David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Will Betke-Brunswick’s A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings, an unexpected and poignant debut graphic memoir about a close-knit family approaching loss and the wonder and joy they create along the way. Says Maia Kobabe, “The author was working on a mathematics degree, playing on a hockey team, and slowly coming out as trans and nonbinary when their mom was diagnosed with cancer. This book weaves memories from the author’s childhood with scenes from the last few months of their mother’s life into a tender story of acceptance, care, and love. The heavy moments are lightened by the portrayal of the family as penguins, with friends and strangers as a flock of other birds, but the story is deeply human.” A Pros and Cons List for Strong Feelings is out now from Tin House. Before today’s conversation with Ama Codjoe, I want to talk about the outsized effect she has had on the podcast for many years now. In many ways you could say she has been a guiding spirit of the show. The show has changed slowly but profoundly over time. If you leap back a decade, you will discover episodes that were only 28 minutes long with much shorter questions. You might notice other things too. When I listen back, I realize how differently I edit now versus then, and at the beginning, I was only doing fiction then slowly moving into non-fiction. Then I stuck my toe into more narrative poetry before fully engaging with poetry and hybrid and uncategorizable work, which at one time was truly a foreign horizon, but now is at the center of my heart. It’s a strange thing, a vulnerable thing to grow and change in public this way. But pretty quickly and pretty early on, I realized that having a show like this, the act of curating a roster of a limited number of writers who could come on each year was both a way to define what the show was, and in many ways, was also a form of self-expression of what I was interested in, but that there was also a responsibility that came with it, that part of the show’s ever-evolving shape would happen through listening, not through expressing. The yearly VIDA Count was an early inspiration, VIDA, the organization that assessed the gender breakdown of what various magazines and journals published each year. It was always interesting to see how each magazine responded or didn’t respond when a mirror was held up to what they were doing, who they were publishing, who they were reviewing. This certainly was an early model for me for self-assessment. I would also say that when Tin House approached me in 2018 about the possibility of adopting the show, it was their own response to the VIDA Count that did factor into that decision for me. Back in 2010 around the time VIDA started, Tin House Magazine published around twice as many men as women, which sounds bad, but when you look at a lot of the other publications, New York Review of Books published five times as many men as women, nearly 85% men at the time, Harper’s and London Review Books was a three to one ratio. But even if Tin House looked better in comparison, they nevertheless took the count results much more to heart. By the time they approached me in the final year of the magazine, the gender ratio had entirely flipped. Not to mention how profoundly Lance Cleland has transformed the Summer and Winter Writing Workshops over the past decade and Tin House has been a godsend in many other ways. If not for them, we wouldn’t have transcripts, we wouldn’t have the merchandise we used to entice you to support the show, and of course, when I told you that I was taking a leap by leaving my day job to try this as my full-time gig, I said, “This would only work if you caught me when I leaped,” and you did and you have, and really, it is the listener-supporters of Between the Covers who I’m most beholden to. But along the way, there were many unexpected acts of generosity. Former guest Jesse Ball reaching out and offering me three boxes of an out-of-print co-written book of his which was for a long time the primary and only thing I offered for three years I think before Tin House showed up. That one gesture was a lifesaver, a bridge between finding myself as a podcaster with a growing audience but with growing costs to now. But there have been some other moments too, and none more than when Ama Codjoe reached out many, many years ago now, she’d been listening to an episode, one she was enjoying a great deal, and then near the end, she felt like the conversation no longer envisioned her as one of its intended listeners, that my White guest was addressing me as the representative of an imagined White audience. I’m grateful that Ama thought I might want to hear her experience, that I might want to hear ways as someone herself who conducts social justice and anti-racism workshops for many organizations that I could potentially do better. She reached out, shared the ways she felt like I had tried to get the conversation back on the rails the ways I had instinctively perhaps tried to broaden the address of the conversation again, and she suggested some further things. This was all great, but what I really remembered and moved by is really the spirit of her engagement with me. Even though we didn’t really talk often after that, Ama became in my mind’s eye a crucial part of my intended audience as if she were sitting in the front row of every conversation with her incredible, warm, life-giving energy. It was only when I interviewed this year Elaine Castillo where Elaine uses the terms of the expected reader and unexpected reader in relation to her discussions of how to read and how to critique the writing we’re reading that I realized that the question of expected audience and unexpected audience forever changed for me with Ama reaching out, the way she reached out, the way her spirit has hovered over the show, and the way knowing she’s listening has become a huge part of how I listen when I interview. So it’s with great pleasure to have Ama on the show today. I always knew I would love this conversation but I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would adore her new collection, one that feels like it emerges from a similar spirit to what I’ve described. You will soon see that to learn about Ama Codjoe is to learn about the people who inspire her too, that as we learn about Ama’s poetics, you will also, step by step, be learning about other incredible Black women artists and scholars. Denise Murrell, Lorraine O’Grady, Simone Leigh, and others, that her self-expression is also an indebtedness to others and a celebration of others. As usual, I’ve gone on too long. But as a final testimony to Ama Codjoe before we moved to the conversation itself, similar to Dionne Brand’s contribution to the bonus audio archive where Dionne read from two books coming out in 2023, the fiction debut of poet Canisia Lubrin’s Code Noir, and the much-anticipated book by Christina Sharpe, Ordinary Notes. Ama offers a particularly generous contribution herself providing three different approaches to writing ekphrastic poetry, poetry engaged with visual art. She picks three examples of three strategies, a poem by Evie Shockley from her forthcoming 2023 collection Suddenly We, a poem by Ama herself, and then a long poem from Terrance Hayes from his forthcoming 2023 collection So to Speak. She talks about each of them along the way. To learn how to subscribe to the bonus audio and about the other potential benefits of joining the Between the Covers community as a listener-supporter, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s episode with Ama Codjoe.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet Ama Codjoe. Codjoe received a BA in English from Brown University and an MFA in dance performance from Ohio State University where she received the Presidential Fellowship, the graduate school’s most prestigious award, and finally an MFA at NYU in creative writing where she was Rona Jaffe Graduate Fellow. Codjoe has worked as associate director of professional development for the DreamYard Art Center, an arts and social justice organization in the Bronx and she’s been the lead teaching artist of the arts and activism program, The ACTION Project, a four-year art and activism program for high school aged kids as well as acting as a facilitator conducting anti-racism workshops for many organizations ranging from the Met Museum and the Pratt Institute, to the National Guild for Community Arts Education. As a poet, she is part of the Poets at the End of the World Collective, five poets: Ama Codjoe, Donika Kelly, Nicole Sealey, Evie Shockley, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon who are influenced by the work and lives of Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde to turn literary work into action. Codjoe has been a Cave Canem fellow, a Callaloo Writers Workshop fellow, the recipient of the 2017 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, the 2018 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize, selected by Natasha Trethewey, a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship among many others. Her work has been selected twice for Best American Poetry and her chapbook Blood of the Air was winner of the 2019 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize from Northwestern University Press. Ama Codjoe is here today for her much anticipated and already much-loved debut full-length poetry collection just out from Milkweed called Bluest Nude with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Former U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith says of Bluest Nude, “How beautifully seen, tended, and rendered are our many Black lives under this poet’s exquisite gaze. In appetite and loss, rage and praise, what animates these poems is a profound cherishing, an abiding (and yet at every turn surprising) love rushing out from the lush wilderness of Ama Codjoe’s rapturous imagination. Bluest Nude is an ecstatic encounter.” Our current U.S Poet Laureate Ada Limón adds, “Sensual, sound-driven, and brimming with a necessary truth, the poems in Bluest Nude are pulsating with both grief and beauty. Wrought out of resurrection and reclaiming, these brilliant poems honor the mystery and legacy of the body. Codjoe has written a true triumph of a debut that feels urgent and deeply human.” Finally, National Book Award-winning poet Mary Szybist says, “It is hard to find words for the fineness of Ama Codjoe’s poetry, its unabashed and luminous vibrancy. She unframes old myths about beauty and femininity and care to bring them intimately into the experience of the body where she forges far more supple visions. Her language is so rich and resourceful that, as it enlarges lyric possibilities, it also enlarges human ones. Never have I been so convinced that the desire to know oneself and the desire to be the agent of one’s own radical self-making can be audacious and brilliant collaborators.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Ama Codjoe.
