Waiting on the Mayflower: Evie Shockley with Leonard Schwartz

Poet Evie Shockley

In honor of Litmus Press’ forthcoming collection of Leonard Schwartz interviews with female poets, we will offer an ongoing series of transcribed talks from Schwartz’s “Cross-Cultural Poetics” archives. This interview with Evie Shockley,

From CCP Episode #77: Four Across, originally conducted in 2005. Transcription by Kelly Bergeron.

Leonard Schwartz: Today’s guest on the phone from North Carolina is Evie Shockley. She’s the author of The Gordon Goddess, and a new manuscript, a half-red sea, poems, which have been published in numerous literary periodicals. She’s got a new job teaching at Rutgers University and will be moving to New Brunswick soon. Welcome, Evie Shockley.

Evie Shockley: Hi!

LS: Hi. Great to have you on the line. I’ve really been enjoying the poems in a half-red sea. You begin the book with two epigraphs: one from a letter from Phillis Wheatley, and the second a poem from Lucille Clifton. Can you say a little bit about the influence or the relationship of these two figures to your poems?

ES: Certainly. I’ll start backwards, I guess, chronologically. Clifton I was lucky enough to study with for a couple of semesters when we were both passing through Duke, where I was in graduate school. She has, I think, influenced my poetry in ways that I am still not fully able to account for, but one of the poems that she wrote, in addition to the one that I cited, the epigraph, talks about the Middle Passage in ways that really echoed Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” poem and were important for me. Phillis Wheatley, of course, then becomes an important figure as someone who survived that crossing herself. I sort of hold her as a touchstone, as the earliest published author of a book of creative writing in the African American tradition. So they seemed like good benchmarks for what I was trying to do in a half-red sea.

LS: Yeah. Absolutely. We’ve had Kamau Brathwaite as a guest on Cross-Cultural Poetics, and he has a great book called Middle Passages, which both takes the Middle Passage and also speaks of it as a passage and a text, and the kind of language that comes out of the experience. There is a piece in the book titled “waiting on the mayflower” that begins with an epigraph from Frederick Douglass. I wondered if you could say a little bit about the poem and then read it for us?

ES: Sure. It comes directly from this period when I was working with Clifton and also poet and scholar George Elliott Clarke, who was passing through Duke, too, at the same time. I took the title from a history book by Lerone Bennett Jr., called Before the Mayflower. That references the fact that African American history is a part of American history from before the earliest markers that we have of this place as a country. The poem is in four sections, and I took the first three sections from dates and events that were referenced in Bennett’s history book. The first three sections of the poem take place in the period before America was the United States. And the last section reflects, you might say, from the present moment, or nearly the present moment, backwards. [Reads:]

waiting on the mayflower

“what, to the american slave, is your 4th of july?”
—frederick douglass

i.  august 1619

arrived in a boat. named
and unnamed. twenty, pirated

away from a portuguese
slaver. traded for victuals.

drowned in this land of fresh,
volatile clearings and folk

with skin like melted
cowrie shells. soon shedding

servitude. soon reaping
talents sown on african soil.

after indenture, christians,
colonists. not english, but

not yet not-white. antoney
and isabella, whose marriage

stretched the short shadows
of america’s early afternoon

into the dusky reaches of evening,
whose conjugal coitus spent

first the choice coin of africa
on rough virginian citizenship,

baptized their son, william,
into the church of england.

 

ii. december 1638

fear must have shuddered
into boston on the backs

of true believers—men and
women of an unadorned god—

deep in the heavy black fabric
of their coats and dresses like

a stench. black a mark of
pride they wore as if branded,

never dreaming they could
take it off. envy anticipated

their advent. glittered at them,
settling in, from the knife

blades of the massachusetts.
seeped like low-pitched

humming from the fur
lining the natives’ warm

blankets. but desire docked
in 1638. in from the harbor

flocked a people whose eyes
sparked like stars, even near

death. whose hair promised
a mixture of cotton and river

water and vines, a texture
the fingers ached for. who

wholly inhabited a skin the
midnight color of grace

that clarified the hue of the
pilgrims’ woolen weeds. fear

and envy claimed pride of place,
put desire’s cargo to good use.

 

iii. march 1770

that night, crispus attucks
dreamed. how he’d attacked

his would-be master and fled
in wild-eyed search of self-

determination. discarded
virginia on the run and ran

out of breath in salt-scented
boston. found there, if not

freedom, fearlessness. a belief
in himself that rocked things

with the uncontrolled power
of the muscular atlantic, power

to cradle, to capsize. awoke
angry again at the planter

who’d taken him for a mule
or a machine. had shouldered

a chip the size of concord
by the time the redcoat dared

to dare him. died wishing he’d
amassed such revolutionary

ire in virginia. died dreaming
great britain was the enemy.

