by Lauren K. Alleyne


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know. It’s a thankless job.

Yes. What was that journey like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your relationship to craft?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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


“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


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.

by Lauren K. Alleyne


“VIOLET    VIOLENT    VIOLA    VIOLATE”: This sequence of “v” words closes Anastacia-Reneé’s poem “Dear Little Girl,” from her collection (v.). The range of connotation and the suturing of meaning through sound and music that create the poetic impact of this list — a flower colored both twilight and bruise; the definition of fatal force; a musical instrument; a breach of boundaries — is a hallmark of Anastacia-Reneé’s work. With a poetic sensibility simultaneously cutting, vulnerable, wry, and audacious, she produces poems that are both expansive and targeted. While the poems are unapologetic in their Blackness, their womanness, their queerness, and their hybridity, they are also clear in their invitations to those outside of those perspectives to consider them. Her hilarious and sarcastic poem, “I Just Love Her So Much,” is an excellent example of this. Through a stunning ventriloquism, Anastacia-Reneé demonstrates classic Black double consciousness by describing the experience of being around white women who “dote and coo over Michelle Obama” while treating the speaker like “an everyday nigger,” which is to say, ignoring her completely.       

            … and they must have said classy & strong & strong & classy & humble & smart & classy & strong & graceful & witty & intelligent & classy & strong (not feminist) a million times (sitting next to you) & there you are & they never even say good morning (hi, hello, go to hell)

The repetition in the poem, both comedic and relentless, serves to confirm the experiences of ordinary Black women who most likely recognize the situation, as well as reproduce it (in all its grating glory) for those to whom it might be unfamiliar.

The speaker’s saltiness serves as entertainment on the surface, but as in many of her other poems, Anastacia-Reneé fully utilizes the power of voice as a meaning-making device. In this poem, the speaker’s openness and transparency allow us to see multiple levels of harm and outrage. First, there is umbrage taken on behalf of the ignored speaker (that “hi, hello, go to hell” can work both ways!), but it gives way to weariness as she wonders “maybe you are not strong or classy or lulu lemon enough.” However, the speaker also expresses sisterly outrage on behalf of the “strong & classy” Black women so beloved by the white women as she side-eyes the way they “talk about Michelle as if they are on a first name basis with her.” The poem’s ultimate recognition is that while invisibility is demoralizing, visibility also comes with a price: “you are not the kind of woman of color who will hang on any white person’s wall (with thumbtacks).” Most powerful, however, is the claim that undergirds all of Anastacia-Reneé’s poetry — despite all insistences to the contrary, we are all worthy.

Anastacia-Reneé was a featured poet at Furious Flower’s fourth biennial Collegiate Summit, which explored the theme “Poetry without Boundaries” for three days with undergraduate students. It was my great pleasure to speak with her in the studio at JMU about her path to poetry and her three recently published collections.

So first I want to talk about your path to poetry. It’s pretty nontraditional, so why don’t you tell me a little bit about how you got here?

I am a late bloomer; I tell everyone this. I was always writing in high school and some of college and elementary school, but as far as really taking myself seriously, that didn’t happen until my first child was about two years old. I started writing profusely. It was just like something poured out of me, and I couldn’t stop. And I would — once Brandon was asleep — I would write until I couldn’t write any more, and then I would get up and start the day, and still I was like, “Oh, this is nice: you’re such an awesome and dedicated hobbyist!” and “Wow! You do this thing often, hmmm.” Then it became “Oh! You have seventy poems, so maybe this is pretty serious.”  And still I was in a bit of denial.

I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree until my children were in school. I worked a full-time job, and I went to school full time, and I raised my children — and I got my bachelor’s degree in English with emphasis in creative writing. But I had children young. I had children in my twenties, early-early twenties (20, 21), and all my now-colleagues were out partying, or going straight from their bachelor’s to their MFAs. And I didn’t do that thing. I didn’t have that track, so in some ways I felt like I was missing out — I didn’t have the academic connections, I didn’t have mentors, I didn’t even know what a writing residency was!

When I found out people actually go places to write for concentrated amounts of time, I was like, “This is a joke! How did I not know about this?” And then I stumbled upon something called Cave Canem, and I really thought this was hilarious.  I remember reading the literature thinking, “What are you talking about? A home for Black poetry? Is this a joke?” Because I was in the Midwest; I was in Kansas City, Missouri. I mean, growing up they didn’t even talk about Black poets. I was only told about Maya Angelou during Black history month. Or James Baldwin. I had to learn about Audre Lorde and Lucille Clifton on my own and from my mom being a librarian. So when I read this, I was like, “Wow! I need to figure out what this is about and if it’s real.” I was still very skeptical; I thought, “This is a joke,” and it wasn’t! So I applied. And still, still, still … by that time I even had a couple of editorial essays published in credible magazines. I’d won the San Diego journalism press club award for an article called “War Torn” about being the daughter of a Vietnam vet, but I still was like, “You’re not really a writer writer,” whatever that means.

I spent three years learning forms so that I could break them. I just decided, you know, I’m gonna get this for myself, in a way that I can do it. I just became a secret forms studier …

But I applied to Cave Canem, and when I was accepted — I remember sitting on the edge of the bed trying to explain it to my children, and I remember them being so full of joy for me. It’s like I could see the joy reflected. I was so excited! And that Cave Canem, I met Patricia Smith and Yusef Komunyakaa and Ed Roberson and just some amazing amazing amazing amazing writers, and that’s when I said to myself, “Wow, I am one of those people.” Again, late bloomer. Most of the people I was there with had already published a few books, or somebody was their mentor since forever who was an accomplished writer, and I just didn’t have that story, so sometimes I think I let self-doubt get in the way of the goals that I set for myself. I always battled with that part, being the oldest of my colleagues, but some of my colleagues having it look like they were much more successful than me.

Tell me a bit more about what organizations like Cave Canem and Furious Flower have. When you say “one of those people,” what was that connection, and what was that like?

I needed to see people who were similar to me but not me doing the work. I needed to be around a group of people who would test my craft ability, not ask me, “How is this subject relevant in the world?” I needed to be around people who understood the poem — we didn’t have to talk about what I meant at the heart of the poem. It’s something about the comfortability of being around someone that says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all about that, but is this the format you’re comfortable with? Cause how’s that gonna be?” I craved that and didn’t even realize it, and once I got it, the biggest thing that stuck with me with those workshops and even Callaloo, which I heard a lot about, was that I took the spirit of that with me outside of those places. All these places were so near and dear to me, and they’re so powerful, and I have that within me! So then I started going out mentoring other people, you know? “This is great, but what about this? And have you heard about this organization?” Something in me wanted to be a crusader for other people. I felt like, “I can’t be the only one who doesn’t know about this.” I wanna tell everybody, and that’s what I’ve been doing.

You had a first book around 2000 and then a gap. You had a couple chapbooks and then in 2017 you had three books come out. The persistence paid off, so what are some of the internal and external things you did to keep yourself going in that in-between time?

To be honest (and I’ve never said this out loud) I stole — okay, not stole, but borrowed — a lot of curricula. I wasn’t able to get my master’s or MFA when I wanted to, so I would just ask people, “Can I see that? Can I see your syllabus for your class?” And the classes that I found interesting — I would hoard all the books. I just taught myself a lot of things. I spent three years learning forms so that I could break them. I just decided, you know, I’m gonna get this for myself, in a way that I can do it. I just became a secret forms studier, and someone would mention a book, and I would listen intently, but in my mind, I’m like, “All right, you’re gonna go get this book, everybody’s talking about it, you’ve never heard of it, you’re gonna go get this, you’re gonna read it, you’re gonna study it, and you’re gonna come back and have this conversation.” I just decided I wasn’t gonna let barriers stop me.

But I have to also be honest: I spent a lot of time alone, feeling like I’m never gonna be up to snuff, like someone’s gonna ask me a question and I’m going to say, “I — I — I — I don’t know about that,” or “I’ve never heard about that writer.”  I battled with yes you can do it; you’re just as great, and no, maybe you should just stop this thing. But I did keep going. And I can’t stop writing. That’s how I knew I wasn’t a hobbyist — even if I wanted to, I could not stop writing.

And then I started doing this thing called “the grind”: we write every day. It’s just basically accountability. I’ve been writing every day since August 2010. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a word. Sometimes it’s a line, sometimes it’s a whole poem, sometimes it’s flash fiction, and sometimes it’s an essay. But I was committed to that, and so these books weren’t all born for me last year; it’s a culmination of things. It just so happened that they were all published in the same year. I keep telling people, “You show me someone who can write three books in one year!” If that was the case I’d have a million books! These books were gestating a while.

I will start out writing in form and just immediately break it; something is rebellious in me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a late bloomer. I don’t know if it’s my way of reacting to oppression. I just am like, “This is a great sonnet and now I want it to be a sonnet-couplet-tonka-haibun!”

The books are distinct, so did you find you were working on one and then another and then another? Or did you kind of piece them together? How did each of these books come to be?

I knew when I was writing Forget It, because Forget It is a fictional memoir …

Fictional memoir?

Yeah, I think I made that up. I’ve been saying it, and people are always like, “Huh?” Maybe I did. I don’t know. I knew that I wanted to be brave and tell a story about a series of events that happened in my life, but I also knew I was scared. I was like, “I don’t really wanna tell all of these things.” I needed some help, so I decided to pull from one of my fictional characters from my one-woman show, “alice,” to help me. I was like, “Homegirl, help me write this, these true things that hurt.” So I knew — I actively knew — when I was writing Forget It, because it was true. Forget It was like, “Ahhh! You again! Ahhhhh, this again! Oh, that memory,” you know? Also, Forget It involves my children, um, in a not vague way. Some of the poems in (v.) I could be like, “It could be your child, too,” but Forget It, they’re very much mine.

