“Somebody Told Me My Body’s Not Mine to Hold”: An Interview with Erica Dawson

My mouth, a bit
of gristle. In a way, I’ve become more aware of my blackness. You joke at one point about being into dead white boys. I feel like part of that, too, is a desire to speak very directly and assertively about blackness even as you’re trying to hold on to these other things and wondering, How does race fit here? Absolutely. Some of the inheritances are chosen and some are not, a lot of them are not. It became more of a, “Look at this fantastic set of rhyming couplets!”
It was really important to me that I really let the content drive the formal decisions that I was making. Or we’re dealing with sex here. The book reflects that interest perhaps more palpably than my first two. I wanted there to be a lot of things happening at once. It felt as if I had something to fight against, more so than I have in the past. It became very apparent that the liberal population here was outnumbered, more so than I thought. And equally terrifying.             When I asked for grace
the dust hid all the stars and not
a single thing happened. I had to sort of aim for a kind of complexity that I haven’t really worked toward in the first two books. There’s a chapter on Sylvia Plath where he talks about these early poems of hers that are masterful, but in which the mastery is kind of overriding everything else. This is a book where there’s more danger in your being fully present. I was pretty alarmed around the time it seemed like a realistic thing that Trump might be president. I think it does that. It just started to feel that way locally and then statewide and then globally in some senses, and I felt like people like me no longer had a voice in the public arena, and I started to just get angry about it, frankly. But a lot of times the performance of the form was more prominent than me actually fully engaging with the content of the poem. I think in a lot of ways a kind of hyper-confidence. It’s been a discovery for me in the last couple of years, and I wanted to explore that, I wanted to look at a race in a different way than I had in the past. It really does feel that way. It was time to start investigating those particular realities about being a woman. Of still having this way of using language that suggests profound authority and profound freedom. Then I just wanted this one last move that was hushed. It’s not the South like Alabama or Mississippi; it often appears to be much more liberal. And then we get: “Outside, a dark and empty heaven. It’s really important to me that I don’t do that. But there was also a world hovering right above that, so that things seemed very literal at the same time as they seem larger than life. I struggled with the ending for a really long time. I needed the ending to sort of roll its way to a finish, but at a much more deliberate pace. I wanted to give myself the freedom to do whatever it was that I wanted to do. You’re still working with these traditional forms, but they’re more scattered. Then there’s this really long break. I wanted there to be a flood — a quality where the reader still knows where he or she is but feels unsteady in that place, and that required that I blur the boundaries between things. The rivers choke
on my fine silt. 
This summer, Erica and I talked via Skype about her new approach and the circumstances that forced and enabled those changes, with Erica sitting in her office at the University of Tampa, where she is an associate professor of English and Writing and the director of the University’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing. It was a move toward some sort of conclusion, but then the acknowledgment of the fact that that conclusion is just as questionable or fraught with difficulty as any other moment in the book. Other people are going to push against those boundaries, and there’s a lot of fear, I think, that was hiding underneath the confidence that I have. Something more is at stake in this book. The world that I was trying to create on the page is very much in flux. And it feels as if that difficulty is something that’s handed down. It was important for me to dive deeper into the confidence that I had expressed in the past and ask, really, what’s fueling that confidence. Which is true of the world we live in, as well. I remember writing the scene where I’m in the club and the man assaults me. Let there / be skin born back on every scar.” Then it gets cut off. I wanted to create a whirlwind. I’m taking ownership of it now and trying to make it my own. There is no closure here. So much of what’s happening in the first two books is internal struggling, and what’s happening here is more about outside forces, and it feels as if it’s actually a real possibility that this voice could get lost in the chaos and the shuffle. The cool thing about writing in form is that when you are learning, you can take to it very quickly. I wanted it to be an attempt at resolution — a moment where I could slow down and the language would come together, the light and the darkness, the light and the blackness, the Bible and real-life myth, and the mundane. Here, there’s always some sort of organizing principle — I can’t write without that — but I wanted to allow myself to be as loose as I wanted to be and as formal as I wanted to be at the same time. In the last couple of years, people have just gone out of their way to make it clear that I’m not part of the majority. Let’s start with race and racism, which is both constantly present and highly unstable in this book. And another part of it is that in the first two books, phenomena are very discrete: this is this thing and this is this thing. It’s open and shifting. It was about carrying on with the family that I had always been part of, this formal family, the British