Mend, a new poetry collection from Kwoya Fagin Maples, explores the role that enslaved black women played in the development of modern gynecology—specifically in the early experimental surgeries performed by Dr. Marion Sims. Some of the tools Dr. Sims developed are still used in exam rooms today, and the surgeries he performed in Alabama in the 1840s led to a treatment for vaginal fistulas, or tears between the vaginal wall and the rectum or bladder. Until April 2018, a statue of Dr. Sims stood in New York City’s Central Park. The statue was taken down amid growing awareness of his methods. Statues of Sims still stand in Alabama and South Carolina.
Maples treats her subjects tenderly, granting them the agency and humanity stripped of them under Sims’s accounts. At the same time, she presents her readers with an unflinching view of the realities of their experiences.
Maples is a powerhouse of a poet: in addition to teaching a full course load at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, she is the mother of three children. She also directs a cross-discipline exhibit at an area art gallery, which combines poetry with visual art, including original paintings, photography, installations, and film. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook Something of Yours in 2010. She is a Cave Canem fellow, and her work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Blackbird Literary Journal, Obsidian, The African-American Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review.
Maples and I spoke recently via phone and email about Mend, her research process, and the way in which medical bias continues to affect black women today.
The Rumpus: What prompted you to start this project?
Kwoya Fagin Maples: I never thought I’d write a book like this. I didn’t intentionally set out to write historical poems, or poems written in persona. Yet I can tell you that in 2010 when I encountered this story, I was weary with writing about myself. Mend tells the story of the birth of obstetrics and gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. Once I began researching, I found that existing records only mentioned three of the women’s names: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. But there were at least eleven women that he operated on. That’s at least eight women who didn’t even have names. The experiences of the women had been completely erased from history. The lack of information and records about the women is what compelled me to write about them.
I wrote the first poem on my hands and knees. This was the primary position Sims required of the women who became his experimental subjects. I moved my body into this position so I could attempt to understand, first, their vulnerability. I also knew instinctively I could only enter this work humbly. These women shared the voices of my elders and I would have to listen to hear. That first poem, titled “The Door,” was my own entrance, as the writer, into the vast and daunting field of the work. The poem came in short breaths, and I felt deprived of oxygen the longer I stayed in that position, my knees aching. It was uncomfortable for me to write the poem, but to do it this way was a personal decision. No one had posed me this way for hours, to study the intimate curves and ridges of my body, to try and fail experimentally on my body.
Rumpus: There’s something really powerful about that.
Maples: I felt like I had to be humble the entire time that I wrote this. I saw these women as family members, as my aunts, as my grandmother, my mother, as people that I already knew. Whenever the elders in my family say, “I need to tell you a story, I need to tell you something,” I sit down and I listen respectfully. So that was what I wanted to do for these women.
Rumpus: Most of the poems are told from the perspective of the enslaved women. There are a few poems with a modern speaker, which create some space. The subject matter and the story is so intense. Giving the reader a break, letting them come forward in time a little bit, it was it was a very skillful way of organizing the collection.
Maples: Thank you. That was my editor, Lisa Williams. She moved a few of the Mt. Meigs poems, poems from the present day, closer to the beginning when I’d previously placed them near the end.
Rumpus: Can you tell me about your research process?
Maples: I wrote the first poem for Mend the same day I heard the story. Then I decided I couldn’t write about it again until I’d researched it more thoroughly. I’m a bit of a purist. I began by collecting and studying slave narratives. Most of my research was conducted by use of the Library of Congress. I listened to Negro spirituals and folk music from the 1840s and studied photographs of Southern enslaved women in order to develop voices. I read Sims’s autobiography, surgical notes, and letters. By the time I finished writing Mend, I’d pored through hundreds of slave narratives and read several books surrounding the case, including Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, which related several cases of medical experimentation conducted on people of color in the United States. The next year I was very lucky to receive a writing residency through Cave Canem from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. For two weeks I stayed in the guest house at the Rockefeller brothers’ Pocantico estate. After a year of reading and researching, when I sat down to write during that residency, the voices, the scenes, the experiences, everything started coming to me.
Rumpus: Docu-poetics is something that a lot of people are doing now. Had you had much exposure to other docu-poetics books prior to starting this project?
