by Lauren K. Alleyne (transcribed by Brenda Marie Osbey)
If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing Brenda Marie Osbey read her work, you will remember the mellifluousness of her voice and the compelling cadence of her reading, which is both fluid and deliberate, each word striking at once its own resonance and part of a larger chorus. On the page, this ability to hold the singular and the collective is a hallmark of Osbey’s work. Osbey is a poet of detail; her poems are exercises in accretion, pulling into the same linguistic space specificities that, in an almost pointillist fashion, create a larger picture, contribute a more complex commentary. Her well-known poem Litany of Our Lady is an excellent example. It opens thus:
our lady of the sidewalks
the pavements and the crumbling brick
the mortar rock and oyster-shell roads
our lady of sorrows and sadnesses
of intolerable agonies tolerated daily
of drifters grifters scrappers and scrapers
our lady of dudes and dicks and pricks
of petty thieves and of whoremongers
of piss-swelled gutters
and the grimed over windows knotty-haired children peer through
our lady of boys shot down in the dark
dying in open lots along lesser used roads leading out of town
of old men beneath interstates
sitting, standing, walking a block or so away and back
our lady of lost and found and forgotten
of what was and never will be again …
Fully inhabiting its formal framework as a “Litany,” the poem unrelentingly piles on nouns, descriptions, characters, actions, each with its own heft, story and texture. The poem is a veritable festival for the senses: We smell “piss-swelled gutters,” stumble along “the pavements and the crumbling brick,” each detail of the litany both itself and building for us the context of a place in desperate need of prayer. An unsaved space that despite the “rosaries of faith” held by the “church ladies in waiting” is also a space of “boys shot down in the dark / dying in lots along lesser used roads.” The weight of each detail serves as incontrovertible evidence yet adds to the unbearably poignant conclusion: “our lady of / anything at all.”
While Osbey’s poems are granular in their attention to the detail, her concerns and contexts are wide-ranging. Over the span of her career, she has claimed the diasporic African world and its peoples as the central concern of her work, engaging a variety of languages, geographies and histories. In a phone conversation I had with her back in 2018, Osbey exclaimed “I don’t know how you can be more international than Black.” That statement (which I wrote on a sticky note and attached to my desktop) is, in my opinion, the most apt summation of Osbey’s poetics. Blackness is her country and nation; her allegiance is to a multi-dimensional accounting of and for the hidden, distorted and unsung narratives of her fellow citizens; her creed has many tongues and claims no single deity. Osbey brings the full weight of language to bear in witnessing, honoring, and vindicating Black life, Black history, and Black people.
Osbey was a faculty member for the 2018 Furious Flower Collegiate Summit, “Poetry Without Boundaries.” While on campus, Osbey spoke with me in the studio at James Madison University, and what follows is the unedited conversation as transcribed by Brenda Marie Osbey herself.
I would love to know the story of how you came to poetry.
Ummm, that’s a pretty short story. (Laughs.) And it’s a short story because the easy answer is that I was born into an arts family – with the exception of my father. My father was a professional athlete, a boxer by trade. My mother’s family were singers; my grandfather, my twin baby aunts all sang with the local Black opera company called the Old New Orleans Negro Opera Company. He was the tenor. And he began training his youngest daughters, the twins, when they were two, and they were singing in public by the time they were three. And so I grew up hearing beautiful voices around me. My mother didn’t sing professionally, but who did write poetry, and did publish some individual poems in a few places — a couple in the old Pittsburgh Courier. But my mother had a beautiful singing voice. And my childhood is — and this is especially true now that my mother has passed — when I think of my childhood, it’s peopled by the sound of my mother singing in an otherwise silent house.
My grandparents’ house next door was the party house; my mother’s house was very quiet – except that there was constant jazz playing in the background. And when there wasn’t jazz playing in the background, there was my mother’s voice, singing. I used to tell people that I had been listening to Sarah Vaughan [1924–80] since I was born, and my mother corrected me once and said, “You’ve been listening to Sarah Vaughan since before you were born.” So. And that for me, that voice, the voice of Sarah Vaughan – Sarah Vaughan pops up not as a character, but as a figure in several poems of mine. And there’s actually a whole unpublished suite of Sarah Vaughan poems – to me is the most singularly perfect voice out there. If I were going to choose a feminine voice, I would always choose the voice of Sarah Vaughan. If I were going to choose a masculine voice, I would choose either Johnny Hartman [1923–83] or Paul Robeson [1898–1976]. Or both. (Laughs.)
You’ve talked about the importance of the voice as a unique instrument, and you write in lyric but also in other voices and personae. Talk to me about that channeling of the voice: How do you describe and navigate that relationship?
Well, I have this this idea that certainly isn’t original to me, but I have this idea that every city has its own sounds, and you know your city by a certain blend or certain cacophony of sound. It’s almost impossible to have either quiet or solitude in New Orleans because people won’t let you. If you’re alone, people will come and visit you, especially if you say you want to be alone. Then they’ll say, “Oh my goodness. Something is wrong. Let me go and see about her.” And then they’ll beat on the side of the house and say, “I know you’re in there, Lauren! Let me in! What’s the matter with you?” (Laughs.) So that’s one thing. The other thing is that there’s always music. And when there isn’t music there are kinds of music – like the sounds of the streetcars running on the tracks or the twelve-noon lunch whistle that used to ring or sound when I was a child, to call workmen in to their lunches. There’re all kinds of sounds that you associate with your city. And so the voices that I steal (and I honestly feel that it’s not stealing; it’s pretty much as much mine as anybody else’s, as the people making them) are very often voices of my city.
