Poet Of The Week

Ladan Osman

     June 10–16, 2019

Ladan Osman is a Somali-born artist whose work is a lyric and exegetic response to problems of race, gender, displacement and colonialism. She is the author of Exiles of Eden (Coffee House Press, 2019), The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony (University of Nebraska Press, 2015), winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize, and the chapbook Ordinary Heaven, which appeared in the box-set Seven New Generation African Poets (Slapering Hol Press, 2014). She has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, Luminarts Foundation and the Michener Center for Writers, among other awards, and her work has appeared in numerous publications and been translated into over ten languages. She lives in Brooklyn. On Thursday, June 13, Osman will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series at 61 Local in Cobble Hill with Derek Mong and Sally Wen Mao.

Author photo by Zakkiyyah Najeebah

Autocorrect
 

“Lynch whenever works best for you.”

I mean, “Lunch.” It’s too late. So come

archived images of black bodies, hot.

I can tell they’re hot, despite death,

by their skin. Later, I find a market

with the cheapest eggplants I’ve ever seen.

In perfect rows. I want their bitter skin,

the color a little like what’s left after a burn,

or sunburn, especially where my arm bends.

Then, all I can talk about is history class,

social studies, how the teachers, even black

ones, don’t tell you they’re going to talk

about hot black bodies with balls and dicks

and maybe other meat stuffed in their mouths.

Why it’s so important to see, without knowing

anything else about her, a black girl— woman—

who can tell with those full white skirts,

proned by batons or water or dogs.

When you’re little and also wear good socks,

frilling socks with good shoes,

you think about the lace getting dirty, blood

on a white skirt, white socks, on shining black

or dark shoes. They should warn us

about their triggers.

What are the pictures for anyway?

White people (I can tell their skin

is dry), holding their hats, cameras,

each other. Squinting at a tree,

at the ground. Why didn’t each black

person kill a white person back.

That’s what I thought, looking at my textbook

or projector or Black History Month posters,

or the white students and the white teacher,

the few other blacks. I sweated a little.

Did I look hot? In a picture I’d have wet skin.

There, one could point a hundred years later

or less, an eggplant shine on my forehead.

 
—From Exiles of Eden, Coffee House Press, 2019.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This is one of the earliest drafts I started for Exiles. It was some time after the killing of Trayvon Martin, when I was still having dreams of children climbing stairs. I think I couldn’t help revisiting materials around the historical erosion of bodies and wills. The autocorrection was an intrusion from myself, not a device. I was inviting someone to a meal but my mind was already deep inside consumption. I let that drag me forward through the voice of a speaker more bold, more alert than I felt at the time.

What are you working on right now?

Essays, photographs and a short documentary series (due out September 2019).

What’s a good day for you?

Rise with a memory of knockout “tenderness.” Make a strong tea full of raw ginger and talk to the plants, a mix of secular music and praise music playing. Read the news but not the noise around it. Scattered journaling, revisiting the skeleton of something I put down the night before, basically daydreaming past algorithm-impacted curiosity. Then I’m unsure! A good day usually has room for adventures and no plan except to try something, to do my best work.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I was traveling to New York off and on, then decided to leave Chicago without a plan or job. This was maybe ill-advised. I’m here because this is the place that leads me through connections, small magics. It asks me to remain here, to put my struggles to rest here.

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

I live in Weeksville. It’s only been a month! I like its history of self-establishment and its Heritage Center, those doors that lead out to open grass. The block I’m on is mostly families who’ve been here for a while but there’s another element of folks rarely seen though they’re neighbors. I hope whatever changes come primarily benefit the people who’ve set roots here, and never challenge those roots. It’s at least as beautiful and more cinematic than most neighborhoods I’ve lived in.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

When visiting Basquiat’s grave, an employee at Green-Wood asked me where I’m from. I said Somalia and he said: Oh yeah? Just like Bowie’s wife … that girl, that beautiful girl, what’s her name? Well, me too. He asked if he looked Somali, told me he’s from South Brooklyn, and laughed for a while. He said he went to the same school as Basquiat while standing on his grave. I asked him not to do that. He obliged and sauntered off.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

A poetry community has poets with various practices and it offers or accepts whatever you need to do your human work so that the writing isn’t your only living. I have found that here due to extreme good luck.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Donika Kelly is a scholar and a gentleman. She’s so technically capable and manages vast information gorgeously. I feel more careful about my heart and the creatures when I read her work or sit with her.

Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves is an artist and ethnobotanist. She asks very direct questions and we’ve talked about what landscapes hold, especially shorelines.

I’ve experienced Nick Flynn as kind, as someone who minds his business. He seems comfortable behaving as a person first instead of a corporatized poet.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

We never worked together but Jamaica Kincaid taught me tension, everything a line can do, and how to freak time in a text. Brigit Pegeen Kelly encouraged me not to let myself be bound by others’ prescriptions for my lyric or my life. I miss her almost every day. Van Jordan pushed my image systems and encouraged me to create situations in drafts, then trouble them. Kwame Dawes taught me to write the birds’ names.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

Hereditary Blue by Oubah Osman has tone and vision. Her words act up before the reader’s eyes.

Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis complicates awe and never slacks.

Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love by Keith S. Wilson discusses longing like it’s supposed to be there.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

I need to spend some time with Ai’s books.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

Sometimes I read one book at a time and it takes a whole season. Other times I try to outrun myself through study and have many books as well as tabs open at once. There are notes everywhere and my own handwriting torments me. I plan reading around a question, inadvertently creating long-term syllabi for myself around periods of history or particular concepts, images. Other than that, I will pick up almost anything and let that carry me. I prefer physical books but digital ones keep that love from getting way out of hand.

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Maybe stick with one persona, one moment or a small constellation of ideas for a whole manuscript. Specific and obvious grounding. I’d like to write a poem without pert sadness. A direct love poem would be nice.
 
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

On the A train and various art spaces (Gavin Brown, MoMA, the Walther Collection). The random city parks that remind me of Law & Order.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Ode to Babel is so sweaty and so much. The women are kind to each other. All the African and Caribbean restaurants not found on Yelp. If I answer this more fully, I’m telling my secrets so …

Why Brooklyn?

Because it’s so damn proud of itself and that pleases me.