The Conversation is an eight-part series put together by Aziza Barnes and Nabila Lovelace and hosted by The Rumpus. Read more about the project here. These poems and conversations from Angel Nafis, Safia Elhillo, and Elizabeth Acevedo are the fifth installment.
my cigarettes cold turkey Dad
my whisky cold turkey my what go in your nose cold turkey Dad
my once he turn his back ain’t no turning back Dad
my who needs a map Dad
my Ellie Pearl you’se to say Dad
my million skeleton inside the soapbox Dad
my steal anything that ain’t nailed down Dad
my I’ll come up to that damn school tomorrow Dad
my eat as much as you want Dad
my They use to call me Boobie Dad
my been saying he 70 since he was 65 Dad
my been saying money ain’t his problem since I can remember Dad
my been talking about the chocolate brown cadillac
with the cream interior since I can remember Dad
my open faced grilled cheese heated up at the bottom of the oven Dad
my east coast jawbreaker Dad
my 15 to 20 minutes late and no cell phone Dad
my walk with one hand out and twice as fast as everybody
my Michigan sore thumb
My bullshit referee
my blue-jump-suit-doused-in-cologne Dad
my call 4 times in a row with no shame
my care package with 4 broken watches and Mom’s old portraits
my smart ass Jack-O-Lantern
garden of ripe roses
I curse and lift up every clock
my hands of flesh
that dug out the light.
1. Would you, as a POC writer in 2016 America, move to Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, colloquially referred to as the “deep South”? Why or why not?
Angel Nafis: LOL. Y’all. The kid can’t live in the South. I mean, I know that is super biased as a Midwestern Black human who has never spent substantial time down there. But, I watch a lot of movies.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Word. Coming from both and immigrant experience, and from New York, I was raised with such a negative opinion on how my body would be read in the South.
Safia Elhillo: Here’s the thing you guys—I don’t think it ever fully sunk in for me that I even live in America. So that geography has always been more abstract than anything for me. I “lived” in DC, I “lived” in New York, but the spaces I lived inside were so, like, not-American that the outside geography was more of an afterthought than a fact that shaped any real part of my lived experience.
Nafis: UGH. Safia you’re so smart. My answer is so basic. Yes.
Acevedo: Right. Safia just smashed that question.
Elhillo: Nah actually all I’m trying to say is that I never leave the house.
Nafis: So you’re saying, there is no amount of time you could reside here, that would… make it home? Or, familiar enough to distinguish minor ish like North from “THE SCARY RACIST BACKWARDZ SOUTH”?
Elhillo: I’ve never really spent time in the South, also. I went to New Orleans for a weekend a few months ago and I’ve been to, like, Miami, but I feel like that doesn’t count? So everything about the mythology of the Deep South is so relegated to books and movies and history but I’ve never SEEN it.
Nafis: TRILL. Yes, such a mythos, I feel you. It’s the false myth created and insulated by made-for-TV movies about crosses burning and rap songs that my siblings doused me with as a child.
Acevedo: And also the very basic history we learn in schools. Everything I knew about the South was based on a social studies class. That was place where they wanted slavery, where they hung people, where they loved the confederacy, etc. I remember applying to college and saying I wouldn’t apply anywhere below Pennsylvania because I was so afraid of what kind of prejudice I would encounter.
Elhillo: When I told my mom about The Conversation and the states we were going to, she was, like, horrified. I think this mythology about the South reached outside of America and all those books and movies and history lessons were being distributed to the rest of the world as well, and when we got to America (“when we got to America” is basically my catchphrase at this point you guys) America was just DC or just Maryland or whatever, and the South was still this distant place locked in history that never crossed over in our minds to being a real place where people could go and not be like kidnapped and sold into slavery
Nafis: MOMZ! O, Moms.
Acevedo: Lol. I can imagine your mom. Dude I was in Norfolk and this dude walked in with a gun on his hip and I almost had a conniption. I, like, didn’t understand. I had to remember shit is legal…
Nafis: What is Norfolk? See I gotta involve Google. That’s how you know I was STRICTLY MICHIGAN until I moved to New York.
Acevedo: Well, it’s wild because any personal experience I’ve had with the South is not the DEEP SOUTH. And so, to feel such culture shock when it’s still Virginia…my frame of reference is lacking, feel me?
