Swimming In Verses: Interview With Poet Jamila Lovelace
By Sierra Blumenthal
In both her work and her presence, 23 year old poet Jamila Lovelace is wholly auratic. What becomes immediately clear when engaging with her is her total command of the auras she constructs. One of Lovelace’s many gifts is her uncanny ability to imbue that feeling-- whatever that may be. When reading her work, one gets the sense that each word was not only chosen but matchmade for one another, the tone depending fully on the minute distinctions and interactions between words. The overtones of her work present as passionate, spontaneous, and raw; yet what gives Lovelace’s poetry much of its power and impact is the aura she crafts from the careful choices she makes. For Lovelace, love is in the detail, and what isn’t said is just as important as what is.
The subject matter Lovelace deals with in much of her work produces auras that are abrasive, intense, and at times destructive. This rings clearly in her chapbook-in-progress titled Mothering, a thematic collection of poems that defines the vulnerabilities-- and often violence-- that is specific to the experiences of children, women and mothers. Sharpened with visceral anatomical and religious imagery, Lovelace’s poems brim with the power to pull at readers both physically and emotionally--an ability which mirrors the emotions and physicality of mothering that leaves readers to contend with the implications of these traumas.
daddy care gentle
like i break
and his screams box
my bloody ears
i remind him of his mama
i got her eyes
when he see her in me
voice boom like djembe
and daddy yell at her ghost
my baby chokes me
“look at the head” don’t want it
“look at the feet” won’t want it
“look like me” can’t want it
snap back pussy conch
crush ribs under new weight
tear me open and
piglet pink tubes fall out
smell the wet flesh;
my shit is wrapped in silk
half a woman
lining the belly of the beast
a poisoned boil in your gums
trained up in the solitude
of the underside of a graveyard
wants death for show,
or sprayed over chests
croaks and chokes
on blood seeping from sharp corners
half a woman, half a heart
and much gratitude for
letting her fill the missings in
with arms and legs,
lips and teeth
she earned this
angry little black girls
never missing link
are our hollows
and there is fullness
in this empty
All poems property of © Jamila Lovelace, 2018
Interview conducted via email July 10th, 2018
What is the first book that made you cry?
The first book that made me cry, if I am recalling correctly, was The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. The main female character, O-Lan, had gone through so much devastation and pain and the way that her story ended in the book made me cry for at least an hour. I read that book when I was 14 years old.
Tell me about your time in college/how has your writing changed over your lifetime? After college?
My time in college was...a process. I came into college as a Social Work major and Pre-Law minor who was going to go to law school and work in child placement and divorce court. I left college as a Creative Writing major and History minor with acceptance to American University for my MFA program. And I turned it down.
Looking back, college provided me with a space to really examine my trauma and simultaneously caused me a good deal of trauma in the process. I don’t remember a time in my life when I have not been depressed or suffered from anxiety and the environment of my college really forced me to come face to face with my mental health issues. I spent a lot of time looking for myself in other people, as well as trying to forgive myself through other people’s bodies. As if to say to myself “I am sorry I thought you were ugly and unlovable. Let’s prove you’re not by trying to get with as many people as possible”.
I tried to spend a lot of time recovering from my own traumatic childhood and really coming to terms with my need to mother other people but being unable to mother myself.
The biggest change that I have noted in my writing is that I used to write primarily for myself and share it with others. When I went to college, I had to start writing for other people so I forgot how to write for myself. Now that I am out of college, I hope I’m getting to a decent balance of writing for myself and for others simultaneously.
Describe what happens when you write. I don’t mean like your process, but more like the feeling and atmosphere that is invoked.
When I write, I tend to go completely blank. I am pretty sure my eyes go blank too. Only my hands move. Jo March in Little Women made a similar comment about her “writing frenzy” where she would hole herself up for hours and go into a trance.
I’d like to think I do not need an atmosphere invoked but really, any space where I can sink into myself and be at one with my own mind is an ideal environment for me to be able to write. I’d like to think I can conjure a feeling of magic or a sort of starry sky or connection to the moon when I write but truthfully, maybe I only invoke the feeling of furrowed eyebrows and nail biting, haha!
What kind of writing is the most difficult for you?
The most difficult kind of writing for me is fiction. I am truly in awe of people with the patience and trust in their ability to create entire universes to write fiction. The kind of vivid imagination that that takes is something that I am still not entirely sure that I have. Even when I had to write fiction in college, I would base it on actual life events because I could trust myself to write from my own experiences rather than to write from the perspective of someone else.
Ironically, my favorite genre of writing is historical fiction. And I am currently in the process of writing a fiction piece called “What the Ape Said” so I am hoping I have my “a-ha” moment with fiction very soon!
