Nicole Sealey’s debut collection, Ordinary Beast, is a stunning compendium of poems in which she reveals herself to be a poet who can move from the deeply personal to the mythic and historic without losing the impact of either. Her poetry belies passionate dedication, executed with grace and a quiet, simmering power. Sealey was born in Saint Thomas, of the United States Virgin Islands, and raised in Apopka, Florida. She decided to commit to a career as a poet at age thirty-two, when she began an M.F.A. at NYU. While one should not understate the achievement of Sealey’s first full-length collection with a major publisher, her presence as a formidable poetic voice has been percolating for some time. Her chapbook, The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, won the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, and her accolades beyond that are many. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and others.
I met Sealey at her office in Brooklyn, where she works as the Executive Director of the Cave Canem Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has for over two decades been committed to supporting African American poets through fellowships, workshops, and a national community hundreds strong. When I arrived, the clean, modern office space was mostly cleared in preparation to host an event the next night, Walking the Walk: Poetry, Equity & Anti-Racism in the Literary Arts, as a part of their ongoing antiracism workshop series. Warm and graceful, she offered me water and we found a quiet conference room to delve into the nuances of Ordinary Beast. Over the course of an hour, we discussed sonnets, love, and how buying an orchid can sometimes be just the thing to complete a poem. She showed me photos of her dining-room table covered in clippings of poetry that she had used to construct one piece in her collection, “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You.’ ” As the pictures suggest, Nicole Sealey is a poet ardently devoted to the craft of poetry, as committed to the organization of a workshop series as she is to the literal construction a masterful cento.
When did you start writing poetry?
I’ve been writing poetry, specifically, for more than a dozen years. From 2005 to 2010, I participated in workshops through Cave Canem Foundation, led by such poets as Marilyn Nelson, Willie Perdomo, and Patricia Smith, and attended the foundation’s weeklong writing retreat. This training, as it were, at Cave Canem encouraged me to think critically about poetry and seriously about a possible career as poet, which eventually led me to NYU. And, in 2012, at the age thirty-two, I left a job of nearly eight years to write poems full-time, to pursue an M.F.A. The decision was one of only a handful that I’ve made in my life that scared the hell out of me.
Was your family a literary one? Were there books around the house when you were growing up?
Though my family wasn’t necessarily a literary one, we did have a set of colorful encyclopedias in the house, which helped spark my curiosity about the world. In general, though, reading for fun was a luxury my family couldn’t afford. As a single mom for most of my childhood, my mother worked up to three jobs concurrently. My sister and I really had to help out around the house—my sister, being three years older, even more so—which left little time for literature beyond assigned school readings.
I came to literature pretty late. I came to literature when I left home to attend college. I was both an Africana Studies and an English major, so I was reading Paula Giddings’s When and Where I Enter and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. At which point, I was hooked.
Tell me about your writing process. What inspires you to pick up a pen and start writing? How do you start, and how do you know a poem is finished?
Though the process varies from poem to poem, the common denominators are the pace at which and method by which I write. I write slowly and line by line. If a line isn’t right, I won’t move on until it is. With a poem like “Heretofore Unuttered,” I’d had the first few lines for years before they made their way into a poem. I was so taken with the lines that I’d just stare at them for hours each day for many months. It wasn’t until I bought an orchid for my writing desk, did the lines come alive and lead me to a breakthrough. The orchid ended up being both the triggering image and a fixture in the poem. Though I didn’t know it at the time of writing, I’m now convinced that “Heretofore Unuttered” is inspired by Matthew Olzmann’s “The Days” and Li-Young Lee’s “One Heart,” both of which are short lyrical poems that speak to the idea of destiny. So, in this case—and in most cases)—reading inspires me to pick up a pen and start writing.
When do I know a poem is finished? I’m among those who believe a work is never finished, only abandoned.
The collection displays such a variety of forms. Is there a form you have that’s a favorite?
The sonnet might be my favorite—its fourteen, ten-beat lines and rigid rhyme scheme demands that the most tangential poet cut to the chase. The form requires that I be deliberate, which is something I aspire to in my work. As you know, sonnets drive the “Legendary” series in Ordinary Beast. The form’s history and perceived sophistication partly provides the grace and dignity I’d first imagined for these poems, honoring the artists featured in the seminal, though problematic, documentary film Paris Is Burning about “drag” pageants in 1980s Harlem.
So when you sit down to write a poem you know, in a way, going forward what you want it to look like?
Yeah, I usually know going in what I’d like poems to look like. Those initial visions, however, almost always change as poems progress. I’d envisioned the “Legendary” series as strict Shakespearean sonnets, for example, but the poems had other plans. The series is comprised entirely of slant Shakespearean sonnets, one of which does away entirely with the traditional rhyme scheme. And, originally, I’d envisioned writing six “Clue” sestinas, each accusing a different character of the murder of Mr. Boddy. After writing the second installment, I soon realized that six would be overkill—pun not intended—and one alternate ending was enough.
How do you know a poem is finished?
