Does the Volta Slap or Nah?
JR: I was looking through your essay “Learning Poetry, Unlearning God” and was really struck by your personifying your work in poetry as “building a bridge towards the divine.” It put me in mind of the homie Kaveh Akbar’s having said, “The boat that I am building will never be finished.” It seems maybe antithetical to what you seem to be arguing to ask if you think the bridge will ever be finished—but I do want to ask what else you might be feeling your work building a bridge towards, and what you would want to complete a bridge to, if any, if given the chance?
NO: I actually completely agree that the bridge will never be finished. Not in my lifetime, anyway. And it’s this sense of incompletion that brings me back to poems and to God so much. I’m trying to think of what else my work could possibly be building toward that’s other than the divine at its core, and I can’t think of what it could be. It all comes back to love, for me—largely because I believe that God is love, and that all poems are, at their core, love poems and prayer requests. So in a very real way for me, poetry works as a bridge to help me understand the things that terrify, but mean the most to me—whether that’s intimacy, searching for connection with others, repping and/or protecting the communities I care for, or working toward justice. All of it is simultaneously exhausting, life-affirming, divinely tinted work. I guess I also think of both poems, and God, as this infinite well that I can keep drawing from—and not being able to see the bottom is where the thrill is. And now I’m mixing metaphors, but you feel me. 😄
NO: So one of the things I’m drawn to the most in Refuse is how the title immediately invites this fruitful doubleness in meaning: “refuse” as an assertive, active, present-tense verb, and “refuse” as a noun—i.e., all the junk we discard and throw out. What in your own work and practice do you feel you’re refusing most frequently, or being asked to refuse/discard? Did this shape how you thought about naming the book?
JR: Ayo, that’s so interesting—what you were saying about all poems as being at their core love poems. Just the other day I started in on this lil craft essay on how I feel all poems are, at some level, love letters to the concept of choice. So I guess we both working towards and through a kind of love that I def want to say more about in terms of what’s poppin on the interior of both the poem and the self, yahmean? But to answer your very generous question (thanks for catching the double entendre by the way; one of my closest editors and mentors was mad worried people would think it was just a book about trash, which may not be like a terrible thing either). I think the trajectory of what I’m refusing most frequently may be shifting now, as I’m trying to learn how to write poems again. But I think at the process level, I try to reject knowing the end of things. I think that also shows up in how the book is structured.
At a process level, I know that I am very Virgo and I like control, but poems don’t bloom their best when I have already decided the stakes. So I try to put as much as I productively can in the way of me knowing the ending before I let the poem play itself out. Kinda running similar paths to that in my mind is the fact that Refuse’s first poem past the frontispiece is ultimately a poem where the named alternate ending is that I jump in front of a train, another ending. Refuse then lives in the aftermath of articulating those stakes—it has to refuse that death in order to arrive to the last word in the book “Living.”
NO: I love this shift in point-of-view, in what you say here about predetermined stakes. It completely changes things, in terms of process. When you release the illusion of control over a poem in its various drafts and iterations, the poem becomes less of a gauntlet to run, or some arbitrary test to pass. It becomes more of a highway to drive on, with different sights and stuff to navigate along the way. And rest stops too because niggas got to hit the bathroom at some point; it’s only fair.
JR: No doubt, plus we gotta cop snacks. Not Tootsie Rolls, actually edible shit. Actually on that tip of journey in the poem, I’m thinking about two of your poems that I think were among the first that I ever read of yours where I just fell in love: “Pillar of Salt,” and “The Poem Climbs the Scaffold And Tells You What It Sees.” In both, I’m seeing this recursion of looking back. In the first, with an allusion in both title and content to Lot’s Wife: “For all this, and more / I’ve turned back all my life,” and in the latter, through the rearview the speaker sees distance between herself and her past. It put me in mind of Forche’s Angel of History, who flies backwards seeing only the world that has already passed it by. I’m curious about what your poems are the Angel of? In” Pillar of Salt” to look back seems almost an act of mercy to the world, an ecstatic sentiment to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of finding who we must, to bring them with us into this new world we are hurtling towards, whether we can face it or not. Is there anyone or anything unexpected you have found yourself wanting to preserve?
