A Virtual Interview with darlene anita scott

Background

Thursday, July 14, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-second-thursday-poetry-and-open-mic-featuring-darlene-anita-scott-tickets-350112464807

Feature darlene anita scott will be reading from her new collection, Marrow (University Press of Kentucky, 2022). Part of the New Poetry & Prose Series from University Press of Kentucky, Marrow honors those who perished in the Jonestown massacre of November 18, 1978 in the Guyanese settlement of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project led by James “Jim” Jones. 

darlene anita scott is co-editor of the anthology Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and has appeared recently in Green Mountains ReviewPen + Brush, and Simple Machines. 

The Interview

CH: Tell us a little about your journey as a writer. What is your first memory of poetry? When do you first remember being drawn to writing?

das: My earliest memories of poetry happened in church. From the time I began attending Sunday School, around 4 years old, I was assigned “pieces” to memorize and recite for every holiday program—Easter, Christmas, Children’s Day. “Pieces” were rhyming verses that spoke on the occasion and Jesus and salvation and you aged into longer and more complicated ones.

I was drawn to practicing verse thanks, in no small part, to my great Aunt Eva who would write and deliver pieces—hers were witty long form rhyming histories—almost like a griot—on the more adult special occasions like Homecoming or the pastor’s anniversary. It seemed almost magical to manipulate words like she did, and as much as anything, I liked stories. Like, my dad’s a very physical storyteller, and I would sneak to read the stories my oldest sister wrote in her spiral notebooks back then. I heard James Weldon Johnson’s “The Creation” and Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Trippin’” at some church function in those early years of my life. And I can’t leave out that hip hop was in the ether at the same time—the neighborhood boys blasting “boom boxes” and popping and breakdancing to its stories. So those are some of my earliest influences.

CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? as a poet? How did your MFA contribute to your development as a writer?

das: The first time I named myself a writer was in a seventh-grade report. In the report we had to research and describe our career goal by answering a series of prescribed questions and illustrating the report. My career choice was to be a writer. Ironically, I remember that I wrote a lot in college, in every genre—screenwriting (I was terrible at it), broadcast journalism, essays of course, poetry. But when a professor asked us—in an upper-level elective writing course no less—to identify ourselves as writers, I was as hesitant as my peers to say—she had us chant the words—“I am a writer.” I stuttered the words with the other girls but in that moment I think it was affirmed. I was a senior at the time and took a gap year before starting my MFA. The MFA bought me time to figure out what “being a writer” was going to look like for me. Because I had no real models. I flailed around a lot but in the flailing, my poetics evolved; I read more widely but still not nearly enough during those three years; I think I began to write more authentically and less with the goal of manipulating language.     

CH: I understand you are a visual artist as well as a poet. How do you see the relationship between these artistic aspects?

das: The relationship for me reminds me of humming and singing. Sometimes you hum whether you know the lyrics or not. I tend to let the occasion or situation choose. Whether I’m humming or belting out lyrics, I’m achieving the goal of feeling, expressing the feeling, and using what best suits the occasion at the time. I’m also very visual in general; my dreams are very involved; they’re like movies. I often see my poems, even the lyrical and less narrative ones that way. So I guess they’re like fraternal twins (I’m a fraternal twin)! The relationship is more intimate than that of siblings but they’re not, I guess, indistinguishable—if that makes sense.

CH: I recall that the media coverage of the Jonestown murder/suicide placed a good deal of focus on the leader, “Jim” Jones, but far less on the individuals who formed the community. How did you become interested in writing about the members of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project (popularly known as “Jonestown”)?

das: Yes, the way the historical record focuses on Jim Jones and the lack of focus on the individuals is definitely a touchpoint for me. I generally start writing with a question; something I want to make sense of. I wanted to know who the “people” of Peoples Temple were and not just as the monolith of “the 900+ dead.” I was curious about their interior lives and what lead them to follow this man who was portrayed as erratic, psychotic, egomaniacal. I was especially interested in all the Black people I saw in imagery of the murder-suicide and how they would have chosen the leadership of this white man, especially this kind of white man. They looked like people I knew. That was enough for me to believe they might be like people I knew and as a result I wanted to know how people I knew could be drawn to this man, this congregation, especially in that point in history.

CH: How did you find your way into the many voices of the members of the Peoples Temple? What was your research process like?

das: I spent the most time with images. There is an excellent regularly updated archive of photos, primary documents and ephemera, and creative and critical interpretations of Peoples Temple at a website called Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple. I would spend hours just scrolling through photos there, imagining and evoking the people in the pictures—their personalities, idiosyncrasies, their corporeality. You know, images don’t just preserve a time, place, subject; they make the time, place, subject tangible. So, my process was engaging with those images. I call it invitational (plenty of times it was uncomfortable too all things considered) because I would I summon members to come to me as I scrolled. I also read all the autobiographies I could find and listened to tapes and read primary documents both from the Peoples Temple and from the historical moment with the same goal of kind of disappearing my subjective lens and foregrounding the people of Peoples Temple.

CH: “Rostrum” seems a pivotal poem in the book’s first section, engaging with the effects of the lived history of the Middle Passage and all that has come since on the speaker’s faith. I’m fascinated by its use of repetition and would love to know more about how you approached writing this poem.

das: Amazing reading of that poem—I never explicitly considered the Middle Passage during the writing of “Rostrum” but who can deny the lived history of it and how it was weaponized, really, against the Black membership? Unsurprisingly, Jones used the Biblical story of Exodus that is endemic to Black theology, embedded in Black spirituals, and relevant to Black life in the so-called New World to persuade members to move to Guyana. The “Rostrum” from which he delivered his sermons is a weapon huh?

The poem began as a single stanza. Yet, every time I reread it and manipulated the order of the lines, each new iteration felt “true.” So I did that exercise where you print the poem and cut it up and move the words around like puzzle pieces. It seemed worth it to animate the manipulation in a way that reinforced the multiplicity of ways the rostrum was used, the multiplicity of ways people experienced it, and Peoples Temple, and what transpired and transformed over the course of its trip in the cargo hold.

CH: What were some of your greatest challenges in writing and arranging the poems of Marrow?

das: One of my earliest challenges was trying to make the text “like” other texts. I love Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady which corporealizes Susan Smith’s made-up carjacker and I thought I would, to borrow 80s hip hop vernacular, “bite” off of Eady’s approach. (So ambitious and naïve of me to even try!) Luckily, I shared this sentiment with a workshop leader fairly early in the development of the manuscript and was told to stop biting and write my own book. Over the course of its development, I worried over being respectful and honest in my treatment. I worried that I would cause harm in the attempt and frankly, I believe that fear shows up in the text as over explaining sometimes. All I can hope is that it’s not a distraction. Anyway, when it came time to arrange the text, I wanted to arrange the text chronologically but it didn’t make sense for the story of Peoples Temple, which is so not linear or clear-cut. So, really, I guess trying not to be heavy-handed was The Challenge.

CH: Now that you have completed this book, what is the focus of your writing practice?

das: I am currently in the very early writing stages of a collection of poems called Age of Discovery. It’s sort of an off shoot of Marrow because it’s also investigating local, national, and historical moments of my coming-of-age years. But this project is more personal because I’m trying to identify how the moments contribute to my self-hood.

CH: Who are some writers to whom you turn regularly for inspiration?

das: I reread Delana Dameron, Patricia Smith, and Lauren Alleyne. And if I pick up Gwendolyn Brooks or Nikki Giovanni, I will probably be gone for hours.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

das: Stacyann Chin’s Crossfire.

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