Revisiting and Reinventing the Body: A Conversation with Destiny O. Birdsong

By

In June 2020, I tuned in to the Black Voices Matter virtual poetry reading, hosted by Poetry In the Brew in Nashville, TN. Sixteen poets participated in the event, including Dr. Destiny O. Birdsong. She read her poem “love poem that ends at popeyes,” which appears in Birdsong’s debut collection, Negotiations (Tin House, October 2020). It was the first time I had ever heard her read her poetry and I wanted to learn more about her work. After the reading, I reached out to her on Twitter expressing my admiration, and a few weeks later, I emailed her asking to interview her about her forthcoming collection. She agreed, and my mother’s words rang in my ears: “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” Birdsong’s collection takes this principle a step further in Negotiations; she generously, incisively gives readers things they didn’t ask for, and didn’t know they needed. This constitutes Negotiations as a gift.

Birdsong is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer who received her MFA in 2009 from Vanderbilt University, as well as her PhD in 2017. Her poems have either appeared or are forthcoming in the Paris Review, African American Review, and The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic. Birdsong has won the Academy of American Poets Prize and received support from Cave Canem, Callaloo, Jack Jones Literary Arts, Pink Door, MacDowell, The Ragdale Foundation, and Tin House, where she was a 2018 Summer Workshop Scholar.

In late August 2020, we sat together on Zoom and talked for two and a half hours. We spoke about race, Poetry Twitter, Black womanhood, and so much more. Birdsong, like her debut collection, is generous and incisive.

***

The Rumpus: One thing that’s really on my mind is this palpable push-pull relationship between two words used throughout your book: negotiate and navigate. In your mind, what is the difference between those two words?

Destiny Birdsong: I don’t know if I thought about it back when I named the book, which came pretty quickly. After I wrote the poem “Negotiations,” I thought it was the title poem for the book. I can’t say that I was thinking this when I named the book, but “negotiate” has come to mean, for me, something that’s really messy. Before this point, I thought it meant brokering any kind of deal. But the word has come to mean a process that happens when you are trying to figure out where you stand and who you are. It can be politically incorrect, problematic, brutally painful. By brutally painful, I mean in terms of self-awareness and admission, or acknowledgements of complicity. The end result isn’t a clear-cut contract at all; it’s more of a settling, or just an understanding of what is. It leads to an understanding of self and the world. There isn’t a change in state, just an acceptance.

Navigating, in my mind, is a much cleaner process. It’s traveling from Point A to Point B. There may be detours or unexpected routes, but it’s getting from one place to another. I don’t know if “negotiate” means that at all; it’s just a grappling.

Rumpus: That makes a lot of sense. I read your poem “Elegy for the Man on Highway 52” right before we got on Zoom, in light of Jacob Blake being shot by police. I hate to say it, but this is one of those poems that is perennial, and you wish it wasn’t. When I first read it, it sent all sorts of somatic forces through me. I was hollering; it was quite moving. I’d like to know the genesis of the poem.

Birdsong: In October 2016, I was driving back from Pink Door, a writing retreat for women and nonbinary writers of color run by Rachel McKibbens. My friend, who lives in northern Tennessee, was dog-sitting while I was at the retreat. I went to pick up my dog late at night. I was driving back, and was on Highway 52, a backroad, because I sometimes have driving anxiety. There was a car in front of me, which stopped very abruptly, so I stopped, too. He kept driving erratically. We finally got to a point in the road where I could pass him, but he tried to sideswipe me. Being an anxious driver, I immediately thought I did something wrong. I stopped my car and got out, looking to see if he actually hit my car. He circled back around and told me I was tailgating him, which was a lie. He said his brother worked for the police department. I said “Cool, because I’m about to call him.” He kept calling me a “fucking nigger,” then sped off. I called 911, and the dispatcher was incredibly rude. I asked how long it would take for the police to come, and she said they would get there when they get there and hung up. I was enraged. The next day I called her back and spoke to her supervisor, but nothing happened.

I kept thinking of that experience while at Ragdale. I felt such rage for both the dispatcher and the man, and I had a very specific wish that they both died from internal bleeding. I have Crohn’s disease, so internal bleeding is something that could happen to me. The good person in me said, “That’s really wrong,” but the poet in me said, “This is really interesting; you should write about that!” That’s how the poem began. There are moments of slippage in it when my wishes for the man are incredibly personal, especially at the end. There’s also a nod to Charleena Lyles, who was shot to death in front of her children. As a Black woman who is vulnerable to that sort of thing, I wanted to put that in the poem. The things I wish for them, I would never facilitate personally, but the poem served as a safe space where I could feel that rage without acting on it.

