Poetics and Ancestral Logic: An Interview with Dominique Christina

DOMINIQUE CHRISTINA is an award-winning poet, author, educator, and activist. She has authored four poetry collections: The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm: A Colored Girl’s Hymnal (2014), They Are All Me (2015), This Is Woman’s Work (2015), and her latest, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems (2018). She holds five national poetry slam titles in four years, including the 2014 & 2012 Women of the World Slam Champion and 2011 National Poetry Slam Champion. Dominique earned a double master’s degrees in Education and English Literature, and she has over ten years of experience as a licensed educator. Dominique and I discussed her latest book, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems, where she shared her poetic techniques, personal stories, and writing advice.

Diana Anaya: I read an interview where you were asked what sparked you to write about Anarcha. You said that you saw her name in a book with asterisk, so I wanted to know a little bit more about that. What about that asterisk interested you and why an entire collection?

Dominique Christina: It was by accident. I’m an etymologist so I was looking for the original intent of the word anarchy. When you do etymological charts, it ends up being this scroll, this roiling dissertation, and I saw this name with an asterisk – Anarcha. When I went to see who that was or what the meaning of that word was, it took me to a page about J. Marion Sims, the doctor. So, you find out this enslaved girl was operated on and experimented on by J. Marion Sims during chattel slavery. Through his torturous experiments on Anarcha he invented things we still use today in gynecological exams, like the speculum. These are things we don’t know, and there are statues erected in his name all over the country, but Anarcha remains hidden. She’s been relegated to the margins of history, or she’s discussed only as a means to talk about the doctor. That doesn’t work for me, that’s insufficient. For me, it was about tracking her down, seeing what her story was, and how much of it she wanted to share, how much she would reveal to me. Persona poems are complicated.

DA: Your collection reminded me of A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A. Both of you bring lesser known or neglected figures of history to life, specifically minorities. I wanted to know your thoughts on the role of persona for minority communities in giving a voice back to the voiceless.

Dominique: I think it’s critical, but for me it feels like I’m participating in ancestral logic. It feels like conjure, like witchcraft, like falling in the dark but trusting that there will be arms that jet out to hold me or guide me to where I’m supposed to go. I believe entirely in the idea that the people who preceded us are still asking for room to speak, and if we give them that room, they will enter. And if we’re really willing and deliberate about being a vessel or a conduit, then we will let them say whatever is there, even if it interrupts our ideas about ourselves or the world. We will risk discomfort in order to give them room.

In that way, I think persona is holy. I think it’s necessary ritual work, gravedigging. It’s the exhumation process, of digging up the bones with the intention of re-fleshing them. I come from people that borrow bone and blood from those that were not permitted to show up, out loud: who weren’t permitted to live fully or be fully expressed. They did not have the benefit of their own bodies, authorship over their own bodies, or agency. I feel obligated to give them that room now – use my body if it restores in any way. That’s the role of persona for me. I don’t deal with it much because I don’t want to mess it up. It’s risk tasking behavior, to try to speak for another. That’s a heavy burden, and I don’t take it lightly. But I think it is really necessary for the people that preceded us, who did not have a voice at all.

DA: Absolutely! In terms of advice, as a creative non-fictionist that writes memoir, I find it hard even with living family to give myself that permission to inhabit their roles and tell their stories. What advice do you have for writers delving into persona poetry or prose? How do you give yourself permission to enter that role and give them a voice? What are your strategies?

Dominique: I think you have to move yourself out of the way. I don’t know how to curate sufficient language for what that process is. I’m a mother, but I could not attach my point of reference to Anarcha. In other words, I know what labor and delivery is, the pain of that, so let me insert that muscle memory here – it doesn’t work. My experience is nothing like hers, it doesn’t mirror hers at all. For me, what it feels like is a lot of waiting for this voice that is unlike your own to enter, and it does enter. There’s this process of waiting. I hear a word come, I know it’s my word. I wait. I hear something else come, I know that’s still me. I wait. Until something inserts itself that I know is not mine, that belongs to something or someone else. And then I let that thing, that voice, have room to dance.

That’s what I mean by conjure, when I’m talking about witchcraft. It’s that inexplicable juju, that business of trusting that the thing that enters will keep your safe in that transaction. It deserves room, it deserves a dance, it deserves to have to have light on it. So, my advice is to trust the process, be as egoless as possible, and recognize that your point of reference may not work. It’s about the full acknowledgement that it’s not yours, that it’s not about you. And I think that’s a dizzying thing for writers because we want ownership, “that’s mine, I wrote that!”. But in the case of persona, you didn’t. You allowed for someone else to write.

