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 Desiree Bailey and Sean DesVignes are the second installment.
At the Shrine
If not to mirror the span of the swan
pulling out of the swamp
scarring the water with its absence
the story unveiled in the movement of weeds
___then wet wood then muse alight
then I touch his wrists and the way he moves then this
is the goddess choosing this roof and drop of rain
and I forget about the rumor of my limbs
how they once roamed the horizon like wolves
If not the swan
_____then who then I’ve hemmed myself
_____into a purple light
If the drum has slipped into my lungs
If he is no longer man but the breath of a humming candle
If he is not man but a broad leaf praising the voyage of the rain
If salt could dissolve into the low haunt of bass
________then I am and I am
Sean DesVignes: You were born in Trinidad & Tobago, were raised in Queens, serve as a fiction editor at Kinfolks, and are a writer of both fiction and poetry, which leads me to asking how important is intersectionality to you from an artistic space and/or social space?
Desiree Bailey: For me, intersectionality is a reality that I can’t escape. As a black woman, an immigrant, a citizen from a recently decolonized nation, a working writer, an urban dweller, and on and on, for me to highlight only one aspect of oppression is to only recognize one aspect of myself, is to actually dismember the self. It’s an act of incredible violence, the violence of non-recognition and suppression. And of course, I extend this view outward in order to be cognizant of experiences that I do not immediately relate to. Intersectionality is important to my artistic and social spaces because I want to be in spaces where everyone is seen and heard, where there is an understanding of interconnectedness and ubuntu, that I am because you are. I want to be free. I want to write free. I can’t be free if we all are not free.
DesVignes: What are a few things you are looking for in a piece of fiction?
Bailey: I typically dislike fiction that aspires to expansiveness for the sake of expansiveness, fiction that’s somewhat imperialistic on the page, especially if it attempts to validate masculinity through size. My co-worker Olivia Harris calls it something like literary manspreading. Still, I’ll trudge through a large text if it feels necessary. Now I’ll tell you what I actually like. I like language that is economic, concise and vivid. I like to be whisked off into a dream, language that’s as fresh as wet paint. It doesn’t necessarily have to political. But it makes me question something I thought I knew about myself or the world.
DesVignes: What is the last thing you read that surprised you and the last thing you read that gave you joy? (They can be the same thing.)
Bailey: Phillip B. Williams’s Thief in the Interior made me feel like I was hanging off of every line break, unable to predict the course of the next line. I felt genuine surprise and adoration. Man, that book inspired a physical reaction within me and I don’t think I’ll ever shake it. Phillip’s experimentation with form seems fitting as he is searching for new ways to understand and imagine violence, beauty, and desire. Thief’s landscape is a tortured one, and gives us a glimpse of the terror enacted upon black, gay men in particular. I was moved not only by the content, but the immense amount of skill and attention involved in the writing. Each poem fought for its space on the page and won. I feel blessed to be writing in the same generation as Phillip.
Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie gave me a lot of joy. It’s not the last thing I read but it’s a novel that has left a lasting impact over the years. I read his book when I was working in Cape Town, having a great time but also feeling homesick for my Trinidadian family. Lovelace fully transports you to Trinidad. The momentum and crispness of his language is so well executed that the read feels effortless, like you are listening to your favorite uncle telling funny stories from his youth. I remember laughing out loud, smiling and nodding in recognition. His joy and love for his culture shines through in the writing.
DesVignes: As someone who works in both prosaic and poetry form, what is your relationship with line breaks? Do you find an added functionality with poetry because of line breaks, or a more liberating writing experience with no premeditation on breaking the line?
Bailey: I’m realizing that whether I write in prose or poetry depends largely on story and the sentiment that I want to convey. I tend to go to fiction when I want to explore or imagine the psyche of a certain kind of person, or when I want to emphasis the human implications of a social or political issue. There is so much ground to cover, which sometimes can be overwhelming for me since I approach everything with a poet’s eye and ear, nursing the tiniest details and sounds, but I love it because it feels a bit like unfurling my wings. Although as I’ve stated before that I don’t like to go on and on, it’s nice to have a bit of room.
