A few good words with S. Erin
BVS: I love “About the Author, II” because of the way it pushes back against the accomplishment-centric author’s bio. The literary industrial complex has created a deep pressure to have awards, publications, fancy degrees to list in your bio, which, in a lot of ways, flattens our humanity. We aren’t asked to talk about ourselves as people, but as “literary citizens,” and sometimes it feels as though our listed (or unlisted) credentials can make or break our chances of publication. What’s your relationship to the bio as a qualification signifier? What inspired this poem?
SEB: I feel like the issue of the author bio comes with so much freight. I am immeasurably grateful to each journal (thank you Puerto del Sol!) that has given me the opportunity to see my words out shining in the world. It is a privilege every time, regardless of their readership size or reputation. I am also, humbly, a fellow of groundbreaking institutions Cave Canem and Callaloo Writing Workshop, whose work has changed not only my own, but who are responsible for transforming the landscape of American poetry and literature. I wouldn't be here today without any of those listed and the very real people behind them who lifted me up. I think the bio can be a way of showing lineage, homage and respect.
As a literary poet, I do slow, difficult and painful work. What we do requires blood and sacrifice, trading off easier activities like brunch, movie night or even sleep all for a few lines, sometimes not even a whole page. Couple that with the rejection and long stretches of time between when a poem goes out and if, and when it is published. So much is unseen, unrequited, unpaid and I think the bio is a tangible way celebrating the wins, our body of work, and ourselves.
That being said, I just came out of a ten-year submission and publication gap this year. I was writing but I was mostly trying to stay alive. Even beforehand I’d only had a couple of poems published in smaller, regional journals and I am a working-class poet who has largely been outside of academia. For me the bio became a source of anxiety and shame when I was constantly asked where I had been published or "where they could find me." I was standing right there in front of them. In those instances I felt those people failed to recognize me as serious or "a real writer" because I did not have any bulletpoints.
Also, while I acknowledge and applaud that like Puerto del Sol, more and more journals are making space for marginalized or other voices, there are institutional and systematic reasons for why, even within the past few years, someone who looks like me or whose race, class and education, gender, age, ableness, or otherness does not align with the academy might have a less "impressive" bio. What you said about "flatten[ing] our humanity" resonates and I believe as part of being "literary citizens" we need to remember that the bio is connected to a living, breathing human. Who, often in spite of terrible circumstances, is still trying to make art, and more importantly surviving. The bio can be informative, sure, but it is simply that, information. One side.
"About The Author, Part II" is actually part of a longer work, a five-part traditional cento, which is one hundred lines strategically collaged or “patchworked” from two different natal charts. I am witchy and have been obsessed with astrology since grade school. Considering all the various things that make up our identities, I wondered how interesting and democratic it might be to construct a biography solely based on the stars and also completely random, since none one consciously chooses where and when we are born. Due to the organic strangeness and mysticism of the language, I was able to create a narrative or narrator that also leaves room for guesswork, gossip, opinions, and even hopes for "The Author." I write a lot of really sad poems, so this one felt like a reward because I was literally smiling, laughing, and yelling out loud to myself at how accurate and absurd and honest it turned out.
BVS: “Glory to All Fleeting Things” struck me right in the chest—an ode to the pains and the triumphs and the little deliciousnesses. Sometimes, I feel that black writers are expected to center our writing around some crushing cultural sadness, which is limiting and compresses our real experiences. I so value this poem because it, inadvertently or not, negates that expectation; these lives are not just lodestones, but prayer-starters. Will you talk a little about this poem’s origin and your relationship to odes/devotionals?
SEB: Why thank you, that is a magnificent compliment.
I agree, so much of Blackness gets merged into the collective and I think there are legitimate, innate, survivalist reasons for that. Just a couple hundred years ago on the continent, during slavery, in sundown towns and segregation, even now sadly there has always been grave jeopardy in standing as one. I also think that due to all the movements––Abolition, Civil Rights, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo that Blackness has had to be conflated to try and quantify or convey in numbers the ineffable, sheer devastation caused by colonialism and its descendants. However, a danger exists when millions of people continue to be looked upon as a monolith, and even moreso when these demands are made upon our artistry and craft. Blackness is pluralness. My Black may look and feel different from someone else’s. Hopefully somewhere in my voice, others see themselves or see one tiny glimmering possibility reflecting back from the infinite prism of Blackness. I feel like we can all harness great power and political in our personal.
I wrote "Glory to All Fleeting Things" last winter when I was in a really dark place. It was nearing the holidays, which is always a challenging time for me because much of my family is gone. At the same time I was reading Ross Gay's collection, The Unabashed Catalog of Gratitude, after someone had spitefully recommended it, saying I needed "more joy." Imagine. But I carried the magnificence of the language and his sheer will to find gratitude in the face of extraordinary loss and grief. It consoled me. I started this poem as a kind of "after," an exercise to search for and name some goodness in my own life. It took me a long time to write anything down. At first, I struggled and all I could manage was the first two lines, thinking, "well at least this house is not on fire." Because I have lived in two houses that burned down. One right after Christmas. I made an effort to really seek out and collect small glories every day and from there the poem took hold.
My grandmother, who appears in the poem, was deeply Southern and deeply religious, so like many Black children I grew up in the church. Although my relationship with religion is complicated today, I've held onto many of its sayings or sensibilities, one of them the giving of "devotionals" as you call them at each weekly service, acknowledging the things God has given or done in your life. I wanted to imitate this in the most flattering way and also incorporate some of my grandmother's and my own Southwestern dialect.
In later revisions, I came to the realization that we literally lose everything. Good memories, bad childhoods, trees are shedding their leaves now, we move, we eat our favorite meal, hems loosen, bouquets blossom then wither away, we empty the wine, we outgrow our warmest jacket, relationships end, the sunset changes every day, we die. Maybe after I've passed these words will be left behind but eventually the computer, the paper, and the earth as we know it will perish. My father died suddenly when I was twenty and by age thirty, half of my families on both sides had died. It was a staggering decade. This poem helps put in perspective that no matter how invisible, impossible or momentous something seems, that it will only ever be one moment. And this too shall pass. All fleeting. I think this has been comforting to me in some ways.
BVS: In these trying times, I’m looking for tenderness. What book or work or writer makes you remember you fondly? Makes you look at yourself with more softness and compassion?
SEB: Indeed, Nicole Sealey's, Ordinary Beast comes to mind. The collection begins with the medical history of the speaker and/or poet which establishes an immediate tenderness or intimacy between speaker and reader. So many of the poems, "the first person who will live to be one hundred and fifty years old has already been born," "cento for the night i said, 'i love you,'" and "object permanence" give us stunning examples and interior views into the beauty and complications imbued in being human (and sometimes even as Gods) and having very human relationships. The ways Sealey works with language and form is both deliberate and delicate. Specifically, she reclaims and reimagines the elegance of the sonnet, giving voice and fullness to three trans women performers from the documentary "Paris is Burning." I've returned to these and poems like, "even the gods" and "imagine sisyphus happy" over and over again whenever I need a reminder to breathe––to breathe more love, acceptance and vulnerability into my own work, and always into my life.
S. Erin Batiste is a poet. This year she has been named a finalist for the 2018 Furious Flower Poetry and The New Guard Knightville poetry contests, a semi-finalist for the Boston Review's Discovery Poetry Contest, and was long listed for the Cosmonauts Avenue and Peach Mag poetry prizes. She has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and Brooklyn Poets. Her work is forthcoming or appears in Wildness, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Peach Mag among others.