The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with t’ai freedom ford about her new collection & More Black (Augury Books, July 2019), the flexibility of the sonnet form, unusual book design, and being in communion with visual artists.
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 join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: About the book—or is it more accurate to say books? How did that back-to-back design come to happen?
t’ai freedom ford: yes, the book! initially i wanted two covers… and then decided to have a flip book situation like those GQ magazines i used to read… which meant that i had to go back to the initial manuscript and organize it into two separate books/arcs.
so it wasn’t my original intention, but then as i went back to the book i started to notice all of these dualities/dichotomies. and i was also considering DuBois’s double consciousness idea… about black folks in this country being both American and “negro” and i was thinking about how i wanted this book to be both “black” and “more black.”
Brian S: Ah! Okay. Were those pieces by Alexandria Smith the covers you wanted for the book all along?
t’ai freedom ford: no… originally i wanted these collage-y sort of images by a Norwegian/Nigerian artist named Frida Orupabo, but my publisher didn’t like the work for the manuscript…
Brian S: I liked the way the book design worked with the title as a way of forcing the reader to take a minute before opening the book. Making you ponder for a moment rather than just automatically going into the book where it asks you to. It’s a different experience.
t’ai freedom ford: so i asked Alex, because she’s a good friend, and told her about the double cover concept and she sent me the “red” cover which is the finished painting… then i asked her if she’d done a sketch version and she had… so that’s how we wound up with those covers.
Liz: I loved the relationship you have with artists throughout your book, your conversation with them.
t’ai freedom ford: thank you Liz! deep down i fancy myself a visual artist.
Liz: And the two covers somehow made reading the book that much more active for me, making the book an object to figure out.
t’ai freedom ford: yes, i wanted folks to have to reckon with the book in the same ways black folks have to reckon with their two identities…
Brian S: And at least some of the pieces you responded to involve language in the image. At least one of Kara Walker’s and one of Mark Bradford’s, right?
t’ai freedom ford: yes, and the Wangechi Mutu pieces, and Alexandria Smith’s, and the Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski and the Carrie Mae Weems pieces also. i spent a lot of time in direct conversation with their works, almost acting as a translator to their pieces.
Liz: t’ai, I just saw the astonishing Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview and I’m thinking a lot about what it means for a white woman (me) to watch theater or read poetry made by a black woman. Your book felt like an astonishingly apt companion piece, leaving me questioning the fact that it’s all too easy for me to pat myself on the back for being so open-minded, so “woke,” the danger of thinking this art is for me or about me. I felt challenged by the book, which I appreciated.
t’ai freedom ford: i’ve been seeing these ads for Fairview… need to check it out! but i appreciate that the work challenged you but that you stayed engaged… sometimes people will simply abandon the work.
Liz: Thanks to the poems, I discovered several artists I didn’t know. Again—the book called me to look beyond what I knew or expected from a book of poetry.
R. Rafferty: Hi t’ai, super excited to chat with you! You mentioned you’re in Brooklyn—can you talk a little bit about how place has, if at all, impacted your writing?
t’ai freedom ford: hi R, yes, Brooklyn is a special place… home to many of the artists i’m in conversation with… and my proximity to many amazing museums has allowed me the opportunity to be in front of the work… actually, my first poems were because Wangechi Mutu was at the Brooklyn Museum and i saw the show like three times… and then i just started stealing her titles… thinking i must DO something with these…
Gwen Dawson: They are great titles!
t’ai freedom ford: there’s also so much energy here… and then there’s also gentrification… and that has also influenced/impacted my work.
Liz: I saw that Mutu show also. The beautiful/monstrousness of her creatures—loved how you captured their strangeness in the poems.
t’ai freedom ford: yes… she’s brilliant… and lives in Brooklyn… in my neighborhood actually.
