Poetic Transmutation and the Art of Resilience: A Dialogue With Itiola Jones
I.S. Jones is a queer American / Nigerian poet and music journalist. She is a Graduate Fellow with The Watering Hole, Callaloo, & BOAAT Writer’s Retreat. She is the 2018 winner of the Second Annual Brittle Paper Award in Poetry and is a 2018 Brooklyn Poets Fellow. In 2016, she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a Book Editor with Indolent Books, an Editor at Voicemail Poetry, and freelances for EarMilk, Complex, NBC News Think, Ambrosia for Heads and elsewhere. Her works have appeared in The Rumpus, The Offing, The Shade Journal, great weather for MEDIA, Anomalous Press, the Black Voices Series with Puerto Del Sol, Nat.Brut and elsewhere. She splits her time between Southern California and New York.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
Nkateko: Itiola, congratulations on winning the 2018 Brittle Paper Award for Poetry for your poem, “A Field, Any Field”, published in The Offing. What did winning this award mean to you? Has your relationship with that poem changed since you won? Do you read it differently now as opposed to the day you sent it as a submission to the journal, or the day you found out you were shortlisted for the award? Has this affirmation of your work encouraged you to trust your voice more?
Itiola: Thank you so much. The poem draws its title from an interview with Aracelis Girmay. Winning the award did two things for me: it affirmed the urgency of that poem but also it opened a door for me to discover the work of my African contemporaries (I am actually writing a little bit about this right now and trying to make sense of it). Now the poem has many lives away from me, which is all I ever wish for my writing. The Offing gave it its second life, Brittle its third. I trust my voice, which is why I wasn’t afraid to write this poem about my assault, to confront the unknown territory of my feelings. I trust my memory and intention. I trust that the field of the poem would guide me towards healing and forgiveness. I’m of the opinion that the writer has to trust where the writing leads them. It is the poem that lights my way.
Nkateko: Your response guided me to Malik Thompson’s interview with Aracelis Girmay in Writers & Books, particularly the part you make reference to, where Girmay says ‘A field, any field, for the way it is a window, a sky, a version of home…’ in response to a question about what her muses are. In “A Field, Any Field” you write ‘I was night & the field was inside me’ and it is in this field, this open space, this body, that the assault takes place and yet is not referred to as such. There is no blame, instead the ambivalence of desire (‘Lately, I have not wanted my body’, ‘I don’t know why I want you with an unending thirst’). On a night charged with violent passion and ‘merciless hunger’ there is a kind of open-endedness as to the nature of the incident, partly due to the prey relinquishing blame. Brittle Paper described it as ‘two lovers doing what lovers do’ and I found myself asking, ‘Do lovers kill one another?’ I am still unsure what to make of that night, that field, my only certainly being that there was a crime and clues were left, like blood on the (battle) field.
When I read “A Field, Any Field” and “Nocturne” (in The Rumpus) alongside each other, I was gripped by the mention of blood in the predator’s mouth. In “A Field, Any Field” the speaker seems almost reluctant to reveal whose blood it is (‘I trusted you/despite the blood in your mouth’). In “Nocturne” there is the telling ‘I know it is my own.’ Is one poem a door to the other? When I read one of your poems, I am always led to another, then another, a detective in search of the next clue. Tell me about your writing process, particularly with poems that are a fragmented recollection of a painful incident or series of events. How do you go back without retraumatizing yourself?
Itiola: I wrote what felt the most immediate to me, which was about the assault, yes, but not naming the incident as such. What I mean is, the poem allows me to reclaim what was nearly taken from me—my dignity, being labelled a tragedy, and to a degree because I was nearly shamed into compliance. Instead of this incident being “something that happened to me”, it’s something that I control how it ends. I knew if I named it “assault” then the poem would be derailed. This is a similar choice I made with my poem “Self Portrait Of Blk Girl Becoming The Beast Everyone Thought She Was”, which on the surface is about reimagining the body bestial under the eyes of racism, but beneath that is about anthropomorphizing my rage and allowing myself to tear apart state-sanction forces that seek to destroy my body and bodies like mine (“blue wolves circle the block in acute madness / dreaming in gunsmoke and new names to pick their fangs clean”). In my poem “American / Nigerian In The Interrogation Room”, I address the assault more directly.
