by Anton Nimblett
I sat down with Rosamond S. King in her Brooklyn home. Outside, pale-green pollen from hundred-year-old trees dusted the pavement as evening light played games with bright leaves. Inside, after warm flatbread and spicy curry, we sipped herbal tea and talked about Rock | Salt | Stone, her debut poetry collection from Nightboat Press.
Poet, professor at Brooklyn College, author of scholarly texts, recipient of renowned fellowships and residences, performer – there is much to talk about with Rosa. To engage with the woman – with this richly-layered poetry collection – is to embark on an expansive, penetrating ride, tempered with sharp wit. I wish you could hear her robust laugh, it brightens the room.
Anton Nimblett: So Rosa, I had two different ways I would begin. I could come in with the hard driving questions – because in so many ways that is how the collection starts. It comes at you hard. Should I…
Rosamond S. King (laughing): If I need to parry, I’ll parry.
AN: No, I decided to not go that way. One thing we discovered about ourselves a long time ago – because we’ve know each other a while. Our mothers both went to the same secondary school in a town in Trinidad. Naparima Girls…
AN: Yes the cookbook, that’s how many people know Naparima, they know the cookbook. And I had the opportunity to meet your mother and father after a performance at Dixon Place. I think so much about the collection is tied to the place of your parents.
RSK: The places.
AN: Places, yes. So, I wanted to start by talking about that.
RSK: I mean place is something that is very malleable – both very concrete and very malleable – or perhaps variable is a better word. Between when and I born and when I graduated high school there were only two places we lived for more than three years. So, we moved around a lot. And, it took me well into my adulthood to realize I’m still doing that. And actually that’s very comfortable for me. Around every three years, every three to five years, I try to leave the US for between three to twelve months. And for me it’s great because when I come back I like New York so much more. And that turns up in the work I think, as well. It turns up in the work in language, in style of language, in actual words that reference cultures that come from different places. So, I think that that’s fairly visible within the text.
AN: No, I would agree entirely. I think for me, as much of how it informs the writing and the use of the words – as your say – there’s another level of deliberativeness, of intentionality, of claiming. So, just starting with the language I see this role of claiming. Am I seeing that?
RSK: I don’t claim authenticity, but I do claim all of these different aspects of culture, family, place that I feel I have a real relationship to. There’s one poem in here in particular – I wrote a lot of poems when I was travelling in China, and one of those poems, “Because Evil Cannot Travel in a Straight Line” – that comes from a Chinese saying. Wherever I am to a degree I’m going to claim that place. Especially if I’m having an experience. You know, if you’re passing through an airport for a few hours that’s one thing, but I was in China for almost three weeks, so I don’t claim to know anything about the language or the culture but I did have a real experience while I was there. In a similar way, I have a relationship to the United States of America because I was born here, I grew up here and I live here. But the world in which my family functioned was largely a world of immigrants. The foods that we ate and the languages that surrounded us when we were not at school were largely not American, or African American.
AN: I enjoy hearing that because when I thought about claiming, I started with your parents thinking in terms of claiming culture from your mother’s side [Trinidad] and claiming culture from your father’s side [The Gambia]. But the idea of claiming every place that you’ve been and of consciously, intentionally spending time in different places is fascinating.
Back to the poem “Evil Never Travels”. When I read it, the second time, I was like I wonder if Rosa know about the thing about walking backwards into your house.
RSK: No, tell me and then I’m going to tell you something.
AN: So, this is Trinidadian folk culture right, if you coming home and you pass by a cemetery, or if you living by a cemetery, and you coming home after dark, you don’t walk straight into your house, you have to walk in backwards. Because if you walk in straight the spirits and the evil and whatever will follow you in the door. If you walk in backwards they get confused and the can’t follow you inside the house.
RSK: Interesting. I recently performed the piece “Tiny Winey” with the Dance Caribbean Collective. There was a woman who was doing a piece about Lajablesse and the piece ends with a man taking off his clothes, turning them inside out, putting them on and exiting backwards. It was a similar thing, that if you see a Lajablesse that is how you get away from her. I am familiar with the Douen with the backwards feet. So this thing of the backward does come up in a few different ways.
AN: Again, I like the way the connections are made. You talked about performance. That’s something, the way you navigate all these different roles and different spaces is a fascinating thing to watch even from a distance. I feel there’s another level of claiming of insistence in the collection that is connected in some way to the way you claim different spaces in the world – in terms of being, person, career.
RSK: Well I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I think what I claim is difference in a very large sense. I think the generation that comes before us – of writers and artists – and I’ve heard people actually say this, honey just chose one thing, just pick one thing and do that well. I remember having a conversation in my twenties with some close friends who also work in multiple artistic genres and we talked about dabbling. How interesting it is to take a class in this and a class in that and just try that out and how it informs the work you come back to.
So one of the reasons I think this book took so long to publish is because the poems are different. From each other. I didn’t write a book where everything was in one voice or there was only one topic, there was only one culture. I know some people who know me in particular ways, or who resonate with one particular things, want to read the book as exclusively Caribbean. But there are other references in there as well. And that’s how I work, that is my work. I cannot produce this many pages, and I’m not interested in producing this many pages, at least at this point, of one consistent style or voice. I think that also relates to the performance, the book arts. I know some people see that as very disparate but to me they’re all part of the same project. You could describe the words as dancing on the page sometimes, right?