(v.) is just a compilation of poems. There was a set of poems that I’d written and pieced together, and then some that I was like, “I have to talk about the election. I have to talk about these things; they have to be in there.” Answer(Me) is about heartbreak and love, and I knew I was writing Answer(Me) because of the form and the shape. But I will say they all felt different in my body. What I didn’t know was that I was going to publish all three books — because, again, I’m just writing because I have to, because I have to do it — and then I got to a point where I was like, “Even for me this is a lot of work. Maybe you have some manuscripts here.” And that’s when I was definitely able to old-school print everything out and say, “This goes with this; this goes with this; this definitely goes with this.” But something about Forget It feels different. Even when reading it in open space, I have to prep myself to read from Forget It, whereas with (v.) I usually let the book tell me. But with Forget It, I’m very hovery-mothery, like, “I guess they can handle [this], or maybe I’ll share that.”

You talked about the form of Forget It, and you have footnotes in (v.), so I’m interested in how you conceptualize and utilize form. What’s your relationship to the poem as a form on the page as a visual?

I work really hard, and sometimes I laugh at myself.  A poet right now who I admire form-wise is Tyehimba Jess — I just look at the books and I’m just like, “Wow.” This is what I love about him: he maintains form, and there are so many other writers that do. For me, I will start out writing in form and just immediately break it; something is rebellious in me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a late bloomer. I don’t know if it’s my way of reacting to oppression. I just am like, “This is a great sonnet and now I want it to be a sonnet-couplet-tonka-haibun!” And I don’t care if the reader is reading a poem and going, “Huh? This is kind of haibun.” I’m not interested in if the reader can recognize the forms or not. I want the reader to feel like the poem has taken a shape on the page and has its own form. I do feel like when you do write in form, and people recognize it, it can potentially be better. But I don’t, and I actually don’t want readers to get caught up in that; I want them to feel and see the shape of the poem. 

So it’s interesting, though, because you say you start in form. Why not just start in free verse?

Sometimes I start in free verse, but because I spent years like, “You will learn this, you will know this,” I find myself writing in form even when I don’t want to. That was a hard-core time for me, making myself do that, and I when I write in free verse — what I think is free verse — I actually see my kind of form, if that makes sense. So then I sit there wondering like, “Okay, so technically you’re creating a form, and now you’re abiding by your own form,” and then I say to myself, “And now should you break your form?” And I do, so I guess it’s a multiple form breaking. There are many poems that are written in Forget It in the same style, and something about Forget It I chose — I’m like, “I like this form that I created and it’s safe. I created it and it’s safe and it can hold this. And it can hold it because I already don’t want to write about these things. I already don’t want to do it,” so I needed that. But for (v.) and Answer(Me), I didn’t need that.

You’re a performance artist, also.

You know, I’m so happy you’re bringing this up, because in the last three years I’ve refused to be called a “spoken word poet,” for these reasons: what I’m noticing is, and I don’t want to just say it’s typical of where I live, but … I could be on the bill with four other accomplished people, but who have less books than I have, and they will be referred to as “writers,” and I will be called the “spoken word poet.” In most cases, I’m the only brown person, and what was happening was I felt like my craft and my work wasn’t being celebrated. It’s not my fault that when I get on the stage and choose to share my work with you — that I worked hard on, that is crafted — that I want you to feel it. You should be honored! I struggle — I struggle a lot. I just feel like any writer who is sharing their work should be honored for their writing craft. I think there is a community of people that, when they hear “spoken word poet” or “performance artist,” they don’t think about the time it took to make the words that are spoken to the audience, right? It’s not improv! I really respect people who can improv and, like, stand-up comedians and free stylists, but I wrote this piece, you know? And now I’m sharing it with you in a way that I deem worthy because I want you to experience something. I want you to feel something when I’m sharing it with you, but I’m not performing it for you. I’m sharing it with you.

I was thinking more in terms of the one-woman show and the plays: how do those non-poetry and actively in-space performances inflect the poetry?

Yes, 9 Ounces is a play, a one-woman show, but I think the desire, again, to make the audience feel something makes me want to share the poem in the best way. I feel responsible: I don’t want to just get on the mic and read it. I want you to feel something. Even if you’re repulsed, I want you to feel something. There’s a poem I read, “WWBD (‘What Would Becky Do’),” where many women have walked out on the piece, and it used to hurt, but now I’m like, “Good! You feel something!” But if I just get up with a book and read the words, I feel like I’m not being my best self. I need my, our, writing community to know that just because you choose to read and I choose to share it ferociously doesn’t diminish my work and my craft and my talent. We are the same.

 When you share these ferocious, amazing, crafted, gorgeous, important poems, and let them loose in the air for the audience, what do you hope for? What do you want them to do?

 We’re overusing the words, I feel, “social justice,” “change agent,” whatever, but I feel a responsibility to talk about things that make people uncomfortable, and I feel a level of responsibility to speak up for marginalized voices, or for people who maybe won’t ever be in front of a microphone. Because of that, I want them to walk away changed in some way. So if you feel something, great.  If you changed after you feel something, even better. Those are the two goals I’m going for. Lastly, I want the young poets to read and just listen to other poets. I think while we’re in a somewhat free world and we can still do that, that is the best gift ever. I was transformed by reading other people’s work — dead people, living people, other writers — and I want one day (it’s corny), but I hope one day to be a part of a poetry legacy; I want someone to say, “Man, [reading] Anastacia-Reneé’s (v.) for the time was X Y Z.” 

Who are you reading right now?

I must admit, I just came from AWP [Associated Writers and Writing Programs] which means I can’t mention all the names, but I grabbed quite a few books from the Cave Canem table. And so I’m reading at least 10 poetry books, and I’m rereading Octavia Butler’s books.  I’ve read them before, but something is pushing me to read, to take a second and third look at them, so I’m reading those. And lately I’ve also been reading short essays by random people. I’ve been making that part of my daily routine, just to read a really short essay, just to change it up a little bit.

If you had five candles on your poetry altar, which poets would they be burning for and why?

Living poets or dead poets?

They’re your five candles — whoever you want!

Sigh — always Audre Lorde. I wish and wish and wish and wish and wish that she would come from the spirit world and we could have lunch together. Always Audre. June Jordan and James Baldwin and, oddly enough — I know this is gonna be strange — Shakespeare. I want to understand what he thought he was creating and what he thought. Did he have any idea he was gonna be, like, number one in the canon? I just kinda want to interview Shakespeare: “So tell me how dost thou do this?” I want to do that.

What is that, four? My God, I need like a million, a million, a million, a million! But I think I will reserve the last candle for the poet right now that’s writing, that doesn’t think they’re ever gonna amount to anything.  I used to be that poet.

I love it: A candle for the unknown poet.

 Yes, candle for the unknown. You’re such a poet! A candle for the unknown poet.

So you are here at an event at Furious Flower called “Poetry Without Boundaries.” What are some boundaries that you think poetry encounters, and why is it important to traverse those boundaries?

I think some of the boundaries are old boundaries, and they end up being just systemic. I really do believe there is a such a thing as racism in poetry, and I don’t know necessarily how to put my finger on it, but when I go to Barnes & Noble just to look and see what’s on their shelves for their top 10 poetry books, or when I look at the best sellers, there is still quite a disparity in terms of diversity, and I don’t know if that’s because of the subject matter or that’s because of the writers, but I still think that is a huge huge huge boundary. I also think there is a genre-bending boundary  (I’m a cross-genre writer), and though we’re getting better — people are making up words for it, people even solicit, “Hey we want your hybrid work” — I think there’s still a certain group of people that think poetry should be one way, and if your poetry is not that way, you will not be published. You will not be asked to read. You will not be in the top 10. You will not win an award. And the way to bump up against that boundary is to compromise, but I’m not willing, so I have to deal with what that means. If that means compromise, and I’m not willing, then I need to move on for that particular boundary. Another boundary is just access. I think that there are so many writers that are amazing writers but just have no idea how to get past the “I have a journal full of poems and I don’t necessarily know how to make that better.” I think that’s a big, big, big boundary.

I know that you’ve taught a lot, so what do you try to gift your students? What do you try to gift that student who has a journal full of writing, or the one who hasn’t even started to journal yet? What do you try to pass on?

I try to pass on internal confidence: I really want a person to leave thinking, “I can do this.” So I’m always trying to give tools. I would rather give you the tools than do it for you, so I stuff a lot of information into students, like, “These are the secrets; these are things you should know at 15 or 18 that nobody ever told me.” So that’s one thing. Also I like to tell them things, small things, like, “Maybe you should write every day,” or “You don’t need to pay money to have a group of friends to workshop and critique,” or “Request certain books at the library and they’ll get ’em.” I usually try to give my students 10 good things, 10 rules to follow, or 10 tips. It’s one of my favorite things about teaching, and then I feel like we’re both winning — I told you some things I wish I had known, and now you know the things, and now you can tell somebody, and you can do the things. 

I also think talking to students about how to be active listeners: How can you be a poet-ally?  I didn’t know, and there was no class. I don’t really think I learned what that could potentially look like until I went to Cave Canem in my thirties! I don’t want somebody I’m teaching to be 31 before they realize, “Oh, this is how I can support another writer,” or “This is how to be an ally.” And then I hope that translates and transcends into the bigger picture. When I think about it, those are pretty lofty, but those are always my goals going into any teaching setting. It doesn’t matter; those are just always my goals.

Who is the work for? Why am I writing if it’s not meant to tell a whole truth? What is the point of telling the half?

Again, I’m interested. I want to key in on the listening: tell me a little bit more about that.

