The PdS Black Voices Series Presents: METTA SÁMA
We at Puerto del Sol are so excited and honored to launch our new blog series, Black Voices, which will feature new work from established and emerging black writers alongside short interviews. We are so happy to showcase new poems by Metta Sáma for our inaugural post!
“Vesper: It doesn’t bother you? Killing all those people? Bond: Well I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.” (from the film Casino Royale )
A man of course is not a city is
rarely close to the moon alone fat & glittering—
an uncast spell— Amy
Lowell once moaned for the moon to replace
man: a streetlamp it’s flat light a sad
puddle cold in the coffined and craving city. . .
under a lamp-lit expressway— . . . What
constitutes a man
in a dull window the moon
heavy sand-blown cast to glass—
a man drinks
first of the liquor & then of himself. . .
Attending a Poetry Event While Being Black: Baton Rouge, LA, 16 September
I imagine a bucket of chicken
feathers wet with tar From the front
of the room a child screams let me out
of here I want to go home Many giggles—
an outburst bussed in the back On this day
in Civil Rights history we are neatly rowed
in silver-rodded black bottomed chairs Someone
has posted a photo of our president sitting
in a green seat on an abandoned bus a poised
nod to a posed history We fan ourselves
with gold-embossed pink napkins drink antebellum
cocktails in new short mason jars & wait
for that sweet red cake hidden beneath white
frosting Lines written about war &
sex & sex and We are so hip We pretense
a stance Let’s get crazy! Celebrate! We throw
our hands to the windless room & sing
it is what it is & All the while white
gowns & bleached bloody wigs tromp
the aisles One forgets a bombing of One has
poetic luxury One forgets to remember
One trespasses on this land &
Oh I’m just sayin That is all folks
“Give Your Hands to Struggle” – Sweet Honey in the Rock after Urban Bush Women
They say the heart is a fist but I’ve cut open a pig’s chest, cracked a frog’s ribcage & touched each of their hearts with my whole palm, placed a scalpel
in my hand, cut into fat to find hidden veins. Love, I’ve touched a human heart. Behind the animal skin, the heart is not a fist. The dancer
stands wide-legged, hands closed, fingers digging tunnels into palms, chest pressing into a world we all imagine to be closed against her. She loosens her fingers, a canticle rising in her palms. Psalms. Imagine
our bodies bent in labor, the fist dragging up our spines, inviting us to sit rail straight or fold our legs beneath us. Pain inevitable. The dancer throws her weight into an invisible wall, bounces back, screams and runs, chest out, into the wall again. The wall refuses her body passage. She stumbles, raises her arm, turns her fingers into her palms, releases a howl, before releasing her fingers, giving her palms breath breath more breath.
Imagine love, too, as labor we perform to and for each other. Our bodies as walls as air as chests rushing rushing rushing the heart rushing. Lights out.
The dancer palms the walls, shadows of palms stacking merging remaking collecting. Bernice Reagon sings give your hands to struggle. Did I ever tell you I slept, as an infant, with my fists pressed into my ears? That my father knew me immediately my baby girl with her fists raised! Recall being a child, how your palms reached towards love, your mother, speed, the hips of a narrow curve, a honeysuckle’s open mouth. Once my father told me his heart had a growing hole in it. I’ve watched his face open larger than the span of that quarter-sized hole. Imagine a we, walking side-by-side, our hands easily discover the other’s & embrace palm to palm our fingers search for those open spaces, slip into them and clasp. The dancers leap from South
African chant to St. Croix to capoeira to crump. Fists shadow the walls, hands closed, then opened, closed, then opened, their mouths, too, fisted before wailing, the words unfisted on their tongues.
Even in resistance, Love, the hands are fists open before closing as fists raised, never alone.
The Confederate & Mizpah Cemeteries
I tell my father a story. This is the year of the dog; pelts of rain consume the streets. In the story, a 200-year old oak crashes in a Confederate & Jewish cemetery. It is the year of the dog. Told another way, a headstone lies headless in a cemetery. The dog barks and thunder shatters the earth.
