i be, but i ain’t (YesYes Books, 2016), is an audacious poetry collection that travels through internal conflicts when faced with external situations. Aziza Barnes, the goddess, (the nickname I lowkey placed upon Aziza), invites into their space and offers a cup of tea. And no, I don’t mean tea as in let’s have a kiki. Although, Barnes definitely gives enough of themselves to where you feel like you have been rolling together since diapers. Using language, pop culture, and social and racial histories, the collection is crafted around the realms of questioning oneself. Not to say “who am I?” But to say, “where do I belong, and is my belonging here?” It is truly beautiful.
How did you book, i be, but i ain’t, manifest into what it is today? What was the process of its creation?
Word! Okay so I went to Callaloo in London, November 2013. I worked with Vievee Francis as our mentor and instructor. Under her instruction, I wrote the poem, “Alleyway,” that is on the back of the book. This book functioned for me as the foundation on which the entire project stems. I finally was tasked in a constructive and honest way by Vievee, to par down my language and say the true thing about my identity. The poem mainly discusses my dysmophia that I felt as a child and into my adulthood–a misgendering, an insistence on “she/her” and lack of fluidity expected of me as a high yella blk girl from LA, the dresses certain family member refused to let me leave the house without. to be clear, my pronouns are both “she & they,” but really, I’d rather exclusively be called by my name, which is Arabic is inherently gendered, but in my American context, I don’t feel the sensation of gender, any difference between “Aziza” and “Aziz.” My mama was also with me in London, for a milliner’s workshop. Being able to Write this poem in the company of my mama was transformative. She has always accepted me, even if she didn’t understand me, and in her company, my voice couldn’t be erased, even by my own demons. From there, I spent the next 3 years writing i be, but i ain’t, coming out as queer, asking people in my life who were toxic to leave, and finding language for not only my poetics, but for myself.
The book as multiple poems dealing directly with one’s biracial body in relation to the black community. For example, in all the poems titled, ‘the mutt…,’ the speaker addresses different situations in which they are questioning themselves in, what seems like, racial commentary and environments. Can you explain how these things helped frame the book?
Yes! I am “mutt,” and I want to be very clear about that. Mutt is a very biographical reference to me, even in the surreal dreamscaptes that mutt often encounters, those are absolutely mine. I’ve been referred to in my life as a mutt by black and non-black people, by men who’ve wanted my body, by women who’ve wanted my body, by GNC who’ve wanted my body, to lay claim to it without my permission or interest in my possession. I’ve been referred to as a mutt and only called an oreo once LOL because I read too many books. Calling myself mutt is a reclamation of myself as an 8 year old voracious reader who felt like she had no home, no lineage, no history. The 8 year old ahistorical creature in the face of her home. Mutt frames the book because I am able to travel in the world I built. Without mutt, I would just be looking at the house, describing it, but never an agent within it, never affected in full by the people I encounter.
There is a strong attention to language and voice, especially focused around African American Vernacular English. How does language or even the lack of language inform some of the themes highlighted in the book?
Oh bet. It is my politic that Black Americans were forced to learn English to be speaking mules, forced away form unmonster-making the language can do, to quote Junot Diaz, policed away from writing and reading, and then forced to learn it to survive being on the receiving end of capitalism after the shift from being the technology of capitalism. And we do it. And we do it better than those who forced it upon us. I highlight it to highlight this politic.
I’m really interested in the poems titled, ‘my dad asks, “how come black folk can’t just write about flowers?”‘ Can you talk more about the perceived relationship between black poets and writing about flowers?
Yes. My dad and I have conversations often on the responsibility we have as Black Americans to one another and the greater multi-cultural gaze. I feel as a queer/woman Black American a great responsibility to the past, which became swiftly a paralytic to my writing. My ancestors want me to write, right? I believe Beyonce’s Lemonade project offers a very hopeful answer to this sensation: that yes, I am responsible to my past, but this relationship is, when functioning in its truest frequency, symbiotic. My past is responsible to me. And this liberates me to write about flowers, to write about pulp fiction, to write about bugs, to write about what my imagination is fascinated with for reasons I can’t initially understand. My past is responsible for protecting my imagination, my obsession, my fascination, by which I mean, if I am interested in bugs, there is absolutely a reason larger than my “I” that this obsession has manifested. Lucille Clifton, who I hadn’t realized wrote at length about cockroaches, is given to me after this obsession of mine begins. Now, my “I” has very expediently reminded me of the “we,” and my writing has not only tradition, deference and context, it has a house to live in.
