Her poetry collection Voyage of the Sable Venus, winner of the 2015 National Book Award for poetry, captures how beauty and brutality often exist not only simultaneously but also symbiotically, particularly in depictions of black female figures. Robin was born and raised in Compton, where the sounds of Saturday morning were merengue and Creole and the crinkling of newspaper in her parents’ bed. Describing her father, Robin said, “He was so funny. I’d say, ‘Daddy, I don’t understand how you can be happy and not kill yourself,’ and he’d say, ‘Come on now. What part of the world aren’t you paying attention to?’” The journey that has brought her back home to Los Angeles included brain damage, a degree from Harvard Divinity School, various teaching positions (Wheaton College, Hampshire College, Hunter College, NYU), and a current fellowship in Poetry and Visual Studies at USC. Voyage is gut-wrenching, difficult, lyrical. The themes it examines are astounding and then rendered sonically beautiful in astounding ways.
We continued our conversation from that day in Silver Lake via email. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
LEAH MIRAKHOR: Tell me about some of your early work in poetry.
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS: After working in the lingerie department of a department store, at 17, I saved my money to buy a ticket and then left for NYC. A friend got me an internship at the iconic Kitchen Table Press. My job there was to put books in a box — it just so happens that when I arrived, the book just so happened to be Home Girls. I was surrounded by all these exceptional black feminists. Can you imagine being 17 and working for Kitchen Table Press? This production work behind the scenes was my fortunate entry into the world of being a writer. When there was a poetry or fiction reading, there’d always be a line, 50 people deep. When Audre Lorde had a reading, the lines would twist around the block.
I love Lorde for many reasons, but I really admired how she refused to condescend to her readers. Because of her and other writers, I try to refuse to do that in my work, as well. I assume that my reader is incredibly intelligent. And I refuse to wear a mask before my readers. That kind of writing is a waste of trees. Why cut down a tree to put on a mask? I can’t insult the reader that way, or participate in that anti-environmentalist economy. It’s not a coincidence that I’m 51 and publishing my first book. Sure, part of it was brain damage and 15 years of rehab. But part of it is a private ambivalence. I remain unsure about the machine of publishing, what capitalism can do to art and the artist. To decide to publish this work, I had to ask myself: “Are you sure that it’s worth it? Will it make any contribution at all?” I’m not certain, even now.
So much of this work is rooted in the ancient world and the ancient world is alive in your work. Why has this been significant?
The word “door” in Sanskrit is dvAra. When I was in the Divinity School at Harvard, people would ask me why I — a black girl from Compton — was studying Sanskrit (that’s always an interesting question, right? It confesses our ideas about knowledge and privilege). I would always say: because the word “door” in Sanskrit is dvAra. All Indo-European languages go back to Sanskrit. Every last one. It used to be required, like Greek and Latin. Sanskrit is our mother language. So my question is: Why aren’t you studying it?
You have this craving to learn every language, not just as forms of knowledge but as ways of being in the world.
Yes, not just as a profound source of global pleasure, but also as a way to stop the violence, the hatred. As a child, the police shot at us regularly. I always dreamt that if I could figure out a way to talk to them, I could get them to stop. What word, what language — what’s the secret code?
I’m often asked about writer’s block, but I actually don’t get stuck. Language is not my problem; language is my refuge. People are my problem. I have always thought that if I could only figure out the right words to speak to someone pointing a gun at my head, I could get them to stop. And I still believe that, naively.
Your book traces the history of representations of the black female body. What were your experiences in the archives, as you encountered the horrific and the brutal in quotidian images of black women?
Four years ago, as I was writing the book, I would talk to Sharon Olds (she was my teacher and mentor at NYU); Sharon was concerned that I might be harmed, psychologically, by the research. She would always check in with me, wondering whether I was okay. I remember telling her that the title poem is not about my imagination; it’s about the failure of white imagination. It’s about the pathology of whiteness.
