Ms. Muse: Samantha Thornhill on Calypso Culture, Lost Black Lives and Spirit Channeling

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Imagine you’re taking a speeding subway train when a woman stands and performs a poem by Lucille Clifton. After she sits, someone on the other side of the same car stands and recites another poem. One by one, passengers speak in poetry to each other, receiving a standing ovation by the next station stop.

Poet, educator and spoken word artist Samantha Thornhill, who stood up first, co-founded Poets in Unexpected Places (PUP), a pop-up poetry project. During the group’s first performance on that Q train in 2010, strangers followed their lead, reciting spontaneously. Featured in the New York Times, PUP has been invited to perform widely from Brooklyn Academy of Music to downtown Montreal.

Thornhill has taught poetry for prisoners at Rikers and actors at Juilliard. She’s performed in barbershops and clinics administering HIV tests. She’s published a poetry collection with Martin Espada, children’s books and poetry albums; produced poetry videos for All Def Poetry; and collaborated with a filmmaker to co-direct short documentaries about young women with fathers in prison.

This second installment of Ms. Muse features two new poems by Thornhill—and her thoughts on writing lost Black lives, messages in our dreams and how Black women poets changed her life.

Samantha Thornhill (photo credit: Peter Dressel)


The Poems

Minority Report

for Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam

In the beat of Harlem’s heart,
I imagine a Black woman
on her afternoon run,
hands on knees, winded.
Hunched over a scrap
of the city’s hem, she discovers
her reflection in your bloated
beauty, clothed & laced up
in the river’s clutch. Your Honor,
from three feet of Hudson
river water, the police lifted
what used to be
you, sluiced of breath.
A lone metrocard to the land
of no promises bobbing in pocket.
Street cameras fossilized
your last breathing
moments by the water’s edge,
& before, strolling solo
under a Pink Moon, the first
full moon of Spring.
I imagine your fists drowning
in your sweatshirt, free
from phone & wallet, ready
to swing. For how facile
is it now for a hued
Justice, gathering new
foes with each gavel-slam,
to make her final ruling
belly-up & waterlogged—
unmolested brownstone,
affinity for swimming,
whispering bruise
married to her throat?

Bring Back

Bring back the brown faces
missing from milk cartons.

Bring back our lost, our girls from Accra,
Laventille, Gugulethu & the Bronx;

dredge them up from swamps
on the hills of capitals. Bring back

search parties, flashlights small suns.
Amber alert the diaspora to the town hall.

Bring back our sons from their chalk
outlines, caskets swallowing our boys

like Jonahs. Bring our men back
from lynch ropes, lead pipes & Ivy League

cages. Bring back our mothers
from the caves in their hearts.

Bring back the souls of child
traffickers & top dollar rapists—

CEO’s, celebrities & holy men
who leave their masks chattering

on nightstands in rooms wallpapered
with girls no milk box could ever save.

Bring our babies back to their own beds
left made & unmade.

Bring them back with the whole village—
each face a bead braided into its memory—

Bring back: oh, Quita missing?
Girl, she been at Darius’

house since school let out.
I thought you knew. Chile.


The Interview

“Minority Report” and “Bring Back” address a range of issues that a reader likely knows something or a lot about from lived experience (and doesn’t that include hearing about and witnessing the experiences of family, friends and community?) and/or culture—news media, books, film, art, social media, etc. Can you speak about the relationship between your writing and your lived experience, witnessed experience and the impact of culture on you?

As a witness of these precariously unfolding times, the chief thing these two poems have in common is concern for those who have disappeared. This concern is my lived experience, something I witness in others, and this culture of silent disappearances impacts me tremendously. I have many concerns, obviously, but my heart beats somber for the mysteriously dead and disappeared. Their utter nebulousness is an agony, a haunting. To not know how or where your loved one went, and why.

While some of the atrocities that sisters experience daily at the hands of patriarchy and its many isms might not directly reflect my lived experience, I’d like to say something about vicarious traumatization. To witness or even read about violence, or imagine the violence that was inflicted upon another as a way to understand and honor their suffering—is a violence all its own. “Minority Report” reflects that experience. I had to inflict violence in and on my own imagination to even conjure a picture for myself, and then for the reader, of this vibrant Black female judge—now a floating, bloated sleeve of herself. That’s the image that came to me when I read this news story. Sometimes I wonder if my witness poems do more harm than healing. I would earnestly listen to anyone who is open to responding to that question.

