and it stays in your body in remarkable ways. If I can do that as a poet then I’m doing something.  I remember Derek Walcott talking about Bob Marley on this BBC program called Desert Island Discs and he described … he picked two Marley songs, of course — “No Woman, No Cry” and the other was “Redemption Song” — and of “No Woman, No Cry” he said, If I could write and narrate as pure and beautiful as that, a love lyric as pure and beautiful as that, I would be a happy person. If a poem achieves even remotely close to that, I think it’s stunning. Now, I know the poets out there who be going We do better. We are, like, more amazing. Which is true, but a good song is a good song. You know? Whatchu gon’ do?

I know you also have a theater background, which to me seems not sonic, but very visual and dynamic. How does that background play into how you write a poem?

It has to play a really significant role, in ways I don’t even understand the extent of it, but I can tell you one way it really struck me: you know, a lot of my poetry enters the mind of other people. It’s not even quite persona. I’m subtle, and I’ll speak the voice of other people, and I’ll enter their heads and so on. I would say 60 to 70 percent of my work — it could be higher — focuses on women. (Somebody can work out the psychology of that, but I won’t get into that!) And the question becomes: What right do I have? This is a conversation I’ve had with students who write. They want to know: Can I write about somebody not like me? Can I write as a white person, about a Black person? Do I have a right to it? And it’s a really fascinating question because it occurred to me that as a playwright, this question does not come up.  The problem with writing plays is, you are writing other people. You have to find how they sound, and that’s the test. Nobody sits down and goes, Can I do this?  If you’re doing it then you’re doing it. What I got is that permission. But more important, I felt the burden of doing that, the responsibility that I have to be convincing. 

If I cannot empathize with a character, with a voice, enough then I’m failing in the imagination, because the empathy is fundamentally an act of the imagination.  So the failure to write a character is a failure of my imagination and frankly that’s a failure of my craft so I have to work on that to make it work. 

I remember at one point I decided to write a play with a cast of all women because the small company that I had formed, I couldn’t get any guys to join, so I had all these women in the company, and I really had to write plays for these women’s voices.  I said, Sure, I’m going to write this play. So I write the play, and I take the play to the cast, and we do a read around, and they just look at me and go, “This is nonsense. We don’t talk like this! We don’t behave like this! Women don’t talk like this: This is foolishness! We’re not doing the play!” And I thought, But I’m the playwright, like, I’m the artist here. I’ve done all this work! But they were not having it. So then I thought, What the heck am I gonna do? This is a crisis! Then I figured I better learn, though I was what, 21? 20? and convinced I knew everything about women because, you know. (Laughs.) So then I get this brainwave — and to this day I think it was divine — read women poets.  So I went to the library. This is at the University of the West Indies, and for better or for worse, in 1981 I could get all the books by women poets in the library and put them on the table. I could put them all, you know, whatever that meant. And I read, and I read, and I read. And that’s when I ran into Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls” and that changed my life, that work — the multi-voice, the way that she … all the poetry of it and the sheer raw energy of it. I wrote the play again.  I went back to the cast and they said, “Okay, now we can do this — you have to fix a thing or two, but we can do this now.”

Now, the lesson for me was first of all, yes, I can write any voice I want, but there are certain voices I must recognize my distance from and therefore I must work harder. There’s certain risks that one takes, you know — if you’re a white person writing in a Black voice, don’t just think, I’m a writer; I can do that. No, there’s a price that you have to pay to do that, so there’s pressure on you to do better at it.  (Also, it’s a myth that we think we write ourselves better; that’s another myth. We think, Because it’s my story I can … no. Maybe part of your work as a poet to find voice is to really to understand and hear your own voice.) But for me writing for the stage cleared all those problems.  It showed me the challenges, but also showed me that if I don’t do this then I’m not an artist. If I cannot empathize enough with a character, with a voice, then I’m failing in the imagination, because the empathy is fundamentally an act of the imagination. So the failure to write a character is a failure of my imagination, and frankly, that’s a failure of my craft, so I have to work on that to make it work. 

