2020 has, by and large, been a terrible year—but it has been a great one for new poetry. Of the many excellent collections released since January, my favorite so far is the Nashville-based poet Destiny O. Birdsong’s emotionally and intellectually wide-ranging debut Negotiations. Birdsong is a committed individualist, dedicated to representing the full spectrum of self on the page. For her, this means roving between pop culture and Trump-era politics, gastroenterology and Romantic poetry, imagined families and real-life ASMR pickle-eating videos. Birdsong is a master of the unexpected turn, and of blending high and low—she can take a poem from tragic to hilarious in a stanza, or prompt tears when the reader least expects them.
Birdsong is also an expert at writing contradiction. In “The 400-Meter Heat,” a poem that emerges from Bahamian sprinter Shaunae Miller’s 2016 Olympic victory over American Allyson Felix, Birdsong writes, “I’m saddest whenever two black women are competing / because I never know who to root for, / and I’m arrogant enough to believe my split loyalty / fails them (which makes me more American again.)” Split loyalties recur throughout Negotiations. Birdsong is plainly fascinated by the incongruities she finds in being Black and American, as well as in being a woman who loves men. Yet she never slides into heteropessimism or disavows her country; instead, she stares her mixed feelings down, as in “i too sing america,” which opens, “but mostly // when it’s convenient / when i’m abroad // i fucking love / the constitution.”
Negotiations is a loving collection, and, ultimately, a joyful one. Birdsong and I spoke about writing toward that joy, her collection’s genesis and evolution, and the infinite negotiations involved in writing poetry. In conversation, as on the page, she is relaxed, erudite, and immensely generous.
— Lily Meyer for Guernica
Guernica: I want to begin with a question that always strikes me as important to ask poets: What is your relationship to the speaker or speakers of the poems in Negotiations?
Destiny O. Birdsong: Our relationship is pretty close. I’d tell you that much of what happens to the speaker in the poems happened to me. But at least for now, I think it’s somewhat important to make the distinction that there are two of us: there’s the speaker, and there’s me, though we’re intimately connected in lots of ways.
Guernica: Are there poems in which you see light between yourself and the speaker?
Birdsong: Two poems in Negotiations come to mind. The rage in “Elegy for the Man on Highway 52” and “Love Poem with Stockholm” is something I would never act on. It was nice, though, to step into the imaginative space of enacting rage and to think of the possible punishments that could happen to somebody who’d done a terrible thing. That rage is real, but the product of the rage is the difference between me and the speaker.
Some poems do have other speakers. In “Pandemic,” the speaker is raising her twin nieces, which is certainly not my lived experience. I honestly don’t know if I would make that decision if the option were presented to me. The poem has moments of attachment that ring true to me as a person, and also a sense of duty, but I don’t know if I would choose that life.
Guernica: I love “Pandemic” [which was written pre-COVID, and is not connected to it]. The poem is after Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” but feels very much your own. How did you transform Morrison’s story into your own?
Birdsong: I started the poem intending to create a speaker [like Morrison’s] whose race wasn’t immediately identifiable—which meant, subsequently, that the children’s race wouldn’t be. But every person who’s read the poem has been like, “Oh, that’s a Black woman!” To be fair, I’ve only showed it to women of color. But I think the elasticity of family can resonate with all of us; we have iterations of it in our own families, or have seen women who have made that choice.
I liked the idea that pandemics aren’t race-specific. I was talking to a friend about the difference between the crack and opioid epidemics—though the term crack epidemic is problematic, since politicians created the idea of an epidemic in order to pass drug legislation—and he said, “I have no sympathy when I think about how the opioid epidemic gets treated as some kind of crisis, since that sympathy was never extended to Black people during the crack epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s.” I understand that sentiment, but I wanted to write a poem that challenged it. You don’t know what drug the speaker’s niece’s biological mother is on; you don’t necessarily know the races of the family, except that the children are biracial in some way; you can’t tell who’s who, because there’s really not much difference, except in the way the government—and by extension, we—look at the crack and opioid epidemics.
Guernica: I’d like to turn to “Negotiations,” the collection’s first poem, which begins, “My pussy is not made of microfiber.” On reading it, I thought, I love that this collection starts with the words ‘my pussy;’ that’s so cool. Then I thought, That shouldn’t be cool! That should be a totally ordinary way for a collection to start! Which is to say, I wish the choice hadn’t felt bold to me, but it did and does, and so I would love to hear how you arrived there.
