“If you live and think a lot, those poems will be written more than you imagine when you finally come to the page.”
Silver Bullet (Mindmade Books, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
Silver Bullet is a meditation on early 20th century race films. It seeks to bring films such as Birth of a Nation, Imitation of Life, Emperor Jones, Native Son, and so many others to the forefront of current race discussions to examine whether or not much has changed in terms of the dynamics between Blacks and whites. However, beyond the broad subject of race relations, I think the most fascinating aspect of this collection is that it is written from the perspective of a Black woman living in the 21st century. I also analyze the ways in which Black women are depicted in earlier films where they not only serve as “the help” to whites but also to Black men.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook?Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem in my chapbook is “How to Make Pancakes,” which was inspired by the 1934 version of the film Imitation of Life. In fact, that is the poem that helped launch Silver Bullet. Guy Bennett, the editor and creator of the press Mindmade Books, saw my poem online and offered to publish my entire collection on early 20th century race films.
For my Master’s thesis at Indiana University, I initially wanted to do research that unpacked the strong Black woman archetype through television shows. My belief was that much is sacrificed when being the strong Black woman in real life and in television and movie land. When you look back at many television shows that starred “strong Black women,” you will find a history of these women leaving the shows or being fired. I decided to dig into the Black cinema archives for this project. I watched the 1934 version of Imitation of Life. I remember being affected by the idea of Louise Beavers (the actress who played the Black housekeeper in the film) being offered 20% interest on her own pancake business idea. It reminded me of how our economy currently works. Often, the person in the more vulnerable economic position does the brain work, and the person with more capital capitalizes off those ideas. I was disheartened by the manipulation of the Black woman’s economic vulnerability—to see her character joyously take a percentage of money for her own idea and to see how her subservient position created shame in the eyes of her biracial daughter.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I think a lot. My notebooks look like pure madness. I initially watched many of the films. I then took notes on what stood out to me about each of the films whether it was race, gender, or simply power relations. I actually sat on this manuscript idea for some time. Many of the poems were written before they ever hit the page. I would say that they were revised once I seriously started to sit down to write. This manuscript took about a year to complete. It was written in the midst of me completing two Master’s degree programs, moving to Chicago, quitting a job, and trying to regain financial stability. I suppose that’s why many of the poems take a shot at economic power relations.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Silver Bullet is not organized by subtitles, perhaps because all of my poems in that book fall under the theme of early 20th race films. My main mode of organization is based on the dates of the films and also by content—a reader might notice some discrepancy in terms of the book being totally based on chronological order, so it’s ordered based on time, content, and what feels right.
What are you working on now?
I am currently tightening up my full-length manuscript, which I’m really excited about and proud of. I think it will serve as a great introduction to who I am. I believe Silver Bullet introduces readers to my interests, which include race, gender, and economic relations. But my full-length manuscript will allow readers to know me more intimately. It will also serve as a tribute to the west side of Chicago, as well as all of the other places (such as Englewood; Bloomington, Indiana; and New York) that I have made into a home.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Live. Don’t feel as though you need to write at 6am and 6pm every day in order to be a true, practiced writer. Some methods work for some people and not for others. Neither Silver Bullet nor my upcoming collection could have been written without my different personal and physical journeys. If I’ve learned anything about being a writer, it is that your time comes when it is supposed to come. Dedication to the craft is key, but the writing is dead without real life experiences. If you live and think a lot, those poems will be written more than you imagine when you finally come to the page. However, if I were to offer a suggestion, it would be to write as much as you can and to hide those writings from yourself for at least a week, then write again. Keeping up that habit will allow you to stumble across some magic when you revisit your journals.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
In the words of Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus: “Make mistakes. Get messy!” Chapbooks are great marketing tools, and they also teach you a lot about what it takes to assemble a collection without necessarily holding the same weight as your first full length book.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
In no particular order—Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Rodgers, Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Smith, Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka, Gregory Pardlo, Nikky Finney, Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker—I’d probably tattoo more lines from Alice Walker’s fiction.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Dance—mainly hip hop and dancehall. Dance was a major part of my childhood. My mother would sometimes have her speakers near the window and lead dance competitions in the neighborhood. I often won. Around 4th grade, I became a big time nerd. My main focus was academic achievement. However, when I moved to New York, I went to a lot of reggae and hip hop clubs. I would always get encouraged to take dance a bit more seriously because apparently I had moves, but that was all a part of my Chi-town childhood. It’s interesting how some moves just translate across the African diaspora.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
