“So much of entering the space of a poem feels like prophecy.”
Interviewed By: Bradley Trumpfheller
The poems in I Can't Talk About the Trees feel very vulnerable in a certain kind of way. I’m always curious both about the writing process for that specific kind of vulnerability and then the process of touring behind that. What is it like to share those more confessional, more vulnerable poems with the world?
So kind of the writing process and then what is it like to perform that vulnerability in front of other people?
Yeah, because I think those two things, at least for me, can feel very different, the composition and then the actually speaking to a room.
Yeah, I’ve always written from a very personal landscape. And then from there I’ve always kind of wanted to smash the personal and the political. For me I’ve always felt like no one can ever dispute or argue my own story. I’m always looking for ways inside that center of the venn diagram between the personal and political. I think Natasha Trethewey is a prime example of a poet that exemplifies that nexus. Especially Native Guard which was a transformative book for me, especially in how to reveal your life story woven throughout our national history. It’s an instinct that feels very natural inside my own skin, being mixed that is: my mother being black and my dad being white. The history is tethered and tangled in my blood. So I kind of start from that cellular prologue—that’s my genesis. My own kind of being is a very political landscape.
Nothing has really been off limits for me in my work. Being very vulnerable has always been something I’ve been comfortable with and it hasn’t actually been until lately that I’ve thought: hey, maybe you should hold some things back, or what it would mean to be opaque in a poem and not let everyone know all your business. A quote that I often think about is from Terrance Hayes in an interview, where he talked about how during the first draft it’s just him and his shadow. The audience isn’t even in the room. That really resonated with me. So for me, that first draft isn’t even that vulnerable to me, it’s just, these are the emotions I’m exercising on the page. Then to your second point, it comes into play when I am reading those poems out loud that I’m like: oh—or when I am thinking about revision or audience—what do I want from my readers? So for me I kind of think about it as a museum curation and there are some exhibits I want people to be able to touch and you can touch me and touch this poem. And others I want to have a twenty foot pole and you can’t have access, there are secrets to this poem you will never ever know. But definitely when I’ve been performing this book it’s really interesting. When I had my reading in New York at Books Are Magic, it was just right after the Kavanaugh hearing, and I don’t normally read my sexual assault poems out loud. It takes a lot of mental energy, it’s a lot of stamina. But I had felt so emboldened and emblazoned by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that I was reading those poems to kind of help me drum of courage that particular day. I was tired of feeling powerless.
That’s really real, yeah.
Yeah, so for me there are certain times in a reading where I’m trying to save myself and there are certain times in a reading I’m kind of thinking about a certain type of curation, but for that day I wanted to read those poems in that space and kind of change the energy of the room for me. I used to do improv comedy, so I’m always just trying to discern and calibrate the energy of the room. I sometimes have a real skeleton idea of what I’m going to read but then I always try to be open to some type of energy that I feel and lean into. After you start performing some of these poems they become part of your body and they become memorized in your body. Sometimes I’m just trying to rise and meet that level of the energy that they have. So every now and then I feel like I’m clicking into the energy that feels amazing. And sometimes it’s like I’m either under it or over it or adjacent to it. Also, my long poem “The Rime of Nina Simone”, I hadn’t really read that in its full length until my book release party in Nashville and I was actually really nervous to read it because I’m always so afraid that I’m taking up people’s time or space and especially with a really long ass poem. While I was reading, I was thinking these negative thoughts the whole time like: everyone is bored, they hate me, they just want me to shut up. But It was so funny after the reading, and not to toot my horn, but someone came up to me and said "I don’t know if you know this but so many people were weeping while you were reading that poem." I was like, what? It just goes to show you that all the fears and insecurities that are in my head when I’m reading this long poem, and all that vulnerability that I’m trying to pour onto the page, it’s very hard to hold that when you’re performing and think about what that might be doing for other people. So I try to remember that sometimes to kind of hold the line. I think Chen Chen has a tweet about this–that his poems are much braver than he is, and that really resonated with me. I want to be as brave during those first draft sessions where it’s just me and my shadows. But it is hard to match that energy in person sometimes.
