Khadijah Queen’s poems function both as moments of engagement and invitations to engage. The terms of that engagement necessarily differ from poem to poem, collection to collection —there is no “typical” Khadijah Queen poem — and readers are asked to leave their expectations of what the genre is or isn’t, should or shouldn’t be at the proverbial door. Defying the contract of genre, the poems instead offer a contract of mutual presence that invites readers to be — to be open, to be present, to be alert—and to challenge themselves to embrace new modes of understanding.
In return, they offer access to a mind in constant interaction with the world. Voracious in their subjects, modalities, and formal manifestations, the poems are relentless in their observation and questioning of the world at multiple scales and levels, from the internal to the physical to the environmental and political. Sometimes direct, sometimes inscrutable, the poems act as a staging ground upon which we’re invited to witness how these intersecting dimensions co-create the reality of a singular consciousness. At the same time the poems challenge the notion of singularity, and invite us to step in and be a part of the co-creation of meaning.
“Horizon Erasure” from Queen’s collection Anodyne, for example, moves fluidly between internal and external landscapes, offering readers snatches of images that snag the speaker’s attention:
Blue-grey braceleted Hollow
Comes on cloud shift. What about letting go
Ivy clung to passageway ceilings, some grass on
tried to take my son
Stop refusing to understand
The imperative of the final line is both empowering and insistent—the ability to know and “understand” is ours for the taking if we are open to, and “stop refusing” it.
Khadijah gave a virtual reading at Furious Flower and later dropped by our studio in Harrisonburg where we discussed her practice and poetics. The interview has been edited to ensure concision, cohesion and clarity.
Thank you. I’m so excited to be talking to you.
I’m excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
I want to just start off by thinking about the poem you just read and the term “experimental,” which is often used to describe your work. How do you think about / own / challenge / resist / embrace that term, “experimental?”
I think I kind of embrace all the things; I don’t feel limited by one aesthetic or another. I just kind of go where the poem wants to go, and listen to that creative impulse. If people want to call it an experiment, that’s cool—whatever helps people understand what they’re looking at, or approach what they’re looking at, I think is okay. I’m not that particular about the labels of it all. I read The Book of Landings by Mark McMorris, and I was watching some stuff about animals and Greek philosophy, and it just converged into this particular poem. I’d never written a grid poem and I just wanted to try it. Some of these phrases are lines that were cut from other pieces, and it’s almost like a collage. I’m interested in how fragments meet one another on the page; I’m interested in visual composition. I’m kind of an art school dropout—some people know that about me—so I do try to make an art out of things and try to approach the making of pieces, without imposition, but just waiting for some kind of a revelation that occurs as I’m doing the alchemy of the arrangements. And the play of it!
I can feel that the visual is really important to you, and that it does do a sort of layering work with the poem. How do you know if something wants to be a grid poem? Or parentheses, etc.?
That’s a great question: I don’t know until I try it. Sometimes you get to a poem that’s not working, and then you move it around into different shapes until it feels right. I think I work through intuition sometimes. I know that’s probably not a popular thing to say, but why not? For this particular book, I was definitely in the mode of why not? and trying things and saying, since people do say that my work is experimental a lot, can I write a bunch of narrative poems and have like, some long lyrics? Can I do that? I feel just a little bit disobedient in that way and in response to constraints that we hear from outside forces, or constraints that we put on ourselves, or how we perceive the process of making. I wanted it to be less precious. I wanted it to allow for some mystery, some mess even—the opposite of perfection. And I think that might be openness. I’m always curious about openness, and how that looks.
You talked about voices and I feel like there’s always—or often—an addressee in the poem. I feel like whether it’s speaking to the reader or directly, often there’s a “you.” Talk to me about that process, I guess, of writing always toward…
Hmm, that’s a good question. My first response is I’m probably just talking to myself! [Laughs.] But I’m also talking to maybe a world that doesn’t necessarily listen to people like me, and doesn’t listen to folks who may not have a public voice, who are quieter. And so maybe it’s both of those things. And maybe talking myself into speaking to the world in some ways. Those may be some of the layers that you’re intuiting.
I love that idea—the thought of talking to a world or even talking yourself into talking to the world, because that seems to be also the realm of the lyric. I am thinking of modality, and how the poems are often lyric, but also often narrative, and sometimes simultaneously, persona.
And anytime you have multiple addresses to the idea of personas, it talks about your relationship to poetic mode…
I think I’m mostly just trying to have fun. [Laughs.] And to say something that feels like it could mean different things at different times when you approach it: different times in your life, different times in the day, different moods. I’m interested in a kind of encompassing, and a kind of multivocality, maybe, that can be interpretable in many different ways, many different times. I don’t know that I necessarily write in one mode or approach in one mode, but I definitely think in terms of multimodality.
You’re like the poetic multiverse. [Laughs.] But there’s also such an attention to, and also a dismissal of time in the poems. There’s the now, there’s a present, there’s the future, there’s the past that gets pulled in, and you play with time a lot, as well. So that multimodality, and multidimensions of time just seem to be really something you play with. Am I intuiting that correctly?
I think that’s just Black stuff, you know, Black time. We are constantly the present, but we are constantly being made aware of our past and thinking forward to our future in the process of living. In The Physics of Blackness [by Michelle M. Wright], she talks about Black time, the concept of Black time, in those parameters; so I think it was just me being like, really, that’s part of who I am. I’ll also add that I recently found out I have ADHD. When you have ADHD, your sense of time is now and not-now, and your interest in doing things is based on urgency, challenge, novelty, and your own personal interest. And also you see things all in one plane — you can see everything at once—so time is happening at once, events are happening at once. And so, you know, maybe my brain is just able to do it that way. That’s the natural way that it works.
You also said that “the world doesn’t listen to people like me.” And so, I’m curious about that, “like me.” When you say “like me,” what is that identity or that sense of self you’re holding?
I mean, I feel like Black women are not listened to. A lot of stuff could have been prevented if we had just listened to Black women. And certainly, disabled folks are not listened to. Single moms are not listened to. I could go on and on. I grew up poor and nobody listens to poor people. So there are multiple layers of an invalidation of perspective that I have been made aware of. And yet, we speak anyway. Right? So, I think that’s what’s going on.
And circling back to that sense of disability, of non-normativity. How does that play for you as a poetics? Like, how do the poems circle or hold on to that?
Well, I think there is certainly a refusal to be identified as lesser, even though there is disability. I’m just struggling to write through it now — an essay about poetics of disability — as I’m working on a book of criticism about poetics. The disability poetics is the last essay, and is really, really long and spreading out, and I’m thinking about how I want to refine it. So, I’m glad you asked this question. What I wish… what I hope, is that we could exist in a world that makes room for everyone as the default, instead of being so restrictive and having rigor be defined as exclusionary, or excellence being defined as exclusionary, instead of approaching it from the opposite direction. So how can we challenge ourselves to include more people, include more voices, include more care, in the way we interact with each other, in the way we build public space, in the way we make policy. What would happen if we challenged ourselves to do that? Just thinking differently, turning things around from what’s not working, and recognizing that what works for disabled folks actually works for everyone.
How does that translate to poems?
I think it’s a disobedience in there. [Laughs.]
A dope disobedience!
Certainly! A poetics of refusal—no, I don’t want to do it that way. I’m going to do it my way and figure it out for yourself. When you are disabled, you have to figure out how to make public space or environment or relationship or anything you encounter, work for your disabilities, right? Neurotypical folks, non-disabled folks might just say, Well, you got to just fit in or You just conform. But if you’re disabled, you’re not capable of that conformity. You do need those modifications. And so, in poetry, I think that I’ve been attracted to invention. I’m definitely attracted to what may seem inscrutable. And the puzzle of it all, I’m interested in that. Beauty looked at not as something linear, but as maybe what we were talking about earlier with regard to time — simultaneous, expansive.
You mentioned beauty, and that’s another thing that I think runs through the work so much. I think there’s a commentary on beauty, which, you know, I linked to aesthetics in a certain kind of way, which of course, and I linked to poetry, right. So how does the critique of beauty and the way that society reveres it, weaponizes it, et cetera, et cetera? How does that then work with the idea of art-making and making language be beautiful?
I love that question because it makes me think about how I think about beauty which is as not possessable. Appreciated, encountered, noted, engaged with, but not owned, not harmed, not possessable, but allowed to exist or be respected in its existence.
We have a hard time with that as a species.
We do don’t we. We like to own things, to thing-ify the world. It’s a problem.
There’s this critique, but even within the critique, there is beauty in the poetry. So the ask then is, if what I’m hearing is right, is to hold that beauty but not grasp it. Right?
Right, we can pause in it. We can recognize that gentleness is also beautiful — that we can gently receive something. That softness is valuable. And perhaps that it might allow us to understand something better than, you know, somebody hitting you over the head with a hammer, right? We don’t have to have the violence part, do we? Is that how we want to reify our language still? Or are we capable of evolving past that?
If we extract violence from beauty what are we left with? Maybe it’s poetry.
Maybe it is.
I’m interested in the prose poem as a form, and what draws you to it: what effects do you enjoy that makes you return to it so much?
I don’t have prose poems in Anodyne, but certainly in, “I’m So Fine.” It took a long time to get to that place, I think. It started out as just a plain old list — just a list of famous men I met in and the outfits I had on went I met them. As I was writing it, I hadn’t even taken it seriously as a poem, it was just something that I was writing. And then when people read them, they were like, Oh, my God, you have to write more of these. Then I started to lineate them like a regular poem, but that didn’t feel right. So, of course, I had to read them aloud. And in reading them aloud, I recognize the younger voice of me, and how I really used to talk really fast when I grew up in Los Angeles. We would just like talk like this and be like, Omigod!. And so, I made it into a prose poem. And then it still wasn’t quite right. So I took out all the punctuation and put those ampersands in there. And then the pacing, and the voice, and the tone all matched. So I think what I liked about the prose poem for that particular book was how it was able to do all of that simultaneously; to tell the story in this consistent voice, in this consistent form, but still kind of disrupt what we think of as a story or poem.
You have a line that I love from “Erosion” that says, “how we fail is how we continue.” And I read that and it also resonates as a possible poetics. Is it?
I mean, it could be. I think if we allow ourselves to recognize how often we do fail, we would understand that we already do continue, even though we do fail. And that sometimes what we fail at can teach us something valuable about what we might better succeed in or what we might enjoy and to accept faults. I think one of the other poems… “I lived in kinship with my faults,” is one of the lines, and I got that from Alice Notley. She talks a lot about the defect. And that was interesting to me to like, just to recognize it, to call it out, to embrace it, to own it — we’re not perfect. We’re not capable of perfection, even though we’re often told in our production/productivity-driven culture that we need to be perfect. It certainly does cost time and money if things don’t go perfectly, but in a poem, you get to make the world that you want. So if you want to talk about imperfection, and to understand that it’s really okay sometimes to acknowledge that and to be vulnerable, and that that can be powerful. I think that’s valuable information.
There is such a tenderness for the natural world, but also a sense of crisis, also a sense of justice. Tell me more about how you actively or intuitively integrate that sense of eco-awareness into the poems. How does that play out?
You know, I grew up in a city so I hadn’t really thought about it. But when I was living in Colorado—I lived there for eight years — it kind of just snuck in because the natural world is so beautiful there. It was a very transformative experience to see Maroon Bells in person because it’s so old — like millennia old — and I’ve never been anywhere like that with that kind of awareness. I think it unlocked something in me even though I used to be outside when I was a little kid. I was a tomboy. I used to play with the bugs. I used to be in the dirt. So it kind of helped me remember that part of me. And also, to understand that we’re not taking care of our home. This is our home! Why are we messing it up like this? Why are we allowing it to be harmed for the sake of money? Really? Is that what we’re doing? It doesn’t make sense to me. So, I just thought to make sense of things, or, present in the poem, a space where we can see how it doesn’t make sense. In a gentle way, perhaps, but very precise and clear.
What does a Dr. Queen poetic practice look like? What are the habits that you’ve cultivated over all of these years of writing?
It’s changed quite a lot over time. I used to try to fit in poems when my son was little. I would write before work, in my car, on my little notepad—just sit in the car before I had to go in and write a lil sumptin’ sumptin’. I write while I’m reading — I would write when I was reading a lot when I was younger. And when I was writing, I’m so fine, I had a joby-job, and so I would just take a weekend and dive into it — order takeout, wouldn’t answer the phone and talk to nobody, I’d just be in it. There was a time, about six years, I used to write every morning. I had enough stability to be able to get up at five. It’d be an hour-and-a-half or two, just writing. I had a surgery in 2015, and that was the end of that. Now, I think I write more when I travel, because my everyday is very, very busy with the professor stuff and po-biz stuff and cooking — I cook a lot now — so I don’t have a daily practice anymore, other than paying attention. But when I travel, I tend to write almost every day.
It’s the evolution of the practice to write: it just has to adjust…
Yes, adjust. I did mourn that daily practice. I certainly did mourn that. I tried to recapture it, but it’s not happening. So now it’s just okay, surrender. When it’s time for deadline, I do that thing, you know, just get it done.
You mentioned the “professor stuff.” What do you find interesting or challenging about trying to teach the craft or the art or the practice of poetry to students? There’s a range of folks who enter our classrooms: what are some of the things you try to make sure they leave with?
I want to make sure that they’re not afraid of poetry. We make sure they know how to read it, that they have the tools. If you can read a poem, you can pretty much read anything. So they have the vocabulary, they have the tools, and they have, you know, I usually teach The Life of Poetry, the first chapter by Muriel Rukeyser that unlocks why are we afraid of poetry, and it has been received well by engineering students, and poets alike. I just try to open it up a little bit because people have been taught… poorly. [Laughs.] Maybe that’s a mean thing to say, but they’re taught that a poem can only be read one way. And it’s not like that.
I try to just open it up, make it a little fun — let them be wrong and not call it wrong, and just talk about it. We’ll just kind of massage it, you know, and get into what each element is doing. Identify the parts of the poem: this is an image. And one of the cool things about Rukeyser is she talks about action-based images. So if we can identify the verb and the noun, and what kind of noun is this, what kind of verb is this, and see how it’s acting, then they can see that thing that she talks about in that chapter—the transfer of energy, and what makes a good poem. What is a poem? It’s transfer of energy, whether or not we add that qualifier of “good” or not.
You mentioned several times, “I want to have fun,” the element of play. There is definitely a sense of humor in your work. I have not figured out how to write a funny poem yet. What is the craft of writing humor? How do you write humor into a poem?
I mean, that’s how I lived through trauma. If you live with a lot of trauma, if you don’t laugh about it, you don’t make it. So it’s built in. I think it’s also maybe a habit of avoidance of sitting in my trauma; I can escape it by making light of it, or making light of something else. Having those two things play off of each other is interesting to me. And craft wise, what can I say about that? Just look for the place where you are most uncomfortable, and then find something to laugh about, so that you can get through it.
It’s interesting, because it’s not like a ha-ha humor. But definitely it’s the funny that brings a little bit of trauma in its purse.
Bag of trauma is always there. [Laughs.]
I feel as though that idea of voice is really important to the work. You mentioned it earlier in terms of writing the voice. What has been the process of discovering, owning, shaping, especially if, you were saying, a voice that doesn’t want to be heard? How do you think of voice?
I think for folks who are maybe afraid to speak, persona is a good entryway. Because then you can construct a character to say what you want to say. I certainly wrote a lot of persona poems when I first started, you know, so I could get my footing. So I think that’s one approach. There’s also talking about things that you love, doing that first: what are you passionate about? What can you go on and on and on and on about? and starting there. It doesn’t have to be traumatic. You can write a football poem. I don’t care. I used to tell my football players that. What is it like to get a touchdown for the first time? Talk about that feeling. What is it like sensorily? What does it smell, feel, taste like? So just getting into the body, I think is important. We don’t think about that in terms of voice a lot. But it lives in your body and physical form.
Lips, tongue, and breath—that’s how you make voice happen!
Right? Which is one reason why I try to, sometimes — Eleni Sikelianos taught me this— to memorize a poem. Because then you feel how it lives in your body without the aid of the visual, if you are not too afraid to embody that. Some students, you know, you can’t push them there. But at least you planted the idea.
You refer to theorists — not just other poets—in your work, and this intellectual tradition is in conversation with your poetry. Talk to me about that interplay of what would almost seem to be antithetical.
I think it all goes together. How do we think about what we think about? How do we think about what we write about? I think, if we have more people, again, whose voices have not been paid attention to, who are shaping that conversation, then we can change what the conversation is and what it’s about. If you can change the way people think, then maybe we can change the way they act. And I know that sounds idealistic and ambitious, but guess what, I’m a poet, so I can do that. So that’s my interest in theory, and why I’m diving into that.
I’m also interested in how the theoretical can appear in ways that are not in a philosophical text. My advisor for my dissertation was Tiana Hardin at University of Denver, and when we were talking about this, she gave me a book called Black Women Writers at Work. And she said, this is what you’re talking about: this is theory. It’s just interviews with Toni Morrison and Lucille Clifton and into Ntozake Shange. I was mind blown, like, I can’t even talk! It has so many highlight tabs in it because I don’t want to write on it, but I had all these bookmarks in it because it’s just full of wisdom about how we think, about how we make things, and how we think about how we make things, and how we think about what we think about, and what are the influences of that? And how do we change it? How do we shape it? How do we become more intentional and… do I want to say braver?… more skilled in our communication, and more precise in our language? And that’s in some interviews.
Wow. It’s interesting, too, because you said “wisdom”. And I think of how that is almost not part of the conversation around theory and intellectual thought. It’s almost like folksier…
But folks are wise. And I think theory is for everybody. And also, Fred Hampton said, “Theory without practice, ain’t shit.” We have to be able to put the theory into practice, rather than go round and round the loop. I think that’s what kind of turned me off of theory when I was in school. I was like, well, I don’t like this. This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t want to just listen to you blow hot air and like, pontificate about stuff you half-know and ask questions about it. Okay, fine, but how am I going to use it? I’m interested in how we can deploy theory.
I was thinking about Non-Sequitur and the play form — which of course, is part of Black Peculiar. Have you written more plays?
I have not. I’m sort of working on something I can’t talk about. But yeah, I loved writing that. And it was not a play at first, it was a poem. And I had a friend, who was in my writing group, and she was a director of a theater company that worked with folks in prisons and stuff. And she was like, Uh, I’m reading this and it feels like a play. And I was like, Hmm. And she was like, Have you ever thought about writing a play? I was like, Never. And so, I just started going down that rabbit hole. I turned these objects into characters. It was so much fun. Some of the little snippets are conversations, some are journal entries, and I was lining them up together in a way that felt both dissonant and kind of hilarious and ridiculous and absurd, and also really cutting. That was fun.
You mentioned embodiment earlier, but I also feel like your work is so much about the thinking, and how the play is almost a space where the embodiment and the thinking are enacted simultaneously. What was it like to see that come to life—was it produced?
Yes it was. Fiona Templeton directed it. She was running a company called The Relationship Theatre Company. And the way she solved the problem of the 54 object-characters, was to have one player read them, so you could identify who was going to speak next. It was six actors, I believe, and they were the different characters, and they would be talking. The venue looked like a long runway and it had these stanchions in the middle that were kind of interrupting the movement, but they [the actors] would use them physically — sliding alongside of them if they needed to be sneaky. And it was so much fun to see how she solved that — really brilliantly —problem of the unperformable play. Because I’d been told before that I can’t perform this, this can’t be put on.
What’s next for KQ?
I’m writing a lot of prose, which takes a lot more time than poetry. I’m writing some stuff I can’t talk about, and I’m working on that memoir that I’ve been sitting on since Valerie Boyd, my nonfiction mentor in MFA school, told me I needed to write about my time in the Navy. It was a long, long time ago, like 2005, but I think I’m almost there. But yeah, that’s the next thing.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Executive Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
Tim Seibles’ work pays impeccable attention to the world — its beauty and humor, its grief and pain, its infinitely wide-ranging and nuanced possibilities. The bedrock of his work is its keen imagery, at once familiar and surprising, and always exquisitely crafted. In his sensual poem, First Kiss, for example, Seibles captures the anticipation of the moment with a tsunami of detail, the senses wrapping into each other like the young lovers’ tongues: sight and song describe her mouth, which arrives “like a baby-blue Cadillac / packed with canaries driven / by a toucan”; touch and taste mimic the motion of lips, as the speaker declares, “it was as if she’d mixed / the sweat of an angel / with the taste of a tangerine.” Like the amorous pair, the language is alight with heat and longing, its repetitions circling readers’ minds like the kiss itself, which turns the speaker “into a glad planet— / sun on one side, night pouring / her slow hand over the other: one fire / flying the kite of another.” We all swoon.
While the immersive impact of Seibles’ images often offers intense delight, that quality also is deployed in the poems to confront injustice, and to articulate the speakers’ feelings about the state of the world with cutting clarity. In “Vendetta,” he observes the hollow machinations of politicians with contempt:
Look how they
work the stage like cool comedians, ribbing the nations this way, then that—
gaff after giggle filling the auditoriums with the empty skulls.
“Cool” is in tactile friction with “ribbing,” (though the proximity of their sounds simultaneously summons the notion that these clowns (“cool comedians”) are “coolly robbing” the nation, as well). The alliteration of “gaff” and “giggle” creates appealing sonic activity, even as the poem tells us it is meaningless and “empty.” Seibles’ controlled, but significant fury towards the status quo is effectively rendered in the image that follows, which is similarly biting:
I have held my rage on a short leash like a good, mad dog whose bright
teeth could keep the faces of our enemies well lit.