Elhillo: I forget what part of Virginia King’s Dominion is in but it’s somewhere down there, and we stopped for gas and it was like a whole other planet. Everyone wore a trucker hat and I felt like they could SMELL that we were Muslim
Nafis: WORD. I’m really out of my realm talking about the South. Basically, it’s not that I envision it to be any more racist and wild segregated and diminishing then any other part of this stolen ass place. BUT, I guess it just comes back to TLC (as it always does). I’m familiar with the racism in Michigan. In Chicago. In New York. Southern racism though? I’m tryna stick the the Rivers and the Lakes that I’m use to, y’all.
Acevedo: Mmmmmm. The fear of a different “brand” of racism is fascinating and too true.
Elhillo: What I’ve always been taught to fear about Southern racism is that at least in the North (is that the term? Why does that feel so weird?) you can make someone feel bad/guilty about being racist whereas it was always made to seem like racism was more unapologetic in the South
Acevedo: Right. I also wonder, if going back to the question, the idea of moving to, as in, living in, somewhere there is no community of Afro-Latinidad would be incredibly difficult for me. I already live with the stereotype that everyone thinks I’m some kind of dark-skinned Mexican; I don’t think I could function if it was a whole entire region.
Nafis: Hmmm. I don’t know. I feel like, actually the South in my mind has that gauze of Southern hospitality and niceties that the North just don’t be on. Like, we’re mad rude up here. And we might feel guilty, but we don’t be saying sorry. We defend and get defensive and talk about “What we meant”
Elhillo: Going off of Liz’s point, I still think a lot about that Sudanese kid in Texas who was arrested for bringing a clock to school and how at no point in the conversation did anyone say anything about him being black, because he was this ambiguously brown kid so Muslim was the primary identifier in talking about why he was threatening. So I wonder if the vocabulary I’ve amassed for myself around race and around identifying myself racially, if that holds up across borders.
Acevedo: Mmmm… word. Angel, do you know if your family migrated to Michigan in the Great Migration? I wonder about the idea of returning, if that was the case. Safia and I have such new experiences with the US as a whole, feel me.
Nafis: LOL, “family.” Well, my people are a very fractured bunch. A lot of love, and like hella Black American families, bifurcated. My Dad’s people are from Queens and New York, and before that, I believe Georgia. My Mom’s people are from Chicago, and before that, Mississippi. They all still sound like they just got North. It’s beautiful, and wild, and I think in some ways I realize… DAMN, I’m/We are all from somewhere else then where we are. Like, culturally, my family stay on some Southern shit. In the kitchen. In punishment. In story-telling. Woah, and aren’t those like, the only things anyway?
2. Does your writing engage with images/tropes that are connected to the South? If so, where does this engagement stem from? Why is it part of your work?
Acevedo: I think, perhaps, like a lot of teens who come to poetry through hip-hop or poetry that is performed I learned there was a lot of feedback or power in invoking the noose, the tree, slavery, etc. Images that I had no direct connection to, and have had to learn aren’t part of my lived experience in the way I sometimes write about them. So I try to be a lot more critical of those symbols. #UseWisely?
Acevedo: Images come from lived experience I feel, and as I said, I ain’t really been South. Unless you count North Carolina, and I know you fucking don’t. But dialogue and common speech vernacular f’sho. Really have the rhythms and ways of my Dad’s cadence and his side of the family’s way of storytelling hot in my blood. And The Color Purple and Their Eyes Were Watching God also turnt the kid out. But, ultimately, I think it’s a diasporic ish. You speak and remember and explore the way you learned it from whoever was around you.
Elhillo: In The Artist’s Way she says something about all our images being stored in a well, and we go out and see the world and live our lives to add to that well so that when we go to write, we have all these things that we’ve seen to pull from to use as images. So, with that in mind, I just don’t really have any sort of visual vocabulary for the South to have any images to use in my writing. But also word to Angel about diasporic ish and inheriting memories and images and landscapes. But, again, the South wasn’t part of my inheritance either.
Nafis: OMG THE WELL. All praise be to the well.
