Evie Shockley teaches African American literature and creative writing (poetry) at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Helen Losse is the Poetry Editor of The Dead Mule.
Helen Losse: You’ve told me you definitely consider yourself a southern poet and evidence of this is pretty straightforward in your Southern Legitimacy Statement. Discuss what you mean by the term “southern poet”.
Evie Shockley: First, I should say that you’d be more likely to hear me refer to myself as a North Carolina poet, because that’s where I was living when I caught my stride as a poet. Also, in response to a journal called PLUCK! that poet Frank X Walker launched this year to feature the work of “Affrilachian” writers, I’ve recently been exploring my relationship to that term.
But to answer your question, what I mean when I speak of myself as a “southern poet” is that I grew up: hearing certain accents and vocabularies and speech patterns that were the aural essence of “home” or the audible signal of danger, depending; hinking that racism wasn’t much of a problem in other parts of the country; eating a cuisine that was originally developed under conditions of make-do and make-last;enjoying five- or six-month summers and getting “snow days” out of school when the forecast called for nothing other than “possible icy conditions”; knowing that my region was considered laughable almost everywhere else; assuming there was nothing unusual about finding churches on two out of every four corners; and believing that any six or seven people with vocal chords could produce four-part harmony at the drop of a dime—and that all of this informs my poetry, sometimes directly and sometimes in ways that might be unpredictable or illegible.
HL: I recall an earlier e-mail exchange in which you spoke about belonging to various poetry communities. Can you tell us what some of those are? And how they help you define yourself as a poet? Or do you think poetic communities are necessary in defining oneself?
Shockley: One of the first poetry (or, in this case, writing) communities I became a part of was the Carolina African American Writers Collective, founded by Lenard D. Moore. Subsequently, I found myself participating in several others, of varying sorts, during different but significantly overlapping periods, including Cave Canem, a national “home” for black poets, established by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady; Monkeybread, an online group started by Cherryl Floyd-Miller for black poets, most of us southerners; the Four-Bean Stew, a very local group originally composed of four poets—myself and three close friends—who all lived, for a time, basically in the same apartment complex; the “Volls,” a group of nine poets from all over the country who shared a house during a week at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop in the summer of 1999 and continued sharing poetry and friendship for several years afterward, by e-mail; and Lucipo, a loosely North Carolina-based group of poets who connect, online and “in real life,” around an interest in “experimental” or “avant/post-avant” poetics. There are actually more, a couple of which are specifically for women poets, so I’ll discuss them later, but you get the idea.
I don’t think of the function of these groups as helping me define myself as a poet—except insofar as the more kinds of poetry one is exposed to, the better one is able to say what one’s own poetics might be, at a given time (as they tend to shift and change, of course).
The writing groups I’ve participated in reflect my sense of who I am as a person and/or my poetic interests—which is to say that whatever the definition at work (if “definition” is the right word), they precede my participation in a given community. Yet it is also true that the various groups have spurred huge growth in my poetry and thinking about poetics, so perhaps I could say that they constantly encourage redefinition—in precisely the ways that testing your ideas and efforts against those of other people should do.
HL: I know you are a fellow of Cave Canem, whose website identifies it as “a home for black poetry” and that you’ve published poetry in a number of African American anthologies. What does being known as an African American poet mean to you?
Shockley: I’m not sure how to answer that. I feel as though it would require me to imagine myself not being known as an African American poet, which would be an undesirable, if not impossible, act of fragmentation.
HL: Does belonging to a group of African American poets provide something other communities do not? If so, what?
Shockley: Belonging to specifically African American or black poetry communities has afforded me important space in which to work out my poetics without necessarily having to worry about how a subject, phrase, or reference will “translate” to white audiences. I am thinking now about a Toni Morrison interview in which she spoke about how reading African authors like Chinua Achebe and Bessie Head taught her how to access the language through which she can express her sovereignty as author and creator of the worlds of her novels—a state she cannot achieve when her work is addressed to an audience that sees her culture as inferior, her people as unintelligent, their lives as inadequate for literature, etc.
