“My activism is rooted in love”: A Conversation with Poet & Actress Nehassaiu deGannes About Her New Book, Music for Exile – curated by Kristina Marie Darling

Kristina Marie Darling: Your first book, Music for Exile, was recently launched by Tupelo Press.  What are three things you’d like readers to know before they delve into the work itself?

Nehassaiu deGannes: My work is associative and narrative, formal and experimental, rooted in reality, intuition and dream.

Everything in the poems has actually happened, whether now or in the past, but not necessarily to me.

I am a Black woman based in Brooklyn, who by age 3, had lived in 3 different Caribbean countries, by age 5 two Canadian towns, by 18, experienced a brief return to the Caribbean, added 2 major Canadian cities to her map, thrice-annual sojourns to the Middle East and travels to Japan, Hong Kong, Egypt, Kenya, Zimbabwe, France and Italy. If you find it difficult to “place” me where you expect me to be placed, there may be a reason for that.

KMD: I’m intrigued by your multidisciplinary background.  In addition to your achievements as a poet, you are well-known and respected as an actor.  What can poets learn from the dramatic arts about voice, persona, and the craft of storytelling?

ND: If I may, I’d like to enter this question through a slightly different door, Peter Brooks’ The Open Door. Peter Brooks argues that in its essential form, theatre is an act of the imagination in which the audience is an accomplice, objects are transformed and an actor stands at the threshold, on the liminal zone, between interior and exterior worlds, necessarily tethered to both, a conduit, “an ear turned inwards as well as outwards.”  What theatre and the actor’s craft might offer poets is a key to illuminating how an interior/ reflective voice and a public/declamatory voice might inhabit the same poem. How a polyphony of voices might take up residence within the same frame, the same room of a poem. How registers might overlap and interrupt. How we might tune a single poem to both frequencies. Drawing on his lived observations of Asian, South Asian, African and Arab theatrical traditions, Brooks reminds us that Shakespeare too was not bound by a unity of place or time, because the emphasis was on human relationships, and to that might I add for us poets, on the relationships between words, between memories, between historical instances, between our deeply personal and wider collective stories, between what we believe we know and what we’re dreaming into being.

KMD: What is the relationship between writing and activism for you as a poet?  And, relatedly, how does your activism transform — or remain unchanged — as you work across different mediums?  

ND: My activism is rooted in love, direct engagement and rigorous conversation. In rehearsal rooms, in artistic conversations, with collaborators, leaders, students, and with friends, even sometimes with strangers, I throw open windows to ask bold questions and demand loving accountability around race, history, and belonging. On the Brooklyn quarantine evening of June 1st, I witness from my window five to seven young Black men attempting to “loot” a store across the street. Throwing open my window, I call out, “These are Black owned businesses. Black people live here. Black Lives Matter! You matter! We love you!” Muttering expletives, the young men scatter and disband. The windows of the shop are undisturbed. The young men, safe and free, as far I can tell. Earlier that very afternoon, in the wake of a glorious crowd marching for social justice past my windows, I had also witnessed: the white man who straggles, casually lingers, telephoto lens cocked. The marchers’ voices raised in radical love are three blocks gone, but he’s still here, lens pointed at that Black men’s clothing shop. His camera swings up at me. I quickly close my curtains. Dusk falls. Ears peeled. To tell these young Black men, “I don’t know whose errand you are on, but know you are LOVED!”

I hope my poems throw some windows open too.

KMD: Many poems in your collection take received or inherited literary forms — like the sonnet, couplets, tercets, epistles, etc. — and render them suddenly and startlingly new, placing them in conversation with postmodern experimental techniques. In a literary landscape filled with poets who experiment without such a keen awareness of literary history, I find this approach refreshing.  How important is it for poets to carve a space for innovation within tradition?  

ND: My relationship to received or inherited literary forms grew quite organically. I was an English Lit nerd in High School. Growing up in Canada and attending an all-girls private High School, that meant hours spent within the covers of Norton Anthologies, reading Beowulf and Chaucer (in their original dialects,) Swift, Barrett, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Donne and of course, Shakespeare. (Just a few of my H.S. faves.) Before my parents moved overseas, there had also been the copies of Baldwin’s books lining my father’s shelves and birthday gifts of Rosa Guy novels from my mother to provide much needed ballast. There was, as well, the formal brilliance issuing from my father’s record collection in the rhetorical raconteur’ing of Calypsonians Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, Caribbean storytellers Paul Keens Douglas and Louise Bennett, not to mention the oratory of Paul Robeson. My ear was early tuned to form; but when I began writing poetry at McGill, on my own, not in workshop, I wrote free verse. (By then, I had stumbled across Audre Lorde’s Black Unicorn at a bookshop on Blvd Saint Laurent, and my English Lit reading lists finally included Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Ama Ata Aidoo, Amos Tutuola and other literary guides from throughout the Black Diaspora, thanks to two valiant professors.)  Now, that I think back on it, one of those early undergraduate poems of mine, was in fact, a ballad. The calypsonian in me? Hmmm... 

In any case, my first poetry workshop was in Philadelphia with Sonia Sanchez, who is a brilliant example of “carving space for innovation within tradition.” I couldn’t have asked for a better first poetry mentor. Sonia had been a student of Louise Bogan, who was of course friend and fellow poet to Elizabeth Bishop. Sonia is also an icon of the fiercely innovative Black Arts Movement. Her maxim is “All poems have form. Even free verse has form,” and had us writing both open and ‘closed’ forms to hone that awareness. Sonia didn’t limit us to western forms. All cultures have classical poetic traditions, and she demanded we avail ourselves of this cross-cultural wisdom. She encouraged us to go in search of forms, to be curious about forms, to invent our own forms, as she had with the ‘Sonku.’ Sonia wasn’t championing formal dexterity as a badge of status. Quite the opposite. Sonia was democratizing form and claiming equal access to these traditions. The troubadours, credited by some with ‘inventing’ the sestina had been itinerant wandering musician poets. The Griot’s and Djali’s praise songs are chanted always in service of the collective. In Sonia’s workshop, we read Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Audre Lorde, Denise Levertov. Levertov’s essays on the line in Light Up the Cave, and Audre Lorde’s essays on poetics, were early talismans for me.

