A Conversation with Rebecca Black
Gregory Donovan: This is Gregory Donovan. I’m going to be interviewing Rebecca Black.
Rebecca, I wanted to begin by discussing some of the poems that you actually published in Blackbird, with an eye towards talking more generally about your work, and I was interested in the composition process that you may have gone through to write “Sweet Transmigrations” . . . and even, if you would, give us the benefit of a little bit of chatting about the background of that poem.
Rebecca Black: This poem, “Sweet Transmigrations,” is from the earlier section of the book, which is the middle section of the book. And the second section is “Invention of the Cotton Gin,” which was actually the original title for the whole manuscript.
GD: Is there a chronological order to how the sections of the book were composed? Is the second section the first section you composed?
RB: It is. The second section is poems I was working on when I was in my mid-twenties—so, actually, quite a few years ago. So, it’s the earliest section. “Invention of the Cotton Gin” is kind of conceived of as a long poem from a series of linked poems about my father’s childhood in Albany, Georgia in the early sixties, and then overlaid with ideas in my own childhood.
So, I see those childhoods as kind of Venn diagram. At some points I’m in my father’s world, and at other times I’m in my own childhood. So this poem “Sweet Transmigrations” is actually quite early. It’s written in triplets—so, little small stanzas—and it just came out of this kind of religious experience I had in Bloomington, Indiana, listening to Otis Redding.
I moved to San Francisco from Georgia in this kind of traumatic summer, the summer my dad had a really colossal stroke. And so when I was leaving Georgia, I knew that I was leaving home and things would not be the same when I returned, so those lines about “Left my home in Georgia / headed for the ’Frisco Bay / I had nothing to live for / looked like nothing was gonna go my way. / I’m just gonna sit on the dock of the Bay and waste time”—those lines were completely resonant and had been around at propitious, good moments in my life. So, Otis Redding’s voice—and, I mean, I think he died when he was 26 . . .
GD: That’s hard to believe.
RB: He was so young, and his voice has so much wisdom in it. And so I discovered that he was born in Terrell County, which is the next county over from where I grew up, Dougherty County. And although he was not raised there—he was raised, I think, around Macon—that’s where the Redding family has a compound now. But he was actually born about twenty miles from where I was born, so I wanted to claim him as my spiritual “sibling.”
My dad hunts in Terrell County, and we used to keep score on the fridge. You know: Bambi, 237; Dad, 0. My father’s hunting wasn’t really about hunting—he used to call it “armed meditation.” He’s a dignified man with a great sense of humor—and he’s from the South, but he’s not a “good old boy”—but he has to play one a lot, to fit in. And so he said, “I just can’t go into the woods and walk around and think. I have to carry a gun, so the other men will leave me alone.” So, he’s performing his southerness.
And so he would take books to read out into the woods—and one of his huge obsessions is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who got out of Germany during the war, was an opponent of Hitler’s, and was safe in New York, teaching at Union Theological Seminary, and then chose to go back to Germany to try to help people there, almost certain that he was going back to a death sentence. And, indeed, he was captured, and he was killed on April 9th, 1945. My brother Paul was born on April 9th. This poem has a lot of kind of family mythology in it. And Bonhoeffer was implicated in the plot to kill Hitler, so it was also an interesting thing, this pacifist pastor deciding that he wanted to try to help have Hitler assassinated. All of that is deep, deep in the poem, and it doesn’t really come out in the foreground, but it’s all there in the personal mythology.
GD: I think that lends a tremendous richness to that. And when you were doing that, how did you go about the process of selection of foreground and background?
RB: I actually struggled a great deal with this poem, because there is so much emotion behind it that I couldn’t really put on the page at that time. It’s interesting to hear how people read it. I think there’s a lot encapsulated in lines like “Soul of bullet / smoke, the faltering engines.” There’s a lot of repressed, restrained emotion for me when I read it: “No one’s as lonely as my father / as he lets the gun go / and falls asleep.” Those are lines for me that have a lot of personal resonance, thinking about my family.
GD: Well, in the second section of the book, you are dealing more overtly—just as you suggested—with family history, and so the poems are perhaps even more overtly narrative. And yet, in the first section of the book, you were consciously—and with the title “Photographica”—you’re suggesting, yes, it’s ekphrastic. But then, I like that it was a surprise that it wasn’t completely ekphrastic—that, in fact, the binding thing in the first section of the book seemed to be they were all manner of responses—to artworks and other people’s histories and stories, so that you were responding, yes, often enough, to photographs and paintings, but also to some other things. Although, in that section, I did want to focus a little bit on “Volterra with Two Lines from Campana,” which is a poem that is quite brief, in a sense, but really packed with complexity. You have some notes about that, because . . .
