Aziza Barnes is blk & alive. Born in Los Angeles, Aziza currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Her first chapbook, me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun, was the first winner of the Exploding Pinecone Prize and published from Button Poetry. Her first full length collection i be, but i ain’t, is forthcoming from YesYes Books Spring 2016.
THE WOMAN IN MY HEAD WHO REFLECTS ON OUR DAMN NEAR GETTING SHOT IN FORT GREENE THE FIRST REAL ASS DAY OF SUMMER:
bent up just
like you. find
that ledge &
jump off. on
some, “see if I
care” shit. you
care. you researching
but how come your
dishes can’t make
I got a
bullets just like
you. ain’t more
to Georgia, to
find your piece
of mind. chew
cud until you
Legba at the
sell your soul
for a piece
can I change
your mind?” so
weddings to attend
& brocades to
fixate your gaze
upon. up on her,
be, but he
partner…” his “
wife…” & you
can’t sit here
tell me you ain’t
bullets under them
plastic cups y’all walked
past the police
blockade. he coulda
been the black man you
wept for this year.
gun- pop from
firecracker & you
too chicken shit to
pen down that you
might could have
I mean, you
was there an’
real slow past
cuz they black
don’t mean they
BLACK GIRL CAN’T STAY CLEAN
I stare bow-legged & neck cocked at those
folk who run around like
heads cut off, losing they front teeth & common sense over
this idea of being good. I
remain an appetite. I
say aww. with my mouth open tongue combed gross with plaque. I’m not
cruel. I just hate to speak. The Puritans had nasty teeth
by the time a rock was they deliverance & that all we got
as kin cuz I don’t know where I’d fall
on they gradient of salvation, manacles or baptism. I’m
meditating, okay? I’m aligning my chakras. I’m
washing my ass clean. I’m canceling lunch plans. I’m sorry I’m late I was born late I was born
& that leaves me a lifetime to get it wrong. I write my own autopsy before someone beats me to it. I’m certain
my plants are dead & instead of investing in revival I will likely buy more plants. I pay
my car note on time so no one will take my car. I flip
the record on my phone when the Mississippi traffic police light me
to the side for driving 40 in an 18 zone. I rub
coconut oil into my scalp. I crack
my scalp open & finger the blood under a rock of dandruff. I got rocks
on my head & precedent shows a boat of whites will one day crash into it. I light
a Lucky Strike from Costa Rica with a decal of black lungs on the back. I know
there are coal mines in Kentucky that produce a similar result. I am
apologizing again & wanting more again. I can’t
just leave all well & alone. I wanted to be clean so good I nearly killed myself. Sacrificial lamb shit. I invite
the haters as I get my left forearm tattooed. I’m a chemist
of desire & American Natural Resources all of which amount to black
lung & spurr-clad deaths where we pretend to be Clint Eastwood. I shave
my beard with a Dixie razor & when I go to residue that plastic won’t. I bleed
on the pull out bed & my hands secrete hydrogen peroxide. I pad
the mattress like a lover’s face when I know I’m not
coming back & the stain evaporates. It’ll be like I was
never here. I ask again that no one put me in the ground or dress me
in a dress, formaldehyde injected to look good
for the neighbors. Good shit. Throw good
in front of a bus & it make the bus good. Mama said leave
a home cleaner than when you walked in. Clean is empty. Clean is good.
[the blade is in his hand…]
the blade is in his hand & coming up the back of my neck when he says, Abbeysville is how you would pronounce it. there’s a bale of cotton on a shelf next to 4 basketball trophies next to a TV broadcasting Soul Plane. across the street is a Rebel flag waving over a detention center behind a Methodist church on MLK Drive. i miss the simplicity of cartoons. a big sign that reads JAIL above one, far from anywhere you could get a haircut or baptism. when black men hit a certain age they’re 45 in the face forever & one such man in his gator loafers & no front teeth slides up to me something cool & says I often find myself in the strip club. i say I don’t go outside if I can help it. we are both here paying a man with the surname Isaiah to touch us. blade in hand behind our ears until the cut is clean. on Soul Plane the older white dude catches a case presumably his first of seeing a Black woman’s ass come down slow into a seat behind the 99 cent store adjacent to the Popeyes. his Jones for discount meat. i’ve never felt a bowl of cotton in my hands. the plastic command of a basketball trophy means we made it. we laid hands on it. a woman naked on a pole then is a bale of cotton. a detention center is a basketball trophy yielded from a harvest of church. the 99 cent store is a blade coming up the neck of sacrificed chicken grease. all the poles we pray to burn perm-like on every MLK mandated Avenue. my hair shorn & ankle bound is void of memory. if the eternal 45 year old in his gators saw fit to lift my hair from where it laid after I paid Isaiah what was his, for the knife, for the pronunciation, that would be another thing I’d never feel.
[he tells me in mississippi..]
he tells me in mississippi the only laws broken concern meth & obesity. i’m at the dude ranch listening to a black man from Oxford rap a genocide is a genocide his 40 acre ballad. land & we want to put our feet in the dirt alive. this blonde soror wobbles into me hey & the drawl hits the rim of her Coors Light so you’re not bi? her lips are 2 sheets of bible paper you’re nervous? it’s cause I’m from Mississippi, right? i ask her if she has a name i can call her. it’s Nancy & she tells me i’m going to have a hard time down here. her shirt is a scarf that falls off every time she shouts woohoo! she could’ve been anywhere tonight the other queer black woman says to me a Keith Urban concert, anywhere. my lipstick looks like shoeshine polish on her chin & around us are approximately 7 shrines to white Jesus. they’re mostly ironic says the mississipians.
in my bed & alone a black thing falls out a crack in my white ceiling, a cockroach that can fly! let’s all get in bed with the queer black yankee fuck! her androgynous sex her minstrel shuck shuck all down my chin don’t cancel my order ship that bitch back to me live! it got to the point where chattel was less fuckable. consent is the mule we never got. a roach wakes me up by crawling on my arm & a black man in queens new york tells me he’s envious at least he gets to touch you.
let’s lay hands on her said the lord.
let’s lay hands on her said the sororr.
let’s lay hands on her said the black man.
let’s lay hands on her said the roaches that could fly.
Interview with Aziza Barnes by Phillip B. Williams
Phillip: Thank you so much, Aziza for kicking it with me late night to do this interview. We are on the insomniac schedule, which I think we are always on in some way.
Aziza: Dude, no doubt. I feel very blessed to be talking to you on this fly 2:46am evening. That late night is the jam, more often than not. I feel like after 1am, nobody has the actual right to bother me with anything, nah’mean?
PW: First, let’s talk about your vision for your work. In reading the poems you sent to us I was struck with how you mixed registers between not “high” and “low” culture but Black and more Black. There is so much here that echoes Black art, hip hop, the Black church, shade and reading. It all happens seamlessly and with deep intelligence. Can you speak to how you envision your craft as it relates to voice? Who do you hear in your head as you write your poems?
AB: Yo! Thank you. That means a lot to me, that you see that in the work. In my head I hear Pepper LaBeja, Andre Leon Talley, Erica Hunt & all my cousins n’ em at some kinda dinner table, shooting the shit. I feel the most intelligent lines I’ve heard were in conversation with my homies, talking how we talk, which weaves this language found often in academia with language found often at the liquor store. Every time I kick it with my peoples, I can’t help but say at least 5 times, “yo, you know you need to write that down.” That’s intelligence, the comfort to say some fly shit without being hyper-aware of it, even aware at all. In my work, I’m aiming to debunk the notion of “high” and “low,” mainly cuz I really don’t believe knowledge works that way. My Uncle Calvin is the most poetic dude I am aware of, and everytime I talk to him, it’s a 5 hour saga, with him dropping gems like it’s nothing special. After reading my work, I want most for folk to hold onto the idea that knowledge can only be gained through talking to folk, not even through reading a fly book or taking a fly class, but just through the act of being vulnerable and patient enough to give someone the time of day. But yea, those the folk in my head. All my homies, and Pepper LeBeja, essentially.
PW: What is it about Pepper LeBeja that you gravitate toward? I think I see her in all the poems but maybe especially in “The Woman in My Head Who Reflects on Our Damn Near Getting Shot in Fort Greene the First Real Ass Day of Summer.” Is that partially why that poem is right-side aligned, to get into the mode that this in “someone else’s” voice?
AB: I gravitate toward Pepper cuz she reads for filth and is intensely real. There’s this one moment in “Paris Is Burning,” that I stay weeping at when she talks about her mother finding her mink coat and burning it. Pepper go like, “she burnt my coat. I was devastated.” And I had never really seen anyone use that word and really mean it, devastation. And here she go, sitting gorgeous in her apartment, all the younger members of the House of LeBeja sitting around, just confessing this incredibly painful memory, with undue grace and swag. So, anytime I feel like I’m being wildly hyperbolic or spiraling out of my own control, I hear Pepper in my head go like, “honey chill.” Always, yo. Even before I knew about Pepper, I feel like I needed a Pepper in my head. I can get dramatic, and living so far from my family (who remind me of this part of myself), I can get lost in between what’s really a problem and what’s just a weird Friday night. Yea, the poem is on that side cuz it ain’t me. It’s a suggested dialogue, Pepper reading me in the necessary way homies do.
PW: Haha and reading for blood. There is something motherly or big sister-like about it so it’s all for love but surely for blood.