His frustration, rage, and restraint thrums — sharp, dangerous and precisely rendered in the image of the restrained “good, mad dog” and its gleaming “bright teeth.”
Whether rhapsodizing on the beauty or brutality of the world, Seibles’ poems operate from the mission he articulates in his poem, “Faith”: “[t]ell the truth. If you can.”
Tim Seibles judged the 2022 Furious Flower Poetry Prize and read with the winner and honorable mention here at James Madison University. In the studio, we discussed the evolution of his poetics, his influences, the writing advice he didn’t listen to, and his commitment to writing both the struggles and the joys of being human. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Welcome to JMU, to Furious Flower, and The Fight & The Fiddle. It is such a pleasure to have you here and to be able to have this opportunity to talk with you. Somebody asked me this question yesterday, actually, and I’m gonna pass it on to you. Your work is a festival of the senses — the images are always so rich and so wonderful. What is your entryway? What is your entry into that particular modality? Where do your images come from? How do you begin?
Well, that’s a funny question. I think you begin, really, with the poets that you loved when you were first writing. You know, and people like Pablo Neruda for example, Yusef Komunyakaa, for example, Gwendolyn Brooks, for example. There’re so many people who have affected the way I think about what poems can do. Anne Sexton, for example, is another one—really rich images. And so, I think when you find in other writers that you admire things that resonate with you, that makes you want to be able to do something similar. And I don’t know whether it’s deliberate or not, but at a certain point, you begin to think in terms of images. When I’m writing, I don’t say I need an image here, necessarily. You know, you’re writing and it just seems to… if there is something you’ve said, that seems that you need to deepen the illustration, well, if you’re lucky, an image will come. And it doesn’t mean it comes, as you know, the first time. You could write and then go, that’s not what I mean. But you keep working and, I think at a certain point, the creation of imagery in language becomes a habit of mind. A lot of people think, Oh, where did you get such a simile? Well, if you, if you read a lot of things, especially you think about someone like Neruda, who was wildly rich with similes and strange images; after a certain point, if you’re lucky, it planted a seed in your own head.
And so over the years — I’ve been trying to write for around 40, 46 years now, thereabouts — bit by bit, I think your mind becomes a certain kind of place. And so, there’s all kinds of pictures in my head and connections, and so on, I’m writing, sometimes those things, if I’m lucky, if I’m having a good day, those things come kind of quickly or readily. As I said, it doesn’t mean it’s right the first time, but it’s just that I’ve never, or at least not in recent memory had a moment when I thought, I don’t have any images in my head. It feels like I’m overwhelmed. It’s selection: it’s too many images in my head. It’s a matter of finding the language for them. In fact, that’s where, of course, the revisions come in, and you know, you want to get the language, right, even if the image might be right, the language is suited, in a certain way. But that’s, that’s really the story of my life, in terms of imagery. I just think the people that I’ve loved, knew, have made my mind a different kind of place.
You just put together this New and Selected, and you’ve had this expansive experience with poetry. I’m curious: what did you groan or blush about in putting together this book? Or what surprised or delighted you about looking at the work from the beginning, all the way through?
Well, even the early things — things that I probably would not, or could not write at this age, you know — you see yourself in them still. So I still feel a tenderness toward all these crazy poems. There are people who are like, “Oh, I throw away all my early work.” I would never do that! Because it’s like a stepping stone. It’s like a staircase, right? You can’t get to the top if you don’t have the bottom steps! [Laughs.] So I’m still climbin’, you know? And so, you can’t disrespect those early poems. I mean, plus most — many, if not all — many of those early poems really are reflections of the people I was in love with. That I was reading as I was just learning, getting a sense of how poems work. How does imagery work in relation to abstraction? And so, I’m reading Merwin and Sexton and Komunyaka, and I mean, you can go down the list. There’s a poet by the name of Ralph Dickey that very few people know about because he committed suicide early in his life, a Black poet, I think he was probably gone by age 30. But man, you know, you’re talking about intensity and imagery. He was another one, but I don’t think anyone really knows about him. So, these are the people who were, you know, moving through me as I’m starting to just get my hands around how you can, you know, move from abstraction to image and also tell a story. Not that every poem is narrative, but there’s a sense of telling, and you want clarity, but you also want resonance. And so those are the poems that, if I look at, I can often say I know who I was trying to be — something like them, you know — not that I was succeeding, but they were clearly affecting what I was thinking about images and stuff like that. So I liked doing it, but the things that I found the most painful were having to leave poems out. You know, there are a lot of poems that I thought, ‘Oh, I really like that poem!’ but you just can’t put them all in the book, you know? That book would be this thick [Gestures.]. You’d be like, “oh, it’s a collected!” It’s not a “selected” if I put everything in there. So it’s really hard to be sure, but what I hope is that, as I read this book now, look at it now, is that it’s at least a reasonable cross-section of what I’ve tried to do with poems over the years. And with that, I can kind of be at peace with the fact that not every poem that I love is in there. That’s just the truth, you know?
And we can go back to the collections. [Laughs.]
That’s what I was going to say! Go back to the collections and find the other ones! [Laughs.]
Did you learn anything in putting those together? Was it instructive in any way?
I think what happens when you’re putting together a collection like this, is that it becomes very clear that you are developing and changing as a writer. When you’re doing it, you’re just doing it, you know? If someone had said to me before I wrote this book, would you say you’re changing as a writer? I would say yeah, I think so. But I mean, when you look at that [the collection], you think clearly you are changing as a writer, and part of it is, you know, as you get older, you start to, of course, close in on your own mortality. That’s one thing that begins to shape the way you think about everything, but certainly about poems. But also, you hopefully have gained a little bit of wisdom and it changes the way you write because maybe you know better about certain things, you know? And if you read a lot of people, and you’ve been, you know, thinking hard, hopefully, about what poems can do, then, you know, you can begin to kind of push boundaries and do things that maybe you haven’t seen other people do. And so that would be something I noticed — at a certain point, as I get later in this, closer to the present, I think, Boy, these are some poems I would have never thought to write when I was 30 or 40. I would have never thought to write this poem. And then you see, oh okay, so you know, your mind becomes, ideally, a richer, more capable place. And also, your mind becomes more efficient. I mean, I would liken it to the way a piano player who was very good at 30, at 60 can do things without even thinking about it because of the habit of working in a certain way with the piano. And I think it’s similar with language, I think at a certain point, there’re things that are just foundational in the way you think about words and composition. Whereas when I was 30, I think everything was more deliberate; I’m still thinking, okay, I’m trying to do this and this and this, but some things, after a while, are just there. Just as right now, I’m not thinking about how to talk. It’s just part of the way my mind works. And I think that happens, too, over the years in writing poems, there’s certain things you just understand beyond consciousness about composition and the way words can move from one thing to the next. And so that would also be something that’s probably helped me and changed the way I write also.
I just have this line written from “Dragon,” in the first section of this book; the line is “we must perfect our illusions.” It’s a haunting line, and I’m so curious about that idea of perfecting our illusions — how does that operate as a poetic tool?
Wow, I probably need to stop for an hour and just… you know, I’m not sure. It seems that much of what gets us through the day is based on, if not wishful thinking, at least a certain biased perspective of life, and what’s meaningful, and what’s not. And I think in absence of that— whether it’s a religious perspective, or whether it’s a matter of how you just feel about breathing — in the absence of those things, it would be almost impossible to live as a poet. I have this immense affection for and faith in language and its capacity to create community. I think that may be insane, you know? I mean, I think sometimes, You know what, man, people don’t think about language, you’re just out of your mind. But for me, it’s a thing that, first of all, sustains my practice as a writer. But also, it allows me to feel that my life, as someone who believes in words, is meaningful. Whether it’s an illusion or not (I think it can be argued), even if it is completely a fantasy in my head, it still allows me to do the work that feels important to me. And that’s, maybe that’s as close as I can do to giving you a poetic justification! [Laughs.]
Can you talk to me about how a poetics of witness enacts for you? How does it transfer to craft and practice?
Well, again, I would go back to poets that influenced the way I think about writing. And, of course, I came of age during the Black Arts Movement. And so I’m listening — I mean, I didn’t have any clear context of all that was happening, but I’m listening to a lot of Gil Scott Heron, and Nikki Giovanni in her really militant stage, and the Last Poets. And so, at least to my young sensibility, they were trying to talk back to the world, they were trying to say, I see this, and this is nonsense. I see this and this is necessary and true. I see this, which other people do not see, do you see what I see? This is what I was getting from them. And some of those poems, as you probably know, are pretty wild. “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” for example — “Ferocious Peace!” — and then “Ego Tripping” by Nikki Giovanni. I mean, those were on the radio when I was a kid, you know? And at that time there were still stations that would consider themselves Black radio stations; by then it was really that you just simply weren’t going to hear certain things if you weren’t listening in Philly. It was WHAT and… was it WDAS? I’m not sure, it’s been a while… but those were stations where you would hear “Ego Tripping” or The Last Poets, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” And so I thought, that’s what poetry is supposed to do, at least in part. It’s supposed to say, This is unjust. This should not be happening. This should be happening, or, Have you seen this? If only to invite other people to just be engaged by something you’re engaged by.
As I said earlier, poetry is a community building tool. And so when I said when I try to write something that would be a poem of witness in which I’m trying to say, Look at this, I’m hoping that other people who read the poem will say, I see what you seeand I understand why you feel the way you do, or I disagree with how you feel. But the whole idea is that there will be genuine engagement. And part of the way that’s accomplished, I think, anyway, is by being as clear as you can with what’s at stake, and what you see, so that people don’t walk away thinking, I just don’t understand what you’re talking about. I don’t want to give people that option of slipping out of the poem, because there are a lot of people, as you probably already know, that’s how they dodge poetry: I don’t want to know! I don’t understand it! When what they really mean is I’m afraid to understand it. That’s what they really mean. I’m afraid if I understand it, I might have to think differently. I’m afraid if I understand it, I might have to question my own life. That’s what they really mean. And so, for me if you write a poem of witness, or any poem truthfully, but specifically we’re talking about witness, you really don’t want to give people the option of “well, it sounds interesting, but I’m not doing that.” I don’t want to give you that option.
And when I listened to those early poems by some of the Black Arts Movement poets — Amiri Baraka, who would have been LeRoi Jones when I was a teenager. And then if you jump back to the Harlem Renaissance, this is very similar. Of course, the stakes are a little different, because the Harlem Renaissance writers, in many ways, are just saying Hello, we’re here. Black people are human, did you ever think about that, people? You know, they’re trying to just get the barest foundation, like we’re here, we’re real, you know? Our pains are real pains. Of course, by the Black Arts Movement, people are saying, We’re here, we’ve been here and we’re really getting tired of the way you’re treating us. That’s a very different angle, and different kind of tone. But in each case, though, there weren’t really a lot of places to dodge, you won’t find a bunch of really complicatedly obscure poems in either of those, not many, there’s some that might be more mysterious than others, but most of them are pretty much head on, one man, one woman talking to another man, another woman. They’re just talking and saying the things that I think can’t be reduced to, I don’t think I see itor you. You just can’t get around it, you know? “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”—think about early Hughes, you know? No one’s confused about what he’s trying to say about this woman’s life. You know? So that’s, to me, part of it. If poetry has real muscle, and I think it does, that’s where its power is in. It’s in clarity. And it also, hopefully, on the page, staging something that is clearly part of shared experience, whether you want to share it or not is another question… But it’s part of shared experience.
I mean, people don’t necessarily want to hear about certain things. There are poems I’ve written I’m sure people don’t necessarily want to hear — particularly, if we’re dealing with a critique of a larger mainstream/white society, and not everyone can deal with that. But if you are going to be an artist of any integrity, you gotta to say what you know. And if people like it, that’s wonderful. If they don’t, that’s part of life, too. You know, you have to just keep on walking.
I’m interested in, too, a slightly alongside question around witnessing joy. You mentioned in the opening “Open Letter” that now there’s another sort of almost burden on the Black writer — that we’re only meant to witness a certain kind of pain, experience, struggle, and that has become synonymous with the Black experience. So I’m curious then: what’s the other side of that?
Well, I mean, you referred to the “Open Letter,” and I think certainly as people of color, we have plenty to complain about. I don’t want to, by any means, understate that. But the thing is — I really don’t think any of us Black people want to forget about the joy we take in being alive. What’s the point of being alive if we don’t understand why it’s lovely to live, you know? And so I think, to some extent, and this probably earlier in my life, I made a conscious decision to try to write poems that were funny or mischievous, and poems that were just fun, pleasurable, you know? The poems that are erotic, for example, are me kind of insisting on a certain kind of delight in being a human being and being physical. And the fact that we’re here, embodied, at least for a little while, you know? I don’t know if I’ve answered your question well, but those are things that I think about a lot.
At this point, the balance seems to come more or less organically, I don’t really have to say, “Uh oh, I’ve been writing sad poems, I better write a happy one!” I don’t really do that. And so early on what was funny is, I didn’t know what to do with real grief or rage. In my early life as a writer — this was before I was writing anything that was probably publishable — I would write only funny poems, you know? Just poems that were on the lighter end, they might have been a little bit more; hopefully, they were somewhat imaginative, but they were mostly light. And then I thought you’ve got to try to write things that are a little more true to the difficult parts of life. And then I wrote this poem, I was probably 19, called “The Funeral.” It was the first time I wrote this very heavy poem about death and dealing with death directly. And from that point, I began to be able to move in both directions. Now, again, I don’t know if I was doing it effectively at that age. That’s a different question. But I like to laugh. I do. I like lots of things about life. But there’s this other thing that we have to deal with, too. And I say this in “Open letter,” as well. It’s not only for Black folks or people of color, you know, everyone will be better off if we deal with reality in an honest way. We can all be free if we finally embrace the facts of the history in this country, and if we allow everyone to feel the fullness of humanity. I’m just trying to make a case for that. That’s all I’m trying to do, really.
But I like funny poems and some of the poets I liked as a young guy were funny. You don’t know the poems of Russell Edson by any chance, do you? You wouldn’t, necessarily; I was lucky. I had some pretty wild teachers when I first started studying, and Edson’s poems are just crazy and funny. I saw him read once — everyone was dying in there. And it’s not stand-up comedy. No, it’s more complex and strange than that. And I thought that if I had any doubts about whether I wanted to be able to use humor, man, it was over. I want to use poems that are funny and crazy and strange, too. But also, at the same time, you have to write poems that are dealing more or less directly with difficulty and things that enrage you or make you very sad. But I do want to keep that current alive. And all of us that can laugh and dance and, for a moment at least, not feel worried or put upon by the insanities of the larger culture.
You mentioned a lot of the folks you’ve paid attention to and been inspired by; what’s the best poetry advice you didn’t listen to?
Well, early on, I got the impression — but I can’t say this was true of all the workshop leaders — but from some of them, I got the impression that they felt that one’s work should always be beholden to other readers; that somehow there should always be an “Overmind” when you’re working. And I can be very hard-headed, you know? That’s probably reflected in this book as well. And I thought, no. At a certain point, I’m gonna write the poems that I want to write. I don’t really need anyone else’s sanction or approval. I don’t need that. So that was probably something I might have abandoned too soon, truthfully. But really, I really felt that my love for poems and for words would oblige me to learn the craft well enough to write the poems I felt needed to be written. And at a certain point, I just thought, you know what, I don’t believe I need someone else to make sure I did it right.
I used to love Merwin when I was in college. I still admire him. He’s long gone now. He said someone asked him about workshops, and I’ll never forget this because the workshop leaders in the room were not that crazy about it, but I understood what he meant, and I didn’t take it as a harsh critique of the workshop, necessarily. But maybe he was suggesting that there’s a point at which one might let those things go. He said, “No one can tell you how to listen for what only you can hear.” And I’ll never forget that. I think the workshop leaders were thinking, Are you saying we don’t need workshops? and I don’t think that’s what he meant. I think, of course, as young writers, we need someone to give us some shaping, but I think at a certain point, your sensibility is formed. And it’s really up to you to make sure what you understand or know or feel is made beautifully manifest in language. If you don’t do it well, that’s a craft issue. And it’s not like someone else can help you not make certain mistakes. Also, you think about, let’s say, take someone like Wayne Shorter on saxophone—at what point did he stop in the middle of a solo and say Am I soloing, right? Does this sound good? He’s playing what he believes must be played. Now, does everyone love it? Probably not. But some people do. And for him, it’s a clear manifestation of what he knows in his heart and soul. And for me at a certain point, that’s what a poem is, too. There’re certain things that I believe, however delusionally, that I know or see clearly. And so, I’m trying to say, Here, here’s what I think. And if I have integrity, then I’ve written carefully and revised and thought and thought and made the best thing I can make. I don’t need anybody else’s approval. I don’t need anybody looking over my shoulder, you know? And if you like it, great, and if you don’t, maybe you’ll like the next one?
I love that term, the “Overmind’’
Yeah, I really reject that.
You’ve been a teacher for a really long time, and you’re here as a judge for the 2022 Furious Flower poetry prize. And I’m curious about what’s interesting and engaging to you about the younger, newer, emerging poets, you’ve had the opportunity to see and read and be in contact with.
Oh, man. Well, I tell you, if we just talk about the poets that I saw in the Furious Flower contest, what you see is — and I know, these are writers, you know, they are not by any means beginning writers, if they were, I’d be terrified. If you’re beginning this way, Lord, you’re already way past me. But what I see is that their understanding of craft and the width of their reading is clearly different than what it would have been when I was a young writer. I tried to read widely and so on, I certainly did. But I just think what I saw, particularly in the Furious Flower prize, among those poets and poems, you know, there was just so much going on. That was, I mean, not absolutely brand new, but certainly they were heading out in directions that were clearly related to what poets have already done, but clearly, they’ve kind of taken on their voices in a way, with a kind of competence that I think would have been harder to find when I was a younger writer. There was a sense that they were really headlong after something, and it was just a matter of degrees to which their knowledge of craft would allow them to make it manifest. But that would be something that’s different.
And I do think the spoken word community has impacted, for better I think, mostly, the poetics that people work with on the page. I really think that’s an important shift, too. There was no spoken word as we now know it, when I was 30, for example. You, of course, had Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets and other poets who did what might have been called spoken word, but there was no general community of people who got up on stage and said poems — that just didn’t exist. And I think that did a couple things. One is, I think it gave writers, who are not necessarily “trained” courage to raise their voices. And also, I think it allowed people a larger understanding of what might be said, that poetry doesn’t have to be tame, or polite necessarily. I wish there was more rambunctiousness, as you saw in the introduction, but I like that about poets. But it’s also true that it feels like writers who are early in their careers are more sophisticated than I or my peers who might have been 30 or 35. I don’t know. That’s my sense of it.
Well, I wonder, too, and this is not flattery. But I wonder, too, if that is a product of like, you point out to the spoken word for sure. But like just the expansion of [unsure], because they got to read you, Tim. [Laughs.]
Well, I hope that my work has contributed to opening a few doors to other possibilities. Just like other writers did for me — you see things that you couldn’t have seen without their work. And I hope that my poems offered that to some writers as they were coming on. I certainly do. And then, of course, as you know, many writers, yourself included, who are doing work that will do the same kind of thing for upcoming poets. They will say, “Oh, look, you know, Lauren did this! I could rip off and do that!” You know, I think that’s a part of the torch that we’re passing as we live and write. You hope that what I did, you know, contributes something. I mean, I think about, you know, people with the gigantic names, Terrence Hayes or Tyehimba Jess, or Tracy K. Smith, you know they are gonna leave a huge, bright path for younger writers to begin to engage and so on.
And then of course, we must, you can’t forget, of course, all our predecessors. And when we go back to Gwendolyn Brooks, and even if we move out of poetry, people like Zora Neale Hurston.
I mean, if you read, if you take it seriously, the life of reading, you will find the possibilities infinite, you know? I cannot say enough times: that, if anything, is what has sustained me and what taught me early on as much, as easily, as anything I learned in a workshop. Just seeing what other people could do. Take Georgia Douglas Johnson with “I Want to Die While You Love Me.” I was really young when I read that poem, and I’m thinking, That is very soulful. Even though I had no experience about what it meant to “die while you love me.” I didn’t know what it meant, but it felt so passionate. And I think all the way back, and if you go back as far as you want, you know, go back, you know, to [unsure] or Whitman, or, you know, you keep going back farther and farther, you keep finding this current of passion and a wish to expand what we call our humanity. And I think that’s what I have taken from the people I’ve read and you hope that something you’ve done, like, my work over the years, did some of that for some other people. I mean, if I leave anything, that would be a nice thing to leave: some doors open that other people couldn’t have seen without my efforts. That would be good.
What was your most magical encounter with a poem?
That’s a very complicated question. There are so many poems that I really, really admire. I’ll tell you, the one poet that had an immense effect on me though there are many who did: Ai. Her work in persona, just generally speaking — just the way she could inhabit other figures, be they historical or present or invented. I had never imagined such a thing. I mean, I just didn’t. I remember reading some of those poems thinking she must have known this person or something, because they seem so completely true. And you know, of course, sometimes she’s writing historical poems, and she clearly didn’t know the person. Or like when she wrote that piece with J. Edgar Hoover speaking — I know she didn’t know J. Edgar Hoover — and they just seem utterly convincing. She was someone who really had me by the throat in a lot of ways. I don’t think anyone mistakes me for Ai, but she certainly gave me a window into a set of possibilities in terms of inhabiting other voices that I’m not sure I would have conceived of otherwise. And that’s one bit of magic, of many.