AC: Thank you, David Naimon. [laughter] It’s a pleasure to be here.
DN: Yes. I’ve been thinking about this day for so long. Well, I want to start with one of the origin stories of Bluest Nude. But first I’d love to start with the origin of it as a book or the vision of a book. Because this collection doesn’t feel to me like a collection insofar as it coheres in a way that feels like everything in it is singing together, which makes me imagine someone writing each poem with the whole in mind, with a book in mind. But I realized that it could be the opposite, that perhaps stumbling upon a vision after the poems are written, one might look back on already-written poems and shape a book based on what one includes or what it excludes. But either way, there is I think a lot of uncanny cross-conversation between these poems, repeating motifs where I feel a cohesion the way I might with a Jorie Graham book or a Nikky Finney book which feel like poetry books to me, not poetry collections. Talk to us about how this book became book-like.
AC: [laughs] Oh, it was all of that. It’s so interesting because I can see where I was. I was at this residency in Captiva, Florida and I thought I was working towards a second collection. Then I just had this moment where I thought, “Wait. What if what I thought would be my first full-length book, this pile of poems and these newer poems that I’ve been written are actually a third thing and I don’t know it?” I had this, I guess maybe a pressure because I was wanting to share it with a reader, a trusted reader and so I was like, “Well, let me see what happens.” Then it felt like what you’re saying, all of these echoes I could just hear and see in that other pile with these newer poems that I’ve been writing that were really specifically in response to these questions of the Black feminine nude. But even I think when I was writing my thesis at NYU, Terrance Hayes who is my thesis advisor, it’s like there’s a lot of clothes, there’s a lot of nakedness, so it was like seeing something that I think was happening already and then also a burst of writing that was very intentional and had a clear objective and then bringing those together.
DN: Well, as you’ve said, much of this book is engaged with looking and seeing in questions of self-making in relation to both how we see and what we do with how we are seen. One of the primary modes of this is your engagement with visual art, the depictions of the Black female nude which becomes a multifaceted active scene. It’s seen by the viewer of the art but that seeing is a way of looking at what the artist is also seeing and how they are seeing what they’re seeing. When you talk to Milkweed’s creative director Mary Austin Speaker, you foregrounded the experience of attending an exhibit in 2019 called Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today as a seminal moment in the formation of this project. You get the sense from that conversation that this exhibition and what it inspires in you coalesces many things inside of you. Perhaps this could be another origin story for the book but talk to us about Denise Murrell’s exhibit and why it’s important in this journey for Bluest Nude.
AC: There was this really incredible confluence of events so I decided to go to see this exhibition that my friend Donika Kelly told me about. It happened to be I think the last weekend that it was showing and maybe a few days prior, there was a Times article so it was really packed. I was waiting for a friend, because normally I’m early, and so I was waiting and there were a couple of people who I think were tourists and they were trying to decide if they wanted to stay or go. Then there was another person who came around us and it was like, “I have these tickets to hear the curator but I can’t stay. Do you all want these tickets?” So they took the tickets and then they decided they were going to go elsewhere and they gave me the tickets. So me and my friend got to hear Denise Murrell talk about the exhibition which completely enthralled me I think in a way that I might not have been without hearing her talk about her process of research and this critical question that really resonated with me around “Who is this model and this Manet painting Laure?” She went to Paris and was looking at all these archives and really this idea that there are so many stories that we actually assume we know that we don’t know. So I had her with me as I went through the exhibition and I bought the catalog afterwards. Unlike most times when I buy a catalog, I read every single word and I let it lead me to all these other places including the Lorraine O’Grady essay Olympia’s Maid and I just abided with it for a really long time and it started to shape what I was writing in terms of poems. By the time that I sat down at that desk in Florida, that’s what I really wanted to write towards. So it was definitely a watershed experience and also just being in the company of someone who had decided Denise Murrell to change careers later in her life and who this story that I’ve told this, being in a room, seeing this painting, and then seeing the professor passed by it and asking herself, “Well, there’s another figure in that painting besides this naked White women Olympia, there’s someone else there. Who is she?” That quest that she made for herself and that it ended in this exhibition that was also redesigned in Paris, I was so admiring of that pursuit. I wanted to pursue my own questions in response to what she had done.
DN: Well, I watched a video of Denise talking about the origin of her exhibition that it’s 140 works exhibited, that the exhibition was based on her doctoral thesis, and as you say, it connects to this experience as a student where she was in an art history lecture and they’re about to talk about Manet’s Olympia and she’s anticipating with great interest what the teacher will say about the Black figure in the painting, the servant who’s bringing flowers to the reclining White nude woman and she’s shocked that it isn’t commented on at all as if she weren’t even there. What’s interesting about the Manet to me is that unlike the Titian painting that inspired it, which includes servants, White servants in the distant background, the Black servant in Manet’s painting, even though she’s often referred to also as in the background is actually right up against the edge of the bed where the reclining nude woman is, she’s pretty much in the same horizontal plane at almost the same depth and is both given and takes up a considerable portion of the painting space. She’s prominently present, at least to my eye. And yet T. J. Clark, the art historian, has recounted his friend’s disbelief that in Clark’s 1990 version of his book, The Painting of Modern Life, that he had written about the White woman on the bed for nearly 50 pages and hardly mentioned the Black woman beside her. Then it’s interesting, as you alluded to also, how Murrell does this archival work in Manet’s diaries to discover the name of the model for the servant Laure and d’Orsay Museum changes the name of a painting from Negresse to A Portrait of Laure. But it’s also interesting to look at the legacy of this painting, not only how it is inspired by previous paintings, but also the way it cascades forward; Manet’s Olympia inspires Cézanne’s A Modern Olympia, Magritte’s Olympia, and perhaps most notably, Basquiat’s painting Three Quarters of Olympia Minus the Servant. What is your experience of looking at this painting of Manet for you? Do you see Murrell’s recovery of Laure who, on the one hand, has been right there all along, and yet on another, has been evacuated of all presence to the point that under this gaze, Lorraine O’Grady says that the servant is not a real person but both a Jezebel and a Mammy. Knowing all of this and all this commentary and this archival work, talk to us just a little bit about the experience of standing before it for you. What is your relationship to it and what do you feel about Manet in relationship to it if we were to step behind all of the ways people have ignored the servant? What is your sense of Manet in relation to the servant?