I find that news reporting a violent act can indeed feel traumatic while an artful, empathic poem like “Minority Report” tends to help me process shocking events. Your poem also gives voice to those who aren’t convinced by a medical examiner’s claim that Judge Abdus-Salaam took her own life last year, especially after police had initially said her death was “suspicious” and bruises were found on her neck. Perhaps most importantly, the poem refuses to forget her, portraying her life and humanity even in death, rendering her a woman—and a judge—not just a body found. I hope readers will also respond to your important question.

What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry?

Being raised in Trinidad and Tobago and having English teachers as grandparents set the stage for the poetry in my breath and veins. Though Trinidadians are not known for being the most literary people, we, as a Calypso culture, have an infinite grasp on language—whatever our proximity to Queens English may be. We are a mish mash culture with so many phrases and expressions that border and embody this art form. We can be equal parts playful and cutting in a single line. I admire our exactitude. I’d like to think I carry some of my nation’s poetic traits into my poems.

Do you seek out poetry by women and non-binary writers? If so, since when and why? More specifically, how has the work of feminist poets mattered in your childhood and/or your life as an adult?

As a woman poet, I don’t necessarily have to seek out the works of other women poets, as they are relentlessly in my rotation. They have been my world since a golden era in Florida State University’s English department where I took classes from a slew of brilliant English professors who infused my being with the writings of Gwendolyn Brooks, Patricia Smith, Sonia Sanchez and Rita Dove—who later became my professor in grad school. As an eternal student of poetry and life, I take women poets for granted as I do the air, and they are as necessary to me as breathing.

Wow! Your remarkable experience at FSU shows how transformative it can be for young female poets to study with many established poets who are women of color—not just one or two amidst a largely white faculty. Samantha, what groundbreaking—or ancient—works, forms, ideas and issues in poetry today interest or concern you?

Since we’re on the topic of women poets, because of the late Black American woman poet Lucille Clifton, I’m drawn to two aspects of poetry right now: spirit channeling and dream poems. Clifton dabbled in and excelled at both. In one of her later poetry collections, Mercy, she published a special suite of poems that she received in the 1970’s called “Messages from The Ones,” the claim being that she wrote these poems in a state of manifestation, also known as spirit possession. Though she was a necessary vessel for these exact poems, I do believe that those words were not entirely her own. I’ve never forgotten these poems, and I am growing increasingly invested in the ways in which the spirit realm attempts to communicate with our material world their ancient knowledge and wisdom, as well as spiritual technologies that could be useful to us in these times. After reading Lucille Clifton, I am fascinated by poems being a means of communication from the invisible realm.

I think that our dream lives are totally undervalued. A lot can happen in dreams, and it is no less real. For instance, I am convinced that some people die in their dreams, not just in sleep. I have come to honor the spiritual messages that arrive in my dreams. Dreams are delightful, surreal and terrifying, such rich fodder for poems from both an archival and symbolic standpoint. I say “archival” because it’s important to keep record of that which you deem important. And “symbolic” because dreams provide us with images, messages, premonitions and riddles that bleed into our material lives in ways we can understand better if we remember what goes down when we close our eyes. Dreams are the poems of our sleep. Lucille Clifton wrote many dream poems that inspire me to want to remember more of my own.

What’s next? What upcoming plans and projects excite you?

I have an eternal twinkle in my eye as a lover of projects. I have several exciting personal and professional endeavors happening, and I’ll share one that I feel particularly excited about because it’s popping off right now! I feel like I am walking into the lion’s mouth with this children’s book trilogy that I am writing, as it takes on the prison industrial complex.

A Card for My Father, my third children’s book and the first of three picture books, was just released on May 8. For ages seven and up, it’s about mass incarceration’s effects, big and small, on my 1st grade character during her school’s Father’s Day festivities. She is tasked with writing a father’s day card for a father she’s never met. I signed a three-book deal for this project with Penny Candy Books, a small and visionary children’s press that is interested in having big conversations.

Fantastic, and congratulations! What do you rarely get asked?

What part of your body speaks the loudest? My brain, but I would like it to be my heart.

Chivas Sandage is a digital columnist at Ms. and the author of Hidden Drive, a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Book of the Year Awards in poetry. Her poems and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in Ms., The Rumpus, Salmagundi, Southern Humanities Review and Texas Observer, among others. She is at work on a nonfiction book about the double shooting of a lesbian teenage couple in Texas. Tweet her @ChivasSandage.

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Comments

  1. “Dreams are the poems of our sleep.”
    And “My brain [speaks the loudest] but I would like it to be my heart.”
    Thank you.

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