The other thing, though, is, with narrative poetry, one always wants a lyric quality. When I’m working in narrative, which is my preferred mode, obviously — even my short, early poems were narrative, had that narrative thing — and we always talk about story with narrative poetry, we always talk about story. But it isn’t necessarily the story itself that’s important to me as it is the voice that’s telling the story, and why it’s telling the story. So one of my favorite things has always been to have conflicting voices telling the same story differently. A poem like “Faubourg Study No. 3: The Seven Sisters of New Orleans.” Different people are telling the same story. And the primary speaker of the poem, by the end of the poem, doesn’t necessarily care which of those voices, including her own, is the truth. She has become a collector of voices; and by collecting voices she’s collected lives and experiences and spirits and thoughts and bits and scraps of history — and that’s how she describes herself – as someone “who saves and “puts things aside.” She comes to the city as a “researcher” – (She’s a Native who’s been away.) She comes to the city to research this history of the Seven Sisters and she’s, you know, got a series of questions and they’re very important to her. But when she goes to speak to the last person who had a connection to the Seven Sisters – who was really their sort of charwoman almost – she loses all of her questions, and her life is transformed, and then we figure out that somehow during the poem (I don’t quite recall myself), that that woman dies, and then this woman, the young researcher, comes to inhabit the House of the Seven Sisters. And so she becomes a conduit for this spiritual history of this family of healers.
You’ve talked about l’Histoire, the story. And you’ve talked about the misguided idea that history is all fact, and I’m curious now in our age of “alternative facts,” and a really frustrated relationship to a straight narrative, how would you refine that differently?
I think Western society as a whole has a somewhat shifty relationship with history, and that there’s an unwillingness to recognize the kinds of negotiations and exchanges that occur – I think, organically – between fact and information and knowledge and wisdom and reportage and recounting. Each of those kinds of expression is somewhat different than all of the rest, and yet they all work concurrently, I think, if not all of the time, then certainly most of the time. There’s always a kind of running narrative; and that for all intents and purposes, we are continually making history in our telling of things.
Take something commonplace like going to the doctor with a complaint. You have a health complaint. Each time you see a doctor or a nurse or some sort of technician — these people who are gathering information, taking bodily fluids and so forth, doing things to you — and they ask you your name and your date of birth and why you’re seeing the doctor that day and what you think is going on and so forth. And initially you’re annoyed and frustrated by having to answer the same questions. And what I’ve often said is “Don’t you already have that in my file?” It’s like “Why are you asking me these things? Yes, I’m still allergic to that .…” But eventually what happens is, without even thinking about it, you form a narrative. And you get relatively comfortable and perhaps even glib reciting it. It’s a way to tell and be disengaged from the entire experience, which is a disorienting experience, going to the doctor. I guess we could pick something else — being arrested or having your head beaten by police officers — equally disorienting experiences, or perhaps more so, depending. But there are ways of recounting that either distance us from the experience, they make us tangential to the experience, or they can put us completely at the center of the narrative. It’s what happens when someone has, say, an out-of-body experience. (They describe something as an out-of-body experience.) That’s one of the things that people do to deal with trauma — is to distance themselves. It doesn’t mean that what they’re seeing isn’t true. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening to them. It’s simply a way of telling. And so I’m more interested in those ways of telling.
Robert Hayden is a master of this. His poem “Middle Passage.” In that poem, we never hear the voices of the captive Africans; we never, never, never hear them speak at all. He allows the ship’s crew and captain to condemn themselves in the readers’ and the listeners’ eyes and ears out of their own mouths. Everything they say makes them guilty and culpable and wrong and inhumane and ungodly. And all of the things that they attach to the African captives are in fact their own spectacular forms of evil. And they say it all themselves! We don’t even have to figure it out. It’s just them speaking in the ordinary course of the filthy business of enslavement. For my money, it’s one of the greatest poems in the English language. It’s one of those transformative poems. You read that poem for the first time and you’re changed by it. And that’s what poetry’s supposed to do for us when it’s really good, when it really works, when it resonates with us in that way. It changes us.
What are some other poems that you think have affected you in that way, that have really been transformational?
Well definitely Martin Carter’s “I Come from the Nigger Yard.” It’s really difficult for me to read that poem without shuddering the closer I get to the end. I had a student who was a fiction student, and he was debating whether to take my Modernist poetry course. And he said, “But I don’t really understand poetry,” and I said “Okay, I’m going to read a poem to you, and you tell me what you understand about it.” And so I chose “I Come from the Nigger Yard.” And by the end of the poem we’re both of us kind of het-up, on the verge of tears. And so he took my course. And he was wonderful! I could not keep him from talking in class! This student who said he knew nothing about poetry, he didn’t understand, it was a completely alien thing. He was astonishingly brilliant, just astonishingly brilliant, and just… It was a wonderful class, and I was really happy that he was in there. But, yeah. Martin Carter, definitely.
A poem that I really have always loved to teach is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Second Sermon on the Warpland.” You know, I’ve always loved that poem. And it’s just a kind of a perfect gem, that’s just there for us as a kind of a record of what poetry can be and what poetry can do.
I’ve been going back looking at the translations of Langston Hughes. That is, Langston Hughes’s translations of Jacques Roumain and Nicolás Guillen; and thinking about how we need new translations for this generation of much of that work as well as new translations of Hughes, you know, into the Spanish and the French, and for my money, also into the Portuguese. And so I play with choosing poems.
