“Sing to me of the man, Muse,” begins Homer’s The Odyssey. With the launch of this column, I say: “Sing to us of the woman and the girl, Muse.” The two poems in this week’s edition by Lauren K. Alleyne answer that call.
From Trinidad and Tobago, Alleyne began her undergraduate studies in radiologic science and nuclear medical technology before changing her major to pursue English literature; she is now Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center and an Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. Alleyne is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), after which a poetry prize is named—an honor usually reserved for older poets—and has received many awards including first place in the 2016 Split This Rock Poetry Contest.
In this installment of Ms. Muse, Alleyne is publishing two poems—and took the time to chat with Ms. about the role feminist poetry has played in her life and what projects she has on the horizon.
Gretel Advises America
The story is old:
There is safety, then danger,
then the illusory ending.
There is a person
who believes everyone is for the taking,
who will make food of you
and assume you will comply
with no resistance.
This is always the mistake.
The trick is old:
there is no “great again,” no return
to what was for anyone—
not the father,
longing for an unburdened life;
not the stepmother clambering toward
the dream of ever after
she’d polished beneath her lids
for a lifetime;
not for the children
who must grow away from innocence
one way or another.
The moral is this:
You already know the spells
your mind’s swift magic,
the miracle of your hands, love
and all its attendant fire.
Anthem For The Beloved, Which Is Ourselves, Which Is All Of Us: A Blazon
Feet like a mandate
Ankles like swords
Calves like streets taken back
Knees like unpolluted oceans
Thighs like a night sky, constellated
Hips like damn
Vaginas like consent
Backsides like the perfect pair of glasses, call it hindsight
Navels like rebellions
Guts like uncolonized galaxies
Breasts like generations
Clavicles like cutlasses
Shoulders like ancestors
Spines like ropes that refuse the lynching
Ribs like a binding
Backs like holy books burned and rising new from their own ash
Necks like revolutions: turning, turning
Chins like anchors
Jaws like justice
Mouths like genesis, like evolution
Tongues like revelations
Noses like bullshit detectors
Cheeks like an invitation to the table
Eyes like incantations
Ears like open doors
Foreheads like shields
Third eyes like a summoning
Minds like a table with seats for every vision
Hair like our varied and growing multitude—reaching, always, reaching—
Can you tell me about your process in writing these poems? What inspired them? Were there particular challenges?
A wonderful confluence inspired me to write “Anthem.” Ms. approached me for a poem, and I didn’t really have anything that seemed to fit the call—I didn’t have any new work, and none of the old stuff was the rallying cry I wanted to submit as my contribution to a space that aimed to give “voice to a rising tide of female resistance.” Then I went to a symposium on Poetry and the World at the University of Virginia and Eric Hayot gave a talk which included a discussion of the medieval blazon form. I’d never heard of it, and then he read a bit of Camille Guthrie’s blazon titled “My Boyfriend,” which is awesome. I was intrigued and immediately wanted to try one—I love forms! This particular form aims to describe the beloved (often assumed to be a young woman) from her feet to head in the most effusive manner possible. This, of course, often led to objectification draped in over-the-top language. I wanted to keep the sense of describing an ideal but to put it in the service of empowerment, to keep the love and lifting up, but to make it communal rather than individual. And so this love song is to the women who warrior on in beauty and hope and power!
The challenges of the poem were the challenges of the form itself, which Guthrie plays with—where to start, what is the journey the poem should take through the body? Because it is a list poem, it would be easy to write and write and write; the challenge is knowing where to stop.
“Gretel Advises America” is part of a set of work in the voice of the fairy tale character. The poems in Gretel’s voice began as an exchange with my best friend, novelist Catherine Chung—she wrote to me and signed the piece from Gretel, and I responded. We did this for 18 months, and it inspired a collaboration with composer Sidney Boquiren and artist Tomiko Jones. Gretel has remained a go-to lens for me—she operates in the way I think fairy tales were meant to—as a way to contemplate and comprehend the world. After the election, I struggled to understand the world I inhabited, and the first draft of this poem emerged. The challenge? Coming to terms with the fact that my muse/oracle is a made up 10-year-old girl!
Does that 10-year-old girl represent, in part, innate wisdom and strength many women say they felt as young girls, even after experiencing abuse, although these qualities haven’t tended, historically, to be recognized much less fostered in girls?
Gretel represents many things, but most importantly, I think of her as representing vulnerability and strength in equal measure.
What childhood experiences with language informed your relationship with poetry?
I think the two main things are first, that I’ve always been a reader—everything from romance novels to Nancy Drew and just about anything that Enid Blyton wrote; being a writer I think always begins with being a reader. Second, I am from Trinidad, and throughout our childhood and teenage years, I wrote calypsos for my sister who was a successful calypsonian. In retrospect, I can see how that tuned my ear for the relationship between music and words as well as made clear to me that one writes because one has something to say about the world one inhabits.
Do you seek out poetry by women and non-binary writers? How has the work of feminist poets mattered—in your childhood and your life as an adult?
Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” is a poem near and dear to my heart. I felt that it both articulated my experience, and dismantled the loneliness it describes by itself providing a pathway for someone like me who “makes it up” as she goes along. Frances Driscoll’s book, The Rape Poems, is a bruising and essential read that was immeasurably helpful to me as a survivor and a poet. It gave me permission and a model for how to engage the tough topic of sexual violence. I think everyone should read it.
When I was writing the long poem, “Eighteen,” which I consider the heart of my first book, Difficult Fruit, I literally surrounded myself with books by strong female poets: Jan Beatty, Sharon Olds, Kim Addonizio, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Lucille Clifton, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Suji Kwock Kim, just to name a few. Being surrounded by their words made me feel brave, or at least, that being afraid wasn’t a reason not to write.
What’s next? What upcoming plans or projects excite you?
My second collection, Honeyfish, won the Green Rose Prize and is forthcoming in spring 2019 from New Issues Press at Western Michigan University. I’m thrilled to pieces!
Congratulations! As a woman, and as a woman who writes, what do you need to support your work? What opportunities, support, policies, and actions make a direct difference for you—and for other women you know?
Mentors matter: ever since I came to the realization that writing was the thing I would do with my life, I have been blessed with people who helped me along my path: Terry Quinn, Mary Swander, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, for example, were my teachers, and I owe them an incredible debt of gratitude for all they taught me. Having people who believe in your work, and are invested in your growth, who challenge you, guide you and recommend you for opportunities is critical: that support is invaluable. Along the same lines, I think women need to support each other: the model of competition is a lonely one. I try to support others whose careers I hope to see blooming alongside my own for as long as we’re blessed to do this work. I found them in grad school, in workshops and literary festivals and at readings—find your people and keep them close. There’s room for all of our voices—room and need.