Poetry of Survival and the Luxury of Dreaming

I.S. Jones – Photo credit: Nicholas Nichols @maruneboy

I.S. JONES is a queer American / Nigerian poet and music journalist. She is a Graduate Fellow with The Watering Hole and holds fellowships from Callaloo, BOAAT Writer’s Retreat, and Brooklyn Poets Fellow. She is the 2018 winner of the Second Annual Brittle Paper Award in Poetry. In 2016, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. During poetry month (April), I.S. hosts a month-long workshop called The Singing Bullet. She is a Book Editor with Indolent Books, Editor at Voicemail Poetry, freelances for Complex, Earmilk, NBC News Think, Ambrosia for Heads and elsewhere. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Kweli Journal, Winter Tangerine, The Rumpus, The Offing, The Shade Journal, great weather for MEDIA, Anomalous Press, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate in Poetry at UW-Madison as well as the first Kemper K. Knapp University Fellowship recipient. She splits her time between Southern California and New York.

Darlington: Easter holds a strong fascination for me. Asides the idea of human sin and divine salvation that it articulates and conveys so powerfully, it teaches Christians to always remember the essence of their faith. This lasting interest derives from the capacity of the rite to remind me of a vital function of art, which is the documentation of human histories. Chinua Achebe puts it succinctly: “There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”. Achebe’s message finds its fullest expression in your poetry. It seems to me that in choosing to be a poet you, Itiola, also consciously set out to be a fearless historian of the conditions of history. In ‘American/Nigerian in the Interrogation Room’, I find you in your most daring role as poet and historian, expanding the frontiers of poetry, while documenting your experiences as an American-Nigerian. These lines stay longer than the rising and falling of the day: “history never had the ambition / to account for people / like me”. How, may I ask, do you negotiate this slippery path between reality and craft?

Itiola: My whole life is driven by faith. I grew up in the Celestial Church of Christ. I come from a long line of pastors; even my maternal grandmother led the church and, as I know, women are still not allowed to stand at the front of Cele church. Memory is a fascinating beast, for the way it pulls wreckage to the surface at, often, inopportune times. I may smell a piece of fruit and, just like that, I drift back to a moment in the house my father had built for our family before his stroke. Memory can also be a cruel beast for the way it drags you through the past. I was telling a colleague the other day: “I often feel, for me, much of adulthood is confronting the past”. I’ve come to understand it’s not so much about my past but history in general and the transgressions it has enacted against bodies like mine. To be paralleled to Achebe, to be seen as a reflection of his language, is remarkably generous, so thank you for this gesture. Yes, that’s a very astute observation; I do see myself as a historian because poetry is one of the records of the human condition. With that said, is there a difference, really, between reality and craft? The dictionary defines craft as: “activity involving skill in making things by hand”. Reality is defined as “the world or the state of things as they actually exist, as opposed to an idealistic or notional idea of them”. I craft my own reality, as any person does who believes in their power, in the reliability of their senses. I believe my reality is one many first-generation Americans also share. My reality is I am a child of immigrants. To another person, perhaps I am unfortunate circumstance. Depending on which law that wishes to break my body, I have no right to even be an American citizen. History never has the ambition to account for people like me because they never thought we would survive and bloom.

Darlington: It is the distinguished modern historian E.H. Carr that you echo so frankly in your idea of the crucial place of history in the human scheme. His remark that “There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write” is eloquent and perceptive. It validates your understanding of the role of the writer in the documentation of history, even as it accentuates the enduring truth in Aminatta Forna’s statement that “If you want to know a country, read its writers”. I think a society that forgets its history is one that has quietly resolved to accept a tradition of cruelty and dispossession. It is shocking, unsafe even, to find oneself among people who have mastered the arduous talent of erasing history. To live in a society that forgets its wounds once it stops bleeding is to instinctively inherit a legacy of silence. Deliberate forgetfulness, most people believe, is therapeutic. But an inevitable peril awaits any society whose most decisive means of dealing with negative history is to pretend it never happened, to willfully forget it. Forgetting to remember what is so perennially important it ought not to be forgotten in history does not always assure healing as we think. Rather, it makes us forget that erasure offers only a temporary relief from traumatic, cinematic, images of the ever present past. How do you, as an American/Nigerian, navigate the compulsions of your dual heritage?