Birdsong: The answer ties in with the book’s title. My two favorite albums—one might date me—are Dave Matthews Band’s Under the Table and Dreaming and Florence and the Machine’s Ceremonials. I love that those albums are named, not after songs on the album, but after lines in songs on the album. I wanted a collection that did that—but this one did not. So, as a consolation prize to myself, I put “Negotiations” late in the collection, in the penultimate section. That was how the book looked when it got picked up.
At that point, the book had three or four sections. But I had a great editor, Matthew Dickman, who said, “You know, lots of collections do this, but you’re allowed to have no sections. Or you can have seven sections! You can do whatever!”
After that, I totally rearranged the book, and “Negotiations” didn’t fit anywhere. And it had to go in! It was the title poem! But it wouldn’t fit, and I didn’t want to put it first, because that felt like giving away the whole book. Once I put it there, though, the whole collection fell into place. And once it was there, I looked at the first words and thought, This is perfect. This is what I want.
Guernica: Negotiations refuses, throughout, to avoid the body, and so I was amused that it contains a poem titled “failed avoidance of ‘the body’ in a poem.” How did you move from failed avoidance to total rejection of avoidance?
Birdsong: Years ago, I read an interview in which the poet Jamaal May said he was tired of hearing about the body in poems. I’d heard journal editors say the same. For a long time, I did try to stay away from, at least, the phrase the body. But then I got sick, and also came to terms with my own sexual assault—which I did not understand as assault when it happened. After that, it became unavoidable to write about my body.
I am a Cave Canem fellow, and in 2015, right before this book began coming together, I went to a Cave Canem retreat. I was writing very abstract poems that were very difficult to decipher—not that abstract is bad! But the abstract poetry I was writing was bad because it was so unclear. At the retreat, I had a workshop with Chris Abani in which I was writing poems about my autoimmune disease, and he was like, “Do you want to tell us what you’re writing about?” and I was like, “Nope!” But in that moment, I thought, If I’m going to write about these subjects, I have to be honest that I’m writing about bodies. It has to be okay for me to write about my body. That realization was the start of my writing the poems that are now in this book.
Also, my therapist is interested in somatic therapy. She always asks where I feel my emotions. Before, maybe thanks to my Christian upbringing, I only knew that illness was grounded in the body—which made sense, since the body is supposedly dirty and sinful. I never knew healing could be grounded in the body, too. That realization also helped me unlock these poems.
Guernica: The collection grows ever more loving toward the body as it progresses—including a wonderful explosion of poetry about food in the final section. How did you come to embrace food and food-related sensuousness in your work?
Birdsong: I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which is directly tied to food for me. Initially, I was taking medications that were awful for my skin—rashes, hair loss, this violent form of eczema. It was awful. Once it became clear that the medications were destroying my skin, I stopped taking them and opted for diet modification instead. I don’t eat dairy any more, which makes me very sad; I don’t eat gluten; I don’t eat broccoli—but I never liked broccoli, so that wasn’t a tearful goodbye. Anyway, food became my source of healing. My whole relationship with food changed since I learned that it impacts my health, my energy level, even the appearance of my skin. I think that’s how it seeped into the text.
Guernica: In “Scope,” which addresses your diagnosis, you write, “One specialist notes / the tortuosity of my insides, how I take / each thing I consume on a crooked path.” Your poems often take crooked paths toward their ultimate subject matter. Is that an extended bodily metaphor? Does it serve a formal purpose?
Birdsong: That line came from real notes surrounding my diagnosis! As a formal device—I wish I thought more about that. But when I’m writing, in the moment, I don’t know that I do much deliberately.
I will say, though, that I love the moment in Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place where, discussing Antigua’s colonial history, she says, “There’s a world of something in this, but I can’t go into it right now.” I think that sentiment has shaped who I am as an artist. I grew up in a family with lots of silences, or a family where lots was left unsaid. Sometimes, I think, I need to circle those silences for a while. I can’t get there without some tortuous orbiting. So the orbiting, maybe, is an emotional process that manifests in formal execution.
I think, too, that I once really loved poems that had grand reveals at the end, but at another Cave Canem retreat, someone told me, “You know, you can leave the door open at the end of a poem.” So sometimes, the circling is about getting closer and closer to the door—with lots of stops and asides—but leaving the door ajar.
