& more black
t’ai freedom ford
July 1, 2019
Poetry, 104 Pages, double-sided book
“This is a book holding spectacular spells, songs, and instructions for freedom.” —Terrance Hayes
“& more black is truth moving at the speed of sound.” —Patrick Rosal
t’ai freedom ford’s second collection of poems, & more black, is direct, ingenious, vibrant, alive, queer, & BLACK. By turns tough and sexy, wrapped up in the evolving language and sonics of life, these poems take their cue from Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets as they rhapsodize and dialogue with artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon, and Wangechi Mutu, along with many other musicians, artists, and writers. The kinetic energy of ford’s words leap off the page in rebellious, stunning, and revelatory fashion—poems that mesmerize with sheer velocity and telling pauses.
& more black is full of “dance floor long division,” Hello Kitty lunchboxes, double-dutch, and “dyke dowry.” It remixes the visions and vernaculars of Wangechi Mutu, Amiri Baraka, Erykah Badu, Glenn Ligon, and countless others. It finds the music in Graceland quicksand and “Kanye’s alter ego.” “we be makeshift / bodies got too many mouths” t’ai freedom ford writes in these propulsive, poly-vocal, poly-verbal gems. This is a book holding spectacular spells, songs, and instructions for freedom.
I’m so excited for t’ai freedom ford’s silky, tough, clear-eyed, and irreverent new collection. These poems suffer none of the ongoing American foolishness. They snap so hard you might—as I did—jump up and run out of the room laughing at their brilliant, slicing wit. They are composed with soul and funk and lightning-fast intelligence. This poet will reward your reading over and over with her impressive power and relentlessly exuberant music. Read them aloud. & more black is truth moving at the speed of sound.
t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher and Cave Canem Fellow. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in the African American Review, Apogee, Bomb Magazine, Calyx, Drunken Boat, Electric Literature, Gulf Coast, Kweli, Obsidian, Poetry, Tin House, and others. Her work has also been featured in several anthologies including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip- Hop and Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color. Her first collection, how to get over, won the 2015 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize, published by Red Hen Press. In 2018, she won a Face Out Emerging Writers Award from the Community of Literary Magazines & Presses. t’ai lives and loves in Brooklyn, where she is an editor at No, Dear Magazine. (Photo by: Dominique Sindayiganza)
An Interview with Author t’ai freedom ford
Kate Angus: Many of the poems in & more black either directly respond to, are inspired by, or otherwise reference the work of visual artists, as well as musicians and other writers. Can you speak a bit to the role other art plays in your poems—as inspiration, conversation, meditation, collaboration, and/or…?
t’ai freedom ford: To be honest, I just LOVE visual artists. I’m especially obsessed with Black art and artists. I collect Black art. I watch videos of Black artists talking about process and production. I have many friends who are visual artists and, when I’m lucky, they let me visit their studios to see their process firsthand. As a writer, when I visit museums and galleries, I’m always fascinated by the titles. They are a bit of common ground that I find comfort in cause I’m like, hey, I make titles too. Except my art uses words solely as its medium. Still, artists have the coolest titles. One day, while visiting the Wangechi Mutu exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum for the umpteenth time, I started taking pictures of the placards. At home, I pulled up the work on my computer and just stared and stared at it. Then I typed the title out: misguided unforgivable little hierarchies. And then I just listened to the art, allowing the images to speak to me. That was the beginning of the series. Some of the ekphrastic work is me translating the art into poetic imagery. Sometimes I’m strictly riffing off the title without any influence from the artistic content of the original piece and sometimes the poems are informed by things learned from the artist’s intent and/or process.
Do you also make any visual art yourself?
Over the years I have dabbled in many expressions of creativity from rapping and beatboxing to jewelry making to deejaying and even painting. Realizing my strengths, I settled on creative writing and left everything else to those with greater talents than mine.
Do you imagine your readers knowing the art your poems reference already or perhaps discovering it through your poems; do you see the poems as being in dialogue with the art and also stand-alone, simultaneously?
The poems were written with the intent of standing on their own without any reliance on the reader’s artistic familiarity. That said, should someone want to Google pics of the artwork referenced while reading the collection, it would certainly enhance the experience, but I think readers will feel the poems either way.
