Find the woman with three Murdered sons and ask her About the cockfight, The deep door of Haiti The have-mercy shriek From overgrown graves, The snare, The crouching, The bulge of sea
Ask her what prayers She muscles through What god she hallucinates, now In the dark In the deep of it, Ask her if the island is The victory or The defeat… Ask her if it matters When she is always hungry-
You see that boy in the road? He is named for Toussaint. The warrior-king who swung His sword to loose the bones Of slave-holders, To splinter each awful one Til they peppered the banks and Junk-piled the streets- The littered remains of Aristocracy and avarice Yes lord
And now, This little boy Scrapes his net for fish His name does not Shield him from starvation
But listen, It does say Fight. Stay. Win. Ask around. The old folks will tell you.
Poem copyright 2019 by Dominique Christina. All rights reserved.
Whether it is the secrets buried below silences, the archetypes animating her muses or the histories of Black women entombed in willful or innocuous amnesia, a key poetic concern in Dominique Christina’s work is using language as a tool to unearth what needs to be brought back to light and memory. What has been buried in you? Whose bones would you unearth and re-flesh given the means, and why? Imagine the poem a shovel in your hands; find the landscape, the moment; dig.
Sugarcane is a metaphor We summon from an Undeep grave We plant new bodies every morning Watch ‘em grow up sweet and tall.
We get slick or try to Pull at the roots Shuck the stalk Let the juice run Chew the rind- Gotta be on your knees For it cuz We not supposed to know Nectar no way
That’s how they got her. Too proud to crouch- That ain’t her religion She say Shango and We know she can’t bend-
She got too many Stories in her blood To go down easy That’s how they catch her, see?
She standing straight as a curtain rod Eating the cane with the Sun on her face
Black as a coal In a white dress. She should be stooping But that ain’t in her. She a hurricane. She wants sugar so She takes it.
Free people keep afever Know the heat, Give it a name.
Unmuted black girl in a Church-white dress Big from the crime Of taking sugar for herself
Every one of us keeps a Hell within reach They make the want wide Til we puddle from it-
We reconnaissance Our bones Get up the next day Dig a hole and put a Girl inside the Color of coal Ruined woman From rising water and Wind laid bare Nectar will make for Murderous indifference
When I get to it I will eat my own fruit Let it dazzle my blood…
My own dumb blood That has never known A rebellion Til a girl in a white dress Sneaked the sugar cane Into her pink mouth, Got caught and Set herself on fire To keep from the lash Sweet smoke, that… Dead from stolen sugar And the promise of white men Who ride the devil too much to Know the holiness of a black girl With syrup on her chin-
Now every time I smell Something sweet I think: War
Poem copyright 2019 by Dominique Christina. All rights reserved.
Sit mother. Be in your bone-cluttered body Be in your easy chair. Bring us what you know about Citadels and marching men About fallen cities and unrestored Watchtowers sneering at the ocean Mere rubble now From too many wars-
Bring us witchcraft Bring us juju Bring us communion Bring us Bring us bring us ancestor Toward a noble dream Of conquering Africans The coast pinched red Pocked with bone Fodder for vultures The feast of death
Bring us the tremble You talked down When the earthquake shook The stones loose, Bring us the unmoved earth The rising tide The island baptized By flood
Bring us the way you stayed How you know your body Well enough to keep it. How did you keep it? So many did not. Do you think of them? How you outlived Every one? Is it the way you remember? Or the way you do not? Oh matriarch Oh wise bird
115 years of life and You still smile Your hands still work.
God is probably An old woman Sitting bare-breasted in a window Overlooking an ocean Not so frenzied with memory, Smoking a pipe, Waiting on the mail, With cornrows and More grandchildren than Can ever be counted,
Some war-whipped witch With a walking stick and Two walloped knees- Born before everyone else
Who refuses to, I say, refuses to, Die.
Poem copyright 2019 by Dominique Christina. All rights reserved.
After years of engaging with Dominique Christina’s poetry in the classroom, watching students be awed by her writing as well as her extraordinary delivery, I finally had the opportunity to bear witness to her live performance when I invited her to the Gettysburg campus as part of a spoken word poetry series. Christina’s visit was, in a word, electric. My students were nearly overwhelmed by her presence, with one of them writing in their reflection that “the room could have sparked and torn with the energy she channeled, with the spirits she called.” Enhancing the power of Christina’s presence was the fortuitous coincidence that we scheduled her visit for Tuesday, November 8, 2016. With the presidential election as a backdrop, the richness and complexity of Christina’s work shone through. Her poetry, emphasizing Black women’s subjectivities, foregrounds themes of speech and silence while challenging shame as an impediment to survival. Moreover, the insistence that we engage with the historical breadth and the contemporary consequence of her work powerfully mirrored the challenge with which we would all be faced — how to stand up and speak out against a reality that we had not dared to imagine yet history tells us was always possible.
During her visit, one piece that resonated significantly was “The Period Poem” from her 2015 collection, They Are All Me.[i] Christina framed the poem by inviting the audience to interrogate the biblical narrative of Eve and the Garden of Eden in order to confront the idea of menstruation as a consequence for woman’s original sin. Working to undermine the continual shame that women and young girls are made to feel about the natural biological process, Christina crafts the poem as an open letter. First, she addresses a “nameless dummy on Twitter” who had proudly claimed to have broken up with his girlfriend because her period commenced in the midst of sexual intercourse (112). She challenges his “disdain / For what a woman’s body can do” and offers him “an anatomy lesson infused with feminist politics / because I hate you” (112). Explaining the anatomical reality of a uterus shedding itself “every 28 days or so,” Christina asserts that “the Feminist politic part is that women / Know how to let things go” and “how to become new, / How to regenerate” (113). Significantly, Christina posits a woman’s body as a space for both renewal as well as creation, noting that menstruation not only facilitates the creation of another person but also a revitalization of the self.
