Poetry co-editor Aurora Nowak recently had this exchange with Issue #40 featured poet Naomie Jean-Pierre. Here’s what Naomie had to say about the inspiration for her poetry, how she approaches form, and how painful experiences manifest in her art.
The idea of “The Apologetics” is astounding. Where did the inspiration for this idea come from?
Thank you for the compliment. To be honest, I think the inspiration had a lot to do with navigating some pretty difficult mental and emotional passages. These passages intersect at the place of my spiritual faith, my blackness, and my womanhood. It is often difficult, for whatever reason, to defend or justify our choices. The poems come from a wider collection I have of unapologetic pieces that navigate the painful areas of my life, where I offer myself the permission to grieve or to laugh, the permission to heal or to simply feel and speak whatever I am going through. The idea also comes from what I think of apologetics: “Reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something”. Yes, I think of defending a faith or a belief. But ironically, I think of not defending them. The idea of defending one’s actions or set of beliefs is transferred to how we live in general. It suggests that we begin to make space in our thinking about the allowances for our healing, for forgiveness. This often means leaving, hoping, mourning, etc.
Your poems are compelling yet could be called shocking. In your bio, you say you’ve lived in Atlanta, in Haiti, in a refugee household, and now Paris. How did you go about synthesizing and capturing these different worlds? You also mention “My style…will bleed with the streets I have walked.” Is there a clue in this line?
Yes, this is definitely a clue. My poems have traces of the various codes, languages, and rhythms of the places I have been. I think that your use of the word code is important. I think there is a language or code for almost anything. Streets have languages. Each of the places you mentioned—Haiti, Atlanta, Paris, even New York—create linguistic and thematic inflections in my poetry.
The places I have been each have a language, a mode of speech, a rhythm that allows me to play with voice, setting, form, syntax, etc. My style of writing echoes with the resonance of these different places. These various rhythms and subjects of speech may be shocking. They may be compelling. They may even be disturbing. It’s all a manifestation of my geographical lineage. To navigate the shocking, the uncanny, the beautiful, the painful and fashion something revelatory from it—that is my birthright. Haiti, Atlanta, New York, and now Paris—these are like different colors that bleed into one another to create my specific style. Colors bleed. Pens bleed. Bodies bleed. I just get it on paper.
“The Apologetics” contains amazing language, pulling the reader into each poem. These works are ambitious, authentic, and you have such command of form. More generally, how do you approach and make decisions about form and structure in your poetry?
For my form, I really pay attention to the speed, the tone, and the rhythm of what I am writing. Pauses and spaces are important. The way a line continues is important, almost like a river with various channels or a staircase with diverging steps. Hypotactic and paratactic lines are important. I like to think about shape and positions as they relate to each other on the page and also as they relate to the speech sounds that are expected. I play with this. I use dashes to inform the direction of the poem, letting it turn or collapse on itself in different ways, directing the reader’s eyes and attempting to make multiple layers of meanings possible.
I must admit that I also think my approach to decisions about form is self-critical. At times, I doubt the form. I question how it will be read. I pay close attention to speech rhythms and tone. I shift words back and forth, play with positioning and spaces until I feel that the speaker of the poem has is directing how he/she is going to be read by the reader. It is important to me that the words on the page visually represent the speech as I hear it. The speaker must be read on the speaker’s terms. I try and leave as little room as possible for speech rhythms to be misread.
“The Apologetics for Leaving” only hints at suffering compared to what is described later in these poems. Was your intention to start by treading lightly at first in this set of poems, so to speak?
I had never thought of it in those terms, but “Apologetics for Leaving” was the first poem of this series that I wrote. Originally, it was called, “Reasons for Leaving” and someone in a workshop suggested a change of title. I put it aside for months. Later, when I became aware of the way the apologetics theme was forming in my other poems, I returned to the collection, where all the titles were the apologetics for one thing or the other. It seemed to fit. Your question really makes me think of how the poem acts as an early representation, a summed up version, of what I would later craft into the apologetics. It also maps my deepening awareness of the trauma of which I was only beginning to unpack. So, if “The Apologetics for / black women / who forget their training // in the mo/ u / rning” can be understood as a more explicit portrayal of trauma, as the cold dark ocean floor, then “Apologetics for Leaving” would be a sort of diving board or a wade in the water. I think I was only beginning to grasp the content and the imagistic patterns that I would later seek out and craft.
This portfolio is full of such visceral imagery. “The Apologetics for / black women / who forget their training // in the mo/ u / rning” is a stunning example of this. The speaker shares an experience of being objectified, used, abused, possibly raped. We find the speaker disembodied: “But you almost break (when you are in between the bodies) his and (the one that used to be) yours”. In conveying such powerful truths and emotions, how are you able to avoid becoming strident; how do you channel the rage? Also, how do you hope readers will respond to this and other poems in this portfolio?
