This Good Magic: A Conversation Between Poets Ashanti Anderson and I. S. Jones




I. S. JONES is a queer American/Nigerian poet, essayist and former music journalist. Her chapbook Spells of My Name is forthcoming with Newfound in 2021. In Spells of My Name, we come to find the musings of one whose path has already been laid out, who speaks to the unflinching power of naming, the act of reclamation to make peace with the past and open the window, allowing a bright future in. The poems here are confessional, just as they’re urgent and timely, experimental, and beautifully crafted, each fluid with grace, perhaps a pointer to the long and illustrious road ahead for this poet.

Ashanti Anderson is a Black Queer Disabled poet, playwright, and screenwriter whose debut short poetry collection, Black Under, was selected for publication as the winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition hosted by Black Lawrence Press. Black Under layers outward perception with internal truth to offer an almost-telescopic examination of the redundancies — and incongruences — of marginalization and hypervisibility. Torquing the contradictions of oppression, Anderson gives her poems’ speakers the breathing room to discover their own agency, fostering the realization that joy is not an aspiration but a birthright. Learn more at www.ashanticreates.com.

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I. S. JONES: My teacher Jericho Brown once said something about how all poems exist to either disrupt or maintain the status quo, all poems might be running away from or toward something. And I think in a lot of ways my chapbook is a lot about reclaiming — about reclaiming my name, about reclaiming a lineage, about survival after abuse, what survival looks like on the other side of that. It’s about confronting history and its often fraught and violent past, as well as what I understand about a violent history with men, not only my father but also men I’ve encountered in my life and men who exist in my family line and how I’ve learned to make peace with all that. And also using language to navigate and negotiate those spaces.

ASHANTI ANDERSON: Our chapbooks are in conversation, in terms of reclamation. Personally, I’m trying to reclaim my writing career. I’m grappling a lot with what it means professionally to write and to be subject to certain expectations about what I’m supposed to write as a Black writer or a Queer writer or a Disabled writer and just saying, “I’m going to write on my own terms.” I’ll be transparent: a worry of mine is that folks don’t recognize the intention of reclamation behind the work.

I. S.: The poet Taylor Byas has talked about this sort of anxiety, how we have to constantly write about Blackness to kind of prove our Blackness so to speak, which seems to inadvertently be a by-product of racism. If we’re constantly having to prove our humanity, we never actualize as people.

The expectation that because we’re Black we have to write about these things, I find deeply exhausting. I just want, at least in my work, to be given the space to explore things as I so choose. I will move through the world with a Black lens, but sometimes I just want to write about standing in a meadow and being grateful for the air in my lungs …

ASHANTI: And that poem is the poem. Between social media and just talking to other poets, so much of writing sounds like struggle. But I literally sit at my computer, cackling. I’m having a great time, and that’s what guides me; if I don’t have that energy, then I don’t need to be writing it.

I. S.: My [upcoming] full-length is pinned to the wall. When I first pinned this up, it took me two hours, and I remember being so excited. I handwrite most of my first drafts and I need physical paper to touch and to play with so the book feels real. And when I was pinning this to the wall, I needed to see how big the book was, and I was like, Wow, this book is big. This is good. I have been writing a literal breathing thing.

I mostly write poems at night, and I remember being up at 2:00 a.m. writing a new poem and I thought to myself, “This is a part of the work that I love the most, when it’s dark and it’s quiet and nobody cares what I’m doing and I’m playing and I’m exploring and I’m reading poems and I’m dreaming about what I want them to look like.” I thought to myself, “I don’t ever want this good magic to end.” I hope that when both our full-lengths come out we are able to preserve that good magic for ourselves.

ASHANTI: Toni Cade Bambara said, “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” Writing is not supposed to be a struggle for me. If I’m “supposed” to be doing anything, first of all, why not make it fun? Why not make it a party, something that invites others to participate?

I. S.: As Black artists, I don’t think we talk often enough about pleasure for the creator of the work. I definitely have been guilty of contributing to this pervasive notion that artmaking has to come from pain and trauma as opposed to coming from pleasure and joy and wanting to share a vision that you have with other people. I think, if there is trauma, there’s often this belief that an artist has to constantly traumatize or retraumatize themselves to create art, which is really, really scary and dangerous thinking. No one should ever do that to themselves to create art nor should that be the basis of what we define as good or genuine artmaking.

ASHANTI: I definitely also had that impression at first. I think it came from what I perceived as people’s response to my work. It just seemed so much easier to get a response out of people based on my suffering than my joy. Now I’ve realized, that’s the problem! The problem is that it’s more difficult for someone to be moved by my joy, which is in itself pretty radical and impressive. The fact that joy doesn’t move a person as much as seeing us dead is their problem.

