“I am excited by writing that doesn’t estrange itself from vulnerability.”
When The Living Sing (Ledge Mule Press, 2017)
Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
At the age of 7, a letter was plucked from my name
as a test to see who would catch the error. To see
who’d care enough to go search for the rest
For about 4 months, my name appeared as Yal e
on the page.
A part of me wonders why some names are sweeter than others
and become the nectar that pools at the base of our memory.
Would anyone let ssabelle, Rchard, Elzabeth,
or Snclar escape from the 9th letter of the alphabet?
Me and my broken name, less heavy than before,
began to float away to somewhere else.
No search party was sent to check between the
monkey bars, under the desks, my cubby,
or the palms of my hands. There was no red pen
to correct the flaw.
Nobody else played the game, so there’s no
record of the joyful sound that was made when
the long, lost, me found the small, brown, I.
Why did you choose this poem?
I chose “Space” because it’s a poem that speaks to identity formation, which is a recurring theme in my chapbook. The poem is one of my most recent explorations of one of my oldest memories of being aware of feeling “different,” and trying to reconcile with it. I think there are echoes of that sentiment in the body of the chapbook—a record of how we dialogue with what in our identities casts shadows/ brings light.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced you?
I have many chapbooks that I adore, but lately these have been the following: Black Movie by Danez Smith, Equilibrium by Tiana Clark, How to Give Birth to My Mother by Warsan Shire, Blood Percussion by Nate Marshall and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named by Nicole Sealey.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about your writing?
It may suggest what is resoundingly true—I am excited by writing that doesn’t estrange itself from vulnerability. I am also interested in writing that understands classical forms of poetry so well that it can both subvert them and use them to in order to tell stories that certain readerships aren’t used to associating with these narratives.
Does the chapbook form impact the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
I think so and probably even in ways that I can’t imagine right now. I think the chapbook is an inherently political literary expression. Given its length and the way it distills particular themes down to their essence, the chapbook has a way of sinking quickly and deeply into its reader. The chapbook has the power to implore its reader to make a pretty quick (and intense) emotional investment into the writing. I think a well-written chapbook can subtly challenge its readers’ hearts to expand in all of these surprising (and lightning quick) ways.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
I think the driving obsession for the chapbook was the desire to write about how humans interact with the world when they feel loved, isolated, or both.
What’s your chapbook about?
When The Living Sing is an exploration of themes of first generation-American identity, Blackness, womanhood, spirituality and how those subjects interact with loss, the imagination, and freedom.
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 the collection is “Oakland as Home, Home as Myth.” I started working on that poem in 2006 and it’s gone through many, many, revisions in order for it to read the way that it does today. Though the message hasn’t changed, the images and spirit of the poem have become more precise. The poem is about Oakland but was written during three periods of time in which I wasn’t living in Oakland. I think this poem took such a long time because of how much I love the city and because of that love, I would often let my emotions (regarding gentrification, violence, and a general misunderstanding of Oakland) stun me. Realizing the poem was a very slow but necessary process. I’m also happy to love something enough that it’s hard to create art that reflects that adoration.
The poem that catalyzed the chapbook was “Rekia, Oscar, and All of Their Sky Cousins.” My dear friend Kayte thought that I should share this poem with Dave Torneo, an editor at Ledge Mule Press. He was moved by the poem and invited me to create a chapbook, which was an extraordinary experience.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I spent a lot of time organizing and reorganizing the poems. All of my organizing advice came from three friends and mentors who happened to be named Dave or David. Dave Torneo of Ledge Mule Press helped me find the title of the chapbook, which is based on a line in one of the poems called “Resurrection.” The title is in direct dialogue with this line. I knew that I loved the title and that I didn’t want to change it. I knew I wouldn’t change the title before I was even sure if the narrative of the collection would be able to support it. My friend/writer David Watters helped me think through the narrative. We talked a lot about it, then spent an afternoon sitting on my living room floor and took turns reading the poems out loud in order to see if the pieces and the title were in harmony with each other. A few poems were removed from the manuscript as a result of that. I taped the remaining to my wall and looked over it for a few weeks and thought that I’d figured out the final order. I sent the manuscript to Dave Eggers, who had agreed to write a blurb for the chapbook (he’s been a champion of my writing since I was a teenager). He suggested “Aubade for Every Room in Which My Mother Resides” as the poem that opened the collection. That last change in the poem order brought the chapbook a cohesion that I hadn’t imagined and really pleased me.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
I would say “Long Distance” is the “misfit” poem because of length and language. It is a prose poem and though there is another, this one is longer in length and it’s the only poem in which I incorporate usage of my first language, Krio (Sierra Leonean Creole).