I usually give a short exercise where a person says a line and the other person does not respond.  They just need to sit there and look and listen. They hate it. It’s uncomfortable. Then I usually have the person deliver the line, and I ask the other person to make a comment about the work — not about the person, not about the delivery of the work, not about anything but the work. Then I ask the person to read the line again, and I ask the listener, “Can you repeat the line? Is there something you remember?”

I just feel like technology and so many other things are stopping us from being active listeners with our mind and our hearts, and I think we’re just like, “I’m not gonna feel anything. I’m too busy to feel. I don’t have time to be sad or happy. I just need to get to the next thing.” So I really try to work on what that looks like. Then we get into it: is there something that you liked about it? Is there something that you would change? More specifically, not something you would change because you’re the writer, but something you would change about the way they wrote it.  I guess it’s also not letting the listeners be the center of the critique. I just feel like we don’t really — I’ve been a teacher for a long time — we don’t really have a class for that. We’re not teaching it very much.

What was your most memorable poetic encounter? Either with a poet or a poem?

Just one?! Ah, oh, my gosh. I have to say for the record there is not just one —

(Laughs) For the record: noted in the record.

There’s many. But my most outward, active, uncontrollable, physical thing related to poetry happened at Cave Canem in a workshop with Toi Derricotte.

Of course it did.

It’s so funny! Okay, so I’m loving, I’m mushy, I’m not aloof, but I do have the ability to say “You know, I’m not gonna go here. I’m going to active listen; I am not getting in here with my feelings.” And so I listened to her say, “Write about the hard stuff. Tell the truth,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s cool; this is all great.” And I listened to everybody else’s work, mm-hmm, and then when it got to me, I couldn’t read my poem. I couldn’t read my poem because I did not write the full truth. It was the first time I said to myself, “You have been so busy trying to write like the canon or please others or do it in a form, or not hurt anyone, you have been taking away 50% of your personal truth!” And so when it came to me and I couldn’t read the poem, I instantly realized that’s what was going on, and I just lost it. And then she was just like, “Good! Good! Now read us the poem.” And I was just like, “But it’s not …” and she was just like, “No, read the poem.” And I was able to say what the things that I omitted were, and the reason it changed me is because it made me realize, you know, you’re never gonna please everybody. Who is the work for? Why am I writing if it’s not meant to tell a whole truth? What is the point of telling the half? It just brought up so many questions that I still ask myself, and so for that reason I would say it changed the trajectory of where I thought I was headed as a writer, and that’s not where I was headed at all. Not at all.

If you had to give readers a key to your work, what would it be?

I’m visual, too, so I would have a blue star that would say, “Some of these poems are scary or sad or might make you want to turn the page,” and in parenthesis it would say, “Stay there.”  Just … just stay there. I would have a little sunshine that says, “Some of these poems are ridiculously funny and absurd, even when sad things are happening, because we need humor.” And I would have an ellipsis to say, “There’s some blanks, so that you, reader, have some agency.” Not a mistake; it’s blank so that you can figure out how you feel about a thing, if you were in the situation. And lastly, I would have a long list of writers that I would thank immensely just for having conversations with me, just for sharing their work with me. I just don’t think we lift each other up enough. I would spend pages and pages on conversations and quotes so that other people could see and read those things. Another part of the key would say, “The writer is imperfect, and I am okay with that.” I used to believe that to be a writer you should be striving for perfection, but I don’t. I’m okay with the reader watching me fall.

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

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


Without question, Yusef Komunyakaa is one of the luminaries of contemporary American poetry. His impressive career spans well over 40 years, during which he has deeply affected the literary landscape. Komunyakaa’s work is musical, muscular, and finely crafted. His is a poetics of witness — of clear-sighted, unflinching seeing — that compels readers to locate themselves solidly in the moment of the poem, whether it is detailing the ordinary movements of daily life, reentering the otherworld of mythology, or recounting the harrowing details of life in combat. In “Seeing and Re-seeing,” published in the 2005 special issue of Callaloo, poet Toi Derricotte writes of Komunyakaa’s work, “The most permanent thing about the voice is the language it leaves behind—images so real they are like ripe fruit in the mouth” (513).

The confluence of rhythm, form, and sensory detail in Komunyakaa’s poems works to pull the reader along a journey from which she returns transformed. Consider Komunyakaa’s most famous poem, “Facing It,” which opens thus:

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.

The consonance, assonance, and alliteration of the poem’s first line begin its music — the reader fading into the sonic allure of the poem, as squarely inside it as the speaker is inside the monument. The poem’s sounds pull us even deeper in, even as it expresses resistance; the subtle rhymes of “granite,” “wouldn’t,” and “dammit,” and the domino of “t” sounds end abruptly in the word “stone,” at which point the poem surrenders — “I’m flesh.” The poem’s formal and sonic maneuvers work to completely immerse the reader into its world of doubling: we, too, are both “stone” and “flesh”; we are both the “I” and ourselves.

Komunyakaa’s “Heavy Metal Soliloquy” begins with a rapid sequence of images, the poem quickly overwhelming the reader with visual, tactile, and sonic sensations, which work in a similar fashion:

After a nightlong white-hot hellfire
Of blue steel, we rolled into Baghdad,
Plugged into government-issued earphones
Hearing hard rock. The drum machines
& revved-up guitars roared in our heads.
All their gods were crawling on all fours.

Here, we see another key characteristic of Komunyakaa’s — the poem’s turn from one reality and way of seeing to another. The first five lines of this excerpt work within the register of the literal, even in their more poetic moments (e.g., “white-hot hellfire”) but the use of the word “gods” in the sixth line changes the scope and reach of those previous lines, hinging the immediate to the eternal, the mortal to the divine. It is in moments like these that Komunyakaa’s writing brings to light myriad possibilities, offering us new ways of seeing and being ourselves in the order of things.

Yusef Komunyakaa was the subject of Furious Flower’s 2017 Summer Legacy Seminar. He spent a week among the participants — scholars, poets, educators — as they engaged with his work in a variety of ways. What follows is a transcript of the public conversation we had at that event, which has been organized and edited for clarity.

I’m very excited to be having this conversation with you, Yusef. I wanted to do it publicly because we all are scholars, we’re fans, we’re all very excited to be here [at Furious Flower’s 2017 Summer Legacy Seminar], but tell me about your experience here this week: What’s it been like to be the subject instead of the writer?

Especially the shy poet! (Laughs.) It has been really informative because one sits in a place doing what one has to do, but at the same time it’s interesting to see all these in- depth analyses, hear these in-depth analyses and realize what one does is also public. So it’s been great.

We’ve been talking a lot about your form and taking apart really meticulously form in books like Taboo and Talking Dirty to the Gods. But I’ve also read places where you say you write on fragments of envelopes and snatches of things — small spaces. Walk us through that making that you do, which comes from these snatches to the worlds within those poems. What’s that movement like from the fragment to the completed, formal, structured whole?

Well, usually the fragment is really a distilled moment, and it has to do with the music in the phrase or an image — usually image, because I think I probably wanted to be a painter earlier on. The image works for me in a unique way because the mind functions almost as if a hidden camera is in the psyche. What I mean by that is that I want to be able to almost dance to the images I create, because languages are the first music, and the body is a great amplifier: I feel the poem. And these moments, these fragments, when I actually sit down, those pieces converge and flow together to make or create a more complete, whole reality. So it’s not like painting with numbers or anything like that, you know. (Laughs.) But the poem is a symbol; it’s “a made thing,” to go back to Williams. But also going back even farther in my own time or reality, because my father was a carpenter — a finishing carpenter — and I’d be really excited early on when he would cut a board and it would just slide into place. It was perfect symmetry: it made perfect sense even though he had to measure it a number of times. So that’s been my process.

There are other poems, though, that are complete when I start writing them, especially in Talking Dirty to the Gods. I think it had a lot to do with the form, the illusion of symmetry, the four quatrains. Sometimes I would walk to work and assemble the poem in my head — with the line breaks and all of that — and when I got to the office I just wrote it down. But I think it had something to do with the form. Other poems that that are longer, more … not fragmented, but … Hmm, let’s say this: it’s almost like the musician assembling a song. I would like to think of it that way; perhaps it’s an illusion on my part (laughs), but I would like to think of it that way.

What I mean by that is that I want to be able to almost dance to the images I create, because languages are the first music, and the body is a great amplifier: I feel the poem.

You’ve talked a lot about the image, and you’ve written a lot about the image: it’s really essential and it’s central. You’ve also given us, over the years, amazing images of war and some really difficult and violent moments. I’m curious: Can the image do violence? Is there a line or a negotiation you have to wrestle with as a writer who’s creating a precise image of violence? Is there a risk of also enacting that violence or is that the goal? Is there a struggle of the ethics and the aesthetics of that?

The poet is not a journalist, a reporter. What has penetrated one’s psyche one delivers to the page. It’s a process, a negotiation, and if it’s a violent image, it’s a violent image. What’s interesting as I go through the poems and look at the poems is this: since I’ve internalized elements of violence (let’s face it we all do), there’s also the other side of that. There’s the opposite of that [violence] and those things can live side by side. I think that’s what’s happening. If I look at the poems, there are images of nature, there are images that come out of the composite of what one has taken in, and some of those things are beautiful and some of those things are outrageously violent. But I think it has a lot to do with where I grew up and how I grew up. I was very close to nature from the onset. It’s interesting to look at, say for instance, a jewel wasp. Just the idea of the jewel wasp: how it can sting a cockroach and plant an egg, and the roach is eaten from inside? There’s something very violent about that. Nature is that way, isn’t it? It’s not just the human. Nature itself is violent, so it’s not that we celebrate that, but that we respect it.

