Poet in the Mirror: Shaina Phenix
We’re so proud to share some insight into the lives and hearts of today’s poets with our Poet In The Mirror series. This month, Shaina Phenix—author of To Be Named Something Else (available now from University of Arkansas Press) and former Frontier contributor—shares insight into lineages/inheritances, poetry as fellowship, and what it means to “write what you know.”
On Poetry as Homage
First, congrats on To Be Named Something Else! Reading this was a joy. I’m a huge fan of the way your influences are honored in your work. Could you share a little about writers, artists, or others who have had an impact on you and your writing? How are lineages addressed in this book?
Thanks so much, Megan—for reading, for virtually having me! I like to think that most of the poems in the collection are all homage; they strive to be all peek into these kinds of mirrors, all engaging lineages I feel a part of or connected to. When I think of a few writers (or makers in general) who influenced me as a writer, I think and call to Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Gayl Jones, Aracelis Girmay, Tiana Clark, Faylita Hicks, Bhanu Kapil, Patricia Smith, Gwendolyn Brooks, and these are just who are coming to mind now. I also think of Billie holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Tina Turner, Lucille Bogan. And then, and always, my mama, my hood, my loves past and present, God, the people who I found in pages/screens/headphones that became people that I carry with me—Shug Avery, Pecola Breedlove, Ms. Celie, Nola Darling, Aunt Sarah, Peaches.
History or some before, is the framework from which I know that my work can exist, from which I remind myself of what is at stake for us (Black people, women, queer folk—those of us for whom these identities intersect within), what we might lose or have taken away if we don’t write ourselves for ourselves. Every poem is informed by a before—lineages, myths, stories, and inheritances. There is an innate covenant made between me, the poems, my ancestors, and befores, that I always am writing in honor of and in conversation with. Some of the poems here mean to interact with a set of pasts for the sake of fellowship, reunion, and congregation between a Black-was and Black-is.
I noticed an abundance of work written using various forms throughout this collection. What is your relationship to form as a writer, and how do you see it in relationship with the content of this book?
I think similarly to a lot of writers, I originally turned my nose up at any idea of form in ignorance—it was restrictive, prescriptive, and in so many ways, felt reserved for white folks. And while I don’t love everything about the way poetry is taught or handled in academia, I will say that something cracked in my understanding of what was possible, what I could conjure, what I could resurrect using form. In grad school, I took craft classes with the likes of Lucinda Roy and Tina Chang. * Celebration interlude for the blessings that came of these interactions. *
The Zuihitsu, Ghazal, Villanelle, the Duplex, and the Pantoum made room for me to open a few different portals to writing my innermost person as Black, queer, and woman navigating spaces where the intersections of these things almost always justify my erasure. These five forms held my beasts, my hauntings, my carryings, and collaborated with me in doing healing work on behalf of myself and on behalf of other black existences that were on my mind in the process. Each of these forms in their own ways are obsessed with what can be heard and my poems are so oriented around sound. The ghazal relies on repeating sounds and the repetition of actual words at the ends of lines. In the ghazal, I find that I can perform rituals, I can resurrect, can magic someone or thing into living by repeating what the poem says is true. The villanelle asks me what I hope to say, asks me again and again if I mean it, and asks me why I mean it. In the way that stages and live audiences once held space for the poems, forms do similar work. These forms allow me to distill many voices in the fabric of the page, they allow for sound to do its thing even in silent reads of the poem, they are the cues to breathe here, pause there, repeat after response or applause, and stop. Writing in form, finding ways to disrupt or manipulate their rules, to follow them, to complicate them, serve and hold the bodies of my loves, challenge me to consider what is at stake for me, for the poems, for my people in every word and pattern, in every music.
Speaking of naming, I love the way you’ve named the sections in this book, with the two words connected by a hyphen, which could indicate both a combining or a progression. Could you speak to this choice?
The hyphenated section titles hope to do a few things—of course, to name and think through the kinds of names that “I” (and “we”) have been called, called ourselves, been looked at as, heard talked about in whispers, found in our bodies, reclaimed, etc. They also hope to weave a thread through these names; to say they’re connected or speak to one another, to offer the something-else-ness in every name presented in the book. Girl or root / girl and root / girl as root. Mother or God / mother and God / mother as God. Blood or rot/ blood and rot / blood as rot. Kin or alive / kin and alive / kin as alive.
So, I guess, a combining—a coming together of names.
On Poetic Journey
When did writing become a professional endeavor for you? How did that begin?
