by Lauren K. Alleyne
“VIOLET VIOLENT VIOLA VIOLATE”: This sequence of “v” words closes Anastacia-Reneé’s poem “Dear Little Girl,” from her collection (v.). The range of connotation and the suturing of meaning through sound and music that create the poetic impact of this list — a flower colored both twilight and bruise; the definition of fatal force; a musical instrument; a breach of boundaries — is a hallmark of Anastacia-Reneé’s work. With a poetic sensibility simultaneously cutting, vulnerable, wry, and audacious, she produces poems that are both expansive and targeted. While the poems are unapologetic in their Blackness, their womanness, their queerness, and their hybridity, they are also clear in their invitations to those outside of those perspectives to consider them. Her hilarious and sarcastic poem, “I Just Love Her So Much,” is an excellent example of this. Through a stunning ventriloquism, Anastacia-Reneé demonstrates classic Black double consciousness by describing the experience of being around white women who “dote and coo over Michelle Obama” while treating the speaker like “an everyday nigger,” which is to say, ignoring her completely.
… and they must have said classy & strong & strong & classy & humble & smart & classy & strong & graceful & witty & intelligent & classy & strong (not feminist) a million times (sitting next to you) & there you are & they never even say good morning (hi, hello, go to hell)
The repetition in the poem, both comedic and relentless, serves to confirm the experiences of ordinary Black women who most likely recognize the situation, as well as reproduce it (in all its grating glory) for those to whom it might be unfamiliar.
The speaker’s saltiness serves as entertainment on the surface, but as in many of her other poems, Anastacia-Reneé fully utilizes the power of voice as a meaning-making device. In this poem, the speaker’s openness and transparency allow us to see multiple levels of harm and outrage. First, there is umbrage taken on behalf of the ignored speaker (that “hi, hello, go to hell” can work both ways!), but it gives way to weariness as she wonders “maybe you are not strong or classy or lulu lemon enough.” However, the speaker also expresses sisterly outrage on behalf of the “strong & classy” Black women so beloved by the white women as she side-eyes the way they “talk about Michelle as if they are on a first name basis with her.” The poem’s ultimate recognition is that while invisibility is demoralizing, visibility also comes with a price: “you are not the kind of woman of color who will hang on any white person’s wall (with thumbtacks).” Most powerful, however, is the claim that undergirds all of Anastacia-Reneé’s poetry — despite all insistences to the contrary, we are all worthy.
Anastacia-Reneé was a featured poet at Furious Flower’s fourth biennial Collegiate Summit, which explored the theme “Poetry without Boundaries” for three days with undergraduate students. It was my great pleasure to speak with her in the studio at JMU about her path to poetry and her three recently published collections.
So first I want to talk about your path to poetry. It’s pretty nontraditional, so why don’t you tell me a little bit about how you got here?
I am a late bloomer; I tell everyone this. I was always writing in high school and some of college and elementary school, but as far as really taking myself seriously, that didn’t happen until my first child was about two years old. I started writing profusely. It was just like something poured out of me, and I couldn’t stop. And I would — once Brandon was asleep — I would write until I couldn’t write any more, and then I would get up and start the day, and still I was like, “Oh, this is nice: you’re such an awesome and dedicated hobbyist!” and “Wow! You do this thing often, hmmm.” Then it became “Oh! You have seventy poems, so maybe this is pretty serious.” And still I was in a bit of denial.
I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree until my children were in school. I worked a full-time job, and I went to school full time, and I raised my children — and I got my bachelor’s degree in English with emphasis in creative writing. But I had children young. I had children in my twenties, early-early twenties (20, 21), and all my now-colleagues were out partying, or going straight from their bachelor’s to their MFAs. And I didn’t do that thing. I didn’t have that track, so in some ways I felt like I was missing out — I didn’t have the academic connections, I didn’t have mentors, I didn’t even know what a writing residency was!
When I found out people actually go places to write for concentrated amounts of time, I was like, “This is a joke! How did I not know about this?” And then I stumbled upon something called Cave Canem, and I really thought this was hilarious. I remember reading the literature thinking, “What are you talking about? A home for Black poetry? Is this a joke?” Because I was in the Midwest; I was in Kansas City, Missouri. I mean, growing up they didn’t even talk about Black poets. I was only told about Maya Angelou during Black history month. Or James Baldwin. I had to learn about Audre Lorde and Lucille Clifton on my own and from my mom being a librarian. So when I read this, I was like, “Wow! I need to figure out what this is about and if it’s real.” I was still very skeptical; I thought, “This is a joke,” and it wasn’t! So I applied. And still, still, still … by that time I even had a couple of editorial essays published in credible magazines. I’d won the San Diego journalism press club award for an article called “War Torn” about being the daughter of a Vietnam vet, but I still was like, “You’re not really a writer writer,” whatever that means.
