The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Honorée Fannone Jeffers about her new book The Glory Gets, vision poems, and writing about race.
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 learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So who has a question for Honorée?
Ellen: I’m almost embarrassed to ask mine. It’s about “Job to His Daughter.” The parallel columns—is there a name for that format? I have never seen that before.
Honorée Jeffers: Ellen, you know I SHOULD know! And there IS a name for it. But I forgot what it’s called.
Dana: Oh, I loved that! I kept reading the poem different each time over and over.
Ellen: I like the impact on the page and then reading it both ways. Did you write it to be read both ways?
Honorée Jeffers: Ellen, yes, I did write it to be read differently.
Dana: I also loved how the italics in “Try to Hide” encouraged me to read the poem in different ways.
Honorée Jeffers: Dana, thank you so much! “Try to hide” was a very difficult poem to write, emotionally. Very scary.
Brian S: This isn’t a question, more a comment. When I first opened the PDF you had sent to me, I knew that I wanted to do this book by the time I got to “Draft of an Ex-Colored Letter Sent Home From the Post-Race War Front.” Obviously this subject has been relevant since whatever person invented the term “post-racial society,” but it seems even more relevant lately than ever before. I just wanted to thank you for writing it.
And the one before it, “Singing Counter,” such a necessary punch in the stomach.
Ellen: “Singing Counter”—a strong start, for sure!
Ellen: I’d love to hear more about the inspiration and process behind “Try to Hide.”
Honorée Jeffers: Brian, thank you so much! You know, when I was writing this book, everyone was talking about how, “Oh, we’re past all that racism stuff.” And then, oddly, the poems seem to fit contemporary events.
Dana: Yes, Brian, “Singing Counter” kind of took the wind out of me.
Brian S: ”Not even safely— / as with an an anonymous South—but uncomfortably. As with white // man by white man. / (I’m scared just saying it.)”
There’s been a lot said lately of how white people are afraid to talk about race, and we are, but we don’t have to worry about losing our lives over it.
Honorée Jeffers: Ellen, well, that “Try to Hide” poem, I tried to write it in a linear way, but I couldn’t. That’s where the other part comes in. I find that linear doesn’t work well for me about half the time. I used to be embarrassed about that, but then I just gave into it.
Brian S: Were people really saying that? That we’re past all this racism stuff? How did you not laugh at them?
Honorée Jeffers: Brian, yes, people were saying that all the time! —I remember a few weeks before Trayvon Martin was killed, I was on a “writing about race” panel at AWP, and this black woman stood and criticized my remarks. And she had a lot of back-up.
Brian S: That last image in “Singing Counter”—that’s a man’s testicles in a jar, isn’t it? It’s shocking and yet utterly believable all at once.
Ellen: I hadn’t caught that!
Dana: Perhaps this is a naive question, but I’m unfamiliar with the meaning of “the Southern Anthropological Equation.”
Honorée Jeffers: Brian, well, let me say this, that last image is of testicles, which was a common thing. White people took souvenirs from lynchings. But this poem is written AFTER that triple lynching, and it’s an imagining. But yes, it was a common thing to do.
Dana, no it’s not a naive question! “Southern Anthropological Equation” really is an historical allusion. Black men were required to step off the sidewalk into the street if a white woman approached them.
Brian S: And even following the rules was no guarantee of safety. I know about some of your new work because you let me publish one of your poems at The Rumpus last month. Did any of that grow out of the work you did here in The Glory Gets?
Honorée Jeffers: Brian, I was so grateful for your publishing the poem! That poem is actually from my work-in-progress on a book about the life and times of Phillis Wheatley, the first black American woman to publish a book.
Ellen: I’m curious about “After, We’ll Read the Bible.” Are these footnotes to an imagined/external text?
Honorée Jeffers: Ellen, that’s one of the most playful poems in the book—I tend to be very serious, but this book has a few of those poems.
Brian S: I will admit, “Stuff that fraction of an apple in my mouth” got me a little giggly.
Honorée Jeffers: Ellen, in “After, we’ll read the Bible” the footnotes are meant to allude the footnotes you see in the King James version of the bible after certain verses—my work does have a lot of spiritual influences, but hopefully not stodgy or mean.
Ellen: My favorite was “woe is sassy me.”
Brian S: Could you talk some about the influence of Lucille Clifton on this book?
Molly: Yes i’d be interested to hear about Lucille Clifton too.
Honorée Jeffers: Molly and Brian, Lucille Clifton was my good friend, a mentor, and a second mother. She was the moon, sun, and stars to me.
Molly: Oh wow
Honorée Jeffers: I was really very involved in working on The Age of Phillis—the Phillis Wheatley project (which was very messy then)—and then, Miss Lucille passed away. In my grief, poems just starting coming out. But if you look at the book, there are so many different kinds of poems. It’s almost like a very early Selected Poems—which I’m really not ready for at this point in my career, of course.
People didn’t even know I had another book besides The Age of Phillis! At AWP a few weeks ago, black poets I knew were coming up to me saying, “I’m so glad the Phillis Wheatley book is finally out!” And I was like, “That’s not that book. That should be ready to send out in a few months.”