NO: This is such an incredibly thoughtful and complex question that I’m forced to overlook your dig at a perfectly respectable cheap candy (when the metaphorical car gets a nail in the tire and we need my stash of half-chewed Tootsie Rolls to plug up the leak, let’s see you be smug then).
JR: I just really appreciate that even your defense of Tootsie Rolls had nothing to do with them being edible, but instead being used for roadside maintenance. But by all means proceed with your poem based brilliance my love.
NO: I and Tootsie Rolls contain multitudes!!!
But for real, your question is really generous. I think the specifics of what I find myself wanting to preserve changes constantly, but the fundamental answer is that I turn back for, and want to preserve everyone I love and am afraid to be loved by. And of course this isn’t in any way an original concept or human feeling, but I do find that as I get older, I have become more stubborn with my love. As a fellow earth sun sign (aye Taurus power), and admittedly headstrong woman, I find myself less willing to give up on people and relationships that are meaningful to me. Not because I feel like I’ve got something to prove, but because I’m continually relearning how precious a thing it is to have people to care for, and people who care for you. Especially at a time where the world is quite literally falling apart, and everything continues to be in an even more heightened state of political upheaval, with no respite. I think it’s important to preserve the people in your life who are a refuge, and if you feel like you don’t have those people yet, to keep looking, because those folks do exist. They may be 500 miles from you, but they exist. This also kind of goes back to the notion of love poems for me—I think my poems are all searching for a home with and in others, while also trying to be a home for others, too.
JR: Alternately, if my anxiety is not lying to me and this is in fact too similar to my last question I also have been really obsessing over this line from “The Poem Climbs the Scaffold and Tells You What It Sees”: “despite how many times you’ve killed the animal inside you only to meet it again in the morning.” Naturally human beings are also animals, but Black folks, and especially Black people residing in the South as you have your whole life and I have for grad school, have necessarily different understanding of how The Animal fits into our understanding of our interior life. If at their interior all poems are love poems, how are you learning to love or articulate love in relation to this deathless animal at your core? And if it’s not too much, how are you seeing that function in relation to place? It’s not lost on me that the poem in which this line appears has some very precise geography before we even hit bar 1.
NO: The “animal” in this particular poem you mention was a specific one for me. I wrote the poem in June of 2017, when I was living in the heart of Charlottesville, VA (actually just a couple weeks before the big KKK rally that happened in July.) That year was one of the most painful of my adult life, up to that point. I’d been struggling with a prolonged bout of untreated depression that year (I couldn’t even bring myself at the time to call it by that name, let alone talk to anyone about it), and it was a terribly lonely, vulnerable time, heightened by the area’s gilded racism. When I wrote the poem, “the animal inside” me was this hybrid beast of depression, loneliness, and this internally violent need to be fed emotionally. I was physically and mentally exhausted by my surroundings. But the “animal” was hungry, and I could either feed it or kill it, and I didn’t even remotely have what I needed to do either. And no matter how much I tried to suffocate it with work and writing, it was always there in the morning, breathing all over me. I felt severed from everything that had once given me comfort—a spiritual community, close friends who could understand my needs—even my own family was physically distant at the time, a couple hundred miles away. So when I wrote the poem, the only way I could approach all that I was feeling was to think of the pain as an untamed beast. I knew it was inside me clawing and biting and trying to get out, truly and literally wild. And you’re so right—all of this messy personification was even harder to navigate in the genteel South, because Black folks are animalized by white folks there daily, though few are willing to reckon with the nuances head-on (if they even see it at all. Particularly folks with power). So in many, many respects, the animal metaphor was shame-ridden for me. But strangely enough, accepting this while writing helped me push through that shame to state something that felt true, however difficult it was for me to articulate.
JR: I hear this 100%. And if you don’t mind my saying, it’s an honor to witness you loving people, even more so to receive said love. And yo, on the tip of place, I really have stopped counting the amount of times I get bestialized in a conversation with certain white folk and powerholders in Oxford. This unsettling and persistent subtext of “Aren’t you just so proud of me for not being afraid of you?” Meanwhile the way this evidence is set up…. But I digress. I just want to say that I’m glad you survived that beast to be here, it’s a better world with you in it.