 

iv. july 4th: last
but not least

17-, 18-, 19-76 and still
this celebration’s shamed

with gunpowder and words
that lie like martyrs in cold

blood. africa’s descendents,
planting here year after year

the seeds of labor, sweating
bullets in this nation’s wars,

have harvested the rope,
the rape, the ghetto, the cell,

the fire, the flood, and the
blame for you-name-it. so

today black folks barbeque
ribs and smother the echoes

of billie’s strange song in
sauces. drink gin. gladly

holiday to heckle speeches
on tv. pretend to parade.

turn out in droves for distant
detonations, chaos, controlled

as always, but directed
away from us tonight. stare

into the mirror of the sky
at our growing reflection,

boggled by how america
gawks at the passing pinpoints

of flame, but overlooks the vast,
ebony palm giving them shape.

 

LS: You have been listening to Evie Shockley read her poem “waiting on the mayflower” from a half-red sea, poems by Evie Shockley. Thank you so much for that reading, Evie. It’s a really powerful piece. I wondered if you could say a little bit about the relationship between history and poetry for you, or between history and imagination, because they are both daughters of memory, or Mnemosyne, and yet, they are both usually conceived of in the Greek sense of having separate muses. In your work, history and poetry overlap in really interesting ways. I’m also noting that you’re both a poet and a lawyer, and that’s an interesting overlap, too. And I wondered if there was a connection in terms of the way you think about language and the kind of work you do in both sides of your thinking?

ES: History and poetry are very intimately connected for me because so much of the history of African American people at that time in particular was lost, or was not recorded with a first-person perspective that shows us what the survivors of the Middle Passage were thinking, or feeling, or experiencing. So I appreciate the ability of poetry to provide an accepted means of reimagining that experience, sort of filling in the gaps of history. I have really enjoyed the license that poetry gives me to try to put words to things that in many ways seem to exceed words. Or at least exceed the normal language of speech and the normal language even of scholarship. I could not deny that the importance of defining terms and being as precise as possible with language that lawyers are required to do on a regular basis—that kind of attention certainly contributes to the kind of poetry that I write, and the way that I try to mine words for their ambiguities in my poems. Legal language is sometimes so annoyingly difficult and dense because lawyers like to throw out the many, many words that might describe something that they’re trying to prevent from happening, or trying to make sure does go in a specific way, and thus, contracts often expose the ambiguities of language in attempting to make everything certain. What contracts do is make really evident how uncertain language is as a means of communicating. And in my poetry, I like to actually exploit that.

LS: That’s really interesting. I think of the kind of back and forth between legal scholars and deconstruction in criticism, in pointing out the deep contradictions between even the most contractually sane kind of statements. I also think of the law in terms of performance, of course, as well, and performative function of language, which a poem does in its own way as well, right?

ES: Yes, by sort of speaking certain things into being—and that in another sense is what a contract does. It promises and therefore binds in the very speaking or writing of the language. And I like to think that poems that explore history can actually fill in those gaps in a certain way. And create a knowledge, or at least maybe create in readers a desire for that knowledge, if we can’t really ever have it. Or encourage others to want it as much as I do.

LS: And what you say really foregrounds the way in which the poem is central. When history is erased then it’s the poem’s job to conjure up or talk the history back into being, and that’s a very powerful situation to be in as a poet or a powerful responsibility I suppose, as a poet.

ES: “waiting on the mayflower” again is really one of my older poems. I already sense, I feel, the things that I would say differently if I were writing the poem now. But I also respect the place where I was when I wrote them, wrote these lines. I’m content that I have the opportunity to revisit the subject again and again, until I’ve exhausted it from my own perspective.

LS: Evie, this has been wonderful. I wish we had more time, so we are going to have to do this again, and maybe you can bring us further forward in your recent work and the poems you’ve been working on now. How the Middle Passage might be articulated currently in a newer poem. Can we do this again sometime soon?

ES: Absolutely. It would be my pleasure.

LS: That would be great. We’ve been speaking with Evie Shockley about her poetry in a half-red sea.

 

Evie Shockley is the author of two poetry collections, the new black (Wesleyan, 2011) and a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006). From 2007-2011, she co-edited the poetry journal jubilat. Her work also includes a critical study: Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). She is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, where she teaches African American literature and creative writing.

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