Mary-Alice Daniel was born in northern Nigeria and raised in England and Nashville. Tribally, she is Hausa. After attending Yale University, she received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. As an emerging poet, she was selected by U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Glück for the Clapp Fellowship, an award funding a year of postgraduate writing. Her poems appear in The American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Callaloo, and several anthologies, including Best New Poets. Her first chapbook was published in The New-Generation African Poets’ Series (2017). Her adopted home is Los Angeles, where she completes her debut poetry collection while earning a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the United States via email.
Nkateko: Mary-Alice, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does being on this shortlist mean to you?
Mary-Alice: My poetic process has steadily become absolute chaos. Many of the poems I submitted for the Brunel Prize were first written many years ago and have undergone radical revisions since their inception. Even though most have already been published, their present states are still evolving, still in flux. I have always found it difficult to know when a poem is “finished”—when to set it aside—and I’ve begun to be plagued by the anxiety that I’m actively making my poems worse over time. Being a finalist is very reassuring, and knowing that my work resonates with the judges encourages me. It nudges me toward having more faith in my writing and continuing to take risks and develop my voice with confidence. I’m deeply grateful for being shortlisted a second time; my inclusion makes me feel as though what I have to say about Africa, as an African poet, is compelling as well as capable. I am now embracing my creative chaos, and I’m eager to share whatever it yields with an international audience. This feels like a beginning.
Nkateko: I quite like the idea of “creative chaos” and your poems still being in flux. I think this is an exciting thing, and I feel honored to be one of the people who can bear witness to the evolution/rebirth; the “beginning” of these poems, as you say. Often in the acknowledgements section of a book, the author expresses gratitude to the editors of journals in which certain poems in the book were previously published, sometimes in a different form, and I think of this as an ode to the previous lives of those poems. Your response strikes me as that too – an acknowledgement of where those poems have been prior to their arrival here.
How important is the process of revising your work, even work that has traveled and settled elsewhere before (other platforms, journals)? Does the reassurance that you have in fact been acutely refining and not worsening your poems give you the courage to continue in the path of chaos, to continue the process of radical revision with other poems?
Mary-Alice: If my poems still surprise and connect with people, I definitely invest this affirmation by trusting my own poetic instincts more—even when I suffer a lapse in confidence and begin to feel as though I don’t know what I’m doing. My revisions are instrumental to shaping my voice as a poet. I always play with form, in a series of deliberate experiments where I challenge and change a particular poem’s formal structure. Certain kinds of poems must reflect their internal tensions and rhythms quite graphically onto the page. Today, I worked on a poem by reconfiguring it into 4 possible constructions—as a prose poem without line or stanza breaks; as messy, irregular verse sprawling across the page; as a poem in couplets; and as a poem in tercets. For each version of the same poem, I ask myself what the poem “loses” or “gains.” I try to position myself as my reader and encounter/engage the poem over and over in its various iterations. I revise not only to make the poem become what I envision, but also to interrogate and instruct myself first-hand regarding my poetic choices, which taken together, constitute my voice.
“I’m deeply grateful for being shortlisted a second time; my inclusion makes me feel as though what I have to say about Africa, as an African poet, is compelling as well as capable. I am now embracing my creative chaos, and I’m eager to share whatever it yields with an international audience. This feels like a beginning.“
Nkateko: In March this year, I taught a poetry workshop on form and my students wrote ghazals, pantoums and villanelles. Some students felt that the rules were too rigidly followed in the classics we studied but enjoyed modern versions of poems in form. I told them to think of form as a container that holds the words; like drinking wine from a wine-glass or a mug, the substance is the same but the container influences how others perceive and react to what is inside. So, when you speak of reconfiguring a poem into four possible constructions and then looking at it from the reader’s perspective, I am intrigued and excited because that is exactly how I wanted my students to understand form, as a tool that does not limit their expression but rather expands it. To pour the words in a verse paragraph into a “container” with caesurae instead of commas or into stanzas with no punctuation at all, and other endless possibilities. How important is it to study both classical and contemporary poetry while learning to work with form (this is particularly for my students)? Is breaking the rules an important part of the experimentation process?