Whiteness is the heart of darkness. I hope one of the successes the title poem performs is to show how pathological the white imaginary has been, regarding race, for millennia. As I encountered the images, I began to laugh my way through them, with a dark and lovely laughter. I spent many nights just laughing hysterically when I would come across some hideous art image — like the clock in the form of a black woman where you pull her right earring and the hour rises in her right eye. In addition to my other goals for it, I hope my title poem lifts the veil on how very, very dark whiteness actually is. Whiteness is the darkest ideology around. Whiteness is at the heart of darkness.
You’re deeply concerned with the aesthetics, the fetish, and the pleasure of violence. Can you talk about how this concern permeates the poems?
Yes, the erotics of visual violence, how much we enjoy observing pain. It was profound for me to discover all these art objects where there is an evidentiary performance of complete delight in hatred. To me, that was the most tragic aspect of my research; so tragic that all I could do was laugh. There’s that old saying, made famous by Langston Hughes — one has to laugh to keep from crying.
Thomas Stothard’s allegorical engraving Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies reflects this irony — depicting a black woman surrounded by angelic figures. What do you make of the beauty and brutality in this depiction?
She’s surrounded by cherubs and all these classical figures. Her muscles are brimming, rippling. She’s fine — she’s cut. She cannot be “feminine.” She’s a redux of Botticelli’s Venus, but the Sable Venus could not be lithe or thin. If she is black, the goddess must be masculinized, and hence forced into submission. It is a justification for the transatlantic slave trade.
And on top of all that, it’s an extraordinarily beautiful image. This is the crux of the matter: Hatred can be visually represented, exquisitely. That’s it. That’s what is so highly problematic.
How has reading postcolonial literature been significant to your work?
Reading postcolonial writers allowed me to think about the ways in which we are asked as African Americans to deny the colonial history of this land. I refuse to deny this history, because the US is a site of coloniality. That’s why First Nations issues constantly show up in my work. We are occupying their land.
Maybe it’s because of my background in the ancient world, but I also refuse to accept 1492 as the inception of black history. I refuse that at every step of the way. I think it’s a brilliant sleight of hand to ask African Americans to think of ourselves this way, with a history that is only a few centuries old, and before that we were nothing, a blank. I refuse to agree to this fantasy, because that means we began in slavery, which is to say, as no one, and we all know that that is not true. To think we started from slavery means that we are doomed; it let’s everyone off the hook from reconstructing a more nuanced, less propagandistic history.
If we buy into that narrative, we never get around to asking ourselves questions like: What’s the relationship between Senegal and performance history in Louisiana? What’s the relationship between warfare and slave revolts all over the Americas? I study American history from the outside looking in. By that I mean I only allow myself to think of the US in relationship with other countries. This has everything to do with the fact that my family is from Louisiana, a place that changed national hands so many times. It’s impossible not to be aware of that history. Hell, I encounter it every morning when I look at myself in the mirror.
So how can I not look at the history of French and Spanish colonialism and First Nations holocausts? I have to. Postcolonial literature is a great comfort for me as a writer because it encourages me to remember several borders, more than one empire, and all the bodies constantly navigating those who own them.
Your poems reflect your family’s history as migrants, multiple times over. You note this especially as you describe the languages you heard as a child that later disappeared.
Yes, this is why I feel so bored by the term African American. I use it. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. But it’s also pastel, because the African diaspora is a million times more diverse than we usually articulate; there are so many ways to be black, to inhabit blackness. I prefer “black,” in the UK sense of that word, which includes everyone who is non-white. It encourages a certain international glance, a vast unity.
But when you put us into this box, you miss out on the incredible diversity, even from county to county, parish to parish, not to mention state to state. This is the great tragedy of assimilation: we survive, yes, but we lose our diversity in so many ways. I grew up listening to my father, who would say these Creole terms, but he would tell me, “Hehehe, you don’t want to know, you just learn English and you keep going.”
So, we assimilate, which is why, as an African American, I can relate so deeply to postcolonial literature, immigrant literature. I’m not trying not to be African American; being black is one of the rare joys of my life. I’m saying that those two words together — African American — don’t tell me much about how extraordinarily rich are the cultures hiding beneath those words. Also, I saw Louisiana Creole die in my family. My sister doesn’t know any Creole words, I know maybe 10, my father knew a few hundred. So, in one generation it’s gone.
And, Henri, your son?
