by Lauren K. Alleyne

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Nikki Giovanni needs no real introduction. Active from her early twenties in public life as a poet, cultural critic, and steadfast advocate for Black lives, Giovanni is beloved by generations of people across the country and, indeed, around the world. Published in a range of genres and media over the span of her career of more than 50 years, Giovanni’s work retains its hallmarks of centering Black life, accessibility, and an admirable blend of whimsy and grit. In her poetry and prose, Giovanni is irreverent to the codes and symbols of power that have exerted their influence on society; more important, her work eschews those symbols, leaning instead on the rituals, food, relationships, and experiences that constitute Black life to depict its richness and abundance, and Black people as agented, vibrant, and joyful rather than victims of oppression. Her most beloved poems, “Nikki-Rosa” and “Ego Tripping,” do that work dazzlingly, with their signature sentiments, “Black love is Black wealth,” and “I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal/ I cannot be comprehended / except by my permission.” “Knoxville, Tennessee,” captures in a heartwarming list what the speaker thinks is “best” about the summer days spent in that place, which includes the opportunity to “be warm / all the time / not only when you go to bed / and sleep.”

In 2019, the Furious Flower Poetry Center honored Nikki Giovanni as the subject of its weeklong summer seminar for educators. During the week, seminar faculty — Drs. Virginia Fowler, Margot Crawford, Howard Rambsy II, and Emily Lordi — discussed Giovanni’s work from various critical perspectives, and the 60 or so participants spent a few hours of their days devising lesson plans and curricular interventions designed to introduce her work to students and encourage critical study of her poetry. As part of the seminar, I conducted a public interview with her and fielded questions from the audience, and as Rambsy said in his lecture, “If you’ve seen Giovanni present to a live audience, you understand that you can hardly refer to what she does as simply a poetry reading in the typical sense. Giovanni’s presentation style is not performance poetry either. Her readings are more events with pointed and hilarious social and political commentary that also includes some poetry.”

As per usual Giovanni was her generous and gregarious self, and we were in conversation (on the record) for about 75 minutes. What appears here is about a third of that conversation, which I edited for clarity and the medium of text, which lends itself less to digression and contextual comments. In addition, I need to note here that the views expressed are those of the poet, Nikki Giovanni, and are replicated here as record of her speech, but not representative of the views of the Furious Flower Poetry Center or James Madison University.

So my first question is: What is it like to be here this week?

I’ve enjoyed being here. This started because Joanne’s a hard person to say no to. [Laughs.] We were up in Wintergreen — the Wintergreen Women’s Collective is so wonderful — and we were all sitting ’round the table and Jo had this voice, you know how she goes, and she said, “I have something to ask you.” And I thought, “Oh shit.” [Laughs] ’Cause I knew whatever it was, I didn’t want to do it. Not that I don’t want to, but it was like, “Ehh” [gestures], you know.

She said, “We want to feature your work, and we want to feature you.”

I’m 76. I hope I’m around a few more years, but I don’t like the position I’m in. But I’ve had to get used to it. When Lonnie Bunch [director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opened in 2016] did the African American History Museum, we went up to see that. But you never think about yourself in a museum. You just don’t. And so, I went up to the opening, and as we were going around and around, there’s a room that says you can just come and tell your story. All the little old ladies, all of the little church ladies — and they had their hats on and they were all dressed — I mean they were wonderful — and they were lined up to tell their story. I was going to tell my story. Even though I’m a writer, I was going to sit down and say what I thought about my grandmother going up to the Highlander School, for example. Rosa Parks went there, the Settlement House, you know. I was just going to share some things that people might not know. But it was just so many of them, and you don’t want to push little old ladies out. And so I turned this way, and I saw my … a picture of me. And without even realizing it, I turned back, looking at — I would bet right now — my grandmother, and said, “See, Grandmother, I did my job.” And it just brought tears to my eyes.

And then when Jo said this, I thought, “You know, this is something you do when you’re dead!” [Laughs.] My papers are at the Mugar Memorial Library [now called Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University], and they’ve been there for 50 years. So it’s a lot, and I’m one of the few people whose papers are actually in order, well-kept, you know. And so things like that, you just don’t think about doing it. When Maya [Angelou] died, you know, Maya took care of everything — she didn’t fool around with anything. She had picked the photograph that she wanted out, and she had written her obit, you know, so that it would be there and everything. I was laughing with my class about that, and they said “Ah, don’t worry, Nikki, maybe you’ll be on a stamp!” And I thought, they don’t understand: in order to be on a stamp, you have to be dead! [Laughs.]

You’ll feel reassured to know that it’s “#LivingLegacy” [Laughs.]

It’s just one of those things. So she asked, and — people should know better than to ask me, but— I thought, “You don’t say no to Joanne because it’s just more trouble than it’s worth.” I was like, “Okay, we’re gonna do it.” And so we’re here. And I think that people have been incredibly kind.

What was one of your favorite books or stories?

 I’m an Aesop fan, because my grandfather loved Aesop. He just thought he did just wonderful work. And I always thought Aesop was a fool. I mean, he’s always telling me, “Work hard,” and I’m thinking, you know, “Get over it.” And it bothered me and still does. I wrote my book, The Grasshopper’s Song, because they talked about, you know, the grasshopper played the fiddle, and the ants were what was called “working.” And then when winter came, and the grasshopper was cold, he went to see the ants. And they were like, “You know, we told you, you shouldn’t have done that.” And I been thinking about that for the longest time. I said, “Wait a minute. How can we say that the music that the grasshopper gave, that allowed you to have a rhythm to work, is not work?” And so the grasshopper sues the ants. (And I love that book so much.) And, of course, the grasshopper won.

But the next thing that really is so close to my heart in that — and I love Grandpop, it’s not that — but I just didn’t like the way that this guy treated the hare and the turtle. Yeah. Because something made the turtle sad, and the hare only had speed, so the hare has to find a way: “How can I give? What do I have? How can I give it?” But the hare is a friend of the fox. And all the fox has is he’s slightly slick. Everybody knows that: “He’s slick like a fox.” And so I have the two of them — they’re really sort of like in Starbucks [laughs], and they’re having their coffee, and they’re talking about their friend, the turtle, and what can they do? And the two of them realized, “I only am sly and I only am fast, so how do we put this together to give a win to our friend?”

And I’ve been — you know, because everybody acts like, again, the hare was a fool. How can the hare be a fool? Because you know, I mean, you don’t have to be smart to know the hare could never have lost to a turtle. The hare had to have wanted the turtle to win. And we all have friends that we see some sad things that are happening to and we want to do something for them. And so no matter how poor we are, how broke we are, we spend, you know, $200 to give them a good bottle of wine. And we say, “Well, I saw this, and I wanted to drink this, and I was hoping …,” you know? We do things. I mean, that’s what you do when you see your friend who’s sad: you go outside of your space.

And so I just know that Aesop was wrong about that, that the hare wasn’t a fool just running around saying things like, “Oh, yeah, I’m so fast that I never have to run.” The hare wanted the turtle to win. And the only thing he had to give was his speed. So he gave it, and that’s what we as human beings do.

What’s the difference between writing for children and for adults?

I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference. Well, I think children are intelligent. And one of the problems that I’m having right now with Standing in the Need of Prayer is the rape scene. And the problem is not the rape scene. The problem is that Donald Trump — we are now finally coming back to when those five young men in Central Park were accused of raping that woman, and Donald Trump took out a full-page ad to say they should be executed. And I had that in my poem a long time ago. And so as we put these together — I’ve had two different editors on this who have asked, “You know, if we could just take that rape scene out,” and my position is: one, it’s my poem, so no. But the reason you want that rape scene taken out is not great. The reason you want to take it out is Donald Trump. And you’re afraid that he’s going to be upset. But first of all, Donald Trump can’t read, which is what I kept trying to explain, so it’s not a problem … [Laughs.]

Now you say, okay, what’s the difference? Well, you and I know what rape is. Children who are gonna read that — and I would hope that children do read it — don’t. So they will read and go over it. And it’ll be awhile before they think, “Oh, I read that when I was a little one.” They can only know what they know. Isn’t that a little part of a love poem? “I only know what I know / the passing years will show.” They will only do what they can do. And so I think that they should — no, not think. It’s going to have to stay in. I will be sorry if I can’t get it published. And that’s the truth.

Tell me more about this new book, Standing in the Need of Prayer.

I love the spirituals: “It’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” And if anybody’s standing in the need of prayer right now, it’s Black men. But white women are about to catch up; white women are about to understand, “Oh, this is what’s been happening,” that we’ve been controlled by these people. They don’t love us. And when you will not obey them, as we saw in Charlottesville recently, you get run over by a car.

And nobody has done the history, and it needs to be done. I’m an Appalachian. I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. Nobody’s done the history of lynching of white women in Appalachia. And we know that the Appalachian Trail was one of the trails that the slaves used as they were escaping. And we know that some of those men said, “Don’t put no quilt out. Don’t be putting no lamp out. I’m not gonna help those people.” And she did it anyway (I’m talking about the Settlement House). She put it out, and the next thing she found herself doing was hanging from a tree. And we know that it’s true. And we know that Viola Liuzzo from Detroit went down to Selma, just to help carry people back and forth. And the Klansmen who came up to her car: they knew they were shooting a white woman. They knew that it wasn’t a light-skinned Negro. They knew who they were killing. And they were killing her because they wanted to show other white women, “This is what’s going to happen to you.”

So I have a great admiration for the white women who have been saying, “Well, you know, we’re tired of it. We’re tired of you putting your hands on our daughters. We’re tired of you saying our 13-year old daughter — Mr. Moore in Alabama — we’re tired of you saying, “Oh, yeah, I gave permission for you to fuck my daughter.” Nobody gives permission for their 13- to 14-year-old daughter!

Okay, so here’s another question for you: In an early interview you said that poems can’t change the world. And I’m curious, because in saying things like, “I’m writing poems for Black men,” etc., what are you hoping your poems do if not change those bigger problems?

Well, I’d say my job is, as I said to my grandmother, I’ve done my job. I’m not trying to change the world. I’m not a fool. And you know, if I thought a poem could change the world, I would have written that poem. What my job to do is to tell the truth. And I think I, well, you know, I’m polite, and I’m easy, you know? I’m not difficult to get along with. And if you say, “Can I have a selfie?” I mean, why the hell not? And so you do some things like that, but I can’t change anybody. There’s nobody in this room I could change.

But … there are thousands of people who —

Except. Except. Except, there’s only one person in this room I can change: me. And I just want to make sure that nobody else changes me. That’s all I care about. Because that’s all I can care about. And if somebody’s sitting there — a young person is to say, “That fool was sitting up there saying she hates that she can’t change nobody but herself; maybe I can change myself.” Because you’re all you got. And you got to start off there. Love: how do you learn about love? You learn about love because you love yourself. It’s true, you know. You wake up in the morning — it’s a good habit, by the way — you wake up in the morning, and you go to the mirror and you smile at yourself. Make that the first face you see, and make sure you see a smile, because you may not see another one. You see what I’m saying? And that’s all. No, I don’t think that a poem can change the world. Well, I just think that I can do what I do.

So in terms of changing yourself, we mentioned this a couple days ago, too, that if you don’t contradict yourself, you haven’t grown. Right? What are some of the things that you find yourself now really thinking differently about? And not just like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have done that,” but serious worldview shifts?

I would love to be able to answer that question, except that I … don’t go back and read my work.

