Ahead of the release of her latest poetry collection, Mouths of Garden, Barbara Fant spoke with Sundress Editorial Intern Hannah Olsson about the process of rebuilding, the power of testimony, and what it means to witness from multiple perspectives.
Hannah Olsson: Throughout Mouths of Garden, a fossilized home often finds itself as the backdrop. In what ways can the recognition of our fossilized pasts encourage growth? How can one move from paralysis to progress?
Barbara Fant: I think acknowledging the past is important, sitting in the fact that there was one. I think particularly when a past is one of trauma, like mine, it can feel really hard to move forward. I think the home that reoccurs in my book speaks to the home that I lost and could never get back. In some ways, it’s haunting. I think I had to come to the place of realizing that life would never return the way it once was, I had to wrestle with and ultimately accept that. Once I did, I could then grow. I could then begin moving into rebuilding; not recreating what I once had, but building something new. That’s the process of growth, especially moving forward from grief.
HO: “Twice 15” speaks about the process of growing half a life without a loved one. When a life feels split in two, what thoughts/words/understandings do you believe help the process of restructure and/or growth?
BF: When a life feels split in two, the thoughts/words/understandings that help the process of restructure or growth is hearing the testimonies of others. We overcome by the power of each other’s testimonies. I was able to overcome knowing that others were there for me and would help me overcome. That’s one of the reasons I write. To heal myself, but to also help heal others through my writing.
HO: What emotional nuances does the color peach hold for you and your poetry?
BF: My mother’s favorite color was peach, so it holds real significance. Also, my childhood room (which used to be my paternal grandmother’s bedroom) was peach. I think it holds childhood memories. Memories that are sometimes curious, and also sometimes comforting.
HO: Tell me more about the reflective structure of your syntax and language, particularly when considering the mirrored paragraphs in “Parallel,” or the side-by-side stanzas in “Love the Black.” What is the work of such syntactical mirrors?
BF: I love this question. I think mostly because I love asking questions in my work. As much as I see one side of a thing, I also can see the other side just as clearly and make a case for it also. I think I’m always playing around with that in my work. I’m constantly asking myself, how do I show two perspectives of a certain topic/issue? How do I let the reader know that the subject or the speaker of the poem could be both the villain and the victim, all at the same time? And perhaps that’s somewhat how I feel about trauma. I think those who cause great harm to others are those who have probably experienced great harm and have never been able to process that harm. Which is why I firmly believe in redemption and forgiveness for people. So the syntactical mirrors come from me wanting to express two different sides of a thing, getting readers to see the same thing from multiple perspectives.
HO: Can you speak about the use of repetition throughout Mouths of Garden, particularly in the poems “Black Woman Repetition,” or “the last storm”?
BF: I love repetition. I think oftentimes my mind remembers things this way. I think it may be a symptom of trauma that has both protected me and caused me pause. I think that I often use repetition in my work to build upon a point or to emphasize it. When I perform it live, you can hear it in my voice.
HO: How does the poetry in Mouths of Garden’s section breaks inform the transitions in this collection?
BF: Thank you for this question. The first section is more of a snapshot of my life; all of the seeds that were sown from being mothered, to losing my mother, to the hood that raised me, to love. The second section is more about the violence: from the hood to domestic violence to racism. The third section is really about the inheritance, what has been passed down—some of what I show in this section is generations of intimate partner violence. The fourth section is really the ode to love; it is the ode to the women in my family, it’s the ode to loving again, it’s the ode to redemption and forgiveness and self-love, it’s the ode to generational blessings. The hope is that folks see them not just as transitions, but also as a transformation.
HO: What influenced your decision to incorporate dialogue in much of your poetry, particularly “On the Block, On Falling, On Love,” “Gunfire Outside,” and “’Know-it-all’”?
BF: In this collection, I worked to offer a voice to those that no longer had one. The dialogue that comes through in this collection comes from those who have passed on and are no longer able to share their voice with us in the same way. Much of the dialogue that you read is from memory, while some of the dialogue you read was created around my understanding and perspective of a certain story or situation.
HO: Mouths, voices, and bodies transform into bullets, large bodies of water, and caskets, but then transition into lineages, roots, and hymns later in this collection. In what ways has poetry impacted your perspective on the malleable body, and the power it has in evoking an image?
BF: I don’t know that poetry has impacted my perspective on the malleable body. I think it’s more my experiences in life have shaped my poetry and how I see the body. I think in life sometimes our mouths, voices, full bodies, and other parts of our bodies have the power to act as a bullet or casket or body of water. Because of that, I use it in my work. The imagery that I use later in the book is more about what comes from the body and what has come from other bodies that has helped me survive and has made me who I am today. The hope is that the imagery in the body is more telling of the transformation in perspective and in healing.
HO: Mouths of Garden moves frequently between first-person perspectives, second-person addresses, and a collective consciousness. What do you feel is found when a perspective shifts in this way?
BF: I think I may have said this in an earlier answer, but I love offering multiple perspectives. I love being able to ask questions and then being able to allow people to see things in various ways. Particularly when you’re thinking through trauma and remembering trauma. It also makes you ask yourself, how reliable is the memory, especially when you’re experiencing such compacted trauma? Much of my work comes from the snapshot memories that I have. Because trauma sometimes can blur the memory or sometimes not afford you the full picture, I wanted to play around with that in voices and perspective also. I think it can allow the reader to be a witness to the work from multiple perspectives.
HO: Many of these poems are dedicated to sisters, mothers, and grandmothers. In your view, what is the most beautiful thing that has come from recognizing a lineage of women?
BF: The most beautiful thing that has come from recognizing a lineage of women is healing. For me, especially because I lost my mother, it was so important for me to acknowledge, recognize, and understand where I came from. And I come from a long line of women who are healers, bridge-builders, survivors, and thrivers. I am because they were. I stand because they stood. There are so many generational blessings I have been given because of them. So the most beautiful thing for me is identity, knowing who I am, and being able to bring healing to myself, the rest of my family, and community because of that. I also believe now, I can pass on healing to the generation of nieces that are witnessing me walk out this journey.
Barbara Fant has been writing and performing for 14 years. Her first poetry collection, Paint, Inside Out, was published by Penmanship Books (NYC) in 2010. Her work has been featured by Button Poetry and Def Poetry Jam, and published in The Academy of American Poets, Electric Literature, Harness Magazine, The McNeese Review, and The Ohio State University Press. Fant believes in the transformative power of art and considers poetry her ministry.
Hannah Olsson holds a double BA in Cinema and Creative Writing English from the University of Iowa. During her time in Iowa, Hannah was the president of The Translate Iowa Project and its publication boundless, a magazine devoted to publishing translated poetry, drama, and prose. Her work, both in English and Swedish, has been featured in boundless, earthwords magazine, InkLit Mag, and the University of Iowa’s Ten-Minute Play Festival, among others.
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