I see you just released Black Girl, Call Home, talk to me about the process of creating this book and why you felt like this book was important?
Well, I’m a writer, and I’ve been wanting to be published with a major distributor for some time now. That’s always been my dream. My first book was self published with the support of a lot of my mentors and it was so strange. At the time, when I was speaking this desire to publish into existence, I got an email from my current agent who said “we’re interested in your work, we see your work and we would love to talk about what the next stage of your career is”. We started flushing out conversations about what I wanted to present to the world, and they gave me this free range and told me to create what I wanted and bring them back who I was. After that, I just dug in. I knew that I wanted to be big and outlandish, and I had this really sharp moment that I think so many black women and women of color have when they walk into an industry that they’re unfamiliar with. I thought, “should I just do what I know is accessible or should I try my best to be as brilliant as I think I can be?”. I remember sitting in front of my agents to submit my ideas and asking them if they liked the idea of having telephone numbers as chapters. They said it was pretty cool. When I asked if they had called any of the numbers, they were slightly surprised that the numbers were active. I had come up with this concept of allowing people to dial a telephone number in a book that would allow them to interact with the book and the author in a unique way, and had been sitting in my apartment in Newark creating hundreds of google voice accounts so that I could actually get the telephone numbers to try it out. When I told them this, they smiled. It was such a weight release for me because I had been second guessing myself and asking questions like “Am I ridiculous?” “Am I being silly and walking into this very white space being ridiculous?” “Should I just do poetry and shut up?”. These were the first moments where I was allowed to be who I was. My narrative wasn’t compromised, instead, it was almost nurtured. Through that, I allowed myself to be a leader in the process with my voice. Of course the story is important, but building it was also important. It took us a very long time to settle on the cover I have now because there was a lot to consider in terms of the message, and a lot of people to consider as well. We were having so many conversations, so many racial conversations, around what the cover should mean and what we wanted it to convey. In a way, building it from the ground up, and going into the technical aspects, and exploring the emotional aspects, and researching some of these stories and poems allowed me to be experimental while also forcing me to grow up in real time.
On the cover is a girl who is facing backwards and she has barrettes in her hair and it kind of feels nostalgic in a sense when I see it, tell me about this cover and what does it mean to you?
That’s the funny thing. When we were finding and building this cover, I kept saying it had to feel like black girl nostalgia. For me, it feels like childhood. It brings you back to the essence of childhood, but also brings you back to being daughtered. We weren’t doing our own hair at seven or eight, so it brings this moment of nurturing – sitting between a mother’s legs while your hair is being cornrowed. The colorful barrettes signify a youthfulness, and give you childhood. Even the pattern on the wall she’s facing feels like a vintage or older aesthetic that even feels from before my time. A lot of the covers I sampled were just the backs of girls’ heads and they gave the idea of movement and going towards something. Seeing the scalp of a black woman, especially when you see braids, reminds me of a map and trail. You just feel nostalgia. You feel the youthfulness and the tenderness of it all, and when you see this book cover, it says clearly and loudly that this is for black women. Do not get it confused.
You talked about having a team that nurtured your idea even whenever you would question it. How was your voice nurtured and how did you start using your voice as expression and art?
You know, I don’t know how the blessing stumbled upon me, but I do believe that God and the ancestors conspire on our behalf. I mean, I’ve loved poetry from a young age and people have always nurtured it, but of course it was safe. It was literary, people did it in church, they did it in schools, so why wouldn’t my parents let me do poems? At a young age it began to be a thing that was the focus of my life and sometimes as an adult now I think “wow… I didn’t do much else in my life”. Honestly, my life has been in service to poetry, and becoming a poet, and that narrative. I was blessed enough to enter community spaces in search of poetry and have people who loved me enough to put me in the hands of poetry. Even though I feel like I’m still finding my voice, I feel supported on that journey. I think this might be one of the biggest contributors to the excessive use of plastic. I think the Japanese are very careful with how they present their products and their services. They want to offer the best product possible but what does that mean? Quite often, it means that they use excessive packaging to make a product look more appealing or hygienic.
The way one perceives beauty can be very simple or abstract in nature. Where do you look for beauty and how do you perceive it?
I find beauty in how people act and are towards others. Someone who is kind, conscious, empathetic and honest is someone I would find to be a beautiful person.
Where we are from tends to shape us as people, and for artists, our background sometimes shows up in our work. How does being from Newark, NJ, and the culture from that “home” affect what you create?
My home is a place that values art, and I think that understanding that and having that cultural influence is everything. It’s so ingratiated in my work and who I am as an artist. Home can be so many things. It can be me in my body, but also me understanding the relationship I have with myself and seeing how it affects what I’m writing.
Being a poet, so much of your art and power comes from your voice. Has there ever been a time where expression was difficult for you and if so, how did you push through it?