Maples: Absolutely. Cornelius Eady’s book Brutal Imagination. That book was the foundation for me writing this one. When I first read it years ago, I didn’t realize it was going to be so pivotal for me as a writer. But I kept reading it over the years and it taught me to write this book.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about “What Yields,” the sonnet corona, or crown of sonnets. What made you want to use that form?
Maples: The only thing I can say, in all honesty, is that it was divinely inspired. I’d been asking, “How can I end this book? What would make this complete?” And one night in my sleep, literally in my sleep, the words “sonnet corona” came into my mind. I had never read a sonnet corona. I didn’t have a clear sense of what it was. A year later I wrote “What Yields.” The sonnet corona is the only time in the book where the women are allowed to directly address the doctor. While writing my biggest concern was accuracy. Even though I was writing imagined memories and scenes, I wanted them to be probable for that time. With that in mind, in most of the poems the women are not portrayed as overtly outspoken individuals aware of their agency. Resistance for these women would have been more subtle. With the sonnet corona, however, Anarcha, the woman who endured the most surgeries, is given a voice that is confident, sure, and at times is a direct representation of my own voice. Some of my own anger is expressed through Anarcha in the poem.
Rumpus: One of the things that this book does really powerfully is that the politics are subsumed in the story, in the writing. One can’t really read the story without having a feeling about the explicit race dynamics that were present.
Maples: It was important to me that the ideologies that enabled Sim’s actions be present in the work. The concept directly addressed in the sonnet corona is scientific racism. Specifically, the belief that black people (in this case black women) don’t experience physical pain the same way that white women do. Of course, we could go into a whole conversation about how black women are perceived to not feel emotional pain the same way, but that’s another subject. To counter Dr. Sim’s scientifically racist ideas, Mend’s intent is to impress upon the reader the importance of reconsidering the infinite depth of the black woman’s humanity—to acknowledge our bodies as deserving of tenderness.
And this is where the book is connected to the present day. In 2016, there was a study conducted at the University of Virginia to ascertain how racial bias adversely affects treatment of patients of color. Current UVA medical students were presented true and false statements, and many agreed with statements such as “black people’s nerve endings are less sensitive than whites,” and “black people have thicker skin than whites.” The survey group included whites and people of color. The results of the study show how pervasive these beliefs have been over time.
Rumpus: Wow, that’s really nuts.
Maples: Also, in the preface of Mend, I mention how black women are still three to four times more likely to die after childbirth than white women. That’s regardless of ability to pay, regardless of prenatal care, and regardless of education. So it has nothing to do with money.
Rumpus: It’s not access to care; it really has to do with the way doctors are treating black patients.
Maples: Right. The inability of some white doctors to relate to their patients’ experiences causes an empathy gap. Unfortunately, the story of Mend is only one of many such cases. A lot of us are familiar with the syphilis experiment that happened in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Rumpus: And then there was the woman whose cervical cells were harvested, and they let her die of cervical cancer.
Maples: Right. Henrietta Lacks. We’re aware of these, but there are too many to count, most undocumented. Harriet Washington’s aforementioned book, Medical Apartheid, details the history of medical experimentation on people of color in our country and includes several specific recorded cases. As recently as ten years ago, they were sterilizing women in prison without their consent.
Rumpus: Ten years ago!
Maples: Yes. So I expect the reader of Mend to have an emotional experience, but also to share this story. We need to keep the conversation going about racial biases and disparities in medical care. Some university medical humanities libraries have picked up Mend, which is encouraging. I’m really happy that the University of Utah’s medical school is going to be discussing Mend this April.
Rumpus: So you’d like to see more people being trained now as doctors talking and thinking about implicit bias, using this story as an example?
Maples: Yes. I’m really excited about those possibilities. Last month I did a writing residency at Dauphin Island Sea Lab, and I was on a panel with environmental scientists. We had a discussion about where art and science overlap, how they’re relevant to each other, and how artists can inform scientists and vice versa.
Rumpus: We think about the humanities, and especially poetry, as being over here in a special category. But they do influence the way that people think. And this book is a direct refutation of that idea that black women don’t feel pain, either physical or emotional pain. When you were talking about implicit bias, both in the context of scientific racism and what it’s translated into today, I was thinking of number six in your sonnet corona, “First you have to consider us women.” I think that’s probably the most explicit statement of the pain that these women experienced. It echoes throughout the book.