What are your favorite ways to enter the poem or the writing? What is your habit of writing?
Normally, this would be the time of day during which I’d be writing.
Sorry, poems! [Laughs.] I borrowed him!
Oh, believe me, the poems are grateful for a little rest. They’re like “Leave us alone.” [Laughs.] When I really have it together, I try to get up and go to a coffee shop. I have these headphones — not for music — they’re just like the headphones that people who work with power tools use. And I just put them on, which makes everything kind of far away. And even though I can feel people around me, which I really like, I can really hear and think about certain lines. I like to do that first thing in the morning. As I said earlier, what sustains me, of course, is my sense of being in dialogue with so many poets that I love and admire and other writers who are fiction writers and nonfiction writers. But in terms of how I enter the poem, it depends on the day, you know? Some days your mind just seems like it’s just alert in a different kind of way and you think I know there’s something that’s going to happen. And other times I’ll just sit down because I like the idea that maybe I’ll write. If I have one of those days where your mind is just on edge, you know, then something usually just springs onto the page. But other times I don’t have anything that’s driving me to speech, and I just think I’ll just write something. If you’re lucky, something takes and then you begin to push and work and scratch in and scratch out and rewrite it. That’s how I enter.
I love that. Just sit there and hope something happens.
Yes, yes. There are days like that. You just show up.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Executive Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
Amanda Johnston’s is a poetry full of invitation. To see. To love. To remember. To belong. To be naughty. To be flawed. To be vulnerable. To be open. To be real. “I offer this small space I hold in the world, Johnston writes, in her poem “Crossing In,” and indeed the world is compressed in Johnston’s work, which is layered with joy, witness to personal and public history, tributes to other poets, and a fierce love. In poem after poem, her debut collection, Another Way to Say Enter, exquisitely explores the multi-faceted complexity of our humanness, reaching as the best poems do for a larger truth. Again and again, that truth is accessed through personal experience crafted into portals that lead to understanding, empathy, and ultimately, grace. In “Making Amends,” for example, a father reaches out after 39 years, and the speaker/daughter instead of reaching back, reaches instead toward her children, listing the pileup of tasks that comprise her mothering — from “endless pages of homework,” to “scrubbing the sour day from [their] tongues.” The list both captures the speaker’s avoidance of the father’s gesture and her piercing awareness of the shape of his absence from her childhood, a poignant defiance of lack. The poem invites us to hold in active relationship the present and the past, the hurt and the healing, the father’s empty hands and their reaching, the daughter’s fully-occupied attention encircling the palpable lacuna between them. The poem lands with the speaker tucking in “her heart” — both her childhood self and her present children — and engaging the labor of healing; she is “busy, planting dreams in a tended garden with endless rows to till.”
In October of 2019, Johnston came to James Madison University and read as part of the Furious Flower reading series. She joined me in the studio for a lively conversation about her non-traditional path to poetry and publication, her pedagogy and practice of vulnerability, and even which poem she would give to a political candidate. The interview has been transcribed below and lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me the first encounters with poetry that you remember. My very first encounters with poetry were The Golden Book of Nursery Rhymes. But what really piqued my interest in what poetry could do was reading Shel Silverstein. If you’ve ever read Shel Silverstein, you know he could be a little naughty. You’re like, wait a minute, this poem is saying she’s not gonna take the garbage out? Ooh! And it just stacking up higher and higher! Or, you know, dealing with more challenging subjects that take more risk, like “Mask” which talks about how we walk around looking for each other — I had blue skin, he had blue skin, but we passed each other, and didn’t see each other because of the masks that we wore. That really got me thinking about how I could take risks in poetry, and what else was there for me to discover.
So that sounds young? Super young? Young. Very young.
So you’ve always known? Well, poetry has always intrigued me. I didn’t start writing seriously — and I say seriously because through grade school in English class you write acrostics and different things when it gets to that poetry unit. You know, you write your poems and you go on to something else. But when I was in my twenties I started writing poetry, and was writing with a group in Kentucky while I lived there, working with The Heartland Review, and publishing. Then I met Frank X Walker and Nikki Finney and the Affrilachian poets and shortly thereafter became an Affrilachian [poet] and I was like okay now I’ve got to really apply some skill and thought to this work, and they guided me.
That’s amazing. Talk to me a little bit about the Affrilachian poets– tell us what that is, and what it means to you to write in that tradition. It’s the brainchild of Frank X Walker, that word. And the history of him creating that word was that while he was at the University of Kentucky, he was in a class and the word “Appalachia” came up. When he looked up the dictionary definition, it didn’t include Black people or people of color from that region, it specifically talked about white people. So he said, “well this isn’t correct” and so the power that happens when you take ownership and give yourself permission to change out those p’s with f’s, opened up a way for all of us in that region to be able to write. Now, I wasn’t born there. I was born in St. Louis, but my husband was in the military and we were stationed at Fort Knox for five years, so I was in Kentucky. And it was a welcoming home for me, for a place that wasn’t my home. It made a home. I wanted to write about the land, about the people, about that space, specifically, and be able to share it as part of the larger narrative and Black writing like poetry and literature in the world.
You have a day job. Many jobs. [Laughs.]
How does it [the day job] speak to and engage with your being a poet? I think we often think “I’m a poet” or, “I’m not a poet” or, “I have a day job and then I’m a poet by night.” How does that relationship work for you?
Well, I’ll tell you something. Shortly after becoming an Affrilachian poet, that was in 2004, Nikky Finney had just taught at Cave Canem. And she came back to Kentucky and told us all “you all have to apply to Cave Canem right now.” And if you’re smart you listen to Nikky Finney. She’s not gonna steer you wrong. So, I applied and I became a Cave Canem fellow the next year in 2005. It changed my life.
That’s where we met.
Yes, that’s where we met. Yes, of course. Good things come when you listen to Nikky Finney — you meet more amazing people. But also, when I say it changed my life, I mean it changed how I was going to live in the world. It came right at a moment of transition for me and my family. My husband had gotten out of the military and had finished college, and we were moving from Kentucky back to Texas. The retreat was in June and we were moving the Fourth of July weekend. That fast. In a matter of days, I came home after the retreat and I said, “Honey, we have to live in a place that has an office where I can do my writing. I will only apply to jobs that are in education or the nonprofit field, because even if it’s not dealing directly with poetry, those are the places that will support me or care that I’m a poet and understand the power of that in the world.” So, it literally changed where I lived, what I did. And so, I have been fortunate because of that change in my life. Having Affrilachian poets, having Cave Canem, that I knew this was a possibility for me and I actually didn’t have to separate them. So even in my day job — well, like I said, I have multiple jobs. I teach at the low residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine; that’s directly with poetry; I am poetry faculty. But then during the day I’m at a public school in Texas and I do administrative work, but I’m also able to lead poetry units, and invite poets to speak to the kids. So, it’s definitely in all aspects of my life. You come into my home, you walk straight into my library, and everything is predominantly poetry. [Laughs.]
And that’s so amazing: you’ve built not just a practice but a life around poetry, which is a wonderful opportunity. So talk to me about what practicing poetry looks like for Amanda Johnston. When you say, “I’m going to that office,” how does the poem begin and what are the moves you make to get through and to the poem?
Well, for me, first it’s reading. Just making sure that I have the words and access to the poems in my daily life. So, I have books around me — and that’s another thing I love about poetry is I can grab any collection off the shelf. I use ‘em a lot like tarot cards and say, “just give me what I need, Universe!” and it never fails. It lands on the poem that I need in that moment. So just reading first, taking it in, going to readings, supporting the local community readings so that I’m in the atmosphere of poetry and literature — that sparks the personal work. That leads to the inspiration. You hear something, or you see something. The book came out in 2017, so it’s still fairly young, and I had to take a break from writing a lot, because you’re focused on getting the work that you’ve already done out there. But Furious Flower’s 25th anniversary event (I was watching and I was sad that I couldn’t attend. I had booked everything, I was supposed to be there, life happens and I couldn’t be there, but I was thankful that it was live streamed), I was watching it. And I have to tell you — in hearing the amazing work coming from that reading, I was immediately drawn to the page, so I had my paper next to me and I was drafting poems, listening to the words of other Black poets.
Oh, that’s so good to hear! You mentioned the MFA being faculty, and you did an MFA, so I’m interested in you talking about that experience in the context of your most positive, your most challenging, your most useful, and your most surprising experience. In any order.
I’ll say, first of all, what was most surprising about MFA is that I did it at all. Let’s be real. [Laughs.] My experience in higher education has been extremely non-traditional. I had started a family very young and so I’ve been taking care of them, and doing those things. So, I had been piecing together classes here and there. I worked in higher education — usually that’s the benefit of working there, you get to take some classes, etc. So, again, because of Cave Canem, I was talking about wanting to finish school and considering this and Patricia Smith, as she does, just came in and she was like “you’re gonna go to Stonecoast at the University of Maine. I said, “What?” and she said “Yes, you are.” And a year later, I was. I was in the program. So, I’m surprised that it happened for me at all, but I’m extremely grateful.
Challenging and most useful. I think were the same. At Stonecoast, Annie Finch was the director when I came in. Anyone who knows Annie Finch and her work knows that she’s one of our form goddesses. And all poetry students had to take a meter and form workshop; the first class that you took was with Annie. I almost dropped out of the program. I was like “What? Wow.” It terrified me. I had no idea. But because of the way she introduced it, through a very radical feminist lens, she was able to discuss how different meters had been oppressed and suppressed by the patriarchy and why we learned iambs instead … I was like “Preach! Yes!” It introduced the material to me in a way that made sense in the context of the world, so I didn’t feel on the outside of that world anymore. And I was able to access the information. So, that was challenging, but also the most rewarding. Yeah, I feel like I got the education that I was missing by going in there and receiving that. And not quitting! Not quitting. Doing the work. [Laughs.]
And positive. There’s so many positive things from it. One being that they asked me to come back and teach. That was also a surprise; I wasn’t expecting that. But it’s been a joy to come back and teach. But while I was in the program, they were very supportive with you exploring cross genre work. I was able to do independent study and see how I wanted to incorporate poetry and other genres, and see how I liked writing in different styles. One of the things I wanted to do was write screenplays. For my third semester project — and I was, you know, surprised — it was a positive experience to be able to work with Alex Payne, who did the book adaptation of Amistad, to be able to do the reverse and take some of my poems, and adapt them into a screenplay.
Do you write in other genres? Not as much as poetry. Poetry is my primary, but I do love short stories; I love hybrid work and as I’ve said the screenplays. Yeah, I’m not gonna talk too much about them and keep those tucked until they’re ready, but yeah, I’ve been working on a couple of those for a while.
Tell me about teaching. What are some of the things that you find critical? Annie, for example, clearly thinks you need to know form. What are the things that when you have a group of students that you feel are the most critical to get across to them. And what are just some of your favorite teaching tools or exercises or tricks?
I think one of the greatest gifts we can share with students is our own vulnerability. And that this is a process. First, I want you to be honest with your interests: What are you passionate about? What gets you excited? You might not have written it yet, but when you turn to the works that you want to read, and you’re excited, you can’t put that book down, what is it? What is it about that? And then if that inspires you, follow that, study it, be obsessed with it. And you’ll find that it enhances your work. So, follow your passions. Don’t listen to those voices that say, “Oh, but what are you going to do with this? What are you going to do? How are you going to pay bills with this?” Because when you are following that path, and you’re applying your whole self, it can’t help but to come. You make the way. The way opens up for you.
And then, teaching tools: Richard Blanco, in an interview for the LA Times some years ago, said something that stuck with me about the canon and teaching poets. He said “Don’t start with the old poets; you start with contemporary poets.” You start with what got them excited to come in here and that they can see themselves real in today. And then you use that to go back and say, “Okay, how does this relate to Black Arts Movement?” How does this relate to different traditions? How does this relate to these other poets? But if you start there, you’re going to lose people because they don’t see themselves.
The idea of tradition and lineage is sort of what I’m hearing there, right? What are some of your poetic lineages?
Like I said, I had a very non-traditional higher education and came to it later in life. So, the people who influenced me, most of them are closer to our time. I’ll hear a poem or something that will draw me to them, but then what brings me in deeper is their biography, their history. Who are you? So, Lucille Clifton definitely. So many of us turned to her — her incredible mind, her amazing talent, and ability, but for me, it’s also the husband, six kids. She was working as a secretary for the state, went to grad school, turned around, walked out because she had these other responsibilities. But the poetry never left her, and she was able to create this incredible body of work in her time. That is inspiring to me. That is more in line with my experience with the work. So poets like her.
Sharon Olds. When I feel like hiding behind something and not getting to the poem, I go and I read Sharon and then I come back to remember what vulnerability looks like. And honesty on the page. Afaa Weaver, especially his first book Talisman. You want to talk about vulnerability. If you’ve never read that, read it– it’s so brave and daring. The book is broken up into sections, named after women in his life, from his mother, his wives, his longtime partners. While you’re reading this, it’s like, “Oh my god, is this really who I think it is?” And you know, you’re not supposed to project or assume with the subject, etc. You turn to the back and there is a note on each of these women in his life. And it gave me great permission to not hide from my truth. Knowing that there will be other people in the world who might not exactly like that you’re writing about your truth, because it’s theirs as well. But you should never be silenced. And you should be free to write your story.
Speaking of writing one’s story, I want to talk about Black Poets Speak Out. Talk a little bit about how it came to be, what the journey of that has been like, where it is now, and where it might be going?
So Black Poets Speak Out started in 2014 after Darren Wilson was not indicted in the murder of Mike Brown. I was devastated as so many of us were to see that you could still, in 2014, kill an eighteen-year-old and leave him in the middle of the street in his own blood for four hours. I was born in East St. Louis, so [Ferguson’s] not far from where my people are, and my father, one time lived close to Ferguson, so it felt very personal to me. I wanted to do something. And I knew I wasn’t alone, though. Poetry gave me that, that I knew I wasn’t alone. So, I reached out to Cave Canem. We have a listserv, a group space where we communicate, and I said “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” And people responded. And so, from the fellowship, Mahogany Brown, Jericho Brown, Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe, Jonterri Gadson and I pulled together to say I’m willing to commit sweat equity, I’m willing to put in work so that we can do something. Like not just say something, not just share a poem, but do something with a little more risk than that, to push back against this active threat. In a matter of a few days — it was actually right before Thanksgiving, so, Black Friday, that Friday after Thanksgiving — we posted videos. We started posting videos. And in the videos, it was the poet reading, if you were a Black poet reading an original poem that spoke to injustice, or if you were not then you were reading in solidarity with and reading a poem by a Black poet. So we would not silence voices of Black people, but amplify them. And each person making a video starts with the same mantra, which is: My name is Amanda Johnston, I’m a Black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders Black people. I have a right to be angry.
Together we pulled that phrasing together; it was important to state that we are human beings, which is what that’s saying. We are human beings, and we are watching you kill us, and we have a right to be upset about this. You know, the angry Black woman myth and all of these things —no. We are human beings and entitled to the full emotional range of our humanity. And right now, I feel anger. And then, though, it’s about channeling: how do you use that anger? So, very organically it grew to be phases. The first phase were videos, and in a matter of days there were hundreds of videos from all around the world of people doing this, which is very powerful because people were putting their personhood, the same way I stated my name, people were stating their names. Here’s my image. Here’s my face. I’m a part of this; I feel the same way. I’m also angry.
And then doing community readings. All across the country in different places in the world, folks were coming together and doing Black Poets Speak Out readings. And then after that we said, “Well, how can we tie this to civic engagement?” and we did a letter writing campaign. And so all of 2015, people wrote letters, sent postcards, but I committed myself to write a letter for every day of 2015 to the president, to the UN, to my state representatives, demanding that they take action — that something be done. I actually got a letter back from the White House; Barack Obama was the president at that time. I remind everyone, though, that during that time, while we were watching all of these deaths, Barack Obama was the President. So not one person to fix or change. We have to stay committed, we have to continue to talk about injustice, because there’s still a long road ahead.
So we did that, and then finally the last phase was lesson plans. If you go to Black Poets Speak Out online, if you just Google Black Poets Speak Out, you’ll find it. There’re resource links to different lesson plans — the books and the poems, so that people can continue to educate others. So that this whole moment in history doesn’t just go away.
I’m interested, too, in following up with that idea of both capturing the moment, being in the moment, responding to the moment,
and also engaging the long game, right? Speaking to the idea of poet-as-activist, talk to me about sustaining yourself and allowing the work to evolve, to back away from, or go deeper in over the course of a journey like that?
Yeah. So, self-care is real, you know? It’s not the bumper sticker version or the Good Housekeeping version — you know, take a bubble bath and that’s enough, right? You have to be mindful of yourself, your mental health, where you’re at. That’s real. I’m someone who truly believes in that and knows the importance of that — I’ve had to step in, step back, etc. and take care of myself. As far as the journey of this work, you can see now from that time in 2014, other organizations that have embraced this work and have a very direct and prominent way of addressing police violence, police brutality, social injustice. Groups like the Poetry Coalition, which Cave Canem, the Academy of American Poets, Kundiman, Canto Mundo are all members of address protest and violence. But there’re so many issues that are taking place, it can really overwhelming at times, you know? The environment, gender & LGBT rights, all of that, so having partners be able to lift part of that weight is good, too. When you start to see other people doing stuff, you don’t feel like it’s all your burden — it’s not just your burden to bear. So, take care of yourself, welcome accomplices to come and carry some of this work.
And then as far as the future of it, we’re a point in a long history. This isn’t new with us! A Black Arts Movement? We’ve been doing that. Renaissance? Been doing that. You know, Tyehimba Jess did a great interview — well, it was a panel — with the 1619 Project and one of the things he was imagining was what did the first Black poetry workshop look like in context with Phyllis Wheatley? When we know you could have been killed for reading, for writing, for gathering – we’re part of that.
That will continue past us in ways we can’t imagine, but I have faith in our people that have come this far. We didn’t come this far to stop.
You are on the Cave Canem executive board, you are Executive Director at Torch Literary Arts, you’re the co-founder of Black Poets Speak Out. So you clearly have an arts administrator hat that you whip out every once in a while. What are some of the things that you engage differently as an art administrator as opposed to an arts practitioner? What are some of the tensions there? What are there some fruitful and productive intersections?
Well, I don’t think you can really be an artist and not understand service. To be an artist in any genre, in any area, you are wanting to communicate and work with the larger community, larger society. So when I’m working in board service, or running Torch, or organizing the work behind Black Poets Speak Out, it’s all in service to others, and I feel that’s part of my duty, to get to be here and live this life, right? It’s challenging for all the ways that one can understand. When you’re out working with the people, you workin’ with the people. And I love the people. And the people all have different ideas and views on what should be done and how it should be done. And I appreciate that because what that brings out surprising and new ways of thinking, new ways of tackling problems and issues– fresh ideas. So I love being able to be in conversation with community about any of the work that I do. And, you know, it’s the future of it, because when that next generation comes, other people who have now been activated to become part of the work that you’re doing, that’s what’s going to guarantee that it keeps going. You never want to find yourself talking to yourself in a room. Because then it’s done. [Laughs.] Then it’s just done. It’s over.
Is it nurturing to your work?
Most definitely. Knowing that I’m helping to make a space for the work, and others, is definitely making sure that it’s there for me too. We’re here together, you know? So that, kind of how I said earlier, if it’s not me writing, it’s me reading. So making sure that there is a space for other people, especially people of color — and especially women of color — to have a place to share their voice, that is essential. It’s vital to the world. And it’s something that I have to have to be able to live in this world.
So I want to talk about Another Way to Say Enter, which I know from other interviews took about ten years to come together. I’m curious about the process of getting to the book, but I’m also interested in when it got done and as you carried it on the road, what’s been the experience? Has this book been teaching you? Have you been learning from those poems?
It did take ten years, because I didn’t set out to write a book — I was writing poems. And then you get to a point though where you’ve been writing and publishing in journals and magazines, and so forth, that people start to ask you: “When are you gonna have a book? Where is your book?” and I’m like “That’s a good question.” And just in the grind of life, you know, having family and all the many responsibilities we were just talking about, years just kept passing. And finally, I came to a point in my life where… it was a very tangible moment… where my children were no longer children, and they were young women, and not needing me in the same way. So I started to think “what is my life going to look like now?” Of course, still a poet, but what other opportunities are there for me with this freedom that I didn’t have before? Willingly, gleefully, this is what I chose, but now, just in time and space, things started to open up. I felt like I had to pull these poems together in a way that opened — literally opened — a way for me into the second phase of life. The title, Another Way to Say Enter, comes from one of the poems in the book, because that was me imagining entering in through this space of daring to imagine what’s next.
