An Interview with Kamilah Aisha Moon
Jenny Johnson: I heard Camille Dungy give a talk recently, and she said of poets, “we are the record keepers.” In fact, she reminded listeners that in order to speak dynamically about the world you have to: “Take notes.” Do you think of your poems as a form of recordkeeping?
Kamilah Aisha Moon: Absolutely. Poems often serve as cultural artifacts of an era, and poets can function as emotional historians, expressing the feelings behind the facts of what happened.
JJ: I am thinking specifically about the second section of Starshine & Clay, which opens with an epigraph (“who is the human in this place, / the thing that is dragged or the dragger?”) from Lucille Clifton’s poem, “Jasper Texas 1998,” a poem in which James Byrd, Jr. speaks. Like Clifton, you reengage narratives recorded by the news media. For example, in “Samaria Rice, Tamir’s Mother,” we hear Samaria’s voice speaking, as a simultaneous narrative about her son’s death “loops on & on.” I’m also thinking of “Angel,” which questions the language used by the media to characterize Michael Brown and then beautifully and critically complicates this record. How would you describe the work you’re doing in this section of your book?
KAM: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times ... how can you be an artist and NOT reflect the times? That to me is the definition of an artist.” — Nina Simone
I am in full agreement with Ms. Simone. Also, the greatest response to trauma and attempted annihilation is to create, to speak one’s truth and peace. To honor the agony, writing in such a way that these occurrences can’t be turned away from because people are suffering. People who have never deserved this kind of brutality. People who have participated fully in a nation that has not fully acknowledged and respected them — like including the fact that Walter Scott served in the armed forces in “Perfect Form,” yet was shot like a dog and we have his murder on video. The poems in this section seek to amplify the humanity that had to be stripped in order for any of these events to even be possible. They interrogate the idea of worthiness, of who and what is “good.” Out of many things that have been infuriating about these tragedies, I’ve been appalled by newscasters, pundits and people on social media focusing on irrelevant details to justify these murders and avoid the root causes. These poems endeavor to bring the focus back to where it belongs.
JJ: I would love to hear you talk about Lucille Clifton’s influence on this collection and on the title of your book. I’m curious, when did you first encounter Clifton’s poems? Is there a story?
KAM: I first encountered Lucille Clifton’s poems in the archives at Fisk University. I had just finished high school, and the few poems I read then made an impression, but it wasn’t until I completely embraced that I was a writer about six years later that I read Good Woman, and then started to read everything I could get my hands on by her. I consider it a huge blessing that I was able to meet her at Cave Canem, have a poem workshopped by her, read on the same dais and simply be in her presence a few times before she became an ancestor. Because she was a generous person, this is not a unique experience. She welcomed and encouraged countless poets.
In terms of her aesthetic influence, I’ve always deeply admired her astonishing clarity and ability to make complex ideas and emotions accessible to everyone. She had a way of distilling truth to its most potent essence. Her poems appear sparse on the page, yet are leagues-deep in their explorations. This quality is certainly among my goals as a writer. However, this book ranges widely in form, voice, style and content. I needed a large title to encompass the physical, emotional and spiritual wrestling occurring in these poems. Her iconic poem, “won’t you celebrate with me,” is about the making of a self, the daily triumph over adversity that is a part of breathing. The difficult miracle of it all. So her line about life being a “... bridge between starshine and clay” perfectly aligned with the reckoning of the body and spirit threaded throughout my book. We are literally made of these two things, and live between them. Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin In the Sun, explores a family’s deferred dreams; it is apt that she chose the title from a line in Langston Hughes’ poem that does similar work. So in the tradition of many writers in conversation with each other across space and time, this title is a bow to her.
JJ: The poems in this book are also wise emotional historians (to use your poignant phrase) of romantic heartbreak. Two of my favorite poems that do this work are “Wish” and “Ex-Crossing.” I felt like crying and laughing when I read the line in “Ex-Crossing”: “I wave & I mean it both ways.” It’s so good. It’s such a concise way of describing the multiple urges one sometimes feels when seeing an ex. I wonder if you have a favorite line or phrase from this series of poems that you would be willing to talk more about?
KAM: The romantic realm remains the most mysterious and elusive one for me, and the poems in this section are definitely feeling along the wall in the dark for a light switch. The poem, “One Reason Why Parts of Speech Matter,” about truly understanding the difference between the word “treasure” as a verb versus a noun, is the one I hope for the opportunity to live in real time. A treasure is often buried or sits on a shelf to collect dust until needed. But when you treasure something, it is an active, constant tending. Yes, that’s what I’m talking about! Especially in the context of romantic love.
JJ: There’s such formal range and dexterity in this collection. Often when experimenting with received forms I think about Adrienne Rich’s essay, “Format and Form,” in which she says: “It’s a struggle not to let the form take over, lapse into format, assimilate the poetry; and that very struggle can produce a movement, a music, of its own.” How do you arrive at a particular form for a poem?
KAM: It took me awhile to understand the beauty of received forms, to experience them as “a welcome cage,” as Rita Dove describes them. When writing about topics that are large and often overwhelming, form allows you to enter in a manner that can be managed. Adhering to its criteria makes your brain work in ways that are unusual and refreshing.
For the poem, “Peeling Potatoes at Terezin Concentration Camp,” I chose the villanelle because of the repetitive nature of the form, building in meaning and impact like an obsessive lullaby (which always tend to be scary, ironically). In terms of content, my mind kept returning to a small photograph that had been in the room that had served as the kitchen. It was a picture of detainees peeling potatoes. How mundane and odd in such a place, was my first thought. Secondly I thought, “How terrible to prepare dinner for your executioners?!”
I knew that this photograph was the content — the common, repetitive action of peeling potatoes as the metaphor for the vicious end these people were about to face. Old story, new way to view it; a way to remember the ferocity in order to guard against its resurrection. Simple, direct language. Image-driven, quiet so that the violence screams between the lines.