June 14–20, 2021
Imani Davis is a queer Black writer from Brooklyn. A Pushcart Prize–nominated poet, they’ve earned fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Lambda Literary Foundation, BOAAT Press and the Stadler Center for Poetry. They completed their BA in English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and they’re currently pursuing a PhD in American Studies at Harvard. Imani’s poetry appears in Best New Poets 2020, Best of the Net, PBS NewsHour’s Brief But Spectacular series, the Offing, Shade Literary Arts and elsewhere.
Author photo by Karen Yang of the Excelano Project
Pantoum to Prove A’Lelia Is Over the Whole Dark Tower Situation
In October 1927, A’Lelia Walker (heiress to Madam C.J.) opened a literary salon out of her home called the Dark Tower, intending to provide a space for Black writers of the Harlem Renaissance to be in community. Ultimately, the project failed, in part due to the infiltration of white voyeurs.
For the record, it wasn’t my fault.
I did what they asked: I opened
a new wound in the night
without a drop of their help dressing it.
I did what they asked, opened
my home to the Niggerati ’nem
without a drop of help, and dressed it in
all the candlelight I could find.
My home? The Niggerati ’nem,
wrung sweetloose by Bruce’s good gin.
But all that candlelight I found
Drew some cream-faced strangers in.
Wrung loose by Countee’s good gin,
I thought we could use the press. Is that a sin?
It’s true. I let the cream-faced strangers in.
They were paying customers.
I thought we could use them. Press. Sin
a new wound into the night.
They were paying customers,
for the record. It wasn’t my fault.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem after spending a semester considering Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments in a performance theory class with Robin Bernstein. It’s part of a five-poem suite about Madam C.J. Walker’s rumored-sapphic daughter A’Lelia. In her text, Hartman writes briefly about A’Lelia’s vibrant life as a Harlem Renaissance party hostess with a penchant for queer Black community-making, and I resonated with that. Walker’s own bestie Carl Van Vechten described A’Lelia as someone who “looked like a queen, and frequently acted like a tyrant.” That sounded fun. So, fresh from spending time with Wayward Lives, I decided to try out some critical fabulation of my own. While researching Walker’s life to prepare myself, I came across the story of the Dark Tower, and knew I wanted to try to tell it. It was just such an interesting historical anecdote: Langston Hughes, Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen et al. dreaming up a Black writers’ salon hosted in Walker’s lavish home, only for it to be a bust because Walker couldn’t help but make it grandiose in nature (and pricepoint). How could I resist?
What are you working on right now?
I’m playing with meter in Black speech a lot these days. As far as my latest draft, I’m trying out telling a story about a gay Halloween party in iambic pentameter. Besides poems, though, I’m really trying to get good at playing Monster Hunter Rise and Super Smash Bros.
What’s a good day for you?
Ingredients For A Good Day:
—laughing full laughs with my friends
—no emails to send or receive
—a bike ride in the sun
—a kiss from the right person
—an interesting YouTube rabbit hole
—a few hours of video games
—a cute outfit with matching confidence
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My late grandma, Georgia Belle Davis (I have GOT to write something about how cute her name is), moved my family from Milledgeville, Georgia, to Brooklyn in the ’60s. My other grandparents, Hope and Robert, came to Queens from Honduras a while back and haven’t moved since. My mom grew up in Southside Jamaica Queens, but she lives and teaches in Brooklyn now, too. So it was pretty much a wrap from there.
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 mom moved to Canarsie recently, and we’ve lived in Flatbush in the past, but we spent a huge chunk of my childhood in East New York. I also have to give Queens its credit: we lived there with my grandma for a while, too. It’s so strange, because my decision to work in Philly means that I haven’t spent extensive time back home post–high school other than a few semester breaks. So I’d spend a few months at college, come back, and notice gentrification slowly but surely warping the block. Like, I’d walk with the intention to pick up food from a restaurant I’d been eating at for upwards of ten years, and it’d just be gone. Experiencing that in realtime while reading about racialized spacial violence at school really put things in perspective for me.
I’m running up on five years living in West Philly, and it’s been beyond sweet to me. When I first moved, I was scared that the way I’d learned to live and write in community would be unavailable to me outside of NYC, but Philly did not disappoint. This city has given me friends, memories and experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, which makes it all the more frustrating that so much is being constantly taken from Philadelphia. As far as I can tell, the universities that populate Philly operate with little to no regard for the lasting wellness of those living here who aren’t enrolled. It’s gross. It’s been really wild watching the gentrification here accelerate in step with the gentrification back in BK.
Anyway, I love Philly’s food options and parks! I got over my fear of biking here, too (thanks to my bestie Otter). It’s also SO Black and SO gay, which is, like, my thing. That’s definitely one thing the cities have in common.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Learning how to do the chicken noodle soup after church with my masc godsister, who was the only “out” person I knew at the time. She later gave me a Miami Heat fitted, and I remember feeling so validated in my lil’ masculinity, lol.
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?
I think my ideas about that have changed over time. When I first came into slam in the city, I was eager to show up emotionally for / befriend / nurture bonds with anyone who sincerely cared about “the work,” period. However, being so undiscerning in my search for communal reassurance taught me that not everyone who writes poetry shares my ideas about How To Be A Good Person In The World. Being a writer doesn’t make you automatically morally sound. As I came of age in the scene, it was clear to me that I needed to reconsider my requirements for getting close to me, and that being a writer doesn’t mean I have to kiikii with every writer to ever live. These days, community feels more like those who I know want to show care to both my work and myself in ways that feel good and right.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
All I’ll say is that I went through a very intense Basquiat phase around eleventh grade.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Oh honey, it took a village. I was lucky enough to be in beautiful company from very early on. Here’s an incomplete list of people I admired who were kind to me and my work when I was coming up in the scene:
Mahogany L. Browne
Mother-daughter duo Patricia and Danez Smith
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Tariq Thompson’s LONE LILY was such a beautiful experience for me. I love when affection for one’s community feels tangible and legible in the work.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Oh, I’m boutta tell on myself. I’ve never read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, but I definitely want to see what all the fuss is about. The same goes for Stag’s Leap (although I love Sharon Olds’s other stuff). I also want to develop the attention span to get all the way through Tender Buttons. Maybe one day …
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?
During the school year, I usually don’t have time to read collections unless they’re assigned to me, so I mainly look at whatever new one-off poems are getting published online. The summer is a little different. I’ll usually have two or three collections set aside to pick through when it feels right, along with a general idea of the books I want to get through by August.
I scribble all over everything I read. It’s helpful for me to have a record of my encounter with a text. I mostly write initial reactions and thoughts. I also draw on the page whenever I get bored. Things like that. Fun fact: my brain loves needlessly creating rules, so I can only peacefully sit down to read / annotate if I have a particular lavender mechanical pencil that I try to keep on me at all times.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
A villanelle! I want to try as many forms as I can this year, and Miss Thing is up next.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
This feels very corny to say, but I miss reading and writing at Kelly Writers House. I’ve also written some of my favorite drafts on the A train.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
Shoutout to Eddie at the corner store on Sackman and Herkimer!
Shoutout to Avenue D, generally!
Shoutout to Soco!
Shoutout to Negril BK!
Shoutout to the Brooklyn Public Library!
Shoutout to Kings Plaza (lol)
Shoutout to Broadway Junction (lol)
Finally, a hesitant shoutout to everyone over at KLCC.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate sweetness,
And what I claim, you claim.
For every sugared moment I inhabit houses me as good as it welcomes you.