Ordinary Beast (Ecco, 2017)
Nicole Sealey had an eventful 2017. Ordinary Beast, her debut collection of poetry, was published by Ecco in September, which caps off a year that began when she took the helm as the executive director of Cave Canem in January. Cave Canem, which just turned twenty, has been one of the most important literary organizations of recent decades. The group’s list of former fellows include some of the country’s great poets. Sealey is a former fellow who plans to continue and expand their efforts through anti-oppression workshops and nurturing a new generation of poets and arts administrators.
Ordinary Beast combines formal verse and free verse. The longest poem in the book, and one of its key poems is cento for the night i said, “i love you” but she writes poems about Brad Pitt and Clue, about Thomas Hischhorn’s Candelabra with Heads, and Paris Is Burning, about love and history. It is a stunning debut book, full of beauty and rage, a sense of history and spirituality. The book is moving and powerful and marks the arrival of a major poetic voice. Sealey was kind enough to talk about the book and Cave Canem
Alex Dueben (Rail): I was reading an interview where you described yourself as a slow writer. What does that mean to you?
Nicole Sealey: I know poets who are able to write good poems in a day or two—I envy those poets. In my 38 years, that has happened for me only once. I believe “unframed” came to me in a day. Depending on the poem, it can take me anywhere from a couple of months to a few years, from start to finish. But this isn’t unique to my experience as a poet. There are many others who write as slowly or even slower than I do. From poet to poet, processes and priorities are different. I, for example, have a 9 to 5 job, so there’s also actual time to contend with.
Rail: Reading the book the poem that I’m guessing took the longest to write was “cento for the night i said, ‘i love you’”. Not just because of its length but can you talk about what a cento is?
Sealey: A cento, as you’ve come to know, is a poem comprised entirely of lines by other poets. A few summers ago, I had the pleasure of studying under poet Alan Shapiro at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. I brought in an eight-line cento to workshop – what would later become a section of “cento for the night”. Shapiro said something like, “you know a cento is usually a hundred lines long, right?” I took that as a challenge and so began the expansion of my cento. Before I began drafting “cento for the night”, I knew that it should be comprised of lines by 100 different poets. Of those poets, no more than fifty percent could be white and no more than fifty percent could be men.
I mined my library. Selected hundreds of lines. Then wrote those lines out by hand on loose-leaf. Dozens of papers with dozens of lines lined my dining room table—for at least a year my husband and I ate elsewhere in the house. [laughs] I don’t know what I was thinking. What possessed me. Midway through I thought to myself, why did I do this? It took me damn near a year and a half, maybe even two, to organize the cento. But, by the project’s end, something beautiful had been created and I couldn’t have been more proud.
Rail: The formal structure is a time-consuming challenge, but the poem also sounds like you, like your other poems in the book, and I would imagine that’s the biggest challenge.
Sealey: You know, that wasn’t as difficult as you might think. The lines I selected were ones that moved me, ones that I was aesthetically drawn to—perhaps even lines that I wished I would’ve written myself. As standalone lines, each probably reads like the work of another poet, which is to be expected. Taken all together, however, I believe they read like me or a version thereof.
I wasn’t necessarily searching for lines that sounded like me because I knew that, in the end, they’d begin to collectively form a voice I could call my own. I was mainly concerned with the arrangement of the lines more than anything else.
Rail: You have free verse poems and also sestinas and sonnets. What’s your relationship to formal verse?
Sealey: I started thinking seriously about poetry because of received form. I had the great fortune of participating in a Cave Canem workshop led by Marilyn Nelson, an amazing formalist. Before then, I used to begin poems in form and then abandon them soon after out of sheer frustration. All that to say, my relationship with form, at least initially, was very much strained. Now, I love form because it forces me to be deliberate—it encourages the most circuitous poets to get to the point.
Form is a way into and out of poems that require repetition, rhyme, meter or any number of other accoutrements.
Rail: The book is very dark but it’s also very playful.
Sealey: I’m glad you think so! I wanted Ordinary Beast to reflect the complexity of the human experience, which includes both darkness and delight.
Rail: Just as you’re balancing free verse and form, you’re also balancing light and dark elements and the book has this associative quality that brings them all together.
Sealey: Well, thank you, that’s kind of you to say. That associative quality, I think, comes from my work with form. The restrictions lend themselves to music, imagery and associations that probably wouldn’t occur otherwise. The challenge of getting from point A to B in a fixed number of beats or the challenge of rhyming one word with another and the poem still making poetic sense, for me, creates a heightened sense of imaginative urgency that informs interaction with my free verse poems. That’s how, I imagine, a poem like “the first person who will live to be one hundred and fifty years old has already been born” is able to leap from a conversation about getting older to the Mona Lisa.
Rail: In the Clue poems, the Brad Pitt poem, you take these topics that seem playful and turn them into something more, and one way you do that is through form.
Sealey: Before seeing the poem Denise Duhamel wrote for Sean Penn, “Delta Flight 659,” which “an apology for trashing magazines in which you appear,” better known as the “Brad Pitt poem,” uses as its model, I didn’t know how to best articulate the poem. I’d had the poem in mind for years, but hadn’t found a way in until I read Duhamel’s. The Brad Pitt poem is my attempt at an amusing exploration of envy, self-loathing, and celebrity culture and, had it not been for Duhamel’s form, I’m convinced that that poem would not exist. That goes for the other poems in the collection written in received form as well, from the “legendary” sonnets to the erasure.