Indeed, rather than suggesting reproduction as the primary significance of a woman’s period, Christina first argues for a multiplicity of functions. In addition to the renewal of self, she also reflects on the communal force of menstruation, such that “women have vaginas that can speak to each other” and “our menstrual cycles will actually sync the fuck up” (113). Only after addressing these other implications of menstruation does Christina remind the Twitter dummy,
But when your mother carried you, The ocean in her belly is what made you buoyant, Made you possible. You had it under your tongue when you burst through her skin (113)
Establishing the mother’s body as the creative origin for this man’s existence, Christina directly links the maternal act of creation with his capacity for speech, literally undergirding his tongue. Suggesting that his language, now used to malign women’s bodies, would be impossible without the nurturing space of his mother’s womb, Christina writes,
THAT body wrapped you in everything That was miraculous about it and sang you Lullabies laced in platelets Without which you wouldn’t have a twitter account At all, motherfucker. (113)
The condemnation that Christina delivered, fueled by righteous indignation and armed with biological facts, was soon paired with the wish that he would be “blessed with daughters.” Noting that “Etymologically ‘Bless’ means: to make bleed,” Christina offers the “lesson in linguistics” in order that the dummy on Twitter might know, “in other words blood speaks” (115). Acknowledging that “blood speaks” in the face of this man’s careless use of speech on Twitter, she charges him to take on the role of listener, that he might eventually learn. The lesson, Christina continues, moves beyond etymology, as she suggests that “Your daughters will teach you / What all men must one day come to know” (115). That inevitable lesson, of how to handle “the blood” for which few are ever fully prepared, pairs the challenge of the poem with its promise for this man, for whom knowledge might dismantle the ignorance-fueled impulse for his tweet.
Lest the poem be directed entirely to this man, Christina shifts focus to her own daughter, who is the second and more important audience for this epistolary poem. Having ably dispatched with the “nameless dummy,” she deliberately dedicates the final words of the poem to her daughter in order to arm her, “should any fool mishandle / the wild geography of your body” (115). She charges her daughter to “just BLEED” and “Give that blood a Biblical name, / Something of stone and mortar” (115-116). Echoing her initial challenge to the biblical narrative of the first woman’s invitation of sin into the world, Christina suggests that her daughter “name it after Eve’s first rebellion in that garden,” thereby revising the narrative that would call Eve’s action a sin and simultaneously refuting the supposed divine directive that man alone be given the patriarchal power to name (116). Seizing upon naming as right and privilege, she argues that her daughter name the blood “for all the women who’ll not be nameless here” — in parallel to her decrying the “nameless dummy on Twitter” — and offers a maternal directive to exercise that right:
Name the blood something holy. Something mighty. Something un-languageable. Something in hieroglyphs. Something that sounds like the end of the world. (116)
Empowering her daughter to name the blood that flows from her body, regardless of what “good furniture” it destroys (116), Christina rests the poem with the language of ownership and empowerment. Ultimately, she centers her daughter in a narrative that challenges the shame she is originally made to feel though she has committed no sin.
Students universally acknowledged the poem as one of the most affecting of the night. The power of this performance — on the very evening that many in the audience believed a woman would be elected president over a man who had denigrated a journalist by saying that she had “blood coming out of her wherever”[ii] and brazenly celebrated his ability to force himself on women and “grab ‘em by the pussy”[iii] — was immeasurable. As another student wrote in her reflection: “How could I witness Dominique’s fire and brilliance and not feel proud to be a member of the same half of the species? I felt like I was nineteen years old, a woman was going to be Commander in Chief come January, and women like Dominique Christina existed — so how could progress not be within my generational grasp?” Within a few hours, the reality of the election’s result would sink in.
When next we met, the students arrived to the classroom still numb in the aftermath of the election. We were able to process the election results in the midst of our scheduled conversation on Black female spoken word poets, in a class session that had been titled “Sister Speak: A Vocal Black Womanhood.” The alignment of Christina’s visit, the course material, and the election produced one of the most potent classroom conversations I’ve had in my teaching career. When the students spoke of the role that women played in securing Trump’s electoral win, someone returned to “The Period Poem,” raising the idea that the poem itself addresses biological womanhood and the popular “disdain for what a woman’s body can do,” without explicitly mentioning race. Yet, with 53% of white women supporting Trump’s candidacy and Black women maintaining almost uniform opposition, the election results clarified that gender alone didn’t determine how the votes were cast. We discussed the implications of this inconvenient truth for our ongoing conversations regarding intersectional Black womanhood and the importance of Black women’s voices in poetry as well as politics. As one student astutely argued, Christina did not explicitly mention race in this poem, yet she intentionally foregrounded her racial identity and that of her daughter. Through Christina’s choice to put her own body front and center, as a poet for whom performance held such tremendous meaning, there was no way to ignore or even to de-center race in our consideration of the poet or of her work. As one student argued, with whom I’m inclined to agree, “I think she’d be pissed if we even tried.”