There are so many things you just said that I want to ask more about but I guess the first is that self-consciousness that you had, if that’s the right word, when you were reading "The Rime of Nina Simone". Is that a self-consciousness you had at all when you were writing the poem? Did you find that the act of taking up space has a different register when it is the air as opposed to the page?
No, not at all actually. That was one of those poems that kind of just rattled through me. I think Ruth Stone talks about catching the hem of a poem. I felt like I was the caboose of the train and was trying to capture it all, the lines were all coming to me very quickly.
I was listening to the Commonplace podcast—the Roger Reeves & Natalie Diaz interview—and I don’t know how they got on this topic, but Roger started talking about long poems and he said that in life he found himself when a white woman would walk past him he would unconsciously step out of her way. And that he was actively trying to work against that diminishment on the page with long poems, to take up as much space as possible. I had to turn my car off the road because I was so moved. I think in some way I had been making myself small on the page. I think there are a lot of social and political things that I was either aware or not aware of and so I kind of got invested in this idea of long poems and taking up as much space as I needed. So when I was responding to “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” I felt like I already had that permission, that was the starting place. But then Nina is so capacious and massive in her essence that there was no way she was going to have a short poem. There is no way it would be small.
For me I really did feel possessed when I wrote that piece and did kind of feel her presence, and really the poem is a way to have a foil for the speaker, to have a conversation with the lyric self that I couldn’t have without her. In some ways I did feel this sort of live action play, that I was talking to myself and all these things were coming up and she gave the speaker permission to reveal some of the hardships I was feeling during my MFA. During my sense of trying to understand my writing life and like, what does it mean to talk about black pain? Are you saying anything new? Are you just exploiting what has already been said? Are you adding anything fresh? Anything I wanted to attack I was already attacking myself with. I was using Nina’s life, her art and her activism, to kind of filter through my own life and kind of reveal some truths that even I don’t think I was ready to handle. I think I needed that much space to explicate and mine the psychic landscape.
Yeah, yeah. That seems very true to me in reading it as well. I think there’s a way in which the long poem, but also I think any sort of poem that has a predetermined form–like, I’m thinking about Terrance Hayes talking about his American Sonnets, right? He calls them “part music box, part meat grinder," this idea that you can sort of put anything into that music-meat-machine and you are going to discover something about the poem or yourself, or both, along the way. How long did it take to write “The Rime of Nina Simone?”
So it kind of took over a weekend in the spring of 2016. It was shortly right after the documentary came out on Netflix “What Happened, Miss Simone?” I was taking an independent study at Vanderbilt about 18th Century British Romantic Poetry—super sexy. I was actually reading Lyrical Ballads and my assignment every week was to respond to a poem from the book. So when we got to Coleridge, I was like there’s no way I’m doing a strict ballad in quatrains. I had been asking myself who would be the modern sea-wary captain stopping a wedding guest and interrupting them with some apocalyptic news. Who would be that for me? Then Nina kind of came to me in that moment. I’d been obsessed with her already so the general nascent sketch kind of came out that weekend. I feverishly hashed out the poem over thirteen pages, but I will say it was very sloppy and very messy and it took two years of revisions. It is my most heavily revised poem and I was even revising it up until the last second until my publisher was like, we need your final edits right now. It really was down to the final minute that I had just kind of clicked into place the final gesture of the poem. I added the argument in the beginning last minute as well as the Kevin Young epigraph on the opposite page. I just kept fiddling and fiddling so it was the hardest poem to revise for me in the collection.
Yeah, yeah, the long poem in that way can be such an exercise in endurance. You said you added the Kevin Young epigraph later in the process. There are so many—and this is not a critique or anything because I love epigraphs so so much but—
There is a lot of that critique, though, that you should always take out most epigraphs.
Yeah, and I’m just curious how you conceptualize the epigraph for your work? What do you think it does?
I would love to talk about this because I’m so tired of all these poetry dictums of you shouldn’t have this or you shouldn’t do that. I’m not interested, especially as a teacher, in telling my students what poems can’t do. I think each poem reveals itself to me and if anything I’m trying to get out of the way of the poem or the collection. Believe it or not this book actually had more epigraphs. During my MFA thesis that was one of the things that got brought up. But I think that’s what is great about critique, because it forces you to define your relationship to what you are defending yourself against. I realized there’s a too-muchness, not only about myself on the page, but also in my own life that I think I often want to run away from that impulse, but as I’m getting older I’m caring less what people think as I try to lean into my excessive tendencies.