Mm-hmm.

And so listening today to Margot [Crawford, Legacy seminar faculty], I was like, “Oh, did I write that?” [Laughs.]

I don’t go back. I mean, I’m 76 years old. I published my first book when I was, what? 25? 24? Something like that. So I know that there are contradictions. But you know, and I’m sure that if I look at some of my poems, I’d say, “Oh, God, when I said that, I wasn’t…”

I didn’t want to be and I don’t want to be trapped by what somebody else thinks I should be. And so I’m not worried that I don’t get some of the things that some of the other people got, and I’m happy for ’em, the people who get whatever it is they got.  I only know — and no disrespect to anybody here — two [writers] I consider absolutely brilliant. And Toni Morrison is first — Sula and The Bluest Eye — she’s just incredible. And Edwidge Danticat. Edwidge is just an incredibly, incredibly brilliant young lady. And she should get — talk about “getting your flowers before you’re dead” — Edwidge should have a Nobel, just because what she’s done is just incredibly brilliant. I was sorry (and I think it’s prejudiced, frankly speaking) that Bobby Dylan got a Nobel for music, and not Marvin Gaye. Because What’s Going On is the most brilliant work. And you get kind of sick of them taking our music and getting credit for it. Of course, Marvin’s gone, but Marvin Gaye should have gotten that; and if you’re going for the living, then there’s only one other person: that’s Stevie Wonder. ’Cause he’s just brilliant. And I don’t think Stevie knows or cares. I mean, I’m not … but you know, you just get tired of being overlooked. And so you have to be my age to recognize that overlooked is probably the best thing to be because you remain sane and happy. And that’s important. It really is.

You do a lot of work with music and sound. You talk about it in your poems, but what is your relationship to music in terms of writing?

I think I’d be lost without it! I mean, I’m on the grasshopper’s side. I think I’d be lost without music. Yeah, you gotta have music. And I, at times, because I travel a lot and — I don’t want to say I don’t travel well. I think I get where I’m going. But I couldn’t get on the plane without music because I’m a nervous flier. Jesus and I are on pretty good terms, but if he’s gonna take me out, he’s gonna take me out with something that makes sense. He’s not gonna take me out screaming. I’m just gonna be listening to John Coltrane as it goes on down. Jesus knows that. [Laughs.] And music has always been a part of … it is a part of my life. I don’t have a voice. I’m so sorry, too, because one of the reasons I like spirituals is because you don’t have — some of you people can sing — but you don’t have to have a voice to sing a spiritual. You have to have a voice to sing rhythm and blues, you know … I like Billie Holiday, though, because she doesn’t have a voice. Somebody had asked her once, you know, “How come you sound like you do?” and she said “I sound like myself. I ain’t gonna sound like the rest of them.” [Laughs.]

And, of course, I had an argument recently. Ginny [Virginia Fowler] was with me. I was talking to somebody who thinks he knows music. I said, “Yeah, Billie Holiday wrote Strange Fruit.” And he said, “No, Billie Holiday didn’t write that.” And I said, “Billie Holiday wrote Strange Fruit.He said, “Well, where can I find that?” And I just had to look at him. I didn’t call him a name, which I usually would have done. I said, “I just told you. What the hell do you mean, ‘Where do you find it?’ You found it ’cause I just fuckin’ told you.” It makes you crazy. Because anytime you see “traditional,” you know that it’s one of our songs that somebody stole. And honest to God, we all have white friends and stuff, but that’s what makes you mad. Don’t be motherfuckin’ stealing from me and then acting like [mocking], “Ahh, I didn’t realize I was stealing.” Of course you did. And Billie Holiday … in case you’re on Jeopardy and you have a question, Billie Holiday wrote Strange Fruit. Not Herzog. Billy Holiday. And it’s that kind of thing that makes you crazy.

But music means everything to me. As a little girl, I always used to say my parents fought, but they didn’t. My father beat my mother. And I had to have something to block that, so music is gonna block it. When I finally moved to Knoxville with my grandparents I listened to WGN. I never forget WGN. I remember my grandmother’s phone number: 3-1593. I don’t remember my mother’s phone number, but I remember grandmother’s phone number. And I remember listening to WGN, which went off at midnight, and I would cuddle with the radio. We had this old, plug-in radio and I would listen. I think many-a-night — and she never said anything about it — but I think many-a-night my grandmother must have come in and turned the radio off. She must have known. She must have known a lot of things. She must have known what her daughter was going through; she must have known what I was running from, and why I plugged that radio in. She must have known. Because she’s a mother. She must have known. But I remember waking up many-a-day and the radio was off, and I remember thinking I must have done it but it took me a while to decide that, no, Grandmother must have come in and turned the radio off.

So one last question before I open it up. This is “The Living Truth” — right? — “The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni.” And living truth can’t be easy. Right? So what are the biggest challenges of living that way? Living in truth in the way that we understand being Nikki Giovanni is. And also what are some of the costs?

I happen to know … again, I’m lucky. I think it would be incredibly expensive to be Whitney Houston. It’s cheap to be me, because I’m just me. But Whitney was trying to please her mother. And all of those people. And we watched what happened there. We watched her die. We watched her go. And we have seen so many actors and singers, and we watch the price they pay for being, I don’t know, famous or whatever. And I think it’s overblown. So, when I go to the grocery store, sometimes people will come up to me and say, “Oh, I really love that poem.” It takes you five minutes, you’re in Kroger’s for God’s sake. And they say, “Oh, yeah, my cousin really likes you.” And the only time it worries you is when you fly, and you’ve been on the plane for four hours and you get off and now you have to pee. Somebody will stop you and say, “Oh, can I take a picture?” and you try to be nice about it, you say okay, but pee is about to start running down your leg. [Laughs.] I had to laugh about that, but, uh, I think I’m just happy with my life. I was being interviewed by another young lady recently who came in from Chicago and she said — and you know, it’s true, but she said — “You know, you’re not really all that famous.”

I’m happy with my life and I’m happy with, as I said to somebody else: “The house is paid for, I don’t want any new cars, and my dog has all of her shots, so get out of my face. You got nothing to offer me.” I think you have to … I watch Gladys Knight — and I don’t like Gladys, so I don’t mind saying it — Gladys is crazy as a loon. And I have watched who she is (if you know her at all) and I watch her like, “Oh, it’s such a burden.” Well, how did it get to be a burden that you got what you asked for? How did that get to be a burden? I enjoy what I do. I don’t need to be on the cover of People magazine. I just don’t need these things. And so I’m happy that when we come, we have a nice audience here. I’m happy to meet you all.

I really love li’l ol’ ladies. Any time I get asked to come to one of the old folks’ homes or something, I do it. And a good friend of mine just had her 50th high school anniversary. (I love her so much, and as Ginny points out to me, I call her a li’l ol’ lady but she’s not — I’m older than she is!) But she was so excited — and she ended up having not really a stroke, but we had to call 9-1-1 for her and I was just so sorry because it had meant so much, and she had worked so hard, and so I asked, “You all got those phones that do those things?” And so I asked if somebody could do a video for her because she was in the hospital. I don’t know the point of living if you can’t do that.

You know, you take what life gives you. And we were talking about — and I’m sure we’ll talk about it again on Friday, but, see, I am a Christian. My grandmother was a Christian. What Jesus teaches me is to love those who love you. Because there were people Jesus didn’t love. They’re like, “Ooh, Jesus loves everybody!” No. No, he didn’t. But he loved the people who loved him. And I like to think that at 76 I have loved the people who loved me. And that’s what’s important to me.

Thank you! We’ll move to audience questions now.

This is probably going to be a cliché question, but could you take us through the writer’s process for you? How do you write? When do you write? What’s the discipline of your writing? And if you were to give us advice as to how to write for ourselves, write for others, tips for young writers … Take us through that writing process and the importance of how you do it.

I think the first thing — and this is gonna sound cliché — is you gotta have something to write about! A lot of people say, “I wanna be a writer!” and they don’t know shit. They haven’t read anything; they don’t know anything. And I was sitting here talking about Aesop and a lot of you youngsters, if you haven’t read him, you’ve got to. And it doesn’t matter your religion, you gotta know the New Testament. Simply because some of the best stories in the world have come from the last 2,000 years. Some of them need to be reinterpreted!

I think you need to know where you are. There are some things that you cannot handle; let me just say that as a 76-year-old woman. There are some things in your life, right now, for you youngsters, that you can’t handle. You don’t understand it, you don’t have enough sense to understand it, you haven’t been through enough. Let it go. It will come back to you. If it’s important, it will come back. You have to have some faith in yourself, and I said that recently, too — wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and smile at yourself. It may be the only smile you get. But then you’ll know, when you come home in the evening, you can smile again. That’s important.

I think that the other thing is — what are you interested in? You know, I asked my class, and I’ll do it every time, I say to my class, “Tell me what the number-one bestseller is.” You know not one of them knows? Not one of them knows what the number-one bestseller is. Then why do you wanna be what you don’t know? Why would you wanna be that? Why wouldn’t you wanna be that which you could be proud of? So you’re asking. My process is: there are things that interest me.

Hi! So you talk a lot about how happy you are now, so maybe you could talk about the process to that kind of joy. Like if it involves getting a partner who you really love, or challenging yourself in certain ways, having certain people in your life, getting certain people out of your life. Could you just talk to us about your path to joy and tell us how you got there and let us know how we might get there, too?

I have a bad memory. And so that’s been a great help. [Laughs.] It’s the truth! But I wrote a poem, the first poem that ever got any attention that was interesting to me was “Nikki-Rosa.” And I had made up my mind when I wrote that poem that I knew: “Childhood remembrances are always a drag if you’re Black.” I got tired of people saying, “Oh, those poor Black people!” you know, you just get tired of that.

The end of that poem says, “But all the while, I was quite happy.” Well, I wasn’t. Because at 75 — and I’ve started to deal with it, you know, to share where I am — I’ve always tried to share. I made up my mind, my happiness is my business. I have to make up my mind. And so, I made up my mind that I wasn’t gonna let — and I think I started a poem someplace that said, “When I finally realized my parents’ marriage was not my business.” And that’s something you learn when you’re my age. It’s not something that you know.

And you mentioned a partner. I have been fortunate … and I mention Ginny because I love Ginny, and I think Ginny loves me—but when I didn’t have Ginny, I had my mother. I had my grandmother. And so I finally had to realize — and I adored my sister — but I realize whatever it was, my mother was looking out for my sister because she knew that I could look out for myself. And it took me a while to understand that. That Mommy didn’t dislike me. She just knew that I could do it. I could take care of myself. But Gary always came to me, whenever Gary needed something, she came to me because she knew that I would look out for her. And so things like that are important.

And I think that as a woman … my Aunt Agnes calls me. Her husband Clinton died, and her son had cancer. And her other son William, who we called Little William, had died. And so she only had Terry. She knew that Terry was dying. And so there was just — she didn’t really have anybody I guess but me. But she called me one day, you know as one of those your-aunt-calls-you things. And she said, “Do you have a minute?” So we were talkin’, and she said, “You know what I wish I had?” And I said, “No, but what do you need, Ag?” She said “I wish I had a Ginny.” And it was something. I appreciated that because there are people who wanna make a judgement about your life. And they wanna make a decision about how you live. And so I appreciated Ag saying [that], ’cause she was a relatively … she was a middle-class Black woman. So, she’s gonna have feelings, and I appreciated her being able to say, “I wish I had a Ginny.” Because she finally realized you got to have somebody of your own. No matter what other people have to say about it. You’ve got to have somebody of your own. ’Cause if you don’t, you’re the only person that’s losing. ’Cause all those other people are watching you be alone because you don’t have anybody to eat dinner with. You don’t have anybody to look at Jeopardy with. You don’t have anybody to talk to. You don’t have anybody when you want to go down to Aruba and they say, “Oh, I’ll go with you, honey.” You don’t have anybody, so nobody’s gonna say, “Aw, isn’t that wonderful, they’re all alone.”

