August 17–23, 2020
Samantha Thornhill is a poet, educator and published author from the twin-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Formerly a poetry instructor for the Juilliard School, Poets & Writers and the Cooper Union, she has taught a wide spectrum of students across New York City for over a decade. An alumna of the University of Virginia and Cave Canem, Thornhill is frequently invited to share her work at festivals and university events in the US and internationally. In 2010, she cofounded Poetry in Unexpected Places, a New York Times–featured group that created pop-up poetry installations in public spaces. Her poems have been published in dozens of anthologies, journals and digital outlets. Her third children’s book, A Card for My Father, was published by Penny Candy Books, and she is currently completing her first book of poetry, titled The Animated Universe.
Author photo by Jonathan Weiskopf
This Camel’s Back
On the murder of Sean Bell
Unconcerned with the needle
in the haystack, and the pot
at the ass end of rainbows.
No crusade for the magic
stick, or godmother’s wand.
Let us ponder the proverbial
We have been journeying
this desert for days.
Sandstorms to skin
singing livid from hoses;
in the distance, cacti
echo arrested men.
By day we are candles
burning at both ends;
at night we shiver like astronauts
in our measly tents.
This Everest on legs, beast
that schleps us all,
requires more water than we
have to give it, but somehow
we make do.
Somehow it does too;
hefts the weight of regret
across rejoicing sand.
If boulevards named after dead men;
if nooses resurrecting
from the shallow graves of history;
if black gold proving yet again
to the scales of justice;
if the reality of being life’s lover
but never the world’s friend;
if a sunken city or evolution
towards bulletproof skin
isn’t straw enough—then
it fears me to think
of what it will take
this camel’s back
—Originally published in Proud Flesh.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote this poem in direct response to the 2006 killing of Sean Bell, a New York City man who was murdered by plainclothes and undercover police while having his bachelor party with his friends. A hail of 50 bullets was fired in their direction. The police that were involved were later acquitted of all charges and this was such a glaring injustice that I woefully wondered what it was going to take for people to rebel in a tangible way against the violence being unleashed on our bodies by those sworn to protect us. The poem acknowledges the illusion of this protection since this country’s inception. The poem is a rumination on the expression “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” So this poem examines that camel as a metaphor for America. The relevance and the timelessness of this poem aches.
What are you working on right now?
I recently started an online dream interpretation business with my clairvoyant partner. He’s a gifted dream reader and I tag-team with him by giving oracle card readings during our magical sessions. I also give oracle card readings exclusively. I can already tell there’s going to be a book in there somewhere down the line! I’m also working on my poetry manuscript, The Animated Universe, which has been over a decade in the making. As a children’s author, I am also working on some children’s book projects for two publishing companies.
What’s a good day for you?
When I wake up having remembered enough of a dream to write it down. When I am able to ground myself in prayer and meditation. When I feel aligned with the Universal Will of the cosmos and my day aligns into this flow state where I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing and when. When I feel balanced as a mother of two and productive in my administrative duties and entrepreneurial pursuits. When I can snatch a little time to do some sun-gazing and yoga in the backyard. When a friend that I’ve been thinking about calls me out of the blue to say that s/he was thinking of me too. When my day is filled with other such sweet synchronicities. When I write something meaningful at the end of it all. When I go to sleep with the remembrance that all of my loved ones are still breathing.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
Before I moved to NYC in 2004, I used to visit poet friends in Williamsburg and was drawn to Brooklyn by those experiences. I ended up moving to NYC at that time when I accepted a poetry teaching position at the Juilliard School, where I taught actors in the drama division for ten years. Williamsburg was the only Brooklyn neighborhood that I had experienced at that point, so I naturally endeavored to land there, and did.
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?
I lived in the same two-bedroom apartment in Williamsburg for eleven years, off the Montrose Ave stop. It was clean, quiet and convenient, and there was no reason to leave until … I got pregnant with my son. When I tried to picture a life in New York City as a mom, all I saw was fog. So I left New York on a nomadic journey. My baby son and I bounced around to many places and returned to NYC when he was three. I had given up that apartment and had to start over, and it was difficult to reintegrate into Brooklyn with a kid and all the real estate changes. I finally got a taste of that housing instability that I saw a lot of my friends go through. In that year alone, I bounced from Midwood to East Flatbush, Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, and back to Crown Heights. That Brooklyn shuffle gave me more of a Brooklyn experience than my entire decade in quickly gentrifying Williamsburg. I realized that I’d been deprived of the real Brooklyn, tucked up there on the L train line for so long! I got to understand Brooklyn in its many dimensions once I lived in its belly, from the roti shops lining Nostrand Ave to strolling down Eastern Parkway to hit up the Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Park. Though it was unstable and arduous, I’m grateful to have experienced these parts of Brooklyn more intimately. I left Brooklyn in November, before the virus came, so I’m no longer there.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
A defining Brooklyn experience for me was when I used to do pop-up poetry with a crew of poets that I cofounded, Poets in Unexpected Places, affectionately known as pop-up poets. Our mission was to create pop-up poetry installations in shared spaces to infuse poetry into the lives of everyday people, and to blur the boundaries between poet and passenger, or passerby. Our experiences in Brooklyn were some of my most indelible experiences to this day. Our testing ground was the subway train. We would board the Q train at Union Square and ride to Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge. About seven or eight of us would board the train car and scatter like strangers. One person would set it off and begin reciting a poem. Once that person ended, another would stand up and belt out a poem. And so on, and so on. And it had this disarming cascade effect where people began to unplug from their devices and make eye contact with each other, wondering who was next. Is it you? Is it you? Is it … me? This was the part I most loved, that magical moment when the Q train shot out of the tunnel and traversed over the Manhattan Bridge, flooding the train car with afternoon light. And we would have that ten-minute stretch with no stops to interrupt our flow. How I loved the Brooklyn-bound trains! There were people that felt so inspired by our installation that they would stand up and share their own poems, Shakespeare monologues, rap lyrics. One woman stood up in her sari and sang in Hindi and danced. Brooklyn consistently showed us that anything was possible.
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?
The poetry community is a soul group of soul groups. We get a body and come to Earth with a mission, individually and collectively. However we enter into the poetry community, we find and create our tribes within it. We align and get to work. This was the plan all along. And to find your poetry community is a great awakening of sorts, which is to say, a remembering. I have definitely found my poetry soul group in the pop-up poets. The work we did over a stretch of a few years has remained one of the most indelible experiences of my life as a poet. After leaving the city last year, I have not found anything close to what I had in Brooklyn. Nor am I looking. I’m recognizing a constellation of a different sort, now.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Aracelis Girmay. Tyehimba Jess. Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Kamilah Aisha Moon. John Murillo. Mahogany Browne. Elana Bell. Adam Falkner. Jon Sands. Syreeta McFadden. Abena Koomson-Davis. Erica Miriam Fabri. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor. These are all poets that I have known intimately as friends at different stages and I can vouch for their quality of personhood on and off the page. I feel honored to have been among them.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Rita Dove was my professor at the University of Virginia as well as my poetry mentor, and I’ve continued to follow her movements across the years. She influenced me to stretch my voice across genres, and to write everything that interests me—never pigeonholing myself into one style or subject. I admire how she challenged herself in a different way with each collection of her poetry, which makes each of her collections so distinct. She also taught me so much about craft, how every word is a decision.
Kwame Dawes has also been a mentor of mine. I was so taken by his book Wisteria: Poems from the Swamp Country. He inspired me with his poetic journalism, the ways in which he uses his oral history interviews with everyday people to create poems. I also admire the ways in which he has extended himself to younger poets in a true way; that sense of service in him inspires me to do the same.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I was honored to blurb Cheryl Boyce-Taylor’s forthcoming book of political poems, We Are Not Wearing Helmets. The relevance and timelessness, the grace and sass of these poems is just outstanding! I was so moved by many of these poems. Cheryl toes such a line between heart and head; the intellect is razor-sharp, meanwhile the heart of her poems beats very loudly. Cheryl has been in the game for decades, and even managed to birth and raise the hip-hop legend Phife Dawg, peace be upon him. Her work is so needed at this time and it deserves recognition.
I also recently read Black Imagination, a book project conceived of and edited by Natasha Marin. The book asks Black people to respond to three simple yet profound questions about origin, self-healing and alternate world-visions in which Black people feel safe and are valued. I just loved the versatility of voices and the moving responses to these questions. It’s quite a visionary feat.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Great question! I’m a mother of two and I’m behind on all of my reading, and this includes friends of mine. I have their books sitting there side-eyeing me. Kamilah Aisha Moon’s Starshine & Clay, Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, as well as Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon are all on deck.
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 definitely prefer physical books, and I tend to dip in and out of multiple ones and circle back to them when I hear my heart crying for a particular voice, which serves as a salve for me during particular times.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’d like to try writing a suite of first drafts with my left hand, which is said to access a different part of your brain and can even open one up to a kind of channeling.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
There’s the Tibetan restaurant in Ditmas Park right next to the Cortelyou station off the Q. I loved introducing friends to this joint every time one of them suggested a dinner date. There’s this purple blooming tree in Prospect Park that harkens me back to walks I used to take with a friend on our lady dates, which consisted of sprawling conversations about the body politic, creative endeavors, childhood memories or our romantic lives. And even though I don’t really sit and chill there, I always enjoyed passing Fowler Square in Fort Greene, as it would fill me with warm memories of one of our poetry pop-ups.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the oneness of the we.
And what I am you are,
For every sphere sings to me as good as it sings to you.
It’s my planet of literary loves.