Christopher McCurry: Let’s start with this. I see this first question as a version of the “origins and influences” but take it where you want of course:
As a multi-genre and medium artist what does poetry do for you?
Bianca Spriggs: That’s a complicated answer. Poetry does a number of things for me. It is not my first art-form, but it is the terrain where I am at my most confident. I use poems to create problems that require solving or to process abstract concepts, obsessively at times, sometimes over the course of years. I think about every other genre or discipline through the lens of a poet. And what I learn from other areas informs how I think about how many, many ways there are into a poem—it’s not always through the front door. Sometimes I get it in through the second story window. Sometimes I’m coming up through the floorboards.
Poetry also reminds me not to take myself or my work so seriously that I don’t continue to experiment and play and recognize failure as an integral part of the process. I believe that for artists, you stagnate when you think you have nothing new to learn. So, in writing poems, I learn to balance process and product. In an attempt to fit what I have to say into a container, for lack of a better word, I’ve learned through poetry, to remain in an interrogative state, to surrender or get out of the way of what a piece wants rather than impose my own will, and to not ever despair during a drought. I either work through the “bad” pieces because even they have something to teach me, or I remember that even drought is part of it—just because I’m not actively creating what I want at the moment, doesn’t meant that my subconscious isn’t working on it, so I’ll go do something else and wait for synchronicity to weigh in.
Poetry is a constant reminder, too, of the paradox of creativity. In an attempt to preserve a moment in any artwork, not unlike the butterfly that’s been pinned and mounted behind archival glass, you have to, in essence, kill it. When you distill an experience into the immediacy of a poem, you recognize this conundrum fairly quickly. Because I’m obliged to get to the point, I’m constantly divining between the choicest bits. Some details should be glossed over or left out and others should be elaborated upon or just totally made up. Basically, poetry keeps me in the business telling whoppers. Maybe sometimes to ascertain certain truth(s) but probably not. I think I really just happen to enjoy telling whoppers. I have come to know poems as the tricksters of the literary world. Poems live in liminal spaces, they suspend time, shapeshift, manipulate facts for their own purposes, they court the unexpected, and are just really well-suited to navigating the unruly paths between worlds known and unknown. I try to allow all of those qualities to infiltrate my other work.
So what doesn’t poetry do for you? Does it have limitations? Or just unexplored potential?
Sometimes I have ideas show up that don’t necessarily want to be a poem. Sometimes, I’m longer-winded than a poem’s borders. For me, a poem is meant to capture a singular voice or experience. A suite or collection of poems can do much to reflect a broader conversation, and I’m still exploring ways in which to do this comprehensively. But it still can feel piecemeal, too many gaps. Ultimately, I just try to listen to how the thing wants to come out. Sometimes that’s not obvious until after I’ve tried to write a few poems and I’m like, no, this wants to be acted out maybe or a full-out story because the subject matter needs more narrative and characters and dialogue. For instance, the novel I’ve been worrying at for seven years about freshwater mermaids in Kentucky. The poems I write about mermaids definitely point to the emotion and types of characters I want to portray in the novel but not necessarily, say, an entire plot.
Also, writing poetry is a lonely, insular process. You have to have a lot of silence to make room for the work. Sometimes, it can feel not a little masturbatory because poets have so few opportunities compared to the rest of the art forms to share their work at length with an audience. And when people buy a book, they don’t always get to hear the poet read the poems to gain insight into inflection and intent. Readers are often at it alone, mimicking the process that brought the poet into a space. So, for me, poetry does have its limits.
Earlier I mentioned being fluent in poetry. I tend to think of art-forms as languages so when I wish to access people in another tongue, I turn to another genre or an entirely different medium, usually visual art where I can draw or paint or sculpt what’s on my mind. I also enjoy collaborative projects. Contemporary dance for instance. If I work with a choreographer on a vision who can set my words onto the bodies of her dancers, an entirely new vocabulary, the vocabulary of the body, is available to initiate a conversation with an audience. I’ve had great success with collaborations involving film, photography, movement, music.
I sometimes see poetry as just the beginning of the conversation. An icebreaker. When you couple poetry with say, a score, or an extended visual like a short film, new sensory information is provided to an audience. Also, a lot of people have had bad experiences with poetry in high school and college. There’s this sort of thought that appreciating poetry should be esoteric and exclusive. When I grease the wheels and pair poetry with music or a photograph, it’s like leaving a little trail of breadcrumbs back to the heart of the poem.
High school and college is a rough place for poetry. What most excites me about the ever expanding world of creative writing programs is a more people finding out the truth about poetry: that it’s freaking sweet. Anyway, I read your book. It’s bangarang of course. For some of the poems you’re working in what some call speculative poetry, or poetry that uses science fiction / fantasy elements, for your metaphoric and symbolic world building. What draws you to that language and mythos?