What Brittle said about the poem isn’t entirely wrong because I want to believe the speaker isn’t interested in placing blame because then there’s no poem. If all I had was blame to lay before someone’s feet then why even write? So you have it exactly right: “partly due to the prey relinquishing blame”. For this poem to work, I had to also confront ways in which I was implicit, which is frightening but that’s where the real work (for me) began. To get to your question: “Do lovers kill each other?” maybe the poem redraws the lines of lovers as we often hurt our lovers the most. I firmly am in the school of theory that when the poem leaves me and enters the public eye, it’s not entirely mine anymore, so how people consume or interpret the poem is not for me to dictate what that looks like. For someone, yes, this poem could be about “two lovers doing what lovers do” and for my work to be in conversation with that narrative is a great privilege to me.
Ah, my obsessions really tell on me. Oh goodness. Blood keeps finding a way into my poems, even when I don’t directly seek blood out. You asked me “Is one poem a door to the other?” Yes, one poem often guides me to another and another. Sometimes I just follow and trust the process, only to look back & understand what hidden magic leads me from this to that. “A Field, Any Field” and “Nocturne” exist into two different manuscripts, but blood as a texture of language is a through line for both. In both poems, blood in the mouth of someone else is an act of betrayal but also of desire. I find myself often dancing between the countries of love and violence. There’s something carnal but also deeply sexual that I’m trying to work out in these poems, which I haven’t just yet, but I’m writing and researching and growing in that noble labour.
When writing “poems that are a fragmented recollection of a painful incident or series of events”, as you aptly stated, I give myself a lot of time between the incident and the moment of the poem’s conception. One of the most critical essays to my growth as a writer is William Wordsworth’s “Preface To Lyrical Ballads”. I’m paraphrasing, but he states the writer must give themselves space away from the “triggering town” (to borrow from Richard Hugo) for if your emotions are too hot then it skews an objective or honest representation. I wasn’t able to write “A Field, Any Field” until I told my closest friends what happened. I was in a very bad place—I kept having violent nightmares, I wasn’t sleeping or eating. I was often too afraid to be alone. I needed to know what happened to me wasn’t my fault. So I don’t retraumatize myself and I would never, ever advise any artist to put themselves in harm’s way to create. If I’m able to write about what was sent to destroy me, it means I won.
In that, my writing process comes (usually) in fragments or something urgent in me pushing out. I see the poem, not as words, but as rich images moving through my head then my task is to translate what has visited me into language. I think of poems in terms of textures: conception (images) as a texture, first draft as a texture (which is very messy with a lot of scratching out and ripping up pages. I’ll often rewrite a single line 2-3 times until I like it. Here the poem isn’t yet a poem (to me), but something malleable which wants to be a poem. This is why I handwrite most of my drafts), form as a texture (how the poem presents itself on the page changes the way it will be consumed), punctuation, line breaks, word choice, white space, stanzas as texture (all of these must be intentional and justified as it pertains to poem’s intention). Once the poem is done, I just sit on it and come back to it when I’m ready. Sometimes I have to rewrite it, sometimes the title (the head) gets in the poem (the body), so I have to cut the head off. I go through many drafts because I’m so picky, but I’m learning to let go a little bit. I write mostly at night, which is probably why so many of my poems are nocturnes. I also have to be listening to music when I’m writing. I can’t focus without music in the background.
“I firmly am in the school of theory that when the poem leaves me and enters the public eye, it’s not entirely mine anymore, so how people consume or interpret the poem is not for me to dictate what that looks like. For someone, yes, this poem could be about “two lovers doing what lovers do” and for my work to be in conversation with that narrative is a great privilege to me.“
Nkateko: I read in your bio on another platform that you completed your MFA in Creative Writing at Hofsta University in 2016, with a focus on poetry. In a video on Hofstra University’s YouTube channel in 2015, you talked about your special interest in performance poetry and the divide between performance and academic poetry. However, your latest work tells of a leaning towards academic poetry. Has this been an intentional shift, particularly in the years since you received your MFA?