Are any of these poetic/artistic conversations that happen on the page echoed in correspondence or relationships between you and the artists off the page? And carrying on from that, does your mind ever move toward doing a more overt conversation/collaboration like a chapbook with poems paired with visual art or a gallery installation of art with copies of your poems on the walls with the visual art and/or you doing a reading or a recording of you reading within the art space? Or a poem that collaborates with another poet or poets?
Because I do have artist friends, I’ve had the pleasure of being in conversation with them about their work and their process. In creating this collection, I did consider the possibility of having pics of the art pieces coupled with the poems but then I thought, what publisher would agree to (or could afford to) do that? Now that the book’s launching, I’m brainstorming ways I might present the poems that utilize multimedia formats.
Can you talk about why you chose to have the book exist as two books within one?
There are many dichotomies and dualities present in the work:
whiteness vs. blackness
public vs. private
the hood vs. everybody
queerness & otherness
Black visual art & Black literature (as art)
the Black body & Black intellectualism
I’m also reminded of Du Bois’s double consciousness theories. Being American and of African descent and how that literally colors my experience in this country, but also, this constant consideration of the white gaze and how that affects our every action. I think this book explores those sensations a great deal. So, to have a first half of a book that ends… (almost as if there was a death of that persona/voice) and then a birth/rebirth of a new (or continuation of that) voice… the first persona (black) then resurrected (& more black).
I wondered at what point in your writing or arranging process this design idea struck you, as well how you chose which poems went into which arc?
Honestly that was just me being greedy. In considering cover art it was hard to stop at just one piece. I wanted two pieces, which made me think, oh, maybe I can have two covers like some of the fashion mags sometimes do. So at first it was very superficial, but then when I was told that I would need to reorder them so that each half had its own arc, I began to see how halving the text made sense considering the thematic duality of the content. As far as ordering them into two separate arcs, I just listened to the poems. They were very opinionated, these poems. They knew where they want to be.
You’ve also spoken of the idea of the first half of the book ending almost like a death of the persona/voice and then the persona/voice being resurrected, returning & more black as the book’s title promises us with the second arc. I love this idea, and how it resonates with the black page at the book’s center which thus functions as a resting place and a birthing place both, a kind of wellspring. I wondered if you could speak to this idea of the death and return/resurrection of the poetic voice a little more?
The idea of death and resurrection is really a metaphor for the existence of Black folks in America. We choose death delivered by our own hands. We die at the hands of others. Parts of our authentic selves suffer little deaths everyday just to live in this country. And yet, we return. We replicate. We renew. We resurrect. We rebirth. We epitomize resilience. In my last book, how to get over, one of the sections was “die”, meaning that one way Black folks get over is by dying. That dying might be literal, metaphysical, spiritual, controversial. Like the idea that maybe Tupac is living on an island off the coast Cuba somewhere. Dead, but not really. Not in the imagination of Black folk. That idea is continued in this book. The narrative voices go dark. Then come back to life/light.
I think also often of the idea of conversation in your poems—the conversations the poems are often having with other artists, as well as the conversations that happen within the poems themselves, such as the imagined posthumous dinner conversation between you and Gil Scott-Heron at a diner Uptown, or the conversations that unfold through the series of rhetorical questions you ask in poems like “the body that i’m performing in doesn’t know limits” or “‘Just because you love black pussy don’t mean you love Black lives.’” I feel I often read books by poets that feel very self-contained, as if the world of the book is a kind of bio-dome—one of the things I love about your work is how expansive it is, how much it reaches out and engages with the world and other thinkers and artists and the readers. Do you think of your work as being in conversation with others and, if so, whom? Tied to this, are there any influences on your work who weren’t mentioned directly in the poems but whose presence you feel?
Once I began the conversations between the art and artists I revered, it sort of opened the floodgates so to speak. Cause these folks are like gods to me. I remember losing my shit at a party in Johannesburg because I shared the elevator with Wangechi Mutu. I remember being a fan-girl at a Carrie Mae Weems talk and afterwards being so nervous about giving her a copy of the two poems she’d inspired. I remember being in the same jury duty pool as Kara Walker and summoning the courage to tell her how much I appreciated her as an artist and a human. The poems are much more braver than I am. They have the audacity to call folks into the conversation and to call folks out. They have the nerve to holler at Kanye and Basquiat, Gil and Amiri, Bill de Blasio and Erica Garner in the same breath.
My influences come from a great variety of creative spheres and theoretical tangents, but there are some folks with whom I’m currently obsessed like Arthur Jafa and Fred Moten and Christa Bell and Frida Orupabo and Genesis Tramaine and Texas Isaiah and Deborah Roberts who are doing mind-blowing shit in the world of art (and letters).