I spent three years learning forms so that I could break them. I just decided, you know, I’m gonna get this for myself, in a way that I can do it. I just became a secret forms studier …
But I applied to Cave Canem, and when I was accepted — I remember sitting on the edge of the bed trying to explain it to my children, and I remember them being so full of joy for me. It’s like I could see the joy reflected. I was so excited! And that Cave Canem, I met Patricia Smith and Yusef Komunyakaa and Ed Roberson and just some amazing amazing amazing amazing writers, and that’s when I said to myself, “Wow, I am one of those people.” Again, late bloomer. Most of the people I was there with had already published a few books, or somebody was their mentor since forever who was an accomplished writer, and I just didn’t have that story, so sometimes I think I let self-doubt get in the way of the goals that I set for myself. I always battled with that part, being the oldest of my colleagues, but some of my colleagues having it look like they were much more successful than me.
Tell me a bit more about what organizations like Cave Canem and Furious Flower have. When you say “one of those people,” what was that connection, and what was that like?
I needed to see people who were similar to me but not me doing the work. I needed to be around a group of people who would test my craft ability, not ask me, “How is this subject relevant in the world?” I needed to be around people who understood the poem — we didn’t have to talk about what I meant at the heart of the poem. It’s something about the comfortability of being around someone that says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all about that, but is this the format you’re comfortable with? Cause how’s that gonna be?” I craved that and didn’t even realize it, and once I got it, the biggest thing that stuck with me with those workshops and even Callaloo, which I heard a lot about, was that I took the spirit of that with me outside of those places. All these places were so near and dear to me, and they’re so powerful, and I have that within me! So then I started going out mentoring other people, you know? “This is great, but what about this? And have you heard about this organization?” Something in me wanted to be a crusader for other people. I felt like, “I can’t be the only one who doesn’t know about this.” I wanna tell everybody, and that’s what I’ve been doing.
You had a first book around 2000 and then a gap. You had a couple chapbooks and then in 2017 you had three books come out. The persistence paid off, so what are some of the internal and external things you did to keep yourself going in that in-between time?
To be honest (and I’ve never said this out loud) I stole — okay, not stole, but borrowed — a lot of curricula. I wasn’t able to get my master’s or MFA when I wanted to, so I would just ask people, “Can I see that? Can I see your syllabus for your class?” And the classes that I found interesting — I would hoard all the books. I just taught myself a lot of things. I spent three years learning forms so that I could break them. I just decided, you know, I’m gonna get this for myself, in a way that I can do it. I just became a secret forms studier, and someone would mention a book, and I would listen intently, but in my mind, I’m like, “All right, you’re gonna go get this book, everybody’s talking about it, you’ve never heard of it, you’re gonna go get this, you’re gonna read it, you’re gonna study it, and you’re gonna come back and have this conversation.” I just decided I wasn’t gonna let barriers stop me.
But I have to also be honest: I spent a lot of time alone, feeling like I’m never gonna be up to snuff, like someone’s gonna ask me a question and I’m going to say, “I — I — I — I don’t know about that,” or “I’ve never heard about that writer.” I battled with yes you can do it; you’re just as great, and no, maybe you should just stop this thing. But I did keep going. And I can’t stop writing. That’s how I knew I wasn’t a hobbyist — even if I wanted to, I could not stop writing.
And then I started doing this thing called “the grind”: we write every day. It’s just basically accountability. I’ve been writing every day since August 2010. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a word. Sometimes it’s a line, sometimes it’s a whole poem, sometimes it’s flash fiction, and sometimes it’s an essay. But I was committed to that, and so these books weren’t all born for me last year; it’s a culmination of things. It just so happened that they were all published in the same year. I keep telling people, “You show me someone who can write three books in one year!” If that was the case I’d have a million books! These books were gestating a while.
I will start out writing in form and just immediately break it; something is rebellious in me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a late bloomer. I don’t know if it’s my way of reacting to oppression. I just am like, “This is a great sonnet and now I want it to be a sonnet-couplet-tonka-haibun!”
The books are distinct, so did you find you were working on one and then another and then another? Or did you kind of piece them together? How did each of these books come to be?