Rumpus: The one part of the poem that really resonated with me today is: “I want you to be angry because you feel / too inarticulate to correct them.” So many Black people have to go to work and field questions from white coworkers like, “Why do Black people have to riot?” It’s such a part of our history, ourselves, and part of that intergenerational bond where there’s all this pent-up rage and you simply can’t express it.

Birdsong: Yeah. Donika Kelly, who blurbed the book, said she thinks I might have cursed that guy. No clue where he is, but there are probably horrible things happening to him and he has no idea why!

Rumpus: That’s so interesting she said that, because the poem is called “Elegy,” but it really reads more like a malediction!

I’m curious, how did Negotiations come to be?

Birdsong: The poems that created the framework for Negotiations were written in 2017. I got my MFA in 2009, and there were a couple of things happening in those eight years. I was working on my PhD, which takes a chunk of time, but I also just wasn’t really committed to writing poetry, or thinking about it. I would write here and there, but it wasn’t an endeavor. And my MFA thesis was not book-ready! In 2017, I did my very first thirty/thirty, where you write thirty poems in thirty days during National Poetry Month. I did it to revamp my thesis, to finish it once and for all since it had been hanging out for eight years.

Then, later that summer, I had a couple of residencies back to back. I was at Callaloo in the UK, and then two days after I came back, I went to Ragdale, a place right outside Chicago. At Ragdale, I started looking through the poems I wrote for the thirty/thirty. I realized those poems were actually doing something really different and they weren’t supposed to go in that old manuscript. And that’s how it started. It’s funny, because I kept talking about Negotiations as if it were my second book. At one point, my friend put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s not your second book, it’s your first book. You need to call it what it is!”

Rumpus: I love hearing that, because it shows that you don’t have to worry about starting and completing one piece of writing about a specific subject. The act of writing or creating could give birth to something completely different. It’s just a matter of doing it.

Birdsong: I’m starting to realize that. I think about how I would rather have one really great book out in the world than have one or two mediocre books. It can be disheartening because I produce so much work, and so little of it gets out.

Rumpus: One person who makes a cameo appearance in the book is Sally Hemings. “Negotiations” serves as a line of demarcation between Black women’s bodies and white women’s bodies. She also sheds light on the intergenerational sexual violence and trauma. Could you talk more about Hemings’s pivotal role in the book?

Birdsong: That’s a good question. I learned a lot, like how there aren’t any portraits of Sally. We only have a slight idea what she might have looked like based on descriptions of white people. There aren’t any diaries from Sally Hemings. All we have is her relationship with Thomas Jefferson. It was interesting for me to think of Sally Hemings as having agency and motivation, which is the reason for the last two lines of “Negotiations.” She wanted to free her children, to secure freedom for those who came after her. I thought it was a really important thing to articulate in that poem.

In terms of the rest of the book, Sally contextualizes the differences between Black women and white women, specifically around sexual violence. Black women’s sexual trauma is often conscripted for this larger conversation about women’s rights, but it’s so nuanced and different. My coming to terms with the person who assaulted me has everything to do with race and class and concepts of gender within the Black community, which are formed by Black men. Sally Hemings and “Negotiations” identify that schism. There are some parts of the conversation that don’t apply to non-Black women, which is okay. It can still resonate, but there are going to be stark differences, and we are going to let all the silenced-Sally Hemings say what they need to say.

Rumpus: I love that answer. I also loved the intersections between the body, history, and medicine. What ties these three things together is pain. Do you have any suggestions for fellow Black writers and artists whose work focus on pain, and how to practice self-care, so as not to numb with a different sort of “pre-filled syringe,” as you name it in “Negotiations?”

Birdsong: It’s really important to write and share difficult work when you’re ready, but even when you’re ready, it’s a difficult process. With my book, if I had published it five years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready. There’s a divinity in timing. Making trauma public causes things to happen, like strangers emailing you telling you their story, or those closest to you acting strangely because they learned something about you, or people presuming that you are an open book and can ask you anything because you talked about your trauma, or that you are a safe space and they can tell you anything. As a Black writer, you have to think about these things, and they’re often on top of a larger national trauma occurring at the same time. Just do things when you’re ready. And if something is well-written, it won’t matter if it doesn’t coincide with a major news event. It will still resonate.

Rumpus: I want to explore the section of poems about the body. That whole section is so self-aware and subversive. When I first read the title “failed avoidance of ‘the body’ in a poem,” I laughed out loud because it’s so true! Pick up any journal, and you’ll be tripping over poems about the body!