Nice, empathy and craft as essentially linked.

Absolutely, absolutely. I think racism is a failure of the imagination. And racist writers are poor craftsmen.

I’ll have to sit with that.

Work in that. (Laughs.)

The story, the play, the poem: they’re all language, but they’re different maneuvers of language. How are those experiences different for you?  What allows something to come out in one form versus another?

One of the things I talked about in the past that I think is worth saying again is that, you know, people say, “What inspires you to write?” and I really sort of resist that idea. Partly because it’s not that I sit down and go, “Here’s an idea, okay, should I write a poem about this or this?” It doesn’t work that way, not even remotely that way, for me. What happens to me is — okay, two things may happen to me. One is, if it’s poetry it comes in a different way.  What happens to me with poetry is I feel to write a poem; that’s all it is.  It’s just like my body says, “Poem.”  I don’t know what it’s going to be about, and when I sit down to write whatever, I figure it out.  Making the poem is my inspiration, which is not sexy. I mean that’s like saying I need to take a dump, which you know, you just need to do. (Laughs.)

The form that I enjoy the most in its entire process is the play, because the play begins with the idea but it begins to become communal very quickly and that — working with multiple artists and so on — is exciting to me. I find that really dynamic.

To be honest with you, with fiction and drama and the other things, I’m saying I need to write, say, a play. Then I ask myself, What is this play going to be about? I’m not juggling Should this be a play? Should this be a poem? Because they come in the form that they are, there’s no back and forth. And for me, it’s levels of tedium — that’s what it is. Writing a novel or fiction is, frankly, tedious to me; its just words and words and words, all these words! And I just find myself swimming in words. I mean I’ll do it, but I don’t enjoy it.  I enjoy the final product, I do, but I don’t enjoy the process of doing it. 

I guess the form that I enjoy the most in private is the poem. The form that I enjoy the most in its entire process is the play, because the play begins with the idea but it begins to become communal very quickly and that — working with multiple artists and so on — is exciting to me. I find that really dynamic.  So the genre dictates the content and I’m not sitting down saying, I have this great idea, should I write a play?  Should I write a screenplay? I’m not thinking in that way. I’m thinking, I want to write something and let’s see what it’s going to be.

You mention the collaboration, the working with others, and I know you’ve done a whole interview about collaboration and why that’s exciting.  What are some challenges of collaboration?

The biggest challenge of the collaboration is the beginning of the collaboration; that is, picking the right person to collaborate with. I think once you’ve picked the right people to collaborate with, the rest is gravy. Because the problems arise if there’s a vision that doesn’t connect, right? That creates its own problems, and the uneven distribution of either interest or ability can be a problem. When I collaborate with an artist, I want to give up to them what their genius is. I want that to shape the project, and to know that they will trust my genius, my ability to shape the process. That trust is really important because otherwise the collaboration is pointless. If I keep saying while I’m working with somebody that I could do this better, it’s a problem. If somebody else could do it better, it’s a problem. So the key to collaboration is identifying a shared understanding, and then also a willingness to sort of stay in lanes and appreciate how one affects the other.

But every project is fundamentally different. Kevin Simmonds, who I’ve worked with for years, is a remarkable poet and great musician; I have absolutely no problem handing Kevin a bunch of poems and saying, “Set it to music,” and I know that what he will do with it is going to be stunning and it’s going to change even the way that I see my work. I think and I trust that he respects my words so he will do them justice, he will treat them right. So that collaboration works, but for me it’s finding the right person, the right partner, the right artist to work with.  For the theater it’s dependence. I mean, you write a play, you cannot be the play. The actors have to do it, the director, the lighting people — you yourself cannot do it. The trust has to be there.

One of my favorite of your projects is Live Hope Love, which is itself a beautiful collaborative effort. I’m interested in technology as a collaborative partner: How do you see technology as it affects the creative process?

