A friendship of nearly twenty years, Erica and Monica were writing on the walls of Erica’s apartment in Washington, DC, roomies at Cave Canem, and now are published authors who continue to believe in the power of poetry to provoke change. Erica’s first book, proxy is forthcoming from Belladonna* Books in 2013, and Monica’s me and Nina was published by Alice James Books in February of this year. Thriving and surviving as queer, black writers, Erica and Monica speak about their people-centered and person-rooted experiences from Uncle Nello’s barbershop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to the mid-90s DC lit scene to the Négritude poets, all which, and more, have made them the poets and brilliant minds they are today.
HER KIND: Erica and Monica, welcome to the Conversation. It’s so great to have your voices here! To get you all started let’s start with a quote from George Eliot: “Life is measured by the rapidity of change, the succession of influences that modify the being.” Has this proven true for you as a writer?
Monica A. Hand: Since the publication of me and Nina, it seems like events and opportunities have come steadily like new snow. But I have not forgotten the persistent effort and the sacrifices I have made to get here. It has not been easy and it has not been particularly quick. This is the winter of my life. Sometimes it has felt like I would never reach this milestone and now here I am. What I am learning is that I still must stay focused and diligent. Yes, I am blessed and many have helped me and continue to help me but it is my labor (risk taking and faith) that keeps me moving forward. When I feel low and challenged by the circumstances of my life, I think of those who have come before me who kept moving forward when faced with hard times, with loss, with health problems or even self-doubt. I think of poets like Lucille Clifton and Audre Lorde who overcame plenty of personal challenges and still wrote the most amazing poems and prose.
But when I think of the succession of influences, my thoughts begin first with my mother who saw the potential in a shy, self-conscious girl. So she encouraged me to speak, to recite, and to write. These are the foundations to communication. Above all, a poem is a form of communication. As a girl, as a young woman, and as an aging woman, this ability to speak poems has sustained me and given me power when I thought I had none, and it has helped me empower others.
Then my thoughts go to my friends like you, Erica. Before I think of the teachers and the famous poets, I think of my friends, people I have met “on the road.” Yes, my mother introduced me to poetry and to poets like Langston Hughes and I found Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez on my own. But it was my poetry friends in workshops and at readings that introduced me to Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, Erica Hunt, Linda Hull, and Kimiko Hahn.
R. Erica Doyle: Monica, I read the above quote and I thought, what the hell? and laughed, because of how slow everything feels. I mean, I’m in my forties and you’re in your fifties and we are now publishing our first books within a year of each other. In fact, you and I had to have a conversation this morning about the shape of this “conversation”—the very nature of our exchanges has never been speedy. Our talk is hours filled with silences and stories, whether it is on the phone or in person. Our friendship is a slow growing tree planted nearly twenty years ago.
It’s weird because I can’t remember how we met—can you? But I do remember you bringing me flowers the first time we hung out in the mid-90s. I thought you were a real grown up—a mom, with a house and really good job. I was a teaching artist, doing slams and open mics, local workshops, and having an exceedingly rich social life in the black dyke community. I remember us having writing circles in my apartment in Columbia Heights in Washington, DC, with other women writers of color, laughing and writing and joking, and you teaching us renga. The DC writing scene was so hot then: It’s Your Mug, Kaffa House, Women in the Life, MotherTongue and others, where we met other writers and shared our work, and DC Writers Corps was helping folks earn a living doing their art with the community.
At one of those gatherings, in early 1997, I shared the email I’d gotten about the second annual Cave Canem retreat and we talked about what kind of space it might be—would it welcome our queerness? Some were skeptical. But we applied and got in and went together on a really crazy bus and train ride where I dragged you through Port Authority on the way to the Metro North and you complained the whole time. We were roomies! Remember how Sonia [Sanchez] was our next-door neighbor that first year? I remember her ironing and telling us to make our beds every day (very much a Virgo), her “Good morning, sistas!” I was so struck by her kindness and generosity, her compassion and humor. Her loving nature means so much to me, still. I remember the first night Elizabeth Alexander speaking so passionately about her friend and mentor Melvin Dixon and knowing that she had our queer backs. And certainly we both made friendships there that we will have all of our lives . . .
