Poet Pamela Sneed On Artistic Process, Black Queer Writers, and Her Latest Work
In Conversation with Peter Mishler
For this installment in a series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Pamela Sneed. Poet, professor, and performer, Pamela Sneed is the author of Sweet Dreams, Kong, and Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom than Slavery. She was a Visiting Critic at Yale, a Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and is online faculty at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute teaching Human Rights and Writing Art. Her work is widely anthologized and appears in Nikki Giovanni’s The 100 Best African American Poems. She has performed at the Whitney Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Poetry Project, NYU and Pratt Universities, Smack Mellon Gallery, The High Line, Performa, Danspace, The Bessies, Performance Space, Joe’s Pub, The Public Theater, SMFA, and BRIC. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Funeral Diva arrives in bookstores on October 20.
Peter Mishler: I thought I’d start with the question I ask everyone in this series. Pamela, what is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
Pamela Sneed: Sometimes I imagine that a poem, like an artwork, is always there/it sort of pre-exists, and our job, or my job, as an artist is to unearth it/to perform the steps to help it be born or perform the rituals to reveal it. I know this may be an odd way to think of poetry as we are always the makers/shaping it but when it emerges sometimes so beautiful and perfect I can’t imagine it never having been born/so I think strangely it’s always there. This does fall in accordance with how I teach poetry in that I describe it as an act of listening/like a musician you’re training your ears to hear it.
PM: Could you talk about this unearthing process in Funeral Diva?
PS: Hmm, this is hard to answer/my mind goes to the first story “History,” and I think about the part about Tina Turner being Anna Mae as a way of explaining the impact of being abandoned several times as a child as I was. That was one of the last parts written which could be a book in itself, but that part of the story ironically sings in its fluidity and resonance and it feels like I had to tell the rest of the story, what’s around it to get to that core/that to me feels like the unearthing process I speak of.
PM: What was the starting place for the book? What did you think you were “unearthing” then?
PS: Funeral Diva didn’t not begin as a book as a conscious process. Some of the seeds for this book “History,” “ILA,” and “Funeral Diva” were all started about twenty years ago/and my intention was simply to write as that is my means of expression and survival. They came I think after a period of silence/and perhaps I was delving further into my own personal history. “Funeral Diva” which began as “Je Ne Regrette Rien” was the only poem/story I approached consciously wanting to preserve or document the history of Black Lesbian and Gay artists and writers in NYC felled by AIDS and cancer in the early 90s.
Also, I was actually shopping an epic poem I wrote called America Ain’t Ready (still unpublished)/and I had some of these beginning works as a preface. I hadn’t thought much about them and it was Amy Scholder who then worked at The Feminist Press who asked me about these stories and developing them. Now I’m thinking about the idea of unearthing, and I think what’s being unearthed for the first time in Funeral Diva is my own identity/history/self/my own origin story of sorts.Sometimes I imagine that a poem, like an artwork, is always there/it sort of pre-exists, and our job, or my job, as an artist is to unearth it.
PM: What was that like for you to bring yourself explicitly into focus in your work?
PS: When Amy Scholder asked me about developing the stories I had as a preface to America Ain’t Ready, I think I was shocked. I earnestly hadn’t considered them. So in a way she was assisting me in seeing myself, bringing new consideration to the parts of myself I’d cut off. That was a new beginning for me. Interestingly enough I always stayed in touch with Amy even after she’d left the press she was working for at the time. I like people who tell the truth about writing and ten years later I guess when she thought it was ready, she brought it to City Lights. Over the years, I had to dig deeper and deeper into myself, that was hard/it’s always hard. I think writing is a process at times of excavating and unearthing. It can take a ton of drafts, publications, stories, circling around until you get to the core/the gem underneath/the bare truth. In “History,” I’m documenting my own abandonment and how it shapes my core/takes courage and digging to get there.
PM: In the first section “History” there are instances where you interweave your story with references to other texts you’ve written, such as Kong. What was it like for you to write about your work?