I wish I had something cool to say about this. I think while I was fortunate to go to an undergraduate institution (shoutout to Hampshire College) where I had the opportunity to craft my own major and with the guidance of Aracelis Girmay, I realized I could study poetry and graduate having done that studying. But in that, I knew I needed a capital j, Job because I didn’t think poetry could be that for me—and I chose teaching which is something I know is more than a job and a thing I love almost as much as I love writing.
The first time I remember thinking that I could have a “poetry career,” (these are air quotes because I’m not sure what that means to me/for me yet,) was when I heard from people that it felt important to them or necessary that the documenting and archiving I want to be doing in the work was reaching and seeing who I wanted it to. It felt like the folks I was writing for wanted me to keep writing. And, just when I got more than $25-50 for a single poem, when I saw a poem could make me a nice piece of change—could pay a bill, could be extra funds to send my little siblings away at college, could be months’ worth of gas, could be rent money. I think the combination of the two made poetry or just writing something I let take up time, which I built into days as I would my regular job, it became something I not only considered every day but something I wanted to be doing a kind of work towards every day. When it wasn’t only drafting and revising whenever I could, whenever I felt inspired or in the thick of something, but spreadsheets of open subs and prizes, my over-the-top database of poems I’ve written, want to write, need eyes on, need to let go of, need revision, and places I think they might find good homes in.
I’ll admit that sometimes I struggle with this shift, sometimes seeing this work as tasks to be completed toward something (and sometimes I think the poems even feel this or feel like this) because sometimes I just want to be writing for the sake of writing, for the sake of opening, or imagining. I am currently looking to find a middle between the two.
On Writing What You Know
What is a popular craft advice that you don’t practice yourself?
I think in some way, I stand by, “Write what you know.” (Does this count as craft advice?) I stand by it in my own work, and I give it as advice to my students. Lately, I’ve heard that new writers are especially being pushed away from this in attempts to get them to move past cliches or the kinds of poems that feel familiar, which I get. So, this is not to say that I strive to write the same poem over and over or that I encourage my students to do so. But I am saying that I write what haunts me, what I don’t ever stop feeling in my bones, what I am nothing without.
I’m saying I write what I know, but I don’t ever stop writing or interrogating the how I know, the ways to see, the ways to say, the ways to sound. Perhaps I drop a pin on the map of Harlem in the poem—in the middle of a line—name a place like Jimbos or Antioch Baptist Church or Central Park or here is the stoop on 131st and Lenox Ave where my aunties talk shit about no-good men, come sit with me. Maybe I include the caws of corner boys at the pretty girls passing by or the clang of the pots and pans and my mother’s upset at my having not done the dishes after being home all day. Maybe I call in befores like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, or Claude McKay. I spell my name, my mother’s name, and her mother’s name. These are some of the things that I know—names, places, lineages, stories. But, then Hurston, Hughes, and I dance or laugh or write ourselves into some future. Then I notice how the sounds of the spatulas clanging on the grill at Jimbo’s kind of sound like a beat in a song I want to sing and so I do. And the third time I write the aunties on the stoop, I am old enough to join them and I have my own stories and they listen.
So yeah, I write what I know, but with questions and wonder and imagination and hope and yearning.
On Letting It Be
What was the most surprising thing—either a joyful one or a challenging one—about ushering your debut collection into the world?
The most challenging thing I think was and still is letting it be what it was/is. I so badly wanted to keep changing things in the book, revising, cutting, and searching for what I felt was missing in there. I hope this part changes some after first books, but at a point, I thought it would never feel done. I didn’t think I’d ever find a place of satisfaction with the collection, and maybe that part never changes.
I think when I started looking at poems that had gone through four and five rounds of revisions for tiny things that I could change or bend when I started feeling ugly feelings about some of the poems and I was on the verge of pulling everything apart. I decided to release it, to step away from the poems, to let those versions of me as a poet, as a person, as a woman, etc. be themselves instead of trying to bring them up to speed to meet the person that I show up as now in poems. I guess when the writer person that I am now, started to feel like she couldn’t quite sit in the poems; when all she wanted to do was make them sound/feel/look like me now when she wanted to erase the evidence that I did labor to get here, when it felt like I wanted to erase the process, I knew I had to let it go.
Shaina Phenix is a Black, queer poet, essayist, and educator from Harlem, NY. She is the author of To Be Named Something Else from University of Arkansas Press. She received a BA in Poetry & Africana studies at Hampshire College, and holds an MFA in Poetry from Virginia Tech. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Elon University and has taught both middle and high school humanities, theater, and creative writing. She is—her work is—always in communion with documents that recall many Black and femme experiences, the passing down of stories, the ocean, the body, mothering, acts of loving, and home(s).