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Current Issue interview issue 31 Miami Book Fair International

Kemi Alabi on Against Heaven

by Trey Rhone

Kemi Alabi is the author of Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), selected by Claudia Rankine as the winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award. Their conversation with Gulf Stream poetry reader Trey Rhone at the 2022 Miami Book Fair is below:


Kemi Alabi, photographed by Ally Almore

TR: So, Kemi, could you give me a brief summary of who you are?

KA: Kemi Alabi is a poet hoping to remake the world through language. I was born in Wisconsin on a Sunday in July. I am here with my debut collection, Against Heaven, which came out in April with Graywolf Press. Selected by Claudia Rankine for the Academy of American Poets First Book Award, which is so meaningful to me because her work Don’t Let Me Be Lonely really saved my life. It’s beautiful to be of a time when so many Black poets have work out in the world. It feels great to be seen by the people whose work has really changed me.

TR: I’d like to stick to that because I can see that not only is your book blurbed by Hanif Abdurraqib, but it also contains musical references such as “Goin’ Up Yonder.” That song is incorporated into a golden shovel, which was created by Terrance Hayes, but you put a new twist on it. You’re really embracing these Black idols contained within it. How’d you come about that, and how do you see other musicians or Black poets/Black writers playing into your work?

KA: I love that question and its layers. So first, I want to say I came up in a Baptist Church. One uncle was the preacher, while the other was the maestro on the keys. Though its teachings have left me, there’s something about the sonic power of gospel music. It informs so many Black genres of music. I think all Black music, Black American music in particular, but also, I’m thinking about my father’s side of the family, who’s Nigerian. I think about the talking drums that we have in our house. I think about Fela Kuti saying that “Music is a spiritual thing.” The sonic has power. Western empires are a very visually oriented space, and so many of our identities are just visually constructed; even though there’s a pseudo-biological essentialism behind who people are, so many of the oppressive ways that we’re categorized are visual. So, I see the sonic as a place for real refuge. I see the sonic as a space where many Black poets have done so many transformative interesting things. Poetry, at its essence, is sound. Language is sound. Thinking of not just the oral tradition that poetry itself comes from but language itself. It is the primary building block of sound. Terrance Hayes invented the golden shovel, and he has said that “Poems are a form of music, and language just happens to be our instrument — language and breath.” I feel that a lot of the poets that I draw from understand the sonic power of poetry and are playing with it as music.

You mentioned Hanif, and he, being so devoted to music in so many different ways, like so many Black poets, understands the connection between music and poetry because of that sonic orientation.

The golden shovel, in particular, y’know, I think a Black artist loves a remix. As much as I want to honor the forms that these Black poets have created, I also had to break them a little bit. So, y’know, Terrance Hayes invented the golden shovel, where the end words of every line come from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry. My golden shovels are old remixes where the source text is coming from other songs. There’s a speech in there that is kinda ironically used.

I’m doing the double golden shovel, which other poets have done. Patricia Smith’s golden shovel, “Incendiary Art,” is one that I studied as I was writing mine. I come to poetry wanting the thrust of the lyric to move me. I’m thinking of poetry as a function of time, not space. I’m thinking about its sonic potential. To me, a golden shovel or a double golden shovel provides an amazing container to think about the line. It’s so fun to play with the golden shovel because that received form where the line ends and begins gives you the space to play in between. 

I’m thinking about improvisation, which feels like the way I come to the page as a poet. There’s a poet, Samiya Bashir, who led my Tin House Summer Workshop back in 2019, and she would start all of our workshops by giving us three words, and then you just write a poem with those three words. That’s how some of these poems in the book came to be. I think about poetry as a way to adorn time, much like jazz musicians when I think about music, that’s a way to adorn time and improvise in the space between measures. That’s so much of how I come to the page. Revise towards some type of clarity. Those golden shovels are a way to give me something to improvise in between, and of course, I’m bringing in specific songs, speeches, and other texts because I want to have an intertextual conversation. 