I’m a poet that loves intertextuality. I’m thinking of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts--I love that we have that marginalia to see who she’s in conversation with. That’s how I kind of view my relationship to the epigraph. To me it's the foyer that you enter into the house of the poem. It’s a way of telling you to take off your shoes, this is my house; you are getting the smells of my house with this epigraph. It’s the amuse-bouche and I love it. I love epigraphs, I collect epigraphs, I collect lots and lots of quotes. As poets and writers we’re just always in conversations with other people and other people that were before us. I’ve been spending some time with Kevin Young’s work and realizing that he had written so much about so many things that were of interest to me and that line is taken from a poem where he’s talking about Basquiat, this other type of ekphrasis, and that idea of ‘what the ghost wants is not always obvious’. That thought just lingered with me and would not leave me alone. I would take it out and put it back in, on repeat. A lot of people say they don’t like epigraphs because they think it clunks up the poem or is a type of a barrier to entry. I understand about not wanting to clutter the entryway into a poem. I definitely think that has some value. And I think having a clean poem–some poems need that, some poems don’t need a long title and an epigraph and attribution line, but some baroque poems demand all that pageantry.
Right, right, absolutely.
If you notice from my collection, I love making and breaking forms. For me, as a writer, I think you start developing what your styles are and I will probably always have lots of epigraphs with my work. I think like with Marianne Moore you start falling in love with her footnotes. You come to expect that from them like where the “rule” changes. Someone will say oh that’s Marianne Moore, read her footnotes. Not saying that I’m trying to say “Tiana and her epigraphs”! I want to question that—why can’t we have epigraphs? I know I’ve heard the feedback that you don’t want to pull from outside the world of the poem, because you might be pulling a heavier context that people have to compete with.
But I find epigraphs to be powerful and comforting, and almost like that Janus face: someone looking back but also looking forward. It’s showing you here is some part of my consciousness that read this book in the past like the Claudia Rankine epigraph. That’s a text that is so important to me and that is in the foreground of the ‘I Can’t Talk’ section, but also here’s me now in the present looking forward and here’s what I’m taking from that text, and this is everything that is coming forward in the present to hopefully propel the reader into their own worlds of meaning. You know? Epigraphs are these fabulous temporal capsules, these little bridges betwixt time and text, these diving boards leaping the reader into the poem and I just can’t get enough of them.
Definitely, definitely. And I think one thing that I love when I encounter in an epigraph in a poet’s work, particularly in this book, is that it announces that the poet is in those conversations, is in those lineages. The Tretheway quote really clicked into place for me a lot of the work that the collection had already done and was going to do because by putting that into conversation with specifically a book like Native Guard it makes me sort of read the two books in junction and I think that is a very useful thing for a book to do--to sort of say, here is the ground that has come before me and here is my place in it. It’s a staking claim in that ground also.
That’s what we do in academic work, right? You have to cite and state all of your sources, but you’re also looking at all the research written on your subject matter and saying here is everything that has been written about x thus far, and yet here are the lacunae, and this is what I’m adding to these gaps. This is what hasn’t been said before, but I’m saying it now.
Exactly, like a mini statement of field.
I love that. And one of the other things I think foregrounding Tretheway in the beginning of the section sort of drew my eye to was, and I think you mentioned ekphrasis earlier in the conversation but i really want to talk to you about how, not only intertextual but inter-artistic this book is. Ekphrasis in a certain way can get limited to painting and the plastic arts a little bit, but I think this collection really radically expands that in ways that I think are interesting. You have that sequence of the poems after the ballets and then you also have the Rhianna poem and even thinking about the “Rime of Nina Simone” as an ekphrastic work, sort of on Nina Simone’s life. I think in your interview with Kevin Young for The New Yorker podcast you mentioned that you consider Nashville to be an ekphrasis of the city. To synthesize this into a question, I guess I’m specifically curious about how you see ekphrasis as a form working for this book and for you as a poet.