For me this is very pragmatic in the sense that a lot of the work that I’ve been able to do over the years has been brought on by technological changes.  It’s sad to think that I’ve seen so many changes. (I’d like to say that the world has changed fast rather than I have lived long.) When I started writing my plays, just to get copies of the play for the cast, I had to get to a Getstetner machine, okay. I didn’t have much access to photocopying. It existed in 1980, but not in Jamaica, not so easily: you’d have to, you know, take out a loan. So, you type on these sheets of paper that punch into this sheet, and then you run that through the Getstetner machine, and it makes multiple copies. This was revolutionary, because before that we had to write out the play again and again. I know that this change happened 30 years before then, but for me access to that was remarkable. 

So leap forward to 1990, 10 years later, I’m in Canada and I discover e-mail. In 1990, they’re doing e-mail in the basement of the University of New Brunswick, and I write an e-mail to somebody and it is immediately there. Four years before that, I was communicating with my wife, my then-fiancée, by letters, where you have to wait for the letters to come, and then suddenly somebody tells me e-mail can get there that quickly. So when I think of technology I think of how technology has literally transformed the work that we do. For example, the work I do with the African Poetry Book Fund: all the editing we do with all these poets from all over the world is online. The editorial team communicates online and by digital means; we edit, we do PDFs; we send things back and forth; we work with artists, and so on. It has made more rapid the process of making things happen, so when I say that in five years the African Book Fund has been able to publish 50 poets from Africa, that is because of this technological aspect of life.

And it affects so many things. It affects even the notion of exile, because of our capacity to move and to travel. There’s a joke I was telling the other day at a conference and it’s true: there’s a poet, a great poet in Florida, who likes to talk about things he misses in Jamaica — “I miss my mango; I miss my ackee” — and I thought one day, But you’re in Miami! (Laughs.) First of all, mango grow in Miami, and akee grow in Miami; just go down the road and you can get a tin of akee. As a matter of fact, go down the road and you can get a flight to Jamaica and get all the akee you want! And you’re not running from anybody, so what is this poem? So even poetry must be changed because you can’t sing that lament anymore; the world has contracted. 

So it’s a funny way in which technology has been remarkable in that regard. So even the work with Live Hope Love, that we decided to create the platform online, to then use music, to use Josh Cogan’s photographs, to use poetry — all of that is directly because of this access to technology; the Emmy we won for it was for new approaches to reporting. The new approaches were technological approaches, but of course, they affected the form of articulation, the language, the style, the approach, the relationship between sound images and poetry and so on that happened as a result. So for me it’s rich territory. It’s something that has brought tremendous benefit. I’m not the kind who sits down lamenting the loss of the quill. I’m not. I don’t miss it. 

Are you a longhand writer?

I write longhand, yeah: poetry. Fiction is just too many words — just go straight to the computer — could you imagine transcribing all that crap? Too much words. But my poetry I write longhand, for the most part.

I had a professor said that when you decide to make this your work, and you’re just surrounded by language all the time, that your relationship to words necessarily changes — you don’t ever really read “for fun” again. Has making this work changed your relationship with language? And what do you do for fun?

Well, you know, being a writer and particularly an editor has changed my relationship to language, but not tremendously. I’m moved by work because it moves me; I found myself able to be moved by work. And as an editor I’m willing to say that I’m moved by a poem that I may not publish because I realize what connects me emotionally to a work maybe exists, but that the poem itself hasn’t achieved it. It’s not finished or as brilliantly done. Like I said, you can get a really sucky lyric and it’s a great song. So I recognize what seems like a contradiction and I’m comfortable with it. I also read a lot: I read on Kindle; I read a lot of nonfiction; I read a lot of fiction; I listen to audio books and so on, and I’m entertained by that. I’m not sitting down thinking, Oh, I should write this; it doesn’t occur to me. So I have a long list of pleasures that I get that way. I guess my other fundamental pleasure, just pure pleasure, is television. Online: Hulu, HBO, Netflix, Acorn TV, I could go on. There’s a show called 19-2, and it’s a Canadian police drama; it’s shocking — like brilliant — it’s Canadian; it’s really good. There’s a French version set in Quebec and then there’s an English version set in Montreal. They just re-did it. It’s stunning.  So I’ll spend many hours doing that.

