ERICA DAWSON’S THIRD BOOK of poetry, When Rap Spoke Straight to God, came as a surprise to me. A single poem, it takes her familiar approach to poetry — one that foregrounds virtuosity, insists on clarity, scrambles idioms, and delights in speaking freely — and turns it into something scarier, stranger, and more complex. Where, before, Dawson had frequently played at being dangerous, the speaker in this book seems imperiled by a world of bigotry and violence that no amount of brilliance can command — though the brilliance persists, as does her fascination with the world that threatens her. In one moment, she writes, “I press a flashlight hard against my womb, / spreading my legs to see if white comes out.” Earlier, in the voice of the “Lady Jesus” she tries to draw into her dreams, she imagines terrible violence and transformation, ecstatically:
And when the grave sky’s body-farm
of gods and gutted animals
serves me, you’ll eat me, masticate
me with your tongue. My mouth, a bit
When I asked for grace
the dust hid all the stars and not
a single thing happened. But now
I am the dust. The rivers choke
on my fine silt.
This summer, Erica and I talked via Skype about her new approach and the circumstances that forced and enabled those changes, with Erica sitting in her office at the University of Tampa, where she is an associate professor of English and Writing and the director of the University’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing.
JONATHAN FARMER: Your first two books were engaged in staking a claim, establishing the authority to say whatever the speaker wants, often in contexts where that might not be acceptable. That’s still the speaker’s approach in this new book, but the world is more resistant to it. This is a book where there’s more danger in your being fully present.
ERICA DAWSON: That’s definitely true, and I think it’s probably just a real-life result of living where I live at this particular point in time. Florida is an interesting part of the South. It’s not the South like Alabama or Mississippi; it often appears to be much more liberal. I was pretty alarmed around the time it seemed like a realistic thing that Trump might be president. It became very apparent that the liberal population here was outnumbered, more so than I thought. It just started to feel that way locally and then statewide and then globally in some senses, and I felt like people like me no longer had a voice in the public arena, and I started to just get angry about it, frankly. It felt as if I had something to fight against, more so than I have in the past.
And at the same time the book seems to dramatize a situation where the fight, in ways both large and personal, could very well be lost.
Something more is at stake in this book. It might be the first time I’ve really imagined the speaker fully immersed in the world. So much of what’s happening in the first two books is internal struggling, and what’s happening here is more about outside forces, and it feels as if it’s actually a real possibility that this voice could get lost in the chaos and the shuffle.
It really does feel that way. And another part of it is that in the first two books, phenomena are very discrete: this is this thing and this is this thing. Here, the boundaries seem to be breaking down. The boundary between internal self and external world has thinned, and the categories outside of the self are breaking down, too.
The world that I was trying to create on the page is very much in flux. Everything moves and shifts constantly, and I did that on purpose because I wanted to create something realistic that felt like the fierce and yet fragile world that we’re living in. But there was also a world hovering right above that, so that things seemed very literal at the same time as they seem larger than life. That really started to come out once I got kind of into the groove of mixing the biblical with the everyday. I wanted there to be a flood — a quality where the reader still knows where he or she is but feels unsteady in that place, and that required that I blur the boundaries between things. It’s a kind of precision in confusion.
Absolutely. As I was reading, I put together a partial list of themes that end up entangled with each other: race and racism, sex and sexism, violence, religion, family, art, myth, Trump, nature … I can list those things, but there are very few moments in the book where I can easily say, Alright, now we’re just dealing with nature. Or we’re dealing with sex here. We’re dealing with sexism here. Which is true of the world we live in, as well.
I kind of wanted to make it difficult for someone to say this is about X or this is about Y. I wanted to create a whirlwind. I had to sort of aim for a kind of complexity that I haven’t really worked toward in the first two books. I wanted there to be a lot of things happening at once. I wanted it to really feel like the poem takes you and whisks you off into some other space.
I think it does that. But then, having said that, I’d still like to talk about some of those themes, because they’re no less real for being blurry and entangled. Let’s start with race and racism, which is both constantly present and highly unstable in this book.
I feel like it’s a bit of product of where I live right now. I’ve obviously always been black and a woman, and I’ve obviously always been a minority, but I feel more “other” here in Florida than I have in Maryland or Ohio. In a way, I’ve become more aware of my blackness.
In the last couple of years, people have just gone out of their way to make it clear that I’m not part of the majority. Like the moment in the poem where the guy says something about my hair. It sometimes feels like people are going out of their way to point out the fact that I’m different. It’s allowed me to see being in black in America in a very different kind of way. This is gonna start to sound cliché, but it seemed like we had made all this progress. I lived in very liberal places and never really had those moments where you felt scared or very uneasy, as if people were staring at you. That happens now on the regular in Florida.
It’s been a discovery for me in the last couple of years, and I wanted to explore that, I wanted to look at a race in a different way than I had in the past.
I feel like part of that, too, is a desire to speak very directly and assertively about blackness even as you’re trying to hold on to these other things and wondering, How does race fit here? How much room is there for blackness in this language? How much room is there for blackness within this literary tradition? You joke at one point about being into dead white boys. Those moments feel playful, but there’s a sense at times of something very dangerous just underneath that.
It was important to me to capture that sense of riskiness or danger. I’m the black girl who likes to read Robert Herrick, who decided to study these dead white guys for her PhD instead of doing African-American Lit or something that some people expected from me. While working on this book, I started to think about how my scholarly interests were maybe about trying to assimilate into a certain crowd, or working against or with my own race or culture. I’m still not really sure, but I definitely wanted to push myself into thinking about race and art and culture and language in a way that I hadn’t done before.
You’ve always written about sex, but in the past you were presenting yourself as dangerous, this larger-than-life figure, and now your body feels imperiled in all kinds of ways.
I’ve always felt comfortable writing about sex.
But I backed away from the swagger a bit, which I think I had adopted to mask the vulnerability I felt in sexual situations. I wanted to think about the times when I felt as if I wasn’t in control of my sexuality or I wasn’t in the power position that I thought I was in. I remember writing the scene where I’m in the club and the man assaults me. It was one of those moments when I felt I had the power. The woman was in charge. She’s having her night, she’s dancing with people, she’s having a really great time, and then all of a sudden the situation has turned and she’s terrified and no longer has control of her space and her body. It was time to start investigating those particular realities about being a woman.
Even if you are a confident woman and you’re okay acknowledging that you’re a sexual being, the boundaries that you created for yourself aren’t always intact. Other people are going to push against those boundaries, and there’s a lot of fear, I think, that was hiding underneath the confidence that I have.
That’s tangible. The sense of wanting to still be able to move through the world in those ways. Of still having this way of using language that suggests profound authority and profound freedom. But also the awareness of that as a kind of coping technique. At one point here you write, “Then somebody told / me my body’s not mine to hold.”
I think that circles back to what we were saying about the different relationship between the internal and the external, where it became less about telling myself something and more about starting to really receive some of the messages that specific individuals or that society at large are coming at me with at the same time. There’s so much out there that it is telling women that our bodies aren’t ours. As much as you think that you’re claiming authority over it, that authority is being challenged every single second of every single day. It was important for me to dive deeper into the confidence that I had expressed in the past and ask, really, what’s fueling that confidence. I think in a lot of ways a kind of hyper-confidence. To make up for the anxieties underneath.
I’d love to talk about all this in terms of the book’s conclusion. Three pages from the end you step into this highly authoritative mode that comes right out of Genesis: “Let there / be black never absorbing white. Let there / be skin born back on every scar.” Then it gets cut off. The Angel Gabriel steps in. Then there’s this really long break.
And then we get: “Outside, a dark and empty heaven. // A wind gone on about its blackness.” And this recurring phrase: “the exodus of light.” It seems like a lot of these things are kind of coming together through force of will. The relationships between them are still really unstable, but there’s a deliberate act of trying to get them in a place where you can speak about it in some comprehensive way.
I struggled with the ending for a really long time. I had no idea how I wanted to handle it. Moving through so much and at a really quick pace, I started to figure out that it was a good idea to slow down. I needed the ending to sort of roll its way to a finish, but at a much more deliberate pace.
I wanted it to be an attempt at resolution — a moment where I could slow down and the language would come together, the light and the darkness, the light and the blackness, the Bible and real-life myth, and the mundane. I wanted everything to exist in that same space, and that’s where the villanelle sneaks in with the repetition of “the exodus of light.”
But then I wanted to leave that sort of unsettled. There is no closure here.
It’s open and shifting. The terminology is shifting and our understanding of these things is shifting, and so that’s why I wanted that very large amount of white space after the Angel Gabriel. A somewhat bizarre fraught space, but you just have to exist in it. Then I just wanted this one last move that was hushed. I wanted an image that was the opposite of the image on the first page, where the heavens turn red from the fire. I wanted to make it the opposite of that, where everything was dark and calm and slow. And equally terrifying.
It was a move toward some sort of conclusion, but then the acknowledgment of the fact that that conclusion is just as questionable or fraught with difficulty as any other moment in the book.
And it feels as if that difficulty is something that’s handed down. The more time I spend with this book, the more I think about it as a book that is very interested in kinds of inheritance. Some of the inheritances are chosen and some are not, a lot of them are not. You talked earlier on about this one inheritance that you chose, the inheritance of poetry.
It seems like you’re trying to reimagine what it means to inherit that and to keep working with that. You’re still working with these traditional forms, but they’re more scattered.
Whenever I’m starting something new, I challenge myself to do something that I haven’t done before, because I get really irritated with poets who just keep publishing the same book over and over again. It’s really important to me that I don’t do that. I wanted to give myself the freedom to do whatever it was that I wanted to do. I decided if I wanted to do it, I was going for it.
People very much want to talk about me as a formalist, but I’m not only interested in “the rules.” I’m interested in the ways we can improvise and play with the instruments and tools that we have. The book reflects that interest perhaps more palpably than my first two. Here, there’s always some sort of organizing principle — I can’t write without that — but I wanted to allow myself to be as loose as I wanted to be and as formal as I wanted to be at the same time. It was about carrying on with the family that I had always been part of, this formal family, the British poets that I love so much. But also allowing myself to move into a space that was a little more natural for me at the same time. Something that felt like, I’m not a formalist, I’m an Ericaist.
Craig Morgan Teicher has a new book about the ways poets evolve. There’s a chapter on Sylvia Plath where he talks about these early poems of hers that are masterful, but in which the mastery is kind of overriding everything else. He makes the case that she developed the skills in advance of her ability to apply them to the world, and that it was finding subjects commensurate with that mastery that let her leap forward. I don’t mean to denigrate your first two books. As you know, I’m a big fan of those. But it does feel, with this new book, as if the skills you exhibited in those have met their match, and that the skills are more meaningful as a result.
I 100 percent agree. The cool thing about writing in form is that when you are learning, you can take to it very quickly. It was always easy for me, then it’s so easy to just rely on those skills. And I stand behind all the poems that I’ve written. But a lot of times the performance of the form was more prominent than me actually fully engaging with the content of the poem. It became more of a, “Look at this fantastic set of rhyming couplets!”
It was really important to me that I really let the content drive the formal decisions that I was making. It was like, okay, I need something that’s going to give me the opportunity to be sort of meditative or ruminate, like that villanelle portion at the end of the poem or in the middle where you get the pantoum stanzas, where I was going to use these forms to create the kind of music that I want to create, to create the song that I actually want to create. It’s no longer someone else’s form. I’m taking ownership of it now and trying to make it my own.