DOGBYTES Interview: Evie Shockley

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2016 Cave Canem retreat faculty member Evie Shockley is the author of four collections of poetry—most recently, the new black, winner of the 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry—as well as a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry. Her poetry and essays appear widely in journals and anthologies, recently including Boston Review, pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry, Bone Bouquet, Best American Poetry 2015 and Best American Experimental Writing 2015. Her honors include the 2015 Stephen Henderson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry and the 2012 Holmes National Poetry Prize.  Currently serving as creative editor for Feminist Studies, Shockley is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

What can poets do to promote social justice? 

Poets can do the same things anyone else can do, broadly speaking: vote, organize, donate (time or money) to the people or groups who are doing good work, get out in the streets, build institutions, run for office, help raise awareness about the issues, and work on living life daily in ways that make social justice more likely or more available in one’s own corner of the world. Voting may sound lame or retro, compared to protesting in the face of an increasingly militarized police or tweeting comments to millions of people via trending hashtags, but believe me: it’s one of those rights you don’t want to learn to appreciate because you’ve lost it. Use the right to vote on election days—and throughout the rest of the year, use all your other rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, with a vengeance.

Now, with all that said, poets do have a special set of skills and inclinations that can come in handy in doing the work. We can give the gift of time by reading at a rally; we can help raise money by reading at a benefit or contributing a poem to a publication whose proceeds will be used for a worthy cause; and, of course, we can write poems about subjects that we want people to think about, poems that will inspire and encourage activists, poems that remember what must not be forgotten. I feel especially strongly that one of the strengths of poetry is making connections—or making connections visible—and, therefore, one of the ways we can use our art to promote social justice is by writing in ways that help people see that the small pieces of the puzzle we’re each focused on all come together in the big picture. Most people want to live in a just world. What we need more than anything right now is for more of us to understand that our various ideas about what justice looks like are not necessarily competing or conflicting, but are connected and interdependent. The struggle to transform the world into a place where we can all live in peace, in good health, in joy—regardless of who we are, where we were born, what religious beliefs we hold (if any), what our anatomy looks like, and so forth—is one that requires all of us, working together on a wide range of issues that we’ve been led to believe are “special interests” or incompatible goals, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

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

I have read a lot of good books this past year. Rather than single out one as the “best,” let me amplify the praise I’ve already given to a poetry book just released a couple months ago: play dead, by francine j. harris, is a truly memorable book, in terms of its language, images, and subjects.  It will open you and enter you and teach you. I also finally (finally) read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets last year, and I was blown away by the voice and the structure of that book.

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

I taught a poetry workshop in prison (at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers) for the first time this spring. It was very rewarding and not an experience I’m likely to forget. I have an even greater appreciation for those who teach inside the prison system on a regular basis.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art. 

It depends. If “art” is shorthand for “visual art,” then the answer is music. All kinds of music have left their mark on my writing, but I would have to make special mention of Prince, especially right now, because without his music in my life, I would be a different person than I am.  If “art” is meant to include all the art forms, then I would point to the ways my work is influenced by people talking.  I listen to people talking—on the subway, on film and TV, in my classes, in restaurants, on the sidewalks, on the radio—and I learn something new about language every day.

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

I go to see as much theatre as I can; it has overtaken movies as my favorite art form for storytelling. I’m a lackadaisical foodie, meaning that I love good food, good wine, and long, leisurely meals with good friends and wide-ranging conversation, but I don’t take the trouble to do much research about chefs, restaurants, vineyards, and such. So there’s a lot of trial and error involved! And I’m always looking for recommendations from people who know about these things.  I go for walks—sometimes power-walks as a form of workout, and other times just rambles in the park, or walks to get from here to there in my neighborhood or in the city. I watch the comedy/news shows that come on late-night TV (though I watch them on YouTube; we don’t own a TV). I travel a good bit, though more often for work than vacations. Oh—and it almost goes without saying, but it should be said—I spend time with my family: partner, parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. I cherish the hours—and the years (16, and counting!)—with my partner, and I’m an especially doting auntie. I also commune with my cats.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging black poets; to all emerging poets? 