RB: There are a lot of allusions in that, in that poem. You know, and that’s an early poem, too. And I think I’ve been trying to write without as many allusions. I think it’s interesting that you see that—“Photographica”—as a kind of response, because it is. In your first book, there are so many things that you want to respond to and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about this for five years.” And culture is kind of oppressive—and you have to shrug that off. “Photographica” is a sense of: I gotta take care of this; I need to respond to this photograph, I’ve been obsessed with this image, or this memory, for years. I need to kind of shrug it off, so my real voice can emerge, and I think there’s a progression in the book of the kind of voice becoming more and more full, because in the last section were the most recent poems that I’ve written. So this is a very early poem, “Volterra with Two Lines from Campana.”
GD: Volterra’s a place name. When I first encountered that, I thought maybe it was a form. It should be a form. We should be able to write a “Volterra.”
RB: Yeah . . . it’s a poem that turns, that’s about the Earth . . .
In the case of New Orleans, interestingly enough, having gone to college there, I have never been able to write about it. Because I find it so hard to find something that I can say about it that somehow adds to the mix. It’s hard to capture the well-known place. Like Venice, I’ve never been able to write about Venice, either, and I lived there as well.
GD: When did you live in Venice?
RB: When I was in college, I was an art history major, which explains a little bit of the preciousness of “Photographica.” I spent a lot of time looking at northern Italian Renaissance paintings, and I really learned how to see paintings through looking at Titians and Tintorettos.
GD: Well, you know, the opposite landscape, of course, is the humid fecundity of New Orleans . . .
RB: There are some similarities, though, between Venice and New Orleans, because—I’ve thought about this a lot—they’re both below sea level, so there’s no vista; you sink into both of them, and Venice, of course, is sinking and sinking and sinking and New Orleans, now, as well. They have a lot of structural issues that are quite similar, come to find out, and there’s that sense of oppression and not being able to see out of either place. I mean, there are no tall towers in New Orleans to see out of; there are no tall towers, really, in Venice. There’s a bell tower . . . but that sense of swampiness . . . that’s true. And when I lived in Paris briefly, I lived in the Marais, which is the medieval swamp of Paris. So, I’m a flatlander. I love the hills of San Francisco, but I pinch myself when I walk up and down them; it doesn’t feel natural.
GD: Well now, in that first section, also—one of the poems that we have published in Blackbird is “Wakulla Springs,” and you are responding, there, to Sterling Brown—someone whom you must feel some special kinship with, or some particular responsibility towards?
RB: As I’ve gotten older as a poet and learned more about neglected fiction writers, neglected poets, that . . . he’s well-known, but I have this sense of carrying the torch. I just learned about this guy Richard Yates this summer, and his mythology surrounding him, and you realize that certain people are going to be lifted up in the poetry business, “po-biz” as we call it, or in the fiction business, and other people will never receive their fair due, that aren’t receiving the credit or the audience that they deserve.
GD: Did you let the line by Sterling Brown impel you in a new direction that you might not otherwise have taken?
RB: It just lit up in my imagination: “I found me a cranny of perpetual dusk.” I needed that cranny of perpetual dusk. And then I just elided it with my own lines. I wanted it so badly. I had to italicize it, because it was his line, but I felt this kinship and this attraction to it. And then I rhymed dusk with tusk. He’s a kind of shadow figure in this poem, and then the poem goes into its own psychic landscape. But Sterling Brown, he haunts me, and that’s the first poem in the book (besides the title poem, which is kind of set apart). So it is that sense of tradition and honoring people that have gone before us in that first section and answering them.
GD: Well now that does bring us to Cottonlandia—the title poem and the title. . .
RB: So, “Cottonlandia” was just an old nickname for the South. And so that replaced “The Invention of the Cotton Gin” as the title. And “The Invention of the Cotton Gin,” as a title, was “faux scientific.” It was kind of amusing to me, but not the mythic quality that I needed for the book. So I latched onto Cottonlandia. And in writing this poem, I took some lines from a Spiritual which had been haunting me, and I remember distinctly writing this—and it’s one of those poems that was of a piece: I got it all at once, and it was such a gift.