You wrote, too, that the making of art changes the creator, and I love that. How has writing and art-making changed you? What have you seen in yourself differently?

I suppose growing up in Louisiana, going out into the environment when I [was] six, you know, discovering things I didn’t know, that in a way was a rehearsal for becoming a poet. I think that’s what’s happening. I didn’t know it at the time, you know, looking at things, discovering things, what have you. I realize that in doing that — this is much later — in retrospect, I realized that in taking this venture out into nature, trying to understand things, not purposely but just accidentally, perhaps I was being changed. And much later writing on the page — I write everything in long hand — just the motion of the pen across the paper, that is an action, and it has everything to do with the whole evolution of the human brain, and the dexterity of the hand and what have you. So in doing that I realize that, yes, I’m being changed by the motion of the instrument. We are very complex organisms and we are changed by stimuli: what we come in contact with, what we do, how we see, the spirit of the moment, but also something deeper than that — the complexity of being human.

And that comes a little bit more alive in the act of writing.


I’m curious now about the poem as a finished thing. You’ve talked about the making, the inspiration, the changing. But as one changes and goes back to the poem, it’s a different interaction: how do you know when a poem is done?

It’s a rather intense negotiation. One reason I say this is I haven’t always been totally aware of this. (Laughs.) But, when I was in graduate school I took a class with Howard Moss, who was editor of The New Yorker at the time. And I said, “How many poems do you receive?” He said, “Oh, maybe, oh, 2,000 a week.” And I said, “How do you get through all of those?” and he said, “Oh, well, we don’t.” So I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, sometimes it’s just reading the first few lines.” So the entry of the poem is important. But I took one step farther; I said, how does a poem end? And that is also a process of negotiation. Initially, I write everything down. In revising, I never add, okay? Sometimes, I edit from the bottom of the poem. And the reason for that is that often we have just who we are; we want to make sure the reader receives everything, gets the poem, when in fact the most provocative, truest essence of the poem, we have written past. So that’s what happening — it’s that process of negotiation. But even I’ve written poems that have been published, and I’ve gone back and circled phrases, words, you know? It’s an ongoing process.

We are very complex organisms, and we are changed by stimuli: what we come in contact with, what we do, how we see, the spirit of the moment, but also something deeper than that — the complexity of being human.

You mentioned your teacher, and you’ve written and talked about [Robert] Hayden, [James] Baldwin, [Gwendolyn] Brooks — lots of masters who have really influenced you. Are younger and contemporary writers influencing your work? Are they changing or influencing how you see poetry or write poetry? Who’s exciting you?

Well, I think that’s always present, being in the world. Just being in the world — who we are — we’re taking everything in. And yes, there are voices out there: some of my students, you know, some of their images, they’re rather instructive. The musicality of certain poets doing something different than I’m doing: that is instructive as well. It’s how we live in the world. The spirit of living is important. I’ve been teaching for a very long time now, and there are people doing all kinds of things out there; there are some examples right here, right? Right, Ed? (Laughs, gesturing to poet and former student Ed Pavlic.)

What’s your favorite way or what’s a favorite entry for teaching poetry, and who are some poets you find yourself teaching often?

I try to go across the map. Okay, there are certain writers who seem to always be there. I’m just listing off a couple of those: Robert Hayden is usually there. A poet such as Elizabeth Bishop, she’s usually there. Muriel Rukeyser — and that’s a voice lots of us may not even be aware of, but she is always there, I think. We can go on and on talking about her, really, because I think she’s such an instrumental voice for American poetry. Gwendolyn Brooks is there, especially the first poems. [Amiri] Baraka, especially the first poems. And we can go across the map: translations. [Czeslaw] Milosz is so important. [George] Herbert is so important to me.

I teach a craft course, and it’s really a literature course, and throughout the semester we cover between 12 and 15 substantial books. I’m talking about books, like (gestures to imply thickness), okay? A good example is the last craft course I taught — spring — where the sacred and the profane converge, that was the idea of the course. Starting off with [Gaston] Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and The Psychoanalysis of Fire, coming up to contemporary voices. (I like to surprise myself. I don’t like teaching over and over again the same books, okay? That’s one thing. I don’t like teaching from yellow notepads, you know?) I used to teach the history of African American poetry; we start in 1746 — “Bars Fight” up to contemporary; usually in two semesters from 1746 up to the Harlem Renaissance, then the Harlem Renaissance up to contemporary, so two segments.

Speaking of the sacred and the profane, I know you were raised in a Christian household and have said the music of the South, the rhythms of that upbringing, affected you. God, or at least the idea of God, appears often in your work — overtly, elusively, indirectly, and so I’m really interested in what role the sacred/the divine/the holy — i.e., the idea of God — plays in your writing. How does God feature in your poetics?

God? Okay, okay, I suppose God does appear … (Laughs.) Well there’s a moment when I read as a teenager … I read the Bible through, came back to it again and read it through

Hold on. What version?

King James.

Phew! Okay!

Yes, King James! So I came back to it and since then I’ve read various translations. One of my close friends, Willis Barnstone, has translated the Bible a number of ways, even located the poetry within the context of the Bible. After reading the Bible the second time, I realized I had great questions. I had great questions, okay? (Laughs.) And those questions are still alive in my psyche. Because what was happening around me in the segregated South: it wasn’t lining up, you know? It didn’t make any sense, because I felt like, okay, if one risked walking into a certain kind of church on Sunday morning, there would have been great violence delivered. Okay? That did not work in my psyche. And the other thing I began to look at: wherever Christ appeared in the context of the Bible became an emotional and psychological equation for the socialism. So I saw Christ as a socialist. And that is something I held onto.

I want you to talk a little bit about your relationship to translations: You’ve been translated. Do you translate, and what value do you find in that process? Who are your favorite poets in translation?

One of the favorite poets for me of course is [Pablo] Neruda. Neruda is so important as a world poet. [Federico] Lorca is important. A poet such as Milosz is important. And it’s interesting with Milosz, because I’d come across an image — I think it’s “A Poor Christian [Looks at] the Ghetto,” that particular poem — and there’s an image of a mole with a lantern underground. I had never come across an image quite like that, so that was a very informative image for me. I think it colored a lot of … not necessarily images in my work, but permission — permission to let the brain do what it does best, and that is imagination, going back to Phillis Wheatley’s idea of — her poem “On Imagination” — mental optics. So a poet such as Herbert is so important because of his facility with philosophy. And there are other voices out there, of course, [François] Villon. In Galway Kinnell’s translation of Villon, there’s a line: “I will my bones to the dice-maker.” I said, “Where did that come from?” (Laughs.) So all these things become a composite within one’s psyche, and it is something to not work against but to beckon to. And it gave me permission not to over question the images that came out of my psyche, to embrace them.

It also makes me think of that phrase you say, “Language is first music,” because the music that will arise in another language is different than our music, but then it can influence our music and our images, as you say. Absolutely.

Yes. I was working with a young Vietnamese poet, and he’s a very interesting poet for a simple reason. This was in 1990, that I came in direct contact with him, in Hanoi. He had gone to school in Cuba, and my question to him was Who are the poets there who informed your work? And of course, you know, the first person he said actually wasn’t a Cuban poet: Neruda! And looking at his work — I began to work with him to translate passages of his work — he’s different from any of the other Vietnamese poets and I think it had to do with him spending time in Cuba. Vietnamese have rather interesting relationship to poetry and translation when I think about it because early on there were poetry battles between Chinese and Vietnamese poets! Duels going on with verse, which is a very informed way of dealing with chaos.

We’re informed by what we take in, and we’re also informed by what we push against. And I’m not about going out and using one’s body as a weapon; I’m talking about pushing against that which I think humans have always possessed, that question about mystery.

Speaking of chaos, we are in very chaotic times — nationally and globally, certainly — and we’re wrestling with the complexity of language in a time of language reduction. How can language function? What’s its role? And what’s a poet’s role in times such as these?

It’s interesting because I don’t think of the poem as an emotional ad. What I mean by that is I don’t think the poet can fear the complexity of the language — that’s what he or she is working with. So the poem is not an emotional ad for a moment: going back to something that Gwendolyn Brooks had said, “Art is that which endures.” The poet who’s writing the poem has to be surprised, and that individual is surprised through language, and sometimes it’s the density of the language; it becomes an experience. I don’t think the poet should write down to the reader. There’s a place where they meet. I know for myself, reading poetry, there weren’t really the simple poems, because I like going back to a poem again and again. And sometimes even in writing a poem, I like to be able to say, “Damn, where’d that come from?” I already know; that’s a problem.

So is there a tension between art being the thing that “endures” and art being able to speak to present moment?

The poet isn’t a journalist. In speaking to the present moment, sometimes we speak to the present but we also speak to history and the future. I would like to think of it that way, where it’s not just written in a single moment, dealing with that moment as if I’m a journalist.

I saw a video clip of you saying racism is a land of mental illness. Can you talk a little bit more about that? And do you think there’s a treatment or cure?

Okay, I know the clip you’re talking about. Have I revised that? No. I still believe, yes, it’s a mental illness. And the reason is that you need one factor that can change the personality — I’m talking about on, not just an emotional level, but on a biological level of an individual. That is a mental, I don’t want to say illness; I want to say mental deficiency. That’s what I believe.

Bowen talks about fear, says it’s fear that drives the lynch mob out into the streets. We may be talking about the same thing in different degrees. I think it’s a dialogue — well it’s more than just a dialogue, but — we need to face up to what this is about. And we have to move through something in order to come to the other side of it. This is what I believe. You can’t go around it; you move through it to the other side of it, and perhaps you’ll change. Move through it, and you’re changed. I think it’s also taught: racism is taught. I’m not talking about the fact that one is singled out and tutored, but body language is the first thing. That’s how small children are often taught elements of racism. Children are great readers — they are amazing. And they’re being taught when they’re not aware and even the parents or the adults around them are not aware, by body language.