  1. Read widely. Read poetry, but not just poetry. Read literature, but not just literature. To Black poets, I would say: get as familiar with the traditions of Black poetry as you are with your bedroom. To other poets, I would say: if you haven’t already done so, bring Black poetry out of the attic and basement and into your living room and your kitchen.
  2. Seek to be influenced. You want to be influenced, the way Prince was influenced by James Brown, the way D’Angelo was influenced by Prince. Go ahead and try to be like Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks, like Jayne Cortez or Bob Kaufman, like Reginald Shepard or Erica Hunt, like Yusef Komunyakaa or Robert Hayden, like Lucille Clifton or Suheir Hammad, like Rita Dove or Ed Roberson. You wish! But try—and in the process of trying, in the process of figuring out what makes their poetry so compelling, in the process of discovering what they do that allows them to slay you again and again and again, you may become a most fabulous YOU.
  3. Remind yourself regularly why you write. There are many ways to be a poet, many paths one can walk in making that journey, and it can be helpful at times to remember that you don’t need to be on the path to a Nobel Prize to be living the poet’s life that you dreamed of: making a difference with your words, meeting wonderful and interesting people, and having the top of your head taken off (mind. blown.) on a regular basis.

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 find this a difficult question to answer. I think I always assume things will change, and they always do, even when they stay the same.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer? 

I don’t think there’s one thing that has “most” shaped me as a writer.  Rather, I think one thing that has helped me a great deal is the understanding that I am, as a writer, a composite of all of my life experiences.

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

I was at CC in 1997, ’98, and ’99, the organization’s second, third, and fourth years, when the retreats were still held in upstate NY, at Mount St. Alphonsus.  My memories are many and dear.  I remember that the first CC poet I met was Shara McCallum.  I remember waking at dawn and watching the deer on the lawn with Robin Caudell.  I remember Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon singing spirituals in the little chapel. I remember walking down to the Hudson River in the pitch black dark with a group that included Brandon Johnson and Robin Dunn.  I remember walking down the monastery’s long halls, hearing Tyehimba Jess’s blues coming from the open door of his room.  I remember G.E. Patterson repeatedly saying, writing, or doing things that made me surprised or thoughtful or happy.

I remember Lucille Clifton, with whom I’d already studied at Duke, introducing me at lunch to Sonia Sanchez, whose first words to me were “Can I get you some beans, sister?” (both of them modeling how we must take care of one another). I remember Elizabeth Alexander bringing her first child, Solomon, to the retreat just weeks after he was born.  I remember Afaa M. Weaver teaching a group of us (including Yona Harvey) about a form he’d just invented, called the “bop.” I remember sitting on the monastery roof one night with a group that included Michelle Courtney Berry, Jonathan Smith, and Tim Seibles, and seeing a shooting star. I remember Father Francis Gargani cheering us on (and reminding us to be quiet) and dancing like Gene Kelly at the parties on the final nights.

I remember Michael Harper being stern, patriarchal, and magnificent. I remember Phebus Etienne being quiet in all the ways her poems were not. I remember Vincent Woodard in the opening circle, opening us all up.

I remember sitting at lunch with Reggie Harris and Cornelius Eady, who—when I said I didn’t really buy poetry books—asked me who I thought would buy them (especially books by black poets), if we didn’t. I remember Duriel Harris teaching me how to pronounce her name. I remember hearing Tracie Morris perform a soundscape (“Chain Gang”) for the first time. I remember giovanni singleton reading to us the colors of the J. Crew catalog. I remember Joel Dias Porter (“Renegade”) arguing with everyone, passionately. I remember workshopping with John Keene, Brian Gilmore, Taiyon Coleman, and Yolanda Wisher, just to name a few. I remember Erica Doyle introducing Harryette Mullen, punning about the “amusing drudgery” of her work. I remember Honorée Jeffers reading her “Tuscaloosa” poem. I remember Carrie McCray telling us about Ota Benga.  I remember Toi Derricotte’s ever-ready smile—and her ability to take each one of her workshops to the bone.  I remember Carolyn Micklem running herself ragged so the rest of us could just think and talk and breathe poetry for seven whole days.

I remember you all: January Gill, Bakar Wilson, Kate Rushin, Lenard Moore, Dawn Lundy Martin, Ronaldo Wilson, Kendra Hamilton, Holly Bass, Hayes Davis, Teri Cross, Toni Lightfoot—all of you whose names I am still singing as I force myself to bring this list to a premature close. And I remember Ernesto Mercer, in white, leading the first Cave Canem graduation ceremonies, blessing us and our poems and our journeys onward.