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 Jeremy Clark and Thiahera Nurse are the fourth installment.
After My Mother Calls
Without a word to anyone
I clock out early, stop
by the record store. When I fumble
for a cigarette, D knows I don’t
smoke but doesn’t ask. He prices
new arrivals. The counter’s covered
in this week’s releases, bootlegged
concerts, out-of-print imports
he had to hunt down. Outside,
a meter maid stuffs another ticket
under a blade. On the stereo,
Blind Lemon Jefferson sings–
I’m gettin’ tired of sleepin’
in this lowdown lonesome cell–
Some blues I know by name.
Others, by ear: my brother,
last night, led a boy down
Grand, eyes scanning for some-
body lost in a song–ahead,
a woman in work clothes,
alone, purse slung on her
shoulder. The boy nodded, knew
she was his best shot.
Quiet as the safety’s click
he crept. My brother hung back.
Against her skull, the cold
barrel of a gun. A twitchy teen
fingered the trigger–I thumb
an empty lighter. My brother
got locked up, D. The song’s skipping
sounds like a cry that won’t come
until later, when I try to adjust
a sign in the window
that’s been crooked for months.
–Jeremy Michael Clark
Jeremy Michael Clark: So, where are you coming from? Answer that however you want.
Thiahera Nurse: Right now, I’m thinking a lot about death, Black death. I’ve lost a close friend every summer for four summers in a row now. And I don’t write about those things, but I write about Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland. I think my work right now is not necessarily about the “I,” but I am thinking more about how death is filtering into my life. Of course, all these friends are black, too, though how they’ve died varies. I think I write about death a lot, and I think I’m getting tired of that, so I’m trying to imagine a lot more. Like, I can’t keep writing the facts, sometimes. It’s hard.
Clark: Reading your poems, I thought about these poems about Rekia Boyd or Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and how in my own work, I don’t engage with these events directly. And there’s an insecurity, you know, that I’m not a “political poet.” I hope, though, it’s through the personal, the particularity of my experience within these systems, that I’ll get at these larger points. To even be able to write from the “I” is something political in the sense that I’m saying I have an interior, I have a history. And to have the space to do so, I owe a lot to the work of those who came before. I’m thinking about what you said. Do you find it difficult to write about those personal losses because of the emotional intensity?
Nurse: Well, being in a new space, in school for writing, something changes. Before I entered the MFA space I was writing more for myself, and I’m not sure why that changed, but I think it got hard for me to be in my head in that way. I think the way I used to write reflected the way I was as a person. I was super self-absorbed, both outside and on the page. And I think I realized poetry can’t be my therapy anymore. In your work, I feel like these are subjects you’ve thought about outside of the poem, or maybe even talked to people about. The poems I was writing, I wasn’t talking to anyone, it was just like, “Dear Diary…,” and I think I strayed away from the “I” because I needed to be in therapy for real.
Clark: Yeah, at Callaloo [Creative Writing Workshop], Vievee Francis told us, “These poems aren’t going to save you. They can’t. You need people around you to support you and keep you from becoming self- destructive.”
Nurse: Even though the “I” is prevalent in your work, we get so much about the world of the “I.” There’s so many characters entering into these poems, and it feels like the speaker is more concerned with those people than themselves. You also talk a lot about what you don’t know, or you ask a lot of questions in your poems. What sort of responsibility do you have to yourself in the poem, and what responsibility do you have to the other people in the poem?
Clark: I invite what I don’t know into the poem, so I’m always discovering things when I write. I don’t know, in the best way, where the poem is headed. Whenever I get too certain, I think, “There’s something here you don’t know, or a question you haven’t asked.” I don’t have more authority than anyone else. The “I” in your poems seem to have a complicated relationship with others, particularly spiritual forces/powers. Your speakers seem to be claiming agency as they reckon with forces beyond their control.
