I Don’t Sing to Be Heard, I Do It to Keep On: An interview with Ashanti Anderson

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Ashanti Anderson is a linguistic risk-taker, inviting the reader to dive into the darkness of grief and resurface emboldened and enlightened in the joy of being Black, in the joy of being alive. Her debut collection, Black Under, won the Spring 2020 Black River Chapbook Competition and was released from Black Lawrence Press in 2021. Anderson (she/her) is a Black queer disabled poet, screenwriter, and playwright. Her poems have appeared in World Literature Today, POETRY magazine, and elsewhere in print and on the web.

Anderson returned home during the pandemic and teaches at her alma mater, the Xavier University of Louisiana, a private, historically Black, Catholic school in New Orleans. “I am sort of returning to many things,” the poet told me with a playful smile. “But I am also starting new things. For example, I am working on a project in its gestational stages, like a newborn baby who’s about to begin crawling and give her first steps. It’s intended to be my next full collection of poems. And I’m having a lot of fun. I’m also developing a screenplay. It’s an exciting time to be inspired and hear my own voice taking shape and shapeshifting on the page.”

I met with Ashanti Anderson over Zoom, where we spoke about Black Under and its powerful claim, which grants agency to the poet while eliciting empathy via vivid imagery, courageous word choice, and stylistic originality.

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The Rumpus: Your poems are arteries and veins, pulsing life, and survival. Would you say that you write protest poetry, denouncing injustices and emphasizing the necessity for non-Black folks to get under Black skin and learn to see the Black experience? What is your purpose as a poet engaged in writing Blackness in the American political arena today?

Ashanti Anderson: I don’t expect to make money from being a poet. I’m not playing that game, of trying to fulfill expectations as to what I must write about, because that is what is expected of me, what interests them, a white person, or anyone who plays the role of the oppressor. For me, writing is deciding what I want to tell readers. I am writing my Black stuff, and what you’re going to read is real. It’s that Black writing, like [that of] other marginalized people who haven’t had space and an opportunity to share, to speak up, will naturally voice its feelings in protest. 

Rumpus: You still balance it with equanimity, and so your poems are about you, as you speak for yourself and are humble not to speak for others. In the authenticity of your personal, intimate experience, the collective, communal experience transcends your poetry. Is this your act of resistance?

Anderson: With what’s been happening in the last few years, like police violence and state-sanctioned murders, suddenly there’re all these calls for radical political poetry. Of course, it is an excellent opportunity to protest creatively, speak out, and accept that life sucks for many people, like me. But you know what’s really cool now? Black joy. Not for them, for us. We need to give ourselves joy.

Rumpus: Poetry like yours teaches resilience, that colonized bodies can survive beyond their descendants without remembering their ancestors as victims but as survivors. One of the poems in Black Under, “Slave Ship Haibun,” begins with a powerful statement: “One day a descendant of ours will go on a Carnival cruise and still find time to think of us.” How do the lives of your ancestors influence your work?

Anderson: I believe that my ancestors were survivors, and their survival continues to last even beyond me and my generation of Black people, where we continue to face injustice and struggle to protect our rights. For me, they must find a poem or a short story or an essay that speaks about their experience so they can feel empathy toward another and confirm that they aren’t alone at all. That is why I don’t refrain from writing poetry that brings deep personal experience to the forefront so we can find each other and become stronger.

Rumpus: In “Acrostic for my Last Breaths,” you paint a picture of George Floyd, calling for his mama in his last breaths, that shared trauma in the wounds of a memory, and yet, it encourages survival: “But I don’t sing to be heard, I do it to keep on.” How does this poem unite us?

Anderson: It’s an experience that wounded people so profoundly. As a writer, I can use this framework of tragic personal experience and deliver it back to unite us in collective grief. I know that many marginalized writers, writers of color, will find themselves on the page, because [the murder of George Floyd] affected all of us. I start some poems speaking about myself from my perspective. It is rewarding when others empathize or feel the same, when a poem that I wrote from my grief finds community in the grief of others like me. I’ve always been a writer about Black people and, hopefully, Black people relate to my work.

The history of oppression and domination is right on my face, and sometimes I need to distance myself from it so that I can process it. When George Floyd was so brutally murdered, I needed to make room for a poem about the significance of the phrase, I can’t breathe, and that is why I wrote the acrostic, For My Last Breath. So, we must make room for that, even if we are forced to process the grief while the grief is raw and excruciating.

Rumpus: It seems that BIPOC writers have been systematically muted or given little space to own their history, stories, and bodies. Now they are asserting their words with great agency. “Ode to Black Skin” persuasively asserts, “Remember God / could not have named a modicum of light without you,” challenging and engaging religion. Are you speaking from the core of your knowledge, your faith? Is the voice speaking in your poems you, Ashanti Anderson? Or have you created a poetic persona?