AC: The painting Olympia was not actually a part of the Wallach Art Gallery Harlem, New York exhibition. They couldn’t borrow it but it was a part of the Musée d’Orsay Exhibition in Paris and I was so obsessed with this whole thing that I went to Paris. I was in basically London house sitting for a friend and I took the train for one night and I went straight to the museum. One of the very amazing and moving things that they did with the redesign exhibition in Paris was rename paintings, as you mentioned. There were other Black models that had been researched and usually, just their first names were found and so when you went up to the drawing or painting, it would be named that Black model’s first name. So you wind your way and get to the pinnacle of the exhibition, which is the painting referred to as Olympia, and you see Laure and it’s like, “Wow, talk about an excavation and a reclaiming.” I think what Murrell’s research was trying to get at is that she is significant, it is a racist White imagination that then makes her insignificant, but there was so much going on with the dress. What she’s trying to say is like this was actually a symbol of modernity, this particular figure, and the way that Manet imagined and painted her that it’s as significant as the other elements of what’s going on in that painting. I felt like lots of things were possible having that experience of walking up to that painting and seeing it, I think temporarily renamed. It just was a really evocative and moving experience and a beautifully curated exhibition.
DN: I was hoping we could hear the Lorraine O’Grady epigraph to your book and then the poems that are facing each other On Seeing and Being Seen and Two Girls Bathing.
[Ama Codjoe reads from her debut poetry collection from Milkweed, Bluest Nude]
DN: We’ve been listening to Ama Codjoe read from her debut poetry collection from Milkweed, Bluest Nude. Already here, I feel like just in these two poems, we see a remarkable amount of conversation which only hints at the ways this happens across the book I think. But the two ways of seeing, in the first poem, the line “When I want to remember something beautiful, instead of taking a photograph, I close my eyes,” and the ways the second poem, eyes wide open, is about seeing oneself by looking at the body of one’s cousin where the cousin becomes the mirror and the horrific breasts in Elizabeth Bishop’s eyes quoted from her poem where she’s looking at naked Black women in a National Geographic and then the way the lover in the poem covers the nipple perhaps love protecting the breast from that sight perhaps in the same way you might close your eyes rather than take a photograph of something, talk to us about nudity beyond the nude as a model in art. Nudity and nakedness are a big part of this collection.
AC: There’s something about the question, or I guess a series of questions about what do I see when I look at myself and my naked body in the mirror? And even alone, am I ever alone? I guess it’s about what are the things that are shaping my sight and what have I internalized, how can I use my eyes, in a way that’s a tool, and then even when I’m looking at myself, am I also seeing myself as other people see me? It just feels like a hall of mirrors really and this intimate space of a bedroom and/or a hotel and a lover like who else is in the space with us? I think that one of the many centers of the book is these unanswerable questions because there’s something about the feeling or idea of nakedness that is about stripping bear and yet there are so many layers left even on that naked flesh and particularly thinking about that as a racialized body. I don’t know if that gets to what you’re asking.
DN: I think so. Well, let’s stay with it a little longer. You’ve talked about John Berger’s notion from Ways of Seeing where he distinguishes between nakedness and nudity, the way he distinguishes these two you say is useful. Do you remember what he means by the difference?
AC: I think it’s about who’s doing the looking like nudity has a bit more of grotesque or voyeurism or it’s less I think pure than nakedness in a way that he’s trying to make a distinction.
DN: Well, if we think about it making a difference, who’s doing the looking and then that you’ve said you yourself are interested in what a loving gaze full of intelligence, history, joy, and pain can bring to a body, recently Rebecca Solnit posted a quote of John Berger’s also from Ways of Seeing. I’m curious what you think of it, especially because it isn’t engaging with the racialized body so I’d be curious to hear how much this speaks to what you’re doing and how much it doesn’t. Here’s what Solnit posted of Berger, “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
AC: Yeah, and that resonates.
DN: That resonates?
AC: Yeah. I think I thought instantly the first couple of words of double consciousness. I think it’s a relevant way of thinking that applies to many people who have been historically marginalized or uncentered. I would think that the same thing could apply to, for instance, the Black male. I don’t know if you know this artist, Jordan Casteel?
DN: I don’t.
AC: She did a lot of paintings that were of Black men and they were all nudes. She decided to not show the genitalia and to have a direct gaze, and to do these paintings in spaces that were intimate to the people who were sitting for her. All of these things that I think point to the problems, essentially like oppression, and I guess I’m trying to say that I think a lot of people, not just women, would be able to relate to the passage that Solnit posted of Berger.
DN: One of the things that occurs over and over again in this collection is bathing, being bathed, bathing others from the poem Lotioning My Mother’s Back to Heaven as Olympic Spa, which imagines Wanda Coleman and Gwendolyn Brooks at a Koreatown bathhouse together. I have many questions about this. Part of me wonders if there is an almost religious or spiritual component to the washing or whether you are playing with the notion of one, clearly a washing as loving. I also love, just more generally speaking, how democratically the book evokes Eros, not just with lovers, and there are plenty of poems about lovers, but in these intimacies between cousins, between mothers and daughters, and naked poets in bathhouses too. But also thinking about this Berger quote and the way he describes self-surveillance in a particularly gendered way, it feels like there is something possibly instructive happening in these bathing scenes too, a knowledge being passed down. Not just the cousin teaching the other, the ‘I’ of the poem, how to wash themselves, but Gwendolyn Brooks also showing the subject of the poem, how to tend to themselves by scrubbing dead skin with a coarse washcloth. Talk to us a little bit about bathing, about not just being naked but being naked together in this hands-on way.
AC: Okay. If we look at two girls bathing, which I think would have been the first poem that had bathing in it that I wrote, I wasn’t yet thinking about the Black feminine nude, I was just going over a memory that stuck out to me and it does have to do with this difference between nakedness and nudity or who’s doing the looking. Because I remember my cousin, Carol, having a different context for her naked body, which was in Accra in Ghana where I have family, and being struck as a young person with how much I didn’t have the same freeness that she had and wanting to describe that moment. I remember revising that poem and really it bringing to mind all of these personal memories, thinking about my mother raising three children, putting us all in a bathtub and efficiently washing us, and then this other moment where I’m in a place that is not the home I’m used to but a different kind of home where people are bathing differently and where a lot of women that I love are just moving through space in a way that maybe I hadn’t seen before. There’s that in terms of that specific poem. Then when you were asking the question, I was also thinking about this bathing ritual that I did that has roots in Haiti and that idea of water washing over, it’s like pouring over your head and onto the rest of your body, I hadn’t thought about it in the way that you spoke in terms of a spiritual experience in the book but I did feel that in my life. I do feel like what I want for the women in the book is that kind of love and baptism in that love and the safety and freedom to feel vulnerable, unafraid, and protected.
DN: I was hoping you would read for us Lotioning My Mother’s Back and Heaven as Olympic Spa.