You’ve just relieved me of the guilt I feel every time I’m watching something and think, I should be writing right now, but this Criminal Minds episode is really good.

Nope. It doesn’t bother me one bit. (Laughs.) I’m just sayin’. I was looking at that drama, and I realized they said there are 38 episodes. And each episode is an hour, so I just watched 38 hours! And I thought, This is insane! I felt like I’d started watching it yesterday, you know: What happened? When did I watch 38 hours of this thing? I mean, people say you multitask and yes, I do. I do crossword puzzles and I play Scrabble while I’m watching, so that’s multitasking. So I’m really productive. (Laughs.)   

As an editor, you read a lot. What are some common mistakes you see from young poets or people who are sending you things, and what advice do you have for them?

The most fundamental reoccurring problem is a typical thing — there’s nothing new about it: cliché. The failure to recognize just how language is to be used and so on. And you have cliché of language and cliché of idea. I think sometimes we miss that. I think more experienced writers find themselves slipping into the sloth of cliché of ideas.  And then there’s a cliché of self, so if I know somebody’s work and they start becoming a cliché of themselves; that can also be a problem.  So that’s one that stands out. 

The other one that stands out is — and this is a personal thing, I think, it might just be my thing — metaphor. I think the intelligence of form or even an experimentation has to be consistent: if it’s random it should be consistently random; if it is attempting something, there’s a logic to that thing. I think sometimes the thought hasn’t been carried through enough. Similes and metaphors are traps where that happens often, right? And people sort of fob it off, they just go, Well, it’s kind of cute and flashy, but it doesn’t make any sense. And if you dig deeper and ask, Is it really like this? If you push it, you realize that you have not found the right metaphor; you haven’t found the right simile. And we’re attached to sometimes the first thing that comes to us, without the painful, muddy process of saying, Let me try this. Let me try this. Let me try this. Because then it feels like it’s not original — it’s not inspired. I think the lie is that the first one is magical. That’s not true. That’s not true. That just proves to be not true, not the case for me anyway. My first thoughts are not necessarily my best thoughts.

So when I say no to a poem, it’s not always because of, you know … so 80 percent of the time, I’m saying, Look, this poem hasn’t come together. Maybe less than 80. But for the most part I’m putting together an issue that should have a coherence and should have this dynamic relationship.

I read an interview where you push back against the term “tastemaker,” but, you’re a publisher, an editor, you’re a judge, so you definitely have a hand in what reaches the public — the readings, the poems and poets that get seen. What are some things that guide you in those important roles?

Okay. So everything is different to me. Every area in which I’m functioning as a kind of editor is different. If I look at Prairie Schooner, the literary journal, the journal is what I’m putting together. I think sometimes people mistake literary journals as “the best of,” and think we’re publishing the best that comes to us. This is not true. I think people should reconfigure what they think we’re trying to do; certainly what I’m trying to do is to make the issue an interesting issue. An interesting issue means we should be able to read that issue and be drawn through that issue in interesting and fascinating ways that move us, that take us through different emotions, that show sides of things and so on.  I’m interested in constructing an interesting issue, which is different from saying I’m doing the “best of” because the “best of” would mean this — and I’ve used this example many times, but it’s true. Because it happens. There was a period where I was getting a lot of poems by middle-aged men about remembering — not middle-aged; they were like in their fifties and sixties — and they were remembering their first love, right? And there was one season where I had about 15 of these poems that had made it through the round and got to me. Now on their own each of them was kind of interesting, but after reading two of those I was going, Really? Are we doing this again? And now of these 15 poems, eight of them may have been much stronger than a poem about boats sinking in the Atlantic, right? They may be technically stronger.  But I’m not going to publish 15 poems about dudes remembering their first love. That’s not an interesting read unless I do a special issue on dudes remembering their first love. I’m going to use the sinking boat; I’m going to mix it up. So when I say no to a poem, 80 percent of the time, I’m saying, Look, this poem hasn’t come together. Maybe less than 80. But for the most part I’m putting together an issue that should have a coherence and should have this dynamic relationship. So that’s one process. That’s not a “best of” process, and therefore I don’t pretend that we publish the best writing in the world. I don’t know what that looks like.

