by Lauren K. Alleyne 

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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[2019] I will do my first SistaWRITE retreat in Ireland. In Tullamore.

Why women?

 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.

That’s wonderful. Thank you so much.


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19

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).

Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

by Lauren K. Alleyne (transcribed by Brenda Marie Osbey)

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If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing Brenda Marie Osbey read her work, you will remember the mellifluousness of her voice and the compelling cadence of her reading, which is both fluid and deliberate, each word striking at once its own resonance and part of a larger chorus. On the page, this ability to hold the singular and the collective is a hallmark of Osbey’s work. Osbey is a poet of detail; her poems are exercises in accretion, pulling into the same linguistic space specificities that, in an almost pointillist fashion, create a larger picture, contribute a more complex commentary. Her well-known poem Litany of Our Lady is an excellent example. It opens thus:

our lady of the sidewalks
the pavements and the crumbling brick
the mortar rock and oyster-shell roads
our lady of sorrows and sadnesses
of intolerable agonies tolerated daily
of drifters grifters scrappers and scrapers
our lady of dudes and dicks and pricks
of petty thieves and of whoremongers
of piss-swelled gutters
and dives
and the grimed over windows knotty-haired children peer through
our lady
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
cast-off ditched
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 [1926] 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?

Exactly, exactly.

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.

Several times.

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?

 Exactly! (Laughter)

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.

(Laughs.)

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.

Yeah. (Laughs.)

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.

(Laughter.)

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.

That’s amazing.

I love it. I wouldn’t be anything else. (Laughs.) I wouldn’t be anything else.

 Thank you so much! 


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020) Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was one of your favorite books or stories?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But … there are thousands of people who —

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

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

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

Mm-hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020)


Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know. It’s a thankless job.

Yes. What was that journey like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your relationship to craft?

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you balance it all?!

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

That’s amazing is what that it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020) Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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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 inThe 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 Book of Psalms 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.

Thank you so much!


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020) Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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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.

Thank you.

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.

Wow.

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.


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019).

Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

by Lauren K. Alleyne

&

In descriptions of Nate Marshall’s poems, “dynamic” appears again and again. From their performance on the page, to their lyric and authentic deployments of language, to the tonal shifts — now playful, now urgent — to their embedded and indisputable musicality, these poems are studies in movement. In his poem “in the land where whitefolk jog,” for example, the literal movement of the body is wonderfully depicted

he walk down the road
dark & abandoned
skullcap & scowl
quick stride & limp.
he mug & bump
the sound of fuck you up
in his headphones.

The short lines of the poem, the small pebble of the ampersand briefly tripping up the eye, the plethora of high-energy verbs driving the sentences all collude to keep this poem moving at full speed. But an even bigger jump is the one between the world of the title and the one in which we land in the poem; the “walk down the road” of the first line seems innocuous enough, juxtaposing the pace of the title’s “jog” with the “walk” of the poem’s subject. But that quickly changes by the second line, we realized that we’ve moved into a completely different space, one where how “he” moves is jagged and unsafe with its “scowl” and “bump.”

A few lines down the physical transforms again into a lyric space, muddying where the danger lies — in the real world or in memory — as the poem’s subject both “brace(s) / for everything” and realizes that there isn’t a threat, that the “key between fingers / is for locking & also entry.” The poem switches gears again on the heels of this epiphany and “enters a decade earlier” landing on a run of his own, vastly different than the “peach thigh & sunflower / shorts” and instead is rife with “the glitter / of exploded Wild Irish Roses.” The propulsion of the poem through time, geography and experience is both seamless and disconcerting, and Marshall’s use of language cleverly facilitates this movement.

What is the impetus for this movement? Poems like “hood woods” and “out south” depict the harshness and violence of the South Side neighborhood where they’re set, and the cycles of violence that churn within it — “each street day an unanswered prayer for peace.” Marshall’s poems posit that this constant motion against that cycle offers the only possibility out of it. Enter the motions of love, of intimacy and knowing: the counter cycles that both make friction with what’s there but make a portal for what might be. “Chicago high school love letter 156,” offers one such moment:

i would fight for you
like my shoes or my
boys or any excuse
for contact

The violence of the fight is co-opted as an opportunity for intimacy, is reconfigured as a claim for the value of loving touch. Creating these moments of shift and change is a result of the kinesis of Marshall’s poetry. Finally, Marshall’s work always nods to the traditions of African Americans. His poems reverb with echoes of the middle passage, fugitive escapes, the great migration, and more contemporary moves — to college, Black-owned spaces — to the worlds beyond the spaces meant to confine.

In 2017, Nate Marshall was a visiting poet in the Furious Flower reading series. We spoke about his beginnings in poetry, what it means to be in community, Chicago, and ampersands. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Tell me about your path to poetry.

Okay, so I came to poetry very young. I came to poetry in, like, I guess middle school, around like 12 and 13. I got interested when I saw the show Def Poetry Jam, and I was like, “This is cool!” At the end of one episode Amira Baraka did an excerpt from the poem, “Why is We Americans?” and I was just blown away. I did not know that you could do such a thing, that such a thing could exist in the world, right?

And so that was sort of rolling around in my head, and then I heard the hip hop song, “The Blast,” by Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek, and that was sort of rolling around in my head, and I think it just got to a certain point where I was like, “Okay. I’m just gonna write and I’mma write poems and raps and whatever.” I never really expected much of it, but I think I had some good teachers that mentored me and that insisted that I continue.

Talk to me a little bit about Louder Than a Bomb. What was that experience like, and how does it fit into that narrative of poetry?

For sure. So Louder Than a Bomb is a youth poetry festival that happens in Chicago, and now a bunch of other places. And I came into that space in 2003; I was 13. I was very young and it was one of those sort of life-changing moments for me because I think I saw young people who were just a little bit older than me who were super engaged, super passionate, super intellectually stimulated and were doing art — art was at the center of their lives. And I think I just knew at that point like, “Yo this is — I don’t really understand this space, but this is like the coolest place I’ve ever been, and I want to stay in it for like as long as I can possibly stay in it.” (Laughs.) I was sort of in from there.

How do you see the role of community in poetry?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean … so, for me, so much, community has been very central to my poetic practice, so I don’t know if poetry for me exists without community. And certainly there’s a kind of solitary piece or solitary notion in the creation of poetry, but I think that’s true of community, right? Is it the nature of community that you, you know, go inside yourself and you sort of get it together and then you bring what you have to your people, right? And y’all are so in it together, right? I think that they — for me, they’ve all sort of existed simultaneously.

What are some other communities of poetry you find yourself in right now, and what kinds of things do you bring to them and do they bring to you?

 Of course Dark Noise, which is a collective that I’m a part of with Danez Smith, Fatimah Asghar, Jamila Woods, Aaron Sanders and Franny Choi — and that is a really exciting community. We’re all poets but work across many genres, work across many disciplines; we’re all young folks of color; we’re all born in the same year, which is not intentional but is like a thing that just happens to be true. And I think that for me it’s one of the spaces that feeds me the most, because not only are we professional allies and artistic allies but those are also some of my best friends. We take the notion of the workshop or the notion of the collaborative and apply it not only to the artistic work but also bring it to bear on our personal lives, on everything. That, for me is very fulfilling. That’s just one of many [communities], I think.

Poetry is my medium — poetry is the way that I process and the way that I communicate.

Okay, to go to the work a little bit: You dedicated Wild Hundreds to the victims of state-supported and -sanctioned black death, which to me is another gesture toward community. Tell me about that idea of community in relationship to Wild Hundreds.

So lemme sort of go back. When I think about the book, I think of when people ask me, “Well, what is this book about?” Ultimately for me it’s a very long answer to a question that I would get. I remember when I went to college in Nashville, Tennessee, and I would, you know, have that early conversation that you have when you meet people like, “Oh, hey! I’m Nate! I’m from da da da da. I am studying da da da da da,right? And whenever I say, “Oh, I’m from the south side of Chicago,” people were always like, “Oh, my God! Oh! How did you make it out? Da da da da da da.” And that was always deeply frustrating for me, so in some ways the book is a long answer to that question.

Like I remember my sophomore year of high school, I was taking this Black masculinity class, and during the semester the class was happening, this video went viral of this young man, Derrion Albert, getting hit in a big fight, a big sort of melee after school, down from the local high school. He got hit with a two-by-four, and he died. And that was like one of the early moments in that narrative in this new contemporary narrative of Chicago as this ultraviolent place, specifically around Black folks. And, like, Arne Duncan or Barack Obama coming back to the city and being like “We’re gonna institute initiatives …” or … no one knows because these things never happened or they did and didn’t do anything, but anyway, that happened like four blocks from where I grew up. That was my neighborhood high school. I think that kid was like in my godsister’s homeroom, right?

So I felt very close to some of these things and some of these issues. And  poetry is my medium — poetry is the way that I process and the way that I communicate, so those are the issues that I find myself as a person deeply moved by. And so the work is gonna reflect that.

In so many ways, the book is a love poem to Chicago.

Yeah, yeah.

And you talk about other people’s definitions of Chicago. Tell me how do you define Chicago.

Ooooooo, how do I define Chicago?

Yup. What’s your Chi-town, Nate?

You know Chicago is … it’s like it is. I don’t even know! All right, Chicago is an incredibly beautiful, incredibly vibrant, deeply fucked-up place, you know? It’s like Chicago … the best way to describe it is that it’s like your uncle who you love, and who’s the most fun and will give you his old comic books, and, like, when he comes through it’s lit. But he also is an angry drunk who might get into a fight with your dad later at Thanksgiving. It’s that. It is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. You know, a thing that causes you tremendous harm, and also will embrace you in no other way. And you know, I think it’s a city that is at its core deeply working class, deeply not pretentious, and I think that the art and the culture reflects that in a way that even artists find and sustain community. I think that it has a long history as a union town, and I think that you see that brought to bear across the culture.

So Chicago’s spawned some really awesome poets and artists like you said. I’m currently in love with Kerry James Marshall who’s doing some amazing work; there’s Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Smith, Carl Sandburg —  so many. Who are some of the poets you look up to, who inform your work? Who do you think you’re in conversation with now?

First off, my friends — all those folks I named in Dark Noise, but thinking historically of who are my building blocks … Certainly, Gwendolyn Brooks. I don’t know if there’s anyone more influential for me. You know, I’m just gonna rattle off a bunch of Chicago heads: Margaret Walker, Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Burroughs, yeah, some of those folks. I mean A. Van Jordan, who’s one of my professors at Michigan and kind of one of my early favorite writers. Martín Espada. Sandra Cisneros — yes, Stealth Chicago Cisneros. (Laughs.)

You’re also a musician, so talk to me about the relationship between your music and music-making and your poetry, or just in general, and whether are there influences from that side that you think come to bear on the poems.

For sure! I mean, so I rap, right? And do a little bit of production. And I really came into both of those things — rapping and MC-ing and poetry — kind of at the same time. And in many ways in many of the same places, right? So when I think of the earliest places where I began to find communities around hip hop and around music, they were at poetry slams; they were at open mics. And I think that this is even coming back to the notion of a place like Chicago is like it’s a big city but it’s also like so small — it’s also like the smallest place — it’s a town in the purest sense. So if you’re an artist, you kind of run across all these things, and you fall over each other. There’s a really long history and a long tradition of the poets and the writers and the musicians in Chicago specifically being in conversation. I remember being in high school and being at open mics with the little annoying kid who would become Chance the Rapper and introducing him to my friend who would become Vic Mensa who is, like, opening for Jay-Z right now, and so, I mean, the connection for me is very… you know, I can’t really untwine them, right? And certainly, I think the way that I approach sound in a poem is shaped by having so many break beats just in my head. 

Speaking of break beats, you’re one of the editors of The BreakBeat Poets with Quraysh Lansana and Kevin Coval. Tell me a little bit about that project and how it came to be, but also what are some of the joys and challenges culling that work? 

That project was a very long process. Kevin initially had the idea and he’s a friend and a colleague and also was a mentor of mine, so around 2009 or 2010, he approached me and was like, “Yeah, so I’m thinking about this book, this anthology. You should help me edit this book — you should be like an assistant editor.” And I’m like,Okay, cool.” I was an undergrad — I was, like, super young. So we began to put together some of the early language that would make up the call, make up just some of our thinking around, and we began to put together preliminary lists of some of the folks that we might ask. And then, he invited Quraysh into the project. It took about five years from that first conversation to a book. I mean, you know, the anthology process is one of the most frustrating things that I’ve ever experienced, but I also think, after the fact, like one of the more rewarding things I’ve ever been able to do artistically — to be able to bring together that collection of poets and that collection of work. You know, to lift up some of those voices and put them in conversation with each other and kind of begin to make a kind of aesthetic argument or articulation of the poetics that’s happening in a particular generation feels important.

Speaking of aesthetic and form, this book of yours messes a lot with form.

Yeah. (Laughs.)

The hip hop verse, the 16, if you will, with the 4-bar or 8-bar hooks, is the perhaps the most strict contemporary form that we have. That’s the most interesting form that’s been produced in the last 100 years…

There’re sonnets, ghazals, sestinas — I mean, I’m sure there’re forms I don’t even recognize as forms! So, what’s your relationship to form as a vehicle for producing a poem?

