Andrea Jenkins: Unwrapping the Vastness of the Imagination
“…change is inevitable. And I think we are in for a dramatic shift now. Poetry has that ability to contribute to changing the way we think.”
Poet Andrea Jenkins is the author of two chapbooks Pieces of a Scream and Tributaries: Poems Celebrating Black History. Recently elected to chair the newly established GLBT Caucus of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, she is also the Minneapolis Eighth Ward Senior Policy Aide in the office of Councilwoman Elizabeth Glidden. Andrea holds a MFA in Creative Writing and is a 2011 Bush Fellow. She recently sat down with interviewer Lucas Scheelk at the Wilde Roast Café in Minneapolis, to talk about poetry, social justice, and much more. From Gwendolyn Brooks to Amiri Baraka, from spoken word to video poems, from transgender activist CeCe McDonald to poetic lineage, and from the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Arts Movement, the following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
When did you first start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry probably around age fourteen. At least, that’s when I wrote my first serious poem, or what I considered at the time to be a serious poem. But I thought about poetry a lot even before then. As early as six years old, I was writing little poems, but I wasn’t very proud of them.
Just something to pass the time?
Yes. When I was in first grade, Gwendolyn Brooks came to our classroom and made a big impression on me. Here I was in grade school with a Pulitzer Prize winner talking to my class! She was just really beautiful and encouraged us to write poetry. That got me started, but I became even more interested when I turned fourteen.
What triggered the change?
I met another poet, who was one of Gwendolyn Brooks’ protégés, Haki Madhubuti, an activist, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a veteran, a member of the Black Arts Movement. His poetry touched me so much. And I thought, “Wow. I should try this.”
What about his poetry inspired you?
It was really rhythmical. It was very sardonic. It was also about community, and it was about lifting up Black people, lifting up my family and the people that I love and care about. That appealed to me. Through him I recognized that poetry has that ability to do that. I was immediately attracted.
That feeling of finding that sense of sameness from another artist. I also notice that in several of your poems, you refer to Amiri Baraka. What specifically about his works drew you to him?
Baraka has historically been viewed as somewhat of an angry poet.
Especially his earlier work.
Right, exactly. It was political. But I think his use of language and his knowledge of history and culture just really fascinated me. So intelligent and colorful. Really edgy. Like on the verge of anarchy, in some ways. That’s what inspires me about Baraka. I didn’t want to write those poems, but I wanted to have that sensibility right in the back of my head. He does a lot of work with sound in his poetry and in his work, and that is very interesting to me too.
I noticed word play, such as alliteration, in your poems. In “Family Ties,” for instance, you repeat the first letter of words.
Poetry is musical. It should sing, there should be a rhythm. But there doesn’t always have to be rhyme. There’s many different ways, I think, to make that rhythm. Baraka’s poems have that musicality. There’s a very strong sense of Blues music, gospel music, jazz music there. He incorporates soulful rhythms into his work, particularly jazz and be-bop. That inspires me because, for me, poetry is performative.
I’ve won the VERVE grant, a nationwide grant program for spoken word poets offered by Minneapolis organization Intermedia Arts. I like the label “spoken word poet,” but I also I feel that all poetry may be spoken word poetry. People get poetry when it’s read out loud, in a different way than when they read it themselves.
When it’s performed, it turns into a story. It’s more illustrated in front of you, and it’s a different experience than reading it.
When you’re not there to perform it, then you have to replicate that feeling. Videotape is not a new medium, because poets have been videotaping their works since the advent of that technology. In the past, people were taping their work for posterity, for their collection, for research. But now, people are videotaping their work as a part of the work. I think the use of video and cinema is a way to bring poetry into the world.
Is that one of the things you want your writing to accomplish?
I really hope my writing provides a voice for my community. I really want to give voice to the issues and struggles of African Americans, of transgender women, of transgender people, of transgender people of color, of queer people. I want to try to create an understanding around these different sorts of sub-cultures that all readers can find their way in and begin to ask questions. So when I say “my community,” I may be speaking in terms of one specific community, but that one specific community ultimately is the human race.
This reminds me of the interview with CeCe McDonald that you wrote for the Twin Cities Daily Planet (December 8, 2011). I know CeCe writes poetry, also.
For readers unfamiliar with this case, I quote your article:
McDonald is a twenty-three-year-old African American transgender woman who, like me, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. . . . Earlier this year, on June 5, Chrishaun [CeCe] McDonald . . . was verbally assaulted with racial slurs, sexual harassment, and trans-phobic and sexist attacks. She was hit in the face with a glass beer mug, and a larger scuffle ensued. One of her attackers ended up dead. McDonald was taken to jail, where she was placed in solitary confinement. She has been charged with second-degree murder; the prosecutor added another murder charge after she refused to take a plea deal to the first charge. McDonald maintains her innocence and notes that she and her friends had been put in danger. “They were the ones who attacked us,” she said.