The poems of Neruda are very, very dear to me. A poem like “Heights of Macchu Picchu” [“Alturas de Macchu Picchu,” 1947; also Canto General, 1950] is just…. Again there’s that fascination with history – what I like to call “the problem with history” or this tendency that many of my favorite poets have of worrying history. I think I could take the whole body of Jay Wright’s poetry, which I love. I really love Jay Wright’s poetry a great deal.
Who else? There are actually lots of people out there. And of course Césaire [1913–2008] and Depestre  and Léon Damas [1912–78], of course. I’m working on some new translations of Damas right now [Renaissance Noire, vol.18 issue 3, Fall 2018].
I’m curious about your experience with translation: What are some of the joys and challenges of moving between source and destination languages?
Well. Again, it sort of goes back to family. My mother’s family is Creole-speaking and my grandfather was a linguist, among other things. He was an opera singer, and he was a Creole chef of some note, and sort of a renaissance man, and a Race Man. So there’s that. Rather than having the gift of song as my family has, I have a certain facility with language and languages, and I’ve kind of always had that as a kind of an obsession. In school I was a double major in French and English and did a year abroad, and so forth. So there’s a background of language obsession that I enjoy. But translation started, I think, organically – a kind of an organic development for me because of reading bilingually. When reading a text and there’s this side-by-side translation — which is how I like to read, even if it’s a language I have absolutely no facility with — I like seeing the two languages side by side and seeing what is supposedly untranslatable. I began just doing marginal notes of my own, for things that I would have translated differently, or things that were perhaps translated well but didn’t scan as poetry in the context of a particular poem.
I was saying earlier this morning, talking with a friend here, that a good test of one’s mastery of the Spanish language is one’s ability not only to read and comprehend and appreciate Neruda in the original Spanish, but to translate it into an equal version of English. It’s a really difficult thing to do. And it’s something that most people who have been translators of Neruda have done these translations over a period of years, and then later gone back and corrected even their published translations. So it’s a difficult, difficult thing, but it’s a very desirable thing. But really, it started for me as a series of exercises – a set of reading exercises – that I set for myself. (And you know I have how many notebooks of these varieties of exercises – some are translations, some are single-line things, some are rhymes, some are quasi-sonnets – series of exercises going back to say age 18 and 19.
So it began as a set of exercises. But lately it’s become something that I find more necessary. Mostly because, as an African American writer, as a writer of African descent in the Americas – and this is one of the things that we learn from Hughes, and this is why I think it’s so important to continue to teach Hughes, always: Hughes translated the world for us. And many of us are not aware of it. We’re not aware that when we read Guillén, we’re reading Langston Hughes’s translation of Guillén; and when we read Hughes in Spanish, we’re reading Guillén’s translations of Hughes; and that these two men developed a friendship around this. And that it was through Langston Hughes’s influence that Guillén began writing from his Black core, as opposed to doing imitations of so-called white Cuban poets, and so forth, who were imitating Black speech …. (Laughs.) It’s getting your own stuff third and fourth-hand! And so Hughes just challenged him and said, “You know, this is what you need to be doing. The way that I’m into the blues, you need to be into son [Cuban music dating from early 1900s/1910s].”
And so that — being able to communicate with other poets across language and geography and boundaries — is something that becomes more and more important to me the older I’ve gotten. And so I’ve designed courses around it, and in fact, designed a sort of lifelong translation project around it. It’s just something that I think is really very necessary. I think it’s important to be able to pick up a Puerto Rican poet from the 19th century and read him in the original language and also read him in English, read her in Portuguese, read her in French — because these are the languages of the Americas. And I’m always thinking about the Americas as opposed to the U.S. And there are these frontiers and these boundaries that we’re able to cross every time we do that. I just think it’s a really important thing to do. And I’m doing it in my fairly slow, obsessive, methodical way. (Laughs.)
You’ve named geography as one sort of boundary that poetry can butt up against and talked about why it’s important. What are some other boundaries you think exist for poetry and/or for poets? And why do you think it’s important to traverse those boundaries?
History is another one of those things. There is so much shared history – particularly history that is taught as though it is unique and individual and separate and apart. One of the examples that I often cite with students is the Brazilian poet, Mário de Andrade, who has this poem that’s called “Improvisation of the Dead Boy.” (Which may be a poem about the death of his younger brother. I don’t know. People say it might be but I don’t know. He never said). But I like the fact that here it is, 1922, and here’s a poet who’s clearly influenced by American jazz musicians. He’s doing this poem that’s an “improvisation.” And the poem is not the kind of elegy that we’re accustomed to reading. He’s not grieving the death of this young boy. He’s saying, “Get the blank out of here, dead boy. I don’t want you anymore. Don’t come to me in the night bringing me your dreams. You’re dead. I want to forget you.” So it’s a poem of anger toward the dead person.
And I think it’s important that it’s called an improvisation. I think it’s important that the speaker abuses the dead person for dying, simply for dying. And the rejection of death in that poem is really quite fascinating to me. The translations of the poem are pretty … ehhhh, you know? And so one of my tasks is to see what I can do with it. But in looking at that poem, what we’re looking at is an Afro-Brazilian poet who was the founder of the Week of Modern Art in Brazil [10–17 February 1922]. He was the person who came up with the concept, and he was the figure around whom all of this work across the arts was — there was this constant constellation around him. And if we can’t cross language and geography and history, then we can’t know him; we can’t know his work. So it’s like we’re in a library, but we’re blind and there’s no Braille for us to use. So we’re just fumbling in a library full of books, but we can’t read them; we can just see them and handle them. Sort of like holding a book up like this (Gestures.) and trying to hear it.