Elhillo: I’m thinking a bit of what you’re writing Angel, and what we were just writing about the noose… and it’s curious, right? Because you hear noose, and black experience and that’s almost synonymous with American slavery. But in Dominican literature… you don’t hear about the noose, although it was a form of punishment in the country (someone was lynched last year for being Haitian). But the way the literary arts have been relegated those images are too radical still. And so what does it mean when symbols are cliche in one place but still unexplored in another, but you’re writing in English, and in America about an experience that sounds familiar?
Nafis: NOT POSSIBLE. CORNY ONE PLACE, CORNY ALL PLACES. JK. Yes, I wonder about that, especially in terms of like, evolution of language. What is evocative moving in cycles.
Elhillo: I think people try and make some of this language part of a universal vocabulary (and they fail) like you’ll hear in a poetry slam “I AM ENSLAVED…by my love for hot cheetos” or whatever so I think everyone starts to think that the language and the imagery belongs to everyone.
Nafis: YES SAFIA. Allah have mercy on those who say “That final exam raped me”. And by mercy, I mean may you be reincarnated into what will further your tiny tiny short heart.
Elhillo: May they forever have bed bugs and no nearby CVS to buy calamine lotion.
Nafis: LOLcity. May they have ashy elbows and never have golden-enough homies to tell them so.
3. Living in a POC/QPOC body, do you feel you have mobility in the United States? If not, where do you feel you cannot go? What unspoken/spoken rules about mobility have you inherited?
Nafis: Uhhhh. Where do I feel I can’t go? I don’t know. A Trump rally? Into other people’s houses with shoes on.
Acevedo: I really don’t fuck with any city that doesn’t have a natural hair section in their CVS. I think that epitomizes whether or not I’m welcome. No Shea Moisture? Oh, okay.
Nafis: YO. Numerical 2 real. And I’ve really gotten pressed and pampered living in Brooklyn. Now I’m like, if there isn’t a nigga tryna sell me black soap THE MINUTE I walk out of my apartment this place is shit and can never hold my majesty.
Elhillo: Also if there’s no type of ethnic seasoning being sold in the local supermarket then probably me and my kind are not welcome tbh.
Acevedo: I think these responses are just super reflective of how tiring it is to always have to construct space for yourself as opposed to arriving and feeling home. How many times do people of color/queer people of color have to bring, and create, and push, and etc. etc. etc. like… I’m tired, bruh. Just have the shit I need to be a whole person.
Nafis: YES BOO. If I can’t minimally keep my hair from falling the fuck out and have some reasonably spiced foods?!?!?!?! My, g. What is really even the point? Super basic levels of comfort.
Elhillo: Ada Limón has many bars but one of them is “Here it is: the new way of living with the world/ inside of us so we cannot lose it/and we cannot be lost.” And I think that’s the essence of POC geography in general, where so much has not been guaranteed in terms of land and permanence at this point in history, so you always know in the back of your mind what you’d have to pack if/when you have to leave, and what you’d have to bring/put down/build/stock at the local CVS to make a place feel like home.
Nafis: #ADADAWGAD #ADA2017
Nafis: Safia your analysis bars are premium, my dude. Something that your lens/nature/work stays teaching me is that we are all (YES ALL) bifurcated, to use that word again. As a traveling/ erased/stolen/owned etc. etc. etc. people, how could we belong to any one place? That place has always been our own bodies and our people who recognize us. I think about the phrase “stay”. How where I came up, and I think many places in America. Folks of color, Black folks say, “This is where I stay” or “I stay over in the North side of town.” Because home is a temporary experience. And life is lived first and last in the body.
Elhillo: “home is a temporary experience. And life is lived first and last in the body.” –Angel Nafis, as tattooed on my forehead right above my eyebrows.
ode to baby phat
before you/when i spoke in english/everyone would shake their heads/& ask me to speak english/you made me brand new/did away with the knock kneed little african/little girl from nowhere/& pressed up against boys at parties/got slow songs sung into my ear/never mind the stern headscarf for a mother/never mind the smell of sandalwood in my hair/& at quran school the girls would whisper/her jeans are too tight/because her father went missing/but they wear noname sneakers/& their hoop earrings do not have their names/or the word angel/or the words baby girl/written inside/ still little girls from nowhere/so i show them all my teeth/& for the first of many times/i pretend i do not speak arabic/& do not answer to my name
4. Where do you go to see representations of yourself? Where is your mirror in the world?
Nafis: LOL I thought that said “reparations” AND I WAS SO LIT AND IRATE. “WHERE?!” I DON’T KNOW PLZ TELL ME STAT. IT’S SO HARD NIGGA. HELP. LOL. SLASH NEVER LOL.