In the past, many of my poems were narratives perhaps because I was more captivated by a strong story. I’m more experimental today. Whichever way a poem falls into my brain is often how it will fall onto the page for my first draft. If I hear a beat in my head when considering the structure of my poem, then on the page the poem will be structurally guided by the beat. Today, I take more risks in terms of how my poems are crafted because the reality is that so many of the same stories have been written. It’s no longer just about what story you’re telling, but it’s also about how you’re telling it.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
My chapbook creates a world where cinema mimics reality and reality mimics cinema, so essentially, my chapbook doesn’t create any alternate world. My chapbook is the current world we inhabit—it’s just written on page from the perspective of one of its marginalized inhabitants, which might make it both fresh and relatable to many readers.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
I think “What if Betsy is Dolly and Dolly is Betsy is I?” has the most meaningful backstory to me. I say this because after re-watching the films Emperor Jones and Native Son, something in my spirit was unsettled for days. I started to really wonder if the depictions of Black women in early 20th century films showcased how many Black American men are socialized to view Black women. I felt as if Black womanhood was rendered less valuable unless it prepared Black men to gain white male patriarchal power, which includes gaining the attention of white women or women who embrace a particular white feminine standard of beauty. I reflected on a moment in which I dated a man and realized that I would never be enough for him because of my Blackness that favored his own Blackness, which was perhaps something he was trying to escape, similar to Emperor Jones and Bigger Thomas. I remember a point when I said out loud: “Whoa! What if Betsy is Dolly and Dolly is I?” I then put my own sonic twist on that inquiry which led to the title of the poem.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
My intended audience for Silver Bullet is anyone who wants to understand race relations through a more in-depth, historical lens. I honestly think my book would serve really well at colleges and universities, particularly in film studies and ethnic studies classes. Essentially, this is a book for the people. Anyone who is self-reflective enough to consider the perspective of another is my audience.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish that I had been told that I am enough and that my poems are enough. Some of my poems can appear a bit morbid. I know that for my full-length collection, some of my readers have wanted me to focus on the more positive aspects of growing up in a poor community in Chicago; however, there is a reason why I highlight the darkness. Perhaps my focus on the dark and deadly is unbelievable. Some readers, who may not immediately relate to my experiences, might think: “Situations couldn’t be that horrific—that cinematic?” But what if they are? I think it’s important to understand when your poems can fit a stereotype, and when the stereotype is so essential to the heart of your work that to erase it is to erase yourself. Don’t get me wrong. I believe nuance is important—all darkness with no glimmer of light is unbelievable. However, cynicism, in terms of perspectives on the hood when you’ve grown up in it and only had aspirations to escape, are as valuable and honest as the moment in which you learn to value and accept those experiences.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
One of my favorite pastimes is watching interviews of celebrities. I’m interested in their thought process, what allows them to maintain their platform, and what also allows some people to walk away from fame. I suppose I’m inspired by vulnerability—fully exposed humanity.
Ciara Darnise Miller, a native of Chicago, holds both an MFA and MA in Poetry and African American/African Diaspora Studies from Indiana University. She also received her BA in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College. She has published poems and academic essays in such collections and periodicals as Break Beat Poets, Mosaic, Fjords Review, African American Review, Callaloo, Muzzle, Toegood Poetry, Alice Walker: Critical Insights, PLUCK, Chorus, and Blackberry Magazine. She currently serves as a reading and social & emotional learning interventionist as well as a poetry/ drama instructor at Dewey School of Excellence in Chicago.
The Skeleton. The Bones. The Ghost
After Lucky Ghost (1942)
All it takes is a crapshoot, a lucky 7
& his glare of Gotcha,
To make a laughing butter-scotch-skinned lady
Take a liking to a man in a bowtie.
Face it: the lucky Black man is always casted as dumb.
The woman, a head bobbling, sapphire, even dumber,
Needy enough to believe the man can afford her.
& when he wins the bet to win the hotel,
Shimmy, shimmy! Let luck be a lady!
But to win is to witness
The skeleton. The ghost. The ceiling
Shook. The building.
Shook. Shook like hell/
Hell is a house/ is a hotel/
Is a crapshoot of lucky 7-11. It is the woman,
With her piercing laugh
Peering at the rumpled pockets of the man
Who she believes can afford her.
It is graveyards of slaves, with twisted,
Skeletal heads warning you there is blood
On those bills. It is the plot switching
From swing dance to horror—
It is to be Black and own or be owned
By the ceiling. Shook. By a horse whip.
It is to crawl inside of one’s own skin.