by Lauren K. Alleyne
Watching Dominique Christina perform poetry is a visceral and incredibly moving experience. Her voice thrums with history and ancestral weight, and her body is an exquisite vehicle for the poems that it emits. Blessedly, she is one of the poets for whom the experience of reading her work echoes that of seeing it enacted on stage: her language on the page is as effective a vessel for her essential work of witness, salvage and celebration — re-fleshing the bones, as she calls it — of Black, and oftentimes female, experiences. The image-engine of Christina’s work is a powerful one, fueled as it is on her incredible invocation of sensory detail that drives us through the difficult material of the poems . In “A Choir of Blackbirds,” she stands in witness of Marissa Alexander’s plight as a woman who tries to escape a brutal marriage:
Marissa met a man who
Killed her in fractions,
Parceled out her flesh
Like some maggot-ridden doll.
Every weekend he sawed her in half,
The incredible disappearing lady
Pummeled under his ordinary hands;
She put herself back together each morning.
The first quatrain unzips image by image, the slow, torturous murder of this Black woman’s spirit, the poem mimicking its content breaking her body line by line, the vehicle of the “maggot-ridden doll” as grotesque as the “parceled out” flesh it is meant to describe. Even as the image renders her brutalized, “sawed … in half,” and victim of a horror so routine it is “ordinary,” Christina does not abandon Marissa to this broken and invisible identity; she names her “incredible,” bears witness, too, as the “pummeled” and “disappearing lady” does the extraordinary work of “put[ting] herself back together each morning” — a singular line of survival pushing back against everything that would end her.
There is no place Dominique Christina’s imagination will not go in service of her projects of recovery and justice. Her poem “Mothers of Murdered Sons” imagines the labor of each of the mothers of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. The poem inhabits the womb, passes through the vaginal canal and blood-soaked thighs of Mamie Till, Sabrina Fulton, and Lezley McSpadden to bring their killed sons to us as we are never given them — soft, vulnerable and innocent, before they begin “breaking the world with their bleeding.”
Dominique read as a part of the Furious Flower poetry series in September of 2018, and in the studio we talked about her love of words and how poetry serves in the fight for justice. This is a portion of that conversation.
You’re an incredible performer and poet. I can’t forget that, at your reading at Furious Flower, a woman in the audience was so moved she actually fainted! When did you come to consciousness of your facility with and gift for language and performance?
Hmm. It’s a really good question. It’s a process for sure. I started writing in undergrad; that was 22 years ago, my senior year of undergrad. And I spent a good amount of time at the outset being confessional because there was finally this holding place for stories that I thought I would die with. But it was about probably 10 years after that when I altered my relationship with language. Because etymology is extraordinarily important to me. How a word gets born, what agenda it carries with it, what realities are created in order to agree with it matter to me very much, so once I started to have a more willful, tactical relationship with language and bridge the gap between thinking that I know what I’m saying and knowing that I know what I’m saying, the writing got better. My personhood got better. My politics got better. My parenting got better. Everything got better. I had more clarity; I had more tools in my toolbox; I had greater resources. I had greater psychology to throw at certain wounds that were old and festering — I mean, everything got bigger and much more vast after that.
But you know, page is different from stage, and so if you can master both, then you’ve really done something. You know, there are really remarkable writers who write really well, and they don’t perform well. There are people who perform really well, and they don’t write that well. And so I think probably for me it was 2012 at the Women of the World Poetry Slam competition when I first felt like I understood the weight of my presence in the room when I show up to read.
I want to go back to etymology because you mentioned that you talked in one of your TED Talks about that movement from being descendant of a slave to ascendant of a king. What are some of the words that that you feel expanded your personhood and purview?
Sure. So it’s really interesting. The things like “decide” and “choose,” which we use interchangeably in the lexicon because as native English speakers we have a very lazy use of the lexicon, but “decide” and “choose” are radically different from one another. And to grapple with that and understand that gives you a lot of power and a lot of agency. It certainly helped me be a better mother, when my teenagers would do something questionable. You know, I would ask, “Was that a decision or a choice?” Because, you know, a language reveals itself, and we know English is parented by languages that are older, so when you see this suffix “-cide” at the end of a word — you’ve seen that in other places, and the same thing is happening every time: suicide, genocide, homicide, fratricide, pesticide — something is being killed off. That’s the literal meaning when you have “-cide” at the end of a word. So in this instance, if I decide to stand here, I’ve killed off any opportunity to stand anywhere else. This is it. I’ve locked myself in. If I choose to stand here and it doesn’t work out, I can move, right? And sometimes it’s powerful and you have to make a decision. But for me, I have found that choices are much more vast and give more opportunity. So it’s words like that.
