Ode to the tuna melt
Because I was eighteen and telling my best friend,the godmother to
all three of my not-yet fetuses—I ain't never seen no black palm, a
cheese slice, and tuna spoon preach a sermon at a congregation of hot
and buttered ciabatta. And who ever heard of ciabatta anyway?
Because with sandwich in black hand meat, tongue taking cover at
tonsil door, ready to war with the cheesy chopped, salted fish—
my best friend, godmother to my will-be fruit, lifts the sandwich to
her mouth. I tell her black palm, I tell my own, tell her unhiding
tongue—that this, is some white shit. And we dine a Sunday dinner
dine anyway. Not in my grandmother's candied yam, oxtail, green-
pot air but in the private college’s recreation center. Sea-farm
unravels my jaws and I think my grandmother is here, too. I think
with a new mouth and prophecy, that anything a black fist can
carry, is Black.
reverse ghazal in harlem
For the sake of this poem, I’ll call you my nigga—
my play-cousin from downstairs; a girl I played house with; the nigga
I loved like the projects do the sound of Mr.Softee’s truck. Walk and talk with me, nigga.
Come on. I ain’t got all day. The three-train is delayed and it’s as hot as satan in a coat.
These white folk got comfy, pasted in yellow-brown seats past 96th street. What is this shit my nigga?
You remember a few years back, train cars got hollow and black as tooth-cavities at each street number’s rise?
They put a bistro at the root of 101 West 131st; an amalgamation of brick that held me—kept a lot of my niggas
out of trouble, out of wet dirt, out of cells, out of symbiotic inclination of niggas to dying. They like their steaks
like they like us. Runny—running—seeping plasma onto a table (coroner’s or dinner.) Harlem niggas
glare at police cranes; don’t walk up to new neighbors saying go back where you came from to survive.
Remember us: 125th was pronounced two-fif. Us high school sophmores in H&M acting like niggas.
We in pleated skirts, grinning like open zippers at the boys in polo t-shirts and uniform slacks.
In the bodega—ordering a baconeggandcheese on a toasted roll. Whatchu want, my nigga?
My teenage father posed in this very store between potato chip racks and quarter water coolers.
Remember me: a pendulum of butt-length box braid ignoring the hiss of corner niggas,
Awa curled her inky fingers around kanekalon, lathered my scalp in Soft-Sheen jam.
My mother spit me out of her nine-month brew. In Apt. 8, speakers humming, fuck niggas
get money. In Harlem, before I learned I had a mouth I mimicked music on the pavement.
Finish this lyric as a nigga preservation spell: Hey ma, what's up, lets slide, alright ____
My mother asks, Shaina, how does it go? We fly high, no lie, you know this_____
A few good words with Shaina
BVS: I often think about place and Blackness and particularity—your work brought me back to my years living on 116th and Adam Clayton Powell, how boys from the Bronx would stand on the block and chirp “Nah, nigga, I’m downtown” into their Nextels and how the relationality of space and time became plain in that. Downtown on 116th St. Made me think about growing up on 29th Street and Crenshaw in Los Angeles, or living on Desire Street in New Orleans, and how those Black communities sounded and looked and felt—different books by the same author. All of this is to ask: how does your Blackness and your New Yorkness live and breath and crack open in your work? How do you see the particularity of your Blackness grow in these poems and connect to other (real and imagined) Black places and people?
SJ: A Black and vibrant Harlem is always alive if I am writing. I write in an accent even if I am the only one who can hear it. When I write "mother," I mean "motha" or "muva." When I name or imagine places, they are/are modeled after my childhood building on 131rst and Lenox Avenue, my childhood church on 125th and Amsterdam Avenue, the playground sounds in Lincoln Projects. While I write from who and what I’ve known, I always learn new names and get invited into new obsessions as I write through/into my familiars. I find a Black girl here saying "me too, me too," I talk to Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Black Heaven when I swim in the ocean, I find myself picking up the things, sounds, people, homes we’ve lost and built and discovered. I hope for the poems to act as time capsules of sorts to say that we were/are here, here's how.
BVS: Let’s talk about food and Blackness and ownership and reappropriation. “Ode to the tuna melt” seemed to me to reframe the white colonial gaze (which is predicated on “discovery” and “ownership” of places, people and the things that they make)—while poking fun at the “that’s some white people shit” reaction to perceived unfamiliar/fancy food. Why not have all food be black food, right? What sparked this poem for you?
SJ: Honestly, I fell in love with tuna melts in undergrad; they were my quick, late to class, meals and I was always late. After I graduated, I would order tuna melts out at sandwich shops, little cafes, make them at home with my partner, etc. My friends and family would look at me like I had seven heads—they would attribute this sandwich to the weirdo in me, to Black parts of me that had undoubtedly been replaced by white ones after four years at a PWI. No one could fathom where I had to come from to like melted cheese over cold tuna fish. I guess this poem came first as a joking response to every turned up nose or pretend vomit at my sandwich. Then, it began to ask me questions about which things I learned were Black/for Black people—not many, not as wide a range of things as we deserve/have earned. I began to consider our magic, the ways we make things feel like they belong with us in sharing, in throwing our spin on them. I know that the idea of ownership for Black folks is often rooted in what we "have left" after recurrent bouts of colonization, or what we can manage to "scrounge up." In the smallest way, I hoped for this poem to say that it is us—our hands, our mouths, our sharing that make Black things, Black. Every day we exist, we interrupt those prescribed lists.
BVS: What music are you using for healing these days?
SJ: My self love playlist on iTunes includes my favorites from India Arie, Jhene Aiko, Jamila Woods, Solange, Jill Scott, NAO, Tank and the Bangas, Lauryn Hill, and Noname. But also anything I can get hype to, anything that makes me dance, or want to fight a little (haha)—so lots of Pop Smoke (RIP), Megan thee Stallion, Flo Milli, City Girls.
Shaina Phenix is a queer, Black femme poet, educator, and Virginia Tech MFA poetry candidate from Harlem, New York. She is—her work is—obsessed with and possessed by many sounds of black and femme existences, the passing down of stories, ocean, the body, mothering, acts of loving, and home(s). She is a performer and reader for two projects with the Poetry Society of New York. She has poems in West Branch Wired and is forthcoming in DIALOGIST and Glass Poetry.