Now if I’m judging a contest, that’s when I’m really gatekeeping; that’s when I think I’m really involved in this process of eliminating because you’ve got to pick one winner out of 200 or 300. Well, okay, I have to pick one, right? Does that mean the rest of them suck? Each one who loses is going to feel a little sucky about it, but the truth is, that’s not what it means. There’s something limiting about that process, and it’s kind of a crazy process. But I always think of myself doing multiple things: I also recruit work; I also acquire work; I also edit many writers’ individual work to push forward in different places, so every time I see something that I think is promising and interesting, I can be an advocate for it.  And I think that balances my whole attitude of this whole idea of determining taste and so forth.  I think what drives me most is that I’m working with Caribbean poets, African poets, finding a vehicle for their work to shine and to be put out there because there’s been a bias for whatever reason in publishers taking that work. And it’s good work as far as I’m concerned, and in that instance I’m certainly involved in a very aggressive action of trying to bring work to people, and that’s hugely important to me. So I guess I’m in the position that you could call power — I have some power; but I’m not deluded by this power because the power has to be understood in a certain way. If you say, I sent you some poems and you didn’t like them, that’s power, yes. Right? But I also have gone out to look for poems. You see what I mean? So there’s another act to that power that I think is different.

So you situate yourself more as an advocate than a gatekeeper, it sounds like.

Yes, yes.

I have firsthand experience of one of your magical powers having you as my editor — the ordering of poems. You talked about it a bit regarding the journal, but how do you do that with your own work? What are some of the things you do to make a coherent collection?

That’s one of the greatest joys in my life: I love to organize a manuscript. I cannot express how much I love to get a pile of stuff and then to think, How do we present this in the best light? How do we take this from here to there?  All these voices and so on. To me, it’s really a matter of thinking of the entire book, and it’s about thinking of the book as a grand tone poem. A series of tones. That you’re introducing the voice, you know, so that the reader can emotionally connect to that voice and trust the voice early enough so that they will then go on the excursion, take risks, trust the voice going through. And sometimes I’ll make a note and say, We don’t trust you yet. You can’t put this poem here; we don’t trust you yet. We haven’t reached a point where we say, It’s worth it to go with you, because you see, what happens when people read, they’re reading with the understanding that this is going somewhere. If your plan is to disappoint them and that’s your desire, then you have to get us to trust you enough to say, I buy your idea of disappointment as a valid sort of artistic emotional moment. But building that trust seems to be one of the more important things. 

And then, the collection has to have a kind of connective trajectory that helps us to find echoes. Then you play all these wonderful games of using words that echo each other, put in poems beside each other that don’t seem obviously related, but there’s a word, there’s a line, there is something that is echoing, and the reader is going through and thinking, This is really coherent but I don’t know why. It’s very exciting to be able to play that through and organize it in sections thinking about would a section work or should it work through as a whole … I find that to be incredibly exciting. Titles! How titles work with other titles; what an epigraph can do to a poem: all of these things strike me as part of something beautiful and remarkable. And I love doing it. And I think I do it really well because I get a kick out of doing it. I really do. There are lots of things to think about, you know, because I think a book is a whole thing. It’s true especially about a collection of poems because it’s true sometimes we dip through collections, but if we were to sit through 60 pages or 70 or 80 pages, it doesn’t take that long to read a collection, and you want to have that journey; you want to have that trip, through, whatever that trip is. That, I think is rich. You don’t want to be tired of a form. Say somebody says, Okay, half my book is sonnets, and half my book is this other form. The question is do you just dump all the sonnets together? If you do that, do they work that way? Or do you split them up? All these great questions, right? To me they’re exciting questions. As you can tell. 

You’ve written 21 books, and I forget how many of those are poetry books.

No, it’s 21 books of poetry. The rest, you know, we’re going up into the 40s there. 

I stand corrected.

I earn my Hulu time. (Laughs.)

What are you still learning from poems? About poetry?