[Ama Codjoe reads from her debut poetry collection from Milkweed, Bluest Nude]
DN: We’ve been listening to Ama Codjoe read from Bluest Nude. To extend my wondering about the bathing, sometimes almost having this sacramental quality or you even have the line that I just noticed for the first time, “Is this what a laying of hands is like?” in the first poem you read. We have a question for you from Mary Szybist.
Mary Szybist: Hello, Ama. It’s Mary. Thank you for bringing Bluest Nude into the world. Your poems continue to astonish me. There’s of course so much in this collection but I’ve been thinking about your speech acts and the way your poems enact and interrogate different kinds of speaking, their relationship to address and answer listening and singing. I’m especially noticing your use of vows. One that stays with me is “I vowed to feel as alive as the woman who—in a rite of spring—must dance herself. To death.” Could you say more about vows? I wonder how close this statement is to your own beliefs when your speaker says, “The vows we promiseone another are veils through which we envisionthe future;” I love that. Has intentionality, perhaps through the use of articulated vows, been part of your own practice, Ama? Thank you, Ama.
AC: Thank you, Mary. A beloved poet. A treasure. Ah, oh my goodness. Hmm. I think in some ways, there’s a vocation of being a poet which has to do, not only with writing, maybe even more so with how one moves through the world and the kind of looking that a person does, a kind of observation, study, and feeling, and that’s a kind of aliveness that I think I must have vowed. When I walked down the street, I had this very crystallized moment of feeling like I was a poet and I was whispering to myself, “I am a poet. I am a poet.”
DN: I love that.
AC: Yeah, I think it’s part of that. There is some agreement about being present, listening, and perceiving, and then there’s the part where you put it on a page. But 90% of it is moving through the world.
DN: Because of the intimacy and the sense of being among the speaker of the poem’s family, the sense of being invited into a privacy, it’s very hard for me not to think of the ‘I’ in your poems as you. If I go to Lorraine O’Grady’s essay that is one of the inspirations for this book, Olympia’s Maid reclaiming Black female subjectivity and we look at just before the epigraph that you begin your book with, the epigraph that starts with “To name ourselves rather than be named we must first see ourselves,” there’s a paragraph before that that leaps out to me where O’Grady says, “What alternative is there really-in creating a world sensitive to difference, a world where margins can become centers-to a cooperative effort between white women and women and men of color? But cooperation is predicated on sensitivity to differences among ourselves. As Nancy Hartsock has said, ‘We need to dissolve the false ‘we’ into its true multiplicity.’ We must be willing to hear each other and to call each other by our ‘true-true name.’” Holding this in mind, this ‘true-true name’ and bringing us out of this false ‘we’ into true multiplicity, I want to ask you about the ‘I’ in your poems in relation to you and how you see it. Particularly because one way you could characterize this book is as a book about self-making, but perhaps not in the normal notion of what a self is. When you were talking with Maggie Millner, you felt like she encapsulated the essence of this book when she said, “This is a book obsessed with the desire to see oneself clearly, yet also to make language accommodate multiplicity and interdependency: the state of being both ‘me / and not only me.’” In Tupelo Quarterly you ask, “Am I ever only myself or am I ever-tied to the histories, intimacies, stereotypes, and ghosts that hover on top of and around my body? Is that what ‘myself’ means?” You’ve said one of the animating questions of this book is “What is the role of art making in constructing subjectivity?” So, Ama Codjoe, how is the constructed ‘I’ in Bluest Nude the art making that made this ‘I’ related to you and your own subjectivity? Talk to us a little bit more about how you see the ‘I’ of your poems in relationship to your true-true self.
AC: Hmm. I love that true-true self. I think thinking about it with you, David Naimon, [laughter] that there’s definitely an ‘I’ in the book that is close to me that feels like it’s mining my own life and personal history. I guess I would also say parenthetically that when that ‘I’ is present, there could also be a kind of switching that happens. If there’s another person in the scene, I might give the ‘I’ what I perceive as their qualities and vice versa, which is a way that I think for myself that I’m, I guess, trying not to write a memoir. [laughter] It’s obviously just for me that I know what changes I’m making, but it feels true. Then there’s the ‘I’ that is not me but could be, or is someone who is close to me. I guess it’s another way of thinking about what persona means and maybe persona is like another way into this question about the ‘I’ because there are so many figures that I inhabit, a lot of them being objects like pieces of art, and in that imagining, I somehow, I guess, figure out what’s very personal and true to me that resonates with that figure and it becomes less of a mask in that way. There are certainly not masks that are so thick and strong in the book. I feel like if someone is calling out my true-true name, I can just see this cast of women turning to look. It’s all of them. It’s all of us whose name is being called.
DN: Staying with O’Grady and O’Grady’s sense of a true-true self, and then all the Black women together in this book, unclothed yet unseen by others other than themselves, I wondered if and how this relates to another part of O’Grady’s essay. Also, I was thinking about O’Grady’s essay when you were talking about the difference in bathing of your cousin in Ghana versus here in the United States. She writes about how the female body is not a unitary sign. But like a coin, white on one side and not white on the other, but that the two bodies can’t be separated or understood in isolation if one wants to understand the Western construction of the notion of woman. White is what woman is, not white is what she had better not be. She goes on to say that the not-white woman is symbolically excluded from sexual difference, but rather their function is by their chiaroscuro, the shadows that cast the difference of white women into sharper relief. Then she goes on to talk about a book by Sylvia Ardyn Boone, Radiance from the Waters that explores notions of feminine beauty in the Mende people of Sierra Leone, girls who go topless in the village, and even in urban areas, they go bare-breasted in the house, the school girls taking off their dresses when they arrive home. Then O’Grady flash-forwards to the descendants brought here, originally in chains, and talks about witnessing Black girls and women of all classes showering and shampooing with their bathing suits on while beside them, their white sisters were naked. She says, “Perhaps they have internalized and are cooperating with the West’s construction of not-white women as not-to-be-seen.” She then connects this to the legions of Black servants in the shadows of aristocratic portraiture including Manet’s Olympia, these figures meant as two in one, Jezebel and Mammy, prostitute and female eunuch. “When we’re through with her inexhaustibly comforting breast, we can use her ceaselessly open cunt. And best of all, she is not a real person, only a robotic servant who is not permitted to make us feel guilty.” She goes on to underscore that she’s not talking about the madonna and the whore, but the castrata and the whore, that Laure’s place in Manet’s Olympia is outside what can be conceived of as a woman and the excision of her chaos is what stabilizes the West’s construction of the female body. She gives the example of Judy Chicago’s piece from the 1970s called Dinner Party where 39 places are set at the table and 36 of those places are set with versions of Chicago’s famous vagina and recognizable slits have been given to figures that O’Grady describes tongue-in-cheek as sex bombs, the figures being Queen Elizabeth I, Emily Dickinson, and Susan B. Anthony. The only Black guest represented at the table, Sojourner Truth, receives the only plate inscribed with a face, something Hortense Spillers comments on by saying, “The excision of the genitalia here is a symbolic castration. Chicago not only abrogates the disturbing sexuality of her subject, but also hopes to suggest that her sexual being did not exist to be denied in the first place.” I’ve included too much here already and this is only as it scratches the surface of this essay, but thinking about construction of a Black female subjectivity in your work and the ways that O’Grady is dealing with nakedness in Sierra Leone versus in the American locker room, I guess I was wondering if this brings up any further thoughts and if you could just more generally speak more about O’Grady’s project in relationship to yours.
