The spectacular present-day emergencies have inspired calls for art that responds to the moment, that speaks to the now, that lays claim to a particular kind of relevance. Emergency authorizes presentism, even as a virulent strain of presentism has everything to do with the emergencies we are facing. In this way, emergency casts the solution in terms of the logic of the problem, which guarantees the problem’s endurance; there is no out from this place. It feels, then, like a vital recalibration when I encounter Destiny Birdsong’s poem “Pandemic,” which is definitely not about COVID-19, and remember that language holds a history—and that history enters the present whether I recognize it or not. Throughout her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, from Tin House, Birdsong reminds you that if you offer deep attention—if you are precise and specific and careful—you will end up exactly where you need to be, which is to say: you will learn something about where you already are.
The poems in Negotiations attend to a series of concerns—sexual violence, autoimmune disease, anti-Blackness, artistic genealogies, the nourishments and injuries of kinship—but it would be more accurate to say that the poems in this collection expose the entanglements that have long existed, so that to name one site of encounter is necessarily to summon others. Birdsong’s poems reveal the ways that so many borders—nation, race, gender—are structured to maintain hierarchies of allegiance and care. In “400-Meter Heat,” which departs from the 2016 Olympic race where Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller-Uibo secured a narrow victory over American Allyson Felix, Birdsong writes: “I’m saddest whenever two black women are competing // because I never know who to root for, / and I’m arrogant enough to believe my split loyalty // fails them (which makes me more American again).” To notice is not only to reflect; it is also to register possibilities. The emergencies of the present are scored through with the fault lines of the past. Birdsong’s poems transform as they touch.
From our respective quarantines, Destiny Birdsong and I spoke over FaceTime about the complications of metaphor, embodied histories in language, and the possibility of curses.
Negotiations has two epigraphs. Terrance Hayes, “What moves between us has always moved as metaphor,” and TJ Jarrett, “The worst has already happened to us, she said. / What good is metaphor now?” Would you say a bit about your relationship to metaphor in the context of this project?
I grew up in an environment where metaphor worked very strongly. Because there were certain things that people just didn’t talk about outright, metaphor became a way to sustain relationships that were complicated, or very tender. Also, people said horrible things to me because I had albinism. Those lines from Terrance Hayes really spoke to the way I grew up—afraid of language in a way that made metaphor a safe space. I read TJ Jarrett’s poem, “At the Repast,” a little later, at a moment in my life when that aversion to transparency just wasn’t working. I had to come to terms with things that had happened to me. I realized how dangerous it can be to refuse to say a thing. I had to call things what they were. In the poems, I’m always toggling back and forth between those two worlds.
Do any significant metaphors of your childhood come to mind?
When I was four or five, I drew a picture of my imaginary friend, who looked suspiciously like me. My mom was so tickled. She showed it to everybody. When the adults looked at it, they knew that I was starting to see myself as visibly different from other people, but nobody ever said that. There was this kind of chuckle. It was understood. Maybe that’s different from metaphor, but it was part and parcel of the Black experience—these vocalizations, eye contact, little turns of phrase that, for the initiated, make things very clear. But if you’re outside, there’s a barrier between you and what’s being said. There was a lot of that happening. I’m not sure if that’s quite metaphor, but that’s what comes to mind.
I’m going to have to chew on that question for a bit because there was really a lot of silence.
My friend who is a social worker uses poems in her practice because poems can hold traumatic experiences without coercing them into narrative. I’m thinking about a line from your essay for The Paris Review, “Be Good.” You write, citing Cathy Caruth, “And the truth is more than a combination of facts, of what we know happened. It’s also the lost experiences, ‘what remains unknown in our actions and our language.’ ” You have a Ph.D. in English, and have done critical writing as well as poetry. What does poetry as a genre offer for working with metaphor or silence?
I grew up in this family of silences, but in poems, I could say things under the aegis of poetry. When we think of poetry, we often think of heightened speech, ornamental language—a text whose beauty can allow things to happen in it. And maybe that’s what drew me to poetry. It still offers me the opportunity to make something beautiful, even out of things that are really ugly and disturbing.
I wrote “Be Good” years after I started writing about my sexual assault. I remember talking to one of my friends, who’s also a survivor, and she said, “Please don’t write a critical analysis about rape.” For me—and for some other people around me—it’s just not useful. In my experience, when you’re writing a critical analysis, there’s a certain performance of intelligence that has to happen, a performance of knowledge, a performance of complexity. But sometimes a thing is just a thing. It happened, and it was bad. I needed to get to that truth through poetry before I could write about how respectability politics and class and gendered norms in the Black community influenced that experience.
A lot of the poems deal with being read and misread, reading and misreading. You also have a robust notes section that builds a kind of bibliography into the book. How do you feel about your own work being read?
