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“Your problem was you thought it was wrong to high-five yourself. You thought you’d go to hell for giving yourself a hug…”
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I had the great pleasure of interviewing a friend and an amazing poet based in Nashville, TN, Ciona Rouse. Ciona is a beautiful example of living poetry, and she is a great champion for fellow poets in the Nashville community and beyond. Her first chapbook was recently published by Third Man Books. I wanted to talk with her about writing, inspiration, and going through seasons of creative drought. I was not disappointed by her ability to inspire or her honest love for words.
What was the first thing that made you want to put words onto the page and call it poetry?
My teacher in fifth grade guided us through several exercises with verbs and adjectives and then invited us to write a poem. I knew poetry, as my mother always talked about Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Gwendolyn Brooks to me, but I think this might have been my first attempt at writing a poem. I wrote a poem about fireworks: Dancing angels go withering by / carrying a banner across the jet black sky / Listen to the whistle of their banners as the wind blows. There’s more, but that’s all I remember. I think back on that now and recall being so excited that I could make a magnificent thing (fireworks) into another magnificent thing (angels) with just words! Oh, the magic!
What are the benefits/blessings of hosting poetry events vs. sharing your own poetry and the other way around?
I think poetry should be a part of the daily dialogue of people. It is for me, as I’m a poet who’s found her poet people. But I want it to be that way for the poet who feels lonely in her poet thoughts. I want it to be for those who don’t think poetry matters to them and for those who just don’t think about poetry at all. I want it to be that way for the small child who believes he is “allergic to poetry,” as a little boy said at the start of a class I taught once. I want them, like this little boy, to then scream, “Noooo!” when I call time and say to put the pencil down. So I simply believe poetry is in the world, and I want to curate beautiful spaces to share it–whether that’s with my own work on the page or a stage or in giving other people an opportunity to share their work. Both are important to me and, hopefully, both create avenues for poetry to enter people’s lives and their conversations. I also love hosting poetry events because it helps me surround myself with good poetry often. When I didn’t have a poetry community in Nashville, I created these events, knowing only a handful of poets who could read at them. Now I have a great world of poet people to call my family.
How do you choose to write something as a poem rather than an essay, short story, blog, memoir, etc.?
Well, poetry is my primary writing genre these days. It’s the medium my body most responds to. When a poem speaks to me, it’s often punching me in the gut, tingling my spine, tensing my shoulders. So when I’m diving into the tendrils of my curiosities, it makes sense for me to embody them in poetic form. I rarely write much else these days. I’m exploring the haibun form, though, which begins with a prose poem that I think of as an “essayette,” if I may borrow Ross Gay’s lingo. Then it ends with a haiku.
What influences you as a writer in this season of your life?
I currently have 18 books right next to me within arm’s length; at least ¾ of them are poetry. So I’m most influenced by my teachers–all of these poets whose work challenge me. One of them is a nonfiction book about Prince. Artists who are wild and experimental and fiercely in love with their art inspire me, like Prince, Heath Ledger, Carrie Mae Weems, Nick Cave. I like to read about, watch films about these people and their craft, as well. James Baldwin influences my life and, hopefully, much of the nation right now as we address racial relations. Anything that impacts my life, impacts my writing. The eclipse. That moment of community & light & moon blessed me so much. I keep putting that moment back on my body; I can’t wait to see how I might wear it in my writing.
Do you go through seasons of deprivation or resistance creativity wise? How do you combat or deal with those? Or let go of those?
You know, I used to hit seasons of deprivation quite a lot. I felt empty and self-deprecating and would always judge myself for not writing. I finally realize it’s ok because I’ve finally figured out that all of it is poetry. All of my moving and being in the world is a part of the process. So what I’m reading and what I’m eating is part of the poetry. What I’m writing and what I’m avoiding are all a part of the process. Whether I’m on the page or not, I’m learning how to still be in the poem, to still embody poetry. I think it helps that even if I don’t write ferociously every day, I’m at a place where I do read every day. And when I read every day, I always go into myself and pluck out words or images that find their way to a page. So I do write something each day that lends itself to poetry. That’s all we really must do: show up to life every day, seek to be better humans. Poetry makes me a better human. It’s less about what I’m producing and more about who I choose to be each day.
Where is your favorite place to write? A place that makes you feel your most creative self? (Can be a room, a state, a writing retreat, etc.)
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, is still my favorite place to write. Mary Oliver has a poem about the place, actually. Neal Cassady died there. The food, the daily sounds of cannons and children playing, the evening mezcal, the way it takes only two days before you’ve met just about everyone in the community: it’s all magic. Someone says the places is built on quartz. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a myth that’s not hard to believe. I can’t wait to return there.
What would you tell a writer who is experiencing discouragement about their gift? What most speaks encouragement into your life where your gifts are concerned?
You’re not the only artist who feels this way. Don’t get lonely in that feeling. I wanted to throw up the week my chapbook released. I wanted to take it all back. I am grateful for other poet people who tell me, “Yes, I’ve felt this way, too.” I would also tell them that there are so many paths. Trust that. Just a little over a year ago, I felt like I’d never get my work out there. I felt the weight of multiple rejections and kept saying, “Well, if these paths aren’t working, maybe I’m not supposed to be a poet.” I talked myself out of that emotion, though, and kept writing. I kept creating and surrounding myself with teachers. I kept showing up each day to be in poetry, which means to be more human. And I walked through doors that somehow started opening. Now I look back at dejected me of last year and am grateful that she’s stronger than she thinks she is.
What is the importance of story? Do you believe sharing our stories can heal?