Like those linked verses we partied over, this was the time of my life—my twenties—where the parts were starting to come together. The idea of community, experimentation, a certain political urgency, and a kind of outsiderness were all part of it. More than books or school, my influences are people-centered, person-rooted. . .
So much has happened, and here we are, still talking about it all.
MAH: Erica, you still make me laugh. The kind of laugh you can have with someone who is so familiar, someone who you share so many back stories with you don’t need any punch lines. I think we met through DJ Renegade or at one of the Woodshed workshops Brian Gilmore led. I remember Yona Harvey was at those workshops and how I used to call her my grandma because of how wise she was and what a great insightful reader. Her feedback was so tight (and gentle). She would make a small suggestion and your poem was transformed and became better than before; her poetic concision as good as Lucille Clifton’s.
I remember the workshops in your apartment and how we wrote on the walls. You felt like my protector and even though I was bigger and older you wouldn’t let anyone mess with me. You knew I was isolated out there in the suburbs and constantly reached out to me. I loved you then and love you still for your strength and your kindness. And I am so grateful that you told me about Cave Canem. Outside of Its Your Mug, Woodshed, MotherTongue, and your workshop, I was mostly hanging out at the mostly white, mostly male centric The Writers Center in Bethesda and the open mic at Borders Books & Music at the White Flint Mall. This wasn’t all bad: in a workshop with Ann Dar at The Writer’s Center I wrote my first sonnet, “Reflections upon Julie Blackwoman.” Ann Dar published her first book when she was fifty and I remember thinking there was still hope for me. And in a workshop with Anne Becker, I completed my first manuscript, “Mother’s Milk.” I only submitted it to one publisher—a queer press—that told me the book wasn’t queer enough (or that’s at least how I remembered it).
It seems like I have always been bumping into that not black enough, not mainstream enough (aka not white enough), or queer enough. Cave Canem was the one place I felt it didn’t matter: there my work was judged on the merits of the poem not the identity of the speaker in the poem.
That first two years at Cave Canem were magical. The trees could talk and even though we were in the mist of Christian icons, the river called to us and we made that long walk in the dark like our ancestors must have. And I remember that workshop with Elizabeth [Alexander] when she conjured the spirit of Audre Lorde and when Lucille [Clifton], Sister Sonia [Sanchez], and Toi [Derricotte] took to the pulpit and we were like in church. To this day, I remember Toi telling us to confront and embrace our demons. Years later I thought she must have been referring to Lorca’s Duende. That is until I read her new book of poems, The Undertaker’s Daughter, and I realized she meant the darkness we each carried.
Yes, we are still in Babylon and every day something is still trying to kill us. But we survive because of the community that we have built and that we continue to build.
RED: You know, I was reading Honi’s [Honorée Fanonne Jeffers] blog, Phillis Remastered, and thinking about how some people think we are exaggerating or making this up when we say something like “every day something is trying to kill us,” and then Trayvon Martin— a young black man who could be our son, cousin, brother—goes out to buy some Skittles and iced tea, and is attacked and killed, and his murderer doesn’t get arrested because the cops say there isn’t even a case for manslaughter. Lord knows I hope by the time this comes out there will be something different happening there, but the fact remains that he is dead and for nothing more than the crime of being black. There is an amazing quote by a woman who runs a rehabilitation center in the Congo for victims of rape, where she talks about being guilty of but one sin—that of being a woman. And we are certainly seeing these ridiculous pieces of legislation being pushed through once again regulating women’s bodies. Not to mention the wars seemingly without end, as the US seems to contemplate where else it can begin new wars even as we are on the edge of pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014. So I am thinking about survival.
Yes, and I am thinking also about how we thrive. How we use our work and communities to grapple, play, tease out. Having been someone whose life was literally changed by reading Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Jay Wright, Fanny Howe, Claudia Rankine, Carolyn Forché, Walt Whitman, Erica Hunt, Harryette Mullen, Charles Bernstein, Allen Ginsburg, Eileen Myles, and others. . . Oh! So many delicious books— and I say that because I was feasting and hungry—I am not one to disdain the power of literature to change worlds. To create and fortify movements. And to give pleasure, fantasy, succor, escape.
