In Conversation With
Leslie Contreras Schwartz
Poet Glenis Redmond takes a frank look at historical and personal stories that haunt—or sing to—the modern-day Black American in her most recent collection What My Hand Say (Press 53, 2016). A traveling teacher and poetry activist, Redmond holds posts as the Poet-in-Residence at The Peace Center for the Performing Arts in Greenville, South Carolina, and at the State Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and travels internationally to teach workshops, perform, and to mentor emerging and young writers. A Cave Canem Fellow, Redmond has also served as the Mentor Poet for the National Student Poet's Program to prepare students to read at The White House. Her other collections of poems include Under the Sun (Main Street Rag, 2008). Redmond earned an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. Below she discusses how poetry can reckon with the past, the need for looking back, and how poetry can be form of activism.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz: Your most recently published collection, What My Hand Say, acknowledges the urgent stories of one poet's ancestors and kin—slaves, seamstresses, laborers—as necessary and life-affirming, providing sustenance for survival.
The stories Black men and women live, you write, have been lived in other versions, darker and full of terror, but also containing a brilliant path of survival. You write: "These stories are useful things, / stitches I follow. / They guide me clear, / and help me stand."
Tell me about how these poems started to form as a collection, and what your initial creative impulse was.
Glenis Redmond: My grandma died while I was working on my MFA in Poetry at Warren Wilson. She was 109-years-old. Her death left me bereft. Of course, I was full of sorrow and had no idea if I would complete the program, but her spirit seemed to spur me on during this time. I could feel her whispering in my ear, “Get this for me—for us.” She only had a third-grade education and I could feel the 10,000 at my back of which Maya Angelou speaks.
Every single one of my plainspoken poems are written for her and all my lineage that I cannot locate via historical records, because of the African Holocaust that brought my people into being in the United States.
LCS: Your work teaching poetry and speaking in marginalized communities—your poetry activism—is a major part of your vocation and daily life. How does your poetry go hand-in-hand with your pursuit of poetry activism?
GR: I was born to this fight—birthed on the battlefield of the Civil Rights Movement. I was born the day before King gave his I Have A Dream Speech. I call it the decade of killing. Really, there has never been any choice. My life has emerged from the margins, so my history necessitates that lean towards the underserved and underrepresented.
My parents were raised in the Jim Crow era in South Carolina and they were groomed to know their place: my dad as a bus boy at the Pointsett Hotel, my mom working as a maid for a white woman named Mary Burton. As children, as teenagers and as young adults they were racially barred from many basic human dignities: dining, lodging and restrooms. My father enlisted in the Air Force to escape Jim Crow’s harsh realities. Though he still met racism during his military trek, it was not as challenging as the obstacles he faced in his hometown, because of the racism burrowed in our history. I literally ran away from South Carolina, but I noticed that in my poetry and in my role as a teaching artist, I was doing the exact opposite. I was running toward, both the beauty and the struggle, of South Carolina
Not until my mother became ill and almost died seven years ago, did I realize how much I needed to be rooted to my place of origin. I returned to my home to help her and in turn it was she who helped me.
I began to learn familial and cultural lore straight from my mama’s mouth. Her recall was healing. She was mending me emotionally, educationally and culturally. My mama became alive in the telling of places, people of another era. She recovered and began introducing me to stories not covered in my middle school, high school, college or graduate school texts. I learned of Peg Leg Bates, a one-legged tap dancer who was my mother and father’s teaching artist at Fountain Inn Colored High School. She told me about Willie Earle, the last black man lynched in Greenville, SC. She was eleven years old, when a white mob of twenty-six men shot him in the head on Bramlett Road and was never convicted. Her stories woke a passion for South Carolina black history within me. I have been unearthing South Carolina stories and untold histories ever since.