AC: Well, I think there are multiple vines and the kind of impossibility that O’Grady is describing to be everything and nothing, to be the kind of person that you don’t see, wouldn’t want sexually, and also the person that you are raping, there are so many contradictions that are inherent in the way that Black women have been figured. It’s like shaped and presented that it does boggle the mind. I think part of what she’s trying to get at, it’s like, I guess if you point all of that out, maybe we can see how absurd this is. If her audience in some ways is like White women in terms of the first audience for this paper, for White women to be able to understand that they’re involved deeply in all of this misconstruction, the breadth of this essay, it’s so huge that it’s like it takes on psychology, philosophy, and I read it many, many times. One of the crystallizing moments for me is when she’s talking about this idea of self-making and expression at the same time as a critical consciousness is being formed or at the same time as we’re also challenging oppression. I don’t know if this is a side step, David, but it reminds me of Simone Leigh’s work because I guess I feel like we’re at this point now as art makers where we don’t have to list the bullet points of the things that are wrong. We can just be like, “See this tome of evidence of things that are not okay in terms of representing the Black female figure?” That we can actually turn toward ourselves and toward each other, and that the kinds of critiques that we have because we are intelligent breathing people, can live on the periphery of the art like it exists. I was thinking about this actually in terms of a house, like you walk into the house, then let’s say that this house is my book and there are these paintings that are there, this furniture and figures, and they’re all these things that are just there. There’s no big announcement. They’re just there. Then the house is situated on a street which is situated in a neighborhood, which is situated in a so-called nation. I don’t have to, as an artist, comment on all that. I can just invite you to the house and you can look around at the paintings. The paintings are just every day. There are portraits of Black women living their lives. That’s my hope for the book. I think the way that Simone Leigh, who is a phenomenal artist, does that is by just presenting these towering gorgeous figures who are definitely Black and doing a ton of research but not really calling attention to the racist thing that might also be a part of what’s inspiring making this image. That the existence of the art can be about itself. That we have maybe finally reached a place where that’s possible.
DN: Yeah. I want to spend some more time with Simone Leigh. But before we do, maybe in light of O’Grady talking about Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, could you introduce us to, maybe orient us too a little bit, and read the poem after Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima?
AC: Yeah. Let me say about the Judy Chicago The Dinner Party, I mean there’s this whole phrase that sits at the table, so not only have you not given us many seats at the table but then the kind of, let’s just say the thing that you’re serving to everyone else, you give us something different. Being able to be aware as a maker that you’re doing that feels really important. This poem is after an assemblage piece by Betye Saar that was made in 1972 and actually many Aunt Jemimas, this kind of mammy figure, are portrayed in this assemblage. But the main objective and thrust is that Aunt Jemima is being excised from this domestic sphere, and given the tools of a revolutionary. She’s holding a rifle. There’s also an image of her holding a baby on her hip. There are hand grenades that are there. This liberation that the artist is given to a figure that has been constrained and also a figure that doesn’t exist, a figure that’s been imagined by a racist imagination. I really love the piece, I think it’s striking. I really admire Betye Saar’s artistry. I also am adding to this liberation another hope for the figure and the assemblage.
[Ama Codjoe reads from her debut poetry collection from Milkweed, Bluest Nude]
DN: We’ve been listening to Ama Codjoe read from Bluest Nude. Let’s return to Simone Leigh before we leave.
AC: Well, David, can I add something?
AC: I just think the poem, there is such a violent contradiction about this domestic enslaved person who worked in the house that has characterized as a mammy and who really was the closest to the physical assault and sexual violence in the plantations that existed on the land that we now live on. It’s really beyond troubling to think about how these figures have been mythologized and how we think of them as real because then they become the faces of like pancake syrup, and all these things we think that that is actually real. That is such, the only word I could think of is violence. To have this figure who’s stripped of their sexuality, then also hypersexualized, it’s maddening. When I think about what I would hope for her and for me, it’s like this release from all of that and even from the waging that is our movement building, even the kinds of waging of freedom fighting, I want her to lay down.
DN: Well, taking this forward, this idea of her being over-determined and erased simultaneously, what is hidden, what is seen, how it is seen in relation to nakedness and nudity that both you and O’Grady are unpacking along the fault lines of race, we have to mention the sculpture on the cover of your book by Simone Leigh. She, like you and like O’Grady, talks about her work being about parsing the construction of Black female subjectivity as well as paying homage to a long history of black female collectivity, communality, and care. In this sculpture interestingly, the top half is a bare-breasted torso and the bottom half looks to me almost like a bell. Leigh calls the bottom half skirted and sometimes she makes it into a jug by adding a handle. But whatever we call it, it obscures or hides, perhaps protects the human form within it entirely. We don’t see any of the human form within it. Whereas the top half is fully revealed. Her pavilion at the Venice Biennale which you’re at right now is called Sovereignty of which she describes sovereignty as self-governance. “To be sovereign is not to be subject to another’s authority, but also not to be subject to another’s gaze, to become the author of one’s own history.” I guess I was hoping you could speak to the cover, for sure, but also the experience of being at the Loophole of Retreat: Venice and the sculpture that you’ve chosen which you’ve called either the last poem in the book or the first poem in the book. Lastly, given that some of what’s happening in Venice is available for us to watch online, if there is anything in particular you’d want to point us to.
AC: There’s such wisdom in Simone Leigh’s work. I really appreciated what you said about the protection. I think she does the same thing when she erases the eyes. There’s something about the way she’s using clay or bronze and earthenware to make these humongous, ambitious, beautiful sculptures that is all about sovereignty. When I hear that word, I hear the sound clip of Toni Morrison speaking to Charlie Rose and talking about her own sovereignty, and how she learned to write for herself without the white gaze through reading African writers, and how so much of what Simone Leigh is reaching back to is also about art practices that are happening on the continent of Africa as well as the Deep South. I not only feel in awe of her sculptures but the way she, as an artist in the world, is always about one, recognizing that even though she is the first Black woman to represent the United States at the Biennale, she doesn’t deserve that first, that many other people could have been first. That first is about something outside of her and outside of her lineage. That’s about racism and not about her. That’s number one. She acknowledges that in her confidence and her humility. Two, that she’s going to bring as many people along as she can. She convened around 700, mostly Black women, to come from around the world to Venice for a Loophole of Retreat: Venice. I was lucky enough to be a part of that congregation. It was tremendous and beautiful. It happened on an island, so it felt like we had a world to ourselves. Every speaker, presenter, and artist who performed was just out of this world. I hesitate to recommend but I would say one of the only poets who was presenting was Aracelis Girmay who offered something up on day three of the conference. I would definitely watch that. Day three also, there’s a conversation between Lorraine O’Grady and Simone Leigh but there were so many beautiful moments. There’s an artist Grada Kilomba who speaks about an installation that’s in London at the moment that is difficult to describe so I won’t even try. [laughter] But I would say if you begin to watch, you will continue to watch because it’s a beautiful archive. There were thousands of people watching as it was going on. Sometimes, there were things happening simultaneously and I would come home very late, then watch things that I’d missed. Holly Bass is a wonderful performer who’s also a poet, who did an incredible piece. I think it’s called American Woman.