Liz: I won’t be too stalkerish and ask where you live…
t’ai freedom ford: Bed Stuy, baby…. altho, really the edge… cuz gentrification…
Gwen Dawson: That’s cool. I like how the poetry is in conversation with the art. I also notice that Ebonics plays a significant role in your poetry. There’s a rhythm aspect to it as well as a sort of rebellious note—a way of controlling the language. Can you say more about the way of speaking that you use in your poems?
t’ai freedom ford: i teach high school english so i’m SUPER conscious of language and especially the “King’s English” and the ways in which i and my students code switch…
Liz: I kept thinking, “what a fantastic person to have as your English teacher!” Those kids are lucky.
t’ai freedom ford: i’m lucky, mostly…. greatest job on earth, i think.
t’ai freedom ford: i wanted to write about that [code switching]… and i also wanted to embrace ebonics… and intentionally NOT code switch… also within this very old, white form of the sonnet.
Brian S: What you do to and with the sonnet in this book is just beautiful.
Gwen Dawson: Yes, I see what you mean. The poem “ain’t” has this line I liked: “this ironic Ebonics this King’s English”
t’ai freedom ford: yes, probably one of my fave poems in the collection, def one of my fave words of all time.
Gwen Dawson: Do you mean the word “ain’t”?
t’ai freedom ford: yes… “ain’t” is beautiful…
Gwen Dawson: That’s a Southern word, or at least it seems that way to me. I live in Houston, so I hear it a lot!
Brian S: The last poem on the side with the black cover is titled “ain’t,” too.
t’ai freedom ford: the word… when i lived in Atlanta… kids would respond to questions with “iain’t!” all smushed together
Gwen Dawson: Yes! I like it, too. My parents “trained” that word out of my vocabulary (like many Southern parents, I’m afraid).
Brian S: I’ve reclaimed it in recent years for myself.
t’ai freedom ford: yes… it becomes rebellious in its use… a middle finger to the “standard conventions of the English language.”
Brian S: “Y’all,” too.
Gwen Dawson: Haha, yes Brian! Another one I was trained not to use. “Fixin’” too, as in “I was fixin’ to go to the store.”
t’ai freedom ford: love “y’all”… but as a New Yorker i also love “yous.”
R. Rafferty: Yous! The best.
t’ai freedom ford: right… in my book, the poem after Erykah Badu says, “philosophy of finna” which is a blacker version of “fixin’.”
Brian S: And you do so much with sound in this book—you have the end rhymes in the sonnets, but you also have them echoed in internal rhymes, and you chain lines together with an internal rhyme that becomes an end rhyme. Is sound where you begin with your writing?
Liz: Yes, Brian! I was trying to put into words that question about sounds.
t’ai freedom ford: i’m a child of hip-hop so rhyme is extremely important in my writing… sonically i want the poems to be inventive and creative… when i used to do slam poetry rhyme would help me remember those long-ass poems… assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, end rhyme… all of my fave tools. i do think many images are conjured via sound for me.
R. Rafferty: That’s interesting you talk about images being conjured by sound for you—your poems are very much the same way.
Liz: Often it felt like the sound and rhymes were pulling me along through the poems, and that this allowed me to experience a bit of your writing process, as one word brought up another for you.
R. Rafferty: Is that what you mean when you talk about fancying yourself a visual artist?
Brian S: Just to give an example, the first lines of “evidence of fun” go: “when you mix whiskey wine & a woman / that fine time blurs like rows of pines while driving / south her mouth alone flattens me like roadkill.”
Those lines are just exploding with sound.
t’ai freedom ford: yes… that comes from years of listening to Rakim and Black Thought and Chuck D from Public Enemy…. lacing rhyme through their lyrics.
R., yes… i was always jealous of visual artists and even tried my hand at painting, but wasn’t good at all… but i realized my medium is words/images.
Brian S: Have you talked to any artists you know about possibly collaborating on a piece?
t’ai freedom ford: Alexandria Smith and i are thinking about doing a children’s book…
Liz: Please do!
Brian S: I have five-year-old twins and would absolutely get a copy for them!
t’ai freedom ford: god bless you, Brian!
Liz: Look, you just sold two copies. (One for me)
t’ai freedom ford: lol. this is great… my children’s book career is already off and running
Brian S: We were talking last month with Eve Ewing about how much of children’s literature is in verse. It’s a natural fit.