So thinking about smashing the personal with the political, that’s why I love ekphrastic poetry because I think you’re always crossing another type of boundary. The boundary of the art form and you’re trying to cross that and it’s not just describing a ballet or music video, but it’s that sense of colliding with my own life. Somehow this has become a cipher for something that has happened to me and I’m able to kind of--or a type of translation--and I’m able to kind of use Balanchine’s ballets or Rihanna's blood-stained body to kind of become a mask for me to say something that I wouldn’t be able to say otherwise. There’s a book called Picture Theory by W.J.T. Mitchell and it talks a lot about ekphrasis and this idea that it’s this triangular relationship between you and the reader and the image and I just really like that symbiotic relationship. And thinking about you’re viewing something that you are trying to communicate to the reader that they’ll never see or they might have their own interpretation of what they’ve seen but it still won’t match yours. So he calls that ekphrastic hope--
Oh wow, I love that.
Yeah--this idea that you are hoping that it’ll click for them, but it’s still that your description of it becomes this other object, this other kind of form. So I think for me ekphrasis for me is in real time very much that you are creating--I don’t know what the heck I’m saying.
No, it’s all good. I’m into the riffing.
I got started on a thing and then thought I don’t know what I’m talking about, ha! I hope this makes sense.
It does, it does! What you were just talking about sort of reminds me of that Frank O’Hara essay on Personism, do you know that one?
No, I don’t think so!
So it was this almost mock-manifesto he wrote, which is half making fun of the empty art of manifesto-ing and half this sensational, profoundly O’Hara-esque, critical essay about how he thinks about the idea of audience in his poems, or poems in general. He talks about, if I'm remembering right, this idea of “personism” as being the collapse of that triangular relationship—like, how can writing to a person, or another subject, through poetry do the same work as a telephone call, kind of. That we always need, our poems need, to be writing towards a concrete other. He’s not necessarily talking about ekphrasis but I think it may be applicable in the sense that it feels like you are re-presenting the art, you aren’t just trying to describe the art, like you said. It’s about, you re-presenting the art to someone. It’s the giving it to someone that really animates so many of O’Hara’s poems. That’s the idea of the very personal you even when the you is not a beloved or your mother or someone like that.
I love that.
I also think it’s sort of apparent in a different kind of way in this collection. Particularly in those ekphrastic poems because it feels like anyone can watch the "Bitch Better Have My Money" video, right? Anyone can have their own experience of that but what I think is so wonderful, beyond its incredibly quality as a poem, is that if feels like I’m getting this window into someone else’s experience of watching Rihanna covered in blood. I think that’s a really wonderful thing for any kind of writing about art to do.
Yeah, yeah. When you were talking it made me kind of think of a hall of mirrors, because it’s almost like the reader is watching the speaker watch the music video and each recreation is becoming this string of ekphrastic responses, all strung and reflecting and refracting together. Or it’s like a pendulum going back and forth? I think I’m just really interested in all those ways of seeing. I like revealing and exploring the lyric self in ekphrasis. I just really love it. Hanif Abdurraqib has a fantastic poem after Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Emotion” and I was at a workshop at The Porch in Nashville and Kendra DeColo brought in that poem and I loved it. I had never even thought about responding to pop culture in that way. So for me this prose poem, I don’t know if you’ve read it, but to me it was this kind of block text of permission and I was like oh, Hanif says I can do this. And then I was already obsessed with the Rihanna music video and I had been watching it over and over again. It was almost as if these flood subjects were waiting to find some kind of bucket to pour them into. That’s why I love reading so much because it was like, Hanif said “here you go” and I was like “oh, okay.” Ekphrasis was that perfect form that helped me interact with that digital text, digital landscape.
When you were writing that poem did you rewatch the Rihanna video or were you trying to recapture the experience of seeing it for the first time?
I was in a workshop when the poem came, so I couldn’t kind of re-watch the music video then because it’d be kind of awkward. I was actually kind of thankful that I didn’t have immediate access to it then because I was forced to pull from my memory. Like you said earlier with ekphrasis, it’s not trying to have this pure reproduction of the piece so I really had to use my own memory of why was I so obsessed with Rihanna and what do these images mean to me? They were kind of like in my memory swirling with heat, and then I think at some point in revision I went back and watched it, but nothing really changed from seeing the music video again...the poem had already congealed. I did make my graduate workshop watch the music video.