So yeah, I pulled the poems together and with the wonderful press, Argus House Press, Teneice Durrant was editor. I needed her special kind of kindness, and I needed her to see me. I didn’t submit to contests. I didn’t do that whole thing, I didn’t, you know, do open calls, send to publishers, otherwise I don’t think this book would have been published. Teneice and her beautiful press, we were talking to AWP one year and she was asking me about my book, so I asked “Would you publish my book?” She said yes, and then asked me to send her the poems. Three months went by and I didn’t. And she followed up “Where are those poems?” I didn’t send anything. She followed up again, she said, “Your voice is important and we’re going to take our time. Send me ten poems.” And so, I sent her ten poems. And then once I sent her those ten, I said “Well, now these other ones should be next to those poems.” And then the work of putting the book together really started. But if it hadn’t been for that care and attention from her, it wouldn’t have happened. And I think that’s okay. There will be some people who would say, “Well in the professional world…” No, I’m a professional and this is how it had to happen for me. I think we’re missing a lot of people who have really important things to share, because we are rigid as a society about how we do this work. We end up continuing the bad habits of generations before us, and enforcing that on those to come. “You have to be hazed. You have to jump through our hurdles. You have to do X, Y & Z.” No, we can imagine it a little differently and we can demand better for ourselves.
That’s a wonderful story. So, you walked through the door, Another Way to Say Enter opened. What’s ahead?
I dunno. [Laughs.] And that’s okay. I’m here. And that in itself is enough. I’m going to say again, if I don’t write another book, if I don’t write another poem — and I don’t think that’s going to happen, but truly where I’ve come from, and the challenges that I’ve faced in my life, again, this was not a traditional path, whatever that means. And, you know, very much my own design with the generosity of others. This is a huge accomplishment and it will feed me for the rest of my life. But I know my heart won’t let it go. My husband once asked me — he’s gonna hate that I’m mentioning this [Laughs.] — when I was very committed to some things in my writing world, he’d asked me if I would choose him over poetry.
Oh God. [Laughs.]
Right? Deep. And the best way I could explain it to him with all the love that had — we’ll be married 20 years in March  — but I looked at him and said, “The thing is, that question assumes I have a choice. You could be on your deathbed, and I can be in deep mourning, and the poem is going to write itself. When you’re a poet, it doesn’t leave you. It will be there.” So I’m excited to see where it takes me next. My husband gonna be healthy and fine and with me. [Laughs.]
[Laughs] Carrying them books around.
Carrying them books around! Because you don’t have to choose, actually. You don’t have to choose. But yeah, it’s brought me here to you; it’s brought me here to the Furious Flower Poetry Center. And I know that there’s nothing but more in this big, big world to do and write about.
What are some lines of poetry you keep close, or that keep you close?
Of course, Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.” That whole poem, every time you land on that end line, the “everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.” If that’s not a mantra for survival and joy — that even in our hardest moments, we did survive; come celebrate that with me. I have that printed and framed on my desk at work, so I read it all the time. It’s good for your health. So, Lucille just stuck with me. That image of a mother’s power and love, it stays with me. So that even in this work, you know, there’s always still going to be this presence and protection.
Motherhood and mothering appear a lot in your work and it’s a huge source, just talk to me about how you pull on that. And is it always… fun? No. Absolutely not. If anyone got into mothering for a good time…[Laughs.] It is a lot of work but it’s a lot of joy. It’s a lot of joy. I think one of the things that inspires me from that part of my journey and that understanding — and it is a part, it’s not a whole — is having this time to watch these incredible people grow as you’re still growing, too. And you can think you know yourself and then you have children, and you find out, “I had no idea who I was going to be when these little people came into my life.” And so from a very young age, before I was writing poetry, but a mother, I had my children, and I found myself being vulnerable with them in ways that I did not expect to be: having really mature conversations with them at early ages, apologizing to them, owning when I did wrong. I think it’s made me a better person and a better poet. Being in that position, a mother, is not that you’re here above and they’re, you know [gestures down], and you’re disseminating this knowledge and experience. No, y’all are right here. They’re growing up and learning the world and you’re growing up and still learning the world as a parent, right? I’ve learned so much from them, and it continues to feed me on and off the page.
When you were pulling the book together as a thing you wanted to accomplish, what was that conversation you were trying to shape? With the poems that are included in the book, I wanted first and foremost, to be honest. Sharon Olds talks about being the “I” in the poem. I know I was kind of stumbling over that earlier, “she” and “the speaker” and… I am the “I” in my poem. Even when it’s a poem that has a different subject or a persona poem, it’s still coming through my lens. I’m still that “I”, in some way, so I wanted to be able to own my story. I wanted to be able to share the difficult parts, and in doing that, free myself from some shame, free myself from some things that I thought might do harm if released in the world, to survive that, to enter that space where this is in the world and it’s okay. It’s still part of life. And in doing that, hopefully make a space for others to enter and receive the same from the work. If I can speak a truth, if I can speak an honest experience, inviting you to enter and do the same.
If you had to give a poem to a presidential candidate hopeful, what poem would it be?
Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song For the Day.” That poem is a beautiful expression of the daily lives of the people who live in this space that you are daring to represent. There’s the line in the poem which says, “Say it plain, people have died for this.” She was the inaugural poet for President Barack Obama at his first inauguration, and that was the poem that she shared. I think that poem would serve well any president who’s coming to do the work of actually serving the people in this country.
I knew this was a hard question, but I knew you’d have an answer! [Laughs.]
Elizabeth did it right, so it made it easy for me!
I think that’s a good place to land. Thank you so much.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
The magic of A. Van Jordan’s work is its ability to position the reader both inside of and outside of the poem’s subject or character. This poetic trompe l’oeil is a result of Jordan’s masterful use of formal innovations that create and operate within a doubled space of the subjective/interior and external/contextual. An excellent example is his poem “From” which appears in his 2004 collection M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. The first few lines of the poem read thus:
from (→) prep. 1. Starting at (a particular place or time): As in, John was from Chicago, but he played guitar straight from the Delta; he wore a blue suit from Robert Hall’s; his hair smelled like coconut; his breath, like mint and bourbon; his hands felt like they were from slave times when he touched me—hungry, stealthy, trembling. 2. Out of: He pulled a knot of bills from his pocket, paid the man and we went upstairs. 3. Not near to or in contact with: He smoked the weed, but, surprisingly, he kept it from me.
The formal conceit of the poem is borrowed from the dictionary: the poem is set up as an entry, with the title as the word that’s about to be defined; the poem’s text integrates the visual format of the dictionary and is not lineated; and the poem includes the numeric organization as well as the italicized, bracketed parts of speech typically found in the such an entry. Ingeniously, Jordan uses the part of the dictionary template that gives an example of how to use a word in a sentence to create the meat of the poem, the “as in” that usually cues those examples, becoming an anaphoric poetic device through which Jordan is able to tell the story of MacNolia’s husband, John, from her perspective—“As in, John was from Chicago, but he played guitar straight from the Delta…” The reader, thus is placed both inside MacNolia’s experience, but held at a distance through the form.
The form also makes the reader simultaneously aware of the external construct of definition and its constraints. Though rhythmic, the poem does not flow smoothly, but hiccups at each new revelation or realization. After all, the definitions that comprise a dictionary’s entries aren’t meant to be read as a seamless unit. Thus, the parts of speech, the numbers, the parentheticals, add a halting and disruptive element, mirroring the relationship between John and MacNolia. At the same time, the distinctness of the form gives a sense of accretion in which parts of John, MacNolia’s feelings for him, the different parts of their very different experiences, build and cohere—expanding the very nature of the definition, and showing how much is held in the word, the man, and the relationship.
Additionally, the authority of the dictionary is both transferred to and undercut by the content the form is asked to hold, i.e., a context that’s ostensibly objective (dictionary) is used to tell a relationship narrative. MacNolia’s experience and perspective are shored up by the definitive weight of the form, while the whole idea of being able to define anyone or anything is undercut some by the slipperiness of the poem’s affective content. The form here allows Jordan to juxtapose the intimate and the authoritative, bringing both perspectives to the poem, while destabilizing them both and demanding agility from the reader in holding both at the same time.
Jordan was the 2019 judge for the Furious Flower Poetry Prize, and came to JMU’s campus to read with the winner, Rachelle Parker, and honorable mention, Cynthia Manick. He visited my advanced poetry class on persona, and spoke with me about his poetics, his MFA experience, and what he looks for in a “good” poem. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
My students and I are thinking about persona, about the complications of it—what it means to assume another person’s history and character, and to imagine that you can speak through that. What are some of the things you weigh as a writer who works in persona?
I think the toughest part is allowing myself to just do it as the first step. This is something I always have to deal with with my own students—they’ll ask questions about, you know, can I write in this other person’s voice? Can I do this? And I always tell them “You can do it, but it might be hard, and you have to be willing to be up for that challenge.” Because sometimes I think they think about doing it just because they think it might be cool to be in this other voice. And I tell them, “This is going to be much harder, probably, than what you’ve been writing, what you’ve been doing, outside of that voice.”
That being said, the two things I keep in mind. First of all, is to think about the emotion of the scene—the emotion that we want to address within the scene that we’re writing about. So if I’m thinking about what it feels like to feel rejected, what it feels like to feel loss, what it feels like to feel like something has worked out in your life and you’re happy about it, or overjoyed about it. All of those emotions are pretty universal; we all know what that feels like. The thing then is to think about the restrictions that we have around voice, and those restrictions are usually in the form of whatever the iconography is of that voice—of that persona. With M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A, here is the voice of a 13 year old girl in 1936 in Akron, Ohio. There are certain things, there are certain symbols, language, and themes that I can pull from and there are certain things I can’t bring into it, as well. Once I know what those parameters are and I have a handle on the emotional resonance that I’m trying to render, then I can just set out to try to approximate that emotion through that voice. But if I haven’t thought about those things—you know, sometimes that comes through the research—then I can’t begin to write about it.
What is your relational experience with research and imagination in writing a persona?
Sometimes I’m bad with this, you know? [Laughs.] Seriously. Because I’ll do something that I know I shouldn’t do, in that I will procrastinate through research, and I’ll spend too much time on it. And the thing that happens, though, is once I start writing, I’ll push myself to write about what I want to write about, and then I’ll look at it and I’ll say, “okay, now I’ve hit a wall. There’s something that I need to do right now and I don’t know how to do it because I don’t know this thing.” So now I have to go back into the research and find this thing and then I can go back and do the thing I want to do in the writing, and I think that’s the order in which it should come—so you should try to write what you need to say and discover what it is that you don’t know and what you need research-wise and come back to it. Because we spent too much time on the front end just gorging on information. What happens is that sort of becomes a bit of a black hole, you know, you just keep going deeper and deeper and then you realize you’re not really thinking about the thing you’re trying to write about, you’re thinking more about the research project. And there needs to be a balance.
I guess I’m interested, too, in the idea of the persona as a mask—how does the person behind the mask show through or how well are they concealed? How do you deal with that negotiation of self/persona in the poem?
I like being concealed, I have to say—I have to admit it. It’s a space that allows me to say things and do things that I probably wouldn’t say outside of the poem. I like the poem as a space — a safe space—for that. One of the things that I remember when I did my first book, which was my thesis, you know it came out and like many books of poems, it came out, a handful of people read it, and then it kind of went away. A couple years after the book had been out, I get a call about nine o’clock at night from my mother. She asked me, why did I write that poem about our neighbor, or rather, her son? This poem about this guy who owed some folks some money and was strung up in his garage and I realize that I don’t want to answer those questions. These are things I don’t want to talk about; I don’t want to have to answer questions about something that I’m actually thinking or something that’s real in my own world.
And then I was also extremely attracted to the work of the poet Ai; when I first started writing, I think she’s the poet who I tried to imitate the most. I just thought what she does on the page, the way in which she’s able to inhabit these voices is something that was very appealing to me as someone who likes story—the idea of storytelling and creating character. I think as poets we often talk about the personas, you know, like ‘persona,’ but I think it’s really just coming down to characterization. How do you build a character? And so with those characters, I feel like I can kind of hide within that skin and say things I normally say. I look at M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A as probably my most personal book because I feel like in that book I was totally unvarnished emotionally. I was able to kind of let it out in a way that I felt like I needed to at that time you know? I also just felt the freedom, like I felt total freedom, to say and write and be what I wanted to be on the page without feeling like someone was going to ask “Why are you feeling that way?”
You’re not liable in some ways. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Exactly, exactly.
I’m curious about other pivotal or foundational writers and specific moments for you.
I remember I had Cornelius Eady’s Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, and I was walking around with that book for weeks and just was in love with the poems, and the book, and the whole arc of the collection—what it was doing. Then I heard he was coming to town to read, and this was at a time when I had just dropped out of a MFA program and I thought, you know, I might still write poems as a hobby at some point, but I’m going to continue being a journalist. And I saw him [Eady] read at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre, and he read “Gratitude.” There are these moments in that poem that were exact moments from my own life, and I just welled up with tears listening to him. That was the first time I had that kind of experience at a poetry reading. So that was an important moment. He’s another person I just tried to imitate as much as I could. I still just love Cornelius — the turn in his poems, you know? I mean his poetry is so… it wants. It’s intellectual and at the same time it’s emotional. And it kind of sneaks up on it because the language can be so unvarnished and yet so philosophical at the same time. And it’s impossible to imitate, but it’s a good ambition to have and I still love his poetry.
Thomas & Beulah, Rita Dove’s book, was pivotal for me—having a book like that that also told a story that was in my hometown. Thomas & Beulah is such a beautiful book, I thought I would never be able to write a book about that same location. That book was a real North Star when I was writing M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. You know, I can still remember specific readings and I remember being at the Folger and seeing Patricia Smith read “Skinhead”. I was just electrified after that reading. I was just thinking I’ve got to get a handle on persona. Once again, the power of that reading really blew me away and I’ve been a big fan of her work ever since. And of course, the poet that I probably go to the most, still, is the poet my professorship is named for, Robert Hayden. Hayden’s work— the elegance of that work— is something that I still aspire to; it’s just so formally sound and also agile on a language level. You know, it’s just a great ambition to have. And I could go on and on.
Tell me about your journey to poetry: you didn’t start out as a poet. Also looking back now, did it seem like it was inevitable that you’d wind up here?
No. Not at any turn. Not at all. No, I just didn’t… I never thought that I’d be doing this work; I never thought that I’d ever have a book, you know what I mean? I never thought that that was in the stars for me. It was something that I used to admire: people who had books, people who were writers, and things like that. But it was something I just never thought that I would ever be able to live up to. So, I’m really grateful. The work that I do, either as a professor or as a writer, is something that I begin every day with great gratitude for having in my life. You know, I’m a first-generation college student. No one in my family has had a job like this. Everyone’s pretty much done blue collar work—my mother was a nurse but she went to nursing school at a hospital years ago—so there was nothing in my background that would dictate that I would be doing this work now. I recognize that and I’m immensely grateful for it.
You did a Low-Res MFA; what was the experience of that like, and how did you keep a writing practice when you weren’t in a workshop every week?
You know, I went to Warren Wilson — the MFA program at Warren Wilson college. It was transformative for me. I’ll tell you, first of all, who my advisors were— the people who supervised each semester for me— and you’ll get a better understanding of the luck I had. My first semester, there was a faculty member; it was her first semester and we were teamed up. It was Claudia Rankine. So that was the first person I worked with when I knew, like, zero, right? And then after Claudia, the second semester, I had the late, great Agha Shahid Ali as the next person I studied under. Then I had the beautiful Eleanor Wilner, and, you know she’s just, angelic, so, it was just great to have that good spirit guiding me through my penultimate semester there. And then my thesis advisor my final semester was Carl Phillips.
You just drafted a fantasy poet team!!
[Laughs.] Exactly. Right? It was a transformative experience for me. And those are the folks I worked with but there were other writers there who I learned so much from. Ellen Bryant Voight has been a big influence on me and my work. Reggie Gibbons at Northwestern—I probably wouldn’t have gotten that first book published without him. There’s a poet who I don’t hear a lot of folks talking about, but I really love her work and I used to love her lectures, which is Joan Aleshire. You know, so there are a lot of poets I studied under in grad school who I really admired and just sort of changed things for me. That experience allowed me to do something, to study at that level, you know, at that “All Star Level” while holding down a job.
I had a regular job. I was working at a news agency in DC. I was working on my poems, working on my little annotations— these little essays we had to write—and getting these incredible letters from these writers engaging my work, and taking it very seriously. I’ll tell you this story: in my second semester I was working with Shahid, and his mother was dying. Shahid had gone to Kashmir, India, to do the funeral arrangements for his mother. And we weren’t doing the internet, this wasn’t an email—this was mail mail, right? So, he is in Kashmir taking care of his mother’s funeral arrangements, and he takes the time to go through my poems and write me a letter. And he sends it to me Global Express. Whenever I feel like complaining about work, and like, some student sending me some work or something to go over, I think about that. I think about what he gave me, and I try to give that back to him, to these students. That’s what it was like for me to be a student at Warren Wilson at that time. And it’s changed my idea — whatever idea I had — about what poetry was like, what the world was like. It’s like Philip Levine says, “this is what work is,” you know what I mean? And I’ve come to realize that and really appreciate that. I have blue collar roots and it does feel like blue collar work often, for me, and I say that out of respect for it.
As a teacher of poetry, you mentioned attention as one thing you try to gift your students. In a field where there is often discussion about whether you can teach poetry, what do you try to have your students leave with when they leave your classroom?
I want them to be better readers of poetry. I think that’s the thing that’s the hardest to teach poets and non-poets alike. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had poets who would come to me, final semester, working on their theses and they’re asking questions like, “I don’t know how to sequence this.” I’ll ask them “What do you think this book is about? Thematically, what do you think you’re doing?” and they have no idea though they’ve been working on it for a few years. And I think a lot of it comes from not being acculturated to reading lyrically. From childhood we are taught about narrative; we’re taught that almost organically, right? So we have a sense of what the structure of a narrative is— a sense of the structure of what a story should sound like or feel like. And if someone hands you a tome of a novel, doesn’t matter how big it is, if you go through that tome, 900 pages, and you just read it and read it and read it and then put a bookmark and you come back to it. But, you know, a collection of poems? It doesn’t matter how thin it is, people will pick up a collection of poems and they’ll start on page 83—Oh, I like that title! I’ll go back and oh there’s something! Oh, page 54, ‘Dust’, I’ll try that one! And they flip back and forth and they never really get a sense of what the book should feel like, what the arc of it is, what the experience of the read is for the reader, and what the author attempted to do with that sequence. And because they haven’t had that experience, they haven’t internalized that enough, then when it comes time for them to write their own book, they have no idea how to put it together. So, yeah, to be better readers.
Also, I say to read with an annotating mind, so when you’re reading, you’re thinking how does this poet handle the movement of time?How does this poet handle moving between an exterior world of imagery to the interiority of the speaker? To think in those terms as they’re reading — so to read like a poet, to read like a writer.
It’s funny you mentioned the ordering thing because, Van, I call your name a lot. When I was in your workshop at Callaloo, I will never forget, you said, “There are at least three books in every collection, depending on the order.” It kind of blew my mind a little bit and it became a project of mine—I use it to structure my readings; I’m ask, “Okay, if I start here, where do these poems take me?” So in terms of that being something you try to gift your students, it’s something you gifted me without even knowing it.
Oh, well that’s good to know.
But I’m also curious about your own process in pulling these books together. Where do you start? Do you always start with a project? And how do you move through, and how do you finally shape that final product?
You know, it’s gonna seem disingenuous if I say I don’t usually have a project like that in mind, but I often do not. I might have some project in mind but it rarely ends up being the project that I started writing, right? With M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A — I started writing M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A thinking I was writing a book about the Great Migration. I started these poems on that topic and then… It’s a long story, I won’t go into the whole story, but I ended up coming home to Akron, Ohio to see LeBron James play in a high school basketball game. I got up the next day and opened up the Akron Beacon Journal, the local newspaper, and they had this column by this columnist, Mark J. Price, who writes this column called “This Place, This Time”. And that was — it was a full double page spread with photos about MacNolia Cox. I’m drinking coffee; it was at my parents’ home — both of my parents were still alive at the time—and as each of them got downstairs I would ask, “Have you heard about this woman? She would have been your time period — blah blah blah.” Neither of them had ever heard of her. And I thought, That’s really fascinating. I remember I kept the paper, and put it in my suitcase and I thought I might write a poem or two about her. And then the more I delved into her story, the more I realized that her story was emblematic of an entire era. I kind of stop worrying about these other poems — and they weren’t any good anyway [Laughs.] So it kind of got me the fresh reset, you know? And so I started doing these poems and there are a couple of poems from that— “Red Ball Express” and “Asa Philip Randolph”, those poems were a part of that [earlier project], but the central figure was MacNolia, you know?
Quantum Lyrics was very similar. I was trying to wrap my mind around what was going on with myself because my father had just died, and I was still trying to put things together and deal with that. And someone suggested — Ellen Bryant Voight, actually— that I write about it. I was resisting it. And then, like now, I still like to generate out in public— I’ll be at a coffee shop or somewhere—and I was living in Greensboro and they still had Borders [books]. I was at a Borders and I had my earbuds in and I was doing my thing. And I got up to walk around for a little while because I’d been sitting for too long, and they had — you know, I’m a comic book geek — they had a comic book rack and I started to look at the comics. And as I was looking at the comics my curiosity started growing around the physics inside the comics. There’s a comic book writer named Geoff Johns, and I was reading this Green Lantern that Geoff Johns had written. And if you know anything about comic book writing, he’s a very, sort of, philosophical writer of comics. And that issue — just something about it—grabbed me emotionally. When I went back to sit down and write I couldn’t get it out of my head; I started writing about comic book superheroes. And then I went on to write more about physics. And I was still writing this book and working on it and I ended up getting a solid-state physicist at The University of Minnesota who helped me finish the book, like just checking the physics and I was able to have these conversations with him about it. At that point, I was at the University of Texas and he was just invaluable in the process. But I had no idea that’s what I was going to end up doing when I started out with the book.