PS: Sadly enough, many of my works are unpublished. I think that can happen to outspoken Black lesbian writers. I wasn’t nurtured by an industry. I’ve grown up on the outside. I’ve had moments, my first book Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom Than Slavery was published by Henry Holt and did incredibly well (sold more than 10,000 copies over time, spectacular for 1998) then the players shifted and there was drought. I can’t say it’s all the industry because there are ways I’ve had to grow into myself/but I do think some of my work has been ahead of its time. That said, I developed a style where I’d sample my previous works/because the truth is, we are always in dialogue with our previous works, and my previous works reveal a lot about me autobiographically. In my writing process in total I try to unveil or duplicate a nonlinear thinking process/I think collage is exactly right because that more truly how we think/there are always different threads, parts of this and that, memory, pop culture, film, conversations…it comes across to some as stream of consciousness but really all the fragments fit together like a puzzle or a tapestry. I love sampling my own works in a way I feel as though I’m rescuing them from obscurity.
PM: When looking at the convergence of the prose and poetry in Funeral Diva, what has been illuminated for you about their interaction?
PS: I’m so happy about the convergence of poetry and prose in the manuscript which I owe to the vision of Amy Scholder who wanted to include both. I consider what I write to be hybrid literature, part poetry, essay, short story, and that’s the term or genre where I feel most comfortable. Drawing upon growing up in the Baptist church and having my grandfather be a preacher and his wife, the First Lady, I, we, speak in many tongues. I’m glad some of the fine and hard lines drawn in literature and the canon are disappearing finally and writers can move about and blend genres more easily and fluidly. I mean Shakespeare was interdisciplinary/multi-genre as was Toni Morrison, people forget that when they talk about their works. Toni Morrison was a playwright as well. Anyway, there’s probably a style you’ll notice in my prose that as it comes to its conclusion, the work, the lines become pure poetry/and so it’s natural and organic that poetry and prose come together in my work.I consider what I write to be hybrid literature, part poetry, essay, short story, and that’s the term or genre where I feel most comfortable.
PM: Your act of “communing” with writers, artists, filmmakers in your writing strikes me as being particularly special and remarkable—would you be willing to make an observation about your personal relationship to other texts in your writing?
PS: I’m extremely sensitive, and that can work to my advantage or disadvantage. I say this because, when I watch media these days, I feel like it goes through my skin or something. I can barely tolerate violence. I identify with Octavia Butler’s character Lauren, which I say in a poem in Funeral Diva. She’s a hyper-empath which I think is metaphoric for all artists. We can feel others’ pain. That said, once I read a story or watch a film that I really enjoy, the characters become part of me. Like in “History,” I channel so many writers. I loved Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Cora the runaway slave who has been orphaned early really speaks to me. I also think I have a bit of a photographic memory only with regard to theater and literature. I can recite someone else’s poem to them that I heard once.
Also, I’m an intellectual so I’ve been told, and I really thrive in conversation or chewing on big and small ideas, and I listen acutely so I’m always fascinated by what my friends, colleagues, other artists are making and am always processing and communing. Once, I walked into a student’s studio and I recounted their entire solo performance to them, as I wanted to give them some feedback. They were shocked. I’m always watching listening and love dialogue with other artists. And also as evident in Funeral Diva, my friends dead or alive, my mentors, my teachers, my peers are always with me, their words, gestures, art and our conversations are always informing me.
PM: I realized when reading the book that you included “I Can’t Breathe,” a poem I was so moved by when I read it at poets.org in June. I wondered: because the composition of this book has taken some time, how has the inclusion of this newer work recontextualized or framed the writing you had already been doing for Funeral Diva?
PS: Initially, the manuscript did not include works about COVID/it more moved from the past to the Trump era/some of the works, particularly the title piece, were started almost twenty years ago and have morphed and transformed and been updated over time. Everyone mentioned the timeliness of a book about coming of age in the AIDS era just as COVID was taking hold. Stacey Lewis at City Lights asked me in a conversation if I were prepared to talk about the two pandemics in upcoming author interviews, and I responded, Actually I have some work about it /that’s when she, my editor Amy Scholder and I decided to include three new works about the two pandemics including “I Can’t Breathe,” and although I was referencing Eric Garner in the poem, George Floyd was murdered as he said the same thing: I Can’t Breathe.I also think I have a bit of a photographic memory only with regard to theater and literature. I can recite someone else’s poem to them that I heard once.