As you should have!
Because there were certain people who hadn’t watched it! It was actually really interesting because there was actually a white man in my workshop group that refused to watch the music video because it made him uncomfortable, so he kind of looked away. So I told him if you’re looking away from that video then you are looking away from me.
Yeah, he apologized later but still.
I have so many wild workshop experiences I’m just like, oh that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Yeah, I wish that were less surprising in it's shittiness. The larger question I think I'm talking around here is about research, in whatever way that word manifests, and how it functions for you. Like I read I Can't Talk About the Trees Without the Blood as a book that is deeply interested in history beyond just the sort of historically constituted body that I think a lot of contemporary poets that I know tend to work through. You mobilize a lot of archival work in these pieces, really effectively I think, so I’m just curious about your relationship to that work.
Research is a huge component for me. At any given moment I have 20,000 tabs open on my computer. That’s a little hyperbolic, but my partner is always like, "what is going on with your computer?" I’m always saying my computer is so slow and he says "maybe if you didn’t have all these tabs open!" I thought I wanted to be a historian actually before I wanted to be a poet. My major was Africana Studies and I was on that track and had applied to graduate school programs in History with a focus on Africana studies until I had an internship at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in New York. I was supposed to be doing this huge paper on the Harlem Renaissance and I was walking around Harlem, but all these poems kept pouring out. Everything I was reading digested as poems instead of prose, and I was supposed to be doing this huge research, but the poems wouldn’t stop. I was like get away poems, no, I don’t have time for you. I have to have this other type of way of absorbing this information but that’s just how my body responded. So I’ve always been this huge receptacle for that. My brain has always been primed for that kind of scholarship, but it just comes out as poems instead of long academic journals and JSTOR. I love research and it plays a huge component to my work and so usually what happens, like the volcano poem–my partner wanted a Netflix and chill night and he put on this volcano documentary. Which isn’t super sexy to kind of put you in the mood but my little poetry antennas went up. There was this one black man that survived this massive volcano. My little poetry beep beep went off and I went on this huge click-hole, researching everything. About Martinique, about him, about Barnum and Bailey circus-I just love it. I just consume it all in a very speedy pace and it fills me up until I’m at this point of overflowing and then a poem almost starts writing itself.
Maybe this is my own practice shining through, but I always think research in a poem as you start a poem and then research happens to bolster it, if that makes sense?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
But I guess the converse of that then is maybe more natural, or has a nice kind of linearity at least. In the Commonplace episode that came out yesterday, with Robin Coste Lewis, she talks about research as a kind of devotion.
Ohh, that's beautiful.
I know, I know, I was on the floor about it. It was one of things where I had to just pause it and look around at everyone on the bus, as if we had all just heard the same thing. But I feel like that then becomes almost a religious experience with research, right? To be so overwhelmed with it that you have to do this labor, have to make this thing. In the churches I went to growing up it was called catching the spirit, right? You —and not to impose this reading onto you, so maybe your speakers—are so in awe of history in some way? Awe being both pain and wonder at the same time. What else can you do but write a poem? I read that in almost all of your poems, that like inevitability of wonder.
I’m kind of stunned and in a place of stasis with this research as devotion--I’m going to write that down right now. She has a great article, I think in the New Yorker, about Voyage of the Sable Venus and how it came to her as this great ship in the middle of the street in New York and asked her to come aboard with all these unnamed black bodies and art that she kind of compiled over these years of research and going to museums. I just had a workshop read that as a way to talk about how research comes to you, and how do you talk about your obsessions: how do you hold space for your obsessions in your life?
This is a really big question to just drop, so I’m sorry, but how do you experience the divine in your poems?
Oooh. I wish I had something quippy and perfect like Robin Coste Lewis. I feel like I’m a little hamster on a wheel. I don’t know——I’ll have to answer this in a really long drawn out way unfortunately.
Yeah, yeah, do it!
