Meet Our Contributors: Q&A with Sheila Black

Sheila Black is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Iron, Ardent (Educe Press, 2017). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, Puerto del Sol, the New York Times, and the Nation. She is a coeditor of Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked: The Fiction of Disability. She currently splits her time between Washington, D.C., and San Antonio, Texas.

Sheila’s poem, “Tamarind,” appeared in LPR’s Winter Issue 2019 (available for purchase at this link).

We’re very grateful she’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: You told me you’re feeling “craft insecure” at the moment (hopefully I’m not betraying confidence in asking about that!). I thought maybe you could pick one craft element then that you use in “Tamarind,” and explain if briefly for us. I think you’ll find there’s a ton to choose from.

Andrew—you are not betraying a confidence at all. I think most poets feel “craft insecure” fairly often. I don’t know if it is so much insecurity about the craft or form itself as the tension the critic Charles Altieri describes as the struggle in a poem between “craft” and “sincerity.” You want a poem to feel “sincere”—a truth or an observation that teaches the reader something; at the same time, a poem depends on form to distinguish itself, to catch on fire. I often—make that usually—write my poems in a headlong rush, one big block of text—and the revision process for me is often about finding form. Putting “Tamarind” into couplets sort of snapped the poem into shape. I think because it allowed the white space between each couplet to do some of the work of the poem. The speaker is talking about sexuality, coming of age, and within a particularly fraught Caribbean (I spent a good part of my childhood in Nassau, Bahamas) historical context. The couplet form, and the space it gave for a kind of breathing in the poem, I hope creates a kind of outline or ghostly sense of that pressure—the things the speaker apprehends, but not entirely. I care a lot about sound in my poems so the poem also moves forward with a lot of internal rhyming—slant rhymes, sometimes full rhymes, buried within the lines (she/seed/tree). The poem also uses repetition of words—again she/seed/tree, etc.—to tell its story. I love how in a poem you can shift the sense of a word through a poem simply by repeating it or how even the act of repeating a word gives it a kind of double presence—the sound and what it signifies somehow playing off one another.

Q: You’ve described yourself as “attracted to the unruly and confrontational elements of the confessional.” What does “confessional” mean to you? And would you describe “Tamarind” in this way?

I tend to think of the confessional in much the terms Cate Marvin has written about it—as a dramatic form, where what is dramatized is not merely trauma itself, but the speaker’s relationship to that trauma and the act of speaking that trauma. I think in what we consider the first generation of confessional poets—Plath, Sexton, Berryman, et al.—the speaker’s voice, the dramatic wrestling of finding a voice with which to speak, is often foregrounded; what was innovative in this “confessional poetry” was the way the poem encompassed their speakers’ stuttering, difficulty, self-mythologizing, etc., as they sought to deal with or reveal charged material or content.

A friend of mine—a very great poet—once took me to task for calling myself confessional; he said I didn’t really have the right kind of history or psychological make-up—no drunken father or absent mother, no real primal trauma I was attempting to exorcise. He also said that I did not seem to be a sufficiently unreliable or untrustworthy enough narrator to call myself confessional, which always amused me a little. I think what he meant was that in the classic confessional poem, part of the drama of arises from the ways in which the reader must interpret what the narrator or speaker really feels about the traumatic situation described. Think for example, of how Plath’s “Daddy,” ostensibly a furious repudiation of her father, is also in some sense a love poem. He said—my friend—that I was more a poet of unease. I’ve thought about that a lot, and I think it is true. I came of age in the Watergate years and something of that sense of profound lack of certainty or trust really infuses my work. I think my speakers are often grappling with a feeling that they are born into a world that is unreliable where various truths are always buried or concealed. That might also be a result of growing up in many countries as the child of a foreign service officer—I had a sense of being somewhat outside, in exile, not sure where I belonged or what I was supposed to represent. I think that is reflected in “Tamarind” when you look at the uncertainty of the speaker versus the more declarative stance of her friend.

Q: Looking at the titles of your edited volumes, can you say a bit about the ideas behind the “new poetry of disability” and the “fiction of disability”? I think I have an idea, at least of the latter one, but it would be great to hear your words.

