We Call Upon the Author to Explain—Saida Agostini

Saida Agostini’s first collection of poetry, let the dead in, moves between mythology and day-to-day life as if there are no boundaries between. A radical act of love for self and community, the poems imagine the fantastic in terms of beauty and a blending of realities. Saida was kind enough to take the time to sit down and answer some questions for this column, and her answers here are as thoughtful and gorgeous as the poetry itself.

Alex DiFrancesco: Saida, I just finished your book, and I was so incredibly moved by it—by the fabulist poems, by the love poems, by the death poems, and by the murder poems. I suppose my first question is that, as I read the first section, “Notes on Archiving Erasure,” it occurred to me, at first, that I was reading speculative poetry, then my feelings on it shifted towards it maybe being magical realism, then finally to the idea that I was perhaps reading creation mythology in poetic

Saida Agostini: I suppose it’s really a hybridization of all those forms. On some level, I would argue that the presence of Black love and its ability to not only survive but expand in the midst of white patriarchal violence is a miracle worthy of not only interrogation but deep study. In writing this collection, I’ve explored the mythology surrounding not only my creation but the creation of my kin and ancestors. I come from a line of powerfully stubborn, deeply rooted, and loving people who keep moving towards freedom. The stories we have told to ourselves to survive are astounding—everything from kidnapping mermaids and whispering jumbees to the half-buried histories of our own evolution. I remember a few years ago, I heard Sapphire speak about Push, and how it is the story of literacy—a young Black girl who comes into her power through learning the written word. The first section chronicles my own journey to emotional literacy: it explores how I became fluent in the histories and emotions of my family, abuse and love.

AD: There is a sense in this book that family is not something that one can separate from, even if the family in question engages in physical abuse, or, in the case of “Bresha Meadows Speaks on Divinity,” a variety of abuses (I’m thinking here of Meadows holding her father after/as she murders him). Can you speak more to this intrinsic link to family, whether one desires it or not?

SA: Families of origin feel inescapable to me. I am a social worker, and always interested in how others make sense of their kin. I have always felt a deep necessity to honor my family—even in the moments where harm is happening. I think in the retelling of great and small wounds, we tend to move into binaries that do not serve us, or reflect the complexities of human emotions. I was formerly a member of FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, a collective that organized the Monument Quilt, a collection of over three thousand quilt squares from survivors and allies. In the workshops I held, so few people spoke, or felt, in absolute terms. It’s complicated, hard and tricky—especially when it’s family. My work tries to move beyond reductive narratives about abuse, and explore what happens when survivor’s voices are given room to express everything. And that’s what family is right? A tricky, hard, difficult space that generates so much love, confusion, and hope. I have experienced great harm in my family. And yet, I have experienced great love. When I talk about the things I have survived, I need room to make you understand all of it: the ability to move back and forth throughout time, to shift between love, pain and, joy. No matter how we are connected or disconnected from family, those stories and lineages stay with us.

AD: I absolutely adored the persona poems from the series of monsters and spirits in “We Find the Fantastic.” I also noticed and loved, though, that this section holds some poems on Black lesbian love and sex—and I’m wondering about the melding here of fantastic in the “fantasy” and the “wonderful” sense.

SA: As a baby queer, desire and pleasure felt very much in the realm of both fantasy and the fantastic. Raised in public schools by conservative immigrant parents, I very much remember the only conversations we had about sexuality were grounded in the mechanics of reproduction. I couldn’t tell you very much about pleasure, but I could tell you about the zygote. As I grew up, so much of my agency and sense of self came from discovering how I could generate pleasure in myself and others. To this day, I have a sense of awe in thinking about it. In a culture where we are constantly taught to revere production, outcomes, and capitalism, it is an act of liberation to engage in acts that have no intended purpose other than joy. As I meditate on fantasy, whether I am speaking on mermaids, Harriet Tubman’s pursuit of Sojourner Truth or Black queer love, what I am really speaking about is building a world that revels in deep joy.

AD: God is seen again and again as a Black woman in this collection. Harriet Tubman and Sojourner truth become lesbian lovers and heroes. I want to ask you to talk more about Black women’s power and love for each other here, about these ideas of Black women, particularly fat Black women and lesbians, as gods/heroes.

SA: There are very few days that I don’t hate my body. That’s not shocking—I am a fat Black woman in a culture that derides any body that doesn’t fit within audaciously restrictive and fatphobic standards of beauty. I don’t ever remember seeing a fat Black woman in popular culture that was not a figure of derision or mockery. Whether we are talking about the Klumps in Nutty Professor or Madea, what I learned about fat Black women is that we are not worthy of pleasure. Toni Morrison’s often repeated edict, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,” brought me to the page. I wanted to see myself in the pages. I wanted to fall in love with me as I am. To witness fat Black women who revel in their bodies and the pleasure it brings. There is something divine about that, right? To articulate a way of being that centers Black womanhood and pleasure as intoxicating and lovely, worthy of worship. The creation stories in let the dead in are about bucking any gaze that cannot celebrate the expansiveness of Blackness and our bodies.