Itiola: I think every empire on this planet wishes to forget their sins and atrocities, which isn’t the same as wishing they never happened because then that would mean relinquishing power. You are poignant in saying it that way: “I think a society that forgets its history is one that has quietly resolved to accept a tradition of cruelty and dispossession”. At a school I attend, I was tasked to tutor undergraduates about the book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. One of the students, a young white woman, thought slavery was when “a bunch of black people worked on a farm”. Another student didn’t understand the psychological torture that lynching beared down upon the Black body; it was not just about the actual lynching, yes, but it was about leaving those bodies there as a warning, as a threat, and even a promise that the next negro could be up on that tree. I’m telling you this story because the deliberate ignorance of the Empire’s children is how the Empire maintains its power against bodies like mine (child of immigrants, queer, etc.). I have to know their story to survive, but they don’t have to know mine, and even more, I was tasked with explaining my history to the Empire’s children. You said: “Rather, it makes us forget that erasure offers only a temporary relief from traumatic, cinematic, images of the ever present past”. I believe, rather, erasure ensures brutality will happen again and again. I’m still learning Nigerian history as I go. I was asking my mom about a physical account of the Biafran war, and she told me: “Apart from There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe, there isn’t really any account of the war that resonates with me”. While I wasn’t alive for Biafra (obviously), my mother was. When she was a small girl, she was nearly beaten to death by soldiers. Her lip was torn and she barely received medical attention in time. That moment along with a corrupt government, consistently corrupt politicians, severe lack of basic necessities for the people, and other things I cannot see contributed to why I am an American now, why I am divorced from Nigeria in a way I should not be. I don’t see myself as tragic, rather I am circumstantial. My mother finally admitted to me how much she misses ‘home’ but, as she words it, the Nigeria she misses no longer exists. While she was tasked with the goal of survival, I am granted the luxury of dreaming. I’m a proud child of immigrants. I think all the time how my parents survived so much so I could have what I have. I would like to believe I honor them by chasing after my dreams and I think they agree. Now I am navigating my dual heritage by relearning my first language, Yoruba, which I actually spoke before I learned English. I am reading a lot of fiction by Nigerians and I am so grateful to see new emerging faces making it into the American market. I now go by my first name ‘Itiola’ instead of ‘Stephanie’ (which is also my first name, but that’s sometimes difficult to explain to Americans; having multiple first names). It’s the only thing I have from my grandmothers who named me. I’m also trying to find ways to navigate Nigeria responsibly through an American lens. It’s crucial that I say ‘responsibly’ because while I am Nigerian, I’m not the way my parents are or some of my friends are, so I have to be careful not to romanticize what I am removed from.

Darlington: That war is one shocking event whose image has lasted longer than the marching of soldiers, the rattling of bullets and the falling of ordinary people caught up in such unfathomable human crisis. However short or long a war lasts, it always inflicts injuries on people. What I am saying is that there is no small war. Every war is capable of killing the thing that kills death. But you are not alone in your anxiety. Look up and you would see a cloud of poets bearing witness with you; just listen and you would hear George Elliot saying silently, “We mortals, men and women, devour many disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh nothing!”

Certainly, we have decried the peril that faces the society that forgets, but there is nothing more worrying than the tribulation of the society that refuses to forget its scar, but lacks the adequate language to describe it. When memory fails us, we run to language to reinvent our history and detail our loss. What, then, becomes our lot when language is inadequate to express the truth of our experiences? Memory, I fear, may well become that haunting history we so readily wish to transcend. But as a reader of your poetry, I think you succeed so well in naming your feelings in your works. You also manage admirably not to be hindered by the inadequacy of language. If anything, I think, you brilliantly harness the powers of such limitation to show the variety of human experiences and the skill of the discerning poet to create a limitless human echo that both communicates to and affects the patient reader. Reading your ‘Self Portraits’ and reflecting on these words: “I have been accused of tending to my rage / as if I made it myself”, I recall Anaïs Nin’s words that “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say”. What does it mean to be woman, queer and poet?

