“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” – An Interview With Kemi Alabi
There is an innate sensitivity and transcendental textures in Against Heaven by Kemi Alabi. Through reading the book, I have arrived at varied interludes of expression and immense strength that poems carry. They conversed with me about the importance of play in form, synchronicity in titles, queer Black embodiment, community, and more.
Sneha Subramanian Kanta: Congratulations on the publication of Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), Kemi. One of the first things that is recurrent through your book is the invention in form, lineation, and syntax. You engage an eclectic energy with how a poem appears on the page. Would you let us know about your process of creating these invigorating poems?
Kemi Alabi: I’ve been thinking about this reflection from Alexis Pauline Gumbs in Boston Review: “the collection is strongest in its excess, its bloom, its unapologetic multiplicity to rewild Earth (I concede that using multiple forms, including erasure or blackout, is one way the collection approaches polyamory).” The words multiplicity and polyamory are doing a lot of work here!
Against Heaven wasn’t a project book; it revealed itself one poem at a time, and I keep my writing practice very playful. I love the disorientation and reorientation of a pantoum. I love the intertextual conversation of a golden shovel. I love the excavation and revelation of erasure. But even the forms I use break their own rules—lines shapeshift in the pantoum, golden shovels depart from Gwendolyn Brooks to use lyrics, speeches, whole phrases.
The forms are portals into spaces my imagination may not find on its own, but the poems truly begin in a sonic and libidinal place; I try to give their moods and sounds whatever shape they desire. That’s my only allegiance.
Sneha: There are five poems titled “Against Heaven” from the title of your book. Each waves its own intricate tapestry. I want to bring attention to how you utilize not only different forms but the process in the construction of these poems. I want to mention the poem which begins with a sub-title “In Chicago, a Steep Rise in Suicide Among Black People”. There is a concrete element to this fluid poem, what I like to refer to as the bones of a poem. What was your thought in creating this synchronicity of titles in how it bears transference to the title of your book? Also, what was your central idea in creating the poem? I know the “Notes” section of your book references a Trace article by Lakeidra Chavis for the poem.
Kemi: Against Heaven is a politicized stance against the many ways we’re made to abandon, exploit, dominate, and sacrifice life on Earth. All five title poems hold the tension of both rejecting heaven as a utopian, post-death elsewhere and embracing heaven as the pleasure and possibilities of this plane. Each title poem approaches this differently.
“Against Heaven (Halfway to Graves)” is a blackout/erasure of a June 2020 article in The Trace, “In Chicago, A Steep Rise in Suicide Among Black People.” It holds the poem “To the Young Who Want to Die” by legendary Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks closely. Though Black suicides are rising, both in Chicago and nationally, there have been few meaningful interventions. The spectacle of Black homicide and state violence draws much more attention and outrage than Black suicides, even though the causes and outcomes are the same. By playing with the blackout form and surrealism, I hoped to reveal underlying truths and hidden possibilities about Black suicide. Is death the only escape from the violence and horrors of our various supremacies, or is another world possible? Can life on Earth yield more than our current society’s oppressive design? I don’t answer these questions outright, but my hope is that all title poems explore those questions in different ways.
Sneha: Your poem “44 Questions to Ask While Bingeing” combines the rhetorical with pause. There is a silent space in your work which leaves an open field to engage questions of identity, belonging, and the world.
I’m interested in the spatial arrangement of your poems. You engage with reimagining the identities of Black queer and trans people. The narratives juxtapose clever craft, form, and a multitude of lexicons. In what ways do you create this magnificent range in bringing identity centerstage?
Kemi: In the words of Audre Lorde, “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized. This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless-about to be birthed, but already felt. That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.”
I can only speak for myself, but I think blackness and queerness give a prismatic quality to the light by which I scrutinize my life. I’m excited by the possibilities, individually and collectively, that can reveal. The collection takes many forms and lexicons because my living and viewing takes many forms and lexicons. My pleasure and satisfaction takes many forms and lexicons. The collection resists linearity and homogeneity because my living and viewing resists linearity and homogeneity. Though all the poems are in conversation, each is its own universe, and I think that’s closer to the truth of things. I’m not the authority here—I think the questions, the silences, the leaps and contradictions become opportunities for the reader to feel into their own knowledge, curiosities, possibilities.
Sneha: I want to bring attention to your poem “Undelivered Message to the Sky: November 9, 2016” with two questions. Would you speak about the specificity of adding a date to the title and how it connects through the poem?
There are multiple lines which illustrate a parallel between the experience of violence, landscape, and language. I refer to the beginning lines, “You were in my dream last night. Titanic falling. / Every cop siren pocking your blue. Shots fired / straight above my head by trembling men, then // a hot lead rain.”
The form and white space contribute to the tonality. In the middle, the lines “I opened the blinds / and a pack of white women were wailing down 45th, // crying into potholes, writhing in the street / like worms. / One saw me.” and “Wails pitched / to a weapons-grade sorry sorry sorry // so sorry we’re sorry and I wished Yemoja / would sling an ocean out my throat. / But all I had was English–“
The ending of the poem is profound, and continues to bear analogies with language. “Nothing in their language makes them disappear.” and “That’s why // the guns and cages. Why / they cut our tongues. // Because we would call, and you would come.”
In what ways do you incorporate writing as moving towards resistance? What is your process of writing through how life happens?
Kemi: Donald Trump became president-elect of the United States on November 9, 2016. The poem’s a reaction to the general doom of that day, especially for people working in progressive movement spaces. It felt like a triumph for white supremacy and the beginning of a deeply reactionary time in our country. But on the other hand, it wasn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t a departure from the ongoing manifestations of white supremacy that keep so many people in a state of isolation and subjugation. This poem lives in that dissonance, surreality, and exhaustion. It’d be easier if the sky just fell.
