“Not a heartbeat, but a moan”: Nicole Sealey

One might not expect a collection of poetry with subject matter as diffuse as a lynching and the board game Clue to hang together. But Nicole Sealey’s second book, Ordinary Beast, manages to perfectly blend the heartbreaking and the hilarious — often in a single stanza. A timely and haunting meditation on love, gender, race, and the body, Ordinary Beast is already receiving high praise, landing on NPR’s most anticipated Poetry Books of 2017 list and Publishers Weekly‘s Top 10 Poetry Books of 2017.

When she is not writing, Sealey is the executive director of Cave Canem, an organization that cultivates and supports the work of black poets, with its fellows going on to win, among other awards, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the NAACP Image Award. Sealey credits the poets she has worked with through Cave Canem with keeping her on her literary toes.

I spoke with Sealey during the harried days before her book launch about the importance of accessible language in poetry, self-care, and the many meanings of love. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Amy Gall

The Barnes & Noble Review: I remember seeing you read some of these poems last year, and I was struck by how different it feels reading them by myself. There’s something simultaneously more intimate and lonelier about not having you, the writer narrating the experience. Do you feel like you write for both the page and the stage? What are you most attuned to when you are writing a poem?

Nicole Sealey: I remember that reading and I hear you. I think, though, listening to a poet read her work at a venue and reading a poet’s work alone at home are two very different experiences. In the former, the poet is much more aware of the once abstract idea of an “audience” and, accordingly, curates a “set” of poems. In between poems, that poet may engage the audience in a back-and-forth and provide backstory for specific poems. At home alone, however, a reader gets none of that; but, what she will get is a chance to sit with the work at length and, in so doing, sit with herself and her own thoughts at length, which can feel lonely.

Without thought to how poems will eventually be shared, I just try to write the best poems I can, given my limitations as an imperfect person. To me, a poem is a translation of thought and experience into something capable of being shared and, to some extent, understood — no matter page or stage.

BNR: I’m always fascinated by how poets approach the overall structure of a book and how they know when a collection is done. What was the process of working on this collection like for you?

NS: My approach has always been poem by poem. Making a poem, in my opinion, is less daunting than making a book. Had I been writing towards a collection, I probably would not have completed Ordinary Beast, and if I had, it would be a very different book — one that doesn’t reflect my natural associative way of thinking.

About her way of writing, poet Adélia Prado said, “Who am I to organize the flight of the poem.” Not only do I agree, but I would also apply this attitude to the overall structure of the book and knowing when it’s finished.

BNR: When you are writing poems like “Legendary,” in which you reference Venus Xtravaganza, Pepper LeBeija, and Octavia Saint Laurent, from the documentary Paris Is Burning, is the narrator of those poems purely a persona, or is it also your own voice? Do you find that poetry gives you an opportunity to slip into characters or fictive voices, or are you most often writing from your own experience?

NS: Those poems are a combination of personae (not Xtravaganza, LaBeija, or Saint Laurent, exactly, but my limited and loose impressions of them) and myself. I’m not as wise or as charismatic as they were, so I knew early on that my voice would have to do. Who am I to speak for anyone anyway? Voice for the voiceless is a phrase that floats around whenever poets write from a perspective other than their own. I don’t subscribe to that, because no one is without voice.

Though poetry does provide me with the opportunity to slip into characters, those characters, if not myself, are fictional — ones I’ve invented based on real people and for the purposes of specific poems. Poetry also allows me to slip into and out of character, my own character. By nature, I’m a classic introvert. With the “Legendary” series, however, I allowed myself to be a bit of a show-off, a showman. It felt good!

I always write from my own experience — I have no other choice. Even if I were to imitate a poet, the style might be theirs but the voice would still be my own. Everything I write (or think or do) is influenced by what I’ve seen and experienced across my thirty-seven-odd years.

BNR: You thank the reader in your dedication and speak to the reader in your work. Do you have a reader or audience in mind when you write? Who do you imagine them to be?

