One could argue that the spirit of rebellion cohabits resilience. This includes rebellion against things that historically seek to limit marginalized people in literature—language, respectability, form. As I read through Yalie Saweda Kamara’s debut poetry collection Besaydoo (Milkweed, 2024), I found myself drawn immediately to themes of place and resilience and, perhaps also, rebellion.
There’s a line in the poem “Listening to Nina Simone Sing Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” that strikes me: “you dive into the marrow of the marrow of a story.” Kamara explains that when asked to write a poem about Bob Dylan, a friend referred her to Nina Simone’s version of the song “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Though she enjoyed Dylan’s song, it was only after hearing Nina Simone’s version that she understood what the song was about. There’s one layer of the story as told by Dylan, already a rich narrative, and there’s Simone’s translation of the story: “Nina dives even deeper into the story through her musical stylings by virtue of her voice . . . it’s the way that she stylizes it, the drums, the sound of the piano, and her voice . . . diving deeper than the story; it’s not just jumping into the water but touching the ocean floor.” Each line in Kamara’s work has this kind of significance, this kind of blossoming narrative effect pushing us beyond surface-level meanings, compelling us toward a new landscape.
Kamara is a Sierra Leonean American writer, educator, and researcher from Oakland, California, and the 2022–2024 Cincinnati and Mercantile Library Poet Laureate. She joined the Department of English at Xavier University as an assistant professor in fall 2023.
I was excited to have the opportunity to speak with her recently over Zoom about Besaydoo, transformation, possibility, dignity, and more.
Rumpus: What urged this manuscript into being?
Kamara: The boring answer might be having something to show for an MFA and PhD, but that’s actually secondary. What really urged it into being is the fact that I saw neither portrayals of Sierra Leonean girlhood or womanhood, nor stories about Black girls and Black women in Oakland—all which would have been helpful to me when I was growing up. Part of the urgency, too, came when thinking about home, place, and identity. Being an Oaklander of Sierra Leonean descent who grew up in this city in the ’90s and early 2000s, I remember how often these places—Oakland and Africa at large—were described as poverty-stricken, destitute, and violent. When you grow up hearing this over and over again, it does something to you. My writing endeavors to consider the fullness of these places as far as I knew them—their nuance, their character, their richness are all worthy of representation. It is important for me to correct the records of these places.
Rumpus: So much of this collection, to me, reads like an ode to Oakland, to juxtaposition, to place. In poems like “I Ask My Brother Jonathan to Write About Oakland, and He Describes His Room,” we get to see Oakland through other perspectives. In the very first poem, “Oakland as Home, Home as Myth,” there’s a line: “yes we mourn, but let us celebrate too.” Can you talk about the juxtaposition of Oakland’s perception vs. its reality, and what that means to the Black and brown bodies, particularly, who live there and may also be judged or misjudged?
Kamara: I really appreciate that question. Oakland feels like a metaphor for a place that is at once a site of embrace and knowledge and of incredible light and passion, but also a site of betrayal for a lot of Black and brown people. There’s a lot about the city that’s contradictory. While this is true, it also taught me some of the most valuable lessons in my life around equality and social justice. I was recently reflecting on the fact that I didn’t learn the national anthem until I was in high school. The first national anthem I learned was the Black national anthem—thinking about that being the order of things in Oakland is something to behold. This memory is one of many that inform my thoughts around identity and what it means to have grown up in a very multicultural city.
There are also questions around Blackness—what kind of Blackness is legible and illegible at times. I say this thinking about my own first-generation Americanism, my identity and insecurity around that very identity, how I didn’t necessarily always fit in because of this biculturalism. When I refer to Oakland as a site of betrayal, what immediately comes to mind is the senseless murder of Nia Wilson, who was killed at a BART Station that was not only close to my childhood home but on a BART line that I took twice a day to get to work before moving to the Midwest. I wrote a series of poems dedicated to her life and legacy in Besaydoo. The reality that a place that can raise you and kill you at the same time, this is something that is on my mind about home. Oakland can be both beautiful and perilous.
Rumpus: How and why do you carry Oakland with you in your work?
Kamara: Oakland is such a wacky place—I love being from there, and I love being from the Bay Area. I carry it with me because it is multifaceted. It is comprised of a lot of different populations, ranging from immigrants moving here from abroad to populations of folks that migrated from the South during the great migration. The best of Oakland is really about love and how its residents can coexist and benefit from each other’s presences and contributions to community. At its best, it’s a place that exemplifies love perfectly. When I am talking about the exemplification of love in Oakland, I am also referring to some of the values I was raised with. I remember walking to the bus stop with my mom and sister every morning during my early childhood and noticing my mom would always talk to the unhoused people. I grew up seeing that as a possibility and model for how to be in the world. Dignifying all types of people and learning about liberation and social justice were all parts of my formation.