Thank you for the kind words, especially “bangarang.” I probably watched Hook 974 times growing up and I just really feel that word is completely underused, as is literally crowing when you’re happy. Anyway, I was reared in the church so I’m familiar and comfortable with storytelling from the stance of the phenomenal world. My parents encouraged me to read anything I could get my hands on, so I started out with your typical reel of prepubescent fiction but was just drawn towards the fantastic stuff from Br’er Rabbit to Greek myths to Anansi to Oz and by middle school had moved on to Orson Scott Card, David Eddings, Robert Jordan. I’m also on some level, ever the kid that grew up with Jim Henson movies and Rankin/Bass cartoons and Star Trek and E.T., so communicating creatively with fantastic or sci-fi imagery—writing in phenomenal terrain feels very natural. Even when I’m writing more realist work, I don’t deny the impulse of the daydream or a blurring of worlds. And the closer you look, highly imaginative writing is not so different in terms of world-building than other areas of writing.
Additionally, I contend that speculative writers wield more power than the canon gives them credit for to talk candidly about contemporary fears and challenges and work through them using the filter of the supernatural and otherworldly. I also feel that the “old” stories still have much to teach contemporary readers about our present and what we fear or anticipate about the future. Universal themes can and do transcend time and geography and we are all still connected to powerful, charismatic characters and how they overcame insurmountable odds. In every culture you’ll find some semblance of Mami Wata/Erzulie/Yemaya/Hera/Nu Wa/Ishtar/Baba Yaga, etc. They persist, I think, perhaps, because in speculation, we suspend our disbelief more readily. For whatever reason, we are more willing to surrender our skepticism on some level to an improbable narrative and are therefore more susceptible to a primordial state of storytelling as a way of teaching but also consoling and empowering.
My BFF and I watch a lot of sci-fi movies together and we’re constantly talking (usually during the movie) about pop culture’s fantasy of white saviors who come again and again to liberate the colored, unwashed, unlettered masses. Maybe that’s getting too political. But c’mon. You gotta notice when the same narrative is reinforced decade after decade like some sort of twisted carousel. The Matrix. Avatar. Elysium. Hunger Games. For generations, speculative storytelling has been a heteronormative white guy’s game where the voices of the Other, I’m thinking specifically now of women, and even more specifically, women of color, who are pushed emphatically and intentionally to the margins, or just neglected and turned into arm candy and/or glorified secretaries. This is still the case—I think Hollywood still doesn’t know what to do with Black women characters, even well-written ones on the page like, Storm. Jeez. Don’t even get me started on Storm. But we’re supposed to be happy she’s even given screen time. Right?
So now, it’s like, you think of someone like Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, or Nnedi Okorafor, and you know, Virginia Hamilton was doing it too with middle grade material, Black women are writing themselves into the future, literally coloring in the past and parallel worlds to be inclusive of our voices. I think Cedric the Entertainer said it best, “If y’all goin’ to Mars, dammit, we comin’ too!” Of course, the women I mentioned are fiction writers, so any time a poet does this—y’know, takes that right turn at Albuquerque, people are like <record scratch> ‘Wait, we can do that??’ Yes, of course. It’s uncharted territory! Why not write about bird women in the same breath we are writing from the bodies of slave cadavers in the same breath we are writing about Uhura? Ultimately, I just find speculation has so much potential—it is a wonderfully subversive tool in terms of creating new tread in the familiar mythos of Western literature. So, I just try and warn people at readings now, like, listen. They messed up and invited the SyFy channel poet. We ‘bout to go off-road. Buckle up.
When I write sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t. Does that make sense? Like who am I to write this about that. And regardless of the reasons every writer I know feels this way. Is this true of you? How do you deal with it? Were there moments in your book that you felt less certain of?
Recently, I offered some remarks at a “Black Women in the South” panel about the power of imagination to evoke sympathy in readers, and how early Black abolitionist writers were counting on the fact that their white audiences would imagine what it must be like to be enslaved. Because social change begins as personal change, if writing about my experience as a woman of color makes enough of an impact on your imagination that you make different choices in your daily life, then obviously you CANNOT stay the same. Enough people affected and the current paradigm cannot stay the same. Imagination is a human birthright. We use narrative to craft stories to and about one another. It’s how we make sense of the world and our place in it. As writers, today, imagination is no less engaging a tool than when our ancestors were telling one another about the first celestial bodies they noticed.
All that to say, I write what I want. There are certain topics I’m attracted to but I don’t ever feel like my subject matter is limited or I can’t write from anyone’s or anything’s perspective. If my mind is going somewhere, it’s like investigate it. Follow that white rabbit. Because if nothing else, I’ll encounter some boundaries, some ego-trips, some issues I might not have even known were there otherwise, right? Now. Here’s where it gets sticky.
What happens when I decide to share the work with a larger audience? If art is a conversation, I do take risks in initiating public conversations in poems that may or may not be my “place” to initiate.