It’s things like, if we talk “prison industrial complex,” there’s a huge conversation about the difference between a “prisoner” and an “inmate.” Because a prisoner is someone [who has been confined], but an inmate is someone who has resigned themselves to confinement and [that] way of thinking about them and their lives. A prisoner wakes up every day and knows they should be liberated. So, when you listen to the news, and they talk about building a new prison, they can they say it holds X number of inmates, because the prison industrial complex can’t survive with prisoners. It has to have inmates; it has to have conquered people. It has to have people who have acquiesced to that story, right?
Lastly, I would just say things like “freedom” versus “liberty”: hugely different from one another. And those two words are often misunderstood and misused in African American contexts. “Freedom” is the most employed and most misused word, I think, in our lexicon. We have it in every song. It’s an all of the speeches, all the civil rights stuff. I mean, you can’t have a conversation about the civil rights movement without the invocation of the word “freedom.” In school, you learn that the civil rights movement was about “freedom.” And it wasn’t. Etymologically, when you look at “freedom” and “liberty,” you begin to have really, really urgent and necessary clarity, because “liberty” pertains to external circumstance. So things that restrict or prohibit your liberty are tangible things. A cell block, a roadblock, barbed wire, handcuffs: those things restrict your liberty, your ability to move the way you want to. Freedom is encoded in your DNA when you’re born; you have it with you always. You can’t give your freedom up. Your liberty can be compromised. But you know that because you found free folks on plantations, and you found free folks in prison. So there’s a very important conversation for me around those two things that really shifted my trajectory. We are constantly invoking a word and we don’t know what it means, and maybe that’s why it has always been so elusive.
So liberation, freedom, poetry: what’s their relationship?
Poetry is provocation. It’s a means to an end, I think. It’s the pronouncement of your name. It’s the affirmation and the reaffirmation of your freedom. And if you are permitted liberty, then you have the opportunity to go and utter those things wherever you choose. I think poetry is a radical act. I think the pronouncement of your being a free person is a radical act, especially if you have been set up to inherit a story that you’re conquered. Or that you come from conquered people, or that you’re supposed to exist in the margins. It’s a radical act just to declare yourself free. Poetry for me is what facilitates that conversation over and over again. I’m not trying to convince anybody of that, though. I don’t need to lobby. I don’t need to bring anyone into my way of understanding my personhood, my story, my existence and its legitimacy. I show up in the room. I take up space. I don’t apologize for taking up space. I’m not asking for a seat at the table. I’m already at the table, and I’m eating already, you know. But you have to travel the distance of those conversations, and for marginalized folk, oftentimes, it’s a subversive act.
You know, for us the acquisition of language oftentimes is almost traumatic, and so to go and claim it again, to reclaim it, to go back and fetch it, and to really have ownership of language and to understand that language can be a beacon and a bomb and a life preserver, or it can bring winter in, it can manacle you to a circumstance in a situation that won’t ever let you be your fullest and most holy self, right? So, there is a relationship between poetry and freedom, which is the same thing as saying poetry is the language that facilitates the pronouncement of your freedom.
I’m interested, too, in the relationship between poetry and activism. Talk to me a little bit more about how you think about that relationship.
“Activism.” The word tells you what it is. It is to activate you. If the act begins and ends with a hashtag, that’s not activism. That’s a gesture. And, look, a noble one — but it’s a gesture. You have to move beyond the pantomime of activism. Because activism is not convenient. It’s not something you can really do on your lunch break. It’s not, you know, like, “I got 30 minutes, so let me do my activism.” It’s not like that. It’s a life-altering thing. That choice that you make, to be engaged in a particular way, to rattle the cage, to inconvenience others, to interrupt space, to be deliberate about your Blackness or your otherness. That kind of activism is risk-taking behavior. I’m interested in that. So I don’t want to minimize, you know, Twitter, social media activism necessarily, but I want to invite folks into a conversation that that is just the jumping-off point. The means to begin to find coalition and support and to bring folks into your way of thinking about a thing and comparing ideas. But that is all that that is. If we don’t move beyond that, then it is just a gesture, right?
