10 Questions for Maria Hamilton Abegunde
- By Edward Clifford
To find a missing friend, follow the rot.
You find her
Whatever they have become
Crouch over the body like an old woman.
—from “Learning to Eat the Dead: Juba” in Volume 60, Issue 4 (Winter 2019)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
What comes to mind is “What Is Now Unanswerable”, the title poem of my first chapbook. I wrote it at the Flight of the Mind women’s poetry workshop two years after Tammy Zwicki was murdered in August 1992. This poem introduced me to my life’s work: writing about trauma with an acuity tempered by my desire to heal without harm. When Ruth George was murdered in Chicago in November 2019, I found myself returning to this poem and thinking about Tammy, Diamond and Tionda Bradley, and the missing women and girls in Chicago. I kept returning to a line I repeat in the poem: “It could have been me.”
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Gwendolyn Brooks. She read and commented on my poems when I was beginning to share them publicly. She was honest about what worked, needed work, and what was “irksome” in my writing. She told me to write – not for an audience, but because I must. There are many others. But, since I began with Tammy Zwicki, I want to honor Navajo-Warm Springs-Wasco-Yakama poet Elizabeth Woody. She understood my work at a profound level when no one else did. When I met her at Flight of the Mind, I was shaken; like the land and histories she writes about, she took up space and was unafraid to do so. She taught me to take up the space I need without consuming or suffocating others. And, her writing. I thought if I dropped water on a word that a whole cosmos would grow out of the page. Elizabeth could listen to you read 50 lines, remember them, and tell you which lines were the true voice of your poem; the parts of your soul you didn’t know were there.
Most importantly, Elizabeth taught me that my work was ritual performance, and that I had a responsibility to the dead when writing and to the living when reading. She taught me that I could embody my work at transcendent and transformational levels that could heal me. She taught me about the power of my voice to shift spaces through words that were portals. It was she who came upon me while I was practicing “What Is Now Unanswerable” at Flight. She watched until I finished. She told me about watching men she knew do the Sun Dance. Then, she said something that I will never forget: “You are responsible for opening and closing the circle.“
What other professions have you worked in?
I have always taught as a freelance writer, maintained a healing practice for a limited number of people, and written/performed my work. I could do this because for over twenty years I had a full-time job as an executive assistant at a school district. I had administrative duties but didn’t have to take my work home; I had generous family benefits and time-off that allowed me to accept residencies, fellowships, and teaching projects around the country and world. It prepared me for my current positions as administrator and faculty in the academy. Now, a lot of my creative activity is officially part of my research.
What did you want to be when you were young?
If I knew nothing else as a child, I knew that I was a poet, a writer. I wanted to be whole, unafraid, safe, happy, and free. Poetry, more than the fiction I also wrote, made this possible. Poetry kept me sane; kept me from swallowing my tongue. Poetry saved my life.
What inspired you to write this piece?
"Learning to Eat the Dead: Juba" is from Learning to Eat the Dead: Juba, USA, a manuscript-in-progress. In 2016, I was invited to join a collaboration between Indiana University, University of Juba, and USAID. It was the first time I visited Africa. I spent three weeks in Juba, South Sudan helping to design and teach a new master’s program in teaching emergencies. When I returned from that trip, I spent two years emerging from a deep sadness in my soul: I missed the people I had met, but I was more aware now of the dangers and struggles they faced. In the aftermath of war, I experienced hope and love from the students I met. The stories I heard. The country I saw. The helplessness I felt.
I was there on June 12, 2016 when the Pulse Massacre occurred. The day after this, what could I tell students in Juba as they asked me what was the difference between political violence, massacre, and genocide? As I listened to them talk about how they learned their families had been killed, how could I make sense of and integrate all of this into my life? When I returned to the US, I cried a lot. One day, I cried for more than 30 minutes. When I got through the worse part, I needed to explore how and why we digest death on such a large scale. We consume death and the dead alongside. Students talked about having to walk over hundreds of dead bodies a day.
The vulture is dear to me. It is the only creature designed to eat and digest the dead and death, clean itself, and live. How do humans learn to digest what would kill us? Could doing so teach us how to be compassionate, loving, more kind to each other, ourselves?
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Right now, Juba. And my heart, a place where healing transforms us from being what wounded us to being what loved us; where hunger doesn’t exist; where water is clean and accessible to everyone; where home is not lost, stolen, at war, on the street. This is a place where human beings know they are spiritual beings, energy, without identities that mark traumatic histories, hierarchies, exclusions, pride, comfort, or any importance at all. This is a place where none of us must be afraid, especially our children.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I write and edit mostly in silence. When I do listen to music it is because I need a break or am stuck. My mood determines my choices. In a three-hour sitting, I might listen to Sade, Alice Coltrane, Lizzo, Pink, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Hugh Masekela, Bob Marley, Damian Marley, Nicki Minaj, Fela, Paul Simon, Prince – you get the idea. One beat or sound leads to another. When I am tired, I dance to drums for 15-30 minutes, sometimes to a trance-like state. Freeing my body frees my mind.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
When on residencies, I sleep and do yoga the first three days. It resets my body and mind, and helps my spirit acclimate to the environment, especially if outside the US. At home, where writing must be scheduled between other activities, each project needs something different. Some consistencies no matter the work: meditating before I write; journaling as ideas emerge – no matter when (Naomi Shihab Nye taught me to carry notebooks everywhere); rereading previous writing; paying attention to dreams; cleaning my desk.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
If I had to, maybe a dancer. I love dancing, but it is hard on your body and life, and I’m not good following dance directions. The rhythm snatches me and before I know it I am dancing between and around everybody or jumping up in a restaurant to dance by myself when the music gets good. So, I would choose Sound. I am interested in how sound becomes language and music; how it can shift how and what we see, hear, and feel; how it moves out of the earth, into your feet, your belly, your throat, and slides into your tongue before a scream, a word, a laugh; before breath.
What are you reading right now?
Reading: Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro by Gloria Anzaldua. Calling the Soul Back by Christina Garcia Lopez. Spiritual Citizenship by N. Fadeke Castor. Ontological Terror by Calvin L. Warren. A few books about Toni Morrison (Goodness and the Literary Imagination).
Always poetry: Under the Knife by Krista Franklin. I have books everywhere, pick them up as I pass or sit, and read at random points. It makes for exciting and unexpected discoveries.
In addition to reading, I watch supernatural, fantasy, and mermaid shows. The Witcher, Raising Dion, and Sirens.
MARIA HAMILTON ABEGUNDE is an ancestral priest, memory keeper, healing facilitator, poet, writer, and Black Studies practitioner-scholar who focuses on memory, trauma, and healing in black communities. She is a fellow of Cave Canem, Ragdale, Sacatar, Flight of the Mind, Barbara Deming, and the NEH summer institute. She is the founding director of the Graduate Mentoring Center and a faculty member in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. “Learning to Eat the Dead: Juba” is from a manuscript-in-progress.