Itiola: I love slam, I love the sport of it, it’s so thrilling. It’s the reason I really fell in love with poetry because I was tired of being taught about dead, white men whose lived experiences did not match mine. I was tired of being told people like me had no place in the canon. Slam gave me confidence to read in front of people (I was plagued by brutal stage fright for years) but it’s no longer something I’m interested in for myself. The academy has never really been hospitable to people of color. The most immediate example I can think of is asking a bilingual speaker to italicize their language, which is a form of colonization, because one would not ask for English to bend in that way. I don’t see a divide between these two mediums, but rather different entryways. Slam is a poetry form, not all that different than a sestina or a beautiful outlaw. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t note how the academy has a history of treating performance poets as props to make their department seems more interesting. This shift, as you say, isn’t so much a shift from one to the other but rather my own progression and what is in service to me. I am currently a MFA Creative Writing candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Nkateko: I watched the video of you reading “Self Portrait Of The Blk Girl Becoming The Beast Everyone Thought She Was” and noticed that this time, the blood was in the mouth of the prey:
‘teach me to lose my mouth in revelry
to laugh in my predator’s blood
to let it fill my belly
how it trickles through the floorboards of my teeth’
I saw this as a reclaiming of power, or as you put it, ‘allowing myself to tear apart state-sanction forces that seek to destroy my body and bodies like mine.’ Reimagining a narrative gives back your autonomy: to say that you are the beast they have believed you to be is to say that you have that beast’s power to defeat what has tried to kill you.
In the same poem you say ‘both nonwhite and woman’, a reference to Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” and this is an effective tying-in of the idea of surviving what has tried to annihilate you. In Clifton’s poem she speaks of being a nonwhite woman who survives the odds and then invites us to celebrate with her:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.’
For me, “Self Portrait Of The Blk Girl Becoming The Beast Everyone Thought She Was” is a similar celebration; that being alive is a strong ‘pushback’, an act of self-defence.
In the poem you say the moon ‘tills the blood’ and it made me think of how my own body is affected by a full moon. How do you navigate your relationship with the moon and other celestial bodies, beyond the confines of this poem?
Itiola: It’s quite possible I’ve waited all my career for such a wonderful question—about the Moon & Lucille Clifton—to find me. Thank you for this gift. And yes, it is a reclaiming of power. It can be argued many of my poems seek to restore or reimagine a different ending as a means of restoration. As a matter of fact, the whole reason why I ever started writing at all was I wanted to re-create the world more hospitable to me and people like me.
I wrote this poem right after Trump was elected into office. I was still living in Queens at the time and it was a difficult time for many reasons. I was in a very toxic environment, so poetry was a safe field to navigate an array of rage and a darkness I felt spreading inside me. I still remember that day and the days that followed so vividly: I fell asleep before the final polling numbers came in; Clinton was behind, but not by much yet. I remembered going to sleep unafraid. My best friend called me & said, “You know he won right?” Fell asleep again. Woke up to read the news on NPR. Sometimes I want to believe in the promise of this country, that maybe I could be included in that promise, then this happened, and maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised but it felt like a profound betrayal. 53% of white women voted for Trump. That number will never leave me. 53%.
The days after, everything around me felt tense. I lived in Astoria, Queens and that it’s important to note that because it is the only gentrified neighborhood in Queens. Police were never really on my street, but I saw them circle one after another, as though they were searching for something to sink their teeth into. All I knew was rage, but more importantly, an unwillingness to feel helpless, to let the state bare its brutality on my head. If Audre Lorde taught me how to focus my rage with swift precision, then everything I learned about exactness in poetry, I learned from Lucille Clifton.