Later, at Brown, thanks to Rosmarie Waldrop’s use of the fragment and C.D. Wright’s own eclectic poetics, I began to further alchemize my own innovative stance on form. I don’t wish to prescribe how other poets write, nor do I believe all our poems should look and sound the same; but I have found there to be a joyous rigor in formal divination and invention. For me, an attention to form helps me to distill, compress, lift my register of language from the everyday, to trust language can be dusted off, prone to flight when given wings; and as Guyanese literary critic, Wilson Harris writes in Tradition, the Writer & Society (I quote now from my late father’s copy,) “For if tradition were dogma it would be entirely dormant and passive, but since it is inherently active at all times, whether secretly or openly, it participates in the ground of living necessity...” (emphasis mine.) It would appear, then, that an invitation to participate in a tradition’s innovation is always there. I encourage more of us to claim it. To claim one’s right to enter the tradition is what I deem important.

KMD: What advice do you have for poets who struggle to make inherited literary forms their own?  

ND: Enjoy the struggle! Allow yourself to be curious about form and then set aside time to fail at it. The first attempts may be atrocious or they may be delicious, who knows? Knowing that you are at practice can help alleviate the dread of sacrificing a poem-spark to what you fear might be the coffin of a form. Keep all of your drafts. You can always abandon the form and return to the original spark. At one point, I set about writing sonnets. I had been writing longer poems, (3-4 pages long,) and to balance the collection, thought to generate some shorter poems too. I had lived inside sonnets by Donne and Shakespeare, deeply admired Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” and the contemporary sonnets of Tracy K. Smith and Elizabeth Alexander. Had poured over Rita Dove’s Mother Love. While the iambic line came organically to me, in my hands, the 14-line stanza with its turn felt like a suffocating box, so I entered the woodshed and set about writing failed sonnets. I had a gut feeling I was going to fail, so I named it from the outset. That was freeing. I learned a lot from those attempts. The Making of a Sonnet, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland, was a valuable resource. In two hands one holds all manner of iterations on the form. There is where I could read Claude McKay’s sonnets on one page and discover Donne has an 18-line sonnet on another. Now I do too: “Home Movie: Gretel as La Femme Nikita”.

Still, be guided by your intuition and remain in service to the poem, not to some notion of form as status or crown. As Sonia Sanchez teaches, “Listen for what the poem needs.” Don’t force a fit. Exploring a poem in one form may simply be a step towards unlocking the poem’s intrinsic form. Keep all your drafts. I transformed a triptych of failed sonnets into “Last Surviving Hymn to Hathor,” which is owes more to the Blues than sonnet, and rightly so. Even when you want to yell at the screen or rip up the page, enjoy the struggle. Your rehearsals may grant you the capacity to catch a poem when it comes announcing the form in which it wishes to be held. Such is “Ironweed.”

 I had fallen in love with Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina,” when I first read it in Sonia Sanchez’s workshop and had later come across Julia Alvarez’s “Bilingual Sestina.” A sestina’s way of doubling-back and singing the sense forward, reminded me of my grandmother’s chain-stitch dance, reminded me of living in two worlds. I wanted to write a sestina. I may have even attempted one in Sonia Sanchez’s class? I don’t remember. But, when I started to work on what would become “Ironweed,” two drafts in, I realized, “Oh, this is a sestina!” I opened Babette Deutsch’s Poetry Handbook, looked closely at my early drafts to select the six words to repeat, set up my page, lines numbered, end words in their prescribed order. The interplay of content and form was deeply satisfying. The rules of the sestina became a trellis for my traveling meditations and granted me the freedom to allow the poem its associative range. What’s even more mysterious is that when I wrote the poem, I had no idea that Marie Angelique, who I knew had been enslaved in Montreal, had, in fact, inhabited New England, had been “purchased” there, quite likely in Rhode Island. That is a fact I learned more than a year after writing the poem. Yes, “Listen for what the poem needs,” and trust that a form far from being a dead-end box, may serve as portal to poetic mysteries that persist across space and time. It’s what our ancestors in the Black Diaspora have done for centuries––– transformed oil drum into pan, box into cajon, hidden one traveling God behind the mask of another. Form is a vessel, not the breath itself. 

KMD: What’s next?  What can readers look forward to? 

ND: As I often do when I have the opportunity to create original work for the stage (albeit the virtual stage as we remain socially distanced,) I bring my poetry and theater worlds together. I am working on a hybrid performance piece that is an assemblage of ensemble work, solo-narrative, movement and video projection in a devised exegesis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s often erased mixed-race identity, her family’s Caribbean background, and the clues she left of her own self-named “black-ness” in her letters, her abolitionist poems and in her Sonnets from The Portuguese. There are clues as well in Aurora Leigh, but I am bracketing my interrogation, beginning with her six-year isolation in her room, due to chronic illness and grief, and ending with her arrival at Casa Guidi, where outside her window, crowds joyously marched for Italian unification and independence. EBB published poems championing what she witnessed from that window. Both her long isolation and her passion for collective freedom are windows through which we can fully witness Elizabeth Barrett Browning, there, and reflect on ourselves, here, in the spring of 2021.

I am looking forward, as well, to starting work on new poems. I have begun to gather sparks, the beginnings of things...

An Excerpt from Music for Exile