I discover what I’m thinking by writing. I don’t know what I’m thinking until I start writing. I don’t know what I’m feeling until I start writing. Well, I know what I’m feeling — if I am annoyed then I am annoyed, but that’s not a poem. The poem is a reflective moment — it’s a moment of reflection, and it’s a moment in which the intellectual, the emotional, all of these things are coming together and they’re expressing, and when I start writing then I’m constrained by form. I’m doing a series of poems with the Australian poet John Kinsella, and we’re working with these Spenserian stanzas and just some really fairly strict form. We’re working in syllabics and rhyme, so it’s a rigid form, and we’re going back and forth, but even as you’re writing in this form, the compulsion of finding the rhyme, you’re also discovering ideas, feelings, meaning and so on and so forth.  So I cannot not be writing a poem because as I write a poem, I’m changing, I’m evolving, and the world is changing and evolving, and it helps me to crystalize, or to at least come to some understanding of how I’m engaging this work. How I’m seeing this work. So the pleasure of doing that never never never never never goes away. The necessity for it never goes away.

The other thing I’m very interested in is ekphrasis — working with art. Again, it’s a way of me thinking through and feeling through the things that move me, the things that my eyes see and the things that engage me. So poems are always teaching me because the poem is my way of understanding myself, understanding how I’m engaging the world, how I’m understanding the world. Because we work, we come to understanding through feeling but also through the articulation of language. And in the manipulation and the handling of language, we then discover things, right? Yeah.

So, the world comes in here, and we live in a time where art in general is under threat. And you’ve said in other places that the poem is important enough that it should be subsidized. What is the work of poetry and poem in the world? Why is it so important that it should be subsidized?

So here’s what I would say: I actually don’t think that poetry is under threat. I don’t think so. I think the publishing of it may be under threat, maybe. You know, there’s a notion that I never had, that said I should make my living as a poet. I’ve never had that notion. So if I don’t have that as a burden … Now for you to stop me from writing poems, that’s a different thing, but nobody’s really doing that, at least not in the U.S. currently. Now people will say, “I choose not to write poetry because it doesn’t pay.” I suspect that if that’s the case, good. (Laughs.) Now, you know, should people get paid for poetry? Sure. But the point I’m making is when you take away my ability to write a poem, that’s one thing. 

Now, should poetry be shared? We can restrict that, and that’s been restricted forever: it’s been restricted for gender reasons; it’s been restricted for racial reasons; and we are constantly fighting to have voice, to have the work all there, to have the work shared, and I think that process should not be driven by market systems that say that something has value because it sells well or because it can pay for itself. This is a ridiculous idea, and it’s a ridiculous idea especially in the area of art because the value of the art is not what people will pay for it, right? Because people pay for a lot for nonsense, right? I mean, like, pay a lot for a lot of nonsense. So it can’t be that that shows that it’s valuable, and I think that’s why I say that art should be subsidized. But in a sense, is it being subsidized or is it just being paid for what it is? Either way, whatever we call it, I believe that some forms demand it because their currency may not sell as much; you know, a collection of poets may not sell as many as a novel. Does that mean that the novel is more valuable?  I don’t think so. Its costs … maybe monetarily … it may be more valuable, but in terms of its impact and its necessity in the world? I don’t think it necessarily is.

And I don’t think it’s a sign of a great work that many people see it. I think we will eventually reach the point where if something lasts beyond its generation and its time, we applaud it and we say amen, but we can’t test that. We can’t know that in that way. So for me, actually, I don’t have the sense that poetry in my lifetime is in a healthy state — it’s in one of the most healthy states. It’s more diverse, we hear more voices, the opportunities to publish abound, and I think some exciting work exists. I expect that with all the exciting work, there’s gonna be stuff that’s just not particularly good, but otherwise we won’t know what is exciting, so that doesn’t worry me at all. I do think that writers need that support, and writers who write work that is not necessarily popular should be supported, and the value of the work should not be predicated on its marketability. I think that’s a mistake.

