One of the ways poets seek to improve their craft is through writing retreats and residencies. Cave Canem, which has often been called the “home” for Black poetry, has been influential in nurturing emerging poets through its workshop retreat at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg. Founded by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte, fellows are allowed three residencies within a five-year period to study with some of the most prominent African American writers engaged in poetry today. These writers include Sonia Sanchez, Niki Finney, Rita Dove, Terrance Hayes, Ed Roberson, Patricia Smith, Tim Siebels and Elizabeth Alexander, to name a few. Recently, with the assistance of funding from the National Endowment of the Arts, the poets Niki Herd, Randall Horton, Charles Lynch and Metta Sáma were selected to attend a ten-day writing residency in the summer of 2010 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Niki Herd’s book, The Language of Shedding Skin (2010), was a finalist for the Main Street Rag Book Award and published through their Editors Select Series, the same with Randall Horton’s The Definition of Place (2006). His latest book, The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street (2009), appears on Main Street Rag as well. Horton recently received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, the Beá Gonzalez Poetry Award from Stone Canoe at Syracuse University and the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. Charles Lynch is an Assistant Professor of English at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, and his poems have been anthologized in The Poetry of Black America (Harper and Row); Celebrations (Follett); Leaving the Bough (50 American Poets of the 80’s) (International Publishers); Long Journey Home (Meta Press) and Sweet Nothings (An Anthology of Rock and Roll in American Poetry) (Indiana University Press). New Issues Press published Metta Sáma’s first book, South of Here, and she teaches at Hunter College & Lehman College. On the last day of their residency, these poets sat down and discussed how Cave Canem prepared them for writing retreats like VCCA as well as the notions of Black versus Post Black and what it means to be a Black identified writer.
RH: So here we are on this last night of a creative writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts made possible by the National Endowment of the Arts. With that said, we each share having been to the Cave Canem retreat experience, and I am curious as to how did each of you come into this retreat in terms of preparation and how was the Cave Canem experience helpful coming into this residency at VCCA? In terms of your own process, how do you generate and craft poems? There is no pressure to write a poem a day as required at the Cave Canem Retreat. For me, I will say that after the Cave Canem experience, and my MFA program at Chicago State University, I had the confidence to create new work and critique myself in a way that I could not before. I began to take more risks with language and poetic license. I was not afraid to fail. I know now that failure means that am on the brink of something very creative. I came to VCCA at a time when I was focused and ready to take advantage of such an interdisciplinary atmosphere. My time at VCCA has allowed me to rework and re-edit my project, which is titled Pitch Dark Anarchy and relies heavily on the anarchy of language.
NH: When I applied to VCCA, I had a strong idea of the project I wanted to work on and I felt the need to map this out so that once I arrived I had a poetic blueprint to follow. I’m working on a book-length poem that investigates violence against women. Originally I had envisioned a narrative discourse, but something more abstract and less linear has been calling, so I’ve spent a lot of time re-shaping the work. In terms of preparation, I needed both the MFA and Cave Canem experience prior to coming here. There was a confidence and discipline these experiences taught me that has allowed me to make the most of my time in Virginia. The Cave Canem experience has been particularly significant because CC has been the single most important resource in terms of my development as a writer, hands down. In the past, I have purposely sought out places to write that allowed me to be in fellowship with other black writers. There is a type of energy I get in these settings that ignites my own creative juices. So I was attracted to coming to VCCA, during this particular time, because I knew that other black writers would be present. It was also very important that a full grant funded this opportunity. For this I am grateful. I would not be here otherwise.
CL: It definitely helped that the three of you were here. We could joke and share. I just implicitly felt that you each would understand what I am about. But my project really did change once I got here. I brought about ten poems to work on at VCCA and a memoir about my grandmother. I spent most of my time working on memoir, which I have never worked on before. And then I got involved in looking at my ancestry, which is from the Lynchburg area, and trying to find out my slave past. And that is what I have also been writing about, trying to construct a poem about two graveyards. One the Lynch graveyard with white and some slave ancestors, the other graveyard twenty-eight graves, unmarked, all slaves. At least one of my ancestors is probably there. So, the South, the experience in Virginia has been very powerful in that way because these are things that have always lingered with me, this investigation into my past. That the three of you have been interested in what I have to say was good. I have noticed that people readily speak about Thomas Jefferson and other slave-related issues, but some people are not interested in what I have to say about my own past here. That is not rare. That has happened throughout my life when I speak to people who are not of African ancestry. A lot of times they will ask a little, but they don’t want to know too much. I am thinking about how that will affect the poem in some way.