“Goin’ Up Yonder” is a song that I have a lot of reverence for, but it’s also really complicated for me. So, the lines that go into the golden shovel in “Against Heaven,” 

I can take the pain

The heartaches they bring:

The comfort in knowing

I’ll soon be gone,

As God gives me grace,

I’ll run this race

Until I see my savior

Face to face

……

I’m goin’ up yonder

To be with my Lord

There are so many ways in which Black people are told that this world is a wrap, it will always be a place of oppression, white supremacy rules the day, and life will be miserable, but at least one day I will die, and I will go to Heaven, and I will be with my Lord. That’s grim to me. This whole book, I think, is trying to reclaim the Earth as ours. This life is ours. The idea that Heaven can be right here, and it is for some people. That golden shovel also incorporates some words from Louise Glück’s Nobel Prize speech, where she’s talking about the poem “Little Black Boy” and being a little racist. She pulls a little racism. Her analysis of the poem is that this Black slave in this poem doesn’t feel antagonistic toward this free White boy because he’s so comforted by the thought that one day they’ll be seen as equal after everyone has died. To me, that intertextual conversation I have with the golden shovel and with that play allowed me to poetically think through the issues I had with both texts. Maybe people wouldn’t put those two things together, but to me, they were holding the same myth-making that allows white supremacy to thrive on Earth.

TR: How did you feel about family or people you know encountering the book?

KA: So, it’s interesting. One of my friends, after reading it, said something kinda in like a shocked, hush tone. “It’s so vulnerable.” They’re not a poet but a musician, and I found that really interesting as it doesn’t feel like a vulnerable book to me. Maybe it’s because I live in that space.

I think of bell hooks’ approach to work a lot, and so much of her work is talking about the collective through the lens of the personal. She will always begin with what the work means to her and why she’s exploring a subject. She’ll still tell stories about her childhood, and then it stands as a way to demonstrate how it deals with the collective. There’s a literary theorist who writes that “the personal is not the individual.” There’s the myth of the individual and that we’re all living atomized lives, but everything that’s happened to me has happened to other people. If we don’t tap in and actually understand what we’re feeling, then we’re estranged from ourselves, which is what these systems demand. These systems, being racial capitalism, require us to be estranged from one another, from ourselves, and the land, and that way, they can continue to exploit us for profit and discard us when it’s done. To me, one of the primary ways to begin to shake that off is to actually understand who we are and, through that, to be able to connect to other people.

I found myself getting scared. There is the desire for the connection that the lyric moves us through and then gets into the space of publication, where there is a feeling of alienation. The feeling of “Oh, did this other me further?” when the desire was to connect, connect, connect. That was the feeling I had when this book came out—that you want people to tap in and touch into you and not turn away. That was my big fear with my parents and with my family. Y’know, it’s a Queer ass book. It’s a blasphemous ass book. The first poem is “How to Fornicate.” It’s in your face. I’m not rolling up to my family being this in your face. So, I feared what they would say. I feared it would be seen as crossing a line for them, but they were really happy. They were really happy for me. They understand the kind of work that goes into this on a craft level, that sometimes I feel that for Black Queer poets, they don’t see the craft we’re doing, just the subjects. It’s just your themes. It was cool to bring this to my family, and, thinking that the content would be what estrange me from them, they’re honoring this book’s craft elements. I was struck by that noticing. The noticing of the vulnerability, the noticing of the craft element. 

To me, the weirdest reaction has been from myself. It’s just a hard feeling to have a book in the world that’s trying to do so much as it’s doing and feels really connected to me. It’s kind of my understanding of how the world works and how I want it to break, be remade, and be laid out. In some ways, it’ll be a map for me as I continue to live in the world and as I continue to write. There are spaces I want to deepen into, but the fear I had to contend with or the othering I had to contend with was mostly my own. 

There’s a way that your relationship to your work starts to change upon first publication in ways other poets have told me about, but I’m learning that there’s no other audience that you need to fear. It’s not your family. You have to write what you’re obsessed with. You have to write what is demanding to come out of you. 

