DOGBYTES Interview: Aricka Foreman

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Aricka Foreman‘s poetry and prose have appeared in The Drunken Boat, Minnesota Review, RHINO, Day One, Phantom, shufPoetry, James Franco Review, thrush, Vinyl, PLUCK!, and Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation by Viking Penguin, among others. A Cave Canem and Callaloo alum, she is the author of Dream With A Glass Chamber (YesYes Books, 2016). Originally from Detroit, she currently lives in Chicago. Catch Aricka Foreman and fellow recipient of the Cave Canem residency to Millay Colony, Lauren Russell, read their work on October 16, 2017, 6:30 pm at Cave Canem.

Tell us about your chapbook Dream with a Glass Chamber. What, for you, are the major themes of the work–and how did you conceive of the title?

Dream With a Glass Chamber deals with loss and the slippery terrain of grief—though largely, I think it interrogates being inside of/despite/resistance to that grief, and so, acceptance. Love. Healing. How the self seeps in and out of mourning and our expectations of it. It was also a play of praxis, wherein I didn’t really understand my grief until I made the book, and so I was able to go back with a certain level of fervent dis-understanding. I could trust that I didn’t trust it. I could trust that I could live with it even during the moments I felt like I couldn’t. The initial title was Dream with an Empty Chamber, but my editor KMA Sullivan noticed the equal amount of light weaved throughout the darkness of death’s landscape, and suggested I reconsider that in the book’s title.

How does your work as an editor inform your work as a writer?

There’s a really beautiful, collaborative exchange between an editor and a writer that changes and enhances the way I see. I’m not interested in “fixing” anyone’s poems as much as I am in engaging a dialogue where we’re thinking/asking through the work. I hope that I can support their intention and their vision. To wrangle something and fail and then get it “right” for them. I’ve been really lucky with my own readers/editors in that respect. The ego is what it is, and we need as much rigorous generosity in the editing phase as we do for ourselves in creating. Anyone who came from and continues to engage in the performance tradition understands the importance of the ear as you’re reading your work, someone else’s. My earliest consistent editorial work was with Muzzle Magazine, and its founding editor Stevie Edwards has a great respect and appreciation for all the layered ways MM’s readers enter poetry. It was a great experience, and helped drive me toward this strange and wonderful synthesia I experience when I read new work.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

Plenty, no matter how quantitative. We can break bread. We can keep up a group text. We can call and check in and pick up when our beloveds need more than an echo chamber. We can take care of ourselves. We can advocate through book reviews, plan publication budgets with intention and vision, donate a little bit here and there. We can shade politicians/editors/institutions through writing, social media, and alternative spaces. We can call politicians. We can actively love kindred who have been othered and tell them that we love them to their face. And mean it. We can be loud in spaces that demand our silence. We can make sure our archives are living ones: black art, queer art, poor art, whatever the nomenclature. We can break the linear/hierarchal system of that naming. We can continue to be brilliant, multifaceted, petty with purpose, have no chill and keep shouting the praises of these traditions that have made a way for us to be bold and free(er). Sometimes just making space to sit quietly can help us save ourselves a little at a time: we can do what we’ve always done. I understand the impetus to hybrid ourselves in the face of the narrow boxes the world tries to shrink us into: poet-activist, writer-educator, curator-scholar, etc. But there are plenty of things that activists who are not poets do on the daily that I cannot. And they need fuel, too. So perhaps we can write how we walk through the world, and they’ll see themselves reflected in that.

Just as important, poets can stop telling other poets how they should be activists. Dismantling the master’s house is not checkers. Or chess, for that matter.

What’s the last great book you read, and what inspired you to read it?

I’m usually between several books, but I just finished Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake and it wrecked me open; I found a language for the work I didn’t know I was doing, just beyond articulating cultural melancholia. Finishing Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman (another incredible book), led me to Sharpe. Donika Kelly’s Bestiary is out here teaching us all how to be present with our shadows and dig for a whole kind of love that makes room for the digging. I just started Michelle Whittaker’s Surge, and I can’t render how much, for how long, I’ve needed those poems; the landscape is truly not ready, but it better hurry up!

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Saying no when I need to. It’s a journey, and can be especially difficult when it comes to blood-kin, but we know love needs time to turn back into itself to grow.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

It really depends on my season. I find as much inspiration from Santigold as I do Nina Simone. I’m interested in film, and the multiple opportunities available to tell a story, and then the story behind it. I’m invested in vantage point and vulnerability. I carry my grandmother’s stories that span American Reconstruction, Black radical movements, Civil Rights, Reaganomics, until now. I’ve shed a tear or two before the works of Kerry James Marshall, Sherin Neshat, Maria Tomasula, Tylonn J. Sawyer, and Sydney G. James. I’m fortunate to share space, near and far, with a coterie of amazing artists, thinkers, curators, and scholars who are gracious with their time and gifts.