One of my complaints and arguments, and one of the things that enrages me, is that not only do we not read enough as a society, but we don’t read broadly enough. We read only what’s available in our little language. Now, granted, our little language is the “world language.” Says somebody. (Laughs.) But so what? You know? So what?
I think that that we have these boundaries. We have form versus what some people see as formlessness; we have performance as opposed to what, I think, is usually pejoratively called “academic.” I’ve even heard people refer to my work, because it’s research-based, as – I’ve been called a “library poet.” (Laughs.) Well, you know, if I’m a library poet, then, as long as that puts me in the company of Robert Hayden, then I’m cool with it. (Laughs.)
Library poets unite!
Library poets unite! Library poets rock!
So. And then, you know, there’re certain things that, that don’t happen so much in poetry. When I started writing narrative poetry it was very unpopular. And I actually had editors tell me, “I can’t publish this. This is too long! Every time you send me a poem, it’s longer and longer and longer. We need more white space!” (Laughs.) So, you know, it was very difficult to get some of these things published. And yet everything found its little home, one way or another. But one of the things that I’m interested in now is, I’m interested in reading more prose poems, more contemporary prose poems. There’s lots of it to look at historically over time; but I’m interested in seeing more prose poems out there: short prose poems, long prose poems. I’d like to see more of that.
One of the things that I really appreciate about Brooks and McKay is their revolutionizing the sonnet. Taking the sonnet and turning it into a kind of love poem to the race, you know, so that it ceases being this personal tale of personal love and woe, and becomes this embodiment of one’s love for the People. That’s a major thing! And you know I don’t see anybody teaching a course about, you know, the revolutionary sonnet. I don’t see that happening. So. So that’s one of the things that I do with my courses. I narrow in and say, Yes this is writing in form; but look at what it’s saying, look at what it’s doing.
So traversing the boundary of the form.
Exactly, exactly. I ask students to define the sonnet for me. “Give me your best textbook definition of the sonnet, and tell me the ways in which this is not a sonnet, and the ways in which it is a sonnet, and why; and what that means about what this poet is doing. And what does this say to us about the labor of writing?” When we do that, when we revolutionize a form, what are we really doing? We’re saying I’m the author of my voice. And that’s an amazingly liberating thing to do.
Tell me about your writing labor, your process.
Hmm. It’s not very interesting. Well, I have my preferred practice, and then I have what I kind of end up with, depending. But my preferred practice is to begin with a question or a series of questions for which I hope not to find an answer. The exercise for me is framing the question, because knowing what the question is is a kind of a step toward liberation. Liberation of the intellect, liberation of the craft, liberation of the individual.
So I like to begin with a series of questions. History and Other Poems began with a question about the French word for slavery and enslavement. The word for that in French is asservir, to cause someone to submit. And there’s another word that escapes me right now, but these are relatively harmless words compared to the word “enslave.” And so I was working on one research project in the South of France [2004 ]; and I was sort of going through an encyclopedic dictionary of the French language, and late into the evening when the library was about to close — which, it never really officially closed; it was there at the residence where we all lived and if you got locked in you weren’t gonna be locked in; they would tell you, “Lock the door when you leave.” (Laughs.) And there, before my eyes, just as I’m going through, just kind of flipping pages, was my word, esclaver. “To enslave,” literally. A beautiful word actually: esclaver. It says exactly what it is, but that word has not been used for many, many years. It hasn’t been used for centuries. So that one of the things that the French language does — French elides. And it elides its history as well. French language and French studies and French history pretend that there was no slavery. And one of the ways that you can make that pretense true is to erase a word, to take it out of usage, to pretend that it never existed. But there, in some crusty, musty, old leather-bound dictionary that the gilt is falling off of, is my word. Esclaver. And that kind of fueled this project. Now, I don’t think you get the word esclaver anywhere in History and Other Poems, but – And one of the poems was written many, many years ago. And it isn’t the title poem. The title poem was another thing But one of the poems was – oh! it’s the poem I read, “Slaves to the City.” It was written many, many years ago, before the book was even conceived. But I began to see that poem as an entrée into this collection, this very small collection of poems on this very tight (I hope very tight) topic.
So… Language. If anything is a boundary, the very thing that we as poets work in – that thing is the boundary. We’re continually required, and I think more so than other artists who work in language (and I rarely use the word “artist” to refer to writers); but there is a kind of technical — “skill” isn’t quite the word I want, but it’s what I’ll use for now — a kind of technical skill that’s required to build up from language. And that’s what we’re doing. If you’re writing a story, you have the story – both its content and its shape as well as its characters – to keep everything going. For poetry, even narrative poetry, you really have only language. When the reader sits down to read, that’s all the poet – The poet doesn’t necessarily care about you. The poet isn’t interested in your story, not necessarily. I usually am not, you know, unless there’s something in the poem that compels me to do that. But really all you have is that va y vien, that sway, that * give and take of language. And mastery of language is the elusive thing. We’re always trying for it. It sounds vain to say it, but it really isn’t ’cause we can’t ever get it. (Laughs.) It’s very humbling. It’s nice to hope for, but you know you’ll never get there. And so that’s the thing: to have language is to be able to move a certain way in the world, in worlds.
I’m pulling you back to your process a little bit — so starting with language …
It starts with language, with a question. Well, it’s two things. I’m glad you said that, because starting with a question or a series of questions, but also starting with language. Some of my own favorite lines in my own work are lines that I’ve heard. You know, riding the streetcar, taking the bus, walking down a street, sitting in a restaurant or a movie theater, or standing at the pharmacist’s counter. You overhear something. And the something itself is so amazing that you take it completely out of the context in which you’ve heard it and you’re able to build around it. And that’s how you get a voice in a poem very often.