Can we talk about the book’s title & more black a little? It’s such a great title, and as I see it especially for a second collection (or any post-first-book collection), as if it’s not only its own entity but also an amplification of the body of work that precedes it. The phrase itself occurs in the book as the last few words of “what i risk to walk in this world as my full human self,” a poem that arrives in the second arc of the book, and within the poem, among other possible readings, it can also be seen as functioning in response to the poem’s title: that blackness is what is risked or is what puts the speaker at risk, in the way that black bodies are continually at risk in this country. But the phrase is also—within the poem as well as especially as it titles the book—such a powerful and joyful declaration. Did you always intend it as the title of this book from early on while you writing the bulk of the poems within the collection or did you come to this title later on?
The title came early and out of nowhere. I can’t even remember how it arrived. And the poem where the title lives was one of the later poems in the collection. It was written while I was on a cruise for the very first time. I was hellishly seasick and thinking of and praying to my ancestors. I wondered how they endured that passage from Africa to the Americas. I was later given some pills and some sort of band that bit into my wrist and stabilized me. Grateful, but still considering my place as a queer, Black, masculine of center presenting woman, I wrote that poem and the title found its place there very organically.
I also love how you use sound, the way you play with association and auditory similarities to create new meanings, like how “O beautiful for spacious skies for amber waves of grain” becomes “O beautiful for faceless cries for amber graves of pain,” as well as the way your use of spacing seems to echoes spoken pauses. I believe you also come from a background in performance poetry from when you lived in Atlanta when you were younger. Can you speak a little to techniques you use to synthesize the poems on the page with the way you imagine them being spoken?
How the poem sounds is important to me, so I spend a lot of time reading poems aloud. One of my teachers said that the poem should tell us how it wants to be read. So, I began to use caesuras as a way to air out the language and give the poem (and the reader) its breath and to instruct the reader how it should be read. Really, the way I use caesuras and line breaks are more for me than anybody else. I need to know how to read the poem first.
What is your writing process? Do you tend to write in the same place at the same time on a consistent schedule or do you go for stretches without writing? Do you set poetic assignments for yourself to summon up new work or do you wait for the poems to be inspired somehow by the world around you or arise within you? If you do give yourself assignments, would you be willing to share one?
Because I am so obsessed with artist process, it’s allowed me to think about my process with a great deal of clarity. I’ve taught poetry workshops on process and have shared what mine entails. Basically there are six main components. Muse: some form of inspiration. Minding Business: Mine and other people’s. Mining: Digging for golden nuggets amidst the dirt of my imagination. Magic: connecting with ancestors, listening to the voices that speak to/through me. Morning: the time when I’m most creative and my imagination is most fertile. Music: making sure the work sings and that the musical elements are present on the page and in the air.
The assignments I give myself mostly have to do with the “muse” stage of writing, which involves taking myself on a lot of art dates to museums, galleries, concerts, artists talks, readings, etc. Sometimes it’s less formal… me on the art21 site watching artist videos.
The thing I’ll say about process is that is SUPER personal. Everyone’s will be different, but once your figure it out, you’ll realize that you’re writing more often than not. So there are large swaths when I’m not actively writing, but I am doing lots of things to stimulate my muses and so I count it as writing. In that way, I don’t really believe in writer’s block, because when I consider the elements of my process, I’m most always writing (even if it’s only in my head).
Many poets I know talk about having an ideal reader, either another actual person (living or dead) or an imaginary perfect reader. Who do you see as your ideal reader, is there a specific someone or someones (real or imagined) who you are writing for?
I don’t really have an ideal reader in mind. If something propels you to buy the book or if the book winds up in your hands, and you read it and feel it and walk away with some sort of impression then that’s ideal.
And now I’ll latch on to the last bit of that question “who you are writing for.” Always I am writing for my ancestors who were voiceless, who had voices and were silenced, who had voices but were in a foreign tongue and labeled gibberish, who didn’t have the luxury of writing poems. Always I write for my current folk, my people who hear with their hearts, who understand the layers and levels, who know the codes, the inside jokes, the meanings of “finna” and “lookded.” I made a point with this book not to include a Notes section because who I’m writing for don’t need notes. Still, everyone is my audience, but some might have to work harder than others. And I’m okay with that.