Yes, there always exists “that time”. Sometimes it’s just me sitting with the rhythm of something and finding how that movement can show up in my words. Other times, it’s about me putting myself in the emotional space of where I want to write from. Sometimes pushing through looks like me listening to things that make me sad in order to write a sad poem, or listening to things that make me feel good when I want to write something that reflects that. Even though it works for me, I wouldn’t recommend this methodology because sometimes it’s hard to pull yourself out of those dark places.
You tend to be very honest and vulnerable in your work. Has there ever been any trepidation about what you share or how you share it?
Yes, of course. It’s like making copies of pages of my diary, and my most intimate thoughts, and allowing the world to see them. It’s uncomfortable at times but I push through it. I’m a poet and I’m true to what that means, so if I can’t do it, who can?
In a previous interview, you described yourself as a messenger. What would you say your message is or how would you define your message?
I’m not sure. I mean I have so many things I want to say, I honestly feel like the message changes all the time. This book is a coming of age story for queer black girls. I feel like we get stories about girls coming of age, or boys coming of age and having their first kiss or crushes and things like, that but we rarely see the coming of age for queer black girls. We rarely see that story showing girls kissing girls, and understanding their emotions and feelings, coming out, having sex for the first time or using strap ons, etc. All of these things that may have been scary for me or caused pain while I was in college and finding this part of myself have been left out of the conversation. This book is a message of love for black women, of love for yourself, and just so many different, evolving messages.
I’ve heard you talk about having to learn things from trial and error. Can you talk about some of the obstacles you have faced walking this career path while being an outspoken and unapologetic black woman?
I’ve had to learn the importance of my voice and how powerful it is. I’ve also had to realize that with my voice and power comes a responsibility to be careful with my words, but also a responsibility to be authentic, to be able to apologize if I need to, and to voice my true self. I won’t allow anyone to take that from me.
What have been the biggest revelations you’ve found about yourself through your art?
When I was creating Black Girl, Call Home, I had just experienced a break up and was in a dark place. I was relearning what it meant to be alone with myself, to love myself, and rediscover myself in this new way. I realized that I was writing about black women being able to go home, which is essentially this place of safety, and I myself needed to be called home. It allowed me to explore what it meant to be able to save myself. When it all came down to it, how could I nurture, and love, and create a place of harmony and peace with myself after being in this depressive state? Writing this book helped me realize that I was fully equipped to always be able to go home if and when I wanted to or needed to. Being able to save myself and not rely fully on someone came with a sense of strength. The thing is that It’s not about not letting anyone help me, it’s actually about being able to ask for help when I need it. Being able to lean on my community and my sisterhood to help me to get home, but ultimately knowing that I can rely on myself to do what I need to do in order to save me.
What do you think is your most important piece?
I can’t say. I love them all for different reasons. They’re like songs, I have a favorite song for love, a favorite for heartache, a favorite for celebration. I would be interested to hear what other people feel like my most important piece is.
“Body” is one of my favorite pieces you have written. You explore your own thoughts and past relationships that you’ve had with your body and this introspection kind of personifies your body in a way. What changes you have taken in your self care or beauty routine perhaps, that help to celebrate and care for your body?
Talking to myself. I’m finding this awareness that is present whenever I am speaking to myself. My body is aware of the words I’m saying, so I’ve been talking to myself and being aware of the things I am saying and feeling. I hug myself and care for myself, and I think just really taking time to hold space for myself has been important and valuable for me. I mean, I don’t want to be a cheap date for myself. I’ll tell you I sent myself some flowers when Black Girl, Call Home was releasing and I remember being in the flower shop and writing a note to myself. A note from the girl that I was, to the woman I was proud of. When the flowers showed up, I read the note and just smiled from this place of warmth and allowed myself to be happy and proud of myself in that moment.
If you had to take one book, and one beauty product to a deserted island, what would that be?
It’s crazy but I’ve not been in the mindset of beauty so much lately. While writing this book, I felt stressed and developed hives all over my skin and my face, so I don’t feel like I’ve been really taking care of myself in that way. I will say though that I would take my bonnet. Gotta have a bonnet to keep my hair up. For the book, it would be The Alchemist because that would for sure help me to get off the island.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I don’t know. Creation, expression, one that says she lived poetry.
Poetry is seemingly becoming super mainstream. We’re seeing it being highlighted by some of the biggest musicians like Beyonce and Kanye on their albums, as well as in fashion like the in the recent Louis Vuitton show where Saul Williams recites these thought provoking lyrics over throughout the show, how do this make you feel and what are your hopes for the state of poetry?
I mean I love to see it. I love to see us showing up in these spaces where we are able to expand in a sense, but I also feel like it’s interesting when the commercial world realizes us. It feels slow because we’ve always been here. We saw Maya Angelou on Common’s “Be” album, we saw J Ivy on Kanye’s “College Dropout” album, we always have a poet at the inauguration, we got Saul Williams in a Broadway play, we had me on the HBO show ‘Brave New Voices’ for youth poets when I was 16. We’ve always been here, and my hope is that we continue to grow and expand to be appreciated as artists.