Gwen Dawson: One question I had while reading this is whether the two sides of the book have different themes or purposes or organizing principles.
t’ai freedom ford: thanks Gwen for that question… the truth is no… the themes repeat throughout both sides…. when i went back to the manuscript to create two separate manuscripts i just knew i had to create two arcs… so that’s what i did… but i think you have one persona on one side… and then, it ends/dies… and then you flip the book and it’s resurrected/reborn…
Gwen Dawson: Interesting. I didn’t see the “ends/dies” part. Or maybe I didn’t realize that was what was happening.
t’ai freedom ford: Gwen, i think it’s more metaphorical… symbolic…
Gwen Dawson: Yes, I can see that now. Powerful.
Brian S: How long did this book take to write?
t’ai freedom ford: Brian, i started writing these sonnets in 2013? after workshop with Terrrance Hayes.
Brian S: I KNEW IT.
t’ai freedom ford: but i was busy finishing the first book…
Brian S: I knew Hayes’s fingers were in here somewhere. We did his last book for the Poetry Book Club as well. LOL.
t’ai freedom ford: right… he exposed me to Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets and blew my mind with what a sonnet could look like… I’d been teaching Shakespearean sonnets all these years… iambs and such…
Liz: How did you think about the sonnet form as you wrote?
Brian S: I’m sure you know there’s a certain class of white poets, usually older and male, who talk about contemporary poetry and how it lacks discipline and form and so on, and I just want to kick them, because there’s more amazing formal work being done now than in my lifetime of writing. They’re just not seeing it, and there’s little question why.
t’ai freedom ford: so i couldn’t stop writing them after that… i had to define what it would look and sound like for me… i knew i wanted my sonnets to be extremely sonic driven… with rhyme… but not necessarily end rhyme… thirteen to fifteen lines… appropriately ten syllables per line… playing with where the volta would appear… if at all…
Brian, for sure… and what i’ve come to discover is that black poets have been engaging in form, especially the sonnet, for a LOOOOOOOONNNNGGGG time.
Brian S: Oh absolutely.
Liz: Did you set yourself any limitations—”my sonnet MUST include this element or that”?
Gwen Dawson: I love all the internal rhymes in these poems.
Liz: Gwen, me too.
t’ai freedom ford: Liz, not really… once i got into a groove, it was very organic… and i’m very rigid, borderline OCD when it comes to shit like this… counting syllables…. it took many many revisions to loosen up on the form and let it breathe and not be beholden to the rules i’d initially created.
R. Rafferty: Do you still find yourself writing in sonnet form or are you trying something different now?
t’ai freedom ford: i’m working on a novel… so completely different, but it has been hard to escape the sonnet form when i’m writing poetry these days…
Brian S: I’ve got my copy open to “parable of the fists,” which might be my favorite poem in the collection, and on the previous page I see in the last three lines the “Amiri Baraka / rocked ya chakra spearchucker sci-fi motherfucker / black like Oprah’s ass & a big pot of okra—huh!” and it just bowls me over, all the rhyme and work going on in that small space.
Liz: You succeeded. The form feels very organic. I can’t tell you how much these poems swept me away/called me to attention. This book feels essential to me, a call to think and see and experience.
Brian S: What are you reading these days, t’ai? Anything we should be on the lookout for?
R. Rafferty: And what are you listening to?!
t’ai freedom ford: what i’m reading now… Melissa Rivero’s The Affairs of the Falcóns, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. fiction mostly because that’s what i’ll be writing all summer. listening to the new Flying Lotus…. inspired by the Cali wildfires…
t’ai freedom ford: a friend bought me vinyl of a lost album by Marvin Gaye, “you’re the man,” which is awesome
Brian S: Thank you so much, t’ai, both for joining us and for this book. It’s just extraordinary.
Liz: Thank you. Extraordinary indeed.
t’ai freedom ford: Brian, i appreciate you having me and for this platform! Liz, Gwen, and R., great chatting with you!
Photograph of tai freedom ford by Dominique Sindayiganza.