Brian S: I really liked the variety, honestly. So many collections today seem to be “projects” (he types as he works on his own), but there’s something to be said about collections of poems from a period of time as opposed to collections that have a narrative arc. I didn’t even question it. I was like “oh, poems in Mary Magdalene’s voice. Cool!”
Honorée Jeffers: Brian, thank you so much for saying that! I appreciate you. The oldest poem in this book is “Angry Black Woman In Root Worker Drag.” I wrote that poem back in the late 90s and never could find a book where it fit. (Originally, it was called “Oya’s Wind.”) But then, it seemed to fit perfectly in this book. I was so glad. I really love that poem. 🙂
Re: variety. Even in the Phillis Wheatley manuscript-in-progress, though, there is a thematic cohesion, the poems chart the AGE, not just Phillis Wheatley’s life. So there are poems about the zeitgeist of the 18th century.
Ellen: I liked the variety as well. I found the poems at the end entirely fresh and interesting. Sometimes, the project books can weigh the reader down a bit.
Brian S: I was a little curious about the Marie LaVeau poem. The title has 1996 in it, but there’s a Katrina reference as well. Was it that the memory was post-Katrina and the vision was pre-Katrina?
Honorée Jeffers: Ellen, I just appreciate those good words! This was such a scary book. I laid it all out there—even my fibroid surgery!
Dana: I’m curious to know what prompted “Memory of an Ancestral Vision.” Reading it was like experiencing a dream.
Honorée Jeffers: Brian and Dana—and I hope I don’t sound like I need anti-psychotics here—but I do really have visions. And both the Marie Laveau poem and the Ancestral Vision poems are truly vision poems. I have dream and/or waking visions sometimes. Miss Lucille was the one who gave my the courage to claim that. Since meeting Miss Lucille—who was very matter of fact about her visions—I have met other “dreaming” black women.
Brian S: One thing I really liked about the Magdalene poems is the way you give voice to a woman who doesn’t really get to speak for herself in the Gospels, even though she’s venerated. It reminded me in a way of how the south treated women—placed them on pedestals so they wouldn’t be people. So I liked the way you humanized her. “Soon he will be passed down / a highway of tongues.”
Dana: Honoree, what does your writing process look like? Do you find time to write and edit every day? I’m just always curious. 🙂
Honorée Jeffers: Brian, I just love Mary Magdalene! She was so faithful to this man whom she loved.
Dana, I don’t write everyday, unless I am on serious deadline. But I do write several times a week, when I can. This year has been the best of times professionally but the worst of times emotionally. My sister died in August, and then, all this racial tragedy has cut my heart to pieces. And yet, I just kept pushing through my grief. I’ve gained a few pounds though. 🙂
Brian S: Oh, so sorry to hear about your sister.
Dana: Wow… I’m so sorry to hear about your sister, Honoree. Do you find that writing can be a sort of therapy in getting through grief?
Honorée Jeffers: Thank y’all for the good words. I’m still not over her passing, but I feel her presence with me sometimes.
Dana, I won’t say that writing is therapy, but I will say that I wasn’t able to sleep more than an hour or two at a time all through the fall. I would lay there, just drenched in sadness and say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll get up and write.” It was all I could do, other than eat.
Brian S: Your sense of humor is so wonderful in these poems. The closing image—you nail those so often and so well—in “Female Surgery” also made me giggle. That lady at the end knew what was what.
Dana: Oh, I just LOVED the end of “Female Surgery.”
Honorée Jeffers: Brian and Dana, she didn’t say it exactly like that, but it was close enough! She let me know, your “girl” is still going to work, even if 90 percent of your uterus is gone. I needed to hear that. And one reason Miss Lucille was so important to me is that, she had those poems about her last period. She had prepared me with her own work. I had wondered, will I still be a stone-cold woman after this surgery? And Miss Lucille let me know with her own poems, now, you can’t just rely on your reproductive organs to define you.
Brian S: I asked before but it might have gotten lost in the shuffle. Who/what are you reading these days? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
Honorée Jeffers: Brian, right now, I’m reading WAY too much 18th century history! 🙂
Brian S: NO SUCH THING!!!! 🙂
Honorée Jeffers: One reason I’m ready for this Phillis Wheatley book to be done—and also, I’m in edits on the novel—is that I want to get back to reading poetry and fiction for pleasure.
Brian S: Well, we pick good books here is all I’m saying. 🙂
Ellen: No doubt about that!
Brian S: One minute left. Any last questions?
Ellen: Not a question, but just thank you for such interesting work. I’m obsessed with format and you have given me some real inspiration
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight, Honorée, and for writing such a great book.
Honorée Jeffers: Ellen, thank you so much! People think I’m being falsely modest when I say, “I don’t know if it was a good book, but I did my best.” But it’s really true. I need the good words. I’m just so grateful to The Rumpus for the support and to you all for reading! My heart is pretty full right now.
Brian S: It’s beautiful. I promise you. Good night everyone.