DA: I want to return to the topic of conjuring and voice, but before that I wanted to know what your process was for researching Anarcha and Dr. J. Marion Sims. We have so much of Dr. Sims voice, but we have virtually none of Anarcha’s. What kind of research could you engage in with Anarcha?

Dominique: Through Marion Sims copious notes, she started to emerge. You take his glacial disinclination, his clinical distance from her, where he’s just talking about being astonished by the amount of blood that day, and you think about the girl on other side of those notes, the one that was doing all that bleeding. You try to imagine what it was like for her. Not just in terms of how the body is hosting the damage or pain, because that’s surface. It’s also about those things that murder your spirit, those small indignities that end up being almost survivable. You read his glacial distance, and you realize she’s hearing this as she’s suffering. The more it hurts, the happier he is. He’s learning so much through her ability to bleed and not die. But for me, that distance is the wound, more than the blade, the intrusion of the body. The fact that you have to navigate how you are just subject. You are just clinical notes, a means to an end. You supposed to be forgotten so he can be remembered. And it’s that ache that you can find in his notes, when he’s describing what he’s doing to Anarcha and others. You can find the ache of it, in her body and spirit, when he’s referring to her as a mule. When he’s talking about her as property, object, subject – that’s the ache for the girl who’s bleeding and navigating that language. That’s how I found her. Through his notes, I found her.

DA: I saw that in the way Anarcha described herself in your poems, repeating again and again that she is blood, womb, bone. It almost went beyond being referred to as an animal, alive. You are parts to be assembled and disassembled.

Dominique: For me, that’s what it had to feel like for her. Because even without tortuous experiments, even without 34 procedures without the benefit of anesthesia, slavery as an institution, I imagine, created a lot of dissonance in terms of their person and personhood of the body. Because you have no ownership of it, anything can be done to it, with it, or through it. You have a baby or don’t have a baby: not your call. If you have a baby through someone who owns you, hates you, despises you, not your call. If the baby is sold away from you the second it’s born, not your call. If the baby is killed in front of you, not your call. Nothing belongs to you, least of all the body.

And so I imagine that dissonances relegates you to body parts, and in chattel slavery that language is pervasive in the notes of slave owners. They talk about ‘that gal is the one with the good hands in the kitchen’ or ‘that gall is the one that can breastfeed the babies, milk always runs’ or ‘his back is strong, he can go miles, feet never bleed’. They are just body parts. I was trying to acknowledge that and attach myself to the wound in that – no, personhood is not available to you. You’re right, it’s less than human. You are just parts; a commodity and you have been commodified. And there’s a deep wound in that. And it’s dizzying, devasting reality that you wake up to every single day.

DA: Something that shocked and upset me even more while doing my research was finding sites, like the Wikipedia page, where Anarcha’s mention is under the subheading ‘Controversy’. That people are saying perhaps there wasn’t consent given. Or finding articles from an actual doctor defending Dr. Sims, because Dr. Sims, the owner, stated Anarcha gave consent, when she’s property and not treated as a human being. It’s shocking how relevant this still is today, living and breathing with us right now.

Dominique: It’s completely relevant. I was thinking about Serena Williams, who is the woman of privilege, and she talked about her experience delivering her daughter. She was naming what was happening in the body and no one was listening. Everyone was dismissing it. She was telling them the drug she knew she needed because she has a problem with blood clots, and they didn’t listen to her. As a result of that, she almost died, and that’s Serena Williams. If that’s happening to her, with her level of access and privilege, think about what’s happening to women all over the world. I think about the acute absence of agency that I had with my first child. No one was listening because the story was ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’, ‘you’ve never done this before’, ‘you have no idea what your body is telling you’. That is incorrect. The body is still an amazing compass, a roadmap, and we’re really good at listening to the body. We are cut off from that resource because of how things are functioning constantly about our bodies.

I was removed from ability to make certain choices during my labor and delivery with my first child. So, it is absolutely relevant conversation. For me, Anarcha is not singular. She wasn’t singular then, in terms of chattel slavery and how these things happened to enslaved women who suffered vesical vaginal and rectovaginal tears, and how that would reduce their value and how they would be sold away to chain gangs to be used as sex slaves. We don’t talk about that, but that happened. She’s not singular. But beyond that, conversations about women and how cut off we are from our most precious resources, is also a very necessary and urgent conversation today.

