May 23–29, 2022
.chisaraokwu. (she/her) is a manifestation of the Igbo people on North American soil. Before fully leaning into her artistic sensibilities, she practiced medicine as a pediatrician and served as a senior health policy advisor in the federal government during the Obama administration. As an actor, poet and healthcare futurist, she explores in her art the indigenous practices of the Igbo, their (non)expression/suppression in Eurocentric spaces, and how the spirit/body expresses memories in the wake of trauma. She is grateful to have her work published in Obsidian, Glass, Berkeley Poetry Review, West Trestle Review and Cider Press Review, and forthcoming in Grist, Zone 3, Mantis and elsewhere. Her work has been supported with residencies and fellowships from Tin House, Cave Canem, the Lemon Tree House (Italy), Pacific University, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and the Periplus Collective. Last year, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow to attend the eighth annual summer retreat. When she is not writing, she can be found on a theater stage or at the beach.
Author photo by Chriselda Photography
Marrow is the heartland that splits time & calls us one. I am not one of them. Ugo, agu, mbe: I dig for ilu that decodes bloodties, life lessons Enweghim ike na Igbo— this tongue weakened by waves of salt & years Imaghi otu esi ekwu ya. This is not a question. They know I cannot claim to have discovered what already exists. I should have listened to the cuts in their skin, their ciphered laugh that hid teeth under cracked lips. Should have recognized the inherited fire. I remain dispossessed: an (im)migrant wringing stories from their tongues wet with new words.
Old worlds. N’okwu beke.
Their past is a smoldering country I must travel words to get to — & they are not ready to speak a bridge
—Originally published in Obsidian, 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Aaaah, “Border Crossings” … previously called “Territories,” previously labeled “Untitled,” and I’m still wondering if the current title is the last one. Hopefully that gives you a little insight into the making of this poem. Neverending. In all seriousness, for as long as I can remember I have been investigating the space between my ethnicity (Igbo) and my nationality (US-American). Born and raised in the US in a bilingual-bicultural household made me acutely aware of the differences between my experiences as an American and my parents’ experiences as both Nigerians and Americans. I desperately wanted to bridge the gap, or in this case cross the border to be like them yet also distinctly me. That’s the first part. The second part has been my interest with the unique and tragic period in Nigeria’s history—the Biafra war. This poem is the first in a collection of poems reflecting on interviews I’ve done with survivors of the war and the difficulty in getting the generations that survived that war to speak to me about it. Obviously there is the trauma of it; but there are also, in some cases, the linguistic barriers and the cultural ones. There are certain things you just don’t talk about. That’s what I was reflecting on here.
What are you working on right now?
Well, I’m finishing up the aforementioned collection and working on another one—a biomythography set in southern Louisiana, where I spent a formative portion of my childhood, that incorporates all the things I’m fascinated by: African cosmology, linguistics, Judeo-Christian mythology, gender-based and religious-based trauma, joy, and black girl/womanhood. I also just finished a hundred-day haiku challenge and let me tell you, it has been a game-changer for my process. The only rules were to write traditional haiku. Not contemporary, not inspired-by types of works. Just straight haiku, kigo and all. I love and respect the natural world, but this experience opened me up to our planet’s rhythms in glorious ways.
What’s a good day for you?
Getting a poem draft done or revised! Getting some words on the page! Is there really anything else? Don’t answer that.
There are many ways a day is good for me (reading a good book, laughing with my mom and siblings, a walk on the beach); but yeah, I’d say getting something down makes the day that much nicer.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
I got into a conservatory for acting! I had been living in Italy at the time and knew in my spirit that I wanted to do more acting and writing in my life, professionally. So I started looking into programs, applied, and voilà I’m in NYC! The entire experience was a dream come true.
Tell us about your neighborhood in Brooklyn. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How has it changed? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
My first residence in NYC was in Brooklyn, specifically Park Slope for an entire summer. I absolutely loved it! I was four blocks from Prospect Park and walked there every day before class singing Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind” (the version with Jay Z, of course). Just kidding. Not really. Oh, and Ample Hill Creamery! Good lordt, I get why the lines are always so long! And honestly, all my artist friends were in different parts of Brooklyn, so I felt community there more than anywhere else. Whether it was poetry readings, actors performing, playwrights reading or scavenger hunts, the fellowship of artists was and still is extraordinary!
