The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project: Nefertiti Asanti
Nefertiti Asanti and I have orbited in and out of one another’s worlds for many years. Initially, we bonded while doing advocacy work in New York for queer youth of color. When Asanti left New York for a job in the Oakland area, we remained in touch and our context evolved into our creative practice as poets and writers. I have always been astounded by not only her brilliance, but her remarkable connection to her intuition, a trait undeniably present in her first chapbook, fist of wind.
fist of wind reinforces to readers that the uterus has no gender by transcending binary constructs with brilliance and care. Asanti’s writing is electric; these poems signal the thrilling emergence of Asanti’s powerful voice in the greater zeitgeist, a moment that I have been waiting to experience for quite some time. Now, I find myself spending much more of time in Toronto, Ontario, which means that Asanti and I are not only on different coasts but in different countries.
I spoke with Asanti over email about medical racism, consonance and rhyme, and the importance of journaling in her writing process.
The Rumpus: Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a traumatic affliction and is easily reduced as mere PMS and dismissed away with ibuprofen and rest. fist of wind takes this on as a metaphor for Blackness and gender/womanhood, which seems almost inevitable. What inspired you to begin researching PMDD? When did you begin to draw these connections creatively, and how did this begin to inform your poetics?
Nefertiti Asanti: When I was first diagnosed, I was skeptical mostly because I didn’t wanna be on a low-dose generic of Prozac; it didn’t address all the symptoms. I began researching PMDD after my diagnosis because there was little to no information about it, especially on how PMDD and menstruation in general affects Black people. Before and even after my diagnosis, I would go to the ER or a doctor and tell them my symptoms, and their responses would be more harmful than helpful. A lot of my research also just came from telling people about my experiences in detail. Folks often empathized or could name someone they knew who had similar experiences. I trusted those stories more than I trusted the doctors.
Rumpus: What was that like for you?
Asanti: There were days I was confined to my bed, and while regaining my strength and presence of mind, words, pen, and paper were a comfort. When I was six, my mother gave me my first journal and told me I could even cuss her out in it, and she wouldn’t read it. Journaling is an integral part of my writing practice and a way for me to trust and know myself better than anyone else. I was less concerned about other people reading my words and more invested in how words provided perspective in trying to understand my experiences. Eventually, poetry provided a container for my words that echoed the limits and lengths pain traveled in my body and the information the pain carried with it.
Rumpus: I am struck by the craft techniques, the deep consonance and rhythmic acoustics. I find the poems mimic the ways that one would talk to themself. This is notable in the title poem, “fist of wind,” and in “sometimes the seeds are tainted.” Could you describe your creative process?
Asanti: My creative process usually involves a free write where I spend ten to fifteen minutes writing in a notebook without pause. At all times I approach the page with curiosity, allowing whatever desire for understanding or emotion to guide my words to the page. Consonance and rhythm reveal themselves to me in the writing, and the mellifluence of sound is an echo of how I’ve been spoken to and have engaged others all my life. Growing up in a Black matrilineal household in New York City by way of the South, sometimes being chastised even had a rhythmic quality to it. Sometimes when my grandma said things like, “Speak ass cuz the ears ain’t listening,” even if the literal meaning was lost on me, her conviction told me I needed to listen deeply or act right. Consonance and rhyme are foundational to how I learn and how I commit those lessons to memory.
Rumpus: The line, “prejudice bathes in open wounds” delivers a powerful metaphor and through-line for the entire text. How does this phrase speak to the confluence of Blackness, queerness, gender, and essentially one’s (your) relationship to your body?
Asanti: A couple years ago in my search for menstrual poems, I came across Yolanda Wisher’s “Rubyfloetics: A Period Poem Mixtape,” which introduced me to Ntozake Shange’s “we need a god who bleeds now.” The poem ends with, “we need a god who bleeds now / whose wounds are not the end of anything / but are the beginning of all living things,” and it stuck with me.
Black bodies are all too often offered up as sacrifice. The prejudice that condemns our bodies to suffering is so normalized, and the horrific absurdity of that American Horror Story: Coven-like imagery in “prejudice bathes in open wounds” calls out that it ain’t right. That phrase suggests that we are often bleeding out for being Black and queer and possessing a body with or without a gender. (I would venture to say that all violence against a Black body is colored by gender, particularly how that gender is perceived then determines the kind of violence the body endures.) I say that to say the line suggests we cannot heal nor can we live the full measure of our lives as we continue to bleed ceaselessly, violently.
Rumpus: The poem’s relationship to the page is crucial in this collection. This can be seen in the beautiful uterus shape of “womb not wound” and the erasure and subsequent reveal of “exhume or ‘exposure to American culture.’” Could you describe this process?