I thought often of Christina’s visit to our campus, and the ensuing conversation in our classroom, while reading her most recent book of poetry, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems.[iv] The National Poetry Series–winning collection endeavors to give voice to the titular enslaved woman who, while being denied pain-reducing anesthesia in addition to the right to consent, underwent multiple surgeries and procedures in forced service to the curiosities and career of Dr. J. Marion Sims, a man who would one day be hailed as “the father of modern gynecology.” This collection expands upon the conversations engendered by “The Period Poem” and Christina’s articulation of an intergenerational dialogue about women’s bodies, as well as the incoherency between the power of what those bodies can do and the disregard in which they are held. Anarcha Speaks, undoubtedly, also explores the particular and specific circumstances of intersecting race and gender, pivoting as it does around an enslaved woman whose condition is defined by her Blackness as well as her womanhood, even as the inhumane treatment to which she is subjected threatens to deny any sense of personhood to which she might lay claim.
Christina’s examination of the manner by which Black womanhood is reduced to the biological mechanics of reproduction clearly connects Anarcha and “The Period Poem.” Yet what makes Anarcha such a powerfully complex and layered work, like “The Period Poem” before it, is Christina’s ability to give voice to the silenced — whether an enslaved woman or “the blood” that must speak — and to enable the now voiced to speak, from an empowered and authoritative position, within an intergenerational conversation that carries the force of history in its articulation of themes that remain significant in the current moment. Christina’s work persists in the effort to center Black women, their voices and their experiences, within the historical record. Subsequently, she challenges a history wherein the silencing of Black women enables the myths that would, without any sense of irony, herald a man as the “father” of gynecological practice while negating the contributions of women, or propel a self-confessed “pussy-grabber” to the presidency with the support of a majority of white women’s votes.
Christina addresses the historical connection that drives her work in the dedication for Anarcha Speaks, acknowledging the ways that women like Anarcha operate as ancestors that prefigure her own Black womanhood. She writes,
I am still reeling from the possessive nature of ancestral writing. I am still humbled by elegy and the potential it holds to re-flesh the bones. I still tremble under the weight of history. The ships that carried folk I borrow bone and blood from to places they never imagined, where their suffering was bottomless. It is quite something to know they sizzle up through us and announce themselves still. Memory is aggressive. And long. And sometimes inherited. I elect to chase it down whenever possible. I intend to participate in as many resurrections as I can. (93)
Acknowledging the “possessive nature of ancestral writing” in her dedication, Christina recognizes that she must elect to chase memory down as she announces her intent to participate in as many resurrections as she can. She thereby foregrounds her own artistic agency in making the decision to center Anarcha while simultaneously reminding readers that the silencing of this enslaved woman’s voice was also a choice, a deliberate act. Just as Anarcha’s muting had explicit and intended consequences, so too does the decision to return her to a position of prominence. With Anarcha as both the central subject and the narrator for this collection, these poems participate in the ongoing project of challenging the marginalization of Black women within the historical record, extending all the way back to the ancestral figure of Eve.
In her efforts to “re-flesh the bones” of her foremother, Christina intentionally centers the voice of Anarcha herself, as indicated not only by the collection’s title, but also established in its tone-setting opening poem, “Anarcha Will Speak and It Will Be So.” The poem begins with the traumatic assault on Anarcha’s body:
massa come in like he know i cain’t cry new tears
he take what he want he keep a hot hand (3)
Though the violation of Anarcha’s body and personhood is the central act of these opening lines, Christina provides her reader with much more than an incident that would render “massa” as the active subject and Anarcha as the passive recipient of sexual violence. The slave master’s approach, from the outset, is shown to be rooted in his fictitious belief, rather than the fact of Anarcha’s existence. Christina outlines the way he moves “like he know,” which immediately alerts readers to the fact that he does not. The suggestion that this is a moment for the production of “new tears” also indicates that there were previous tears, establishing an emotional depth to Anarcha that predates this violent act. Anarcha, as a subject, does not begin with this violence, but exists in the fullness of her own humanity prior to massa’s entrance into the narrative. This is, in itself, a radical statement, as Christina works against a historical narrative that reduces Black women to tools of production, whose entrance into the historical record often comes with the documentation of purchase, or of birth, that indicates an increase to a master’s property more than it does the announcement of a human being into historical reality.
The next lines of the poem introduce readers to the ultimate violence that is enacted upon Anarcha through a process designed to both silence her and deny her any sense of agency or right to her own identity:
every new hatred cinch my throat closed.
he take me
give me a name made outta iron he say it till i ain’t myself (3)
The closing of Anarcha’s throat is enacted in response to an ambiguous hatred. One reading might suggest that the massa’s hatred for Anarcha, exercised through the violence that he inflicts on her is what cinches her throat closed. An alternate reading, however, suggests that Anarcha’s silence is an act of self-control, quieting any potential outburst of her hatred for the massa, the articulation of which would surely threaten her ability to survive in the aftermath of these acts. Regardless, the massa’s acts, and his display of power over her body, result in a closed throat. Her silenced state leaves the massa as the only speaking figure within the poem, enabling him to give Anarcha a name and to be the lone voice speaking it aloud. Significantly, however, this poem remains framed by its title and the narrative voice that reminds readers that this is Anarcha’s story to tell, and that she remains the speaker of the poem, even as she remains ostensibly silenced within it. The poem’s title functions as a succinct declaration, wherein the poet’s intentions for the collection are made clear by a definitive statement that leaves no room for ambiguity. Anarcha will speak and it will be so. This poem, and those that follow, collectively providing the willfully neglected history of the subjugation of Anarcha’s body, will turn on the power of Anarcha’s voice. The declarative “and it will be so” operates with absolute authority, prophetically establishing the path forward even while the collection offers a corrective lens onto the past.
