“I’m obsessed with New Orleans. It’s where I’m from. Its history is deep, and its future is hopefully never ending.”
I’m Always So Serious (Sarabande Books, 2023)
A question from Megan Nichols: what books do you return to when you feel uninspired or disillusioned?
A book I always go back to is Please by Jericho Brown. I remember being taught his poem “Hustle” freshman year of high school and not really understanding it, but was really happy that I was being taught a living black poet who was from Louisiana like me. A few years later, I bought his book Please. I was in college and by then had learned so much more about poetry and how to read a poem. The way Brown writes about family, violence, and physical/emotional landscape really strikes a chord with me and helped me learn how to write about those themes in my own way. There’s so much self-reflection and focus on the interior in his work, and he also plays a lot with persona and music. I truly feel like I’m receiving a masterclass on writing when reading that book.
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and growing up, my favorite subjects were English and Science. Many of my first “ideal careers” were scienced based—first I wanted to be a dentist, then a chemist, then a psychologist—until I took a 7th grade creative writing class. I decided at 12 that I was going to be a poet. I didn’t know any poets or how they made money, but I felt very strongly that that was what I was going to do (lol).
That previous year, my family had just moved back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and I became more and more interested in capturing emotions and experiences—so much so that I used to carry around a toy camera (I’m also a screenwriter) until I got a real one. In creative writing class, I was exposed to poetry and novels that I’d never heard of. I always loved writing stories, and this was the first time I got to sit with classmates who gave me feedback, and I was expected to do the same and revise my work to turn in to my teacher. I went to an arts school so by the time I got to high school, I still took exploratory creative writing classes, but I was also in my school’s media arts program learning about photography and film. I went to Columbia University for undergrad and got a degree in Creative Writing with a concentration in poetry, and then got my MFA in poetry from NYU. My collection is a revised draft of my MFA thesis.
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
I don’t have a writing space. A lot of times I write in my bed or in a coffee shop. For me, what’s important is having access to a notebook, a nice gel pen, and tea. I start every poem draft by hand and then transfer my writing to Microsoft Word. I like coffee shops because I get to people watch and I like the light background chatter. I get to focus on my work without having to be completely solitary and away from others.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
I’m obsessed with New Orleans. It’s where I’m from. Its history is deep, and its future is hopefully never ending. I know that climate change is not just a threat but a promise to our way of life. I wanted to document the New Orleans that I know and remember before it changes again. I often view life from a pre and post Katrina lens and what water has taken from me.
In addition to New Orleans, I’m obsessed with music, blackness, and kinship (which is also what makes New Orleans New Orleans). Throughout the collection, I use persona and experimental forms, allowing me to move away from just one speaker into a collective “we” to meditate on these themes throughout history and to revisit and “revise” myths.
What’s the oldest poem in your book? Or can you name one piece that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem in my book is “Prelude to Separation.” I call it the first “real” poem I ever wrote because it is about my grandmother and my family’s evacuation from New Orleans for Katrina. When I first started writing poems, I only wrote persona poems because I was afraid of people learning anything about me and judging me. I’ve since gotten over that. I remember wanting to write about how my cousins and I stayed with our grandmother during a hurricane (it happened a lot during our childhood) and that then triggered the memory of us evacuating for the next hurricane that I remembered as a child (Katrina) not long after my grandmother’s death. I wanted to be really honest about my confused feelings and sadness after my grandmother’s death and I brought that poem to an undergraduate workshop. I still remember everyone’s faces after I read it. They were impressed and someone told me it was the best poem I’d written so far. “Prelude to Separation” was the poem that made me want to share more about my life and write more about New Orleans since I was in New York for college. Before that poem, I think I was “hiding” behind persona. When I write persona poems now, I really sit and think of how and why I choose speakers and what kernel of me lives in them.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