I rarely think about that when I’m drafting because if I did, I probably wouldn’t write things. I am excited about the book. I got my M.F.A. in 2009, and I left my M.F.A. program thinking, I’m going to have a book in a year. Every one of my professors said, “Your thesis is not a book.” And it wasn’t. But that desire for a book has been a long time in coming. And that desire has changed over time. At first it was a desire for validation—I really am a writer. This thing I’ve been telling my family members about is now something they can pick up and hold. Now, I’m most excited about entering what has always been, for me, a rich conversation. Even in high school when my only real access to poetry was my high school textbooks, and I was memorizing John Donne and Shakespeare, it felt like a place where people were talking to me in ways I could relate to. It feels wonderful to enter that conversation in a tangible way.
As for the notes section, that’s the academic in me. Cite your sources. I also wanted to make clear that these poems are products of bodies of knowledge. As much as they are in conversation with capital-P Poetry, they’re in conversation with music and scripture and historical events that happened during my lifetime.
The way you’re talking about bodies of knowledge brings me to “Ode to My Body.” In that poem, the body is a subject distinct from the I. But even as there’s this cleaving, there’s a different form of entanglement with Lucille Clifton’s “the lost baby poem,” which your poem riffs on. In other words, as the poem distances from one kind of body in order to see it differently, it joins with a different kind—a body of poetry, a body of Black women’s literature. What came into view for you as you enacted these shifts on the page?
I have Crohn’s disease, and I wrote that poem at the beginning of a really intense illness. I was on a bunch of medications, but I was doing really well, so the doctors started taking me off of them. It turned out that the medications were concealing my body’s reaction to this injectable biologic. I broke out in horrible pustules. I had no idea what would happen next. For me, the physical difference attached to my body had always been the horror. And in that moment, it was like, Oh, now I am about to undergo something that is truly horrible. So, that poem was an acknowledgement and an ask—I have not been the best in terms of the ways I have treated you, or what I have expected from you. But stick with me. We’re going to figure this out.
What resonated for me in the Clifton poem was that last stanza, where she says, in essence, Yeah, I lost you. But if I am ever anything less than every single thing I can be, then I have betrayed you. In my poems there’s often this similar tension between what is happening, which is sometimes really bad—and sometimes out of my control—and things that have happened that were in my control and I wasn’t the best about managing.
Many of the poems in this book put the question of definition up for grabs. What even constitutes control? What constitutes consent? Those lines aren’t always so finely drawn. Your poems remind me that things aren’t necessarily either strictly metaphorical or strictly literal. For example, in the title poem you write, “My rage is sedated / by the pre-filled syringe of history.” Then later, the syringe comes back as an adamantly literal object.
Certainly, “pre-filled syringe” was a metaphor that grew out of my actual experience of injecting myself with prefilled syringes. But then there’s “Autoimmune,” where I’m so tired of needles. That object turned into a poem that I think has rich metaphor. It’s this back and forth. One thing slides into something else that slides back into that thing.
And then back again! Tired of needles, but that poem, to me, also carries an exhaustion with the language of needles. With the onset of COVID-19, I’ve been thinking about how pandemic language is becoming a dominant metaphor by which we engage each other. I’m thinking, too, of Elizabeth Alexander’s essay, “Can You Be Black and Look at This?” Reflecting on the nearly all-white jury that acquitted the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King, even after they watched the videos plainly showing the violence, Alexander asks, “What metaphorizations of the black male body had to have been already in place…?” In this text, you negotiate inherited metaphor. I’m thinking especially of “Pandemic,” after Toni Morrison’s short story, “Recitatif,” which withholds the character’s racial categories from the reader and consequently charges the reader with tracking their own reading of race—which is to say, their own race-making.
As a Black woman, I have to grapple with metaphors of race and gender. That impulse to write a poem like Morrison’s short story—where it’s difficult for the reader to identify the races of the characters—came out of conversations I had with friends about how the crack epidemic was treated versus the opioid crisis. Even on the level of language, epidemic is designed to frighten people, to authorize legislation for tougher drug laws. Crisis requires compassion and rehabilitative resources.
So racial identity became a metaphor for how differently we treated these two similar crises. It represents the treatment of individuals suffering from addiction, but also it is a determinant of how those people are treated.
Totally—metaphor not as something unreal, but as what interacts with the material to determine how care is apportioned. So many of the endings in this collection blew me away. They created a kind of unease, departure on an unsettled note.
My early introduction to poetry was Shakespeare and Donne and Hopkins—poems with grand finales, neatly wrapped-up sonnets. I think I carried that belief that endings should be these majestic flourishes. At my first Cave Canem retreat, I was in a workshop with the poet Chiyuma Elliott. She said very lovingly, “It’s okay to leave the door open at the end of your poems.” And there are all these ways to leave a door open. You can leave it unlocked, you can leave it blown off the hinges, you can leave it cracked. You don’t have to have a grand finale. You can end on something with multiple meanings. You can end with a statement that raises more questions than it offers answers. Now, I try to leave the door open for the reader to walk in and—with the materials that are there—make what they want of an ending.