Nurse: Well, thinking about how black people interact with Christianity or spirituality is interesting to me. I’m first-generation American, my parents are from Trinidad, so I think about things like Obeah, for example. When my mother is praying in the house, who is she praying to? It’s beyond my understanding. And this is all related to place. What does it mean to be American in a Trinidadian household, with all these women engaging with these spiritual things that I can’t connect with simply because I’m not from that world? That bugs me. I get to those places in my writing because I don’t understand so much. I feel displaced pretty much everywhere I go.
Clark: Right, I think a lot about liminality, and how none of us is…
Nurse: One thing.
Clark: Right, and also many of us aren’t tied to one place. Something is calling to us from elsewhere. I feel like I don’t have a home. I’m from Louisville, never lived anywhere else until moving to Newark, but within Louisville, we moved a lot growing up. We went through periods of being homeless. I moved out when I was sixteen. So nowhere feels like home. I’m permanently mobile. I feel comfortable traveling, but I don’t ever feel like I belong anywhere.
Nurse: You know how black people be like, “Where you from?” and someone will say, “Oh, I stay…”? I’m thinking about the difference between “I stay somewhere” and “I live somewhere.” That was coming up a lot in your work. You seem obsessed with departure and coming back. But what do your speakers own?
Clark: I think what they own is their interior space. Part of growing up and moving a lot was letting things go, and there’s a lot I don’t have: photographs, sentimental objects. I go to some people’s houses and they have reports cards from second grade. I don’t have any of that. But what I do have is this interior, because that’s all I could consistently call home. In the middle of all this trauma and displacement, I just learned how to be within myself.
Nurse: So since you lived in Louisville your entire life, would you say your voice is particularly Southern? Do you think of yourself as a Southern poet?
Clark: I don’t know if it’s a cop-out or what, but whether or not I have a conscious responsibility to that, it’s gonna come out in the poems. I can’t get away from where I’m from. As a teenager, I used to tour in a punk band, and when I’d leave the South, I’d realize how “Southern” I was. But I’m even hesitant to say that, because I don’t believe in a monolithic South. People will tell me, “You don’t have an accent; I don’t think of you as being from the South.” I don’t know what that means; maybe I just don’t perform the South how they expect.
Nurse: Do you feel like moving here has affected your voice?
Clark: I think that moving to a new place has a way of sharpening your idea of where you’ve left. The thing about the South, though, is that a lot of black folks have some relationship to the South, since a lot of our folks migrated from there. But I guess your situation is different, because your family is not from this country. How does that feel? Do you have a strong connection to this country?
Nurse: I don’t feel especially American. I don’t know if I’m proud of that or not. Going to school in Madison, Wisconsin versus Queens, everyday I saw black people in Queens and in Madison I feel like, super black. I didn’t realize how black I was until I was surrounded by white people. But when I interact with my parents, I realize how American I am. When I was a kid, I didn’t know I was American until I started going to school. I spoke with an accent until I learned to censor it. In Wisconsin, starting to write about that part of myself, I’m conscious of never wanting to caricature any part of myself. So if I start to write about Vodou or Obeah, I don’t want someone to be like “Oh, that’s exotic, what is that?” I know someone might latch onto it in workshop just because they don’t know what it is.
Clark: That’s a real thing, thinking about who’s reading you. At what point do you start to think about the reader?
Nurse: That’s funny, because I was talking to Amaud [Jamal Johnson]. He’s my thesis director, and he casually said, “Oh, I think you’re writing for an audience that doesn’t exist.”
Clark: Wait, what? Did you ask him what he meant?
Nurse: I didn’t. My interpretation is, I’ve been writing about these black girls who’ve been killed by cops in the last five to seven years, and I’ve placed them in this dollhouse setting, which can get pretty absurd pretty fast. So I thought about how these dolls, whose heads I rip off, are likened to Rekia Boyd and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and I think, would I read these poems in front of Rekia Boyd’s family? So like, not that you have to be gentle to the poems, but sometimes it worries me that maybe I’m too violent to these people or I think, “Would I read this in front of my mother?” Not because I’m not saying anything that she doesn’t know, but how I imagine she might say, “Oh, you think I’m really that disgusting, or this crazy.” I censor myself a lot, especially being the only black woman (only black person, period) in my workshop. But I try not to think about the audience, because I know if I did then I’d be writing to the workshop. But maybe it’s problematic to not be thinking about the audience.
