“Everything is mundane and incredibly vital and full of color. I wanted to understand the language of living, while living with the loss of the dead.”
Dream With A Glass Chamber (YesYes Books, 2016)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks?
Some of my favorites are Unnaysayer by Hajara Quinn; Bruised Gospel by Phillip B. Williams, hands on ya knees by Danez Smith, Between Old Trees by francine j. harris, How Swallowtails Become Dragons by Bianca Spriggs, A History of Flamboyance by Justin Phillip Reed, The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, by Nicole Sealey, Ocean Vuong’s No, just to name a few.
What’s your chapbook about?
The poems in Dream With A Glass Chamber are preoccupied with why, obsessed with grappling at an anti-answer to how we attempt to neatly move through the terrain of grief. I was equally interested in what informs our language around grief: self-help and mental health “wellness” narratives, much of which seem rooted in diagnostic cataloguing. I suppose there’s an attempt there to make sense of what can’t be made sense of. While I have my own predilections toward mania, I find grief is a kind of mania as well. Everything is fine because we make it so; you are whispering in the dark, the names of the dead while a heron traipses outside your window, or you’re on the back patio of your favorite coffee shop watching a bee do the work it was born and made to do, over and over, and maybe you weep, maybe you curse the bee for being so oblivious to the task it’s charged with day in and day out. Everything is mundane and incredibly vital and full of color. I wanted to understand the language of living, while living with the loss of the dead.
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 first poem, Year of the Molotov, was written well before the rest of the book. I was reading (or I’m always reading) Diane Wakowski’s essays Creating A Personal Mythology while contemplating how we carry the narratives of ourselves. Mary Karr talks about memory being “innately corrupt” and the language of it is disturbing in its truth. While working, I was also doing a lot of research on the effects of trauma, and how intersected (race/gender/socio-econonic) bodies come to focalize their experience through simultaneous lenses. I wanted to, rather than purely reimagine, find a place for that in a memory that I’d long made pedestrian. Of course someone threw a molotov cocktail through my parents house when I was four, what other way could this memory work have begun? Later, the poem seemed as good of an origin story as any: how I came to this preoccupation with rebuilding after loss. The question of rebuilding looks different for different people. We want to make it respectable, or neat. Often, it’s not.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I keep returning to this question, since the process of writing the majority of these poems was so compulsory. I wrote many of them during a one month long poem-a-day challenge through The Grind writer’s group, curated by Ross White. The nature of the exchange is focused on a generative operatus modi rather than critique-based workshop, and comments are only encouraged via backchannel, and only if you feel led to respond. That silence amongst digitally presented voices took the pressure off me to vary the content. In terms of revision, I wanted the music and the static of grief to shake the language; if a line was too neat, I needed something in the syntax or the lexicon to undo it. Or if I was going to catalogue, I had to include what I thought at the time were absurd reactions to the physical, psychological, and emotional effects of grief.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The arrangement, given the compact nature of the chapbook, felt more like a track list to an album. I incorporated music references that either directly or indirectly struck a chord when memory would come waving its hands; and the subject of many of the poems, my friend whom the book is dedicated to, was a musician in addition to being a bardic poet.
I was lucky to study with an incredibly generous professor at Cornell, Dagmawi Woubshet, who included The Root’s Undun album as part of his American Elegy course. The album is told from the first-person perspective of Redford Stevens, a man whose life was cut short due to the circumstances he was given, beginning with his death, his story is retold backwards. The poems feel backward, where the book ends on a memory of a moment I shared with my friend before he died; and then, some poems feel more instrumental than ballad, some more ballad then dirge, but it seemed to come together in the same strange and visceral way my grief did.
I’m grateful for my editor KMA Sullivan who pointed out that the collection had more light than the original title led on. It was initially titled after one of the poems Dream With an Empty Chamber. After a few calls, she convinced me to let some of the light in. Here I thought, these poems are ridiculously sad, and maybe yes, but, so what? What’s beyond the sadness? How do we see ourselves in relationship to it?
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
It took me a while to find a cover artist. I wanted something that looked like a lyric poem, where if the art was going to be figurative it couldn’t be a straight-forward portraiture of some sad wailing woman. After a while, I revisited my colleague’s work, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and the final image we decided on took my breath away: the stark contrast between the pastoral and the body, that we couldn’t see her face. There’s a distant possibility of light in the background, but the foreground is cast in shadow. Griffiths was gracious in giving us an immediate yes.
In terms of design, YesYes Books makes gorgeous art objects. It’s primary designer, Alban Fischer, is a genius and knows how to make attractive collections of poetry that stir, invite, and intrigue someone picking up a collection whether on purpose or by happenstance. I’m so thrilled with how everything turned out.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on poems that explore mental illness and trauma through a Black, Queer, Woman lens, trying to get at the trauma/memory work I’ve always been preoccupied with. There’s an undoing taking place, particularly among black women writers who are defying the impetus to hide. Morgan Parker comes to mind, essays by Bassey Ikpi; poets Jonterri Gadson and Tarfisha Edwards. Every time I “admit” that I live with a mood disorder, it seems like I’m letting a reader in on a secret; or that I’m reducing the daily trauma cycled through the news outlets to a “personal problem.” It’s a supremacist language I will probably spend a vast majority of my time undoing. There’s a very real denial among the American public regarding not only the state sanctioned violence against LGBTQ, POC, Women and Children’s bodies, but how to reconcile these acts with the daily living we commit to. Both of my parents are social workers, and neither of them had an easy go of it in speaking freely about the violence inflicted on them; and given the state of things in the world, it’s no wonder that there’s only so much we can keep in without using a pressure release valve to set some things free.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
There’s a beauty and music to language, there’s no real turning away from it. But it’s an excellent way to critically think through the world. While teaching at Cornell, some of my best students were engineering students. They wanted to take things apart, understand how they worked, and put things back together: machines, histories, etc. Take a chance, even if it’s not your career path: it can help you think through the world around you and your place in it, through a different POV, like a kaleidoscope-how displacing and curious the colors and images that bend the light of what we view with the naked eye.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Chapbooks are fantastic. They exist like an EP or an art installation. You can create or re-create an idea through a series of pieces that can also stand on their own. No narrative is without a history, without water as Morrison says, “turning back onto itself.” You might surprise yourself with yourself. So, why not?
Aricka Foreman’s poems have appeared in The Drunken Boat, Minnesota Review, RHINO, Day One, shuf Poetry, James Franco Review, thrush, Vinyl Poetry, PLUCK!, and Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation on Viking Penguin, among others. Foreman, from Detroit, currently lives in Chicago. She is the Art co-editor at The Offing.
I Got Mad Love
I hope. Eat collards out the pot, drink its liquor.
Let lover’s welt my body for tomorrow’s blue
pleasure. Don’t look for Chris O’Donnell to save
me, he was a shitty Robin anyway. It’s not
the 90s anymore. Except for this dark matte,
the way I rip my jeans. Some days
when I am brave, I walk to the train without
headphones. I wish a bitch would tell me to smile,
the arrow of my brow cutting their spleen out.
On my best days, I take my sheer black bra off
before the deadbolt slides shut. Pour myself a glass
of red wine, let it stain my tits. Roast a chicken
and suck the salt off every finger. Live.
(first appeared in The James Franco Review)