One of my favorite poems in the book is ‘after we drank the table.’ And of course, when I think of poems addressing “the table” and how that relates to the black community, I think of ‘I, Too,’ by Langston Hughes. So, I’m curious to how this poem converses with these ideas of blackness, sexuality, and “the table.” What are your thoughts on that?
Gah! So, I had to look up ‘I, Too,’ which I had read so long ago I forgo the title (yikes, Aziza, read more Langston! Actually, I went and bought a Langston book after receiving your questions because I feel consistently underread on him. I got Ask Your Mama, and I’m fucking amped. So thank you!!) and yes! The table, B. The gotdamn table. We can’t get up from it! And thank God, right? So as a young queer person lacking entirely in language for theyself, I thought there was no room for me at the Black table and certain Black communities in my youth did nothing bu tot confirm this fear, I speak to this one particular after school program and my church. They knew how to be proud of me, but wanted on some level for me not to exist. My youth minister telling me at 9 that all the homosexuals would absolutely go to hell and I respond quietly, “all?” The girl who locked me in a garage with two dogs because I said I wanted to pet them, not knowing they were violent. But in each environment, there were saviors. My homeboy who was always down to start writing the great American novel with me at 10, and yo that shit was lit! My mama at church, who reminded me why we went there, for the fellowship, for the space at the end of the the week to breathe, for her prayer group who has saved my life more often than I could even know.
This poem when thru 5 drastic revisions under the instruction of Rachel Eliza Griffiths at Poets House. She told me to consider what I wanted the reader to leave the table with. Then I wrote this iteration. I want them to leave powerful. That the table is not blood or flesh or an army of the living God. It’s a damn table. Bang on that shit! And your body, functional or not, will be able to have a meal at the table. Nourishment is possible here.
after we drank the table
A table of bourbon & that’s the closest I know you. Every part of me is hungry. Knuckled. Liquored. You’re demanding I give you a blowjob & I say no & you say okay. Over me you’re very tall. In life you’re very tall. Next to the platter of fried chicken a bowl of my ovaries. Pass them to me. You muscle your elbow into he base. My property runs to red yolk. Poured onto the plexiglass table you weed out all my cysts & tell me baby this ain’t lookin’ to great. The bottles are free. The bottles are empty of lust. They could become weapons. I don’t love you. I can’t set a table of your name in other nameable things & anyway all the bourbon is gone. Come here. A husk of my pressed organ dribbles out the crease of your mouth. I take a walnut & crack it along my molars. Your jeans’ zipper declines. I figured prior extractions mute the sound or make you leave. You find the proper knife & carve your pants plaid to rest on the table. You’re really the worst when you’re naked I don’t say. A spread of fresh jam warm from its host on denim. You want to fuck me. The table sucks outlines of sweat from our hands. I look below my chest plate in the shower & plead with it all. Rupture. Surrogate. Adoption. Through the glass I suggest these as names for the children my body doesn’t plan on facilitating. You check your bank account & my skin puckers. You raise your leg to climb in. I shove a round of shaved hair into your mouth. Below the seams on your shirt I stare. Penises are so absurd on the body. A shock of land. I never understood or trusted land. I was born during an earthquake & have a single interest in pressure.
Something else I love about this book is the many references to pop culture. For example, the pulp fiction poems. How does pop culture influence your poetics? In what ways do you engage with different mediums to further inform your writing process?
True! This hearkens back to my comment on flowers, I think. It’s an influence because I consume it, affects me like food, and becomes part of my human composition. To ignore pop culture in your poetics, I mean hey, that’s a helluva choice. Good luck.
Let’s talk about the sprinkles of cockroaches throughout the book. It’s subtle, but there is definitely an underlying theme of trying to kill roaches or having roaches in the immediate environment. Can you talk more about this? Why are these roaches so important?
It is an indictment of greed. Of erasure. And how the two act in tandem to ensure I will be dead young.