AD: There is a series of poems in section three, “American Love,” about Black people who are murdered by the police, or otherwise brutalized by the justice system in America. You make, what I felt, was an extremely bold move of not just memorializing these folks, but also, particularly in the poem “If Tamir Rice and Eric Garner Wore Heels,” of calling out who is often left out of the extremely righteous rage people have expressed over these murders. Can you talk more about who is left out?

SA: It is unbearable that the daily lives of Black folks attract such profound and lethal risks. It is unforgivable to know that the lives of Black folks who exist outside of the white gaze will not be grieved. We all know the brutal calculus behind public grieving in American culture. The precarity that Black women, queer folks, trans and gender non-conforming communities face is so absurd, they go without comment or care. The gymnastics that must be proved to merit grief, let alone a public response to the harm Black folks face outside of cis-heteronormativity is exhausting. Makhia Bryant should be alive. CeCe McDonald should never have been incarcerated. Breonna Taylor should have woken up that morning. I am no longer interested in inviting white culture to meditate on why these realities exist. I am however demanding that our community explore how white gaze limits our ability for great love.

let the dead in is available through Alan Squire Publishing

Saida Agostini is a queer Afro-Guyanese poet whose work explores the ways that Black folks harness mythology to enter the fantastic. Saida’s first collection of poems, let the dead in, was a finalist for the Center of African American Poetry & Poetics’ 2020 Book Prize as well as the New Issues Poetry Prize. She is the author of STUNT (Neon Hemlock, October 2020), a chapbook exploring the history of Nellie Jackson, a Black woman entrepreneur who operated a brothel for sixty years in Natchez, Mississippi. Her poetry can also be found in the Black Ladies Brunch Collective’s anthology Not Without Our Laughter, Barrelhouse Magazine, Hobart Pulp, Plume, and other publications. A Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, Saida has been awarded honors and support for her work by the Watering Hole and Blue Mountain Center, as well as a 2018 Rubys Grant funding travel to Guyana to support the completion of her first manuscript. She is a Best of the Net Finalist and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee.

Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 BrooklynThe New Ohio ReviewBrevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.

Interview with Donna Vorreyer, Author of To Everything There Is

Ahead of the 2020 release of her third poetry collection To Everything There Is, Donna Vorreyer spoke with Sundress Publications editorial intern Gokul Prabhu. Here, they discussed articulations of death and grief and how that influences the construction of a literary “I.”

Gokul Prabhu: What was your primary thought process as you put your collection together? Is there a larger narrative you hope to achieve?

Donna Vorreyer: This collection, unlike my last book, wasn’t conceived as a project with a crafted narrative arc. The poems I had been writing from 2016-2018 dealt with aging, doubt, and one’s relationship with the body. Then my life changed overnight when, within the course of a year in 2018, both parents fell ill and passed away. Writing then became a way of trying to both name and tame my emotional upheaval, a way to balance a complicated scale that carried the weight of loss on one side and the beauties and joys of living on the other. When organizing this collection, I knew that I needed to weave the other issues about which I’d been writing with the poems of grief in order to show that balance. I hope I have created a narrative seesaw for readers, one that they could ride as that scale tips from one side to the other.

GP: What is the significance of the juxtaposition of the body with the non-physical existence in your poems, especially in Section I?

DV: When you tend someone who is dying, the physical body screams for attention—not only the bodies of the ill, but the bodies of the caretakers as well. This keen awareness of the physical heightens the desire for explanation, for reasons, and leads to contemplation of the intellectual, psychological, and spiritual realms that make up a whole person. The love poems in the collection use all of these domains as well—being loved so well while being so desperately sad is a visceral experience. These ideas, blended with my existing interest in thinking about aging and the body, were arranged to complement one another, in a way that was shaped by conversations with Jeremy Reed, my Sundress editor for this collection.

GP: Can you speak about the book’s relationship with death and the language used to articulate it?

DV: This is a difficult question, as difficult as it is to try and articulate something as monumental yet as ordinary as death. As I wrote my way into and through the first years of grieving my parents, I found that each poem was unique in the way that each twinge of grief was unique. At times overwhelming, to write only about loss can be just as harmful as it is helpful, so finding different ways to approach these thoughts was important—using the natural world as a springboard helped me to find language for guilt, regret, and sorrow as well as beauty, joy, and love. In the end, the book is not only elegy. It is, to create a portmanteau, a “celebrelegy,” one that recognizes and explores the deep dark that comes with loss but also the light that continues to shine for those who are left behind.

GP: What is the significance of the recurring image of the anxiety of dealing with the everydayness of things, including your own body and the politics around it, especially after experiencing a deep loss, in Section II and III?