In the poem “Black Girl Can’t Stay Clean” you write:
say aww. with my mouth open tongue combed gross with plaque. I’m not
cruel. I just hate to speak.”
What is the power, if any, in silence? If the only way to learn is through conversation with one another, why does this speaker “hate to speak”? I wonder if there is a moment where the speaker is just fed up with sharing knowledge, with being expected to do so.
AB: Dude, that’s exactly it. Often, I get to the point where I’m just tired. Tired of explaining where I come from, “what” I am, why I live the way I do. That particular exhaustion leaves me wanting to shut down. The act of not speaking is a kind of power to me, oddly enough. If I’m not talking, I get to preserve myself. I find that many folk will want to approach me as if I’m their minority tour guide, like I can explain hundreds of years of oppression in two quick soundbites. That shit is disgusting. And we have Google. I feel like I’ve earned my silence, as long as it’s a silence that protects me. If I gotta speak, I will, clearly. But when it’s some petty ignorance, essentially laziness (pick up your phone, look it up, don’t bother me), I absolutely need to keep my words to myself. They’re mine, anyway.
PW: In your poem “[he tells me in mississippi…]” we see some of that demand for an explanation from the self. The imposition of what are you seen as benign because not knowing how to define you is an inconvenience to those who want to know. But what they experience, the inconvenience, is mistakenly viewed as an assault but the assault is truly against the speaker:
“this blonde soror wobbles into me hey & the drawl hits the rim of her Coors Light so you’re not bi? her lips are 2 sheets of bible paper you’re nervous? it’s cause I’m from Mississippi, right? i ask her if she has a name i can call her. it’s Nancy & she tells me i’m going to have a hard time down
“ let’s all get in bed with the queer black yankee fuck! her androgynous sex her minstrel shuck shuck all down my chin don’t cancel my order ship that bitch back to me live!”
Those excerpts really speak to this dissection of the speaker, these violent assumptions that are seen as mere conversation. And when they finally think they have the speaker’s identity pegged, the major destruction begins.
What is the importance of being able or unable to identify a speaker of a poem? For you, how does poetry subvert expectations of how a self can be presented, can be performed?
AB: Damn, yo. For me, being able to identify as the speaker of the poem is the release, the reparation, and the clap back. I need it, for real. And if I’m not the speaker, I’ll make it absolutely known. The reason I write is to understand what the hell just happened to me, so being able to identify as the speaker in my work is crucial. And yes, the notion of “mere conversation,” is a huge deal to me. Ole girl in that moment had no idea she was saying some off color, foolish shit. But folk don’t think when they talk, when they drunk, when they inexplicably want something. They just want and don’t pay attention to the other person, the person they want access to. Those moments make me feel so disposable that if I didn’t write about them, I’d be sick about them.
Poetry is the best medium for the self to be subverted/performed/exploded. I love being able to be mean or curt in my poetry. In life, I try to be overly kind, sometimes to folk who really don’t deserve my kindness. I feel like if you just read my work and didn’t know me, I’d seem very standoffish, or cold, just reading for blood like Pepper. In the moment of wild nonsense happening to me, I feel incredibly small and find it hard to say what I need to. When I’m on the page, I get to figure out why I felt disrespected and what I’d say to snatch said edges from said fool at a party. It’s informative, really.
That said, not all my poems are narratively accurate. Not all of them are for telling a biographical tale. Most of them function that way, and I love the poetry that doesn’t follow this construct at all, folks who write nothing about themselves. There’s a bravery in that, cuz I think most folk have this expectation that poetry should be the “definitive” truth or your exact truth. Which is silly.
PW: Are these poems going to be in your debut collection i Be But i Ain’t? Can you talk about that book a bit? I would like to know about the genesis of the title and how we can find meanings of the title explicated by the poems within. Also, how long has this book been in the work and how is it you found a home for it?
AB: Yes indeed, these poems, except for “Black Girl Can’t Stay Clean,” will be in i be but i ain’t. The title comes from one of the poems in the book, “we have no conception of bastard.” I wrote that joint while I was living in Ghana, and one of my professors, this very fly Akan woman, was tryna break down to us the matriarchy in Ghanaian culture. She said it so plainly, that they “have no conception of bastard,” that the child born of another father is simply the family’s child, they don’t name ‘em any different, don’t have a separate title for the kid. And I was geeked by that, but wondered then the implications, culturally, that this held for Black Americans, who in a Ghanaian/colonizer relationship, are absolutely the bastard children. I felt then like I had no claim whatsoever on Ghanaian culture, or American culture, that I was just the bastard child of a really weird social experiment (slavery). And in Ghana I was certainly treated that way. Folk would see me and suck they teeth, then see my passport and say, “I guess you think you special then, huh?” It was a mess, for real. One of the last two lines in that poem the title comes from is, “i bastard. I gone walked with a name I couldn’t shake & now I gone.” Essentially how I felt while living there, like I wasn’t really from anywhere, like I was ghosting the whole time. They got a whole culture of silence and amnesia when it comes to slavery in Ghana, much like in the US, so I just felt really out of body more often than not living there. Shit. Living here (the US), too.