I don’t know that I explicitly approach writing as an act of resistance or as a way to write through life as it happens. Language can feel useless some days, and I find a lot of value in silence. This question reminds me of Audre Lorde’s questionnaire to oneself; I have to respect my libidinal urge to speak, to spit out force-fed tyrannies. I don’t always take this urge to the page, or to something that may become publicly consumed. But sometimes poetry is the vehicle, and I’m grateful for that option.
Sneha: An aspect in your book Against Heaven I much admire is the fact that the poems think through about the body. In your poem “A Wedding, or What We Unlearned from Descartes”, there is a juxtaposition of an element of the physical body and the metaphysical. I want to bring attention to the last few lines: “I’ll lick this salt. Yes, I’ll wait our turn / because today we hold hands, mother / each other, bathe in warm coconut oil. / Our union, our long baptism. O body, / all I forced you to know of thirst. Yes / body, you are owed a whole lake. Yes / body, I’ll kiss our wrists, hold them / to our ears and spend our days / losing to the waves. How is thinking about the body important to your work?
Kemi: Thanks for this question. The body—specifically queer Black embodiment—became a primary concern throughout my writing practice and political education. Our economic and political systems demand estrangement on every level. We’ve been coerced through every type of violence to become estranged from ourselves, from one another, from the Earth. Our severed connections allow for greater exploitation of our labor and lives. Healing these estrangements is a necessary route toward empowerment, justice, and liberation.
For a long time, I called myself a brain in a jar. My body felt incidental, with all of my value and presence assigned to my mind. This was, in hindsight, a way to both mask and rationalize my lifelong dissociation — a reaction to the trauma disproportionately enacted upon me and bodies like mine. It was a way to survive through a numbed existence, a way to insulate myself from feeling — because if I felt, I may not survive the pain. But I also couldn’t feel the pleasure. I couldn’t access any of my body’s knowledge. I was estranged from my own needs, desires, and intuition. The “I” here is just a window into a much larger “we.” These individual estrangements are collective; they have social and political impacts.
Against Heaven begins with an epigraph from Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as Power” because it asserts embodiment as the necessary foundation upon which we fight for our lives. She writes:
The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. It is an internal sense of satisfaction to which, once we have experienced it, we know we can aspire. For having experienced the fullness of this depth of feeling and recognizing its power, in honour and self-respect we can require no less of ourselves.
Against Heaven explores (dis)embodiment and pleasure, guided by Lorde’s words. “A Wedding…” specifically engages with Descartes mind-body distinction, something I learned as an undergraduate majoring in political science and philosophy, because it felt crucial to collapse that distinction — that hierarchy — and move toward a more holistic understanding of selfhood.
Sneha: Thank you for this engaging conversation, Kemi. How has your practice of writing intersected with community? What advice would you offer to writers who face hindrances when it comes to access and representation? Also, would you like to share your thoughts about the process of submitting first full-length manuscripts with our readers?
Kemi: As organizer and prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba says, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” My writing process feels more generative and expansive in community. And by “community,” I mean people who share a similar curiosity, generosity, and passion for the practice of writing, art-making, world-building. I’m grateful for all the poets — especially the queer poets of color — who are also space-makers, creating new opportunities for connection and exchange. I haven’t always had access to that kind of community, and spaces come and go, but that’s the power of books, zines, other media — I’ve been able to practice alongside some of my favorite poets and thinkers, living and dead. The practice doesn’t exclusively live in the established literary systems. No one has to wait to be welcomed. There are other ways to tap in.
I’ve always loved writing poems, but I don’t feel very ambitious about writing and publishing books. Poems best live in the air, I think. I decided to assemble a full-length manuscript for four reasons: I understood the ways my poems were talking to each other, and I fell in love with the long poem they created together; I felt my writing practice and obsessions shift, and I wanted to free myself to play in new ways by letting go of old work; poets whose work had saved my life, Patricia Smith and Claudia Rankine, were judging first book contests that same year; and lastly, even though it’s hard to be confident about my work, I thought someone out there might need to read it as much as I needed to write it, and I didn’t want my fear standing in the way. Poets should think about why they want to be published and be discerning about who gets to do so. It can feel like a competition — very literally, with these first book contests — but no one should use publication as a route to validation or a sense of personal accomplishment. In 2019, when I was feeling pressure to have a full-length before I was ready, I met Eloisa Amezcua at the Tin House summer workshop. She told me, “You only get one first book.” That helped me stay patient. Then I got very lucky: my manuscript was selected in my first round of submissions. I almost withdrew it from all the contests to work on it a bit longer. I don’t suddenly think the literary world is a meritocracy. So many talented poets with excellent manuscripts are waiting on a “yes.” The routes to publication are incredibly narrow, cost-prohibitive, and even mysterious. We can all be more imaginative about what publishing can look like. In the meantime, we can commit to the practice of writing meaningful work, get clear on our motivations, and be ready for when our luck finally comes around.
Kemi Alabi is the author of Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award.
Kemi believes in the world-shifting power of words and the radical imaginations of Black queer and trans people. As cultural strategy director of Forward Together, they built political power with cultural workers of color through programs like Echoing Ida, a home for Black women and nonbinary writers, and annual art campaigns like Trans Day of Resilience. The Echoing Ida Collection, coedited with Cynthia R. Greenlee and Janna Zinzi, is available now from Feminist Press.
Born in Wisconsin on a Sunday in July, Kemi now lives in Chicago, IL.
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