With Spells of My Name, when did you become aware that you were writing into a collection?

I. S.: I never said, “I’m going to write a chapbook.” I was living in a space that was relatively unsafe, both physically and emotionally. In a lot of ways, the chapbook was a distraction from that, something to keep me focused. I knew the chapbook was going to be centered around self-portraits, and I knew it was going to be about snapshots of my parents’ life, from Nigeria coming to America. The other stuff I hadn’t yet figured out.

Before the chapbook got picked up, I wrote what was at the time the last poem, “The Therapist Asks, Is the Hunter in Your Dreams Your Father?” not realizing that, without meaning to, I kept writing about this deer and this hunter that keep moving throughout the poems. Then it occurred to me, that’s the larger framework. The self-portraits and the interview cycle are important aspects, but at the heart of the collection there’s a dramatic mask where I’m this black fawn that keeps moving through the chapbook and my father is the hunter. I kept, without meaning to, coming back to that dichotomy because I could negotiate my fraught relationship with my father and that violence is something I had to work through to make it to the other side of the chapbook. Once I knew that, I was able to revise the book with that movement in mind and the ending became the ending the chapbook really deserved.

I’m always interested in hearing someone’s [chapbook] origin stories.

ASHANTI: Black Under started as my final thesis for my MFA so it was basically just a bunch of poems that I had written over the course of two years. Then for a year after getting the MFA, I didn’t write anything and I didn’t even try to get the book published because I felt a lot of the poems were reactionary and responsive to violence and I wasn’t comfortable with that being the first collection I put out into the world. So I had to sit with the collection and find the poems that were saying the things that I wanted to say and ones that were written in moments of power and not in moments of weakness. The collection I was left with was chapbook size. Folks who have read both versions agree that the chapbook is definitely way more concise for one, but also more powerful in that it’s very, very clear in its message, no longer being weighed down by other things that I was feeling at the time. My politics have changed a lot too, and I’m glad to have a book that reflects what I want my career to look like.

I. S.: I’m of the opinion that a good manuscript demands growth from its writer, demands some sort of transformation from beginning to end. Otherwise, why did you write it? If the first version of my chapbook got published the way it was, I would pretend that book was not written by me. Rejections are very good teachers, they show you yourself.

ASHANTI: Yeah, once you get past the initial discouragement. You gotta be like, “What am I really supposed to take from this?” It’s definitely helpful, but I’m not going to act like I wasn’t salty at the time (I got rejected).

I. S.: I did get rejected from a bunch of dream presses, too, and at the time I was like, “Hold up, wait a minute, this is bomb, I know it is.”

ASHANTI: But then, you start working on the poems again. And I read a poem I wrote that I already thought was good, then I revise it, and then I’m like, “Oh, now you look good.”

I. S.: Just had to sprinkle a little salt on it.

ASHANTI: Right. Off the elbow!

Do you consider your father’s presence in Spells a muse or an omen?

I. S.: Definitely an omen. Definitely. I knew my dad was going to be mentioned in the chapbook, but I didn’t know at the time he was going to be such a central figure. But my father also is a larger image system for all of the men who appear throughout the chapbook. Much of the chapbook deals with sexual assault and me naming my own sexual assault that happened to me, and me making parallels between my relationship with my father and the violent relationships with men that I’ve survived throughout my life. In a lot of ways, I want to name the violences my father enacted on me, but I don’t want to strip him of his humanity which I think would be a profound disservice to us both.

I think a large part of the reason I don’t have a lot of animosity toward my father is because I try to be sympathetic to all of the things that hurt him and how in a lot of ways he lacks the language to negotiate his wounds and also negotiate his own healing. I want the poems to address that, to make peace with the things I have no control over.

ASHANTI: I wonder, if your father were to read those poems, would he say, “Hmm, you got a point. I didn’t think about it that way.”

I. S.: There’s a poem in my chapbook called “On Transatlantic Shame” about a lot of my father’s pains, essentially the poem condenses 20-plus years of my father’s life immigrating from Nigeria to America and basically everything that happened for him to become an American, and what he lost on the way. It took me a long time to write that poem because my parents would never talk about home. It’s really just too painful for them so I don’t press them the way I used to when I was younger and I didn’t know any better. My worry is that if he ever read it, it might open up another wound for him. A lot of the poem is based on what I know, what I’ve been told throughout my life.

