The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Kamilah Aisha Moon about her new collection Starshine & Clay (Four Way Books, September 2017), the power of naming, and the connection between creation and trauma.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Camille D: Well, it seems a reasonable thing to spend the early part of this conversation on names since our poet’s first book is called, She Has a Name. But that’s not the book we’re here to discuss. But, still, there is so much in Starshine & Clay that seems to be about naming. About making things particular. Can you talk a little about that? About what’s important to you about naming things in your poems.
Kamilah Aisha Moon: To name is to define, to begin to know something or someone. So yes, there are moments in these poems where naming is an exploration, and moments when naming is a way to reclaim or assert ownership.
Brian S: About the naming, I felt that so much in the series of poems about the surgery, and how visceral (literally) the word choices made the poems feel to me.
Camille D: Can I tell you what a thrill it was to read the title of your collection? That Lucille Clifton poem is one I carry with me all the time. In my deepest core. My very blood has it memorized. But, my dear, it seems so bold to title the book directly after such a widely beloved poem. Can you talk a little about your decision to do that? (Which is a decision I love!)
Kamilah Aisha Moon: Many of the poems address events of recent brutality, and a sad hallmark of the response to these tragedies has been to say their names, to remember who they were.
Brian S: That Clifton poem is amazing, and I’m a little ashamed to admit I didn’t know it before picking up this book, but I have to say I think the book did it justice.
Kamilah Aisha Moon: Yes, Lucille Clifton is a literary giant and that poem in particular is a beloved anthem, a psalm of survival. I didn’t view it as a bold move, but rather as a nod to her brilliance, a way to enter the tradition of talking about the ways that the body baffles and confounds us, to stare at hard truths without flinching. Thank you, paver—and these are some of the things I wonder, I’ve come to know. A bow moreso than nod
Camille D: I like that. A bow moreso than a nod.
Brian S: Can you talk a little about the decisions you made in ordering the book? The closing section of poems is so full of joy and celebration, unabashed in places, which I don’t see as often as I’d like in contemporary poetry.
Kamilah Aisha Moon: I tried several strategies for ordering. The process is often an intuitive one. The quotations from other poets I love really worked to frame each section. These poems go to some hard places; there must be joy inside of the tears. A hope that allows one to even make the effort, and love to propel one forward.
Several authors have been in conversation with other writers in this manner. I like how James Arthur titled Charms Against Lightning as an homage to Emily Dickinson—which makes sense when you think of how much he reveres meter and rhyme in his work. Also, Lorraine Hansberry wrote a play exploring a family’s deferred dreams, so to turn to Langston’s iconic poem for her title, A Raisin in the Sun, was a way to acknowledge a lineage in doing similar work.
Camille D: Yes. And Clifton herself was often in direct conversation with writers like Brooks. We’re all having one long conversation, be it direct or indirect.
Kamilah Aisha Moon: Celebration and revelry are serious matters indeed!
Camille D: Do you find that some of your formal constraints help you into writing the more daunting subjects?
Kamilah Aisha Moon: Definitely, Camille! Form is a welcome cage, a way to make what overwhelms somewhat manageable.
Camille D: So, yes, Brian brought up the (vulnerable/visceral) body. It is so present throughout these poems, in so many ways. Are you being asked often if it was hard to write these poems? I’m always interested in what people must mean by that question. I think sometimes they mean to ask if you were scared or daunted. The poems do feel courageous, so I could understand the impulse to ask where/how you manifested the energy out of which these poems come.
Kamilah Aisha Moon: Yes, I’ve heard people say the poems are brave, raw. A few of them were daunting for sure.
Brian S: Is it because of the long-standing taboo about not discussing openly a woman’s reproductive system? I’m thinking, obviously, about the poem “Fibroids” here. I’ve been fortunate to have spent most of my life around women who thought it was important for men to know how women’s bodies worked, but I know a lot of men my age who are woefully ignorant.
Kamilah Aisha Moon: I just tried to honor each poem as it came—what does this one need to say? What craft tools are best to employ? There were drafts that skimmed the surface, then I went back and wrote down what was hiding underneath. I didn’t think too much about how they would be interpreted once out in the world. This reading tour has been surprising—some of these poems have felt like climbing the high dive to read aloud to an audience.
Camille D: I very much appreciated this aspect of the book, Brian. The ways Aisha writes about the space of creation as a space also of trauma (and recovery). Within the larger context of so many of these poems, that close, embodied vantage seemed so right. And also the poem in which she observes her friend mourning the loss of her mother. Spaces of creation/its opposite.
Kamilah Aisha Moon: I think you are right, Brian. I’ve seen people be completely dismissive of women writing frankly about their bodies. I was determined to break that silence because it has been so harmful. People are suffering greatly because of that taboo on so many levels.
Camille D: So many levels! By “space of creation” I meant the female reproductive tract. But I was all coy in my language. You aren’t coy. I honor that about this book.
Brian S: So much harm in this world can be traced back to an unwillingness to call a thing what it is.
Camille D: And thus we circle back to the importance of naming. Which is one of the things good poetry does. It names.
Brian S: Which poems are like climbing the high dive to read, if you don’t mind my asking?
Kamilah Aisha Moon: I just recently read at Texas Tech University, and a student in the MFA program came up to me afterwards. He showed me a poem in the collection and said that it was his favorite because he had been there, knew about this place. I nodded and smiled because I turned to that poem while I was at the podium, but decided not to read it. I’m climbed back down the diving board ladder. But he read it and connected with it, which I think we both were grateful for.
Camille D: Yes, KAM, we are all grateful for that. What a lovely story.
Brian S: Thank you for that story, Aisha. And for this lovely book.
Camille D: All the love. By which I mean, good night.