Poetry is hope: A Conversation with Nicole Sealey / by Peter LaBerge

Back to Issue Twenty-Six.

BY KATIE WILLINGHAM

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Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, finalist for the 2018 PEN Open Book Award, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include a Jerome Foundation Travel and Study Grant, an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, Cave Canem, MacDowell Colony and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming to Best American Poetry 2018The New YorkerThe New York Times and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation, visiting professor at Boston University and the 2018-2019 Doris Lippman Visiting Poet at The City College of New York.

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Katie Willingham: Let’s talk about the very first poem! I love how it’s full of personal detail but by enacting this relatable catalogue of “medical history” it becomes universal. This poem also has me thinking about facts and what they can and can’t offer. Would you talk a little about the last line, how the speaker says, “I understand, / the stars in the sky are already dead” and this is corrected in your end notes? How did you decide to embrace this falsehood and also let readers in on it by having that note at the end?

Nicole Sealey: “medical history” is all about (if a poem can be “about” anything) what we know, what we think we know and what we have yet to discover. “I understand,” I believe, speaks to this. Though the line does not tell an actual truth, it does tell a poetic one—one that reiterates the tone and sentiment of the poem. Plus, poems owe nothing to truth. Though, I must admit, I believe that I owe it to readers to provide scientific truth. Hence, the note at the collection’s end clarifying that stars are most likely not dead. That the distance between the stars and us is so great that we can only see the brightest stars.

I guess one can argue that I embrace both falsehood and reality.

KW: And when did you know this would be the first poem?

NS: I don’t remember the exact moment in which I knew, but the collection itself called for an opening poem void of pretense. Part of the pleasure I take in writing poetry is an instant intimacy with readers. By the first page, we’re practically family. As we know, the relationship between reader and writer is reciprocal. We bring with us all that we are, the sum total of our experiences up to that point. There’s an exchange happening—one that encourages vulnerability, one that can transform strangers into kin. Which is why the opening poem is one of my most intimate poems, which is why I was so comfortable opening the collection with “medical history,” its lines: “I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep.”

KW: I love this idea of bringing all that we are as writers and also as readers. Is this “instant intimacy” something you look for in collections you read as well? Does something you’ve read spring to mind?

NS: I definitely look for “instant intimacy” in the collections I read. I look for heart and sentiment.

As a reader, I want to feel. However, I don’t want to be told when and what to feel. Poems by poets who write against sentimentality often end up lacking sentiment altogether. Whereas sentimentality is contrived, designed to elicit a specific response at a specific time—the cued music on a television show that tells the audience when to clap or cry, sentiment is real feeling. Poets like Lucille Clifton, Vievee Francis, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Sharon Olds, and Matthew Olzmann write poems with heart and gut. Everything these poets have written comes to mind.

KW: On the subject of the real and unreal, I’m drawn to your use of the hypothetical in this book, especially in “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born,” in which mother and daughter discuss immortality and their different conceptions of time. I’m thinking about how you use the hypothetical to provide this beautiful distance from which to consider what is. How do you think about this alternate world-building in poetry or any writing and what it can offer?

NS: I truly believe that poetry is drawn from the collective and colored by the individual. Though we have immediate access to images provided by personal experience, such as the time and place in which we exist and the circumstances into which we were born, the I, by virtue of its humanness, is the we. Whether we know it or not, we access a history much older than ourselves and geographies beyond ourselves. That said, “beautiful distance” is natural. This distance, I think, is in all poems, including “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born” and “in defense of ‘candelabra with head.’” Distance gives us the opportunity to see ourselves objectively.

KW: Another way this book engages possibility is via revision or addendum. I’m thinking of “clue” and its erasue “c ue” and also “candelabra with heads” and “in defense of candelabra with heads.” Can you talk about engaging these coexisting paths through the same material?

NS: Yes, revision and addendum and addition. Just because a poem is “finished,” doesn’t mean the conversation is over—poems are ongoing conversations about what it means to be human. For example, I remember neither what I was thinking nor reading when I drafted “medical history.” I do know that it was conceived on the heels of “the first person who will live to be a hundred and fifty years old has already been born.” But, I believe, all poems work in this way: one poem leads to another, and that poem leads to another poem and so on and so forth. In this way, we have no choice but to engage coexisting paths through the same material.