Clark: I don’t know. I don’t think about the audience when I write poems. People ask, “Who are you writing for, who are you writing to?” I’m making myself legible to myself first. If I’m trying to be honest in my work, then I can’t worry about who’s gonna read it. Now when I perform, maybe it’s different, but I don’t know if it is. You’re making me think of Nathaniel Mackey, who says you gotta write about what you’re going to write about, and your audience will find you. But you also bring up an ethical question: how much are you just reenacting the violence in your work? We want to bring awareness to these issues, we want to talk about them, but I think we have to ask ourselves, “What’s my stake in this? What is it about me that’s drawn to writing about this?” And I think what you said earlier is what’s at stake. You find it difficult to write about the people closer to you.
Nurse: Yeah, I had a close friend pass away, and I’ve been trying to write these poems, and I’m like, “I would never read these poems out loud.” I have a huge problem with folks who use dead black folks as props in poetry. You can’t just use somebody’s body and be like, “Here it is.” Like, what else? Sure, as a poet, you wanna be an activist, but sometimes you see these poems about Trayvon Martin, and you could take that name out and put in Emmitt Till, and it’s the same poem, and not because of some thread that connects them, but…
Clark: Because they needed someone to fill that space.
Nurse: Right. And I think about [Roger Reeves’s] “Mare of Money,” and I think about your work, too, and how there’s a level of seeing what else is going on. You don’t get to write a poem about Emmitt Till from the perspective of a horse unless you’re looking around. People are not looking around.
Clark: It’s only in looking around that you find new things to say, or new ways of imagining. I’m thinking about your poem “The Summer We Stayed Alive,” the way it becomes a kind of defiant celebration toward the end of it, the way that new consideration enters the poem. If we look around, we have many reasons to have joy and be defiant. As someone who writes a lot about trauma, I have to remind myself, that’s not my whole life.
Nurse: I feel weird talking about death. I wonder if it’s something about “respecting the dead.” We’re always bigging up our homies who are dead, but it’s hard for me to do that. When I write about death, the people don’t stay dead. I remember when they were alive and fucked up. I remember their depression, how that made them horrible people. I remember the good things, too, but somehow they never make it into the poem. When my grandmother died, she didn’t have a eulogy. She didn’t want one. She told my dad to go up there and say, “If you knew me, you knew me. If you didn’t, too late.” I think that’s where I’m coming from. As a Black person in America, we’re very sad about death. An American funeral is so different than a Trinidadian funeral. After my grandma’s funeral, we partied for nine nights. I don’t feel very American. I feel like I stay here, but it’s not where I live, I don’t belong here. In Trinidad, I’m my best self there, I feel more of a connection there. Being here sometimes makes me very sad. Walking around in this black body, I feel invisible but very seen all the time.
Clark: Right, that’s the nature of white supremacy: to make you feel both invisible and like you take up too much space. Are there places you feel like you can’t go?
Nurse: Where can’t I go? Where I stay I can’t go. Writing a happy poem? I can’t remember the last time I wrote one. I have so many words for sadness, but if you asked me to write a happy poem right now, it’d be like… Sometimes, I get jealous of younger black writers or writers of color. There’s one girl in the class I teach, who wrote this beautiful poem about her grandmother’s sari, and I was just like, “I can’t do that.” She wasn’t thinking about how to be joyful on the page; she just was. I used to sustain joy for whole notebooks at sixteen and seventeen. And now, even when I’m writing a poem about love it’s like, “I love this black man, I’m afraid he’s gonna die.”
Clark: In many workshops, they ask you to write the hard poem, to go to the place that scares you. But what if it scares you to be happy, to be joyful, because you’re scared you’re gonna look fake, or sentimental? I know we’re not supposed to be writing poems that makes us “comfortable.” But joy isn’t always comfortable. Joy is intimate with sadness.