Zero. The issue is that for so many people we do not even exist, even though we’ve been here for centuries. This is a postcolonial issue, but instead we evoke the television show Good Times or otherwise frame blackness solely as entertainment, commercial consumption. Meanwhile, I am forgetting the 10 words of Creole I know.
But I don’t mean to romanticize loss. As human beings, we are constantly destroying each other, our languages, our cultures. That’s what we do, it seems, as a species: slaughter each other. I need to acknowledge that it’s happening, yes, which is that whole languages and cultures are disappearing in the diaspora.
I’m not saying these things should never leave the face of the earth. Hell, I studied Sanskrit; languages are constantly disappearing from the face of the earth. It’s not about an unreasonable nostalgia, this place where I’m sitting. I understand the inevitable fact that languages die — are even killed — but I won’t allow the fantasy of what it means to be American make me pretend those languages did not exist. History hides in the tongue. And I feel like some literary canons, or even fantasies about American literature, ask me to do that, daily — to pretend that African American culture is one-dimensional.
Louisiana was one of the top ports of colonialism, among the most important in the entire world. The number of languages spoken in Louisiana in the 18th and 19th centuries was incredible. Postcolonial literature helps me to keep this in mind at all times, to never simplify our history. Here in the States, I’m only expected to stay within this over-simplified binary of slave and free. By conducting research in other languages, by looking, in other countries, at their archives about colonial Louisiana, I’m able to understand better how vast and powerful and complex blackness actually is.
Postcolonial studies also encourages me to follow the money. And if you follow the money in the American archive, you encounter the East India Company, the West India Company, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. You begin to understand the complicated role the US played in terms of global colonialism and capitalism.
Your work depicts Los Angeles, and South Central (in particular), as a place of bougainvillea, Creole, migrants from Louisiana, and blackness that contains multitudes. I’ve heard you described as an “LA poet.” Does this resonate with you?
I don’t know if I understand myself as an LA poet — to me that image has always been represented as white, Venice Beach, a little Beat, folks who came here and invested in the very manufactured stereotype of LA. Much of this work remains disinterested in LA’s history of jubilant and tense migrations from all over the world: so many Asian countries, South and Central America, the Gulf States, just to name a few. So few people who are engaged in the LA literary scene actually participate in the diverse communities who are here. I suppose this is true of most regional literary cultures, this recurring blindness to the actual citizens living in that place.
But I do understand and celebrate myself as an LA native. Or perhaps I’m interested in redefining what “LA poet” means. And what that means has nothing to do with the representation of Los Angeles in the media. “LA Poet” for me means people like Wanda Coleman, for example, or the Watts Writers Workshop, or Garret Hongo, Juan Felipe Herrera. It means Samoan poetry and Korean poetry, and the politics of la linea. Of course, almost primarily, it means Mexican and Chicano poetry, Salvadoran poetry, Filipino poetry. Do you know what I mean? LA is one of the — THE — most diverse cities in the world. It always has been. It’s a jubilant site of migration. I’m very, very grateful I was born here.
For me, LA is also is the Pac-Black rim. I grew up six miles from the Pacific Ocean — an ocean with a coastline that is by law at least 80 percent public — unlike the rest of the country. The beach and ocean belongs to everyone. It’s a profoundly colored world. My high school is in terrible shape now, but when I was there it was 30 percent black. The African-American kids were from Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas — Gulf states or states west of the Mississippi. On Saturday mornings there would be 13 black men at the intersection in our quaint little suburban neighborhood, all of them carrying these large, gorgeous congas! They would wake up the whole neighborhood. People would run out to the street and begin dancing to the drums.
When people who don’t know LA and all of the diverse manifestations of blackness that took root here, no one imagines that we grew up dancing to congas on a Saturday morning in the suburbs, my father frying beignet for the kids. Instead, we think of — and tragically celebrate — Straight Outta Compton. But I grew up with so many blacknesses dancing together in suburban intersections, dancing to rhythms that migrated from all over the Gulf. And you can’t understand those places without knowing something about the Caribbean or Central and South America. So of course they had congas galore and were doing the rumba and meringue as an expression of blackness, of Southern blackness.