poets that I love so much. People very much want to talk about me as a formalist, but I’m not only interested in “the rules.” I’m interested in the ways we can improvise and play with the instruments and tools that we have. Here, the boundaries seem to be breaking down. But it does feel, with this new book, as if the skills you exhibited in those have met their match, and that the skills are more meaningful as a result. I lived in very liberal places and never really had those moments where you felt scared or very uneasy, as if people were staring at you. How much room is there for blackness in this language? But also allowing myself to move into a space that was a little more natural for me at the same time. We’re dealing with sexism here. I decided if I wanted to do it, I was going for it. That happens now on the regular in Florida. As you know, I’m a big fan of those. Like the moment in the poem where the guy says something about my hair. The woman was in charge. I wanted an image that was the opposite of the image on the first page, where the heavens turn red from the fire. The relationships between them are still really unstable, but there’s a deliberate act of trying to get them in a place where you can speak about it in some comprehensive way. As much as you think that you’re claiming authority over it, that authority is being challenged every single second of every single day. I had no idea how I wanted to handle it. NOVEMBER 2, 2018

ERICA DAWSON’S THIRD BOOK of poetry, When Rap Spoke Straight to God, came as a surprise to me. That’s tangible. It’s no longer someone else’s form. // A wind gone on about its blackness.” And this recurring phrase: “the exodus of light.” It seems like a lot of these things are kind of coming together through force of will. It’s allowed me to see being in black in America in a very different kind of way. Whenever I’m starting something new, I challenge myself to do something that I haven’t done before, because I get really irritated with poets who just keep publishing the same book over and over again. I’m the black girl who likes to read Robert Herrick, who decided to study these dead white guys for her PhD instead of doing African-American Lit or something that some people expected from me. It was like, okay, I need something that’s going to give me the opportunity to be sort of meditative or ruminate, like that villanelle portion at the end of the poem or in the middle where you get the pantoum stanzas, where I was going to use these forms to create the kind of music that I want to create, to create the song that I actually want to create. It seems like you’re trying to reimagine what it means to inherit that and to keep working with that. The terminology is shifting and our understanding of these things is shifting, and so that’s why I wanted that very large amount of white space after the Angel Gabriel. I wanted to make it the opposite of that, where everything was dark and calm and slow. It might be the first time I’ve really imagined the speaker fully immersed in the world. Those moments feel playful, but there’s a sense at times of something very dangerous just underneath that. In one moment, she writes, “I press a flashlight hard against my womb, / spreading my legs to see if white comes out.” Earlier, in the voice of the “Lady Jesus” she tries to draw into her dreams, she imagines terrible violence and transformation, ecstatically:
And when the grave sky’s body-farm
of gods and gutted animals
serves me, you’ll eat me, masticate
me with your tongue. Craig Morgan Teicher has a new book about the ways poets evolve. The more time I spend with this book, the more I think about it as a book that is very interested in kinds of inheritance. I feel like it’s a bit of product of where I live right now. That’s still the speaker’s approach in this new book, but the world is more resistant to it. That really started to come out once I got kind of into the groove of mixing the biblical with the everyday. A somewhat bizarre fraught space, but you just have to exist in it. And at the same time the book seems to dramatize a situation where the fight, in ways both large and personal, could very well be lost. The sense of wanting to still be able to move through the world in those ways. It was always easy for me, then it’s so easy to just rely on those skills. To make up for the anxieties underneath. There’s so much out there that it is telling women that our bodies aren’t ours. Three pages from the end you step into this highly authoritative mode that comes right out of Genesis: “Let there / be black never absorbing white. ERICA DAWSON: That’s definitely true, and I think it’s probably just a real-life result of living where I live at this particular point in time. The boundary between internal self and external world has thinned, and the categories outside of the self are breaking down, too. ¤
Jonathan Farmer is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of At Length and critic-at-large for the Kenyon Review. I’d love to talk about all this in terms of the book’s conclusion. A single poem, it takes her familiar approach to poetry — one that foregrounds virtuosity, insists on clarity, scrambles idioms, and delights in speaking freely — and turns it into something scarier, stranger, and more complex. I’ve always felt comfortable writing about sex. I 100 percent agree. ¤
JONATHAN FARMER: Your first two books were engaged in staking a claim, establishing the authority to say whatever the speaker wants, often in contexts where that might not be acceptable. But I backed away from the swagger a bit, which I think I had adopted to mask the vulnerability I felt in sexual situations. I wanted everything to exist in that same space, and that’s where the villanelle sneaks in with the repetition of “the exodus of light.”