So very early on, I was always trying form and I think playing with it, right?  And once I went to college I think my relationship with form sort of got refined and challenged, right? My primary mentor at Vanderbilt was Mark Jarman, who’s great, and is a new formalist. When I took his intermediate poetry workshop, we did not get along.  He didn’t like me; I didn’t like him. It was bad, right? But in that class he was like,I’m going to take you through all of the building blocks of classical English form. You will have this: you will have the sonnet; you will have blank verse; you will have the sestina,” whatever. “And you can hold all that.” And in some ways, some of the earliest poems in the book actually come out of that class. Because I think I felt almost alienated or stifled by form, so the way that I would kinda try to respond to that or kinda try to deal with it, was to write about the most familiar things I could think of. Like, okay, I have to write a sestina, which felt very weird and felt very awkward, so I’m gonna write about my homeboys who I know better than anybody. I’m gonna just get as familiar as possible and I think from doing that, and from that practice, I really began to find a home and see a home in form. And also begin to understand that you know, again, by virtue of music, that I had been writing in form the whole time. That the hip hop verse, the 16, if you will, with the 4-bar or 8-bar hooks, is the perhaps the most strict contemporary form that we have. That’s the most interesting form that’s been produced in the last 100 years, arguably, right? So then I began to connect these things and be, “Oh! Wait! The sonnet’s like just the verse’s big cousin and I been writing those for years. I’m good.”

That brings me to a question, too, about your teaching: Tell me what you try to give to your students — given that you know — Mark’s position, what do you try to give?

I think as a teacher I try to do a few things. I try to give them a diverse array of work and put that work in its own context. So, like, I don’t know that you can learn Black poetry without understanding something about Phillis Wheately, right? Or Jupiter Hammon. And also understanding Phillis Wheatley as a very young teenage girl, who basically did a doctoral defense in front of John Hancock and all the gentleman of stature in Massachusetts to prove that she had written her poems, right? I think that it’s important to understand that, because that shapes the kind of poem that she creates; that shapes the tone of the piece, the rhetorical moves that it’s gonna employ, right? So I try to do that as a rule. I’m interested in reading lists that are diverse, and that diversity is expressed in a number of ways. So urban poets and rural poets, poets across many racial identities, across many gender expressions and sexual identities, right? So, I think that for me is important.

And then, I’ve done this in a couple of classes. I started off with by showing them poets and critics and disagreeing with each other; so showing them Rita Dove and Helen Vendler’s public spat [around the Penguin anthology], not because I think it’s good gossip — I do enjoy tea, but not solely for the tea, right? — but because I think it’s important to show them that people of immense intellect can disagree deeply. And that that is actually at the core of an academic discourse. So you can like the poems that I put in front of you, or you can hate ’em; great! But do you know why? What I want to get to the heart of is the why — is to being able to articulate what your problem is with this thing, or why you love it, or why this is a thing worth championing? Worth celebrating?

 That makes me think back to what you’re talking about with the putting together the anthology, right? Because there’s something so authoritative about text that, you know, I think our students get books and are like, this is the book. And so, to see that people fought about what was to be in that book, you know, is definitely useful.

And I think that’s maybe ’cause I’m a child of hip hop, and I grew up actually rap battling. (Laughs.) But it’s like that mold makes sense to me, right? I remember in undergrad me and Mark had an independent study and basically it was the beginnings of The BreakBeat Poets. But it was an independent study about hip hop and literature, and I would bring in a bunch of poems for Mark to read — some stuff that I written and the poets I felt like I was in conversation with or inspired by. And then we’d go to his office once a week and basically argue for two hours and he would pull something out of the conversation and be like, “That’s interesting. Next week bring me back 1200 words about that, or bring me back 1500 words.” So, I’m there and I’m blustering, young and arrogant as hell. (Laughs.) And I’m like, “Oh, man, you know, Black people don’t trust books.” And he’s like, “Oh, word? Cool, tell me more — go write a paper on why.” Which I think was such a good way for me to learn for two reasons: number one because he legitimately needed that answer, right? It was a place where we could really bridge understanding. But also, it helped me to distill some of the things that I know intuitively or that I’ve learned through osmosis or the cultivating of my communities, but had never explained or interrogated. 

What are you working on right now?

I’m always doing a million things. I have been editing a number of books: I edited Eve Ewing’s first book of poems, Electric Arches, and also Kevin’s book, A People’s History of Chicago, and I’m editing a couple other folks’ texts. Me and Eve cowrote a play about the life of Gwendolyn Brooks that’s getting produced, and then and I’m working on the next book of poems which is titled, tentatively, Finna. That book is, yeah, I don’t know, it’s interesting; we’ll see what happens to it; we’ll see what it’s becoming. [Note: Finna will be published by Random House/One World in 2020]

So, I’m gonna back up to the play situation. How is it writing across genres, in the dramatic genre?

It was a good bridge, because it’s a play about a poet, about poetry, so there are ways in which it feels very poetic. It’s also a really interesting version of a play, because the theater we’re working with does shadow puppetry. So in the play there’s live performance elements and shadow puppetry elements, and there’s also a live band performing, who are building music specifically for the play, so I mean there’s a ton of genres at the table.  But I enjoy it because I think one of the things in poetry that really moves me is the notion of voice and the notion of who is talking and what they’re trying to communicate, so getting to build that has been really rewarding. And it was kind of cool to do a play that had this sort of historical nature to it, because I kind of got to scratch my undergrad archival itch: We went down to the university of Illinois and looked through Miss. Brooks’ papers, and so the last act of the play almost happens in letters — letters between Miss Brooks and people in the community, or Miss Brooks and young people, or Miss Brooks and like Etheridge Knight or Sandra Cisneros or the school principal of the school she had a continuing relationship with in the projects in Chicago. So, yeah, it was just a really, really fun project to work on.

I just came across a letter from Brooks to Hughes in the archives at UVA a couple weeks ago, and she was just like, He-ey! 

Ooooo! Nice. Yeah, the thing that’s great about her is she’s so funny, that in her personal papers you see her making all these notes to herself, there’s just all this ephemera, and at the point at which she’s very aware that she’s gonna be archived, so like there’s a letter from the [19]80s and there’s like a little note that she writes in the margin and that: “I wanna get tattooed,” where someone — I think a PhD student in India or something — is writing to ask her if they could interview her, or something like that, some sort of request and they’re writing their dissertation about her and Hughes, and the person refers to them as “negro poets,” and this is like the 80s so she has none of that. She’s like, “The name for me and my people is BLACKS,” and Blacks is in all caps. And I was like, “Yo!” Miss Brooks was like, truly the GOAT, truly not having that! There’s so much, man … she has so many fantastic … I don’t know. I’m really interested in how she engages with the notion of her own legacy.

So Brooks is a literary but also cultural icon in a lot of ways: for example, that role you talk about, of her writing letters to people in the community as well as other poets. How do you define the role of the poet in a social space? What’s our job description?

Wow. Man. What is our job? I mean, I’m hesitant to give any large prescriptions for poets, ’cause I think some poets are excellent teachers and excellent mentors, and part of their job as a poet is to usher a next generation, sometimes of poets but also of young people in general. That’s one thing I think that you see with Miss Brooks: She was so interested in the outcomes of young people in a way that feels so genuine, right? And people really respond to that. Being in Chicago, you know, you just run into people and you bring up her name and they’re like, “Oh! I won a Gwendolyn Brooks poetry contest at my school and she like came and gave me $50 dollars” or whatever. There’s countless examples of that kind of generosity, not just financially but just of spirit.  So I think that can be part of it, right?

But I guess like at the core when I think about writing, I think the poet’s job — if anything, if a job exists — is to like bring some emotional intelligence to bear on the world, on the happenings of the world, whether those happenings are the grass growing and the trees flowering, Tamir Rice being shot by a police officer. I think that, like, ultimately to me the poet’s project is one of humanizement.  Or at least that’s I think part of my project.

So I feel like one of the things that Wild Hundreds really manages to do for me as a reader is to witness violence and give testimony of it, but it also manages not to aestheticize or make it beautiful, or to glorify it in any way. I think that’s a really fine line for anybody writing about violence — particularly in terms of racialized black death — to not make it simply a poetic device or a poetic spectacle, but to somehow honor it. Can you talk to me about how you negotiate that as you’re writing these poems?

I think about violence a lot, because I think that like when I think about my own relationship to violence. It’s a developing relationship, and I think it’s a kind of relativism. I think that the reality is that the world is brutal, and the condition of the world is such that every day that you live, your living is enabled by things dying, right? So that means you are a kind of violence — your existence is a kind of violence. So, certainly, that means that violence produces things and sometimes things that are beautiful and necessary or whatever, brutal as it might be. But I think it is essential that we always remember that that shit is violence, right? So that as we’re interrogating the uses and the drawbacks and whatever, that we don’t ever forget that this has a cost.

So, you know, in the book there’s a poem about me and my homies basically getting drunk and getting into a fight.  Like me getting drunk one night and being like, “I’mma fight all y’all,” and then that happening, and that’s a poem, right? But the thing about that poem is that yes, it’s violent, and it’s also deeply sensual; there’s something, dare I say, erotic about it. And certainly loving, ’cause these are, you know, my homies. And the fight is a kind of play, but also it’s not, and I think that that is always a thing that we’re negotiating.

For me, it is important in all times neither to ennoble the violence in a way that lets it off the hook, or make it so gruesome that we feel like it’s a thing that does not exist, cause that’s the thing that produces poor American history — these notions of heroicism all come from that.

Another project in the book is language; in particular, Black and
perhaps even a Chicago dialect — a way of speaking, a syntactical behavior that is in itself conscious about it. Tell me a little bit more about that, like what was the underlying poetics of some of those decisions? 

I think that it was that in many ways, poetry to me is most exciting when it really does sound like how people might sound, because I think that our everyday is poetic. I think there are things that my mother says to me on a phone call where I’m like, “Yo, I’m taking that, Mom. Appreciate it.” (Laughs.) “Thanks for the line!” Or, you know, talking shit at the basketball court with folks, I think that produces poetry a tremendous amount.

And so some of what I was attempting to do, and I attempt to do in all my work, is to display that across the book, across the text. ’Cause I think often there are these notions that the way that Black folks — or not even necessarily Black folks, but also any kind of marginalized community — that that the way that those folks speak and behave and believe and practice is unstudied, unskilled, degenerate, whatever. And for me I’m like, “No no no no.”  (This is kind of going into the next project, but…) “No no no.” These things have a deep set of rules and a deep kind of code around ’em. You just might not know it. 

So back on the next project, I was reading an interview with Kaveh Akbar, and you talk about “the difficult work of improvement.” I’m always interested in the poetic process of going from one book to the next book, or even from the one poem to the next poem. What’s “the difficult work of improvement” that you find yourself embarking on now or in general?

A few things. Number one, I’m tryna study and understand linguistics more. It’s a very … I don’t want to say, like, lazy study, but it’s certainly not academic. I would also say that I’m trying to, make sure that the work stretches in different ways, that I make moves that, how can I say … I want it to be clear that this is a book that I could not have written, like, at the time I was writing this [Wild Hundreds], for whatever that’s worth. I’m also tryna understand meter more, ’cause as much as I’ve been engaged with form, I’ve always had an estranged relationship with meter and am tryna challenge myself on that and just reexamine how I think about sound. And I also think trying to be mindful that all the poems have this, that they present in different ways, they’re not all first-person singular pronouncements that all have a similar move to them and have a similar shape to them.

So a lot of it is craft, and craft-wise, you’re saying you want to make sure the poems don’t present in the same way, but in Wild Hundreds, repetition is one of the hallmark forms, or formal presentations that the book makes: the theme, the title, the collection itself circles back. What were you trying to do with repetition in this book?

The first role of repetition in anything, I think, is emphasis, so it’s a bit of that. It’s a bit of a challenge to myself to say, “Okay, I’mma write as many poems as I can about Harold’s Chicken Shack.  How can I make all those different, or how can I use each one to dig a little deeper to get a slightly different angle to the thing?” I think that’s part of it. Also you know I’m in love with hip hop and I’m in love with the notion of the hook or the notion of the ad lib — the notion of voices returning, so that the fact that Rick Ross or Jadakiss or Jay-Z, you know, all of these different rappers like have, not even lines that they’ll come back to, but like guttural impulses, and you’re like, “Oh, yeah.” Like, “Turn this song up right now, ’cause 2 Chainz is about to come on, ’cause I heard, you know, cause I heard that.” And so, I think about how to do that in a book.

Why the ampersand? I’m always curious about that choice.

Oooooo … I like the ampersand. Okay, so we’ve talked a lot and I’ve sort of mentioned hip hop a lot as a thing that that shapes my artistic thinking, shapes my political thinking, and I think it, yeah it kind of shapes my aesthetic. I like that it makes the line shorter and more compact. And it quickens a kind of line — even seeing many ampersands in a row makes a beat; it kinda creates a kinda percussion. Also, I am a terrible visual artist and am always interested in what, in the spaces where I can produce something that has a visual component, despite not being very good at the actual technical doings of those things, so I like the ampersand for its aesthetic quality.

So, let’s circle all the way back. You started poetry at this super young age, are there things that you would go back and tell young Nate?