Our schools contained a milieu of Latinos and Asians. It was a Colored Heaven. And the few white people — 10 percent — they were all very, very poor, and bused in from nearby trailer courts. We were in our five-, six-bedroom suburban homes, and the white kids hated us. Of all contradictions, we, the black middle class, were not allowed to step foot on their trailer courts.
Once, unaware, I went to my friend Cindy’s home. When her mom saw me, she snapped, “We don’t allow niggers in our trailer.” So I went home to our five-bedroom house.
These things never show up in our projections onto Los Angeles. But that is my Los Angeles, or just the beginning of my Los Angeles. Central Avenue. That’s what it means for me to be an LA Poet.
I was spellbound by the sounds in “Red All Over.” How did you go about composing it?
This is the first poem I wrote after my accident. It took me six months, 30 hours a week. I did nothing else. I wrote a line a day, sometimes a line every few days. That’s the poem where I was confined in bed and learned the very valuable lessons of how formalism can keep you from jumping out of the window.
Because of the compositional and intellectual challenges poetry offered me, I was distracted away from brain damage’s inevitable consequences. Instead of staring at the ceiling, week after week, month after month, my neck in traction, wallowing in the neurological prognosis of my life, I began to scan a line for meter, to think about seven-syllable lines, for example, and how I could find a word that would allow me to stay confined to this self-imposed rule.
Like a puzzle?
Yes, exactly. It’s very Sanskritic, a mathematical puzzle in sound, in language. I would think, “I can’t say that because it’s too many syllables so I have to say it this way.” Parts of speech felt like algebraic equations. So this is my poem of brain damage filtered through a lens of blackness and the profoundly vast nation of childhood. And it was delicious because I worked on nothing else for six months, every day and all day. And it distracted me from the fact that it took me 20 minutes to walk to the bathroom, or that my mind was forever altered by traumatic brain injury. Poetry was life’s olive branch.
What I loved about that poem, “Red All Over,” is that my dad was always telling riddles and jokes. And he would always say, “What’s black and white and red all over?” Because my parents had a newspaper in bed, every single night, and I was the baby — which meant the last one to be kicked out of their bed — I was always between two newspapers my whole childhood every night. So of course I realized my father’s riddle was about the newspaper.
But what I didn’t realize until later was that he was also making a dark joke about the history of race in America, that the “red” was the blood of black people. This was the ’60s, after all. Black death was (and still is) the news! It sold newspapers. So each line of “Red All Over” is both autobiographical in this very abstract way, but it’s also a riddle from my childhood.
So the “politics of frogs” refers to the canal near our home, where we often played as children. It was filled with these tiny frogs the size of a quarter — and watching them day after day, as a child, I realized how their survival was political. The line about “The whiteness of flies,” too, is a riff on a horrible internalized racist expression, but inverted for accuracy: black people aren’t the problem, whiteness as an ideology is the problem. And so it’s a subtle correction to an old tragic Negro expression.
“Red All Over” is the poem where I learned that I could put a whole essay or a whole philosophy into one line. And of course, it’s a very LA poem, speaking of the Pac-Black Rim. “Lady from the Ocean.” “Girl asleep in the avocado.”
My grandmother had a two-story avocado tree in her backyard and that was heaven. It was important to me to have representations of Los Angeles in my book, if only in the flora and fauna. It was important not to allow the reader to project that Northeast corridor literary habit or agenda onto my book. There are salamanders, bougainvillea, avocados, palm trees. It’s not only because I grew up in love with those things that I chose to include them, but as a writer who is intensely engaged (obsessed?) with history, I was hell-bent upon writing a book that says US blackness also looks like a palm tree and bougainvillea and hummingbirds and congas and Englishes and lilts you’ve never even heard.
There have always been black people in California, for centuries. Which is also why there’s a line in Voyage: “Now dig this: / Don’t hate me because / I’m beautiful untitled.” It’s in the civil rights catalog. The very talented Kellie Jones — Amiri Baraka’s daughter — curated this exceptional show at the Hammer on mid-20th-century African-American artists in LA titled Now Dig This! It went on to travel to MoMA, which is where I saw it, because I was living in New York at the time. As much as I love living back east, the North-East is so culturally insular. So I was very grateful to her, and I knew I wanted to integrate that title into the poem because of this history, and because I wanted to say thank you to Kellie.
