“Trust your feelings. Trust your instincts. If it’s important to you, if you know it needs to be said, say it.”
Warning Coloration (Dancing Girl Press, 2018)
I would just like to start from the beginning of the chapbook with the poem The Blueprint. Gwendolyn seems like such an interesting character that we learn a lot about by reading how she treats the child. What was your goal for your readers in describing Gwendolyn through her actions rather than her characteristics?
Gwendolyn is the American hero and poet Gwendolyn Brooks. I have imagined conversations with her all of the time and in this poem, she’s instructing me to get out of my head and act (write).
In your interview with Nikky Finney, “Finding a Window,” you both mention how her first attempts at poetry “were often terrible, horrible rants.” I think this is the beginning stage for a lot of writers who have the hard conversations. Do you ever find yourself writing “terrible, horrible rants” about topics that you are particularly passionate about and have to step back from it for a little while?
YES! Most first drafts of anything are that. What’s worse is that I started in journalism where articles go to press in very few drafts, so it was hard for me to adjust to sleeping on things, sometimes for months or years, which (decent) poetry and creative nonfiction often demand. But once I started to get published online and saw how things I wished I’d spent more time editing were going to live forever, I got with the program.
“Intersection” is arguably one of your most powerful pieces in the collection. When addressing the societal issue of feminism, you used pathos in such a way which highlighted the struggles women face daily in a raw and honest way, which signified your piece as empowering and moving. What would you say to a young woman who feels empowered by your writing, but isn’t sure what to do with this newly found strength?
Trust your feelings. Trust your instincts. If it’s important to you, if you know it needs to be said, say it. But sit on it for a little bit. Keep re-reading it. Read other things like it. Figure out your place in the conversation. Figure out what you are adding and why. Read it again. Read other things like it again. And repeat, until you can’t bear to keep it to yourself anymore. I emphasize practicing patience not only for the sake of your art but because we live in the time of the troll and the contrarian and the gatekeepers of certain issues, so don’t release anything prematurely or anything you aren’t ready to defend. I’ve made mistakes in this way in the past and learned some hard lessons.
And don’t ever let an editor make you clickbait by overediting a piece or asking you to release something you’d rather not have on the internet. That’s the other big thing, choose your venue wisely. There are some things I’ll only publish in print and not online because I don’t want them to be any nosey, google searcher’s instant business. I used to always say people should guard their online footprint as though they’d one day be running for president but, well, that’s kind of pointless advice now. Instead, I advise not putting anything online that you wouldn’t feel comfortable having a conversation about with a future hiring committee. It’s ok to have passion but always sleep on something you’re particularly fired up about before pressing “send.” Once you’ve figured out what you’re comfortable with in those ways and you know you’re coming from a fair, open, and real place, let loose! Take up your space and speak your truth. Just don’t become entertainment for people in ways that aren’t helpful to you.
From my reading, most of these poems had clear answers to questions asked. Even if you didn’t explicitly give answers, I got there myself by the end of the poem. The one poem that left me with more questions than I came in with was Intersection. It seems like that was the point because most of the poem is just questions. It felt like a turning point in the book as well. What made you leave the questions so open-ended, even as you added small notes on a couple of the questions?
That particular poem is about the burden of being a Black woman in a world where many people expect you to be the Magical Negro or “The Help” with ALL the knowledge, all the love (for everyone but yourself) and all the answers. I guess that poem is a declaration that I never signed that lease and won’t live there.
I noticed that you included ‘Gen-Xer’ in your bio on twitter. How has your generation influenced your writing? How has it not influenced your writing?
Yes, I’m a very late Gen-Xer which means I’m sorta stuck in-between generations. I always say I was born about five to ten years late. I think it was easier to be a writer, a romantic, and a sentient being, before the internet.
Warning Coloration is such a memorable title. Did you toy around with a couple different titles or did you always know you wanted some variation of this one?
As soon as I learned what the phrase meant it was a done deal. The title was by far the easiest part of putting the collection together. It’s also my only book not named after a song.