I knew when I was writing Forget It, because Forget It is a fictional memoir …
Yeah, I think I made that up. I’ve been saying it, and people are always like, “Huh?” Maybe I did. I don’t know. I knew that I wanted to be brave and tell a story about a series of events that happened in my life, but I also knew I was scared. I was like, “I don’t really wanna tell all of these things.” I needed some help, so I decided to pull from one of my fictional characters from my one-woman show, “alice,” to help me. I was like, “Homegirl, help me write this, these true things that hurt.” So I knew — I actively knew — when I was writing Forget It, because it was true. Forget It was like, “Ahhh! You again! Ahhhhh, this again! Oh, that memory,” you know? Also, Forget It involves my children, um, in a not vague way. Some of the poems in (v.) I could be like, “It could be your child, too,” but Forget It, they’re very much mine.
(v.) is just a compilation of poems. There was a set of poems that I’d written and pieced together, and then some that I was like, “I have to talk about the election. I have to talk about these things; they have to be in there.” Answer(Me) is about heartbreak and love, and I knew I was writing Answer(Me) because of the form and the shape. But I will say they all felt different in my body. What I didn’t know was that I was going to publish all three books — because, again, I’m just writing because I have to, because I have to do it — and then I got to a point where I was like, “Even for me this is a lot of work. Maybe you have some manuscripts here.” And that’s when I was definitely able to old-school print everything out and say, “This goes with this; this goes with this; this definitely goes with this.” But something about Forget It feels different. Even when reading it in open space, I have to prep myself to read from Forget It, whereas with (v.) I usually let the book tell me. But with Forget It, I’m very hovery-mothery, like, “I guess they can handle [this], or maybe I’ll share that.”
You talked about the form of Forget It, and you have footnotes in (v.), so I’m interested in how you conceptualize and utilize form. What’s your relationship to the poem as a form on the page as a visual?
I work really hard, and sometimes I laugh at myself. A poet right now who I admire form-wise is Tyehimba Jess — I just look at the books and I’m just like, “Wow.” This is what I love about him: he maintains form, and there are so many other writers that do. For me, I will start out writing in form and just immediately break it; something is rebellious in me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a late bloomer. I don’t know if it’s my way of reacting to oppression. I just am like, “This is a great sonnet and now I want it to be a sonnet-couplet-tonka-haibun!” And I don’t care if the reader is reading a poem and going, “Huh? This is kind of haibun.” I’m not interested in if the reader can recognize the forms or not. I want the reader to feel like the poem has taken a shape on the page and has its own form. I do feel like when you do write in form, and people recognize it, it can potentially be better. But I don’t, and I actually don’t want readers to get caught up in that; I want them to feel and see the shape of the poem.
So it’s interesting, though, because you say you start in form. Why not just start in free verse?
Sometimes I start in free verse, but because I spent years like, “You will learn this, you will know this,” I find myself writing in form even when I don’t want to. That was a hard-core time for me, making myself do that, and I when I write in free verse — what I think is free verse — I actually see my kind of form, if that makes sense. So then I sit there wondering like, “Okay, so technically you’re creating a form, and now you’re abiding by your own form,” and then I say to myself, “And now should you break your form?” And I do, so I guess it’s a multiple form breaking. There are many poems that are written in Forget It in the same style, and something about Forget It I chose — I’m like, “I like this form that I created and it’s safe. I created it and it’s safe and it can hold this. And it can hold it because I already don’t want to write about these things. I already don’t want to do it,” so I needed that. But for (v.) and Answer(Me), I didn’t need that.
You’re a performance artist, also.
You know, I’m so happy you’re bringing this up, because in the last three years I’ve refused to be called a “spoken word poet,” for these reasons: what I’m noticing is, and I don’t want to just say it’s typical of where I live, but … I could be on the bill with four other accomplished people, but who have less books than I have, and they will be referred to as “writers,” and I will be called the “spoken word poet.” In most cases, I’m the only brown person, and what was happening was I felt like my craft and my work wasn’t being celebrated. It’s not my fault that when I get on the stage and choose to share my work with you — that I worked hard on, that is crafted — that I want you to feel it. You should be honored! I struggle — I struggle a lot. I just feel like any writer who is sharing their work should be honored for their writing craft. I think there is a community of people that, when they hear “spoken word poet” or “performance artist,” they don’t think about the time it took to make the words that are spoken to the audience, right? It’s not improv! I really respect people who can improv and, like, stand-up comedians and free stylists, but I wrote this piece, you know? And now I’m sharing it with you in a way that I deem worthy because I want you to experience something. I want you to feel something when I’m sharing it with you, but I’m not performing it for you. I’m sharing it with you.
I was thinking more in terms of the one-woman show and the plays: how do those non-poetry and actively in-space performances inflect the poetry?
