By Kirstin van der Gracht '12
Question: Your latest book, Buffalo Head Solos, is divided into four sections, each one beginning with a different movement from a single poem: "Ambition" (first a cow, then a mosquito, then a human, then a virus). How did that particular poem shape the structure of the book as you wrote (or did the shape of the book influence the poem)? Which comes first, the idea for the book or the idea for each individual poem?
Answer: Each poem in the "Ambition" series has a different focus and tone. My intention was to have the reader glean a sense of the flavor of the section through the persona that introduced it. For example, the poems in part two wrestle with issues of power and vulnerability just as the mosquito does, given its particular life. The virus that speaks to open section four carries a kind of threat; it embodies the calm but insistent sense of its own entitlement, its own right to spread without much regard for other lives, just as a country with great power imposes its will on others with only its own interests at heart. Of course, I'm over-simplifying a bit. I believe there are poems in each section of the book that don't fit easily in the frame created by the opening persona.
With regard to the shape of the book, generally speaking, I discover the shape of the book while I'm working on it. As I was working on the "Ambition" series and other poems, I noticed that there was a kind of convergence, that each of the personas in that series actually-to some degree-defined the four levels of discourse that would shape the book. But, truthfully, when I'm working on a book, everything is a process of discovery-even the four levels of discourse had to be recognized at a certain point. I never begin writing with a particular idea of the book in mind.
Q. I love your poems written from the perspective of the subject (a cow, a mosquito, a lobster, a virus, for example). What was it like to write in their imagined voices?
A. Persona poems require you to step out of your own head and into the life of someone or something else. It's always exciting to reach beyond your own life. It allows you to escape your own tired habits, to see in a way that you hadn't considered. This always stretches your imagination, and that's one of the important things that all art can do: invite first the artist and then the audience to reconsider life on different terms. To the extent that we can imagine ourselves in other lives, we increase our capacities for compassion and invention.
Q. Your poetry deals with very modern subjects and uses a lot of contemporary American cultural references and slang (such as references to the Matrix, Spanglish, current politics). And while you possess a distinct African American cultural heritage, you also make many allusions to world mythologies and ancient cultures, such as Greek mythology, Hawai'ian gods, Hinduism, etc. alongside Moombi and the language Xhosa and quotations from Zulu poetry.... How do you see these juxtapositions working in your poems? What is the effect you are trying to achieve by blending the old and the new, the American and the international?
A. I think of myself as a composite of many cultural influences. One of the great things about being alive and literate in the world today is the chance to enter so many different visions of what and how the world means. Whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, the past is still with us. In many cases, its presence is either buried or actively distorted for political gain due to fear and/or ignorance. What about the evolution of our spiritual sensibilities? It strikes me that with the rise of the patriarchal religions, the great wisdom of the Goddess-centered cultures that had held sway for thousands of years fell into eclipse. When I dedicate a poem to a Goddess, I want people to wonder about who She was (capital S), and what did such a figure mean to people once and how would the world be different if we saw women as representatives of a She who governed the universe.
I use as many levels of English as I can because slang and highfalutin words are all part of the dance of language. It pleases me to see what kinds of sparks might fly with different levels of diction; I also like the idea of using one level of diction to cast a brighter light on another.
My references to African languages and poetry are simply meant to highlight and celebrate African cultures. Most of my blood roots go back to Africa (some to Europe and some to the indigenous peoples of America). I believe Africa has been terribly neglected through both our educational systems and the media. Too many people think of Africa as the place where slaves came from, where people starve, and where tribal warfare continues. I hope whatever references I make to African cultures simply expand the dialogue about what Africa-past and present means to all of us.
Q. In your essay "A Quilt in Shades of Black: The Black Aesthetic in 20th Century African American Poetry", you mention the importance of keeping African roots alive via oral poetry. How would you say writing in African American vernacular affects the rhythm and message of your poem? How does your work relate to the oral tradition of griots (West African bards)? Would you say you are continuing their work, or are you doing something entirely new?
A. First, let me say I think the oral presentation of poetry has roots all over the world. Poetry's roots are in song; long before anybody was writing it down, people were singing and chanting poems for their fellow citizens. As a black writer, I like to employ black vernacular because of its particular music and as a marker of the African presence in this country. It is also a way for me to invite African Americans to my poetry. I am proud of what black folks have done with English during their time here; it's a thing to be celebrated.