MS: Well like I’ve been telling Niki, I have been applying to come here for years. So, I feel like I have been preparing for years to come here. I really feel like this experience, and the Cave Canem experiences as well, was this fairly serendipitous experience. For me, Cave Canem is like grad school, and VCCA feels like the adult world. I feel very adult here and that I am taking a necessary pause from my everyday life and that my time here is really really precious. I feel like I am learning a lot from being amongst visual artist and composers who are also taking these pauses in their lives. I did not necessarily feel this way at Cave Canem. I felt that we were all reworking the grad school experience. It feels like Cave Canem does the prep work and VCCA feels like application. I came here with a project in mind. I did not necessarily come here to generate new poems, but I have generated new poems. I am feeling okay about that. However, I did come here to revise and revisit work. In great part, I would not say that because I am surrounded by Cave Canem poets I can do work here, but because I am surrounded by artists who are thinking theoretically I can do work here. So that has been very precious for me.
NH: Well, when I read the other night at the poetry reading, I decided to fall back on some older work instead of the newer poems I’m working on now, which are very much different in tone from The Language of Shedding Skin poems. And I have to say, there was definitely a moment of hesitation when I had read “50 Bullets, One Dead, and Many Questions” to a room full of white people. The poem’s first line reads Teach that the alphabet begins with n. The letter n stands for the word nigger, and is the metaphor for black men--Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Rodney King, and the list goes on--who continue to be victimized because they are black men. The speaker of the poem asks the reader or listener to spell out the word nigger. I find it difficult to not be self-conscious about race when reading it. But why should I? Perhaps this is what race does. It makes you hyper-aware of its history, even when delivering a poem. I do know that had I been at a Cave Canem retreat, reading the same poem, there would not have been the same self- consciousness.
RH: I feel like reading poetry out loud is a good way to not only see if the poem is resonating with an attentive audience but to step outside of your own comfort zone. I mean, ultimately, each one of us wants to publish our work for the public to review, and you have to let it go. I understand the anxiety, but at the same time I think reading in spaces such as VCCA creates a great opportunity to see how your work is being received through a multispectral lens. However, I will grant that this can be a scary proposition for a writer of color.
NH: However, to respond to that, I would say the retreat experience of Cave Canem has been the most strenuous in terms of craft on the poem. I did not get that type of attention to detail when I was in the MFA program that I paid several thousand dollars to attend. It wasn’t about the craft or the quality of work. It was the racial barrier that is either there or not there or whether the mostly white audience feels like they have an entranceway into the poem.
CL: One of the experiences that I had here that I didn’t have at Cave Canem is nature and how it is so close to us at VCCA. Metta and others have truly been interested in the cows, the horse, the birds…
NH: And I’m not (laughter)…
CL: As much I have not engaged in nature, I have been very aware of it from the outside. I have always felt that, being an urban person from Baltimore and New York, one of the loses in my life is that I don’t know the woods. I don’t know nature. I can’t name any of these trees here at VCCA. In Cave Canem the environment was hardly ever discussed among people I talked to. This is more than a campus, it has a history. VCCA used to be a plantation and yet now people are walking on the grounds enjoying a variety of experiences at no hurried pace. This is one of the reasons that I think it is so mellow. Cave Canem had a lot of edgy time for me. I have not felt edgy here at all. Part of it is that I am situated in a beautiful green setting and that there are stringent deadlines at Cave Canem everyday.
NH: Charles, can you define what you mean by edgy?
CL: Tensions, concerns about people’s interpersonal reactions to me, worried about time, getting the poem done. We are in the midst of a beautiful environment here. The fact that I have been in a beautiful natural environment with the pacing slowed down has affected me positively.
