This conversation between Jennifer Bartell and DéLana R.A. Dameron focuses on Dameron’s new book, Weary Kingdom (Palmetto Poetry Series-University of South Carolina Press) and Black Southern poetics. It’s the first in a series of interviews with Black Women Poets with Southern roots.
Jennifer Bartell: You were raised in Columbia, South Carolina, although you now live in Brooklyn. How has the experiences of being Black, woman and Southern guided your journey as a poet?
DéLana R.A. Dameron: At almost five and a half years, Brooklyn has now become the place I have lived the longest since I left South Carolina to attend college at UNC Chapel Hill. I have lived in NYC (the rest of the time in Harlem with a brief stint in NJ) for ten years this July. I swear, when I moved to the mid-Atlantic, I never thought that I would stay this long.
Before I moved to NYC and worked with youth in education, I had identified as Black and woman. The South didn’t necessarily factor into my identity, I guess because I lived there, and I was—and later, did try to escape it.
I don’t have a Southern accent, though some of my lexicon is definitely imbued with my Southern upbringing. Of course, growing up in the South, that meant that my peers always said I “sounded white” and condescending adults always remarked that I “spoke so eloquently.” I tell these stories now to say that when I moved to NYC, I had to choose to identify, and later, defend, my Southernness. It would start with the youth (who we know, model after others): “Miss where you from?” Me: “South Carolina.” Student: “No, I mean, where your people from?” Me: “South Carolina and Georgia.” Student: “So you just Black then. (or another student “Regular Black”)” Me: “And you?” Student: “I’m Jamaican.”
And so as they say, the teacher becomes the student? But my learning was such that I began to understand that there were places where there were levels of Blackness, and that in NYC at least, and to some folks, I should understand and it should be understood that my American Blackness, my just Blackness was nearest to the bottom. Add in woman, and well. Here I am. Writing from multiple multiple places of being in and on and under and between the margins.
Too, I am aware of and always interested in the archive. Two Black women inform what I seek to achieve now. Sonia Sanchez says, “I speak your name so there is a tomorrow” and so I want to call out and speak about where I’m from and who I am. And Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon speaks about her writing as being Afro-futuristic, meaning that Blackness travels across time and into the future. So I must write and sing and call out names and places for tomorrow. I understand that many of our own discoveries and learnings about ancient histories and faraway places begins with a study of culture and art. I want to write my family, my Black, Southern, Regular Black Southern family into the future.
JB: How and where does the South appear in your work? Where are some places where the intersections of being Black/woman clash with being from the South.
DRAD: I referenced some of this question in my above answer, but I’ll speak about other types of writing that I do, and what I’m interested in. Right now I’m finishing up a novel, and have been working/tinkering away at a short story cycle, and hope one day to finish my long epic poem as my next collection of poetry. All of my work centers Blackness. Family. The South. Even when I’m writing about Harlem, like in Weary Kingdom, I’m really writing about Blackness, the South and family.
The novel is based in the antebellum South near Charleston, South Carolina and the short story cycle (a collection of linked short stories) is based in Columbia, SC in the 90’s and 00’s and the epic poem is back in Charleston, SC but looking at mid-20th century Black folks.
Your question about the intersections of being Black (and woman) and being from the South is an interesting one. I think interestingly enough, today the Black South is figuring into the nation’s imagination in a way unlike any other point in our history. We have pop culture and such to thank for that, right? But what I’m finding and thinking—and maybe this is the clash?—is that it is a very specific type of South, what my friend Rickey Laurentiis would say, the Coastal South—the South of mystery and intrigue, of gothic imaginings, of magic. I don’t mean to be reductionist, at all. But I do think the Black South that is revered and praised today, that is seen as points of interest for creativity and investigation is a Coastal South, and although my father’s family lived for many decades in Charleston SC and his father’s family were fishermen in the Chesapeake Bay, my South is an interior South, though a “big city or suburban South,” depending on who you ask. That experience is different from the South of Mississippi (and just saying that phrase alone denotes a type of meaning), and so… what am I saying? In many ways, and against the backdrop my South is regular and just black, maybe. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth investigating and archiving, and a place of record.
JB: For me, Zora Neale Hurston was one of the first writers I read who wrote about and embraced her Southern heritage. Who was that writer for you? And how do you see yourself as a role model for future Southern Black Writers?
DRAD: Am I a role model for future Southern Black Writers? Oh my goodness. What a thought to think! Tell me more (smiles).
