INTERVIEW WITH WENDY THOMPSON TAIWO
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: In “Black Garden Songs,” we’re intrigued by the compost bin as an exploration of what is thrown away and what remains, in terms of gardening, family history, and racialized national history. How did you arrive at that metaphor?
Wendy Thompson Taiwo: Well, I’m fairly new to composting. Growing up, we threw most things away in the trash. And when it came time to recycle, you know, with the green bin being separate from the trash bin, we had to relearn what was trash and what could go into the recycling bin. Sometimes, if we were in a rush or too lazy to categorize and separate our waste, we ended up trashing recyclable things or throwing trash into the recycling bin.
With compost, there has been an additional learning curve: trying to figure out what is safe to put into this mixture of food scraps and household and yard waste that goes back into the ground and into our homegrown food and bodies. As I was writing, I thought, what if we aren’t taking care of the ground or our bodies, but we’re still committed to this socially encouraged and socially responsible activity of composting? What does compost become if we don’t pay attention to what we put in the mix? What if we think about compost as a time capsule? What can it say about how we live?
RR: We’re struck and haunted by the final lines concerning “a state eternally on fire.” We read the fire as both literal (as California and much of the West has been burning) and metaphorical (as a culture of racism and oppression continues to burn in our country). How did you come to the final image of the poem?
WTT: As a Californian who also spent some years living in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, I couldn’t help but immediately think about the multiple layers of suffering, injury, and death between the murder of George Floyd by the police in Minneapolis and the many massive fire complexes that hit the state over the summer of 2020. There was no way to disconnect the image of George Floyd pleading, “I can’t breathe,” as his life was being extinguished from his body and the everyday reality for many Californians who were forced to stay indoors because of the hazardous smoke and ash in the air. It was one of those moments where everything just came together: structural racism, environmental racism, state violence, land/resource destruction, anti-blackness. Everything was going to shit and we all knew that there were folks who weren’t going to survive it, that it was going to be the most vulnerable of us—basically poor folks and black folks—who would be forced to choose between surviving environmental racism or repressive state violence. If not the fires, then the hands of the police, who represent another form of heat for many black communities. On top of this was the backdrop of COVID-19.
RR: We love how different facets of the garden and the political associations come together. What other experiences or activities have inspired your writing over the years?
WTT: Mothering has shaped my writing so much. There is the literal way that having even less time and so many more distractions has shaped the frequency, style, and urgency of my writing. Ever since the pandemic started, I’ve been working from home with my two kids, and I have to steal time to write. Every night, I trade sleep to think, be alone, and be inspired. But there’s also a racial dimension to mothering, mothering while black and mothering black children in an anti-black world, that has motivated me to be more intentional about what I write and how. My writing isn’t for me anymore or for an audience out in the world. It’s a map for my kids to follow and learn how to get free, be brave, feel whole and human, connect to the land, to animals, and be a good steward while on this earth.
My writing has also been inspired by my own journey to process trauma. So I write a lot about the body, my body, my parents, shame, ugliness, violence. But what gives my poetry these sparks of depth and color, are these rituals I’ve established with a childhood friend of mine who got me into gardening and who is equally, if not more, wildly into the outdoors and appreciative of nature and nonhuman beings. We go out on our middle-age black woman play dates to the mountains or wetlands or the coast and explore the natural world which in turn gives me new lenses to see and write about life and new roads to travel.
RR: As a professor of African-American Studies at San Jose State University, how do you balance life in academia with writing poetry? Does your teaching and research influence your poetry, or vice versa?
WTT: Whew! That first question. I don’t balance academia and writing poetry. I’m essentially living in this state of near paralysis as an academic, constantly feeling as though I’m failing as a scholar, while standing in the full reality of my choice to prioritize poetry. As a professor, there is this constant demand that I wear my scholarly hat and be productive, creating writing that is peer-reviewed by other academics and appears in top ranked journals. I’m supposed to “play the game” and be an excellent teacher. But all this time, I have these poems creeping up while I’m putting lesson plans together or working on my research, and they demand my full attention lest I lose them. So I steal time from my academic work to write poetry because even now, even after numerous black women scholars, who were also poets and activists, have testified that it can be done, that one can be an academic and poet, institutions ultimately decide. At the end of the day, I know what feeds me and my children, and truth is, I am fully committed to teaching and mentoring black students, to contributing to the field of African American studies, so I willingly struggle to hit that balance. But a real 50/50 balance? That’s not possible.
To your second question, both my teaching and research heavily influence my poetry. In all of my creative work, I often include some reference to content that I’m teaching or have taught in my courses, so slavery, the racial wealth gap, black health statistics, lead in the water. I often find that writing poetry about these topics helps me think through some of the texts I am teaching like Laura Pulido’s article on environmental racism, racial capitalism, and state-sanctioned violence. Once I realized that multiple people, communities, and public and private entities are actively invested in burying toxins and pollutants in poor communities, in black bodies, in order to “get rid of them” for the sake of protecting affluent mostly white communities, I had to write something. At the same time, much of my research is very personal: about family, ancestry, roots, opportunities. So it all flows together without there being strict boundaries between my teaching, my research, and what goes in or “feeds” my poetry.
RR: Is there any piece of gardening advice you find applicable to writing?
WTT: Oh, man. There’s so much overlap between gardening and writing. First off, I am a constant gardener, always poking around in the dirt, talking to my plants, digging them out, taking cuttings, trying to propagate new plants. This is more or less how I write: starting many different poems and prose pieces and academic essays but not necessarily finishing them, saving a hundred different edited drafts of one piece I’m whittling down or adding to, cutting parts out but leaving them in another document to possibly grow a new piece from, and revisiting all of these words and documents every few days just to poke around and edit and write a little bit more here and there. Writing is like tending to a garden full of different plants.
But in terms of gardening advice that applies to the writing process, I do have a few:
* Editing is a must and feels exactly like tearing out weeds—it is hard work but you create something, a space, more fertile and open where you can plant exactly what you want, where you want it. Keep in mind that you will have to do it more than once because weeds and wordiness are both stubborn, frequent things.
* Keep excerpts of poems or lines that don’t quite fit as seeds that you can replant into a new bed of writing.
* Let go of your plants and let them do their own thing. You can come back to prune and water them which is akin to drafting, but overall, you have to let the words marinate and sit and develop before coming back to prune away overgrown or dead bits and pieces.
Wendy Thompson Taiwo’s work in Issue 8.1: