Since the publication of your award winning collection Black Peculiar, how have you come to understand the word “peculiar”? I think my understanding is the same as it was when I began writing the book, which is twofold. Firstly, it’s personal, related to how I felt (and heard from other people) that I was being seen in the world in terms of gender, race, religion, marital status and physical (dis)ability, as a person existing outside of and not really aspiring toward typical norms. And in a wider historical context, it’s related to the “peculiar institution” of slavery, the legacy of which informs the present treatment of African-American people in this country. My mother, who was a single mom for most of my childhood, and as am I, told me a story that I related during AWP this year in a panel called Post-Black? Culture, Craft and Race in Verse. Back in the early 1980s, her (white male) landlord once asked her, as she haughtily rebuffed his advances, “How did you escape?” As if she was not supposed to/had no right to escape the strictures and horrors of racism to be the vital, beautiful, confident woman she was, despite whatever perceived or actual disadvantages she may have had. Some of my own experiences have mirrored hers, especially in situations where I was the only Black person, in terms of a general surprise and/or disbelief that I could even exist – that’s if my presence was even acknowledged at all. In Black Peculiar, I tried to own and elevate the peculiarities and complexities and multiplicities of Black existence while at the same time highlighting the abject violence and absurdity of the forces which would deny or disparage those complexities.
One critic described your work by saying “the logic is disruptive, disturbing in its adherence to an emotional rather than a syntactical pulse”—how do you interpret that description of “disruptive”? Emotional adherence is part of my creative practice, and the difficulty some find in a disruptive logic I find exciting, all of which informs any syntactical pulse. I listened to a lot of jazz growing up; my mother sang and my father played drums before my sister and I were born. Music, varied and improvisatory, was a huge part of my life, even when I wasn’t paying conscious attention or if I was actively resisting its pull (i.e., not wanting to listen to what your parents like). I feel that art (inclusive of literature, of course) should be disruptive. It’s supposed to question, to introduce alternate possibilities. Duke Ellington talked about the dissonance in his work reflecting the dissonant voices and lives of the people. I love that.
The final poem in your most recent book Black Peculiar, is also a play. Can you tell us a little bit about your work’s relationship to play? One of my favorite essays is by Bruno Bettelheim, “The Importance of Play.” The business of play is serious, and it accesses deep parts of the psyche in terms of, again, improvisation and desire and unconscious beliefs, all in the name of fun. “Non-sequitur (A disjointed chorus in three acts)” amplifies the participatory nature of reading, and allows the imagination a great deal of freedom.
Your work is often called “experimental.” What does that term mean to you, do you embrace it? Labels don’t disturb me as much perhaps as they should, mostly because I know they don’t truly define me or my work, just aspects. My 13-year-old son says to call it experimental could cause the work to not be treated as legitimately as it should. Black Peculiar, I feel, does experiment with form/genre, just as my first book, Conduit, experiments with language. But no one could successfully argue that the work isn’t poetry or isn’t literature, or that the intellectual and emotional undercurrents don’t come through.
The idea of beauty often comes up in a discussion about the value of poetry. In Elaine Scarry’s essay/speech “On Beauty and Being Just,” she suggests that our conception of beauty is based on how we interpret of justice. What connections or disconnections do you seen between beauty and justice that are typically overlooked? I remember reading Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth many years ago and being transformed by it, so I looked up the essay you mention. There’s just not enough time for me to read it and go into this question deeply. But I will say that I definitely am aware of the complications and implications of media-driven visual culture and the inversions and perversions of justice which occur based on upon its influence.
In a review of your work and other poets in Spoon River Anthology, Joyelle McSweeney wrote: “A poet, like anyone else, is implicit in the economy of violence. There is no removing oneself from violence’s grid. Poetry written in such conditions must be violent, too, and bear its trace.” How do you approach the subject of violence, especially in history? How does one write about violence without replicating it? I approach it in terms of definition, endurance and resistance/transcendence of its effects, not in terms of escape. One continually confronts the violence our culture is steeped in, so I agree with Sweeney that there isn’t an escape route. I read an article recently about the Norwegian educational system, how it’s so successful because it’s based on equity. Until there is real equity, there will be violence. A relentless daily violence exists. I mention microaggressions in my book, which relates to gestures, words, small actions that hint at and reinforce damaging stereotypes about women, about people of color, about those of so-called lower classes. It’s an essential thread in the American – and world – narrative, that of hierarchy and privilege and using violence to maintain it. We may not be able to remove ourselves, our loved ones and our fellow human beings from violence, but as poets we can draw attention to it, especially the unseen and unspoken ways it defines our lives. In that way we might attempt to combat a cultural blindness that allows the violence to expand and amplify unchecked, not only in literal terms, but within our own psyches.
When you wrote, “I unlocked my chorus of archetypal women from their chains” were you thinking of these women as a kind of plural character? Or were these women like others you have written about—multiple selves contained in a singular body? I think of it in both ways. Ambiguity is an important tool, I think, to be used for an opening-up, a kind of impact that creates an a-ha moment that a reader can use or apply to many different areas, thoughts and situations. Many of the women I know and have read about, particularly those that helped inspire that poem, have grown so much that it seems they’ve lived multiple lives. I am fascinated by the ways we can reinvent ourselves, especially after living through trauma.
What kinds of disruptions prove to be the most generative or fruitful for your work? I think mothering is the single best and most pervasive disruption in my life, the second being my day job. I am able to learn much about life, about myself and my own limits and abilities through mothering, and because I work, I am able to support my son and myself. I definitely don’t get as much writing time as I might like, but I also have the means to travel and do other things we enjoy without major financial worries. I also work at home, so I have not had to be dependent on others for daily child care in recent years, and I am very involved in my child’s life. So, even though it’s not perfect, and I’m not living the artist’s life in a typical way, it’s furthered my sense of discipline and perseverance. It also deepens my appreciation for the time I do have to write and create, making that time extremely productive. Not that I’d say no to a winning lotto ticket.