The very first thing that I did, the very first formal project proposal that I wrote for a poetry residency was about explorations of voice. And this was in the 1980s, early 1980s. Maybe my first book had been published, I don’t remember. But it was right around that same time. But it was about examinations of voice, and I was concerned with something. And I don’t know that the reviewers necessarily knew what I was talking about, ’cause I don’t know if I knew myself; but I wanted to explore something about the weight and the burden and the heft of voice. I wanted something about the way that we feel language. Because we do feel language. We don’t think about it all the time, but language is something that comes at us. We respond to it. It is a literal vibration that we’re receiving. And, you know, as soon as you have an ear infection, you kind of get the point, you know? (Laughs.) Or if you lose hearing in one or both of your ears as a result of something. So you want to always be questioning those things, no matter what else you’re doing; because it’s important, I think, to question language. That we’re always questioning langugae. Who said it? And why? And how? And why do I care?
And how does it change the story?
You know, it’s this weird…. The weight of language when we’re looking at race, at the history of race relations in this country in particular, and every country probably, but in this country in particular. You know: these things happened to Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas “because of his race” or they happened “because he was Black.” That’s very different than saying these things happen as a result of white racism. That’s very different. It takes the burden off of the receiver and places the burden at its point of origin. And that’s a very liberating kind of thing, to be able to do that, to say as Zora Neale Hurston, that she’s not the problem. And that there is no “Negro problem” in this country. (Laughs.) And she only said what millions of people were already thinking, you know. But she said it! (Laughs.) So that questioning and weighing and balancing of language is really important.
And so one of the reasons that I say that my process isn’t interesting is that I spend a lot of my time doing what essentially amounts to high-level nitpicking! (Laughs.)
That’s the new definition of poetry for the ages: “high-level nit picking”!
You know, because what does it mean if you say “the weight,” or if you say “the burden of,” or if you say “the heft of”? Or if you say “This is Lauren’s personality,” or “This is Lauren’s character,” or what my grandmother used to say, “It’s her carriage that I find appealing.” Yeah. So all of that stuff that you bring to bear, you know, that part that meant that you didn’t belong only to yourself, you belonged to the people who made you. You belonged to your family first, of course, and your community, and then these larger circles. But she’d say things like, “You can tell blah-blah-blah about a person by her carriage.”
And also that you belong in some sense in and within–the language speaks you, right?
So it’s sort of having agency within that …
Exactly. Agency. Agency is always the always at the crux of it, I think, because that’s what language does. And I’m prejudiced, of course, but I think poetry is always negotiating that question of agency. When Robert Hayden decides that the enslaved — well they’re not even enslaved yet; they’re the captives. When he decides the captives won’t speak – what is that moment? What’s happening? It’s like little children learning language. And children are particularly logical so that instead of saying “I ate it” — the past tense is -ed, right? – “I eat-ed it.” (Laughs.) And when someone tries to correct them — oh no no no — “I eat-ed it! It’s already done! It’s over with!” Watching them make those constructs … I would love to be able to see inside those brains when language is forming. I would love to be able to see that and to understand what that process looks like. It would explain a lot to me about what we do as poets if I could see that. If we could go back to the seminal moment of language, the birth of language in the brain ….
The other thing is that I read. I spend a lot of time in libraries, particularly archives. And you know one of the beautiful things about research is that — and I go back to Hayden with this — one of the beautiful things about archival research, in particular, is that documents have their own language. Bills of lading, the language of a ship’s vessel, a captain’s log, the language of prayer, the language of the Methodist hymns that the crewmen pray and sing on board the ship. So Hayden really becomes a kind of wizard. He’s like a wizard who is – not even a wizard, an alchemist. He’s the ultimate alchemist. Because he takes the language, whole-hog, of these documents and combines that language into that very self-condemnation that I’m talking about. So that, as the Psalmist says, “their prayers become a curse.” You know? So that we see more* clearly what we were never intended to see, what we were never meant to see.
The carriage and character revealed.
Exactly, exactly! So that I spend a lot of time with documents, and trying to convey some of the admittedly often stilted beauty of these documents that are intended to be cold, hard, factual things. But of course because humans are recording them, they’re never really just that. There’s always some kind of commentary. So that’s why I say that even if we’re looking at original documents, those documents are recorded by human beings. And those human beings are putting a particular slant on what we’re seeing.
So, speaking of choice, the N-word occurs in your work.
It’s such a contentious word on so many levels, so I’m so interested in the heft and burden of that word and how/why you think it’s an important thing to voice?
Well, I think I use it the way it’s intended to be used. (Laughs.) It’s an expletive. And I’ve never used the expression “N-word.” I always use the word “nigger.” And it’s a shocking word for people, and it’s become an obscenity, and of course it is an obscenity. It’s an obscenity that generations and generations and generations of people tolerated. Not through choice. And it does have heft and weight and burden and meaning. And it is intended either to shock or to assuage. When you call someone “muh nigga,” that’s very different. And yet again, who gets to say that? Who gets to* call you that, if anybody? So I’m not really interested in the discussion of it. I’m interested in its use when I see it used. And usually when I see it used in a work of literature, it’s pretty much being used, you know, as it is. That’s the use of it. It isn’t a controversial issue for me at all. It’s a word that, when I’m using it in a text, I’m using it to have that desired impact, that particular impact. Which may be shock, which may be offense, which may be a matter-of-fact statement by someone. I don’t know. But it’s part of, it’s part of the vocabulary of our experience in Western society.
