Poets in Conversation: Kemi Alabi
How did the poem “Against Heaven” come into being? Tell us a little about the origin, inspiration, or circumstances surrounding it.
My debut collection Against Heaven has five title poems. I didn't expect to write five, but after the first "Against Heaven" emerged during the 2020 uprisings, I couldn't resist new arguments and approaches. The first owes its life to a Tourmaline tweet that became one of the book's epigraphs: "When we say abolish police. We also mean the cop in your head and in your heart." I was raised in the Baptist church, studied political science, and went on to become a cultural strategist within movements for gender and racial justice, so Christian hegemony is a subject that holds my attention. So much of the United States' commitments to guilt, innocence, punishment, surveillance, law, and order are located in this empire's religious architecture—whether or not you practice or believe.
Culture is our collective common sense, our shared imagination, so I wanted the title poems to hold text from other media sources—songs, news articles, speeches— to illustrate their different arguments. The "Against Heaven" in BPJ—the third I completed—uses the gospel song "Goin' Up Yonder" and Louise Glück's Nobel Prize speech. Both pricked me. To me, they position heaven as relief from a world of inevitable pain and suffering for Black people. Inevitability is important narrative ground; whoever holds the "inevitable" idea wins the future, and we forfeit power when we forfeit possibility. I wanted to reject the inevitability of white supremacy on Earth; reject the acceptance, forgiveness, and endurance this concept of heaven requires of Black people.
Though I don't name a form, this poem operates like the book's two other "Against Heaven" double golden shovels (this one uses lyrics from Saba and Nick Hakim songs). The form came first. Then once I identified the text and the feeling, I let the language lead me. I'm always surprised.
Do you feel poetry has a role to play during this global pandemic? How have you experienced writing and reading (or not!) during this time?
I will never take language for granted. We're all living through a pandemic worsened by a profound meaning-making crisis. Misinformation holds ultimate narrative power right now. Poetry is not global vaccine access, but it gives language to ideas that are literally banned, to feelings that are socially punished. It gives space for stillness and a type of attention that defies the pace and demands of a society told to work and shop and scroll its way through a plague. Poetry has held my mind together on days when its tape and glue lost hold. Reading and writing get harder when the grief, fear, and confusion get louder, but they're practices I return to with relief and gratitude. Reading and writing help me refuse the common sense of a culture that would kill me with gladness. Poetry can meet the mysterious and unknowable with curiosity, not denial. I think we all need to practice holding complexity, resisting binaries and the rush toward certainty. We all need to practice feeling deeply, listening deeply, and sitting in discomfort. Poetry can help with this practice.
Is there a book or a writer you return to again and again who sustains you?
Taylor Johnson's Inheritance and Sasha Banks's america, MINE are my most-gifted poetry books right now. I need these writers. Their work helps me listen and imagine more deeply. I also love returning to Lucille Clifton and Patricia Smith. One of my favorite poems to share recently has been Amie Whittemore's "Spell for the End of Grief." And I can't wait for a book from Sanam Sheriff, a writer who brings the world of poetry back to a sacred place.
Tell us about a non-poetry passion, obsession or delight.
My daily tarot practice gets holier and nerdier each year. I love the secrets and the medicine of this tool, which began as a card game, and I especially appreciate the queer Black readers who have deepened my relationship with it. I love the way humans make myths and create symbols to transmit wisdom into the future. I'm so curious about how the wisdom of this era, a time of upheaval and unveiling, will seep into and transform the meaning-making tools we use.