Wednesday, July 31, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with t’ai freedom ford

t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher and Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in The African American Review, Apogee, Bomb Magazine, Calyx, Drunken BoatElectric Literature, Gulf Coast, Kweli, Tin House, Obsidian, Poetry and others. Her work has also been featured in several anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. She was a 2015 Center for Fiction Fellow and the Poetry Project’s 2016 Emerge-Surface-Be Poetry fellow. Most recently she has won awards from the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) and is a 2019 Jerome Hill Artist Fellowship inaugural fellow. Winner of the 2015 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize, her first poetry collection, how to get over is available from Red Hen Press.  Her second poetry collection, & more black, is with Augury Books, available Summer 2019. t’ai lives and loves in Brooklyn where she is an editor at No, Dear Magazine More at:

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I think mostly what the first book did was to validate my existence as a writer/poet. To take up space amongst the myriad of published works, let me know that I belonged. It also placed me in a long lineage of Black writers and for that, I am proud and honored to be a part of that legacy.

My second book is very different from my first in that the first centered around lyric and persona. It was obsessed with telling the story of me, my family, the Black family. My new work is more obsessed with form, the sonnet, and Black art. But like the first book, I engage similar subject matter: the Black body, Black linguistic practices, Black life and love, Black queer sexuality, etc.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I’ve always attempted to express myself via poetry although my first poems may have actually been raps, written when I was 10 years old. But as a poor Black kid growing up in New York City, I couldn’t afford violin lessons or gymnastics, but I always had pen and paper, so those were my first instruments of creativity. But non-fiction and fiction were right there. In 1985, when my mother decided to move us to Atlanta, I began writing my autobiography in the back of our station wagon as we drove the 15 hours south. And later, when I got bored with poetry, I would write short stories. Years later, I would earn my MFA in fiction, not poetry.

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?

For this collection, because the form was so specific, I feel like a lot of the work came very quickly because I had a container to pour words/images into. Also, because many of the poems are riffing off of or in conversation with works of art, I was gifted a lot of material to work with. But most of the work does come out very close to a final draft.

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?

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I do enjoy attending readings and often jot down beautiful lines I hear. I covet them and use them as springboards of inspiration. Reading my work is often necessary to feeling my work. I’m able to animate the work in a unique and personal way that invites folks into the work and the worlds I attempt to conjure.

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 am always asking:

What is the point of my art if not to speak to and for my people?

What is the point of all these words if I am not saving a life (especially my own)?

How is it that we have survived this long? And who am I if I do not acknowledge, archive and celebrate these survivals?

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?

My role is to honor Black literary traditions and legacies. To speak to and for my folks. To give voice to the voiceless. To give permission to those who feel silenced. To honor my Creator by being creative. To maintain sanity via the process of art-making.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It’s definitely necessary in that writer’s can miss so much because we are so close to the work. Editors bring fresh eyes and are able to see the book wholly and the poems individually and how they work together. However, I am a Black queer woman working with language in ways that may be challenging for folks outside of that demographic. Cultural sensitivity and openness on the part of the editor are essential in these cases.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?

I bore easily (typical Aries), so being able to move between genres has always been appealing to me. Interestingly enough, the genres tend to blur. People will say that my fiction is “so poetic” or that they appreciate the storytelling quality of my poetry. Ultimately, I’m less concerned with genres or being pigeonholed as a poet… When people ask, What do you write? I’m inclined to answer: Things with words. Because honestly I want to write it all: poems, short stories, novels, screenplays, essays, children’s books… everything.

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?

I don’t write routinely, but I typically write early—morning is when I’m at my creative peak. And usually I will have worked out first and had food before I’m ready to write. But sometimes, I will awake from my sleep and begin writing because the urgency is there.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I go to museums, art galleries… I watch videos of lectures or interviews by Fred Moten or Arthur Jafa. I watch short films about artists. I read Toni Morrison or Lucille Clifton or Wanda Coleman.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Honeysuckle reminds me of Atlanta (which was once a home of mine).

Chimney smoke reminds me of winters in New York.

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?

My work comes from Black music, Black art, tweets, celebrity beefs, Black death, the news, the ingenuity and resilience of Black folk.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Buy a home. Win a major prize for my book. Travel to West Africa. Sky dive. Publish a children’s book. Secure a book deal for my novel. I could go on….

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 would be a chef. And I am a teacher and I would have been that whether I wrote or not.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing is a mode of survival for me and one of the ways I maintain my sanity in an insane world. An insistence in having my story heard made me first write. But I’ve endeavored other creative outlets like painting, jewelry making, deejaying, cooking, but writing is my most stubborn preoccupation.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Call Me By Your Name based on the Andre Aciman novel.

20 - What are you currently working on?

At work on a novel about how folks grieve after the loss of a loved one while simultaneously having to contend with the loss of sacred space—their neighborhood aka “da hood”.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Bill Carty, Huge Cloudy

Haze settles in rooftops,
red tile above
the midwifery center.
Outside, topiary like
lime-green popsicles
before summer
uncouples sweet
from stick. Some local
parade passes
the hillside’s jagged
tombstones. No, these
are teeth, clenched,
and we are driving over water,
grip on the hanging strap
when it seems we might tip.
What else am I doing?
What am I pretending
To do while doing it? (“AURORA”)

Seattle poet Bill Carty’s full-length debut is Huge Cloudy (Portland OR: Octopus Books, 2019), a collection of narrative twists and jolts, shifting perspectives and unexpected takes. Carty jostles the familiar and unfamiliar alike in such subtle, jarring ways, opening the question of whether whatever we thought was true or real might ever have been in the first place. “The car interior was esophageal red,” he writes, in the second stanza to the poem “OCEAN, THE GREAT CONDUCTOR,” “and in the headlight, my dancing / was a reenactment of my deep shame of dancing.” The third stanza in the quartet reads:

We had no governor, only the moon
making a smaller moon
on the car hood.