Elhillo: There’s a big East African community in Northern Virginia and the 7-11 sells kisra and injera and other various ethnic foodstuffs so probably there tbh I just wanna grocery shop in peace with my ppl.
Acevedo: Dude, I don’t know. Online? I feel like that’s where I’m most connected to Black Dominicans/Afro-Latinos who have an experience that seems most closely related to my own. The first time I read Junot Diaz I sobbed. When I saw Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In the Heights, more sobs. But I can call easily the various experiences where I was able to say: Yes, there, that’s me. Easily, because they feel so few and far between.
Nafis: Sadé is the only person on earth who cares about my liberation TBH.
Nafis: !!!!!! You saw that young pre-Hamilton Lin situation!?!?!?!? You really are favored, Elizabeth.
Acevedo: Girl, and I saw Hamilton, too. Life is good.
Elhillo: I still haven’t seen either show but on multiple occasions Carvens and my friend Pricelis have sung the entirety of the In the Heights soundtrack to me in a party environment.
Nafis: Honestly, everywhere my people are is a party environment. We stay ready to cheers. My people are my representation. Every second. Mashallah.
Acevedo: That’s true, Angel. I think I get too cerebral with it. Every Christmas Eve party with my family is LIT. We rent out a hall, we hire a DJ, we cater the shit, it’s like a yearly wedding to one another. Another year we all made it. So, I can’t discount that my family, we are legion. And I don’t need TV or books on those days to see myself…Ya’ll are both invited next year. It’s in the Bronx!
Nafis: UGH. YESH, girl. Y’all better LIVE.
Elhillo: Sudanese weddings are like seven days long you guys it’s a turn-up that requires stamina and like a pregame pep talk. But also to think about being able to turn up for that many days and at that level, despite like history and politics and everything, is miraculous and makes me wanna cry but also nap.
Nafis: Black parties require spandex and Gatorade TBH.
5. Do you feel a connection (ancestral or otherwise) to the South? When did you feel it, if you do?
Nafis: I feel like, if I went South this is what I’d be up to:
…It’s why I said yes to this tour TBH.
Acevedo: After the Haitian revolution a ton of Haitians moved to the New Orleans. I’ve always wondered about that moment, and how it reflects on DR, on the Island. On how every year there’s a new “discovery” of an Afro-Latino in the civil war, or the Tuskegee airmen, people who “pass” as African American. So, I wonder how this plays into the South. How many similarities exist between Caribbean and the South. But also aware not to look for what isn’t there and allow the experience to be what it is. Not sure if I feel a connection, as much as, I’m open to one.
Nafis: Also, if we are talking physically, nawl. But if we talking culturally and everything therein—is there anything truer than an Andre 3K verse or a pot of black-eyed peas? Or a Jesmyn Ward novel. Or a Zora essay. Or a weeping willow. Or. Or. Or… etc.
Elhillo: At some point during the few days in New Orleans we were walking back to where we were staying, carrying like twice our weight in grocery bags full of fruit and the temperature outside was so perfect that it didn’t feel like weather, I remember like a quick passing thought of “I could live here.” It visited and passed and I never really took it too seriously, but it’s a pleasant feeling to be able to imagine some version of yourself existing somewhere new.
Elhillo: Also I just want a gap-toothed boo who talks like Andre 3000 tbh.
Elhillo: And smokes Newports like D’Angelo.
Nafis: Where D’Angelo from???! Is he a SOUTHERN GENT?! I thought he was like northy/south, philly? EVERYTHING IS NEW AND DIFFERENT!
Elhillo: Virginia! And not the part that’s basically DC either.
Elhillo: From near the James River which in itself is a very sexy phrase.
Nafis: Oh, bitch. It’s over. When you live near a RIVER?! BLACKITYBLACKITYBLACK.
Acevedo: I’m DONE. This is the type of shit I would never know. This conversation has changed my life.