When you were very young, your family moved from Compton to the nearby suburbs of Carson. How do the sounds you heard those Saturday and Sunday mornings in Carson permeate the poems? There’s a lot of music in these poems, and it feels very intentional.
Yes, it is. Thank you for noticing. I wish someone would research how often women artists or colored artists are asked, “Are you aware that you are doing this?” Of course it is intentional. I’m not some divinely inspired savage who walks around unaware of the ways I construct my work musically, lyrically.
Several things: I do believe poetry is an art of music and sound, first and foremost. If the lines are not musical, I’m not interested. So the most serious part of my revision process is making it sound delicious to my reader’s ear — even if the information is horrific, or perhaps because it is horrific. American readers tend to look away from the horrors of our history. And so if I write it lyrically, and use interesting words in intricate ways, perhaps the reader will stay longer with me on the page, long enough to feel the history. Lyrical seduction, I suppose.
“Lure” in particular expresses sonic beauty and thematic horror. How does your attention to form allow you to explore all this horror and still “make it sound good”?
It took me a long time to come out as a poet. Form was the issue. When I started writing poetry, it was a watershed for me. No footnotes too? God, that was fantastic! I never felt like there was true appreciation for music in the academic essay, which is unfortunate because it’s music that keeps the reader entertained. And without music — I don’t care what you’re talking about — you can’t read.
A few years after I started writing poetry seriously, I came to New York to take a three-month class at Cave Canem on the sonnet with Marilyn Nelson (can you imagine?), and that was one of my breakthrough moments. (The students in that class were people like Sapphire, Linda Susan Jackson, Nicole Sealey, Ama Cudjoe, Cherise Pollard, and others). Marilyn’s idea of the sonnet as a democratic form blew my head off. She gave me permission to pay attention to the meter in a way I had not let myself pay attention before, because I was trying to be too cool for all of that.
So I began to think about meter as a form of blackness, as an expression of blackness. Did you think that the sonnet wasn’t black too? I asked myself. I realized the truth of Gwendolyn Brooks’s great universal statement about blackness being whatever a black person is doing, anywhere. And I swear I haven’t looked back since. It was the most incredible gift, that I could play with music in lyric forms and that I could engage this heinous history beautifully. It was just exquisite that I could sit there and use form as an aesthetic context to hold horror. A lot of neo-formalists talk about this: the preoccupation of form allows them to deal with heinous amounts of pain without being consumed by it. I certainly felt that way, writing a lot of the poems in Voyage.
It was powerful for me not to be consumed. Certain engagements with form allow me to stay on the page and not run away and cry for 10 years, which is often the only appropriate response. But if you’re truly an artist, you have to learn how not to run, you have to learn how to remain steady, steadfast. Poetry is not for the faint of heart. With “Lure” specifically, breaking the poem into two columns — where one column is a declaration of survival, and the other is a series of negated flashbacks — also allowed me not to fall in.
This was Sharon Olds’s concern, right?
Right. So for example the title poem, the catalog that engages Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, begins with formal couplets. That’s because I love Sanskrit, and I wanted to pay an homage to the shloka, the Sanskrit couplet, as a way to remind us all of the relationship between Greek and Sanskrit – it’s so easy to forget that Sanskrit was once a major part of the Classics as a field. My preoccupation with the shloka also allowed me to stay within the nightmare of race and the ancient world. By using the shloka, by being preoccupied with the form, I was able to put some distance between the information and me. I began to think: How do I play with this? If I break this line in this way, or break the grammar in that way, what kind of statement will I be able to make? Poetry has the illusion of being simple, but it’s actually quite difficult. Just try to fit a whole essay into one line and see where it gets you! It’s an exquisite challenge. The hardest work takes place in your mind, often symbolically. Sharon knows this better than most, so that’s why she often inquired about my well-being.
Do you mean something like this? “I have to go back / to that wet black thing / dead in the road. I have to turn around. / I must put my face in it.”