As a feminist writer, a women’s liberation writer, what are some of the things that you consciously try to impart to your children?
Be free. Insist. Exist. Resist. Be radically honest. Even if it terrifies you, do the thing that terrifies you. Interrogate choices that you make. Interrogate your relationships: do they show you where you’re whole or where you’re broken? Because that, for me is critical. For a long time my relationships showed me where I was broken. They were the evidence of old wounds. As I began to heal those wounds, those relationships could not stay. So that’s the invitation to my children, every interaction, every relationship you enter, even family, is that the evidence of the work you’re doing and how you’re healing? Or is it the evidence of what is still broken? What is still bleeding? I want them to be themselves. I want them to be fully expressed. I want them to be unapologetic. I want them to be deeply human. I want them to be empathetic. You know. I’m raising free folks. I’m raising folks who do not question their legitimacy or anyone else’s.
I wanted to touch on This Is Woman’s Work, because you mentioned the shadow, and it’s such an intriguing and inviting and rich book. How did it come to be, and what did writing it launch you toward?
So I’m a sort of manic in terms of writing. There was a woman who had been a publicist at a publishing house and who I had done a couple of events for, and she said, “I keep getting feedback from participants where they want to know more about your writing process. I think maybe you should try to write a book about that.” I wasn’t attracted to the idea, because I thought it sounded like a how-to manual. I don’t read how-to manuals, so I don’t know how to write one. And I sat with it and I sat with it, and I asked myself, “What language could I curate to help folks understand what the writing process is for me?”
Then I started thinking how, archetypically, there are all of these different points of entry. And for me, the wound has often been: I show up on Monday one way, if I show up on Tuesday as something else that gets shamed, it’s called immature or unstable or whatever, as opposed to “Look at how complicated you are!” Or “Go ahead! Look at how vast! Look at all those moving parts and how you’re willing to let them all have a dance!” So I wanted to heal that particular wound for myself. I’m all these women. I’m all of them at the same time, right? These are the women that I know, these are the women who raised me, these are the women that I am or that I was, or that I’m reaching for. And what is the creative process like when you’re the obedient woman versus when you’re the rebel? What does that look like? And again, always to interrogate: Is this a powerful place to stand for me? Is this the truest depiction of who I am right now at my core? And once I latched on to that, my brain went “Ah, you can talk about this archetypically,” and it was done in about 18 days. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I was manic about it, just writing it out, because it was coming. It was a flood, you know. And I also found that there were all of these women and these girls that I had known that I finally had the opportunity to bring into the space. And so that felt like really holy work to me. It just kept coming.
It reads like holy work.
Speaking of all the women you’ve known, you have poems to Rachel McKibbens and Mahogany Browne. Who are some other writers you feel are fellows in this work and are your community that you kind of pull on? And that can be present or ancestral.
Sure. Mahogany Browne and Rachel McKibbens: that’s my coven for sure. Jeanann Verlee is extraordinary. She just released her book prey, which is brutal and beautiful at the same time. Patricia Smith, Tyehimba Jess, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Langston Hughes …
Edgar Allan Poe. I love him. I do. I love him, and I love the opportunity to convince other folks that they should love him. You know, because depending on how he was introduced to you, you’re like, “This has nothing to do with me. He’s not even speaking to me.” But I think he is! I think he’s permissioning us to reveal the parts of us that are the most unreconciled to say, “This is a thought that haunts me. Every day it has driven me mad; I’ll show it to you.” You know, I mean, I need that. I need permission for things like that. He gives me that.
That is the most convincing argument for Poe I have ever heard.
That’s how I experience him. His mania is a permission slip. You know, I’m siphoning through this well enough to show you all of my parts that are tattered and torn. I’m showing you the thing I cannot conquer.
And I just I need that. I definitely appreciate the writers who — oh! Edwidge Danticat — I appreciate the writers who are ancestral, who are elegiac, who are confessional, who take risks, who offer you a bomb and a blessing. I appreciate the writers who do not have any intention of tying it up in a neat bow to make you feel better at the end. I appreciate writers who are not interested in being palatable to you. Writers who ask you to work as hard as they had to work to say it in the first place, because to me, that’s what Toni Morrison insists on. You cannot read her with the TV on. She wants you to drill down into the marrow of the work, and I appreciate that. I really do.