DN: Christina Sharpe has been sharing some clips of performances on Twitter too that have been really mindblowing.
AC: Oh my gosh, Christina Sharpe, Dionne Brand. That’s the other part that there were so many writers specifically whose work is so important to me who were just there. Yeah, Dionne Brand, Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, Canisia Lubrin. It was like a vision, like stepping into a vision of a world that was true as opposed to a dream.
DN: In the spirit of what you’re conjuring for us and this notion of sovereignty, I wanted to ask about another thing that Simone Leigh says. She says, “In order to tell the truth, you need to invent what might be missing from the archive, to collapse time, to concern yourself with issues of scale, to formally move things around in a way that reveals something more true than fact.” This sentiment is one I’ve been particularly living with over the last year with the Crafting with Ursula series that is happening throughout 2022 because this is a belief that Le Guin held deeply that informs her notion of what the imagination is, something that makes us more human than the opposable thumb in her mind. But it came up most in the conversation with Adrienne Maree Brown about science fiction and social justice where we looked at the thoughts of Brown herself, and also Walidah Imarisha as those thoughts connected to the homage anthology that they co-edited around Octavia Butler and Afrofuturism. But I think of this when you say when you want to remember something, you will close your eyes rather than take a photograph. The “close the eyes,” like the bottom half of Leigh’s sculpture might contain the meaning more than what we try to capture through sight. It might be a different form of seeing. I think about the ways photography appears in this collection, also in relation to the end of Leigh’s film called Sovereignty where she burns a paper mache version of a ceramic work called Anonymous that depicts the unidentified Black female subject from a racist 1882 souvenir photograph taken by a White photographer, and that the burning of this photograph for her was a cathartic ritual for her. But I also think of a section of your title poem Bluest Nude that goes, “In the news, there was another incident. If I describe how the officer treated the young woman’s body, I am also describing the color of her body. Let me refuse simile. I do not wish to write it.” There’s a lot of nakedness in this book but I was hoping we could spend a moment with sovereignty in relation to the bottom half of the sculpture on the cover or with the closed eyes or with the refusal to describe which feels like the other side of the Bluest Nude.
AC: I love that observation. I think the refusal is a kind of protection. In some ways, it reminds me of just the filmmaker who made Conspiracy, which is the film that’s a part of Simone Leigh’s exhibit, Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich. She was talking during Loophole of Retreat: Venice about how some of the subjects that she was filming had secrets and she didn’t want to put them in the film, and how in some ways there’s a fiction that’s happening. This isn’t in Conspiracy. It’s in another film that she made. I love that idea of like the secret and the secret, the refusal, and the protection being linked together. There’s also what doesn’t need to be said because we’ve seen it so much, the kinds of brutality, I mean the things that really should make us fall to the ground and just be subsumed with grief that we have become accustomed to watching, if not hearing about, in terms of the brutality, violence, and murder of indigenous people, Black people, trans people. Knowing that we all have that already as an author, as part of my sovereignty, refusing to give you that image again because I know you have it, it feels like a disruption to what we may have become accustomed to or what we may have to become accustomed to in order to just wake up in the morning and continue on with the things that we’re supposed to do. It feels like we should all just be doubled over, unable to move based on the level, the scale of inhumanity, ill-treatment. It should be debilitating. I think it is in our psyches in a lot of ways collectively. But yeah, in that moment in that poem, and I think in other places, just refusing to say.
DN: In one way it reminds me of something Evie Shockley says in your conversation with her and Donika Kelly. It was after you were describing that you loved residencies and how you would look out a window from your desk and write and Evie saying how it was interesting that you were a poet who looks out a window but that what you write is very different from what the typical poet who looks out a window writes, which might also speak back to two different ways of seeing. But it makes me think of the line from the collection, “My body is a lens / I can look through with my mind.” I’m sure that you choosing not to describe some things is part of the sovereignty of this collection and part of why it feels so life-giving. But I also think even if you had chosen to center racism in the collection, that it would have still been a very life-giving collection because having attended your online book tour now with Sharon Olds, Ross Gay, it’s clear that you have some quality in you that feels this way. You emanate something that your poems also do. I’m thinking of things Sharon Olds said about you in your event with her. Her preface of that event was just so mind-blowing and amazing. That the ‘I’ in your book isn’t entirely autobiographical. That you have these alternate representations of the ‘I’ and of a people that allows us to move forward from our history and our art history. That the book is experimental but down to Earth and the qualities she thinks of with it are clarity, morning, tenderness, and truth, subtle truth, and raw truth, both. That the collection does not ask us for anything but is pure gift. That the poems are very strong, never making nice but they are nevertheless nourishing. I feel like this all describes your events which felt so connected and emotionally vulnerable, joyful, and tearful, aware of an ‘I’ situated within the community and the significance that these others had gathered around your book, a book that itself had gathered the work of so many others. When I think about the poet Canisia Lubrin’s uneasiness with the lyric ‘I’ where in one talk she said that she doesn’t like how the lyric ‘I’ enacts a verticality of ego, the hierarchy of knowing that it entails or the way it makes a singular sound, a homogenizing sound. I feel like your poetry, and you as a poet in the world, I guess feels to me like it’s working against that ‘I’ too. It’s not really even that this is a question. I think it’s more of a thank you. [laughter] But I wonder if this raises any thoughts for you returning to this question of the ‘I’ and this question of sovereignty which is not the same as individuality.
AC: I’m reminded of something else that Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich said which was that she reminds herself that Simone Leigh, they’re often collaborators, used to make pots and pottery but take out the bottom of it so that they could not be useful, which I love. [laughter] It reminds me of that because useful, I think to elaborate on what Madeleine shared, can mean different things just like I can mean different things. We don’t have to take what we have received that is dripping with patriarchy, white supremacy, and everything else as what it is. The ‘I’ doesn’t have to be this self-reliance myth. If I look at what I believe it means, I can’t help but see so many people in an ‘I’. It’s impossible not to. We didn’t just get here by ourselves. At the least, there are two people that are involved. I think there’s something about it redefining that as a part of sovereignty. Sovereignty, meaning self-determination but also self-definition and the ability to define, describe, and determine what is useful. I mean, is art useful? Is beauty useful? It could be something that is a little bit different than what we might have inherited. That’s what comes to mind.
DN: Well, earlier this year before Ada Limòn became our U.S Poet Laureate, she was on the show and I reached out to her to see if she might ask a question to you in this interview but knowing full well that now that she is U.S Poet Laureate giving readings at the Library of Congress, surely inundated with publicity requests, that it wouldn’t likely happen, and Vaughan who handles her speaking engagements agreed with me, but surely, this speaks to Ada’s esteem for your work which she also has featured on her podcast The Slowdown which she hosts, that she did record one. Here’s Ada Limón.