PM: The poems in this collection strike me as being so immediate, I don’t think I’ve read a recent work that felt so very present and close to our current reality. Could you talk a little bit about the way you write? Do you have any rituals, particulars, or personal procedures of writing you’d care to share? What was it like to write so close to the present moment for you as a writer?
PS: When I teach writing workshops in person, I always ask writers to engage with the body/to not just see writing as that time when we sit down at a desk. We are always writing or at least I am when I’m walking, painting, collaging, cleaning my apt, having conversation with others… I’m always shaping poems in my head, and in actions. So writing poetry for me is rather free form. I write as it comes to me. In the past few years I have a daily practice of art making, and I do believe I am processing my poems as well in that practice. I just wrote a new piece/poem about George Floyds face and rendering him and seeing the Caribbean and the South and slave experience in him, it came from my practice of portraiture drawing and painting. Prose is more complicated. It requires long concentrated hours at a desk. It just has to be that way. But I’m always creating no matter what I’m doing and in the COVID during the lock down I’ve had lots of time to just sit and write and paint and make things in between Zoom conversations and work. I also work at night—I love those hours when everyone is asleep.
PS: It’s not hard for me to write about what’s immediate. Some of my work is social commentary and it’s how I address things, but ironically, I’m always reminded of a line I heard said that after the Holocaust, for a time, writers wouldn’t write. I think that happened too with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, people were silent for a while, it was too traumatic. A lot of work about that time is just coming out now/two decades later.I’m always shaping poems in my head, and in actions. So writing poetry for me is rather free form. I write as it comes to me.
PM: You’ve mentioned in this interview and in the book that the Black lesbian and gay poets from this time in American history are “finally able to process” and that “writing about this time is beginning to flourish.” Could you talk about this flourishing of Black queer poetry?
PS: This question brings such a smile to my face/because I can remember such a drought/when there was so little visibility for LGBTQI writers and so few pathways to publishing and recognition. I see that changing some. This time period/BLM/COVID and all the freedom struggles of the past have given way to this time where there really is starting to be diversity in books written by Black writers and other People of Color/Exciting to see Native American writers gaining visibility too. I mentored Tommy Pico for a year at Queer Art Mentorship. I have a lot of pride in how well he’s done. I’ve seen some book lists for fall writing/which I’m on, but the bounty of Black and POC writers in every genre is stunning! Still of course it’s not enough. There need to be more and more opportunities for Black Lesbian writers and others/if you look around to see whose making it in literature and art/it’s still a lot of men and white women or white queers. Everyone should have equal opportunity.
I was complaining to a Queer Organization recently that for all the work I’ve done/decades of writing and teaching and giving generously, I’ve never received an award for my work/nothing/zero/zip and these are the same people who say Black Lives Matter or Black lesbian lives matter. Audre Lorde complained of the same thing/and everyone reveres her/but still in ways while she was alive, she was rendered invisible and her work was marginalized. She started with very small presses… Firebrand books with Nancy Bereanno published the early works of Lesbian and feminist writers as no one was doing it.
PM: Is there any chance you could talk about your Audre Lorde checklist you share with students and which you refer to in “Silence = Death,” a powerful, moving poem.
PS: I will send along the checklist. It’s a way of getting my students talking/encouraging them to break silences/to speak up and out. It’s funny “Silence=Death” isn’t a poem I’ve thought a lot about. It’s interesting as the manuscript is born and making its way into the world/I love hearing what people gravitate to. I wrote it for a poetry event I was curating and collaborating with Avram Finklestein who helmed the activist visual collective Gran Fury. Now as I’m thinking I remember how important it was for me to say Act Up was downstairs and all the brown gay and lesbian poets were upstairs in the gay and lesbian community center. We as queer people of color couldn’t get arrested as the strikes against us would be too harsh, so we found other ways of fighting and that poem ends on how young we all were going through tremendous battles and circumstances.
Something that also bothers me overall is how factionalized and segregated the histories of Black and Brown Queer people during the early AIDS era is from that of white queers. I try to address that through the stories/poems I tell in Funeral Diva. It’s important for me to note that we were upstairs from Act Up, organizing in our own ways. Our histories and history of activism have been erased in favor of white queers telling those stories.Now as I’m thinking I remember how important it was for me to say Act Up was downstairs and all the brown gay and lesbian poets were upstairs in the gay and lesbian community center.