In terms of how it compares to other places I’ve lived: my dream had been to live in Park Slope, so I was happy to experience that. I also lived in the Bronx and Washington Heights. And while I loved those spots for different reasons, Brooklyn is still home to me and will be my first NYC love.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Oh gosh, there are so many. Hmmm, I was out with a friend of mine at Prospect Park. It was a Sunday late in the first year of the pandemic, like late summer. We were on scooters having a blast whizzing past all the “nooks and crannies” of the park. But in the midst of all that, there was a jazz concert, a Black Lives Matter rally/march, folks canoeing, a cycling group getting in their Sunday afternoon bike ride, folks dancing salsa near the pits and a large family reunion complete with a big banner with the family’s name on it. (I thought about those stories where people crash a reunion just to see if the potato salad is any good. I did not do this. I promise.) That was quintessential Brooklyn to me—to borrow the title of a fantastic movie I just saw, it was “everything everywhere all at once.” That’s Brooklyn.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Did you find that here? Have you found it where you live now? Why or why not?
Poetry community is where you are fed, nurtured, pruned—where you can grow in safety, support and love. And this is what I loved so much about New York (and incidentally, Facebook … don’t quote me on the latter). I had put feelers out about poetry communities in Brooklyn online and someone mentioned Women Writers in Bloom, a poetry salon hosted by jurist and poet extraordinaire JP Howard. I emailed her straightaway and then ran into her serendipitously at a Cave Canem event at the Brooklyn Museum and she remembered me and just embraced me. And that’s how it felt with every artist I encountered in Brooklyn—that welcoming, embracing spirit.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
That’s not fair—there are so many. I mentioned JP; there’s Patricia Spears Jones, Jason Koo (hello, Brooklyn Poets!). The first long book I ever read was a children’s biography of Langston Hughes. My kindergarten teacher thought I would like it. I did; I can still see the pages and some of the illustrations in that book. Yes, I was reading long books in kindergarten, lol. Audre Lorde, whose word “biomythography” I use to describe some of my work, has also been influential.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I didn’t really have any, in the traditional sense. I just read a lot of books, listened to a lot of performances and readings, and watched Def Poetry Jam! Nikki Giovanni was the first poet I encountered whose work resonated with how I see the world. I called myself a “poet” after reading her work. Currently, I have writing partners who are poets, essayists, novelists and songwriters, and all of them support my thinking outside the box.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Again, not fair. There are so many! Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip and The Dyzgraphxst by Canisia Lubrin. The former for its disruption of English/legalese syntax, and the latter for its polyvocality. Both of these come into play in the biomythographical collection I mentioned.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Too many. It’s horrible—I have a five-foot column of books I will get to in this lifetime, but I also love checking out books from the library; so, there’s an ever-growing pile of books on the “reading” list. The one sitting right next to me that I’m determined to begin and finish is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. I’ve wanted to read it for three weeks now; but I keep reading New Yorker articles. I think it’s time to read it.
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?
As you can see from above, I’m a dipper. I wasn’t like that before. But in this chapter of my life I am, so I have to have a system with the following rules of organization:
1) If I don’t like the book, I will not force myself to read the whole thing. Life is too short.
2) Set aside thirty minutes max to read from each book every day or two. That way you’re always excited to come back to it. Didn’t Ernest Hemingway say something similar about writing?
3) If things are getting overwhelming, i.e., there’s ten books in your pile and you don’t know where to begin or what to get rid of, go Marie Kondo and start asking yourself, “What will bring me joy?” No lie, it will help you declutter, feel better and focus on what will be most beneficial for you in that moment.
I absolutely prefer physical books! I only bought a Kindle in 2012 because I like to travel light. Prior to 2012, I was risking baggage fees for heavy luggage and those add up! But yeah, if I have a choice or if you want to give me a gift, make it a physical book.
As for notes, yes, I’m a note-taker! It’s a habit I got from all those years of schooling. Actually, I’m more a sticky-tab user. I do not like to write in books, so I’ll use little stickies to write a note on a favorite passage in a book.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I want to try a cento. I’m too scared to say more than that.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Assisi, in Perugia, Italy. There’s this cute place my friend owns called La Casina Colorata—either there or anywhere in Assisi.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Prospect Park—because it’s a microcosm of social, political and cultural meshing and segregation that happens in America. That’s a whole ’nother topic for another day.
LuAnne’s Wild Ginger—best vegan/Asian food I have ever had! Period.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the honeysuckle scent of childhood in that old Louisiana backyard,
The way it tickled my nose, and colored my fingers yellow with pollen …
And, what I wish for you is a pleasant scent to remind you
that you once wanted to discover your own beauty. Yes,
For every glorious aroma of youth given to remind me of my splendor, as good I wish for you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
No one comes to the Father,
except by way of Brooklyn.
Do all the pen-
ance you want—make love,
not war; be a die-hard Dodger
fan (from Los Angeles); rob
from the rich & feed the poor; pen
a letter to God saying “No more Jack
Daniels for me—I got this, no biggie!”—
you’ll still have to take account for the sin
of ever thinking there’s a borough better than Brooklyn.
Because it’s where the artists art, the humans human, the colors color and the vibe vibes at the speed of life. Ain’t nothing better than living at the speed of life and enjoying the beauty that comes with it.