Rumpus: In the titular poem, “Besaydoo,” time is also juxtaposed in a way. We are given an innocent image that resonates the duality of Oakland’s perception vs. reality and becomes a vehicle carrying us through time with the speaker’s mother. I’m curious about the thought that went into “Besaydoo” as a poem and also into it being the title of the manuscript. This title gives an atmosphere to the work before you read it and then a different atmosphere after you read it.
Kamara: Juxtaposition is a wonderful word. Throughout the book, I’m considering different perspectives and the significance of presences and absencesof certain people, places, and things. The collection’s original title was Loud Organs and Extraordinary Bones. I liked the drama of that title and how in some ways the spirit of that title aided in the momentum of writing the collection. Besaydoo eventually became the book’s title, and this is thanks to Ross Gay, who suggested it after hearing me read the poem. I had never thought of this before! I erased the Loud Organs . . . title in my Word document and replaced it with Besaydoo and everything just clicked. It was really kind of a divine moment. Everything made sense. It made me see my book in a different way and clarified any remaining conceptual challenges that I encountered. I’m so very grateful that Ross gifted that suggestion.
Rumpus: I find myself drawn to questions of identity in all its forms and how other people’s perception of our environment affect how we identify. In number VIII. of the poem “Mother’s Rules,” there’s a mention of your father’s faith, and then your mother’s faith, and then your mother’s kind of new faith, and how those led to an expectation for your faith. How do you think faith and the knowing of multiple faith systems shows up in your poems?
Kamara: I am certain that growing up in a home withmultiple faith systems makes me more of an accepting person and helps me to approach the world with greater sensitivity, which, in turn impacts my writing and influences the topical and aesthetic choices made throughout the collection. It has also endowed me with the courage to write about its importance in my own life, which feels quite vulnerable and personal.
Aside from engaging with faith in the content of my writing, it also shows up in my artistic practice. The very act of writing a poem is an act of faith, as there are transformations that happen in each poem. The completion of each poem is an embodiment of faith. I say this in view of realizing that just a few years ago I didn’t think I could write poems and felt reticent about calling myself a writer. Writing these poems has gotten me closer to who I am. This effort, this trying, this book, are manifestations of faith—which does not mean that each poem has religious overtones. I’m just saying I need hope to finish a poem.
Rumpus: I am particularly interested in breaking form, finding the purpose behind form and then achieving it without using all the rules. Across the collection, I think I see a kind of dedication to form, both received form and also a visual component that is at least influenced by form. How would you describe your relationship to form? A better way to ask this might be are you intentionally seeking form, or are you happening across form and not rejecting it?
Kamara: I’m interested in form as a mode of expression, so long as that mode neither mutes nor degrades the quality of a poem, which I think that formal poems pretty often—which might be an unpopular opinion—do. The most important thing to me in writing a poem is finding the form that best complements its content. I’m not interested in shoving a poem into a container in which it doesn’t fit. I let the writing lead and see what it needs to be on the page. I’m having fun with couplets that turn into tercets that turn into single lines because that’s what the poem is asking of me. I’m invested in what the poem is trying to explore and finding the right way to render what it is trying to articulate.
In this book I’m thinking about the page as a canvas—how can we create metaphors through spacing and the way the words appear on the page? I’m also intrigued and compelled by subversion and freedom. The way I play with the page is a little bit of a rebellion too. In my formative years, I remember there being so many rules about what you couldn’t do. Being from a marginalized community, I’m thinking of all the ways artists are told to be quiet while also being asked, “Do you have the bonafides to engage with your art in an innovative, non-traditional way?” Part of what the strictures of canonical form conjures for me is the feeling of all the elder women in my family that had stories and were not permitted to tell them because of how they wanted to tell their stories. So when I’m approaching the page, I’m carrying my bloodline, what it means to be the descendant of Maroons and people who fought for their freedom. I appreciate knowing the rules but love even more the exercising of artistic agency.
Rumpus: At the end of the collection, there is what feels like a turn toward the epic, leading into “Auntie X Becomes a Unit of Light.” Maybe we were being led toward that with the introspection on Oakland, the suite of poems on Nia Wilson, and other poems. Narratively, it feels like we’re heading toward an overarching epic, and then we get this long work at the end. When you were putting the manuscript together, did it feel like you were heading in that direction, or was that one of those delightful surprises that come sometime when you’re putting things together?