And then with The Cineaste, you know, I was writing these poems that were ekphrastic poems, but they had nothing to do with film. They were other kinds of art. And once again I was not satisfied with that process. I’m not even going to go into what I thought I was writing about, it was just about art. And these pieces, they were not satisfying to me. And in between that time, I was spending a lot of time watching movies. I had this thing called Mubi — mubi.com— it’s like a Netflix for independent classic foreign films — I would just binge watch those films. And I would also watch films that kind of had some kind of connection to my past in some way or another. You know, re-watching American Gigolo, re-watching The Red Balloon, re-watching Killer Sheep, things like that. And I realized, This is all I really care about right now, I’m not really thinking about this other stuff. And then I thought, What would happen if I just engage this and start dealing with this? In the interim, I got turned onto Oscar Micheaux. And I thought, Man, I just want to know more about this guy, so I ended up going to South Dakota, finding his homestead, and doing this research again. And that’s how that came about. I kind of stumble into them in a way.
I did have a question about ekphrasis and the skill and a challenge of writing into and about another art form, right? You have to engage the structures there, or think about, rather, how to engage them. So what are some of the things you found structurally intriguing that clearly influenced the book?
The one thing I’d say about that is ekphrasis is a lot like persona, you know? There’s a same level of a challenge in that, okay, this has already been done well. This has already been done by someone else. This is a beautiful painting, this is a beautiful sculpture, this is a beautiful dance performance—whatever it is that you’re trying to render in a poem. And so, then the challenge is what else do you have to say about it? This is a question I’ll ask my students about poems in general: “Why are you writing about that in a poem? Why isn’t it an essay? Why isn’t it a blog? Why is a poem the right medium for this?” And so the first order of business for me, is that you have to bring something to it that’s not already there; there has to be something new. Otherwise, why would someone read your poem instead of just going to watch the movie? So, when I first started writing The Cineaste for instance, you know, the working title was Auteur and I was writing a lot about films by these great filmmakers and then I realized that: one, those poems weren’t that good and I couldn’t figure out why. And the main reason was that they were films I had nothing else to say about. And I was just kind of saying the same thing but in language, as opposed to the film. So those didn’t make it. And then, I realized there were films that I admired that weren’t necessarily like “auteur” level films. Westworld — this was before the TV show—I was writing about Westworld before it was ever on the radar of HBO. And I was writing about the film that really is not that good. It’s really not a great film at all, but it’s a film that meant a lot to me as a kid. Also, The Mack, another Blaxploitation film: people might look at that film and all they think about is Goldie the pimp, but there’s a lot happening in that movie as well, particularly around the relationship between the son and the mother. So, there are just different things that I wanted to do—I was thinking about the desire for escapism in Westworld; I was thinking about the relationship between the son and the mother in The Mack. They were films I felt like I could say something else about. Certain films I didn’t like the endings of so I changed the ending of the films. I would cast myself as a protagonist or an antagonist, you know? And in that way I felt like there was something else I had to say about it. Sometimes it was very personal, sometimes it was not that personal, but there was something new I would bring to it and I think that’s the first order of business with ekphrastics.
That makes sense. I’m curious because you said a couple times that you were writing poems that you didn’t think were any good. And you recently judged our [Furious Flower’s] poetry contest and so in that situation, what are things that you’re looking for? How do you determine ‘this is a good poem”?
Yeah, wow. That’s a question I’m going to have to think about. You know, I think for me, I always want to learn something from a poem. I want to go to a poem, and I want it to force me to think about something in a way that either I hadn’t thought about before, or give me permission to think about it in a way that I didn’t feel like I had permission to think about it in. And so, often I’ll ask someone at a workshop, “What’s new here? What are we learning about in this poem?” and sometimes I’ll look at my own work and that’s the question I’ll ask of it, “Is there anything new that’s happening here? Any new information? Any new approach to this thing? Would I want to read this poem again after that first reading? Is there something to come back to again and again? If I go back to that well, is there anything to bring up? Is there something formally that I admire about it? The structure, the music, the line? A turn of a phrase? Something that I can hold onto?” I think those are the things I, just as a consumer of the art, am most attracted to.
That’s awesome. You mentioned the sentence and the turn of the line in another interview, and you mentioned your love of the sentence. I’m curious about how that manifests—what is it that’s attractive to you about sentence and syntax and certainly how it plays out in the context of poetry, but also outside of poetry? What does it mean to be a lover of sentences in the world?
I mean, I think if you don’t love sentences, you can’t be a writer. I’m always suspicious when I see someone who comes into a workshop and week after week, their work is in fragments, you know? I’m like, You’re hiding something. Who are you? If you don’t love the sentence and you can’t think through syntax in some way, something’s wrong. Truncated language, fragments — I mean, there’s a place for all of that as well, and it can work but you can tell when someone really understands syntax and they’re using fragments and truncated language and when someone is using it because they don’t have a handle on the syntax. And the thing about it is that I don’t know how someone’s mind can turn and really evolve in an opinion of something, without a handle on syntax. When you start thinking about complex issues, in my mind, I hear those opinions forming through sentences. And when I’m reading someone, even if it’s fiction, I’m very attracted to the way in which that person uses the sentence. One of the first things I was attracted to in the reading of Toni Morrison was her syntax. I feel the same way about reading Baldwin. If you read a Yusef Komunyakaa poem and you’re not swept up in the sentence of that, or a Carl Philips poem in the grammar, in the way in which he’s using the sentence? I mean, these people, you know — Marilyn Nelson — folks who can use the sentence, use it in different forms, use it in free verse, use it for different subjects, and it always feels like fresh language. It’s like a bottomless reservoir of ideas. I liken it to a musician, like a jazz musician, and they’re improvising, right? You can tell, when you listen to a musician, who really has a handle on their modes, who has a handle on scales, who has a handle on arpeggios. Because it’s through those modes and those arpeggios and those scales, those core progressions, that they’re thinking. And you can see the ideas and hear them as they’re being moved around and innovated upon. It’s the same thing with the syntax. I don’t know how someone can write a poem without really having a handle on syntax.
You’re also an essayist and talking about poetics in the third Furious Flower anthology, Seeding the Future, you write, “Our nouns and verbs will add up to nothing if we don’t know what we want to address.” And you point out, ‘No, I didn’t say that you don’t know what you want to say, what do you want to address.’ You write “we need the desire to say something, and to have a clear intention behind why we’re trying.” And so that the idea of not knowing how to think without the syntax, but at the same time, that not being the thing that ultimately drives the poem, but then it is the thing that drives the poem… talk to me about that negotiation.
I think people often will go to the poem and they’re trying to write the poem—the generation of the poem—feeling like they have to have an answer to something. We oftentimes will struggle with the end of a poem thinking about the answer. And I think the poem is a space in which we can celebrate the question just as much as the answer. In many ways, more so than the answer. Because the questions that come up inside of the poem, that’s when you see what the poet is trying to deal with, what the poem is struggling with. And just to witness someone in the throes of trying to understand something is enough for me. Like, that’s the thing that I’m most attracted to when I go to the work. If I’m reading someone and they seem like they don’t have that intellectual curiosity that leaves them feeling like a child at times in the process, I don’t really trust that voice. I want to hear someone who’s wrestling with something and presenting it to us almost as if they’re discovering it along with us, as we’re reading it. And I think that’s what I was trying to get at in that piece.
We were talking way earlier, I think in the car, about voice. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to have a sure voice in a poem while questioning?
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I feel like you have to kind of separate the… posturing of the voice with the authenticity of the voice and what happens, there’s space inside the poem for hedging language, and for it to be a little messy at times. And I think sometimes what happens is that, particularly because of the dynamic of being in a workshop, and having, particularly if you’re in an MFA program, you have that weekly assessment. You have this moment where you feel like ‘oh, you know, I have to have a win this week’. You know, I have to come in with something that’s just like this perfect little jewel box, right? And the issue with that, is that’s not going to be your true voice. Because you know, you want that voice to be you in the dark, like, you want to know, like when no one no one’s looking, you want to reveal that voice to people. And so sometimes it’s messy, sometimes you’re uncertain, and there’s like some hedging on language in the voice. You know, sometimes you’re sort of — you’re self-editing. You hear that voice that comes in. So those are the voices I find most interesting as a reader of the poem.
So you can be questioning, just also in your own voice, not in someone else’s. As a writer what do you still find surprising, or that the craft of poetry still teaches you?
I feel like the craft of poetry teaches me to question myself and to evaluate myself. I’ve been working with these poems that are set up to sort of take the persona and do, like, a 360-evaluation —as my wife says — a 360-evaluation of that figure where we can look at what the speaker knows, what the speaker doesn’t know, what other people know about the speaker, what the speaker doesn’t know that other people know about speaker, and things that the speaker knows about the self that no one else knows that person. And so, I feel like the poem forces me to do that to myself. I’m constantly evaluating my limitations and my strengths through the poem and through the writing of it, learning things along the way. Every book I’ve written, I’ve learned something, and I’m not talking about subject matter. I’m learning something about myself in the process of writing the book. That’s what the craft of it does. When you subject the poem to something that you may not even believe in, but you’re subjecting the poem to that thing, you’re pushing that poem to say this thing that you probably did not understand when you first sat down to write it. I’ve said this before—my poems are definitely smarter than I am in that way because they’re constantly teaching me things about myself that I don’t normally see and don’t have the real opportunity to explore in my day to day.
You talk about the poem as an opportunity to see the self, and I’m curious about the social role, function, possibility of the poem. What does the poem offer outside of the self in terms of opportunity?
We were just talking about social media before we even got on camera. So much of the way in which we engage larger communities is done through platitudes. You can go through a whole day without having a meaningful conversation with someone—even on Twitter! Even the impression of letting people into your life through Instagram and these different platforms is like the staging of a reality show—you believe it must be ‘real’, but you know it’s still scripted in a way. But I feel like the poem is that good one space in which we can talk, give real talk. We can be totally vulnerable and it’s totally appropriate. You can be totally emotional, and no one’s gonna be uncomfortable with it. You can say things that would make people uncomfortable in other situations and they can be accepted in this vessel. I think that’s what it does. We don’t know how to talk about race. We don’t know how to talk about sex and sexual orientation. We don’t know how to talk across gender lines. We don’t have enough respect for our elders, you know? Everything is about the new thing and how young someone is as the “hot new thing,” and because we don’t have space to have those conversations, we need some space for that and it can’t all be done in therapy. You know, everyone wants to go behind a closed door and talk to someone in confidence. But how do you replicate that on a larger scale and have a conversation with the world, with our community? I think the poem is that space.
That is a great note to end on. Thank you so much. That was awesome.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
“Oracular,” “arresting,” “rapturous,” are just a few of the words used to describe the poetry of Cyrus Cassells, each one attempting to capture the dizzying intensity he conjures in his poems. Each of Cassells’ soon-to-be-eight collections of poetry, though inhabiting their own worlds and subjects, bear the stamp of his lush and lyric poetic style. From his extravagant descriptors to his layered adjectives to his wide-ranging diction, Cassells’ mastery of language and unerring ear for music transforms the poem into a true vehicle for transport, sweeping the reader into and through the moment/persona of the poem. In “Return to Florence,” the poem’s lyrically rendered lyric question is answered in kind:
How do I convey the shoring gold
at the core of the Florentine bells’
Vast as a suddenly revealed
field of wheat,
that up-and-away gold
is equivalent to the match-burst
morning I returned…
Alive with the “shoring” hiss and alliterative chime, then bursting into a dynamic frenzy of “up-and-away gold,” the poem renders—both as in to demonstrate and to provide—an ecstatic experience of encounter for the reader, who is whisked into the “suddenly revealed” along with the poem’s lyric speaker.
The lavish beauty of Cassells’ work does not come at the expense of heft or depth. Rather, it is the poems’ insistence on beauty despite the difficult subjects they often tackle that intensifies them. In the title poem of his forthcoming collection, The World the Shooter Left Us, Cassells opens with a directness about the serious nature of the poem that is as breathtaking as the poem’s exquisite attention to its sonic and visual elements. It opens:
In this one, ladies and gentlemen,
Beware, be clear: the brown man,
The able lawyer, the paterfamilias,
Never makes it out of the poem alive:
The rash, all-too-daily report,
The out of the blue bullet
Blithely shatters our treasured
Legal eagle’s bones and flesh—
In the brusque spectacle of point-blank force,
On a crimsoned street
The well-executed dance of sound (not the least of which is the insistent “b” lamenting the loved one’s cessation of “be-ing” throughout the poem) spins through the poem, and carries the reader through this heartbreaking loss and its “brusque spectacle” of the “legal eagle’s bones and flesh” (note the satisfying internal rhyme of “eagle” and “spectacle”) askew on the “crimsoned street.” Whether it is love poems, poems of witness or poems of the quotidian, Cyrus Cassells’ aesthetic of lush transcendence lifts the poems of the page and embeds them firmly in the hearts of their readers.
In the fall of 2018, Cassells read and taught a workshop at Furious Flower, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him about poetry in all its urgent and necessary languages. The interview has been edited for readability and clarity.
Thank you so much for being here, Cyrus. You’re such a lyric poet: what is it that draws you to that particular mode of poetry?
I think these are the most lyrical poems I’ve ever written! And I think what attracts me to lyric, a lot of it, is music. I feel like I want to get into the musicality of language. And it’s important to me to have both that musicality and also the emotion that I generally associate with lyric poetry. My new poetry is not so lyric. So it’s interesting to go back to these and feel like “Oh, yeah, these are…” I was told by one of my mentors, Stanley Kunitz, that past 40, it gets harder and harder to write lyric poems.
I wonder why that is?
I don’t know!
But, well, I think Gullah culture is very, very inspiring and beautiful. And that’s how these lyric poems came out of me. I was acting in a play called Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith (which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama); it’s a two-character play, and both actors have to do about 12 different roles. So, in order to ground myself for the play—I’d never been to South Carolina, even though my mother was from North Carolina and I grew up spending my summers in North Carolina, so this came out of research—I went to Charleston. I went to the lumber country that’s in the play, north of Charleston. The production got cancelled, so I never did a full production; instead, these poems came out of me. And that’s the story behind the Gospel According to Wild Indigo. They’re very lyrical, and I thought I love this because it feels buoyant, but also serious…
I feel your work very deeply, and the word feeling usually brings up “sentiment” or “sentimentality,” but I feel like it’s a deeply-felt poetry. I’m curious: what are some of the tools or techniques you use to navigate that wealth of feeling you use as your source? How do you make that into a poem, craft-wise?
It’s interesting, you know, I gave a reading in San Antonio on Friday, and an old friend of mine was there. And he said, “Well, you know, your work…it’s full of emotion, yet it doesn’t go into sentimentality or sentiment.” I don’t really know exactly how I do that.
(Laughs.) You don’t have the secret.
I don’t have the secret. (Laughs.)
I strive for emotional clarity. I believe in emotion. I think the earth is a place of passion. It’s a schoolhouse for emotion. And poetry is one way of accessing emotion there. So, I’m not sure how I seem to be striking the right balance for other folks. I don’t have any special clue. But it’s just something that’s important to me.
Yes, and it shows.
Neutral in poetry—I don’t go for that. You know, detachment. My mother tried to teach me detachment growing up, but I’ve always been kind of a feet-first sort of guy, you know?
Well, and that feeds into the other question, too, because the word “ecstatic” is one that I feel like you’ve used in relationship to your poetry. I’m curious about the ecstasy: What’s valuable, do you think, as a writer, and also for readers to engage in the ecstatic?
This is great synchronicity, because when I was introduced on Friday by Wendy Barker, who’s a professor at UT San Antonio, an old friend of mine, that’s the word she used. She says, “It’s ecstatic. And yet it has a quality of sadness, too.” I teach courses on sacred poetry. And that’s an element of sacred poetry—the ecstatic—that’s important to me. I was a lot more conscious of and was trying to shape my poetry that way. And then after a while, I sort of gave that up. I remember I was trying to work on a poem called “Ecstatic Image,” which I never finished; it was inspired by Emerson’s essays. I had these, sort of lofty projects as a young person that I kind of abandoned, and I showed them to Galway Kinnell and he kind of shook his head as a master poet going, “Well, I’m not sure you’re ready to do this.” But the ecstatic is important to me. I read [at the JMU reading] a poem called “Duende”—it’s one of my earliest poems, in The Mud Actor. And when I was growing up, my most important teacher was my Spanish teacher, Concepcion Jorba, who introduced me to the poetry of Garcia Lorca, who remains my favorite poet, right. But Lorca has this concept of the duende. And the word literally means goblin, like, hobgoblin. And it’s a term used in flamenco culture: if a person is dancing with particular intensity, or playing the guitar with a particular intensity, they say that person has duende, right. So I was trying to think of something that I had done that had duende in it. And all I could think about was when I was a little boy, my father used to put on Ravel’s “Bolero”—it’s a piece of classical music that’s very repetitive and monotonous, it gets more and more intense until it kind of explodes something, right. And I would dance around like a dervish, and it was kind of like a form of family entertainment—“Oh, look what my son can do!” (Laughs.) So that has really got an ecstasy to it. So I’ve had this kind of strain in my being and myself since I was a kid, and it shows itself, I think, in the sensibility of the work.
When I think about ecstatic I think about celebratory, but my work is also very insistent on addressing trauma and actual real difficulty in life, and tends to kind of weigh them together or, you know, balance between the two… dimensions of our lives here.
Yeah, ecstasy is almost a painful thing, right, at the same point as it’s pleasurable, you know. One of the things I think about is that you can’t have an extended ecstasy; it’s not sustainable, right?
Though I did very well in Beautiful Signor.
I was just going to say that… Yes. I love that book.
When I read it, to me the great achievement of Beautiful Signor is that I sustain that. It’s my longest book, and yet it just stays at that level.
Were you a puddle when you were done writing that book?
No, I wasn’t actually. It was a really fun experience. The thing that’s strange about Beautiful Signor is that with my first two books, people said “You never write about yourself, Cyrus,” and I’m going, “Well, I guess I’m not interested in Cyrus—everyday Cyrus—per se.” So one of my tasks with Beautiful Signor was to write out my own life, write everyday events and things. So that’s actually the closest to, I don’t know, who I really, but I took directly from my life. And I read it, and it still feels like art, or some kind of contrivance, like the person in the poem still isn’t me. It’s still, you know, a created persona, right? But that’s what makes me really proud of Beautiful Signor. I read it and I think, “Oh, wow, it’s like a honeymoon book!” It stays in that… sort of garden. That was my goal, right, to bear witness to that for the LGBT community, that, you know that we have our moons and Junes and guitars and whatever. So yeah, that I sustain. And I don’t really understand how, I’m sorry to say: je ne sais pas! But no, I think I just I just get into the sounds of the words and the visual dimension is important for me. I mean, part of what I developed in Italy, in the years that I lived in Italy was just an appreciation of visual sense, because it’s such a visually rich culture.
And that makes sense too because I do feel that as well, reading the books—there’s always a leanness to the poem to the lines, an economy… a trim beauty that seems to almost go against, sometimes, the ecstasy and the release of the poems. And so I was interested in how you think about form, and that visual dimension.
Well, I’m so glad you’re mentioning this because my new poetry… Since the winter solstice, I was invited to desert monastery. So for the first time in my life, I was incommunicado for eight days. And the results have been extraordinary. I’ve been writing. I’ve written about 80 pages of poetry since December. And since The Gospel According to Wild Indigo was coming out in February, I was planning to take a pause, right. So what’s coming out of me now is completely different from the other books. I’m writing a giant abecedarian, not the least bit trim. It’s already like 15 pages, this giant abecedarian poem; I’m writing these long three or four page, poems that are psychological portraits of my relationships with people, most of who have passed. So I’m certainly writing these modes that are very, very different from my usual mode, and I’m sure something about being in the desert… I’m very excited about the new work because it’s just so different from the previous books, and I’ve prided myself on creating books that were different from each other—I think there’s something new going on in each of the books. So that’s what’s happening, now: I’m really going to the opposite extreme. I don’t know whether I’ll publish my abecedarian dragon or not, because I keep adding words and I’ve refused to look in a dictionary to do my abecedarian. It’s been a year and a half now that I’ve been doing that. I used to think that the poets that inspired me were usually pretty succinct…
Also, I’ve written a novel that I finished a year ago and revised over the summer. So I’m trying different forms. And there are actually poems in the novel, it’s about a fictional Harlem Renaissance poet. So, I’ve tried a lot of different modes, and I keep trying. So I feel like no, even when it seems like I may have settled into one thing. I’m not settling.
There’re a few questions in there, because I’m interested in that idea of the project of each book. And that idea of each being really different. And so, are you intentional about thinking this is a collection of…, or are you an accumulator of poems and then see how it works? What’s that process of putting together the book? Was it different for each book, and how is it different?