This book would not have been possible without my being able to attend Callaloo in London, 2013, and meeting Vievee Francis. In her workshop, I wrote this poem that I needed to write, didn’t know I needed to until after it was written. “Alleyway” (the title of that poem) is the oldest joint in the book, about 3 years old. Without that poem, none of the rest would’ve been possible. I hadn’t realized how much about my gender and sexuality I’d just been repressing for such a large part of my life. But once it’s on the page, it’s incredibly hard to deny. I mean, it’s in front of you, and you did that. After writing that piece, I felt like I took a turn as a person, felt more urgent, more uninterested in pleasing folk just so they’d be pleased.
The idea for the book came a few months later. I knew all the poems I’d written after Callaloo were speaking to each other, but I didn’t know in what way. Matter of fact, by the time I met you Phillip, I was playing around with book titles! I knew all the poems lived together, just kept playing for a few months on what kind of book I wanted to read. I chose to go for YesYes as a home for this book in December 2014, when the Pamet River Prize went up. Danez hit me up and asked me if I had a book. I said I did, and there it went. I stay thankful for that moment. I’d always heard YesYes folk treated their authors beautifully, and it felt like a necessary home for this work.
PW: I guess to wrap up we should also talk a bit about The Conversation. This is a project that you and poet Nabila Lovelace have done together and it looks to be something exciting. What is The Conversation and why does it have to exist today? What is the inspiration and what about this time in our existence informs the necessity of The Conversation? I saw the list of fellows and it makes total sense to me why they are all together touring and being family and sharing their gifts. I think readers will also be interested in finding out how fellows were chosen and if more will be added.
AB: Oh dude, no doubt! I love talking about The Conversation. The Conversation is a multimedia organization specializing in curating readings, hosting craft talks, and free writing workshops in the American South. It’s existence today is crucial due to the fact that this nation is in a moment of supreme fissure; Obama heading out, white folk screaming “All Lives Matter” in the face of rampant Black murder, and gentrification is the new/old imperialist tactic to make homogenous every neighborhood for the highest bidder. What The Conversation seeks to accomplish is essentially what should’ve been accomplished during the Reconstruction Era in the ante-bellum South: have Black folk contend with their Blackness in relationship to that particular land. The Great Migration moved the majority of the Black Southern population up North, all on the myth that this somehow would be a less brutal existence than what they knew. Today, we see that notion just don’t hold water. Like that Malcolm X quote, anywhere South of Canada is the South. We need to, as Black and Brown American folk, interrogate our fears, judgements, and prejudices of the South to the end of questioning our mobility as a people. The North ain’t freedom. Freedom is being able to get in your car and not immediately worry about police pulling you over. Nabila Lovelace and I moved down from New York on the hunch that the South had something to say. What we found was that the South had space enough that we could breathe. That living is affordable. That the white folk we encountered weren’t bout this color blind nonsense so many of our Northern white counterparts were. They saw us, and even if they didn’t dig what they saw, we were seen. We then realized it wasn’t enough for just us two to feel this. And we had grown tired (already) of being our schools’ tokens, having token readings. We wanted to mob out with all our people, grow with our communities, and document these complications of space, race and literacy. On a porch in New Orleans, we recorded about 3 hours worth of conversation. Then we got to emailing.
The fellows were chosen by Nabila and myself, for a few reasons. They are a particularly diverse group of folks, Black from the North, the South, Trinidad, Sudan, the West Coast, the MidWest. They are Latino, Asian. They are straight, queer, GNC. Each has a hyper specific relationship to the American South. Their work as writers and community leaders contends with identity in ways that constantly stun and excite Nabila and I, and for considering a group of folk we could travel with in a van over 3 state lines, we needed to choose folk we knew incredibly well. The Conversation’s week long tour of the South will be an annual event, and more fellows will be selected in the future, through recommendation. Our fellowship program isn’t the only programming we provide, and as we expand, there will be many ways folks can get involved in The Conversation.
PW: I want to thank you again for speaking with me! If our readers want learn more about your work and The Conversation, where should they go?
AB: Thank you, Phillip! Always a pleasure talking to you, my G. If y’all want to learn more about The Conversation, please visit our website: https://theconversation.squarespace.com
We are also on Facebook as The Conversation Literary Festival, Twitter and Instagram.