When Jennifer Bartlett, Mike Northen, and I began working on Beauty is a Verb, back in 2010 or so, we had two ideas. The first was to produce an anthology of poetry by people with disabilities that put poetry first; we felt that all too often works published that intended to “represent” a disability community were from an outsider perspective—sentimental or vague about the experience of disability. We wanted to publish people speaking from inside, who were also simply good poets. We were also interested in how the experience of a non-normative body might inform the poetics of poets with disabilities, not merely in terms of content, but also in terms of form. This was really interesting to us. This was why we asked all the living contributors to not only submit poems but also essays that tackled this question. I think we took a similar approach—though formal questions are perhaps differently foregrounded in fiction than in poetry—with The Right Way to be Crippled and Naked. In both cases, we were interested in beginning to define—in a fairly open-ended way—what the aesthetics of disability might mean or look like in the context of literary production. Ouch. I’m worried that sounds a little overly academic. In simple terms, we were interested in how the experience of living with a non-normative body or mind—including the social construction of the disability (which is a big part of what it means to be disabled in our and most societies I know of)—might change the writing process or result and also how it might lead to various innovations in poetry or fiction.

Q: One reason I asked the previous question is because some of my own work explores my relationship with my older brother, who has Down syndrome. Is there something problematic in me asking you about disability, if you write of your own and I write of another’s? If there is, how can I look at this? I think the most important things I have to say as a writer are what I’ve learned from him about life and love.

Andrew, I see nothing problematic in asking me about my disability! It is funny, but when I was growing up in the 1960s disability was kind of like cancer. No one wanted to address it head-on, much the way cancer was not spoken of back then, but was called—in a hushed voice—”the Big C.” Even as a child, this bothered me. When I was about twelve—and a pretty snarky kid, I guess – I wrote a story that had the first line “She hated the cruel ones, but she hated the kind ones more,” which sounds awful, I know, but what I was responding to was the way people would tend to react to my then very visible disability in one of two ways. They would either tell me I was extraordinary, very brave, or somehow heroic just for existing; or they would insist that they noticed nothing different about me. “I never even noticed that you had crooked legs,” or “you look just like everyone else to me.” Both responses were what was considered appropriate or even polite, but from my perspective all this kind of talk (or non-talk) made me feel very isolated, as if something really was very wrong with me, which was not how I felt when I was alone, or with my family, or just living my life. I think—though I can’t speak for everyone—that many people with disabilities feel as I did then and still do—that there shouldn’t be anything wrong about speaking openly about a disability as long as it addressed straightforwardly and respectfully. I was always far more comfortable when people acknowledged by disability rather than pretending it didn’t exist. For me that is what inclusion as opposed to accommodation is all about—recognizing difference without trying to erase or suppress it. One thing I love about disability culture is that it is tremendously diverse—people with disabilities represent an incredibly wide range of different experiences.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece from the current issue?

Can I pick two? I love “The Belvedere” by Linette Marie Allen because it is such an assured sonic tour de force and what an atmosphere and sense of place is created. Wow! I also love, love, love “Ode to the Eastern Shore,” by Marlena Chertock because 1) it dramatizes something big in a way that feels so embodied and intimate; 2) the form perfectly fits what is happening in the poem; and 3) I know that landscape and she nails it for me subtly and indelibly through her personification of the bay. Nice work!

Q: Are you working on anything now?

I am always working on something. I just finished a book-length poem in collaboration with my youngest daughter, Eliza Hayse, called “Hunger Season.” I’ve never collaborated with anyone like that before, but I think it worked. I am piecing together a fifth poetry collection, but I am still at that stage where the book is constantly shape-shifting. Speaking of “craft insecurity,” right now it feels like a hot mess, but I am used to that—it is a question of just sticking with it and listening until the shape of the book begins to come clear. I am also (very timidly!) about 100 pages into a novel; I have not written a sustained piece of prose in years so I don’t think I’ll say too much more for fear of jinxing the whole enterprise, but it is about two friends, a violent city, and a re-occurring dream of flooding in a desert. Fingers crossed I can keep all that afloat. Thanks so much for all these great questions—I’ve enjoyed trying to answer them.

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