But then I wanted to leave that sort of unsettled. But also the awareness of that as a kind of coping technique. How much room is there for blackness within this literary tradition? As I was reading, I put together a partial list of themes that end up entangled with each other: race and racism, sex and sexism, violence, religion, family, art, myth, Trump, nature … I can list those things, but there are very few moments in the book where I can easily say, Alright, now we’re just dealing with nature. She’s having her night, she’s dancing with people, she’s having a really great time, and then all of a sudden the situation has turned and she’s terrified and no longer has control of her space and her body. While working on this book, I started to think about how my scholarly interests were maybe about trying to assimilate into a certain crowd, or working against or with my own race or culture. I’ve obviously always been black and a woman, and I’ve obviously always been a minority, but I feel more “other” here in Florida than I have in Maryland or Ohio. The Angel Gabriel steps in. I don’t mean to denigrate your first two books. And I stand behind all the poems that I’ve written. But then, having said that, I’d still like to talk about some of those themes, because they’re no less real for being blurry and entangled. I wanted to think about the times when I felt as if I wasn’t in control of my sexuality or I wasn’t in the power position that I thought I was in. It was one of those moments when I felt I had the power. You talked earlier on about this one inheritance that you chose, the inheritance of poetry. I’m still not really sure, but I definitely wanted to push myself into thinking about race and art and culture and language in a way that I hadn’t done before. At one point here you write, “Then somebody told / me my body’s not mine to hold.”
I think that circles back to what we were saying about the different relationship between the internal and the external, where it became less about telling myself something and more about starting to really receive some of the messages that specific individuals or that society at large are coming at me with at the same time. I wanted it to really feel like the poem takes you and whisks you off into some other space. Something that felt like, I’m not a formalist, I’m an Ericaist. This is gonna start to sound cliché, but it seemed like we had made all this progress. Moving through so much and at a really quick pace, I started to figure out that it was a good idea to slow down. Even if you are a confident woman and you’re okay acknowledging that you’re a sexual being, the boundaries that you created for yourself aren’t always intact. But now
I am the dust. I kind of wanted to make it difficult for someone to say this is about X or this is about Y. It’s a kind of precision in confusion. Everything moves and shifts constantly, and I did that on purpose because I wanted to create something realistic that felt like the fierce and yet fragile world that we’re living in. You’ve always written about sex, but in the past you were presenting yourself as dangerous, this larger-than-life figure, and now your body feels imperiled in all kinds of ways. He makes the case that she developed the skills in advance of her ability to apply them to the world, and that it was finding subjects commensurate with that mastery that let her leap forward. Where, before, Dawson had frequently played at being dangerous, the speaker in this book seems imperiled by a world of bigotry and violence that no amount of brilliance can command — though the brilliance persists, as does her fascination with the world that threatens her. It was important to me to capture that sense of riskiness or danger. It sometimes feels like people are going out of their way to point out the fact that I’m different. Florida is an interesting part of the South. Absolutely.