Itiola: As a writer, I own hundred percent of what happens to me, and yet memory is inherently fallible, but I have to trust memory or I would lose all sense of reality. I think, as humans, we do have the good fortune to use other means of art as a form of language, of texture to touch others. Language is slippery, and more so when it must pass through a doorway of translation. For me, it is not so that language has failed me, but often I feel I have failed language for my inability to translate emotions (a texture) into language (another texture). I have to visualize a poem before I can write it. Sometimes language will come into being before visuals, sometimes visuals will dance beneath the cinema of my eyelids before language can ossify into something useful. One time, when I was emerging from the subway, there was a singular red balloon tied to the stairway railing. I must have stood there for ten minutes looking at this red balloon tied down in its singular beauty, and god, I just wanted to weep and weep and weep. Weeping which comes from seeing something beautiful. I believe the closest word is ‘Stendhalish’, a word of French etymology, to describe being overwhelmed by beauty (of the natural world). Why were you there, red balloon? Who left you here? What life did you have before me? So, I ask these questions, right, but I still don’t have language to understand why this singular red balloon just floating there makes me want to just cry. Thank you, though, for these kind words. I am still growing, thank god, still learning. I still have the immense luxury to be done and undone by language, as well as the great pleasure to craft language that others find themselves in. Goodness, what a joy. I could do many things with my one wild life, but nothing makes me more alive and more infinitely possible than writing. Nothing. That line, “I have been accused of tending to my rage / as if I made it myself” pays homage to one of my poetry mothers, Lucille Clifton: “i am accused of tending to the past / as if i made it” and in the mirroring of the line, if you will, I sought to pay homage to both of my foremothers: Audre Lorde & Clifton. A colleague of mine, when I was showing her a poem I was working on said this: “You’re not afraid to go dark, to say those dark, honest things. I think it’s one of your superpowers”. It may not show on the surface, but there is a rage, dark joy in me, as the poem you referenced stated, because I am a Black woman, a queer Black woman, a child of immigrants, and a number of things that makes an Other in the eyes of the Empire, I am angry all the time. Like Dominique Christina I dream of watching dictators plunge headfirst to their demise. Of the marginalized, the disenfranchised taking back what was stolen from them. Poetry releases it from me so I am not consumed. None of these identity markers have fixed meanings, but rather they are the way I am translated to the world which exists outside my body.

Darlington: ‘Stendhalish’, I like that feeling. Nothing captures it more acutely than Marie-Henri Beyle’s sublime description of his 1817 visit to Florence in his important book Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio. And, truly, many are the challenges of the queer artist operating in a heteronormative culture as ours. But what really matters and what remains in the end, I think, is that the resilient artist will always rise above the tyranny of fear and silence to create, as Esiaba Irobi puts it, “from a spiritual reserve”.

You seem to draw consistently from African cultural elements to, in Isidore Diala’s words, both “complement and interrogate Western paradigms of knowledge”. For instance, the moon, which seems to have an absorbing influence on you, is a recurring motif in your poetry. Its cultural and artistic symbolisms are so masterfully expressed in your poetry that the sacred and the secular converge in a seamless symphony to illuminate the past in the wake of the present. “Irobi’s association of the moon with madness”, especially in its sacred and artistic modes, Diala observes, “resonates in a striking manner with Achebe’s gripping symbolism of the moon in Arrow of God“. What are the attributes of the moon that you find central in your effort as a poet to represent, as well as transcend, cultural and literary realities?