Nurse: When I think about what it means to be black and proud in 2016, I think I’m happy and proud to be in my skin, but when I look at the poems, this feels like the saddest body I could be in right now. It’s like, here’s an entire book about dead boys. So I’m just trying to find something else, too, because it feels tiring. In your work, there’s a lot of emphasis on naming things, or not knowing names. What does that do for you?
Clark: Names have always interested me. I have three younger siblings. We all have different fathers, three last names between the four of us. My mom has her maiden name. What does that mean in a culture that depends on carrying your name along? I also don’t know my father, that whole side of my lineage. On my mother’s side, her parents and her brother have died. So, I don’t know anyone other than my immediate family. That’s not necessarily tragic to me. People say to me, “Oh my God, you don’t know your people, you don’t know who you are?” I’m more interested in talking about what it means for me as a kind of freedom. Sure, it’s weird, but I’m trying to figure out what’s happening now and what that looks like going forward. That’s not to say I’m not interested, or that I won’t one day do some research into it. I think it’s scary on some level to not belong. This slipperiness is scary, but it could also be freeing.
Nurse: It’s interesting that you feel like you can pick up and go be who you want to be, because it also feels like you take your family with you.
Clark: I have a stubborn sense of independence, but I think we also carry so much with us. I believe in blood memory. I believe when we enter a space we bring all of our people with us. That’s part of why I’ll go anywhere. I’m interested in escape narratives: running from something, or moving away from a place and never going back. Can I have mobility without calling it running? I don’t know. Earlier, you said when you come back here, you feel like you’re returning home. So there’s some feeling that you belong here, but that seems less geographical and more social: your people are here. Is it just because New York is what you’ve known?
Nurse: Home is never something I thought about specifically. I felt I wasn’t American, sure, but in the home, I was seeing women who look like me and raised me. A lot of my friends are women, and maybe I feel displaced in Wisconsin because I feel like I’ve cultivated something here that I don’t have there. I have friends there, but I’m alone.
Clark: And you did undergrad there, so you’ve been there for a minute.
Nurse: Right. There, everything feels unstable. People are busy, or we’re trying to figure out how to be black in this space.
Clark: In the poem “Go with God,” there’s this idea of the body as enclosure, and not a safe kind of enclosure. Can you talk about that?
Nurse: I talk a lot about the body because that’s the closest location of trauma. l always remember how I feel in my body. Maybe the actual events will be fuzzy, or the details, but I remember every feeling. I can’t write a poem that doesn’t have bodies in it. Everything else seems unstable, but that remains, because I’m in my body everyday.
Clark: Yes. That’s what I was trying to get at earlier, in a way, this idea of only owning one’s body, even as people try to take it from you, and part of owning it is carrying all the things that have happened to it.
Nurse: In writing about the body, maybe I’ve discovered something, but I don’t know that I’ve found solutions.
Clark: Maybe you will come to that, but yeah, it’s important to accept that uncertainty. Sometimes we don’t know and that’s more honest than coming up with answers.
Nurse: No one writes poetry because they’re certain about anything.
Clark: Poems for me will start with a question, or a curiosity, or an image comes into my head and I write into that image. It’s like I have this obsession, and part of the obsession is wondering why it’s my obsession in the first place. I go into it like, “I’m about to learn something about myself real quick.”
Nurse: People used to look at my work and be unable to figure me out. They’d be like, “This work is so black, it’s foreign to me.” Maybe because I felt unstable in my sense of self and of what it meant to write from my own personal black self, sometimes I’d show someone a poem and be like, “Wait, let me contextualize in a way that will help you.” I just don’t wanna do that anymore. I don’t wanna explain. I was editing poems so people would “get them.”
Clark: Do you feel like people don’t get you? When I read your work, I don’t think there’s anything to “not get.”
Nurse: I think people are looking for me to be a specific black every time. If I write a poem and they can’t see the person they imagine me to be, that gets confusing to them: “That poem isn’t like your other poem.”