NO: Thank you so much. I don’t know what I’d do without my family—both my blood family and chosen family, of which you are a part.
NO: So this notion of place has got me thinking about another poem of yours that I love, “Chicago,*” in Refuse. It is absolutely shaking with goodass lines, but the moment I return to the most lately is, “If anything though / I am from the backseat of a Megabus / natural born asterisk / every claim is hesitant[.]”
There’s so much packed in here, but I’m interested in knowing more about how you’re continuing to think about this idea of being untethered from a particular homeland, so to speak? Actually, it’s more than just being untethered—there’s this element of being in constant transit or flight in our own bodies, and the catch-22 of existing in a Black body that is constantly being othered. Also bonus tag-on: how do you find yourself thinking about this in terms of being expected to “choose sides” as a biracial person, (as though that’s even possible)? I’m thinking also of another poem in your book in which you say, “sometimes being Biracial / is to have two half-filled glasses / & die of thirst anyway.” Like, damn.
JR: Yo thank you for asking about that poem, because deadass almost nobody has asked me about it since Callaloo and it used to make me worry that people were not gonna fuck wit it. And yeah, I think it’s always important to situate this alongside the fact that I was brought up in a family that had very middle class values and aspirations in a country with very middle class aspirations, which is to say that the fam fucks heavy with stability and consistency. It’s a very Midwest thing as well. Everybody I know from Chicago are all very different people, but we all have a common thread of wanting to work, wanting to show up and be dependable and get shit done. It’s part of what makes Chicago Earth’s greatest city. It’s what makes it hurt so bad to have been removed from it, to feel in a lot of ways this deep seeded pride in being able to in one sentence summarize that I’m from the best place on the planet and then to know there’s all these other sentences on how much I feel I missed out on.
For a long time—still really, though I’m trying to feel it differently—I associated travel mentally with crisis because those are the circumstances under which I lost what was for many years the only place that ever felt like Home. I didn’t really find that again until I lived in Philly, so essentially I missed this certainty my whole adolescence. Then in conversation with that, is the fact that when you’re biracial there’s also this societal impetus that you have to start working on this elevator pitch for why you are who you are and look how you look. If I didn’t have it succinct, then I could see (or sometimes was directly told by the cream of wheat of the crop) people labeling me as “complicated,” “difficult,” “inconvenient” and from there it’s barely a hop skip and a jump to “disposable.”
For a good minute, and still I have to work to refuse it often, this hatred of ambiguity, which of course was a mask for the fear of my own ambiguity. I think I hadn’t really started trying to be small and convenient until I met Vievee Francis and she made me write “Chicago,*” and in our one-on-one meeting told me that I wasn’t built to play small ball, that I was a vanguard and I needed to act like it.
NO: Um, excuse me while I have a praise-break for a second. That is a Word. You are indeed a vanguard and you better indeed act that way. What a blessing to get that benediction—it’s such a gift when poets we love and admire bless us to do the tech we’re wired to do.
Also, I just want to say that I love your refusal to choose. And if people don’t like it, they can stay extra mad. I believe it was Robin Coste Lewis who said once, completely in passing: “Oh, white people still don’t know what Black people look like.” She’s completely right.
JR: So, I try to stay away from asking folks about “books” because we don’t always know when we have a book but I do want to ask if you got a starting three (all time dead or alive) for your blurbs on your current project(s), and who dey be and why?
Also, related in my head is my wondering what is a craft essay that hasn’t yet been written/published that you would love to see by a BIPOC poet you admire? It feels right for this to be my final question, since part of how we started talking about doing this up formal-like was a conversation on how folks expect BIPOC poets to not have explicit craft based rationales for their choices in their work, and by extension, not to need explicit craft-based feedback that doesn’t simply orbit the content of what they think we wrote. Personally, I’d fight 2004 50 Cent for an essay on sectional poems, and historical content from Suji Kwock Kim, or a longform essay from Toi about the composition of Tender and nonlinear violence. You?