Going back to the war for a minute. How did that experience inform your use of language, and what did it tell you about social identity?

Going to Vietnam was very instructive, but I suppose I came to war very early. I write about this: there’s a preface to an anthology entitled Inheriting the War where I write about the fact that I’m 6 or 7 and my great uncle, who had been to World War I. He defined it as “on a barrel detail,” which was a strange way of defining World War I and his experience. But then he told me in a graphic way what that meant. There is so much trench warfare, you know, in World War I, there were so many soldiers getting killed that the only thing they could do was bury them there, and then come back and exhume the bodies. And that’s what he was doing. It was a horrific description of war. You have two dog tags, right? Put one in the mouth of the corpse and one in a bag. That was very … well, to carry around that image, I think, was an anti-war statement. The other thing he said was that the only thing he had been taught was to kill, to drink, and gamble.

So bring that back to identity and to language.

Well, I know the history of Blacks fighting in wars. My uncle, I think, fought under the French flag. When I got to Vietnam, I had all this in my head, you know? I wasn’t afraid of the landscape, and consequently when I saw the people often working in the rice paddies and what have you, I said, “Oh, these are peasants.” This same people I’d come from in so many ways in rural Louisiana. And yet I knew — I wasn’t insane — I knew that they could kill you, you know? There was a lot of tension there. Okay, for example, I refused to use those derogatory terms for the Vietnamese. And I would question people about them because I thought it paralleled other similar terms for African Americans — that kind of … you know, degradation. You have to degrade before you can kill. So in a certain sense, I identified with the Vietnamese, and yet I knew that I could get killed by those same individuals. And that’s a real trick inside the head to think about it in that way.

I don’t think the poet should write down to the reader. There’s a place where they meet.

In the rear, that’s where the problems exist between American soldiers. Not in the field, not on the LZs and what have you — you know, when they’re dependent on each other to fend off the enemy — but it was in the rear when they were drinking and trying to forget the war and elements of the war. But mainly when they’re drinking. Then the real American shows up again. That was real problematic. The Vietnamese knew that demarcation, they knew what was happening in the American psyche when it came to race, and sometimes they expertly played up on it. The idea of Hanoi Hannah is a good example of that, right? Her voice penetrated. You know, “Hello GIs. Guess what’s happening back home?” You know, that gets your attention when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. I suppose she saw the parallels. Ho Chi Minh was very interesting because he knew the American constitution, but he also knew all the problems with America, so the Vietnamese were very informed when it came to race. 

What do you read besides poetry? And what other areas of interest do you have? What other disciplines are you interested in?

I suppose since high school I’ve been intensely involved with history. One reason is because I had a superb history teacher, Mrs. Green. And so that’s been going on for a very long time. Philosophy is important to me; when we think of philosophy we think of abstract thinking, but when it converges with nature it becomes doubly interesting for me. Well, I used to assign for students Scientific American, and the reason for that is, well, I didn’t initially know but finally I came up with this: it is where terror and beauty converge, align, and that makes sense to me. But also I think it has something to do with the images; there are some surprising images in science and also [surprising] realities, I think. And questions; questions are so important. I read a little bit of everything, really.

What are some daily practices around your writing process?

It’s a daily practice. Okay, let’s start this way. Okay. I used to think I could remember everything. I had that foolish belief I could remember everything, but no that’s not the case, especially recently. So I keep a pad of paper beside the bed and often I write at least a few lines before my feet touch the floor. I’m not one for remembering every dream, and yet I know that I’m dreaming because we’re all dreaming in some way. So sometimes that first image that I write down seems almost as if it came out of a dream. And yet it is instructive. I’m not talking about where I’m writing for hours at a time; if I’m writing for 30 minutes that’s fine, not sitting there where you’re writing for hours at a time. You don’t have to. I think this is probably true for everyone out here: writing is taking place even when we’re not writing. But we don’t have to be overly conscious of that. You know?

That’s a good segue into advice for emerging writers. What do you tell young writers they need to do or think about? What advice do you have for them?

Okay, my advice is to write every day and to read everything. And don’t worry about getting published. That’s the other thing: don’t worry about getting published. My first collections were small books. A good example of that is that Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. I was reading from that and a publisher, Chris Howell of Lynx House, said, have you sent that out anywhere? And I said, no I haven’t. So I worked on it a couple more months and then I sent it to him, but the main thing is I was interested in hearing the poems come alive. I used to have this straight man that I used to work with (laughs), a poet by the name of Adam Hammer, we were in graduate school together at Colorado State. Adam was so unusual for a simple reason; because when his father had worked on the Oakridge project, the atom bomb, Adam as a teenager had translated Rimbaud. He had gone to University of Massachusetts without a college degree for the graduate program. So he was very unusual, and we used to do these poetry readings together. He was really the quintessential surrealist, an American surrealist; that’s how his mind worked. And we used to play off of each other, which was an interesting experience because I was writing poetry entirely different than his, and so within our poetry reading you would see huge ranges taking place, you know? That was instructive, where the mind could travel.

So you’d advise young poets to expand the range of what they’re exposed to?

Right, right. You don’t want to have 20 poets reading the same poem.

Looking back at this long illustrious career, what are you most proud of? What do you wish you’d known earlier? What do you know for sure? What are you still learning?

That’s a huge question! I suppose what I’m most proud of is that I realize that I have been informed by the place I grew up and it has given me a certain kind of tenacity. That’s what I’m most proud of.

For me, the poem — the new poem, the poem I’m working on — is the poem that I care the most about. Not that I work past poems or anything like that, because I’m constantly returning to poems, but I’ve been informed by the present. The way that I work is that I’m working on more than one collection of poems, side by side, and I move from those places and hopefully being surprised and sometimes fumbling on to something that I never thought I would write about. That’s very important to me — when I thought I would never write about something. When I didn’t even know I would write about it, you know? So one laughs and says, “What in the world? Where did that come from?” And sometimes when I’m working on a poem, I find myself working on another poem within the context of that poem, you know, so that’s important — to realize that sometimes we’re working on multiple things within the context of a given poem.

We’re informed by what we take in, and we’re also informed by what we push against. And I’m not about going out and using one’s body as a weapon; I’m talking about pushing against that which I think humans have always possessed, that question about mystery. That’s what makes us human I think, that we think of the world as mysterious, and consequently because we’re thinking about the world as mysterious it’s always beckoning to us.

That was, to use your favorite word, instructive! Thank you.

Thank you!

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

&Patricia Smith is a presence. Whether on the stage or on the page, her voice is powerful, sure, and unmistakable: it compels and captivates; it is insistent and it is urgent. Across the span of her long career as a wordsmith, Smith has deployed her voice as a vessel for empathy, pulling readers and listeners under its spell outside of themselves and into, for a moment, the internal landscape of others. From a skinhead to a Greek god, from hurricane Katrina to Lucky (the dog whose world Katrina destroys), from the mothers of murdered Black boys to the gun that brings their end, Smith “goes there,” delving with both compassion and insightfulness into the worlds of others and bringing their stories into the light. The first section of “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” for example, runs through a litany in the voices of “the mothers of the lost” to whom the poem is dedicated:

that’s my son collapsed there, my son
crumpled there my son lying there
my son positioned there my daughter
repositioned there my daughter as
exhibit A there my daughter dumped
over there my son hidden away there
my son blue there my son dangling
there my son caged there my daughter
on the gurney there on the slab there
in the drawer there my daughter splayed
There my son locked down there my
son hanging there my son bleeding …

The poem dives into the soulscape of these stricken women with a starkness that is both bracing and heartbreaking.

Smith brings to bear all the tools of music in the crafting of her poetic voice, the auditory elements of her work implemented with an enviable deftness. This precision and sonic seamlessness both open the door to the difficult subjects that Smith embraces and also holds the reader within them. The poem transfixes. Then transforms.

The engine of Smith’s work, though, is its scope: her determination to tell the whole story means moments are connected to other moments, which are connected to other stories, which are linked to a history that otherwise might seem too distant to matter. The aforementioned section of “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” concludes thus:

                        shot as prey shot as conquest shot as
                        solution shot as lesson shot as warning
                        shot as comeback shot as payback shot
                        for sport shot for history that’s my son
                        not being alive anymore there that’s my
                        child coming to rest one layer below
                        the surface of the
                        of my life


In these closing lines, the mothers’ exquisitely rendered grief becomes both microscope and telescope, making visible the way the past holds space in the present and the future, linking the interior and exterior worlds, and unveiling the tangled and multitudinous strands of this story. Smith’s is a formidable and essential voice, and one to which we should continue to pay close attention.

Patricia Smith is the author of ten books. She served as judge for the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize sponsored by the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and she spent an hour in the studio with me talking about her own story. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Tell me about the process of writing Incendiary Art. Where did this book begin?

It didn’t begin the way it ended up. I found a couple of news items about men who had drowned their young daughters, and I knew I was going to write about them. I wrote a poem, and then I started thinking about all the other ways that men can drown their daughters—emotional, psychological, things like that—and that goes back to when I was growing up: I remember the fathers who weren’t in the home but they were in the neighborhood. It was almost accepted that the father would be in the home for a while but then split, and I had so many friends who would point to their fathers on the street and say, “That’s my daddy over there!” I wondered what leads to this dysfunction where a man considers his blood kin so disposable. In both [news stories], the men had gotten angry at the mother and said, “Well, I know how to fix her, I’ll just kill …” and I’m like, “What?!” So initially it was going to be (and get this title, because this is the only time you’re going to hear it) “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.” And then I thought “Yeah … I’m going to be Alice Walkered or something,” you know? And so I was writing a lot of poems, poems about, for example, that thing in the heartland where some fathers are “marrying” their young daughters and having them vow to be celibate—it’s terrible—and so then I thought maybe I should make it [the collection] all [about] fathers. And so for a long time I had that idea set. But then I felt myself straining—you sort of write it through, you write it out, and you go, “Oh, this is not enough for a book,” you know, and so I put that aside for a while.