Oh, you know that’s hard. “Read more.” I think that would be the thing that I want to say. But realistically, I don’t know if I’d even say that ’cause I really value the way that things have turned out. I’m a very deeply flawed person who makes mistakes constantly, but I do value many of the lessons that I’ve learned along the way through great generosities of other folks and those mistakes and, you know, the times that I was smart enough to listen or shut up, whatever. I don’t know if I would tell myself anything, I think I would just let it ride.


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


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019).

Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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Black folks — their history, their dreams and struggles — are the central concern of Tyehimba Jess’s poetry. Built with a solid spine of research and lyric muscle, and always speaking with authentic voice, his poems reconstruct the forgotten or mistold stories of Black Americans with an eye to making visible the hardships they endure(d) in white supremacist American society, as well as their full engagement in their humanity in spite of it.

Jess’s first book, Leadbelly, journeys through the blues musician’s life, giving insight into what it meant and what it cost to be an imperfect Black man of talent in an unforgiving culture. The poems do not flinch from the harshness of Leadbelly’s experience nor his rough and sometimes violent character; however, the poems also insist on giving him dimension and, most important, portraying him as a whole and worthy human being. The poem, “martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935,” for example, offers a moment of love and ritual between Leadbelly and his wife Martha Promise upon his return from jail:

you got to have the wildweed and treebark boiled
and calmed, waiting for his skin like a shining baptism
back into what he was before gun barrels and bars
chewed their claim in his hide and spit him
stumbling backwards into screaming sunlight.

The language of the stanza itself, with its assonance and alliteration, its imagery and internal rhyme, creates a soft and soothing atmosphere, which enacts the balming with which Martha prepares to receive Leadbelly. Moreover, as she preps the elixir that will bring him back to “what he was before,” she also refuses to have him defined by his worst moments and actions. In (re)claiming him from “gun barrels and bars” she anoints him as someone worth fighting for, someone deserving of love and of the work it takes to bring him back to the person she knows is below the roughened exterior.

It is, perhaps, this sense of being known that best encapsulates what Tyehimba Jess accomplishes in a poem and in a collection: the subject is always held close, examined with care and compassion. It is always clear that the poet has left no stone unturned in either the archives or the imagination, and Jess’s second collection, Olio, even more than his first exemplifies this. Rich with footnotes, end notes, and documentary poems, Olio is a testament to the value of research. The persona poems that make up the collection come from an array of voices of several Black entertainers in the early 1900s, and for each, Jess creates a narrative that compels the reader to learn the character in a variety of ways. Including materially. Olio leaps off the page, putting the poem into the reader’s hands via tear-off sheets, literally adding another dimension to both the poem and its subject.

On the page, too, a multitude of rich dichotomies mark the poetry of Tyehimba Jess. His poems hold within their lines both the past and the future, recorded history and imagination, the public and the intimate. Though the poems in his two books take public figures as their subject, Jess brings the reader up close as well, and insists that we hold both the interior and exterior worlds in our minds. Here is a prose poem in the voice of the first Black opera singer in Carnegie Hall, Sissieretta Jones:

I sing this body ad libitum, Europe scraped raw between my teeth until, presto, “Ave Maria” floats to the surface from a Tituba tributary of “Swanee.” Until I’m a legato darkling whole note, my voice shimmering up from the Atlantic’s hold; until I’m a coda of sail song whipped in salted wind; until my chorus swells like a lynched tongue; until the nocturnes boiling beneath the roof of my mouth extinguish each burning cross.

In true Jess style, the poem relinquishes neither the ugliness of history, nor the miracle of Jones’ talent. We are large enough, these poems argue, and we are duty bound to hold them both.

I spoke to Tyehimba at the James Madison University studio, where he was on campus as a presenter at the 2018 Furious Flower Collegiate Summit. The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

You just read your poem “An Interview with a Blind Boone,” (see audio on the homepage) and it feels almost like a statement on poetics. Is that a fair description?

Well, you know, the book Olio, which that [poem] comes from, is about an exploration of the lives of 19th century, early 20th century African American folks who were trying to make a living through the creative arts against the groove and with the backdrop of the minstrel show. And I also think that it’s relevant today because none of us wants to be claimed by the minstrelsy that surrounds us and the minstrelsy that so many forces try to conscript us into.

In many ways, your poems all center on performance — Leadbelly and, certainly, Olio. What’s that fascination with the performer?

That’s a good point. You know, I think that what it has to do with is finding a true path to oneself through one’s art, and that’s definitely what Leadbelly was doing. He was struggling with inner demons and trying to wrestle with those demons to try and excavate his art from underneath all of the turmoil of emotions that he felt. And with the folks in Olio, I think that they were — and Leadbelly was also dealing with the backdrop of the minstrel show — but these folks were also dealing with performance, with legitimacy and authority and dignity and trying to salvage that dignity in a morass of racial division and animosity that surrounded the performances.

You are drawn very clearly to the persona and to inhabiting those different voices — this is a double question — why persona? And how do you distinguish your own poetic voice or how do you think about your own poetic voice as it manifests or works in concert with persona?

Yeah, that’s a good question. I guess I chose persona because I just got really fascinated with these historical figures. I’ll tell you a story: When I was writing Leadbelly and went to my MFA, one of the instructors there said, “You know, you should just change it all to third person.” And this is someone I respect very much. Actually, it was Philip Levine. And I really-really-really-really-really had to think about it really hard and determine whether or not I thought that was the right way to go. He had a point, in that it makes an assumption to claim the “I,” you know? It claims that you have the kind of knowledge to their psyche that you wouldn’t ordinarily.

It’s audacious.

Yeah, you know it takes a little nerve to do that. I considered making [the poems] third person but lost so much energy in that translation between third and first person — that kind of immediacy was lost. I just couldn’t do it. So I stayed with first person. And I think it also puts me, puts the author, in a position of trying to really empathize with the character; there’s a challenge to see all their greatness as well as their flaws, and to portray all of them as equally or as artistically as one possibly can.

I love the idea of empathy as a requirement of the persona. Were there characters that you found hard to empathize with? Where was that empathic inclination or demand of the form challenging for you?

Yeah, that does happen, and I think that challenge remains. For instance, there’s Ernest Hogan, who’s really the developer of the coon song, and really I use his own words when I approach him in this text because I want to get his real thoughts exactly: you know, what he thought about developing or being responsible for the coon song genre, right? There’s other times, you know, with John Lomax, where as much as I have critique for the way John Lomax dealt with the way that he tried to use Leadbelly’s talent … . Long story short, John Lomax and Leadbelly met while Leadbelly was in prison, and after Leadbelly got out of prison he went to work with Lomax to kind of get to help him coax songs out of Black folks on plantations and in penitentiaries. Then they went to New York, and Lomax tried to keep Leadbelly as a kind of an artifact of sound rather than an artist who is continually growing in their own sound, and Leadbelly resented that. There was some racial resentment in that, as well, but I think (to get back to your question) he [Lomax] was not a sympathetic character, and so how do I empathize with that? And I did my best to do that while also maintaining an eye toward the fact that, quite honestly, I wouldn’t know who Leadbelly was if John Lomax hadn’t come around, but at the same time recognizing the kind of stresses and the kind of problems that relationship had.

You’re not doing a single persona — you really sort of inhabit a universe! Was it hard to shift in between those voices, especially in Olio? Leadbelly was more contained, but Olio is so expansive in scope. What was it like to go into the consciousness and minds and circumstances and to do that emotional interior work around so many characters?

I tended to stay on one character at a time, ’cause it would be very hard to move back and forth so often. So I would tend to write one character, finish a series, and then set it down and walk away and then come back and do revisions as I was doing other characters. I think now [that] one of the ways I’ve managed was through the use of form and each character kind of inhabiting a particular form and letting that be part of the definition of the voice. And also, I just tried to do as much research as I could about the folks before, you know, I went in to write about them and imagine sitting around the table with them.

Shots with Leadbelly?

Right! (Laughs)

I know there was good whiskey; I read the interviews.

There was some whiskey involved. (Laughs.) Why shouldn’t there be?

Indeed, why shouldn’t there be?

But talking to him and saying, Look, I hear your story. I know it as best as I can. I’m trying to do it justice. I hope we can have a nice conversation and walk away with something that we can both know, we can both treasure. And sometimes it worked, but there were a lot of people that couldn’t, like, really get in the book — [I] couldn’t quite figure it out how to do it. The people you see in the book are the people I worked for. That survived.

You mentioned form, and there’s no way we can have this interview without talking about your relationship to form and your conceptualization of form. I always teach Leadbelly, or rather, poems from Leadbelly, as the pinnacle of line break.

Thank you.

Well you use all the tensions of the line, right? White space and text, sense and sentence, sound and silence. You take all of those things and put them on crack in Olio, but they’re also clear in Leadbelly. So talk to me a little bit about that precision of form that you clearly work within.

Well, one of my first teachers was Sterling Plumb, and Sterling Plumb writes about music; he writes about living musicians. He’s really kind of created in his books a community biography of the blues and jazz musicians of Chicago. But when you look at his line breaks, he’s able to achieve so much in just the way he pays attention to the way the line breaks — the ability to start over, for the reader to change direction after every line break. And I learned a lot from reading a lot of Sterling and coming away from that with the idea that the line should be a poem and should come as close to being a poem as it can be. And then the stanza should come as close to being a poem, and then the poem is a poem, then the section is a poem, then the sections make the book, which is a poem, you know? And I try my best to follow that.

… the line should be a poem and should come as close to being a poem as it can be …

The line is a poem. That is as good a mantra as any: the line is a poem. So thinking about, again, forms: You have the ghazal in here; you have the sonnets. Do you have a favorite form?

(Laughs.) Well, the form I favor the most is the sonnet.

Why?

Well you know I really only write crowns of sonnets … (Laughs.)

And I only ever run marathons. Not. (Laughs.)

But you know in the crown of sonnets you can tell a great story. Seven, or fourteen to fifteen, you know, you have a lot of space to tell a good story. The other thing about the sonnet is, you know, if you can’t get it done in fourteen lines, then you really need to check again — you know what I’m saying? Sonnets is where I’ve been leaning towards right now. There’s a lot of room to move around in them; there’s just enough room to get what you need done, but there’s also enough to make you not ramble. (Laughs.)

You mentioned readers earlier, and particularly with Olio, but, again, in general, one of the things about how you maneuver form is that readers have a lot of agency, a lot of control, over their experience in reading the poem. Why is that so important to you?

In some ways, it happened by accident, in that I was experimenting with contrapuntal form and it occurred to me during the Blind Tom poem where he’s one body, two graves; it was the first poem that I wrote that looked like that. In the middle of writing that, I realized that it could read up as well as down, and thus you could get a down-up and also horizontal reading through it, and go in multiple directions if I just altered a few things in it. So I did that, and then that made me think about elasticity, you know? You have that elasticity to go in multiple directions, then that opens up a whole, whole cornucopia of possibilities where you can join poems together, and they can read up and down, and they could do all kinds of other things, and that’s what started to intrigue me.

Also, I think it adds another metaphor. In the case of “Blind Tom: One Body, Two Graves,” there’s the metaphor of resurrection, and the case of the McCoy twins. You have the concrete structure of the poems that stands out as metaphor for the bodies of Christine and Millie McCoy. It also engages the reader in a kind of play. And it is a bit of a contrast to think of these very serious historical subjects and think of the wordplay involved in that, but I think that when the reader is able to select the way that they go through the poem — going down, up, whichever — they get engrossed in the different way but at the same time, they’re learning this person’s story, in a way that will stick with them, and that they might not have under other circumstances.

I feel like some of the poems in Leadbelly perform in that way a little bit, but not on purpose?

In Leadbelly there’s a few contrapuntal poems, which is where the contrapuntal journey really starts in Leadbelly, but they’re not in form. They read left to right and down, and they read down once, one side of the caesura then down the other side of the caesura and then across the caesura, and that is a different agency, in that you do get to choose. Well, first I’m gonna read this one, then I’m gonna read that one, and then I’m gonna read them together. I guess there is some degree of agency in that.

What would you point out as one of your significant encounters with a poem or a poet that transformed you? Is there a moment you can point to?

Phew. Wow. There’s a few of those! I saw Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” on a Chicago city bus, and I remember reading it and thinking, I kinda get it, but not exactly. I think this was the year he won the Pulitzer, and so when he won I remember going to see him, I think it was at Columbia College, just off of State Street or maybe it was Wabash. I can’t remember. And I went there with a lot of question marks, ’cause I got the book Neon Vernacular by that time, and I had read it, and I was like, Uh, okay, you know, but then when I heard him read it, it completely transformed my understanding of the book, and it just deepened in such an incredible kind of way, and that was a transformative moment for me. Definitely.

I feel as though my students had a similar experience when they heard you read, and I’m always interested in the relationship between the poem on the page and the poem in the body, or the poem conveyed on the vehicle of the voice. Certainly, especially with this text but also with Leadbelly, the way you embody those poems, it’s a completely different experience than reading them. How do you try to get the reader into that possibility? How do you negotiate that difference between the page life and the embodied life of the poem?