Christina’s exploration of Black women’s subjectivities, throughout Anarcha as well as works published and performed prior to the release of this collection such as “The Period Poem,” is often framed through examinations of maternity. Yet, even as she remains invested in the consideration of Black women as ancestral figures, Christina avoids reducing Black women solely to the function of motherhood. Rather, she argues that their full lives must be excavated in order for her audience to thoughtfully reckon with the historical and contemporary place of Black women. Anarcha’s ability to exist as more than a body that experiences motherhood as a result of sexual assault, only to have that body violated again through painful medical exploration in the wake of giving birth, is examined throughout the collection. Christina exposes readers to Anarcha’s reflections on life in her master’s house, allowing her to bear witness to the treatment of other enslaved people including those recently purchased (“They Bringin in More”), those who seek to escape (“She Got Further Than Anybody”), and others who experience the pain of giving birth to children who they know they cannot truly claim as their own (“Lucy Made a Girl”). Christina also provides the full arc of Anarcha’s pregnancy, from the moment she is made aware of her pregnancy (“Don’t Wanna Hear It But”) to her awareness of the fetus’ presence (“Anarcha Feels Movement”) to the delivery (“This Time It Hurts”). The fact that all of this happens before the introduction of Dr. Sims is, again, significant, reminding readers that this was a woman with a complete life—full of complex thoughts and emotions—long before the introduction of the man in whose shadow history would place her.
Herein lies the most significant part of Christina’s work, the practice of “re-fleshing the bones” that history has discarded as unimportant and without value. Christina’s work of poetic recovery is not only for the validation of Anarcha, but also for those who claim her as ancestor, to those who continue to labor against the prominent narrative that they, and the people from which they come, have no dimension to their lives worthy of adulation. Christina acknowledges the intergenerational benefit of recovering Anarcha’s life in its fullness with the poem “The Chil’ren Might Know.” She opens the poem with Anarcha’s musings of when they “once was warriors” (15). After, again, establishing the idea of a fullness of Black life before the arrival of white figures, Christina then presents a narrative wherein Anarcha hopes “maybe / they know we ain’t always / been so lowly” and suggests that
maybe they can look past the bruises to see when we were bigger underneath (15)
Christina concludes the poem with Anarcha’s assertion that:
we had hands once and a river to bathe in
and names full names that called us home.
the chil’ren might know that if they lookin at us right
we lost our mouths ‘cross a mighty ocean. coulda died but we don’t know how . . . (15-16)
In these final lines, Christina makes clear the work in which she is engaging. She recognizes the importance of names that were stolen from Anarcha and her community, as well as the home that was likewise taken, along with the river in which her people bathed. Yet, as she focuses on that which is lost, she issues a challenge, arguing that the children might understand and know this history “if they lookin at us right.” Despite having lost their mouths and having their voices sacrificed to a historical silence, the poem’s conclusion that the enslaved “coulda died but we don’t know how . . .” renders their narrative one of survival and not solely of trauma, silence, weakness, and pain.
By emphasizing and celebrating the survival of a people, Christina effectively challenges the shame to which they’ve been subjected. In “The Period Poem,” she celebrates “women, made of moonlight, magic, and macabre” (115). In Anarcha Speaks, she celebrates the voice of an enslaved woman who the historical record had reduced to a catalogue of body parts that was never meant to include her tongue. In challenging that sense of shame, and the historical record that enshrined it, Christina’s poetry is not only about the reclamation of ancestral voices, but also about enabling her audience to better understand the circumstances of their own lives.
Having seen, firsthand, what can happen when a room full of willing minds are given the opportunity to grapple with Christina’s work, my sincere hope is that many others will accept the poet’s invitation to engage with ideas, narratives, and complicated truths. This poet has produced a body of work that demands to be engaged, that will not allow audiences to sit quietly when confronted with the power of her words. The electric energy that I and my students felt in our classroom pulses through this collection, just as it does whenever Christina puts pen to paper or steps in front of a microphone. Whether admonishing a man on Twitter to look to his future daughters to understand what he “must one day come to know” or inviting “the chil’ren” to respond to the call of an ancestral figure like Anarcha in order that they “might know” the truth of their history, Christina’s work invites us to re-frame, re-name, and reclaim the narratives that have been shaped by silences and to seek understanding through the voices that boldly insist on the right to speak.
They will speak. It will be so. We would all do well to listen closely.
[i] Christina, Dominique. “The Period Poem.” They Are All Me. Swimming With Elephants, 2015.
McKinley E. Melton, Associate Professor of English at Gettysburg College, earned his doctorate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. With the support of an ACLS Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship, he is the 2019/20 Scholar-in-Residence at the Furious Flower Poetry Center. Dr. Melton’s work focuses on 20th and 21st Century Africana literatures, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between literary, social, cultural, and political movements toward social justice. His current project, “Claiming All the World as Our Stage: Contemporary Black Poetry, Performance, and Resistance,” explores spoken word poetry as a distinct form within Africana literatures and examines the work of contemporary poets in relationship to Black diasporan traditions of orality and performance.