What’s your favorite thing and least favorite thing about writing poetry or writing in general?
I don’t have anything negative. I’m grateful. Truly, I’m really grateful, for myself and also for the folks who preceded me who did not have the opportunity. I give them as much room as they want with me. Say whatever they might need to say. It feels like witchcraft. It feels like conjure, which can be comforting and sometimes terrifying, and sometimes just really gut wrenching. But I’m always grateful for the writing process. I write every day, and I’ll die if I don’t: that’s how I feel. My relationship to writing is the same relationship that I have to eating and sleeping. I will die if I don’t do it. So I’m grateful for this craft because it makes my blood move.
What is the poet’s job in the world, as you see it?
The job description is complicated because for some poets, your job is to exhume the bodies. For some poets, your job is to bury the bodies. For some poets, your job is to crawl out of the grave yourself. For some poets, your job is to go back and rescue the little girl you were, the little boy you were. For some poets, the job is to name all of those unnamable souls that you borrow bone and blood from — just name them. For some poets, it’s an opportunity to talk to God. For some poets, it’s an opportunity to curse God. Yeah, it’s that it’s all of that.
You’ve referenced “bones” a lot; it’s really one of your words, you know, especially with the fleshing and refleshing. Tell me about that.
I know it. I was just at Kenyon College and I just said that. I said, “Let’s do a word bank. We’ll start writing, blah blah blah, and pay attention because your stream of consciousness stuff reveals you. You know, for me, there’s certain words that keep coming up — ” and the whole room was like, “Bones.” I know. I say “bones” all the time. It’s true. I’m going to keep interrogating this, but my right now answer is that as a kid, I spent so much time hiding and lying and shape shifting and performing a hologram that I was the skeleton in the closet. That’s how it felt to me. You know, I was the thing that you know, was locked in a damp basement. And so those skeletal fragments needed to be made whole and re-fleshed so that I could begin to speak that experience into the light and out of my body so that I can have my body. I think that’s what it is. I think I really do relate to my childhood and the experience of childhood as being almost a corpse. I’m some zombie figure. I’m animated. I’m pantomiming. But there are parts of me that are being murdered. You know there’s decomposition happening in front of you and you don’t see it. I think that’s why … I think that’s why. Yeah, that, and just there’s something even with elegy — any time you are trying to talk about the dead, you know, the folks who left, somehow something connected to bones, blood, burial, comes up for me.
So that’s almost like a reflex word; do you have a favorite word?
Period? Just a favorite word?
You like them all, don’t you?
I do. I mean, I like language very much. I like playing with it, you know. Language is movement and action and activities. So I rarely say, “I’m speaking,” and say instead “I’m language-ing” this way. I think “interrogate” is a word I go to a lot, but that’s because it’s different from “I’m thinking about something.” It’s deeper than that: it requires forensics, you know, which is what I feel like I have to do a lot as a person and as a poet. Yeah, I like words.
You write a lot on private subjects. How do you negotiate what’s up for grabs in your own experience in life versus the other people in the story and their right to privacy?
Ain’t no right to privacy! So, yeah, so here we go. Ain’t no right to pri-va-cy. So, with the strict exception that, like, I’m not going to harm anyone, right? I’m not seeking to do that. There are certain poems I have written that I will not read in a room because it was a thing that happened. I was 12; there were two other girls in the room. They did not ask me to tell that story. But I also didn’t need their permission. I was there, too. It happened to me, too. So I’m saying what happened. I name that you were there. But I won’t read it out loud. You know, I won’t do that. But if I was there and I bore witness or it happened to me, it is mine. And at that point if you don’t want to be misread — and I’m not going to misrepresent you — if you don’t want to be represented negatively, you should have thought about that before you beat me up. So it’s that for me. I don’t — I just can’t — I cannot care about that. Not now. Because, again, I did so much of that as a kid, managing other folks secrets for them to my detriment. I’m not doing that any more. At all. If you behaved badly, you messed up, because I have a long memory and a dope relationship with language and I’m gonna tell on you! I’mma tell on you a lot! You know, I’m telling on you over and over and over and over again until you are no longer — until the memory of you is no longer a noose around my neck, period. So confession for me is that, but also I practice it. It’s the one thing the Catholic Church got right — the practice, the business, of confession. Ritualizing that act. For me. That’s how I thought about it. I’m practicing telling the truth, the whole truth. I’m not Catholic, but I went to Catholic school K through 12. And I would 100 percent sneak in the confessional booth. 100 percent.