Ideally, I’d like the reader to walk away from the poem having read it in the same way that I would read it, and having them read it in their mind the same way I envision seeing it. And I have no control over that, so all I can do is work with white space, line breaks, and the functions of punctuation the best way I can to inform the reader and give them clues as to how this poem is to be heard. But I also think that you know I was very fortunate. I was on two slam teams — Green Mill Chicago: mmhm yup, what’s up?!— and I learned a lot about the power of using the voice to join the poem to, to take the poem from the page and make it really live in the audience, you know? Patricia Smith, who is my colleague at College of Staten island, and was also you know [part of that scene], hearing her read her work and then seeing how vivid it was also on the page was the argument that made me say, Okay, it really is possible to work in both directions. I’d say the same for Yusef and I could say same for a few other folks, but the idea is that the poem is not just on the page; it’s in you, and when you bring it to other people, you’re publishing it in their ears, and to treat it as such.

… the poem is not just on the page; it’s in you, and when you bring it to other people, you’re publishing it in their ears …

So with Olio, it’s not just that idea of the poem being outside the poet, but outside the page. There’s a way in which this book is really concerned with materiality — in addition to vision, the inner ear, and in a live reading, the voice, it also brings the hands into play. It’s really engaged in tactile encounters, and so tell me about that with this particular project, and do you think it’s something that’s going to stay?

Well, to put it briefly, there four fold-out pages. And each of those fold-out pages contains a poem that can be torn out of the book. And I’m just going to demonstrate here. (Tears a page from Olio.) What I want people to do for the book is to disassemble, to deconstruct various parts of the book in order to reconstruct the narratives inside the book. And so it becomes a very tactile experience for the reader because they get to take these poems out, and they’re written in such a way that, two of them — well, actually, three of them — are constructed so that they go from a two-dimensional plane into a three-dimensional plane, such as a cylinder. It goes this way (makes a long-edge cylinder of the torn out page), a cylinder going the other way (makes a short-edge cylinder of the torn page), and then finally a torus — which looks as such when you fold it down the middle and then bring the two ends together — that can be read around and around on the inside going both ways, around and around on the outside going both ways, and then from the inside to the outside going multiple directions.

I feel like my brain just exploded.

(Laughs.) And then finally it becomes a mobius strip when you take one side and you give it a half twist — I’m not doing the best job right here with this — you combine them as such and that becomes a mobius strip. And that’s representative of the kind of conundrums. In this case, this is a poem between Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington, where they’re talking about lying, they’re talking about masks, you know? And using masks in order to achieve various ends.

What do you feel or hope that engaging this poem with my hands will tell me more about what the poem is trying to say?

Well, a couple things. One, books are still valuable technology, you know? We don’t think of them as technology, but that’s what they are.

Absolutely.

They’re a tool; they’re an instrument that delivers a voice from one person to another, and we have a long intimate relationship with the book that will not be supplanted by purely electronic means, you know? That’s one. Two is really the idea that you are deconstructing the history, deconstructing the text, in order to reexamine and reconstruct actual histories the way they’ve been experienced and interpreted by the livers of that history, which is what we have to do all the time. As Black folks we always have to take the history that we’ve been given that has been presented to us and say, “Wait a minute, what’s the real curve in there,” right? And deconstruct that and then re-understand that narrative in such a way that gives us agency, you know? And that lets us fully understand the capabilities of our agency and so that is what, that’s what this deconstruction and manipulation is all about.

Also, you know, it is about play. It’s about having fun, you know, rediscovering the text and rediscovering ways in which the text can go — having the ability to go up and down and diagonal, etc., you know? I think that there is that element of fun, which is reminiscent of the idea of actually attending an olio. ’Cause the olio was the middle part of the minstrel show in which there was a variety of acts — juggler, dancer, a singer, you know, a contortionist, right? And so that becomes reminiscent of the idea of actually attending the olio, but in this case its attending an olio filled with folks that were struggling against the idea of the debasement of themselves through the minstrel show and trying to achieve a kind of higher purpose through their art.

Is that what poetry is for you?

Definitely. Now, poetry, you know … When I went to college I was gonna be a social worker, and I think I was I was gonna get a degree in public policy. I’d been kind of convinced that literature was not gonna be the way, and I also thought that it was gonna serve my community more, but, you know, that [social work] takes a certain level of patience I just don’t have, to be 100%. I wish I did, but it takes that special kind of person and a special kind of skill set to really do that work well and effectively. And I found that it was not making me happy; I was not serving the jobs that I had. So after a few attempts I turned back to poetry, and what I found was that, you know, I took a step towards writing, it took two steps towards me. And essentially, that helped me make up my mind. I felt like, well, if this is what I’m here to do, then that’s what I’m here to do.

I love that the man who figures out how to write a poem so that it can move in five different directions thinks he doesn’t have patience, because I know you didn’t do that in one try. (Laughs.)

No, that’s obsession. (Laughs). That’s just straight, complete, obsession.

So, you did your MFA at NYU. What was the experience of the MFA like? What was the positive? The negative? Do you tell your students to get an MFA?

Okay, a couple things on that. Number one, before I went to my MFA I went to Cave Canem. And I did not realize how much I needed Cave Canem until I was actually there, and I discovered a whole ocean of voices that were speaking back to me and telling me new ways to encounter being about the craft, new ways to encounter, really, just some bare-bone things about making a living, straight up, you know, being a poet, and about navigating academia. I would not have been able to do NYU if I had not done Cave Canem, ’cause Cave Canem introduced me to the workshop method and the correct attitude towards the workshop situation, and it got me ready for that experience. And so, then I went to NYU.

But I’d also come out of slam, too. So, when I went to NYU, it was definitely a great move ’cause I finished writing Leadbelly at NYU, but one thing that I did know that at the same time was I would go to Bar Thirteen, where Lynne Procope and Roger Bonair-Agard were putting on this weekly slam, and it was fire. Very few of my compadres in the MFA would wanna go, and that just baffled me because what they were missing out on was one of the most vital contributions to American literature, I think. I’m lucky I come from two things that were vital contributions to American literature: the slam and Cave Canem. Slam: Mark Smith, Chicago Green Mill. You know, look at all the slam poets that are coming out of slam, entering MFAs, maintaining their voice, and then forging fantastic work after that that’s changing the canon. The same with Cave Canem, you know, people coming in Cave Canem like me, and then gettin’ schooled and then going into these MFAs and, you know, doing their thing. And what I saw was people, the majority of people, at that time were not interested in it, they looked down on it, and I thought that was very unfortunate. It’s their loss, really.

I’m lucky I come from two things that were vital contributions to American literature: the slam and Cave Canem.

I say all that to say that there really does not have to be a difference between the two, you know? They’re the same thing. What moves people, moves people, that’s the bottom line. Whichever way you get there, that job has got to be done. By the time someone finishes reading the poem they have to be in a different place than where they were before. And this world got along fine without MFA programs for a long time, you know? And to your query about encouraging my students to go for MFAs, I encourage them more to write and to read and to write and to read. I didn’t go for my MFA ’til I was like 36, but I think if I’d gone earlier, it would not have served me quite as well.

So I want to think about you as a teacher for a while.

Uh oh. (Laughs.)

What are some things you try to give to your students in the class? Say you have somebody come saying either, “I don’t know anything about poetry” or “I want to be a poet when I grow up.” What do you try to give that student?

I think one job is to demystify a lot of poetry. People encounter poetry in elementary school, and somebody’s telling them something has to be iambic and blah blah blah. And you know I don’t fully dismiss the ideas of meter, etc. But I don’t emphasize it. I want to introduce people to contemporary poets that are doing what they do right now, so they can relate to it and then lead them back into the history of, well, who influenced them, ok, then who influenced that person, then who influenced that person, then you start to get into a historical understanding of poetry, of the literature, and really to have fun. My rule is if I’m having fun then you’re probably having fun. So you know, to have fun, crack a few jokes, share a few poems, and to have them enjoy the act of writing poems without fear of Oh, this an A poem, this is an F poem etc.

Is there a particular poem that you find is particularly handy for teaching?

Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Mother” ’cause, I mean, it becomes a contradiction in the very first line, and then she has a subtle use of rhyme throughout the entire poem. It can’t decide whether it’s an anti- or pro- poem, and it causes a certain level of debate, you know? Who else …? Yusef, you know, Dien Cai Dau. I could think of a number of poems from Dien Cai Dau that that are just stunning because of imagery, imagery, imagery. Those are the two I can think of off the top of my head.

What’s an unlikely inspiration for you — as in, we wouldn’t guess it, but you find it inspiring?

Okay, let me think about that: an unlikely inspiration, something that has inspired me that you wouldn’t really think would inspire me, right? Huh. Science fiction. I love science fiction.

This book is from the future so I believe that, I believe that. (Laughs.)

I’m a big science fiction fan. Star Trek, you know, Star Wars — not as much as Star Trek — I love science fiction. I just devoured science fiction when I was a kid.

What are you working on next?

We’ll see. I will say this. There’s a lot of things that happened post-World War I that people really have not talked about very much. So you have to think about that period as the time when this country was really recovering from a Civil War and trying to figure out who it really was. It wasn’t a major world power yet, but you have the beginning of, you know, colonization in all other parts of the world. Industrial Revolution. Urban migration. All kinds of stuff happened back then, and Black folks were doing incredible stuff back then, too, so that time, that period of history still intrigues me quite a bit.

Our readers are varied: they’re students, they’re educators, they’re other poets. What are three things you want to tell them about that you’ve learned from your journey that you would pass on.

Okay. One is you have to write for you. I’m not saying ignore what everybody else says about what you write, but what I’m saying is in the end it’s your work, it’s your poem. You can’t write something to please everybody else. That’s one thing. Two, you have to be willing to take a chance and do something that’s not necessarily popular, you know? Writing about 19th century African American performers is not necessarily the most popular choice, right? And three is learn your history. Learn the history of your country of origin; learn the history of the country that you’re living in. Listen to the music —  listen to the old music, and listen to the old, old music. Because the music and the literature, and the Black experience are absolutely combined. You really can’t separate them in our literary tradition. And when you follow the music, you’re following the literature, and you have all kinds of opportunities, not to mention the fact that there’s so many similarities between music and poetry. But you have so many opportunities. Explore that.


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


downloadLauren 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) 

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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“We must bear witness to atrocity,” writes Marilyn Nelson in her crown of sonnets dedicated to Emmett Till, “A Wreath for Emmett Till.” She continues, “We are whole. We can speak what we see.” And Nelson’s work — clear eyed, accessibly and piercingly languaged, and unflinching in its confrontation of history’s horrors — absolutely abides by this mandate. The penultimate sonnet of the series offers these lines:

Like wildflowers growing beside the path
A boy was dragged along, blood spattering
Their white petals as he, abandoning
All hope, gasped his agonizing last breath.

Here, the poem is both gentle and firm in guiding and holding the reader’s gaze to the terrible action. The wildflowers and their white petals offer their fleeting solace of beauty while also standing in for the whiteness that stands idly by while black bodies are tortured. Till is a boy in this quatrain, the flowers and petals surrounding him symbols of innocence and fragility. In Nelson’s rendering, his humanness proves undeniable as he bleeds, breathes, and hopes, even as his blood, breath and heart are being taken from him.

While Nelson advocates for seeing, her path to action is also marked by deep and open listening. This is demonstrated most clearly in her several persona poems and dramatic monologues in which she gracefully channels the voices of her subjects, understanding that her own voice must move out of the way to fully realize theirs. In Fortune’s Bones, her collection about the remains of an enslaved man, which were non-consensually appropriated to science by his master, a bonesetter, Nelson writes poems from several points of view, including Fortune himself, his wife, and the man to whom Fortune “belonged.” Speaking from the perspective of the white slaveowner/bonesetter, Nelson writes in “On Abrigador Hill,”

… the first cut takes my breath away;
It feels like cutting the whole world —
It falls open like bridal gossamer.

While this is undoubtedly a challenging persona to inhabit, Nelson captures with acuity and without judgement the slaveowner’s fascination with his project. Prior to these lines, he acknowledges Fortune as human, but barely, describing the corpse before him as “the former body of my former slave, / which served him who served me …,” which certainly, if convolutedly, lays claim to the enslaved body in life and in death. The sonic anaphora of “It feels” and “It falls” that comes later clues us in to how completely enthralled this man is with the possibilities of “the whole world” he is cutting into, and the tragic fact that in his eyes, Fortune is no more than an object, albeit a fascinating one.

Nelson’s work is an invitation to be actively engaged with the world and all of its stories: to listen, to witness, and to speak.

As judge of the 2018 Furious Flower Poetry Prize, Nelson read at JMU with her selections, winner Heather Treseler and honorable mention Keith Wilson. We spoke in the studio, and what follows is a lightly edited transcript of parts of that conversation.

The poem has the ability to invite you into an experience. The poem reduces the experience to a few words and intensifies it, kind of like simmering a broth until the taste is stronger.

What makes the poem in particular — as a genre, as a form — such a useful or good vehicle for history? Why the poem as opposed to another form?

I’m not sure the poem is more useful as a vehicle than prose, but the poem has the ability to invite you into an experience. The poem reduces the experience to a few words and intensifies it, kind of like simmering a broth until the taste is stronger. And the poem kind of does that, boils experience down to its essence.