In “Fitting In”, you detail the harsh conditions of a ballerina’s feet. Did you take dance lessons as a child? If so, did you ever stop dancing? If yes, why did you stop dancing? What prompted your transition from dancing in shoes on a stage to dancing with ink on a page?
I’m not a trained dancer, or a good dancer at all really, but identity is a delicate dance that can throw us all off balance.
In The Message, the narrator describes Jenifer as “wilting under thinning blonde hair” and then later says “I was going to be the last flower to bloom.” There is a floral theme floating under the surface of your poem that brings an interesting juxtaposition as one flower dies and the other is just beginning to bloom. Did you discover anything about how you personally handle drastically juxtaposing situations, whether currently or as you grew up, while writing this poem?
Life, especially the life of a writer, is the gaining and passing of experience to others. The poem is a microcosmic detailing of this transit.
In your poem “The Stage”, one of the stanzas says:
” I imagine licking freedom
melting into a cotton candy line,
without the glares and
sugar-white stares of
I love the consistency of these images. From “licking freedom” to “melting” into the line, even to “sugar-white stares.” It sounds sweet and appealing, yet the message of the poem is about injustice. What do you think the benefit is of describing something unpleasant and sour as something as sweet as sugar (cotton candy)?
Racism is a sort of dissonance, so it’s an effective tool to use in describing it.
“The Stage” discusses challenges non-white people endure in such a way that physically forces the reader to crawl into another person’s skin and walk around in it, even if just for one page. The line ‘I envy the airy walk of whiteness’ hits the reader like a tidal wave to an unsuspecting surfer; can you recall the first moment in your life where you began to envy the experience that your own skin will never grant you?
Hmmm very good and tough question. I’m an observant person so I’m fairly certain I always knew my body came bearing a lot of weight that wasn’t my own.
“The Weigh In” expresses internal thoughts and struggle with one’s weight and self-body image. This is more of a personal question than a literary one, but in a society where individual body image is highly influenced by an edited appearance on social media, do you have any poetic advice for anyone struggling with embracing body positivity? How can one truly know that his or her body is not trivial?
I struggle with this all the time, constantly, and always will. I think if we are being honest, most of us, especially women, do. I kinda hate social media a lot of the time but it’s without a doubt a necessary evil nowadays, so I’m just super diligent about filtering the images I let inside my brain. This means I don’t “hate-follow” people or follow people who don’t inspire me.
Follow people who defy the beauty standards that feel stifling to you. That could mean following plus-size models, bald models, models with very dark skin, trans models, disabled models…etc. The good thing about social media is that it brings people you’d otherwise never meet, up-close and personal. Shift your gaze. You’d be amazed and how quickly that shifts your thoughts and personal beliefs. It’s a big world out there and although Beyoncé and Gigi Hadid are pretty in all the ways that keep advertisers in the black, most people don’t actually look like them. Find your people.
Outback is an interesting poem because of your uses of the forward slash and the white space. It feels as if it can be two separate poems because of the way it is split down the middle. When I got to the end, the white space mirrors the final line “He couldn’t be farther away.” What was the revision process like for this poem as you tried to make sure each piece fit together and also could stand alone?
Ah, great reading of the poem! That actually wasn’t as contrived as it looks. It started as a prose block poem with forward slashes in place of periods and then when I was playing with the final formatting, I realized there was a natural symmetry to the poem that I exploited.
I’ve noticed that many of your poems, especially “The Message” and “Blood in the Soil”, are saturated with familial elements. How does your heritage inspire you to write? More specifically, is it the personal relationships within, or more of the detailed history of your lineage which has most strongly impacted you?
Yes and both. I’m ridiculously close to my immediate family and I was super close to my maternal grandmother who I honor in my work all of the time.
There is no one conversation being had in this chapbook, but rather many carrying on throughout it. How did you decide what topics to address in this specific collection?
They chose me. They were the loudest conversations in my head at the time.