[Laughs] Yes. Well, it’s also important to say that I also believe that, as an aesthetic gesture, the formal must also be articulated simply, which is great deal harder to pull off.
In the notes to Voyage, you said, “I kept the rules very simple.” Is simplicity also part of what you’ve called “getting out of the way”?
Yes! Simple is not stupid. It’s that very hard task called shutting the fuck up.
Say there’s this incredibly complicated issue in front of us, an issue that rarely sees the light of day. And instead of serving the moment and helping to uncover the under-perceived issue, we instead allow our egos to convince us to cover it up with our narcissism, our narrating or describing the issue, instead of the issue itself. In those kinds of projects, we never get to engage the dead thing in the road. We make it about our noble and clever uncovering. (Did you see me? I did that!) So, for me, getting out of the way is the goal.
Often, I had to remove the grammar to keep the history going. So it’s sometimes hard to read because it’s unthinkable to realize that someone took the time to carve something as quotidian as a perfume vase or a lamp or a button with the representation of a black female form. What kind of psyche would pause to create, or manufacture that, for consumption? Why do you need to wear a black girl on all your shirt buttons?
The title poem is about supply and demand, about meta-capitalism. Would the art have been created if it could not have been sold? Would the frames have been carved with black female forms if there was no one to buy them, namely museums, curators? And when you think about those vaster implications — not just about individual artists, but a whole economy of art, the art-industrial complex — you remember museums and art institutions are not ahistorical or apolitical. They are as much a part of this history as anything else.
The epigraph at the beginning of the title poem is from an invitation I found at the New York Historical Society. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was having its Employees Association Minstrel Show and Dance — in 1936! And the rhetoric of the invitation is so familiar, it doesn’t seem like the first time nor the last. It was a recurring event. The even deeper, but perhaps predictable irony, is that the Met’s minstrel party was being held at the Women’s Association. Yay suffragettes!
You talk about an “Inner-Truth Reconciliation Committee” involved in archival digging, in facing 40,000 years of history. This is coupled with the fact you still care about the world, and that this love and care was infectious and inherited from your father.
My father never gave up on people, or himself. This was for all of us I think an infectious aspect of blackness: joy! My father was, culturally, as black as they come — as is my family, which is fantastic considering how we look like we come from everybody, every race. I think it is a particularly beautiful and black thing: we just don’t give up on people. Nikki Giovanni said years ago that forgiveness is our weakness; black people forgive too easily. There may be some truth to that, but I prefer my father’s ideology more. He was a lovebug — just a lovely human being. You and I are having this conversation the day Tamir Rice’s murderers were not indicted. The court said that this child’s murderers were not even worthy of a formal investigation. I have a seven-year-old boy, three months away from being eight. The night after Henri was born, I woke up in the middle of the night screaming. He was sleeping, he was 12 hours old. For the first time in my life, I woke up screaming, and it was all because I realized I had just given birth to a 12-hour-old black man in America. I was delirious from labor, and I woke up screaming, trying to pull the IV out of my arm, grabbing my newborn, and running for the door. And where was I headed in my delirium? The border! All I knew was I had to get my son out of this country. It was a nightmare, but most nightmares are true symbolically.
I still feel that way; I’ve just managed to tame my horror. So when I hear things about these cops killing a little boy playing with a toy gun in the park and the court doesn’t even bother to truly, legally investigate, I feel like, “get the passport and get to the border.” My son’s had his passport before his first birthday for this very reason. What I try to do in parenting, which is an important part of my work, is to protect my son as much as possible from the idea that he is prey. So I will not allow him to see any of this, at all. I refuse. Later, yes, but not now.
When the Ferguson protests were happening all over the US, I had a white friend ask me, “Are you going to the protest tonight?” When I said, “No, I have to go home to my son,” she replied accusatorily, “Bring him!” When I said, “I refuse to bring him, because I don’t want him to know about this — he’s six!,” she asked, “Why? He should be there! He should know!” I got very quiet, then asked, “Do you tell your white friends that they should bring their young children to every protest when a black child is killed?” Of course, she did not. Who does? Do we go around telling white parents, “Be sure to bring your white kindergartener to the protest this evening because they need to know they’re participating in a racist ideology that includes state terror wherein black young children are being hunted by the police!” Would we insist upon white children being brought to protests if the tables were turned, if white children were the target? Is race the line that defines the developmental borders of innocence?