Guernica: That circling strikes me as a negotiation with your subjects, or yourself. Were there other forms of negotiation you found yourself conducting as you wrote? Were you surprised by any of those negotiations?
Birdsong: Negotiation has been a defining motif in the book. For example, the poems in which I address my sexual assault and come to terms with the ways I have been complicit in toxic masculinity—I did not expect that negotiation to happen! And when it was happening, I did not expect to write about it. I didn’t want to tell people that I, too, have been complicit. So I had to negotiate myself closer to some form of truth—to standing as somebody who is anti-violence and anti-racist, but, as in “Elegy for the Man on Highway 52,” still wants to fantasize about terrible things happening to a person who has harmed me. I can be compassionate and graceful and forgiving while acknowledging my complicated feelings about justice. So, in that way, the collection became a negotiation with honesty.
Guernica: I was struck by the reckoning in the poems whose titles all begin with the words my rapist. Those poems all start with my rapist and end with the speaker alone, repeating the word I. In “My rapist taught me the proper way to cook bacon,” for instance, the last lines are, “Every morning, when I’d twist the knob, / slide in the meat, I knew what I was doing. / I could have sworn I knew what I was waiting for.” That move raised for me the question of whether a negotiation can also be a reclamation of self.
Birdsong: Yes! I’m not sure if I was thinking of reclamation while writing those poems—but it happens there. It might even be the purpose of those poems. You know, I think of writing as an art and a professional endeavor, but I also find it deeply spiritual, and parts of writing I can’t take credit for. Some of that is divine, and some is just subconscious, but when I come to the page, things just happen, and figuring them out might take years. In the past months, I’ve come to personal realizations and then realized, Wait, I wrote this in a poem.
The presence of the divine doesn’t mean that I don’t practice writing, or work on it, or try to get better. But there’s a God particle—a component that holds it together, or that seems inexplicable. That component bounces around, for me. Sometimes the God particle is in form, sometimes in theme—it pops up in weird places.
Guernica: In terms of form, my favorite poem in the collection is “Found Art.” That poem blew me away. It’s a contrapuntal in which one side is the voice of an entitled editor, the other the voice of a poet. How did you occupy both voices in one poem? And what did it feel like to channel such an ugly side of our industry?
Birdsong: A while ago, when I was learning the etiquette of journal publications, I had a poem get republished—not reprinted, but informally posted on a Cave Canem blog for some collaboration with another organization. The editor of the journal that originally published the poem reached out to complain that I didn’t give them credit, and I thought, What audacity! I would never have done that.
Shortly thereafter, a different editor asked me to contribute to an anthology about the moon. I don’t necessarily write moon poems, so I told the editor I doubted I would have a poem but would send one if I did. He reacted by telling me it was going to be an important anthology and I should really submit. That bothered me, too.
I was so struck by the privilege that can exist in this industry, and the ways privilege encroaches on ownership. I felt so indignant. Like, You realize this is my work, right? This isn’t a business transaction; half the time, I’m not even getting paid. You can’t order my poetry like a dish on a menu! So those experiences prompted “Found Art.” I wanted to write a contrapuntal because I read Joy Priest’s “No Country for Black Boys.” I loved that poem, which also has a blending of voices. One side is the boy, one side is the vigilante, and, read together, it sounds like a cop. So I wanted one side to be the editor, one side to be the personal voice, and, read together, a message to the editor.
Guernica: You also address privilege in “Harambe for President (2016 Write-In Ballot)”. How does it feel to revisit this poem in the lead-up to the 2020 election?
Birdsong: The Boston Review is running that poem this October. And I love that poem; I thought it was a great poem. I submitted it for four years, and no one wanted it. I think the reason is the line “chance and the votes of white women rule us all,” though there’s clear evidence from the 2016 election that that’s true.
The poem began with the death of Harambe, before the election. I kept wondering why so many white people were angry about the death of a gorilla who could have killed a little boy. I mean, is it sad? Yes. Animals shouldn’t have to be shot in the head. But also, I—a presumably logical adult—kept thinking, That’s a reasonable price to pay to save the life of a child. So, I was fascinated by the social media rage, and I decided I needed to write about gorillas. Still, the poem didn’t come together until the days after the election, when I was terrified. I didn’t want to leave the house. Then I heard that people wrote in Harambe’s name, and I thought, This is insane! Why would someone not take the election seriously? It seemed unconscionable to me not to take a presidential election seriously. That brought the poem together.
Guernica: In the poem’s last line, you write that Koko the gorilla “knew who didn’t have the luxury of making mistakes.” The luxury of making mistakes is a key feature of white privilege. How do you see the absence of that luxury impacting your writing career? And, speaking generally, what is your relationship to perfectionism?
Birdsong: That line was heavily influenced by a talk by Melissa Harris-Perry, who described the differences between white kids in private schools and Black kids in inner-city public schools. White kids have the privilege of fucking up; a Black kid can do something basic like defy a cop and people are like, “Why didn’t you just submit?” So that line was influenced by her explanation of how privilege works for children.
For me, the absence of the luxury of making mistakes manifests in so many ways. I was so anxious about getting this manuscript right. I think that comes from understanding that if you’re Black, you don’t have the luxury of half-assing; you have to be twice as good. Chris Rock has a great line where he says—I’m paraphrasing—true equality won’t happen until Black people can be mediocre and get treated the same as white people. I don’t think that has happened. Certainly, it hasn’t in literature. So many Black writers, particularly Black women writers, don’t get the credit they deserve. That’s an anxiety for me.
I try to keep what I write free of that anxiety. I need to say what I want to say. But in terms of what poems I’m willing to send out, I’m always asking, Is this the best I can do? In the poems themselves, though, perfection comes from honesty. Being the most honest I can be is a kind of perfection for me, even if the honesty is sloppy or not comfortable.
In terms of optics, I resist perfection. Social media has created a culture of flyness for writers—looking perfect, having a perfect book reveal. I have been trying to resist that, and to question how effective social media is for me. I’m concerned with whether my work is honest, and true to my aesthetics, and evolving in the way it should.
Guernica: To what extent does social media encroach on your life? Does responding to the zeitgeist appeal to you?
Birdsong: I feel pressure to! But figuring out how I feel takes a while. The groupthink on Twitter can make me feel like I should change my mind, but then, after some thought and reflection, I’ll decide, No! That makes no sense to me! If I wrote a poem in the middle of that process, it might not be a poem I could stand behind. I mean, I haven’t written about the coronavirus pandemic yet. It’s too early!
Responsive work gets attention and recognition. It can shape poets’ entire careers. But I also think timing is divine, and if I mess with it, I’m messing with the best timeline for me. There’s a lot of stability in social media fame, and a lot of opportunities, but those opportunities might not be my opportunities.
Guernica: What does it mean to you to be a good literary citizen?
Birdsong: I believe we all have callings. We all have a life’s work. Mine is to be a writer. I used to think that meant the shininess of writing; I thought I’d be famous, or everyone would love my work. But now I understand my calling to mean that my duty is to give what I have, and to be part of the literary world in a way that’s helpful: to be unselfish, to not be manipulative, to never undermine my work or others’. The calling is to be good on the page, to give what I have, and to be a generative community member.
Guernica: Do you have a dream reader, or dream readers?
Birdsong: My friend Tafisha Edwards was in a workshop with a Black woman writer—either Camille Dungy or Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon—who asked, “Who are you loving when you write?” For me, the answer is always and without question Black women. Of all kinds.
That said, I often think about an episode of Oprah in which she interviews Vera Wang. She talks about how, when you put on a Vera Wang dress, it feels like Vera Wang is your personal tailor—even though the truth is, she makes clothes for everybody. I like the idea that a poem is a dress that can fit the wearer. You might not get every allusion, or have grown up with a mom who straightened your hair on the weekends or an uncle who was addicted to crack in the ’90s, but something in the poem might still fit you. But when I’m writing and thinking about who I’m loving, Black women come first.
Guernica: Is that why the book ends the way it does—with “and though the odds say improbable,” a poem in which the speaker watches a group of older Black ladies, thinking, “the black ladies better / have a blessed day month year life”?
Birdsong: Theodore Roethke once said, “We end in joy.” That poem is about difficulty, past trauma, and resilience, but when I imagine joy unattached to romance, I think of Black women having a good time together. That was my main motivation: that poem is joyful to me, and I wanted to end in joy.