My experience is that your poetry-making self is maybe two or three years ahead of your everyday self. I’m not an occasional poet for the most part, and my books have come through me and to me as cycles or sequences, right? And what I find is I often don’t know what the big theme is until maybe two or three years into the process. Like right now I’m not sure what I’m doing—the dragon book is called Dragon Shining with All Values Known, and that’s a line from a Joni Mitchell song about a person who’s having a breakdown. It’s like “dragon shining with all values known, dazzling you, keeping you from your own.” So it’s this sort of opened down, expansive, like a web—there’s so many values to choose from, which one I going to take? What are my priorities here?” And the abecedarian dragon is about… it’s got everything imaginable in it. And it’s doing things with language I’ve never done before. It’s just about juxtaposition—that poetry is all in the juxtaposition of the words, because I’m putting together words that I’ve never seen together in the same sentence. So it’s creating this sort of dazzling… thing. And I don’t know why (Laughs.) or what it is. I don’t know whether it’s going to be its own…like a chapbook or something…the psychological, relationship setting portraits…
And then I’ve been writing, my latest poems about family separation, about the “Stand Your Ground” law. A very close friend of mine, his father was killed over a handicap parking space, the same kind of event that happened in Florida in August [of 2018]. So I’ve finally written a poem about that. There’s a sense of urgency about what’s happening in our country politically. And I’m just like anyone else—I’m responding, but it’s just beginning to come out in poetry. They’re very different from what I’ve done; they’re kind of raw, and I had to be that way.
History is such a presence in the poems. And I know you’re a person who’s engaged in what’s happening now. How does poetry feed or sustain that? Does it make its way in over time or immediately? How do you engage the now and the traumas of the present with poetry?
Well, in some cases, like my Stand Your Ground poem, it just sort of tears through you. And for me, I kept silent about this situation for a year, it happened in May of last year (2017). My friend’s father was shot point blank in an argument that was not witnessed. And the person was held for a night and then released without any charges. Since we’re very close, and his family had lived in this suspension of not knowing and his father was a highly regarded lawyer, you know, it was this incredible nightmare. My friend was taking care of my house; I was overseas, and he had to leave town in order to deal with the family situation. So I was walking around Austin (often I get my ideas walking around: I’m like, a poet in motion. Laughs.) And language about the Stand Your Ground shooting started to come through me. I thought, “Oh, do I really have to say this?” And it was like, “Yes, you have to say this now.” And then when the incident happened in Florida, where they actually had footage of it, I thought, “Yeah, you must not only say this, you must share this now.” So the poem is going to be in an anthology that Martín Espada is editing, [What Saves Us]. So there is a there is an urgency about things right now, a sense of political and personal emergency that’s not quite like what I’ve experienced before, given that I’ve led a relatively privileged life, right. You know, as Black folks, we know, these phenomena have been going on for a long, long time. It’s just that now the mainstream media has all this incredibly horrendous footage of various events and people being done to, and that started to seep into my poetry and also into my play that I’m writing. And history is harsh—our history as a community is very harsh, and there’s no getting around it. That’s what I learned from Toni Morrison, that we can be proud in terms of resilience. And I try and not shy away from the harshness of the history, but also celebrate… I mean, I see The Gospel According to Wild Indigo as a celebration of our resilience as the descendants of Black slaves.
You’ve mentioned your multiple genres, and I know you translate as well. What do you find stays the same across genre? What’s the experience of writing the play versus the memoir, or the novel you’re finishing? How do you negotiate those different packages of language or do you negotiate them differently at all?
Because it’s still relatively new… Well, for instance, I worked on my novel for nine years. And the reason it took so long is that it’s a non-chronological novel. And it’s set in many different places in many different time periods. (I’m making it sound like Cloud Atlas. Laughs.), but it’s mostly inspired by the Harlem Renaissance poets. But I’d never written a novel before, even though from childhood I always thought I’d be a novelist. I’m only now getting to that task into my 60’s, right? But of course, it’s about poetry and a poet. I’ve never had a novelist’s discipline, for instance, sitting down and doing it four hours a day or whatever—I did that only two years of the nine years I worked on it. So I don’t have any prescription in terms of how to do a novel. What finally helped me was… because it was such a complex thing, an international novel, I kept trying to do it geographically, so the Canadian portions of my novel were written first. But then I felt like I couldn’t move the book. So only when I began to follow the characters and their voices did it really just take off, you know, and then really start coming. A character that I thought was a minor character, I started kind of channeling his voice and thought, “Ooh! His voice is so interesting!” So the thing about my fiction, which is just beginning to get published (I had two chapters of the novel published a year ago), is that what I like about it is that it’s very, very character driven. I think my characters are quite juicy. The poet’s mother is an actress, her name is Lady Viola; his grandmother’s name is Queen Cascabel.
That’s a great name.
Dark Gable is his love interest—he’s this Paul Robeson-like man… I think the characters are actually kind of amazing. And then, believe it or not, I myself really like my novel. When I read it, I feel really content like, “Oh, this is really interesting.” And I don’t often feel that about my poetry. So that happened, right?
In terms of the plays, I was trained as an actor and a filmmaker, so I had a lot of school training. I’m on my second play, which is about the African American Boston community in the 1850s after The Fugitive Slave Act, getting together to rescue folks. That was a period when the slave catchers and the police could come up to Boston. So how that got generated: I was in the Boston Public Library 27 years ago, and I saw this sign that said, “Colored people of Boston beware,” from a distance, I’m like, I’m leaving the library, “Colored people of Boston, beware.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, what is this?” And I walked up to it. And it’s a poster from 1851, saying, you know, “Avoid the police. They’re in cahoots with the slave catchers and keep top eye open.” So that’s how this play got engendered from seeing this poster, and I actually put that in the play itself, like, you know, the sort of timeless warning, right?
So, I’m still making my way in these forms. I think my sense of order developed from writing poetry. I don’t necessarily write in chronological order. I’ve often been inclined to do the endings first, which, I don’t know, doesn’t always work. But whereas the novel, I waited six years to find the ending, and I think the ending is very wild there. So, I tend to work toward the middle of things. It’s just my way of… my relationship… to time, the play of time—the beginnings and the ending, of course, and working my way to the middle. That’s very consistent across genres.
I don’t want to lose the translation aspect, because I find translation is so fascinating…
Well, I just got a beautiful endorsement today from Ilya Kaminsky about my Catalan translations; he’s been a big supporter of them over a long time. This is a book of translations of Francesc Parcerisas, who was Catalan, Spain’s sort of most prominent poet. I met him years ago when I first went to Barcelona in the 1980s, and then I came back in 2005 and we became more friendly, and I made the decision to translate his work. His work is rather different from mine— it’s very much about, kind of everyday wisdom and domestic wisdom. It’s called Still Life with Children—that’s one of the titles of his volumes. I chose that because I think he’s an amazing dad. He’s married to an American woman, and when I went to work with him on the translations, he was there with his sons, and they spoke English and Spanish and Catalan and French. So it’s very wise, warm, wonderful poetry there. It’s taken a while, and went through various publishing travails, but now it’s coming out in the spring (2020) from Stephen F. Austin University Press. A mutual friend of mine and Francesc did the cover art, which is very, very beautiful, so I’m excited. I’ve also done translations of their major writer, Salvador Espriu, who died in 1985. I met him just a couple of months before he died. So the Espiru volume, which is almost done—I’m trying to finish the memoir part of it—is his fiction, poetry, and one of his plays. What a lot of people don’t know about the Catalan language was that it was banned from public use in 1939 when Franco came to power, so for decades. For instance, Salvador Espriu, his first book of poems was published underground. And as an African American person interested in justice, it appealed to my sense of justice, to learn how to read an imperiled language. I tend to be drawn toward imperiled languages, including Gullah, Hawaiian is another one that I’m that I’m drawn to. So I think for me, or for any poet or writer, going outside of yourself, trying to get into the reality of the writer…
In this case, Salvador Espriu was a prodigy, in Spanish and Catalan, from when he was a teenager. And by the time he was 23, the Spanish Civil War had broken out. And then at 26, his language was banned. And I was that age when I was translating. So it was really quite a leap to try to imagine what it would be like to—remember, I won the National Poetry Series when I was 23—to have that kind of recognized mission, and then suddenly have it all taken away. And he had started out in fiction, but after the war, the banning of the language, his work was almost entirely poetry—some plays, but almost entirely poetry. So I had to learn. I also had to learn a lot about the Spanish Civil War, which wasn’t a war we hear much about in our country in terms of being educated in school. So that’s been a long kind of odyssey of learning. Plus his work is very stark. It’s like Samuel Beckett! And here I was thinking, “Well, my work is lush, why am I going after this stark, barebones guy?” So it’s taken me a while to figure some of that out… Like I say, not only your poetry-making, but maybe your translation-making is also ahead of you that way. I was getting a kind of political and moral education abroad, and that was the beginning of the process—in Spain.
That’s wonderful. I’m interested, too, in your relationship to research. I feel like in reading the poems, they feel very lived in, but it sounds like you do a fair amount of getting into the spaces and the history and the environment: talk about that.
Well, sometimes I think you just have to follow the voices and imagery that come through and then do the research and not get so caught up in it. You know, as everyone discovers, you can research and research and research and never get to the actual writing—the terror of the blank page, right? So that’s what I tend to do. I’ll get some ideas. And I’ll think “Well, is that authentic? Or is that… Do I have the right time period?” I mean, I did a lot of initial guessing for my novel, about, you know, what songs were fitting in what periods, and I discovered I was, I’d say 90-95% right. But of course, you have to do that kind of fact-checking with a novel. You know, normally, you don’t necessarily have to do that so much with poetry. But, you know, research can be fun. And then it can just feel like…you’re postponing, like, “Oh, yeah, let’s do some more research.” Like, well, what about just sitting down and writing?
I think the most valuable research is more physical. Like when I was writing The Crossed-Out Swastika. There’re certain things you can’t fully understand until you’re in those places where the camps were… Like, I went to Dachau, and it’s so beautiful with the fields out there, and you go out there and you think it’s unimaginable that the camp was there. And that, of course, that was the point. Right? Right. Are you going to Munich, and it’s so beautiful, I mean and you’re thinking, this is the place where Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, it’s like “No, it can’t be…” I remember even when I was a student in Florence, learning Italian and I went to the synagogue in Florence, which I think is one of the biggest ones in that part of the world. And I was told that that, that the Nazis had parked their tanks, and they’d used the synagogue as a garage. And again, because Florence is so beautiful, you just can’t imagine them even on the scene. And you just learn things about how that was perpetrated by being physically there, being in situ, that you can’t just do with regular research, right? You have to actually experience certain things; you know, experience is very valuable research—going to the place, or making the pilgrimage. Or going to Auschwitz, when Auschwitz proper looks very institutional. And what we think of as Auschwitz is like the windy field that was Birkenau where the trains would come in, but Auschwitz proper looks like it could even be almost a campus or hospital grounds. And it’s tiny. You know, the famous sign, the area you walk, everything is sort of small and institutional-looking. So yeah, physical presence, pilgrimage. Pilgrimage, I’d say, is important.
I went to Granada. When I went to Granada in 1984—I’d grown up revering Lorca—and I go to Lorca’s summer home, there was nothing for him. There wasn’t even a plaque: I was so shocked. But I did not understand the dynamics of the Spanish Civil War. Basically, what happened in Granada was all the people on the left were murdered at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. So bringing them up… But it’s so different now, that part of my memoir about Lorca… Now it’s about the difference between 1984 Granada and 2012 when I finally went back. I land in Granada, Federico Garcia Lorca airport; the house that I went to, now amuseum, now pretty much part of downtown. That there’s been this huge shift in moving away from all the drama and conflict of the Spanish Civil War…
The two things you’ve mentioned—Auswitz, Birkenau, even Granada—show how history is modified as we move along, right?
Hopefully as we evolve and progress and get more information! I mean, Lorca’s murder was a huge scandal for the whole culture, because when his book Gypsy Ballads came out in 1928, it was the first best-selling book of poetry in the history of Spain. And then he was just beginning to be known as a playwright. But the deeper you get into Spanish history, in the Spanish Civil War, the more complicated and fraught it is. I went back to Barcelona this summer when I realized that the bulk of my work with Francesc Parcerisas was done maybe almost like 10 years ago, and because of all the violence around the referendum last October, when people voted to become independent, I thought, “Oh, it’s really important that I do an update.” So I did that. I got a crash course in the referendum from Francesc Parcerisas, and he is a person who favors independence. When I arrived there, he picked me up at the Barcelona Airport and took me to his town of Vilanova, where he has a summer place, and said “Welcome to occupied Catalonia,” right. What you see in Catalonia is a lot of Catalan flags draped over balconies and yellow ribbons all over Catalonia that are in solidarity with the exiled government and people who are in prison. Francesc himself shared his latest poem—he went to Brussels to read before the exiled government. So what happened was, in the fall, a friend of mine calls, and I was finishing my novel, and I was writing about Barcelona, Spanish Civil War, he sent me a cryptic message that said, “Has the Spanish Civil War broken out again?” Nothing else. I thought, “What? What’s going on?” I turn on the TV. And I see scary footage of the police routing the voters and literally, like, taking the ballot boxes—not a good advertisement for democracy. Apparently, Angela Merkel stepped in and by noon that day it was stopped. She let the Spanish government know that was not cool.
So once again, it feels like things have gone in a kind of circle. From a repression of Catalan culture, that’s very clearly linked to linguistic stuff as well. People tend to feel these days that any kind of independence movement is a bit crackpot, or ill-advised or whatever. And then I have to remind them that they don’t know anything about the history of the banning of the language and what that must be like to have your language banned from public use. There used to be signs all over Barcelona from Franco that said, “Don’t bark! Speak the language of the Empire,” or “Habla Cristiano,” you know, “Speak Christian.” So it’s a very intense history of linguistic and cultural persecution that people there have been living with and responding to in terms of wanting to have their own country or culture. Most people aren’t aware there are four different languages in Spain: Castilian Spanish (as we know Spanish); Catalan (half the words in Catalan are almost the same as Spanish. So having been a Spanish student, I had this loop on it, right. I didn’t know French, then. And now I know French, but the other half is closer to French and Provençal); the Basque language (no one knows where it comes from); and then you’ve got Galician (that’s sort of close to Portuguese). So you had four languages in Spain, and those were repressed when Franco came to power, again, under the guise of nationalizing, which is how these things happen.
Okay, so because you’ve mentioned Italian and the Spanish—the various Spanishes—and French, tell me how do the foreign languages inflect your writing in English?
Well, people made me aware to a certain point; they thought my vocabulary was very intense. And what I had to say then, and I still say, is that I never use a thesaurus or anything, that these are the words that come to me. Sorry, I’m not trying to make your life difficult! But I also think that we tend to forget that English has a huge vocabulary, that it’s been fed into by other languages. I think Jorie Graham said that it was because of all the trading on the eastern seaboard as America was developing, you know, you’re a trader, you have to deal with some French folks, etc. So, you know, German, French, Russian and all went into our language, it’s just that we don’t tend to use the full breadth of our language… So for me, it’s a matter of precision. And that feeling… in certain languages, there’s, you know, one word… but if you happen to know more than one, you can use another word that seems more precise. So it has to do with precision, I think, in terms of being sensitive to other languages and the sounds of our words. Because I lived in Rome for a while, and I was often in the Vatican—the Vatican mail was the only reliable mail at the time—I would say the word eleemosynary, or elemosine. I think it’s beautiful to use, the word eleemosynary. I’m fortunate that I learned Italian in Italy, in French in France, so it was a rapid kind of thing there. But I guess also, I just consider myself a world citizen. I grew up in the military; my father was in the Air Force and traveled all over the world, so I always felt like well, I should be able to… not feel at home, but just navigate different cultures and languages.
Over all the course of these books and experiences, what has writing taught you?
What has writing taught me? Well, I think because my career began so early, I still didn’t understand certain aspects of who I was. I was raised to think of myself—I had asthma as a child—as being very sensitive and fragile. I was raised to think that I was a fragile person, and then I discovered in the course of writing these books and translating that I’m not. That I’m really a survivor person, that I’m really quite stoic. I’m built to get through everything. And I’ve lost a lot of people in my life. Even when I was 40, a friend of mine said, “Well, you’ve lost a lot of people already.” And I thought, “Yeah, people who seemed so much stronger than me.” I survived them. So that… That I was a strong person after being told that I was maybe too fragile for this world or something. My interest in human rights wasn’t something I was so aware of as a younger person, but through traveling and translating in Spain and going to the Soviet Union in 1986, and going to different cultures where people had been persecuted, I think for me, from my place of privilege, I was called… I had been called upon consistently to sort of speak on behalf of people who have been done to, or gone through really difficult experiences. So when I was still in my late 20s, early 30s, and people were bringing me their stories from the Holocaust, and literally putting them in my lap. I met a man who had been a child in Terezín and he started a poem, he wrote, “When the Russians liberated the camps,” and he hadn’t finished it, and he said, “Cyrus, I think I need you to finish the poem for me.” So, when things like that started to happen, I thought, not exactly “Why me?” but, oh, I am a repository of another generation’s war experiences. Just in the way that Steven Spielberg was when he did Schindler’s List. So I’m one of those people, especially since that generation is dying, who had been called upon to carry those stories and legacies through. I did not know that about myself. All of that, “Oh, you’re so sensitive!”—and of course, you need to be to be an artist—but I didn’t know about the tough part in me. My father passed away 20 years ago, my mother 12 years ago. I guess everyone assumed I wasn’t going to get to be this age, you know, even maybe 40 or whatever. I had pretty serious asthma, health issues as an infant. So, my interest in human rights and just my stoicism that allows me to operate in that sphere was the big surprise for me as a person and as a writer.
What a gift for writing to give you!
Yeah, well the second book took 12 years. I had this Cinderfella experience. I was chosen. I won the National Poetry Series when I was 23. I hadn’t gone to graduate school; I did not think of myself as a poet or even a writer. I just happened to have written some poems. So I had to grow into this role of poet; I had to decide for myself. And that was maybe like a 12-year process. I had two years of writer’s block and then I started doing the translations and that was a way of getting the machine going and then my writing was very different. I went from writing a very mystical sort of book and having a very mystical sort of perspective to being, writing about things that had a lot of gritty, political dimension to them. So, I think your art and your writing can be a form of continuous self-revelation.
That’s wonderful. And lastly, because you also teach, too, what is the one thing you try to give to writers who are coming up behind you? What’s the thing?
The main thing is permission to speak. And standing in your own experience. It’s hard… a lot of us work with people who are 18, 19, 20, and our culture tends to infantilize them. Because I wrote my first book when I was that age and contributed something, to convince them that 20 years of life is really a lot to draw from, that maybe they’ve gone through things that I’ve never gone through and I could benefit from the wisdom in that. So yeah, permission to speak and standing in your own truth and vantage, and believing that wherever you come from is worth speaking from.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
There is an incantatory feeling to the work of Jaki Shelton Green. The poems thrum with an aliveness that comes from a marriage of technique—repetition, alliteration, anaphora—with the sensory, and that results in the reader being pulled in to the movement/moment of the poem. Consider her prose poem “mothers,” which utilizes the title as the first line and continues:
become shroud dirty rags of a holy book that supposedly forgot to stand vigil over our children ransomed to sun beneath each month’s moon hidden or full the daughters of other mothers themselves likely near death send us prayer shawls send us poems send us slabs of crystals a mother opens her mouth it is always wailing blood metallic bullets ride the mucous in her throat tease the pregnant ball of fire brewing inside her head we open our mouths to allow the blood to speak through light that does not choke the blood speaks through light that out races breath…
Here the reader hits the poem running: the first word, “become” reading as imperative and engine, as the reader slides in to the internal world of the titular “mothers.” The tactile image of “dirty rags” cushions the reader’s headlong fall in to the poem’s anguish, over “our children” who are “ransomed.” The third line’s repeated “send us,” sends us (pun intended) into a desperate ecstasy which is formally shored up by the poem’s lack of punctuation; the lack of periods or comas wrest breath and thought from the reader, creating a whirlwind that leaves us grasping at anything—shawls, poems, crystals. The poem’s slippage between the third person (“a mother opens her mouth”) and first-person plural (“we open our mouths”) makes the poem a dynamic experience in which the reader moves between subject and witness—both critical roles the poem needs us to inhabit as we both see and experience the world of these “mothers.”
Women’s bodies, women’s stories, women’s interior lives are also major themes in Shelton Green’s work. As in “mothers,” what it means to bear and lose life as a mother, is a concern in her poems, particularly in her collection i want to undie you, which mourns the untimely death of her daughter. Matrilineage and the ancestral stories of women also play a large part in her work, and her collections, conjure blues and Dead on Arrival, are dedicated to her grandmother, who appears in several poems. As importantly, women’s desire and empowerment through desire courses through the poetry, and claiming this sensuality of the body in language is one of the hallmarks of Shelton Green’s work.
In the spring of 2019, Jaki Shelton Green gave a riveting reading at James Madison University. During her visit, we sat in studio and chatted about poetry, travel, and her work as the ninth poet laureate of North Carolina, and as a facilitator of women’s poetry retreats. Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, is transcribed below.
Welcome to Furious Flower, welcome to James Madison, welcome to Harrisonburg. We are so excited to have you. Thank you so much.
I want to start off with finding out about your journey to poetry. I’ve researched you diligently, and so I know you’ve been writing ever since you were a child, and have all those notebooks… But what was the thing that moved you to do that, to find that art form?