As long as I can protect my child from the knowledge that his own country considers him a monster (as the police called Michael Brown’s body) — I will. That might mean having to leave the country, and I’m fine with that. But this idea that we should be having this conversation with our children when they are four — that they’re monsters! — and that white liberals think that’s good parenting? My son is a child, and like most black children, he is losing his so-called innocence long before his white peers.
My father’s reliable joy helps me to remember, and to magnify the beauty of the world, for my son, for myself, for my reader.
In the 79-page title poem, you talk about history being the narrator, and stepping out of the way, yet part of what produces the horror and beauty is that history has to answer back. There’s tremendous power in the tension between you and history — the power of the two looking each other in the face.
Or we're the same thing. It's a mirror. I feel like what I try to do, especially if I’m writing so-called autobiographical poems or confessional poems, is to write it from a place of history — the “I” is a historical I. And this is the cross of the hippy existentialist in me; I don’t feel like I exist, other than as a historical subject. So I try to engage the autobiographical poems in the book as a historical expression.
For example, in the poem “Frame” that you pointed out, there is nothing in there that isn’t “true,” nothing that did not happen. So to think about the helicopter lights groping through our drapes at night, when we were growing up, or our addresses written in tar on the roof, that was my own personal life, sure, but it is also History talking. If we are doing our work as writers, we allow History to speak through our voices — and not our quaint, noble, ideals of history, not one heteronormative performance after the other, no-no. We have to get out of the way and let history tell Her story. Sometimes we’re running through the woods holding History’s hand in complete delight of that articulation — that’s when the writing is really, really good — but most of the time either we are dragging History by Her hair or She is dragging us by ours, no one is in control and everyone’s acting out. I feel like we’re in a completely symbiotic relationship with history and/or history is a goddess and I don’t know her name — yet. And we’re madly in love but we hate each other completely, which is to say we are terrified of our own pleasure. And trying to figure out whether to make love to History or kill History — or something lovely in between — is really the question of my life as an artist.
Hmmm, perhaps both.
And She’s gorgeous, but she is toxic as hell — a total mindfuck. And is it possible, can I love History into health? Is it possible for History to be cured, healed? Can She love me into health? Is History the answer of my sick, sick life? I don’t know. But I know it’s like the Tar Baby; I know that we are completely stuck to each other, History and me. So this idea of transcending my culture or history is absolutely ridiculous. Why would I want to, anyway? Hello. She’s fucking gorgeous. Where, besides right by her side, would I ever want to be? I want to marry her, dammit, but she’s wild. For me, the only place to go ever is back, back to that exquisite thing dead in the road. That’s where my work lives. Running away from myself just isn’t an option. Or as a dear friend once told me, the only way through it is through it. It’s the only redemption, it’s the only way I can hope to be free, is to go as black and as dark as possible. That’s the true treasure.
In “On the Road to Sri Bhuvaneshwari,” the still-born calf becomes the symbol or metaphor for the entire aesthetic project of black literature: don’t let that dead calf go and also don’t locate it within the limited land mass of America’s imagination; it’s actually ancient. And I refuse to believe otherwise. What America has to do with me is a splinter compared to everything else that’s going on, has gone on. My grandmother used to call me Sapi, and she said that word with the same tone and expression as we say “wench.” I’d ask, “Grandmother, what does that mean?” She’d say, “I don’t know.” [Laughs.] Then she said, “It’s like a wild girl.”
Now, I have looked all over the world, in every French dictionary imaginable, for what Sapi might mean, but haven’t been able to find it. Is it Creole? Is it French? Is it some ancient Senegambian term, or indigenous perhaps, or is it a mix of all of those? Something diasporically delicious? Who knows.
I think about that a lot. That I have a name, given to me by my grandmother, which is a marker of shame and a marker of pride, both, but that I don’t know what it means. How perfect! How very, very perfect.
How do your descriptions of Moorish women relate to your understanding of blackness?