PM: Because you write about both AIDS and COVID-19 in this collection, what are the most pertinent relationships or connections you see yourself drawing, in your writing, between these two pandemics?
PS: Hmm, I don’t see great similarities necessarily between the two pandemics/because with HIV/AIDS, stigma played such a huge role/homophobia was rampant/because COVID affects heterosexual people as well and people mobilized a lot quicker/didn’t just call it a gay disease. In many ways, I feel like the late 80s and early 90s aspect of the AIDS era prepares me personally for the COVID pandemic as I say in “A Tale of Two Pandemics.” Brown people and queer people are not shocked about inequalities in healthcare or by systemic racism/we’ve been here before where for some, COVID is an eye-opening experience/we’ve already seen an irresponsible government committing what I guess is an advertent and inadvertent genocide. I hate to use that word but to let hundreds of thousands of people die from mismanagement and neglect and capitalism/meaning only the wealthy and white and heterosexual and young or middle aged have access to healthcare and certain services, then a genocide is being carried out. I do see also a similarity in the way that Asian people are being scapegoated as queers were.
PM: Four times in the book you mention the poet Assotto Saint storming the pulpit of Donald Woods’ funeral to bravely state before the gathering of mourners that Donald Woods died of AIDS, not of a heart attack. Could you talk about your relationship to Donald Woods and Assotto Saint as well as this powerful moment?
PS: I always talk about that moment when Assotto stood up because it changed me/it was so bold and powerful/we’d all been so traumatized by AIDS and we all had to grow up soooo fast/again no protection from the world/Black and LGBTQI/and so when Assotto interrupted that funeral it was one of the greatest acts I’d ever witnessed. It showed me the possibility of what art and activism could do. I also want a younger generation to know of all their great LGBTQI ancestors. I don’t know what to say about Donald. I think I say how I loved him in the piece/he was someone who did protect me/and I do think it’s a crime that he and so many are not here today. Had the government and healthcare system acted and not been negligent he as with many others could have been saved. I know that I always want an audience or a reader to feel with me the way I felt watching Assotto/shocked/awed/moved but mostly inspired to act on behalf of justice.
PM: Is there an image, memory, remembrance, or glimpse you can recall from your childhood that for you—looking back at it now—seems to tell you that you would become a poet?
PS: I used to always attribute becoming a writer, a poet, an artist to my mother aka stepmother. She always encouraged me to get an education no matter what and saw that as the ticket out for women/out of domesticity/abuse. Also, she was creative, she sewed, crocheted, like my grandmother and my aunts/so I grew up steeped in women’s creativity. It was a few years back when I realized it actually may have been my father who is responsible for me being a poet. He and my first mother divorced when I was four. And I was alone with my father for two years until he remarried. My father dropped out of high school in tenth grade but he used to give me lined paper and a pencil as I sat at the kitchen table at four years old and he taught me to write my name which was ILA at the time. I saw that my writing pleased him and so it was him who first placed the tools in my hand that I would use for the rest of my life. Writing pleased him and I also emulated my father.
By the time I arrived in kindergarten, I could already spell and write my name and so I was way ahead of many others because of my dad’s tutelage. As I’ve said too, my grandfather was a minister in Boston, head of a small church called Holy Temple. My early and formative years were in that church, and through the testimonies of men and women, through gospel music, I heard my first poetry. In Jr. High School and High School, I was nicknamed Preacher by my peers. I imagine that was a preview of things to come, my poet life.I used to always attribute becoming a writer, a poet, an artist to my mother aka stepmother.
PM: To what extent (or not) do you think that this book is directly communicating with your father, as an adult?
PS: My parents don’t really read my writing as they are in denial about much of what has gone on. I think Funeral Divareally addresses my relationship with my stepmother which is complicated. It’s important for my own healing to address my parents’ shortcomings, but there are also tremendous gifts they gave like my father with the pencil and paper inadvertently handing me the tools to survive. I also inherited my stepmother’s grit and tenacity/she never gives up/nor do I. Also I don’t think my father not wanting me to know my full story is necessarily a move to protect me/I think he is protecting himself. Recently, he mentioned my adoption in passing for the first time ever. He said I know you don’t know your family/who your father is but I am your father he said. I AM your father.