Watching Dominique Christina perform poetry is a visceral and incredibly moving experience. Her voice thrums with history and ancestral weight, and her body is an exquisite vehicle for the poems that it emits. Blessedly, she is one of the poets for whom the experience of reading her work echoes that of seeing it enacted on stage: her language on the page is as effective a vessel for her essential work of witness, salvage and celebration — re-fleshing the bones, as she calls it — of Black, and oftentimes female, experiences. The image-engine of Christina’s work is a powerful one, fueled as it is on her incredible invocation of sensory detail that drives us through the difficult material of the poems . In “A Choir of Blackbirds,” she stands in witness of Marissa Alexander’s plight as a woman who tries to escape a brutal marriage:
Marissa met a man who
Killed her in fractions,
Parceled out her flesh
Like some maggot-ridden doll.
Every weekend he sawed her in half,
The incredible disappearing lady
Pummeled under his ordinary hands;
She put herself back together each morning.
The first quatrain unzips image by image, the slow, torturous murder of this Black woman’s spirit, the poem mimicking its content breaking her body line by line, the vehicle of the “maggot-ridden doll” as grotesque as the “parceled out” flesh it is meant to describe. Even as the image renders her brutalized, “sawed … in half,” and victim of a horror so routine it is “ordinary,” Christina does not abandon Marissa to this broken and invisible identity; she names her “incredible,” bears witness, too, as the “pummeled” and “disappearing lady” does the extraordinary work of “put[ting] herself back together each morning” — a singular line of survival pushing back against everything that would end her.
There is no place Dominique Christina’s imagination will not go in service of her projects of recovery and justice. Her poem “Mothers of Murdered Sons” imagines the labor of each of the mothers of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown. The poem inhabits the womb, passes through the vaginal canal and blood-soaked thighs of Mamie Till, Sabrina Fulton, and Lezley McSpadden to bring their killed sons to us as we are never given them — soft, vulnerable and innocent, before they begin “breaking the world with their bleeding.”
Dominique read as a part of the Furious Flower poetry series in September of 2018, and in the studio we talked about her love of words and how poetry serves in the fight for justice. This is a portion of that conversation.
You’re an incredible performer and poet. I can’t forget that, at your reading at Furious Flower, a woman in the audience was so moved she actually fainted! When did you come to consciousness of your facility with and gift for language and performance?
Hmm. It’s a really good question. It’s a process for sure. I started writing in undergrad; that was 22 years ago, my senior year of undergrad. And I spent a good amount of time at the outset being confessional because there was finally this holding place for stories that I thought I would die with. But it was about probably 10 years after that when I altered my relationship with language. Because etymology is extraordinarily important to me. How a word gets born, what agenda it carries with it, what realities are created in order to agree with it matter to me very much, so once I started to have a more willful, tactical relationship with language and bridge the gap between thinking that I know what I’m saying and knowing that I know what I’m saying, the writing got better. My personhood got better. My politics got better. My parenting got better. Everything got better. I had more clarity; I had more tools in my toolbox; I had greater resources. I had greater psychology to throw at certain wounds that were old and festering — I mean, everything got bigger and much more vast after that.
But you know, page is different from stage, and so if you can master both, then you’ve really done something. You know, there are really remarkable writers who write really well, and they don’t perform well. There are people who perform really well, and they don’t write that well. And so I think probably for me it was 2012 at the Women of the World Poetry Slam competition when I first felt like I understood the weight of my presence in the room when I show up to read.
I want to go back to etymology because you mentioned that you talked in one of your TED Talks about that movement from being descendant of a slave to ascendant of a king. What are some of the words that that you feel expanded your personhood and purview?
Sure. So it’s really interesting. The things like “decide” and “choose,” which we use interchangeably in the lexicon because as native English speakers we have a very lazy use of the lexicon, but “decide” and “choose” are radically different from one another. And to grapple with that and understand that gives you a lot of power and a lot of agency. It certainly helped me be a better mother, when my teenagers would do something questionable. You know, I would ask, “Was that a decision or a choice?” Because, you know, a language reveals itself, and we know English is parented by languages that are older, so when you see this suffix “-cide” at the end of a word — you’ve seen that in other places, and the same thing is happening every time: suicide, genocide, homicide, fratricide, pesticide — something is being killed off. That’s the literal meaning when you have “-cide” at the end of a word. So in this instance, if I decide to stand here, I’ve killed off any opportunity to stand anywhere else. This is it. I’ve locked myself in. If I choose to stand here and it doesn’t work out, I can move, right? And sometimes it’s powerful and you have to make a decision. But for me, I have found that choices are much more vast and give more opportunity. So it’s words like that.
It’s things like, if we talk “prison industrial complex,” there’s a huge conversation about the difference between a “prisoner” and an “inmate.” Because a prisoner is someone [who has been confined], but an inmate is someone who has resigned themselves to confinement and [that] way of thinking about them and their lives. A prisoner wakes up every day and knows they should be liberated. So, when you listen to the news, and they talk about building a new prison, they can they say it holds X number of inmates, because the prison industrial complex can’t survive with prisoners. It has to have inmates; it has to have conquered people. It has to have people who have acquiesced to that story, right?