So, this was first published in Poetry magazine and Christian Wiman helped me with the last line of it, so I should give him some credit. It’s really speaking from my grandmother’s experience of making muscadine wine and rolling up her jean legs in the twenties and thirties and standing in the tin tubs and making muscadine wine with her father who had these muscadine vines around his place. Just this longing for the South, and also this terrible history that I knew I had to grapple with as this white southerner of privilege. So I guess I wanted, in the beginning of the book, to say, “Hey, I’ve thought about this a lot; I think I have something to say about guilt and history and privilege and race.”
So, maybe I should read Cottonlandia. And there’s some fun words in here. "Cassimere" is a word that I found in an old log from a country store in my home town. This country store was actually called Muse & Co. It was run by someone A. (first initial) Muse; I had to include that. "Gossypium" is another favorite word in here, which is just the genus name for cotton. So I really became entranced by the physicality of language in writing this poem. So I’ll read “Cottonlandia.”
[“Cottonlandia” by Rebecca Black from Cottonlandia, published 2005 by University of Massachusetts Press]
GD: Do you feel a special responsibility, and do you feel a special identity, as a Southern writer, and how is that surviving or not surviving, irritating or helping you as you’re in California now and working on your poems?
RB: Lately I was just on a panel, “Southern Expatriate Writers,” the title of which I found intriguing, because it implies that the South is another country that one has left, and which leads me back to the idea of the secession of the South in the Civil War, and it makes me think about all kinds of Confederate rabble-rousing. The South to me is a place of childhood, it’s a place where I can’t be an adult, it’s a place of memory. It’s a place that is embodied in people more so than buildings and towns, certainly. I mean, I think I find the South in landscape, in kudzu and in red clay and in these kind of clichés of landscape.
If you drive through the town where I’m from in Albany, Georgia, there’s not that much to see—it’s not so pretty—there’s strip malls, like anywhere else. I’ve always thought, well, the South is in the people that live there, and you have to know them and be able to knock on their doors and go in and have a cup of coffee for three hours to really know what Albany, Georgia is like. If you’re just passing through, there’s no way you’ll get in; you won’t get much of a sense of anything.
GD: One of the things often mentioned is that it’s in the texture and fabric of the language.
RB: It is in the language, and actually I have an essay about Wakulla Springs, and about the pronunciation of Wakulla, which I can say Wah-koola, Wah-kuhla—my father says Wah-kuhla—my grandmother’s pronunciation I can’t even replicate, and it’s even more amazing. It is embodied in language and the texture of pronunciation. My grandmother’s accent is a thing of the past, and I think that Rodney Jones’ book, Elegy for the Southern Drawl,is really true: no one talks like that generation of southerners talks.
I can place someone of that generation from middle Georgia, or from north Georgia, or from south Georgia. I was in the Safeway in San Francisco, and there was this old black man in front of me in line, and he had the same inflections as my grandfather, who’s been dead for quite a few years, and it was transporting to hear him speak. I followed him out of the Safeway and talked to him for a while, and it was this magical experience to have that voice again.
GD: Do you have any experiences of that sort living in San Francisco that . . .
RB: Well, I get asked a lot where my accent went, and I mean, you know, there’s this performativity to being southern, like you’re supposed to act a certain way, or you’re supposed to do things a certain way, and I cling to some of those. I think it’s a deep, meaningful, kind of troublesome thing for me: being raised in the South. I don’t kinda goof around about it. It’s kinda serious for me, in the sense that I’m grappling with it in my new work. I’m writing a long poem, “Arana Gulch,” which my dad jokes [about]. He says, “It sounds like you’re writing a Western, Becca:‘Meet You at Arana Gulch.’” But Arana Gulch is this protected little area near where I used to live in Santa Cruz, so I’m wandering around this Pacific landscape, right at the small craft harbor, right on the ocean in Santa Cruz and thinking about landscape and animals and land. Because I have this really deep connection to southern land.
I have topo maps of middle Georgia where my grandfather was raised. We’re from a town called The Rock—both of my grandparents. There really is a big rock, and it’s a big piece of dynamited granite, and that’s the name of the little town—and that they would leave the mail on the rock—and it runs right next to the railroad tracks. I definitely have a sense of a homeland and a particular town that I’m connected to that my family has radiated out of. And I think I’ve been really lucky in that I was raised in the same town where my father was raised, so I was always somebody’s daughter, somebody’s granddaughter. So, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in the suburbs; I grew up in a small town. Though as I live in California, I love the Bay Area—it’s dramatic, the landscape is beautiful, and there are plenty of things to do—but I find this kind of longing for middle Georgia, a place where I could never really live as an adult, but that definitely lives on in my imagination. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being an adult in the South, and what that actually would mean. I feel like a child when I’m back in the South.