Well, it was actually my grandmother, I would say, who directed me, I would say, to write. So, as a child growing up in the rural South… I’m a girl raised in the South, I’m grits… [Laughs.] I grew up in the country, but not on a farm. Very rural community where the two churches in the community were actually the anchors, the cultural, political, social anchors of the community. And I was fascinated by story, and the story of the stories of the people around me. The story of the stories that only a rural South can call their own. So, to document, to tell, to utter, were kind of instructions from my grandmother. And, of course, she didn’t use that language to me as a little girl, but she said, “You must tell the stories.” So, I started writing as a little girl in church. I was bored, I was fidgety, I was nosy. You know, I wanted to see. And I would write down, I would make up stories. Before I even knew how to write, I thought I was writing. And I would write stories about the women’s hats. I would write stories about the sermon. You know, I would look around church, and… I grew up in a community that had a lot of nicknames. And every nickname had a story. So, I was fascinated with these characters around me. And poetry became that voice for me. Surprisingly, I never wanted to be a poet, I wanted to be an oceanographer. I was very interested in science, I was fascinated with science, and I really thought I was gonna be an oceanographer. Until one day my father took my outside around sixth grade and he asked me the questions. “Do you see an ocean?” “No.” “Do you know where the ocean lives?” “No.” “Have we ever been to the ocean?” “No.” It was my father who said, “We might want to rethink this.” [Laughs.] I come from a family of teachers, and reading and writing was like sacrament in my family. I was fascinated with books and I wanted to write books. Fascinated with the construction of how books are made. How poems are made. How we make a poem.
What are some of those early books you can recall that were impactful at that time?Oh, I read everything. You know, I read all the classics, Little Women. I remember in eighth grade I read The Agony and the Ecstasy, this big book about Michelangelo. And then I had already read a lot of African American poetry. My grandmother turned me on to Phyllis Wheatley when I was very little. And Georgia Douglas. And then Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Wright in high school. Malcolm X– The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Everything by James Baldwin. I’d read Franz Fanon by the time I was in the tenth grade. You know, when you’re growing up in the rural South, books become your friends. I was bored. I appreciated life around me, but I knew that there was another world out there, and the only way at that time in my life that I could encroach on that world was through books, through stories.
I’m interested in the role of place. Because you say, “I’m from the rural South,” and I know that you take your women’s group to a certain place. Talk to me about place in the aesthetic of the poem—how do they play together?
Well, places always mattered in my work. I think about the biology of objects, the biology of what we keep. I do a workshop called “What We Keep Keeps Us.” So think about the artifacts, the idioms, the colloquialisms, the recipes, all of the things are idiomatic just of where you come from. You know, where do you come from? And usually most of us talk about where we come from in terms of geography, the landscape, so I’m from red clay. You know, I’m from red clay and dusty roads, and you know, paved roads, rural roads, that burn your feet in the summer if you’re bold enough to try and cross them without shoes. And I come from lots of vegetation, what that land bears for people. And how that land sustains generation after generation. Of coming up in a community where the hog killings were communal. When the men went deer hunting, you know, several went. Those deer served the whole community, fed the whole community. When my family went fishing, and when the neighbors went fishing, everybody in the neighborhood had fish. There was a huge fish fry. And gardens coming in. But that land also spoke to me. Because it also carries the stories of who walked there before my immediate ancestors walked there. You know, the slaves that inhabited that land. The farms and plantations, what happened in those forests. All of that continues to speak to me.
That’s wonderful. And one of my questions was about that, I think you just starting gesturing towards it. I feel as though your poems inhabit personal and public history almost seamlessly, simultaneously. Is that intentional? And how is that something you try to work with within the poems?
It happens organically for me, that seamlessness you talk about. It’s very difficult for me to talk about being a woman form the South, an African American woman from the South, without thinking about what it was like being a rural, young, Black girl during segregation in the South. The politics, the Black body politic, what it means to occupy space as a person of color in certain geographies. And knowing your place inside of those geographies. So, even as a young person writing, my work… I was really writing in my teen years. And I had gone away to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to a Quaker boarding school, where geography changed. The personification of my voice changed a bit, but not really. It was me in a different place. And I think that’s something that we don’t talk abut a lot… Who is the “me,” when the “me” just moves over here. And some people move over here intentionally to lose the “me,” and some of us work really, really hard to be in a multitude of places. We want to go across the globe. We want to experience as much as we can in a lifetime through the physicality of journeying, and yet how does that impact the “me” that is the essence of me, that red clay? The essence of me are the whispers of those ancestral old Black and white people who whispered in my ears as a child. I don’t wanna be so far away that I can’t hear them. So it doesn’t matter where I go in the world, and who I be in the world, as long as I know who I am. And the “I am” is fed, for me, through understanding the landscape of who we are. There’s the landscape and the portrait. The portrait of me sits inside of the landscape. The portrait of me can change a thousand times. But how does my landscape continue to support me, continue to feed me, so I can go play?
That’s amazing. You’re talking so richly about landscape and the physicality of journey; I love that phrase. And just hearing you speak, one of the things I notice and really admired and reveled in in the poetry was the sensuality— your poems tend to the body, tend to the senses. Talk to me about that. It’s just so lush up in there!
Yeah, well, I am intentionally woman. I remember many years ago someone came into my home and they said, “You’re not married, right?” And I said, “I’m divorced.” And it was like, “How long have you been divorced?” And I said, “A long time.” And they said, “Yeah, there’s no male energy in your home.” And I thought, “Hmm… That’s interesting.” And my son didn’t live there anymore. He was grown then. I was like, “No male energy… What does that mean?” And then I started looking at my writing and realized, it is a decidedly female voice that enters spaces. An intentional female voice. And with that has been my audacity, my willingness to be available to my own makeup of who I am, viscerally. When I talk about the South, I smell the South. I taste her. She has a taste. She has a smell. She has a rhythm that’s very uniquely how I experience her, and not just myself, but when I’m in other places I inhabited as a home away from home, like Morocco now, Morocco has a taste for me. It has its own sensualities and built-in sensualities, taboos, and all of that to me is just rich fodder. To dig into as the writer is to want to be inside of these deep wounds that just keep giving us lushness. And I want lush language.
Is there tension, ever, with the body? ‘Cause the way you talk about is with a sort of seamless habitation, but I’m curious about that idea of the body, not just as an anchor, but also maybe a tension.
Oh, yeah. And I cultivate that tension. I think we all should. Because that’s where, I think our stories reside. And inside of me, my poems are nuggets inside of stories. So, all of my poems come out of some sensibility of story. The body, for me, holds story. You know, my DNA holds story. So yeah, a lot of tension. And sometimes a lot of pushback because you know, I think about… I wrote a poem about communion. And it’s a very sexual poem in a way, but it’s about… This is a horrible… But I wrote this poem in church after taking communion, and I was taking communion, and I was like, “Oh, this is interesting.” I mean, you know, I was kneeling at the altar, and thinking Lightning’s gonna strike me. And I sat down at the pew, and I wrote that poem. Because I think that there is this tension and this communion of some visceral thing that’s happening in our spiritual spaces, however we define those, whatever they are for us. And it’s taboo. We don’t talk about it. I have a poem that I’ll read later today that’s called “The Communion of White Dresses” and the taboo of being what the white dress represents, the taboo of the white dress, the white dress as an icon that’s been smeared. And I have a recent collection to be published soon that’s entitled The Mammy Museum is Closed. And one of the poems in it is a letter from the other daughter of the Confederacy. And it pushes back against just what we were talking about, how I show up as the other daughter of the Confederacy beside those who’ve named themselves Daughters of the Confederacy. But only because they have decided they have birthrights. But who really has birthrights? Since my blood is as white, as diluted… So when do the other daughters of the Confederacy speak? If that makes sense. Like what spaces… Where are my spaces?
Absolutely, absolutely. And so speaking of daughters, tell us a little bit about SistaWRITE.
Yeah, so… in 2011 I became deathly ill. Long story short, undiagnosed chronic illness. I was in a wheelchair for about three years. I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk. My brain wasn’t working. After a year, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. I was given four months to live. I lived. I lived because I was led to a holistic doctor who intervened, diagnosed me with Lyme disease, and treated me holistically, and here I am. I, inside of that wheelchair, was realizing that the literary community, the literary world, my literary world as I knew it, was passing me by. I’m 65 now, and I realized that new gatekeepers, codes had changed. And I kept thinking, “What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do when I’m out of this wheelchair?” And I started thinking about things that I’d always wanted to do. And one of those things was I’d always wanted to facilitate writing retreats for women. I’d always wanted to create these magical, nurturing, non-judgmental safe spaces where women writers… You don’t even have to be a writer to hang out with us. Women who want to delve into their creativity, whatever that creativity is. So, I host two retreats annually at Ocracoke, which is in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We rent a wonderful old bed and breakfast. It sleeps seven, so there are eight of us at any given time. I cook the whole time I’m there, I love to cook, so I provide really wonderful, organic, healthy-but-yummy meals and we write. But it’s not workshop-y. It’s not conference-y. It’s really a retreat. So built into our itinerary from a Thursday through a Monday is this balance of creativity salons that I might be facilitating, or the writer in residence might facilitate. And there’s built in, what I call “open space.” Where that’s your time. You have a manuscript you need to work on, or you just need to retreat. You need to sleep for a day. Or two, granted. It’s whatever you define that retreat needs to be for you. So it’s a balance of facilitation and getting feedback and conversation and just being in community with other writers. And now I do that in Morocco. Last year, we were at my house in the mountains, which is deeply embedded in the sus, in the south. But, we’re going further south this year, because it got very hot. One hundred and fourteen degrees. And it’s in the mountains, but it’s in the sus, it’s in a valley, so there’s no air. So now, this summer, we’ll be on the beach, we’ll be on the coast, and we’ll be in Essaouira on the coast. And in May I will do my first SistaWRITE retreat in Ireland. In Tullamore.
Because I kept getting… For years, women would say to me… I’d meet women at conferences and they would just say, “Do you ever do retreats?” Or maybe I’d be invited to facilitate at someone’s retreat. And after many years of paying money that I really couldn’t afford to go to retreats, or writing conferences, I would come back and I would realize, “I spent all this money, but I didn’t really do anything.” I drank a lot of wine and I talked all night about writing, but I didn’t really write. Or I would take my vacation and go to a writing symposium or something, and it was so intense and so academic that I would come back home and my brain hurt. But I didn’t write. So I really wanted this space where people could just empty themselves if they needed to. So it’s very, very different. I don’t vet people, so people come at different levels. I’ve had people who work with textiles, quiltmakers come. I’ve had sculptors come, I’ve had musicians come, I’ve had painters come, because they’re looking for that narrative in that form, that medium. And they write. And then there are women who come who say, “I just need to be in the mix. I just need to be in a sisterhood where creative women are holding space for each other.” I have a friend who comes to all of the SistaWRITE events I have, and she says, “I never write here. But when I go home, I’m just fed. I’m nurtured.”
So, back to the question of “why women,” that seems to be a core part of it—the sisterhood of nurturing and creative holding of space …
Yeah, I just feel like, most of the women I know are professional, all of us are overworked. Some of my younger friends are raising young families, they’re working, they have a multitude of responsibilities. And they’re not writing because they can’t give themselves permission to make that space.
Talk about being Poet Laureate: what’s that experience been like?
It’s been magical and wonderful. In 2009, I was appointed the Piedmont Laureate of North Carolina by a consortium of art councils in this region. And, you know, the mission of that was to expand the literary arts and build community through writing. Working with other writers, working in underserved communities, interfacing with different publics. And now, as the Poet Laureate of the state, it’s just a bigger scope. I am all over the state… I mean… daily. Not weekly, not monthly. But it’s daily. Working with public audiences, with universities. I’m getting ready to do a residency at the elementary school that I attended; in April, I will have this five-week residency for first graders. So it’s been wonderful—working with non-traditional audiences, people in prisons, students who are on the fringe in public schools, people living with Alzheimer’s— the gamut for me has been just amazing. And I’m having a lot of fun. I’m using my craft as a documentary poet to work with community organizations to think about how they tell their stories, how they document their life stories, their personal, individual, and collective stories through documents. What are the recipes you’re keeping? Show me the photographs, show me the letters that your great-grandfather sent home from the Spanish-American War. What are we holding, what are we keeping that talks about who we are as citizens of North Carolina?
You feel very rooted in this place and now you’re getting this sort of wide-angle view. What’s been exciting or surprising?
Well, I guess no surprises. What has been wonderfully different is that I really get to see how poetry, the literary arts, all the arts for me really do create this bridge, erect this amazing bridge, where if we’re willing, we can come on this bridge in all of our differences. And I’ll give you an example. When I became the Poet Laureate, the Governor of North Carolina appointed me on my birthday, Juneteenth, June 19th. I officially started when I came back from Morocco, I spent the summer in Morocco, I started my official duties in August. There were two dates for appointment to get me installed that didn’t happen. So I was just installed, February 19 I was installed. So, Biscuitville, I don’t know if you guys know Biscuitville. So, Biscuitville is a conglomerate, is a business that serves amazing biscuits. And they’re kind of like Kentucky Fried Chicken, but they do biscuits. Sausage biscuits. And they’re only in Virginia and North Carolina. They sent me an email. And they said, “Hi, congratulations! We’re so happy you’re the Poet Laureate of North Carolina. We do an annual Black History Month bookmark, and we would love for you to be on our bookmark. As a matter of fact, we’ve already made it, we just want your permission that it’s okay.” So, they rolled out this amazing bookmark, and there’s a picture of me and a biographical sketch. Nina Simone is on the other side. They said, “For years we’ve been doing outstanding historical figures, mostly dead, but we really wanted you because you’re alive and accessible.” So, they did this huge PR thing. The bookmark itself is a coupon for a free sausage biscuit. So, they had me rolling around to Biscuitvilles at nine o’clock in the morning doing poetry readings. And people came out. But what was even more beautiful for me, was here are the guys with the red caps that say, “Make America Great Again” getting out of their Confederate flag trucks, and here are the Black kids from North Carolina State University. And it’s just like a mix of who we are as citizens in this state. The red cap guys are coming over, “Congratulations! Hey! Thank you for the free biscuit.” They sat and listened. And I’m thinking, “This is where it’s at.” Now, I teach at Duke University; you’re here [at James Madison University]. But at how many poetry readings are you gonna have a full house at nine o’clock in the morning. People were not forced to come because the teacher made them come, but citizens who are just doing their lives…
I believe that for me as a writer my art has to be functional. Like, what is the function of this poem? When the 95-year-old old white man in my neighborhood walks up to me in my grocery store and says, “Are you the poetry girl?” And I say, “Yeah, that’s probably me.” He said, “I just wanted to tell you. I just love your grandma poems.” Now, I’m clear that our worlds are like this [gestures with hands far apart]. For him to come up to me is like a comet coming across the sky. My mom is 101, so, I know they were not colleagues; they were not peers. If they knew each other at all, my mom would have been in a place of servitude. She would have been a domestic in his home, she would’ve been taking care of his children, washing his clothes, cleaning his house. They would not have been pallsy-wallsy. So, for him to make that leap… But it’s about the grandma poems. He said, “Every time I hear you on the TV or radio, talking about your grandma poems I think about my grandma and all of those old women that I knew.” So, there is the common… So, the good old boys in the red caps were saying, “Oh, my God, I should think about…” I said, “You should keep a journal.” These are the guys with the red caps.
Yeah, that’s beautiful.
Okay. But, we just made something happen here. We built community through poetry. We crossed some boundaries. So that’s how I want art to function in the world. That it creates these safe spaces for us to come in all of our “otherness,” all of our differences, and be as naked, as exposed, as vulnerable as we can afford to be in the name of our stories.
I wanted to ask about different art forms in relation to poetry, because you’ve mentioned it with SistaWRITE, and also I know that your poems have been choreographed. How do you engage in other art forms? What is it like to see the poem manifest in these other ways? How do those other art forms inform your own practice?
So, for many, many years, many of my poems have been choreographed by different dance companies. Miami City Ballet, the Naropa dance department in Colorado, the Naropa Institute, Chuck Davis, an African American dance company, just several others. I have a dance background that goes way back. If I had not majored in Education I would have majored in Dance, but I had a mother who said, “You do know, when you’re 75 you’re probably not still gonna be on a stage teaching dance or dancing.” Well, now we know that I could’ve still been doing that. But I love dance, and I think that my dance background has always impacted [my poetry], instructed the movement, the color. I feel a poem and hear a poem before I see it, if that makes sense. And I know the rhythm in it, I know the dance of it. Sometimes when I’m reading some of my poetry, I see it moving, I see the choreography inside of it. I didn’t write for a while when my oldest daughter died in 2009, and I didn’t write from 2009 until about, to be honest with you about 2015, maybe 2016. So, I turned to paint. I just needed to throw paint on a canvas. I love music, but I don’t sing. But all of the art forms, you know, I can go to an art museum and sit all day and just write. And I don’t necessarily need to be focused on a particular painting or sculpture, but just an energy of the museum, what it’s holding.
What do you say, in all of your travels, in meeting with people, I’m sure you’ve encountered a few of them who say they don’t “get poetry.” What do you say, what do you offer to someone who has that feeling?
I try to get them to think about poetry on their terms. Because I think what happens when people… When you mention the word “poetry,” people think of a very stylized, very formal, sometimes inaccessible language. I remember my godfather who is an artist, my first book I was holding my breath because I wanted him to tell me what he thought. And finally I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He said, “But it sounds good. It feels good.” And I thought, “Well, that’s all that matters. It felt good.” So for me, I think that people have to see themselves and be able to find themselves inside the lines. If I write… If I’m standing doing a poetry reading and if I’ve written a poem, and if only the Black women in the room get it, I feel that I’ve failed. If I write a poem and only Southern people in the room get it, I think I’ve failed. If I write a poem and if only short girls with curly hair get it, I still fail. So what is the hook? What is the humanness of the poem? Where is the human code that it doesn’t matter that this person is Russian and our cultures are totally apart, but they get it? Or when I read in Morocco, in a room full of elderly Amazigh men who don’t speak English, but they’re talking to the professor sitting next to them, and they’re like, “What is she saying?” And they’re crying. They’re like, “Why am I crying? What is she saying? What is she saying? Someone tell us. Translate, translate, translate.” Because they say, “We felt you. We have no idea what you were saying, but we were weeping.” Well, that’s the biggest contribution… I mean, it’s sort of like, me as a vegetarian… One time I was at a hog killing and I told the guys that this barbecue is driving me nuts. It smells so freaking good and I’m a vegetarian. Well, he said, “That’s the highest compliment, lady, I could’ve gotten today.” It’s that language that is no language. That language that is all about the senses. And it made people see poetry differently. Like, do you hear poetry in the rain? Do you hear a story, do you hear the poem in it? When you’re baking, can you hear the poem in it? When you’re making a cake, can you hear the poem in it? So, we have to help people think about how they want to define poetry. Like I break all the rules. I just break all the rules. My students at Duke, I tell them, “I could care less about your degree. I really could. I want you to have an experience. And that experience is something that you can hold and it might hold you down the road. You might be in China negotiating a contract since you’re going into international banking. But let there be something said today that might be still holding you, because we use language for everything. Whether you’re a banker, or a doctor, or an astronaut, it’s language. And how do we build the containers for all the different ways to make language powerful and make it be of service? Some of my best writers are the women who are cleaning up hospital rooms at Duke Hospital. They got stories. And I’m encouraging them to write them.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).
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 Litanyof 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.
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
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.
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.”
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
Matthew Shenoda’s poems are personal and cultural cartographies of the African diasporic experience. Through deft maneuvers of mode, myth, and masterful imagery, he conjures for readers simultaneous experiences of rootedness and loss, stillness and movement, permanence and ephemerality. It is a poetry that inhabits a space “somewhere between home and home,” as in “The Calendar We Live,” claiming simultaneously that “there is never a place where we cannot begin” and that “There is something inside / each of us / that scurries toward the past,” as in Somewhere Else (Coffee House Press, 2005). The poems stage the diasporic realities of displacement, disenfranchisement, and dispossession, making it plain in poems like “Dispatches from the New World Order” that “it is clear that we have lost something / in this space of translucent snaking and palm shadow adaptations.”
However, even as the poems catalog loss, they are more than mere lamentation. The poems are also acts of reclamation and agency, lifting up through language and into light people and experiences that exist otherwise in the shadow of the margins. In “After the World Trade Center Is Destroyed, America Waves Its True Flag, the Crimson, Brown Men’s Blood,” he writes, “I will reclaim your face / from down in this valley / and bring it wrapped in myrrh / to your children who wear it well.”
Here too is a poetry, both ancient and contemporary, that reaches through time to bring into the present the wisdom of what has come before — a poetry, as exemplified by these lines from “Survival,” that instructs us to “remember your name / your marrow / and by whose blood you survive.” No struggle is new, and with this conviction, the poems offer memory as a way forward, history as a map to the liberation that titles his third collection. In Tahrir Suite (Triquarterly, 2014), through the voice of a recast Isis, Shenoda writes “God gave you agency / that you may one day discover it.” The future hinges on the gifts of the past, which gives the mythical and cultural references infused throughout Shenoda’s work even more potency.