At least one point in every semester, my poetry students and I will talk about this. Patricia Smith’s famous poem, “Skinhead,” is powerful because it’s rendered in the voice of a white male supremacist but a Black woman is delivering it. It sounds eerily authentic. What changes when it comes out of her mouth? How is this different from Frank X Walker adopting the voice of York, the illiterate slave to Lewis and Clark? To me, Frank’s York IS York regardless of the fact that this person actually lived and breathed and had his own opinions about things—I trust Frank’s voice as I trust Patricia’s. Now. How does this change from my lending my voice to a slave woman’s cadaver? How does this change from speaking as the Oracle at Delphi? From the geisha who’s outrun four tsunamis? I will admit, writing from the geisha’s voice has been the only poem that I felt like—hm. I can see how people may one day have a problem with that because I am Black woman and don’t share any culture with her other than the fact that in America, we are both considered Other. So maybe in that way, I identify with her story and her endurance and tried it on like a coat in the poem. What ramifications does that have for me as a Black woman poet? Even if I’m writing in the voice of a geisha, is the work inherently Black? Can’t it just be a woman identifying with another woman across time and land mass? Because what are we talking about here? Authenticity? Intent? Who does the intent change based on whose writing? Why?
It’s just all warm Jell-o until it’s not.
I mentor writers all the time who are, like me, bleeding hearts when it comes to social issues. Some of these writers are white people. When they say, “Look, I really want to write about this narrative but I don’t think it’s my place to speak in their voice.” I say, well, yes, as a white person in America, given your social status as and history of inheriting an imperialist legacy, to put your words in the mouth of an Other IS problematic for a number of reasons. However. There are ways around it. I think which voice a person uses to tell the narrative is important. Third person objective is safer than first person unless they’re acknowledging the limitations of their own worldview. Research is definitely important. Fact check. Recheck. Ask somebody. Ask lots of somebodies. And I think coming to a topic more interrogative than declarative, leading the reader down a process of discovery and wonder and curiosity about another culture is much more interesting to read than declarative, essentialist, generalizations anyway. Like I would rather a writer ask, “What don’t I know?” than tell me, “Here’s what I know.” But, of course, somewhere right now, someone out there is appropriating what they want and maybe making some interesting art out of it in the process.
Let’s talk about power some more. Your book “Call Her by Her Name” begins with a powerful command. How does that command, and power in general, echo throughout this book and your work?
In order to answer your question, I have to start by talking about an unsavory topic. At this point, I would call my fascination with dead and dying things unwholesome. And not in a necrophiliac sort of way but more of an, instead of what makes something alive, what makes something dead, sort of way. And not just human life, but things that we assign the circumstances of living to like myth and relationships.
I think, generally speaking, if you ask a career artist what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, they do it because they want to be remembered. Something that will outlive them. They want to create something that won’t be forgotten when maybe even the color of their eyes has been. They want to make such an impression on this world that somebody remembers their name, that they lived here, that they had something to say. A good artist will strive to be memorable (I try to avoid terms like ‘original’ because it’s too controversial) because as we know, ideas survive their makers. Conversations initiated by memorable ideas have the potential to continue beyond the grave across generations and borders.
‘Call Her by Her Name’ started first because I wanted people to know that the woman who is popularly known as “Potiphar’s Wife” in the Old Testament had a name. Her name was Zulaikha. And she had an identity. But the mainstream knows her as the perjurer who got Joseph locked up and sent about his destiny to ascend to greatness. She is even sentenced by Dante in The Inferno to suffer as a result of her crime from an eternal fever in the eighth circle of Hell.
When I first started working on this manuscript I was trying to track down her story and thought she’d been given just the worst treatment across the board in that she was never really given a voice of her own to redeem herself or explain herself or tell us how it really was. There was one exception that I found particularly intriguing by the 15th century Sufi poet, Jami, who wrote a narrative poem, “Yusuf and Zulaikha” and in his version, the story is much more complicated and star-crossed, but I love that we are introduced to Zulaikha as a young dreamer.
So, this book started off as an investigation of Zulaikha’s story. There are three poems that were written with her in mind in the book. “On Falling,” which is where she has dreamed of her future lover, Yusuf. And then of course, “Zulaikha: On Fire,” which is written as a double bop, where she is in her current home quite comfortably in the eighth century of Hell and she proves to sort of a problem child because she keeps burning her own house down. When you have a fever, you are warm to the touch, but you feel cold all the time as your body attempts to fight off illness and your temperature is in flux. So I imagined that in Hell of all places, she’d be freezing and keep starting these fires to warm up. And then finally, “Call Her by Her Name,” which is an anagram poem that names the subject and defines what her name actually means.
All that to say, the title poem is a command in that it sets the tone for the rest of the book which is recognizing people as individuals with names, identities, personalities, habits, hobbies, as you suggest is a question posed in the Dericotte poem. The stories I am most drawn to are those where people, contemporary or historic characters are deprived of a voice. Those are the people I want to hear from. Those are the people I want to get to know. And it just so happens that those are the voices quite often that belong to the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and all too often women and even more often, women of color who we aren’t hearing from.
So getting back to what makes something or someone dead…what remains of someone who is no longer alive–does that quality somehow graduate onto another plane, surpass the living or transcend humanity? And if you call out the names of the dead, if you still try to get to know them, are they still dead? I don’t know. I keep trying to figure that out.
You can read more from Bianca Spriggs at her website, BiancaSpriggs.com.
To hear more from Christopher McCurry about Call her By Her Name (Northwestern University Press, 2016), watch the video below.