Krysten Hill’s chapbook HOW HER SPIRIT GOT OUT explores the labyrinthine landscape of family. Her poems are in conversation with her foremothers, both literary and literal—Audre Lorde and Zora Neale Hurston, aunties and grandmas. Hill summons their wisdom in service of her work. Her language is so rich it feels as though the reader is eavesdropping at someone’s family reunion. The people in her poems feel familiar; at times I thought the family was my own. Hill’s poems invite us to consider what it means to bear witness, to claim your selfhood and survival in a city that knows you’re/unarmed.
Simone John / Gramma : How did you find your way to poetry? Or, how did poetry find it’s way to you?
Krysten Hill : The women in my family are loud storytellers. When they get together in the kitchen truths get told, curses get made, and laughter heats the room. I think that’s why kitchens exist so much in my poetry because my imagination is always reconstructing a space where women were safe to tell the truth. One of my favorite places to be as a child was under the kitchen table. I was so quiet under there and could make myself really still while I was listening—I think they just forgot that I existed and said anything they wanted. Under the kitchen table, in the sea of black women’s knees, I heard the potential of what storytelling could do and how it gave them a place for healing and joy.
I’ve always had anxiety, and I think a lot of it started in educational settings. I always felt observed as a black girl. Going to school in the inner city or in the suburbs, I felt like white teachers were measuring my abilities for a science project. On the reading rug at school, the words blurred and shook until they’d come apart and resemble a soup. I didn’t have the other children’s speed, and I tripped awkwardly over small words. My own hands shook. My voice would come apart and trail off into a small thing no one could hear.
I found a copy Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. I think my aunt had it on display at her house, and I snuck it into a bedroom somewhere. It was a poem made into a children’s book illustrated with colorful, monster-like visions of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Angelou’s lyricism taught me the beauty of how words sound. I read her aloud by myself just for the way words could feel funny in my mouth. She also taught me the beauty of bringing description to emotions through images that could be frightening and strange. She also taught me the power of describing my selfness and to care for myself through words that empowered my selfhood. She helped me see ways into visualizing the complexity of self as a young person. Poetry was a space where I wasn’t rushed. There was no one behind me telling me to hurry up. There was so one laughing at my stutter or awkwardness. It was also the first space in my life where in all the ways I wasn't supposed to run, jump, or talk, I could go into the room of myself and put anything and anyone in that room and nobody could do anything about it. That door was locked unless I wanted them in.
SJ : It sounds like poetry became a place where you could be both boundaried and boundaryless. Like the boundary of the locked door, but the freedom of no one policing your running, jumping, or talking.
KH : I gave myself permission to play with practicing with language without the assessment of watchful eyes and this helped me think of art as a space that I needed as a black girl growing up under so much measuring, propping, and instruction. No one saw the notebook I kept or corrected my spelling. When my beginning language didn’t come out in complete polished sentences, I started finding my own language for what I saw around me and it made me feel an urgency to keep learning.
SJ : What is this project’s origin story?
KH : A few years ago Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff invited me to read for their reading series, Literary Firsts. They were one of the first publishers that picked up my poems for their literary magazine, apt, and they believe in the developing visions of emerging writers. They have a great press called Aforementioned Productions and they approached me about writing a chapbook. Originally, they wanted to turn a long poem they’d heard me read into a chapbook. The original piece was a sectioned poem that offered views into different narratives related to captivity, but I think I was writing around something. It started with writing about sloth bears and how handlers get them to dance, and thinking about what is to be manipulated towards a performance that is painful. It seemed distanced or like a bad metaphor for something my mind was trying to reach.
As I developed drafts, it evolved into a chapbook where I started talking honestly about my experiences with sexual violence and silencing. Many of these poems started from honest conversations about gaslighting and other forms of abuse. There was a point in my life when I was tired of people—particularly men—telling me what I was feeling or experiencing didn’t exist. It’s weird that this project evolved from a poem about sloth bears that I ended up taking out of the chapbook.
The poems in this chapbook also became testimonies of women finding their own happiness, truths, and creative selves as pathways to survival and healing. The women in my family continually cultivate spaces where they can be truthful about their lives and design their selfhood. These beautiful bright spaces are their gardens, kitchens, sitting rooms, back porches, and even their bedrooms that they devote to conversations or quiet contemplation and meditation. There are times where a narrator in this chapbook also finds this space in poetry. These were all places where they could be alone and reflect or tell stories loudly in the company of other women. While these poems are testimonies to the violence done to female bodies, more than that, I want these poems to be reflections on resilience and the importance of claiming selfhood.
SJ : If you wrote in another genre, which genre would it be?