I cannot claim to be truly extending the work of the original griots, except insofar as they used their recitations to carry history and other news to their fellow citizens and I try to do the same. The original cultural context of the griot was so different from this time in America; for the most part, a griot spoke his song to people who identified with him and who perceived him as a man of truth. I think poets-of all colors-in America are regarded suspiciously or ignored entirely by those who might otherwise be "their people." America is a complex amalgam of human beings. Even black folks, whose encounter with the dark side of this country once unified them to a large degree, have become increasingly fragmented along the lines of education, class, religious belief, etc. So, when I write a poem, I'm imagining anybody and everybody as my audience, (though, surely, people of different backgrounds will understand my poems in different ways).
Q. Religion plays an interesting role in Buffalo Head Solos; most of the poems tend to cast Christianity in a negative light. And yet your final poem contains an epigraph from Jesus in Khalil Gibran's novel Son of Man (a countercultural interpretation, to be sure)-what is your work trying to say about the relationship between the teachings of Jesus and organized religion? Or between personal faith and organized religion?
A. It's important to me that poetry try to address uncomfortable truths. The Christian Church as an institution (and I'm including the Catholic Church under that umbrella) has sanctioned some terrible things-slavery for one and the cold-blooded slaughter of the native peoples of South, Central and North America for another. (And there's much more: think about the annihilation of the pagans during the time of The Inquisition.) In some poems, I want to challenge the assumption that Christianity equals righteousness. Just like when I'm addressing race directly, I'm inviting the reader to re-think some things-like whiteness and white supremacy as deadly constructs-I'm hoping the poems that assail Christianity will invite some people to think about the history of the Church and all it has inspired in human culture.
And, finally, I think what the Church has become has very, very little to do with the teachings of Jesus. In fact, if there could ever be a Second Coming, I think he would come back raging at the things the Church has condoned or actively promoted in his name. (Of course, there are individual Christians who have done wonderful things, just as there are good numbers of whites who don't live racist lives, but the over-riding gestures of Christianism and of white culture have been terrifying in a lot of ways to a lot of people.)
Q. Like Neruda, to whom Buffalo Head Solos is dedicated, you reckon with love and politics (among other things). Another poet who is often compared with Neruda is Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet. While Neruda tended to separate love and politics, Darwish preferred to mix them together. You seem to be somewhere in the middle, sometimes blending political messages with sensual imagery and sometimes keeping them discrete entities. How do you feel these two subjects relate in your poetry?
A. The repression of sexuality-heterosexual or homosexual-is a political act. I think the erotic impulse in human beings is one of our better features, and the repression of sexuality has led to all kinds of trouble. People are afraid of their bodies, equating the flesh with sinfulness or animality or both. I mean, just the fact that explicit sexuality is rated X, while explicit violence is PG-13 or R says it all. It seems that people think it's better to see brutality and murder than to watch sex!!
Too often, people fear and/or hate people whose sexual lives are different from theirs. Why? Why should we object to whatever consenting adults do to express physical affection in this dangerous and lonely world?
And think about the whole celibacy thing for Catholic priests. How many levels of abuse has that led to? And think about Proposition 8 in California, which is simply an emblem of American homophobia. So, I try to embrace many facets of the sexual world in my poems. This is one way for a poet to oppose those forces in the culture who fear this beautiful and mysterious aspect of our humanity.
Q. In the introduction to Buffalo Head Solos, you talk about how you'd like to reach a wider audience with your poetry, how poetry shouldn't be confined to intellectuals. But our mainstream society doesn't seem to be too concerned with poetry; it is an unfortunate truth that even when a poet says something truly shocking, most Americans won't even read it. How, then, would you suggest poets reach a wider audience?
A. I think expanding the audience for poems is a long-term project. Every time a poet reads s/he has a chance to convert audiences who might have previously thought poetry didn't have anything to do with their lives. It's one of the reasons I visit middle schools and high schools (and, occasionally, elementary schools) for nothing but the chance to show kids that poetry can be exciting, that maybe words can help them figure out what's itching or aching in their hearts.
This is true of all art, I think, but everybody has access to words, so by merely stopping long enough to listen or read or write, a person might change his or her life. Most poets don't think a lot about becoming rich from their poems; I think most of us would be satisfied to find that our fellow humans were making good use of the news we keep trying to bring. With this in mind, I think poets just have to keep going out there saying- in one way or another-hey, listen up, maybe this connects with YOU!
For more information on Tim Seibles, please see our Poet-in-Residence page.