A Conversation with Aziza Barnes
BY LYNN HUYNH
Aziza Barnes is blk & alive. Born in Los Angeles, Aziza currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Aziza's first chapbook, me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun, was the first winner of the Exploding Pinecone Prize from Button Poetry, and Barnes' first full length collection of poems, i be but i ain’t, is the winner of the 2015 Pamet River Prize with YesYes Books.
First thing’s first: for our readers who haven't yet picked up i be, but i ain’t, can you give a tweet-length description of the book?
AB: bugs burbon bugs sex bugs mutt confederate soilders mutt bugs cystitc ovaries bugs richard pryor bugs mutt mutt mutt mutt mutt (I don’t tweet)
In what way did you most surprise yourself while writing i be, but i ain’t?
AB: I think my major surprise was how malleable the book felt. There was a whole section of poems about Dreyxia (a myth on underwater group of pregnant slaves, thrown over in the Middle Passage), that I took out & filled with these poems about living in Mississippi. I think I was surprised the book & I weren’t separate— it wasn’t me & my project—as I lived, the book lived. I’d always treated my writing from the stand point that I was above it somehow, the arbiter somehow. But nah. That shit just reads me & commands me to do better, exposes my fuckery.
Another surprise was how personal it got. There are many poems about my own body, about how I want to alter my body/about the decay of my body. In writing them, they didn’t feel revealing but now that the book is in the world, there’s something very permanent in feeling about talking about my breasts, my ovaries, how my body is gendered & misgendered & mishandled in spaces.
I didn’t fully understand what all “mutt” would mean to me. That “mutt” is really a haven for me to be queer, blk, & not dead. I tried to give myself & that character distance, but I was shook by how myself my book is.
What impressed me most about the book was the power and honesty of the language, as well as the demonstrated connection between language and community. Literature has always retained an elitist sense of “sophistication,” reserved for people of privilege— more often than not, people who are white. From “Who dat” to “What had happened was,” you integrate slang into poetry, language against which formal literature tends to speak. You do this so beautifully and powerfully. Were you conscious of the bridge you created between the two worlds? I should certainly hope this is the direction that poetry is heading, but how do you think it will impact the future of poetry and literature?
AB: Yo, thank you. For my own vernacular, I’ve stopped speaking them as different worlds, if that makes sense. I used to code switch often in white spaces, in blk spaces, until I felt genuinely insane. That shit don’t go for me. The way I speak, the way my homies speak, is of many Englishes. I wouldn’t have written the book in my voice if I wrote it any differently. It couldn’t come from me, you know? My hope is that this choice is still able to be viewed & taken in as literature, & not cornered into the patronizing box of “oh, what an interesting voice.” I feel blk & brown folk are praised for their “voice” & their craft never brought into the conversation. If anything, I want my voice & the voice of my contemporaries to be held with our craft. My hope is that literarture will have a wider possibility, that its possibility is as varied as my speech. Or rather, that how I speak, how my family speaks, how my kin speaks, is literary.
Literature and poetry often exclude the marginalized, specifically women of color. With this in mind, seeing the words of a woman of color in print can be truly empowering for many readers. How can we best make the literary world safer for women of color?
AB: Ah man. The word “safe” throws up a lot of questions for me. I don’t think I know what a “safe space” is anymore. What the guidelines would be, how it would be maintained, the state I would need to be in to be an active contributor to a safe space. & safe for women of color.
I’d say the act & art of listening. Just listen to women of color. & believe them. like for real. believe what they say. & follow that belief into immediate & concrete action. That’s how we make the literary world safer.
Throughout the series, you bring up quotes from Stonewall Jackson, a Civil War general who fought in the Confederate but was known for acting more kindly to slave communities than others. What led you to him and these quotes?
AB: That’s an interesting way to phrase it, “more kindly.” I often think about Stonewall and his relationship to blackness, how he on the low taught slaves to read in exchange for pine knots. He’s a complicated dude. I’ve had an ongoing obsession with Stonewall Jackson since I was about 8 years old. My dad would play Ken Burns’ Civil War tapes for me and my sister to go to sleep, a strange way to go to sleep, but the dude who narrated the joints had a really soothing voice. I would fall asleep for years hearing about this dude Stonewall Jackson & I loved how he was described, his many eccentricities, that he, “always sucked on lemons, even in the heat of battle,” and was so religious he called his soldiers, “an army of the living God.” He always seemed much more convicted, firm in how he saw the world and how he was meant to shape it than his contemporaries, Lincoln among them— who I came to think of as kinda wack after hearing a quote from him, “if I could save the Union by freeing all the slaves, I would do it. If I could save the Union by freeing none of the slaves, I would do it. And if I could save the Union by freeing some slaves and not others, I would also do that.” & wacker still when he suggested to “colonize the blacks,” to which abolitionist Wendell Phillips had to check him saying (one of my favorite joints), “colonize the blacks? A man might as well colonize his own hand. Or if the robber is in his house, colonize his revolver.” I love that.
