Interview with Arielle Cottingham, Author of Machete Moon

I was beyond excited to receive the honor of interviewing poet Arielle Cottingham about their new poetry collection, Machete Moon. This was my first author interview, and being the writer of a poetry collection myself, I couldn’t wait to read Cottingham’s pieces and dive deeper into the art process behind the words.

Cottingham is a well-traveled poet, but also uses their talents for performing, educating, and editing while touring. Cottingham has work published in several different journals and they also have a chapbook, Black and Ropy, with Pitt Street Poetry. In their newly released collection Machete Moon, Cottingham emphasizes their role as an immigrant and offers an unapologetic voice in an often times ignorant society. Cottingham doesn’t shy away from any topic, exhibiting strength and common sense in areas of pain and discrimination. I was also taken aback by the craft with which they blended prayer and conversation, showing language and religion as the brilliant tools or horrifying weapons each can be used as. I was eager to find out how Cottingham navigates the complex and frustrating conventionalities of the world in order to find and secure a place of creativity and individuality.

Emily DeYoung: What is the significance of the book’s title, Machete Moon?

Arielle Cottingham: As much as it is seen as a weapon, especially in the Anglosphere, the reality of the machete is that it’s an everyday tool. My first memories of being around them involved my maternal grandfather and my father pruning the rulo (plantain) trees that had sprung up like weeds in our backyard in Houston. The pruning allowed them to fruit more often, so I associated machetes with farming and feeding people until I started seeing them in heavy-handed films about Violent Brown/Black People. I know that a majority of people will see the title and assume more violence of its contents than what’s actually present, and subverting expectations⁠—of race, gender, and my general presentation in life—is a reality I’ve come to enjoy living in.

The moon’s associations with tides and blood make it feel like it’s present in nearly all of the poems in this book, even when it’s not explicitly mentioned. Poets love the moon, and I’m no different. The alliteration between these cornerstone images sealed the deal for the title.

ED: Can you speak more about “Southern Nostalgia” and how it portrays a moment when the speaker feels the weight and ties of their ancestry colliding with modern society’s shortcomings, especially around “survivor’s guilt and imposters syndrome”?

AC: The hook for Jay-Z’s “Story of O.J.” was the starting point for this poem. Even if you’re mixed, lightskin, whatever—people still have the one drop attitude. You still feel the fear when the red and blue lights shine in your rearview. Colorism is a disease, and surviving getting pulled over in the middle of nowhere—when so many people you love wouldn’t—is a symptom of it. Of course you’re relieved, but that relief is tempered by survivor’s guilt. Code-switching lies at the heart of this piece because, to paraphrase Trevor Noah, speaking someone’s language makes them feel safe around you, even as a stranger. So often, cops skirt justice by crying that they had feared for their lives. If speaking to them in a familiar tongue will put them at ease enough to let you go with just a ticket, it’s an avenue of survival—but one that feels like a betrayal, nonetheless.

ED: There is a recurring theme of religious references and prayers laced with personal experience—how does religion play a role in the journey of finding oneself?

AC: Religion has its place in people’s lives, and the path to finding myself happened to be the one meandering out of it. Growing up in the Catholic Church means that a lot of the traditions, cadences, and prayers have taken up real estate in my brain that can never be removed—so I renovated.

ED: You craftily mix Spanish, slang, and English words in some of your poems. What is the significance of this or the intended impact on the reader?

AC: My Spanish is not what it used to be after years of living and working in predominantly white, English-speaking spaces. Mixing languages is for myself and readers who similarly struggle with a language they were once raised in—maybe a moonbeam guiding us slowly back to fluency.

ED: “Cup Runneth Over” is the shortest piece, and is written in a very raw, relatable form. What was the thought process behind this piece and how does it fit with the others? Is this piece a shifting point in some way, considering its placement in front of “Boihood”?