Clark: Right, they can’t clock you…
Nurse: Right, I feel like I’m being tracked. If you’re not a person of color, it’s easier for you to feel like you can write about everything, even things that you shouldn’t be. I think a big thing in the workshop space is like, “I think this poem needs to be rawer, more literal.” And I’m like, what? People looked at some of the GIRL poems and were like, “Oh, this is high lyric, you should go back to the rawer stuff.” They just want you to be this one black thing.
Clark: That’s real, this not fitting into anybody’s category. For me, my mom’s white. I grew up in predominantly black or mixed-race neighborhoods, with a white mother, not knowing my black father, but I still never questioned if I was black. Aren’t people tired of defining what’s black and what’s not? People be like, “Oh, you write about fishing?” One, that’s not new to us. What about this shocks people? Just cause your imagination is failing doesn’t mean mine has to. Get comfortable imagining things otherwise because they are always otherwise. I would never read your work and say, “This is not what I thought she should be writing,” because I don’t have a preconceived notion of what you should be writing.
Nurse: Right, like, why are you trying to tell me what to think? Sometimes when people have approached my work, it’s like they think they already know what it’s gonna be about.
Clark: There’s something about letting a poem teach you how to read it, and having a willingness to understand someone’s poetry. Understanding where a poem is coming from is like trying to understand where a person is coming from. If you won’t try to do that, then maybe you just want something comfortable, or familiar.
Nurse: As a black writer, I’m expected to know everything: Dante, Shakespeare… Have you seen those master classes Oprah has on OWN? Maya Angelou had one, three months before she passed, and she talked about how as a teenager she read “Sonnet 29” by Shakespeare. She said, “I read ‘Sonnet 29’ and thought, I’m so happy that Shakespeare was a girl in the South who was raped just like me.” I was like, what?
Clark: It’s magic. Somebody writes about their life in the most specific way, and with all the problems of language, someone still manages to see themselves in it. It’s complicated, and I know there’s other sides to this, but I think if you showed someone a poem and didn’t tell them who wrote it, they’d just read it for what it is. But I think once you know their identity, you want to ascribe all these things to the poem that may not be there. That’s not even to say one’s identity isn’t important and doesn’t inform one’s poetry, but we are also more than the sum of our bodily properties. Should I assume I’ll have more or less in common with someone just because of skin color? I could read contemporary black poets for the rest of my life, no doubt. But I also love reading poetry in translation, old ass poems, poets who might never have imagined me as a reader.
Nurse: That’s the thing. When Maya is talking about “Sonnet 29,” it’s not even about relating to it. It’s just like, that poem is about me. And sure, Shakespeare doesn’t care about you, but now we’re talking about Shakespeare and this sixteen-year-old Southern black girl in the same sentence. That’s powerful, that’s what poetry does.
Hakeem says he will eat my pussy only if I let him fuck, to which I say word which really means I agree and not yes. But ok, word. Virginity Pact of 2008—which may sound like we were trying to preserve what was mostly fingered and not ran through,
in the spirit of exactitude: We Gotta Practice on Something Pact of 2008.
Hakeem orders one carton of pork-fried rice
and two Arizona iced teas. The half-chewed
grains slip from his teeth like maggots across
my neck. He locks the bathroom door in the
near empty house. He shares a bunkbed with
his little brother, who is asleep with the lights
on. Chris Brown on repeat. take you down girl
quit playin’ baby girl i’m gonna take you down
baby baby baby baby baby
Dry pussy. Un-eaten and dripping
something taffy-thick. Tap water between my legs
and I rinse and I rinse and I—
Jeremy Clark was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. A Cave Canem Fellow, Jeremy currently lives in Newark, New Jersey, where he is an MFA candidate & undergraduate instructor at Rutgers University. His poetry has appeared in various journals.
Thiahera Nurse is a Queens Native. She lives in Madison, WI where she is a Poetry MFA candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is an expert of chicken-frying and thinking aloud. The poems are where she gets weird.
The Conversation continues tomorrow with Angel Nafis, Safia Elhillo, and Elizabeth Acevedo.