Ada Limón: Hi, this is Ada Limón. I just have a question for you. I feel like we don’t get to celebrate enough and I just wanted to know, I know how long you’ve been working, how hard you’ve been working on your poems and I wanted to know how it felt to have your book put together, to see it in your hands, to hold it for the first time. Yeah, I want to know more about that. Thanks.
AC: Thank you, Ada, and thank you, David. [laughter] This little valentine, they’re just amazing. Oh, I have been really astounded by how amazingly good it feels not just to hold the book but to have readers who care so much and are so thoughtful. So many people have said, “I’m reading the book. I’m reading a poem a day and I’m taking my time with it,” and it’s just been truly marvelous. I, as you could tell in these events that you weren’t present for, have just been overwhelmed by how much love I feel and how much gratitude. Again, it comes back to that ‘I’ not being alone at all. I am the author of the book but there’s such a constellation of people, some of whom I have never met, my ancestors that are just along with me. It feels so full of everyone. I’ve said this before but I think about literature as a river. It’s a river that I have been quenched by. I’m just humbled to offer something to that river. I feel really grateful. There’s also this thing about the reader knowing so much because I’m bringing to my own reading of my own poem all of this information that is not on the page. These memories. I can have this film like I can remember when I’m composing, what I was thinking, the images that I’m seeing, and the reader is just coming fresh to the page. It is such a gift to be able to hear what they hear and to listen to what they see. It’s been remarkable. I feel very grateful and full.
DN: Yeah, I mean one of the best things about your events is actually watching you and your capacity to take it in. It feels like we can see you in real-time acknowledging the love and somehow, I mean this is something I really admire in watching you, is acknowledging it and taking it in. I loved it. I was hoping maybe we could hear Primordial Mirror.
[Ama Codjoe reads from her debut poetry collection from Milkweed, Bluest Nude]
DN: We’ve been listening to Ama Codjoe read from Bluest Nude. Well, let’s move from joy to blueness, Bluest Nude, or the lines in the collection like, “The blue in a record’s groove.” “Blue-black blue. The blue of a bruise.” “The blue you pick. The blue you choose.” “Blue tears.” “The fact of history strips me blue. All the green and blue mixed to make my flesh.” Talk to us about blue and the blues in Bluest Nude.
AC: I attempted to start with the title Bluest Nude, I guess there’s a chance it could be I Am Bluest When Nude. Blue, it’s been a color that captivated many artists’ imaginations. For me, certainly, it has to do with a deepness, a richness, a sadness, the blues. As much as I was thinking about nakedness and vulnerability, I was also thinking about this color which I’m very drawn to and which appears in so many artworks which I think allows for a kind of tone, mood, or emotionality that I wanted to also make portraits of.
DN: Perhaps in a similar way to the way blue is many things, and I think also the breast in this book is many things, not just a sight of pleasure for a lover or a milk-producing site of food and comfort, though it is these things also, but also less-described things, less overdetermined things too, your notion of woman is not tied to whether she has or wants children. This is something that came up quite tenderly in your Poetry Off the Shelf conversation where Helena de Groot becomes quite vulnerable about how her relationship with her partner is ending because she doesn’t want children, something that he knew from the get-go. But I’d love to hear anything about this element of the collection, a collection that is about, among many things, ancestry and futurity of generations of mothers and daughters, but also very much about this other way of an equally valid way of being a woman.
AC: I cherish that conversation with Helena. I guess this goes back to what the reader brings because I wouldn’t have necessarily named that as a thread in the book mostly because what I’m bringing as the author is so full and clouded with so many things it’s hard for me to discern. But I know that I was writing through this question of motherhood because it was a question in my life, that was coming up in my poems for years. Then when I had that moment at the desk in Florida, some of those poems felt resonant with what I then knew was becoming this book. But it wasn’t intentionally a theme I should say. But I see it now that I’ve been talking to people about it. It relates to this idea of redefinition. It would be a sad world if all we had was what we have inherited. To use that word of invention, invent that you brought up in terms of Simone Leigh, we can invent, I can invent my life, which I honestly am learning again and again, and in new ways. But I have that power. I think there’s some balance between recognizing what our constraints are and acting anyway. If one of the kinds of portraits of womanhood is mother and if it is an insistent and persistent portrait, how can I exist as a woman outside of that? The answer is it’s not that difficult. I just have to move forward living my life, making choices that I think support my values and who I want to be in the world. It’s not not complicated but I don’t sense the kinds of I guess dead ends that may be projected onto me. I can see over the wall. [laughter]
DN: Well, I would love to spend the rest of our time together talking about some questions of process and craft. First, we have a question from Donika Kelly that can start the way for us. [laughter]
Donika Kelly: This is Donika Kelly. Ama, I have a question for you. In She Said and Burying Seeds in the book, those two poems in particular although there are a number of poems that have epigraphs that are obviously taken from similar sources, you use archival documentary material and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your approach to incorporating the testimonies and interviews into the poems and how you approach shaping them. I feel like this again is perhaps clearest in She Said and Burying Seeds. I would just love to hear more about that.
AC: I love you, Donika. I think Donika knows this but there was some point way before I knew that this book was this book when I had been working on what I thought was going to be my first book. I had a lot of time left in a residency, so I decided I really wanted to write in a different way, not a lyric but thinking about documentary poetics. I was looking at Zong, I was looking at C.D. Wright and I also just knew that I wanted to write about the painter Artemisia. I didn’t know exactly what that meant yet. I didn’t know if that meant I would be writing a classic poem or what, but the poems she said came from that impulse to work in a different way which is not uncommon for my practice, and to really think about how to use found text. I was reading a really thick book and trying to figure out what kind of documentary text I could use, and I read the court transcripts from the rape trial that Artemisia Gentileschi’s father sued the rapist. I didn’t feel comfortable using any of her language because she basically was put on trial. She was also basically tortured. She had this very archaic cord wrapped around her hand. It was a brutal experience on many different levels. I didn’t feel comfortable using her words but there were these footnotes from the transcription that I felt could be a way into a poem and where the majority of the poem is using those footnotes and reordering them and putting them in conversation with other fragments including the Senate Judiciary Committee testimony that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave in 2018. That’s the story behind She Said which is actually a poem that I haven’t been asked a lot of questions about yet. Then with Burying Seeds, similarly I knew I wanted to write a poem for Betty Shabazz which is in the poem and I just started doing research. That one was a bit more straightforward in terms of lifting quotations that I felt made sense for the poem. But I guess if I could zoom out a little bit, I think craft-wise, there’s something so beneficial about just reaching into the unknown and moving towards something that is not my inclination, my habit, or my “nature as a writer.” One With Others by C.D. Wright is such an important text in my life but I remember very clearly trying to make a space for different kinds of poetics, and spending time really, like collaging with that poem that is essentially about sexual assault and also the kind of silencing, and the kind of echoes that I was hearing. While I was writing that poem, I was listening to news footage of Trump saying, “Why did she wait so long?” Then I’m looking at the transcripts of this rape trial and seeing it echoed over centuries, the same kinds of question, the same victim blaming. That’s part of the story of how I got to those documents. It’s a way of working that I would love to return to.
DN: You’ve said multiple places about your poetry, more generally in this collection, not necessarily specific to the documentary poetics of these two, that you wanted to create poems that were like paintings which, at least to my ear, sounds different than a poem that is engaging with a painting or about a painting. What does that mean to write a poem like a painting?