Let me answer the first part of the question: I don’t think I set out, when I first started writing, still in the South, still…. trying to escape it in some way…. that I was writing to embrace it. In fact, I know I was not. BUT I did understand that I wanted to feel as confident as writers from urban spaces who call out known things (the A Train, 125th Street, U Street, Harlem, Bed Stuy, Anacostia, etc). I wanted to say Percival Road in a poem with the same conviction. I wanted to say blue crab in a poem without hesitation. Magnolia. Eucalyptus. I-26. Bush River. And so forth. I wanted the place that made me to have the same weight as others.
I think reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings really reinforced for me, after being obsessed for some time (still impacted in a way) with The Diary of Anne Frank, that even the young had a story to tell. I started writing in 4th grade, but in the style of Anne Frank, in private, in a diary. Then I read Maya Angelou in 7th grade and saw a woman who more closely resembled me and had family figures in her story that resembled my own (thinking of Angelou’s Momma who would beat you if you took the Lord’s name in vain…). Was she Southern? Rather, did I have a sense that she was Southern and was embracing her Southernness? I don’t know at that age that I was aware that was what was happening, but I think that it was mostly out of reading early Black writers who wrote about their places so specifically that I was like: OK this is what you have to do. I think I’m just trying to say some things, and the place from which I’m saying them is as a Southern Black Woman with all its glory and difficulty and trappings and praises and biscuits.
JB: There’s nothing more Southern than biscuits! It’s interesting how you inscribe race into Weary Kingdom. In the poem “Migration Story,” you write “…Nigger migrated / above the Mason Dixon line” and in the second iteration of the poem “Dear–” a young black man with a hoodie has an unexpected experience on a city bus based on his color. How much does race add to the weariness of the Kingdom you create in this book?
DRAD: Let’s go back in the 20th Century and think about the Great Migration and the story of Blacks leaving the South largely because of the extrajudicial racialized violence of lynchings and thinking there were more opportunities and possibly quote, unquote “less violence” in the North. (laughs) Then they get here and realize it’s the same shit, different day, same violence by another name. I know that I didn’t have a rose colored vision of the North when I came up here, as I said earlier: I had no intention of staying for as long as I stayed (laughs). When I came it was sort of like “I’ll get in, I’ll get out.” But you know what? I did believe that by leaving South Carolina, I would find something different.
The incident that happened in “Migration Story” happened early. I moved up to New York in 2007 and this happened the next Spring for St. Patrick’s Day, a few months after I moved up. I was walking down the street in midtown Manhattan in the middle of the day and got called Nigger and that really grounded me in a way (laughs). I guess I’m one [a nigger] everywhere. It made me realize that Black is Black is Black no matter what line you cross. It’s so ingrained into the story of American history.
And thinking about the “the Dear–” bus poem, the poem of the young man with the hoodie, it’s interesting that story now couldn’t happen with Harlem being so gentrified. A bus full of black people in Harlem is impossible, an anomaly now, a Black man on a bus didn’t seem like a unicorn. This was pre-Trayvon Martin, so the hood has a different connotation in this environment, but I was sort of thinking here’s a world of Black folks on a bus and all we have to do is try to get from one place to the next and we still, in that moment, care for each other. Even when our first instinct might have been to recoil and protect ourselves. This small moment of the woman fixing the young man’s zipper… we just need more moments of caring and understanding and you know getting past our initial judgments of people.
JB: The “Dear—” bus poem is my favorite poem in the collection. Can you talk a little bit about how you structured that poem because it starts with the bus’s “honeyed movement” and by the end we come back to the honey with the young man being called “honey” as well. There are several images that come between those honey moments. Can you talk a little bit about how you structured that poem?
DRAD: I wanted it to be very clear that it was Harlem or an urban area, so I named the streets. You know I really try to take a small moment, which was literally the woman fixing the young man’s zipper. I start there and I try to expand out to what built up to that moment, so trying to set the scene for the reader so you understand where this is happening, and not the when it is happening. As I said earlier, this scene would almost be impossible in the present-day Harlem. I also wanted to build up the tension to suggest that there was a tension before the woman just reached up and fixed the zipper and that meant making such a small moment longer, so this is one of the longer poems in the book.
JB: Another thing I like in that poem is that it’s obviously happening in an urban environment, but then we get to the end and she says “honey” and it feels like that is a Southern thing, this “Honey, come here let me help you.” So it was happening in an urban space but it still felt Southern at the same time.
DRAD: Yeah, that was also as I was running through the streets of Harlem. To reference again the Great Migration, I lived in Sugar Hill, Harlem and it was 140s to 150s [street numbers]; this is also where a lot of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance landed. And so today… there were so many black folks whose parents or grandparents were Southern living in this area. Where I live in Bed-Stuy now, the few Black folk who are left have a similar story. Thinking about the “Migration Story” poem and the idea that the word “nigger” migrated above the Mason-Dixon line, “honey” also migrated; all of these other things I love and appreciate about the South migrated as well, and I think that finding those moments allowed me to continue my homemaking here.