Itiola: There’s this pressure or unfair expectation on the oppressed to be ‘resilient’ and sometimes I fear that struggle is glorified. I want to be afforded the full experience of my emotions: rage, joy, sorrow, confusion, and forth. I deserve a life without excessive conflict to overcome. What if I want to be ordinary and queer? When I was a child, I wrote because I had no say in my life; I wrote my way into freedom and, I want to believe, I still do write in the direction of that hope. I’m loosely quoting, but I believe it was Jericho Brown who said, “All writing seeks to maintain or disrupt the status quo”. Writing gave me my voice and so I must confront those who seek to silence my voice and voices like mine—queer and diasporic.

Yes, the moon holds a fascinating influence on me and how her luminous halo never falters. In the beginning, I found comfort in the moon as I find comfort in the night. Nightmares felt special as a child, and still do, because the world is asleep, because I can play, explore, work and safely come undone in the dark. In Beloved, Toni Morrison said, “She is not afraid at night for she is the color of it”. Once a lover called me his “moon and stars”, then another also named me a moon. The act of naming is the act of claiming, and so in the way my body was named, I grew to see myself in this celestial body whose face is scarred like my face. Who comes alive at night. I’m writing this long poem which will appear in my first book, and in the poem, the moon is God’s eye, which is Guardian over nighttime’s beast. A line goes: “You made this dead, luminous its guardian—a grief”. In another poem, the moon is the doorway by which I shed my human skin and shape-shift into bestial creature that racism makes of me. I believe my obsession with the moon contributes to a long human obsession with earth’s only satellite—humanity’s tenacity to look up and hope and dream.

Darlington: I agree that every voice has something to say, something unique to contribute to the pool of human discourse. I have to add also that every voice is a masterpiece that embodies the fundamental myths and rituals of the human experience. A voice desires not only to be heard, but also to be granted the full right to assert itself. Yes, your understanding of the relevance of both the queer and diasporic voices is appropriately human. The queer voice, in our time, is mostly confessional, but not in a sense that denies the truth of the complexities of the self, not in a manner that seeks to cloud the queer existence. I think the queer voice, unlike popular expectation, no longer worries so much about shame and, you know, Reign sets a kind of fire when she said, “You can not use what I accept about myself against me”. But speaking of the diasporic experience, while most African literary scholars and intellectuals complain of the dryness of Africa’s literary space and its poor harvest caused by the callousness of a clueless government, lack of basic literary education and publishing outlets, the young creative writers look to the West for opportunities that will become a boon to their writing career. Of course, and I’m thinking along with Ben Obumselu, some of our finest writers either came to maturity abroad or are living in the West. Although this constant flight of Africa’s men and women of letters has been described as a brain drain, I find Diala’s perception that “the pivotal role of orature [is to enable] the African diaspora to create a new sense of identity” insightful and inward-looking. The identity he speaks of is hybrid because it involves, in Robert Young’s opinion, a simultaneous “fusion of difference and sameness”. I am aware you hope to create an organization that will assist young African writers in the country and across the globe, what are your motivations? Do you not see any implication in this flight of some of Africa’s best brain to America and Europe in search of comfort beyond the reaches of home?

Itiola: I was speaking to a young writer about this—eventually if you choose to pursue a livelihood in the arts, you must depart for the West as opportunities are more in abundance here. What is lost in that traverse across the Atlantic? Sometimes I greatly worry Africa will loose all its great literary minds to the West, and I don’t just mean ‘physically’, I mean I fear that African writers will attempt to assimilate their voices as a measure to appease Western sensibilities. I see it happening now and it breaks my heart.  I read literature to travel back in time, to see how other humans in the world live, to step into other experiences I have no access to otherwise. I know history and history has taught us if you are an African writer on the continent, eventually the West must recognize your efforts, but I need that to change. I want more stories like those to thrive, to be considered stories worth telling without the West’s approval. Once, my mother told me, “Itiola, if you want to learn how to write poetry, listen to how the common African speaks”. I want stories where the voices / characters sound and look like my parents, my friends on the continent. Especially as an American, I need them.