And we women outlive men. And so, the men are dead and there you are by yourself. And I’ve watched too many friends with big houses, and there are parts of the house they don’t even go to because they’re too tired to walk up the steps. And you think, “Well, sell the house!” “Well, I don’t wanna sell the house because this is the house Jim and I bought.” You know, you think, “What are you gonna do with it? And how are you gonna find somebody? And if you don’t wanna sell the house, find somebody to live with.” And what they’re afraid of is somebody calling them gay or something like that, and I can’t think of anything nicer to be called than gay. You gotta let yourself be happy. If you had asked me this 50 years ago, you’d probably get a very, very, very different answer because I was a different person.

And I just think I was really so lucky to have found Ginny and that she puts up with me because it’s not easy living with people like me. No, it isn’t, for a lot of reasons. We’re artists, and it’s hard to deal with artists. And we lookin’ at things different and it’s just — it’s not easy. And I’ve watched too many of my friends try to please people that they couldn’t please. And I mentioned Whitney Houston. The thing that makes me very, very sad about Whitney was that she should have kept Robyn [Crawford]. They pushed Robyn out of her life because they were jealous and they wanted to control her and they didn’t want to have anyone with something to say, you know? And once Whitney lost Robyn, she didn’t have anybody. And when she didn’t have anybody, she turned to drugs. And Bobby Brown. And death. And you can’t let that happen, ’cause you don’t know these people. I worked with her mother and I thought that she was wrong. Not that I had anything to do with how she raised and reared her daughter, but you know I thought she was wrong. What do you care what somebody else has to say when you have a daughter as wonderful as that? And now she’s gone, you’re by yourself, and what? Everybody’s happy? You’re proud of yourself? What the hell?! She should have had Robyn. Robyn was her … her friend. And there are other people that I won’t name who have had enough sense to say, “I’m not gonna let life beat me down.  I’m gonna find the people that I care about. And anybody who doesn’t like it …” ’Cause otherwise you’re out there by yourself, and you don’t have anybody to talk to. The things that make life worthwhile you’ve given up. And that just doesn’t make sense. And, of course, I’m never gonna be rich, so I don’t have to worry about money, but like I said the house is paid for, I don’t need another car, and the dog has her shots. What more could I want?

I had my class write [about] what is enough. We talked about that, and I had them write what is enough. And the best paper there was a young woman’s. It was a young woman who wrote about her mother’s breast cancer. And that her mother survived it. And that was her last line: “And that is enough.” It was an A paper. That’s an A paper. She said she had her mother, and that’s so wonderful!

One of the things that inspires me most about you is your perseverance as a writer and, I think, as anybody who wants to do anything. What makes you want to keep going? Like, after rejection and people telling you, “No, I can’t do this.” What makes you keep saying, “Yeah, I’m gonna make this effort to do this?”

[Laughs.] I hate to laugh because I haven’t had any rejection letters in a moment. I haven’t gotten a rejection letter in so long. The New York Times called and asked me, because this is their 200th year anniversary of the thing in Jamestown (it was 1619, and this is 2019) — and so they’re doing a thing on importing things. And they called and asked me and I did what, in all fairness to everybody, is an incredibly beautiful piece, and I turned it in and the girl’s name is Nicole, by the way. And Nicole said, “Okay, it doesn’t have a date connected to it.” I said “Well, slavery has been with us since forever.” And it’s really wonderful. What I loved about it is I live in Virginia and we are the peanut capital and the peanut is not normal for Virginia. Somebody had to bring it over. And so what I have, because we don’t like to talk about it but it’s nonetheless true, [is that] Africans sold us to Europeans and I have — ’cause I’m a grandmother — a grandmother put a peanut in the hand of her grandson and say, “Don’t forget me.” And so he brings that, despite everything of Middle Passage, to America. He gets sold in Jamestown and he plants it. Now he’s got this plant because he’s promised his grandmother. And other people say. “We’re leaving tonight!” You know, and he says. “I’m not leavin’.” “Oh, you’re just being a coward. You’re just being an Uncle Tom.” But he had a promise to keep. And I wanted to point out that he kept it. Virginia had a promise to keep, and it hasn’t. And so it was rejected. She [Nicole] said, “Well, can’t you make some changes in it?” and I said, “No, sweetheart, I can’t make changes in a beautiful, perfect piece. So I understand that you are the New York Times and I’m not, so I’m gonna take my piece” and it’s called “1619 Jamestown,” and it’s my piece — “and I’m gonna keep it.” I think that they’re gonna understand that it should open their piece. I don’t care if they do or don’t. It’s gonna be in my book. And I love that piece so much. ’Cause we forget the promises that we kept when we came to this country. And the country did not keep its promise to us. And so, you know, you say, “What do you do with rejection?” What the hell? Go on about your business.

There are stories about Middle Passage. They’re so — I mean, you just cry. There are stories about okra. That we haven’t gotten anywhere near. And I wanted to point out that Virginia had a promise to keep, and it hasn’t. How did okra get here? And I think of that as a girl. It had to be a girl that brought that here. And it had to be something she remembered. Her grandmother — there are things — and I’m just always being amazed at you youngsters not using your history. If you would use what you know, and quit worrying about who does and doesn’t like it, you’d have something. And I can’t make you do that; all I can do is what I do.

But there are some incredibly wonderful … “It’s me, o Lord! Standing in the need of prayer.” But I’m not sure we know what prayer is. “Now I lay me down to sleep.” That isn’t a prayer. Prayer is when you cut your father or your brother from a tree and he’s been spit on. He’s been cut up into pieces. That’s a prayer. You have to ask the Lord: I need… “I’m standing in the need of prayer.” What do you do when your daughter is raped and spit on? You need a prayer. And that ain’t “now I lay me down to sleep.” What made those people find those words? These are great people and that’s what most of y’all don’t know. These are great people — we are great people. We have come through it, and we will continue to go through it.

Think about it. Think about the stories we had to tell. But then you can go back and think about the stories that the folk in Germany, the folk in Austria … think about the folktales. White people had the same stories. The same folktales. Walt Disney then gonna take it and make it cute. But there’s nothing cute about any of that. There’s nothing cute about Rapunzel letting down her hair. You know that bitch wasn’t up there in some castle, some place. This is about sex. It’s about somebody wanting to have sex with her, raping her maybe. The wolf in the forest, this isn’t about some wolf. And no matter what they try to do, no huntsman comes along and splits him open and everybody’s gonna live happily ever after. And nobody says, “What does the mother think when she loses her daughter and her mother?” Where is that mother? Who only wanted her daughter to help her mother. They make it her fault. They make it the daughter’s fault. “Oh, yeah, it was her daughter’s fault for telling the wolf where she was going.” I don’t know what she told the wolf, but I know this woman lost the two people who meant so much to her. There’s no story about that. You all aren’t thinking about what you know. You’re not thinking about what you’ve been hearing all your life.

I hate Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer because it’s about bullying. I have a good friend who’s a critic, that’s what she does, and we have an argument. It’s not a bad argument. She says that they didn’t like Rudolph ’cause he was gay. I say they didn’t like Rudolph because he was colored. But I know one thing: It ain’t funny. I don’t sing it, and by the time I finish with my class, they all hate it. As well they should. And now you’ll go down in history because you did something. Because, what, your name was Joe Lewis and they needed someone to fight? Or your name was Jesse Owens and they needed—? Santa didn’t come around until one foggy Christmas Eve. You get sick of that shit.

There are stories that you all are overlooking. There are stories that you know. You gotta read a book. And you gotta be… you just gotta find a way to be content that you are doing your share. That if your grandmother — because that’s who I’d count on, mine — if she was there, you could say, “I did my job.”

 


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren 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), 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 Nikki Giovanni

My mother died
13 or 14 years
Ago

I took the flowers
Home
And put most in
Water
The gift of life

They sit by the window
In the sunnyside
Of my bedroom
And the roots
Have taken hold

Sometimes a leaf
Will yellow
And I pull it off

It is dead

And there must be
Room
For a new leaf

Things that are dead
Cannot be saved

My mother will always
Live in my heart

All nazis must be Picked
And thrown
away

 

Poem copyright 2020 by Nikki Giovanni. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Nikki Giovanni debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: January 26, 2020” and “Winter Homes.”

 


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

After photos by Brian Kaufman 

by jessica Care moore

 

You must wonder where the humans
                                         have gone.

Our vision, a  blurry blues behind a shy moon.
An indifferent burst of purple & yellow  light 

We exist.

As you continue to blossom life, affirm the new day.

Uncoiling your beautiful limbs, expanding  black & orange wings 
Against a turquoise sky. 

A necessary  crack in the stone, 
Spilling into lake 
forced to flower. 

A reflection of a people.
A constellation of questions

We wonder at your wonder.
As invisible fires full of stories  burn deep into a night sky
Deeply rooted, buried inside the core of  our planet
As you continue to show us 
how to transform                      a universe of rooms. 

Radiant signs of life.
Courageous greens, petaled hands of peace
Camouflaged as haiku-ed sunsets 

You show up &  defy odds
bloom into a symphony of colors

Oh! How thousands of tears have joined with this familiar rain
to water our possibility 
How you push through bitterness, 
      confusion and climate change.

Still, so still – we hear every song, every wind wrestling with our 
Sugar  Maples, Hemlocks. Our tall oaks, red as dawn.

We contemplate our next season with anxiety, with uncertainty. 

Change is a necessary sound.  

You are not silent as you take over the forest, the backyard, 

Our comfort zones. 

Delicate and fearless.

How we envy your  ability to grow 
Even when the foundation is unleveled 

How you shake loose all expectation
Embody a song of  freedom inside the harps &  strings 
Spines & bones & rubbery flesh of 
Small, incredible creatures.  

Fierce Eagles facing their own mirrors 
We are a reflection of your power.

Resilient Spring! 

The beautiful       in between 
The rise before     the Fall.

We need your grace.

               Now,  more than ever.  

 

 

 

Poem copyright 2020 by jessica Care moore. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from  jessica Care moore debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Define Safety,” and “Ramadan 20 Vs COVID-19.”

 


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

 

(Isolation Poem #3)

by jessica Care moore

Mornings are so heavy
Birds & Silence
Tea whistle on repeat

Isolation is not always
a safe place

I know little girls wishing
For wings, now.

Women who can’t escape
Violence by staying in, anymore

The birds know all
Singing is an act of survival

This mourning, is heavy
Silence cuts the air, thin as needle

Searching for an opening.

 

 

 

 

Poem copyright 2020 by jessica Care moore. All rights reserved.

&


See two more poems from jessica Care moore debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Resilient Spring”  and  “Ramadan 20 Vs COVID-19


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

&

jessica Care moore’s newest book centers around a demand: “We Want Our Bodies Back,” in which she names the ways in which Black women’s bodies have historically and are currently coopted, abused and degraded. She names slavery, the disappearance of Black girls, the wanton murder of Black women’s families as specific injustices enacted on her as a Black woman and the poem is a demand that these be acknowledged and remedied. Write a poem in which you call out a specific injustice — name its roots, its faces, its manifestations, its harms — and then demand the change that you believe would effect justice and repair.


