Poet Of The Week

Sasha Banks

     January 9–15, 2017

Sasha Banks is a poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in RHINO, Kinfolks Quarterly, Alight, Poor Claudia, B O D Y, the Collagist and the Austin International Poetry Festival anthology. Her writing has also been performed in Tulane University’s Vagina Monologues. Sasha is the creator of Poets for Ferguson and an MFA candidate at the Pratt Institute. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, where she is learning to be Black and spectacular at the same damn time.

Sasha Fells the Wildwood

Mhm. The poplars know
how to hold death. Keep it
still. But I’m swinging the axe.
They’re all around the city:
eyeless and staring
even to the dirt under
my nails. Peopling the
bayous. Hungry. Look.

Last night was that dream
again: me and Jesus
pulling nails out of our feet
at the lip of the Mississippi
Delta. Somewhere, Coretta
is calling for Martin
to come down from a sycamore.
He’s just a boy, here, but
he weeps and the sky
is ripped at the belly.

They shifted shapes. But I know.
The rocking chair, the banister,
nightstand, porch steps, vanity. I know,
and I am swinging the axe.

Don’t laugh. I couldn’t have been
the only black child
who didn’t trust the forest; who saw it,
from her dark window, turning itself
into rows of small coffins. A silence
like that—all the time smirking
with no mouth. Knew my terror
and loved it.

Watch me, now.
I’m swinging this axe.
I come back for all of this summer
and give my flesh to it,
undressed in its hot breath.
Watch. Just steady on
this axe I’m swingin’. I run
through this klan of cypresses
whirling their lassos above
their branches. They want
to make me their strangest fruit.
But look.
How the axe humbles the wood
to a stacked history
of its noosed unions to this skin.
A clean cut. And now,
so much firewood.

–Originally published in B O D Y, May 2014.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

My family, on my father’s side, is from Greenwood, Mississippi at the edge of the Delta. There’s a plant that grows in that area called kudzu, and when we’d drive from Columbus to Mississippi, I always knew we were close to Greenwood when I saw it. It climbs over the trees that line the interstate and kinda drapes over them. It makes them look like these creepy, almost shadowy animals or figures. My mom and I would joke that they came to life at night and moved around, or jumped back and forth across the interstate and that when the sun came up, they froze. When I started to understand the history of racism, particularly in my family’s hometown, I started to look at the trees differently. I would freak my mom out, ’cause I’d be in the car—I was twelve years old—like, “Mom, how many people do you think were lynched in that forest?”

With “Sasha Fells the Wildwood,” I really just wanted to use those images to talk about the relationship between the Black body and natural elements like wood, trees. But I didn’t want it to stop at just caskets and death, ya know? I wanted to go back for those trees—with an axe.

What are you working on right now?

The work I do deals largely with history, Americanism, and the Black experience, which is a stressful intersection. Out of those themes, I’ve been working on a pair of projects that I feel really good about, and I’m excited for the day that I can say more about them.

What’s a good day for you?

It doesn’t take much for me—a good day is one where my sisters are blowing up my phone with some ratchet-ass nonsense. But a really good day is one where my day’s been really shitty, and I just kind of quietly remember some internal/personal truth and I’m able to talk myself off my own cliff. Trust, it don’t happen all the time, but when it does I feel like I’m becoming more of the person I wanna be.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

When I was little, New York was all I could talk about. I’ve been saying I was gonna live in a brownstone since before I knew it was one word, not two. For a long time, it didn’t look like it was ever really gonna happen and then, I heard about the MFA program at Pratt. I said I’d move to the city if I was accepted and then, boom. Bed-Stuy.

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?

It’s been close to two years since I came to Bed-Stuy. Not long at all. I feel like everything and everybody is here; by that I mean I rarely have to leave Brooklyn for anything. Bed-Stuy is still a predominantly Black neighborhood, which I love, but it’s clearly not immune to the gentrification that’s kind of eating up other parts of the city.

It’s different than any of the other neighborhoods I’ve lived in because you experience more parts of the world between two blocks than you would driving clear across the country. It’s a special thing.

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

Let me tell you about the day I met Solange. The day after the release of A Seat at the Table, Saint Heron posted on Instagram that there was a listening party happening in Brooklyn and if you wanted to go, you had to send an email saying why you wanted “a seat at the table.” It had been posted an hour before, so I didn’t think it was worth trying, but I typed something up on my phone and sent it thinking, Psh, good luck with that, self. Ell oh ell.

Later, I was standing in the cabinet aisle at Home Depot, dressed how I felt that day (like real live shit) and looking up something on my phone, when I saw there was an email from Saint Heron, letting me know I’d been invited to the listening party and to be there at 7 PM … and oh yeah, “Solange will be there.”