I was reading Chinua Achebe’s essays, and he has this essay about art and this western empire. We attach the name to the art. Like, “This is Kemi Alabi’s book, and these are Kemi Alabi’s poems.” He’s talking about a different orientation to work where you’re actually receptive to a creative spirit, and this art does not belong to us, but we’re responsible for ushering it into the world. Again, this myth of individualism is like “This is me and my book” and “It’s my property” or the myth of the individual brilliance of someone. When we think of genius, even the origin of the word is talking of tapping into a collective experience.

Yes, it wasn’t the other people’s perception that I needed to necessarily fear, but it was my own wrestling with some of these expectations of what art is, what art does, and what it means to have your name on a thing.

I’m so sorry for rambling. I’ve been talking all day today, so I’m in a sort of ramble mode. I’m gonna try to be more brief.

TR: No, it’s fine. Do not worry about it at all. I’m a rambler. I ramble all the time.

KA: That’s kinda how my book is functioning. It’s defining a linear progression, which is what people desire from narrative, but to me, I’m kinda putting all these dots and, by the end, showing you how they’re connected.

TR: It seems as though in this book, even though you have it in sections, you also have what Richard Blanco would call a “furnace poem,” which is a poem before the section that stands on its own. You also have a poem that stands on its own at the end. You have all these threads, even with the different “Against Heaven” poems and how there are five of them spread throughout the book. There’s not even one in each section, and it’s not even the first poem we encounter in the book. You have these various “Lion Tamer’s Daughter” poems, which all look different and talk differently to each other while still having the threads in here and having the book be a complete and cohesive body of work. 

That’s really cool, and going back to music, there are a lot of musicians and artists these days who don’t care about how an album looks. If you look at it like a poetry collection, they’ll either frontload it or backload it. They don’t think about how it flows from one to another. Sometimes albums feel like a collection of hits or just “This is a strong one, this is a strong one, and this is strong.” They will also do my least favorite thing, where they’ll put the single at the end because they don’t know where else to put it. Now, we have people like Beyoncé, who have been in the game for a long time, releasing something like Renaissance.

KA: Like fucking Renaissance.

TR: It is so beautiful because it not only tells a story, but it also flows right into each other. There’s a five-song run on the album that’s just so beautiful. Even her lead single, “Break My Soul,” wasn’t just slapped on at the end.

KA: Yeah, it was at a pivotal point in the album, actually.

TR: As a single, I didn’t care for it.

KA: Oh, really?

TR: As a single, I was like, “This is just alright.” I didn’t expect something like this from Beyoncé, but then as a whole, it made sense. I feel that’s what your book does. 

KA: Don’t you even dare compare me to Renaissance.

TR: Your book is Renaissance. Your book has this thing about structure. You have these very similar poems, and then you even do interesting things where you have different types of forms. These poems have the same name, but one is completely blacked out, and that happens like two times in the book, and it’s very striking. We went from all this white space to having all this black space while still talking and dealing with literal Black spaces. You’re just mixing it up so many times in here.

KA: It’s very experimental in that way. It’s funny that you talked about Renaissance because I felt like I learned so much about a book from listening to it. I like to think about albums when I’m thinking about poetry collections. In truth, though, this book didn’t come together as a project book. I am writing for the line. I’m writing one poem at a time. I’m writing for the loosey. I never even necessarily intended to write a book because I’m not a project book poet. I’m a practice-based poet. Finding the nice line is my next project. What am I up to next? I’m finding the line. 

For me, the most fun, complicated, rich, and difficult part of this was coming up with the long poem of the book, which is the last poem. It’s how it all fits together. It’s what belongs together. I didn’t think I had a collection for a while, and then I started seeing how my poems were talking to one another. Eventually, I started writing the connective tissue. When I think about my theory of narrative, I feel more aligned with what Dionne Brand says about narrative. “Sometimes we expect poetry to do what war might do.” There’s a way narrative has been so weaponized against us, and the idea of the linear arc as a story structure that’s been conceived of as an arc of progress. There’s so much about our ideas of linearity and story that work against us, and I wanted to buck up against them.