Lastly, I would just say things like “freedom” versus “liberty”: hugely different from one another. And those two words are often misunderstood and misused in African American contexts. “Freedom” is the most employed and most misused word, I think, in our lexicon. We have it in every song. It’s an all of the speeches, all the civil rights stuff. I mean, you can’t have a conversation about the civil rights movement without the invocation of the word “freedom.” In school, you learn that the civil rights movement was about “freedom.” And it wasn’t. Etymologically, when you look at “freedom” and “liberty,” you begin to have really, really urgent and necessary clarity, because “liberty” pertains to external circumstance. So things that restrict or prohibit your liberty are tangible things. A cell block, a roadblock, barbed wire, handcuffs: those things restrict your liberty, your ability to move the way you want to. Freedom is encoded in your DNA when you’re born; you have it with you always. You can’t give your freedom up. Your liberty can be compromised. But you know that because you found free folks on plantations, and you found free folks in prison. So there’s a very important conversation for me around those two things that really shifted my trajectory. We are constantly invoking a word and we don’t know what it means, and maybe that’s why it has always been so elusive.
So liberation, freedom, poetry: what’s their relationship?
Poetry is provocation. It’s a means to an end, I think. It’s the pronouncement of your name. It’s the affirmation and the reaffirmation of your freedom. And if you are permitted liberty, then you have the opportunity to go and utter those things wherever you choose. I think poetry is a radical act. I think the pronouncement of your being a free person is a radical act, especially if you have been set up to inherit a story that you’re conquered. Or that you come from conquered people, or that you’re supposed to exist in the margins. It’s a radical act just to declare yourself free. Poetry for me is what facilitates that conversation over and over again. I’m not trying to convince anybody of that, though. I don’t need to lobby. I don’t need to bring anyone into my way of understanding my personhood, my story, my existence and its legitimacy. I show up in the room. I take up space. I don’t apologize for taking up space. I’m not asking for a seat at the table. I’m already at the table, and I’m eating already, you know. But you have to travel the distance of those conversations, and for marginalized folk, oftentimes, it’s a subversive act.
You know, for us the acquisition of language oftentimes is almost traumatic, and so to go and claim it again, to reclaim it, to go back and fetch it, and to really have ownership of language and to understand that language can be a beacon and a bomb and a life preserver, or it can bring winter in, it can manacle you to a circumstance in a situation that won’t ever let you be your fullest and most holy self, right? So, there is a relationship between poetry and freedom, which is the same thing as saying poetry is the language that facilitates the pronouncement of your freedom.
I’m interested, too, in the relationship between poetry and activism. Talk to me a little bit more about how you think about that relationship.
“Activism.” The word tells you what it is. It is to activate you. If the act begins and ends with a hashtag, that’s not activism. That’s a gesture. And, look, a noble one — but it’s a gesture. You have to move beyond the pantomime of activism. Because activism is not convenient. It’s not something you can really do on your lunch break. It’s not, you know, like, “I got 30 minutes, so let me do my activism.” It’s not like that. It’s a life-altering thing. That choice that you make, to be engaged in a particular way, to rattle the cage, to inconvenience others, to interrupt space, to be deliberate about your Blackness or your otherness. That kind of activism is risk-taking behavior. I’m interested in that. So I don’t want to minimize, you know, Twitter, social media activism necessarily, but I want to invite folks into a conversation that that is just the jumping-off point. The means to begin to find coalition and support and to bring folks into your way of thinking about a thing and comparing ideas. But that is all that that is. If we don’t move beyond that, then it is just a gesture, right?
As a feminist writer, a women’s liberation writer, what are some of the things that you consciously try to impart to your children?
Be free. Insist. Exist. Resist. Be radically honest. Even if it terrifies you, do the thing that terrifies you. Interrogate choices that you make. Interrogate your relationships: do they show you where you’re whole or where you’re broken? Because that, for me is critical. For a long time my relationships showed me where I was broken. They were the evidence of old wounds. As I began to heal those wounds, those relationships could not stay. So that’s the invitation to my children, every interaction, every relationship you enter, even family, is that the evidence of the work you’re doing and how you’re healing? Or is it the evidence of what is still broken? What is still bleeding? I want them to be themselves. I want them to be fully expressed. I want them to be unapologetic. I want them to be deeply human. I want them to be empathetic. You know. I’m raising free folks. I’m raising folks who do not question their legitimacy or anyone else’s.
I wanted to touch on This Is Woman’s Work, because you mentioned the shadow, and it’s such an intriguing and inviting and rich book. How did it come to be, and what did writing it launch you toward?
So I’m a sort of manic in terms of writing. There was a woman who had been a publicist at a publishing house and who I had done a couple of events for, and she said, “I keep getting feedback from participants where they want to know more about your writing process. I think maybe you should try to write a book about that.” I wasn’t attracted to the idea, because I thought it sounded like a how-to manual. I don’t read how-to manuals, so I don’t know how to write one. And I sat with it and I sat with it, and I asked myself, “What language could I curate to help folks understand what the writing process is for me?”
