Aricka Foreman is an American poet, essayist and digital curator from Detroit, MI. Author of the chapbook Dream with a Glass Chamber, and Salt Body Shimmer (YesYes Books, 8/7/20), she has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. Her work has appeared in RHINO, Buzzfeed, James Franco Review, THRUSH and Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press) among others. She spends her time in Chicago, IL experimenting with photography & video-narratives.
Bailey Bujnosek: How did you choose the title of your collection, Salt Body Shimmer, and what does it represent?
Aricka Foreman: The title is a partial phrase lifted from the last section of the poem “Consent Is a Labyrinth of Yes,” a serial poem that engages familiar micro-violences within the context of misogynoir.* The ecosystem of heteropatriarchal subjugation is wild with cruelties and leaves little untouched in its white supremacist reach. My obsessive interrogation of misogynoir, not only as a constant reality, but the questions: where is safe, where and how my lived experience(s) exist freely, beyond the crisis that occurs in the wake of its interruptions? The sea consumes much of this book and functions as a space I find both wildly freeing and in awe of: a mix of wonder and absolute terror. There’s a line in the film Poetic Justice, where the main character (played by Janet Jackson) monologues: “A wise man once said, ‘Look at the ocean and realize that no matter how famous you are or how much money you make know that you’ll never be as important as the ocean.’” While the perspective is critical, that realization persists and propels the main character into her next evolution, our perspective of the ocean in relationship to our existence has its own trappings. Look at what humans have done with and to the sea: pillage, war, genocide, cause the extinction of wildlife and natural resources. There’s an utterance of that consideration as well, since no “singular” violence lives in a silo.
*Misogynoir: a term coined by the Black feminist scholar, Moya Bailey.
BB: Quite a few of the poems in Salt Body Shimmer were published previously. When did you know you were working towards a collection?
AF: I want to trouble the question a bit, since it seems both about process and its relationship to its “afterlife” in publication. In-so-far as the “completion” of the poem, when it feels done, I send it out into the world because I’m interested in how it lives in conversation with the world. All it’s doorways, its little grotesque.
Releasing music is a good metaphor/practice in this case, for me. There are artists who sit down to do “an album” which can make the “making”—assemblage, revision—feel more in service to the work as object, rather than embracing the work as process. This may have entangled Frank Ocean, Rihanna…and also that’s my own posited assumption.
I may not have an album, but I have a single or two. At some point, these few poems strike a thread, and I realize I might have an interesting little EP. Or perhaps a ghost B-side to an album that hasn’t been completed yet. Sound is prevalent in my poems, so I supposed music’s influence would influence how I think about the work’s formation.
The short-answer is: I realized I had a collection once I noticed the threads running through the poems. Writing is the one place I get to silence industrial modes that don’t serve the work as much as they do the capitalistic tendencies that pervade (and pervert) the arts, which are already woefully under-invested in and engaged with.
BB: You released your first chapbook, Dream With a Glass Chamber, in 2016. While working on Salt Body Shimmer, did you ever find yourself struggling with the pressures and expectations of producing a second collection?
AF: I want to be honest: not really. I decided some time ago that the poet’s work is to connect with but not be beholden to the audience. I’m humbled by the readers who’ve found my work in all kinds of ways over the years and who continue to support my growth. Often we’re consumed with this angst that those who enjoy our work will abandon us. Yes, it’s unfortunate if they do. Abandonment is heartbreaking. I’ve been incredibly blessed to have colleagues, friends, and teachers who encourage me to focus on practice and not on the regalia and slipperiness that happens after a book is released into the world. You return to that desk alone to try, and try again. If you’re committed—by which I mean, if you love poetry—you know you’ll return when all else is broken. Every other question outside of that gets wrung out in the wash of making.
BB: The first section of the collection engages various water-related mythos, such as Atlantis or the deity, Olukún. What compelled you towards the sea and the lore surrounding it?
AF: The ocean has long been a lush, vast, terrifying location for my curiosities. I grew up in Detroit, amongst rivers and lakes and the man-made Belle Isle. I didn’t see the ocean until I was 13 or 14. And even then, only from a distance. Again, the histories it holds, like marine snow, never really go away. They’re cannibalized by creatures that live and adapt in its waters. So much of the “imaginative” dominant-sea lore we know lies in canons of Greek or Roman or Norse mythology. But if all that separates us and brings us toward one another, if we acknowledge there are numerous cultures touched by the ocean, why did it take me until I was in my 30s to learn who Olukún was? Or in my 20s to learn an Induit myth that makes the narwhal tangible?
Olukún’s gender-fluid Africana lens was more comprehensive in understanding aspects of my generationally displaced experience, born from a colonized people. And still, the Inuit myth of the woman escaping her abusive husband, her shiny hair, what she was regaled for, hunted for, acquired for, became the very thing that gave her a new life once she entered the sea. The parallels ain’t coincidence.
