The first question you might ask when you pick up t’ai freedom ford’s forthcoming collection from Augury Books is: Where do I start? It’s a double-sided collection, both sides forty-six pages long, and each with its own table of contents, acknowledgements page, and author bio. Both cover images are by Alexandria Smith, and are titled The Skin We Speak and the skin we speak. Even the book’s title is doubled on its spine, with the ampersands in the middle pushing the title to the top or bottom of the book, and so when you pick up the book, you may find yourself turning it over and over in your hands repeating “& more black & more black & more black & more black & more black” until you realize that eventually you’ll just have to opt for a cover to call the front so you can start reading the poems inside. And you will absolutely want to read these poems.
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of & more black, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with t’ai freedoom ford, you’ll need to subscribe by May 15!
The book’s design forces the universe of readers to engage with it in different ways. What I mean is that, for the vast majority of books, while it’s possible (and preferred by some readers I know) to skip around and read randomly, the book itself suggests an order. There’s a linearity to it, and if my conversations with fellow writers over the years are any indication, a lot of stress-sweat goes into deciding which poems should go in which order in a collection. And there’s no question in my mind that ford put a lot of thought into the order in which the poems appear in their respective sides of this book—there are narrative threads that work together too well to just be happenstance. But by not indicating a starting point, ford seems to be saying to the reader, “Figure it out. I’m not doing the work for you.”
Approaching this book is, in a sense, like approaching a painting. There are places where the artist means to draw the viewer’s eye, but the viewer has a role in deciding what to look at first, and given how many of ford’s poems are written in relation to artists or are inspired by contemporary artists—Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker and many others show up in the epigrams of these poems—I refuse to think this is coincidental.
The poems themselves are tense, formally balanced marvels of language. One of ford’s author’s notes refers to them as “‘Black-ass sonnets’ which take their cues from Wanda Coleman’s ‘American Sonnets,’“ and ford plays with the form in similar ways. One of the opening poems, “#notorious,” expands the form to fifteen lines (something Coleman did on occasion) and then dials the internal rhyme all the way up with lines like these:
must be disrespectful neck swivel & eye roll
pick & roll basketball our namesake
pump fake & fast break must be breakfast brown
thief suddenly ground beef see how bullets
scramble legs must be dangerous jail cells
Those repeated -el/-ul sounds drift into -ball, then the rhyme shifts to the -ake with an eye rhyme in the first syllable of breakfast, and then into the combination of “brown / thief” and “ground beef” which is a disturbing juxtaposition of images followed up with “bullets / scramble legs” which echoes the “breakfast” from two lines before. All that (and more, because I’m only touching the surface here) in the middle stanza of one poem. And this collection is full of work as complex as this.
(For those people who argue that a sonnet isn’t a sonnet unless it follows the Shakespearean tradition, I refer you to “self-portrait exaggerating my white features,” which is in beat-perfect iambic pentameter and includes “skinded” with “ended” among its end-rhymes.)
I’ve spent most of this space writing about form and structure and could do more, honestly. ford is an extraordinary craftsperson and her powers are in full display here. The content is at least equal to the form, and I hope you’ll join us in June as we read and discuss & more black, first together and then with t’ai freedom ford in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by May 15 to make sure you don’t miss out!