MS: I feel that too. I also feel like there is this beautiful campus at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg that nobody talks about. Part of the difference here is that we are not in class. There is something very collegiate about the Cave Canem setting. And that doesn’t exist at VCCA. We are all independent. We are exploring in our own ways. I feel like a lot of the composers and painters here are invested in nature and history and are curious about the natural world in a not so superficial surface way. People keep talking to me about the birds. I have this passing interest in the natural world. I feel like people here really connect nature to their current art.
RH: Yes, I feel like as poets we have to confront the natural world. I am amazed at the butterflies and dragonflies that are here. Now I want them fluttering in my poems. These are the things I have not written about in my work in any great detail. Personally, I have always tried to investigate nature in relationship to the urban experience in cities and places I have been. For example: a dandelion pushing through cracked concrete, or two sparrows careening through an alleyway into rush hour traffic, I have always worked hard to find that kind of nature versus this other nature that is not influence by the urban, which is strange since I am originally from Alabama and grew up with pine trees and red clay. Now that I have had time to focus I am interested in how the two of those are going to converge to create this third concept of nature, or this other dimension of the natural world even within the setting that I am writing about.
NH: I guess I look at things ancestrally. This was a former plantation. I’m looking at the guys going around on lawn mowers and I’m thinking about how this place must have been several hundred years ago. I’m thinking how sacred the land is with that history. In a way, the people that were enslaved on this land have given me the opportunity to be here today. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to change the subject for a minute, and go back to something Charles and Metta said. I believe it’s worth noting that the aims of Cave Canem and VCCA are totally different. One is a workshop setting that allows the poet to generate new work. Here, at VCCA, the artist is independent. There is no daily workshop, no 9 or 10 AM deadline to get a new poem in. Each structure has its place and can work depending or where a person is in their artistic development.
CL: I think many of the people here at VCCA want to really know us and understand who we are and how we think as writers. Many already, of course, have a great variety of diverse ethnicity in their families, let alone their friendships. Having been in the Cave Canem residency experience before, this situation feels more welcoming, especially by the young people I have encountered. You know, I am sixty-six and felt like at times some of the younger Cave Canem people didn’t seem to be interested in me and what I was doing. That can be estranging. At VCCA being with people of a variety of ages can be welcoming. Also, I have to be candid and say this experience offered me the opportunity to find out a little more about each of you. We talked pretty openly about our past and some of the things that have brought us to this point in our writing. I don’t know how that gave me a certain amount of courage and confidence, but it did.
RH: I think this seems to be the perfect moment to segue into a conversation I wanted to have with you three in terms of a movement. And Charles I wanted to ask you this question first simply because of your vast experiences and having been a part of the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s in some kind of way. I was talking to the poet Kwame Dawes while in South Carolina, and he is adamant that something is going on, maybe not a renaissance, but there is a cultural movement happening very different from the Harlem Renaissance or the Black Arts Movement. I think most of the current explosion in Black literature has to do with regionality, location and place. In the twenty-first century, people of African descent living in America who are writing seem to have a more transnational and transhemispheric outlook on the human condition. If you had to say something is happening, then what is that “something”?
CL: One thing I’ve noticed that’s different about your generation and the generation of the late sixties and early seventies is you are not particularly concerned about proving yourselves. Or as being equal or equivalent to other cultural groups. You are there. You can critique one another much more comfortably than was done in the 60s and 70s. During this time in workshops that I was attending in New York some participants could be downright nasty. People were dismissive and said things like, “You need to go back and redo that shit.” I happened to know somebody who said that. Now that may happen now too, but so many of you have had a better education, and you are much more aware of international literature, and you are invested in gender issues, which were hardly discussed at all back then by men I knew. So, I think the dispersion of energy that’s a part of being a writer, being a sensitive person, being intelligent, being a committed black person helps this generation of writers. Now it’s not just about race. Sometimes “Black” was about all we could talk about forty years or so ago. If you look at some of the anthologies and the small magazines, they had to have Black in the title. I also certainly understood why is it was done and appreciated the self-pride; however, even back then I was very aware of the fact that this was not going to be enough. The emphasis on color alone was not going to be sufficient to move us along and advance us. I think that this is one of the main reasons that the Black Arts Movements and other organizations did not progress like they should have.
