Q & A with OyeDrum’s volume five Poetry Editor allia abdullah-matta
By Amarantha da Cruz
Tell us about your background and path to poetry.
I am an African American [Black] Queens, New York girl who came of age to disco, the six-step, jams in the park, and the onset of Hip-Hop. My youth in Queens and other NYC communities, my connections to my familial and cultural roots, literature, music, and my understanding of the significance of our stories is what led me to writing poetry.
I used to track dialogue and voices—conversations and stories told by various family members about the south, migration, racism, religion, love, and the politics of being a Black woman in our community and the larger society. I was an avid reader for most of my childhood and while I wrote poetry as a child, I became more attached to poetry in college. I saw poets /writers like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez, Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin and others in-person, as a college student. I always loved Black dance and dramatic performances, so cultural exposure and artistic contact are important pillars to the development of my poetic aesthetic.
Rhythm, sound, and story have always been at the center of my interest in art and cultural productions, thus poetry was a natural place for me to land as a writer. It is my preferred genre as a creative though I also dabble in other creative forms, such as hybrid poetry, prose, and imagery as well as short fiction. I have several graduate degrees—a doctorate in Afro-American Studies (Literature & Culture), an MA in English (Creative Writing), and an MFA in Creative Writing (poetry)—thus my study of literature and creative writing, has kept me connected to poetry.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
I have so many favorites! I have the ones that I will always love and read, new and frequent loves who pass through, and the ones that I discover and rediscover as I peruse bookstores, which is still my favorite place to locate and find poetry collections.
That said these poets land on my lists– Sonia Sanchez, Audre, Lorde, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka, Terrance Hayes, Tyehimba Jess, Nate Marshall, Danez Smith, Pablo Neruda, Juan Felipe Herrera, Louis Reyes Rivera, Adrienne Rich, Suheir Hammad, Jessica care Moore, Dominique Christina and I really could go on. Many of these folks are also some of my favorite poets to teach. I should also add that I have some favorite folks who are moving through the NYC poetry scene such as, JP Howard, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Sherese Francis, and Robert Gibbons. Lastly, there are many folks who are on my “must read and know list” such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Lucille Clifton, Evie Shockley, Desiree C. Bailey, Ana Castillo, Mahogany L. Browne, and so many others.
What are some literary and poetry journals you read?
Interestingly, I read poetry collections and I use literary database sources to locate specific writers and what is written about them , more than I use specific journals; however, I regularly access The Boston Review, Bomb Magazine, Obsidian, Poets & Writers Magazine and of course, OyeDum. I also stay abreast of poetry by subscribing to Poets.org and The Slow Down among other online poetry spaces. I value receiving poetry in my in-box, daily.
What do you look for in a poem?
This is a very interesting question! Honestly, I think it depends on why I am consuming the poem.
I read poetry for pleasure and to be better at the craft. In this way, I am looking for many things—what the poems says and what it does—what it looks like on the page—what it does for or to me—does it strike me in some way—does it hold me, and what are the holding emotions?
In terms of what I look for as a reader, teacher, and poetry editor, there are overlapping elements. These various roles affect the way I select and comment on the work. I look for the story of the poem, how the poem resonates on the page, or its sound to my ear when read out-loud. What is the poet telling/teaching us about the world? What voices are represented in the poem, and has the poet done the job of showing the thing we should take away from the poem?
My love of poetry and training has taught me to look for the work that is potentially the best poem. By the best poem, I refer to what. I learned from a poetry teacher/mentor from my MFA Program who said, “your job is to make the best poem.” To me, this means that it answers the call – is the best that this poem can be, as opposed to thinking about best as in competition with other folks. I look for the magic of the poem that can occur with respect to language, rhythm, sound, imagery, and story.
Tell us about the “madness” themed poetry you selected for volume five.
Looking at some of the pieces selected in this issue required contemplation about the theme–what one actually sees as “the madness” in a text–and openness. When reviewing the poetry submissions for this issue, I often thought about the saying “your blues ain’t like mine” to remind me of the importance of the particular madness reflected in each piece. I/We also thought it was important to represent a variation of forms, voices, and streams of madness.
What does the word “madness,” volume five’s theme, mean to you?
Madness means many things to me, and I think that all creatives struggle with layers of madness. Creative energy can be a form of madness as it propels blind movement into the unknown emotional statement/ response. In that way, I am happy to subject myself to the madness it takes to conceive of and create poetic iterations of the things in my headspace, and to explore and comment on the things that are beautiful and wrong with the world.
I think one must be careful about the extent to which they define and draw on the madness of others as a writer/a person on the planet. The stigmas attached to “mental unwellness” which I prefer to use than the term illness, do not account for the ways in which all folks may have a taste of madness as a way of being in the world. This often discourages folks from accepting the qualities that make them mad and in turn quite capable creatives. I think the concept of madness must be interpreted, redefined, and re-interpreted to capture all of its complexities/behaviors. Thus, I embrace madness and find that it can be simultaneously beautiful, all encompassing, manageable, and deadly.
Why do you not capitalize the first letter of your first and last names?
I prefer to use lowercase letters for my name for two reasons—to signal and symbolize my writing/work life as a poet; I am inspired by other writers who took liberties with language and chose non-conventional standards –when applied to their names and/or poetry titles (i.e. bell hooks and Ntozake Shange)
Thank you! Welcome to the Coven!