We’re living in a police/surveillance state. How has this affected your approach toward poetry, art, persona, and personal presence?
As a person of color, my body is both over-policed and under-policed: I am more likely to die at the hands of a police officer, but less likely to be protected by one. This has made me less apologetic, less willing to be respectable in my work, and more willing to say some things I’ve been wanting to say for a long time. While driving through rural Tennessee in October 2016, I was the victim of a hate crime, and when I dialed 911, the dispatcher was awful. She was rude, she was dismissive, and she eventually hung up in my face. The police never came. I never had the opportunity to file a police report. Nothing happened to her or my assailant. That single moment changed me forever. It didn’t matter that I was educated, or law-abiding, or minding my own business. I was vulnerable, and expendable, and the person who was hired to help me didn’t give a damn about those things. So, I said to myself: okay, if there’s a chance I could die anyway, then what am I gaining by not writing what I want to write, and by not saying the things I want to say? I didn’t realize how much I had invested in respectability politics until that moment, and afterward, I canceled my subscription. If my life is as fragile as I now believe it is, and if it is as carelessly protected (and sometimes taken) by the very people I’m paying to keep it safe, then I’m going to protect it and let it grow in whatever direction it wants to. This is also true for my art. I now move about the world with the understanding that I don’t owe it anything. I’m still law-abiding. I still mind my own business. But that’s all they’re getting from me.
Has 2017 been different for you than other years?
Definitely. This marks the first calendar year during which I completely devoted myself to writing—something which I’m embarrassed to say I’d never done before. I always made the excuse of being busy with school or work or personal issues, but the truth is that I was just afraid of putting in work, because a big part of that work would involve my being more forthcoming about some of my truths in my poems. In the spring of 2016, my appointment as an academic adviser ended, and for a few months, I didn’t have a job. To make myself feel useful, I’d get up and work on poems, and I eventually started revising my manuscript. That time alone made me more comfortable with my work; I even drafted a few short stories. Then, after I started working again, I decided that I’d spend my free time writing, because it is the thing that brings me the most joy, and I want to turn it into a career that I love. When the new year came, I told myself that I would say “yes” to as many literary opportunities as possible; that included readings, workshops, submissions—whatever I could afford in money and time, I would do. The combination of preparation and critical decision-making has really made this year a remarkable one. At the invitation of my friend, another poet named Joshua Moore, I got involved with Poetry on Demand, a project run by a Nashville-based writer’s collective called The Porch. POD has given me the great honor of interviewing all kinds of people and writing poems based on their life stories. It has also improved my craft: because POD poems are written within the hour, I had to learn to bypass my anxiety about putting words on paper. I’ve also been bolder, and applied for more residencies, book contests, and anthologies, including Bettering American Poetry. I kept seeing calls for BAP submissions online, and I finally decided I would nominate myself. At first, I thought: I don’t have a chance, and this feels self-aggrandizing in a way that’s going to be really embarrassing if a poem isn’t accepted. However, I’m glad I took the initiative to vote for myself. I think that, sometimes, for women of color, even small acts like this make us feel like we’re demanding space, and that bleeds into how we submit work and how willing we are to nominate ourselves for things. This past year has been one wherein I’ve made efforts to ignore that fear, and I’ve had some great opportunities because of it.
What do you think is the most significant impact social media has had on the poetry world recently?
I’m not sure I can speak for the entire poetry world, but I can speak for my own experiences. Social media has allowed me to read more poetry than I ever could have in graduate school, or even now as a person on a tight budget who can’t always buy books. I read everything I can online—journal issues, poems featured on poets’ websites, everything. It’s helped my own craft tremendously; I can read the work of emerging writers who haven’t published collections, and see the innovative, boundary-pushing things they’re doing. That inspires me to push boundaries as well. It also helps me connect with other writers. I’m often in conversation with my friends and I’ll say: “That reminds me of this poem—you should read it!” and I’ll send the link. I think all of my writer friends have been sent links to Layli Long Soldier’s poem “38” long before it appeared in a book That was one of the poems that changed the game for me as I was revising my manuscript. In a more general sense, social media also helps writers find opportunities. Most of the fellowships, residencies, and publications I’ve applied for in the past few years are ones I learned about online.
Is there a particular excerpt from your work in Bettering American that you would like to share? What would you like to tell others about this excerpt (i.e. how you came to write those lines, where they came from, etc.)? What did it take to write this poem? What does it take for others to read/experience this poem?
I think some of my favorite lines in this poem are those about my mother, who chopped down our Christmas trees every year. In retrospect, she did many things during my childhood that seemed normal, but in reality were pretty strange, and that was one of them. The live ones that were for sale were too expensive, and she hated fake trees, so every year, she’d take my god-brother, Tremeale, and they would go into the woods to find a tree. She’d actually cut two: one for our living room, and a smaller one for my aunt, who was her twin sister. My aunt lived with us, but she couldn’t walk, so my mom wanted her to have a tree in her room that she could look at whenever she wanted to. I grew up in Louisiana, and my mother would come back and tell us about seeing snakes and all kinds of things; she would also always take a small knife or a baseball bat, so it felt dangerous to me and I was always nervous when she left. Indeed, it was a little reckless, but also kind of badass. As early as graduate school, I’d tried to write a poem about this particular ritual; back then, I was (naively) more invested in the strangeness of it, but once I started writing this poem, I realized that this detail spoke well to the speaker’s desire for someone with as much determination and resolve as her mother. In the poem, the beloved on the phone is, for whatever reason, reluctant to articulate their desire for her, and so her thoughts turn to someone who is willing to do more, give more, even if that relationship also ends in betrayal and disappointment.
DESTINY O. BIRDSONG is a poet and essayist whose poems have either appeared or are forthcoming in African American Review, Indiana Review, Split This Rock’s “Poem of the Week,” and elsewhere. Her critical work recently appeared in African American Review, and The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature. Destiny is a recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize, has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and BinderCon, and residencies from Pink Door, The Ragdale Foundation, and The MacDowell Colony. Connect with her and read more of her work at www.destinybirdsong.com.
This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 2. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”
Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for these anthologies. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.