In poems, I’m not only searching for answers, but I think I’m inherently searching for the origins of my questions. The ocean seems like an endless place of possibility for that work.
BB: In a 2016 interview with Speaking of Marvels, you said you were “trying to get at the trauma/memory work [you’ve] always been preoccupied with” in your writing. Salt Body Shimmer would seem to contain some of the fruits of this effort—I’m thinking in particular of “Intake Interview,” which brilliantly builds on itself as an autopsy of the trauma wrought by a startling act of violence at a party. Can you tell me more about how your exploration of trauma and memory shaped that piece, and/or the collection at large?
AF: It’s interesting you use the word autopsy. I’ve never considered that specific language until now, but it holds some weight and clarity. There’s a compulsive energy that pushes that poem forward, that says, “Look, here’s the evidence,” and reifies to the speaker that what they witnessed and what they experienced is not singular, nor a figment of their imagination. This obsession reiterates a constant gesture that implores, What you know is true. This is violence. And at some point, at many points, that self wants justice, and knows that justice is hard-won. Means different things to different people.
I’m remembering James Baldwin’s Another Country, where Ida says, “People don’t have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you’re dead, when they’ve killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn’t have any character. They weep big, bitter tears—not for you. For themselves, because they’ve lost their toy.”
The penultimate witnessing speaks volumes and carries the last, critical observation, the notion of “not having any character,” a fear largely adopted by many BIPOC in the name of survival vis-a-vis respectability. But it’s not sustainable, and eventually the need to import this moral construct of “character” (often imposed by the nefarious, with empty notions of morality) overshadows the humanity we already possess. Yet we’re taught to prove it…earn it. The rules are ardent and impossible to live up to. Our acquiescence never ensures it saves us. Which is the point. Trauma denigrates, but not completely. That would give it a kind of intelligent design, absolved of the perpetrators who manipulate it to achieve a specific goal. There’s an echoed ephemera in American nostalgia. It bleeds into everything, even the poetics field.
BB: The women in the collection demonstrate that survival is a feat in itself amidst the persistent threat of violence that comes with “hav[ing] a body that can take and spit life back / out.” Showing bravery is as simple as walking “to the train without headphones.” With such high stakes in everyday interactions, how did you keep the collection from feeling hopeless? Where do you, as a poet of reality, find hope?
AF: Some days I feel pitifully pessimistic. And I think the questions that come from that have little rigorous, critical value. Little, but not bereft. If I look to my teachers, a lineage which feels inexhaustible, I think hope is what we make it, a moment that insists we apprehend a greater understanding of ourselves and our relationship to our communities, lineages, and histories. If I critique this country’s outright imperial violence, is that not a question toward hope? If I posit that we don’t have to continue atrocities in order to belong, and that belonging, measured in terms of power-hierarchy, binary methods are at best…boring? At worst: this, beyond and in conversation with this pandemic: death. Death. Loss. Play. Pay. Silence. Clearly what we were doing was never our best. Perhaps hope is me cautiously waiting on the rest to catch up.
That investigation is preemptive, part of Black folks’ everyday vernacular. We are a country founded on, built by erasure, violence and the genocide, chattel of bodies in the name of transaction. Those ledgers are tantamount. This Americana nostalgia, we have to do the work to own that. I see the possibility, and my arrogance in thinking that possibility is fixed, something I might touch and hold in my lifetime…I have to deal with that, too.
Long answer short: I don’t know that hope, as a received ideation, fully holds disenfranchised experiences. But possibility feels like a better gesture to fail at than whatever preceded it. Language is an exercise at failing. And hopefully: something else: happens. Hopefully it’s different.
BB: Something I found really interesting was your portrayal of a family that, while shown to make mistakes in how they handle each others’ actions and trauma, is never outright condemned, such as in the compelling “Field Study #1,” when the speaker says that instead of a good family, they have “the good people / who did the best they would with what they had.” What is the importance of family in your work? What led you to braid in that kind of forgiveness?
AF: We’re as capacious as we give ourselves the opportunity to be, but forgiveness is not for the one who harms. It’s possible to hold those who’ve harmed you to account and not allow them to take up residence in your mind, spirit. The “could” as opposed to “should” resists most prevalent when we make room for ourselves without being owned by harm. We make choices. We don’t always get to make whole choices. But to protect my state of mind, by any measure, is a whole choice. And I’m imbued with the strength to make that choice given the people I come from: vast, living, proud, robbed, gorgeous, dead. I’m most interested in the language that distills our possibility, the ways it makes us deal with one another. Within the work, there’s no room for condemnation. I can ask, I can understand, but I write as a poet not an executioner. There’s enough condemnation in the name of state power and militarization to go around. Holding ideologies to account is not condemnation. Holding perpetrators of those ideologies is not condemnation. What operates in the language of war and does not serve us. Not just because we’re bound by blood, but we are bound in this simultaneous ecstatic-horror. Context is key.