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
I don’t always revise right after I receive feedback. “Oakland As Home, Home As Myth” and “Long Distance” were the poems that had the heaviest revision processes. I don’t think they brought a sense of closure to the chapbook beyond the fact that I felt happy with the way that they turned out and it felt like it was time for the writing to be done with (because I felt like I could have tinkered with the chapbook forever and ever).
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
When I’m doing revisions based on the feedback of others, I’ll wait for a few days or weeks before jumping in. At times, feedback opens up another door in terms of the possibilities of the poem and I want to make sure that the new path that it may lead me down is the one that I’d like to take or if I want to stay on the track that I’m on. Setting deadlines is really helpful, too. If I fall within a week of what I am aiming for, then I consider it a success! I also believe in reading, reading, and reading again your work aloud. The things you trip over in speech might be an indication of clutter. Also part of poetry is music—I want my writing to reflect that beyond the page. It’s important to remember and respect the aural dimension of written work.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The editorial and production processes were extremely positive. Dave Torneo of Ledge Mule Press and Richard Wehrenberg Jr., the designer of the chapbook, encouraged my curiosity (and had the patience to back it up!). Dave and I spent a lot of Saturday mornings drinking coffee and thinking about chapbook design, content, deadlines and talking a lot about poetry in general. Richard’s previous design work was so beautiful that I had no worries there. I did have some anxiety around finding the perfect cover—that took quite a bit of time, which was largely a result of my indecision. The cover that I eventually chose after talking to some folks I really trust was a photo I took when visiting Paris in 2014. Aside from having a chapbook, the other really special thing was getting to become better friends with Dave and Richard. What’s better than art and homies?
What are you working on now?
I am working on my second chapbook, A Brief Biography of My Name (African Poetry Book Fund/ Akashic Books), which will be released as a part of the New Generations African Poetry Chapbook boxed set, which will be published in 2018. I’m also entering the last year of my MFA program at Indiana University.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Photography, theatre, or film and the strongest evidence for this is that they’re the three artistic disciplines that I can’t stop writing about.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Explore art outside of your primary genre of writing. What you gather elsewhere will likely enrich/ inform your work.
Observe people on public transportation.
Find your best readers.
Be open to feedback.
But also be cautious about what you take in… it’s okay discard the feedback that doesn’t necessitate growth— you’ll start to see patterns in the type of advice that is good for you and your work.
Give writers the amount of attention that you’d like readers to give to your work.
Hold your writing ideas close to the chest; sometimes talking about the work instead of doing the work is the quickest way to kill your project.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Did you ever want to give up on your chapbook—why did you persist?
Yalie Kamara is a Sierra Leonean-American and native of Oakland, California. In addition to being the author of the chapbook When The Living Sing (Ledge Mule Press, 2017), her work has appeared in Vinyl Poetry and Prose, Pop-Up Magazine, and Amazon: Day One She is a Callaloo Fellow, a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Emerging Critics Fellow, and was a finalist for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. For more information, please visit her website: www.yaylala.com.
purchase When The Living Sing
“Soumission Chimique” in Pop-up Magazine
“Mother’s Rules” in Vinyl Poetry & Prose
“Haiku Love Letters for Gabby Douglas” in WusGood.Black (scroll down)