I’m thinking now of the lines from Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Winnie”—“I pass you my poem. // A poem doesn’t do everything for you.” Another way that direct transmission from poem to reader happens is through threats and curses. “Elegy for the Man on Highway 52” obviously stands out.
I wrote “Elegy for the Man on Highway 52” at a residency in the summer of 2017. I was processing the rage about the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, which had just taken place, and I was also processing a road-rage hate crime that had happened to me maybe nine or ten months before. I had this really specific wish for that person who had harmed me, and also for the 911 dispatcher who hung up in my face when I called for help—that they bleed to death internally. But because I have Crohn’s, internal bleeding is also a thing that could happen to me. The last line of that poem, “And if your babies are watching, all the better,” refers to the murder of Charleena Lyles, who was fatally shot in front of her children. The malediction, then, is that I want you to feel as unsafe in this world as I do.
That, for me, is the frightening thing. What if the world you created for someone else becomes your own reality? And if I put that off on you, not only does it become your experience and your responsibility, but it stops being just mine. It lets me release some of that rage. But if I imagine that—even in my art—what does that make of me? How does that change how you read me? I hope it complicates what you see. That really is, for me, the driving force behind those poems—what do you do if you hold both my victimization and my rage in the same space and they don’t cancel out each other?
On a social level, we can be quick to talk about rage as an inarticulate or inarticulable space. I found it powerful to dwell in that space where rage was forged in language. Would you talk about the relationship between craft and rage?
Sometimes rage can be the least self-destructive. It pulls the self into the narrative. My wish for these two people to bleed to death is linked to my own fears about the body, and the wish that they be shot in front of their children is linked to fears about my own vulnerability in a police state. That in itself is a kind of craft that I hope makes clear to the reader that I’m still vulnerable. When I am enraged, I’m vulnerable to being contaminated by that rage, but I’m also a part of the narrative of that rage. My imagination is shaped by my own vulnerability.
I’m also interested in the role of the nonhuman in these poems. There are dolls in this collection. Harambe and Koko. A bear suit with a human inside.
Black bodies—particularly Black women’s bodies—are vulnerable to various forms of objectification, bestialization, these weird conflations between our bodies and something else. When I started to dissect my own experience, I had to start grappling with those conflations. I remember someone who had read an early draft of “Harambe” saying, “You probably shouldn’t write a poem about this. People might think you’re comparing apes to Black women.” But there’s literally a line in the poem that says I’m not. That goes back to the Alexander essay. What metaphors take place in your own mind that made it so easy for you to skip past that line?
Sometimes, in order to get to why we need to think differently, you have to first hold up a mirror to how things are. I had to evoke those kinds of things—the human inside the nonhuman or ambivalently human—in order to contest them. How do we look at women like dolls? How do we privilege animal lives over the safety of Black children? What violence do those slippages make possible?
“Dolls” feels formally distinct, even as the kinds of historical slippages that animate so many of these poems are present there.
I didn’t really want to comment on things in this poem. I wanted brevity. I wanted a dissemination of facts. It is a fact that my mother never named her abuser. There is a world of narrative behind that, but just the fact itself is heartbreaking—that this thing happened to her, and that she grew into adulthood having to interact with this person. That’s horrible enough. I don’t know that I need anything else.
When you pare it down to these snippets of information, it forces you to look closely. The doll as the human. The bread being ripped open as the little girl. The not-no as a no. The lack of consent as a violation of consent.
It also reminds me of what you were saying earlier, about poetry’s ability to hold multiple knowledges. These kinds of violations that aren’t necessarily admissible as evidence in, for example, a court of law, but are given a form here in which they can be registered. We can feel the meaning of the transgression of “the not-no,” as you say. Another poem that insists on multiple ways of knowing is “My rapist once said he didn’t need anything from me.” This poem felt like a reminder that each encounter exists in a larger landscape of uneven distributions of care and harm. At the poem’s end—“I might have saved / at least one of us by calling out the other,”—I felt very aware of that responsibility. It was my reading that completed the meaning of the poem, at least in terms of this one contingent encounter.
There are no neat endings to some of these experiences. There’s just, Here we are. And where we’ll go from here is certainly influenced by a reader’s own particular subjectivities. I like that. It can be enriching. But it’s also risky because people can pull from it what they want. And, particularly if people are eager to read a poet’s subjectivity into the meanings of poems—it can be really dangerous. But I also understand that once the book is out, it is in the hands of the readers. Even if I were my most careful, I couldn’t avoid that. And for me being careful would mean not writing what I want to write. I would rather risk the thing that may be inevitable, than to silence the things that I think are necessary.
Claire Schwartz is the author of bound (Button Poetry, 2018). Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Bennington Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
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