Rail: You have two pairs of poems in conversation with each other I wanted to talk about. One pair is “candelabra with heads” and “in defense of candelabra with heads”. The first poem was written about the Thomas Hirschhorn piece of the same name. Why did you write the second one?
Sealey: It wasn’t a conscious decision but, rather, an impulse I gave in to. I had to write “candelabra with heads,” the ekphrastic poem inspired by the Thomas Hirschhorn piece, to get to “in defense”. I have ideas and I have lines for poems, but I don’t sit down to write on specific subjects. If I did, I imagine, the poem would veer off in the opposite direction anyway.
I don’t recall what exactly prompted me to write “in defense”, but whatever it was, I’m forever grateful—what begins as a defense of an editorial decision turns into a testimony and a call to action.
Rail: One reason I ask is because of the title, “in defense of,” which implies that it needs a defense or response.
Sealey: I thought about suggestions my editors made for my chapbook, The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, which included edits to “candelabra with heads.” The version of the poem in my chapbook does away with that last line, the question at the poem’s end: “Who can see this and not see lynchings?” The editors believed that the line clicked shut a poem that should be otherwise unfolding, but I didn’t and don’t believe the poem was supposed to do that. Poems have different purposes. Every poem serves a different function and perhaps the purpose of “candelabra with heads” wasn’t to open, but to click shut, as they said. Perhaps it was supposed to serve as the eyes through which readers can see exactly what the speaker saw. “in defense” interrogates the removal of that last line in the chapbook and examines my impulse to include it in its entirety in Ordinary Beast.
Rail: And so “in defense of” is about imagining how the poem could be open. A future where life has changed and as the last line puts it, “May her imagination, not her memory, run wild.”
Sealey: Yes, “in defense” is open. The repetition of the “may” statements reads like a spell affirming future possibilities. Perhaps “candelabra with heads” was supposed to click shut, so “in defense” could open up, as each poem is doing very different work.
Rail: The other two poems that are in conversation are the first and last poems in the book, both of which end in death, sort of. You open with “medical history” which very physically roots you to the world and end with “object permanence” which is romantic and almost liminal.
Sealey: “medical history” speaks to the individual I, specifically the speaker’s preoccupation with that I. By the time we get to “object permanence,” however, if this is the same speaker, there is a shift in her priorities—life happened, love happened. “object permanence” is concerned with the we more than anything else. The “cento,” the book’s centerpiece poem, foreshadows this shift, as it follows the speaker from her first encounter with love to what could be read as the likely demise of it. If that makes any sense. [laughs]
Rail: I think it makes perfect sense. I also think “object permanence” is very romantic, which may not be universal. But as you were answering I thought of “in igboland” and the lines “I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.” Something holy but temporary describes love, or our lives.
Sealey: “object permanence” is a romantic poem. It opens with lovers waking up, there first impulse is to make sure the other is still there (as if their life together had, thus far, been a dream). In thinking about her relationship with her beloved, the speaker is reminded that there was a time, before they met, when they weren’t together and such a time will likely come again (death). Like the speaker in “in igboland,” the speaker in “object permanence” understands that nothing lasts forever. Not even love. That, indeed, every thing aspires to one / degradation or another.
Rail: I did want to speak briefly about your day job. You became Executive Director at Cave Canem at the beginning of 2017. You’ve been working there for a few years now, you’re a former fellow, what has the organization meant to you?
Sealey: I participated in my first poetry workshops at Cave Canem, studying under Marilyn Nelson, Willie Perdomo, Patricia Smith, and others. These workshops, mine you, were all free or low-cost. I was a youngish poet at the time, working a job that didn’t pay much, and Cave Canem provided the space and opportunity to become a better poet and to write about the issues of importance to me. I can’t stress enough necessity of a space where black poets can just be and write about whatever we want without judgment, without censor. And, to work closely with some of the best poets to have ever picked up a pen, poets like Carl Phillips, Claudia Rankine and Yusef Komunyakaa, is just short of heaven.
My work wouldn’t be the same without Cave Canem. I probably wouldn’t even be a poet. Heck, I probably wouldn’t even be married to my husband—also a Cave Canem fellow, who I met at a mutual friend’s –another Cave Canem fellow – book party.
Rail: Is there something that you’re trying to do or thinking about doing differently at Cave Canem?
Sealey: Of course. In December, Cave Canem hosted its first anti-racism workshop for administrators in the literary arts field—staffers from over a dozen institutions participated. The workshop was facilitated by Cave Canem fellow, Rona Jaffe awardee and anti-oppression activist, Ama Codjoe.
We have an internship program as well as a working fellowship program at Cave Canem, both of which train the next generation of arts administrators of color. Though this is a good start in making the field equitable, the field itself requires training to better understand and be conscious of its own biases, which is why this workshop was so important. I’m hopeful that it was the first of many anti-oppression workshops at Cave Canem, as these conversations should be ongoing—not only about race, but also sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other belief systems that mean to oppress.