Again, I’m in the camp of never finished, only abandoned. That said, when I start overly revising, and those revisions make the poem less moving, I make myself stop.
“Underperforming Sonnet” is a smart, funny poem about the writing process. What do you think of writing about writing?
Writers write about everything—from our obsessions to our professions. It’s only natural that we write about writing. Plus, ars poeticas, writings that examine the art of poetry, have been around for thousands of years, an early example of which was written by the Roman poet Horace. “Underperforming Sonnet Overperforming” is an ars poetica, a poetic response to the idea of “ending on an image” as a hard-and-fast rule. I don’t know if I believe in hard-and-fast rules in general, much less poetry.
“Object Permanence” is a beautiful love poem and, I think, a highlight of the collection. What’s your experience of writing love poems?
Thanks—that’s kind of you to say. My husband, for whom the poem was written, feels the same way, but I think he’s biased.
“Object Permanence” opens with lovers waking—there first impulse being to make sure the other is still there. In thinking about her relationship with her beloved, the speaker is reminded that there was a time, before they ever knew the other existed, when they were apart and, in death, such a time will come again. The speaker in “Object Permanence” and the speaker in “In Igboland” are similar in this way, in that they understand that nothing is forever. That, indeed, everything aspires to one degradation or another. Even love.
My experience writing love poems is not unlike my experience writing other poems—a wholly unique experience unto itself. I don’t set out to write love poems specifically, though. I believe every poem is a love poem to something.
The perspectives from which your poems are written are almost as varied as the forms. You write from a wide range of narrative viewpoints.
That’s right, I do write from a range of viewpoints—I enjoy the urgency of the “you” and the intimacy of the “I,” which is why I especially enjoy writing persona poems. The “Legendary” series is all persona. Writing persona, for me, is an exercise in craft, how to put into words another’s humanity, and also an exercise in empathy, understanding another’s humanity.
In “Defense of ‘Candelabra with Heads,’ ” at the end, there’s a young black woman at some point in the future who has to look up the word lynch, and the poem reads, “May her imagination, not her memory, run wild.” This person who’s so far removed from the word that she has to look it up—is that a person that you believe is in the near future?
While on one hand, I trust that my descendants will know the history of this country well enough to know the race-based injuries and injustices suffered by their ancestors. On the other, I hope they themselves, the generation before them, the generation before that, and the generation before that have no such point of immediate reference, only a genuine curiosity for what came before.
Do you think poetry plays a big role in moving toward that future?
I’m wagering poetry has and will continue to play a significant role in the creation of just societies. How could a reader not be moved to introspection, to action in service of justice by poems like Ansel Elkins’s “Reverse: A Lynching”? The first few lines of which read, “Return the tree, the moon, the naked man / Hanging from the indifferent branch / Return blood to his brain, breath to his heart / Reunite the neck with the bridge of his body / Untie the knot, undo the noose / Return the kicking feet to ground / Unwhisper the word jesus.”
“Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You,’ ” is a beautiful poem of homage, using lines from poems by such a stunning range of poets, from Rilke to Tracy K. Smith. What was the experience of putting it together?
“Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You’ ” took a little more than two years to draft. Months were spent scouring hundreds of poetry collections for lines. After which, I began piecing a puzzle, which had no fixed pieces, together. Dozens of papers with dozens of lines by dozens of poets were spread across my dining-room table and floor for the better half of 2016. I experimented with combinations of lines until combinations were exhausted and did so with each section of the cento, of which there are twelve. On top of that, I imposed my own rules. The cento had to comprise a hundred different lines by a hundred ethnically diverse poets, of which only fifty percent could identify as male.
I was concerned that the cento might read like disparate voices vying for a place, so I was very careful about the selection and arrangement of lines, and equally careful about the arrangement of each section and the poem’s placement in the book itself. It took me some time, too, to understand that each line couldn’t function on the same level. As much as I wanted to include all heavy-hitting lines, some lines had to serve a less conspicuous purpose, like getting the poem from point A to point B.
“Even the Gods” is a poem that stands out as an amalgamation of different kinds of religious ideas, from, classical to Christian, or even just a nondenominational, very human relationship to the idea of a God. How does religion play into your poems?
Religion plays into my work the same as race and sexuality and gender and myth and history and embodiment. These subjects are my obsessions and, as such, are omnipresent in Ordinary Beast. “Even the Gods,” then, not only questions a seemingly oppressive religious dynamic between the gods and their devout worshipper, it also questions internalized oppressions that seek to undermine one’s favorable sense of self. In this poem, the speaker argues that the gods are no better than their worshipper, which is a metaphor for equality in general. “Even the eyes of gods / must adjust to light. Even gods have gods.”
Do you have a favorite poem in the collection?
If I had to choose, today my favorite is “Object Permanence.” Yesterday, my favorite was “The First Person Who Will Live to be One Hundred and Fifty Years Old Has Already Been Born.” And, if you were to ask me tomorrow, it’d be different still.
Lauren Kane works at The Paris Review.
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