So, thinking about the idea of persona, you walk in so many different shoes across the span of your career as a poet. Has adopting all these different masks revealed anything to you about yourself or your own voice as a writer?

Well, I’m not so much interested in writing about myself, so my voice as a writer, I think, is the voice of someone who has the ability or the interest at least in writing, inhabiting different voices. It’s kind of like being an actor, and an actor is someone who can inhabit other characters, and an actor can change their face, can change their voice, can change the way they move, and that’s what acting is about. And in many ways I think of what I’m doing as a kind of verbal acting.

So the idea of persona really is something that is put on and taken off without any sort of bleed through?

I hope. (Laughs.) Although I’ve never written about anybody really evil, I remember reading once an interview with James Earl Jones in which he said that one of the things he would like to do is to play a really evil character. Eh. I don’t think I want to do that.

What was the persona that was hardest for you? Which persona did you struggle with the most and why?

I wrote a book about George Washington Carver, and I had a very hard time allowing myself to take on the Carver mask because it was clear from the outset that he was a genius, and I just felt like it was presumptive for me to try to write in the voice of somebody who was such a genius, who was so much smarter than I am. It took me probably until a third of the way through the book to dare to write in his voice. The first part of that book is written in the voices of people around him who could tell stories about him, so that I could tell his life without inhabiting him.

What helped you make the leap into his voice?

I think it was just after living with him for a long time, I came to understand him and he started talking to me and saying, It’s okay. It’s all right. You can do this. He became a dear familiar.

That’s funny because my next question is literally, “Who is the voice in your head when you write?”

It’s kind of hard to explain. I’ve noticed I’ve seen several essays or interviews with fiction writers who will say things like, “Well, I wanted the character to do this,” or “The character wouldn’t do it,” and every time I’ve read something like that, I’ve thought, That’s strange. But it does happen that the character kind of tells you what is going to happen, especially characters you don’t know. With Carver, I lived with him for about five years. Most of the other projects I’ve done have not required that level of commitment, so when I’m writing about characters I don’t know, I … Okay, for example, in my book Seneca Village, which is about a village in Manhattan in the early 19th century, one of the characters is a German composer who is clearly a little bit batty. I really didn’t know him that well; I did as much research as I could about him and then I just trusted that I could write in his voice. He surprised me! Some of the things he said went in directions I didn’t expect.

How do you engage research? And are there moments when it’s in tension with the writing you want to do?

I think that for me the tension is allowing or forcing myself to stop doing research. History is so full of interesting little detours, and you can get involved in going off on a detour and spend a couple of weeks over there, and I sometimes have to force myself to stop. It’s kind of like doing family research or any genealogical research. I did a book about my family history, and I had to stop because I could see it could eat up the rest of my life [because] it was so interesting. And with Seneca Village, the same thing happened; I had to get to the end of that book because I could see that if I didn’t just cut it off, I could spend the rest of my life writing about these characters I had invented. They were interesting to me, and I fell in love with them. One of the characters — I was writing from names and occupations I found in the census records — was a boy who was about 10 years old when I first encountered him, so I wrote a couple of poems about him as a boy. And I really liked him. So then I wrote a couple poems about him as a young man, and then I started thinking, Well, what would happen to him? And I thought, Maybe he’ll go west and maybe he’ll wind up in California. So I wrote some poems in which he is going to California, and then he’s in San Francisco, and I could have gone on writing the whole rest of his life. I had him disappear in San Francisco because I didn’t want to be that caught up in his life.

Would you say he was your favorite persona?

He was one of my favorites, yes. I really did love him.

You’ve had so many books and a very full poetic career; what are some of the most memorable junctures along that journey? What are some moments that were transformative or just memorable?

One of them is the fact of my Carver biography. I intended it to be just a normal poetry book about George Washington Carver, and I was planning for it to be published as an ordinary book of poems with print on white pages. But I met somebody [again whom] I had met about ten years earlier, and in the interim he had become a publisher of children’s books. When I met him then the second time, he said, “Let’s do a book together.” I sent him everything I had that was appropriate for children, and he didn’t like any of it. Finally, I said, “Well, what I’ve got is half a book about George Washington Carver. It’s not for children; it’s real poetry.” And he said, “Let me see it.” I sent him this unfinished manuscript, and he said, “I’d like to publish this.” I was afraid this would be the end of my career as a poet! Who’s gonna read a book of poems for children? But I let him do it — gladly let him do it — and it changed my life. It was extremely successful, and other publishers started coming to me with projects they thought I could write because I had done this Carver book. I suddenly became a children’s book writer or a writer of books for young adults, and I have a couple of textbooks about children’s literature that are used to teach children’s literature in schools of education. My Carver book is described as a turning point in American children’s literature. Who knew? So that was memorable.

And then with Fortune’s Bones, I’ve had a lot of wonderful luck. This book came to me because the skeleton [of Fortune, a slave] is in the collection of a historical museum in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the director of the museum asked me if I would write some poems to honor this skeleton. They had already done the research, and she gave me a pile of printed materials; they had had forensic scholars and historians do research about the skeletons. All I had to do was extract the poetry out of the research. I’ve had several projects that came to me like that, as gifts. And really, they really felt like gifts from on high. I don’t know how many of them you want to me to describe, but there have been several. A couple of times research information has just fallen into my lap — I wonder what this boy’s name was? Bingo! A local historian sends me a letter saying, Oh, that boy you were interested in, his name was … It’s been fun.

Do you have any encounters you would describe as transformative with individual poems, ones that changed your interior trajectory?

I have several in the writing of Seneca Village. That book taught me things. There’s one in the book about my family history. I have a poem in which my great grandfather is conceived: his mother was enslaved and his father was a white man who didn’t own her, and the story that my family has passed on was that this was not a plantation rape, but a relationship. They had two children together and he gave her a house later. I don’t know anything about the relationship; all I know is the myth that went on in the family. So I was writing about this scene in which he stumbles to her cabin one night, and it’s a sonnet, and when I wrote the last two lines the rhyme is, And it wasn’t rape in spite of her raw terror and his whip. When I wrote that couplet I was scared. I thought, I can’t write this. I can’t publish this because it so flies in the face of everything that we believe. And yet it just felt like I was saying something that I needed to say. So that’s something that, you know, you write the word and then you go, (gasps).

So that just gave me goose bumps. What was the last thing that you read that stopped your breath or gave you goose bumps?

The last thing that I read that really impressed me is a novel by a German novelist named Jenny Erpenbeck. It’s a novel in which an elderly retired German professor gets involved in the lives of a group of refugees, most of them from Sudan, some of them from the middle east. He gets involved in their lives and at the end of the novel, this group of refugees is kicked out of the place they’ve been camping, and this professor moves over and starts sleeping on the couch and moves people into his home. It’s a novel that shows something about the possibility of humanism, the possibility that we seem to be constantly telling ourselves is impossible. Maybe it’s an impossible fantasy, but I was very touched by the novelist’s willingness. 

So, you taught for a long time, but you no longer teach as much, so do you miss the classroom? What did you enjoy the most or least about teaching and teaching poetry in particular?

I’ve seen students have that ah-ha experience when I’m able to show them something that relates to their lives, something that they are experiencing.

I miss the classroom occasionally, but I don’t miss grading papers. What I most liked about teaching was teaching literature classes, when in discussions of something, a poem for example, I could see students eyes get big — Wow! — they’d never thought that before. I taught one semester at West Point, a wonderful experience, and it was a poetry class: in one discussion we were talking about Robert Frost’s poem, “Acquainted with the Night.” I said, “It’s written in terza rima,” and I explained terza rima, and one of the cadets fell out of his chair! He was so surprised he just fell off of his chair! And I’ve seen that figuratively happen with students learning something, getting some insight — I mean, in the case of this cadet it was about the technique that the poet had used [and] he hadn’t been aware of as he’d read the poem, but I’ve seen students have that ah-ha experience when I’m able to show them something that relates to their lives, something that they are experiencing.

I was telling somebody recently about a class I taught (gosh, this was years ago!), in which I had carefully planned the syllabus but we reached the end of the syllabus before the end of the semester so we had another week, three class meetings, left. So on a Monday I said, “Well, you know we’ve done everything I planned for us to do during this semester, but we have these three days to talk, so what do you want to talk about?” And they said, “Let’s talk about sex.” So we had a serious conversation about love and relationships for an hour, and that was Monday. Wednesday, I said, “Okay, same thing: I haven’t planned anything. We’ve come to the end. You’ve learned and I’ve taught you everything I planned, so what do you want to talk about?” And they said, “Let’s talk about religion,” so we talked for an hour about religion. And on Friday, the last day of class I said, “Okay, so what do you wanna do?” And they said, “Let’s do what we’ve been doing.” I said, “What we’ve been doing? What do you mean?” They said, “You know, talking about the important things.” That was moving, talking about the important things — using literature and poetry to talk about the important things because teaching is not only about conveying information, it’s about helping people have some insight into the right ways of living. I do miss that.

I think people need to find their own paths and be true to their own paths, and I guess that would be my advice. Be true to the path that’s put in front of you. And speak the truth: don’t be afraid to say what you know is right.

What are some mistakes you see most frequently in beginning writers and what correctives do you offer when it’s creative writing or poetry?

There’s too much careerism, I think. Which I think is dangerous for a poet. I think you should just write, just open yourself to the muse and write the truth. I have this feeling that a lot of young poets are looking over their shoulder to see what the person next to them is writing, you know? And then trying to write the same thing. I think people need to find their own paths and be true to their own paths, and I guess that would be my advice. Be true to the path that’s put in front of you. And speak the truth: don’t be afraid to say what you know is right.

You said in an interview that social justice and beauty are your poetic paths, that those are the two bedrocks of your practice in poetics. I’m curious, is there ever tension between social justice and beauty or aesthetic?

Yes, of course. And I’m not sure which one to value over the other. Writing for social justice is what I think is writing the larger truth, and beauty, I think, comes accidentally when you write for a larger truth. Kind of like greatness: you don’t write to be great. Greatness is something that happens because you’re busy doing the right thing. You don’t say, “I’m going to win the Nobel Prize.” Instead, you choose to write your work on a small scale and to speak the truth that’s necessary to make people learn what justice is and why justice is important. To learn what respect is and why it’s important. Those are on the small, human level, and then if it’s intended for you then the larger — let’s call them rewards — come by themselves. You can’t aim for them. And I think too many people aim for them and are dissatisfied when they don’t receive the rewards that they think they deserve.

You said “of course” to the tension between social justice and beauty, and I want to push on that a little bit. Can you think of a moment or a poem where there was that tension and you felt like maybe you wrestled with it or had a choice to make around it? And how did you resolve that?

I wrote this poem about the lynching of Emmet Till, and I was very busy writing about that subject as I worked on that poem. But at some point, the poem started moving in a new direction over which I felt I didn’t have too much control: the poem started becoming a poem arguing against starting a war on Iraq. I didn’t plan that. I didn’t expect it. But it was right. And in that case, the poem’s dedication to social justice went hand in hand with the beauty of the form of the poem. So maybe, if one is lucky, the dedication to justice doesn’t move one away from beauty, but it leads one to a kind of higher beauty. I don’t know …

I want to go back to the sonnet. You love the sonnet: Why?

Several years ago, when I was teaching, I was asked to teach a brief seminar on the sonnet. So I did some research about the history of the sonnet, and one of the things I read is that the sonnet — the Petrarchan sonnet — came into existence as a way of replicating the perfect proportions of the Fibonacci sequence and the golden mean — the golden ratio, it’s also called — which you see in nature, in nebulas and in trees and in the proportions of the human face and in Greek temples; so that 8:6 ratio is an attempt to do that verbally. I was just blown away by the idea of trying to write a poem that is perfectly proportioned, and I started writing sonnets then as a way to trying to figure out how people were doing that. My experience with writing sonnets is that the more you write the more clearly you understand why these proportions are perfect. They are as perfect as is possible to create verbally. The fact there’s a turn, a logical turn that’s not [there] because a poet decides to put it [there] but because the form requires it, because it’s part of the turn in the proportions, I don’t know, I just really love that. My Emmet Till book is written in Petrarchan sonnets and it’s also a circle, because the circle is the other perfect form in nature, and I just really feel that there’s something unconscious in us that responds to things like that. We may not understand why, but we respond to a kind of physical beauty. We respond physically.

What are some things that you wish you’d learned early on as a poet?

I wish I had learned other languages; that’s one of my primary regrets. I wish I had really learned a couple of other languages. Because I think it would’ve made it possible for me to read poetry in other languages. I feel hampered by my inability to understand what’s happening in a poem in another language. I wish I had learned a language that’s more useful — French or Spanish; I learned German and Danish, gah! I think my poetry would be stronger if I were able to read poetry in another language.

What are some non-poetry things that sustain you?

I used to quilt, and that was a great joy; I must have made 20 or 25 quilts, and I loved the fact of producing something useful. And baking bread: I used to regularly bake bread that was also the art of usefulness. Most of what I do is words on paper, which, you know, you can take them or leave them, but a quilt you can sleep under, bread you can make a sandwich, so that’s sustaining. And living and having a life that is connected to the natural world: I don’t do that anymore — my joints have gotten bad. But I used to hike and backpack and cross-country ski, and I’m so glad I had years of doing those things. Hiking in the backcountry and sleeping in a tent — that was really nourishing.

