Metta Sáma is author of the chapbooks the year we turned dragon (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Books), le animal & other creatures (Miel), After “Sleepingto Dream”/After After (Nous-Zōt-Press) and Nocturne Trio (YesYes Books). A fellow of Black Earth Institute, Metta is currently on the Advisory Board of Black Radish & is co-founder of Artists Against Police Brutality/Cultures of Violence.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Ah! What a story of the first book. That was my MFA thesis, which I wanted to be experimental, filled with visual elements, drawings that incorporated language. I was discouraged from doing this, well, I was informed that it wouldn’t be accepted, so I kept the visual pieces in my journal and what I ended up with was, more or less, South of Here, which my mentor, Herb Scott, asked to publish. My ego wouldn’t let me give the book to Herb. After all, he was my mentor & I had worked for his press. So, I, the stubborn, fragile person that I am sent out to dozens of contests & Herb patiently waited. Eventually, through some shenanigans, I accepted the contract from New Issues, which Herb had founded and is a great press, and it was a strange experience from then on out. I wasn’t sure if I had what it takes to actually present an entire book, although I knew that I had what it took to produce really good single poems. That experience propelled to study how books were put together and what the market demanded & of course led to my despair about the publishing industry! But thankfully also reminded me that while poem-making is an artful act, poem-sharing is a business. My teaching & mentoring have been completely informed by those awakenings.
My current work is not written towards a degree. South of Here was written towards a degree and edited post-degree. Swing at your own risk was written towards a degree & has been revised over a period of ten years. Anxiety books. The chapbooks were written with specific publishers in mind because they had been solicited. The dragon book is written primarily with place in mind. I began writing the poems while living in Louisiana, a state that has so much history of colonialism and enslavement, of settlements. My current state of residence, North Carolina, has similar histories and the town I live in, the neighborhood I live in, is the first settlement in this area. The first poem in that book came to me through a prompt I’d given students in Baton Rouge and later, when I heard Toni Morrison say “keep white men out of your narratives” I abandoned a project I’d been developing on current visual representations of white masculinity, and dove into that initial dragon poem. I figured I was living in plantation-landia, I might as well tap into that spirit of new settlements, of the violence of stripping individuals of names, lands, families. I also saw an opportunity to further push my deep interest in punctuation and syntax and our dependencies on these elements in written form to communicate, yet we live without these elements in verbal and signed conversations. Finally, I’ve always had a curiosity about religion, mostly about peoples’ choices to join religions, and the sermon as tool and the preacher as messenger. Without a degree in mind & without a publisher in mind, I’m able to work slowly and sloppily and without initial readers I’m able to finally learn to trust my writing instincts.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poem writing, as do many students, via an Introduction to Creative Writing class. My instructor was Earl Braggs who told me I wasn’t a good poet & because of the nature of those classes, I was able to also write fiction. I’m rebellious by nature, so if someone tells me I’m not good at something, I devote more energy to it than anything else. In my writing soul, I’m a playwright, so poetry is a close cousin. & because I’m primarily a visual thinker, poem making makes the most sense for me.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It takes many months for a single poem to take shape. I don’t journal but I do sometimes draft poems in a journal. I draft poems in “Notes” on my phone. I draft poems in computer documents. When I first began writing poems, about 20 years ago, I wrote on everything, as most young poets do, napkins, receipts, envelopes, whatever was close at hand. Now, I have a “smart phone” so I can draft easier while driving with voice memos, for example. With the current writing project, it’s taking me a lot longer because I have to tap into a particular voice and rhythm and mood. The same was true for two of the chapbooks I put out; I was asked by publishers if I had more of a specific poem they’d seen published & I devoted months to despair. I couldn’t just turn on those voices, that rhythm, call up the philosophical concerns I was working through. I often enter despair while writing towards projects, which is likely one of the reasons I reject them.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I’m currently working on a “book” but I mostly resist the “book” (the project). I think great books are similar to great albums, you can start anywhere in the book and fall into place. Projects (“books”) are more like visual art exhibits, where one often needs to follow the line on the wall and interrupting that line disrupts the experience, distorts the visual narrative. Writers such as Jayne Cortez, Patricia Spears Jones, Vievee Francis, Pamela Uschuk, Luci Tapahonso, Lucille Clifton, Amy King, Crystal Williams, Wanda Coleman, Marilyn Chin, Tory Dent, Verónica Reyes, these are poets whose books I love reading, because I can begin anywhere and have multiple sensory experiences with the book. That said, as I said it takes a long time for me to write a poem, words are not easy for me; so, I typically write long poems that cover a lot of ground.