Elhillo: also the river as a means of giving directions? “Yeah I’m from over by the James River” ughhhhhh
Nafis: YES. HARNESSING ONES LOCATION BY NATURE!?!? BLACKITY. North Star! Rivers! Drinking gourd! WHATEVA! So alchemic and so borne of ultimate onyx.
Acevedo: I love it. Can we write a group poem? Is that a part of this tour?
Elhillo: Black people and nature!!!! 4 ever & ever & ever. Is all I ever want to think about.
Nafis: SAME. Except really, mostly, Ross Gay. His whole Black Gardener situation is really… everything. His last book! And his essay on his farm work in Bloomington and the tradition of Black folk and the earth!!!! HERCULES! ONYX! SUPREME! *throws up diamond*
Elhillo: Even the image of growing plants and caring for them as an act of love and reclaiming after the kinds of “mandatory farming” that this country was so built on.
Elhillo: Black ppl growing fig trees so we ourselves can eat the figs.
Nafis: Saf. That’s hella Southern. I think… you MIGHT BE KINDA AMERICAN LOL OOPS SORRY WELCOME TO HELL.
Nafis: The good news is: it gets worse!!! Like, every single thing! TRULY WELCOME.
Nafis: Now, let’s go read poems in Alabama. *cry/laugh emoji*
Nafis: *doesn’t belong in America emoji*
Elhillo: *sings Star Spangled Banner in East African*
Nafis: *Shoulda never freed us cuz now its EVER LIT emoji* A: *Alienates white audience emoji*
Elhillo: *drops mic on Angel’s behalf*
Nafis: ^HEY IT’S OUR GROUP POEM, ELIZABETH.
Nafis: SOMEONE GENTLY SING “YOU’RE ALL I NEED TO GET BY” and we’re done!
Acevedo: It’s beautiful. Standing O.
Elhillo: And not a mimed noose anywhere to be found.
Nafis: WHERE CAN WE EVEN GO FROM HERE? As the homie Casey suggested… NAT TURNER FLASH MOB.
La Negra Takes Medusa to the Hair Salon
and the salonist from Santiago runs her fingers through the serpents. It’ll be extra for la monstra, she tells La Negra, her snakes, they hiss and squirm too much. It takes the salonist hours to bend the snakes around the rollers, make them lie still beneath the hair net.
And later. The dryer bell dings. The snakes have grown sleepy, easier for the salonist to drag the brush through Medusa’s scalp with one hand, lulling the snakes straight with the blower in the other. The last of them uncoil and hang limply down Medusa’s back.
Oh, doesn’t she look so much better! The women in rollers croon, Una propia tigerasa. They comment on how the snakes’ eyes have been seared and swollen shut, how their tongues swing gently from their mouths, their fangs bent loose by the small-tooth comb.
And although Medusa cannot possibly understand the cadence of el Cibao, she fingers her half dead snakes, holds one up to her mouth,
ay Negra, ay Negra, she doesn’t say.
Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and her poetry is infused with her Dominican parents’ bolero and her beloved city’s tough grit. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion as well as a Cave Canem Fellow, CantoMundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Notre Dame Review, Callaloo, Puerto Del Sol, Poet Lore, and Beltway Quarterly. Her manuscript, & Other Origin Myths, was a finalist for Yes Yes Books’ chapbook poetry prize and will be published in the September 2016. She lives in Washington, DC.
Safia Elhillo is Sudanese by way of Washington, DC. A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly: a journal of black expression, she received an MFA in poetry at the New School. Safia is a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-winner of the 2015 Brunel University African Poetry Prize, and winner of the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. In addition to appearing in several journals and anthologies including “The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop,” her work has been translated into Arabic and Greek.
Angel Nafis is a Cave Canem Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Rattling Wall, The BreakBeat Poets Anthology, MUZZLE Magazine, The Rumpus and Poetry Magazine. She has represented the LouderArts Poetry Project at both the National Poetry Slam and the Women of the World Poetry Slam in 2011. She is an Urban Word NYC Mentor and the founder, curator, and host of the quarterly Greenlight Bookstore Poetry Salon reading series. She is the author of BlackGirl Mansion (Red Beard Press/ New School Poetics, 2012) Facilitating writing workshops and reading poems across the United States and Canada, she lives in Brooklyn.
The Conversation continues tomorrow with Camonghne Felix and Joshua Bennett.