A Conversation With Monica Hand (2012)

“Don’t misunderstand me.  I believe in the power of poetry to heal and change but sometimes I am so tired of the atrocities in the world.  One book of poems is just not enough.  How do we make the blues go away.  I want to write poems that incite, inspire a better world.”

I met the poet Monica Hand twice.

The first time virtually, through a mutual writer-friend who suggested we talk since we were both collagists and poets.

I transcribed that conversation; I think we intended to have it published it.  I remember it scribbled in red pen for some reason.

monica hand 2
Monica A. Hand (1953 – 2016)

Anyway, years later Monica and I met face to face, by coincidence and very briefly, at a conference.  Then–like, it really seemed that quick–she was gone.  I didn’t talk about my grief; it felt so selfish; two can-barely-be-called meetings did not give me the right I thought.
She’s crossed my mind several times in the last month; I’d say out of the blue if I believed in coincidences.  I don’t.  I’m preparing for the upcoming semester and was perusing my drive for notes when I found this transcript of our conversation.  Check it out:

A Conversation With Monica A. Hand
darlene anita scott

das: Here goes:

I guess this one doesn’t really pertain directly to the text but-t-t Poets and Writers’  March 2012 issue includes an essay by the novelist Kim Wright “How to Beat the Post-Publication Blues.”  Also I’ve been reading a site Every Other Day that features interviews with poets after the publication of their first book.  I was wondering if you experienced “post-publication blues.”

And how would you characterize your experience with the publication of me and Nina so far?

MAH: I haven’t experienced post-publication blues, per se.  I’ve been too busy promoting the book.  What I have experienced however is a deep fatigue from the arduous travel on a budget and anxiousness that comes from wanting so badly for the book to be successful.

There have been days when I wake up feeling incredibly blue and empty.  I don’t know what this is about but I think it has something to do with wanting everything and realizing that wanting everything means I will always be on the run.

I am very grateful to be in this place.  I am getting a lot of love and the book is being received well. 

das: I’m glad about that–Congratulations!

das: Everything, sigh, how–or better what–do you consider everything?  In other words, I know success can be measured in numbers, like, the amount of books that sell.  But how else do you measure it?  What does “success,” in this endeavor particularly, look like to Monica?

MAH: Success, I suppose would also mean knowing that the work resonates with readers, that the work makes a difference: encourages, and inspires.  It also means that I am recognized as a writer, that I have some visibility within the profession, and that I am paid for my work.  I understand what I want is not that different from what many artists want.  I want to live comfortably and not feel like I am constantly trying to make the proverbial ends meet.  I don’t mind working – work is stimulating and rewarding.  However, I want to work as a poet and get paid for it so I can pay my bills, provide for my family, travel and buy books and art supplies. I am grateful for the terrific response me and Nina has received.  I just could create more and write more if I was less concerned with the day to day.  It would be lovely to have a benefactor.

For example, I have a reading during the Keats Festival in London.  The nonprofit that runs the festival cannot pay my travel from the States to England or for hotel accommodations while I am there.  They will pay me a small stipend that is the equivalent of about $400 dollars and they will sell books.  One of the organizers has offered to put me up in her home while I’m there.  So in order to take advantage of this amazing opportunity, I have to pay for own travel expenses.  The reading is in June and the airfare to London is extremely expensive at this time.  I have an Indiegogo campaign running to raise money for my travel expenses.  So far I’ve raised about 23% of my goal.  What I don’t raise, I will have to do a “steal from Peter to pay Paul.”

Since February 3, I’ve had 20 me and Nina events and not including the reading in London, I have 7 more scheduled.  Of these 27 events  (readings, classroom presentations, Salons, and participation at literary festivals,) less than half have included any kind of honorarium, the average  being about $500.  These events have been in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington DC and California.  In most cases, I’ve paid for my travel expenses and stay with friends when I’m out town.  So literally, I have been running.

das: In the same article Wright says that writers often have fantasies about the publishing experience that they’re not even aware they have.  What were some of yours and did they, or have they, played out as you imagined?

MAH: This is an excellent question.  This very wise poet told me once that my poems would not love me.  Perhaps I expected getting my book published would validate my existence in some way and that I would finally feel happy and satisfied.  However I am still struggling personally, my children are still struggling, my extended family are still struggling, my people still struggle.  Young black men are still being gunned down in the streets, women are still being raped and sexually abused, and war continues.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I believe in the power of poetry to heal and change but sometimes I am so tired of the atrocities in the world.  One book of poems is just not enough.  How do we make the blues go away.  I want to write poems that incite, inspire a better world.

das: Sounds like you might’ve answered my previous question about what “everything” looks like right here.