Outside of poetry, the Moon is synonymous with my name. To me, it’s the same as my grandmothers choosing the same name for me and never met, two different lovers who never met have compared me to the Moon. The marias of the Moon mirror the acne scars on my face. I feel as though I’m peering into God’s noble eye when I stare up at the Moon, but also a singular body born out of departure and trauma, assuming you believe the theory of how the Moon was created.
Nkateko: In “American / Nigerian In The Interrogation Room” you refer to being queer and Nigerian as being both ‘prey & predator.’ A while back on social media you spoke about putting the word ‘queer’ back into your bio and it made me curious as to why you would have removed it at all. I am learning that xenophobic and homophobic attacks happen everywhere in the world and it is a scary and sobering reminder that freedom of expression is not absolute. In June 2018 I went to my first-ever Pride event in New York City and felt so free, but I wonder if I would have felt that way every other day if I lived there as opposed to being the excited tourist I was? I was born in South Africa, a country racked by daily incidents of xenophobic violence and homophobic attacks (gruesome killings and the punitive rape of lesbians) and it breaks my heart that every time I travel to another African country someone asks me ‘why are your people killing my people?’
How do we get past these barriers? Where can one be black, queer and alive?
Itiola: Before I answer the question, I want to acknowledge that I turned down two interviews prior to this one because I was afraid of openly speaking about my sexuality, but also the way in which questions were posed in one of those interviews seemed less about giving me a safe space to speak, rather treating my sexuality as though it’s a “hot button topic”, which I found to be a profound shame. I am grateful for the responsibility employed in this question. It makes me feel safe and seen.
Last year when I chose to take “queer” out of my bio, it was a year of repeated violences enacted upon me by external forces. And when I say “violence”, I mean one organization used my face to promote an LGBTQIA event without my consent or without even inviting me. I suppose African men have made insensitive comments about my sexuality. Another time, I was to read at an art gallery in which my poems were to respond to a piece of art, and when the organizer saw “queer” in my bio, he asked me, insisted really, that I read poems about being queer, for representation. I don’t believe the representation was in service of me or other queer folks. I think straight people seem more receptive to LGBTQIA persons because now capitalism has found a way to profit from our likenesses. What I’m trying to tell you is this: I would like for straight people to stop treating my sexuality like it’s something they have to reconcile with or do something about. Many queer people will tell you we knew who we were at a young age. Queer people just aren’t obsessed with straight people the way straight people are obsessed with us. I made the choice to put it back because I won’t be intimidated or hide anymore. This isn’t to say I’m not without fear of retaliation, but I refuse to diminish my existence, my joy, for someone is determined to misunderstand me.
While doing a little bit of research for “American / Nigerian In The Interrogation Room” and I learned about Akinnifesi Olumide Olubunmi, the things said about him were hideous and reductive. He was often referred to as a “gay”, not even a man anymore. He was loved in the community until the way he loves another body came to light. This, for me, is where the prey / predator dichotomy comes in with respects to the section of the poem you’re referring to. I’m not sure if it has a name yet in poetry (but it very well could), but I call it a “transmutation”, which is what happens when the speaker of the poem moves into the position / space of the poem’s object. The most immediate example I can think of is Mary Oliver’s “Trilliums” (here Oliver becomes the very trilliums she adores):
“Oh, I wanted
to be easy
in the peopled kingdoms,
to take my place there,
but there was none
that I could find
shaped like me.
So I entered
through the tender buds,
I crossed the cold creek,
and my thin white shoulders
unfolding & stretching”
This is similar to what Zora Neale Hurston does in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is called “free indirect discourse”. I’m establishing the parameters in which I engaged with Olubunmi’s murder because it was important for me to be immediate to the danger, that he was very well killed by people who once claimed him as their own. I’ve dealt with barriers all my life and all I’ve known is to keep on going. That’s all I can offer on being black and queer and alive, is to live and to keep on living despite.
Nkateko: You mentioned that you can’t focus unless there is music playing in the background. This seems to me like the perfect habit for a music journalist. Are you able to listen to songs that you are reviewing while writing poems, or do you have to focus solely on the music in those instances?
