Cynthia Manick: Lately when I talk to my friends of color, my first question is are you okay? In this age of the 45th president, immigration, black bodies vacillating between blame and magic, and surprise Beyonce albums, the well becomes shaky or resolute. So how is your well? And when No, Dear posted about a STATES issue, what first came to mind?
Safia Jama: The breadth and depth of your question, Cynthia, sends me hurtling into possibly another way of thinking about the present. Thank you for that. I would say my well is well enough, yet it is a work in progress. Last spring, I sprung for a copy of the Paris Review and read a poem by Brenda Shaughnessy called “Wellness Rituals.” The speaker goes through many intricate rituals of cleaning her “well” and then ends with the pivot: the well was always clean. I clean it anyhow. I like that metaphor of the well because even those of us who are doing well still must do a lot of work to arrive at that wellness. For me, poetry is a part of that maintenance. I haven’t addressed all of your questions just yet, but first let me ask you--how’s your well?
CM: I like the idea of the well being a work in progress because no well remains constant; it can bubble, it can be clear, it can be filled with various things to make it rise, and it can empty. The idea behind Brenda Shaughnessy’s poem feels apt because lately I’ve been more focused on wellness and state of mind. So to answer your question, my well levels fluctuate and I’m being mindful of its maintenance by reading more, doing things I like to do, having conversations with friends, listening to Beychella on repeat, and by not looking so far ahead, that I miss out on right now. When No, Dear STATES call came in, I didn’t think of geography; I immediately went to state of mind and the state of the world.
SJ: I appreciate your vivid images of the well -- that can be with “bubbles” and “be clear” -- and how your words evoke how clarity of language can be a well to drink from. This conversation makes me want to visit an actual well. For now, I gravitate towards public water fountains with clear, cold water which is something of a mythical rarity nowadays in the age of bottled water. I try to notice when drinking fountains disappear from public places.
Once or twice, I’ve written a poem where the speaker is inside a well. I thought perhaps the speaker had been trapped there, but now I wonder, was she doing work down there?
I wanted to also tell you that last night I went out to a poetry and fiction reading at KGB. I got to talking with some writer pals I hadn’t seen a while, having conversations. When I got home, I read your last entry and I got to thinking about STATES. Here’s what I typed with my night mind, which was thinking on a different plane than my current Monday morning mind.. I’d like to share my reflections with you, as I wrote them:
I think we need good SPACES to experience true STATES. I feel that false states abound these days. We are sold—and are led by the nose to manufacture—false states in the form of narrative nibbles that are salable and immediately profitable. In the past, people were less hip to the power of narratives. I mean, a cogent narrative can mean you get the job or the peace of mind to go out and get the groceries and whatnot. For me, No, Dear is that rare space that has a floor and good air flow and thus, we poets can play within that space and arrive at this or that True State. It’s quite late as I’m writing this, Cynthia, yet the fire has been lit in the hearth and here we are, talking as pen pals. I love it.
CM: I love a good journal entry! One of my favorite descriptions of food comes from my mother. She was raised on a small farm in South Carolina and her favorite dessert as a child was ripe mushed strawberries, cane sugar, and cold well water mixed in a bowl. There’s something idyllic and free in that description where the simplicity and space feels like a still river. And aren’t we all searching for that? Pockets of space for our states of mind, where we can be ourselves; go where the creative mind takes us.
I agree that bite-size chunks of narrative, especially false states, are everywhere. In the age of social media everything is shared but rarely verified. But I think some artists have the keen ability to recognize the falsities and are able to pull away the chaff in their work. No, Dear taps into that authenticity by exploring one word and all it contains.
Thinking about the correlation between SPACES and STATES, I wonder about who has access to good SPACES? Is it out there for everyone to grab? Do we have to seek it out? Do we create or carve out our own? There’s a poem that I have on the back burner about soul sanctuaries. They would be like underground speakeasies and people of color would go to recharge their inner batteries when the world got too crazy. The place would play Motown and Prince, have free massages, and workshops on astrology and credit scores (laughing). Is there a version of that Utopia already out there?