Well, everything is ultimately mystery. We pretend to understand so much, but humans are mystery. Life and what’s next is mystery. We have only our experiences and the experiences we’re willing to take in from others–and even those stories aren’t always set in stone. Story is our way of getting closer to making sense of that which we’ll never fully comprehend. Metaphors can be healing. Seeing yourself in a story can be healing. Opening to someone else’s story is necessary and can be healing. We can’t get trapped or stuck in our idea of story, though, because all of it must give way to mystery. Story is important. But I think questioning even our own story is more important. Share it, question it, dive into the mystery. I think of poetry as more curiosity than storytelling. Even if I tell a personal story or a persona story in a poem, I’m entering into that memory or idea with questions and curiosity if I’m writing the poem well.
Is there a person or experience you’ve never written about that you just can’t quite touch yet?
There’s probably something, surely. I have many more poems in me. But I do try to write about it all. That being said, I don’t always share those poems, though. My aunt died a year ago, and I’ve written several poems about her death. None of them have found skin in the world yet, though. I have shared a few of those harder poems about my mother, and she especially hates them. I’m still learning how to do this well. I recognize that people have many angles to them. One poem may only capture one or two of those angles, and that may seem unfair to her (or to my father or sister or whomever may show up in the poem). I hope that she and others might see the body of my work and recognize that I see them and honor their many selves even as I honor my story and give into the mystery of my known experience.
Why did you desire to work on and put out a chapbook at this time in your journey?
Truly, the doors opened at just the right time, so I walked through. I’m grateful. But I definitely decided at the end of 2015 and wrote down that I did want to be more brave about getting my work out into the world. I had no idea how it would manifest, and I have loved the process of making Vantablack.
Tell me about the title of the chapbook.
Vantablack is the blackest black ever created by humans. It absorbs 99.965% of light. My goodness, it’s a fascinating substance! I could stare at it for hours. And I also couldn’t help but think about how this substance mimics a blackbody in the universe, and we laud and praise it. While human black bodies are not as celebrated. That gave way to the title poem of the chapbook, which I wrote a few years ago when the substance was created. It’s fitting as a title because I do write a lot about black bodies, including my body. I also address some darker things in my life, in the lives of people I’ve encountered over the years. Even the love poems have some darker aspects to them. Sometimes going into those seemingly darker places can be glorious.
Which poem was the most difficult to write in the book/which was the most healing?
My sister’s baby died only a few hours after she was born. I write a lot of poems to that sweet little girl, AJ. “There’s so much I want to tell you” is probably the most difficult one to share, not to write. I played Miles Davis and explored my curiosities, so there was a flow about it. But it’s so close to me–the pain of losing her, to love a person so much and never have touched her. It’s difficult. And it’s difficult to share since it’s also my sister’s story.
As for most healing, “On the Sidewalk of Troy, TN, 1904” is probably the one most healing to write. I pushed my normal tone and cadence and sought to connect with a man I never knew but who seems to represent a Black Everyman in America (and around the world, as white supremacy does not belong to the U.S. alone). I read a story by Thomas J. Pressly, whose parents told him about this man whom the people of Troy tried to lynch in 1904. Pressly’s parents helped him escape to Kentucky; they don’t know his fate after then. I like to think he got free. But I think of this poem as recognizing the power of owning your humanity even if others are trapped in not seeing you. We must see all humans as humans. And to not see another human as a human is really the most terrible of prisons. His freedom is in recognizing it in himself and claiming humanity even though the law didn’t allow it. The white girl on the sidewalk is the one trapped, lynching herself in a terrible lie. It’s unfortunate that a poem about lynching is relevant today. But a lot of White America still needs to be set free from this.
How do you approach readings? Do you like the connection with an audience vs. the solidarity that is involved in doing the work?
I’m comfortable sharing my work aloud even though I’m not a performance poet, per se. But I think poetry should be read and should be heard. And that people should get sticky/messy in it. I keep trying to think of ways to have people interact with the poems more at the readings. I’ve tried a few things and still seeking the best way. There’s so much about line breaks and sound in poetry, so some of those nuances can be lost in readings, but I like the challenge of still allowing the poem to have a life on a stage that might be different on the page.
Are poets still changing the world?
Yes. Absolutely. On the page, yes. Definitely. And I am also always made better by the way my poet friends and teachers move through the world.
What was the most challenging thing about putting this collection together?
My friend Tiana Clark said to me that I need to think of the chapbook as its own one poem. That was helpful advice to overcome a challenge of mine. Because some of these poems were written years ago and others are fresher, I had a way of writing and editing years ago that is different today. Even just how I placed the poem on the page was different. So my editor would suggest changing, say, the capitalization of a poem, and I was so hesitant. It had always been a lower-cased poem; that seemed important when I wrote it that way. Once I recognized the chapbook, though, as its own whole piece, I was able to give up the way I’d always done one poem so that it worked better in the whole.
Perhaps, though, the most challenging thing was turning it in and [to stop editing]. I’ve taken a red pen to it after publication even. Ai yi yi. Do we poets ever know when to stop?
Ciona Rouse is a poet, living in Nashville, Tenn, where she curates many poetry experiences and reading series in the city and teaches poetry workshops. Her poetry was recently acknowledged as “Best Dressed” by Sundress Publications and is featured or forthcoming on WPLN Nashville Public Radio, Nashville Public Television, Matter and Talking River. Rouse recently won the Literary Death Match at the Southern Festival of Books. Her poetry chapbook VANTABLACK was released in August 2017 by Third Man Books.
For more information on Ciona visit: www.cionarouse.com
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