We won’t do what the French did: let it disappear.
And the French have the very same word – les nègres. As opposed to les noirs. Very different.
I’m going to shift a little bit to thinking about New Orleans and Katrina and the work you did writing and advocating. What traces of that story are you still writing? Are you still thinking about that? What’s the city like now?
I haven’t really published Katrina poems. I have a small group of poems that I worked on during that period; and they’re part of a larger body of work, or a type of work that I do, called “Heavy Water Poems,” which is the working title of the project. And so, because New Orleans is a city surrounded by water. Although not exactly in the way the media presents it. It’s not a bowl; you don’t walk there and see walls around the city. (Laughs.) That isn’t quite the way it functions, but it’s useful in a media kind of way. But because it’s a city surrounded by water, water figures in our day-to-day lives and always has.
Before the floods of 2005, the worst hurricane in my lifetime had been Hurricane Betsy, which happened when I was in first grade. It was the first day of school, and was also my brother’s birthday, September 9th. So we were happy because we didn’t get to go to school. We got to stay home and eat snacks, and so forth. But it was the last big one, the only big one that I’d ever experienced. People talk about [Hurricane] Camille, which was later, but I don’t remember Camille as a very damaging storm in that way.
For us, for New Orleanians, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita weren’t hurricanes. They were hurricanes but they weren’t, you know, a natural disaster the way they function as a natural disaster in American — mainstream American – telling of the story. The storm hit the city what I always call “a glancing blow.” It was a minor storm for us in New Orleans. It was the poorly constructed levees, on which we had depended our entire lives — people like me – we knew those levves to be in existence. So it was a man-made disaster for us. And even the Army Corps of Engineers, when critiquing its history, made that admission. They said, “You know, we had the option of doing this, and instead we did that.” You know, it was a conscious decision to go with the cheaper thing. And so that changes — again — that changes the narrative for us.
So during the actual storm itself, lots of people from all over the place were writing Katrina poems. Some of them were a kind of a tribute to a city that they saw as a cultural space. Or it was just the newest thing that was happening in the news. Or some of them knew people from New Orleans, or had family there or some kind of connection. But most of those of us who are from there – from there, from there, as we often say – we weren’t doing that because we were still living it and processing it. And there were a number of school projects like high school, junior high and high school projects that were like poets-in-the-school’s projects where schoolchildren were writing about these topics; and a couple of those have been published. And there’s also a Furious Flower anthology that’s devoted to Katrina, Mourning Katrina, I believe it’s called [Mourning Katrina, A Poetic Response to Tragedy. Mariner, 2009]. But those of us who lived it and experienced it are even now processing it. So, I think, for many of us who felt it directly and who were displaced by it, that’s something in the offing. That’s something to come. I do have one poem that’s been reprinted a number of times. It’s a poem from All Souls [All Souls: New and Selected Poems, LSU Press, 2015] that people think of as a Hurricane Katrina poem, but it was written long before, although it hadn’t been published; and it’s called “Litany of Our Lady.” You know, that poem, I’ve used it as a Katrina poem. But it’s simply about being in that kind of a city where the water comes and does these things.
It’s so interesting. It made me think of the recurrence, because you said the history of it is still to come. Right?
Or that, in some ways, the poems sort of prefigured, in some way, the event to which it speaks. So that slippage of history ….
And there’s also “Qu’on Arrive Enfin”! “Qu’on Arrive Enfin,” which says, you know, “let the waters come.”And* again, that poem was written long before, because we live with hurricanes all the time, you know? We live with hurricanes all the time. It’s part of the landscape and part of how — And so you know I have this whole body of unpublished works that, you know, deal with water and water imagery and what water does. And water is a force, and water’s something to be feared. You know, just all of these various uses of water and the ways in which it’s — more so than the uses of water, it’s about the ways in which water uses us as part of a landscape, you know. Water uses the landscape. We’re shaped by the Mississippi River and the Gulf of *
Mexico. And as most people know by now, because of that, we’re — there’re bits and pieces that are fragmented and dropping off and continually shrinking the coastline and so forth, and have changed, you know, the shape of the lay of the land over centuries. That’s an ongoing continual process. It’s something that we live with, and I think is part of our nature, part of our inheritance, part of our perspective. It means something different when my grandfather describes something as watery than when somebody, you know, from maybe Iowa describes something as watery. (Laughs.)
I’m sitting and I’m thinking: maybe this is why there’s so much overlap between New Orleans and the Caribbean. Right: surrounded by water. If you’re an islander, there’s a way that you understand, respect, and have a relationship to water. And I lived in Iowa before I moved here. In Iowa there’s just no sense of water. The Mississippi runs by in certain parts, but it’s not defining.
Not the defining thing. And we’re at the mouth. Everything just kind of comes down there.
Is there a way that you would say New Orleans has shaped the form of your poems?