About the cover art: collage has always spoken to me.  I wish I could plainly articulate why but I know it has to do with the way I see connections–or better, that I see connections in pretty much everything and I try to express them in/by collaging.  So the cover art caught my attention.  All that is to ask what was behind your decision to use collage?  Or was it your decision at all?

MAH: The collage used on the cover is the work of Krista Franklin whose work has always spoken to me. I love collage because it offers the opportunity to see the many parts of the whole.  It is like associate writing or jazz: one image rifs off the other. It shows the interrelationship of things.  Collage functions like figurative language (simile and metaphor) function in poetry.  It helps us imagine the sameness in the disparate and thereby expands our awareness.

das: Krista Franklin’s work precedes her–I realize now that I’ve seen it without recalling her name attached to it.  That’s good.  I think.  There is a certain part of the publishing (or attempting to publish) artist that must value recognition though.  So I wish I had made the connection.  And of course, on the subject of connections, I like the last sentence of your response!  Yes, that’s what I wanted to say–haha.

I felt that there were series of poems inside the collection; it seemed like I could group them by form and then sometimes by voice, and then again by theme.  Yet there is no overt grouping in the collection as I’ve seen in others.  As the collection unfolded, did you find that you were writing them in groups; following trajectories or keeping with patterns?

MAH: I constructed the book like I imagined one would compose a fugue.  A fugue is defined as a musical form in which a theme is first stated, then repeated and varied with accompanying contrapuntal lines.  I studied the concept and listened to Bach’s fugues until the approach entered my intuitive mind.  I created different voices like you would find in a chord or chorus.  I moved slightly off a theme like a jazz improvisation.  There are actually only two poetic series in the collection: the unrequited love sonnets and the “Nina looks inside” section. I believe the human narrative is both sequential and tangential.

das: “I believe the human narrative is both sequential and tangential.”  I suppose that’s why the collaged cover seems so critical to what follows and thus worth mentioning.

MAH: Yes!

das: Finally (for now 🙂 how would you characterize the “me” of the title?

MAH: I don’t know – as human.

***Conversation continues later***
das: Which brings us to the text:

The idea of “knowing” seems to be a repeating thread throughout the text from the declarative “Eunice Waymon” to “Daddy Bop” wherein the speaker “knew him like a fifth of vodka.”

This almost prescience–(which appears to me in “Black people sure can keep secrets” where we read “i know her secrets too,” and in “Everything Must Change” where the speaker seems to recognize Rufus’ ulterior motives when she says he “didn’t have to explain.”)

MAH: Hmmm – I love that when you turn your work over to the reader so much more is discovered within the poem than you realized when you were writing it.  In many ways, I am an intuitive writer.  I constantly try to give myself over to the work and to let go of my control.  “The Language of Ash” is an Ars Poetica.

das: In “The Need to be Touched speaks,” the speaker says “it may be true,” in the first stanza but later articulates, “my body’s no fool” suggesting, again, a “knowing.”

das: Do you think that “knowing” is part of being human; does it reflect/project for you a human narrative that is intrinsically connected to a higher power?  I guess the question is what does it mean to be human in here; I get a sense that it is less temporal/less simply “flesh” for you than a standard definition might imply.

MAH: Yes, intuition “knowing” would have to be connected to a higher power.  I didn’t realize until after I had completed the book how often God and spiritual life entered the poems.

das: So when “Nina Looks Inside,” the title itself quickly presents as spiritual and sure enough rituals follow–“Libation” and the almost invitational (I’m telling on my Methodist background!) of “Bach Fugue speaks.”  Even that process of getting to and seeing the Apollo Show in “Black is Beautiful” feels so much like the studied crescendo of blues and especially gospel performance that is almost calculated in the way it pulls its audience into a frenzy.  Then in “Strong Man” the last couplet seems to sigh, “I am afraid of everything/especially God.”  Could you talk more about the relevance of ritual in your/this work?

MAH: As an African American writer this is the tradition I am writing from and within, a tradition that is intrinsically African. What you are recognizing are the tenants of an oral tradition.  So even though I am writing primarily for the page, I come from an oral tradition.

There was a period, a couple of years ago, when I was haunted by the feeling that English is my second language and that I had forgotten my first language so how I could possible ever find the “right” words or get close to what I was imagining.  I realized this yearning to be reconnected artistically with one’s origin is what Langston Hughes and many of the Harlem Renaissance artists were seeking.  The Negritude movement was also about throwing off the shackles of colonialism and grounding oneself in African cultural traditions. It happens again in the Black Arts Movement and today many of the poets that I admire are writing work that “sounds” at its core African.

I realized that I had not completely forgotten my first language and that I was tapping into it through some form of memory.  Essentially my legacy is that of the griot.  A griot is a West African storyteller, musician and poet who  enacted rituals and told stories to teach and to heal.  The griot was not separate from society.  The griot was a valued member of the community as I also hope to be.



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