I wanted the structure to defy that type of pseudo-linear narrative construction. I wanted it to be kind of iterative. I wanted it to keep being cyclical, to keep returning. I wanted it to be polyvocal. I wanted a sense of disorientation. I think there are ways we have to coddle readers or even just provide catharsis the whole time, but I really wanted that sense of disorientation. For it to not be until the end necessarily where you see all the parts come together. That’s how stories work in our actual lives. We’re just living our fucking lives and getting battered left and right and having experiences left and right. The sense-making happens at the end when we’re looking back. 

I knew I wanted to be really iterative and cyclical. That’s why each section begins with either “Against Heaven” or “Lion Tamer’s Daughter.” You see at the end how those series are talking to each other. Formally, the golden shovels happen throughout, and the blackouts happen throughout.

TR: Caesuras all the way through.

KA: Right. I wanted to kind of disobey some of the laws of storytelling a little bit as a comment on the ways I really am against the linear. I think there is something that we can learn from being jostled a bit. I’m thinking about American poetry and my positionality, identity-wise, within it. Some people have actually asked me, “How and why are you writing about race and sexuality and religion and all these things?” Things that they think don’t go together, or maybe the desire to say, “Here are the Black poems. Here are the Queer poems. Here are the God poems.” They think that’s how the sections are created, but I think about what Audre Lorde said: “There’s no such thing as a single-issue struggle because you don’t live single-issue lives.” All of this needed to live together because it does, and I am proof. That’s why I didn’t push apart what some people might push apart. I needed them to be right next to one another. I needed the hard stuff to be next to the love poems. I wanted it to feel as disorienting and as much of a whirlwind as it actually is while being really iterative. Each section is returning to something that we’ve seen, and by the end, hopefully, that’s what we’ve landed on. How everything speaks to one another. 

TR: That kinda speaks to me as I’m doing my thesis, where originally, I had three sections: Black, Queer, and mentally ill. Then people were like, “It’s not really working,” so I was like, “How can I find a way to link all these story beats together? Am I gonna have a poem where I talk about fucking God next to a poem talking about my grandma in Heaven? How am I gonna make these things work?”

KA: I mean, but that’s the thing. They just do. 

TR: They just do.

KA: But that’s not every reader’s opinion. I feel like I’m doing something intentionally disobedient with this collection. Something like, “Okay, you might not like that, but maybe I didn’t write this for you to enjoy. This isn’t a bedtime story. Maybe you being jostled is a part of the experience.” I wanted to provoke a bit.

TR: I feel like you’ve already talked about mixing religion with the sexual. It’s usually seen as being such a taboo where people are like, “How dare you?” That’s one of my biggest fears, showing my grandparents one of those. I showed my mom one where I talked about fucking God and church, and she was like, “Oh my God. It’s so good, but all I can say is oh my God.”

KA: And that’s a great reaction. I begin this book with two epigraphs. One is from Audre Lorde, and one is from Tourmaline. Tourmaline sang, “When we say abolish police. We also mean the cop in your head and in your heart.” Audre Lorde’s epigraph is from her essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” To me, that essay is talking about what it means to tap into feeling, to heal the estrangement that we have with our own bodies, and the power that has outside of a particular exotic experience because it requires attunement to what we actually desire. That will allow us to notice that most of the world is constructed in a way that is antagonistic toward us. Constructed in a way that requires our diminishment. That requires our destruction, our exploitation, and eventually, us discarded. I love that essay around the power of the erotic because, to me, even though the book has so much sex, that is the entry point for feeling and a deeper understanding in Audre’s understanding of the erotic.

I’m thinking of Adrienne Maree Brown and other Black feminist thinkers who have talked about pleasure politics and what it means for that to be the beginning of an aliveness that awakens us. Knowing that awakening is what we need to begin dismantling these systems and creating new ones. What I find when people go, “Gasp!” there’s also a little bit of a leaning in. I think that shock and provocation are a way of getting people to come more alive. Maybe this is me saying, “Not any reaction is a good reaction,” but anytime you can get people to tap into feeling, even if it has fear attached to it or experiences of shame or their desire to shame you attached to it, that is a more awakened state, so that’s nothing to shy away from.