DV: It’s a cliché, but the answer to this question is “life goes on.” It has to. And part of my life before the loss was dealing with thoughts about my own aging, my relationship with my own body in space and in the world, my own vacillation between the wonder of being so well loved and the doubt about whether I deserve it. 

GP: How does your form influence the articulation of this grief?

DV: Form for me usually arrives after the first draft, which usually has no form and is spilled out handwritten in a journal. With work, the correct form can eventually arrive and enhance the content. “Refusal,” for instance, with its ghazal form, mimics the cyclical and repetitive ways that “no” permeates your days when someone is dying. In “Self-Administered Rorschach Test,” the short lines and strange intersection of assonance and image mimic the oddness of the test itself. And in some of the prose poems like “Dawn of Grace” and “The First Thing I Wrote On This Retreat Was Not Supposed to Be about My Mother,” the large block keeps the reader in one moment by keeping the aspects of that moment contained in a rectangular space. “Purgatory” is one long sentence that waves down the page in staggered tercets, meant to mimic both the movement in the poem (of the train and the wind and of the speaker’s desire to be free of the space she is in). Using a variety of forms was important to me in order to try and mirror the disorder of mourning. 

GP: How does your poetry speak to the current ongoing conversation around death and body politics in a pandemic?

DV: I think it would be a stretch to try and make these poems fit the current situation we are all living in. However, some readers have pointed out how lines written quite some time ago (some up to four years ago), resonate differently now. For example, in “Ebb Tide,” the line “Terrible/ news blares from the radio, all I love/both at hand and at risk” seems even more specific than when it was written. I think, if anything, that the poems make it clear how important it is to be able to be physically present to love and mourn. They also make me consider how difficult it must be to be separated from family and friends who are experiencing illness or loss, and how important it is to appreciate the joy that love can still bring into the darkest moments.

GP: How does the ‘I’ in this collection figure for you, and what parts of the ‘I’ are borrowed from your persona?

DV: I always answer this question by saying that, since I wrote the poems, I am in them somehow. Many of these poems are obviously autobiographical, particularly the elegy poems. But some of the exploration of the body, age, guilt, regret…the “I” in those poems is more universal, I think, more of a way to dig into a condition of thought rather than one of being.

GP: Do the three sections in the collection suggest a growth in this ‘I’ as a reader goes from the beginning of the first section to the end of the third? If so, what would you say is the most important ‘lesson’ the ‘I’ has learnt at the end of the collection?

DV: The collection shows the speaker straddling a chasm of loss, each bit of beauty and joy weaving a net beneath her. There isn’t a straight line from not knowing to knowing. As soon as we are born, we are working our way toward an inevitable end—it’s the nurturing one receives in that journey, despite the doubts and failures that plague it, that is important in the end. I think the last line of the penultimate poem gives the lesson—“so much of anything is completely out of your hands.” We seek to control so many aspects of our existence and, in the end, we have very little influence over many of the major things that happen to us. This sounds a little bit defeatist, but then the last poem balances that out, I think, explaining how even the strongest of relationships is really a piece of magic, how even love is something that we don’t choose.

GP: Why did you choose the title of a specific poem as the title of the entire collection? 

DV: The title of the collection was in flux for quite some time, and the final decision of To Everything There Is functions in multiple ways for me and hopefully will for the reader. Of course, it is the beginning of a famous Bible verse (and subsequent song by The Byrds) that is meant to illustrate that there is a purpose for everything that happens. Another way of viewing the title is in an epistolary way—as a letter to “everything,” a way of embracing both the good and bad things the world has to offer us. Also, the title poem is a reflection on how we react to death and how we want to be remembered, which was important as this book is a small way to honor my parents. 

GP: Which of the poems was the most difficult for you to write, and why? Also, which is/are the poem(s) closest to your heart?

DV: All of the poems about my mother and father were difficult to write as I had to relive the hardest emotional moments of my life. Both the elegy poems and the love poems to my husband are the closest to my heart, and choosing one of each would be difficult. But, if pressed, I’d say the hardest to write was “Karma,” which imagines a could-have-been scenario that still haunts me. (There’s that idea of no control coming in…). The closest to my heart has two contenders: “I Inherit the Whims of my Mother as I Prepare to Trash This Draft” as it allows me to be in an ongoing conversation with my mother, to think of her every time I see a cardinal or jot down a random thought; or “In the Encyclopedia of Human Gestures” as it combines my obsession with the ordinary, the contemplation of ideas, and the salvation of a great love into one poem.

Order your copy of To Everything There Is today

Donna Vorreyer is the author of To Everything There Is (2020), Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016), and A House of Many Windows (2013), all from Sundress Publications. Her poems, reviews, and essays have appeared in Rhino, Tinderbox Poetry, Poet Lore, Sugar House Review, Waxwing, Whale Road Review, and many other journals. She currently serves as an associate editor for Rhino Poetry. Vorreyer has recently retired from 36 years in public K-12 education and can’t wait to see what happens next.

Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing, and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator, and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.