There is a sweetness to these poems, and a vulnerability, one that displays itself slowly, carefully and openly. The strengths of this collection are so wonderfully understated, allowing for wisdoms and shifts to simply float up to the surface when needed. “I arrive at, thinking,” he writes, to end the poem “NOT A MOAT,” “this really is despair, // so much broader than it is long.” Set in five sections of short lyric poems with an opening piece, Carty’s Huge Cloudy intersperces two sections of longer sequences—two and four—for the sake of stretching out, even accumulating, the narrative thinking within his short lyrics: the poems “AURORA” and “BOUNDING SPHERE,” respectively. Even the fact that the sections are numbered, where two and four are clearly each made up of a single poem each, seems understated, allowing the poem itself to reveal, and unfold. I appreciate that impulse to not wish to highlight what could only be understood, and appreciated, through examination.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Etel Adnan, TIME; translated by Sarah Riggs

the sun came out at night
to go for a stroll and the divine crossed
the room. the windows

writing comes from a dialogue
with time; it’s made
of a mirror in which thought
is stripped and no longer knows

in Palermo men are as
strictly trained as horses; or
else they have the shining violence of
flowers (“At 2 p.m. in the Afternoon”)

The latest poetry title by Etel Adnan to appear in English translation is TIME (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2019), translated from the French by Sarah Riggs. TIME is constructed out of six extended lyric sequences—“October 27, 2003,” “Friday, March 25th at 4pm,” “At 2 p.m. in the Afternoon,” Return from London,” “No Sky” and “Ballbeck”—each of which are clearly situated, whether in a particular time or place (or both), tethered to the ground so the abstract of her lyric thinking won’t float away completely. The poems are situated very specifically, but are open enough to include everything; rooted in place, as she writes in the first sequence: “those who cannot leave / discover the geography / of the body. there are also airfields / and harbors on the surface of our souls.” Adnan’s sequences explore violence, culture, power and memory, composing small abstract moments that accumulate in a way that echoes for anyone even faintly familiar with contemporary French writing, but in a way that also reminds me of the work of the late Canadian poet D.G. Jones, another poet who stretched out the sequence from accumulated small abstracts (and a poet who was also influenced by French writing, although through his translations of the work of the late Quebec poet Anne Hébert, a writer born a decade earlier than Adnan).

it’s more bearable to think of
death than of love

Greek thought explored
all things the way it
explored the islands

when men no longer have
power over women, over whom
will they have it? (“At 2 p.m. in the Afternoon”)

In her “Translator’s Note,” Brooklyn, New York poet and translator Sarah Riggs writes “I recall Cole Swensen saying how to translate means you feel the other under your own skin. And, I would add, under and into your own writing.” She begins her note:

The postcard is a medium Etel Adnan loves, and often when translating this work I felt echoes of the circumstances in which it began. On October 27, 2003, Etel received a postcard at her home in Paris from her friend, Khaled Najar, the Tunisian poet and publisher of Tawbad Editions. Spontaneously she wrote the first of the poem sequences in this book, each poem a breath or two, thinking of Khaled. In this way the poems act like a correspondence, a poetry of the postcard, from one Arab writer to another.

The translator occupies the recto-verso position of not being able to be fully on both side, having to choose one language while thinking deeply of the other language, and of a third address which is the person or people “out there.” As a poet and translator of poetry in French, I found myself in the autumn of 2005 at a café in Paris reading Le 27 Octobre 2003, and wanting to translate it. So I asked Etel if she was going to write/translate it also in English. Etel responded very simply and enthusiastically as is her way, “I’d rather you did it.”

At first it felt like pouring water from one pitcher to another, to translate these poems, so clear and lucid and succinctly chosen was each word. One short poem on each page, with Khaled’s facing page translation in Arabic, gave me lots of room to ruminate on which words to choose. Part of the passion of translating a first draft as I scrawl it into the book in pencil is partly that I can be anywhere. It had the pleasure of the postcard—writing vicariously to Khaled, writing as if you are Etel, writing to you who are readers in English; so many sides, positions, and dimensions. I was on a rooftop in Morocco when I first translated the little volume of No Sky, and can remember the cloud formations of that day.

There is a lot happening in these meditative postcards, from bombs dropping in Beruit to a return to Greece, sculptures or stripmining in California, composing a sequence of lyric sketches aware of and very concerned with how easily humanity turns against itself and its own interests, from the larger issues of planetary survival, to the intimate matters of how one person treats another. “this morning I killed a fly,” she writes, in “No Sky,” “had I been a State / I would have destroyed a city [.]” Yet her poems are filled with such a wonder and an openness, one that shows a wisdom, and, despite everything, an optimism and heart.

What is interesting, also, is that this translation also counts as the first publication of these sequences as a unit, making one wonder who made the choice for putting such together as a full-length collection and in what order. The acknowledgements at the opening of the collection offer that the first five sections were each originally published in French by Tawbad, in 2008, 2007, 2010, 2010 and 2008. At the end of her note, Riggs offers that “Etel and I together named the book,” although that doesn’t entirely answer the question.