TR: How do you feel when writing against blackness, or at least writing in that frame of mind? I know you have the Hotep poem as well as the “no more white girls” poem, which I find funny as I also wrote a poem back in undergrad that was “No More White Men.” 

KA: That’s interesting that you frame that as against blackness cause Hoteps don’t get to claim blackness. I think there’s a way that cishet patriarchy has dominated or attempted to define our racial politics in ways that’ll just continue to guarantee mutually assured destruction. Like, I don’t want patriarchy. I never think of it as me writing against blackness. I feel it as me creating more space for my own. We’re not monoliths. It’s a racist assumption to think that we’re monolithic. That we have to move in that way. It is used against us, especially those of us who have less power than the cishet patriarchs. This idea that in order to have solidarity, we have to fall in line with other people who are trying to oppress us just because they’re Black. There’s a way in which all the poems in this book are really at the intersection of Black, Queer, Genderqueer, and against the world. It’s against oppressors. That’s my positionality. I think in some of these poems in what you frame as “against blackness” is me just creating more freedom space and if a Hotep gets in the way of that freedom space then they need to be busted down.

TR: No, I definitely feel that. Because not in a bad way of against blackness but more in the frame of how people would be like, “Oh, you don’t date Black people?” or “Why are you only dating White people?” or they see you with a White girl or White person and they’re just like, “What is that?” Also, Hoteps are just so … interesting in the realm of blackness, so seeing you going against Hoteps, which again is not against blackness but is more in line with how we’re not monoliths but how we’re sometimes pitted against each other.

KA: Yeah, but I’m not initiating the pitting. “no more white girls” is funny because I didn’t want that in the book. I was gonna take it out. My editor… 

TR: Oh, really?

KA: ‘Cause I didn’t want anything about White people in that way. Not that the poem is centering whiteness in that way, but to me, I was like, “It’s a much older poem,” and yeah, I wanted to just play in the Black Queer imagination without that particular antagonist. The poem’s doing some interesting metaphor work around obedience to fathers and father as God, and so my editors liked it, so it felt important to put it in there.

TR: In the same vein, this poem has the line, “my Father hit like a nigerian’s first wisconsin winter,” which still feels very Black community-esque. Y’know? Being raised with “Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about,” or having to be upheld to certain standards, and just growing up while being Black. You have to be strong. You have to be tough. The world is gonna be against you, so being hit physically is a way that’s meant to strengthen you both mentally and physically. Having these two together is very interesting.

KA: Yeah, and who survives that, or what survives after that? I don’t think it’s anyone who survives or who is in touch with oneself enough to navigate this world’s estrangements with them. Real ease and defiance are just as brittle as that. I think back to what Dionne Brand said about narrative and how we expect narrative to do what war might do. I don’t think we need to be preparing soldiers. I think we need a whole new game. When I talk to organizers about armed conflict, they bring up the question that it is an impossibility to be in armed conflict with the most militarized civilization in the history of the world. Our ground is a different one. We’re not trying to forge war. What are we trying to forge? I think there are ways in which we’re taught to survive by hardening up and getting ready to be fighters. I think the whole book’s conceit is that hardening is a trap. Actually, what does it mean to “soften”? For that to be the way to slip out of the grip of these various issues.

TR: Final question and I feel like it’s a question that most Black writers get or most Black writers even ask themselves. Continually writing about Black trauma, writing about what life is, writing about what happens on the news, what makes it on the news, and what we go through in life.  Do you find that it gets tiring, or are there ever moments where you’re like, “I don’t want to write about this” and either have to take a step back from it and write something else, or how do you feel about being a person who lives these experiences, who sees these things happening on a day-to-day basis, and writing about it?

KA: Thank you for that question. I do not feel that I must be a poet of witness. There are poets who write in elegy. I’m thinking of Black poets. Black poets who write elegies, are into documentary poetics, and are really covering histories and revealing more about our present in intentional ways. That is the central focus for some of their works, and a part of their research practices is that commitment. That’s not my commitment.