Yes, 9 Ounces is a play, a one-woman show, but I think the desire, again, to make the audience feel something makes me want to share the poem in the best way. I feel responsible: I don’t want to just get on the mic and read it. I want you to feel something. Even if you’re repulsed, I want you to feel something. There’s a poem I read, “WWBD (‘What Would Becky Do’),” where many women have walked out on the piece, and it used to hurt, but now I’m like, “Good! You feel something!” But if I just get up with a book and read the words, I feel like I’m not being my best self. I need my, our, writing community to know that just because you choose to read and I choose to share it ferociously doesn’t diminish my work and my craft and my talent. We are the same.
When you share these ferocious, amazing, crafted, gorgeous, important poems, and let them loose in the air for the audience, what do you hope for? What do you want them to do?
We’re overusing the words, I feel, “social justice,” “change agent,” whatever, but I feel a responsibility to talk about things that make people uncomfortable, and I feel a level of responsibility to speak up for marginalized voices, or for people who maybe won’t ever be in front of a microphone. Because of that, I want them to walk away changed in some way. So if you feel something, great. If you changed after you feel something, even better. Those are the two goals I’m going for. Lastly, I want the young poets to read and just listen to other poets. I think while we’re in a somewhat free world and we can still do that, that is the best gift ever. I was transformed by reading other people’s work — dead people, living people, other writers — and I want one day (it’s corny), but I hope one day to be a part of a poetry legacy; I want someone to say, “Man, [reading] Anastacia-Reneé’s (v.) for the time was X Y Z.”
Who are you reading right now?
I must admit, I just came from AWP [Associated Writers and Writing Programs] which means I can’t mention all the names, but I grabbed quite a few books from the Cave Canem table. And so I’m reading at least 10 poetry books, and I’m rereading Octavia Butler’s books. I’ve read them before, but something is pushing me to read, to take a second and third look at them, so I’m reading those. And lately I’ve also been reading short essays by random people. I’ve been making that part of my daily routine, just to read a really short essay, just to change it up a little bit.
If you had five candles on your poetry altar, which poets would they be burning for and why?
Living poets or dead poets?
They’re your five candles — whoever you want!
Sigh — always Audre Lorde. I wish and wish and wish and wish and wish that she would come from the spirit world and we could have lunch together. Always Audre. June Jordan and James Baldwin and, oddly enough — I know this is gonna be strange — Shakespeare. I want to understand what he thought he was creating and what he thought. Did he have any idea he was gonna be, like, number one in the canon? I just kinda want to interview Shakespeare: “So tell me how dost thou do this?” I want to do that.
What is that, four? My God, I need like a million, a million, a million, a million! But I think I will reserve the last candle for the poet right now that’s writing, that doesn’t think they’re ever gonna amount to anything. I used to be that poet.
I love it: A candle for the unknown poet.
Yes, candle for the unknown. You’re such a poet! A candle for the unknown poet.
So you are here at an event at Furious Flower called “Poetry Without Boundaries.” What are some boundaries that you think poetry encounters, and why is it important to traverse those boundaries?
I think some of the boundaries are old boundaries, and they end up being just systemic. I really do believe there is a such a thing as racism in poetry, and I don’t know necessarily how to put my finger on it, but when I go to Barnes & Noble just to look and see what’s on their shelves for their top 10 poetry books, or when I look at the best sellers, there is still quite a disparity in terms of diversity, and I don’t know if that’s because of the subject matter or that’s because of the writers, but I still think that is a huge huge huge boundary. I also think there is a genre-bending boundary (I’m a cross-genre writer), and though we’re getting better — people are making up words for it, people even solicit, “Hey we want your hybrid work” — I think there’s still a certain group of people that think poetry should be one way, and if your poetry is not that way, you will not be published. You will not be asked to read. You will not be in the top 10. You will not win an award. And the way to bump up against that boundary is to compromise, but I’m not willing, so I have to deal with what that means. If that means compromise, and I’m not willing, then I need to move on for that particular boundary. Another boundary is just access. I think that there are so many writers that are amazing writers but just have no idea how to get past the “I have a journal full of poems and I don’t necessarily know how to make that better.” I think that’s a big, big, big boundary.
I know that you’ve taught a lot, so what do you try to gift your students? What do you try to gift that student who has a journal full of writing, or the one who hasn’t even started to journal yet? What do you try to pass on?
