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.

Lyric Essentials: Saida Agostini Reads Dorianne Laux and June Jordan

For this episode of Lyric Essentials, we’re joined by poet Saida Agostini. Agostini reads work by Dorianne Laux and June Jordan and shares her deep appreciation for the “richness and rigor” of these poems. Agostini discusses how that appreciation has evolved over the years (she’s read Jordan’s poem over a hundred times!). Many thanks to her for joining us, and thank you, readers, for supporting this series!

Riley Steiner: Why did you choose these two poems to read for Lyric Essentials?

Saida Agostini: I love poems that evoke powerful, unexpected emotions, that demand your presence. Both Jordan and Laux’s work have a hungry, unstinting immediacy that I can’t ignore.

RS: Was there a reason that you chose to group these two poems together, specifically?

SA: I was taught from a very early age that desire was something unmanageable, ugly—a force that must be tamed. Jordan’s body of work calls out black women’s desire as a revolutionary force, the foundation of any real work, to build a freedom that we can hold and feel. Quite frankly, I want that. I want to be in my body and not just feel safe, but revel in the wonder of my skin and feel its glory. Laux’s poem speaks to this desire, what it means to luxuriate in want, to put my hand against a lover’s skin and sit in knowing with them. I think these poems are about a kind of reclaiming, a naked and unabashed commitment to let our erotic selves (as Lorde calls it) guide us to freedom. 

Saida Agostini reads “The Shipfitter’s Wife” by Dorianna Laux

RS: What was your experience like when you were recording these poems? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations? What was your thought process behind the way you read them out loud?

SA: I was first introduced to “A Poem about My Rights” in high school. I was part of a theatrical team that would perform poems in competition with other schools, so I’ve actually read this poem aloud over a hundred times. I would argue that in some ways I grew up with this work. I don’t think I even intellectually understood the poem fully until I was in my late twenties, but emotionally I connected with it immediately. I always get caught in Jordan’s cadence, her call to own her name, how she writes such an expansive, broad world that is also deeply intimate. Reading it in 2019 gave it a different texture—to read it as a 38-year-old black queer survivor of domestic and sexual violence in a country led by a white supremacist—found me reading the work as a battle cry, a prayer, and prostration. 

Similarly, with Laux’s work, it felt like reading a prayer. I kept thinking about her focus on labor, the gentle uncovering of a lover’s day—and then that line “Then I’d open his clothes and take / the whole day inside me.” Oh! That line slays me to this very moment.  I wanted to just pause and take that line in. 

Saida Agostini reads “A Poem About My Rights” by June Jordan

RS: Did you discover anything new about these after reading them out loud, as opposed to reading them on the page?

SA: How could I not? There is such a richness and rigor in their collective works. Jordan’s poem is so dense and fiery, it’s easy to overlook the incredible nuance of her work—even when you read it aloud over a hundred times. I was struck by her proclamation “I am the history of rape.” What does it mean for our history to be defined by sexual violence and trauma? What are the artifacts of this history, what does it mean to build a world where we don’t flee these realities but honor how we saved ourselves?

RS: How did you first discover these poems? Have they (or the poets who wrote them) had any influence on your own work?

SA: As I mentioned, I was first introduced to “A Poem About My Rights” in tenth grade. I discovered Laux in college. I write in the tradition of black and brown queer women who are unapologetic in their desire and freedom. I write to claim our history: the fantastic, the beautiful, the unconquerable nature of our love. 

Dorianne Laux lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is the author of What We Carry (1994), Smoke (2000); Facts about the Moon (2005), and The Book of Men (2011). Her work has won the Oregon Book Award, the Paterson Prize, and the Pushcart Prize, and she’s been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

Further reading:

Visit Dorianne’s website
Pre-order Dorianne’s upcoming collection, Only As the Day is Long
Read an interview with Dorianne in The Rumpus

June Jordan was a Jamaican-American writer and activist. She was born in Harlem in 1936 and went on to earn her B.A. from Barnard College. She taught at numerous universities, including Yale University, Sarah Lawrence College, and New York University. Her award-winning work including poems, lyrics, plays, journalism, essays, and speeches. Jordan died in 2002 in Berkeley, California.

Further reading:

Explore a website dedicated to Jordan and her work
Read Jordan’s obituary in the New York Times
Purchase Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan from Copper Canyon Press

Saida Agostini is a queer Afro-Guyanese poet and activist. Her work is featured in Origins, the Black Ladies Brunch Collective’s anthology, Not Without Our Laughter, the Baltimore Sun, pluck!, The Little Patuxent Review, and other publications. She has received support for her poetry from Cave Canem, the Blue Mountain Center, and other institutions. She is presently working on a collection of poems, just let the dead in.

Further reading:

Read Saida’s work in Origins
Read three of Agostini’s poems in Beltway Poetry Quarterly
Read an interview and Q&A with Agostini in the Washington Blade

Riley Steiner graduated from Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.