I often find myself in a precarious situation in these circumstances because what I know to be true is what my parents, friends, and colleagues have told me. What I have come to understand, and know to be true is, Nigeria is a deeply wounded and broken country (the recent sham of an election is a prime example), which has then bred severe mistrust and brutality as a result of the “callousness of a clueless government”, to use your wording. I dream of a whole country someday. I use the word ‘precarious’ because I am an American, which means I speak from a high chair of privilege. It’s easy to hate someone who is privileged. Someone who claimed to care about me, who claimed to mean me well, once said I would never be able to call Nigeria home or that my feelings towards Nigeria are self-centered. Another person said “Nigeria will always be my home”. For myself, I still don’t understand what ‘home’ means, or rather, I struggle to call anything that is a physical place ‘home’. When my parents arrived in America, they struggled. This country nearly killed them. Imagine leaving a home, which nearly killed you to arrive in another country trying to kill you. My god, I cannot fathom it. I wonder all the time if my parents had help, some kind of institution in which they could have acquired support until they found their bearing. To that end, I want to create such an institution but for African artists: a boutique agency which represents the finest African voices in the arts, a writer’s retreat for African writers as a measure of preserving African voices for generations to come, and some kind of fellowship program for refugees and / or artists seeking asylum. I don’t yet know what this will look like, but again, I’ve been given the luxury of dreaming. Imagine how many brilliant minds can be fostered if only they had access to the right tools.

Darlington: Your contemplations on the politics of identity in America, while embodying an understanding of the complexes of events that yield the condition of home and homelessness, which W.E.B Du Bois aptly described as “a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”, substantiates Toni Morrison’s sensitive observation that “In this country [America], American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate”. I think this dream to create an institution to support young African writers is a noble one. It demonstrates your awareness of the supremacy of the imagination and the need to preserve the sanity of the artist, who creates—often in a trance-like mood—for a world almost incapable of appreciating his genius. What are the impacts of schooling, the MFA programs in particular, on you as an artist?

Itiola: Someday, I wish to have a firm, unwavering place to call home. I think, without meaning to, that is also what I’m searching for in my work and in my life. But I think before I get there, I need to reconcile with the past. I need to stop running and I think, finally, I’m moving towards a space in my life where I wish to be planted & take root. “In this country [America], American means white”, maybe because I am considered to be an Other. ‘White’ is an erasing, but to be hyphenated is to be where two or multiple histories converge and congeal into a single living thing. Who am I but every iteration of my family whittled down to this moment? I don’t think a hyphenated history is something to be ashamed of, but I don’t know anything more American than hating what you can’t control, commodify, or subject. Perhaps my gift and curse is that I have a big heart. I have the capacity to love a lot, but it has gotten me into a lot of trouble. I’m learning all the time what empathy means and how it’s the cornerstone of our humanity. The fact that we care for our elderly and our sick, that we bury and honor our dead, that we create laws to better the lives of those less fortunate—those are markers of our humanity. In that vein, I want to create another stretch of that humanity by way of this institution. I am ambitious to believe that I could help a generation this way, by giving them the tools to mold their lived experiences into art. Art that will, in kind, inspire another generation to be brave enough to write. Wouldn’t that be marvelous? I am also privileged twice—as an American and as someone who was accepted into a fully-funded program. MFA programs give writers tools that they likely could not acquire anywhere else, but they do exclude others very deserving. Advance degrees are also deeply political, as you know. Twice so for people of color, as higher learning never accounted for people like us. And I would even say three times more arduous for immigrants of color. I believe as a child of immigrants, I want to put my American privilege to good use.

Darlington: It pleases me that you understand Rumi so intimately. Yes, “before death takes away what [we] are given, [it is important to] give away what is there to give”. Definitely, your rendering of your parents’ experience of the civil war, their eventual escape from Nigeria, a home that stopped being home, and their painful experience of racism in America, using Gwendolyn Brooks’ expression, “accommodate[s] the nobility and rough strength” of history. Yet, moving and painful as it is, their personal experience is but a provocative paragraph in the collage of black history in America. Warsan Shire has an answer for those who—aware of history’s truth—still ask: why leave home? “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well”. History is life, it endures. But its impact on us depends on our attitude to the past. Yes, acceptance of history’s imperfection is a sure way to begin the necessary inquiry that will eventually redirect the future to the path of greatness. And, Itiola, I have always hoped to ask you: what are the ideas surrounding your first book Bloodmercy? That elegant collection seems to re-imagine Cain and Abel as sisters. How? Do you think Cain is a descendant of Lucifer, that peerless angel, who is the pioneer of all revolutions? Is Lucifer Satan? And does she owe God any apology?  