You are a person who has his finger on the pulse of the many voices of poetry out there: Is there something you would describe as characteristic of the poetry of our moment?

I think what is interesting is how we are writing the body in this world. And how we’re writing about this moment by our silences and our noises, right? So, there’s noise abroad, you know? I’ve seen a lot of writers writing TV poems — when they’re writing their socially conscious poems, they’re writing what they watch on TV. So you can see that there’s an episode of CNN or some news story that they’re writing about in the poems. But that’s because it’s ubiquitous, right? News cycles are coming around and around, so I think that’s happening, but I’m always interested in those poets that do something else with it, that take it beyond that, that really go further in their reasoning, their examination, and position themselves within that space. 

It seems self-serving to say this, but frankly some of the best work, the most exciting work I’m seeing, is being written by the poets out of Africa. The poets we’re encountering — whether it’s Ladan Osman or Warsan Shire or Romeo Oriogun — I mean these poets are gifted. They’re not a joke, you know, and my commitment is that they are given the chance to write multiple collections, to build a career that will be substantial. I think one of the problems we have is in the poetry biz today: we’re hyped on over-hyping. A new poet that’s just come up and written one book and we go, like, OMG, this is, like, you know, going to change the universe. It may, but we won’t know that until they’ve written 12 books and we go, The first one was the best. (Laughs.) But we don’t know that, right?  The truth of it is, we have to make space for poets to write their second, their third, their fourth book — to grow with their work and to develop the confidence that they’re not burdened with the task of I have to go win this prize, or I have to do these things. But there are exciting words: poets coming out of the Caribbean, for example. I think this is really exciting. Poets coming out of Mexico: there’s some really interesting work that’s coming out from there. 

So I’m up. I’m excited about it because when I read a collection that is interesting and is fresh to me, it’s because it transported me into a space I haven’t had access to, and the poet’s standing at the door and saying, Come in: that’s beautiful to me. They’re saying, Did you notice this? And I say, Look! There’s that! What?! That to me is something. And I think a lot of times, the people are letting me into the room, but it’s like, Okay, I’ve seen this. You know what I’m saying? But it’s the doorway: that is language. It’s sort of fresh use and engagement of language. And I think that that’s actually exciting.

So the body seems like a very interesting theme with all these poets and what they’re doing is they’re saying, What does my body mean in this space? How do I write about my body in this space? Or the body in this space? This is not new in poetry, but it has become an interesting way of reading what contemporary poetry is doing, and I think it’s exciting.

The age of embodiment.

The age of embodiment. Yeah.

That idea that I’ve met people, I’ve sat on stage with people, and talked to them about their work and had conversations — some have actually read some of my work.  That has been a big deal for me: it’s meant a lot. 

What has surprised you most in your own very impressive career trajectory?

What has surprised me?

Surprised you.

I was gonna say something facetious, but I won’t. See that’s remarkable self-control, right? (Laughs.) Not a whole lot. No, I would say that the people that I’ve been able to meet and to talk to — like grown people — has been a pleasant surprise. You know, to say that I’ve had conversations with writers and poets who I admire and I think are amazing — that I’ve always admired — I’m grateful for that, and I never take that for granted; I never take it as par for the course. When I went to Iowa in 1986 as an international writer, it was a big deal, you know. I got this gig and I was there as the playwright. I’d barely written a poem (well, okay, I’d written a lot, but they were really bad). And there I remember meeting Ngugi wa Thiongo. This is when … this is 1986, right? And Ngugi was starting to say a lot about he’s not going to write in English anymore and so on. I had read Ngugi at university, so to meet meet Ngugi wa Thiongo was huge for me. I met Gabriel Okara. They don’t probably remember that I met them, you understand, but that was huge for me. That idea that I’ve met people, I’ve sat on stage with people, and talked to them about their work and had conversations — some have actually read some of my work. That has been a big deal for me: it’s meant a lot. Now, my father was a writer, and I grew up with people like George Lamming and Kofi Awoonor coming through my home. So it’s not the idea that I’ve met famous people, but I didn’t know them as writers. When I became interested to meet Kofi later on as a writer, him looking at me and saying, “Look at you, little boy, you become a writer now” — that’s huge for me. That’s beautiful. That means a lot. That’s still a pleasure and a joy.


