A Conversation with Desiree C. Bailey by Dolapo Demuren
BY DOLAPO DEMUREN
Desiree C. Bailey is the author of What Noise Against the Cane (Yale University Press, 2021), which won the 2020 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize and is currently a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award for Poetry. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook In Dirt or Saltwater (O’clock Press, 2016) and has short stories and poems published in Best American Poetry, Best New Poets, American Short Fiction, Callaloo, the Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Desiree is from Trinidad and Tobago, and Queens, NY.
Dolapo Demuren: What Noise Against the Cane consists of a variety of speakers across time and space. Despite the speakers’ differences, their songs share a similar theme: identity. In “Guesswork,” we hear about a “Diasporan daughter, raking the soil for a map, a glint of my mama’s gold, a bone to call my own.” In the poem “Woman in Dub,” the speaker says, “I a fact// answer of my own making.” The very first line of the book declares “I am I.” There’s a resilience and a confidence that shoots through this collection. Yet, the collection also includes confessions like, “True: there is no homeland. Just my veined feet wandering the shore, marring paradise,” and “I am not lost or am I.” How did your chorus of voices help you engage with the idea of diasporic identity?
Desiree C. Bailey: As an Afro-Caribbean woman living in the U.S., my existence is polyvocal. I’m surrounded by a multiplicity of voices, languages, accents, and registers. I think that a book so close to my heart could only feel honest if these experiences of the voice made it to the page. Often, in the process of writing or revising, I’d hear Kamau Brathwaite’s line from History of the Voice: “The hurricane does not roar in pentameter.” And for me, for this book, that meant that my engagement with line and meter should feel local, and should reflect the sonic experiences of my movements across land and sea. Working with the various voices felt natural, but it also helped me to embrace the unfixedness of my identities. It helped me to reject these static, white anthropological notions of authenticity and to show up as I am in all of my sounds and voices.
DD: You’ve worked in both fiction and poetry for some time now. It was exciting to see that “Sea Voice,” the text running along the bottom margin of the book, had been published in American Short Fiction. Some multi-paged poems in the book shift form from page to page, which resonates almost like a beat switch in the middle of a song. It’s like you’re a DJ, letting different rhythms command the stage in quick succession. What informs the way you work so fluidly with form?
DB: I’m truly flattered that you’re comparing me to a DJ because DJing is hard work! On one hand, it was the passing of time that allowed for the variety in modes and tones. When you’re living and working and breaking and repairing while putting a manuscript together, all of that cycling creeps into the form. The forms seem to change because I was changing, sometimes in ways that I couldn’t quite keep up with, while I was creating these poems over the years.
On the other hand, I enjoy playing with poems. I’m thrilled by the latitude the artform offers. I enjoy the freedom to experiment with textures or spacing, with rhythm or riddim. For example, with the “Woman in Dub,” I was listening to lots of Jamaican dub (which may be redundant, but I do want to honor where the music was born), lots of Augustus Pablo and King Tubby, and Lee “Scratch” Perry. I was overwhelmed by the genre’s sonic ingenuity: the looping, echoes, and reverb. I wanted to play with those sonic effects as best as I could in a poem.
So sometimes time forces fluidity. And sometimes it’s me playing with mood, with an idea or obsession.
DD: With the words of the “Sea Voice” text running at the bottom of each page, there is always an awareness of two planes: the physical and the spiritual. It feels like the collection wants to make readers hyper-aware about the close proximity of the two. How does the consistent presence of a speaking voice and a “ghost” voice reflect the kind of vision you wanted to achieve in this collection? I’m also curious to hear your thoughts about the tension created by always having two voices present at all times.
DB: I’m really interested in the ways we make meaning, how we form narratives out of chaos, or coincidence or patterns. So much beauty comes out of this human desire, and also so much pain. I knew that I wanted the Sea Voice to interact with the individual poems positioned above it while also being distinct. I wanted to see what new meaning would emerge from the layering on each page, and I was excited by the thought that the reader would have to make their own meaning out of that layering. I knew that at times the voices would harmonize and that at other times there would be discord. That tension, and maybe even the risk of ruining the book that I’d been toiling over, really energized me.