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

by jessica Care moore 

(On the first day of Ramadan, April 23, 2020)

There are millions
Of reasons to fast

Three of my girlfriends are expecting

The Jesus children
wearing rosaries round their necks
Praying death will leave salt city

The news repeats itself, therefore, is
No longer news

We, right across the street from Lebanon
We tout the biggest masjid in the country

We have always removed shoes
Before entering our sacred homes
Wujud our bodies clean beyond 20 seconds

Detroit hijab wrapped covered beauties
Watching them all  rocking burkas, now

The projects remain the cleanest kitchens
Smells of Clorox Bleach and metal ironing boards
Creased into our daily routines

Cleanliness is next to Godliness
Sunday best     Friday is Jumah

We all praying to any ancestor
Still listening

Smiles taste like tears
Songbirds begin at 4am

My friend has lost her mother
grandmother
& Aunt             My best friend, her sister
Maria

I am brushing off the dust of my red prayer mat
Listening to Jon McReynolds and Kirk Franklin
I need everyone

Even black Jesus
to help get  us all through this

Yes, race still matters

We are not people of color
In Detroit, we are black

Upsouth people

Ma Sha Allah
Ma Sha Allah

The call to prayer is louder
Than the death toll

The call to prayer never silenced

We never die anyway
Abiodun Oyewole  reminded us
We return, we move on, we become

Psalms 23 won’t finish the day
The clocks are flying across the room

Which day is it
Whatever day you feel
Is necessary for right now   Pick one.

Which day do you feel the most beautiful

What else to do with this time
‘Cept tell somebody it happened

We were alive when the world stood still

Mahogany, Ryan and Randi
Are all pregnant during a pandemic

These resilient babies won’t stop
For outbreaks   Wait for it to end

Life continues

Even when we decide it is over
When humanity is finally white flagged
& all the oxygen from the Amazon
Is bottled and taxed like new shoes

The magnolia tree will still blossom
The same time every year in the backyard

All those thick colossal roots laughing
At our fragile bones

How we climb, how we dream
To be so bold as you

How our arms shadow your branches
How we wish to be songbirds worthy
Of your protection

The playing field is not playing
Nature is calling   Science is searching

But spirit has this all figured out
And it’s not in any of those books
Made from dead trees

Faith is not a word    It’s knowing

Belief that there is something absolutely
Beyond this place

Something that will heal the wounds
Inflicted on a continent

Sami Allahu liman hamidah  

Praying 5 times a day
May not be enough

To purge the sins against the
womb of the earth
against the hungry bellies of
The chosen people

Fasting may be the only way
To clear out the noise

The sirens the gunshots the lies

No distance
Between faiths anymore
Pick a book, any holy book

We all die in the same position
Legs spread open, mothers pushing out
the next  tomorrow

It doesn’t matter
how we die

Or at what speed

It only matters
what we are willing to die for

Let it be for the first cries
Let it be so the world is made

anew

 

 

 

Poem copyright 2020 by jessica Care moore. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from  jessica Care moore debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Define Safety,” and “Resilient Spring.”

 


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

 

By Allia Abdullah-Matta, PhD

&

As if one could ever forget the image of a visibly Black woman poised on a brown and white pinto horse in the center of a city street. Tinted dreadlocks under her black fedora/top-hat blend, long feather earring, decorative knee-high boots, long-strands of pearls around her neck, a bow in hand adorned with an Indigenous dream catcher, feathers blowing in the wind: She is jessica Care moore. She is “from an army of glowing yellow / black princesses / some of us indigenous, even if the full blood family don’t claim us” (We Want Our Bodies Back 57-62); this poet, activist, publisher, educator, performer, and mother describes her presence in the womb as “the fire in her mother’s belly” who became “just a little brown girl / in pigtails and poems.” I would know moore and her poems anywhere — on the Showtime at the Apollo and Def Poetry Jam stages, strolling in the lobby of a conference hotel with her son King — especially the way her spoken word resonates in my ears and on the page. moore has trained a generation of witnesses and poets. She started Moore Black Press in 1997, which published four of her poetry collections, The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth (1997), The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto (2003), God is Not an American (2008), and Sunlight Through Bullet Holes (2014); and recorded an album, Black Tea: The Legend of Jessi James (Javotti Media, 2015). Her fifth collection, We Want Our Bodies Back (Amistad, 2020), begins as an homage to Sandra Annette Bland (1987-2015) and serves as an important cultural, historical, and poetic reckoning in which moore reminds us about the urgency of reclaiming Black bodies. She characterizes the text as an active “call to action, [and] to prayer, for women who’ve lost family members, our children, and even our own lives to unjustified police violence and profiling” (Meridians 2018). moore dedicates the collection to Bland and Ntozake Shange, and throughout the body of the text she constructs a tableau of some of the most important Black poets and musicians in African American letters and cultural production. We Want Our Bodies Back is moore’s cultural and poetic love song to her people, and she implores us to preserve our history, to hold onto our lives and souls, and to fight to breathe.

moore discusses her bodily experiences, how she felt as a curious girlchild who knew things and “was allowed to be a girl” (“Introduction” xv) and she sounds an alarm about how early our bodies are threatened. She addresses that Black women’s bodies “can be in danger in public spaces, let alone private ones,” notes the ways in which Black women artists such as herself and Betty Davis (1970s funk icon) experience “erasure from the male dominated entertainment industry,” and states her intention to combat this erasure by reclaiming and creating “a safe space to speak about the sexism and silencing of Black women’s voices in the arts” (xix) through Black WOMEN Rock! Further, moore indicates her artistic, political, and poetic intentions to situate the experiences of girls’ and women’s bodies by posing questions that she answers throughout the text — “when you decide to give your body to someone, what exactly do you receive in exchange? If we, in fact, do ‘choose’ to ‘give up our bodies,’ when do we get to have our bodies back?” (xviii)

We Want Our Bodies Back calls us to stand at attention; moore frames the collection with the spirit of “artist, musical storyteller, and griot” Nina Simone (1933-2003). The four section titles echo Simone’s song titles: “Wild Is the Wind,” “I Put a Spell On You,” “I Got Life,” and “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” Thus, moore places readers under a concrete and symbolic spell marked by ancestry, history, language, memory, music, poetics, voice, and witness. moore takes readers on a journey of existence and subjugation, and she makes Black folks remember the power and significance of our breath and the word.

The poem “She Was.” in the “Wild Is the Wind” section takes up issues of history, language, and voice. The speaker begins with the politics of language for African Americans in the west:

I have convinced myself
I speak french
Somehow I will find a way to make
a Perfect sound

An: un/english

I don’t know
What else to do
With this language cept
Murder it. (9)

moore does several things in this poem: She points to historical and contemporary violence against Black people and their culture, language, and bodies. She plays with the so-called conventions of language as well as poetic form and space on the page; her choice to capitalize some words in the beginning and others in middle of lines, and to make proper nouns (“french” and “english”) lowercase, indicates her intention to create and enforce new language rules (“An: un/english”). The speaker can only “murder” the language, “Dig out its eyes. Every vowel. Till it suffocates” (10), which emphasizes the linguistic and bodily trauma of Black people:

Choke the breath out of this alphabet
I need more than 26 letters to articulate
How I survived you.
How we survived
calculated attempts to blow
the heads                                 off our sons (lines 11-16)

She illustrates that experience(s) are “marked” by language and “unmarked” by her poetics of meaning and her attention to form. Her clever uses of capitalization, punctuation, line/stanza spacing are clearly at odds with the language itself. She collapses short phrases into one line (“Dig out its eyes. Every vowel. Till it suffocates”), and places one-liner single stanzas throughout: “An: un/English,” “I prefer a sober hallucination” (31); “the editors are resisting my twist in plot” (43); and “is this a poem or a romance?” (46).

moore’s speaker refers to numerous attempts to kill the sons of her people and reminds readers that these poems are narratives of survival. Throughout the collection, moore refers to the horrific murders of Black bodies (Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner), all of which were public lynchings across the United States. It is important to note that moore wrote and performed the poem “We Want Our Bodies Back” as part of fundraising and activist work to support the family of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She was one of the few women speakers asked to perform, and it was her intention to situate Bland and to make sure that folks would say and remember her name. moore illustrates that Black women are on the front lines, and she uses and relates her own physical and spiritual fatigue and trauma to others, as a result of “years of activism and the pain of black mothering in a time of war” (Meridians 230). Thus, her tone is unapologetic and her movement across the page in “She was.” skillfully scaffolds the past and the present. She contextualizes history and culture in the midst of our attempt to survive and love ourselves. Her stanzas are a mélange of an African past: “Veil full of cowrie shells”; “The Door of No Return”; a spiritual presence, “plastered afroed yemanja,” “she spoke French / senegalese dialect, “queen kuntas,” “Oya laughed”; layers of romantic love, “jessica is always in love / love is a distraction from love,” “our bodies/fell in love”; and ancestry in “she wears the same petals my grandmother wore,” “figure the ocean is our most authentic / photo album,” “we just know we Moors’ / conquered Spain” (9-17).

In the poem “I am not ready to die,” also in the “Wild Is the Wind” section, moore highlights how Black women are objectified and subjugated:

I wish these new girls would get the fuck
off their knees and transform
a room
With subtle power and grace (lines 8-11)

moore poses questions that challenge readers to think about the problematic messages that flood popular music and culture: “When did it become okay to die in this country / On our knees?” (lines 14-15). She contrasts the valueless messages that inspire folks to be on their knees and points to the importance of self-education to combat digital slavery:

I read books without screens
I have sex with men my age
                        whenever i feel like it.

I love my hair, my ass, my breasts.
I’m clear that my power is between my ears
Inside my chest.

Black girl magic doesn’t grow between our legs (37-43)

This is an important critique about how Black women should value their bodies and not follow “the mythology of men” (line 44). The speaker’s reference to loving the natural contours of her body (her hair, breasts, and ass) situates the contemporary narrative around women’s bodies and a culture that does not honor the nature of Black bodies. Here moore claps back at a culture that pimps implants and unhealthy, problematic constructions of sexuality, and perpetuates women on their knees and on stripper poles. She asks, “how much / ?   to get you off your knees? / Sis?” (lines 45-47). This poem also grounds a revolutionary commentary that privileges the stream of self-awareness and change that runs through the collection:

Imma keep living inside poems
you didn’t know were left

for you

If you would just get off the got-damn
FLOOR you could see. (lines 59-63)

moore admonishes women to get off of their knees and to stand up as Queens. She gestures to a list of women singers and hip-hop artists, “microphones are not stripper poles” (line 83). She follows the philosophy and action of foremother poet Sonia Sanchez. In “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values,” Sanchez states, “the poet then, even though she speaks plainly, is a manipulator of symbols and language-images which have been planted by experience in the collective subconscious of a people. Through this manipulation, she creates new or intensified meaning and experience whether to the benefit or detriment of her audience” (20). moore manipulates symbols and language throughout this collection and illustrates that her work is a call to action and to consciousness.