SJ: I like where you’re going with this.. Sometimes, when I do happen upon an apparent utopian scene--perhaps a beautiful park, or a cute little cafe--I ask myself, who is missing? Who has been quietly excluded? Even if there’s racial diversity, is there class diversity? What about a diversity of ages? And where are the indigenous people who were here first?
And your idea of speakeasy-as-soul-sanctuary is so appealing. Imagining new spaces is powerful. I think your Soul Sister Revue poetry series is doing that important work. I think women of color, in particular, are very much in need of spaces and places to recharge and feel safe enough to be vulnerable and dream-up brilliant schemes.
For me, poetry is a space to mess with boundaries that are in place out there in the world. I think that Black women, regardless of their sexual orientation, are very queer. We are often are the ones who break new ground and open up spaces for others, even if only through our persistent survival which serves to resist the status quo. I’m thinking of Therese Okoumou climbing the Statue of Liberty in protest. I’m also thinking about your poem in No, Dear 21 that imagines a mirror in the very title: “I want to see a black woman love on television like it’s normal.” Because we can’t always be superheros (although we are often that).
CM: I like that intentional interrogation of surroundings. When in different spaces or in having important conversations, asking yourself who is missing? Who doesn’t have a seat at this table? I went to a talk by Luvii Ajayi where she described a corporate exercise where everyone stood together. But as she yelled out a status people would either move forward or backward i.e. you come from a two parent household, you graduated from college, you identify yourself as X minority. She described how managers began to look at workers and vice-versa and her hope that their state of minds would realize that as I move forward, I won’t leave you behind.
I agree that Black women often take on the world, we be superhero’s, fashionista’s, and trailblazers. I admire that we can be all of these things, but at times I resent that we need to be all of those things. It speaks to our willingness to be smart or quiet when others are simply loud. I’m thinking of the protest in Baton Rouge and the image of Leshia Evans in a flowing dress standing still in front of policemen in riot gear. That idea of quiet rebellion made me think of your poem Intimacy, Sky, and Sea, and how large ideas like the earth and moon feel physically attainable. Especially the lines “To sink that deep is to travel into the past/ To get this close is to step into old shoes.” There’s an implied knowledge or wisdom here; of knowing the risks and moving forward anyway. My mind just flashed to Lyrae Van Clief’s postcard exercise: if this poem were to be placed on a standard postcard, where does the heart lie? And what visual image would you put on the other side?
SJ: My poem’s heart is that pair of “old shoes” floating somewhere in the Milky Way, occasionally getting pelted with a shower of hail or Cocoa Puffs. Or perhaps the heart was forged in the lines: “Hello, Earth / Beautiful soul mate, your belly full of war.” And if this poem were a postcard, I imagine the image is that of an old-fashioned valentine, centuries old, but that really a child made.
I was thinking about how my poem ends with an imagined embrace, somewhere in the future. And then I noticed how your poem similarly ends with a gesture at the future, in the way your speaker acknowledges that human beings are works in progress: “She’s trying to fit all parts of / herself -- grandfather’s wet sea pearls, her mother’s windowsill aloe, knowledge / that dark-colored feathers are strong and fray less.” I really appreciate how your poem’s closing lines integrate all the intricacies of this Black woman together while allowing her to be dynamic, and changeable. It’s marvelous.
CM: Thanks. I think a lot of poets are interrogating time; sometimes it’s by looking back, looking outward to the stars, or by imagining a different future. Is this a result of the turbulent times? Or is it just the rebel in all of us? I’m not sure. When I wrote that poem I was thinking of stereotypes of black women on television. I thought “you know some black women like to take walks” but we never see that. But I also think that the act of reimagining is constantly changing. Poets unfold and reload “radical” ideas everytime we create and that’s something that will always be a part of our process.
SJ: See, that’s why poetry gives me hope. Here’s to many more radical reimaginings for a sustainable future.