PM: Could you talk about the act of writing into forgiveness related to your stepmother in particular? Also, in what ways do you think about writing as a “tool” for healing? Or is that an oversimplification? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
PS: No, that’s exactly right, a pen and paper/the greatest tools to write and in my option survive. I’m old school in that I still write a lot by hand. It’s interesting people say to me a lot these days I look happy or I’m glowing, and I really think it’s an art glow/working on myself/writing, painting /it’s deeply healing. And I’ve experienced a deep satisfaction from it. Also my art practice has helped a lot during the Quarantine. I’ve occupied myself like an only child which I am with my imagination. I wouldn’t be alive today without writing. I know that. And again writing is a way to say so many things you aren’t able to say always/a way to get the secrets out and the painful things out, then it becomes constructive/not destructive. I’ve tried to make my parents human/my stepmother though deeply flawed is one of the strongest most tenacious people I’ve ever encountered . Everyone always calls me indomitable. I know that comes from her. Writing allows me to see that.
PM: One of the things I admire most about your writing is the progression of thought, the threads that interweave throughout a single poem, which Tommy Pico identifies so well in his observation about your book. Could you talk a little bit about the influences, procedures, or phenomenon of writing in this way, or in any way that you’d like? I’m thinking in particular about the poem “Twizzlers,” a poem I keep returning to, to read over and over.
PS: I was really afraid to write and speak the poem “Twizzlers.” It’s a lot about child abuse/how I was treated as a child/and I wrote it around the time I was going on the Laura Flanders show to talk about the Wojnarowicz show at the Whitney. I had been given ten minutes to perform at the end/and I brought that poem. I was nervous as it’s very revealing/ but then I thought about how differently people respond to hearing testimonies about abuse from Black and white people. David’s work was a lot about being abused as a child and it’s widely accepted and is part of his persona/whereas I think when a Black lesbian speaks the same truth/we are silenced or there’s defense or the response is very, very different. That said, my collage style of writing/pulling different threads together that both you and Tommy have spoken of/developed way back in the day.
I was very influenced by Sapphire early on and I noticed how her poems traveled different places/and I wanted my poems to travel/over the years it’s developed into my own style, weaving the personal with the political, the historical, pop culture, film, literature, memory, experiences, those are all my materials and I weave them together. If the metaphor is visual, then I love working on a huge canvas weaving all of these elements together. I also think of assemblage. I was talking to a student who worked in sculpture and I was asking them to do with language what they would do building an assemblage: take all kinds of materials and assemble them together to create a new way of seeing. At its core the poem “Twizzlers” is about the lack of protection I experienced as a little girl and how that carried into my adult experiences/it comes up in another way thematically in “I Can’t Breathe,” if Big Black people are always the threat, who protects us, I ask.I wouldn’t be alive today without writing. I know that. And again writing is a way to say so many things you aren’t able to say always.
PM: I am so struck by the ending of the poem “Funeral Diva,” and I was wondering if you could say more about the simile, the comparison of yourself to Kizzy from Roots scratching her father’s slave name from his grave.
PS: Hmm, I’m far from when I wrote that particular line now, but I think I was thinking of it in terms of a reclamation/the act of naming ourselves/with the film Roots the most powerful scene and famous is when young Kunta Kinte refuses to accept his slave name/Toby. He is beaten almost to death before he’ll say he is Toby and not Kunta Kinte/Kizzy when she visits his gravesite and sees Toby/she scratches it off the marker defiantly and writes Kunta Kinte. I suppose I wrote that in Funeral Diva because through writing we of that generation were claiming our true selves as Black and Queer. Also, “Funeral Diva” ends with what we discussed earlier, the funeral of Donald Woods where Assotto Saint interrupts the ceremony and says Donald Woods did not die of heart failure, he died of AIDS and he was a proud Black gay man. So Assotto as Kizzy does defiantly reveals her father’s true identity. And as a writer and someone who is documenting that time in the early 90’s, I too am performing acts of reclamation and saying some have persevered, we are still here.