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I hate giving public readings but see it as one of my writerly responsibilities. I love attending public readings because I enjoy being read to and I enjoy watching performances. When I first started teaching creative writing courses I would require students to attend readings and to make note of the how the writers read their presence their public performance of themselves through their written word. Public readings inform the part of my creative process that involves verbally sharing my work in front of an audience or on an audio recording. I saw Lorna Goodison perform twice in New York City, about two days apart. When she performed at a college in Brooklyn she started out by reciting a poem. It sounded like she was saying her thank yous for the invitation. She was so very cool and direct. I was moved by that & tried it but have a hard time remembering lines of poems. Often I read the work of other writers as part of my performance. This creates a cocoon around me, makes me a little opaque, the words of other writers, their energies.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m a truth person, a truth seeker, a truth teller, emphasis on a. I’m interested in the connection between psyche and spirit how we tap into the spirit what we mean by the spirit what we understand of the psyche and how we open ourselves to being guided by our psyche. & language intrigues me. Words are hard for me to come to or arrive at; I believe it was Paul Guest who once said in an interview that he had a facility with language and I spent weeks wondering what that was like. Language is charged and overused and underappreciated and abused. We repeat idioms without knowing what they mean or even questioning their origins. & eventually the psyche & spirit come along and nudge us and we begin to do clean-up work & erasure work. Never forgiveness work. Mostly I’m interested in passing of time, deterioration, what leaves us and how. The connections between the body and the land and the body and the cosmic landscape. How the brain seems to follow the pattern of an eroded shorefront as we age as we have strokes. How we scour the brain of memories sediments. Public and familial and private memories. The structural resonances between them. For a very long time many years I was a devotee of Milan Kundera particularly his thinking about public and personal memories, of remembering and forgetting. Which he may have borrowed from Nietzsche.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Ah! Ok. I’ve been thinking about this a lot during this current Mercury Retrograde. There have been times that I have stated what writers should be doing or what writers’ responsibilities are, but I’m backing away from that, as it’s none of our work to tell others what an entire profession should be doing. I hold my own writerly self the responsibility of having ethics that I may or may not uphold (I often assess and re-assess my personal beliefs: where they originate, why I commit to them, etc) and I set myself the task of speaking to and of the times. This is difficult for someone like myself who writes rarely and writes slowly, but I remind myself that while the earth rotates quickly, thoughts ideas actions move slowly, so there’s no rush to anything. & I remind myself that this time this current time could not be here without what came before it and what will proceed it. My role as a writer is to hold up a mirror and reflect a perception of the world back at itself. I’ve always found the saying “Don’t air your dirty laundry” to be really troubling. Silence is a tool that has to be self-imposed for self-health and self-preservation but not something imposed upon by an outside force. When an outside force imposes silence on us, we die from stress-born illnesses. It’s no good, really. So, I set about the task of speaking and sparking conversation. I’ve long understood that I think differently than others I tend to speak to, and the older I get, the more that I see this difference as radically important.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It depends on the history the editor knows about editors. I find this term to be widely used but rarely utilized. It’s uncommon, in my experience, to find journal editors who do the work of editors, but I have been quite lucky with book editors. Each of them have worked with my work and made the process of publishing a collaborative effort. I don’t have one book that hasn’t been treated to the editorial process not one book that is just mine. Each book has a mark of the editor which I do find to be both difficult and necessary. When I first published a book I was so incredibly incensed that an editor expected consistency, so I had a turbulent relationship, which was completely of my doing. I’m rarely hot-headed, at least I’m supposed to be rarely hot-headed, but I was quite temperamental about the editor messing with my work. Eventually I gave in and it felt like giving in, like I’d been in a battle and had to step back and think about how much work I was putting on this editor who had to put up with my adult written tantrums! I’m sure I’ve had a similar relationship with later editors but they’ve all been very forgiving and they all listen and I’ve learned to listen to them and consider their opinions.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Be ruthless with your time. I added the phrase: Be ruthless with your tome.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to creative non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
Words are words are words are syntax are words are grammar are words are words are phonology etc etc etc. I write in whatever genre appeals to what I need to convey. Some thoughts are best explored in prose while other thoughts are best composed in dialog while other thoughts are best composed in line.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
No routine. When I lived in Brooklyn I decided that I’d write after my morning power-walk through Sunset Park. That was prose, not poetry, short stories. I subscribed to 750words and would sit and write every morning after exercising. I can’t tap into that kind of ease when writing poems. Too many words competing for not a lot of space. The year prior to that routine, I tried to form a group of people who would await my instructions weekly on where to meet to write for an hour together in some location in NYC. That worked for maybe two weeks (ha!).
