DOGBYTES interview: Ama Codjoe

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Ama Codjoe has received fellowships from Cave Canem Foundation and Callaloo Writers Workshop. Her Pushcart Prize nominated poems have appeared in African VoicesTidal Basin ReviewPluck!Washington SquareApex Magazine and are forthcoming in Callaloo. As the former director of the DreamYard Art Center in the South Bronx, Ama has taught and directed arts and social justice programming for young people as well as professional development for educators and administrators. She is a highly skilled facilitator who has conducted anti-racism workshops for numerous organizations, among them, National Guild for Community Arts Education, Pratt Institute and The Met Museum.

Friday, December 8th, 2017, “Walking the Walk: Poetry, Equity & Anti-Racism in the Literary Arts” marked Cave Canem’s first ever anti-racism training for leaders in the literary arts, graciously facilitated by Ama Codjoe. In the vein of Cave Canem’s commitment to cultivating environments where Black poets and poets of color may advance their artistic and professional pursuits, the five-hour workshop aimed to impact the programming and work environments of arts institutions in ways that combat and address racism. Ama Codjoe’s DOGBYTES interview is published in reflection of the workshop that took place in December, and of ongoing efforts to think critically about ourselves in relation to equity, the arts and one another.

How does your work as a facilitator inform your work as a poet and vice versa?

Both are inside the other: in poetry even if I’m writing in solitude, I’m writing with the awareness of community, a relationship to memory and the past—my former and future selves—a sense of legacy and tradition; ultimately I am writing as a social being. In my work as a facilitator, which is more outwardly focused, I strive to be conscious of my own social identities and the privileges they may or may not carry and how the expression of those identities, through language, impacts what’s happening in the room.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

Well, I am posing the question to myself first. I define social justice as being attentive to the “social” as well the “justice.” In other words, social justice is most immediately about relationships. It’s important for me to be mindful of my interactions with people in terms of equity and interrupting injustice alongside the social justice work I participate in, envision, or pursue. As Toni Cade Bambara writes in The Black Woman anthology published in 1970: “If your house ain’t in order, you ain’t in order.” Challenging white supremacy, heterosexism, transphobia, patriarchy . . . begins and ends with how we relate to ourselves and each other. Poets are people moving in the world. In answer to the question, we can start with how we treat each other, particularly across difference, because the person who is editing a journal, recording a literary podcast, or composing a poem is the same person who exists in the world that radically needs change. We can wear buttons, make social media posts, and carry signs to the protest, but what Bambara is challenging us to consider is our intimate relationships at school, at work, and at home.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

Outside of the remarkable books published by Cave Canem fellows, Whereas by Layli Long Soldier floored me with its ability to deftly weave the intimate with the social; I found Long Soldier’s attention to language itself, as a subject of investigation, to be deeply rewarding and compelling.

Have you done anything recently that scared you?

Well this is gross, but it’s the last scary thing that happened to me. At a retreat, a fellow resident knocked on my door and asked me to remove a tick from her ear. I was scared, but I had to do my best to stay calm and handle it. Which I did.

Name a major influence outside of literature or art.

My people.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Those are certainly the activities that take up most of my time in addition to sleeping, commuting, and socializing. It’s my hope that outside of this I am conserving my energy by doing yoga at home, taking walks, and just being—all of which doesn’t cost a penny.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

These are some practices that I have found useful:

  1. Keeping a commonplace book or journal with quotes, handwritten poems, and notes from books I am reading as well as a running list of books I want to read next.
  2. Insisting that the reading informs my writing in some way—which is advice I got from Terrance Hayes.
  3. Finding kindred spirits and committing to what feeds me. For me that may mean protecting my writing time or attending an art exhibit, for others that might mean starting a writing group or making goals to send work to journals. Whatever it is, we can commit to finding it and doing it, even if we have to create it ourselves.

What music should we be listening to inspire, heal and uplift ourselves?

These are songs I’ve played on repeat in the face of collective grief:

Calle 13 “Latinoamérica”
Cole “Be Free”
Mos Def “Umi Says”
Lauryn Hill “Rebel”
Sweet Honey and the Rock ft. Carole King “Freedom Song”
Talib Kweli “Get By”
Dead Prez “Wolves (Intro)”
Solange ft. Lil Wayne “Mad”
Lizz Wright “Freedom,”

What experiences have most shaped you as a writer?

The workshop in its many forms taught me how to be a writer, and perhaps more importantly a reader. I have too many wonderful teachers to name here, but my first poetry workshop was with Jacqueline Jones LaMon through a Cave Canem regional workshop. Since then I’ve been fortunate to study with incredible instructors through Cave Canem, Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Community of Writers, and NYU’s Creative Writing Program.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I participated in the 2009, 2011, and 2013 retreats. I took many long walks with Donika Kelly which will remain dear to me. On one walk, during the summer we both graduated, I heard “Cha Cha Slide” or “Wobble” playing and took off running for the dance floor which to this day makes us laugh. I love a good line dance. And of course, all of the fellows’ readings were phenomenal, energy-giving, and inspiring. Every day of the retreat there was kindness and generosity to be found.