DOGBYTES Interview: Kwoya Fagin Maples

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Kwoya Fagin Maples’ debut poetry collection, MEND, (University Press of Kentucky, 2018) was finalist for the AWP Prize and received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. Maples holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem fellow. Her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary JournalBerkeley Poetry ReviewObsidianThe African-American ReviewPLUCK, and Cave Canem Anthology XIII. Maples teaches Creative Writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and directs an annual three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film. Celebrate Kwoya Fagin Maples’ debut collection, as she joins Cave Canem fellows Jericho Brown and Marwa Helal for a New Works reading, Thursday, April 25, 2019, 7pm, at the NYU Lillian Vernon House. 

Can you walk us through what your research process looked like when writing your debut poetry collection, Mend?

I wrote the first poem for the collection in 2010 while at Cave Canem. After presenting the poem in workshop, I decided I wouldn’t write another poem until I conducted research. I spoke with a mentor, Joel Brouwer, who advised that I make an effort to not allow the work to be bogged down in research. The only way I figured I could do that was by keeping the writing and research separate. So I read for a year without writing towards Mend. I read hundreds of slave narratives and the voices, images and experiences of my ancestors became the heaviest influence on the book. Ultimately, I wrote Mend by a process of immersion. In addition to narratives, I used photographs of enslaved people and music from that time period to saturate my consciousness. I was very fortunate to have the space and time to focus on the work.  By way of Cave Canem, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation provided a writing residency at Pocantico in New York. For two weeks I was alone in a house with time dedicated specifically for the work. This is where the writing really began.

What were the challenges you faced in weaving historical research into creative writing? How did you navigate those challenges?

There were a few. The biggest challenge was the utter lack of information. We have J. Marion Sims’ autobiography and surgical notes, but he only names three of the women who were the “subjects” of his experimentation in Mt. Meigs, Alabama—Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy. However, there were a minimum of eleven women that he operated on. Sims wrote extensively about the operations in his autobiography, Story of My Life, but the women are footnotes, extras in their own story. There are no personal details or descriptions in reference to their experiences. There is one moment where Sims admits of Lucy “…she was much prostrated, and I thought she was going to die.” This detail is a brief reference to Lucy’s humanity by acknowledging her physical state, but it is one of few in his autobiography.

The whole time I wrote the book I felt as if I were just on the verge of seeing the women fully.  When the poems came, I’d write as quickly as I could, but the images would fade away. I traveled to Mt. Meigs, and there are poems that discuss that experience in Mend. Even while there, no one could point me to the doctor’s home. I spoke to a local historian, who claimed to know everything about the history of the town. Of Sims, she said, “I know him! He’s famous because he operated on an African American woman and saved her life!” Everywhere I turned during research seemed to end with a feeling of not quite having reached something tangible. It was a struggle to imagine and create experiences. It’s certainly part of why it took six years to write the book.  The purpose of Mend is to convey the humanity of the women and shed light on what could have been their experience. As I engaged in immersion, I wrote.

Another challenge was accuracy. I always tell my students to abandon accuracy for the sake of art. While writing Mend, however, historical accuracy was extremely important for me. I wanted to make sure I was writing what could have been. I felt a sense of responsibility to tell this story by focusing on the women’s voices and not my own. They are my ancestors and their story is real.  I endeavored to write scenes that were probable. The images, objects and references are specific to that time and circumstance.

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

I’m going to cheat and mention two.  The novel Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward, and the poetry collection House is an Enigma by Emma Bolden.

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

Removing the front door of my house to replace it with an older one I liked better. The door was a lot heavier than it looked, and I was alone. I’ve been sore all week. YouTube DIY videos give a false sense of capability.  🙂

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

I have three daughters.  I enjoy having deep conversations with them, reading to them and braiding their hair in creative ways. I love the movies. My favorite membership of life is my $15 annual AMC Stubs membership (so many perks).

I spend most of my money at this restaurant called Urban Cookhouse where I get the same exact meal I’ve been ordering for months.  I get the three-cheese chicken quesadilla with white barbecue sauce.  I also love visiting the ocean (I’m from Charleston, S.C. so the ocean is always home). I spend time at a Care Center for the homeless population in Birmingham and it’s one of the most valuable things I do.

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

  • Trust your voice but don’t use it amiss. Be intentional about what you put into the world.
  • Find a workshop space that is predominated by people of color.
  • Read widely. And read a variety of books by writers of color (outside of the three acknowledged by your current MFA program).

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

This might be too easy, but playfulness and humor. Being willing to not take myself so seriously on the page. And yes, wanting to be seen and heard.

Why is it important to engage academic fields such as history, gender studies and black studies through poetry, rather than strictly reading academic texts?

It adds complexity and depth to our understanding. Artists capture truths that contextualize history. There are (historical) truths in Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied Sing, namely, convict leasing. She creates a probable account of its effects on an individual.  The book has also informed my understanding of the impact of the cycle of poverty and drugs on a family. Literature becomes representative of cultural history, which is why writers have to be careful. I think of Gone with the Wind for example, and how the character of Mammy is depicted, it was a representation that became a stereotypical idea of black women in the south.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

My family. Their stories are always captivating. They remind me that art is everywhere. In their conversation, speech and mannerisms I continually find beauty.

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. In 2008, I was responsible for the dance party. I never claimed to be the organizer, but I WAS. I want it to be known now. I spent the entire day telling people there was a dance party that night. I asked a guy who was already playing music all day to DJ. It was a fantastic dance party. I’ll never forget it.

In 2010, it was me who poured the salt on the sidewalks. I can’t stand slugs.

In 2012, I was pregnant with twins. Mahogany Browne brought food to my room unprompted. I’d been too tired to walk across campus to lunch. She’d noticed my absence. It’s still one of the kindnesses of my life I appreciated most.