Hmm. That’s really something to think about. That’s a new kind of question for me. I don’t think I’ve had a question like that – thank you very much. (Laughs.) But I don’t know about that. I know that the city shapes me. And that I’m not necessarily writing about New Orleans; I’m writing out of it. That it’s the prism, I suppose, is the word. It’s the prism, the lens through which I see and hear and dance and feel and eat and drink and breathe and so forth. So it’s part of my make-up. So that, it’s there. Sometimes, in a very slight turn of phrase or something, it’s there — choosing to use a folk expression that we’ve transliterated from the Creole into English. For instance, canne à sucre. Which simply means “sugar cane,” of course. But, in Louisiana, it’s an endearment to call someone canne à sucre. It’s an endearment because we labored in sugar, did we not? You know, it’s sugar cane country. It produced most of the sugar that most of this country consumed for most of its history. So that this is a country that you could say has “sugar in the blood,” as old people used to refer to diabetes, right? Nobody would say you have diabetes. They would say, “You know, she’s got sugar in the blood.” And it’s a way, I think — that expression is a way of talking about this society and its history of slavery and enslavement and resistance. And also, so, that being the case, then taking something as simple as sugarcane, and taking something as simple as the fact of it becoming this kind of endearment – that perhaps that’s some way in which the poems. Maybe it’s not the form of the poem? but the framing of the poem. Because I think what I’m talking about is something like perspective? But whatever would be the equivalent word for “carriage” in this context, I think, is really, is really what I’m talking about. But I haven’t been asked a question like. That’ll go into one of my notebooks. I’ll worry it, you know, and create maps around it, and charts around it. In terms of practice, that is one of the things I do. I have recurring characters in some of these poems, and so I have to remember how they’re related to one another. So, from the very beginning, I created charts and maps, and, you know, lists and things. So I have lists and charts and maps and genealogies and so forth. I mean, I have to remember, you know, there’s the Crying Eagle family over here and there’s the Boazes over here. So there’s all this stuff going on. So, you know, it never occurred to me that I should try to keep that stuff straight in my own head. That’s what notebooks are for.
How do you feed your writing practice outside of writing and reading?
Well, because I’m in New Orleans, I suppose there’s always music and the impact of music. I used to hear much more live music than I do now, and that’s something I’m always sort of whining about and saying, “I need to hear more live music. I need to hear more live music.” I do listen to music as part of my practice of writing. “Everything Happens to (Monk and) Me” was* written while I was listening to “Everything Happens to Me,” over and over. I even had it on – back when people had music on their phone machines, before we had cell phones, and answering machines were kind of new; people had music and so forth. I had Thelonious Monk’s “Everything Happens to Me,” and one friend called me up and said, “Brenda Marie, really? Really? Do you think maybe you could change it?” I’m like, “You don’t have to call me and listen to my machine if you don’t want to.” (Laughs.) “Don’t listen! You know this is my phone machine!” And so for over a year, while I was working, I was listening to that. And, of course, the poem has nothing to do with Thelonious Monk. It’s simply that that’s, you know, the carriage of that particular moment in time. And simply because I liked everything happening to Monk and me. I kinda liked being in it with him – me and Monk together in that way. I adore Thelonious Monk.
So music. And there are particular kinds of music and particular composer-performers. Thelonious Monk, obviously, is one of them. Monk’s compositions are, I think, so complex that they simplify so much for us. If you listen to a number of his called “Functional,” it opens certain kinds of possibilities. When I was on fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown [1987–88], I was out there at the Land’s End. Every day I listened to Harold Land’s “Land’s End.” Every single day, no matter what else I was listening to, I listened to that.
I used to have, especially when I was young, what I call “deep listening” periods. And there’re certain composers that I listen to back to back, over and over. You know, when the CD came out, that was like an amazing thing for me because I could just hit that repeat button and just go to sleep listening to Thelonious Monk, wake up listening to Thelonious Monk, just go in circles. For the past couple of years I’ve been listening to Armstrong and Dexter Gordon a great deal, and I’ve always loved Abdullah Ibrahim. There’s a certain kind of percussive piano that really, that literally strikes a chord with me. Quite literally. And it says, these compositions say something to me. I don’t necessarily know how to put that into language, but it’s a way of working that I find compelling – to be surrounded by a certain kind of repetition of a certain composition, a certain way of playing. So right now I’m listening to a great deal of Abdullah Ibrahim, Dexter Gordon, and Louis Armstrong. And part of that’s in preparation for writing a couple of Armstrong essays that I’ve had in mind for a while.
But I’m slow. That’s the other thing, and why it’s not good for me to talk about process – because you might expect to see this next week. You won’t. (Laughs.) I can promise you, you won’t. But I’m a very slow worker. It takes many, many years. And then when I finish something, it often takes a long time for me to say it really is finished, and I really need to send it to a publisher. I hesitate to say how long this tiny book [History and Other Poems] had been finished and in this form before I dared to send it to a publisher – because it’s a slim volume of a very few poems, and there’s a lot of white space, besides. But that white space was absolutely necessary for me, and I fought, you know, with the editor and publisher who was also a poet and who got it, who got it. The late L. D. Brodsky. You know, we had these long, exhausting conversations about white space. You know, this would go on for days. You know, we’d stop one day and then pick up a week later, like, “Oh, God, just shoot me now.” But it was a learning process for the both of us, that we were both grappling with things about practice, and I in particular was looking at how to communicate to whoever might be my ideal reader for this text — whoever might be the small group of people for whom this book resonates. And I’m always happy when somebody mentions this book or asks about this book. And there’re certain individual poems like that, as well, that mean one thing to me, but that isn’t necessarily what I’m projecting when I’m sending it out there. But it’s a very slow process for me. And tedious. Slow and tedious. Much of it is pure tedium. Back and forth, back and forth, with the same few words, the same one or two or three words, and shifting things, multiple times, only to go back to time number seven, you know, and say that really is the way the line flows.
You have to test all the possibilities.
Yeah. So it’s really quite annoying. (Laughs.) I mean, I like it. And, I mean, I’m engaged with it. But it isn’t anything anybody wants to know about, really.
Actually, it’s a great relief because it sounds very familiar.
Ah! Okay. Okay. Let’s go out after this!