Anderson: I created a persona for Black Under, and though I share stories and ways of seeing and understanding something with that poetic persona, I separate her from me. Still, I know what you mean, and I realize that I recognize myself through the experience in the poem, a shared quality or trait between my poetic self and my actual self. But when I don’t remember me, I learn from that person, like the woman in the “Slave Ship Haibun.” I invented her because I wanted to imagine how an ancestor of mine who didn’t thrive could have been or could be portrayed.  And to honor all those people who chose to die and jumped into the ocean to end their lives, and they couldn’t become ancestors.

Rumpus: Your poems imagine those who couldn’t become ancestors while forgiving them, instead of judging them, for making the choice to end their lives. Does this poetic persona make it possible to represent them in a more objective way? Give them a place in history, an ocean burial, even honor them with compassion? 

Anderson: Yes. Since I lack that vision of them, whom I could have never met or known about by handed down stories, I must imagine them. I find myself in them, as if an actor, transmuting into these characters. So, I tried to find a balance between my own experience of being Black in these times, in the twenty-first century, and them in the long past, the weight we all carry because of those lives snatched from their land. But within me, there’s so much possibility to recognize the same emotions saving the many differences from then and there to now and here. The way I feel internally presents me the opportunity to share it with others in a meaningful way and do them justice. Trying to express that duality was the goal of Black Under and probably also directing my new collection.

Rumpus: When I read the tryptic, “Busts of the Beheaded,” the first thing I noticed—and this might be a bizarre association of ideas—was that your word choice, language, and themes reminded me of Shakespeare. These poems read as stories, even like a play on a stage. They feel also as though they were told orally by, perhaps, an African griot. The subtitles read like headlines: “Penny, beheaded after becoming infected with worms from eating soil / to supplement her meager rations”; “Leroy, beheaded for running away to be with his lover”; “Cane, beheaded for participating in an uprising.” Tell me about Penny, Leroy, and Cane. Who are they?

Anderson: I don’t know who they are. I tried to imagine how some of them could have been if they existed, and their deaths resulted from their rebellions that determined such violent ends. On the other hand, I have heard stories of people like them. As I was writing the poems, they became real to me. Maybe I needed to feel that they existed to memorialize them and that they haven’t been forgotten or their lives not valued. So, I gave them a place to rest. When I create these personas, I take the task very seriously.

Rumpus: Yes, the tone is solemn.

Anderson: Poetry is sacred for me. For this reason, I try to infuse the poems that I write with humanity, which allows me to become humanly able to articulate the whole experience as authentically as possible, even if the characters are fictional. They become real because I invented them to tell a story beyond my world and from the past to the present.

Rumpus: In “Career-Changing Opportunity!” the second line reads: “Make art of the deaths you witnessed.” The chances that someone, an enslaved person, fell in love with another enslaved person, and they tried to escape to be united, reunited, and got killed because they resisted the laws imposed by those enslaving them is still plausible today, albeit in different contexts, is it not?

Anderson: It’s very present, today, nowadays, but differently. Someone ran away and was caught, punished, and even killed. Then, you know that same feeling is possible for us right now. That there’s someone who you know who ran across a country seeking for a better life, risking their life.

Rumpus: In what way are you inventing or imagining the lives of your ancestors, and the lives of those who “couldn’t be ancestors to anyone?” How has this affected your understanding of yourself as a poet?

Anderson: It is as if they were talking to me, and I am a medium trying to convey their feelings. They give me a reason to be a writer and inspire my writing. They exist for me to learn to understand us and myself. Through this poetry in Black Under, I am hoping that we can come to understand, we can find ourselves through the writing of poetry and learn to make sense of something we were denied knowing.

Rumpus: The prose poem titled, “Slave Ship Haibun” introduces what seems to be an African language in the third line: “Haiwezekani kuwa na amani bila kuelewa.” Is this Swahili?

Anderson: Yes! The translation is “It is impossible to be at peace without understanding.” I wanted to use the language that my ancestors used, and though I don’t speak it—I’m not even sure how to pronounce these words—I wanted to have a sacred, mystical meaning. This phrase is from a biblical songbook with proverbs. I wanted to create a linguistic link to establish communication, a relationship with my past, and in the language spoken by those who came before me and from the African land.