I grew up Catholic and I have always avoided confession!
Nah, girl, I loved the confessional! I. Love. The. Confessional. I’m like, so I could come in here and just say whatever, and you can do nothing to me? Come on. Bless me, father. What do I say? Bless me, father. Okay. First of all, I loved it. I loved it. Because it was like, it was a holding place. You get to say all the things here. I’d say all the things. I didn’t care what he felt about it. I don’t care what prescriptive prayer he gave me after. I just needed to say it. “Thank you for coming. Thank you. God bless and good night.” That’s all I needed. So, you know, I can’t. I can’t be concerned about how somebody else feels. I’m not going to misrepresent anyone. But I will represent you 100 percent.
You’re from a family of educators. What do you try to impart to students in whatever little or long time you have with them?
Same thing, same as with parenting: get free. I just want to introduce you to your brilliance. If I’ve done that, we’re good. I don’t have to like you. I don’t have to understand you. You know, but if you’ve come in contact with your capacity, your ability and your brilliance and how necessary you are in this world, I feel like I’ve done my job. Get on out there and be somebody.
Tell me about Anarcha Speaks and what you’re working on now.
Anarcha Speaks is a book of poems that’re all persona poems, so my voice is not “my voice,” but it’s not third person omniscient narrator, which is why this one took the longest for me. Anarcha was an enslaved girl born into chattel slavery. She had a baby. The baby died. She suffered fistula tears in labor and delivery, and labor and delivery trauma in chattel slavery was prevalent. In her case it rendered her incontinent. And when that would happen, it would reduce their value. And oftentimes these young girls and women would then be sold off to chain gangs to be sex slaves. I found Anarcha by accident. She was an asterisk; she was a footnote, a means to talk about Dr. J. Marion Sims. And I felt uproariously about that, that this man, who we regard as the “father” of modern-day gynecology, perfected his technique between the legs of this girl who he experimented on more than 34 times without anesthesia. And there was no way she could be relegated to footnote now that I had come in contact with her. She deserved a reckoning. She deserved the opportunity to vocalize her full experience.
The more I read, the more digging I did. My mother really helped me. She’s really great with research and tracking somebody down in the census. And you get the sense that this girl just didn’t. She was so sturdy. She just didn’t know how to exit her body when someone else would have willed themselves out of the body. She just didn’t know how to exit the body. The doctor was fascinated by all that he had done to her and all that he was able to do to her because she should have died. She should have bled out. And it wasn’t happening. And so for me, that was a whole conversation about the commodification of our bodies. And in that idea, that antiquated, violent idea, that we have a different relationship to pain and suffering — that we don’t feel it the way other folk feel it. She needed to be in the light. I’m really honored to bring her into the light. The first half is all her as a lead up to the moment when Dr. J. Marion Sims buys her so that he can have her all to himself, and buys two other women that were also on the plantation, Betsy and Lucy, for the same reasons. And then the second half of the book is called “The Juxtaposition of Experience,” because it’s a volley between Anarcha and the doctor. So you’ll have a poem that says “Blood Misbehaves: How Anarcha sees the first surgery,” and then “Blood Misbehaves: How the doctor sees the first surgery.” It was difficult to write it, but I’m honored that she chose me, because that’s what it feels like.
What’s on the horizon?
I think the next one will be revisionist history where I’ll be looking at women that in the lexicon, quite literally, were written as ruined. And very much like Anarcha, giving them the opportunity to subvert that conversation. Women like Medusa. Women like Jezebel. Women like Tituba, who was the West Indian slave woman who was the first to be tried in the Salem witch trials. Those folks are gonna have the same opportunity to speak that Anarcha has. And then I think there’s another volume coming where the first half of the book is about Josephine Baker. And the second half of the book is about Frida Kahlo because they met and had a relationship in Paris. And I really am so attracted to that idea: I really think that’s fabulous to think about. So I want to also bring those into the room.
That sounds amazing. Thank you so much for the conversation.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019).
Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh