April 12–18, 2021
Imani Cezanne is a Black writer, performer and tamale connoisseur living in Oakland, CA. In 2020, she became the Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion in March and was named a finalist for the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships in July. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Imani has work published in Poetry, Nimrod and Prism, among others. Imani writes for Black people and Black readers and is committed to the liberation of all oppressed people. This past fall, she was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Darrel Alejandro Holnes’s R&B, Poetry and Me workshop.
No Crowns Allowed Through TSA
a cherry blonde with more flakes on her shoulders than a box of
cereal is assigned to investigate my scalp. unearth sacred land for
the sake of the discovery. this is not the first or second or tenth
excavation i’ve endured. this is just a precaution. this is just to make
sure. i roll sleepy eyes, tired as this bull shit. unlatch the fence, pull
back a barbed wire perimeter. her crooked fingers burrow a too forgiving
soil. Madam Walker rich. crop dressed in Cantu’s new spring collection.
and this heffa had the nerve to demand an explanation! asked why
each spiral foamed at the mouth. called it a ravenous kink. unhedged
garden of flight risks in full bloom. swore she heard an eager snarl
that could devour her kind of blood for fun.
i place my shoes on the conveyor belt next to my last nerve.
release my buckle. remove rose gold hoop earrings. wait.
again. until each kernel is eventually pulled from its husk.
plantation pattern so Black baby hairs sat easy on the hip.
curled edges stretched then tightened into shiny ringed
ornaments, pro-styl slick. no liquids, gels, creams, aerosols,
shea butter, knockerballs, hard bristles, barrettes, bonnets
or bundles permitted on the aircraft. they done lost
they damn minds. naturally my hair insists on speaking
to a supervisor. in trots a golden retriever.
you gon’ do somethin with that natural? silly girl!
you thought this contraption could penetrate that mangle? good one!
is it yours? is it real? is it really yours? guess we’ll find out!
remember in 5th grade Sarah called you pubic head? haha!
and you said you would never let one of us touch you again? tough crowd!
thought your body was yours just cuz you said so? adorable!
remember when/how/after [ ]
and you vowed to never look a hot comb in the teeth again?
this doughnut powdered rent-a-cop poked and prodded my skull like
i was up for purchase. the way them oils popped when he clutched them
naps in the back you woulda thought it was time for supper. my hair was
hot! sizzling. sparks flying ready to burn the airport down and erect a
monument in its own unmanageable image. anybody wanna go somewhere
gotta come through me. but every strand held its respectable place as he
cracked each mouth wide open, yanktugpulled and not one tress unraveled.
checked teeth for buried bite. stroked waist length plaits for whipscar clues of backtalk or booklearnin or lookin like they
was thinkin something. they was.
of all the ways to kill him dead. and then go on about my business.
—Originally published in Nimrod, Fall/Winter 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
This poem is from the perspective of my hair during the multiple occasions in which it was searched by white people at the airport. This poem comes from my (and many other Black women’s) many experiences having our hair toyed with while moving through TSA. I traveled a lot before the pandemic and no matter where I went around the entire country I was having similar experiences with my Blackness being weaponized and used to justify unnecessary touching of my body disguised as a “safety measure.” I also saw the way I was treated in relation to other people, white people, when moving throughout the airport. I see the airport as a microcosm of the greater systemic and systematic racism that happens in my everyday life. The poem was an opportunity for my hair to speak up and tell the story of its different experiences. The poem started in a very different place and was performed at the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Brooklyn. When I adapted it for the page, it ended up being a very different poem that does very different things. I appreciate both versions for what they bring to the conversation.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a few things right now. I think the most exciting things are two different book projects: one is a book of poetry and the other is a nonfiction project that speaks a lot to my experience as a spoken word poet. As somebody who participated in poetry slams as my introduction into poetry as an art form, I have a unique experience of poetry to share with folks and I’m excited about putting these stories together. I think I’m more excited about the nonfiction project because I know a lot of folks are expecting a book of poetry from me but the nonfiction project is a little outside of my element and so it’s definitely challenging me in fun ways.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is a day where I can wake up without an alarm and go back to sleep if I want to. A good day for me involves brunch and lots of sunshine. On a good day I get to interact with the people I love most: my chosen family and friends. I don’t check any emails or participate in any Zoom calls (lol). A good day includes good food, maybe a drink or two. My house is clean and I didn’t have to clean it. I can really just do whatever I want, whether that’s binge-watching The Office (again) or getting some writing done or taking my camera out to take photos. Being able to do whatever resonates at any given moment makes a good day.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Home is such a loaded word. I’m originally from San Diego, California, and so that is my home. I currently live in Oakland, California, and this is also my home. I have lived in Oakland since 2013 and before that I was in San Francisco obtaining my degree in Black studies from San Francisco State University. For a couple years I lived in DC and in some ways this is also my home. All of these places are always changing for a number of reasons (climate, gentrification, racism, etc.). But I still find parts of myself in them. I love living in Oakland. My family is from here and there is both an arts community and a revolutionary community that I appreciate and that I get to participate in. Oakland is changing every day in ways that are helpful to the most impacted by oppression and in ways that are not. While I love it here, there is a lot of work to be done.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I won the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam in Brooklyn. Before that, I toured for the first time in 2013 and spent time in Brooklyn when I featured at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a definite career highlight. I love Brooklyn. I love all the boroughs, honestly, but I especially love Brooklyn. I love the Black people, the food, the music. I imagine I would feel differently about it if I were closer to it and had to regularly be there, but as an outsider looking in, I definitely always enjoy my time there and look forward to going back.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
Actually, I reject the term “poetry community.” I don’t think it says anything, really. There are people who I am close friends with that I know because of poetry, meaning that was our introduction to each other, but we are so close that we don’t really talk about poetry at all in our day-to-day. There are people that I talk about poetry with from time to time, but we don’t really talk about anything else. There are people whose poetry events I attend, and who attend mine, but we don’t really speak much outside of those events, so we’re not necessarily friends, but there is support there. I also know that when people speak of a singular poetry community, that comes with certain expectations for who someone is, what they believe in, what they do and what their values are. I watch that expectation do more harm than good. All that to say, I think the idea of a singular poetry community is a loaded term and we would do well to engage with the people / poets who align with our person and our politics above all.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
The first person that comes to mind is Mahogany Browne. I know that she’s from Oakland originally but I know her as being from and representing Brooklyn. She was definitely somebody that I looked up to a lot when I first started in poetry and somebody that I have spent time with in Brooklyn and in Oakland. Other Brooklyn poets that are important to me are Raliq Bashard, Falu, Carvens Lissaint, pretty much all of Strivers Row, Elizabeth Acevedo. I hope all these people are from Brooklyn but I’m pretty sure they are, lol.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My poetry mentors were the people in the Southern California poetry slam scene. My first poetry mentor was Rudy Francisco. He showed me everything he knew about poetry and really raised me in the poetry slam and spoken word game. Anthony Blacksher and Christopher Wilson were also huge influences and supporters when I first started out in San Diego. In Los Angeles at Da Poetry Lounge there was Shihan, Javon Johnson, Terisa Siagatonu.
These people really took an interest in me and my work and saw potential in me. One of the biggest things I was taught was always to be true to myself and to lean into my own voice because that was the best thing I had to offer. The people that mentor me are first and foremost interested in making sure the whole of Imani shines through in everything I write and I’m eternally grateful to them for that. They also taught me to have a high standard for what I put out into the world. Integrity is a huge part of being an artist and I was taught to put my all into everything that I do and to push myself beyond my self-imposed limitations.
I’m also, of course, always influenced by my colleagues and the people that I came up in poetry spaces with. Folks like Darius Simpson, Danez Smith, Sam Sax, Elizabeth Acevedo, Janae Johnson, Porsha O., Safia Elhillo and many others.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
The last few things I’ve read that were really great were Danez Smith’s Homie, everything by Hanif Abdurraqib, Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art, Victoria Chang’s Obit, Porsha Olayiwola’s i shimmer sometimes, too, Safia Elhillo’s The January Children, Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives and Kiese Laymon’s Heavy.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Definitely the classics, or what I consider classic, by Black women poets who paved the way for me to be who I am both as a poet and as a Black woman. People like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou, are all people that I get to take time to read extensively. Of course I’ve read a number their poems, but I haven’t done the deep dive that I want to.
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?
I typically am reading one book from about three different genres at any given time. I like to have a poetry book, a nonfiction book, usually a memoir or book of essays, and something that is more history-based. I move between the three because I get bored really easily and have a short attention span. I like to have an idea of what I’m going to read next because it helps to motivate me to finish what I’m reading now. I don’t like to write in my books. I will highlight them but if I want to write something in them I’ll use a Post-it, so my books are full of different color Post-its. I definitely collect books in a way that is probably unhealthy, but I love having just a library of books that I get to be excited about reading next.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I really want to do a crown of sonnets. Though I come from a spoken word and poetry slam background, I actually really like forms because of the challenge it brings. It’s almost like a game or a puzzle that you get to figure out and sonnet crowns are pretty extensive.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I prefer to write at home, but reading I will pretty much go anywhere that has a nice view. The beach or somewhere lakeside or even just a park where I can lay out on a blanket and read while the sun shines. I really like to be outside in general, especially when I’m reading, but writing is important for me to do in my home.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate Black people,
And what I know for sure is that you can’t always tell sugar from salt
For all our well being, take every lie from the state as good reason to radicalize the whole of you.