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

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Music haunts the work of our featured poet, Kwame Dawes. His poems include dedications to musicians, invoke music, and indeed create music through his skillful handling of the instrument that is language. 

Make music your muse, too. Write a poem that is immersed in music from subject to structure to style. Turn up the volume, and sing your necessary song.


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

by Kwame Dawes

Our bodies carry so many deceptions —
how easily the ritual of seasons
becomes us. It is wintering now
which means the tawny grass
is not an aberration; it is instead
the confirmation of rest, and so
it is with these hidden bodies.
I want to ask you if you will
not wear scarfs over your head
at predawn, on the road filled
with trigger-nervous Patriots —
this is the fear of our rituals.
Winter is the season of disguise;
we cover ourselves and become
a tribe of woolen fabrics — maybe
I can read your skin in your
walk. On deep, deep nights,
having idled until midnight,
the weekend ahead, I look at these
photographs of black folk gathered
around a piano — how secure
the imagined sweetness of sound
in the open mouths. And still
I know that beneath the fabric
there is the violence of nakedness,
and everybody is a corpse; is
this the language of grace?

Poem copyright 2018 by Kwame Dawes. All rights reserved.

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See more poems from Kwame Dawes debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle:
The Tent of Gladness and The Middle Classes


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

by Kwame Dawes

Take old baseball park staccato bodies
in candid surprise and that dumb
questioning look before recognition
or before thought arrives in the face,
and they say the voice, gravelly,
contained, is Babe Ruth, body eaten
away by cancer, and there they are,
the morose fans, outside the stadium,
lined on the streets, and I see your
brother, and you, too, as if this
is normal, this way your body
climbs over other bodies, white
men clamoring to see, too, and all
of you in fedoras and jackets, and
you wonder what freedom has
come to make this so ordinary
a day — but this is the art of silence,
the absence of smells, like a Rockwell
painting of a Parks photo of a family
cliché, mum and dad anchoring
the sofa, he with his newspaper
in shirt sleeves, she with her
knitting and stretched out on the
rug in teenage splendor, the daughter
doing her sums, and the draping
of filmy curtains, rising above
it all, and so silent in the ward,
that we can’t hear the scent of collards
and stale fish, or the sewer in the back,
but this is the art of a Dream,
and like old Ruth, we all will
die and not away, funking up the joint
in democratic splendor, dust to dust.

Poem copyright 2018 by Kwame Dawes. All rights reserved.

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See more poems from Kwame Dawes debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle:
Singing Around the Piano and The Tent of Gladness

 


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

by Kwame Dawes

We will pay what it costs for yards and yards
of women’s fabric, the centuries of learning
in the fingers of those who turn yarn into this
milky softness that allows the air to enter
and depart, this constant caress on all
skin. Even after the leathering of sun and dirt,
a body washed, talced and massaged,
welcomes the constant affection of the shawl:
it is how a woman loves herself — and when
she draws a child, scowling from the pain
of her scalp stretched to make the beautiful
sculpting of spindling lines, the patterns
of the earth as a crowning over her,
slowly the frown will soften at the protection
that it brings — we must at least say what
it is like: like prayer spilled on the heads
of the blessed; like the wall of a waterfall
sheltering those in the cave; like hiding inside
the voice of a woman singing songs of sweet
melancholy and nostalgia; it is like
the light falling through trees deep in the forest
where all the world has learned to pulse
with your heart’s beat; all one, all one.

 

 

Poem copyright 2018 by Kwame Dawes. All rights reserved.

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See two more poems from Kwame Dawes debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle:
The Middle Classes  and  Singing Around the Piano


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

by Julie Philips Brown, PhD

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

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

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

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

* * *

answer

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(pro)verb

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

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

Fin.
(Debut)

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

—. Forget It. Black Radish Books, 2017.

—. (v.). Gramma Poetry, 2017.

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


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


jpb_authorphoto

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