Here at ASFA-CW, we have some impressive faculty members (if we do say so ourselves). They teach, they write, they engage the world in interesting ways.
Case in point: Kwoya Fagin Maples.
Among many other contributions to our department, Kwoya’s been the driving force behind our 3-D Poetry initiative — a project that allows our students to blend poetry and visual art, and to exhibit their work in local art galleries. It’s been a boon to our students’ understanding of their own creative processes, and the work they’ve produced has been a big hit with gallery-goers.
Kwoya’s own creative projects are really taking off right now, as well. She recently organized a successful poetry marathon and protest at the monument to J. Marion Sims outside the Columbia, S.C., capitol building. Sims — known as the “father of modern gynecology” — conducted experimental surgeries on enslaved women in the antebellum South, without anesthesia or their consent. Kwoya’s new manuscript, a collection of poems that seeks to give voice to the women themselves, was recently a finalist for the prestigious AWP Prize (among other accolades its already received
prior to its publication) and will be published in the fall of 2018 by the University Press of Kentucky!
We recently volleyed a few questions back and forth (cuz that’s what poets do) — about Kwoya’s work and her creative process, about the role of poetry in contemporary society, and about how the personal always seems to find its roundabout way into the poetical (political, historical…). Here’s the transcript:
I’m thinking a lot about how you make an event of poetry. It’s not simply something to encounter on the page. It’s something to engage with in the world – in physical, three-dimensional space. Whether that’s in an art gallery or on the steps of a state capitol. It’s like, “World meet poetry; poetry, world. You two have lots to talk about.” Do you take that as part of your task as a contemporary poet?
I want and need poetry to be relevant to others. Culturally, there’s this feeling that being a poet isn’t a “real job,” and I guess that I’m combating that. But more than that, I have a need for poetry to do something — to get up on its legs and walk off the page. So sometimes that means poetry must serve as resistance. As poets we create these delicate, beautiful things (I’m thinking of how you would pick up a poem, by its corner, maybe, to pull it off the page.) And while I love and relish the act of creating or reading a poem, I need poetry as a thing to go further. To do work. To be a force. To reach people who don’t care for it, really. I want them to be struck by its flexibility and what it can do. And making an event of poetry, including and sharing with other people, watching them be their own artistic selves keeps me in a state of awe. It keeps me surprised by what form poetry can take and how it can transcend all of our expectations.
I like that idea of an active (activist) poem — that it has work to do in the actual world. It’s not just on a shelf collecting dust, it’s not just something to dissect in the abstract on a midterm exam and then push aside into the foggy margins of our minds. And that makes me think of another discipline that we sometimes ignore in the present moment, usually to our own detriment: that is, history. Your new collection is very much concerned with history — with making it present and active in the here and now. Was that something you intentionally set out to do – to write historical poems? What’s something that happened in that process that you didn’t expect to happen?
I didn’t intentionally set out to write historical poems, but in 2010 I was at a time in my writing career where I was tired of writing about myself. I love history and before writing the book I’d always studied (American) slave history. I am particularly interested in how it still affects our lives. During a Cave Canem summer workshop someone mentioned the story of slave women—mothers, who were the subjects of gynecological experimentation conducted by Dr. James Marion Sims of Montgomery, Alabama. I googled it, and I was immediately captivated by it. I wrote the first poem that same day, on my knees, in the same position the women had to keep during surgery. I suppose from the beginning I connected with the women as if they were my family. At that time, I knew this story had not been told from their perspective. I imagined they’d been waiting on it to be told.
I researched the book in 2010, collecting and studying slave narratives, the doctor’s autobiography, surgical notes and letters. In 2011 at a writing residency I began writing. (I hadn’t written anything since that first poem a year earlier. I didn’t feel I had permission to yet, until I’d done my due diligence of researching.) I didn’t automatically feel as though I could tell these women’s stories just because I was a black woman. I’d never been born a slave, and I needed to understand slave life (as much as possible) before writing. Something that happened in the process of writing this book that I didn’t expect was how my own experience with matrescence would affect the work. In March of 2012, I found I was pregnant for the first time. After having written poems that endeavored to show the scope of the women’s lives, including their motherhood, there was so much I wanted to go back and edit. I didn’t plan on how being a mother would affect my work or the poems of this collection, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.
That’s really interesting — especially the part about how you were tired of writing personal poems and found yourself seeking a subject (subjects) outside of yourself. It’s cool, too, how those subjects, in a way, seem to have led you back to the personal, in unexpected ways. Back to the idea of the person, maybe, how powerful and empowering it can be (and, of course, how oppressive and even brutal it can be to depersonalize someone). Did you feel a personal relationship forming with the historical figures you were writing about? Were they characters to you? Maybe what I’m asking is did you see yourself as a storyteller or a historian? Was it the personalities that you felt an obligation to or was it the facts? (That’s probably an unnecessary binary, of course…)
I spent time listening for these women. Empathy and imagination were necessary in telling their story. I decided to convey their humanity and let that be the key focus of my work. I was their storyteller, though I imagined them frustrated with me. The biggest thing I had to fight throughout the process of writing the book was self-doubt. How did I know what I was talking about? Who was I to tell this story? To counter this, I relied on research for accuracy. They were never characters when I considered them, though I suppose they became characters within the poems. They were more than slaves, more than a part of history that could be compartmentalized—they were human lives. I always understood that they’d existed, and this is why I felt a responsibility to them. This responsibility was to do the work and to do it as well as I could.
Kwoya Fagin Maples is a writer from Charleston, S.C. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow and a Homeschool Lambda Literary Fellow. In addition to a chapbook publication by Finishing Line Press entitled Something of Yours (2010) her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary Journal, Berkeley Poetry Review, The African-American Review, PLUCK, Cave Canem Anthology XIII, The Birmingham Poetry Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. Her current manuscript, “Mend,” finalist for the AWP Prize, tells the story of women who were the experimental subjects of Dr. James Marion Sims of Montgomery, Alabama. This work received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.