By the time I saw the message, it was 5:30. I ran home and texted my friend, “THIS IS NOT A DRILL. I’M MEETING SOLANGE TONIGHT. WHAT WILL I WEAR?!” She said, “YOUR. VERY. BEST.”

The event was at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Bed-Stuy—ten minutes from my house. It was a stunning space. At the center of the room was the longest dinner table I’d ever seen with one long neon yellow bulb glowing down the middle of it. Solange, her husband Alan, son Julez and friends Melina Matsoukas and DeRay McKesson were there.

It felt like the most surreal, minimalist, chicest Christmas dinner ever. I sat next to complete strangers who I’ve kept in touch with since. We got up from the table and did the electric slide to “Junie.” By the end of the night, I got to thank Solange for surviving the four years it took her to make A Seat at the Table. She hugged me. We danced to “We Made It” by Jay Z and Jay Electronica. I went home and recounted it all to a friend who reminded me that I’d been saying I would meet her since February. Still grateful and shocked. “Defining Brooklyn experience,” indeed.

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

I think a poetry community is an atmosphere that can personally and artistically feed into the people who are a part of it. I’m still new to Brooklyn, so I think it’ll take some time to find that for myself. I definitely have a head start with my MFA cohort, which is full of some of the smartest writers I know, with the most profound senses of writerly style. I’ve learned how to better engage with the work of other artists. I’ve learned from them how to see myself as an artist, and to see my work as something that can exist in a space of multiplicity and that feels really good.

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

I have to open that up a little bit and say that there’s a lot of Brooklyn artists of all different media who have been important to me: Xaviera Simmons, Mariana Sheppard and Rachel Eliza Griffiths are a few artists who’ve been important to me, most recently. Each of them is a stunning, stunning visual artist. All of them have work that draws me in for the way it touches and presents the Black body and history, and deals with placement and natural settings—all of that is my damn jam. Rachel Eliza, in particular, is a poet and photographer who I connect with for a lot of different reasons, one being that a large part of my process is extremely visual-driven. She had an opening at Poets House recently and we kinda stood over in a corner like a couple of nerds, geeking out about the process of building images on the page and elsewhere.

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

Until grad school, I’d never had a poetry mentor because I studied music for so many years, so my mentorship came through my piano teachers, Joy Miller and Bob Marino. I didn’t start taking my writing seriously until my last year of undergrad, and at that point it was a little late for me to have any formative mentoring, in the traditional sense. My poetry mentors were the authors I was reading at that time: Warsan Shire, Safia Elhillo, Patricia Smith.

Eventually, I picked up some in-person mentors like Natasha Carrizosa and Donney Rose, who are both poet-educators (in Texas and Louisiana, respectively). When I came to Pratt, I chose Mendi Obadike as my formal mentor. From all three of them, I have to say I’ve learned so much about being deliberate in every single thing you do—to know what you want and why you want to do something, so that you’re not just doing something because it’s what other people are out here doing. They’ve all influenced my understanding of the importance of having a healthy perception of yourself as an artist, personally and out in the world, socially.

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

The last poem I read was a piece called “I Decided That I Was a Planet” by Aisha Sasha John. The opening stanza is:

I decided that I was a planet and I was a planet.
I had to.
I decided that I was a planet and—
I am.

It stood out to me because HOT DAMN! All that power! It’s from a larger collection called I have to live and goes on to describe the things that Black women have to choose to become in order to survive, to live. There’s a later stanza that says:

It doesn’t matter where I sit
And that
I’m fucking crunchy.
I have to be fibrous
So as not to be consumed.
I have to
Fucking live.

I don’t think I need to say much more about that, now do I?

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

Listen. I been looking high and low for a damn copy of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower to no avail. I don’t know what kinda nonsense that is, or what kinda masked burglar is thieving that book off of every damn bookshelf just as I set foot in any bookstore between here and Chelsea, but “I need it in my life, I want it in my life. Come put it in my life. I’ma keep it in my life,” as they say.

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?

Oh, I’m in graduate school which means I don’t read a damn thing, but when I’m on break I like to read two books at once. It’s a pretty standard waltz into the bookstore, poking around at buttons, pens and notebooks I don’t need. It’s pretty random. But I do tend to walk in knowing how I want to feel, and then looking for the book that might do that for me.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

On the train, for sure.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

One of the first places I fell in love with in Brooklyn was Fort Greene. There’s always so many gorgeous Black people walking around, and I love to stare and pretend I can afford to live there. I will one day. But it’s cheaper to pretend for now.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the ruin, 

And what I have survived you will suffer
For every right thing hastens to me as good turns from you.

Why Brooklyn?

Because elsewhere is a dead end, when it’s not where you’re meant to be.