KH : I love short stories! When I’m teaching and need to recharge, I read more short stories in my down time than I do poetry. Sometimes, I feel too intimidated when I read poetry to get ideas for my own poems. It helps me to venture to other genres that overlap with elements of poetry. Many of my own drafts for poetry start when I spend time reading or listening to short stories. Short stories create these flytraps of ideas for me, and I love living in that. In terms of a warm-up to writings, I listen to Selected Shorts on NPR and do small tasks around the house like washing the dishes until I’m ready to sit down and write. Good short stories for me overlap with elements of poetry. Short stories still require a small space where the complexity of plot, word choice, and character development have to exist together to haunt the reader. With short stories, I’m looking for complex and imperfect narrators or characters that are internally and externally reflecting on the nature of the human condition. In the narratives I love, there are no certainties and the author makes thoughtful choices with how to communicate this with language.
SJ : I started getting into short story collections last year. I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck and Chinua Achebe’s Girls at War, both of which were dope. I want to step my game up in 2017. Do you have any recs for other collections I should check out?
KH : I love the characters in Dorothy Allison’s Trash. It’s one of my favorite collections of short stories because it centers around women who narrate their wounds on their terms. I also love Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love because the characters feel like real people that I know, and it’s easy to fall in love with their inventive ways of seeing the world. I love hearing and reading her work aloud because there is a music in her dialogue that celebrates black people sounding like black people.
SJ : I have poems I’ve carried around with me the way I imagine religious people carry verses and prayers from sacred texts. Poems that feel like protection, or a meditation, or salve, or all of the above. Do you have any poems (or poets) like that?
KH : One of the best things my writing teachers encouraged me to do was make my own anthology of poems that resonated with me in my personal journal or in a folder. I’ve kept one throughout the years. I collect poems that speak to things I like compositionally, and poems that aren’t featured in academic anthologies. This growing personal anthology helps me identify themes that are important to me as a writer.
June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and “These Poems” live in me like prayers and have seen me through moments when I want to self-destruct and erase myself. Both poems make it into whatever journal I’m writing in multiple times.
SJ : I love the anthology idea. Can you think of any other poems in your anthology off the top of your head?
KH : Kim Addonizio’s poem “To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall” made it into my journal during 2016 presidential election. Nayyirah Waheed’s work is all over my writing journal this year for the same reason. It’s not a coincidence that both poets are talking to how women love themselves in difficult times. All the poems I paste or rewrite in my own journal become internal conversations and starting places for my creative work.
SJ : You and I have talked about how it feels like there’s something in the air right now for black creatives and makers. Like the atmosphere is charged. What’s your take on the situation? What does that look like, to you, in the poetry world?
KH : We talked about how black creatives and makers have always been doing work to document the time with a hard eye. Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde both document their truth and love for their community, while using their voices to shape the future of their community. For me, they’ve also reflected how creativity and imagination are essential to shaping the future. I’ve seen this future-work in poets like Danez Smith and Porsha O that are part of a rich tradition of poets that unabashedly speak to the realities of the black experience. I see this in young poets I teach and other youth poets in the Boston community. In all of their work I see and feel a continuous revolution against the damaging forces of racism, misogyny, and queerphobia. For me, poetry has always been a space for active resistance, testimony, learning, and unlearning.
As I develop my identity as an artist, I find myself seeking artistic spaces that are talking to each other and crying with each other and showing up for each other in a way that makes ferocious art possible. Personally, one way that I survived 2016 was through communities and intimate friend spaces invested in conversations about social justice and witnessing. I made decisions to leave spaces in Boston that were too cliquish or that allowed hate speech and discrimination to happen under the guise of “free speech.” At times, this made for a lonely creative life. Productive creative spaces build people up and welcome in strangers so that they can make brave art together. I’ve seen this life-changing work in spaces like the House Slam at The Haley House Bakery Café and in organizations like The Massachusetts Literary Education and Performance Collective (MassLEAP) and Whole Soul Health in Boston. Even when I can’t make it out to events, I see how these spaces affect and transform my students and community and promote healthy practices for creatives. This atmosphere is what I’m responding to and finding courage in as an artist.
SJ : I definitely feel that. Last question: what’s on your nightstand? Who’s blowing your mind right now?
KH : The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much are definitely on my nightstand right now. Lucille Clifton’s poems are foundational for me, and she is a poet I go back to when I’m drafting. She showed me how a whole world can live in a small word and taught me to use words wisely. I feel like I came to Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s work when I was grieving after losing my aunt to cancer. There are poems in book that make you laugh aloud and cry in the same stanza, and there is something to the complexity of grief and resilience there that helped me find ways out of hopelessness. He also has this gift for telling a good story to the point where you forget you’re inside a piece a writing. There are times when I’m reading his work quietly or aloud and finish, and look up like “Where was I?”