I think the hardest parts of that poem are him, over time, not seeing his mother ever again. As I got older, I began to understand that my father just stopped calling her and stopped talking to her altogether. To this day he still doesn’t know if she’s still alive. I was trying to find a way to talk about that, without necessarily placing blame but getting at the center of what happens to the Immigrant body when it crosses the ocean. What happens when you are so eager and hungry for that American Dream? What do you have to sacrifice to make that dream possible? My father did achieve his version of the American Dream, but I do wonder if the cost was too high. I think, or rather my hope is that the poem highlights and contextualizes what he went through for conditions to eventually become that way.

ASHANTI: How does physical positioning or movement appear in your work? Not just thematically — do you feel like it influences form or your use of language as well?

I. S.: Most of the chapbook takes place in Madison, Wisconsin. I never explicitly say Madison, Wisconsin; I say “a snowy landscape.” Some of it takes place on the West Coast, in California. A little bit of it takes place in Brooklyn, which is also another home for me, and then parts of it are set in Nigeria. Basically, it takes place at home, but home has four different faces. Thinking of how it informs form, I think of the duplex. What I love about the duplex form is that it constantly forces you to turn the line and the line transforms and turns, which I associate with Nigeria just by definition.

A lot of the prose poems I associate both with California and Nigeria for how long they are physically and how wide the geography is, and also because I have a lot to say. Some of the poems remind me of Brooklyn because of the jagged line breaks and spaces which remind me of the geography of Brooklyn. The idea of home is constantly transformed throughout the manuscript. Home is an ever-shifting landscape for me.

ASHANTI: I love that the poems also represent a location. That’s never expressly stated. Was this conscious?

I. S.: It was never really intentional, much like the deer and the hunter that move through the chapbook. Even writing about my father was not a conscious move. In terms of poems that are indicative of their prospective geography, that didn’t become apparent to me until I wrote “On Transatlantic Shame” because the poem is very long and very wide, much like the ocean itself. When I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking that. But what I love about poems, a good poem shows you yourself.

ASHANTI: Can we talk about bodies as a source of knowledge?

I. S.: I’m deeply, deeply invested in queer pleasure. I’m deeply invested in what queer femme pleasure looks like divorced from a cisgender heterosexual gaze, which is something I’m still trying to find my own lexicon for and create my own language around. But, like, I write poems about sex. Poems about enjoying the body without shame or without having to justify it to a mainstream culture that is determined to misunderstand me.

I also talk about my mother’s body. My mother was left for dead during the Civil War, and she has a long scar that goes down the side of her mouth. I write about that scar as a map so to speak for who she was before that moment of trauma and who she became after, how that moment inexplicably changed her relationship to her country of origin, and how I have been affected by that lineage. I write about my grandmother’s body: there’s a poem in which she turns into a horse and she’s galloping through the night and she becomes the night herself. And also my body, I become a black fawn that moves through the chapbook. So there’s a lot of ways in which I talk about the Black femme body, there’s a sort of transformation as means of survival. We have to become these different things in order to survive what chases after us.

Ashanti, in your poems, geography and history are bodies themselves. Also, though I don’t have any connection to the South, I’m deeply fascinated and interested in the South as a place of reclamation, of history, and of tradition as well.

ASHANTI: I definitely do reckon a lot with history, or rather the South’s legacy, in that it really is the history of the United States. I do see a lot of things that aren’t literally bodies as bodies and use those as sources of knowledge because it gives a better understanding, in terms of empathy, to call upon the physicality of even nonhuman things.

I. S.: I also really appreciate the ways in which you document history in your work, especially about persons who have disabilities. I learned from you that Harriet Tubman was Disabled. There’s a very intentional way in which the gatekeepers of history intentionally ignored this discourse around disability and slavery and slavery abolition, so I wanted to talk about how your work both confronts and reclaims those at the forefront of abolition who were Disabled.

ASHANTI: Yes Harriet Tubman, Denmark Vesey, these folks were Disabled and not only did they “also” do amazing things, we must consider the conditions of their disability. Harriet Tubman got hit upside the head and developed epilepsy. A lot of people develop a disability that they aren’t born with and may think of it in terms of loss, but I think Harriet Tubman said, “Nah, now we all finna get free,” and how powerful is that? Another example is Sojourner Truth. She was Disabled and was looking at people like, “I’m doing just as much work as everybody else but y’all ain’t giving me my rights?” Ability or disability literally informs activism. How does the body literally beget other experiences, making way for people to become more radical and powerful?

I. S.: As an able-bodied person, it recontextualizes my understanding of how people with disabilities move through the world and how they have to renegotiate the languages often pressed against their body, often against their will.

There are a lot of ways in which bodies transform in your chapbook. Another parallel between our books is that we both use self-portraits to reshape or shift a narrative that is often fraught with a legacy or a history that came before it.