To me, and even in my collection, I think I’m moving through multiple valences. At some points, what enters my writing is what enters my writing. I’m not trying to police that on either side. As someone who cares deeply about my people, sees what I see, and has my own experiences, I’m writing what I want. I’m writing what is nagging and what is coming in through the line. Sometimes it’s a love poem; sometimes, it’s about the pandemic and how it has impacted my people. Aboutness is not my primary concern. I don’t want the writing to hurt me, and I also don’t believe that we are in the state we’re in because people haven’t explained it enough. I think about Toni Morrison talking about the function of racism being distraction. It’s to keep you explaining, explaining, explaining. I don’t think it’s any Black writer’s task to explain the present or the past. We have many people who’ve had it covered. It doesn’t feel like it is our responsibility to have a transcript of Black life in the United States as some type of weapon in narrative form. I think it’s important work if that’s what you need to write, but I don’t think it’s anybody’s responsibility as Black poets to need to do that, as though the reason why we’re still in white supremacy is that its ills haven’t been well documented enough. That’s not true. 

With that being my assumption, that takes the burden off. Again, to think about Morrison and talking about the function of racism keeping us explaining, I don’t think Black writers of every generation are tasked with the responsibility of explaining, explaining, explaining. I think our responsibility is to whatever creative force is bringing us to the page, and anything we write is a Black poem. Anything that we write is necessary, even if you’re out here writing about blowjobs. There are so many ways that what we write can free somebody else, even if it is not about the news of the day. From that freedom, from that sense of responsibility, sometimes I do engage with the news of the day. I feel like I’m connected to what is mine to write through my practice, and I’m never trying to force myself to write something specific because of a particular mission. I hope all Black writers feel like they can write whatever compels us, whatever brings us to the page because that’s all we need to do. Toni Morrison said, “Your job is just to free somebody else.” Whatever enlivens a writer.

To bring in Howard Thurman, a theologian, said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” You can’t go to the page thinking, “What needs to be written? What do people need?” No, it’s what makes you come alive. Whatever comes out from there is what’s necessary.

TR: Yeah, we don’t need to put ourselves in boxes. Writers may think of themselves as one kind of writer or one kind of person, but we’re very multivalent and multifaceted. Even if we’re just writing five or six poems in a row about a certain topic, doesn’t mean we can’t write about something else. 

KA: Yeah. Thinking again about Chinua Achebe and thinking about the trap of the idea of the individual writer and the deep connection with our work as property. There are ways we become branded by it and feel trapped or stuck in it. We are multivalent, we are polyvocal.

TR: You said something earlier, too that I loved. It’s something that I always say. There is a way that writers have this ability to write something that’s so personal that, in a way, it becomes universal. 

KA: Yes. Again, bringing bell hooks into it and Kevin Quashie, the personal is not individual. That is the myth. This is not to deny how unique our experiences can be, but they’re all connected to the collective. That’s why we need more people committed to their window, the eye. Someone described the eye as a window. You actually never know who’s beyond it. It’s people who don’t look like you and who you think don’t have your own experiences. In order to understand the world, we need everyone to be able to share from their point of view. Otherwise, we’re not seeing it in its entirety; all we can offer is that contribution to how we’re seeing, feeling, and experiencing things. Without that, we don’t know the world.

TR: Wow. I think that’s it. This was a great conversation, and thank you for coming. It was nice having you.

KA: Thank you.


Kemi Alabi is the author of Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award, and coeditor of The Echoing Ida Collection. Their poems and essays appear in the Atlantic, Poetry, the Nation, Boston Review, the BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2, Best New Poets 2019, and elsewhere. Born in Wisconsin on a Sunday in July, they now live in Chicago, IL.

Trey (Tralen) Rhone is a Black and Queer poet, a Writing and Linguistics graduate of Georgia Southern University, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Florida International University. His poems and essays have appeared in Stirring Lit, Mayday Magazine, Daily Drunk Magazine, Olney Magazine, and BULL. Born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, he now resides in South Florida. Tweets infrequently at @TreyRho.