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

I spend four days a week slinging cocktails and educating patrons about whiskey, wine, and beer; three days on my writer/educator/teaching/administrative-for-me/for-us grind. But then I find myself beneath a tree with my lover in quietude, snapping photographs and feeling the sun on my face. I spend a great deal of time exploring the food and wine culture of Chicago and beyond, trying to taste where I am in the world. I love travel but hate flying. I work, way too much, if you ask my close friends. But when I can break away, I try to make the most of it. I enjoy a good game of Farkle or Spades or Scrabble; lounging in a hammock in my backyard watching the sky do the magic that it does. I like to water and tend and harvest my garden. I call my mom on Sundays. I spend my money on black-owned hair care products, wine and books. I’m just trying to live my best life.

What advice would you give to emerging poets?

This is always difficult, since what, exactly, is emerging? But I’ll pass along these little gifts folks have given to me:

  • Read everything. Reading more than poetry. Read beyond the canon and read beyond American contemporaries. Read at least three times more than you write. Make reading a daily intake of sense, inquiry, and designation if you can. I had a former mentor tell me once, “I can’t give you anything else to read because you just won’t stop reading everything” and it was one of many instances that I felt like I was doing what I’m supposed to be doing: my work.
  • Be generous. With what you read. With what you write. With what you think. Allow yourself generosity: to fail. To thrive. All of which, you can do on your own terms. Poets and artists spend an inordinate amount of time pummeling ourselves for not doing it right enough, fast enough, good enough based on somebody’s institutional standards. HOW SWAY? But what you are and where you are is exactly where you’re supposed to be. And it’s gorgeous. Keep going.
  • Don’t be afraid of what you think can’t fit into a poem but what can fit into poetry: you can make essays, and video games and lyric-video poems. You can start a bar whose chief concern is to *also* feed the literary arts community around you (The Spirit Room). You can hold workshops and literary salons and book releases in your basement. You can create podcasts (Rachel Zucker, The Poetry Gods, VS). You can get an MFA or not; publish in major literary publications or not. You can do you. Take you into the world and it will respond accordingly. And if it doesn’t, whatever: “therefore, ain’t no invite.”
  • Do the most. Do it with integrity. Do it without (too much) ego. Do it without the expectation that anybody owes you anything. Do it with your therapist/faith leader/family/coterie/cohort/community, if that’s your thing. There are so many ways to raucous.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

I was a serious child, and very sensitive. I suppose not much has changed, but I remember thinking how difficult and complicated adults made things—now I see how difficult and complicated we are, and how we sometimes only see those complications for their difficulty. I didn’t understand whiteness or supremacy, but I had a framework of understanding through the stories of my grandparents and my mother. What’s changed? I’m more equipped. I have a language for what Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves calls “a corporeal wisdom.” It helps in the work, and it helps in the living.  I assumed by now I’d stop believing in what’s possible, that eventually I’d give up on my own vivid imagination. I’m glad I didn’t know then, and there’s so much I don’t know now. It’s overwhelmingly exciting.

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

2008, 2010, and 2012. Ed Roberson imploring to fellows in the opening circle how fortunate he was to see and take part of history. We were/are the history. It’s important to see a working poet who has lived through and worked and continues to thrive on his own terms, take you and your handful of poems and say yes, yes, you’re driving toward something here. And he can cut rug. Carl Phillips visiting with us second-year fellows in 2010 while we curated the graduation ceremony for the third-year graduates, and putting me up on Kelis’ “Acapella” video. And him telling me in no uncertain terms that if I was going to use “antedilluvian” in a poem, the rest of the language better rise to the occasion. I’m so grateful he saw my high/low vernacular walk and encouraged me to embrace it. Nikky Finney’s energy and spirit pulling us toward that watering hole, into the lean-in, into the border walking. 2012 was a serious year and no one was here to play though we could play/risk/be. It was some other kind of fortuitous holy. Claudia Rankine’s 2008 reading from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely which transported me into some ethereal that I still am not able to articulate fully. And her unbounded, unrelenting kindness. Toi Derricotte is a king of love. Serendipitously meeting Phillip B. Williams at the printer between 3-5 am, while casually sliding poems to one another over the course of that first week, though we weren’t in the same writing group; and subsequently becoming dear friends. Colleen J. McElroy introducing me to the “Milk of Sorrow” film, and her humor and openness in reaching for the largess I was attempting, then, now, always. All of Us in Village Hall sharing music while working, in quietude while we paced, or quietly wept or let out a laugh while we furiously wrote together without writing together. And then there was that time we stole a Tea Party sign (or two) from somewhere while on a Walmart run and ran amok like the smartest unruly kids in your 5th period class.

The rest is still come.

Kyla Marshell’s work has appeared in Blackbird, Calyx, ESPNw, Gawker, The Guardian, O, the Oprah Magazine, and on the Poetry Foundation. Her work has earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships, two residencies to the Vermont Studio Center, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. In 2013, named her one of “7 Young Black Writers You Should Know.” A Spelman College graduate originally from Boston, she grew up in Silver Spring, MD, Morehead, KY, and Portland, ME, and now lives in New York. To view Kyla’s previous interviews, visit the DOGBYTES blog.