The section I Put a Spell on You further establishes moore as a cultural historian and poet who passes down memory, music, poetics, and voice. “Because if I don’t write” is a Black girl’s treatise that holds her living memory, experience(s), and voice. moore references Shange and Angelou and her own act of writing and leaving Black girls “a trail of tears” as witnessed by the documentation of their lives, and what they need to know to preserve memory and their souls:

Because if i don’t write
You will write for me
tell historians black girls were
crazy
invisible
lost in time
Wishing to turn our bodies inside out
Become unrecognizable to our own mothers
Desecrate our faces
Because we hated our own
mirrors. (lines 27-37)

moore points to a potential failure of collective consciousness and existence if Black girl identity is not passed down by the foremothers, such as the many Black women artists moore names throughout this collection. Who will write to tell the truth of Black bodily experiences if not Black people? While moore’s collection refers to the desecration of the bodies and faces of Black men and women, “Because if I don’t write” emphasizes the need to mark the story of the Black girl, and allows others to say and know her name(s); this story solidifies moore’s writing as political act and intention, “I write to live / to prove to black girls everywhere / we are possible” (lines 55-57). The poem “on memory” in the “I Got Life” section further exemplifies the significance of memory, voice, and writing as a political act; moore’s use of questions is particularly powerful in this section and points to her skill at experimental poetics:

1.
Why do you write about the
Right now

?

The right now                         needed me. (1-4)

The two poems “We Are Born Moving,” dedicated to moore’s city (Detroit) and her daddy (T. D. Moore), and “Where Are the People?” in this same section address forced migrations due to enslavement, Jim Crow segregation, racial terror, and class. These pieces continue moore’s work as cultural historian. She posits, “humanity is not just oil, it is blood” (59), moves through the complexities of her family’s migration from Madison, Alabama to Detroit, and documents the city’s economic and industrial shifts. Both poems indicate the migratory expansion of Black families and communities in urban spaces. moore’s stanzas in “Where Are the People,” constructed as lists, continue to pose questions:

Where are the people?
The stepped over, the forgotten holocaust
The Fragile, the beautiful, the fast talkers,
The backward walkers, the 3am stalkers
Where did they take them.
When will they return
Where is the balance
Where is the money
Where are the schools?
Where are the people?
We all got Wi-fi
nobody getting high outside (lines 27-38)

moore takes readers from the past to the present of digital slavery and expects them to acknowledge what has occurred and what continues to happen to Black folks. The poet as witness asks that the community process its current semi-fugue state. Where are the people after the crises and decay of urban communities as a result of politics, poverty, drug addiction, and violence? “Who signed the death certificates / Where are the magicians, the madmen, the toothless, the smoothest, the poets” (lines 2-3), and “the traffic stoppers;” “Under which pile of gravel / Where are they buried” (lines 10-11).

We Want Our Bodies Back allows us to retrieve our bodies. moore situates poetry as the ultimate witness and illustrates that art is the vehicle to tell the stories of women. She is a “poet worth her weight in syllables” who presents a clear understanding of what is going on in our world; moore helps us “to make sense of our bodies burnt by cigarettes, and smoked out of our neighborhoods” (Medina 21). She “construct[s] a survival guide, a poem / for our daughters’ bodies” and a hauntingly beautiful blues/love song to her people, to help us to preserve our history, to hold onto our lives and souls, and to continue to fight to breathe:

If black women could
Be cut down. No.
Removed, gently,
              from American terrorism/
Who would break our fall?
Which direction would we travel
 To feel safe?

wild is the wind

***

We want our bodies back

              We want our bodies back

                                          We want our bodies back!

 

Works Cited

Medina, Tony. “Meditations on Moore: One.” The Words Don’t Fit in My Mouth. Moore Black Press, 1997, pp. 12-14.

moore, jessica Care. We Want Our Bodies Back. Amistad, 2020.

—. “We Want Our Bodies Back.” Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, vol. 16, no. 2, 2018: pp. 230-237.

—. “We Want Our Bodies Back.” Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series. M Stamps School Art & Design, University of Michigan, Fall 2017.

Sanchez, Sonia. “The Poet as a Creator of Social Values.” The Black Scholar, vol. 16, no. 1, January/February 1985, pp. 20-22, 24-25, 27-28.


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


AAM Pic
Allia Abdullah-Matta is a poet and teacher-scholar who uses creativity and artistic expression as instruments of social justice activism and transformation.  She is an Associate Professor at CUNY LaGuardia, where she teaches composition, literature, and creative writing. She was the co-recipient of the The Jerome Lowell DeJur Prize in Poetry (2018) from The City College of New York (CCNY). Her poetry has been published in Newtown Literary, Promethean, Marsh Hawk ReviewMom Egg Review VoxGlobal City Review, and the Jam Journal Issue of Push/Pull.

 

 

 

 

 

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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jessica Care moore’s poems live best in her body. moore crackles with energy and a presence that commands any room she enters; she doesn’t recite as much as unleash a poem into the air. What makes moore even more incredible are the myriad ways in which she uses her poetic and performative superpowers to uplift Black life. Her poems are fearless in their commitment to seeing the world clearly and unapologetically through a Black female lens, taking on everything from the complications of relationships to righteous outrage about the theft of Black people’s lives by racist violence. The mirror moore’s work holds up includes her own reflection; she is present and part of the fabric of the Black community — these are always “we” poems, even in their most intimate manifestations. moore’s poems are capacious, making room in their lines for the full humanity of Black folks. In this way, moore’s poetry provides both testimony and ammunition: she testifies to the range of Black identity, and in presenting this range, the poems become a weapon against the lies of deficiency and lack that consistently misrepresent Black culture and identity.

Her poem, “a different kind of power,from her book Sunlight Through Bullet Holes opens with a stanza that highlights this double-edged work:

I dream of a place where I can
Raise my native son to be human.
To make music.   To make art.
To fall in love and to make things
He loves                 with his hands. (99)

This entry is both simple and resonant: on the one hand it expresses a mother’s private dream for her child while simultaneously echoing a chorus of famous African American dreamers — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Langston Hughes, et al. Thus, the poem places its lyric speaker in the flow of Black living and legacy both, rendering her dream both quotidian and lofty. Additionally, in referring to her child as “my native son” she puts the poem in conversation with James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and the claims those writers made for the belonging of Black men to the American project. At the same time, in presenting us with her hopes for her son, moore pushes back against the racist stereotypes of Black boys and claims for him all manner of possibility and beauty.

The poem later expands its scope to include Black girls, or, as moore names them, “Young goddesses in pigtails” (100). In a similar move, she writes

i see you fumbling with miseducation &
How many times have you been called what U.R. not?

There are women who’ve been writing about you.
Waiting for you. Daughters of Zora and Bambara
Sanchez and Brooks.
(100)

Here, the poet, the mother, and the writer all converge to do the same work: to challenge racist misnaming and the limitations it imposes on the internal and material possibilities of Black girls. The poem offers instead the mirror of Black women writers — the poet herself included — as the space where the “different kind of power” to which the poem’s title refers might be found. That power is one in which Black folks are seen in their fullness, in which the fabric of community is robust and unfrayed, in which legacy empowers and continues, in which we can all exist.

When jessica came to James Madison University in 2019, we conducted an interview in the studio; it was amazing, but a hardware malfunction left us with only the first 16 minutes of that interview. We did another abbreviated conversation immediately afterward, and then I reached out to her shortly before publication to check in and to ask her to answer a few questions about our present moment. The following is a compilation of all these conversations.

Talk to me about writing and what it means to you.

The writing is the safest place for me to be. To be a woman writer is very … it’s an unsafe place. You know, you’re not protected when you’re a woman writer, and you’re a Black woman writer that decides that Black women’s stories are relevant and just as necessary as everyone else’s stories. So it’s a lonely place, writing, but it’s a very necessary place for me.

I’m also the stereotypical poet that you expect, too; I light my candles and — I have to feel good, you know? I’ve written from a place of pain, for sure, but I’ve also written from places of joy, and it’s just a blessing. It’s such a gift to be able to say, “I’m a writer,” because in this country, being a writer is not supported. My writer friends are not the most well-off people that I know, unless they sell, like, film scripts for Hollywood or something, but if they’re true to the game — you’re not in it for that. You’re in it because you can’t help yourself, you know? (Laughs.)

I can’t help myself. I don’t know how not to be a poet, or how not to analyze things, and to not look and films and things and put it in political context and have opinions. I remember a friend of mine telling me I wasn’t fun to go to a movie with. Probably not. (Laughs.) It’s hard for thinking women to even exist in this place, or even date for that matter. You know, I just put a picture on “Stupid-gram,” you know, about — with just some books I had recently been gifted, some books from friends and some books from a publisher. And I was like, “Don’t show me your abs. Show me your bookshelf.” I’m so uninterested in your bathroom selfie. But if a man doesn’t have a bookshelf, then I probably can’t do anything with you past one moment. (Laughs.) You know what I mean: It doesn’t go past … it doesn’t go far.

So, if you had to choose a single poet — and I know this is a terrible question — a single poet who’s made the single greatest impression on you, who would it be and why?

So, wow, I guess I could pick one. I’ll pick one that’s not here. Nobody alive could be mad at me. So, uh, Amiri Baraka was a big one for me. Amiri Baraka was very special in so many ways. Because he had a transformative life, you know. Leroi Jones, The Dutchman, being a playwright in the beat poet era, then becoming a nationalist and marrying Amina Baraka, who I love, too. So, he just became one of the elders like many others who have taken care of me in a beautiful way, like Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, and The Last Poets, and Gil Scott Heron, Jayne Cortez — people who really just said, “Come on, Jessica, your voice is important. Come on, you’re one of us.”

But Amiri is very special to me. I traveled a lot with him over the years, and we were able to do a lot of intergenerational work. But his approach to reading his work was very profound for me, and I loved his musicality — he had the blues. I liked his no-bullshit filter, and I miss him dearly. When he passed away, it was really, really hard for me. And when I got the call that Ras [Baraka] wanted me to be one of the poets to read at his funeral, I was like, “Okay.” I had written poems for him already, but I wound up writing a poem for him called “Damn Right” and read it while his coffin was right on the stage in Newark. It was a really profound experience. It was … you talk about the power of poems to really touch people. And I all I wanted was to write a poem that the family would love, and that would celebrate Amiri Baraka and all his greatness. And that’s such a heavy thing to try to write. And, um, but, um, I can say that I — I’m good at celebratory pieces that celebrate our excellence.

And I’m a daughter of the Black Arts Movement. I been saying that forever — I’m a metaphorical daughter of the Black Arts Movement, because even if some of my peers didn’t, my elders took me in. And that doesn’t always happen because those are the ones I remember. You’ll be like me and Saul [Williams], Tony Medina, you know, Asha [Bendele] and I felt like we were ready to read, you know, and like Sonia and Amiri are the headliners and we’re like in the 90s. And I was like in my 20s and I’m like — you know, all you wanted was for them to give you the head nod, like, you know, the humility of that. And so I came in in that kind of very humble way.

Even like moving to New York City in ’95, not knowing anybody. I was living in Brooklyn. And the only, the first person I was trying to find was Reg E. Gaines because he was the first poet on Arsenio Hall. He was doing “Please Don’t Take My Air Jordans.” I was in seventh grade, and I was like, there is a poet doing a poem on The Arsenio Hall Show. Like, that moment changed me. I’ll never forget it. And when I moved to New York, Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk was happening. So I was trying to find — not Savion Glover [who choreographed it], not George C. Wolfe [who conceived and directed it] — I was like, Reg E. Gaines [who scripted it]. And so I am working for the Daily Challenge and I kind of lie my way in. Like I was interested in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, but I just wanted to interview and meet Reg E. Gaines and, like, be friends with him.