Then I started thinking how, archetypically, there are all of these different points of entry. And for me, the wound has often been: I show up on Monday one way, if I show up on Tuesday as something else that gets shamed, it’s called immature or unstable or whatever, as opposed to “Look at how complicated you are!” Or “Go ahead! Look at how vast! Look at all those moving parts and how you’re willing to let them all have a dance!” So I wanted to heal that particular wound for myself. I’m all these women. I’m all of them at the same time, right? These are the women that I know, these are the women who raised me, these are the women that I am or that I was, or that I’m reaching for. And what is the creative process like when you’re the obedient woman versus when you’re the rebel? What does that look like? And again, always to interrogate: Is this a powerful place to stand for me? Is this the truest depiction of who I am right now at my core? And once I latched on to that, my brain went “Ah, you can talk about this archetypically,” and it was done in about 18 days. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I was manic about it, just writing it out, because it was coming. It was a flood, you know. And I also found that there were all of these women and these girls that I had known that I finally had the opportunity to bring into the space. And so that felt like really holy work to me. It just kept coming.
It reads like holy work.
Speaking of all the women you’ve known, you have poems to Rachel McKibbens and Mahogany Browne. Who are some other writers you feel are fellows in this work and are your community that you kind of pull on? And that can be present or ancestral.
Sure. Mahogany Browne and Rachel McKibbens: that’s my coven for sure. Jeanann Verlee is extraordinary. She just released her book prey, which is brutal and beautiful at the same time. Patricia Smith, Tyehimba Jess, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Langston Hughes …
Edgar Allan Poe. I love him. I do. I love him, and I love the opportunity to convince other folks that they should love him. You know, because depending on how he was introduced to you, you’re like, “This has nothing to do with me. He’s not even speaking to me.” But I think he is! I think he’s permissioning us to reveal the parts of us that are the most unreconciled to say, “This is a thought that haunts me. Every day it has driven me mad; I’ll show it to you.” You know, I mean, I need that. I need permission for things like that. He gives me that.
That is the most convincing argument for Poe I have ever heard.
That’s how I experience him. His mania is a permission slip. You know, I’m siphoning through this well enough to show you all of my parts that are tattered and torn. I’m showing you the thing I cannot conquer.
And I just I need that. I definitely appreciate the writers who — oh! Edwidge Danticat — I appreciate the writers who are ancestral, who are elegiac, who are confessional, who take risks, who offer you a bomb and a blessing. I appreciate the writers who do not have any intention of tying it up in a neat bow to make you feel better at the end. I appreciate writers who are not interested in being palatable to you. Writers who ask you to work as hard as they had to work to say it in the first place, because to me, that’s what Toni Morrison insists on. You cannot read her with the TV on. She wants you to drill down into the marrow of the work, and I appreciate that. I really do.
What’s your favorite thing and least favorite thing about writing poetry or writing in general?
I don’t have anything negative. I’m grateful. Truly, I’m really grateful, for myself and also for the folks who preceded me who did not have the opportunity. I give them as much room as they want with me. Say whatever they might need to say. It feels like witchcraft. It feels like conjure, which can be comforting and sometimes terrifying, and sometimes just really gut wrenching. But I’m always grateful for the writing process. I write every day, and I’ll die if I don’t: that’s how I feel. My relationship to writing is the same relationship that I have to eating and sleeping. I will die if I don’t do it. So I’m grateful for this craft because it makes my blood move.
What is the poet’s job in the world, as you see it?
The job description is complicated because for some poets, your job is to exhume the bodies. For some poets, your job is to bury the bodies. For some poets, your job is to crawl out of the grave yourself. For some poets, your job is to go back and rescue the little girl you were, the little boy you were. For some poets, the job is to name all of those unnamable souls that you borrow bone and blood from — just name them. For some poets, it’s an opportunity to talk to God. For some poets, it’s an opportunity to curse God. Yeah, it’s that it’s all of that.
You’ve referenced “bones” a lot; it’s really one of your words, you know, especially with the fleshing and refleshing. Tell me about that.
I know it. I was just at Kenyon College and I just said that. I said, “Let’s do a word bank. We’ll start writing, blah blah blah, and pay attention because your stream of consciousness stuff reveals you. You know, for me, there’s certain words that keep coming up — ” and the whole room was like, “Bones.” I know. I say “bones” all the time. It’s true. I’m going to keep interrogating this, but my right now answer is that as a kid, I spent so much time hiding and lying and shape shifting and performing a hologram that I was the skeleton in the closet. That’s how it felt to me. You know, I was the thing that you know, was locked in a damp basement. And so those skeletal fragments needed to be made whole and re-fleshed so that I could begin to speak that experience into the light and out of my body so that I can have my body. I think that’s what it is. I think I really do relate to my childhood and the experience of childhood as being almost a corpse. I’m some zombie figure. I’m animated. I’m pantomiming. But there are parts of me that are being murdered. You know there’s decomposition happening in front of you and you don’t see it. I think that’s why … I think that’s why. Yeah, that, and just there’s something even with elegy — any time you are trying to talk about the dead, you know, the folks who left, somehow something connected to bones, blood, burial, comes up for me.
So that’s almost like a reflex word; do you have a favorite word?
Period? Just a favorite word?
You like them all, don’t you?
I do. I mean, I like language very much. I like playing with it, you know. Language is movement and action and activities. So I rarely say, “I’m speaking,” and say instead “I’m language-ing” this way. I think “interrogate” is a word I go to a lot, but that’s because it’s different from “I’m thinking about something.” It’s deeper than that: it requires forensics, you know, which is what I feel like I have to do a lot as a person and as a poet. Yeah, I like words.
You write a lot on private subjects. How do you negotiate what’s up for grabs in your own experience in life versus the other people in the story and their right to privacy?