NO: Ooh, this question has me feeling all giddy inside. For blurbs, I’m gonna have to pick ancestors because I don’t want to jinx myself when it’s time to slide into the DMs of living poets. My starting three would have to be Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nina Simone. Ms. Clifton because she’s wiped my tears from the grave; Ms. Brooks because she could see an entire city inside a single human being, and Ms. Simone because nobody could tell her a damn thing and if a universe exists in which I could have gotten her to say something positive about my work, I know I’d be set for life. 😂
As for my craft essay fantasy: I would give actual human blood to read an essay by André 3000 on the violent/erotic language of the Psalms. Actually, I’d give blood to read anything by André Lauren Benjamin but that’s an entirely different issue. Also I would arm-wrestle Li-Young Lee for a series of close-reading essays on the rhyme schemes of every single track of Enter the Wu-Tang (the tea is that Li-Young is a HUGE Wu-Tang stan and I would like to see committed evidence of this).
NO: So, for my last question for you (I could keep going, but to return to our spiritual metaphor this is not a Pentecostal church and I’m not going to keep our good congregants here for 8 hours!). Lately, I’ve been really captivated by this idea of tenderness in poems. I actually have no idea what a “tender poem” actually means—only that it feels life-affirming, and I know it when I encounter it. And I feel it throughout your work. So the question I’m trying to finesse here is how do you, as a poet, navigate what it looks like to bear witness to pain or violence in your poems, while also creating poems that seek to be life-affirming? I’m thinking closely about the idea of violence, in particular. For example, in your poem “Elegy for the Winter Taina Was Cancelled,” you say, “I aspired most to be a casual violence / and am still disappointed.” It’s a really powerful moment, and I’m wondering what “a casual violence” means to you, considering how much I see your poems reaching for, and offering, a difficult and loving grace in the middle of pain—which is never only just that.
JR: First of all, I too would offer a blood sacrifice for an Andre 3000 craft essay (this is also fun given the fact our first time writing in the same room, my poem was about an Andre 3000 gif).
Second off, yeesh this is a great great question! I think a lot about tenderness as being as much a resource as a mode of being, and maybe this is a failure on my part. But for now, it is what I know. I’ve been thinking since Cave Canem about your ekphrastic poem of that Kerry James Marshall painting, “Slow Dance.” Specifically, and I apologize for potentially butchering the read, but the line: “Catch your breath on my neck awhile.” No gas, I have thought about it at least once a day for the last nearly two months. And I think it’s because tenderness in my experience is so fleeting, something we can only have for awhile. I think what I am trying to haul myself towards is an imagining or experiencing of a world where I can experience tenderness as abundantly as I experience violence. To me they’re basically cousins in that regard.
I think in that moment, which to me was the volta of that poem (Taina gang forever, btw), I came to really understand that I wasn’t so much even envious of wealth of the kids in that FAO Schwarz; I just wanted to know my abundance as well as it seemed to me they knew theirs. Of course the gag is they didn’t really know, so I had conflated my want for what seemed like knowledge with what was largely ignorance of what thefts had made it possible for there to always be “more of something” for them—and that’s a casual violence. I wanted to not know, to just ride the damn horse until it broke. Because to me, that was abundance. It seems often like violence and disregard are the only truly renewable resources.
But I think that the more I have tried to cultivate abundant tenderness in a poem, the more it has become a project of observation and attendant adoration. That Andre poem I wrote our first night kickin it at CC is, I think, the most successful current voyage into this project, because I wanted tenderness, elegance, opulence and violence, but I don’t think I could have written that poem if I had decided that work was something I had to build from scratch. Rather, what broke the poem open was simply remembering that months prior I saw my nigga Gabriel Ramirez for the first time in months, and in a quiet moment, I just started slowly pretending to box that nigga. The rational response to somebody moving a fist towards you is “Oh shit, duck!” but instead Gabe just laughed and said “You see? That’s how you know niggas is saying they missed you.” A restrained violence can be tenderness I think as much as, if not more than, a flower. I’m trying to learn the names of flowers, but I also know my niggas’ faces and names right now. I guess I’m trying to say that to me a tender poem is not antithetical to a poem that involves or features violences, the difference I think right now is that the poem and the speaker and the poet behind both are trying to look more fully at the world they have, cast they bucket where it’s at, and also pull water from where they can’t yet see, but know that it is there. Because observation is an act of tenderness—maybe also of faith.
NO: Amen, brother. Amen. Again, the well is deep.