The Na/GloPoWriMo Interview with Kwoya Fagin Maples
Kwoya Fagin Maples’ first book of poetry, Mend, is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky in fall of this year. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow and a Homeschool Lambda Literary Fellow. In addition to a chapbook publication by Finishing Line Press entitled Something of Yours (2010), her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary Journal, Obsidian, Berkeley Poetry Review, The African-American Review, Pluck!, Cave Canem Anthology XIII, The Southern Women’s Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. Maples teaches Creative Writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts and directs a three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film.
1. Why did you start writing poetry? Why do you still?
My answer is cliché. I began writing poetry because I needed saving. It was the gift I was given to save myself, over and over again. I still write poetry because it’s alive, dynamic. It keeps shifting and evolving into something new.
2. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten? The worst?
“Sometimes the only job of a poet is to notice the different kinds of light on leaves.”—Abraham Smith. Abe is one of my poetry mentors and he told me this a long time ago, at a time I was worried because I no longer felt an impetus to write. This quote sounds a little lofty to some perhaps, but to me it is refreshingly reassuring. So you aren’t writing—as long as you are noticing and collecting, you are okay. Noticing how your daughter’s whole back fits the span of your hand, or where her ends are splitting, or how the yellow pansies near the driveway are wilting in the cold. Collecting experiences: memories, current events, words, colors. Because you are a thinking being you are always collecting, consciously or not. Especially as a writer. We often stand in witness. Be reassured if you are in a collecting and noticing place. Know that it is okay.
The worst piece of writing advice I’ve received: Maybe something an older professor said— “The best literature has already been written.” BOO on that, boo on him.
3. How did your new book come into being?
In the summer of 2010 I attended a Cave Canem Poetry Retreat in Greenberg, Pennsylvania. I was one of the only people who brought a car so I carted around a few people while there. One of those people was Robin Coste Lewis. (She was in the process of researching and writing her award winning book) and she told me about the story of Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy. These women were experimental subjects of Dr. James Marion Sims between 1845 and 1849. My collection, Mend, tells the story of the subsequent birth of gynecology and the role black women played in that process. There were at least eleven women involved, according to Sims’ autobiography. What I sought to do in my work was to give these women a voice, so the collection is made up of persona poems that tell the women’s version of events. One source of frustration for me while writing is that there are no existing documents that give a full account of this case. I read hundreds of slave narratives, immersed myself in the history surrounding the case, and visited Mt. Meigs where it all happened. Needless to say, I remain captivated by this story. I wrote the first poem for the book that year, spent the next year researching, and wrote the rest. It took six years.
4. Is there a generative prompt, practice or ritual that you find particularly helpful, or that you would recommend to students, friends, or other poets?
Ooo…so I’ll go backwards and start with the ritual aspect. Here’s a few things I do when writing. I try to prepare the space where I’m writing by listening to music (sometimes the same song on repeat until I’ve finished a poem.) I also listen to rain sounds—I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and— full disclosure— rain sounds help me focus. I also try to write the moment the poem comes—even if I need to stop the car and use the notes app on my phone. This isn’t mind-blowing stuff, just what helps me.
If you are a writer, approach it like a job. Make writing goals and deadlines for yourself. For example, by August 31, I want to have written 60 poems. (Which means two drafts a week starting in January.) Further, make writing appointments and keep them.
And here, two prompts!
An origin poem: (surrealist)
1) Who birthed you? Where did you come from? When and how did you get here? Were you your “mother’s” intention?
A future poem: (speculative)
2) What does y(our) future provide? What is your future state of mind? If you are a citizen of the “union” that is your body, what is your future “state of the union” address?