dear girl: a reckoning (Gold Line Press, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
dear girl: a reckoning is about the girl who would become Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet… it’s about haunting, how I imagine the girl must have been haunted by middle passage, my experience being haunted by her, sea sick in bed, the resonance of ghosts, and crossings, what a body holds and (re)members. It is about reimagining certain miracles.
The miracle for instance, of a seven-year-old girl who survived a journey one out of every four slaves onboard did not.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The first poem I wrote, and the one that set me off on this journey, was “mercy visits the schooner phillis.” I’d just reread “On Being Brought From Africa to America” for the ___ time, and always, always the line twas mercy brought me from my pagan land… it’s always been so troubling to me. I had no choice to refuse it, question it. What if this pagan land was the slave ship, this floating wooden world, with its own rules and ways, and if so what is mercy, who is mercy. I thought a lot about folktales and myths of black folk flying home, walking into the sea, becoming mermaids… and African cosmologies, particularly Yoruba and the orisha Yemoja, mother of fishes, of oceans of children and mothers, fierce protector. This was mercy to me. And the possibility of these things thrills me still.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
This chapbook came from unexpected places. I’m currently working on my PhD in Black Studies, but all of my other works, interests, studies have been primarily in English and poetry. Honestly, I was having trouble with traditional academic jargon, and would substitute lines of poetry whenever I was stuck on my “epistemological explorations” and “methodological approach.” I was afraid of it, afraid I would somehow lose myself. So I took a poetry class (about obsessions, no doubt), and simultaneously a class about history and memory; Phillis was my project for both. Between the readings and exercises in both classes, something opened up for me, led me to new ways of understanding. And so, dear girl comes from that, two seemingly different classes and angles that helped me with this reckoning.
Prompts…I think one that I really appreciated involved ekphrasis. I hadn’t tried much ekphrastic poetry, and for this project, had to think deeply about what art, what visual I could write from. I chose a diagram from the British slave ship, The Brookes. And from there, many drafts later came to “cross-section of the schooner phillis.”
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The designer (bless her) Cindi Kusuda and I spoke a lot about what this work felt like for me, what both of our visions were. We talked on the phone when we could and went back and forth in a ridiculously long string of emails to bring this cover to life. It was important to feel underwater, to see what would not sink, and to want to touch it. Does that make sense? That said, Cindi worked hard to produce something that felt good to us both. And I was right there, asking lots of questions, offering suggestions. I’m grateful for her work and patience!
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
dear girl was immediate for me. I’d been writing snatches of letters to the girl who would become Phillis for a while, and the words dear girl were always there, whether in greeting or comfort. Reckoning too, seemed natural, because that’s what this is. A working through, a coming to… The arrangement was interesting because essentially there are named poems smashed against these untitled blocks of prosy-ness. I suppose in some ways I wanted the pieces to ebb and flow, to crash against each other, to speak to Phillis and for those whose names we do not know.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my dissertation… so much that could be said in that ellipsis. My work is on haunting and black feminist elegy, and yeah, Phillis is still there, not in the same way as this chapbook, but it’s impossible to think of black women and elegy without her. I’m also working on editing a larger manuscript of poetry and praying it will be received warmly.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?
Trust what you feel, and write it down. Let your friends talk you into submitting your work, talk yourself into it. But believe in the power of your voice.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least, your clothing, to take with you at all times?
Ok, I actually have a line from Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” as well as Gwendolyn Brooks’ “we real cool”, around my bicep and lining my rib. I’d gladly put more Clifton. And have plans to get a line from Phillis as well. I’ve been debating which line, but recently it’s become quite clear. Other poets I would gladly ink myself with:
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
+ Phillis, Brooks, Clifton, that’s ten!
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
Charles Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy, Anne Carson’s Nox, Marcus Reddiker’s The Slaveship, Vincent Carretta’s Phillis Wheatley: Genius in Bondage, Ngugi waThiong’o’s Something Torn and New, Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters, June Jordan’s “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America, or Something Like a Sonnet For Phillis Wheatley.”
Did you set out with the intention of writing a chapbook? Does your chapbook follow a clear arc?
I didn’t set out to write a chapbook, but I’m so glad it happened. I think there’s a clear arc, but I also think maybe I’m not quite finished. There’s so much more I want to work through, so maybe dear girl is just the beginning of the stories I’m exploring.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The last poem I wrote for dear girl: a reckoning was “sonnet/ conjure: tongue untie.” Perhaps I’m responding to two questions at once, but I think this is also the misfit poem for me. As necessary as it feels, it also feels like it sticks out a little. I wanted to offer the girl something for all that I was asking… rosemary for memory, molasses for sweetness…and as much as I am aiming to conjure her voice, asking her to return and remember, but I’m also lamenting for all that could not be said. In many ways it felt like this chapbook couldn’t be complete until an offering was made, until I showed gratitude and honor.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
Playing with form is something that I really enjoy. But I’ve stopped sticking to the rules so heavy-handedly; I think sometimes forms (sonnets, sestinas, interviews etc) can push you to think in new ways, but you don’t want them to lock you in. Maybe the form works as a prompt, and then you let it go. So I’m still picking that up and turning it over and over
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
some mamas are fishes
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
Lately headlines, news reports, transcripts. I also like reading folktales and mythology and have an etymology dictionary that I’m all the way into.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
I hope my audience is made of folks who understand the personal is political is spiritual is poetical, and how powerful that is. And if this is not yet my audience, I hope that I can open folks to this. I imagine I can.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook? (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
Folks who have heard of Phillis but aren’t too sure of her, folks who are troubled by Phillis, who want more for her, who owe her their pens and lives. Let’s be honest, I want some of everyone to read dear girl: a reckoning.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I’m thinking Toni Morrison here, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Originally from St.Louis, drea brown is currently a PhD candidate in African and African Diaspora Studies at UT Austin. Her work has appeared most recently in Stand Our Ground: Poems for Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander and Southern Indiana Review. drea’s chapbook dear girl: a reckoning is also the winner of the 2014 Gold Line Press poetry chapbook competition, judged by Douglas Kearney.