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10 Questions for Kemi Alabi

Photo by Ally Almore

O taxi glass, O broken fall, be soprano, be alto.
Give me sea sharp, give doh doh doh, give mi fa so?
O gravity, slip soft. Lay with this sorry child
              before they soulsplint & ugly up this here garden.
—from "The Lion Tamer's Daughter vs. The Ledge," Volume 63, Issue 1 (Spring 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I recently found a poem I wrote in first grade. It was about the moon.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
When I was 18, I heard Patricia Smith read at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, and I’ve never been the same. Her way with language expands my imagination, rewires my nervous system. More recently, I’ve been inspired by Lucille Clifton’s spirit writing practice, and I got to take a spirit writing workshop with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel this year.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve worked with social justice nonprofits for the last decade doing everything from fundraising to communications to managing databases to designing programs to directing national cultural strategy work. I’ve also done freelance editing work for years.

What inspired you to write this piece?
“The Lion Tamer’s Daughter vs. the Ledge” was the third poem in a triptych I wrote in Kearney Street’s Interdisciplinary Writer’s Lab. Growing up, my father would always tell me a story, a pseudo-history lesson, about how men tamed lions, usurping the king of the jungle. It was a core part of his worldview, this kind of dominance, and critical to how he moved through life as a Nigerian immigrant in suburban Wisconsin. I wanted to explore different generational approaches to power and what it means to abandon your parents’ survival strategies—especially when those strategies lead to your own annihilation. That exploration was pretty didactic until my instructor, Ronaldo V. Wilson, encouraged me to let the language lead me to more unknown places. The triptych expanded to five poems that open or close sections of my debut collection Against Heaven.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Lake Michigan makes many appearances and probably always will. Like Jamila Woods sings, “you gotta love me like I love the lake.”

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I created this playlist when I was revising my collection Against Heaven. It’s ordered in a way that follows the book’s moods, arguments, and referenced music. Mood is critical, so I like to listen to music that can match the tone I’m trying to strike.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I need to write by hand, no matter the genre. Right now, I require very cheap, spiral-bound, college-ruled notebooks. I wrote in beautiful notebooks for years, and I found myself holding back, not wanting to muck their pages with my shit. But now I shit freely, and it feels amazing.

I take walks most days, even in the winter, and I love to bring a voice recorder with me. Being in motion helps me keep language in a sonic, libidinal place. I like to revise poems by reciting them while I’m out wandering.

But routines are pretty impossible for me. “Daily” is an increment of time I can only apply to the most essential life functions (and even then, I fail).

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Once I met the poet Sanam Sheriff at Pink Door in 2019, I started sending them everything. They’re a true poet, so I trust them completely. In my dream writing life, I have long-term literary friendships and go-to, trusted readers. But I’ve hopped from workshop to workshop, retreat to retreat, writing community to writing community. The reason I started submitting poems to literary magazines in 2016 was because I felt like I had no readers to call on, and I just need some kind of temperature check. If I have one hope for my first collection, it’s that it leads me to more creative kinship.

What are you working on currently?
It’s a secret—until you meet me. Then I blab all about it.

What are you reading right now?
Jessica Dore’s Tarot for Change, David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, and Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar.

KEMI ALABI is the author of Against Heaven (Graywolf Press), selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Academy of American Poets First Book Award. Their work appears in Poetry, The Atlantic, Best New Poets, Redivider as winner of the 2020 Beacon Street Prize, and elsewhere. Coeditor of The Echoing Ida Collection (Feminist Press), they live in Chicago, IL.

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