Lightning. That’s what did the cemetery in. That’s what struck those Confederate headstones & split their tops off, left them howling and no one heard them. It’s a ½ Confederate cemetery. It is the year of the recalcitrant dog. I tell my father a cosmic story.
There were a hundred giants with bellies full of inhaled air. 1, 2, 3 they blew at that ½ of the cemetery with hundreds of years of Confederates buried there. There dogs, too, huffed and heaved a mighty wind some Confederate trusted to ruffle leaves, or rustle skirts or play ruffian with trash; or or or.
I say, for example, gentle breeze or fierce atmosphere or mercurial air or hushed sky. I say stream of heaven or weathered storm. I tell my father a story. A chameleonic air tornadoed, as jilted lyric, above the Jewish headstones. We wander into that cemetery and feel earth’s new weight, how it opens itself to ruin in this year of the fire dog.
The headstones crush the heart of this place. Shall we thank wind? My father tells me a story. A man hangs a flag outside his home. The man loves the flag as he loves his grass, his recliner, and his wife. In the man’s yard, lightning takes shape of sword, slices a child-sized oak tree in half. Wind casually picks the oak from ground & hales it through the heart of the man’s truculent confederate X.
This is the year of the sorrowful dog. My father tells me a story of a white man’s anguish. The white man mourns his flag, replaces it, the way people replace pets with statues of black jockeys, blood white, bone red, and black. I wonder if thunder will bark & howl the sky
a penitent color. I tell my father a story of origins, of plantations. Of an ochre & violent house burned in half. Of a rouge house drowned under flood waters. We share tales for awhile. For awhile, it is the year of our dog & we laugh.
A FEW GOOD WORDS WITH METTA
PDS: You engage with space and spacing in different ways in each poem–in “After Murder,” the lines are staggered across the page, playing with the silence and elapsed time that the white space implies, in “Attending a Poetry Event While Being Black: Baton Rouge, LA, 16 September” the long stanza is double spaced, while both “‘Give Your Hands to Struggle’ – Sweet Honey in the Rock” and “The Confederate & Mizpah Cemeteries” employ more normative formatting. How do you see the varied construction of these poems speaking to their content? How does a poem, in some ways, tell you how it needs to be placed on the page?
MS: “The Confederate & Mizpah Cemeteries” has been written in various styles over a course of holy fuck 9 years. Nine years. Jeesh. I had to go and check the last Year of the Dog to test my own memory & yes, the last Year of the Dog was 2006. Originally the poem was in couplets, which is one of my favorite line styles. The “conversation” was between the “I” and the father. I then shifted to three lines, since there was also history in that conversation. I can’t recall what the lines look like now & I’m too lazy to go in search of it. “Give Your Hands to Struggle” is all over the place, in terms of line length and paragraphing, which I needed for the poem to have the feeling of being in an enclosed space watching art while also beginning to see that art open up & the viewer’s own heart and spirit and mind and body opening up in the viewing of that art. The control that is apparent at the beginning, in terms of fairly consistent line lengths, begins to lose itself in the middle and at the end of the poem, as the narrative continues to be jerked around and the narrator is transported to the past and brought back. Since the poem is a love poem (well, all of my poems are love poems & I’d easily argue that all poems are love poems) & also a political poem (ditto the previous parenthetical) it was important for me to carry the poem through paragraphs v through the consistency of stanzas.
I can’t tell you anything interesting about the format for the Baton Rouge poem. I’ve had so many people tell me that my poems feel claustrophobic, too tightly enclosed, so I try to not have poems that are all single-space lines unless I have stanzas/paragraphs. I didn’t want to break this poem into either paragraphs or stanzas, so I double-spaced in order to provide more breathing room for the reader. I, personally, enjoy feeling trapped inside of a poem, particularly those that are relentless in their pursuit of justice, of truth.