Ain’t no right to privacy! So, yeah, so here we go. Ain’t no right to pri-va-cy. So, with the strict exception that, like, I’m not going to harm anyone, right? I’m not seeking to do that. There are certain poems I have written that I will not read in a room because it was a thing that happened. I was 12; there were two other girls in the room. They did not ask me to tell that story. But I also didn’t need their permission. I was there, too. It happened to me, too. So I’m saying what happened. I name that you were there. But I won’t read it out loud. You know, I won’t do that. But if I was there and I bore witness or it happened to me, it is mine. And at that point if you don’t want to be misread — and I’m not going to misrepresent you — if you don’t want to be represented negatively, you should have thought about that before you beat me up. So it’s that for me. I don’t — I just can’t — I cannot care about that. Not now. Because, again, I did so much of that as a kid, managing other folks secrets for them to my detriment. I’m not doing that any more. At all. If you behaved badly, you messed up, because I have a long memory and a dope relationship with language and I’m gonna tell on you! I’mma tell on you a lot! You know, I’m telling on you over and over and over and over again until you are no longer — until the memory of you is no longer a noose around my neck, period. So confession for me is that, but also I practice it. It’s the one thing the Catholic Church got right — the practice, the business, of confession. Ritualizing that act. For me. That’s how I thought about it. I’m practicing telling the truth, the whole truth. I’m not Catholic, but I went to Catholic school K through 12. And I would 100 percent sneak in the confessional booth. 100 percent.
I grew up Catholic and I have always avoided confession!
Nah, girl, I loved the confessional! I. Love. The. Confessional. I’m like, so I could come in here and just say whatever, and you can do nothing to me? Come on. Bless me, father. What do I say? Bless me, father. Okay. First of all, I loved it. I loved it. Because it was like, it was a holding place. You get to say all the things here. I’d say all the things. I didn’t care what he felt about it. I don’t care what prescriptive prayer he gave me after. I just needed to say it. “Thank you for coming. Thank you. God bless and good night.” That’s all I needed. So, you know, I can’t. I can’t be concerned about how somebody else feels. I’m not going to misrepresent anyone. But I will represent you 100 percent.
You’re from a family of educators. What do you try to impart to students in whatever little or long time you have with them?
Same thing, same as with parenting: get free. I just want to introduce you to your brilliance. If I’ve done that, we’re good. I don’t have to like you. I don’t have to understand you. You know, but if you’ve come in contact with your capacity, your ability and your brilliance and how necessary you are in this world, I feel like I’ve done my job. Get on out there and be somebody.
Tell me about Anarcha Speaks and what you’re working on now.
Anarcha Speaks is a book of poems that’re all persona poems, so my voice is not “my voice,” but it’s not third person omniscient narrator, which is why this one took the longest for me. Anarcha was an enslaved girl born into chattel slavery. She had a baby. The baby died. She suffered fistula tears in labor and delivery, and labor and delivery trauma in chattel slavery was prevalent. In her case it rendered her incontinent. And when that would happen, it would reduce their value. And oftentimes these young girls and women would then be sold off to chain gangs to be sex slaves. I found Anarcha by accident. She was an asterisk; she was a footnote, a means to talk about Dr. J. Marion Sims. And I felt uproariously about that, that this man, who we regard as the “father” of modern-day gynecology, perfected his technique between the legs of this girl who he experimented on more than 34 times without anesthesia. And there was no way she could be relegated to footnote now that I had come in contact with her. She deserved a reckoning. She deserved the opportunity to vocalize her full experience.
The more I read, the more digging I did. My mother really helped me. She’s really great with research and tracking somebody down in the census. And you get the sense that this girl just didn’t. She was so sturdy. She just didn’t know how to exit her body when someone else would have willed themselves out of the body. She just didn’t know how to exit the body. The doctor was fascinated by all that he had done to her and all that he was able to do to her because she should have died. She should have bled out. And it wasn’t happening. And so for me, that was a whole conversation about the commodification of our bodies. And in that idea, that antiquated, violent idea, that we have a different relationship to pain and suffering — that we don’t feel it the way other folk feel it. She needed to be in the light. I’m really honored to bring her into the light. The first half is all her as a lead up to the moment when Dr. J. Marion Sims buys her so that he can have her all to himself, and buys two other women that were also on the plantation, Betsy and Lucy, for the same reasons. And then the second half of the book is called “The Juxtaposition of Experience,” because it’s a volley between Anarcha and the doctor. So you’ll have a poem that says “Blood Misbehaves: How Anarcha sees the first surgery,” and then “Blood Misbehaves: How the doctor sees the first surgery.” It was difficult to write it, but I’m honored that she chose me, because that’s what it feels like.
What’s on the horizon?
I think the next one will be revisionist history where I’ll be looking at women that in the lexicon, quite literally, were written as ruined. And very much like Anarcha, giving them the opportunity to subvert that conversation. Women like Medusa. Women like Jezebel. Women like Tituba, who was the West Indian slave woman who was the first to be tried in the Salem witch trials. Those folks are gonna have the same opportunity to speak that Anarcha has. And then I think there’s another volume coming where the first half of the book is about Josephine Baker. And the second half of the book is about Frida Kahlo because they met and had a relationship in Paris. And I really am so attracted to that idea: I really think that’s fabulous to think about. So I want to also bring those into the room.
That sounds amazing. Thank you so much for the conversation.
Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues Press April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019).