NH: Black writers, and writers in general, have the opportunity to connect with each other in ways that were unavailable before. There is Facebook and Twitter, and endless opportunities to participate in a range of events. So it’s fair to say that we as black writers feel less isolated than previous generations. In terms of the writing, and a movement, I think black experimental poets are becoming more mainstream. I’m thinking of poets like Harryette Mullen or Dawn Lundy Martin. And while some folks--we know who they are--are still arguing over who writes what and why, most of us simply want to put pen to paper, and to define for ourselves what it means to be black and to be a poet.
RH: Just like when we try to define blackness and we end up chasing our tails. There is no concrete definition. The chasing of the tail becomes a reoccurring motif.
NH: There will always be black writers who do not want to be seen as a black writer, which is fine. There are going to be others, like myself, who are proud to have that adjective, and then there's whatever rests in between.
MS: I don't know, I'm all about Post-Black. I've been trying to work it out for about 10 years. I think it's a really provocative term. But in terms of doing it this way that says we don't have to put Black in front of everything to define the poetics, which I think, is interesting and provocative. For me it helps me start to see things on a linguistic level and in terms of a syntax. An architecture and landscape of language and what the page can do. I like the Post-. I think the Post- is about change. And about progression and about innovation and evolving in a way that having black as an adjective trapped a lot of what the aesthetic could do in terms of being accepted by any kind of poetry establishment. It's raw. I'm doing that.
CL: Can I ask you something, Randall? You've asked us about how we perceive these things. How do you perceive what Metta and Niki have been talking about?
RH: I operate as a black writer. I grew up in a very specific time in the 70's right after the Civil Rights movement, right after the bombing of 16th Baptist church, and the fire hoses. I grew up eight blocks from that madness in Birmingham, AL. I was two years old when the blast shook my baby bed. I went to all-Black schools from kindergarten to high school. So my definition of blackness may differ from someone else who defines themselves as black due to location and other external factors. With that said, I've always been interested in how do we look at Blackness as a characteristic of poetics. How do we define the rearranging of syntax, or the use of metaphor in very interesting and specific ways? African Americans come from a lineage of people that have always sought to rearrange their narrative. Why can't we, when we teach poetry, say well okay that poem is very characteristic of an African-American aesthetics or mode of operation because it pushes against the dominant narrative and exhibits and oppositional poetics? Why can't white poets or critics or literary theorists view poetry as having characteristic of Blackness. There is no problem with naming Persian poetry or Chinese poetry but mention Black and you got Holy Hell on your hands. I'm very torn by that.
NH: My experience was different. I'm not faulting my mother for what she did. She reared my sister and I to be white little girls, to assimilate. We were expected to articulate ourselves in a very “Anglo” way, to attend exclusive schools, and to live in white, middle-class neighborhoods in order to be successful. It wasn't until I moved to the Southwest that I really woke up and started paying attention to blatant discrimination. I would see trucks in the street with confederate flags attached. In my undergraduate program, my professor actually told me that black poets had no interest in craft. This was in the year 2000. So I became angry. These things are still happening today. This is why I have a problem with the notion of Post-Black. We are not post anything.
MS: But what if it's Post-1960's blackness where we were defining a kind of blackness for 30 years.
NH: There are some people who are 1960s blackness. There are some who believe in Post- Black. And there are some people whose views rest in between. Why can't we make room for everybody? To say we are Post-Black is proscriptive.
MS: I think to say that Post-Black is prescribing something without defining specifically what it is defining creates a kind of issue which then creates this space where black does not prescribe something as well. I mean they both suggest something.
NH: Since you think we are Post-Black, how are you defining black?