I grew up going to church and grew up in kind of a massive Christian environment. The whole time though I was always an outsider. I had a single mother and I was always really edgy and wore JNCOs and baby tees at church and so all the parents thought I was a bad influence on their kids. I was very isolated in church but always felt this connection with God even though I didn’t feel a sense of community. I always felt this kind of quiet conduit that I had. I think for me the divine is always with me. It’s something that I kind of carry with me.
I have a very personal relationship to it, I just feel like I’m always kind of talking to God and even though I don’t go to church anymore and don’t really prescribe to some sense of organized religion, I still feel very spiritual in my daily life. I’ve never stopped talking to the divine--something kind of outside of myself. I don’t know how to explain it fully. I had so many questions as a kid and I feel like as a writer I am still struggling and holding and wading through endless unanswerable questions and that’s what is so great about writing is that you don’t have to answer any of them, but you can kind of wrestle and toggle and thrash against the not-knowingness of it all. For me, that kind of holds the space of the divine. The circle never ends for all of my questioning and I’m not made to feel guilty for my inquiries.
Yeah. I love that. And then in context with that, and I’m just thinking out loud right now, but you end the collection on “How To Find The Center Of A Circle,” right? And so thinking about the collection as an orbiting almost and then at the end it’s presented as instructions for finding the center of a circle. The poem itself, the implication, the eye is sort of at the center of this circle in some way but not as an answer? There is always another circle to be finding the center of. There is always something else to move closer to. It’s like a horizon. You are never actually going to get there, a utopia type of thing. I really really love that.
I love that idea. That divine question is so powerful I’ll have to think on it more. That is one reason I think I really connect to Kaveh Akbar’s work. He really relates to the divine—and I don’t know if I want to get into this, we’ll see if it’ll make the final cut. It’s something awkward for me to talk about or answer because it feels weird to talk about God with poetics but it’s something that so many poets talk about.
I don’t know if I have the right word for it. I—yeah. Sometimes I feel--do you ever feel this way? Sometimes I feel scared to open the space to that.
You mean by talking about it?
Yeah, yeah. Do you ever feel that way?
I do, I do.
There was an essay collection that came out from Ilya Kaminsky a couple years ago, A God In the House, about how poets interact with faith. There’s a Jericho Brown essay in there that really changed my life, and then hearing him kind of talk about it -- when he talks about line breaks, that moment where the poem is broken, casting the reader into doubt and it’s this sense of faith that you’ll land on the next line.
Oh my goodness.
Right? So I love thinking about faith in that way. And faith in form is really kind of fascinating to me as well. Oh, here it is “A God In The House: Poets Talk About Faith.” I guess faith can be different from the divine. I don’t know, what do you think?
I’m thinking a couple of things. One is the idea of faith and form in your own work. What's more faithful than the poem that embraces the caesura? I just randomly flipped to “What The Blood Does” and to open onto a poem ending with a biblical quote, too, is apropos. That willingness to suspend single words in the white space knowing that you’re going to land on another word. The poem is going to continue but even more than that the general kind of breaking of form even as you’re inhabiting it throughout the collection. I can’t think of a better word for it than faithful. So maybe in that way, maybe it’s a hard thing to talk about or something you have hesitancy talking about because it’s just so supersaturated into everything. Thinking back to you saying how a poem just happens after research, to be just so constantly in the presence of the divine that it’s hard to articulate. It’s like air, it’s just around you. You don’t know how to talk about it.
Yeah, and thinking about the caesura, I was just teaching it to my students and this idea of letting air into the poem and thinking about breath or thinking about kind of being in that sense of awe. Awe as a form of ecstasy, but awe as also a form of pain. I think so much of the divine encapsulates those two kind of extreme emotions that toggle on the same frequency in the body. Also thinking of caesura...as the words you break, they themselves start having double meanings, so that syntactical chunk can be on its own and it’s also connected to the chunk after it. And also thinking about those leaps in faith between those two kind of clauses and creating that sense of leaping and faith that something is going to be there when you land that next line.
Right and then there’s, I’m looking at “Self Portrait as Hannah Peace” right now and how it sort of takes that golden shovel adjacent form, right?