AC: I placed it in front of “Boihood” precisely because people menstruate regardless of their gender presentation. Menstruation interrupts your life every month, and ignoring it in a collection that’s so intensely personal would feel like a serious omission. Also, it’s shaped like a menstrual cup, y’all.

ED: “On Hurricane Season” describes your love/hate relationship with Texas. Has the way you view your birthplace continued to change over the years?

AC: I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to definitively feel one way about it. Texas is a complicated place, both horrific and ecstatically beautiful. How much I miss it fluctuates frequently.

ED: Who is “A Letter Home” addressed to?

AC: My family.

ED: Even when you traveled halfway across the world to Germany, you still found a connection to hurricane season in “And the Tide Goes Out.” Can you elaborate on the relationship?

AC: There’s a strangely European attitude to racism—that it’s a problem in the US and the UK, but other countries have solved it (they haven’t). The motif of hurricanes in this poem is a callback to an older poem that I’ve somewhat retired; the lines about history being an ocean of hurricanes repeating itself are lifted from it. Domestic work has always been split along racial and class lines. During the pandemic, I paid bills by cleaning and babysitting for wealthy white women who were astonishingly comfortable delegating their domestic work solely to women of color. They probably thought they were being generous and progressive, giving Black and Brown immigrant women/femmes jobs, never once considering that they were just playing into the ongoing normalization of BIPOC in subservient roles in their households. The half-white, half-Black person working (or being forced to work) in the house is an old story, but one that persists, even in modern Europe—they were the creators of the Middle Passage, after all.

ED: “If Not Anger Then What” came off more cryptic to me than other pieces. Would you elaborate on the meaning and inspiration behind it, including the quote before the poem?

AC: I cannot recommend Krista Franklin’s poem “Marie Says Bow Down”highly enough. It pays homage to an apocryphal story about Marie Laveau hosting a gathering of Black folks, and the mere gathering itself being enough to excite the whites into calling the cops—hence, the line quoted at the beginning. Queer spaces have a similar history of being heavily policed when people are minding their own business and living their lives, and every form of protest is slowly being legislated out of existence. Marsha P. Johnson threw a brick that paved the way to the present, and I liked the idea of that brick being part of the Yellow Brick Road that’s gotten us to where we are. We still have far to go, but throwing bricks is illegal now, which gives way to even heavier policing. If we are not allowed to feel or express our anger at being harassed and murdered for being who we are, then what?

ED: There seems to be some juxtaposition in your writing between your Texan and Afro-Latine roots. I noticed it in “Southern Nostalgia” in lines such as “the legacy sewn to my tongue louder / than any of the blackest things about me” and “he is my father John the doctor, / who hates illegal immigration, / loves my immigrant mother.” How do you navigate these contrasting backstories?

AC: I’ll have an answer when I can stop writing about it.

Read Machete Moon here.

Texas-born, Afro-Latine poet, editor, performance artist, and educator Arielle
 has toured four continents in five years, giving performances and teaching
workshops across Europe, North America, Australia, and Asia. Their work explores the
fluidity of intersectional identities and has appeared in multiple literary journals both online
and in print. Notable performance spaces have included 48H Neukölln, the Alley Theatre,
Glastonbury, the Museum of Old & New Art, and the Sydney Opera House, where they
won the title of Australian National Poetry Slam Champion in 2016. Their work has been
published in literary journals including Stellium Literary JournalBOOTH, Pressure Gauge
, and About Place Journal, and their chapbook, Black and Ropy, was published by Pitt
Street Poetry in 2017. They are currently pining for falafel at their desk in Berlin.

Emily DeYoung is a student of the world from Michigan, who travels as often as possible. She has been to over 25 countries since graduating high school, and uses the people, places, and small moments she experiences for inspiration when writing. Emily has one published poetry collection, How the Wind Calls the Restless, which won first place in the Writer’s Digest 30th Annual Self-Published Book Awards Contest last year (2021). She loves reading memoir, camping, large dogs who think they are lap-sized, and listening to classic and punk rock.


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