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.
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.