At age eleven
my mama learned
how a rope turns
into more than a rope
looped around a branch
where a tree becomes
more than a tree
where memory twists
around more than the mind
like Willie Earle’s life
and my mama’s young heart
In Greenville, South Carolina
mama sees how memory hangs
LCS: What are some of the responses you see in your readings and speaking events that have excited, moved, rattled you?
GR: There are countless responses, so much so that I have been sharing and archiving my many meaningful moments on the Poetry Road. I call them Glenis Redmond Poetry Moments. Here are a couple:
December 1, 2015: I read poetry to 50 stone-faced men today at the Rescue Mission in Trenton. The rain outside set the mood. It felt like it was pouring on the inside. I got through my set. I never feel like that it is an uphill trek, but today I was climbing.
I read two poems that were not my own: Lucille Clifton's "Won't You Celebrate" and e.e. cummings's " i carry your heart". I was so happy to be nearing my hour and finishing, because we can only take so many rock-faced stares. Before I left the podium, sheepishly I asked, "Does anyone want the love poem I read?” Five men raised their hands. Who knew? They wanted the love poems. I am always humbled by our humanity. How we want love no matter our circumstances. After that two men walked up to request other poems of my own that I had read. Moral: Poker faces keep feelings at bay. Don't trust the scowl, wall or frown. Trust the poem. Trust the walk.
December 3, 2016: I created a Poetry Circle at the Juvenile Detention Center yesterday. At the prison, I read for seventeen young men. They were the color of an ethnic rainbow: from white, caramel to the deepest shade of mahogany. Six, in for murder. Make no never mind, Glenis. You would never know their crime by their eyes.
Nevertheless, they try to mask their feelings. Feign disinterest. I pay no never mind. I'm not afraid. I gave birth to twins. I don't speak to their masks. I speak to what's underneath. Children. Boys. Wide-eyed.
I disarm by asking them. You want me to go hard or soft first with these poems? They all in unison say, "hard." I ask them if they know who Tamir Rice is? Tell him he was shot by police on the playground with a toy gun. A few say, "Yeah, that dude." Then, I say how about Emmett Till? I say, "1950's accused of whistling at white woman. He was beaten and put in the Tallahatchie River. From 1955-2015. The same killing of black boys going on.”
I read my poem, "I Wish You Black Sons." They listen. Tell me to read more hard poems. I read my poem, "Bruised" about gang members bullying each other at one of my poetry workshops. In the poem I tell a story how we bond over how we have been punished: switches, belts, extension cords and kneeling on rice. They argue over which marker I should use when I write on the board: blue or red. I muse in my mind how these two colors make purple. I muse in my mind how violence for them continues.
After the hard poems, I read them new poems that I have just written. "Learning How to Run" for my brother Willie. I end with a poem honoring Maya Angelou, "Caged Bird Sings Because." I ask them, "Why does a caged bird sing?"
One young man raised his hand and said, "because he's locked up."
I said, "Yes." I told them that that these are physical bars you are surrounded by right now. You can be locked up in many other ways. Free yourself. Don't let your circumstances define you. You made some bad choices. You are not bad people. I read the poem.
Our talk went around the world. We talked about Ron Clark's Doll Experiment, because it was in my poem. Why do black children still choose the white doll for beauty and intelligence? We talked about Gullah, because one white boy who stares, but does not clap after my poems finally speaks and says. "I am from South Carolina too. We talk about: Columbia, Florence, Darlington and Charleston."
I ask them if they know Gullah. I explain about the slave ships on the coast. I explain how Africans from many countries had to create one language to speak to one another. They weave their languages like sweet grass. I tell them they do know Gullah. They have sung it all their lives. I say: Kum Bah Yah. Come by here. Someone's Crying My, Lord Cum Bah Yah. Give me the words to speak to these young hearts. From South Carolina to South Carolina we both fist pound before I leave. There's a bond. I wonder by their families. I wonder about them. I am emotional, but I do not drop a tear. I tell them I must go across the lawn to the shelter next door.