JB: In his foreword of the book, Ross Gay writes, you have a “home thing, with its mapping and searching.” He goes on to say that the idea of home takes many shapes throughout the collection. So, home isn’t just the South or Harlem, it takes on various locations, people, and things. You have the “Desert” and “Coyote” poems that add a sense of desolation to the collection. Because the collection goes back between the North and the South but there are other landscapes throughout the collection that aren’t’ necessarily Northern or Southern, so I wanted to ask you did you make home ambiguous to disorient or orient the reader? What’s the statement you’re trying to make about what home is?
DRAD: I definitely have a home thing. I will not deny that. I don’t think I went into putting Weary Kingdom together with the knowledge or understanding that I had a home thing. So it’s like you write a poem and you have someone read it and they say, “Oh, yeah, this is what it’s doing.” And you’re like “Yeah! That’s what it’s doing” (laughter). The idea of home was certainly something I was wrestling with that I decided to attempt to reconcile through poetry, but putting Weary Kingdom together wasn’t an act of explicitly setting out to write a collection of poetry about home, though that is what it feels like now.
The question about did I make it ambiguous to disorient or orient the reader… I think that home for me, even today in 2017, home is still ambiguous, right? So, I traveled to South Carolina (home?) and I got back up to Brooklyn and I texted my friend—and ironically this is my friend from South Carolina who’s known me for 21 years and he’s in Harlem now so I get to go back to Harlem often—and he responds back, “Are you home?” I was like “Huh.” and I texted back, “Yeah, I’m back in Brooklyn.” When I say I’m going to South Carolina, I’m going home, but when I’m outside of the United States and I say I’m going home that means Brooklyn, but from Brooklyn home means South Carolina. It’s in this discomforting space for myself that comes out on the page.
JB: Thinking back to the “Dear–” poems… you have several poems that are epistles, letters to individuals and things and I want to talk about that choice of using the epistolary. I counted nine poems entitled “Dear–”. Tell me if that’s wrong, but tell me about why you chose to use that form to address some of the issues with home and also I was wondering what were some of your formal considerations since some of your “Dear–” poems are couplets, prose poems, or one long stanza. What was your process here?
DRAD: Yeah, so there are nine “Dear–” poems, I just counted myself and there are also a poem that’s explicitly a letter: “The Letter I Never Sent 2007. So that makes 10 epistolaries.
JB: And isn’t there also the “Dear Zemar”?
DRAD: Yeah, you’re right so that makes 11 (laughter). I will include all of those in this conversation. My first urging to want to say some things on paper came from reading the Diary of Anne Frank as a fourth grader and I was really taken by this idea that there was a young person who was writing these very intimate things and the idea of the letter is that you say some things about yourself, you ask some questions, then you put it out into the world and hope that someone will respond to the things you said about yourself and your questions. So you have this immediate exchange. From reading Anne Frank as a young girl and trying to figure out ways to combat a lot of craziness from when I was younger, I started writing in a journal, but it wasn’t like “Dear Diary,” or “This is what I did today.” I wrote it to specific people much in the way Anne Frank did. I don’t know if I modeled it after that. It’s the idea of keeping a journal. I still keep a journal. I don’t necessarily write it to people in the way that I did probably up until high school. But the idea of the letter, the missives going out into the world, to someone known or unknown, there or not there, is part of my writing DNA.
I don’t think that I set out to say “Okay, I’m going to write an epistle and this is how it will look” when you ask the formal question about the poems. I really try to think about what does the content of the poem need?
Here’s a perfect example of it on page 79—the “Dear–” poem used to be called something else and then I changed it to “Dear–”. Some of the “Dear–” poems are specific moments and sometimes for me the specificity can seem isolating to a reader and by saying Dear with a dash I believe I’m allowing space for the reader to enter into this space of the poem. It speaks to my overall ars poetica, if you will, that I write very cognizant that there is someone on the other side of the poem. Right now, I can read the poem to an audience and there’s someone on the other side of that or however many years from now when I’m not here. Epistle is a form that is very, very aware that there is an audience.
JB: Yeah and in that “Dear–” poem on page 79, apples come back up. There’s a poem in the beginning where you’re talking about apple orchards (one of the first “Dear–” poems). “An apple is an easy convenience / to hold–given up for the bite, / though it never offered itself / to the mouth.” With the apple and the other threads I see working in the collection, there are several animals: we got beetles, the moth, and then we have the sacrificial animals like the skinned and bleeding goat and the live blue crab that is cooked and eaten. That’s another one of my favorite poems, the blue crab poem. What is the role of animals and nature in this Weary Kingdom?
