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A Space to Swim within the Loss: An Interview with Desiree C. Bailey

Corrine Collins talks to Desiree C. Bailey about her new book, "What Noise Against the Cane"

Desiree C. Bailey’s new collection of poetry, What Noise Against the Cane, is a beautiful exploration of memory, loss, and grief across the African diaspora. The collection begins in the Haitian Revolution with a young woman who is guided to freedom by the Goddess of the Sea, before moving on to shorter poems that explore migration, identity, and belonging. Bailey is a poet and fiction writer with an MFA in fiction from Brown University and an MFA in Poetry from New York University. What Noise Against the Cane was selected by Carl Phillips as the winner of the 2020 Yale Series of Younger Poets and has been longlisted for the 2021 National Book Award for Poetry.

Your poetry collection What Noise Against the Cane was published this year as part of the Yale Younger Poets series; can you talk a little bit about the collection and your writing process?

In many ways What Noise Against the Cane is a praise song to the ocean, Black people, Black women, the Caribbean and struggles for liberation. The first half of the collection is a long poem called “Chant for the Waters and Dirt and Blade.” Written from the imagined perspective of a young, enslaved woman who fights for her liberation during the Haitian Revolution, it also reveres Mami Wata and Lasirène, the West/Central African and Afro-diasporic ocean deities. The second half of the collection contains individual poems that are mostly, though not completely, in my voice, and works through questions of diaspora, migration, Blackness and the body. In the bottom margins of the entire collection, there’s a single line of text that I affectionately call the Sea Voice.

Writing this collection demanded a lot of excavation and interior work. I carried these ideas around for many years, often not knowing whether they would come into fruition. The act of writing was a hope, a yearning, a prayer and projection into an unknown. In addition to drawing upon questions from my own life, I did tons of research for this book, especially for the long poem set during the Haitian Revolution [“Chant for the Waters”]. At one point, I wanted to include all of the information that I came across, perhaps to show that I did my homework. Luckily, I reminded myself that my work was not to write a definitive history of the revolution, and that including all of one’s research is the quickest way to ruin a creative work! I allowed the poem, and the entire book, to be what it wanted and needed to be.

I’m a child of multiple diasporas, and your treatment of loss and liminality in the collection felt really personal: is writing one way you navigate feelings similar to those of the speakers in your poems?

Absolutely. While writing this book, I realized that immigrating from Trinidad to New York at a young age was actually quite traumatic for me. I don’t think I was able to articulate or even arrive at that realization outside of my writing practice, possibly because there was a guilt attached to the thought, the guilt and fear of being perceived as ungrateful for the incredible sacrifices that my family made in order to move to a new and very challenging country. Writing these poems allowed me to hold space for the truth of my experiences and interior life. The poem “Guesswork,” for instance, really caught me by surprise. I wrote it while I was in Trinidad for my paternal grandmother’s funeral, and I had no idea that I was feeling so much loss. Loss of my grandmother, yes, but also the loss that comes from being far away from most of my extended family and culture, the loss that comes from liminality. The poems offered a space to swim within the loss, and to allow for new, generative relationships with liminality.

You allude to so many different works in the collection—poetry, film, visual art, music—is it challenging to incorporate these inspirations, especially as they vary in form?

I really enjoy drawing from and working with different kinds of expressions. I find it energizing and playful, maybe because I don’t quite know how the song or painting will be rendered in the poem, and I never really know how the poem will turn out. It gives me an excuse to spend time with art that I love. I didn’t set out to make the book so intertextual but it happened anyway. There are the obvious ekphrasis poems like “Orfeu Negro/Black Orpheus” and “Extra Virgin Olive Oil” but there are smaller references as well. The poem “The First American Years” mentions Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” because New York City Mayor Giuliani’s vitriol for the painting made such an impression on me as a child who had recently moved to America. The scandalous treatment of the art and artist, along with frequent news reports of police brutality, introduced me to the climate of my new home.

I definitely see the influence of Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and other Black feminists in your work, and you name scholars like Katharine McKittrick and Edward Kamau Brathwaite directly: who are some of your biggest scholarly influences?  

My engagement with scholarly texts is perhaps similar to my engagement with art and music in that in that I love to rift off of them and incorporate them into my writing. The scholars who you mention are definitely big influences. I would also add Édouard Glissant, Colin Dayan, Aimé Césaire and B. Anthony Bogues, whom I had the opportunity to take classes with as a graduate student. I’m sure I’m missing many others!

One of my favorite images in this collection is of the speaker browning sugar at the bottom of the pot to make stew, because it is such an evocative image of Caribbean femininity, labor, and domesticity, in addition to a symbol of the exploited labor of sugar production. There are also various references to food and cooking throughout this collection: do you cook? How does cooking and eating influence your work and understanding of the colonial and diasporic legacies you explore in your poetry?

I love the connections that you make with the image of browning the sugar. I’ve had a tenuous relationship with cooking because as one point in my life, I rejected it as an emblem of domesticity that is often pushed upon women. My parents never pressured me to cook, but there were often other adults who seemed to hold cooking as a measure of a “good woman” and I deeply resented that. Over the years, I had to recreate my own relationship to cooking, just as I had to recreate my relationship with liminality. I worked hard to sever the negative ties born out of colonial and patriarchal legacies. Now cooking is a way to connect to my ancestors, to live with them and honor their histories. It’s also a way to be present, indulge in a simple pleasure, and share something that I’ve made.

What are you reading, watching, and listening to for inspiration right now during the pandemic?

A work that currently inspires me is Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film series, especially “Mangrove” and “Lover’s Rock.” Too often, Afro-Caribbean characters in film exist solely for comedic effect, as the object of an imperialist fetish or as a caricature. McQueen’s work was in direct opposition to those tired tropes. It was magic to hear our various accents and music, to witness our trials and triumphs. I watched these films during early days of the pandemic and it was especially meaningful to see and feel my people in this way when I couldn’t in real life.

Corrine Collins is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California. Her research examines representations of interracial intimacy in 20th- and 21st-century literature and popular culture. She teaches courses on African diaspora literature and film.

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