GD: Well now, when you turn to the third section of your book, Cottonlandia, as you did in “My Only Golem,” that seems to be some sort of a turn to an alternative personality, an alternative voice. Tell me, what was the inspiration behind that?
RB: I was raised in this kind of Judeo-Christian tradition and, you know, I’m not Jewish at all—I’m a total shiksa, but I definitely was grafting onto that tradition. So I was just reading a lot of literature from the Kabbalah in graduate school in Indiana, and I was living by myself for the first time in this little cottage, and I was kind of lonely, and I was really cold (because the cottage was not well insulated), and I thought, “I need some help around the house; no one moves any object unless I move it.” And so I decided to create this kind of imaginary roommate. So Mephista, this character, came to me. And then, originally, I wanted her to do the dishes and tidy up a little bit, and then of course, in a true Frankensteinian sense, she starts to run me. So I wanted to kind of get at this female principle from all different angles, and I think doing that in the persona poem was really liberating for me.
So Mephista is the spirit of all these female artists that I love, and she’s also a mother figure, a sister, a lover, a daughter. She’s the stand-in for all of these kinds of feminine principles or issues surrounding what it means to be a woman—to be female. So Mephista is built out of river mud, and then I trace the Hebrew letters for Life on her forehead, and so she’s this little idol that comes alive—at great peril to the maker, of course. This series of poems is a travelogue; she goes all over the world with me, and the voices are a bit confused—sometimes it’s not clear who’s speaking, and I grappled with that a lot, and I thought,”I don’t want to make it entirely clear who’s speaking in every poem.” I mean, in some poems it’s clear, but it’s an homage as well to Berryman—I have a line from one of his poems. I was thinking about the collage artist Hannah Höch, and all kind of assemblages and sculptural entities—kind of this pastiche of the golem poems and of Mephista. And I stole, begged, and borrowed everything I could for these poems—and that was really fun.
GD: And do you feel like that was the launching pad that maybe has led to some aspects of the new work that you’re doing? Because you were saying there were similarities about that. . .
RB: Well, I’m haunted by Mephista. I don’t know what to do with her. I mean, there are about twenty other Mephista poems that are not in any book. And I don’t know whether she should have her own book—that seems a bit much. I don’t know if she should continue on. So I’m just really not sure what to do with Mephista and my persona and the poems—my alter-ego must be. I think she’ll continue. I think linguistically it was incredibly liberating to have humor in poems, which is something I always wanted to do, which was really hard. I have some other characters, as well. I have a character, Miss Smallcross, who’s this San Francisco character. So, I just find that really fun, to have different voices. It gets real boring having the first person narrative over and over again, and I wanted to just get away from that.
GD: Well, speaking of that, you also are a teacher of creative writing and very involved with that—and in my conversations with you, I’ve understood that that’s something that’s important to you. You primarily teach undergraduates, and I was wondering: when you first encounter your students, what are some of the things that you have in mind that, perhaps drawing on your own experience as a writer, that you want to try and help them with? Some primary urges you have to see if you can get them to understand something, or to develop a skill?
RB: I think it’s important as a teacher of writing—as a teacher of poetry, specifically—to liberate people and allow them to liberate themselves and to feel confident about poetry. So many students in my classes are scared of poetry, and yet they desperately need it and want it. Poetry is this vital thing—it’s not rarefied, it’s not only the domain of people that know what they’re doing or that have MFAs. Poetry is for everyone and it’s necessary for them to live. And to have students who are writing well about their experiences is so touching and important.
I’ve had so many students that have had really rough things happen to them at an early age, and to see them kind of coming to terms with that psychologically in a poem—I think it’s something of the work of a student poet to kind of grapple with the mothers and the fathers and the world around them which can be really alienating and really, really tough. So, I think making them confident . . . I tell my students: I want you to be able to walk into a bookstore and feel supremely confident in the poetry section and to be able to pick this book up or that book up, and to own poetry again. To realize it’s their inheritance, it’s their birthright, and no one can take that away from them—and that poetry can sustain us. It can keep you going. So, I think that’s one element of my teaching that I kind of go on and on about.