DA: Reading your work inspired me to think about the idea that people can inherit trauma. It made me think about the way women’s medicine, from gynecology to birth control, has tragic and dark stories when you look at the research and background of it. I wondered whether women’s medicine could have potentially inherited that trauma, that it could still be pervasive today. What are your thoughts on that?

Dominique: For me you’re having a conversation about memory, in part, and for me memory is inherited, bequeathed, and borrowed, in the same way trauma is. I believe we walk around with our grandparents’ regrets, deepest fears, or greatest wounds. We don’t just inherit their cheekbones, it’s not that simple. Life is larger than that. When I look in the mirror and I’m searching for the anthropomorphic evidence of the people I come from, I am feeling the weight of their experience in the body. I know I came here with that, that was a part of my inheritance. And like most inheritances, it doesn’t ask your permission or consent. If your great aunt gives you this sequined green sweater, that’s your inheritance. You may not want to wear it, you may never wear it, but that’s your inheritance. For me, it feels true about memory and trauma. We borrow those experiences of the people who precede us.

And very much like you said, when we talk about women’s medicine, as it is performed today, there’s blood all over it. There’s devastation all over it. And torture underneath it. And so many bodies. It is its own mass grave. I think about the process of a gynecological exam, how intrusive, invasive, painful, and uncomfortable it is, and how that is its own trauma. The procedure itself is its own trauma that you now have to have in order to be checked out. You have to risk devastation in order to get a gynecological exam. There’s something deeply flawed and problematic about that. I think it’s rooted in our being object, women’s bodies being object and being so commodified for so long. I think that’s why. My daughter is eighteen and she’s never had a pap smear. It’s my fault, or maybe it’s a blessing, but I have not wanted to give her that experience. To obligate her. To say, this is the part where you normalize being on your back with your knees up, your legs open, and then this stranger puts their fingers in you and tells you the discomfort and pain you feel is normal. I don’t want to give her that.

DA: I want to return back to your comments about conjuring. I love that you mention conjuring because that was the poem that I honed in on as feeling different from the rest both in tone and form. In all of the other poems, you give Anarcha her power through agency, by giving her a voice she never had. But in that poem, she wielded the power differently. Could you tell me about your intent with the poem, in comparison to the rest of the collection?

Dominique: I remember feeling that there had to be a moment where Anarcha is able to touch that feral side. That you wake up one day and you are red all over. The hurt has made a wolf. Today, I’m not interested in prayers, forgiveness, or supplication. I’m not even speaking to God today. I want to drill down into my wildest part, and let anger run over. That’s what it felt like. I’m not good at anger, I come from people who don’t have that resource whatsoever.

I was raised by folks who had anger drilled out of them in the Jim Crow south. My family, in order to participate in desegregation, my aunt desegregated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and in order to do that anger could not be a resource because you could die. You could not have the authentic performance of anger whatsoever. What I’m sure was in the back for me, when writing “Conjure” for Anarcha was my grandfather. He never showed up in anger for his entire life, and when he was dying at 91 years old, and he was betwixt and between – one foot in this life, one foot in the afterlife—he was raging in his bed, hallucinating, having hard conversations with people who wronged him in the 30s.

I remember thinking that anger always requires an exit wound and even if it takes 90 years, that feeling will emerge. Writing “Conjure” for Anarcha was like, you finally touched that part and I feel appropriately uproarious about what is happening to me. What I wake up to every morning, what I see, what this experience is, how mind numbing it is, how back breaking it is, how it’s everywhere, there’s devastation everywhere, and today I’m just pissed off.

DA: I wanted to have a moment to talk about minority community writers. I feel like we never really get to mention or promote one another. Do you have any black women of history, of literature, black or minority writer that we don’t know about, but we should? To give them a voice and a platform?

Dominique: Rachel McKibbens is a Chicana writer. Her book Blud was published by Copper Canyon last year and she’s an incredible sorceress. Mahogany Brown curated the Black Girl Magic Anthology, I have a poem in that. She’s another urgent and necessary writer. There are so many. Toni Cade Bombara died but she wrote so lyrically and beautifully. She has a collection called Gorilla, My Love and it’s so amazing in terms of capturing the dialectic in black communities that I can’t explain, that people speak without punctuation. She writes that way and it’s lovely and wonderful.