I think, for this poem, in particular, it was not difficult to abuse the voice of the speaker for my own agenda. To avoid becoming strident, I would have to understand the speaker’s true dilemma, not with her objectifier, but with herself (and her silence). This poem is an out of body expression of the self you knew before the traumatic experience. She is navigating the cruel self-assessment that many women undergo when they need to assign responsibility and reason to their trauma. The result is the contemplation: there are a numbing number of voices and silences to deal with, those reflexive and voluntary. How do you separate the two?
All women have a history of surviving instances like this, but black women, because of the ways our pain is heard or interpreted, have done so with additional demands of etiquette. We have recently been hearing more people talk about racial inequality in the medical treatment of black women. When viewing black women in pain, hospitals have admitted being less attentive, resulting in death. This poem is about the loneliness and quietness of black female pain. This, I think, forces readers to respond with a new level of compassion for all female bodies, but especially black female bodies who sometimes fail to be strong, who are sometimes at a loss for how to recover. These are apologetics for black women who are not always “together,” who are fragmented due to trauma. My hope, I suppose, is that readers would respond in a contemplative manner. This began as my contemplation on a personal experience, but it has allowed me to think about how I, as a black woman, may respond to my own pain, how I may “treat” myself and my pain as valid. We all have permission to mourn our own lapses of health.
“The Apologetics for Forgiveness” feels like the start of a healing process. The speaker advises embracing the past despite not wanting to do so; it is a part of who they are. This poem has such a powerful end message: “We are yours, too.” Is there more you can tell us more about what you want readers to experience from this poem—or what’s behind this final line?
Yes, this poem is actually the first of the series. It is essentially about the scars we have acquired and it is about having mercy on your painful areas, and by relation, on oneself. We are yours, too for me confronts the idea of pain from the scar’s perspective, who did not ask to be ruptured and begotten, but wonders how it was birthed. It too has possession and is not simply to be possessed and despised. Our most painful experiences are not only borne by us, they beget us. They are worn by us as well. Sexual trauma, abuse, rejections—there may be ways that we can rethink and renegotiate the terms of our woundedness. In that way, we may become artists of our injury, using it to produce something other than life sentences of victimization.
One of your short stories, “We Have Always Lived,” was recently nominated for a Pushcart prize. Please tell us about your writing practice: how do you move between poetry and fiction? What makes that work, and what are the challenges for you?
I think it was Ezra Pound who attempted to categorize artforms by the inspiration that provoked the form. If, for example, one is inspired and that inspiration is in the form of an image, then you write a poem. If when you have inspiration and it comes in the form of words, then it is prose that ensues. I am learning so much about my writing practice, but when I read this I found it to be completely true for me. I write based on the impression of the inspiration upon me. If what I am writing requires a combination of words and images, then I write prose. So, “We Have Always Lived” is the result of the impression a set of words and images have had upon me. The short story comes from various conversations I was having at the time with two novels. The textual influence came from We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson and the imagistic inspiration came from the images I thought were missing from In the Palm of Darkness by Mayra Montero.
With prose, fictional plots seem to write themselves once I know what larger conversation they are a part of. But poetry for me is more ambiguous. The situation or conversation is less fixed and I am challenged by the lack of narrative/story in my poems. My poems are often filled with too much imagery and no content. I find that I tend to be too aware of how the visual and phonic impressions work together. Essentially, the two genres can be quite similar for me because my poetic style is quite prosaic and my fictional style is quite poetic.
I have been having success writing by not attempting to control my primary impressions. I write according to the images, speech, and rhythms that come naturally to me. The construction comes later as I spend a lot of time chipping at those primary features and making sense of them as they relate to me and my wider world.
Mud Season Review bloomed out of a writing workshop. What is your own experience with workshops? Was there a moment or feedback received in a workshop that stood out for you?
I think that workshops are so necessary. The first workshop I was a part of was a fictional workshop in early 2017 with James Mirsky. It produced so many revelations for me, the most important of which was that I could not stop writing. My writing was a part of me, one of the best parts of me. I could no longer peruse its contents unintentionally.
The second workshop was later that year in the summer. I was a part of a poetry workshop with Cynthia Cruz at the City College of New York, where I acknowledged, maybe for the first time in my life, that I was a poet. Both of those experiences sharpened my ability to read myself and others. Recently, I have been a part of peer-organized workshops and what stands out for me most is our approach to writing. I think that being exposed to how others write is key. I got a lot of criticism on my work, some that I had to reject and others that I happily accepted. While it taught me to depend on other eyes to see what I could not, I learned to trust in my own eye. It taught me to defend my choices and to see my way of writing as valid. Today, I have learned a bit more about what it is I need from workshops: community. I do not come to be understood, but to be refined and to practice my art in a safe space.