But, you know, I have also been influenced by how writers I admired lived in the world. I love Cornelius Eady’s writing, but I think I learned most by how he existed in the world; same with Martín Espada, Elizabeth Alexander, June Jordan, Chrystos; Dionne Brand. They are/were scholars, activists, upstarts. Parents. Lovers. I remember Cornelius’ wife Sarah [Micklem], a tremendous fiction writer herself, talking about how she went to all his readings in these little dark bars and places for years, and that taught me about persistence and longevity. Elizabeth is a tremendous scholar as well as a loving mother and spouse, and that taught me about balance. I think for a long time I was trying to figure out what this writer life could look like, how I could put together what seemed meaningful to me. In the early 2000’s, I tried the adjunct to permanent faculty track—but it wasn’t me. So I think there is the work, and then there is the life you create through and around the work, and my influences guided me in that process, too.
I’ve always worked outside of the academy—except for a brief moment in the aughts when I took over a semester for Greg Pardlo who was going to MacDowell, I think, and I realized that I preferred working with younger students and in the public sphere. But in this respect, too, I had influences, from Walter Mosley who was an IBM exec before he was a full time novelist; Toni Morrison, who was an editor; and I always remember William Carlos Williams and figure if he could be a poet and a doctor. . .
I joke that I am Caribbean, so of course, I must always have more than one job. And I do
feel like I always have at least two jobs—as a writer and an educator—both of which I love. Sometimes I have more. I am wondering for you—how did you balance work with your kids, your management job, your writing? I’ve jumped around a lot here, but I think my theme is—how do you see yourself putting together surviving and thriving? What influences/influenced you in how to shape your writer’s life?
MAH: Right now, I am thinking it is 3am and even though I have retired from the Postal Service and my children are grown, I am still writing during the witching hours. Growing up, I watched my mother balance single parenthood and work. She kept a super clean house, and cooked most nights. I remember the washing machine in the kitchen—the kind that you had to feed the clothes through the wringer built on the top of the machine. I remember her hanging the clothes on the line to dry and then ironing everything. It seemed like she was always working. She taught me to provide and to keep moving forward even if life was hard. By her example, she taught me resiliency and persistence. She also emphasized the value of getting a “good” education. She didn’t get to go to college because when she was sixteen her mother died and there was no money and she was needed at home. As a result, my mother was determined that my siblings and I went to college. Education was considered a great commodity in our household. It was the way one could realize the American dream. Of course I know now that the American dream is a farce but I still value knowledge. My mother went back to school in her forties to get her teaching credentials and supported my decision to go back in my fifties to get my MFA. So most of my life skills that have helped make my way as a writer, I learned from my mother. The rest I learned working at the Post Office.
At the Post Office, I learned to choose my battles, how to get over disappointment, and how to manage success. I learned the status quo does not like to be challenged and racism, class bias, gender prejudice and homophobia are deeply entrenched in our society. I learned that sometimes life is not fair and that sometimes you will get the crappy assignments and sometimes you will do good work that never gets recognized. I also learned that being a team player and a follower are as important as being a leader. But most importantly, I learned that I couldn’t allow my self-worth to be defined by someone else. This has helped me manage the waiting and the rejection that comes with making your way as a writer.
The poet Ilya Kaminsky says the work we do today builds upon the work that has come before us—sometimes we are aware of our influencers, sometimes we are not. There are a string of poets whose poems I have consciously attempted to imitate: Terrance Hayes, Tyehimba Jess, Gerald Stern, Carl Phillips, Kimiko Hahn, Basho, Sei Shōnagon, to name just a few. But as Kaminsky said, there are those influencers we are not aware of. Just recently during a talk I gave at West Morris Central High School [NJ] about the writing of me and Nina and how it fits into the legacy of African American poetry, I realized how much I had been influenced by the poems in Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water. As I was making my way through me and Nina, his was one of the books I looked at closely. I also studied Bhanu Kapil’s The Interrogation of Strangers.
The Négritude poets—Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor, Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, and the Guianan Léon Damas and their rejection of French colonialism in their writings; the writings of Paul Celan in which he struggles against the ambivalence of having to write in the language of your oppressor; and M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem, “The Discourse on the Logic of Language,” speak to the alienation I feel as an African American poet writing in the English language within a culture that is predicated on destruction. “In whose language am I?”