AN: Absolutely. Dancing on the page – “The Shadow Poems!” The first time I read them I read it as oh she doing a thing, what going on here? You know? The second time I read them I was like, wait! This is like choreography. I see choreography, and knowing your performance work, knowing your background with dance, this makes sense. How close am I?
RSK: You’re close. I appreciate that. I appreciate that. It’s interesting thinking of that with the Shadow Poems in particular because there is method there in a much stronger way than in the rest of the collection. It is a method that is not dissimilar to some choreographic methods where you take a movement and then say what does this movement look like when you do it on the floor, or when you’re jumping, or backwards.
AN: That really excites me. When I thought of them that way it just became this new thing. I think that’s the wonderful thing about a challenging collection. There is so much to be found when you do some work and when you spend time with it.
Again to how the performance influences certain things. I’ve had the chance to see you perform certain pieces here, like “Darling You Zami”. Having seen it performed, reading it, and reading it with that performance, that voice very much present for me, I consider how someone seeing it on the page for the first time sees it. How does that play out in your decision to include a piece, in your crafting of a piece?
RSK: To me the performance of a poem and the poem, they are twins but they’re not identical twins. So they exist separately, intimately connected but separate. So it doesn’t bother me that hopefully hundreds of people will read that piece never having heard me, because also then what you’re talking about is that you appreciate the surprises. Then it’s a completely other surprise when you do actually see or hear me read the work. Jane Cortez was one of my mentors and she did not feel that the performed poem needed to even adhere word-for-word to the poem on the page – it’s a different thing. So I embrace that. I’ve been asked by several people and I’m looking into things like recording and video, so we’ll see where that goes.
People often once they hear me, they say oh I never would have thought. There are poems in here that I would likely never read. So “The Poem with Overgrowth”– I mean I have an idea about how I could read it – but I’d rather not read it. I rather it sit on the page and fall silent. Even “Because Evil” that to me you miss so much of that poem.
AN: Yes, it’s a visual poem.
RSK: So I like being able to have that range in my work, things that work only on the page or predominantly on the page, things that can be read or performed, things that can work in both ways but very differently. And then a few things, most of my work doesn’t fall into this category, but a few things that would be only performed.
AN: You did this performance art piece at Brooklyn Book Festival, maybe four/five years ago, where you were The Poetry Doctor.
RSK: Remember that?
AN: I remember, yes. It goes in the vein of everything we’re talking about: pushing boundaries, interweaving all the different aspects. The Poetry Doctor gave me the prescription that I should go and write, I think it was a villanelle.
RSK: Did you do it?
AN: No! (laughter) I think I did try, but I’ve always been bad with medicine so it’s not the doctor’s fault. What was that experience like for you, what was behind the performance?
RSK: The Brooklyn Book Festival was the only time I performed it in a literary space, so that was a bit different. The Poetry Doctor came out of a couple different impulses. One was the first conversation around creating a new style of healthcare in this country, my belief that healthcare should be free. The Poetry Doctor’s services are free. And what’s fascinating is that people often pay me. They give donations. I’ve had people give me money, artwork, I’ve had people go and buy me food. So that was one of the major impulses. I wear a nurse’s dress but I also wrap my head in white, I often will paint white markings on my face. And so I’m drawing from what we call western medicine. When you have a consultation with the Poetry Doctor you always get a poetry prescription which tells you something to read and something to write. Usually also you get something else: it might be a poetry pill, the so called western medicine, it might be poetry juju right? Which is something tied in a piece of black cloth, which you then tie around your wrist or your neck until it falls off. There are all these different kinds of tradition that I’m drawing on, to encourage people to interact with the arts as something that is potentially healing. And one of the things that has been so interesting to me is that I thought this might be something whimsical. But when somebody sits down with me – and they’re always individual consultations, even if people come up to me and they’re together I always talk to them one on one. People take it incredibly seriously. I think, when someone sits in front of you and says I’m going to listen, tell me – and I as very basic questions, how are you feeling, how is your body feeling, or how is your brain, heart feeling. A very simple-simple question.
AN: But those are not simple questions in our society. I mean how is your body feeling, I mean even medical doctors don’t ask that. So for someone to be asked that is going to elicit a lot.
RSK: Even when people ask how are you they don’t mean it, it’s verbal fluff. I continue to do it. And I like to do it in public spaces where I just interact with random people. But I have to be very aware of how long I’m doing it for because I’m taking in a lot of energy and information from people. I think three hours is the longest I can do it in a day. But I like doing it.
AN: In the collection, at the end of the collection, you are prescriptive. Not in the poems! But in the end notes, the “About the Book” section.
RSK: What do you see as prescriptive here?
AN: In the notes I hear, listen, when you read this poem consider going and reading these people, when you read this poem know that it’s a piece that I did in this place and this is where it came from.
