Historically intact structural architecture promotes the climate of our values & bias. The courageous act of deliberating these conservative and experimental systems takes courage and empathy. To converse with dialogue of the past means that we are confronting aspects of ourselves that may affront the traditional view of our perception. In this interview with poet Tamara J. Madison, we access the structural boundaries of her own past, as well as how this creatively motivates the way she is able to address the post traumatic environment of slavery in America and the ramifications of this volatile attack on the most intimate of humanity, family.
Madison states, “Despite the progress and change, it will obviously take continuous personal, social, spiritual, emotional and creative commitment across cultures, races, for decades, scores, and maybe even centuries to heal and eradicate that ripple effect.” This responsibility is personal and public, daily and universal; one that requires continual evaluation of our stories.
Madison accesses her passion for performance and spoken word to extend the conflicting emotional sphere of racism, mother–child relations, violence, and what this means in both the mental health of those who experience the trauma and the way the world is shaded by these warping perspectives. She uses music as a way to break down the emotional urge to reject the uncomfortable. The jazz soaked musicality of her line breaks pause, stretch, and reflect, with syncopation, silence, and melodic lyric. The invitation promotes a communal space for the reader/listener to embody both the message of the idea and the destructuralization of thought. This illuminates the need to address the whiteness of skin, what the visibility of color and trauma means pertaining to the past, and movement to adjust the spectrum of light to restructure our world with empathy.
Tamara J. Madison is an internationally traveled writer, poet, performer, and instructor. Her critical and creative works have been published in various journals, magazines and anthologies including Poetry International, Web del Sol, Tidal Basin Review, Temba Tupu (RedSea Press), and SisterFire (HarperCollins). She has performed and recorded her work for stage, television and studio. She holds a BA from Purdue University and a MFA from New England College and is a former English instructor of Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
From Kentucky Curdled
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?
Writing seemed to be a pretty natural ability for me early in school. I understood the magic and power of it at an early age. As a teen for community talent shows and local beauty pageants, I often wrote and performed a dramatic poem for my talent. Everyone else was singing, dancing or roller skating. I knew that if I wrote my own piece, it would be unique and attention-grabbing. THAT WAS FUN! I was doing spoken word on stage before I knew there was such a thing as spoken word!
My favorite writers have definitely changed over time. I loved the work of Maya Angelou and Ntozake Shange very early on when I stumbled upon them at my neighborhood library. I later fell in love with the fierceness of Sonia Sanchez and the dense imagery of blues poet, Sterling Plumpp during my years in Chicago. I love the elegance of Poet Gwendolyn Brooks and the wicked risk of Ai. Home is Lucille Clifton for me.
I am absolutely in awe of the work of francophone poet, Aimé Césaire from Martinique. The density and intricacy of his imagery and the commitment of his life to poetry and the culture of Martinique are a continual inspiration to me. I am a big fan of Toni Morrison, Bernice McFadden, Tananarive Due, and Octavia Butler as well.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
Poet Sterling Plumpp of Chicago was a definite mentor in my youth. I related to his southern background and mannerisms and his creative focus on the blues. His intensity of imagery blew me away, and I knew that was something that I wanted to do as a writer.
Music was a very potent influence in my writing in the early years and remains so. During grad school, all of my instructors served as mentors to different dimensions of my being a writer. I know that is rare, but it is so very true for me. Poet Carol Frost challenged me to see observations in poetry as brilliant. Writer/Poet Paula McLain strongly encouraged me to “surprise” myself rather than play it safe. Poet Ilya Kaminsky insisted that I question my feelings about language and be clear about my intimate relationship with it.
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
(Laughing) My first response to that is that my work has changed greatly over time because I have changed greatly! Thank goodness!
In my earlier years, my focus was rhythm, music and the stage. I even traveled with a band was the featured, bilingual (French/English) vocalist and performance poet. Later, I longed for a different type of intimacy in my work. I also realized that I needed other tools to craft certain stories. At that point, I committed myself to the page.
On the page, the focus of craft is different. I began to focus more on line breaks, white space, and intentional imagery with clearer purpose. The music remains ever present, but it is less predictable complimenting stronger imagery in my work.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
I have a thing for the paranormal/fantasy, but it has to be rooted in in something earthly and accessible to me. That’s why I love Octavia Butler and Tananarive Due. Those fantasy and paranormal elements show up in my writing as well. I have written poems and stories where inanimate objects talk and people fly away and babies sprout from plants.