I wondered what leads to this dysfunction where a man considers his blood kin so disposable.

Meanwhile, there was this drumbeat, this continuous drumbeat of these lives being lost, usually at the hands of the police. I always tell my students to look for the voice that they’re not hearing, so I said, “Wow, all those people have mothers.” And you see the mother twice: you see the mother at the beginning, in all the chaos where someone comes to her and says, you know, “your son is dead” or “your daughter is dead,” and then you see the mother again at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter is deemed not responsible, and more chaos, and then she’s gone. Okay, so you don’t know what the process is—how do you fill that hollow of having a child and then not having one? And then losing your child so publicly in some instances, too, and then having the child be railroaded and stereotyped in all kinds of ways. So I started with that. That was a little bit easier, because there were so many cases to work with, so I have the mother look at these different cases and say this is her child, this is her child, this is her child, and then I had to write the poems from her point of view. That kind of took over the book …

Now you might be wondering how I got to the title! That’s another thing. There are three movements to this book: there’s the drowned daughters, there’s the saga of the accidental saints (that’s the mothers), and then there’s incendiary art, which started after a Donald Trump rally while he was still running for president, and there’d been attacks on minorities who were coming in to the rallies. They interviewed this one man who had attacked one of the Black people at the rally, and he said, “You know, I sure would like to burn a Black man.” I was like, “What?!” And so it got me thinking about the role of fire in our lives. I thought about when I was growing up, the riots after the MLK assassination, how my whole neighborhood was just burnt to its bones, and it took years and years for it to come back. That, and then Tulsa, which a lot of people don’t know about, and the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, and the Rodney King riots. I just decided that I wanted to go through—because I did hear someone else say, “Well, they [Black people] go burning their own neighborhoods down”—those two things, and I thought, “I need to stand in the center of the fire for a while and see …”.

I had a moment before I put the book together when I thought I should just take one of these things, and I felt kind of strange for having these three directions—and there aren’t many poems in the book that aren’t connected to one or more of those segments, so I had to kind of think back to what kind of books am I seeing, what do I want, and it kind of backfired in a way. I love the book, but it’s a very, very hard book for me to do a reading from simply because when you’re doing a reading, you’re measuring—you’re doing long poems, short poems, funny poems, form poems, free verse poems—and there’s no relief. There’s no pull up out of this book. And maybe if I’d thought about that a little bit more, I would have changed direction, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

It’s a phenomenal book. You say there are three movements, but that doesn’t address the elegy, that final movement at the end of the book that pulls the arc out of that public space into a more personal space. How did that come to be?

Well, so there’s one poem that I don’t like, that I don’t think did what I wanted it to do. I added it at the last minute, and you know how it is, you look back at your book and think, “Why didn’t I revise?” It’s called “Sometimes,” and it’s basically about when Black folks kill their own. I was trying to have that kind of be a segue into the idea that “not-every-life-is-lost-at-the-hands-of-the-police/not-every-hand-is-lost-to-race.” I don’t think it’s effective, but that was meant to be the segue into the next section. I thought about that for a while, and even my editors were saying I had to make sure that that elegy, which is really long, contributed to the book. In a way, it probably should have been in my previous book, but my book before, which sparked the elegy, was out and about before I even thought about the poem. So … I’m not sure … I like it in the book. I’m just not sure its place in the book is cemented in the way that I would like it to be.

It’s interesting, though, because when I read it, what I read was this conflation of both the daughter and the father—the opposite of the drowning in one sense that happens earlier in the book; on the other hand, it’s also another drowning—in the grief. But then there’s also a collapsing of the mother and the daughter: you write, “the daughter dons the widow garb” and so, ultimately, there’s an intense connection between the father and daughter. So to me, that poem pulls all of the things together.

Well, it was kind of losing both my parents in a way. My mother is not an emotionally giving person. She’s a functional parent. She’s a comb your hair, take you to church, check your grades, whoop your butt, you know—she’s that parent. And so my father was the person I told everything to and poured everything out to and the one who, if I say something like, “I wanna be a writer,” he doesn’t say, “Only white people do that,” which is what my mother said, in a way trying to protect me, but my father saw that my future was not in being protected; it was in taking chances. So [when he died], everything just stopped. Everything just stopped. And still, to this day, my mother and I look at each other sometimes and think, “And you would be who?” She doesn’t really know me. She’s not the kind of person who would say, “Tell me about yourself,” or “Tell me about your passions,” so what I’m most passionate about in life, my mother doesn’t recognize. This means nothing to her. So it was like losing both my parents. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over, but it’s also something that infuses the writing. My father was a born storyteller, so I hear his voice all the time. That elegy, I guess, is a move toward writing the poem, the my-father-is-gone poem. I’m not even sure that’s it yet. I’m not even sure that’s it. It doesn’t in any way encompass how important he was in my life. I’d do a whole book about him …

My best friend, the novelist Catherine Chung, has a theory that the book isn’t done until you write something that breaks you. Was there a poem in particular that just took it out of you to write?

It’s funny, because it’s not a very specific poem, it’s at the very end of the book, so I think it’s maybe an entry to another project or book or something, but it was one of the “Incendiary Art” poems—“Incendiary Art: The Body.” I think because it brings all that heat and motion and chaos and question back to the one person standing there, threatened and encouraged or broken or something, you know, and I didn’t realize when I wrote it that it was going to be that poem, but when I go back to the book it’s really difficult for me to read. I pulled it out a couple times, because when I do readings I will do an excerpt from “Accidental Saints” or maybe I’ll do the Emmett Till sonnets, but it’s hard to pull out two or three things, and say, “Oh I’m going to do a 30-minute reading,” and so in the quest for those single poems, I pulled that out and read it a couple times, and the second or third time, I went, “I can’t do that.” It opened up everything that had gone into the book. The same way that you end a poem thinking about what you want the reader to walk away with, I think, “I want the reader to be restless and troubled,” and I didn’t want to tie it up in a knot, and I don’t think that does that. There is some image from a movie, and it has something to do with the cosmos, where everything comes in to this tiny dot of light, and that’s the dot of light. That’s the poem that would probably push me into whatever my next project is.

You have ten books, and earlier, you talked about the connection between Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Incendiary Art, so do you revise into a new book from the previous book? Can you talk about the evolution from book to book, and what propels you from one project to another?

There are other things that tie into that. For starters, the fact that I got introduced to writing poetry by getting up on stage and doing it, so a lot of the revision or going back in to work is because I might pull something from my third book and do it in a reading and go, “Oh, I can change it.” I can change it when I’m doing a reading, though I can’t change the book. So instead of me thinking, “Well that book’s gone. It’s out,” I keep resurrecting things and throwing them into the mix; it keeps the poems fluid. Even where I go back and say, “I wish I had written that differently,” I can perform it differently; I can bring it back. And I’ve gone back into previous books and started pulling things out, and thought, “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be reading these things.”

My very first book happened because I was very visible, and there was somebody at a reading who was connected to a publisher who asked if I had a manuscript—which I did not, but I tell everyone if anyone asks you that question, say, “Yes, I do,” and then worry about it when you get home. And so it’s a very undisciplined book because I gathered everything I was reading on stage and stuff, and was like, “Here!” I didn’t know anything about craft or line breaks or anything. If you had snatched a sheet from me on stage, it would look like a block of prose, because I just wanted to get it down so I could read it; I didn’t care what it looked like. And when I would read something and breathe, I just threw a line break. And so that’s how the book came out. And I still love that book, because I was so young. And I think the first three books were kind of like that, although with the second book, which is Big Towns Big Talk, I was thinking music; I wanted to do music poems. I’m a music fanatic. And so I wanted to have a bluesy feel, which was also an excuse to keep me from paying attention to craft (you know, “I want it to feel like improvisation!” you know, yeah, whatever).

I got involved in slam, and my social circle was there, and then I realized that someone can hear a line or a poem or something that really connects with something that’s going on in their life, and they can be changed.

And then when I realized that people really listen, that it wasn’t a recreational exercise … I mean, I got involved in slam, and my social circle was there, and then I realized that someone can hear a line or a poem or something that really connects with something that’s going on in their life, and they can be changed. And so the book Close to Death was my first kind of admission that I was doing something socially that could be important, that I had a venue to tell a story or to address an issue that I didn’t really know was that powerful before, but I still think that the poems weren’t very disciplined. I was still getting a lot of attention for being a performer, and the books were nice, but they were kind of … a backdrop to that. And then I lost that publisher—they went out of business. I never sent a book out to anybody, you know, I’d just been in the right place at the right time, and so I did that, and then I won a contest that published a book, and then I was affiliated with Coffee House which is a real great press, and I talked to them about where I wanted to go.

Blood Dazzler was also my MFA thesis. So in that time I had really dedicated myself to learning craft, learning the language of prosody and learning who the important poets were, which I kinda think I knew, but … You know how we all have those conversations where you have no idea who people are talking about, and I said “yeah” a lot. I knew who the important poets were, but not who influenced them, who they influenced, and giving myself some sense of being part of that lineage somehow was really empowering. Then I felt the books had more of a back to them. I found out that when you put those things in your toolbox, you know, when you learn a lot about craft, then poems that had been just moving around on the page for years because I didn’t know what was wrong with them, it was because they were asking for something I didn’t know yet how to do. And so all of a sudden, it’s like,That’s a sestina!” It’s so wonderful to have those things at your disposal and let the poem tell you what it needs and then say, yes, I have that now. So that was a real turning point for me.