While the poems commit to cultural recovery and empowerment, it is not at the expense of a commitment to craft. Sometimes spare, sometimes thick, Shenoda’s poems offer images that incite both urgency and wonder. Lines such as these in Tahrir Suite — “if unshackling were a song / I’d slide my palm on skin / and watch it trail to air” — give the yearning for liberation sensory and embodied life. Others such as this line from his poem “Relics” in the collection Somewhere Else — “I am the fingers of a woman whose knuckles live beneath a flower box” — jolt us from the sludge of familiar language.
In the fall of 2017, Matthew Shenoda and his co-editor of the anthology Bearden’s Odyssey (Triquarterly, 2017), Kwame Dawes, were featured poets in the Furious Flower reading series at James Madison University, and I interviewed them both for The Fight & The Fiddle. What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Shenoda, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me about your history, particularly as it relates to poetry: How did you come to poetry?
Well, in many ways I came to poetry through a couple of avenues, primarily through music, having grown up not being an avid poetry reader as a young child, but being very deeply into music and into lyricism in particular, and then later on, probably around high school age, discovering various poets and seeing the links there. I’ve never had a great aptitude for musical instruments, so I started to lean towards poetry.
But in many other ways poetry has always been a part of my life, even if not explicitly so. I grew up — I am — Coptic, one of the indigenous groups of people from Egypt, and I grew up in the Coptic Orthodox Church, so the BookofPsalms and many of the liturgical prayers were a very central part of my upbringing, and in that is a great deal of poetry. So the idea of lyricism, I think, has always been part of my consciousness.
For me, thinking about the way that the line breaks down musically is just as important as other forms of craft and content.
You mentioned music, and something I picked up from the poems immediately is that they’re really heavily musical. I feel a drawing on blues, jazz, and I could hear a deep ancestral music. How do you translate that into your own line? What are some techniques you use to infuse the poems with that musicality?
You know, I think that music and poetry are in many ways one and the same. I hear poems first, often, and I compose in my head before I begin writing, often, and for me there has to be a kind of meter and rhythm to the work for the line to carry through. Because music is a very central part of my life in general — I listen to a lot of music — I think that language always forms in that way first; if something doesn’t sound right, then in the revision process that’s an immediate red flag for me.
I also believe in the oral element of the art form as well; its ability to be spoken and read is really important. For me, thinking about the way that the line breaks down musically is just as important as other forms of craft and content.
What’s your relationship to form? What’s your favorite form to write in? How do you think about form when you’re composing?
I often think about it in relation to the specific poem. So Tahrir Suite is a book-length poem about the Egyptian Revolution, and I began that poem in actually a much more stringent form than it appears in the book; I created a 10-stanza form that was based in part on the composition of a Nubian musician by the name of Hamza El Din. He has this beautiful piece called “Water Wheel,” and I kind of roughly translated some of the musicality of that composition into various lines and created this repetitive form, and initially had written the book entirely in that form. But it became too repetitive, so I went back and began to break it up. But you still see certain elements of that in there. So his composition in many ways feeds into that. I’m very strongly engaged in roots reggae music in particular, and so there are elements in some of those offbeat rhythms in there as well.
I’m still in the 10-stanza invented/collaborative form that you transposed. So is form, for you, a part of the composition? Is it in the revision? Does the poem kind of demand its own form? How?
I think each individual poem does certainly. I don’t consider myself a formalist poet; in this case, that piece of music was a really compelling work in relation to the content and the subject matter of the book. So I actually translated some of the musical composition into syllabic counts based on the musical foot in that particular piece of music. But in general, I think the form generally ends up deciding itself as I move through the piece. I think form becomes important in the ability to reflect content in various ways.
The books are thick with a sense of space and place. Talk a little bit about what it means to write “home,” and maybe about how home shifts?
Well, I think this is an unending question, but I think there’re several things that I’m somewhat fixated on: history, or ancestry, is certainly one of them. The idea of home and what that means and how that shifts, I think, is a theme in everything that I write. But also, thinking about how culture moves across various boundaries: I think all of my work engages in a kind of — I don’t know if “definition” is the right word — but in an exploration of diaspora and how that works on both sides of the Atlantic, so to speak.
The idea of home and what that means and how that shifts, I think, is a theme in everything that I write.
My first book, Somewhere Else, dealt very much with the idea of being within an American context; it’s very Diasporic in that way. My next book, Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone, actually takes the Egyptian papyrus, Ani, the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, and takes some of the themes in that and recasts them in a contemporary Egyptian frame, but also at times moves across the Atlantic in various points, although many poems in there are geographically based in Egypt and the Nile River Valley.
What are some things about poems of home and from home in contemporary American or classical American poetry that you find compelling, and that you try to use in your own work?
I think it’s like I said: I think it’s a kind of unending question. I don’t think any of us understand home, and I think home is constantly shifting in so many ways. And I think there is memory, and how we remember things, which I also am very interested in. There are ecological shifts that I think change the way that we think about home, there are various immigration patterns, and then there’s nostalgia and the way that we cast home as something that doesn’t quite exist in the 21st century.
And I think that, for me, becomes really interesting, and the book I’m working on now deals a lot with both personal and, in a broader sense, notions of loss, but as they engage with ecology. And so I’m very interested in how the landscape shifts culture and how culture shifts the landscape.
What moves you in a poem? What do you go to a poem for, both in writing and reading?
To put it in the most simple terms, I suppose I want poetry to shift my perspective, whether I’m writing it or reading it. I want to enter into a poem and come out of it seeing the world a little bit differently. Even if that’s a very small shift, I want it to open up my way of seeing the world a little bit differently than when I began reading that poem.
Who are some poets that have shifted you? Who are some of your poetry ancestors?
I think there have been so many, and they change, and I can never answer the question of my favorite poem. There are a great many contemporary poets that I admire a great deal.
When I was younger, a lot of poems of the Black Arts Movement were very influential in my thinking, and they kind of give a sense of permission to engage in certain subject matter, to explore culture in more nuanced and sometimes more blatant ways. So that was a big piece.
And then there are a whole lot of poets around the globe — a lot of African writers, a lot of Palestinian poets, Mahmoud Darwish and others — who explore many of these issues in very rich and complex ways. But I think for me, I turn to certain poets depending on what I’m seeking in that moment, and they span the globe, certainly.
A global pantheon of poets.
Sure, I mean I think it’s really important to read very widely, not just within one’s generation or within one’s cultural context.
Do you read in translation? Or do you read in the original language?
Generally in translation, which obviously is a mediating factor. But the more I’ve gotten into various elements of a kind of global poetics, the more I realize the English language is incredibly malleable. So I see a lot of really interesting work happening in translation, which, whether or not it’s definitely true to the original language, begins to do something really interesting in the English language. This is an area that I find very, very fascinating, especially with Diasporic poets in the United States and in North America and in other English-speaking countries who are taking multiple linguistic roots and multiple traditions and recasting the English language in various ways.
Everything is political, right? And so the idea of not engaging in something is a political act.
You mentioned the Black Arts Movement, and Sonia Sanchez introduced your first book. This is a totally non-serious question, but were you so psyched? (Laughs.)
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, she is one of the kindest, most generous human beings, and someone who I looked up to a great deal. I reached out to her and she … it was immediate. I mean, she just immediately responded positively, and I had this wonderful moment.
She didn’t use, and still probably doesn’t use, email at the time, and so she faxed the handwritten introduction to me, and then called me on the phone and said, “I’m gonna read this aloud to you so that you can make sure that you can read my handwriting.” And so that is still an incredibly memorable moment for me, on the other end of the telephone, hearing her read the introduction; it was just a beautiful moment.
What a gift! So tell me a little bit more about your publishing journey. How have you shifted in your writing across the books? What’s changed? What’s been a challenge? What is the experience of moving across projects?
I tend to think about each of them as individual projects in many ways. I’ll often start working on a series of poems, and at some point, when it starts to culminate in my mind as a book, there is a kind of thematic and project to it.
I think my first book — and I think this is true of many writers of color in particular — is a more explicit identity book. I think it’s an introduction to the world of who you are as a poet and as a human being. And then I think moving from there, one begins to define one’s aesthetic a bit more.
So my second book, I think, engages in a kind of lyricism and helps define my aesthetic a little clearer. And then the Tahrir Suite book, which is a project about the Egyptian revolution, was really spurred by that moment, and seeing my home country go under some pretty radical change, and trying to think through the possibilities of what that might mean and how that also begins to shape the idea of home, and how home is a constantly shifting thing.
So, in that way, I think there are similar themes in all of the works, but each project, I think, compels its own kind of aesthetic and its own kind of craft and form.
I am about, I don’t know, three quarters of the way or so into a new book of poems right now, that is probably the most personal book that I’ve ever written, more intimate, in a way, and I think that it also has to do with life, right? And how we grow and evolve in our own personal lives.
Tahrir Suite talks about the Egyptian revolution. Talk to me about the risks and challenges and opportunities for poetry to engage contemporary conversation. To engage the political, the social, the cultural?
Yeah, well, I mean it’s a big question. I think you know, obviously, everything is political, right? And so the idea of not engaging in something is a political act. My work has often been framed by others as “political” though I’ve never quite viewed it that way explicitly; I think about it as writing about things that are of concern and that are compelling to me as a human being, that are reflective of my own culture and history and background and the communities that I’m engaged in.
In a contemporary American climate this is often framed as political. But that’s not for me as a writer, the initial instinct. I don’t think, you know, I need to write some radical poem that’s gonna shake things up. I generally don’t work that way. It’s about the things that I’m already thinking about and engaged in and the things that I feel are important to help extend our humanity, which I think is a central part of the work of poetry.
I think it is about, for many of us, a reclamation of our humanity, and also a way to share that humanity with a larger audience. To give more nuance. And for many groups of people, you know, many people of color in particular, but for many groups of people, they have been cast in such a limited light that poetry and all art, I think, is really an opportunity to broaden the way that we are viewed and the way the world understands us.
In addition to teaching creative writing, you are Dean of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Specifically thinking of antiracist work, how can a poet, how can poetry, be activated in that work? And I think you just started to answer that, but can you think about that a little bit more?
Yeah, so I came to that work in an interesting way. I spent about a decade of my career as a professor, early on, as a professor of ethnic studies, and so I taught creative writing and literature, but I focused also on a lot of post-colonial theory and a lot of contemporary work on race. And so there was an opportunity in my life a little later after that stage to begin doing some of this work formally, in an administrative capacity.
And I still to this day, in my new position, think of it in this way: as an experiment to see if a lot of the theory and the things that we study and think about and talk about and write about as scholars and artists can actually translate into systemic reform. And so I think art is absolutely a piece of that, but my fundamental interest in that work is a transformation in the curriculum that we deliver to students, and rethinking notions of what is canonical, thinking about myriad traditions from around the world and the systems that feed into those traditions, and how that curriculum then can change.
And I work in a predominantly art- and media-centered college, so I’m always thinking about how we can bring various points of view to the table and help shape a young person’s art as they emerge into whatever art form they’re engaging in, whether it’s dance or theater or poetry or whatever it might be. I think the poet plays a role in this, in that the kind of language of economy that exists in a poem often, if done right, can condense and solidify many of these ideas in ways that can then be translated, I think, into other art forms. So that’s a really central interest to me. And again, I see it as an experiment.
So this is a question that’s always around: Can you teach creative writing? Can you teach art? Is this something that’s teachable? How do you respond to that as a teacher, and also what do you try to give to students who are trying to work in these fields?
I think it can absolutely be taught; otherwise, I wouldn’t be trying to teach it. You know, I think that what we often miss … I think there are a couple of things, and this is also I think a really interesting debate and hard question.
I think, first, there is the notion of the artist as a kind of human being who lives outside of the frame of the average human being. I don’t buy into any of that. I think we all certainly have talent, have various callings and ways that we approach the world and perspectives that help shape how we do that. But in every art form there is a craft, and poetry and fiction and the rest are no different. So I think first and foremost is teaching the craft of writing, and helping students figure out how to create whatever content they’re interested in — the best way to do that.
There are good ways to write poems, right? And if you get a group of editors, for example, even radically different editors together, and you give them 10 poems, the chances are the majority of them will gravitate towards a few of them and say these are the poems that have some promise. Now they may have very different aesthetics, very different views on content and so on, but what they’re seeing there is craft.
And so I think it’s really important as professors that first and foremost we stress that: that this is a labor and you have to work at it, right? It is not manna from heaven; it’s not the inspired individual sitting in their studio who just does something brilliant. There’s hard work in this, you know? And it’s complicated because content obviously is important, right? So that’s a piece that maybe can’t be taught, but the skills and the ability to do it, like any kind of craftsmanship, frankly, I think can be taught. I think there are ways to get folks to focus on how a poem comes together, what makes a poem successful, and so on.
I’m interested in that idea of labor. What’s your poetic practice like? What is the making of a poem look like for Matthew Shenoda?
I also write a fair amount of essays, and for me it always starts with an idea. So I’ll be thinking about something and become compelled. We have many ideas in our lives, right? Some don’t compel me to write, and others do. From there I begin to kind of figure out the form and the piece.
With poetry, like I said, it often starts to formulate in my head. And it’s usually a line that kind of comes into the forefront of my mind and from there I start building other lines and so on. But there are other issues that I want to unpack, and an essay is really the way to do that and so for me the labor is about doing the work in whatever form on a regular basis.
So daily? Routinely? Longhand?
Sometimes, and not long hand — well, in any hand. I write in whatever way I can, wherever I am. If there’s a computer in front of me, which there often is, that’s what I use. If it’s my phone, if it’s a pen, to me that doesn’t matter so much.
Time is my most difficult challenge these days. I have an administrative job, I have three young children, so I live a relatively busy day-to-day life. But I think by the end of every given day I’ve written a few scraps here and there. I also write pretty fast, so oftentimes I spend a lot of time thinking about something and then sit down to write it quite quickly. And with essays in particular, things that I often think about for a while, I will sit down and write at least an initial draft usually in one sitting.
I learned long ago that I can’t be precious about this. I have to find ways to do this work within the confines of life. I have to work. I have to raise children. I have to be a decent husband. I mean I have all these other obligations in my life, and this has to fit in. And so this idea of, you know, quiet space and, you know, my cup of X tea and all of this stuff, you know, to have a few hours every morning; that’s not the life I live right now, so if I wait for that I will do nothing.
You talk about writing essays. Do you ever find you begin in one genre and morph into another?
No. I actually, I don’t know if that’s ever happened. I mean, I think poems are much clearer to me in certain ways. And I think that there are subjects that I tackle in essays that I know a poem can’t be successful in. I write a lot of essays around issues of race and stuff. Not that poems can’t be successful in that, but when you want to dig into certain intricacies of those conversations, the poem often is not the right space, at least for me, to do that, because things require certain amounts of explanation and exploration, which I think you can do in prose in a different way. And that also has to do with my aesthetic as a poet. I move towards the lyrical, so there is a way that that formulates itself in my head that, say, an essay might not.
What are some things that you find sustain the poetry outside of poetry?
Sustaining the poetry outside of poetry, huh. Well, life, right? You’ve gotta live. I mean, I tell this to my students all the time: You have to live a life; you can’t simply engage in the world of creative writing. That’s an incredibly limiting world. You have to explore the world. You have to do things, you know? Whatever that might be, whatever your passions and interests are outside of writing I think have to be engaged.
I mean, for me, I’m very interested in wilderness and ecology, and I spend as much time as I can outdoors. Engaging with other human beings, doing community-based work, these are all things that have all been of interest to me that I think feed and sustain the work.
But the other piece is reading, which I actually think is a form of living. I believe that. It’s a form of traveling, even if you can’t physically move from where you are, and for me that’s crucial. I read an extraordinary amount, and in every genre, as much as I can. I’m always reading multiple books, and I think that that’s critical. I tend to read far more than I write, and I’m perfectly happy with that. It’s really important to understand the context that you’re creating work in.
Then, of course, I’m fairly interested in visual art and music and other things, so engaging in those art forms as much as I’m able to is also, I think, really helpful and inspiring to the work of writing.
But I often find that — more so than perhaps for other people — where a certain moment in life happens and someone thinks I should write a poem about that, that’s generally not my instinct. I’m often most inspired to write poetry when I read great poetry.
Who are you reading now?
Let’s see, I’ve just read Evie Shockley’s new book semiautomatic, which is a gorgeous, gorgeous book. I’ve just taught Camille Dungy’s Trophic Cascade, which I also think is a beautiful book. I’m teaching next week Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria. Let’s see, Kwame Dawes’ City of Bones. I’ve read it before, but I’ve just reread it again, and I think it’s an incredibly compelling book. Ishion Hutchinson’s book, House of Lords and Commons, yeah. Um, what else… DéLana Dameron has a book [Weary Kingdom] that I recently read, which I’ve enjoyed. There’s always a good stack of books. And I’ve just started reading Toni Morrison’s Norton Lectures, [The Origin of Others], which was published by Harvard University Press, which is a really, really beautiful series of essays that in many ways kind of traced the narrative of Beloved through her own life and through history in really interesting ways.
Are there poets that you that you go back to, that you like teaching specifically?
On occasion I do if there’s a specific topic to the course. But in general I teach pretty contemporary work; I often actually like to change my syllabus every semester and teach new work, and almost always I’m teaching very recent books. I teach a craft seminar every now and again on global poetics, so in those moments, because we do a lot of work from translation, there are certain touchstone texts from various parts of the world that I’ll have the students read, but often the focus is on new work.
I want my students to see what’s happening around them, and oftentimes, just given the demographic of students I teach and so on, I’m introducing them to work that they otherwise wouldn’t be aware of.
There’s always a sense of the mythic, of myth making and myth challenging and myth engaging in your work. What’s your relationship to myth?
Well, I’m Egyptian. (Laughs.) So mythology is very present. You know, as I said, my second book in part — well, entirely — dealt with the Egyptian Book of the Dead and trying to recast that mythological narrative into a contemporary space. So myth, although I don’t know if I always think of it as myth — old stories are always present in my work in various ways, and I think shape the way that I think about the world. And however that is created, whether it’s through religious texts, whether it’s through creation stories, or more fictional mythology, I think that these are really important touchstones in our mapping of our own humanity in various ways.
And I think every writer in some way is dealing with mythology, whether we call it that or not. There’s something about the way we often think of ourselves that’s a bit too definitive, rather than as individuals who are in fact creating a larger kind of narrative that is far more than just ourselves. I mean, there are many mythologies going on around us right now, though, for better or worse.
What are some of the mythologies that you think are being engaged right now, for good or other …?
There’s so many. The one that I think is probably most pertinent in my mind these days is the mythology of America, which I find to be a fascinating one, and a narrative that I think has existed since the inception of this country. I think every nation-state has a mythology that is often in part quite fictional, and I’m very interested in that.
Aspirational or fictional?
I think in some cases it’s quite fictional, and in some cases it’s aspirational, but I’m interested in how that seeps into daily life. And to this day we see all of what’s going on around the world with race relations and, you know, our current president and all. Much of this is based on various myths. I mean the entire campaign of Donald Trump was based on an American mythology: this idea of “making America great again.” I mean, that is a mythological narrative. And so how we grapple with those things is really interesting as artists.
And powerful, I’m still on myth just because, you know, these stories we tell ourselves wield immense power.
Talk about the African Poetry Book Fund and that work and your journey to it, what you’re hoping to do.
In many ways I see this as an extension of my work that I do as a dean and so on. I mean part of my interest has always been to help shift systems and create things. Not for myself, but for others and for a future; we have to take some control over these narratives. We have to actually do something to shift the world around us; we can’t just sit back and say this is a problem. We know it’s a problem.
The publishing industry is a problem; most systems in America are a problem for people of color, in particular, so this is our small way of trying to influence that and shift it and get these voices out into the world that we know exist, that are doing compelling and amazing work, and help change the conversation, even if in a small way.
So for me it is about a systemic reform that helps, hopefully, shape — at least in a slight way — the way the next generation engages in this work. And that was done for us, right? I mean I mentioned earlier the folks in the Black Arts [Movement] who were significant in shaping the way that contemporary literature in this country was known and understood so that by the time I came up as a young poet they had already created a space that didn’t exist a generation before me. So I think what we hope to do is our small piece of that.
If you could go back and tell young Matthew something that would help or shape or change him, what would it be? When would you go back to, and what would you say?
I would probably go back to my early teenage years and I’d tell him to stop screwing around so much and focus a little more. I think I came to this work a little late. A lot of writers have these stories of being small children under the blankets with a flashlight reading books all night. That was not me. I wasn’t doing any of that, so I came to it later and came to it pretty aggressively and there are, at least, internally within myself, certain deficiencies there that I always feel like I’m catching up.
What suggestions do you have for the readers of The Fight and The Fiddle who want to write, who want to do this work, and want to engage with poetry in a meaningful way?
I think my first suggestion is always to read. I think it’s so important to read and to see what people are doing around you, and to then begin to find out why the work is compelling to you. People like to pretend that being a writer is somewhat glamorous, but it really isn’t. I think this is true for most artists that are compelled in some manner to this work.
I’m never that interested in giving advice specifically to writers. My interest is for young people to find whatever their calling is and to do that as actively and intensely and in as engaged a manner as they can. But if I am to give some advice to writers aside from reading, it’s to make sure that your work steps outside of yourself. To really push yourself to transcend only yourself and to see your work as engaging something larger than you.
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