(Stalking your twitter, oops.) I also took note of the photo you tweeted of the Instagram screenshot, which showed Harry Potter Houses in relation to astrology signs. As a fellow Harry Potter nerd, I am curious as to which house you are in and why you believe you are in said house?
Gryffindor!!!! Obviously!!!! I love this question! I’m a Taurus and said chart linked my sign to said house. It’s funny because whenever I talk Harry Potter, most people jokingly (or maybe not so jokingly) insist I belong in Slytherin. As a real-life “Mudblood” this observation is confounding, but I’m not sure there isn’t something there. Meaning if I were born with all the “pure blood” privilege of those in Slytherin, maybe I would have flourished in that world: I’m not a patient person (here’s where I should mention that while I’m a Taurus, I’m on the Taurus-Gemini cusp with a Gemini moon), I don’t play well with people I don’t like, and I can be the iciest of queens. This possible chasm (between who I’ve had to be and who I may really be underneath) is one of the biggest tragedies of our current, political reality. So many of us will never know how truly awful or truly graceful we are capable of being outside of our constrictive casings. Maybe there is an obnoxious, entitled, lacrosse player inside of me, dying to get out oppress. Maybe that’s why agency is so fluid in my writing. Maybe, deep down, I’m actually the villain in so much of my own work. Who knows. I’ll never truly get a chance to explore that, off the page anyway.
Obviously, from the title, the readers know that color is an important theme and to expect that. What they might not have expected is that it’s more than black and white, but multiple pieces mention other colors. Specifically, “Undertones” mentions red, yellow, and even beige; red is clearly the highlighted color from landscape description to blood to the red of a human. How has the color red played into your own life that caused you to make it the main color in one of your poems?
As many exasperated Sephora employees can confirm, I’ve always had a hard time finding a good foundation because my undertones are incredibly red for my skin tone. I joke that it’s anger bubbling to the surface. I live in the heat of red.
I read that you traveled to Peru for a Spanish-immersion program. Does traveling out of country inspire your creative writing side? If so, is it more of the culturally diverse people you encounter, or new natural terrain which inspires you?
Travelling has always been a huge part of who I am. I’m a curious person and I like seeing, tasting, touching, and smelling new things and people—and yes, that definitely inspires my work and my understanding of the world. I also like shaking off constrictions. I’m most free, or maybe just the most authentically me, when I’m 37,000 feet in the air, about to land in a totally new adventure.
“Remnants” is your shortest piece in the collection, yet its carefully crafted composition leaves readers drowning in melancholy, ambivalent curiosity. When it comes to poetry, do you think that sometimes less is actually more? What kind of emotion did you intend to foster in the minds of your audience with the inclusion of this hauntingly ephemeral piece?
For sure, they can serve as invitations inside. Shorter poems can give the reader more space to create their own space between my words.
Your piece entitled “A piece of him” is abundant in vivid imagery – painting a crystal clear, lively image for the reader. The line “in a crop of crinkled brown lunch bags” especially appeals to sensory functions: the alliteration and structured parallelism forces the reader pause and to both hear and visually imagine the crinkling of the lunch bags. How do you attempt to intentionally force your audience to pause in your creative process?
Sure, pausing is good. But I guess the goal is to have the image affect more than one of the reader’s senses. That can happen while reading the poem or hours or days later.
Were there any poems in this chapbook that you were unsure if they really belonged in this specific collection? If so, what convinced you to go ahead and put it in any way?
Ha, yes. The antidote is always a deadline. I can sit in editing limbo forever without one.
Kimberly Reyes is a poet and essayist who has received fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, Columbia University, and San Francisco State University. Her nonfiction book of essays, Life During Wartime, winner of the 2018 Michael Rubin Book Award, is forthcoming from Fourteen Hills (January, 2019). Her full-length poetry manuscript Running to Stand Still is forthcoming from Omnidawn (October, 2019). Kimberly lives at the intersection of sun and fog in San Francisco.