I felt the shift happen around Blood Dazzler, so it’s interesting to hear you articulate it in this way.

It was a lot more confidence. I think the confidence shows even in that I took on telling a whole story in a book. Close to Death was not like that. Close to Death was like African American men in different phases of their lives—some in the south, some in the city—it wasn’t necessarily focused on violence or anything like that. But the thing about Blood Dazzler is there was a whole inner struggle about whether I had the right to write that book, you know, and the concern about appropriating people’s voices. But then I said, “Look, I think the poet’s job is to be a witness, and if I’m just going to be a witness to things that are right in front of me and accessible, then I don’t think I’m doing my work.” And it wasn’t a regional story; it was a human story. And there are a lot of people regionally who were doing work, and I thought, “Well, put our voices together, and you may get the entire story, but I shouldn’t back off because I don’t have any history in the Gulf region.”

And here’s this brief funny story. So Natasha Trethewey is a poet who does have a history in the region, and people had built up to me this whole thing that she’s really upset that you wrote this book and you’re not from there. I’m like, “Why would she be?” And there’s nothing there, but they’re building up this whole thing. Finally at this AWP [conference], I think, they set up an event where she and I were going to have a conversation with each other; people were signing up like it was going to be a cage match, like there was going to be a pit of Jell-O or something and we were gonna go at it—the Gulf region’s mine, arrgh! And so we’re sitting in these chairs, and I’m thinking, “Well, if it’s gonna come up, it’s gonna come up …” And we had this great discussion! She said, “No, I really wanted the viewpoint of somebody who wasn’t there,” and all that, and then we found out that what we did have in common was a murdered parent, and it just kinda came out in the conversation and I just thought, “You know, there are no stories a poet shouldn’t reach for.” There just aren’t.

I want to backtrack a bit and ask you to think about a question: what’s the line between exploitation and exploration of a subject? Especially around current events. You said you wrestled with it. If you had to say what the line is, if you had to articulate what that line might look like, or how you know if you’re stepping over that line as an artist …

I think the answer is: you have to make sure that you write the hell out of it. You can’t slack if you’re in territory that might be questionable. You really have to write it.

Well, I’ve been writing persona poems all my creative career, you know, but I don’t step in and say, “I know everything about what it is to be in this position.” I step in and I look around and say, “Okay, what’s accessible to me? What can I do?” So for example, okay, there’s this skinhead, and I don’t know how he became the way he was, so let me explore and see one possible way this might have happened, which then when I’m out of the persona, enriches who I am, not as a writer but as a person, you know. At least I think it does. I feel that it does.

With [Hurricane] Katrina, there was the poem [I wrote] about the 34 nursing home residents—my mother’s sister was in a nursing home for a long time, and the task of taking care of her was portioned out to a number of people in our family. I was probably in high school, about 16, and they’re like, “It’s your turn to sit with your aunt.” And she was not the formerly God-fearing aunt that I knew. I mean, she would curse like a sailor and throw things, and no one had given me any prep, and it was a very strange place to be. But I remember there were two things they did while I was there. When she was asleep, I would walk around and I would talk to the other residents, and there was always the one woman who would put on full makeup and sit around, and there was the ex-soldier with all his stories were about “the war.” The other thing was that when it got out of hand with my aunt, there was a button my her bed, and if I pushed it, somebody always came to help. When I saw the story about the residents in St. Bernard Parish, and the fact that the administrator, the person who’s supposed to be in charge, had left them and had said, “I’m sure that someone would come and get them,” all I could picture—and this is the hazard of being a poet—is the room is dark, the water is rising, and I could see people pushing the buttons and nothing happening. So that didn’t bring me into the story on a “I am Chicagoan and I’m going to write about something that happened in a place I am not familiar with” level; that brought me in on a human level that could have been moved anywhere. And the fact that we tend to—when it’s on the line—we tend to write off our elders a lot, that’s what pulled me into it.

I did not intend on writing a whole book! I really just wanted to stay in that story for a while, and I remember reading that poem somewhere—and I’m very aware of my audience when I’m reading. That’s one thing I brought over from slamming, that if there’s not enough energy in the room, you change the poem that you’re reading; if there’s too much energy, you want to change the energy in the room, you could pull it down—but there’s a woman right in the front row of the audience and she’s looking at the clock, and she’s looking at her watch, and she’s fidgeting and I’m, like, “Hmmm.” By that time I had just become aware that there might be some people from the Gulf region who’d say that the work didn’t feel true, because I didn’t have anything regional in the poem, so I asked her afterward. I said, “I noticed you were a little uncomfortable, so I wonder if you could tell me about that,” and she was like, “Well, they had Mardi Gras this year …” and I was like, “Wow!” I realized there were a lot of people who just wanted it to be over. They didn’t want to see any more shots of people being lifted in baskets; they didn’t want to hear any more tales of disaster. I think that’s around the time that Monica Lewinsky said, “Hey, I still have the dress,” and everybody went “Whoop! They’ll be fine.” [Turns her face away.] And like [that woman in the audience], they see one building go up and they say, “Wow, New Orleans is fine now.” And that pushed me. I realized I’d been internalizing a lot of things I’d seen, and that some invisible thing had been stopping me from writing, and then I said, “Okay. I’ll do my readings, but before I do my reading about the nursing home resident, I’ll have three to four Katrina poems to say, ‘Let’s take your mind back for a while, know that this is still going on.’ ”

I think the answer is: you have to make sure that you write the hell out of it. You can’t slack if you’re in territory that might be questionable. You really have to write it. And that’s why I was so happy that [writing Blood Dazzler] coincided with me getting a little bit more confident about form and saying, “I can’t think of a form for this poem so let me hold on to it for a while, and maybe it’s something I’d never done before.” It was really important to me that the poems be sound. So if you don’t have a particular interest in the story—and maybe everybody didn’t—that they could appreciate them as poems. I think I’m probably proudest of that book. It represented for me a real departure from territory that I was comfortable with.

I want to backtrack to your MFA, because I feel like you’ve referenced it as parallel to Blood Dazzler—what was challenging, surprising, fun about that process for you?

I didn’t go in, as so many people do, looking for the program to give me a voice. I know sometimes it’s like, “I’m going to use this program to find out who I am.” I knew I could hone my voice, I could do other things with my voice, and I wanted a program to alert me to those possibilities. But that thing that I talked about before, about having some sense of how I fit in the canon and where, that was the most important thing for me. I was the person in the front row, my arm shooting up all the time, because we have a way of talking like people already know everything, especially in the MFA, like, “Well we’re all here because we’re so well-versed in all the poetic everything, you know.” So they would mention names and I’d go, “I’m sorry, can you give me a list of books so I can become familiar with this poet that we’re talking about as though I’m already familiar with them?” I didn’t care what people thought. I just wanted to leave with stuff that I feel like I had missed out on, you know. I was in a workshop on non-western forms, and I was like, “Yes! I can do this and this,” and then maybe we’d concentrate on villanelles and do things like that. Somebody tried to get me to love Emily Dickinson, and I don’t. And what was really funny about it is she was almost moved to tears because I was doing the reading and it was fine, but I just didn’t relate, you know, and so she was like, “But you’re a woman. Can’t you see?” And I just looked at her. It was fantastic. “You know what I really love? I love how passionate you are about this.” And that’s what made me want to read more Emily Dickinson, not that you say that there’s some weird connection that I’m missing that you want, that you need me to get, because that’s not going to happen, I could tell you. “I’ve read enough to know it’s not going to happen, but anybody who’s as passionate about something as you are,” I said, I love that you love her that much.”

And there were the discussions where you could turn to anyone and just start talking about writing, and it wasn’t like when you got home and it’s like, “Oh, you did that nice, cute poetry thing.” So I felt that it was really just time for me, and I was very greedy and very possessive of my time there. Of course, there’s always more that you can learn, but I think that what I did there really changed me as a poet. It just opened up so many other doors. I was able to look at poems that I loved and that I went to again and again and again, not knowing why, and it’s because the poet had done something technically to help heighten my response to the poem, but I couldn’t see it. I could feel it, but I didn’t see it. Now I can look at a poem and go, “Ummmm! I see how you did that! I see how you shifted that rhyme scheme!” I mean, even poets that I’ve loved for a long time, like I’ve loved Gwendolyn Brooks, but when you really look at the technical things she did in her poems … So it opened that up for me. It gave me—and I don’t even think this was a primary thing—it gave me a legitimacy in a way. I wanted to teach, and people were asking me to teach, but for short stints—come here for a month or something—and I thought, “What am I going to do so that I am surrounded by my art all the time? So that if I’m not writing, I’m talking to other people who want to write?” And I knew I needed to have the degree to have that flexibility, that there’d be more places that I could go to. I miss it. I kinda wish that I could just take another couple years and just do it all over again! And you can, of course, do it on your own, you can do your reading, but you don’t, right? Because life. Because deadlines. Because money. You can do it on your own, but to be in that place, where everybody kinda looks at each other once in a while and smiles—and I’m sure a lot of people don’t have this experience—but it was so wonderful already having the sense of self and saying, “I want to see how much more that can be, and you guys are going to show me!”

You write across multiple genres: what’s that like? How do you know when something’s a poem versus an essay? What do you take with you into other genres, or what do you have to leave behind?

I realized that a lot of what I know about characterization or the arc of a story comes from poetry because, if you look at it, a good poem should include an entire story in a really tight and controlled space, so every single word has to do work. When you’re cutting, you’re cutting all that stuff—“You’re not in service to me, word! Away with you!”