ASHANTI: Self-portraiture is my way of time traveling. I’m not particularly religious, but I do know quite a bit of the Bible, and one thing that really speaks to me is this idea that there’s nothing new under the sun. I use that as an anchor for my self-portraiture, as a person who does not have documented ties to my ancestry. Literally looking at myself as an extended metaphor in order to consider the ways in which those who came before me lived and how they felt. A lot of my collection is imagining my ancestors and reclaiming that history. I have to use me, I have to use location, in the absence of knowing.

I. S.: That’s another binding thread throughout both of our chapbooks. There are a lot of gaps within our respective histories, and we use poetry as a vehicle to reimagine what we believe or rather what we hope happened in the absence of our knowledge, and to make peace with the fact that we may never know and that is not necessarily a referendum on ourselves but rather the conditions and circumstances of things.

ASHANTI: In the absence of knowledge, you can create a story. And so many times that story has been bullshit. But I’m going to create a story that I like. You’re not going to keep telling me a story that literally diminishes me. That’s the attitude that I started taking to it. I moved out of the mindset of “look at this struggle” to “look at this very complex mess they had to deal with.” And it’s so much more empowering to my life and my writing practice to write stories like that. So I definitely exploit not only those gaps in knowledge but also the contradictions in what history has tried to suggest.

I. S.: There’s always this assumption that when we talk about Black history it always has to be about pain and suffering. But there is also curiosity, there is also joy, there’s also love. I appreciate that we’re making more complicated narratives for what our respective histories look like.

ASHANTI: I think of your poem, “Self-Portrait as Itolia,” the line, “memory & history sit on opposite ends of my dinner table” and it feels like memory is a thing that we have and history is a thing that other folks impart on us. I feel like a lot of my othering as a Black American woman with no known ties to the Continent is like being groomed into the expectation of being othered, that includes by non-Blacks, American Black folks, as well as from folks who identify as African. We get the impression, it’s very forthcoming, that we won’t be accepted.

I. S. I really resent this narrative, which I do think is a by-product of racism, pitting Black Americans against Africans as if Black Americans don’t have the right to have a claim on their respective counties of origin, if they know which country that is. To be clear, I only speak for myself when I say this: I believe that Black Americans should have the right to build a connection to the country they are tied to in terms of lineage. I think, if I’m allowed to, why can’t other Black Americans? I identify as a Black American, I identify as a Western-born African, and I often interchangeably call myself both. I can pinpoint exactly on the map where my lineage comes from, and if I can do that why can’t other Black Americans?

Imagine if we brought together our collective knowledge. Imagine if Africans coming from the Continent came and helped Black Americans find pockets of their lineage, how powerful that would be. Imagine if Black Americans helped Africans who were coming here with their citizenship, helped them get their Social Security card, helped them with housing. That cultural exchange could be so powerful and so healing and so incredible. I wish that my mother had had that kind of system when she first immigrated from Nigeria to Chicago.

I do know that that animosity exists but I think it only exists in part because Black Americans are told to have a resentment toward Africans and Africans are told they have something over Black Americans for no other reason than they have a very specific claim to the continent. I think both of those narratives should be squashed. There’s a lot of healing to be had if we just shared our respective resources. I really hope that someday Black people, collectively, can get to a point where we stop doing the colonizer’s work for them and instead help each other. What would that look like? It would be beautiful and very scary … scary for them, not for us.

ASHANTI: I totally agree and honestly I think that that’s a thing that a lot of people want deep down, to have the ability to come together. I wonder how much of it is just fear of animosity from the other side. If we could all somehow approach one another knowing there’s no animosity, I think that’s something a lot of people would run toward. I think a lot of Black existence is being on the defense and that’s why — circling back to the work — I think it’s so important that we seem to be taking the initiative to not write defensively but to write from a place where we’re taking that step forward. If we can get to a place where collectively we feel comfortable moving forward as opposed to moving defensively, that connection will be something we can see in our lifetime.

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I. S. Jones is an American / Nigerian poet, essayist, and former music journalist. Her honors include fellowships from Callaloo, BOAAT Brooklyn Poets, and elsewhere. Her works have appeared in Guernica, Washington Square Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere. She is one-third of The Luminaries, an online space which provides free poetry programming and reading events. She is the founder and facilitator of The Singing Bullet: A month-long online poetry workshop.

Ashanti Anderson (she/her) is a Black Queer Disabled poet, screenwriter, and playwright. Her debut short poetry collection, Black Under, is the winner of the Spring 2020 Black River Chapbook Competition at Black Lawrence Press. Her poems have appeared in World Literature TodayPOETRY magazine, and elsewhere in print and on the web. Learn more about Ashanti’s previous & latest shenanigans at ashanticreates.com.

 

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