Yes! Please and thank you for asking because I have been saying my answer for this at readings but rarely have created an occasion to articulate it on the page. To be concise as possible, I believe the language we use to justify the killing of cockroaches is the same language we use for the justification of killing the following and more, so much more, so much I will absolutely forget to name because I am human, small and fallible: Black Men, Black Women, Black GNC LGBTQ, Black incarcerated people, immigrants, sex workers, HIV pos citizens, students, children, art, religion, they very idea of freedom, the very idea of a living wage, the very idea of a healthy ecosystem, honesty, and whole countries under a bomb to the end of proving our supremacy. When I say our I refer to the United States of America. When I say supremacy, I mean white. Which is not an indictment of all white people, not even many white people. It is an indictment of greed. Of erasure. And how the two act in tandem to ensure I will be dead young. The roach is me. The roach is my children. Lucille Clifton has an incredible poem that does the work I am to do with such clarity and purpose and restraint that I may hand it in my home, framed, cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty. She writes, “when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead and i killed them… i didn’t ask their names. they had no names worth knowing. now i watch myself whenever i enter a room. i never know what i might do.” That’s my thesis.
So I Googled Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and found out a bit of information about who he was and his importance in the Civil War. And you section the book with different quotes from him; which makes me very curious about his relation to the book’s overarching themes. Can you tell me more about him and why you chose his quotes to frame the book?
Yes of course. When I was growing up, my dad would play Ken Burn’s Civil War tapes for me and my sister to fall asleep. As a result, we absorbed so much knowledge of the Civil War and it became a real comfort. But even as a young person, I was disturbed by how the Union generals and President Lincoln spoke of Black people or as they referred to it, “the slavery question.” They spoke of Black people like they were an idea, a concept ridiculous a weather, tamable as a mule. “Maybe we should colonize them elsewhere? Give their owners $400 for their freedom and deposit them in South America or whatever,” is almost verbatim Lincoln’s Plan A. Deadass. I was sad. That dude that I was told was so great was really gross. I hated pennies as a result of this cuz Lincoln a punk ass. But I felt so compelled by this Confederate General, T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson. He, repugnant as he was, so idiosyncratic, complicated, loved and unloved by his men, religious and stern in his beliefs that I thought, “if he was an abolitionist, we might actually be free,” the way Nina Simone speaks of freedom. he was uncompromising and absolutely would have tried to enslave me or kill me were I to know him in real time. But I can manipulate his words. Use them as adornment. Make myself gorgeous off of him and he can’t do shit about it. He’s dead. So is his world. I feel both vindicated and subversive and there is something inherently erotic about my insistence on his being beneath me, both in the ground and under my thumb.
The million dollar question: what other books or poets do you feel your book is in conversation with? What books or poets have influenced your own work.
Gah HOW LONG CAN A LIST BE:
Justin Phillip Reed, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Dawn Lundy Martin, Eduardo C. Corral, Angel Nafis, Morgan Parker, Camonghne Felix, Safia Elhillo, Kiese Laymon, Danez Smith, Ocean Vuong, Junot Diaz, Claudia Rankine, Douglas Kearney, Lo Kwa Mei-en, Hieu Nyguen, Paul Tran, Thiahera Nurse, Nabila Lovelace, Jayson P. Smith, Jeremy Michael Clark, Mahogany L. Browne, Jerriod Avant, Phillip B. Williams, Rickey Laurentiis, r. erica doyle, Vievee Francis, Gregory Pardlo, Toi Derricotte, Margo Jefferson, Carl Phillips, Jon Sands, Jose Olivarez, Erica Hunt, Lauren Whitehead and I gotta stop or I’mma get anxious about forgetting people and be here all day just writing names.
Last question: what’s something that nobody has asked you about i be, but i ain’t, that you wished they would have?
Nah, you asked it all, B.
Aziza Barnes is blk & alive. Born in Los Angeles, Aziza currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi. Her first chapbook, me Aunt Jemima and the nailgun, was the first winner of the Exploding Pinecone Prize and published from Button Poetry. Her first full length collection i be but i ain’t, from YesYes Books is the winner of the 2015 Pamet River Prize.