MS: I didn't say I think we're Post-Black; this is something I've been trying to figure out for quite a number of years so I am quite invested and interested in this thing called Post-Black. I don't think that we're there and I also don't think that there is a We. I assume that my experience is very difference from Charles and his from yours. I know how I grew up. I know what that means in terms of how I articulate my present position. I can say, presently, I look for interstitial spaces in poetics and trying to figure out this kind of language that is connected to the metaphor and the simile. Is that just black? Because it is also southern. It is very southern to speak through metaphor. I'm trying to figure out those kinds of things. My own poetics is not steeped in looking at me as this black figure, but in seeking out ways to investigate and invent a landscape that is much more profound than my black body, because my lived reality is more profound than my lived body. That, for me, becomes a way to think about Post-Black: the ways in which my experiences, the way that I talk and think, are very much like (visual artist, who was also at VCCA during this time) Jenny Lynn (McNutt)’s, but I grew up in a Nation of Muslim family. I grew up in a family whose identities were completely black. But Jenny Lynn and I are like psychic twins because we grew up in a very particular south. We speak the same language. Perhaps it’s the language of two artists, who knows. But, that, for me, becomes this space where I am much more curious about investigating connections of landscape; the way that language travels in spaces. It doesn't always rest in black.
RH: I think we all can work in the common good. The most important aspect is to do the investigation. What you're talking about, Post-Black, is utopia or a meta-society as Amiri Baraka would call it.
NH: Here we are, the four of us, and there is a We and there isn't a We. The connection is Cave Canem, which is a connection made because we are poets and because we are black.
RH: We can kind of end on this question. In the end who are we writing for? I love Martin Espada's quote "I write for those who cannot write." It always resonates with me as someone who sort of lives beneath the narrative of the dominant structure of life. I always want to tell these stories. Metta and I were talking about dudes I know named Pocket Knife, Blade, Pappy, but where are they? Aren't they part of the American landscape? They're human and American and they're in our landscape and our time. But who will expose their human condition? We need to be able to connect to those people who come to the poetry reading for the first time and say “I loved your poetry—I felt it.” In my opinion, that's who I'm writing for. I'm also writing for the people who are working hard to exclude people of color in some kind of way from the table of contents. I am having a dialogue with them as well.
MS: I feel like I'm writing for people who are a little afraid to ask particular questions. People who are afraid to respond to particular questions. I'm writing for people who interrogate. And people who disrupt and restructure. And for people who don't do those things and don't know that it's okay for them to step outside of a certain space and reimagine and reinvestigate that space. And I'm writing for myself. When I first started writing I really wanted to write something that my family could love. My dad really likes one poet. He had some lines inscribed on pens and had a thousand copies of this one pin made. "I am the master of my fate, captain of my soul, by God's grace!" So I grew up thinking that's all that poetry could do. Just survive in that pen space. And so I wanted to write things that my family could read and appreciate and also be a little terrified about. And to ask themselves why they were terrified by language, especially language that exists in such a small space. I don't feel like I'm doing that anymore. I feel like I've done that. And that now it's time for me to write for myself and to trust that there are others out there like me.
NH: The poet Jarvis DeBerry said something like I don't want to write a poem that my grandmother can't understand and that will always sit with me. The speech I heard growing up was my first experience of poetry. It was the vernacular of lower working-class black folks, with little education, living in the Midwest. It's come through, I hope, in The Language of Shedding Skin. I write, too, for all women who have been oppressed because this is very important to me. Silence among women has been such an inherited tradition and I want to break that chain.
CL: I can't say that I have a profound sense of audience, because one of the things that has always compelled me to want to write is to just involve whatever diction I am familiar with. So even now I may comingle very esoteric, even academic, diction with slang or with unlettered folk speech. I always have been interested in voices. I heard Randall's reading and the word “cerulean” popped up. That's not a word in my vocabulary. I know it has something to do with blue. But I'm brisk walking and composing something and suddenly “cerulean” fell into the poem. That's often how I work. I listen carefully to what other people say and read and I take a word or phrase and that compels something. And I don't know where that will go.
NH: We are influenced by so many things, but you always have your first love, so to speak. Even when I find myself in opposition to, or estranged from--which happens quite a lot--I have a love for my community that goes deep. If I can live up to the task, given by those who came before, then I will have done my job.