I try to pass on internal confidence: I really want a person to leave thinking, “I can do this.” So I’m always trying to give tools. I would rather give you the tools than do it for you, so I stuff a lot of information into students, like, “These are the secrets; these are things you should know at 15 or 18 that nobody ever told me.” So that’s one thing. Also I like to tell them things, small things, like, “Maybe you should write every day,” or “You don’t need to pay money to have a group of friends to workshop and critique,” or “Request certain books at the library and they’ll get ’em.” I usually try to give my students 10 good things, 10 rules to follow, or 10 tips. It’s one of my favorite things about teaching, and then I feel like we’re both winning — I told you some things I wish I had known, and now you know the things, and now you can tell somebody, and you can do the things.
I also think talking to students about how to be active listeners: How can you be a poet-ally? I didn’t know, and there was no class. I don’t really think I learned what that could potentially look like until I went to Cave Canem in my thirties! I don’t want somebody I’m teaching to be 31 before they realize, “Oh, this is how I can support another writer,” or “This is how to be an ally.” And then I hope that translates and transcends into the bigger picture. When I think about it, those are pretty lofty, but those are always my goals going into any teaching setting. It doesn’t matter; those are just always my goals.
Who is the work for? Why am I writing if it’s not meant to tell a whole truth? What is the point of telling the half?
Again, I’m interested. I want to key in on the listening: tell me a little bit more about that.
I usually give a short exercise where a person says a line and the other person does not respond. They just need to sit there and look and listen. They hate it. It’s uncomfortable. Then I usually have the person deliver the line, and I ask the other person to make a comment about the work — not about the person, not about the delivery of the work, not about anything but the work. Then I ask the person to read the line again, and I ask the listener, “Can you repeat the line? Is there something you remember?”
I just feel like technology and so many other things are stopping us from being active listeners with our mind and our hearts, and I think we’re just like, “I’m not gonna feel anything. I’m too busy to feel. I don’t have time to be sad or happy. I just need to get to the next thing.” So I really try to work on what that looks like. Then we get into it: is there something that you liked about it? Is there something that you would change? More specifically, not something you would change because you’re the writer, but something you would change about the way they wrote it. I guess it’s also not letting the listeners be the center of the critique. I just feel like we don’t really — I’ve been a teacher for a long time — we don’t really have a class for that. We’re not teaching it very much.
What was your most memorable poetic encounter? Either with a poet or a poem?
Just one?! Ah, oh, my gosh. I have to say for the record there is not just one —
(Laughs) For the record: noted in the record.
There’s many. But my most outward, active, uncontrollable, physical thing related to poetry happened at Cave Canem in a workshop with Toi Derricotte.
Of course it did.
It’s so funny! Okay, so I’m loving, I’m mushy, I’m not aloof, but I do have the ability to say “You know, I’m not gonna go here. I’m going to active listen; I am not getting in here with my feelings.” And so I listened to her say, “Write about the hard stuff. Tell the truth,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s cool; this is all great.” And I listened to everybody else’s work, mm-hmm, and then when it got to me, I couldn’t read my poem. I couldn’t read my poem because I did not write the full truth. It was the first time I said to myself, “You have been so busy trying to write like the canon or please others or do it in a form, or not hurt anyone, you have been taking away 50% of your personal truth!” And so when it came to me and I couldn’t read the poem, I instantly realized that’s what was going on, and I just lost it. And then she was just like, “Good! Good! Now read us the poem.” And I was just like, “But it’s not …” and she was just like, “No, read the poem.” And I was able to say what the things that I omitted were, and the reason it changed me is because it made me realize, you know, you’re never gonna please everybody. Who is the work for? Why am I writing if it’s not meant to tell a whole truth? What is the point of telling the half? It just brought up so many questions that I still ask myself, and so for that reason I would say it changed the trajectory of where I thought I was headed as a writer, and that’s not where I was headed at all. Not at all.
If you had to give readers a key to your work, what would it be?
I’m visual, too, so I would have a blue star that would say, “Some of these poems are scary or sad or might make you want to turn the page,” and in parenthesis it would say, “Stay there.” Just … just stay there. I would have a little sunshine that says, “Some of these poems are ridiculously funny and absurd, even when sad things are happening, because we need humor.” And I would have an ellipsis to say, “There’s some blanks, so that you, reader, have some agency.” Not a mistake; it’s blank so that you can figure out how you feel about a thing, if you were in the situation. And lastly, I would have a long list of writers that I would thank immensely just for having conversations with me, just for sharing their work with me. I just don’t think we lift each other up enough. I would spend pages and pages on conversations and quotes so that other people could see and read those things. Another part of the key would say, “The writer is imperfect, and I am okay with that.” I used to believe that to be a writer you should be striving for perfection, but I don’t. I’m okay with the reader watching me fall.
Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press and is forthcoming in April 2019.