What’s the thing that isn’t talked about enough when people talk about poetry?

Silence. I think most of us live lives that are full of noise, and most of the noise that surrounds us is meaningless. I am of the old school, which believes that poetry comes out of silence, and the way you invoke poetry is by learning how to silence all of those extraneous voices. Meditation is a good way to do that, and for some years I included periods of meditation in my creative writing classes because, you know, you get up in the morning, you turn on the radio or get in the car, and you’re listening to something, and we very seldom have enough quiet to even hear birds or to hear that kind of whooshing in your ear when you’re in a silent place and just listening, and you hear this kind of whoosh, like I don’t know what it is — maybe it’s the blood going through your veins, I don’t know what it is, but we’re very seldom quiet enough to hear that, that sound of silence, and I think it should be talked about more. That’s kind of ironic isn’t it?

You’ve been a poet laureate, and you serve as a Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets. What are some organizational conversations that are happening around poetry that you think are interesting, compelling, necessary, or that are just happening?

I think there is a lot of interest in encouraging young people to explore poetry. One of the things the Academy of American Poets is doing now is putting online videos of poets — the chancellors — reading poems and then inviting school children to write letters. I think it does two things: it encourages children to interact with poetry, and it also encourages them to interact with the poets themselves, so I think that’s very important.

And then I’ve been involved in a couple of schools in which schoolchildren have been encouraged to do their own historical research and write poems based on their research, which I think is so valuable because it teaches them about history. I was at a school someplace in Pennsylvania last week, where I was introduced to a project that took place in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Harrisburg has a community that’s called the “old eighth ward.” It was a diverse community that was demolished between 1910 and 1920 in the expansion of the grounds of the state capitol building. This group of sixth graders was introduced to the idea of the history of the old eighth ward; they were given census records from 1910 and invited to write poems in the voices of these people who had lost their homes. I was at a reading in which 6th graders were reading their persona poems about these early 20th century people. It made me so proud: it was really impressive! And I’ve seen this done in several schools. It makes me very happy.

I know you’ve judged a lot of prizes including one for Furious Flower, and I know you read a lot, so what are some movements, or some trends you’ve been seeing in contemporary poetry? How would you frame what you see happening in our poetry of our time?

We’re producing a lot of small literary communities that are so small people don’t read each other’s work. There is not enough crossover. That makes me sad.

One of the things I have very mixed feelings about that I see happening is a special interest in writing about one’s very detailed personal identity. And on the one hand, I think that’s wonderful. But on the other hand, what I think I see (this is based entirely on Facebook, not research at all), is that we’re producing a lot of small literary communities that are so small people don’t read each other’s work. There is not enough crossover. That makes me sad. My graduate degree is in ethnic literature, and I was in the early days of multiethnic, multicultural literature, and I was one of the founding members of an organization called Multiethnic Literature of the United States. This was in the 1970s, and at that point people in that group were interested in reading each other, and I don’t think there is enough of that kind of crossover anymore. So if I am a bisexual, half-Black, half-Chicano writer, that’s who I’m gonna read, and that’s who I’m writing for. I really feel that that we’re losing something of interculturality, or cross-culturality; I may be wrong about this, but, I really don’t know how to think about it …

I keep seeing people on Facebook asking things, like, the other day somebody posted something asking, What poets are writing about fat consciousness? Okay, I suppose, you know, you’re going through some kind of issues and you want to find somebody who’s writing about them. When I was pregnant with my first child, I couldn’t find a poet who had written about pregnancy. It was something that I needed to find, but I wouldn’t want to read poems about pregnancy all the time!

It’s a question of tension again, right? Between the idea of representation and seeking that representation in text and at the same time being limited by it.

Yes, I’ve done this twice: I’ve offered workshops on the poetics of listening to others. And so instead of having people look inward and write about their own personal experiences, have them sit together in pairs and talk and then write about each other, each other’s experience. And I have a feeling that learning to hear the other, learning to experience the other, and learning to inhabit the other is a way of moving toward a kind of healing of the separations between us. The last time I did this was about a year ago in New York, and it was just an experimental thing, but several people came afterwards and thanked me for that and said that they had come away from this workshop not only with poems that they, both people in the dyad, were happy with, but that they had come away with friends, that they had talked about deep things. The Jenny Epenbeck novel I mentioned starts with this professor approaching these refugees with questions: Where did you sleep when you were five years old? What song did your mother sing to you when she put you to bed at night? That kind of intimacy allows people to hear each other beyond the mask of otherness to recognize who we are really, who we truly are.

So what are three poems that you might want our readers to read? Another voice that they might listen to that you think can offer light, wisdom, or courage?

I think Yusef Komunyaka’s poem “Facing It” is a poem that teaches us something about light in the middle of vast darkness, to find the light that you’re still here, that’s miraculous; we don’t very often recognize the miracle of presence, of continuing from moment to moment. That’s one.

Naomi Shihab Nye has a poem, “Gate A-4,” about being in the boarding area in an airport in which there is a Palestinian woman, and everybody’s afraid because she doesn’t speak English (she’s speaking Arabic), and she’s upset about something. And Naomi, who speaks some Arabic, asks to talk to this woman, and she discovers this woman is trying to get to her son, and that she’s from the same village Naomi’s father is from, and so they make this human-to-human connection. This woman stops crying, and people stop being afraid of her because they [no longer] think she’s a terrorist going to blow herself up. And she has cookies in her luggage and takes them out and shares them with Naomi and with the other people. And then there are other people who are in the boarding area [who] pull out their little snacks and they have this little party together. Such a wonderful poem about reaching across barriers and finding humanity!

And let’s see who else would I want to … wow, um, a poem by Richard Wilbur, “Advice to a Prophet,” in which he addresses a future prophet and tells him not to tell us what he sees, not to tell us what he knows, and to allow us to go on making our mistakes and loving each other in our clumsy ways — it’s a very beautiful poem. Every time I read it I’m moved by it.

Thank you. What wonderful gifts!


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


downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press and is forthcoming in April 2019. 

by Lauren K. Alleyne

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Reading a poem by Kwame Dawes feels like traveling in two directions at the same time: the poems are always anchored in the sensory — rooted in rich, delicious detail that grounds one firmly in the poem. However, the poems simultaneously carry an undercurrent, or perhaps it’s a reaching — something larger than you that pulls you toward itself, demanding you abandon yourself and follow it. Over the course of 21 books of poetry (perhaps 25 by now, as Dawes seems to produce and publish books faster than is humanly possible) Dawes’s concerns, of course, shift and evolve (he has written on family, on the HIV epidemic in Jamaica, in the voices of Gullah women and of the sober histories of the American South) but never lose their commitment to transport, to expand the consciousness of all who encounter them. The following lines from the poem “Debt” in his 2017 collection, City of Bones, offer a dramatic example of Dawes’ dexterity in moving his readers between opposing poles of feeling:

… How happy
he was to see her glow with the swell
of the child in her, and then the way
she slipped away, a mattress soaked
in blood, the baby, the girl wailing,
his hands too clumsy to hold this
flesh, what is owed an ordinary
black man with nothing to show for his life?

The poem’s speaker has lost “the girl who carried his seed” in childbirth and within the space of a single sentence, Dawes moves the reader through the girl’s life, full with possibility, to her death in which she is emptied and exsanguinated — her child-heavy belly and her slight, slipping spirit; the speaker’s happiness engendered by the pregnancy to his anxiety of solitary fathering; the baby, just beginning its journey and the speaker looking toward the end of his life. One would also be hard-pressed not to shudder at the image of the bloody mattress, which graphically represents the mother’s death while hearkening back to the sexual act that would have conceived the child. From line to line, image to image, the reader moves — now here, now there — while still feeling rooted in each place. (Are we not drawn to both the wailing baby and her clumsy-handed father?) The poem’s agility forces the reader to move quickly and unquestioningly between the strange and the familiar, the ephemeral and the corporeal, the past and the future. The poem thus becomes a vehicle for empathy, for expansion, for encounter with what is outside of us and, if we let it, ourselves. 

I think the poem has universal application, because as long as human beings sing, and long as human beings consider what they say, I think they are engaging in the exercise of using language in a certain way. 

Kwame Dawes visited Furious Flower as a part of the launch of his anthology Bearden’s Odyssey and spoke with me at the James Madison University studio. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How do you define a poem? What is a poem to you? What is a poem?

Obviously it’s a difficult question because sometimes we run into this question when we look at something and go, Well, this is not a poem, but I think it has to be problematic, and the idea of the final poetry has to be based on tradition. There is the notion that the poem is directly related to song, to the expression of experience through an organization of language that heightens the articulation of the experience, and that has the benefit of consideration of the way things are said for the way things are said. I think that is really important, and that consideration then relates to the questions: How do we communicate? How do we express things?

The tool we have to express things is language; it is the use of words, the use of all the things that surround words. So a poem strikes me as something that comes down to us through tradition. I don’t think somebody just wakes up having never seen a poem before and decides that after 10 syllables they’re going to stop and then go the next line and then stop — they saw it somewhere. So when people declare I’m so original, I’m like, Nah, you’re not that original. There is a tradition, and the tradition is related, as I said, to song because when we think of all the words we use to describe poetry, to talk about poetry to this day, we’re still talking about things like assonance; we’re talking about rhyme; we’re talking about rhythm. We’re talking about elements that have to do with sound, to do with music, to do with how music is constructed — repetition, refrain, things like that. And we all understand song. It seems to me we all understand the song is again a construction of experience that turns experience and the articulation of the experience into an art, into a piece of art — a thing that we can come back to, look at, return to again and again.  So, this is the most basic way that I understand the poem, and that’s why I think the poem has universal application, because as long as human beings sing, and as long as human beings consider what they say, I think they are engaging in the exercise of using language in a certain way. 

So then over time all our instincts for something fresh, for something that makes us think, and feel, and express, and how we manage language to achieve that become part of the exercise of poetry.  But the judgment of a poem is rooted in what we know, what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard and what has moved us. And, therefore, I think the idea of tradition becomes really important.

I want to hone in on the idea of music, because music is so important in your work.  It’s muse; it’s in the sonic rhythm; it’s in the way you read.  Talk to me about that in terms of your writing.  How do you deploy that sense of music and sound?

Some years ago a woman who was a really great mentor to me when I lived in South Carolina — Ellen Arl, she’s passed away now; she was a Chicago woman who lived and taught in South Carolina for many years — took me under her wing, in her own bullying manner, really to teach me how to teach composition. (I came from a British tradition and students didn’t matter. Here, they did what you told them to do and so she began to tutor me.) But she also was a remarkable poet, and Ellen would read my poems and would talk to me about them. And one day, she was reading through, it may have been Jacko Jacobus, and she said, “I need to talk to you about something.” And she said, “You use sound — there is music and sound in your work — beautifully.” I’d never been conscious of doing this and she started to point it out to me. The two lessons in that for me were, first, there are things that we do by our imitation. The poets that I enjoyed and I sort of paid attention to were people like Hopkins, people like Ntozake Shange, people like Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Lorna Goodison. And if you think about those poets, what draws you to them is rhythm, but also sound and the way that sound is used.  She [Ellen] was pointing out to me something that was happening, and she said, “So now when you’re writing or editing pay attention to all these things that are working and build on that.”

So for me, the other root of that experience, I think, was a fascination with the possibilities of music and a kind of envy of the musician. I think the songwriter is a cheating poet, because of what the songwriter can do — you know, you can take a pretty dumb line and you put a good melody and it’s gonna fly, it’s gonna be beautiful just by the way the line is sung. And so you begin to realize that the sound of a word is as important as the meaning of the word in a poem, and when you get to that point, I think you’re really starting to to enter a space. So I’m trying to replicate melody by the use of assonance, by the use of rhythm and meter because the emotional impact of song is a startling thing. It’s where a melody can move you because of the things that it echoes and it stays in your body in remarkable ways. If I can do that as a poet then I’m doing something.  I remember Derek Walcott talking about Bob Marley on this BBC program called Desert Island Discs and he described … he picked two Marley songs, of course — “No Woman, No Cry” and the other was “Redemption Song” — and of “No Woman, No Cry” he said, If I could write and narrate as pure and beautiful as that, a love lyric as pure and beautiful as that, I would be a happy person. If a poem achieves even remotely close to that, I think it’s stunning. Now, I know the poets out there who be going We do better. We are, like, more amazing. Which is true, but a good song is a good song. You know? Whatchu gon’ do?

I know you also have a theater background, which to me seems not sonic, but very visual and dynamic. How does that background play into how you write a poem?

It has to play a really significant role, in ways I don’t even understand the extent of it, but I can tell you one way it really struck me: you know, a lot of my poetry enters the mind of other people. It’s not even quite persona. I’m subtle, and I’ll speak the voice of other people, and I’ll enter their heads and so on. I would say 60 to 70 percent of my work — it could be higher — focuses on women. (Somebody can work out the psychology of that, but I won’t get into that!) And the question becomes: What right do I have? This is a conversation I’ve had with students who write. They want to know: Can I write about somebody not like me? Can I write as a white person, about a Black person? Do I have a right to it? And it’s a really fascinating question because it occurred to me that as a playwright, this question does not come up.  The problem with writing plays is, you are writing other people. You have to find how they sound, and that’s the test. Nobody sits down and goes, Can I do this?  If you’re doing it then you’re doing it. What I got is that permission. But more important, I felt the burden of doing that, the responsibility that I have to be convincing. 

