One of the things I love / keep returning to Dream With A Glass Chamber about is how the book complicates elegy, with poems like “ September ” (“I’ve made my way through / the year of burying. I’m learning to live without.”—this?! Yes.) being almost relentless in how the speaker tries to understand loss. It reminds me so much of what Mary Jo Bang was attempting in Elegy, & I’m wondering: what new understanding have you gained from interrogating the form this way?
That’s a very generous reading of my book, thank you. I read Bang’s Elegy after I’d written most of the poems for my chapbook, but I recognize that relentlessness and sometimes sort of an automated way of working through grief as a process. It just sort of happens when you sit down to write a poem. I was doing a poem a day, and every poem was an elegy in some way. Kevin Young says in his intro to The Art of Losing that no one “wants to write an elegy.” If writing, at least for me, is incredibly compulsive, then why would writing an elegy be any different? It was frustrating the first week. I almost wanted make a caveat to the writing group to say “hey, sorry it’s that poem again.”
But I nod emphatically with Bang’s notion that elegy can be a way to distract from the “exquisite suffering.” I can’t not work. Even if I’m not actively writing the poem, the suffering of grief will burrow its way out through some sort of language and sound. I’d like to think the act of finding and digging up and pressing that language is both subconscious and conscious...automated and obsessive. It allows you to take the reins when you inevitably return to grief (or when grief inevitably revisits you).
It was also a way to talk to and be broken with Blair, whom the book is dedicated to. I was pissed that I lived in a world where he wasn’t. And of course, the narrative of dealing with loss sort of indicts you for your anger or your sadness or that sense of loneliness that happens in the absence of someone you love. There are poems that throw a finger up to that narrative, some that ask questions. There’s plenty of why and fine, but really no poems as well. If I understand anything about the elegy, it’s that there’s no way to move on except through. And that there’s no absolute place to move on to, no utopia. You just learn to live with carrying some part of loss with you, though time can make it bearable. You can still hold the good memories with the absence of the ones you won’t make again.
You’re originally from Detroit, MI & currently live in Chicago—two midwestern cities that each have a tremendously rich, singular artistic & political (& Black) history. One thing I love about meeting folks from both cities is how committed you are to bringing your homes with you.
Considering that, what attributes have these places compelled you to hold on to? Is there anything you’d like to be rid of?
I think that’s interesting, the commitment to bring home with you. I don’t think I can not bring home with me. I’m currently visiting Detroit, and spent the first few days of my trip showing my partner around. We were walking through Eastern Market, shooting photographs of some of the murals, and he asked me what about Detroit do I think makes me who I am. There’s a hustle here, and a very intentional kind of acknowledgement. If you pass people on the street, they speak to you. You walk into a restaurant, or into the corner store, they will let you know, “I see you, and I know you see me, so we both are not going to act like we’re not sharing space, ok?” It’s sometimes performative how we secure our own agency, and many times incredibly genuine. I was an incredibly sensitive child, and would hate how I felt if I didn’t let someone know that I see them, I hear them; it was hurtful to feel that from others.
In terms of what I’d like to rid myself of...I may have done a lot of that work. There’s a difference between wanting to be seen and wanting to be liked. I’m no longer nice. I hate small talk. But I think you can give an authentic moment of kindness and go about your business. That’s a lesson it took me a long time to learn. And perhaps, there’s a complicated narrative from previous generations to status clamor through objects: what kind of car you drive, what kind of house you buy and where. It’s something incredibly entrenched in those who were raised by Southern Migration black folks that will probably take more time to undo. I have no desire to buy a house because I don’t want the mortgage. I don’t like landscaping or pulling up weeds, I don’t want to worry about calling someone to fix my roof or have to shovel snow. I’m just not interested. But there’s other ways I clamor, and part of that is not being present in what I’ve done so far. I’m always working on something else. It’s a balancing act that feels strange, and I’m learning to sit in that discomfort.
Finally, I’d love to talk about desire, labor, & the body for a bit. I’m really interested in how the book positions this continuous desire / reaching (i.e. “I want to believe joy is the best form of gratitude. Promise.”) but then, there are all of these images of labor that pop up (“hope for / a bough I can machete down. / I want to make something useful.” + “I am a woman alone, and give them what / my hands have left.) Of course this made me think of Zora’s “mule of the world” quote & that amazing Malcolm X sample Bey used in LEMONADE & just black womanhood in general. Since Dream With A Glass Chamber is a book that also deals heavily in mythology, what myths do you find yourself undoing about your own body / labors / desires, as a black woman in America?
The primary myth I had to work against was that I couldn’t write these poems, then release these poems, because I’m a strong black woman. No one wants to hear me whine about grief. We’re all grieving. We’ve all lost, and lose, and will lose again. I spent a great deal of time apologizing for grieving in my everyday life. Bursting into tears in public spaces at “inappropriate moments” between “oh, I’m so sorry”. It was as exhausting as the grief itself. There’s an expectation, whether enacted through respectability politics or symptomatic of our very American desire to consume any and everything that will numb us so that we don’t have to face violence and ugliness, outside of and within ourselves. I’ve learned a great deal of survival lessons from mother and grandmother who didn’t fully learn the language for what they desired for themselves. That’s not a part of their legacy I want to carry.
As of today, it’s laborious to be a black woman and read that another young black woman was shot in the face for telling a man not to grind on her body during a festival. It’s labor to desire safety, while being met with the reality that there is no where safe, and still believe you have the right to exist and be left alone in peace. Which of the two is mythic and constructed? Both? So how do I push against that? What questions do I need to ask my way through?
One thing grief will do is lower your tolerance for bullshit. There’s a lot I just don’t have time for: to apologize; to explain Blackness to those who perform and enact whiteness; to explain gender equality for those who are fine with actively and passively oppressing everyone with patriarchy; for any kind of toxic relationship. I. Don’t. Have. Time. This literary landscape is growing and there is active archiving to do. This art landscape is growing, and there are still things to imagine and do. I need to eat fruit and vegetables and drink water today. I need to get a new therapist. I need to get my mother out the house today and hold her hand and laugh. And when I get back, I need to write.
ARICKA FOREMAN's work has appeared in The Drunken Boat, Minnesota Review, RHINO, Day One, shuf Poetry, James Franco Review, thrush, Vinyl Poetry, PLUCK!, Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation by Viking Penguin, among others. She is the author of Dream With A Glass Chamber from YesYes Books and the Art co-editor at The Offing. Originally from Detroit, she currently lives in Chicago.