Interview with Opal Palmer Adisa
It was a dance from when I was a child, a kind of secret that I didn’t know how to share, until my dances got longer and louder and would not be silent anymore. The essay, “Laying in the Tall Grasses, Eating Cane: How I Became a Writer,” in my collection Eros Muse (Africa World Press, 2007) goes in more details about my development as a writer, and perhaps more effectively chronicles how I found my voice… but I would have to say now on recollection, that in many ways my life was poetry, so capturing it was not only easy but inevitable.
2. Do you work on just one poem at a time, or do you work on several at the same time?
I’m always working on several things at once, not just poetry, but prose and essay and stuff. If I don’t my head will explode. Ideas come at me like bullets on a battle field, and sometimes my head does feels as if it has been blown open, brain and matter spilling everywhere. However, there are times when one poem and one poem alone demands space, freedom to roam and romp and run free and I have to allow it so it, the poem, can exhaust itself, then and only then am I able to capture it… which is taming it.
In order to write the poem, the poet has to tame it, to render its life meaningful to others, but never fully to the poet. Whenever I know and understand the inside out of a poem, then I know I have written a mediocre poem. There always must be some surprise, some discover for me the poet of the poem, each time I revisit it, read it… At every reading I must be surprised at it, must say to myself how did I arrive her at this poem? I must continuously undress the poem. Because my poetry is a free flowing dance, I almost never spend a long time labouring over one poem, but rather a few at once.
I allow the rhythm and beat of one to lead me to the next and so on, just like in a dance, never really staying in one place very long, moving all over the floor, feeling the tempo, allowing the melody and innuendos of the poems to dictate where I glide. In this dance of creation, the poem leads and I, the poet, follow, although sometimes, I usurp the lead and make sudden turns, and because the poem wants a life more than anything else, it acquiesces and allows me to lead, but we, the poem and the poet, know, its success, depends ultimately on its tyrannical nature to lead.
3. Poets spend a lot of time perfecting their craft, and then perfecting each piece. How do you balance this with family life? Where do you get time from to write?
What is time? I have been trying to find and capture it. Making time to write is never a choice, rather a necessity. Certain things don’t get done. Friends and lovers get neglected. Being a writer and being a regular human being is often challenging, especially being a single mother like I have been for the past thirteen years, but you manage. It is easier to have your children invested in your work and you as a poet than a partner.
The level of competition for your time is less intense and dwindles as your children get older and form their own friendship; they don’t take it personal if you are late picking them up from school because your poem held you captive, or if dinner is late and is a little burn; they don’t get peeve, together you all laugh it away as just mommie’s quirk, part and parcel of her being a writer. All of that aside, it is a challenging, juggling act and you end up getting very little sleep, but you do it, because you must, it will not let your rest.
4. What makes you laugh?
I often laugh at myself. My children will tell you I am very silly. I laugh at the most serious things, especially catastrophes, danger, impending doom, I crack up, fall out on the floor, stomach in stitches. Laughter as many know is an antidote. It is very good medicine; it feeds the soul. A man who can make me laugh takes my breath away. I swoon before him. My son is funny and he makes us all laugh. I can’t say what specifically, just life and its odd and uncanny way of humbling us, making us really look at ourselves and say, “it just isn’t that serious.” My children make me laugh. I love them now as young adults. We have a great time together. Travelling always makes me laugh.
5. Is there a particular goal you seek when you write? Awake others? Entertain them? Tell the truth?
I am after the truth, first and foremost for myself, then to share that with others. Poetry is about sharing, what you know, feel, sense, observe. I want to awake people, educate, incite, make them think. Comics entertain, and that is not my line of work. Mostly I want to move people, hear an agreeing nod, “I Hear you!” or a reflective, “I have to think about that!” or “Sure you right!”
6. How do you know when a poem is ‘finished’, and do you stop work on it then and there?
A poem is never finished, even after you encounter it again, years later you will always see something you can change, add, omit. A poem is like a fruit, that can be enjoyed in many stages, green, ripe, overripe and made into preserve. So many factors depend on when you release it and in what stage; it really is subjective. There are some mangoes, suck as Blackie, that are more tasty green, with a sprinkle of salt, but a Julie is best enjoyed ripe, and Bombay makes great preserve.
Which poem is given green, or ripe or overripe sometimes has to do with the subject matter. Often, narrative, political poems that attempt to capture and make commentary on a time-sensitive topic are presented green, but not always, love is often the over-ripe/preserve category… Usually I know a poem is done, when I am tired of working on it, or can’t figure out what to do to improve it, which as you can discern, might not be the best indication that it is done, just that me, the poet, it done with it… as with a lover or clothes, or anything else that is an intimate part of your life that you get bored with…
7. You are to encourage poetry students to write a poem. Please come up with a “writing prompt” out of your own experience, or out of something else, using anything that invades your mind right now. Very short and simple.
List poems are often easy: five things you like strongly and the smell and person you associate with those things.
8. What writers, living or not, have influenced you the most?
I am not sure I know what this question means anymore. Every book and poem I have read have influenced me, some on more profound ways than I can speak to and in more subtle and unconscious ways. Two staple poets, but I don’t think my work in any way resemble theirs, are Pablo Neruda and Louise Bennett. I am a great fan of their works, but I don’t try to imitate or model my poems off theirs. I am ultimately ego driven, and have always wanted to sound just like myself and on one else. In my newest collection, I Name Me Name, poems and prose, (Peepal Tree Press, 2008), There is an announcement, “Who I Read Then, Who I read Now,” that provides more details to this question.
9. How do you write? Drink coffee, wine? Listen to music? Type, scribble? What atmosphere do you feel out of place not writing in?
This too has changed. These days I demand total silence, but writing in a specific place, my office by the window, is not so important — well I am not sure that is true as I am in my office by my window responding to this interview. Place is very important to me, but I find I can commander a space to write wherever I travel, and with a laptop things are more flexible. I cannot write in cafes too much outside noise and distraction. I love nature and it stimulates me.
Sometimes I drink herbal tea, on rare occasions I might have music, but usually when I am working on prose. I almost never write in long hand, apart for the fact that I cannot read my handwriting, I no longer have the rhythm in my hand unless my fingers touch the key-board. However, when ideas come to me, lines mostly, I jot them down, than transcribe them as soon as I can on the computer. It has been many, many years since I have written a poem by hand — it almost feels archaic.
10. Here’s an on-going poem. Please add to it.
They stood before me that night
With clenched fists and blown pupils,
Shadowed by leafless branches of a cotton tree,
The moon as bright as the moon and no metaphor
For which image can serve? What simile
Makes sense enough? The ghosts that guard
the tree nod yes, though I’ve not said a thing.
One shade uncurls and crooks a bony finger, calling me.
the voices rise up like be-headed trees
i stumble forward fear at my heels
how did this night arrive and where is wisdom’s heed
“gone my child is your clothes — face now this thing.”
Jamaican born Opal Palmer Adisa is a writer, poet, and storyteller. She won the 1992 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award for her poetry collection, “Tamarind and Mango Women.” “It Begins with Tears” is her first novel, which has received several notable reviews. Her forthcoming books are a novel, “No Regrets”, and a poetry collection, “Caribbean Passion”. She received her Ph.D in Ethnic Studies Literature from the University of California, Berkeley. Presently, she is Associate Professor and Chair of Ethnic Studies/Cultural Diversity Program at California College of the Arts and Crafts.