There are only four teens there, one cannot speak any English. I read poems. I head to Crossroad South Middle. I am not in the mood to perform. I sit in the chair and read. I read "Caged Bird Sing Because." I ask them why does the cage bird sing? One Indian boy raises his hand. Says, "Because his song is its only bit of freedom." I sigh. I almost cry. I read the poem.
LCS: Your poems sing of a desperation, for freedom and to "become the master of your own world," and freedom from being "burie[d] . . . soft in a white cushy grave" of slavery, labor, or notions of who a person can be. Your persona poems of enslaved men and women, including your own ancestors, as well as black musicians and artists, speak with other poems in the book that wrestle with being defined, being cornered, into a single identity.
However, there are huge absences and silences acknowledged in these poems: "what my father never said to me" or the written stories of your great-grandpa, Will Rogers, who only knew how to write an X for his signature. What were the other deep silences in these poems, and how did you try to approach them or acknowledge them while writing this book?
GR: I write because of those absences. My father might have loved me, but I know he did not like me or understand me. This leaves me with a void. I still am investigating that relationship. My father, for all his flaws, relocated us via the Air Force from the South, so we did not experience the brunt of racism he grew up with. Yet, racism and poverty had already taken its toll on him. My next book, I am examining that relationship more closely. I believe that I am more equipped to investigate those wounds more thoroughly.
The X speaks so much about what I do not know about my ancestors. There are no letters or books written by my grandparents, or great-grandparents or great-greats. My grandmother Katie, my maternal grandmother, had only a third-grade education. She was the most educated person in our family at that point. This fact shakes me to my core. When her father went to town, she accompanied him to town to help him steady his hand to make his mark to sign for dry goods at the store. Education was kept from my ancestors purposefully. Alice Walker says, some outrages that you have to plan a lifetime around. This is what I am doing, dealing with the outrages.
LCS: In a collection that looks head on at the brutality of slavery and racism, these poems are rife with praise and joy. In "Praise Dave," one of my favorite poems in this collection, you sing praise of the enslaved potter-poet and how he can "take the wind out of can't." Yet, you acknowledge that the harsh reality of many people, slaves and in modern times, "Know these songs / be the only thing we'll ever know of wings." How did you examine the different iterations of praise in these poems—and its limits?
GR: Though I celebrate historical figures like David Drake and my enslaved ancestors, I want to be clear that I believe nothing good came from slavery. It was a horrible institution that has been romanticized in Hollywood, literature and in textbooks. I know my people were not slaves, they were: enslaved. Slavery though it confined them, it did not define them. They were people doing their best to find humanity in inhumane conditions. So, when I write about my ancestors or people of the 1800s, I am looking to personalize them. David Drake was not tied to the field like the rest of his community was, so I imagined that for him to be able to make pots gave him a since of pride, like anyone would, if they made a well-made thing. Yet, he was still shackled.
LCS: In "I Wish You Black Sons," a powerful, painful poem, you spin off of Lucille Clifton's poem "wishes for sons," to list out a litany of curses, made of the living nightmares of sons and mothers born black. "I wish you awake all night alive in this place / where we have always lived: / 1600s 1700s 1800s 1900s 2015." Yet, the poem turns for an appeal to something larger than sharing misery, beyond simply seeing it or experiencing it: Its asks for sight from people who are blind, ultimately, to be seen as "flawed, beautiful, human."
When you wrote this poem—its list of statistics, fears, terrors, and murders, and how it all adds up to what it means to live as black person in America with racial profiling, police brutality and mass incarceration—how are you able to make this appeal at the end? You turn from those gutting lines like "I wish you dressed in black" to "I wish you: us" and "I wish you the ability to see us: black." Can you tell me how you made this journey in the writing of the poem?