So, I’m going to wrap up with: if you could assign a reader’s homework, what would be your assignment?
Oh, I actually have a list. I do have a list for that. I have a notebook for that actually. (Laughter.)
There are certain things. And many of them aren’t poetry, or even poems. One of my most dear passions is reading and rereading authors whose work I love. Also, author’s whose work frightens me. I have what is now a lifelong obsession and fascination with and passion for the poems and novels of Gayl Jones. I should say poems, novels, and short stories – because I first read her as a short story writer. White Rat and Other Stories [Random House, 1977 ]. Gayl Jones is a frightening writer. She is a terrifying writer. And that’s what compels me to read her.
There is…. I’m trying to think of the name of this one particular novelist. Carolivia Herron. There’s a novel called Thereafter, Johnnie [Random House, 1991]. Which is one of the most, sort of chilling novels I’ve ever read. And I was afraid, literally, when I was reading it. But that compelled me to continue reading it, to confront this really brutally, frighteningly true narrative that was contained in this novel, with this innocent-seeming title.
Carolivia Herron. Thereafter, Johnnie. Who became famous for her children’s story, Nappy Hair [Dragonfly, 1997.
I think, anything, really, and, I mean it. Anything that Toni Morrison [1931–2019] puts to paper, really, I think needs to be read and studied. I taught a course on Toni Morrison. It was one of the first courses I designed. It was called Toni Morrison: The Complete Works [UCLA, 1989]. And it was all of her work at that time. And there’re certain passages in Morrison. You know, when people say that she has a poetic gift, there’re passages, for instance, in Song of Solomon [Random House, 1977], which is the first one that pops to mind, where the farm, Lincoln’s Heaven, speaks; and this is what it says to the men. And, it reduces me to a kind of a blubbering five-year-old every time I read that passage. Because it’s about the passion of a people to belong, to belong to one another. And the most immediate way for them to do that is in land. And the father, Macon Dead, Sr., becomes a perversion of that love of land by becoming a realtor, by becoming a slumlord. That, that he’s distorted the message of his father. And so there are passages like that in Morrison. There’s the passage in Beloved, where Sethe is decapitating, she’s in the process of decapitating her infant. That’s one of the beautiful passages in American fiction. And to hear Toni Morrison herself read it is bone-chilling. You know. It’s bone-chilling, because she has a light, not-quite-sweet voice. You know? Just sweet enough to be dangerous. Like the stride in Abdullah Ibrahim’s piano-playing. Gets close to sweet and maudlin, and then, prrrt! – twists and does something else and shakes everything up.
So. I think that there are films we need to see; there are languages that we need to learn, that are on my list; there are songs that we need to learn. There’s stuff we need to hear. There’re experiences that we need to have. There’re journeys that we need to take. So my reading list is really quite long. But I always fall…
We need a few lifetimes!
I fall back on history, mythology, and certain kinds of spiritual texts, and so forth. I keep going back to those. I owe my obsession with myth and mythology and myth-making to my older brother, Lawrence. And I thank him for that personally in the opening of History and Other Poems, in the acknowledgments. And, there’re certain kinds of things that I return to just over and over. But if there’s one poem, it’s, I think that one poem is either Hayden’s “Middle Passage” or it’s Hayden’s “Runagate, Runagate.” Or, you know, it’s any number of those Bessie Smith poems by Sterling Brown. There’re just certain….
I think your assignment is: read everything.
It really is. Read everything, and trust almost nothing. Trust almost nothing that you read. Read everything. And question it. You know. Question it. In Morrison’s Beloved, there’s that passage that I like to call “the sermon in the clearing”? Where Baby Suggs, holy, tells the people how to love one another? Really, the lesson is how to be liberated, how to free yourself from this gruesome experience of captivity and enslavement. And the whole book, for me, is about that sermon in the clearing. It’s land; it’s clearing; it’s a new place. They’re building a free community. It’s speaking – it’s in conversation with Lincoln’s Heaven [Macon Dead’s farm in Song of Solomon] speaking to the men. It’s in conversation with Guitar’s flight [the conclusion of Song of Solomon]. It’s in conversation with Pilate’s collecting a stone from every place she goes to. And when she sits down — this is my writing practice — the scene where Pilate sits down and asks herself, “Who am I? What am I afraid of?” She says something to the effect of, “I didn’t fear death because some of my closest friends were the dead.” And her family is Dead, [their name] of course.
So that’s my writing practice, and that’s my reading assignment. That, here are a series of questions that you need to ask yourself. And questions will change over a lifetime of reading and writing and study. But certain seminal questions, I think come back to haunt us. And I think that that’s what it is with poetry – that we are… haunted by language and by the power of language and the power of what we do, the power of how and whom and what we engage. And it is a haunting of which we cannot be, from which we cannot be liberated because it’s within. It’s within.
In traditional religion in New Orleans, the Mothers say that it doesn’t matter about, you know – tourism-Voodoo, and all that stuff – because the religion lives within. It goes where you go. You go where it takes you. And that’s the essence of it. So that’s the assignment: it’s go where you go. Take it where it takes you. Or as we say in New Orleans, in the Secondline tradition: “Get in where you fit in.” (Laughs.) And then transgress. Get in where you fit in, and then transgress those boundaries. And go beyond all of that stuff. Because language lets us do that. Language lets us.
It compels us. It compels us to do that. We… we don’t realize the extent to which we make language happen. We make it. We reinvent it, all of the time. That’s our task. That’s what we have to do.
I love it. I wouldn’t be anything else. (Laughs.) I wouldn’t be anything else.
Thank you so much!
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), 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