AC: I guess when I hear that question, I imagine a kind of lushness. I guess in some ways that it’s saying that I wanted to move into or walk into a landscape that I had dreamt. That is what I imagine painters are doing in their minds using the tools at their disposal to make something that could be resembling a reality but could also be not. I guess there’s something about the texture, beauty, and tone that I think is something that music, poetry, and painting have in common. There’s a way that one can behold a piece of art and still not know so much, and the same is true for poetry. Clearly, we can listen to a piece of music over and over, and over and over, and over and over, and over again. I think I was also thinking about the actual space of a museum. It’s wonderful that we’re in a time where you can go to a museum or you can go to an exhibition and be surrounded by Black figures, like going to the Kerry James Marshall exhibit. I think it’s hard to describe how powerful and meaningful that is. I just wanted to make something where when you enter the house, you’re looking around and there are all these paintings that are poems. [laughs]
DN: Yeah, that’s wonderful. Well, you’ve talked in multiple places in really interesting ways about risk in your poetry. For instance, in your conversation with Ross Gay, who, as an aside, I just want to describe the way that he described your book in that conversation. He said, “This is a grown-ass book, florid with mystery comfortably sitting with uncertainty in the unknown, full of adult desire.” In this conversation, you talk about how you’re attracted to wild poets, poets that push your writing, and you mention Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Terrance Hayes, Diane Seuss. In the Massachusetts Review, you talk about two types of writers that you read, the ones you can’t live without and the ones you read during the active writing. The former are writers like Lucille Clifton, C.D. Wright, Sharon Olds, Toni Morrison. The latter, the ones you read while you’re writing are people you consider riskier than you are. Again, you say wilder and you read them while you’re composing. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
AC: Yeah. I just have this image of myself running after this motley crew of poets. I just think there are poets who document and record, and that’s a necessary kind of poet. Then there are poets that are so strange, following their own drum beat, unapologetic, and wild. I am really drawn to surrounding myself with them while I’m writing. I think there are some writers who say, “I can’t read while I’m writing. I don’t want to be influenced.” I am absolutely not that kind of writer. I need other writers while I write. I need to pursue them. I need to chase after them. It is a longer line. It’s a self-revelation. It’s even a syntax like Carl Phillips, things that feel just out of reach. When I can move toward it, my voice is changed in a very, I would say, slight way but it’s an interesting shift. I just have this image of like, “What if I was on an island by myself and I had no other poet to draw from?” I think I would be pretty bored with what I was writing. [laughs] I really do need this motley crew. I’m really grateful for the ways that they– because you can’t ever lose your voice as a writer, I don’t think, but it’s like in the stretching, in the reaching towards, and a bit of discomfort, I can change the sound of my voice. I like that. It’s interesting to hear myself in that way. I think, again, with this ‘I’ because all of them are also me, I can tap into the parts of me that are like them when I’m in conversation with them in this way. I always just like surrounding myself with writers and books as I write. Also, I think there’s something about I guess it’s the gratitude that I feel for being a reader, not only being a poet, for being able to love poetry and for the flexibility that a poem can carry over years and decades and decades because I’ve been reading some of the same poets for most of my life and they’re still giving to me.
DN: Well, to stay with this question of risk, in your interview in The Common when you were talking about revising, you say that when you revise is the time when you ask, “What am I willing to risk?” and that you want to risk something in every poem. That there needs to be blood in it, something at stake, and if there isn’t, then you revise the poem toward putting something on the line. Another way you put it is that you want to be honest in a way that includes a willingness to be vulnerable, ugly, and misunderstood. Quoting Audre Lorde who says, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” Then the interviewer asks a great question, “Do you have any suggestions for making riskier revisions?” I wondered if you could speak to any strategies beyond reading wild poets, questions you ask yourself or ways you put your poems to some sort of litmus test to know that you’re risking yourself.
AC: As I mentioned, Terrance Hayes was my thesis advisor and he also is a reader of my poems, and sometimes he’ll just say, “More.” [laughter] Sometimes, when I’m coaching myself through revision, becoming my own best reader, I am telling myself to share more, to give more. So more may be a one-word prompt for thinking about this question. I think I’m specifically thinking about what feels like a risk to me which, just to clarify, is not necessarily about disclosure. It is maybe answering this question of “So what?” What here is like putting myself on the line and that seems quite relative. [laughs] There may be different kinds of personalities that would answer that question differently but for me, I just think, “Am I keeping too much, or am I truly sharing? What about this doesn’t make me look good or does it make the speaker look good?” That’s a genuine question that has led to adding a line in a poem. I think one knows it’s obviously a self-examination. It’s not something that I don’t know if I would take that feedback from anybody else but it’s something that I know. Whether or not I’m being honest, whether or not I’m putting something on the line, it’s something that I know and can be measured by me, so I think asking myself, “What more is there? What does this matter? Can get me a little bit closer to the blood that I was talking about.
DN: Yeah. Well, let’s go out with a final reading. I was hoping maybe we could go out with a reading of Blueprint.
[Ama Codjoe reads from her debut poetry collection from Milkweed, Bluest Nude]
DN: Thank you so much, Ama Codjoe.
AC: David Naimon! [laughter] David Naimon, your host. [laughter] That’s what I call you in my head at home.
DN: I hope not. [laughter] Oh my God. I’m so happy to play my small role in getting this book into people’s hands and hearts, Ama.
AC: I am so grateful for you in this world, so please let me say the work you do– I happened upon just by grace yesterday, this printmaking workshop studio space, and I had no idea what I was walking into but I knew that I wanted to see what was going on in there. It was a magical space. There were puppets hanging and spools of twine, reams of paper, and all of these prints and color. It was gorgeous. Then I was watching the people work and I realized that there is something so remarkable and mesmerizing about a kind of time and attention that is poured into making. The kind of time and attention that you pour into these interviews and conversations, it is unbelievably precious. I’m in awe of it. I really am. The hours that you give in order to give us something, it’s just I don’t know. [laughter]
DN: Thank you, Ama. That’s so moving here.
AC: Oh, it’s so true. It’s so true. Thank you so much. I’m so happy you get to go feed yourself. You have your residency coming, yeah?
DN: I have my residency coming. [laughter] We’ve been talking today with Ama Codjoe, the author of Bluest Nude from Milkweed. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. If you enjoyed today’s conversation with Ama Codjoe, you can find more of Ama’s work at amacodjoe.com. For the bonus audio archive, Ama contributes the reading of three different poems that exemplify three different ways to approach ekphrastic poetry discussing each one. This joins bonus material from Jorie Graham, Dionne Brand, Rosmarie Waldrop, Nikky Finney, Natalie Diaz, and many others. This is just one possible reason to join the Between the Covers Community as a listener-supporter. Join our brainstorm of future guests, receive the supplementary resources with each conversation, choose from a wide variety of other potential enticements, whether becoming an early reader for Tin House receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, to any number of gifts and collectibles from past guests: out-of-print chapbooks by Ursula K. Le Guin, writing consultations, a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you. You can find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Alice Evelyn Yang in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.