Safiya Sinclair was born and raised in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Her first full-length collection, Cannibal, won the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry (University of Nebraska Press, 2016). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, Gettysburg Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2015 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship, a writing fellowship from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Amy Clampitt Residency Award. She is currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California. Her poem “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof, II” can be found here. It appears along with another poem in the July/Aug 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro, with Complete Proof, II”?
Coming to America really sharpened my rage in very unexpected and crucial ways, and burned in me the necessity of bearing witness. While living in Charlottesville, Virginia, I experienced for the first time the marked separation between the black community and the town’s inescapably blinding whiteness. One could live in a certain part of town, drive a certain route, be enrolled in a certain program and never encounter another black person unless you took the free trolley, went to a black hair salon, or on some rare and joyous occasion happened to run into Rita Dove in the hallway. It was in many ways a lonely space. While there, I found a book called 100 Hundred Amazing Facts About the Negro: With Complete Proof by J. A. Rogers, which consists of a great list of (largely unknown) accomplishments of black people throughout history—Fact #2: Benjamin Banneker, a Negro astronomer, made the first clock in America in 1754. The book is also a compilation of some of the many crimes carried out against black people in the service of (white) American history—Fact #4: George Washington sent a Negro slave to Barbados to be exchanged for a hogshead of molasses, a cask of rum, and ‘other good old spirits,’ in 1776. I began writing a series of poems using some of the facts in the book as epigraphs, and was also inspired by the possibilities of its title, which subverted my expectation that it would center on violence rather than excellence.
By the time I was ready to write the second poem in the series, I’d began researching scientific racism and pseudo-scientific texts from the nineteenth century, while also reading Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Reading all these texts together sparked my thinking (and my rage) about several things: the systemic erasure of any black history outside of slavery, the disruption of language and the power in naming, the danger of categorization, and a maddening frustration that while this constant massacre of black men and women now gets passing attention in national news, none of this was truly new. The scientific racism and the coded language, the erasure of black history and the literal eradication of black bodies was all cyclical, was systemic. This was America.
Could you talk a little bit about the intentionality of language in this piece, and why you chose to write from a multiplicity of voices?
A large part of my interest as a Jamaican poet is the history of the language I’ve been handed as a colonial remnant, and how this language informs my identity as a black poet navigating the world through verse. For me the English language is always going to be the language of the colonist, the language of oppression; so as a poet writing in English, I am always in some way a stranger to myself. I wanted to explore the nature of this linguistic exile by breaking the language and the structure of the poem in different ways than I normally do, by forcing the grammar and syntax beyond what is “correct,” while also exploring the nature of this fragmentation. It’s still a struggle to excise myself from the tyranny of “precise” linguistics, but as a poet, I’m finding it increasingly more interesting to do so. Daily language holds so much weight and so much history, and my ears are always pricking up suspiciously. For example: Why is the name “killer bee” interchangeable with “Africanized bee”? Perhaps it is innocuous, but I find naming like this very sinister. Just another way the coded language makes its way into our vernacular, often shielded under the unimpeachable banner of science. I am finding that there is always another way to measure the skulls. I wanted to include this specific kind of language from both pseudo-scientific texts and categorizations of modern science to highlight the violence of coded language hidden in plain sight.
The multiplicity of voices is a theme that runs through my forthcoming collection Cannibal, sung through the throat of Caliban, who is also forced to learn the language of the oppressor, and who faces a fragmentation of self (and voice) at every turn. (Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments / will hum about my ears, and sometime voices.) I chose to explore this multiplicity because injustice has many arms, many poisonous roots, and there is not only one way to interrogate centuries of subjugation, or one voice to decry how the massacre of black people is entwined with American (and Western) history. By using that same cursed language to conjure a choir of selves in attempt to refuse and refute this terror, the language itself becomes an incantation, a protection, a curse. Much in the same way I find code-switching to be a way of using language and this fragmented identity as a benefit, to voice many selves as a form of self-preservation, to alienate the enemy, to protect selfhood, and to find your people. When the enemy is your neighbour, your nation, and the too-often dissected fractions of your nature, one voice is not enough.
How do you think the James Baldwin quote changes how your poem might be read?
This was the only poem in the series where I didn’t use an epigraph from the J. A. Rogers book, for very specific reasons. Mainly, I wanted to move the framework of the poem into a more modern setting, to conflate the history of the black body in the eighteenth century with the modern representation of the black body. This Baldwin quote from The Fire Next Time so eerily helps me to draw a straight line (or a circle) from the nakedness of the auction block to the smaller skulls of scientific racism, to the super-predator, this language of criminalization, the weaponization of blackness, to freedom’s empty inheritance, and poverty, to the murdered black body left unclaimed in the street. The poem promises “one hundred amazing facts” but there is really only one fact: in America and the world at large the Negro has been and continues to be nameless, faceless, voiceless. A threat or a nothing. A hashtag, a talking point, or a nothing. A symbol or a victim, but never a man with a name that meant something, who lived and loved and erred. This quote is a way to engage with the truth of this macabre history, scarcely changed over centuries, but it’s also a way to reinforce belief in that same power of language to strike back the oppressor. Like Baldwin, I believe it a matter of survival that poetry must in some way disrupt the peace.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
I’ve received a lot of terrible writing advice, because my experience of academia has been that of a mostly white space, where most of my peers and professors remained blissfully unaware of the violent history and systems that taught me to speak like this and exiled me to America. They had no idea how to engage with my work, just as they had no idea how to engage with me; I was the only black poet in my undergrad workshop and my MFA program.
If I had to pinpoint the absolute worst “advice,” that would be the straight white male professor who called me into his office last year to tell me, with sincerity, that he was concerned that my poems had “too much of a female conceit” and I should beware of alienating male readers. This same professor also told me to add more exotic Jamaican flora and fauna in my poems to make them different. I could go on. It was all so ridiculous and appalling, but in many ways also the best hardening tool, a trumpet call to be unassailable, to always know myself.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m currently working on a memoir about growing up in a strict Rastafarian household in Jamaica, exploring the ostracization my family and other Rastas faced in our heavily Christian country, while chronicling my struggles with religion, misguided desire and womanhood, a militant hotheaded father, and feeling estranged not only at home, but also estranged in my body.
I also spent some time in Spain this summer researching the representation of black lives in Western art, focusing on the culture, influence, identity, and erasure of Moors in Spanish art and Spanish history, narrowing specifically on the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a collection of 420 poems created with musical notations, where Moors are heavily represented in the poetic narrative, illustrated in full force of their blackness.