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Writing is always stalled for me. I work quite a bit and hardly have any brainspace left to write. So, I get what I can done during breaks. Summer is crucial for me in this regard. To get back into writing, I typically need to exercise, sauna, cook with lots of herbs and spices, listen to music, go to a visual art exhibit. I need to saturate my senses, in other words, and relax, find quiet.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’ve heard that elsewhere & while it may be quite true, it seems very limiting. I didn’t grow up in a house of books but I did grow up in a house of boisterous imaginative people. My sister and I would often joke that our lives were a soap opera (is a soap opera a kind of book?) and when I was a kid I’d sit at the kitchen counter while my mom cooked and I’d read the back of boxes and make up commercials (is the writing on a box a kind of book?). I’m taken in by the visual & cosmic worlds, particularly by visual artists whose work feels a bit childlike but not innocent—Kandinsky, Klee, Miró, Mehretu—and people whose work feels beyond but within this world, work that is thick and mystical and vulgar and celebratory and cosmic—Varo, Fini, Mutu, Wei Wei, Quick-to-See Smith, Cave, Ofili, Swoon, Veronica Rojas.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
A few years ago I read Witold Gombrowicz’s Pornografia & I was influenced by his use of ellipsis which I had already been influenced by through a non-writer friend who communicated with ellipsis as primary punctuation tool. I’ve also been influenced by Selah Saterstrom’s use of semi-colons & LeRoi Jones’s (Amiri Baraka) use of open-ended parenthesis & street talk (what I overhear when I’m walking or what is said to me on sidewalks).
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Study herbs. Become a masseuse. A doula. Be successfully pregnant. Sing in front of an audience. Play the violin.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I appreciate going at this in reverse! When I was a child I wanted to be EVERYTHING. I envisioned myself as a modern dancer as a violinist as a photojournalist as a lawyer as Prince’s mic-wielding protégé. I thought that by the time I got old (& by old I mean like early 30s) I thought I’d be a world-class attorney who had an art studio in her backyard and painted and had bought an old farm and turned the horse barn into an art studio for kids in the neighborhood. I thought I’d be a world traveler an herbalist. If all goes well in the coming years I’ll start doula training. By nature I reckon I’m a healer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t work in opposition and rarely choose to do one thing over another. I paint. I take photographs. I sing. I make up songs (but don’t write them down). I study history. I study politics. I study law. I study languages. I gather feathers. I teach. I promote writers. I volunteer at an animal shelter. I commune. I write when I can find the right words and the right sound within those words to express what I’m seeing feeling thinking embodying.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Ah. I read Rio Cortez’s I have learned to define a field as a space between mountains (Jai-Alai Books). It made me think of the first time I heard an album and wanted to sit and listen to it all the way through (that album was The Cranberries’ 1994 release, no need to argue & perhaps it was that way for me because I was living in my own apartment for the first time and breathing in a new kind of isolation and solitariness). Rio’s book or rather reading it literally moved my breath. I sat in an empty room trying to find air and when I could all I could mutter was ‘mmmmm’. I saw Moonlight a few weeks before reading Rio’s book and there were only three of us in the theatre and I cried openly because I was alone and could. It was a magnificent film, so incredibly filled with tenderness but not just filled with tenderness insistent on magnifying tenderness. In a world that is so often devastatingly attracted to brutality, it came as a great surprise.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Greetings, rob! Thanks for inviting me to participate in this interview project. You can’t know this but I’m responding to the questions from the bottom-up, as it’s New Year’s Eve. I’m currently (funny word, in this context, currently, as I’ve been currently working on this project since Year of the Dragon & we’re now heading towards the end of Year of the Monkey!). . .I’m currently at work on The Year We Turned Dragon in full. A portion, about a fourth, of the book was published in April 2016 by Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs. The book is an exploration of charisma of utopia of dystopia of new worlds new ideas of that freedom of forming new families and new family structures of power of naming and identifying oneself of the creation of nation of the destruction of civilization of magic the belief in magic and otherworldliness. And more.