Right, and I’m glad you brought up her poetry because, you know, CeCe is using her voice in that way. She talked a lot about her writing when I interviewed her, and she directed me to a website, which I put the link into the article. Yes, she’s a poet. And a writer. And a blogger. She blogs. And I think that is just so pivotal as far as raising awareness, creating the steps toward understanding, and empowering one’s self. To take their challenges into their own hands and try to come up with solutions. I look at CeCe as a hero, in that regard. To be incarcerated under circumstances that she is, and still to be willing to fight for her own freedom, which, fundamentally, all of us must do. She is speaking out and letting her story be told on behalf of thousands and thousands of other women, transgender women, transgender people, gay and lesbian people, who are facing the same types of challenges. Not everybody is willing to do that, and not everybody has the command of voice to do that.
Not everyone is aware.
Right. And not everyone is even aware of the issues. They know that things aren’t right but they don’t understand the politics and the systems that create the circumstances they find themselves in. I’ve been, I think, really blessed to have the opportunity to speak out, and so, it almost feels like it’s my responsibility, in terms of my work and my writing, to address the issues that affect the communities that I talk about and to offer hope.
I haven’t met CeCe yet, but I want to send her a letter to just be like, “We haven’t met, but I think you’re really strong… I think you’re a wonderful woman, and just keep fighting.”
I really encourage you to. She’s a beautiful spirit, a beautiful soul. I think she would welcome that. I really think she needs that kind of messaging from our community to say that, “We love you. We support you. We know that the pressure and the sheer force of weight of this entire society is a lot for one person to bear by themselves, and we understand your decision making on all levels. Protect yourself, so then you can live.”
Even though you shouldn’t have to make those decisions just to basically survive.
Exactly. No, you should not have to.
This reminds me of the oppressor/oppressed system that you bring up in “Queer Manifesto”:
If we are the oppressed, then it is imperative
That we not become the oppressors. We gotta
Love every color in the rainbow. Respect that
Beauty that lives in each and every one of us.
Right, in this poem I’m asking: Can we break out of that cycle? Will we ever achieve any kind of equality? For example, we now have Barack Obama, an African American, as President of the United States. You know, just given the trajectory of history in our society, we may not have necessarily anticipated this happening right now. Among the status quo, among conservative factions, the assumption is: this Black man is going to wreak havoc on white people because Black people were oppressed for so long. That’s sort of the charge that underlies their attacks. That’s what they fear about him.
That’s what a lot of people on the Right were fearing.
Exactly. But, I would argue that he’s done the exact opposite. On the other end of the spectrum I acknowledge there’s some who may say that his policies are just a continuation of all the policies in the United States that have held forever, and they tend to be oppressive against all people non-selectively. Still . . .
He went into the presidency fixing the problems from the eight years that came before him.
I totally get that, Lucas, and I agree with you. I think he’s probably accomplished more than any president in our history of the last forty years. I will be voting for him again, let me be clear.
I will be encouraging people to vote for him again. Beyond that, he has not exhibited that sort of oppressive mentality toward white Americans as I think some people might have assumed. He’s provided a model of how we can understand, recognize, and use our power in ways that advance society, humanity, rather than continuing to perpetuate the same old habits.
He recently said that we shouldn’t make women’s healthcare an option, it should be a priority. I’m paraphrasing him, but, in general, coming from a cismale, as the leader of the free world, that really touched me.
Yes. I think he’s made a number of comments about that level of the equality of people. I’m deeply encouraged by Obama, and I think that he is an example how we do not continue to perpetuate the oppressor/oppressed mentality. He has recently came out in support of full equality for Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender people who want to get married. I think this is monumental in that not all African Americans are in support of that position, so he is taking a huge political risk in the name of equality and justice for all.
That is probably going to be the hardest thing though. It’s so ingrained. How can we start? There’s no set of instructions on how to treat everyone as equals.
You could change the rules, that’s part of it. But I think, you know, changing the mindset, as you suggested, is a much bigger challenge, and a much tougher sort of conundrum to work through. But I’m hopeful that it can and it will happen.
We see these attacks on women’s health, and attacks on gay and lesbian families to marry and unite, because change is happening and some people are fearful. They’re fearful of change. But change is inevitable. It’s happening before our eyes.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in Yemen, Egypt, East Timor, we’re seeing dictatorships around the world ending. The biggest problem in society is a lack of self-esteem, a lack of self-empowerment. Those who want power prey on insecurities. But more and more people are waking up. They are turning that tide back.
So how do we get from there to here?
Again, change is inevitable. And I think we are in for a dramatic shift now. Poetry has that ability to contribute to changing the way we think.
Poetry shows an individual selecting one moment and unwrapping the vastness of the imagination, of finding change, of triggering transformation.
Yes, and I think those moments are available to all of us. It’s just that we are not necessarily always tuned in or have the right antennae to receive them—or, actually, we all have the right antennae but we haven’t been encouraged to use them or taken the time to develop them. And for some of us, it just comes really easy. You know, creating art, creating poetry, can mean functioning like a conduit. There are ways to develop that ability.