DRAD: The apple in the first section goes in the context of the apple tree, which is what the poem is really about, the South and my daddy’s apple tree. So the flora and the fauna play multiple roles—one is a place marker. Here I am in the South. Eucalyptus tree. Magnolia. And then sometimes they are time markers like in the “Dear–” poem on page 79 where it says “fall apples ripen on the table.” For me, that situates where we are in the year. Then we have poems where things are the title: “The Blue Crab,” “Desert,” “Coyote.”
“Io Moth” is a very specific point in my writing time. I was really interested in Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, as well as Anne Sexton’s Bestiary U.S.A. Glück takes these flowers and speaks through them like a spiritual being and addresses big questions and big issues. Sexton does a similar thing but with animals, so what she does is take an animal and use animal attributes to personify the animals. So in a poem like “Beetle,” I’m thinking about always seeing a beetle upside down on their backs and how that can apply to the human condition. So that was a moment when I was trying to be like Sexton. “Blue Crab “ is another great example of that. When you get things like the desert, that’s me thinking of how Glück might be and you can see it’s more of a higher order of thinking, very religiously-minded. “Io Moth,” is another very interesting example, given where my life is right now with my relationship with my mother. It’s this idea of there being a moth with eyes that look at you. For the animal, that was an evolutionary protection to make it look like a bigger animal. The speaker of this poem sees a moth that is trying to make it into the room to get at the light in the room and the speaker sees the animal struggling to do this thing, and all she has to do is lift the window, but by doing that she knows she could kill the animal. And that was a weary kingdom for me, that was my relationship with my mother for forever.
JB: When you were considering the title of the collection, and I know it comes from the title poem, did you have in mind at all Langston Hughes and “The Weary Blues,” especially with you being in Harlem and the New York area?
DRAD: I did not. This book was written largely before I went to get my MFA at NYU and there are a few poems that crossed over into my MFA life. I was working on a different project at NYU, not Weary Kingdom, but one of the classes I took was with Yusef Komunyakka; it was a craft class and he had us read this book by Emerson. In this book, Emerson says, “The weary kingdom of our lives” and I was like “Oh, shit!” (laughter). You know I wasn’t even looking for the title of anything. I took the phrase “weary kingdom,” and wrote the poem and and stuffed it into the manuscript, which was then called Cartographer, this idea of mapping and charting a course, which still exists there. But as I was thinking through what other story I wanted to tell in the book, not just mapping out spaces, I thought about the poem “Weary Kingdom” and how it starts “I want to love this city” (laughs). That’s this whole book: me wanting to love this place I’m at and then I tried it on as a manuscript title and it never went away.
JB: Wow, okay. We began this conversation talking about migration and it’s interesting because a lot of people are doing the reverse migration—they live in the North, have grandma or other close relative who came up from the South to live in the North, and now they are coming back down South. You sorta did the reverse of that.
DRAD: I haven’t done it yet.
JB: You went from the South to the North but, you haven’t’ done it yet?
DRAD: Yeah. The Reverse Migration. I make it very clear in the beginning of this conversation that I’ve stayed here longer than I planned. The older I get the more I feel the tuggings and the pullings South, family circumstances notwithstanding, but they make the tuggings more evident. The surprising thing about Weary Kingdom too is that I didn’t realize how much yearning I was doing about the South while I was writing it. I was so interested in the homemaking of where I was. Hindsight is 20/20, looking back and giving it some space. These poems were absolutely written between 2008 and 2012 and I did not add any new poems to it when I learned it was going to be published and I wanted it to be a specific time frame, you know. These poems didn’t exist much longer after I thought I said I was running away from the South, so this idea of saying I was trying to escape something and then to discover or for me to see through the poems the type of yearning I was doing is really interesting. To now live at this place where I am acknowledging that I am yearning for something different.
A native of Columbia, South Carolina, DéLana R.A. Dameron is a writer and arts and culture administrator living in Brooklyn, NY. Dameron is the author of Weary Kingdom (2017) and her debut collection How God Ends Us was selected by Elizabeth Alexander for the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize. Dameron holds a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry from New York University and a Bachelor of Arts in History from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has conducted readings, workshops and lectures all across the United States, Central America and Europe. www.delanaradameron.com
Jennifer Bartell received the MFA in Poetry from USCarolina. Her poetry has been published in Callaloo, PLUCK!, Blackberry