Poetry is fun because I am able to get carried away with the beauty without worrying to much about how it all fits together. Obviously, other folks may have a different approach. The poem can enter a room, whispering two or three words and then exit. It can scream in short reoccurring bursts. It can drone. The poem can wear so many faces and that’s exciting to me. As for line breaks, sometimes I don’t break the line at all, so that the poem is a short block of prose. I think I do this when I am deeply working out a thought, dreaming wildly.
DesVignes: How often are you bouncing ideas off other people when you are creating something? Do you go to other people for inspiration/conversation/suggestions when writing a piece?
Bailey: With the process of writing, I am primarily a loner. I rarely go to friends to work something out while it is still in creation. I’ll share writing when it is at a contained section or when it’s newly finished but maybe with one or two people.
In terms of ideas and inspiration, I’m always sharing and learning whether its with my family or friends. My time at Brown was a beautiful time in that there were so many ideas being worked out. I loved talking with my MFA cohort about how to write and experiment while still being aware of the world. I also cherish the conversations with my friends who study various aspects of Africana thought. These conversations organically seep into the writing. Recently, however, I intentionally sought out a friend concerning a piece that contains elements of a religion that I do not practice. In this piece, I want to be respectful, while still having the space to make creative leaps.
DesVignes: Name a lesson you learned from someone younger than yourself.
Bailey: I love watching my niece sift her way through theater, politics and fashion. Her beauty and curiosity is astounding. She is outspoken and assertive in a way that I was not at her age. The lesson I’m learning from her is “no fear.”
DesVignes: At the present day, what would a collection of Desiree Bailey’s work look like? What is it looking to achieve? What questions are you trying to ask or expose in your work?
Bailey: A collection of my poetry would look like black female divinity, all over the place. Particularly how this divinity has fought for survival, throughout slavery, colonization and this time that we’re currently in. I still don’t know exactly what it’s trying to achieve, other than perhaps a meditation or an archive. I suppose it is my way of resisting the abject representations of black womanhood and black spirituality. It’s an affirmation and a celebration.
Bailey: Mega, you’re a poet who is also known for DJing the most dynamic parties, where dancehall bumps up against azonto, bumps up against trap, and so forth. How has your careful curating of music influenced your writing and writing process?
DesVignes: The curating of music has taught me about how to fiddle and challenge order in a way that ultimately follows a certain logic. When I’m DJing an event, a party specifically, I’m very meticulous about the theme I’m playing, how five to ten songs can be weaved together to drive home a point. Bearing that in mind, I wouldn’t follow up a Lil Jon and The East Side Boyz record with a Talib Kweli record; they’re not going to drive home the same point, while some old David Banner or Ying Yang Twins would compliment Lil Jon’s music rather nicely. It’s the same thing with my poetry to some extent because although I do enjoy metaphor and visuals and taking risks, I keep my risks in a certain logical order so that they make sense in the long run, of say, a section of poems in a larger collection.
Bailey: What is one text that sits at the cornerstone of your writing sensibility?
DesVignes: If I can consider music to be a piece of text, then I would say Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity album is the cornerstone and the corner store of my writing sensibility. If I had to say a text I read, I’d have to say almost everything that I’ve read and will read in the future is the cornerstone; I like to absorb language from everywhere rather than just pick a few that rocks me to the core and stick with them. I like a variety of things. I could name a few book of poems that influence me, but I could also say I’m inspired by the sentence structure of ingredients listed on the packaging of foods.
Bailey: What inspires you to create? Are you driven by a spirit of activism, of beauty, of rhythm?
DesVignes: I think it’s more so beauty and rhythm than it would be any activism, I don’t think that approach has ever served my poetry in particular any good. I’m driven mostly by music, by drum patterns, Cecil Taylor’s drum-like performance on the piano, lots of jazz, by calypso’s lyricism, how it blends directness with subtleties. That’s how I want my poetry to be, easy to read but with things to discover upon future reads.
Bailey: Who are your artistic ancestors?
DesVignes: Bob Marley, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, Michael Jackson, Sly Stone, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Halie Selassie I, Marcus Garvey, Lord Kitchener (of Trinidad, not Great Britain), Lord Invader, Mighty Sparrow, and the many others I haven’t named. I’m pretty sure I have too many ancestors to count that I don’t know whom I owe a debt to artistically.