Birdsong: Right. And it’s always “THE BODY.” And you say to yourself “Well, there they go.” No one uses that phrase like a poet!

Rumpus: Exactly! My antennae go up when I read skeletal imagery in a poem because I’m an x-ray tech. The part that undid me was “your new goal is to learn to breathe / through bones, to make flutes of them.” Medically, porous bones signal degeneration, but making a flute sound out of a body failing was incredible to me. In “Ode to My Body,” you write about waste. I think about the spleen, where red blood cells go to die. We have waste coursing through our bodies all the time. I love that you wrote about these topics, as opposed to desire.

Birdsong: If there are laudable things about my poem, it’s because it’s written after TJ Jarrett’s “How to Hear to Music with Your Whole Body.” The section about the body in my book stems from grappling with my own body post-diagnosis. I had always felt damaged, and now it was compounded by this frightening disease that made me feel more damaged. “Ode to My Body,” the first in the series, is me coming to terms with how I had treated my body up until diagnosis, and that none of the things that happened to my body make it damaged. It creates challenges, and I have to love my body differently than other people but that doesn’t equate to damage. “failed avoidance” has to do with not feeling good enough to be desired. It’s hard to grapple with, but it felt important to write about that. This section of the book speaks to a lot of that negotiating happening.

Rumpus: In addition to this section, the “My rapist” section of poems was powerful. Often with poems about sexual assault, they focus on the act and its aftermath, not what comes before, and not in ways that almost humanize the assaulter. You take the act of sexual assault, and move in reverse. Can you shed more light of what’s happening in this suite?

Birdsong: I was raped by a cis, heterosexual man who had very clear ideas about Black women’s bodies, and respectability politics. All of those things played a role in my assault, but I also bought into some of those ideas, pre-assault. Part of healing was also coming to terms with buying into those ideas, without knowing how dangerous they could be. That’s what “my rapist once said he didn’t need anything from me” is about. I experienced intimate partner rape; I was dating this man.

My assault didn’t start the day it happened, but many months before. It started with really small things. I was definitely being groomed, but didn’t recognize it for what it was. Many people don’t think of victims as complex individuals. But when people come out as victims, their past gets combed through. I wanted that suite of poems to highlight the complexity of victims. The titles of those poems are inspired by Tafisha A. Edwards’ “Your Rapist Is on Paid Administrative Leave,” a beautiful, yet frightening poem. It’s not about the experience itself, as you mentioned, but it goes into mundane details like the rapist having to figure out benefits, and how much money to put in his 401k. The reader really sees how much power this rapist has. I’m friends with Tafisha, and a lot of the work put into my sequence was made possible based on conversations we had. People have so many preconceived notions about rape, like you can’t be raped by someone you know. People liken rape to an apartment you move into, and you simply need to cleanse your space! Burn some sage! But healing is messy. Every experience is different. Not all of us were virgins, and not all of our rapists were hiding in the bushes.

Rumpus: I think this section does something similar to the body section, where you take something familiar and push it a step further: the complexities of victimhood, as you mentioned. It was such a fraught section. It was incredible.

Birdsong: Thank you. I used to say flippantly, “I write poetry that scares people,” without knowing what that truly means. Writing that section made me feel uncomfortable, but it was a necessary discomfort. I totally understand the possibility of readers being unsettled, too. That’s the intention.

Rumpus: To wrap up, I want to ask about the last poem “and though the odds say improbable.” A central question in your book is: “What makes a self?” The last poem didn’t make that question feel resolved, but it had so much resonance because it felt familiar, because we, as Black women, still have to negotiate a lot of messy things, and that’s not changing soon. How do you decide, from a craft standpoint, when to work towards new insights, or when to feel familiar? How does familiarity highlight big truths?

Birdsong: I took the past few years to figure out my spiritual self, because I was reared in a strict, religious household. I had to figure out what parts of faith worked for me that could guide me toward truth, and what I could discard. I do believe in the divine, and that there is something guiding and orchestrating my movements, and I have a higher calling to do things that are generative in the Black community. I think just because something is familiar doesn’t mean it can’t be revelatory. I had to tear down and rebuild, but I couldn’t have done it without the old, familiar house. I want to see what can be salvaged, and what can be gained.

***

Photograph of Destiny Birdsong by Hunter Armistead.


Sarah Kersey is a poet and x-ray technologist from New Jersey. She is the associate editor of South Florida Poetry Journal. Her work has appeared in Feral Poetry Journal, The Hellebore, Neologism Poetry Journal, Columbia Journal (online), and elsewhere. She tweets @sk__poet. More from this author →