Asanti: Most of my poems are written by hand without regard to line breaks, until I start typing it up. The line and phrase breaks depend on what it sounds like when I read aloud. I lifted “womb not wound” from deconstructing a line. “Womb not wound” resounded as an incantation and found itself into a concrete form that in some ways reflects and amplifies its spell-like quality.
I want to do with the page what my voice does with sound in the air. I want the words to sing off the page. I want my eyes to dance around the page, and I trust the audience will dance along with me.
Rumpus: Continuing with “exhume or ‘exposure to American culture,’” your speaker introduces readers to the ancestral and intergenerational trauma and the often-ignored physiological afflictions of the African diaspora. It is often disturbing to consider what our bodies contain, so the word “exhume” as a means of studying our previous selves therefore suggests a profound metaphor for past lives, past selves who have survived PMDD, and recounting their experience. Is this resonant? Would you elaborate on the setting and narrative of this poem? I am also thinking of Vievee Francis and her work with memory, recollection, and past tense.
Asanti: Part of me learning about PMDD was considering the fact that at least two women in my family before me may have had this affliction. My symptoms would also invite stories about who else had terrible periods growing up, the severity of the symptoms, how pregnancy helped ease them, and how they endured. Remedy never seemed part of those stories, especially when pregnancy or birth control did not feel like viable options to me.
Rumpus: I am sitting with what you shared about two women in your family who were also afflicted with PMDD. It makes me wonder if your mother, knowing this, understood that she needed to gift you with that journal as a portal or tool, in order for you to manage the multifaceted pain.
Asanti: Here’s what I know: My mama been pushing journals on kids before I was ever thought of. She told me she made my sister journal and my cousin, too. My mama also kept journals as a kid. We actually found several of her journals during the pandemic, and she allowed me to read some of the entries. My mother likes to keep things; she likes to document things. My mother likes to remember the best things. So I think, more than anything, my mother gifted me my first journal so I could remember everything, not just the pain.
“exhume” is a free write and erasure exploring instances where I had to give my body over to strangers when care from myself or a loved one couldn’t make the pain stop. Seem like to them I was already doomed, already dead navigating a so-called affliction that’s no doubt a result of my doing. Being in the kind of pain that seemingly no one could empathize with, let alone believe was/is upsetting, to say the least, is par for the course as a Black person. There are studies where medical professionals believe Black people have a higher threshold for pain than all others. There are practices where Black people are refused the appropriate dosage for pain management because we are profiled as fiends and tricksters who deserve to suffer. I do not condone such practices meant to persecute, punish, and scapegoat. Often we self-medicate, are skeptical about a diagnosis, and care for ourselves and each other the best way we know how, if we know and can remember how. Sometimes we are left to die. Documenting my experience and refusing to be medically gaslit is how I resist the death that is waiting for me at the hands of systemic racism and misogynoir. Instead, each month I embrace a kind of death within my womb that offers me a life I can live with.
Rumpus: “I have always had my hands” is another stand-out poem in the collection and, to be honest, one of my favorites. The imagery is electric and rapid. What was the process of visualization with this poem?
Asanti: A uterus is about the size of a fist, so they say. It’s also said all the eggs you ever have were once in the womb of your grandma, who was in the womb of her grandma and so on. “my hands” represents a journey of all the lives it took to get me here. I see “my hands” as an extension of the deliberate, enchanted potency of the womb. The repetition of “hands” echoes what it means to travel the full measure of a life, balancing moments of pain and duty with an urgent, unrelenting lust-become-will-for-pleasure, and rest. “my hands” is essentially a list poem, stringing together images in the imagined cosmology of my lineage.
Rumpus: What are you currently working on or have coming up?
Asanti: Currently, I am working on what I hope to be my first full-length collection, the present is a small child. It is a collection of poems and flash fiction that center and celebrate the agency, imagination, curiosity, wisdom, and triumphs of Black childhood as a mosaic, from the mundane to the whimsical. the present is a small child is a character-, voice-, and narrative-driven work that explores themes of puberty marked by menstruation, gender, community, lineage, intergenerational trauma/healing, and the Black oral tradition. Initially, the present is a small child came to me as a reprieve from writing and being consumed by images of Black death. We so often talk about healing our inner child, but when I came to offer up my inner child some healing, the child was like, “Uh uh, I’m good but you got some healing to do, let me show you how.” What an invitation! I am also hoping this is a collection that the children in my life could read now. I want the collection to be that accessible.
Photograph of Nefertiti Asanti by Kalima Amilak.