“After Murder” was once a blockish thing and was part of a series of poems that I had written about representations of white masculinity and white maleness in current cinema & television. All of those poems are in prose blocks, but those other pieces are pushing the boundaries of punctuation and the prose blocks helped to accomplish the feeling of being unsettled while also insisting on being individual, being maverick. “After Murder” once I had a body in mind—initially I didn’t have a physical body in mind, just a concept of white men going out to do horrible things in the world and then coming home to drink it all away—once I had a body in mind, I was able to more immediately see the visual picture that became the revised poem.
Each of these poems was written in a different years & geographic locations. The first in 2006 when I was visiting my family in Chattanooga; the second one in 2010, while I was watching a performance of Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler at Harlem Stage Gatehouse; the third in 2012 while I was living in Louisiana & the last one in 2012 while I was living in Brooklyn. They were all subjected to their final revisions a year or two ago, while I’ve been here in North Cackalacka, and in some ways, I can see an attempt to maintain control with the first poems, to maintain the original formatting. Maybe.
PDS: Whose work builds fire in you? Who do you go to for revelation? For serenity? For support?
MS: I love work that can create and build quiet. Ching-In Chen’s poems have often been crucial to me, for their ability to spark without shouting. On the other hand, in recent years the poetry of Tony Medina have been important for their ability to be tender while yelling. I enjoy poems that have an ability to develop meaning throughout the course of a book, so Brenda Hillman’s Cascadia, Jenny Sampirisi’s Croak, Dawn Lundy Martin’s Discipline, Aimee Suzara’s Souvenir, Ronaldo Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object, Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory series, are a few that come immediately to mind. Mostly, I love poems that I want to go to bed with, you know, poems that I want lying beside me when I fall asleep and staring at me when I wake up, drooling, in the morning. That would mean anything from Layli LongSoldier, anything from Tsering Wangmo Dhopma, anything from Morgan Parker, anything from Doug Kearney, anything from Safia Elhillo, anything from b. william bearhart, anything from L. Lamar Wilson, anything from Jayne Cortez, anything from Danielle Lea Buchanan, anything from Ed Roberson. These are poets whose work I would scratch and burn into my flesh if I was into tattooing other peoples’ words into my skin.
PDS: How does speaking to identity and race politics in your work feed your hunger as an artist and in what ways has your positionality crafted your voice as a poet?
MS: I can’t say that my own work feeds me; it’s very intense to be immersed in this world, to be fully present, to be aware of the brutalities and violences that happen in the world, with awareness, not with the quick glances that so often happen, but with deep, full-bodied awareness. It’s difficult. I told a poet-fiction writer friend, Jaci Jones LaMon, that I write fiction because I don’t know how to be funny in poetry & she said, “I know what you mean,” and I knew that she did, deeply. Jaci’s work, particularly her last book of poems, Last Seen, are political and socially conscious and painful and beautiful and melancholic. To write these poems with the depth of feeling—via the soul, the mind, the body, the heart—is to be totally immersed in the worlds we write about. So, I supposed there is a force feeding that happens. A reluctant swallowing. I do think that art has a social responsibility to reflect and amplify the worlds we inhabit. I also think art has a social responsibility to warp and shift the worlds we inhabit. As an artist, then, I have a responsibility to reconstruct the worlds I inhabit, be they totally interior, totally imagined, totally real/ity, totally experiential, a combination of, etc. What feeds me is the knowledge that (1) I’m not the only person doing this work, (2) people want to/need to see/hear this work, (3) I’m the only person in the world with my combination of experiences and perspectives to produce the work I produce (this is true of each of us). I’m also fed by the folks who argue that art needs to be completely, absolutely imaginative, unlived, unreal, whatever. The more I do this creative work, the more I find myself working against them, working towards those who can very easily point to the material worlds that called them to the page, the canvas, the camera.
METTA SÁMA is author of After “Sleeping to Dream”/After After (Nous-Zot), Nocturne Trio (YesYes Books) & the forthcoming le animal & other strange creatures (Miel). She is Director of Center for Women Writers and Assistant Professor and Director of Creative Writing at Salem College.
The image at the beginning of the post is a photograph of “Moon Chest (2008)” from Ai Weiwei, courtesy of the author.