And with the golden shovel there's this idea that what is going to catch you at the end of each line is not your own words, but the words of one’s ancestors, the people and the writing communities that have come before you.
Yeah, especially Toni Morrison. Now it’s interesting because now I’m thinking of epigraph as scripture. These lines that you memorize and you hold with you and they become a part of your body.
For me I was made to memorize lots of scripture when I was younger, with this idea that it’s ingested in your body and rolls around in your head. So for me scripture is poetry, so poems are rolling around in my head. Words from writers and it just kind of naturally spills out. The third section starts with this really creepy quote from the Bible, that Ezekiel 16: “When I pass by you I saw you squirming in your blood.” It was actually kind of prophesied over me by this preacher when I was younger and it was an intense prophecy. I don’t know how people think about prophecy, but his words had always stayed with me. I wanted to foreground it, and what does it mean to be squirming in your blood? I think it was a baby that was just born--I just wanted to say something about prophecy and speaking something into the future that doesn’t exist now and that’s a form of poetry to me, that notion of ex nihilo, creating something out of nothing, ordering the chaos around and within.
So much of entering the space of a poem feels like prophecy. Will I make it to the end of this poem? Am I casting a line into language hoping to receive some kind of answer? That also feels very divine to me.
Maybe going back to the conversation we were having about epigraphs, to have an epigraph in a poem then becomes a kind of security almost? Just the way that you and I have memorized these countless Bible verses. Not necessarily by choice, but it happened. The idea that there is always going to be this bit of poetry, this bit of something beyond you in some sense: whether that be Toni Morrison or the gospel of Mark, coming back to them as a way of rooting yourself as you scratch at the divine, as you try to get closer to the center of the circle.
Also I think, to be honest with you, I’m making a lot of connections to my reading life. I think that started from reading the Bible or how I was made to read the Bible. Where you read it again and again and again and you go back to a different phase of your life and so much of that was so superimposed into my poetry life and my reading practice now. I read certain Sharon Olds poems again and again and each year that passes they start to mean different things and arrive to me in different ways. So much of that early way I was kind of conscripted and now it’s just a type of pleasure in my reading practice. I think I’m just making that connection now. I’ll also say that there’s something interesting about sniffing that out in other people’s work. As you were talking I was thinking about your work. I can kind of sniff out PKs or church kids.
I love that, I love that.
Oh they’ve wrestled. They’ve wrestled with some things.
I don’t know what the right metaphor to describe it is but the scent seems very accurate to me.
There’s some aroma, the guilt and the shame. What I love in my work and what I try to tell some of my students is that you aren’t totally shaming or damning the ways in which we grew up. There’s still a way to hold that space and still kind of pull something beautiful from it. It’s not just one note too. I’m always very thankful for writers that when I find how they talk about the divine, like Ross Gay is one of those poets, that I feel like I have a religious experience when I read his work and encounter how he talks about grief and gratitude. Like Gabrielle Calvocoressi, I love how they make room for the divine and science and the world and it just becomes this big soup. I don’t know, it’s comforting.
We've been going for a while now, but do you wanna talk at all about how you're spending your time now that this book is out in the world?
So I’m working on essays which has been really, really fun and I’ve really enjoyed that dilation from poetry to prose and letting my mind sprawl, letting my metaphors get even longer, more complicated. I really only saw myself as a poet and then I started getting some essay pitches and I remember thinking I’m really terrified to do this but I’m also really excited to try and to see if I can. It’s been a rewarding and fulfilling flow going from writing poems to long poems and now essays. It’s like I’m still running, like Forrest Gump. No one's told me to stop.
I'm excited! Are the essays linked in subject matter at all?
Yeah, I think so. I’m still trying to figure it out. Right now I’m kind of just writing what comes up and what people are willing to pay me for. I have been thinking about linkages around black burnout and definitely fusing research with a lyric personal thread woven throughout. And then I’m also working on a second poetry collection. The second collection is more about freedom. There are also some new things I’ve been able to identify about myself that I’m scared and terrified to reveal, but also I think really liberating for my second collection to name and claim. The first book was all about pain and so with the second book one thing I’m ruminating about is how to transcend pain, too.
Interview Posted: May 9, 2019
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