DD: The Sea Voice itself is so radical. It breaks the fourth wall when it says “I was at di center ah dis book, ah what she call it? Di narrative. But she, Miss Poet push me out…. Down down to di bottom, somewhere she call di margins.” Is this true? Was there a time when the “Sea Voice” text had another placement in the collection?
DB: Yup! The Sea Voice itself didn’t have a different placement but the sea did. “Chant for the Waters and Dirt and Blade,” the long poem that opens the collection, was initially about Lasirèn (the Haitian lwa who takes the form of a mermaid) and the sea. I was thinking of stories of Lasirèn swimming alongside the ships that trafficked enslaved Africans to the Americas, and I was imagining the role of water and the ocean in my ancestor’s uprisings against the dominant economic structure of the time. Eventually, the human story became the more salient one in the poem, and while the sea is still very much present, it had more ground in the bottom margins. I kept looking at Wangechi Mutu’s collage painting “Beneath Lies the Power,” kept thinking of the power of what and who gets pushed to the margins, and somehow that placement, with all its tension, felt right for the sea.
DD: Water dominates the imagery of this collection. It speaks, sustains… destroys. The sea you depict is animate, knowing, and sensitive. I was moved while reading about the sea’s tender awareness of the passage of time, its understanding of the weight of world history, and its knowledge of the poet’s personal history. As you were crafting the book, what did you feel you wanted to honor about the sea? Separately, what did you want to make visible through the sea?
DB: I’ve always felt really called to water. While growing up in Trinidad, the ocean was a significant part of my joy, and perhaps when I immigrated to New York, I latched on to the ocean and its surroundings to hold on to my first home and all that I longed for. The Sea Voice says, “she need me to be a keeper ah all she memory,” and she’s absolutely right! When I think of the sea I think of my family. I feel immense awe for my ancestors. I think of indigenous peoples around the world who’ve been forcibly removed from coastal areas to make way for destructive developments and tourism. I think of Yemaya, Lasirèn, and the Black stories and knowledges carried across the ocean.
DD: A part of the fabric of the book is interlinked identity. The sea deity mentions that she consists of all that enter her waters. She tells readers that her actions and her song are interconnected with the decisions that human beings are making, which includes natural catastrophes influenced by the effects of a warming earth. In the penultimate poem “Flowers Pressed to My Head” a mysterious speaker declares, “…there is no me. There is I and I, which is you too. You and I intertwined. Snaked, rubbing skins. I’d like to stitch myself to the divine. To stitch myself, there must be no me.” So beautiful and chilling. Why was it important for you to thread the idea of interlinked identity through the collection?
DB: Dolapo, I so love your reading here that I want to bask in it without giving much of a response! I’ll add that that interlinked quality reflects how I see myself in the world, interconnected with all other beings of life and systems of organization, for better or for worse.
DD: The last action of the speaker in the first poem is song: “in one hand/ my machete in the other the sea horn/ the conch blaring the notes of my song.” The same goes for the final poem of the book; the Sea Voice deity declares in its last words, “I come to roll muh waves and wine muh pretty body and roar till I black like basalt and roar till I black like basalt and sing.” What was resonant about having the human and deity speakers rest on the same final note? Did you see that conclusion coming?
DB: I didn’t intend on having this double resonance, but once it occurred, I saw and felt it instantly and decided that it should remain. I actually planned to end the Sea Voice with lines from the Dancehall artist Patra’s “Queen of the Pack,” which I thought would both be a fun nod to those of us who grew up wining and bubbling to her music and also pick up on the Sea Voice’s bodacious bravado. Alas, I ended up altering the lines, to avoid having to deal with obtaining permissions within a very short time frame! There were many such logistical changes, and while they were a headache in the moment, I always knew that the Sea Voice would have to be improvisational. It couldn’t really work any other way. And perhaps, within these two endings, there is something about the human and the deity, the body and the sea being tethered through song.
DD: In an interview with the Washington Square Review, you defined literary success as “having the latitude to show up as I am, both physically and emotionally.” What advice do you have for up-and-coming writers who are contemplating their own ideas about and goals for literary success?
DB: For so many of us, those of us without inherited wealth or those of us with multiple barriers built against us, writing can feel like a precarious endeavor. I say make that precarity worth it by being who you’d really like to be in your work. Otherwise, why do it? I mean, there are so many easier ways to not be yourself. You could have chosen many other paths but you chose to follow the truth of your heart. Hold that close.