Mary-Alice: Working with a variety of forms is key in the education of any young poet. Last summer, I was fortunate enough to visit the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Moving through its rooms, which arrange his pieces chronologically, I could clearly witness the progression of his artistry. In the rooms featuring his early work, you can see how he began his career with landscapes and portraits, refining and mastering these traditional forms. You then cross a hall, and you are confronted with his unconventional abstract paintings. I think of learning formal poetry exactly the same way as in this example of visual art. Once you learn to work within the strictures of forms that prescribe rhythm and meter, you will understand these poetic elements in order to violate them. The earlier work may not be as interesting to the artists or their audience (most visitors quickly moved past the early rooms in order to view Picasso’s signature style), but they create a foundation of the fundamental tools that should be in any serious poet’s arsenal.
Nkateko: You say that you often find it difficult to know when a poem is finished, but I would like to discuss the inverse of this: How do you know that a poem has begun? Your poems have very strong opening lines and I want to know if a powerful first line is how the poem starts for you, or if the title comes first, or if these come to you along the way? Is the reordering of lines part of the “creative chaos”?
Mary-Alice: My poems usually begin with a central problem or idea. As I have been working to complete my first full-length manuscript, I am keenly aware of how its poems relate to each other thematically. When I hear or read or see something relevant to the important themes of the book (disease and decay; paranoia and panic; spirits and superstition), I know immediately if it’s a concept I’d like to wrestle with and flesh out more through verse. Often, I write about body horror and the uncanny, so I simply fixate on whatever has been creeping me out lately. If there are 50 poems in a book, the entire volume is the 51st; I rearrange and reorder moving pieces not only within the scope of a single poem, but also on the scale of the book as a whole.
Titles always come last. I stumble upon them randomly; they are often striking phrases taken far out of their original context.
I look for entry points bordering on the absurd, then spend the rest of the poem “earning” taking that risk. My first lines are rarely edited so extensively—it’s wonderful that you noticed them. When opening a poem, I’m most drawn to language that’s slightly “off” or “awkward,” and this is best achieved with the spontaneous diction of first drafts. If I revise first lines too much, I imperil that raw, rough, unpolished language that might seize and surprise my audience.
Nkateko: Going back to the issue of a poem’s completeness, how do you decide to let a piece go? Do you have trusted peers or mentors who look at your work before you finally send it out? How does the advice from fellow writer help you in your refining process?
Mary-Alice: Finding good readers for one’s writing is invaluable, and I’ve been lucky in this regard; I absolutely take their criticism into consideration. I don’t think I’ll ever completely let go of any poem I’m attached to or compelled by, because it’s so intensely satisfying to watch their continual evolution and growth. I exploit their potential through this long, positive, painful process of experimentation that I’ve described. There is so much that I learn about poetry in general and my own poems in particular by continuing to grapple with them. These experiments are my way of working out my personal poetic philosophy as well as honing my craft.
Nkateko: Thank you so much for having this conversation with me, Mary-Alice. In sharing your writing and revision process, you have also given out helpful tools that others can use to improve their own work. All the best with the Brunel International African Poetry Prize and with everything you plan to do this year and beyond.
Mary-Alice: Thank you for taking the time to sit with my poems and ask me these fascinating questions. It was a pleasure thinking through them, and I’m so glad my work resonated with you.
Nkateko Masinga was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a writer, performance poet, publisher, TEDx Speaker, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and 2019 Ebedi Writers Fellow. Her written work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, U.S journal Illuminations, UK pamphlet press Pyramid Editions, the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project, and elsewhere. She is the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. Her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a Contributing Interviewer for Poetry under Africa In Dialogue’s Internship Program.