Itiola: Yes, that is correct. There is something about silence that makes me stand still. I still can’t make sense out of it, but if I’m reading or writing or running errands, I need music or some kind of ambient noise—the sound of rain falling, soft murmurs of other humans—something to keep me focused. I have to solely focus on the music I’m reviewing, music that I’m listening to for writing is curated (often instrumental or lo-fi music). When I’m reviewing or writing about music, I’m also doing research, and that takes up all my brain space.
Nkateko: I find the idea of transmutation incredibly fascinating, and I am thinking about what that could mean outside of your own poetry. Can you transmute within the poems and books you read and edit? I am currently writing a review for a poetry collection where the writer speaks with several voices, each of them the ‘I’ in the story they are telling, and it’s interesting because with each poem I can take off the ‘attire’ of the previous character and move into the space created by the narrator in the next poem. I couldn’t do that at the beginning because there were moments where I felt like, ‘Huh? Who is speaking now?’ but now, towards the end, I am really getting into it. When you are editing, and particularly when working on several manuscripts simultaneously, is there a subconscious shifting after reading a certain poem or collection, to know that now you are interacting with a new voice, or is it a more intentional shift, a conscious eviction of the previous speaker/character in order to understand the new one?
Itiola: I will need the title of the book because that kind of becoming and re-becoming of the self is much of what my work is negotiating.
Everything a writer does should be deliberate, yet the work should also surprise the orchestrator. I like “eviction of the speaker”, yes. When I’m writing in the voice of Abel or Cain, both the girls desires and ambitions are different and that must be reflected in my word choice, line breaks, use of form. Maybe a pantoum would make more sense for Cain to use because it reflects her obsession, maybe a sestina for Abel because it shows her desire for order.
Yes, I have to shift gears when switching between manuscript as different bodies of work require different facilities of the mind. In that same manuscript, when I write in the voice of God, I’m leaning into god from Gwendolyn Brook’s stunning poem, “The Preacher Ruminates Behind The Sermon”, “I think it must be lonely to be God / Nobody loves a master. No”. What does a lonely God look like? A selfish one? A God who only understands love as brutal sacrifice…? Reading and re-reading Rilke’s Book Of Hours, Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval, Carl Phillips Wild Is The Wind and the latest novel by Chigozie Obioma, An Orchestra Of Minorities, has been incredibly nourishing in helping me cultivate a voice for god in the parameters of book.
Nkateko: Mary Oliver’s “Trilliums” reminds me of “Mushrooms” by Sylvia Plath. Perhaps it is the short lines or the personal ‘I’ and ‘we’ voices they take on for what they are/become in these poems.
“just under the surface,
at the last moment”
Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.”
I love the narrative of ‘becoming’ and ‘acquiring’ in the poems above, especially in the context of being forced or expected to exist in extremely small hostile spaces and then conquering, becoming something else. It takes me back to when you said all you can offer is ‘to live and to keep on living despite’, which I believe is relevant in this context too.
Do you have any advice for younger writers who feel unheard or isolated from the greater writing community? How can they ‘acquire’ and ‘become’ in hostile environments?
Itiola: I think “community” is who is immediately close to you, who knows you intimately, people who know your heart and are invested in your success as they would be in their own. But also, I would advise younger writers to reach out and foster earnest relationships with writers they admire.. Don’t just ask writers you admire to “fix your poems” but ask them about books you could read to sharpen your skills. Get to know them as people because writers people first. If you feel unheard, go where poetry lives: open mics, readings, workshop, etc. If none exists, make the space for it and look for funding to do it. I made The Singing Bullet when I couldn’t find a space for myself & when others could not find a space either.
How to become in hostile environments: first, protect your well-being. I personally cannot write in times of emotional distress. It’s difficult to create when you’re in survival mode, but I will say that I read more in those times and the poems lived in me until they feel safe enough to come out. And maybe, you must survive a while and not write, but secure a space which is hospitable to creation. Ask for help when you need it, I wish I had asked more often.
But the most important piece of advice I can give, is this: You must write the poem only you can write. friend.
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.