If I cannot empathize with a character, with a voice, enough then I’m failing in the imagination, because the empathy is fundamentally an act of the imagination.  So the failure to write a character is a failure of my imagination and frankly that’s a failure of my craft so I have to work on that to make it work. 

I remember at one point I decided to write a play with a cast of all women because the small company that I had formed, I couldn’t get any guys to join, so I had all these women in the company, and I really had to write plays for these women’s voices.  I said, Sure, I’m going to write this play. So I write the play, and I take the play to the cast, and we do a read around, and they just look at me and go, “This is nonsense. We don’t talk like this! We don’t behave like this! Women don’t talk like this: This is foolishness! We’re not doing the play!” And I thought, But I’m the playwright, like, I’m the artist here. I’ve done all this work! But they were not having it. So then I thought, What the heck am I gonna do? This is a crisis! Then I figured I better learn, though I was what, 21? 20? and convinced I knew everything about women because, you know. (Laughs.) So then I get this brainwave — and to this day I think it was divine — read women poets.  So I went to the library. This is at the University of the West Indies, and for better or for worse, in 1981 I could get all the books by women poets in the library and put them on the table. I could put them all, you know, whatever that meant. And I read, and I read, and I read. And that’s when I ran into Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls” and that changed my life, that work — the multi-voice, the way that she … all the poetry of it and the sheer raw energy of it. I wrote the play again.  I went back to the cast and they said, “Okay, now we can do this — you have to fix a thing or two, but we can do this now.”

Now, the lesson for me was first of all, yes, I can write any voice I want, but there are certain voices I must recognize my distance from and therefore I must work harder. There’s certain risks that one takes, you know — if you’re a white person writing in a Black voice, don’t just think, I’m a writer; I can do that. No, there’s a price that you have to pay to do that, so there’s pressure on you to do better at it.  (Also, it’s a myth that we think we write ourselves better; that’s another myth. We think, Because it’s my story I can … no. Maybe part of your work as a poet to find voice is to really to understand and hear your own voice.) But for me writing for the stage cleared all those problems.  It showed me the challenges, but also showed me that if I don’t do this then I’m not an artist. If I cannot empathize enough with a character, with a voice, then I’m failing in the imagination, because the empathy is fundamentally an act of the imagination. So the failure to write a character is a failure of my imagination, and frankly, that’s a failure of my craft, so I have to work on that to make it work. 

Nice, empathy and craft as essentially linked.

Absolutely, absolutely. I think racism is a failure of the imagination. And racist writers are poor craftsmen.

I’ll have to sit with that.

Work in that. (Laughs.)

The story, the play, the poem: they’re all language, but they’re different maneuvers of language. How are those experiences different for you?  What allows something to come out in one form versus another?

One of the things I talked about in the past that I think is worth saying again is that, you know, people say, “What inspires you to write?” and I really sort of resist that idea. Partly because it’s not that I sit down and go, “Here’s an idea, okay, should I write a poem about this or this?” It doesn’t work that way, not even remotely that way, for me. What happens to me is — okay, two things may happen to me. One is, if it’s poetry it comes in a different way.  What happens to me with poetry is I feel to write a poem; that’s all it is.  It’s just like my body says, “Poem.”  I don’t know what it’s going to be about, and when I sit down to write whatever, I figure it out.  Making the poem is my inspiration, which is not sexy. I mean that’s like saying I need to take a dump, which you know, you just need to do. (Laughs.)

The form that I enjoy the most in its entire process is the play, because the play begins with the idea but it begins to become communal very quickly and that — working with multiple artists and so on — is exciting to me. I find that really dynamic.

To be honest with you, with fiction and drama and the other things, I’m saying I need to write, say, a play. Then I ask myself, What is this play going to be about? I’m not juggling Should this be a play? Should this be a poem? Because they come in the form that they are, there’s no back and forth. And for me, it’s levels of tedium — that’s what it is. Writing a novel or fiction is, frankly, tedious to me; its just words and words and words, all these words! And I just find myself swimming in words. I mean I’ll do it, but I don’t enjoy it.  I enjoy the final product, I do, but I don’t enjoy the process of doing it. 

I guess the form that I enjoy the most in private is the poem. The form that I enjoy the most in its entire process is the play, because the play begins with the idea but it begins to become communal very quickly and that — working with multiple artists and so on — is exciting to me. I find that really dynamic.  So the genre dictates the content and I’m not sitting down saying, I have this great idea, should I write a play?  Should I write a screenplay? I’m not thinking in that way. I’m thinking, I want to write something and let’s see what it’s going to be.

You mention the collaboration, the working with others, and I know you’ve done a whole interview about collaboration and why that’s exciting.  What are some challenges of collaboration?

The biggest challenge of the collaboration is the beginning of the collaboration; that is, picking the right person to collaborate with. I think once you’ve picked the right people to collaborate with, the rest is gravy. Because the problems arise if there’s a vision that doesn’t connect, right? That creates its own problems, and the uneven distribution of either interest or ability can be a problem. When I collaborate with an artist, I want to give up to them what their genius is. I want that to shape the project, and to know that they will trust my genius, my ability to shape the process. That trust is really important because otherwise the collaboration is pointless. If I keep saying while I’m working with somebody that I could do this better, it’s a problem. If somebody else could do it better, it’s a problem. So the key to collaboration is identifying a shared understanding, and then also a willingness to sort of stay in lanes and appreciate how one affects the other.

But every project is fundamentally different. Kevin Simmonds, who I’ve worked with for years, is a remarkable poet and great musician; I have absolutely no problem handing Kevin a bunch of poems and saying, “Set it to music,” and I know that what he will do with it is going to be stunning and it’s going to change even the way that I see my work. I think and I trust that he respects my words so he will do them justice, he will treat them right. So that collaboration works, but for me it’s finding the right person, the right partner, the right artist to work with.  For the theater it’s dependence. I mean, you write a play, you cannot be the play. The actors have to do it, the director, the lighting people — you yourself cannot do it. The trust has to be there.

One of my favorite of your projects is Live Hope Love, which is itself a beautiful collaborative effort. I’m interested in technology as a collaborative partner: How do you see technology as it affects the creative process?

For me this is very pragmatic in the sense that a lot of the work that I’ve been able to do over the years has been brought on by technological changes.  It’s sad to think that I’ve seen so many changes. (I’d like to say that the world has changed fast rather than I have lived long.) When I started writing my plays, just to get copies of the play for the cast, I had to get to a Getstetner machine, okay. I didn’t have much access to photocopying. It existed in 1980, but not in Jamaica, not so easily: you’d have to, you know, take out a loan. So, you type on these sheets of paper that punch into this sheet, and then you run that through the Getstetner machine, and it makes multiple copies. This was revolutionary, because before that we had to write out the play again and again. I know that this change happened 30 years before then, but for me access to that was remarkable. 

So leap forward to 1990, 10 years later, I’m in Canada and I discover e-mail. In 1990, they’re doing e-mail in the basement of the University of New Brunswick, and I write an e-mail to somebody and it is immediately there. Four years before that, I was communicating with my wife, my then-fiancée, by letters, where you have to wait for the letters to come, and then suddenly somebody tells me e-mail can get there that quickly. So when I think of technology I think of how technology has literally transformed the work that we do. For example, the work I do with the African Poetry Book Fund: all the editing we do with all these poets from all over the world is online. The editorial team communicates online and by digital means; we edit, we do PDFs; we send things back and forth; we work with artists, and so on. It has made more rapid the process of making things happen, so when I say that in five years the African Book Fund has been able to publish 50 poets from Africa, that is because of this technological aspect of life.

And it affects so many things. It affects even the notion of exile, because of our capacity to move and to travel. There’s a joke I was telling the other day at a conference and it’s true: there’s a poet, a great poet in Florida, who likes to talk about things he misses in Jamaica — “I miss my mango; I miss my ackee” — and I thought one day, But you’re in Miami! (Laughs.) First of all, mango grow in Miami, and akee grow in Miami; just go down the road and you can get a tin of akee. As a matter of fact, go down the road and you can get a flight to Jamaica and get all the akee you want! And you’re not running from anybody, so what is this poem? So even poetry must be changed because you can’t sing that lament anymore; the world has contracted. 

So it’s a funny way in which technology has been remarkable in that regard. So even the work with Live Hope Love, that we decided to create the platform online, to then use music, to use Josh Cogan’s photographs, to use poetry — all of that is directly because of this access to technology; the Emmy we won for it was for new approaches to reporting. The new approaches were technological approaches, but of course, they affected the form of articulation, the language, the style, the approach, the relationship between sound images and poetry and so on that happened as a result. So for me it’s rich territory. It’s something that has brought tremendous benefit. I’m not the kind who sits down lamenting the loss of the quill. I’m not. I don’t miss it. 

Are you a longhand writer?

I write longhand, yeah: poetry. Fiction is just too many words — just go straight to the computer — could you imagine transcribing all that crap? Too much words. But my poetry I write longhand, for the most part.

I had a professor said that when you decide to make this your work, and you’re just surrounded by language all the time, that your relationship to words necessarily changes — you don’t ever really read “for fun” again. Has making this work changed your relationship with language? And what do you do for fun?

Well, you know, being a writer and particularly an editor has changed my relationship to language, but not tremendously. I’m moved by work because it moves me; I found myself able to be moved by work. And as an editor I’m willing to say that I’m moved by a poem that I may not publish because I realize what connects me emotionally to a work maybe exists, but that the poem itself hasn’t achieved it. It’s not finished or as brilliantly done. Like I said, you can get a really sucky lyric and it’s a great song. So I recognize what seems like a contradiction and I’m comfortable with it. I also read a lot: I read on Kindle; I read a lot of nonfiction; I read a lot of fiction; I listen to audio books and so on, and I’m entertained by that. I’m not sitting down thinking, Oh, I should write this; it doesn’t occur to me. So I have a long list of pleasures that I get that way. I guess my other fundamental pleasure, just pure pleasure, is television. Online: Hulu, HBO, Netflix, Acorn TV, I could go on. There’s a show called 19-2, and it’s a Canadian police drama; it’s shocking — like brilliant — it’s Canadian; it’s really good. There’s a French version set in Quebec and then there’s an English version set in Montreal. They just re-did it. It’s stunning.  So I’ll spend many hours doing that.

You’ve just relieved me of the guilt I feel every time I’m watching something and think, I should be writing right now, but this Criminal Minds episode is really good.

Nope. It doesn’t bother me one bit. (Laughs.) I’m just sayin’. I was looking at that drama, and I realized they said there are 38 episodes. And each episode is an hour, so I just watched 38 hours! And I thought, This is insane! I felt like I’d started watching it yesterday, you know: What happened? When did I watch 38 hours of this thing? I mean, people say you multitask and yes, I do. I do crossword puzzles and I play Scrabble while I’m watching, so that’s multitasking. So I’m really productive. (Laughs.)   

As an editor, you read a lot. What are some common mistakes you see from young poets or people who are sending you things, and what advice do you have for them?

The most fundamental reoccurring problem is a typical thing — there’s nothing new about it: cliché. The failure to recognize just how language is to be used and so on. And you have cliché of language and cliché of idea. I think sometimes we miss that. I think more experienced writers find themselves slipping into the sloth of cliché of ideas.  And then there’s a cliché of self, so if I know somebody’s work and they start becoming a cliché of themselves; that can also be a problem.  So that’s one that stands out. 

The other one that stands out is — and this is a personal thing, I think, it might just be my thing — metaphor. I think the intelligence of form or even an experimentation has to be consistent: if it’s random it should be consistently random; if it is attempting something, there’s a logic to that thing. I think sometimes the thought hasn’t been carried through enough. Similes and metaphors are traps where that happens often, right? And people sort of fob it off, they just go, Well, it’s kind of cute and flashy, but it doesn’t make any sense. And if you dig deeper and ask, Is it really like this? If you push it, you realize that you have not found the right metaphor; you haven’t found the right simile. And we’re attached to sometimes the first thing that comes to us, without the painful, muddy process of saying, Let me try this. Let me try this. Let me try this. Because then it feels like it’s not original — it’s not inspired. I think the lie is that the first one is magical. That’s not true. That’s not true. That just proves to be not true, not the case for me anyway. My first thoughts are not necessarily my best thoughts.

So when I say no to a poem, it’s not always because of, you know … so 80 percent of the time, I’m saying, Look, this poem hasn’t come together. Maybe less than 80. But for the most part I’m putting together an issue that should have a coherence and should have this dynamic relationship.

I read an interview where you push back against the term “tastemaker,” but, you’re a publisher, an editor, you’re a judge, so you definitely have a hand in what reaches the public — the readings, the poems and poets that get seen. What are some things that guide you in those important roles?