Musically speaking repetition, call and response, and rhythm patterns of gospel heavily influenced my earlier work. In later years, jazz, juxtaposition, and syncopation became much more of an influence.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
My plans are to publish more and travel much more widely with my work. I have two poetry manuscripts that I want to complete within the next 5 years. I have a companion recording planned for one of them as well. The other project, I would like to do a film adaptation of it. In my travels, I want to share my writing and do workshops with others who feel they have a story to share, whether they are professional writers or not.
I love to inspire “the art of story.” I feel that the intimacy, power, and magic of stories are slowly being lost to our culture. Many people feel that their stories are not valid or worthy of sharing without the backing of Hollywood or celebrity bling! NOT TRUE! We come here to experience this life and share our stories with one another whether at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, in the beauty/barber shop, or across the pillow or pulpit. Our stories uplift, heal, inspire, and encourage us to continue dreaming.
6.) What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?
Women are continuing to be more and more adventurous with their own personal writing as well as with the business of their writing and supporting other women writers. Many are no longer waiting for traditional publishing houses and institutions to honor and support them. Women are starting their own networks to grow, support, publish and produce their work. Women’s Quarterly Conversation is an example of that. (Thanks, Jillian.)
7.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
At the risk of possibly not understanding this question, I am going to say “gypsy/griot/cat-o’-many-lives/adventure-poet”…
8.) Kentucky Curdled grew out of a brutal, tender and gritty story from your true Southern lineage. Can you describe your interview process? How did you poise the illuminative heart of the work: family? How many of these sources are still living and did you find it difficult to unearth non-conflicting concrete sources? How did the research component of this experience evolve your creative process?
I learned the story of Kentucky Curdled (a tragically mother murders her child) as oral history from a relative who shared it with me. The same relative also had a photograph and portrait of the main character. I later researched and found evidence of the life and death of this woman by way of an obituary. There were very few details about her life and the crime other than the dark skin of the child.
I decided at that point to follow the advice of writer/poet, Richard Hugo (The Triggering Town) and his quote, “Knowing can be a limiting thing.” I allowed myself to use the little that I did know as a catalyst or starting block. The rest I embraced as an adventure allowing the muse of the poem to chart and oversee the rest of the journey. From there, characters came as visions and voices like puzzle pieces slowly forming and finding their place. Not having “concrete sources” encouraged me to step into very new territory: persona poems, personification of animals and inanimate objects, and even more intricate form.
As far as managing the darkness of the subject matter, the greatest darkness was the lack of compassion in the way that the story was shared with me. When I asked the storyteller/family relation, why the crime, I was told that the elder auntie was merely, “mean, evil.” That response felt felt heartless and dismissive to me. It was far too simple.
Illumination came with each new poem in the sequence. Each poem/persona and the journey of its crafting shed light on the subject matter and on me. It lightened the burden of carrying the story, which I had done for many years before writing the first poem. Each new voice, no matter how painful the testimony, lightened the load and carried a bit of the story along with me. The whole process was so new and dynamic for me as a writer that I didn’t have the time or need to be lost in the darkness or grieving of it.
From my research I believe the story happened in the late 1800’s (post-slavery) yet in the heat of post-traumatic slavery disorder. I also believe that the story relates to oppression, depression, and trauma of all kinds that weaken mental health. Such has existed in various cultures around the world, ancient to the present. We often simply do not know the stories of those who have been traumatized. Because of death, madness, illness, etc., many were/are unable to articulate and record their own histories. Many others have had their history erased or crucially revised.
9.) Kentucky Curdled is a chapbook and spoken recording. I am particularly interested in how the experience shifts from the spoken word to the written word for both the reader and the listener. As a listener, it was easier to digest the emotive spectrum of the work. Was this intentional? What inspired you to create a recording? I am also interested in why you did not choose to add music, only sparse sound effects?
The aural and oral nature of poetry come natural to me and continue to influence in my work. Even when revising poems that I may never read to an audience or record, I read them aloud to see/hear if the music and voice I hear in my head are translated effectively on the page. At various readings, a number of people suggested that Kentucky Curdled would make an interesting performance. Before adapting the poetry for a script or looking at anything on stage, I heard it first, so I wanted a recording or audiobook to be the next stage of development for the work.
When I first heard one of the final stages of the recording, I experienced it differently as well. I have recorded a number of times before and am used to hearing my voice recorded, but this was different. It affected me. This caught me by surprise because I am the writer and was the one in the sound booth. All that I can say is that this project feels to have a life of its own, and I am blessed to be a part of it.