What would a “recipe” for a Jamila Lovelace piece look like?
Very vivid figurative language, perhaps a running metaphor, which I like to employ a lot in both my poetry and creative nonfiction. And perhaps some antiquated language (like the word “perhaps”). I love history so there would have to be some historical references in there, perhaps a historical event as a running metaphor. I also don’t think I can write a piece or a group of pieces without discussing my black identity or the concept of “blackness” altogether because I feel that my blackness is completely central to my human experience.
What role does writing play for you in your life?
A much bigger role than I often acknowledge. Writing, including the writing of others, is very central to my life. During times of writer’s block, I often spend my time reading and attempting to humble myself before the writing of others. My first love was reading, before writing, so I read almost compulsively. I often wonder where I would be without writing or reading in my life and I wonder if I’d even exist.
What’s something that has challenged you in your career?
Sex. If I am being honest, I write very often about sex, the effects, the process, the feelings afterward, the actual exchange of fluids or lack thereof and it provides a good deal of inspiration for my writing. However, I have found that my own relationship with sex tends to also be what leads me away from writing, as sex tends to fight writing for my attention.
Your poems are full of fluids, both in your liquid consonants and thematically. Could you talk about the conceptualization of these fluids in your work?
The thought of exchanging fluids is very powerful for me. From the more sort of NSFW secretions to even spitting on someone or someone crying on another person and exchanging tears, bodily fluids are very powerful and unsettling to me. I like to write about the fluids and the liquids because I think bodily fluids are terrific metaphors for the ebb and flow of truth. For me, my truth is not necessarily a blast of fire or a gust of wind or the grounding of earth, it is truly liquid to me. Not to say I stretch my truth, but I do believe that there are liquid places in between truths.
I am also a Pisces and I do believe that there is a deep connection that I feel to water in all formats. I am deeply attracted to bodies of water, puddles, waterfalls, etc. because I tend to feel quite safe around water.
The imagery and purpose of a hair shirt has always been an immediate association for me with your work. I learned about hair shirts from a poem of yours that I read years ago. Could you explain their significance?
I am so grateful that you remember my work, first and foremost. This question completely floored me in the best way possible. From what I have gathered, hair shirts are a form of self discipline that monks in the Catholic faith would use in Medieval Europe. They are extremely uncomfortable, and they would cause them a good deal of pain and itching. It is a form of self punishment and also a way to come close to the suffering of Christ during the crucifixion. I tend to use a lot of religious iconography in my work, sometimes unintentionally. I found Catholicism to really be one of the more mystical modern religions. While I don’t believe that practice is still used, the concept of self-harm for a greater good or to imitate such a prominent sacrifice such as the sacrifice of Christ by himself and for us, was almost frighteningly powerful for me.
I also grew up in a very religious household and my grandmother is a pastor so I grew up with a variety of religious books and philosophies on the Christian faith at my disposal so I think in a way, acknowledging Christ and dedication to Christ in my work is a sort of tribute to my family.
Give an analogy explaining the relationship between your identity and your work.
The two are truly mutually exclusive: I would not have one without the other.
What song/album conveys your energy most accurately?
I believe either Baduizm by Erykah Badu or Koi No Yokan by the Deftones are the two albums that convey my energy most accurately. Erykah is overwhelmingly the divine feminine in this album and reaches a sort of ethereal womanhood that I hope I can reach more than once. And Koi No Yokan is a very loud, desperate and angry album but it is also finite. This album feels very honest for me and there is not a song on this album that I do not empathize with.
What’s something you absolutely hate to see in poetry?
I hate to read poetry as purely revenge or anger towards a specific person. I can’t feel or see the overarching themes or feelings in pieces like that.
Tell me about some of your accomplishments—in and outside of writing
One of my biggest accomplishments was being voted Editor in Chief of my school’s literary magazine, which involved others’ writing but I wrote very little during this period. I was too depressed to honestly do the job effectively, but it meant a lot to me to be chosen for that decision.
Can you tell us about the Women of Color Network, Inc.?
WOCN, Inc. is a nonprofit organization based out of Harrisburg, PA. We work with allies to train them on how to work with domestic and sexual violence survivors of color. It also happens to be run by my mother and I work with some absolutely incredible women. I love the work that I do and I hope to work more with nonprofit.
What piece of writing should everyone read?
I think everyone is a writer, somewhere deep down. Even if they hate writing. So I suggest that everyone should read a work that makes them deeply uncomfortable, perhaps even indignant. So indignant that they think “I can write something way better than this.” And then they do. ❂