Maples: What makes me most angry, as a woman, a mother to three little black girls, is this whole idea that the epitome of femininity and artistic beauty is a pale, willowy woman. And she is to be protected. She is to be elevated and idolized. Up until recently it was common to consistently see such an image on the cover of literary magazines. Beyond its foolishness, this idea is terribly damaging to black women’s psyches and impacts how they are treated within society.
Rumpus: What does your writing practice look like today?
Maples: This question makes me laugh. Only because it’s so drastically different than when I first began writing in earnest. At the beginning of my writing career I wrote when I felt like it and it was sporadic. Now, with teaching and mothering, at the beginning of the year I set yearly goals that I break into quarterly goals and then monthly goals. I’m more productive as a writer now, after three children and a full-time job, than I ever was.
Rumpus: There’s a difference between the creative act of writing and what I consider the equally important act of navigating the poetry business. What inspires you to keep plugging along with the latter?
Maples: There are a list of things, really. My daughters: Eden, Vivienne, and Maya. (They’ve brought much order, endurance, and grace to my life. Their existence demands my productivity and persistence regarding my career.) My competitive and driven nature. My desire to authentically share with the world while I’m here. The poets who have come before me—particularly black woman poets—my elders. Lastly, young poets. Poets who are so confident they’ll send their work out after just a few drafts, instead of belaboring the process (as I have a tendency to do). Like most writers, I both love and hate this game, but I keep submitting. Isn’t that a song? Just keep submitting?
Rumpus: Yes, persistence is key to getting published. I wish someone had told me that earlier in my career. It’s also a constant balancing act between having enough confidence to send out your work and being open to suggestions on how to make the work better. Do you have a community of fellow poets who help you to keep improving your work? Or do you tend to rely on conferences and residencies for that kind of guidance?
Maples: There is a thriving community of poets in Birmingham. It’s really exciting, the work that is being produced here. I rely on these poets and my colleagues from ASFA (Alabama School of Fine Arts) to give me feedback on my work and to challenge me in new ways. I regularly participate in “home workshops.” For example, a poet named Laura Secord regularly holds six-week workshops in her home. I attend these workshops because they feed my creative work, much like teaching and reading. When I attend any workshop or conference, I always approach them as a baby poet. I try to remove any ego to open my mind to considering new methods and ideas. I go in as if I don’t have an MFA, as if I haven’t been writing for over twenty years. I love learning and the community it provides so much. Going in humbly is the way I reverence the process.
Rumpus: How did you connect with the writing community in Birmingham, and how do you keep those connections alive?
Maples: I regularly attend readings and participate in local workshops. I also read the manuscripts in progress by Birmingham writers and respond to their work. I try to support local literary events by using social media. I teach creative writing workshops at libraries and universities—recently I’ve been teaching on docu-poetry and historical persona poetry. I also organize a three-dimensional poetry exhibit every year. My students write poems based on a theme and create visual art in response. The work is installed in local art galleries. It’s allowed patrons a refreshing way to engage with poetry.
Rumpus: Yes, that 3D poetry exhibit looks really interesting.
I know you work with young writers, and you’ve said you aim to approach the workshops you attend as a “baby poet.” What do you wish someone had told you when you were a new writer, just beginning to send out your work for publication?
Maples: I don’t know if there’s something I wish someone had told me. I used to think that I wish I knew more nearer the beginning of this journey, but everything I’ve learned along the way has been so meaningful. I used to wish I knew that I needed to finish graduate school with my first book, but now I don’t wish that anymore. What I had when I finished grad school was a full collection of poetry that I wasn’t proud of. I’m glad I didn’t publish my first book right out of grad school. If I had been writing towards a book the entire time I was in grad school, I wouldn’t have experimented. I wouldn’t have played with language, content, or form. My professors never clearly defined what poetry was. In a lot of ways, I’m more of a purist as an instructor, but that’s not how my professors were with me. They encouraged me in my explorations. When I asked, they nodded in a direction, but they never took my hand and led me. That was exactly what I needed. I failed more, but I came to value what I learned because it never came easy. I used to wish I knew my voice was distinct and important enough to be heard. But really, I didn’t need to know that when I was younger. I needed to stay humble, to work at this craft and approach it respectfully. I still approach it the same way. Maybe what I could offer to a young writer instead is this: Your writing life is a journey. Value the time others give you. Be humble, kind, and patient.
Photograph of Kwoya Fagin Maples © Natylie Simone Ravenell. Cover design and illustration by Kathleen Lynch/Black Kat Design.