The most meaningful poem is “C.J. Peete, Magnolia 2004”. The C. J. Peete Public Housing Development was the official name of the Magnolia Housing Projects located in the uptown area of New Orleans, Louisiana, where my family is from. The Magnolia was demolished three years post-Katrina in 2008, and the area is now home to the Harmony Oaks Apartments. The poem is dedicated to Ms. Cheryldale V. Washington, a close family friend who I consider an aunt, and one of the people I interviewed when I planned on making a short documentary about family and friends who lived in the Magnolia pre-Katrina. This documentary was never finished, but the italicized words in this poem are her words and come from my interview with her. This poem allows me to bring a piece of my family’s world to the reader even though the physical building is no longer in New Orleans. It becomes a witness to the people who are the last witnesses of their home in that form.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
The most significantly revised poem would have to be the poem “Buckjump.” It is a very experimental 4-page poem that utilizes space and even has a section in the shape of a boom box that was inspired by the poet Douglas Kearney’s use of typography. The first draft of that poem was very short and only a page long, focusing more on nature, and an unidentified speaker mentioning the woods where the enslaved are buried. In the revised version, I repeat the harm that’s been done to these now ancestors every couple of lines so that there is no mistake of what this poem is about. “Buckjumping” is the name of a dance performed at New Orleans second line parades. These second lines are held for jazz funerals, weddings, and any other moments worthy of celebration. The dance can be steeped in both joy and heartbreak. I wrote “Buckjump” after reading an article on The Advocate’s website: “Researcher maps hidden graveyards of slaves who once tilled Louisiana sugar cane fields” by Terry L. Jones (February 5, 2017). I dedicated the poem to the souls of the black people buried without the proper respect they deserved and intended for this poem to be a written form of “buckjumping” to honor the dead and use the poem’s sonic play to mimic the lively feeling of being at a New Orleans second line. I’m not sure that the revision informed me that the book was “complete,” but revising that poem let me know that I was writing honestly, and no longer sought “permission” to write in a non-conventional way.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
Listening to your work is the best way to revise. A revision strategy that always helps me is reading a poem out loud to see if the line breaks match when I take a breath. Your voice is your best unit of measurement, and it has helped me with word choice, repetition, and even stanza structures.
A prompt I often give to my students is to turn the last line of a poem they’ve written into the first line of a new poem and start from there. I think it’s interesting to write starting at the “aftermath” of something to see what comes out once the “big moment” has left.
What has the editorial and production experience with your publisher been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
The editorial process has been great. I’m very happy to be working with Sarabande Books. They are a small press and really appreciate and respect input from their writers. I was also fortunate that I got to pick the cover of my book. The image on the cover is called “The Girl Inside” by Delita Martin. I even got to meet the artist a few months ago when she was in town giving a craft talk at the Stella Jones Gallery where her pieces were being displayed. I’ve been a fan of her work for years and when I first saw that piece, I was on the J train in Brooklyn, and I nearly jumped out of my seat. The child looks exactly like I did as a kid and even my family members saw the book and thought that it was an illustration of an old childhood photo of mine. After I told Martin how important the piece was to me, she agreed to let me use it as the cover.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working in the narrative space: I’ve just finished writing a TV pilot and am hoping to see if anyone wants to make it a real show (it’s a little spooky)! I’ve also been working on speculative short stories set in New Orleans. I think it would be fun to write a short story collection or even a novel.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I would be a singer. There’s just something about listening to a song (I really like soul, blues, and R&B) and hearing the singer belt out a note that has joy, sorrow, and lived experience all wrapped into one. The sound is a physical manifestation of those emotions and that’s what I imagine freedom to sound like. When I try to do that, I sound like a dying cat.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read as much as you can get your hands on. Read widely. But also find out what you like to read about. You should create your own literary canon and learn who your literary ancestors/kin are. It’s always important to know who you’re in conversation with.
What question would you like to ask the next author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Do you have any self-care practices you include when writing about something heavy?
Karisma Price is a poet, screenwriter, and media artist. Her work has work that has appeared in Poetry, Four Way Review, wildness, Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She is a Cave Canem Fellow, was a finalist for the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize, and was awarded the 2020 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation. She is from New Orleans, Louisiana, and holds an MFA in poetry from New York University where she was a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow. She is currently an assistant professor of poetry at Tulane University.