And then I had the Nuyorican Poets’ Aloud anthology, and I was just going through Tracie Morris, Tony Medina, Willie Perdomo, Paul Beatty. They’re a little older than me. I was trying to find all of them. And I made them — these gonna be all my new friends. And do you know? I made them my friends. And I started publishing my friends. And that’s, you know. Yeah, that’s a long way to say Amiri Baraka.

You said, “I started publishing all my friends,” and I want totalk a little bit about publishing and your press and what made you start a press —

I know. It’s a thankless job.

Yes. What was that journey like?

It’s been hard. Moore Black Press: I started it in 1997 in my garden apartment on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. At that time I won [at] The Apollo. So I had become very famous — as famous as you could be as a poet at that time, anyway. It’s not a lot — there was no outlet for television and poets, really. (MTV had done something, with, I think, Paul Beatty and some other poets: “MTV Unplugged” like once. I was always looking for poets and different people. I’d seen Kevin Powell on “The Real World,” and so I knew who Kevin Powell was.) And so my life changed really fast. I was living there for five months and, like, Shirley MacLaine came up to me in Central Park was like, “I know who you are. You’re that poet.” I was like “Oh my God, you’re Shirley MacLaine. You talking to me — this is weird.” And so people from Wu-Tang Clan, you know, knew who I was. And so KRS-One knew who I was. And Nas. Because when I did the Apollo, that’s when everybody was on the Apollo. The Fugees were on the Apollo when I was there; Brandy was there when I won. It was really surreal, to be honest.

But, yeah, just to fast forward to the publishing. I wrote my first book in 1997. I had been turned down by every publishing house. I had a really great agent. Marie Raab was one of the– ones that I want to work with. Fay Childs, my first literary agent, she was lovely, she believed in me. I was young; that book probably wasn’t good; that manuscript wasn’t strong. I was just a little whippersnapper, you know? I was rowdy. I don’t know if I was book-ready, but I had the opportunity to get turned down by these presses enough to make me, like, have my moment. I had my cry and I was like, “Oh, forget them!” I ain’t writing poems for a white press anyway; I’m writing poems to tear down some things. And I’m doing my book. And even if they don’t want to sell my book, I know I have an audience that wants my book. And that became the game changer.

I started Moore Black Press. I did The Words Don’t Fit in my Mouth, did a big book release party, Mos Def came, Sharrif Simmons, who I ended up publishing, came, and Greg Tate was there. I have pictures from it, like all the cool people were there, and I had a line outside the door because I knew from my job (I was a journalist by trade) how to write a press release — and pretend it wasn’t me. I’d call the news stations, like, “There’s a blah blah that so and so is having.” I knew how to fax it to the assignment desk. I had that training in TV news. And so that helped me. And I won the Apollo, so I got my first distribution deal, with Baker & Taylor, because people were going to Barnes & Noble asking for the girl from the Apollo’s book. And so that’s how — with one book, which is unheard of — I got Baker & Taylor to start distributing for me.

So for me, I naturally, as an institution builder, which is what I am, as an institution builder, you know that young, the next natural thing was to publish Saul’s book. Saul walked his manuscript over — The Seventh Octave — and said, “Let’s make you the Haki [Madhubuti] of our generation.” I was like, “I don’t know about all that, but I’ll publish your book because you’re great.” I knew he was great — he was amazing — and I published The Seventh Octave. Marcia Jones became our art director — if you look at Moore Black books, they’re all paintings on the cover, Renaldo Davison did Ras Baraka’s cover. Danny Simmons is a painter, so I published his first book of paintings and poetry. And I just started …yeah, I became that person. Harlem River Press was around at that time. They had done Asha [Bendele]’s and Tony Medina’s books, so that’s a press I probably would have gone with if they’d stayed around. And, so there wasn’t anyone when they started going away; there wasn’t really a strong independent press. And I was like, “Well, I’ll publish people.” I regret not getting a Tony Medina book; I always wanted one. And I asked Staceyann Chin for one too, but she ain’t give me no book yet, but you know. I’m working on Ursula Rucker, Brad Walrond — I’m publishing his book, Everywhere Alien, now …

I stopped publishing, though. I had to take a break because my life changed. In 2006, I birthed my first birth child. He came out of my second marriage, and I had other children before that; Amari Jazz is my oldest son, who’s a music producer now. And so I’ve been a mom a long time. I had my first birth, and my marriage dissolved quickly after, so I left Atlanta when he was 10 months old, and I had to start my life over. So I had to take a break from taking care of grown people and focus on taking care of my child.

So publishing has been … well, you know, it’s hardcore, but I believe in the work. And so I’ve published Asha Bandele’s second book of poetry. I told her I wanted her to be the first woman poet that I published, and she was. And then Ras Baraka’s Black Girls Learn Love Hard. It’s a beautiful book. Sonia Sanchez wrote the foreword; that poem came after his sister was murdered in New Jersey. And he’d already come to Detroit; we did some event together where they were doing a street name change; it was me, Ras, and Haki in town. And I told Ras, “You ain’t been here before? You’ve got to come to my mother’s house!” So I do some ol’ Alabama, and we fried him some fish and we had a bunch of food and he was hanging out in my backyard. Ras is such a quiet, quiet lion, you know. And I talked to him about poetry because he and Kevin had done In the Tradition — which I was of course, you know, a little young poet like in Detroit reading that like, “Oh, my God!” but he [Ras] had never had a collection out. I said “Where’s your books? Why don’t you have a book out?” But he’s a coach, and now he’s the mayor. You know, he was a basketball coach, troop mentor — he did everything, you know. Ras wore all the hats and probably just doesn’t have time.

I love watching other people being happy about their work. You know, I get a joy out of book release parties and I like producing and I’m an arts curator now, like, as in in my adult life. Like I l ho is one of my ove curating. I curate a series in Detroit now called “Blackfire,” I’ve brought Ursula Rucker, who’s my sister for life out of Philly, and I’m bringing Brad Walrond in February. And hopefully we’ll continue to get funding to bring more. Detroit is a place that does have a rich cultural history, but we often get overlooked. A lot of these publishers don’t bring great poets or writers who they publish to our city. We’re not always on the schedule. Yeah. So I try to do that.

You talk about building institutions; tell me about the Jess Care Moore Foundation. 

Yeah. Well, that’s something that came about because I felt like I needed to have a foundation because all the work I was doing was so grassroots and was really nonprofit work. But my main objective with Jess Care Moore Foundation– the work we’ve been doing has been around my twelve12-year old child. And so –we’re the fiscal agent for “The Twelve 12 and Under Super Cool Poetry Open Mic.” My son, King Thomas Moore, was nine years old– nine and a half, turning 10, when he won the Knight Arts grant– , and he’s the youngest Knight Arts winner in history. Which is so great ‘cause Steve Harvey just to go full- circle, like, shared his story and it had ten thousand million shares when it happened. I’m really proud of him. He created this program when he saw a void. He’d be reading with me– — he’s read at Furious Flower for God’s sake, right, when he was just a little one. And so he’s stayed the course. And he realized there were not enough kids in the audience. He said, “I’m reading for adults, but I want to be around some kids.” So he created this “12 and Under Super Cool Poetry Open Mic,” and we just successfully did one for 100 kids in West Africa in Jamestown — life-changing for me and him. Amazing experience. And so– that’s the work that I really want to take it, even like– I like where King is at, because I think he’s getting to the source of the issue that we have to make sure that girls and boys very young know they have a voice — like, elementary school young. So that’s what the foundation is about now.

I would also like it also to be a space where we raise money for women poets, mothers; there’s not enough grants for that. And we need more than $2,000. You know, you really need like $25,000–$50,000. So when I come up for air — because 2018 was nonstop and 2019 is already very intense — I’m putting self-care in my schedule so that I don’t run out of steam. But I can see it becoming a space where people could get money, where I can have fellowships and things for writers. And I have a soft spot, of course, for women writers because it’s not easy to be a Black woman writer in this country if you’re talking about something, you know, and we always usually are. Because women, I think, just tell the truth, you know, like– in that line, saying I can’t write and lie at the same time because I can tell a lie but I can’t write one. It’s hard to write a lie. You know, people could tell a lie all they want– talking is one thing but writing is different.

Let’s talk about curricula because I know that you build curricula, write curricula. What are some poems that you find eminently teachable?

Oh, wow. “This Is Not a Small Voice” by Sonia Sanchez. I love it. “Does Your House Have Lions?” And then Does Your House Have Lions? That story about her brother. I mean, such a beautiful piece. And it’s like — really it’s a whole book. And it’s one poem. And so like showing how you could, like, have this full hardcover book about this one thing and all the pieces that it’s connected to. Like, whew. “Does your house have lions?” What’s that mean? Who are the lions in your house? And I’ve used that poem a lot. I mean, we use a lot of Sonia’s work, but I use a lot of different kinds of work, though, too. I mean, I’ve used Nas — I’ve used a lot of rappers just because it hits. It gets to the younger kids at a different kind of way.

I’ve used “Where Did the Night Go?” by Gil Scott-Heron. I use that in the juvenile detention centers when I work inside the prisons. I was teaching Black Arts Movement and hip hop culture inside the juvenile detention centers, and I remember this one student’s writing: he did his own version of “Where Did the Night Go?” and it was about his father. He made it a knight, K-N-I-G-H-T, instead of the night. His father was the knight. And so he’s like, where did the knight go? He just broke down his whole absence of his father not being in his life. It just made me cry and cry and cry. And so that one, I mean, there’s a lot — it depends on where — who I’m in front of, too. I use a lot of Haki Madhubuti because he has so many poems that are directed towards Black men and Black boyhood and manhood, so I’ve used his work in front of a lot of boys. And with girls I’ve used Nikki Giovanni, I’ve for sure used “Ego Tripping.” I mean, you can use “Ego Tripping” over and over again ’cause it doesn’t get old. It’s such a great piece for girls to hear, you know, like that poem encompasses all that power, that Black magic we all like to talk about. And so I’ve used “Ego Tripping.” But I teach my friends, too, so I’ve taught Saul Williams’ work; I use Asha Bandele’s work. Asha I use a lot with women writers if I’m in a women’s prison.

What’s your relationship to craft?

I love that question because it comes up a lot and craft for me has been about the practice of writing. The problem with not going to school — or the good thing about not going to school — to learn how to write a poem is that you actually become a poet. And so I became a poet because I wasn’t trying to learn how to become a poet. I was already a poet. And I remember — I think it was Asha Bandele who I talked to, who went to the New School; she got a master’s — I always wanted to go back to school again to get my master’s and my PhD. So I have a moment, you know, and I thought I was going to a low-residency space, and with my life experience I could probably just get the master’s in like a year or two somewhere. And I remember her saying, “If you go to school, you know, they try to take the soul out of it, Jessica.”

And even one of my mentors, Roger Guenveur Smith, the actor who I adore who’s mentored me and been supportive of my work in the theater, when I said, “I’ll take some acting classes,” he was like, “No, no, no, don’t do that. Because if you start thinking about how to be an actor, then you’re gonna lose the rawness of who you are.” And I opened for Roger Guenveur Smith at Central Park many years ago because he saw me read poems at a public theater, so when he did “Huey” in Central Park, he suggested and requested that I open for him. And so, he’s like a crafted actor telling me “No, it’s in your body already. Don’t mess it up by trying to fix it.” You know, trying to get better at it. And so craft I learned from reading. This is the thing that plagues these young poets. I tell them, “Within like two seconds, I can tell that you don’t read anybody but yourself.” And that is the problem with this digital world now.