NS: I do, yes! I’m so thankful to my readers. There are millions and millions of books in the world. That readers pick up Ordinary Beast is a great blessing that shouldn’t go unmentioned, so it doesn’t. Plus, the book is a conversation between readers and myself, so why not talk directly with them? That’s the least I can do as an active participant in the conversation.

I hope my audience is anyone/everyone who reads — the more the merrier. I don’t have a specific “audience” in mind so much as a person I envision during the writing process. My computer screen might as well be a mirror, because I imagine someone who looks like me — a black woman. I’m comfortable in her company and am able to be myself, whatever myself is at that moment.

BNR: There is a line in “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You’ “ where you say love is “not a heartbeat but a moan.” To me that conjures a sense of love that is intense but fleeting. What do you think love is and did writing this collection change or influence your concept of love?

NS: The average person’s life isn’t that long, if they’re lucky about seventy-nine years. Of those years, exactly how many are filled with love? Love is fleeting because life itself is fleeting. And, there are many kinds of love — romantic love, as you know, is different than familial love.

Love is indescribable. If I had to describe the romantic love about which “Cento for the Night I Said, ‘I Love You’ ” is referring, I’d say that it is an admixture of ecstasy, duende, negative capability, and desire. The line, “Love is like this; / not a heartbeat, but a moan,” I think, best describes this admixture.

Merely living has made me think more frequently and critically about love, which is probably the case with most people. With Ordinary Beast, I was able to continue my exploration of the abstraction. I still don’t have any answers, but at least I know what questions I’d ask if ever given the opportunity for definitive answers.

BNR: Bodily pain is so present in these poems, particularly the ways black bodies are misrepresented or trapped or violated. How do you approach writing about difficult subjects? How do you take care of yourself in that process?

NS: I take care of myself by actually approaching the difficult subjects head-on. If I didn’t, I’d be a passive participant in my own life. I couldn’t live with that. That wouldn’t champion equity, nor would it cultivate creative risk. Instinctively, I want to live and be as happy as possible while doing so. I want the same for those I love. I want the same for those I don’t know. For those who’ll exist long after I’m gone.

One only needs to open her eyes to see that there is an active, one-sided war against black and brown people in this country, in particular, and in the world at large. Though black pain is a theme in Ordinary Beast, so too is black history, black resilience, black excellence, black power, black joy and black love. All of which sustains me.

BNR: How has your role as executive director of Cave Canem influenced your approach to your work, and how the heck do you find the time to write?

NS: My role as executive director doesn’t influence the way I approach my creative work — though it does affect the regularity of it. Given that there is much to learn in my new role, I haven’t had much time to write. My first day was January 2, 2017. I suspect this will be the case for at least the first year of my tenure.

Now, my time as a Cave Canem fellow and former workshop participant, on the other hand, has made me a craftswoman and diligent reviser. These poets do not play — they bring their A-game at all times. To roll with them, I’ve had to learn to do the same.

BNR: Who are your poetic influences?

NS: This question always gets the best of me because I end up forgetting someone. All that to say, forgive my memory, as I attempt to name a few of my poetic influences in alpha-order: Catherine Barnett, Lucille Clifton, Andrea Cohen, Martha Collins, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Yusef Komunyakaa, Li-Young Lee, Larry Levis, John Murillo, Marilyn Nelson, Sharon Olds, Willie Perdomo, Carl Phillips, Patrick Phillips, Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, Patricia Smith, Tracy K. Smith, among others.

BNR: What do you hope for or imagine the future of black poetry to be?

NS: Black poetry is poetry. Black poets will continue to write. My hope for the field is that it expands further, that it welcomes the contributions of poets of color.

BNR: What is your favorite thing about language?

NS: My favorite thing about language is its accessibility, which is one of the things I value most in a poem. At its best, language clarifies, or at least attempts to clarify, one’s thoughts or feelings on a subject. What a great gift we have!