Kamara: The last poem, “Auntie X Becomes a Unit of Light,” is the longest poem I’ve ever written, one of the hardest poems I’ve written, and the only poem I’ve ever written that started in other forms. The first version was a nonfiction piece, then it turned into a flash fiction piece, and finally, into a poem. It was written over a span of four years. Once I had the flash fiction piece, I knew there was more to say, and this story deserved more space, so I started writing other poems about Auntie X that I thought were in concert with each other. It made sense that I would continue the story, and it also made sense to me that it would be the last note of the collection. The chronology of the collection is this sort of aggregation of bravery for me. That was a statement—confronting a hard thing that needed to be honored.
Rumpus: Besaydoo feels like a transformational journey. Did you find yourself somehow changed after completing it, and how so?
Kamara: When I started the collection, I don’t think I was calling myself a poet with any sort of confidence. I went through a particular spiritual transformation that is chronicled in some parts of the collection—but one part of the transformation that is important to name here is sobriety. Among other things, this collection thinks about the important interplay of sobriety and faith. In addition to transformation, there are also stories of migration from Sierra Leone to Oakland to France to Indiana to Ohio. These narratives take place from my childhood through near completion of my PhD. The first iteration of the collection’s oldest poem, “Oakland as Home, Home as Myth”was written in 2012, so we see a transformation here, too, that spans a decade of writing—who I’ve become and just trusting myself more, being more hopeful in certain ways. It captures that. There have been some really hard things that have happened since then. I lost my younger sister, Jenneh, over the summertime. I’m still in grief and so acutely aware that the collection captures a particular moment of hope. Who I am now is different from who I was when I wrote the book, but what remains true is my abiding beliefs in faith, goodness, and overcoming—these are indelible. Each day returning to this book teaches me something else. It teaches me about the height of my optimism.
Rumpus: What is your writing process like? And was your process writing this manuscript the same or a departure from that?
Kamara: Thank goodness for deadlines! So much of this book was informed by the rhythm of workshops and being part of different writing programs, including my MFA and PhD experiences, spending a month as a fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, and also the Kenyon Review Writers Conference. It was incredibly helpful to have that time to write and create, and I’m grateful to my professors, mentors, instructors and peers.
As a Poet Laureate and an educator, my time looks different in terms of writing, which is to say, my writing process now is much more about serving others. A lot of my writing right now is in my mind and heart, it’s journaling. It’s not necessarily the production of poems except at events and writing workshops that I’m facilitating through the laureateship or as a professor.
Rumpus: Speaking of which, you are the Poet Laureate of Cincinnati, and you received the 2023 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. Congratulations! How has being PL affected your writing, and how do you combat that or lean into that?
Kamara: Thank you! One of the coolest things about the laureateship is you are made to witness people from all walks of life creating really brilliant art. This has made me more compassionate and observant. I am so thrilled to be in another city of incredible voices that reflect this region’s complex history and future. There are so many ways to tell a story, and I see that so often here—one of the most beautiful things is experiencing the poetry of people who don’t necessarily identify as poets.
To further elaborate on what I mentioned earlier about leaning into the change in the time I dedicate to my writing practice, I am now more often writing alongside people who are participating in writing workshops I am facilitating. If I’ve created a prompt, I am also creating alongside participants I’m blessed to be with during that time. I use that time as my own as well. I always carry a notebook with me and make a point of sketching thoughts. Also, I understand that just because I’m not physically writing doesn’t mean I’m not writing in other ways. Experiencing the art of others, facilitating writing opportunities, and dialoguing with my students, my loved ones, and strangers are among aspects of my writing practice and life.
Rumpus: A community project is required when applying for this grant. I’ve had discussions with other poet laureates and wonder how you feel about the natural link between being a poet and feeling the responsibility to do work in the community?
Kamara: I wouldn’t be a poet if people didn’t share with me; I wouldn’t know there was a possibility to have this sort of writing life if people didn’t create a community that welcomed curiosity and the safety to exchange self-expression. I’m a product of that. Coming back to why I love the Bay Area and Oakland—these spaces were created for me, and it was explained to me that this was a right. I don’t see it any other way. I know that I was able to experience a sense of possibility because people shared this with me. It would feel odd to forsake others of that very thing.
Rumpus: What’s next?
Kamara: I’m looking forward to going on tour with Besaydoo, taking it to different cities, being able to engage with and read with authors and poets from different places, including my book launch in Cincinnati. “Keeping the Lights On” is a project forthcoming in spring 2024. I’m working with different groups in Cincinnati to create polyvocal poems which will be matched up with artists to create illustrations. The resulting illustrations will be projected on different buildings. The idea behind that is to democratize the art form and to have Cincinnati speak to Cincinnati and beyond. I’m also looking forward to continuing to create spaces for others to get together, and share their poems and engage in this project of dignity and possibility, teaching at Xavier as an assistant professor, reading more books, and engaging with more folks in 2024 and beyond.
Author photograph by Phil Armstrong