In African American writing communities, I have the opportunity to test my poems on an audience that is, on the whole, going to “know what I am talking about,” when it comes to black culture and history. (This is both true and not true of black—as opposed to African American—writing communities. Cave Canem, for instance, has several members who are Afro-Latin and/or whose heritage is strongly rooted in the Caribbean or Africa, which richly complicates, without negating, the sense of a shared experience of “blackness.”) In these groups, I don’t have to worry about getting (intentionally or unintentionally) racist critiques of a poem. The poets in these communities will be reading my work with the African American poetic tradition as much in mind as other traditions I might draw upon. Finally, African American communities offer intellectual and emotional support for their members who are confronting racism elsewhere (in relation to poetry or not). I come away from time spent among black poets prepared and energized to engage other poetic communities on my own terms.
HL: I know that, in addition to being a poet, you are an assistant professor of English at Rutgers. Other than the obvious “there’s only twenty-four hours in a day” and “time spent grading papers can’t be used to write poems,” how does your work as an academic speak to your life as a poet? Or does it?
Shockley: Well, that relationship has worked differently at different times. When I was in graduate school, my research was focused on narrative, as far as primary texts go. These texts didn’t often come into my poetry in ways I could put a finger on. But the secondary texts I was studying—that is, the criticism and the theory about the literature—were opening huge doors and windows in my head. As I gained new ways of thinking about language and culture, I began testing those ideas out in poems. Also, I was learning more about African American history, which became increasingly one of the themes that recurred in my poetic work.
Now, I am doing research on poetry, specifically, on the relationship between race and innovation in African American poets’ work. I’m interested in rethinking what might be meant by “black esthetics” in light of a wider range of poetic experiments than the ones that term typically references. I also teach both African American poetry and creative writing. So in many ways, I’m immersed in poetry all the time (or have reason to be). You could say I have maximized the synergy of poetry in my life!
HL: I also know that you used to practice law. Were you also a poet then? And if so, how did the practice of law fit into the picture? We all know that a poet can earn a living in any way a non-poet can. But does your education in law affect your writing process or word choice? And if so, how?
Shockley: I’d like to forget that I practiced law, most of the time. It was not a happy or fulfilling period of my life. I had already studied poetry (as an undergraduate at Northwestern) and begun to think of myself, tentatively, as a poet before I began law school. But I don’t think I grew as a poet at all during the entire time that I was in the legal field. Just the same, I brought some of the things I learned about the law, about the work world, and about language with me into my “new life” as an academic—which is when I began to write poetry again seriously. Knowledge about the malleability of language, the importance of defining one’s terms, the usefulness of etymology, and the extent to which context determines meaning was knowledge gained and/or made meaningful in the lap of the law, you might say, and it informs my poetics thoroughly.
HL: I think another group we might want to mention is emale poets. Without delving deeply into your psyche, can you tell us how you see yourself in relation to other female poets? Do you belong to a group of female poets of any kind? And if so, what do they add both to your writing and your perception of yourself as a poet?
Shockley: As a feminist, I tend to write frequently about women, whether they be historical figures, literary characters, family members, or other writers. I also write about issues that have traditionally been considered “women’s issues,” as well as concerns which strike me as “women’s issues” but which other people might put under a different umbrella. Just as I have found a lot to learn from the women poets of preceding generations, I find that reading and talking with women poets who are alive and writing today teaches me and inspires me in important ways. It always interests me how many issues and concerns can be (and are) argued to come within the purview of feminism (sometimes particular kinds of feminism, like “black feminism,” “sex-positive feminism,” “marxist feminism,” “eco-feminism,” and so on). So I am a member of the Women’s Poetry Listserv, also know as “Wom-Po,” where anything and everything related to poetry written by women is open for discussion by women and men.
Other ways in which I connect with women’s poetry per se include participating in an all-women listserv that’s geared specifically toward those who identify as “avant-garde” or “experimental” poets, regularly attending a feminist poetry reading series in NYC called Belladonna* (in which I had the pleasure of reading last year), and supporting (contributing to, buying and/or talking up) women-centered poetry journals such as WOMB Poetry, Torch: poetry, prose, and short stories by African American Women, PMS poemmemoirstory, and HOW2. These communities keep challenging and invigorating my ideas about what “womanhood”—and, by extension, “women’s poetry”—is and can be.