First of all poetry is at the root of all of it. I have a thing when I have to do a speech or something (and I’m terrified of public speaking when it’s not a reading, like, you know, a keynote address or something): I always, always, write a short poem to lead in to the thing, because it grounds me. It’s the same way going into other genres. When I wrote my first major short story, it was about a woman who was psychologically abused by her teenage son. When she went for help, she met a woman who did a poetry therapy thing, and she would go off on the days that she had it really rough, and she was keeping a notebook of poems, and that got me into the story. I realized that a lot of what I know about characterization or the arc of a story comes from poetry because, if you look at it, a good poem should include an entire story in a really tight and controlled space, so every single word has to do work. When you’re cutting, you’re cutting all that stuff—“You’re not in service to me, word! Away with you!” And so, when I’m allowed the privilege of opening one of those stories up and I have space and I can really concentrate on the characterization or the setting or things like that, poetic language comes into view. And I was surprised, because there’s always these articles that are like “10 Ways to Write a Short Story,” and so I thought there would be some technical aspect of it that I’d have to study up on, but I just did a story. And I love story. That’s what leads me to poems. A really good story is like … really? Are you kidding? And you find maybe a little snapshot of that story and you write a poem, but that doesn’t mean the whole story leaves you. So I take poetic sensibility into the story, and I let that get me through. I love describing people. I love describing characters.

And about the essay thing—it’s funny you should say that—I have this poem that’s actually in Jimi Savannah about my mother, and it’s called “Annie Pearl Upward,” and it was a little longer before, and I sent it out— I can’t remember to what magazine—and then I get this note that says, “We’ve chosen this for The Best American Essays,” and I go, “Wow. Wow! Okay!” So when I’m teaching creative non-fiction and we’re talking about lyric essays, I’m blurring that line all the time about what you can do and the chances you can take and the forms that you can write in, and sometimes prose poetry is moving its way in there and stuff. So when someone says so now write an essay, I immediately—remember when I told you that that if you first snatched a paper from me when I was first reading on stage, it’d just be this block?—I actually will write poems out and put an essay stamp on them. Folks are like, “Thanks for the essay,” and I say, “You’re welcome.” I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t try to write because the grounding, the poetic grounding, is so strong. I don’t think a lot of poets who say, “Well yeah, I can do poetry, but I can’t write a short story,” or “I would never try a novel.” No, no, no, no, no!

So many words!

I know it’s a lot of words, but it’s only a few at a time. And then I started reading novels that weren’t necessarily … they were more like snapshots in the life of someone. They were more like interconnected short stories, but disparate, and so the narrative arc goes through the stories, so your character starts here and ends here, but you don’t have to. The thing I hate is the pesky part when you have the storyboards and whatnot. I can’t do that.

I’m blurring that line all the time about what you can do and the chances you can take and the forms that you can write in…

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a project now that comes out of Incendiary Art, out of the “Accidental Saints” suite with the mothers. I was thinking, once everything’s over—and this came to me so clearly—she wakes up one morning and she’s got to go to the laundromat, and she hasn’t had to go to the laundromat since that happened. Or she has to go to church. Or she is lonely and she meets a man and she makes love again for the first time. And how nothing she does with the rest of her life can not be connected to her child. And so I’m starting to write a series of short stories and all the short stories have exactly the same beginning. It either comes in dreams or it’s something she’s thinking back on, and it’s the time when someone comes to the door and says … and sometimes they ring the door of a big house, sometimes they’re downstairs knocking because there’s no doorbell and the elevator doesn’t work. So it’s not the same woman all the time, but it’s the same woman in a way. And then she goes and there’s a story about the door and how this woman reacts and then there’s a story how she goes back to church or she goes to the local club to listen to the blues, and I dunno if it’s going to work. I thought about it. I put it on the shelf. I thought about it again, and I say that if something keeps coming back to me that way, that’s the thing I need to be writing …

I love collaborations, and so I have—my husband and I have—this huge collection of 19th century photos. We have cabinet cards and daguerreotypes and tintypes and things, so much so that we have no place to store them. We’ll probably wind up leaving them with someone who can store them: it’s a really large collection of African American photos. So I had proposed for a grant that I would do a series of dramatic monologues and kind of have an “Our Town” kind of thing with these photos, and have a book with these photos. And that’s a thing that draws on what I’ve learned about characterization. At first it was just gonna be photo-poem, photo-poem, but then I thought, no. Let’s have them connect somehow and have a focal point—a woman who’s a focal point—and have these other things that are written around her and these other voices around her. And if you hear me talk about any other projects besides the two I’ve just mentioned to you, stop me, because I really need to get this stuff done!

You’re a teacher now, what is the thing you try to have your students leave your class with? What’s the thing you try to gift them most earnestly?

Everyone has a passion. Everyone’s craving something. It might be something simple. It might be I need to know where I’m sleeping tonight, or it could be I want to win a Pulitzer Prize, but for a lot of my students, they don’t reach, they don’t reach far enough, their dreams are so small, it’s like they’ve kind of figured out I’m just going to dream about what I’m sure I can attain, you know. So I try to introduce them to so many different stories and different ways of telling them. Like okay, we’re going to do the book, and now we’re going to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where you could see the guy who was waiting out in line with you come on stage and do something, and then he’s going to disappear, but you’re going to come to class the next week, and you’re going to be full of his story. Okay. So the story doesn’t have to be spectacular, you just have to tell it in a way that it’s unforgettable … so stories about people braiding hair, make me see it. One thing that has happened, and I think this is what is kind of driving me, they go, they leave, and then they show up a year two years later at a reading or someplace, and they’re like, I never forgot what you said about … so I stopped expecting the immediate payoff of in a classroom where they’re working for As.

It’s a blind faith thing in a lot of ways. I think just showing them how excited I am about what I do, and that I’m a working writer, I’m not somebody who’s looking back at the good old days, and saying “Oh, when I was …” so it makes it more immediate for them. And then to take them to see working writers who are close to them in age, who aren’t necessarily … you know, this is not a money-making enterprise. You have to really love something about it, not just the audience, because the audience is fickle. And then with each student, you kind of have to figure out what’s going to draw that particular student in. And that’s kind of like most of the work.

Who is in your poetic pantheon? Who are the writers you really feel led you to poetry, taught you how to write, move you still?

I used to have a list of people that I’d say when asked that question. And I realized I made up the list and it wasn’t the real list, and I was saying what the person who was interviewing me probably wanted to hear or what the school where I was would like me to say.

I want the true list.

Gwendolyn Brooks is on the true list. I’ve never seen anyone be able to … not tweak language, but just own it. I want to write about simple things in the way that you will not forget. I said one time in an interview that my goal was to be thought of the way Gwen Brooks was thought of, and it felt like such a travesty coming out of my mouth, but I really aspire to that level of artistry. Not adulation or anything, but just that … her stamp was on everything: you could read something that she wrote and know it’s her without her name being on it, and that’s like the ultimate to me. Stephen Dobyns: that’s my guilty (white male) pleasure. When I was just trying to surround myself with books (I was still on slam and doing that) I used to volunteer at bookstores, and there was one bookstore in Chicago where I had a lot of downtime, so I’d go to the poetry section and I’d start pulling down books. And I didn’t know who I was supposed to be reading, so I wasn’t going through picking out books. I was just like, “Let’s see,” and I’d read like the first three and just go no, yes, no, trying to kind of figure out what is that I love and why. And there was a book he wrote called Cemetery Nights, and I pulled it down and had no idea who it was. Stephen writes about those little tiny horrors—the things that happen in our lives that we rush to pave over and think, “Thank God that thing is over! I never have to look at that again!” But once you become a poet and you’re a true poet and you look over your shoulder, that pavement you think you buried something under is going like this [undulating motion]; you cannot say that you’re a poet unless you unearth those stories and see where they lead you. He was the first one that—I would just sometimes be so disturbed by things that he’d choose to write about because they were just so … It was like taking me and just being like “Look!” and because of the way he did it, I couldn’t turn away from it. And so that gave me permission: You can write about that stuff? You can go that deep? And he remains that for me. It’s sort of like your first lover, your first poet who really says this is something that I want to do with my life as opposed to something this is something I do in my spare time. And when you start to see people who have six or seven books and you go they’ve committed to this, this is what they do, you know. He was one of those first people.

I have a real affection, a real debt to the people who pump gas, school secretaries, mothers, drunks, ex-cons, who felt that they had a story that was pushing them hard enough to come and stand up in a room full of strangers, you know, and maybe come back. 

And something I’ve realized lately is when I was—I’m originally from Chicago—so when I was going out and reading at a bunch of open mics and features and things like that, there were about six places every night you could read poetry. So we used to just write a poem, you’d read here, and then the whole group would just head on over to another place and you’d hear everybody’s poems. So I have a real affection, a real debt to the people who pump gas, school secretaries, mothers, drunks, ex-cons, who felt that they had a story that was pushing them hard enough to come and stand up in a room full of strangers, you know, and maybe come back. For a lot of them, that was their first real community. I can remember lines and poems from people twenty years ago. Never saw them again. They may have never come back, but the risk involved in being that naked and need[ing] to say your life out loud that way, I think that those people have probably pushed me more than anybody that I can open a book and read. I miss that. I love when you’re doing a reading and you see somebody’s eyes go, “I could! That’s happened to me, and I just didn’t know there was a way to do it.” I would love to see people run out of the reading with pens going, “Whaaaaaa!” You know? They’re more important, and I think I need to start saying that more. Because I want—I hate the phrase “ordinary people”—but I want people to see what’s accessible, what they can do, what they can reach, and how it can help them move from day to day. And maybe it turns into something, or maybe it doesn’t, but that story lasts because I still remember it.

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)