What I dug the most about Stonewall was how sure he was of a world he wanted to create. That it was a deeply fucked up world, but that he was sure of it. From there, I wanted to put his name in my book, his voice throughout, to test if his world, his ideals, would fit with someone like me: a gender non-conforming blk writer. I love being able to pit his quote, “God has a fixed time for my death. I do not concern myself about that but to always be ready…that is the way all men should live and then all would be equally brave,” against a poem of mine about my cousin’s murder in a drive thru and police running up on my house, asking if it is in fact mine. These declarations of his are so absolute, that pitting them against my reality validates the complication of my living in America, and how the Confederacy, that special strain of Americana, can so easily infiltrate & dictate how I view my own humanity. I constantly need to check myself when I realize I’m holding myself to a hyper Western/patriarchal/capitalist notion of success, of self-hood, and hearing his voice is a clear barometer/reminder for me to create my own standards.
Who are the writers and non-writers that most profoundly influenced the world of i be, but i ain’t?
AB: Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor. While writing this joint, I would watch The Sunset Strip on repeat, mainly stuck on the beginning. Pryor comes on stage & says, “look, I know you want me to do well. & I want to do well. So, let’s. All. Calm. Down.” That level of vulnerability is my shit & is funny as shit & is the permission I need to give myself to write. Louis CK is another voice up in this book, Lucille Clifton, Wangechi Mutu, Zadie Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, Fred Moten, Fred Moten, Fred Moten, Fred Moten. That dude. Douglas Kearney, Dawn Lundy Martin, Nujabes, Eddie Murphy’s RAW stand up/DELIRIOUS stand up (I think comedians and poets are kin in a really specific way, the way our craft(s) go down, our insistence on finding the right timing, hearing the line til it sings), Pepper LeBeja, r. erica doyle, Heather Christle, Fraiser (I watch a lot of Fraiser, mainly for the timing & read on multiple levels of whiteness), Hank Willis Thomas, Attack on Titan (the comic & anime show), The Marx Brothers, Kamiliah Aisha Moon, Flying Lotus, Junot Diaz, Audre Lorde, Rihanna, Bleach (the anime)
& Stonewall Jackson, of course.
Many readers of i be, but i ain’t will inevitably not identify as women of color, and will thus bring different lived experiences to their readings and interpretations of i be, but i ain’t. What is your hope for these readers as they process the book?
AB: That they feel completely embodied in their own subject positions. That if they’re a cis gendered straight white dude, they feel even more so, even more compelled to say their own name. I want this book to give folk permission to be their whole ass selves. To talk shit & laugh & dance. & to also dig that the way I need to live in this America is rigorous, exhausting, & often too much.
That what they feel (the laughing, dancing, talking shit) are my only weapons, are the only reasons I can stay here.
Also that time ain’t linear, that you can create your ancestry, that you are your own land, origin. Your history is of your agency.
Who are the writers and artists out there right now that you’re most excited about?
AB: The homies for real. I feel incredibly blessed to be in community with folk whose work make me recommit to the craft of writing daily, who make me recommit to myself. These writers and creators: Hanif Willis Abdurraquib, Nabila Lovelace, Safia Elhillo, Camonghne Felix, Jose Olivarez, Jon Sands, Lauren Whitehead, Mahogany Browne, Angel Nafis, Jerriod Avant, Paul Tran, Jeremy Clark, Taylor Johnson, Xandria Phillips, Justin Phillip Reed, Danez Smith, Jayson Smith, Jon Sands, Cortney Lamar Charleston, Faitmah Asghar, Crystal Boson, Nate Marshall, Marty Cain, Sarah Sgro, Derrick Harriell, Ishmael Islam, Kiese Laymon, Maggie Woodward, Desiree Bailey, Morgan Parker, Shira Erlichman, Ocean Vuong, Taylor Simone, Christopher Gabriel Nuñez, Rio Cortez, Nataki Garrett, The Dance Cartel— so many more folk. Every day I feel fed.
Some might consider i be, but i ain’t a bildungsroman. Would you agree with this sort of classification? If so, how has writing the book affected the way you see yourself and your journey thus far?
AB: Absolutely. Def a bildungsroman. I grew into this book as I wrote it. The oldest poem in it was written in 2013 by a much younger version of me, the most recent in 2016. I feel like i be, but i ain’t is the book I’ve been wanting to write since I was 18, but lacked the tools and life experience to write it. I came into my queerness with this book, my investment in humor as a poetic tool (& just a tool to stay alive, for real for real), I feel I came into my craft as a writer through writing this book, compiling it with my kin & cohort at Poets House. Writing this in Brooklyn, in Ghana, in Mississippi, I’m realizing now, the act of trusting that this book would become a book, that gave my license to be brave.
I felt I could be as mobile as I wanted to, because the book would grow with me, not despite of my curiosity. This was a huge lesson for me. I would be writing these joints about bugs, about boston & fuck boston, about feeling homeless in my body & dysmorphia & a post-apocalyptic blkness & thinking, for a moment, that I didn’t want to share them with anyone. But that’s all a book, any art making is for real for real.
Sometimes I still can’t believe this book, this person I am now is real. I feel at home in my body & questioning of that home daily. I feel freed up to write other joints, now that this one is penned down.
Lynn Huynh is a young curator, writer, and artist based in Houston, Texas. Her work focuses primarily on youth and identity and has been recognized by institutions such as the Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and Bennington College. She loves art history, the snapchat filter with the stars, and going out for brunch.
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