I think we are often influenced by work that we love. I used to worry that I couldn’t settle into one particular style. Now I love that each poem I write is an experiment. So I am attracted to poets whose work play with form and language and still have something to say about what is going on with Black people, like the work of Harryette Mullen, Evie Shockley, and Thomas Sayers Ellis. And I admire queer poets like Ching-In Chen who are poets and activists and Saeed Jones who is defining queer aestetics. Saeed writes, “queer implies a slipperiness, a subversion of expectations and conventions, and inability to sit still, a refusal to obey.” This so perfectly defines how I see myself today as a writer.
I learned years ago when I was rejected from the first low residency MFA program I applied to that I had no choice: I am a poet even if I never publish a poem or get accepted into any MFA program. I’m beyond that now—I have the MFA and I have the book and I’m discovering there is still so much work to be done. As cliché as it may sound, I want to write poems that do battle with the bullshit that is going on in this country and in the world, poems that destabilize colonization and provoke change.
So, Erica, now that we finally have those first books where do you think we will be five, ten years from now?
RED: What a question! I have to say my head is still spinning from the writers you’ve mentioned. Reminds me of my familial influences too, of the Pan Africanists and Black Nationalist, independence-minded adults in my family; of being in Uncle Nello’s barbershop in Bed-Stuy listening to my father and his friends and cousins talk about international liberation movements. I grew up reading The Black Jacobins and They Came Before the Mayflower and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Going back to my family, where creativity was admired and my strangeness was accepted, and there was always, always a critical consciousness about what it meant to be who we are, culturally, politically, and ethnically. Someone asked me in a Q&A recently about vulnerability, privacy, being afraid to share. It certainly helps that my family modeled this unconditional acceptance of me as a person when I take a risk and “go there” in my work. Artists who push boundaries have always been of interest to me—whether it was performance artists and critics like Guillermo Gómez-Peña or Coco Fusco or lately Clifford Owens, or my dear friends and co-conspirators Ronaldo Wilson, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Torkwase Dyson. Or people who do such exquisite work with sound like Julie Patton, the late and wonderful Akilah Oliver. Or Tisa Byrant’s hybrid crossover experiments.
When we say “go there” we are talking about pushing past the limits of what is expected and acceptable into some outrageous, possibly dangerous, zone that approaches a sort of truth; when someone “goes in” we mean they are taking themselves to another level of depth, that might be painful like a turning in a wound. I remember reading some poems of yours in me and Nina and thinking, “Oh! She just went in!” I was talking to Dawn [Lundy Martin] tonight about the kind of work that excites us—that is formally interesting, but at the same time contains some kind of driving emotional force. I think that what interests me in your work, and hers, and Ronaldo’s, is that there is a concern with formal innovation, with the limits and promises of language, but there is a beating heart at the core.
So, you ask about the next five or ten years. I laugh again, because who knew what would happen those nights when we were drinking honey wine in my apartment and writing on the walls? Sometimes I feel weighed down by the archaeology, all the layers of silt. Our mothers have died. I’m the end of my maternal line. I do hope we can shake our heads and say, oh those bad, past, war-filled times. Yet, here we are. Our conversation on somebody’s blog. Reviews. Editors meetings! You’re a grandmother, I’m a mom, we’ve both got decent pensions, and the books are coming out. But we’re still running around doing readings. We are still giving each other refuge, advice, and yes, sometimes financial help when we need it. We’re still talking on and on about the same three things: love, politics, and art.
R. Erica Doyle’s work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Best Black Women’s Erotica, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles, Ploughshares, Callaloo, and Bloom. She has received grants and awards from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund, and Poets and Writers, and she was a New York Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellow. Erica is also a fellow of Cave Canem: A Workshop and Retreat for Black Writers. Her first book, proxy is forthcoming from Belladonna* Books in 2013. Erica received her MFA in Poetry from the New School, and lives in New York City, where she is an administrator in the NYC public schools and facilitates Tongues Afire: A Free Creative Writing Workshop for queer women and trans and gender non-conforming people of color.
Monica A. Hand is an award winning poet and book artist. Author of me and Nina, her poems have also appeared in numerous publications including Aunt Chloe, Black Renaissance Noire, Naugatuck River Review, The Sow’s Ear, Drunken Boat, Beyond the Frontier, African-American Poetry for the 21st Century, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade and American Creative Writers on Class. She has a MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University and is a founding member of Poets for Ayiti.