Okay. So everything is different to me. Every area in which I’m functioning as a kind of editor is different. If I look at Prairie Schooner, the literary journal, the journal is what I’m putting together. I think sometimes people mistake literary journals as “the best of,” and think we’re publishing the best that comes to us. This is not true. I think people should reconfigure what they think we’re trying to do; certainly what I’m trying to do is to make the issue an interesting issue. An interesting issue means we should be able to read that issue and be drawn through that issue in interesting and fascinating ways that move us, that take us through different emotions, that show sides of things and so on.  I’m interested in constructing an interesting issue, which is different from saying I’m doing the “best of” because the “best of” would mean this — and I’ve used this example many times, but it’s true. Because it happens. There was a period where I was getting a lot of poems by middle-aged men about remembering — not middle-aged; they were like in their fifties and sixties — and they were remembering their first love, right? And there was one season where I had about 15 of these poems that had made it through the round and got to me. Now on their own each of them was kind of interesting, but after reading two of those I was going, Really? Are we doing this again? And now of these 15 poems, eight of them may have been much stronger than a poem about boats sinking in the Atlantic, right? They may be technically stronger.  But I’m not going to publish 15 poems about dudes remembering their first love. That’s not an interesting read unless I do a special issue on dudes remembering their first love. I’m going to use the sinking boat; I’m going to mix it up. So when I say no to a poem, 80 percent of the time, I’m saying, Look, this poem hasn’t come together. Maybe less than 80. But for the most part I’m putting together an issue that should have a coherence and should have this dynamic relationship. So that’s one process. That’s not a “best of” process, and therefore I don’t pretend that we publish the best writing in the world. I don’t know what that looks like.

Now if I’m judging a contest, that’s when I’m really gatekeeping; that’s when I think I’m really involved in this process of eliminating because you’ve got to pick one winner out of 200 or 300. Well, okay, I have to pick one, right? Does that mean the rest of them suck? Each one who loses is going to feel a little sucky about it, but the truth is, that’s not what it means. There’s something limiting about that process, and it’s kind of a crazy process. But I always think of myself doing multiple things: I also recruit work; I also acquire work; I also edit many writers’ individual work to push forward in different places, so every time I see something that I think is promising and interesting, I can be an advocate for it.  And I think that balances my whole attitude of this whole idea of determining taste and so forth.  I think what drives me most is that I’m working with Caribbean poets, African poets, finding a vehicle for their work to shine and to be put out there because there’s been a bias for whatever reason in publishers taking that work. And it’s good work as far as I’m concerned, and in that instance I’m certainly involved in a very aggressive action of trying to bring work to people, and that’s hugely important to me. So I guess I’m in the position that you could call power — I have some power; but I’m not deluded by this power because the power has to be understood in a certain way. If you say, I sent you some poems and you didn’t like them, that’s power, yes. Right? But I also have gone out to look for poems. You see what I mean? So there’s another act to that power that I think is different.

So you situate yourself more as an advocate than a gatekeeper, it sounds like.

Yes, yes.

I have firsthand experience of one of your magical powers having you as my editor — the ordering of poems. You talked about it a bit regarding the journal, but how do you do that with your own work? What are some of the things you do to make a coherent collection?

That’s one of the greatest joys in my life: I love to organize a manuscript. I cannot express how much I love to get a pile of stuff and then to think, How do we present this in the best light? How do we take this from here to there?  All these voices and so on. To me, it’s really a matter of thinking of the entire book, and it’s about thinking of the book as a grand tone poem. A series of tones. That you’re introducing the voice, you know, so that the reader can emotionally connect to that voice and trust the voice early enough so that they will then go on the excursion, take risks, trust the voice going through. And sometimes I’ll make a note and say, We don’t trust you yet. You can’t put this poem here; we don’t trust you yet. We haven’t reached a point where we say, It’s worth it to go with you, because you see, what happens when people read, they’re reading with the understanding that this is going somewhere. If your plan is to disappoint them and that’s your desire, then you have to get us to trust you enough to say, I buy your idea of disappointment as a valid sort of artistic emotional moment. But building that trust seems to be one of the more important things. 

And then, the collection has to have a kind of connective trajectory that helps us to find echoes. Then you play all these wonderful games of using words that echo each other, put in poems beside each other that don’t seem obviously related, but there’s a word, there’s a line, there is something that is echoing, and the reader is going through and thinking, This is really coherent but I don’t know why. It’s very exciting to be able to play that through and organize it in sections thinking about would a section work or should it work through as a whole … I find that to be incredibly exciting. Titles! How titles work with other titles; what an epigraph can do to a poem: all of these things strike me as part of something beautiful and remarkable. And I love doing it. And I think I do it really well because I get a kick out of doing it. I really do. There are lots of things to think about, you know, because I think a book is a whole thing. It’s true especially about a collection of poems because it’s true sometimes we dip through collections, but if we were to sit through 60 pages or 70 or 80 pages, it doesn’t take that long to read a collection, and you want to have that journey; you want to have that trip, through, whatever that trip is. That, I think is rich. You don’t want to be tired of a form. Say somebody says, Okay, half my book is sonnets, and half my book is this other form. The question is do you just dump all the sonnets together? If you do that, do they work that way? Or do you split them up? All these great questions, right? To me they’re exciting questions. As you can tell. 

You’ve written 21 books, and I forget how many of those are poetry books.

No, it’s 21 books of poetry. The rest, you know, we’re going up into the 40s there. 

I stand corrected.

I earn my Hulu time. (Laughs.)

What are you still learning from poems? About poetry?

I discover what I’m thinking by writing. I don’t know what I’m thinking until I start writing. I don’t know what I’m feeling until I start writing. Well, I know what I’m feeling — if I am annoyed then I am annoyed, but that’s not a poem. The poem is a reflective moment — it’s a moment of reflection, and it’s a moment in which the intellectual, the emotional, all of these things are coming together and they’re expressing, and when I start writing then I’m constrained by form. I’m doing a series of poems with the Australian poet John Kinsella, and we’re working with these Spenserian stanzas and just some really fairly strict form. We’re working in syllabics and rhyme, so it’s a rigid form, and we’re going back and forth, but even as you’re writing in this form, the compulsion of finding the rhyme, you’re also discovering ideas, feelings, meaning and so on and so forth.  So I cannot not be writing a poem because as I write a poem, I’m changing, I’m evolving, and the world is changing and evolving, and it helps me to crystalize, or to at least come to some understanding of how I’m engaging this work. How I’m seeing this work. So the pleasure of doing that never never never never never goes away. The necessity for it never goes away.

The other thing I’m very interested in is ekphrasis — working with art. Again, it’s a way of me thinking through and feeling through the things that move me, the things that my eyes see and the things that engage me. So poems are always teaching me because the poem is my way of understanding myself, understanding how I’m engaging the world, how I’m understanding the world. Because we work, we come to understanding through feeling but also through the articulation of language. And in the manipulation and the handling of language, we then discover things, right? Yeah.

So, the world comes in here, and we live in a time where art in general is under threat. And you’ve said in other places that the poem is important enough that it should be subsidized. What is the work of poetry and poem in the world? Why is it so important that it should be subsidized?

So here’s what I would say: I actually don’t think that poetry is under threat. I don’t think so. I think the publishing of it may be under threat, maybe. You know, there’s a notion that I never had, that said I should make my living as a poet. I’ve never had that notion. So if I don’t have that as a burden … Now for you to stop me from writing poems, that’s a different thing, but nobody’s really doing that, at least not in the U.S. currently. Now people will say, “I choose not to write poetry because it doesn’t pay.” I suspect that if that’s the case, good. (Laughs.) Now, you know, should people get paid for poetry? Sure. But the point I’m making is when you take away my ability to write a poem, that’s one thing. 

Now, should poetry be shared? We can restrict that, and that’s been restricted forever: it’s been restricted for gender reasons; it’s been restricted for racial reasons; and we are constantly fighting to have voice, to have the work all there, to have the work shared, and I think that process should not be driven by market systems that say that something has value because it sells well or because it can pay for itself. This is a ridiculous idea, and it’s a ridiculous idea especially in the area of art because the value of the art is not what people will pay for it, right? Because people pay for a lot for nonsense, right? I mean, like, pay a lot for a lot of nonsense. So it can’t be that that shows that it’s valuable, and I think that’s why I say that art should be subsidized. But in a sense, is it being subsidized or is it just being paid for what it is? Either way, whatever we call it, I believe that some forms demand it because their currency may not sell as much; you know, a collection of poets may not sell as many as a novel. Does that mean that the novel is more valuable?  I don’t think so. Its costs … maybe monetarily … it may be more valuable, but in terms of its impact and its necessity in the world? I don’t think it necessarily is.

And I don’t think it’s a sign of a great work that many people see it. I think we will eventually reach the point where if something lasts beyond its generation and its time, we applaud it and we say amen, but we can’t test that. We can’t know that in that way. So for me, actually, I don’t have the sense that poetry in my lifetime is in a healthy state — it’s in one of the most healthy states. It’s more diverse, we hear more voices, the opportunities to publish abound, and I think some exciting work exists. I expect that with all the exciting work, there’s gonna be stuff that’s just not particularly good, but otherwise we won’t know what is exciting, so that doesn’t worry me at all. I do think that writers need that support, and writers who write work that is not necessarily popular should be supported, and the value of the work should not be predicated on its marketability. I think that’s a mistake.

You are a person who has his finger on the pulse of the many voices of poetry out there: Is there something you would describe as characteristic of the poetry of our moment?

I think what is interesting is how we are writing the body in this world. And how we’re writing about this moment by our silences and our noises, right? So, there’s noise abroad, you know? I’ve seen a lot of writers writing TV poems — when they’re writing their socially conscious poems, they’re writing what they watch on TV. So you can see that there’s an episode of CNN or some news story that they’re writing about in the poems. But that’s because it’s ubiquitous, right? News cycles are coming around and around, so I think that’s happening, but I’m always interested in those poets that do something else with it, that take it beyond that, that really go further in their reasoning, their examination, and position themselves within that space. 

It seems self-serving to say this, but frankly some of the best work, the most exciting work I’m seeing, is being written by the poets out of Africa. The poets we’re encountering — whether it’s Ladan Osman or Warsan Shire or Romeo Oriogun — I mean these poets are gifted. They’re not a joke, you know, and my commitment is that they are given the chance to write multiple collections, to build a career that will be substantial. I think one of the problems we have is in the poetry biz today: we’re hyped on over-hyping. A new poet that’s just come up and written one book and we go, like, OMG, this is, like, you know, going to change the universe. It may, but we won’t know that until they’ve written 12 books and we go, The first one was the best. (Laughs.) But we don’t know that, right?  The truth of it is, we have to make space for poets to write their second, their third, their fourth book — to grow with their work and to develop the confidence that they’re not burdened with the task of I have to go win this prize, or I have to do these things. But there are exciting words: poets coming out of the Caribbean, for example. I think this is really exciting. Poets coming out of Mexico: there’s some really interesting work that’s coming out from there. 

So I’m up. I’m excited about it because when I read a collection that is interesting and is fresh to me, it’s because it transported me into a space I haven’t had access to, and the poet’s standing at the door and saying, Come in: that’s beautiful to me. They’re saying, Did you notice this? And I say, Look! There’s that! What?! That to me is something. And I think a lot of times, the people are letting me into the room, but it’s like, Okay, I’ve seen this. You know what I’m saying? But it’s the doorway: that is language. It’s sort of fresh use and engagement of language. And I think that that’s actually exciting.

So the body seems like a very interesting theme with all these poets and what they’re doing is they’re saying, What does my body mean in this space? How do I write about my body in this space? Or the body in this space? This is not new in poetry, but it has become an interesting way of reading what contemporary poetry is doing, and I think it’s exciting.

The age of embodiment.

The age of embodiment. Yeah.

That idea that I’ve met people, I’ve sat on stage with people, and talked to them about their work and had conversations — some have actually read some of my work.  That has been a big deal for me: it’s meant a lot. 

What has surprised you most in your own very impressive career trajectory?

What has surprised me?

Surprised you.

I was gonna say something facetious, but I won’t. See that’s remarkable self-control, right? (Laughs.) Not a whole lot. No, I would say that the people that I’ve been able to meet and to talk to — like grown people — has been a pleasant surprise. You know, to say that I’ve had conversations with writers and poets who I admire and I think are amazing — that I’ve always admired — I’m grateful for that, and I never take that for granted; I never take it as par for the course. When I went to Iowa in 1986 as an international writer, it was a big deal, you know. I got this gig and I was there as the playwright. I’d barely written a poem (well, okay, I’d written a lot, but they were really bad). And there I remember meeting Ngugi wa Thiongo. This is when … this is 1986, right? And Ngugi was starting to say a lot about he’s not going to write in English anymore and so on. I had read Ngugi at university, so to meet meet Ngugi wa Thiongo was huge for me. I met Gabriel Okara. They don’t probably remember that I met them, you understand, but that was huge for me. That idea that I’ve met people, I’ve sat on stage with people, and talked to them about their work and had conversations — some have actually read some of my work. That has been a big deal for me: it’s meant a lot. Now, my father was a writer, and I grew up with people like George Lamming and Kofi Awoonor coming through my home. So it’s not the idea that I’ve met famous people, but I didn’t know them as writers. When I became interested to meet Kofi later on as a writer, him looking at me and saying, “Look at you, little boy, you become a writer now” — that’s huge for me. That’s beautiful. That means a lot. That’s still a pleasure and a joy.


downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press and is forthcoming in April 2019.