What I can control is how/when I say, “Hey, this was a wound. Will you meet me to heal?” What they do from there…is not my mission. But I can ask. I can deal with the aftermath, whatever that looks like. And when I speak of the dead, the deadened, the silence… There’s something they can say on this plane that can make any immediate, bodily change. That’s my work. In Salt Body Shimmer, at least there’s a liminal gesture that serves that need. The page is my terrain, and with that freedom I can still imagine.
BB: As the Notes of the book reveal, several of the poems in this collection borrow lines from songs, and music is present, if only in the background, in many pieces throughout the collection. How much was music an influence as you were writing this collection?
AF: On weekend drives from Detroit to my grandparent’s house in Inkster, MI, my mom and I would sing along to Anita Baker, Minnie Ripperton, and Phyllis Hyman ballads, we’d play a game to see who could hit those aspirational high notes, those molasses-hum bellows, as the trucks and trees and some concrete whipped by. I couldn’t at that age really understand their sacrifice, their agency. And their songs were so prevalent on the radio. I’d finish my work in elementary classes, having snuck a Walkman in to listen to the radio, afraid I’d miss a song, the familiarity: a comfort.
My grandfather was a singer. My grandmother said she was not interested in being a single mother while he was on tour, so he became a truck driver. My mother sang in the choir. I did as well. My father was a music producer. One of my brothers is a DJ, my other three brothers are musicians. Music is another register for me to apprehend what can’t always be distilled, even in the singing.
They tell you in some writing classes that the senses are key in tapping into memory. So much of my memory is knotted up in music. I had the great privilege of growing up in Detroit during the time where Techno was key in informing my adolescence. Before I was old enough to get into clubs, you could still find me there dancing, waiting on the next mix, the hometown anthem that got us moving.
It’s no wonder I gravitated toward the lyric, not just the muscular apostrophe (muscular not only in it’s queering), but the music that pulls its syntax toward the moment it’s most productive. Once upon a time I had a voice. Now, I can carry a tune. Only my closest kin know. I collect vinyl and love the narratives beyond the sensational need for biography. And know when a song hits, I know I was meant to hear it, when I was meant to hear it.
BB: I believe you’re entering your second year as a mentor for The Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program. What drew you to Adroit?
AF: Peter [LaBerge] graciously asked me to join when I didn’t know too much about the program beyond the utterance of what previous mentors mentioned about its engagement and impact. At the time of invitation, I’d deeply missed engaging with a new writer’s questions about this craft-thing, this business we make of language, and felt bereft in what seemed then like a meager literary citizenship. But there was a possible future. There was something needing trouble. And the work you all publish is pretty outstanding. As a reader, I found myself returning.
That’s an opening.
BB: Can you tell me about your experience as a mentor?
AF: I was so, so, so lucky with the student I was paired with. She’s brilliant and rigorous, and seemed to want to make a home to find all of that. Her inquiry was/is just as important as anything she produces. It was a delight to exchange ideas and questions with someone so active, urgent in her quest to make meaning out of the unutterable. She takes that line of inquiry into everything she does: poetry, music, interiority. If all of *that* is the tree, our work is the sap, and it opened up some space in me.
It was incredible to incorporate a vast array of texts, interviews, features, essays that I thought useful to my student’s journey. There was no pushback on my suggestions from the program directors. I hope my experience was generative, and I encourage us all toward expanse in our approach to poetics and pedagogy, less predicated on careerist notions of collections, prizes, fellowships, etc., across all publications that attempt to resist institutional models. We’re in a moment where we’re invited to reconsider some things. I hope we take the time to do so, seriously.
BB: Is there any particular lesson or advice you gave during the mentorship that you think all aspiring poets would benefit from hearing?
AF: An excerpted Google Hang:
Poems are not therapy. Poems are investigations, which we already do, living the lives we live at many intersections.
…it’s an awful lot of pressure to put on ourselves, the work can suffer because of that.
Sometimes whatever truths I discover about myself happen after the poem has lived in the world and traveled. Sometimes it takes years.
While I’m an incredibly vulnerable writer, that’s not what I set to accomplish on the page. Or, that’s not the first priority.
I think you’ll find, especially once we get to writing in form this week, shifting your focus to mechanics will shake some of that anxiety out.
But trust that even if it feels hollow, writing is a practice.
That practice is what the work is, and everything else is what the work does. Feel me?