Itiola: I’ll answer questions about the manuscript first. The book has been strenuous on me, there were often times I would begin a poem then flee. I would distract myself with innocuous tasks, instead of confronting what brutality, what cruelty in me I now needed to name. Because to name something is to give it life, to make it possible and, I’m of the opinion, good art requires us to confront ourselves, and for that I’m grateful.

When I was living in Queens with my sister, it was a terrible time. Our relationship was tumultuous before we moved in, and left alone we brutalized each other. We were hideous to each other, but I think she wanted to torment me with her insecurities and I followed in kind. Cruelty that was satiated by more cruelty. When I wrote the first poem “Cain”, I just knew I was angry, hurting, and needed a safe space to lay out my rage, name it, and let it go. I still hold steadfast to the advice I was given as an undergraduate: “Write about what you know”. I grew up intimately with the fables of the Bible, and in my ignorance, I just assumed everyone knew these stories as well. Eventually, I was delighted to be wrong because it gave me more permission to experiment, play, rewrite history as a measure to recenter those pushed to the margins. As a child, mommy gave me The Book of Bible Stories by Tomie dePaola, a book that I remember vividly for the scene where Cain stabs Abel and there was blood in a children’s book. So I write one poem, right? Then another comes. And another. At the time, I didn’t think it would become this large thing. I thought it would be a chapbook, a smaller field by which I could work in, but the field wouldn’t stop growing. I could wide expanse far beyond my eye’s reach. Sometime last year, I read with Patricia Smith and I read these poems. After, she sat me down and said, “Baby, you have a book. Not a chapbook, but a large thing and you need to write it”. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyways: When Patricia Smith gives you advice, it’s in your best interest to take it because she doesn’t have to give you a damn thing. I’m Cain, my sister is Abel. The question now begs: how does the gender swap change how the story is told? I think young girls are capable of a nuanced brutality in a way that young boys may not be. Brutality requires intelligence, which isn’t to say young boys aren’t intelligent but it’s a different kind of intelligence.

That’s one sense of the story, that Cain is a descendant of demons, but I regret that because it’s obvious and boring. It’s easy to dismiss Cain’s evil as demonic, but what makes Cain’s story frightening is that anyone is capable of doing what she did. She is the most human this way and when the monster looks like us—our loved ones—that’s the real story. The stories told about the siblings are severely imbalanced. I don’t think I’ve ever read a poem told from Abel’s voice, and so one task of many was to craft her voice. What did she sound like? What did she care about? What was her relationship to God? To Eve and Adam? I wonder if Abel was co-dependent. More than being Cain’s foil, this story in a lot of ways, is truly about Abel. The smallest lamb who strayed too far from the herd. Is it possible to love someone so much you would destroy them so no one else could have them? When I think about the girls, I can’t help but to think of Toni Morrison’s Sula and the fraught relationship between Nel and Sula. It wasn’t deliberate, this feminist retelling, but yes, Bloodmercy is a feminist retelling.

Regarding your question about God and Satan, it’s a story of two persons who loved each other, who had different ideals of salvation, who were moved to make the choices they made as a result. A comic book that is so, so, so critical to this kind of issue is Judas by Jeff Loveness and illustrated by Jakub Rebelka. I don’t want to give too much away, but essentially the comic gives us Judas’s perspective of his story because no one has ever let Judas tell his own story. It shows God in a fractured light. It shows Lucifer as a loved one who was betrayed. It also shows there is no salvation without sacrifice. There are always three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth.

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