Rumpus: It’s impressive how a thin chapbook containing fifteen poems can have such an abysmal, and at times dark depth, like the belly of a slave ship carrying the weight of so many lives from the past and the present. But most impressive is how tenderly your work treats grief, death, and even suicide, and in the end, there is a shred of hope as unbreakable as if made of iron. I want to ask you about the final poem, “Resignation,” and specifically about these lines:

“Understand: I am done writing about the black girl / emptied. I’m off to find a brown boy with his ghost still in him. / Last week I slipped and busted my mouth on asphalt, and if you / want the blood I will have for you my red wet grin.”

Anderson: We are resilient, and it becomes like one of those buzzwords that it’s like a participation trophy. As though thinking that your life sucks, but at least you were involved, and you learned to overcome. Still, at times I get tired and rebel against this predicament. It’s more to it than that. I’m still here. I show up to my life, every day, and despite all of it, I think that is what resilience looks like after enough is enough. What matters is that I show up to my own life. I’d say that I have tried to exercise the full breadth of my autonomy. These lines are a response to the constant being called into question. The repetitive patterns that whenever someone dies in the way that Sandra, Trayvon, or Breonna were killed, and we cannot even mourn because what is being discussed out there is the value of human life, as a distraction impeding us from grieving. But literally, I’d say to them, that’s what y’all have been doing for the longest about Black bodies, Black lives. Not giving us the space to grief because we must show up to stay alive.

Rumpus: The title of your poem, “Sister, Pick Which Battle To Win When You Choose to Lose The War” is a poem in and of itself—a title that sets the pattern of the stanzas written in the same manner. Here, I must establish a trigger warning regarding the subject of suicide at the core of this poem. Certainly, this poem is bold in reclaiming a concept about suicide as if it defended the right to choose to die, which is taboo in our society and in many traditions from cultures around the world.

“about women too strong to be my ancestors, / stepping off a ship and into the ocean’s font, / that baptism, the salvation of discontinuity. I remember / my heroes shoved their heads inside cannons.”

The tone of the poem is of profound respect and reverence for these heroines who chose how to end their lives. What informs the craft of this poem?

Anderson: I think about suicide often not as ideation but as fact. It’s happening right now, and of course, it shouldn’t happen. In the case of the women who were forced into a ship and everything else that came with the dehumanization of Black people centuries ago, I feel that if they chose to end their lives, that suicide became emancipation of their souls. The desired end was a baptism, like a blessing that gave them salvation and provoked a discontinuity of enslavement and violence by heritage.

I needed to write this poem, and it was my way to challenge the stigma, which, in these extreme cases, can allow agency. The women who didn’t become my ancestors liberated themselves from a life of incredible suffering. I believe that whatever happened in the universe occurred to understand something about ourselves and ourselves as people. I think that today, you told me some things about myself and about something you saw from your perspective in my poems—I see them from your eyes, and that all these words I’ve chosen mean something essential for you too. I am impressed and flattered that my poems led you to these very logical conclusions, and I couldn’t have put them in such a straightforward way.

Rumpus: One poem, “The Body Recalls” says their names: Treyvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown. I love the shape of the poem, as if it was a boomerang, the implied metaphor of it, always returning to us, and thus, they are constantly returning to us. The poem is in couplets, which is a choice I was curious about.

Anderson: “The Body Recalls” is related to the stages of grief and how I tried to internalize those deaths. Not just that the body recalls, but that the body records. It feels the pangs, the grief, the half-emptiness, and the three-fifths-ness, the reference that compromised the lives of Black folks who were enslaved, counted as three-fifths instead of a whole person.

Rumpus: What are you working on, as far as writing goes, these days?

Anderson: Currently, the two projects I’m working on are related, and inspire each other. One is a screenplay for a feature-length movie that I hope turns into a film, but if not, the practice will open doors and give me experience. I hope it gets me a job writing another for a movie. I’m going back and forth between the pages of poetry and the script. I am not so eager to understand the publishing world, but rather continue crafting myself as a poet. The swapping between the two pieces I am developing is fun. I want to enjoy the process without pressure. I am not so concerned with the goal because I am enjoying the process of writing. I am having a wild time! The stakes are that there aren’t any stakes, so I can write whatever I want, and keep my vision stimulating. I’m enjoying this wild time. In a nutshell, I’m re-imagining myself, my history, and my lineage to re-discover myself poetically and share with others. This way, we understand that we aren’t alone, and it is okay to feel joy in staying alive.

 

 

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Author photo courtesy of author


Cecilia Martinez-Gil has published two full-length poetry collections, a fix of ink and the multi-award-winning Psaltery and Serpentines, and she co-wrote the award-winning experimental video “Itinerarios.” She publishes poetry and journalism in English and Spanish, and has earned four masters. Cecilia teaches English and Literature at Santa Monica College. More from this author →