I learned how to be a poet because I read everybody. I sat in that library on Joy Road because my drama teacher brought in Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls” into the Black Box Theater at Cody High School when I was maybe 10th or 11th grade. And my whole mind got blown back, and I was like, “What is this writing?” I’m an honors English student and nobody is telling me about these people. So I felt all these Black women had been kept from me — and they had been! I was at the library like, “Audre Lorde: who is this?” I knew Alice Walker and Lorraine Hansberry from my mother. But I learned from literally sitting in libraries, old school, and just reading and reading and seeing how they crafted their ideas. I already had a lot of ideas. I had a lot to say. But I had to figure out how to say it in poetic form and to be respected by other poets and say, “Oh, she can write a poem.” And so I studied Sonia Sanchez. I studied Nikki Giovanni. The Last Poets. I studied Jayne Cortez. And I saw what poets were doing with their music. Jayne Cortez and the Firespitters. And then Gil Scott-Heron. I mean, that’s where the music came in; some of those poems that Gil Scott-Heron crafted are genius. It’s genius what he did with poetry and music.

Ah, music. You do a lot of work with music, producing “Black WOMEN Rock!” and recording with musicians. And then there was your first album. Tell me about that.

I say it took me 40 years to make it. I wanted to do a really good music album and I wanted like something that people could study. It’s an exercise for me because I’m so 200 miles an hour — I can go so fast — but in these poems, in “Sunlight Through Bullet Holes,” in “The Legend of Jessi James” that Talib [Kweli] put out is a balance of poems and music. So what is the music? Maybe jazz, maybe soul? A little bit of hip hop. Definitely electric jazz. Definitely something different. And the music is good.

John Dixon, my pianist, listened to me and he listened to my voice. You know, poems already have their own music, and he wrote the music around the poems and so this is me now, doing music as a poet. One of my friends said, “I don’t know, it felt like a workshop. It felt like a writing exercise.” He didn’t even know how to explain how he felt because he’s an academic, and he’s very, very smart. And he’s like, “Jessica, you’re like peeling back things and you’re doing this poem.” He’s like “It’s almost like Billie Holiday if she was a poet. This is what you sound like.” And that’s what I want to do, I wanted to be like, “Where’s Billie, where’s Nina, where’s Phyllis Hyman, where’s Etta James?” And I wanted to find a space musically that that could translate into poems that embody that place.

What’s next?

So I actually have a techno record coming out with one of the most famous techno producers in the world, Jeff Mills. And so if you know techno, you know, he’s a household name. They know him all over the world. He just received the highest honor last year in Paris that you can receive, highest Medal of Honor you can receive as an artist in France, in Paris. And so he’s fabulous. We have a record coming out, a collaboration.

Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration has been a big part of process for me and my craft. Like it’s not enough that I can write a poem because I get bored. I don’t want to hear myself. I’m doing my keynotes and I’m like, “It’s been 45 minutes. Are we good?” I mean, I heard me. I’m good. “Y’all wanna go get something to eat now and talk about some other stuff?” And so I want to be engaged.

So anyway, I had a conversation with Jeff Mills. That conversation was amazing. I went to the studio with him, and he’s just a genius at what he does, and he’s directing me and saying, “Whisper the line. Okay, now say it twice.” Like, I’ve never been directed that way in the studio, and I’m not a studio artist, so I was just listening to everything he told me to do and said, “Okay!” We’ve created this beautiful, very experimental record. Same thing with John Dixon. I kind of gave in to my pianist. Because why? I don’t really play piano. I trusted him, and we put codes — and so talking about craft, we put codes. And so we have this one bass line that he was like, “Okay, I’m gonna put this and then that,” — like we gave it letters, like we were just, you know, putting code. Techno does that, too.

I don’t know if you know, but techno was started by Black men in Detroit, so it’s a Black music and Black to Techno is a documentary film that’s coming out. I’m happy it’s coming out because people don’t know. You think of techno, you think of Europeans or whatever, but you know, techno is a Black music that was created by brothers in Detroit — and so I’ve known that. I grew up knowing that and knowing who they were. Like, Jeff was like high on the list. Besides Prince, Jeff Mills, was on the list of people — and Jimi Hendrix in the afterlife — that I wanted to collaborate with.

Some of your work is personal, autobiographical, and you also write dramatic pieces in other voices, what are some of the challenges you face in working in those modes?

You know, it’s not always easy. And the obstacles are … there are financial obstacles. I’ve been married twice, so there’s those obstacles of love. That’s definitely in my writing now. That’s why God is Not an American is so different from Sunlight Through Bullet Holes because on the cover of this book (points to Sunlight Through Bullet Holes), that’s my second wedding dress. The half of me. I wore red, and so that (points to cover art) has like, arrows being thrown at me, and that’s that Detroit skyline. That was outside in the middle of winter, you know, and saying Poems (That Will Live) [the collection’s subtitle], like, you know, these men will not kill me. You know, I love so hard, you know, and I give my heart from my heart and my work of my heart. And if I love you, I love you. I’m a Scorpio.

I love so hard. I so passionately love people. But I do it because it makes for good poems. You know, that’s it! (Laughs.) If I get a poem out of you, you weren’t completely worthless. You know, other than that, you know, I was like, “What was I doing with you? I didn’t even get good material.” You know, I was like, “Half of it is just for inspiration.” And because I do feel like I’m an extension of the poem, I’m not ashamed of talking about it and saying that my work is connected to me. I am Black. And you can hear it if you read my poems. If you don’t know I’m Black, then you can’t read. Right? So if you don’t know I’m a woman and that I love being a woman, then you can’t read. And so it’s innately in the work.

There are no Asylums for the Real Crazy Women was my first solo theater show. And that’s for Vivienne Eliot, who was T. S. Eliot’s wife. So when I wrote it in Vivienne Eliot’s voice, I was doing this British accent and going from my voice to hers. I was in conversation with Vivienne Eliot and talking to her about her work as a woman and being the innovator she was and influencing T. S. Eliot’s work — and him taking her name out of all the first editions of his book after he married Esmé Valerie Eliot. Yes, I went all the way in on one of their favorite poets, a European classic.

I went to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, got permission, read her diary from the beginning to the end and wrote this bad piece and people were coming on up afterwards — mostly white girls — saying, “Who wrote the piece? The Vivienne part?” I was like, “Me! I wrote the whole play!” you know. But, you know, if I’d just done the Angela Davis story they could have got it, but because I’d done Vivienne Eliot, who had this really amazing story … So, yes, I know how to write in other people’s voices.

How do you balance it all?!

It has continued to be a struggle for me to find balance because I am a full human being. My first priority besides my son is my work: I work and I travel. And I do feel like the poems, like my life is like I’m writing it … I remember the quote about Maya Angelou, that she created her life out of her imagination, and like, I’m a Black girl from the west side of Detroit who went to Detroit Public Schools. And I had traveled literally all over the world on poems that nobody told me how to write. Just on intuition and love. And I write what I feel like writing. Editor-schmeditor. I am my editor. Like, you know, God is my booking agent. And I don’t have to go to anybody’s church, and there’s not a masjid that’s like this is Jessica’s masjid, or this is her Buddhist temple. I just have faith, and ancestors have walked with me and kept me on this incredible journey. And I’m so blessed to be able to say I’m a poet for almost 25 years. That’s crazy. You know what I mean?

That’s amazing is what that it is.

But we can exist, you know. But we have to, like, know each other, connect each other, help each other get gigs. That’s what Baraka would say: we have to maintain the culture.

What are your most pressing thoughts in this moment of George Floyd and the resurgence of the movement for Black Lives? What, if any, actions have you personally been able to take?

I have so many thoughts about this, but I always have. The way George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight with a knee on his neck: that’s how it’s felt in this country for most of us, you know? I am not new to this narrative, and I am glad some of the rest of the sleepy folks in this country are finally waking up! I have been exhausted and blessed by requests for my voice and energy on panels, for online protests, and to just help others understand the suffering our people still must feel living in the U.S. It should not be this way, still. I remember being in Ferguson and seeing the faces of those cops, and the way they spoke to the young people out there. It was so disrespectful and aggressive. It was ugly and an awakening for me. I thought we might be killed: Me, Talib Kweli, Rosa Clemente, Seth Byrd, The Peace Poets.

I am proud of the organizers in Detroit and the defund movement. We need real change in this country, and we need everyone to do their part. I can’t be in protests full of people because of COVID-19. I’ve lost so many people, and my son is not comfortable in crowds. We have to protect my mother. There’s just deeper, personal things at stake right now: survival, mothering my son through all of this and, of course, our health.

What’s it like to be a writer in the time of COVID-19? How have things like quarantine, distancing, and disease impacted you?

I finally started really writing the first day I fasted for Ramadan. I needed my head to be clear. Such a heavy time, so much loss with no funerals. I don’t like funerals, but not being able to hug loved ones — it really hurts. Writing is always a refuge, so I am using it. I am a fearless spirit, so this has changed me. I have to deal with my anxiety with crowds, because my work is with the people, not behind some computer camera! I am so tired of the computer screen. But I know people need a place to “travel,” to “escape,” so I have been busy as hell online. My book, We Want Our Bodies Back, was released March 30. My tour was cancelled, and most of my money that gets me through the fall happens in the spring. It sucks, but I have been using online spaces to keep the book and my voice amplified and it’s working. I’ve had appearances in Dubai, Brazil, London, and a virtual book tour of independent bookstores across the country. I have an Instagram show on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. (Laughs.) I had never done a Facebook or Instagram live before. I’m actually private when I am at home, so that’s been a big shift.

What gives you comfort in the chaos and challenge of these last many weeks? What do you find yourself reaching for to fortify and recharge your spirit?

My son graduated on the honor roll from 8th grade despite it all! He is the most fun and challenging human to be around. He’s my joy. Also my community of artist friends has kept me motivated: Ursula Rucker, Mahogany Browne, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Brad Walrond, painter Sabrina Nelson. My neighbors across the street from us have become the extended family that we needed, so our kids can play with some normalcy. I received flowers and incredible chocolates on my doorstep today; that lifted my spirit so much. I also have a garden now —everyone does — but it’s something I always wanted but never had time to do! I’m growing tomatoes, beets, collards, black-eyed peas, carrots, sage, rosemary, all of the things! My backyard patio is the club for me right now, purple lights and all. I am headed back to Yellow Springs, Ohio to spend time with my dear friend Talib Kweli and all the artist family coming down to feel some sense of normalcy with Dave Chapelle and his family. The first live show I have done during this pandemic was in the middle of a cornfield in Ohio! I read the poem, “I Can’t Breathe” to an outside audience probably looking to laugh, but they stood up for me. It was an incredible moment. Dave said it was “perfect.”

I’m working on more self-care: Afternoon baths. Meditation. And I’m hoping to start running again: Running brings me peace … Just laughing and debating with my son gives me peace.

We are really blessed to be healthy. That’s what matters now.