GR: If you read Clifton’s poem “wishes for sons” she indeed curses her sons in the poem. However, the curse was also a wish for empathy, so her sons could experience what is like to be a woman. My poem is doing the same thing. I am wishing white people into our blackness and if they inhabit our space they would understand the terrorism that has been inflicted upon us from the moment we were brought to the United States.
I am appealing, but the appeal is out of desperation, depression and rage. I wrote this poem on the day of Tamir Rice’s death.
I know this country would be a better place if they could see, feel and empathize. Though I state I want them to see us like they are: "flawed, beautiful, human." History holds how we have been terrorized Emmett Till to Tamir Rice. I do wish people to wake up from their privilege, ignorance and fear, but the track record from 1600s, 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, 2015 to 2018 is not hopeful.
LCS: In a similar nature, in "The Tao of the Black Plastic Comb," the speaker tells of a childhood experience of letting a white girl comb her hair before school pictures, turning her hair into "something the cat drug in" as her mother later laments. Your writing captures the five-year-old's longing to be seen, and to be seen as beautiful, and yet you bless everything in that moment, including the girl who did not see the speaker's beauty.
Bless [my mother's] command: don't let nobody touch your hair.
Bless my ears for not hearing,
Bless the brewing of sorrow and regret that are already in my eyes . . .
Bless me a high-strung feeling like my family's punch line,
when they saw my first school photo each laugh felt like a jolt.
Many of your poems are written in a similar sense that you are observing, looking, and trying to withhold judgment. "Bless the little white girl who didn't see my beauty," you write.
This objective looking seems to be part of a wrestling that waxes and wanes throughout the collection: when to judge, when to withhold judgment, and which can help us survive and seek to connect with others. Can you tell me about this struggle—both against the legacy of self-hatred in being a black woman, and in looking at brutality of how black people have been and are treated—and how you aimed to capture the act of looking in this book? Why is looking so important? And how can poets teach people to look?
GR: I had not been able to look at the photograph for over fifty years. Silver Birch Press’s call for a poem addressing a school photo gave me the permission that I needed to talk to my five-year-old self. This poem is about what I state in the last line: forgiveness and release. For the last few years in my writing, I have been doing a lot work around forgiveness in order to let go of the shadows and ghosts of the past. One of my favorite poems is the “Little Blue Eye Glasses” by Louise Erdrich. This poem gave me the idea for my title, “The Tao of the Black Plastic Comb.” It allowed me to focus on an object to create some movement around my inertia with shame. Living in a white world, it is nearly impossible not to internalize the hatred that is thrown at you as a black girl. By the time I was five, I had already received the message that I was too dark to be beautiful and smart. Many of these messages were through books and television.
In my adult life, I have been characterized as a strong black woman especially in my poetry. I am, but I believe my strength comes from unpacking that which was unbearable. I unpack this pain by looking at it. To look and witness is a powerful tool. It is healing for me.
Instead of looking back with shame, I embraced Lucille Clifton’s gaze in her poem “Blessing the Boats.” This lens allows me to bless the hardships in my life instead of lamenting them. The black comb stands as a concrete object, but also as metaphorical entry point that leads to my own understanding and self-forgiveness. The poem offers no easy resolve, but offers opportunity for me to bear witness to my little girl-self that begins a process of acknowledgement, affirmation, and release.
However, in What My Hand Say, you get my philosophy about how I respond personally to racism in the poem “Close as I Get to Cursing”
Where I come from, hate seethes
like a fresh brew on the tongue everyday.
Why add to the pot? Bile leaves
an unpleasant aftertaste.
Why lend words to curse the earth?
Aren’t our skies full enough of soil-weep
And southern tree-lean? Gut rot grows
In the bowels. I say shit it out.
If ever I hurled a stone, It was in my mind.
Damning the damned ain’t worth the spit.
I believe I have the right to both joy and celebration. I will always find a way to Dance. My spirit dictates it. My dance is even more powerful once I have faced and reckoned with all the demons of my past. My joy and celebration are hard-won.