RSK: To me when I say consider this, it’s an option. So it is prescriptive but it’s not hopefully dictatorial. It is presenting people with options and a lot of it is just giving information. So, I talked a lot with the editor of Nightboat Books about including notes. And he felt quite strongly that I should include notes because – he said – the work is so rich and there are things that people may very well miss, precisely because I’m drawing on so many different cultures and information. So even if someone is familiar with some things they may not be familiar with something else. So I was perfectly open to the idea of including notes but I didn’t actually want them to be too didactic.
AN: I don’t think they are. In saying ‘prescriptive’ I was staying in the vein of The Poetry Doctor, where the prescription is almost a consultation. There is an element of the personal in this. Speaking to the reader after they’ve experienced these poems. So they can use that as a bridge either back to the poems or outwardly to other people’s poems or to things that are going on in life. The topic of healthcare come from concerns about health and wellbeing, so here’s some information, go check this website.
So staying with the back of the book, if you don’t mind. The acknowledgements talk about many things, including fellowships. The Poets House fellowship. Your time in Trinidad at Alice Yard.
RSK: Part of those experiences is about place and part is about people. The Poets House fellowship: Jen Bervin, the official mentor at the time, was key in the development of this manuscript as a collection. I’ve had a lot of success placing individual poems. My poems have been published in I think almost three dozen journals and anthologies. I had been trying to get a book published for years, but I didn’t have any success. So I determined I might have many issues, but one of those issues might be the collecting of the poems, precisely because they’re so disparate. One of Jen’s tasks was to read our full manuscripts and give us feedback. She was incredibly generous because she read two if not three manuscripts from me. And at the bottom [of one manuscript] I put “Bring Back,” and I said I don’t know what to do with this. She said, well this is the start of the book, this is clearly the start of the book. And I said, can you put that in a book? (laughter)
AN: I have to find that woman and hug her.
RSK: She was amazing, she could see what I could not see in the book.
AN: And “Bring Back” is one of the most brilliant openings to a book in any form, genre, that I know. It’s boss.
RSK: Well, thank you. This poem exists in three different ways. You’ve seen me perform this as well, right? I sing this poem, so it exists as performance, it exists on the page. And it’s my first digital poem, it’s an animated poem that’s going to be in sx: salon in a couple weeks.
Jen was important to me in helping shape the collection. And Duriel Harris also helped me a lot with that. And Stephen Motika from Nightboat.
AN: In the collection it places Lajablesse in Oakland.
RSK: So yes, I’m interested in these things. Lajablesse: I’ve always thought this character was so interesting: a folk character that seduces men in order to kill them. I just thought, so where did she come from? I just decided to write, it’s not the origin story but it’s an origin story. And what would Lajablesse be doing if she were around today. What would she have done if she was present at the Rodney King uprising? So yes. The word “reclaim”— I worry a little bit that it might emphasize prettying something up, which I know is not how you intend it, but sometimes when we reclaim something we can put it on a pedestal. I’m less interested in that kind of reclaiming than I am in uncovering – so I’m saying if this is half-buried what happens when you take some more of the sand away? What is revealed? And again, what I see is not the only thing to see, it’s not the only thing to be revealed, but hopefully it’s something that’s interesting to contribute to the conversation.
AN: There are poems in the collection that shock.
RSK (with mock horror): Such as?
AN: I know! A demure properly-raised child like you, shocking people. I’ll start with “Reparations”. Chile! I was reading that on the train, going to work. And the people-them must have thought I was crazy, because I was gagging! Shock, intentional purposeful valuable shock!
RSK: When you say you were gagging…
AN: I was shocked in the sense that I started in one place and quickly went where I didn’t think the poem was taking me. And where the poem took me was a bold direction. Not the right word, but…
RSK: I wasn’t sure if it meant you were laughing.
AN: I laughed, I gasped, I – is that not the intent?
RSK: Yes, that’s the intent. This is one of those poems that was published (in a literary journal) after the book came out. This is a poem people did not want to touch with a ten-foot pole. And yeah, that’s precisely the intention. My good friend who’s also a performance artist and reads a lot of my work, she leans over to me and says, you think this is funny? Other people are not going to think this is funny. (Laughter). I know that, I know there are many different reactions people might have to it. For me it’s that sense that all good writing is true and all good writing is a lie. There is an emotional truth a lot of people will understand: there are no such things as reparations for some of the horrors that black people and indigenous people have gone through. That’s where the poem comes from. Obviously not every poem I ever wrote in my life made it into this book, but I want to be able in my writing to address a wide range of themes, a wide range of emotions. Sometimes I need to write a poem like this. Otherwise what is the point? We could all be making more money working for corporate America. And even if you’re working for corporate America, spending the time putting your poetic energy into that rather than into poems, we get a lot more material gain out of that. So if I’m going to sit down and write things, they better mean something. They better be trying to do something. And they’re not all trying to do the same thing with the same level of emotion. But they are all trying to do something.
Anton Nimblett is the author of Sections of an Orange. His fiction and poetry appear in various literary journals. His reviews have appeared previously in The Caribbean Review of Books and sx salon.