Well it’s really hard to look at these photographs of so-called “Moorish women” and not think about visual performances of blackness. It harkens back to your question about Louisiana. Blackness for me is incredibly vast. It’s not domestic, nor is it domesticated. A lot of these images come from colonial harem photographs. So at the end of that poem where it says, “Negre en costume” [“Catalog 5: Emancipation & Independence xvii”], I’m asking, what do you think these women are, if not a part of this same atrocious history? I hope my book complicates ideals of race and what blackness looks like, because it looks like all of these things, even Orientalism.
What was the most difficult decision when you were crafting the collection?
Whether or not to include “Lure” in the book was one of the most contentious decisions I had to make — because it’s autobiographical and deals with very complex information about my family’s history.
My mother talked to me about my grandfather’s pedophilia all my life, as long as I can remember. So the tragic irony that I would be left alone with this man was very complicated. Why didn’t anyone just kill him? Murder was more normative when I was younger, especially in the South. The police were the Klan. The true regulatory force was the people. Corrupt people would just show up dead (I have to admit, a part of me misses that fear of community justice). Men were regularly killed for dishonoring children and women. They certainly were not allowed to stay. So this poem made me think a lot about trauma, how even in the face of profound violence, some choose nevertheless to say yes. In the end, I included this poem because I want to always remember how capable we all are of profound violence, and how often the most profound manifestation of violence is silence, or no: voluntary blindness.
In reading this poem I was horrified by the sensuality I encountered. The pleasure that was present. The hands on the little girl’s body, the combination of horror and sexiness.
That is the quintessential experience of incest: complicated and horrific. And why it so often cannot ever be overcome or integrated. For so many understandable reasons.
And there are several reasons why I convinced myself to include the poem. First and foremost, I had been buoyed by the work of so many feminist writers: June Jordan, Grace Paley, Fanny Howe, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Ai, Tillie Olsen, Toni Morrison — just entire generations of exceptionally talented women writers who were not afraid to talk about anything, including sexual abuse. They bravely changed American literature entirely and rarely get any credit for why American literature can be what it is now, why women can be who we are now.
There aren’t many black women’s literature courses anymore. There used to be. Hell, I used to teach them. To be a grad student in my 50s after I was a professor in my 30s is very, very interesting.
Race is a bad word in many classrooms now. It feels like 1974 all over again. So I included this poem because it was an homage to that work. And it was also something I wanted to give my readers who are in their 20s and 30s, those who perhaps have not encountered the work mentioned above because of the erasure of black literature from the college curriculum. I wanted younger readers to know there was a history, and it felt like I needed to pay a beautiful debt, because that work from the black womanist tradition — it saved my life and mind.
What surprised you about these poems?
It’s sad, and totally sappy, but I think that I still, even in the face of thousands of years of horrible histories, of countless slaughters, that I’m still madly in love with human beings. I’m so embarrassed to say that, but it is true. I can’t look away from us. I hate people, what we have done, what we do, but I can’t look away from us. I find human beings simply exquisite. Even the ugliest parts of us. Like you said earlier about trauma, the art history around black female figures is traumatic to engage. White people hating themselves so intensely that they have to find a vessel, a vessel that they perceive to be their exact opposite, in order to remove it from their own psyche. It’s so illogical it’s almost perfect. I know myself by what I am not.
But I refuse to insult my reader by saying the world is fucked up, poem after poem after poem. We all know the world is teetering off its axis, regardless of how much we try to deny that knowledge. What’s more effective for me as a writer is when I say instead, “I’m fucked up.” Then the reader can walk into the poem and sit with me. And if I can get the reader to do that, then he or she is trapped for a moment inside the poem, because everyone is interested in pain, says the very devoted sadist in me. If the display is done without fetishization or narcissism, it’s sexy. You can’t look away: vulnerability as a weapon, not to destroy but to engage. I will never write the pedantic sermon preaching to you about how fucked up you are because the doors close in those kinds of address.
What I hope my address offers is an open and tender door. DvAra in Sanksrit. Old and ancient. It’s open, it’s right there.
Leah Mirakhor is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the College of Wooster.