Also, I’m not sure if the “same material” remains the same. With each reading and re-reading, the material is as changed as we are.

KW: Your “cento for the night i said ‘i love you’” perhaps comes at this idea of retooling from another angle, offering a new path through both an incredibly significant but common phrase, “I love you,” and also through the lines of so many other writers and thinkers that are filtered together here. I read elsewhere this poem took quite a long time to write, but it’s also very patient on the page to me as a reader. Can you talk about the white space and why you chose to break the different sections across pages?

NS: White space is an important part of “cento,” of any poem. White space indicates points at which readers are encouraged to take a breath, to take it all in.

As I’ve said, a poem, by default, accesses times and spaces beyond itself. “cento for the night i said, ‘i love you,’” however, intentionally set out to do just that. Because of this, the poem required more room to breathe, to stretch out, hence the double spacing and the sections.

KW: Would you share a little about how you go about titles as well? I’m thinking about “Imagine Sisyphus Happy” and the way it contextualizes the poem that follows. Where do titles come in the process for you, or does it vary, and how do you think about their work in relation to the rest of the poem?

NS: At the CantoMundo retreat last summer, Rigoberto González said that a poem’s title is actually the poem’s first line, which I wholeheartedly agreed (and still agree) with. And, like any first line, a title ought to be compelling. As you know, a title isn’t garnish, it is doing the revelatory work of contextualizing and situating the poem within larger conversations. In the case of “Imagine Sisyphus Happy,” the larger conversations include love, pity and the absurdity of life.

Though every poem requires something different of its title, for me, titling is an important part of the poem making process—as important as the image, as the line, as voice and style, as revision. As such, I spend as much time on the title as anything else.

KW: I noticed in your interview with Kyla Marshell for Mosaic Magazine that you mentioned adding love to that famous list of certainties normally composed of just “death and taxes.” I’m fascinated by this and how hopeful it is, but also how you discuss the way love and death are intertwined. Your book would suggest to me this is a hopeful thought, but I thought I’d ask you to expand. If love and death are intertwined, where does hope fit? What are your thoughts on hope and poetry, or hope in poetry?

NS: Hope, I think, is inextricably linked to love and death. So, too, is it linked to poetry. I’d even argue that poetry is hope. Hope, as Webster defines it is: “to cherish a desire with anticipation” or “to want something to happen or be true.” I often attribute that or a similar description to poems as well.

KW: I’m tempted to end there because that’s such a powerful sentiment, and it really brings into focus what’s so precious about poetry, so thank you for that. Perhaps it works though, to leave our discussion of poetry there and conclude by asking about other art forms. Do you practice other arts aside from writing? If you could be a virtuouso of something else what would it be? And is there a piece or an artist of that form you admire that you could recommend to us?

NS: I’m a fan of art in the most expansive sense and of beautiful things in general. Like most people, I love music, theater, dance, visual art, literature, et cetera. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a ballerina. As a teenager, a singer—I sang in the gospel choir. And, how could I forget interior design (I recently reupholstered my dining room chairs) and fashion (I love pairing classic and unconventional pieces together)? Basically, I’d want to be a virtuoso at everything! If there were more hours in a day, I would seriously pursue all my passions, not just the writing.

At present, I’m still awestruck by Deborah Dancy, whose 2016 work, Queen Bea, is the jacket art for Ordinary Beast.

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Katie Willingham is the author of Unlikely Designs (University of Chicago Press, 2017). She earned her MFA at the Helen Zell Writers Program, where she was the recipient of a Hopwood Award in Poetry, a Theodore Roethke Prize, and a Nicholas Delbanco Thesis Prize. You can find her poems in such journals as The Kenyon Review, Bennington Review, Poem-a-Day, Third Coast, West Branch, Grist, and others. She has taught both composition and creative writing at the University of Michigan. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.