Saida Agostini is a queer Afro-Guyanese poet whose work explores the ways Black individuals harness mythology to enter the fantastic. Her work is featured in Plume, Hobart Pulp, Barrelhouse, Auburn Avenue, amongst others. Saida’s work can be found in several anthologies, including Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Sexuality and Joy, The Future of Black, and Plume Poetry 9. She is the author of STUNT (Neon Hemlock, October 2020), a chapbook reimagining the life of Nellie Jackson, a Black madam and FBI spy from Natchez Mississippi. A Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, and member of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective, Saida is a two-time Pushcart Prize Nominee and Best of the Net Finalist. Her work has received support from the Ruby Artist Grants, and the Blue Mountain Center, amongst others.
Saida’s forthcoming book, Let the Dead In, is a finalist for the 2020 New Issues Poetry Prize and recipient of the Center for African American Arts & Poetics Poetry Prize. Her work was originally featured in our Winter 2018 issue, which you can purchase here. I caught up with Saida recently and she was kind enough to answer a few questions. Our conversation follows.
*Illustration (above) is a relief sculpture of the goddess Mami Wata on the wall of a voodoo temple in Benin.
LPR: I can’t tell you how much I relished this collection. It’s staggering, the extent of time and place that you write from, and with such grace. Can I ask, did you always intend for this book to be broken into these three segments? To that end, can you talk a little about the three parts of this collection?
SA: Thank you so much for your kind words. The collection’s structure emerged after I completed the poems. At the heart of this work is an interrogation of what it means to hold profound love as a praxis – in the face of domestic and imperial violence. The sections: notes on archiving erasure, we find the fantastic, and American love, explore the lessons on love I’ve drawn from—family, Black queer and Guyanese mythologies, as well as from the vantage point of being a first-generation Black woman in the United States. It’s vast and messy, and also real. In my life, Luther Vandross figures just as strongly in any personal understanding of my life as a fat Black queer woman, as does the mermaid and jumbee (a malevolent ghost). The sections speak to the Penelope-like task of trying to codify queer Black, Indigenous and Chinese histories that are often passed down through word of mouth; they can be wild stories and late-night talks at the kitchen table—a legacy that shifts and constricts dependent on who is still alive to remember our past. When I speak of archiving erasure, this is what I am talking about, the stories of our people that challenge respectability politics, and draw us into a more complicated, and full world that honors our struggle and our light.
LPR: I love how, “In Granny Speaks to the Dead,” you address, as you say, this act of “archiving erasure.” How fine your depiction of Uncle Clive— “sooty skin, softer than the river…” It rings of myth, of folklore. This appears to be something you’re deeply interested in. Can you speak to this?
SA: I am obsessed with folklore, fables and myths: particularly their etiology, energy and shifting presence. When I was in Guyana I had the opportunity to meet with Michael Khan, a professor at University of Guyana and renowned folklorist known locally as ole man pappy. During my interview with him, Dr. Khan said something that continues to stay with me: “Guyanese mythology was created to sustain and prolong the enslavement of African people”. With that, I had to go back and interrogate the stories I’ve been told since I was a little girl. With this context, the moongazer, the monster that haunts sugarcane fields at night, was no longer just a harmless fable for children but real threat that kept starving enslaved folks from easy access to the food that their labor reaped. The mermaid? An army of fiends that transformed immense riverways from a path to freedom, into certain death. Re-imagining these fables has become an obsession. I couldn’t imagine leaving behind the stories that peopled my childhood, but I wanted to free them. What would it mean to make them human? To make them protectors and stewards of our people? This is my work.
LPR: Your poem “Whoever Died from a Rough Ride” reads as much an ode to Freddie Gray as it is to Baltimore, or perhaps the two are, to a certain extent, one in the same? Can you talk a little about Baltimore and your experience writing about it, especially in light of Freddie Grey’s death?
What does it mean to love a place that is soaked with the blood of your people? How do we live with a constant threat of death? I wanted to write about that—the enormous joy and grief living Black means wherever you go.”
SA: Baltimore was my home for almost a decade. It still feels like home to me. In the mid 1800s, it had the largest population of free Black folk in the entire country – and you can still feel that energy wherever you go. Baltimore club music, dancing, healing justice work and political organizing are grounded in a profound sense of freedom. So much of the book is an exploration of all the places and people I call home. “whoever died from a rough ride” is in conversation with a billboard on North Avenue emblazoned with that quote. What does it mean to love a place that is soaked with the blood of your people? How do we live with a constant threat of death? I wanted to write about that—the enormous joy and grief living Black means wherever you go.
LPR: What are you reading lately? What writers have influenced your own work?
SA: Lately I’ve been reading Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ a more perfect union, Donika Kelly and Jericho Brown. I love writers who take such clear pleasure in language and want to envelope the reader in their world.
LPR: How has this time of isolation influenced your writing? Even as we begin to emerge from the pandemic (via vaccines and more knowledge regarding the virus), it seems unlikely that anyone has survived these two years unscathed. In fact, it feels as if we’re just now resigned to this “new normal.” How have the events of the last two years affected your work as an artist?
SA: It’s been a pretty whacky time. I’ve vacillated between feeling prolific (my first chapbook STUNT came out with Neon Hemlock in Fall 2020, which reimagines the life of Nellie Jackson, a Black woman who ran a brothel in Natchez for decades) to avoiding the page. I recently went through a rough patch emotionally, and poetry saved me. I’ve been writing a series of short sermons on everything from the death of my grandparents to joy.
Saida Agostini lives online at www.saidaagostini.com. Preorder her book here.