HL: I know that you don’t use capital letters in your poetry (but do in your prose). Can you explain why? I thought e.e. cummings already did this. I don’t have problem with it; I just don’t understand. I understand that all educated, English-speaking people use standard American English in their prose. No need to explain that.
Shockley: E.E. Cummings may have something to do with my becoming open to the possibilities of foregoing capital letters and other kinds of alternative typography. I did my American Lit term paper on Cummings when I was a junior in high school, and I was a huge fan of his work. But I wasn’t writing poetry then, myself. More conscious influences upon my interest in writing in all-lowercase letters have been Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez. I don’t know why they’ve chosen this typography; I can only speak for myself. I like not having to privilege certain words, visually, just because they’re at the beginning of a sentence or function as proper nouns. I’d rather have the reader’s eye focus on the beginnings and endings of my lines, than the beginnings and endings of my sentences. Even in prose poems, where the sentence is the unit in which I’m working, I like the way all-lowercase lines allow a reader’s eye to glide along, uninterrupted by visual obstacles that have nothing to do with the concerns of my poem. I’ve heard some people argue that it suggests a low self-esteem if you don’t capitalize the first-person “I.” My response to that would be simply that “i” am no more and no less important than “you” or “we” or “she.” Finally, for those with boundless curiosity, there’s a really interesting history of the invention of capital letters in a book by David Sacks called /Language Visible/.
HL: That makes sense to me. Now suppose you were asked to write a paragraph or two describing your own poetry. How would you categorize it? Or would you? If you wouldn’t, what would you say?
Shockley: I’d say that, for several years now, I’ve tried to write poetry so as to confound the applicability of categories to my work—and, as far as is possible, to blur the boundaries between most categories of poetry beyond recognition. In particular, I reject the false dichotomy between “political” poetry and “personal” poetry. I would say that political issues/stances and personal concerns/responses both fall along a single spectrum; rather than being mutually exclusive elements of a poem, both are typically present, though one or the other may be foregrounded. I’m also not interested in the lines people draw in the poetic sand to divide “formal” poetry from “avant-garde” poetry and to distinguish both of these categories from “mainstream” (typically free verse, epiphanic, lyric) poetry. I’m definitely unsympathetic to definitions of poetry that exclude work that might be described as “rap,” “hip-hop poetry,” “spoken word,” “slam poetry,” or “performance poetry.” I’m saying this as a writer—I can’t deny that, as a critic, one does often need to use descriptive labels in order to communicate effectively (though I try to use them as tools to open doors rather than to brick up walls).
But when it comes to my thinking about my writing, there isn’t any style of poetry that I can’t learn from, no poetic tool I wouldn’t use, no formal structure (meaning not only traditional given forms, but also free verse, procedural poems, and the many other “experimental” styles of writing that are grounded in form) that I wouldn’t try out. Of course, I don’t write equally well in all styles of poetry! And I certainly rely more heavily on certain forms and tools than others. But when I sit down to the work of poetry, nothing in the world’s traditions of poetry is prohibited to me, except by my own ignorance of them. My ignorance is probably greater than my knowledge, at this point—from a global perspective—due to language barriers and the very Ameri-centric poetry culture in which I, like many of us, have learned my craft. But I’ve got time ahead of me and a great deal more poetry to read and write.
Thank you for your interest in my work and my poetics.
Helen Losse: Thank you, Evie.
The Mule is pleased to publish two of Evie’s new poems in the Poetry Section of this issue.
Her writing is available in print and online. Her many publishing credits include her latest publication a half-red sea (2006) and a chapbook, The Gorgon Goddess (2001).
Her poetry, short fiction, and literary criticism appear or are forthcoming in: African American Review, Beloit Poetry Review, Carolina Quarterly, Cave Wall, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, Fascicle, Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv, 1913 a journal of forms, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry, PLUCK!: The Journal of Affrilachian Arts and Culture, Rainbow Darkness: An Anthology of African American Poetry, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and Studio.