I agree that there is some “ease” in digesting the project audibly. Something about the sound ushers you through the pain. That was not at all intention, but I am most grateful for it. That is part of the magic of poetry for me. It is a multi-dimensional language in whatever language it is spoken or written.
I purposefully chose not to have a lot of music and background in the project. I wanted the sparseness to reflect the time period. I also wanted the raw feel of the project. The final product is reminiscent of an old school radio listen where the family is gathered around and glued to their seats until the story is finished. It is a sacred and powerful space that our culture has lost. I hope that this project revives some of the power and fellowship of those kinds of moments.
10.) The processional unfolding of the character Rachel is at the core of the sequence. Rachel kills her child because he is “too black”. We read in “Beulah”, an interrogation of “black”. How black is “too black”: “ass-black”, “ink-black”? We are asked to consider what the linguistic focus is actually masking: the invisibility of white. We hear from Rachel. In the poem “Rachel:” we listen to her monologue: “What you ‘spect me to say? Sorry? / Sorry was snatched from me the day / the devil yanked me from my mama’s bed, / from her arms. // Before I could even see my own blood, / the devil seent it, / snapped my body like a twig / as kindling for his fire. / He broke me, bed me, / come with 12 different faces.” How did working the violence of your family history affect you? How do you believe language has to shift in order to illuminate and make visible the “white” dialogue? How much do you think that the linguistic component of racism constructed in language has shifted from Rachel’s voice to the present? What steps do you believe we have taken and which ones are we missing?
As a person of color growing up in the United States, “white” is always visible in everything. What you describe as the “’white dialogue” is always loudly audible and remarkable for me as a person of color. Part of the intention behind Kentucky Curdled is that it is not at all matter-of-fact or simple. Such circumstances are never that black and white, right and wrong with regards to the human brain, human behavior, and trauma. Add the intensity of slavery, oppression, and racism on top of that and the “matter” is all the more complex. I don’t believe any of us can fully understand such matters, but we have to try.
With centuries of oppressive and violent racial history, the linguistic and other effects of racism are still painfully existent around the world. We see the residue of such all over the media, in conversations, and behavior of people of all races. Even within the Black/African American community there is the term, “color struck” which describes a person of color having color prejudices and not wanting to associate with a person who is too dark or too light-skinned.
Despite the progress and change, it will obviously take continuous personal, social, spiritual, emotional and creative commitment across cultures, races, for decades, scores, and maybe even centuries to heal and eradicate such a ripple effect. I think that understanding is what is missing—the fact that it is ongoing, daily personal, interpersonal, cultural, social, political, etc. work and commitment to change these things. It does not disappear because we have “friends” of a different race or because legislation changes. It takes more work than most of us are willing to imagine.
Kentucky Curdled’s process was enlightening and invigorating. The lack of compassion around such stories was/is the most challenging for me. Rachel might have been abused or traumatized, especially given the time period in which she lived. How might that have affected her choices? What about the possibility of post-partum depression or mental illness? For us in this age to not consider such regarding our ancestors and their challenges is absent-minded and irresponsible. We can and should afford to be more thoughtful and informed regarding their histories simply because they survived in order that we might be here.
I had a very prominent literary journal send me a rejection letter telling me how respectfully they read Kentucky Curdled but ultimately refused to publish it because it reminded them too much of Toni Morrison’s, Beloved. I was initially offended because it said to me that we should only be allowed one such story when in reality for everyone that we may catch a glimpse of, there are hundreds that we may never know, yet they haunt us. Kentucky Curdled is poetry, not a novel. There are no slave catchers hunting this woman down at the time of this act. There is no jealous or vengeful ghost here. This is not a reminder of Beloved, though it reminds us all of the horror in our collective history. One story is simply not enough. Many thanks to aaduna and And/Or for taking the risk and publishing very generous excerpts of this work.
My intent is to honor those who endured such horror, to give them all a sacred space to come forth without my judgment or anyone else’s. I wanted to share and release the story and those haunted by it without exploiting anyone or anything. I also wanted to creatively illustrate how our choices affect the environment (living and inanimate) all around us, thus we must move responsibly.
I hope that somehow the story inspires productive conversation and behavior around the issues of racial/cultural oppression, domestic violence, and mental illness and moves us to greater health and wholesomeness in our human experiences.
Lastly, I pray that it makes the souls of my ancestors smile and the souls of my children enlightened.