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren 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), 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 Tsitsi Jaji, PhD

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Matthew Shenoda’s voice is dangerous, mystical, moving. Sonia Sanchez’s introduction ushered readers into his first collection, Somewhere Else (Coffee House Press, 2005), auguring how his work thrusts us to the threshold of images never encountered before. She spoke, anaphoric and euphoric:

I say, who is this poet who sings down the lids of deserts with color?
I say, I say, who is this poet always punctual with his eyes, his heart his hands?
I say I say, I say, who is this poet who mixes poetry and philosophy, who leads us into “the skulls of the ancients” residing in the Eastern Sahara: “Each sphere of bone / a voice // A cage / of warrior mind.”

            What does “Coptic” taste like? (xi)

Let us take Sanchez’s questions as our guide. As she says, Shenoda’s work sings in the mystic and material idioms of the desert, never shying away from the stark sightings one catches of his native Egypt and its wanderings both internal and in diaspora. Let us read his work together and carry the question — What does “Coptic” taste like? — to its lyrical conclusions.

Begin here: Shenoda’s parents are Egyptian Copts, members of the most widespread Christian denomination in North Africa, inheritors of the traditions of the Desert Fathers and, also by tradition, adherents to a faith first founded by the apostle Mark a few years after the death of Christ. Those origins are the vast landscapes Shenoda’s language traverses, and they map the trajectory of African diasporas often overlooked. His body carries across ancient ruins, isolated villages, crowded Cairo streets, an L.A. highway. His work speaks to an imagined all-America and a pan-Arab audience. Begin here.

This first collection starts with an epigraph, a Zulu proverb from the other end of the continent:

A word uttered
cannot be taken
back (x)

The route from South Africa to Egypt was infamously charted by Cecil John Rhodes and his lewd imperial ambition, a column of British power stretching from Cape to Cairo. Shenoda prefigures the #RhodesMustFall movement among South African students, who in 2015 tore down a statue on University of Cape Town’s campus. Toppling the monument of Rhodes’s brass knuckles pointing northward to Africa’s northern coast, they inaugurated a fiery debate about the future of decolonial education. In Shenoda’s Egypt as in the Fallists’ South Africa, art declares: The people, united, will never be defeated. Shenoda’s poetry, speaking with a gravity born of elemental word choices and direct grammar, travels across geographies of liberation precisely because its words reveal truths, which, once unhidden, haunt the reader with new responsibility.

These first poems apprehend bodily pain in all its rawness and translate its circumstances in vivid language: The sparseness of his diction and clear, calm descriptions turn readers into witnesses to the agonies of surviving history. But the past does not own Shenoda’s voice, which also renders the difficult truth that the beauty of coming fully alive costs dearly. Read these poems out loud and you will try, maybe, to back out of what you have just repeated, lines so sharply beautiful that their truth verges on a curse:

Great-Grandmother used to say,
“If you throw salt away
God will make you
pick it up
one grain at a time
with your eyelashes” (3)

Shenoda’s vision stings.

Much of the work seeks out the poor, the sacred and the ecological; worlds too quickly squelched in the rush of contemporary cosmopolitan living. The writerly technique of entangled first- and third-person voices attend to the ignored details of a worker’s body, the “kneecap of a man whose only hope was grounding toil / Scrubbing my skin with the earth for food” (23). Elsewhere the desert is home to other ignored voices, here silenced by Christendom’s erasures of its African roots, as “two thousand years of chants and prayers / seclude themselves in the eastern desert” (6). The poetry’s revelations do not come cheap. These are “songs to sing when sorrow / has taken flight in us” (21), poems that wander through crowded streets and forgotten villages where the poet’s most important work is witness. He shows us the glint of a gold chain suspending a Coptic cross snatched from a woman’s neck “Standing on the Corner” in Cairo (3). He makes us watch as Los Angeles police savage black and brown people with billy clubs “on the bilingual highway / where color means a beating / if your taillight flashes / anything other / than English” (49). And he does not look away from a man whose “enemy stripped him of his clothes / and dipped his nude body in tar, [then compounded cruelty, capturing] a buffalo — and with her tail, tied the man to her haunches, / beat her and watched / the abused parade the town square” (8). Shenoda unriddles nothing; instead, his poems work at the nub of human experience, delicate and deadly.

Shenoda instructs us by example, invocation, and manifesto as to what language must do in a world unsurvivable unless it changes:

We speak forgiveness
like giraffe tongues
long & ready to unravel

We speak ancestor codes of
handshake body language
& “brother I got your back” (68–9)

The past unravels our future in the intimate touch between bodies, living and remembered, human and animal, rural and street.

The second collection, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone (BOA Editions Ltd., 2009), leans more heavily into the parabolic language of a sage. I quote the full text of its first riddle, “Schism,” to linger over the sphinxlike elegance of this beginning in pause and puzzle, taking time:

One man dreams
Of fire
But cannot strike
Two sticks 

Together

One man strikes
Two sticks
But cannot dream
Of fire (13)

The collection’s title and this first poem alert us to the work Shenoda expects of his readers: where the first collection’s title called upon our geographic imagination, in Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, if we are to grapple with the mystical, the movement, the malleable idioms of these Seasons, our imaginations must give time to his poems. What will that look like, a double dreaming of time as flowering lotus and dessicated bone? We can look for the ways he adopts multiple indigenous time zones, ways of understanding history in Egypt’s Arab and Coptic present, its African cycles of fertility, its ancient pictograms. These poems walk us through the palimpsests of modern Cairo and decipher this city’s construction by stacked generations: “Ingenuity is the notion of building / On a foundation made from loss” (14). His African animism says, “Lord, my roots sprout three trunks. // Lord, I am a rock made of wheat” (18).” Nature reminds us how to read hieroglyphics, a script that, “like sky / contains no end” (21), its image-writing clearest in a grandmother’s sun-warts, or the pale blue rings around an uncle’s clouding pupils. In the collection’s title we have the promise of a passing: We are only in this poem-world for a season, maybe two. And that passing, an inner exile of sorts, makes the way we carry memory, and translate it, all the more mysterious.

Shenoda’s parabolic imagination often syncs time with the arrivals and departures of Egypt’s ecologies, as he does “In the Season of Paremhat,” a poem named after the Nile’s leavings that fertilize a nation’s seeds, cross-pollinating counter/intuition:

Our hands fork silt
To make music

Music is the way we forget to talk
We say, music is the way we forget to talk (30)

Working with our hands is holy work, silt to sustain, silt’s pour is silt’s song, and song its own Mesmer. Always, in these seasons, there is the sense of a time to come that shows first through the weft of poetic text. What gorgeous mysteries will come in continuance? What deciphering will we do, running light fingers over code “tightly woven in the curls of her hair / the rosetta stone of tomorrow.” What rough tenderness will we learn as we watch how a mother “thrusts to the knee // cracks the cane / disseminates sweetness / fibrous light in their mouths”? (59–60) These lines show us the world is vital text in plain view but only if we pay attention, read and reread surfaces caught in a glance. The particular rhythm of these quick-takes emerges in deceptively spare distillations, spelling out sense that holds together lightly, like the gesturing hands of devout men in conversation, like a stone tablet relaying across languages.

Shenoda’s most recent collection, Tahrir Suite (Triquarterly, 2014), seems less riddle than epic, but in this book-length chronicle of two personae migrating from their home in Egypt to a global north as unmapped as it is unknowable, their odyssey is punctuated only by questions. Tekla and Isis’s lives at the margins emerge in text alternately justified right and left, and what lyric poetry can do, leaving the center, the narrative thread unspecified, turns their journey into a modern migration fable of sorts. The specificity of this story is exquisite, just as its mysticism is insistent. Glossing the title, Shenoda writes Tahrir (literally “liberation” in Arabic) is the square in downtown Cairo where Egyptians overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011 after his 30 years in power, but also, two years later, deposed elected president Mohamed Morsi, giving way to military rule and “some of the bloodiest and most divisive [months] in modern Egyptian history” (75).

Shenoda’s eye for gesture as a dense archive of story draws readers into Isis’s inner landscape of desire and drudgery. We do not look into her face so much as through it, a mask and a shield, yes, but also the only home she will never leave. Much of her narrative is spent in waiting, drawing to the surface the way time is gendered and how what appears an impulsive action emerges from hours of solitary reflection. Applying iconic eyeliner becomes a secret operation of resolve:

She fought herself to feel for something more
Prayed the ash of resistance into kohl
And painted her eyes to see (15)

Entering the theater of intimate relationships becomes the work of a silent, ambiguous sisterhood:

She borrowed a face from the woman next door
And descended the steps (17)

And, with Shenoda’s particular attention to the humble, the mystical, the ecological, Isis reads antique messages etched into what might be a splinter, or a fossil — messages we sense her taking time to decipher, bent over in a limitless solitude:

She reached beneath her feet to pull a chunk of wood
Shaped like a human heart
She traced the spiral pattern that the insects bore
And closed her eyes for silence (20)

Isis and Tekla’s journey is, of course, urgent, which is why the stretches of time spent in wait feel so taught. The weight of fear presses upon them, making choice an abstraction in the shadow of political and sectarian violence:

In the hail of lead
We were made to understand our veins
Forget the vestiture of desire
Cloak ourselves in an impeding life (47)

To live in diaspora we flee carrying nothing but our own history in our mouths. This is the truth of a Caribbean raconteur’s call, Crick! and our response, Crack! And this is the truth that holds Tekla and Isis together, living off of the story of themselves. But they know, too, that narration becomes fiction, sometimes willful, sometimes forced.

If splendid were a tale you tell
You’d praise the past as if it hadn’t pierced
You’d gather your new neighbors
And perjure all the night (53)

The lies we tell ourselves to keep going are ours nonetheless:

After years of building something new
Conviction vanished
Anywhere was here
Definition a fabrication in the story (57)

Shenoda’s poetic idiom is no fabrication; in each of his books his language carries the weight of truth, a lyrical fabric of recurring words, memory, struggle. We hear his voice speaking through persona: “My voice is my only spear,” says a wandering immigrant far from home (60). My voice is my only spear, I think, regretful as I close the book. My voice is my only spear, I remember, hearing in my inner ear the deliberate, bass echo of Shenoda at a podium. My voice is my only spear, and I do not know if I need a shield. My voice is my only spear, and I cannot fight alone. Neither can you. The fight, and the fiddle, is us. Read Shenoda with me.

Works Cited

Shenoda, Matthew. Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone. Rochester, BOA Editions Ltd., 2009.

—. Somewhere Else. Minneapolis, Coffee House Press, 2005.

—. Tahrir Suite. Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2014.

 


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


tsitsi-jaji
Tsitsi Jaji is the author of two poetry collections, Mother Tongues (2019, winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern UP Award), and Beating the Graves (2017, African Poetry Book Series), as well as a chapbook, Carnaval (2014) in Seven New Generation African Poets. She is an associate professor at Duke University, and author of a monograph, Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music, and Pan-African Solidarity (2014). Raised in Zimbabwe, she considers herself an African poet and an African American scholar.

 

 

by Matthew Shenoda

Winter lingers on the valley floor
mist rising in its own essence.

We are reminded of the solitary ways we interpret loss
the temporal flash of an old thatch roof
the hands that made a place for us.

A felled tree becomes a home
made of its surroundings
local, in the way our own skin might be.

The markings of a mask,
etched less with a tool
and more the steady hands of a man,

a pattern shaped in the old order,
a scar on the tree
intended to mark a life.

 

Poem copyright 2020 by Matthew Shenoda. All rights reserved.

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See more poems from Matthew Shenoda debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Refuge” and “Revelation: Africa: Diaspora.”

 


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