In your poem “Inner Light in a Time of Darkness,” I was really intrigued by the multiple connections….
That poem is for Amiri Baraka. I was trying to capture the sort of wide-lens worldview that he is able to capture. If, say, if you’re shooting a movie, sometimes you might have a really tight shot that slowly opens up into a wider shot and you begin to see the whole picture—or, it may be the opposite—you’ll open up with a really wide shot of some huge vista, and then it’ll focus in on a face. I wanted to get that sense of scope into the poem. An old woman with a spoon, a saucer, and a coffee cup. She’s pouring her coffee into the saucer, and sipping it with her spoon. That image tells the whole story. With “Inner Light in a Time of Darkness” I was trying to see if I can try to create a universal story around one person, one group, one humanity, if you will, and give everybody some space to enter.
When I read one of the lines, “Who didn’t remember how many houses he owned,” I immediately thought of John McCain. I don’t know if that was the intention or not.
Yes, when he was running for president as the Republican nominee against Obama, he couldn’t remember if he had eight or ten houses all around the world.
Many of your poems have the theme of change, the flow of time, and surviving. For instance, in your poem “Chicago,” after recalling the memories and historical moments of childhood, you end with, “But I am not going back.” Does that correlate at all with your transitioning?
That is a really insightful question. In that poem I intentionally did not include any sort of identity markers. I certainly identify myself as African American or Black in that poem, but I didn’t necessarily name myself as differently gendered or queer. But, in a really big way, that poem is about is a life that I used to live, and now I’m living a different life. And so, you’re right, it can be regarded as being about transgender issues. The poem is about growth and change, and choosing something different for you in life. My transgender identity is not a choice; the choice is to be open and authentic with myself and with others about it. I meant for that last line to illustrate that choice.
I definitely tuned into that with reading that last line. There’s a huge difference between “Chicago” and “Black Pearl.” Reading “Black Pearl,” my first sense that it was a trans-related identity poem was confirmed by the lines about finding Christine Jorgenson’s book.
I like how in your poems you focus on other people’s lives and other people’s moments, and yet you also include the personal. This poem made me note the underlying theme that revolves around transitioning, about not wanting to go back to the life of where the poet couldn’t be herself.
Yes. Very, very thoughtful insight.
I’ve had the same sort of feelings of not really wanting to go back to my childhood home in that sense as well.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul. I never really felt connected with that neighborhood because of feeling different, in part because of my having Asperger’s syndrome and not being able to connect to the other kids. I felt like I was just trying to grow up and to survive as best as I could. And for me, the road of acceptance was completely different with my own trans identity
Your poem “Family Ties” touches on the gift of writing being passed down from one generation to another. Could you discuss your family history? You name Langston Hughes as a spiritual godfather.
Langston Hughes is my metaphorical psychic poetry godfather. Absolutely. Langston Hughes, one of the greatest voices in American poetry, in my mind, to ever pick up a pen. I say that because, at the same time that he championed the life that America offered for its opportunities, he also pointed out the lack of access to that which is America for his people, for Black people. But again, he did that in a musical way, like Baraka, and he came before Baraka. Hughes was the Harlem Renaissance, which led to the Black Arts Movement of Baraka. And Baraka calls Hughes his godfather too. I’ve heard him say it. I had the opportunity through a fellowship to study with Amiri Baraka for a week here in Minnesota
What was that like?
I think he was a little disappointed at what he saw as the rustic nature of this state. But he was very kind, very loving, very feisty, as he is known to be. I had a chance to talk to him and hear him talk about how Hughes affected his life. I had counted Hughes as a huge influence long before I had the opportunity to meet Baraka, because “Family Ties,” I think predates that experience by about twelve years or so. So, clearly, I’ve always just loved and honored and respected him. The first poem I ever heard by Hughes was, “A Mother To Son.” It’s a very beautiful poem. I was very close to my mother, still am, but . . . what’s the opening line? “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” It’s this mother talking to her son about how difficult life is but how you have to still remain hopeful, you have to remain positive. You have to learn. You have to grow. Develop. Because she wants him to achieve more than she has been able to achieve.
The universal parent’s wish for the child to live a better life than theirs.
Exactly. He was all about family, his immediate family, his universal family and his cultural family. Hughes was concerned about the many levels of family, and it made me think, “Okay, what is my poetic lineage?” My poem, “Family Ties,” is my exploration into that question. As you know, I met Gwendolyn Brooks at age six and I met Madhubuti at fourteen, when I was living and growing up in Chicago. And that’s when I made that shift back to poetry. And that’s all in that poem. Those are the people I consider to be my metaphorical, poetic family. I think it’s important for writers and poets to have that kind of awareness about their own work: what line are you trying to follow, what strain? Who are you reading? Who are you emulating? Because, imitation truly is the highest form of flattery, and we are emulating other writers as we develop our craft.
(Photo via Playwrights Center )