Bailey: You’re a part of the poetry collective Divine Fabrics. What are some of the benefits and challenges of belonging to a close-knit poetry family? What are some other communities that nourish you? How important is community to you?
DesVignes: The benefit is the friendship, the camaraderie, the trust that the person next to you is invested in your visions. The benefit is people who love you enough to joke with you, call you out on your mistakes, but won’t turn their back on you. I guess the challenge these days is being in the same space at the same time. With everyone doing amazing, dynamic things, it calls us to other places but trust me, when some shit goes down, we spend a good time in the group chat. Other communities that nourish me would definitely include Cave Canem, Callaloo, the poetry slam community, my DJing community, and the abundance of words that’s always around me—the constant interactions with language through conversation and reading things, I think that can be considered a nourishing community. Community is very important to me because I feel like just a small piece in a larger whole. Rarely are the poems I write or anything I do creatively all about my creations and intuitions; it’s all about bouncing off things and ideas.
Bailey: Have you used (or will you use) your DJing and poetry within one project? What would that look and sound like?
DesVignes: The new collection, Previously Unreleased Screams, is doing some of that work; it’s essentially a response to songs I’ve curated from the worlds of free/avant-garde jazz, calypso, and kaiso music. With that comes the challenge of coming up with a presentation for the wholeness of the collection. At the moment, I’d say DJing and poetry will sound like the sweetness of steelpan and the sensuality of a saxophone, and hopefully some cool lines that interrogate race, colorism, and diaspora scattered in between.
Bailey: In our art, there are often physical spaces, moments of joy, or sites of trauma to which we return. What are you constantly returning to?
DesVignes: I’ll be returning to Trinidad in the coming months; that’s my answer. But on a serious note, I do go back to these places of my descent and I just recently discovered I have some Jamaican descendants on my mother’s side, so I’m interested in the narrative that comes from that. I’m so invested in history because I’m not done with it.
Bailey: If it is possible to feel free, when or where does the feeling arrive?
DesVignes: When I’m DJing, that’s when the feeling of freedom arrives. When I’m writing anything creatively, I feel chained to the moment, but I revel in it. The moment doesn’t let me go.
Beyond foreign chill calypsonians would dream
of Ghana without knowing paradisiacal sands
footprints of the freed leading to a festival
where everyone carried the face of Nkrumah
over their faces fierce names like Thunder Tiger
Almanac a wisdom in a tunic thick with time
saying the land is only as good as its fruit
drums of course but more importantly
mumbling turning to phrases far as the east is
from the west a festival of Chauntwells
the name for Trinidadians whose creoles
weaponized the Canboulay riots sequences
of rhythm drawn within the skulls of Sparrow
Kitch Atilla so colonized they could only
see gold by melting the jewels on a crown
faceless suits with slacks soiled in oil
a man posed as a BBC correspondent decked
in antennas sometimes it was like this and not
at all unusual to find your footing in someone
else’s fight to be black is psychic salvific want
and burden to sing Yes I want to come back home
Africa girl I tired roam Africa is to admit
you were running and landed in a woman’s arms
slanted by Africanorama the understated
channel of darker peoples verses tribes hymnals
swimming like voltage through a phone line
pulsing overhead quietly looped on a programmé
eyes rolled to the cranial back of a melody.
Desiree Bailey was born in Trinidad and Tobago and grew up in Queens, NY. She has a BA from Georgetown and an MFA in Fiction from Brown University. She has received fellowships from Princeton in Africa, the Norman Mailer Center and Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. She is a recipient of the 2013 Poets and Writers’ Amy Award. Her work is published or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Best American Poetry, Transition and other publications. She is currently the fiction editor at Kinfolks Quarterly.
Sean DesVignes is a recipient of the 2015 Beinecke Scholarship & author of the chapbook Take My Eyes To The Dry Cleaners (evolNYC 2014). His poetry has won the Beatrice Dubin Rose Award & the Burton A. Goldberg Poetry Prize. His work appears or is forthcoming in African-American Review, Vinyl, [PANK], & more. Sean is a member of the Divine Fabrics Collective, a Cave Canem Fellow & a Callaloo Fellow.
The Conversation continues tomorrow with Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib and Paul Tran.