Interview with Destiny Birdsong
Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lao interviews Destiny Birdsong on her forthcoming poetry collection, Negotiations (Tinhouse, 2020), song lyrics, self-tokenization, and more.
DESTINY BIRDSONG is a Louisiana-born poet, essayist, and fiction writer who lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work has either appeared or is forthcoming in the Paris Review, African American Review, The BreakBeat Poets Presents: Black Girl Magic, and elsewhere. Her critical work recently appeared in African American Review and The Cambridge Companion to Transnational American Literature. Destiny has won the Academy of American Poets Prize, Naugatuck River Review’s 2016 Poetry Contest, Meridian’s 2017 “Borders” Contest in Poetry, and the Richard G. Peterson Poetry Prize from Crab Orchard Review (2019). She has received support from Cave Canem, Callaloo, Jack Jones Literary Arts, Pink Door, MacDowell, The Ragdale Foundation, and Tin House, where she was a 2018 Summer Workshop Scholar. Her debut poetry collection, Negotiations, will be published by Tin House Books in Fall 2020. Connect with her at www.destinybirdsong.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SL: Congratulations on your new collection, Negotiations! I’m interested to hear from you what surprises cropped up through the whole process of writing, editing, and publishing.
DB: Thank you! I think the biggest surprise was how long the book ultimately became. Pre-book, I talked a lot of trash about how collections should be short enough to read in one sitting, and how I wanted a 48-page book—the (typical) minimum for full-length collections. That turned out not to be the case at all, and some people have told me they’ve read it in one sitting, while others said they had to put it down and come back later. I’m OK with both ways of being read. Maybe that’s the biggest surprise of all: that I let go of my fantasy of what my first book was supposed to look like, and I survived. LOL.
SL: How did you settle on the title of this collection? Could you speak a bit about the different negotiations at play?
DB: I settled on it pretty naturally. Shortly after writing the title poem, I woke up one day and said to myself: this new collection I’m writing, that’s the name. It felt very organic—suddenly it just was, and I was OK with that. I chose the title early in the process of writing the book, and didn’t think too deliberately about it as I was finishing it, but the different negotiations that came to play are many, and here are a few: negotiating between experiencing both the immobilization of racist violence and retaliatory rage; ambition and gatekeeping; illness and the exhausting work of healing; assault and desire; devastation and joy.
SL: What is the role of vulnerability in your work? Your poems carry the reader through such an organic, sweeping emotional landscape, and poems like “but some men call out the rapists” deal with dark subject matter, so I’m curious as to whether you find writing to be purely cathartic or at times, a more draining endeavor? And if it’s the latter, how do you balance your writing with caring for yourself emotionally?
DB: This question makes me think of something the poet francine harris once said about writing: it isn’t therapy. If anything, it’s math, and that’s something I’ve found to be true about my work, especially after finishing such a difficult book. But the answer to this question really depends on what I’m writing and what I’m writing it for. Journaling for me can be both cathartic and revelatory—I solve emotional equations in my journaling; I come to understand myself and the people I love in those pages. Writing for public consumption can begin like this too: just me and a jumble of words I’m using to make sense of the world around me. That too can be cathartic, but if I’m really putting in the work of revising, of making it better, then that is…well, work. And work is hard. It’s exhausting, but also exhilarating when I’m done and I can say to myself: wow, I’ve said the thing I’ve been meaning to say. Or: I’ve said something I didn’t expect to say, but it’s a revelation that I stand by. So maybe it’s truer to say that catharsis and exhaustion aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps they feed on each other. Perhaps they need each other in the writing process. And maybe that’s how I practice self-care: by not trying to lean too much into one or the other.
And getting actual therapy. Therapy helps a lot.
SL: You’ve written poems on ASMR videos of pickle eating, Harambe, Cardi B, and more, so I’m wondering what draws you to write on pop culture?
DB: It’s interesting; I took a college course on British literature, and during our study of Alexander Pope, my professor, Dr. Meyer, chuckled as he read some of Pope’s critiques of ‘high society,’ politicians, and even some of his contemporaries. Dr. Meyer pointed out how, as Pope was mocking other poets, he was also mimicking the really basic quality of their craft, their rhyme schemes. The Rape of the Lock is another instance of Pope’s dragging people who were consumed with…being basic. In that way, an 18th century poet was engaging the “popular culture” of his time, and today, very few people question why he turned to those subjects. Like Pope, I’m responding to the world around me when I write about these things. In the same way I am fascinated with the people in my life, I am also fascinated with this culture. Why were (some) white people more concerned with the death of a gorilla than with the safety of a Black child? Why do Americans love Black athletes but can’t stand up to police violence against Black and Brown people? It’s really just me taking in the world around me and thinking, “Hm. Why does this work the way it does?” I’m not—at least not at this moment in my career—hyperaware of any choices I make; I just go in the direction of my curiosity.
SL: In a recent interview with the Nashville Scene, you said that “when [you] have felt [you] most hopeless, [you] can turn to a book and it gives [you] something that pushes [you] to survive. Survival is the first step.” This reminded me of your poem “Auto-Immune” in Guernica, and specifically, these ending lines:
“I am destined to infuse
survival with meaning, like honey clotting in syringes.”
Can you describe what this poetics of survival means to you?
DB: I dare say that the poetics of survival extends beyond the page. Whether the term concerns aesthetics or ars poetica, for me it’s a way of living, a way I see the world. I see the world as something determined to destroy me, but I can survive it, in part with the tools of my ancestors, in part with the community of which I am a part, in part with the knowledge I gain about myself, in part with help from God. But survival for me must also be joyful, so I have to find that joy, I have to cultivate that joy. And I have a right to define what that means for myself, and when, where, and how I experience it. I can’t survive without that. Or it might be better to say I wouldn’t want to. That practice permeates my entire life, from what exists inside my living space, to my sexuality, to what I write. It’s everything.
SL: Something I’ve been personally wrestling with this past year is the question of self-tokenization. I’m wondering if you’ve had any experience navigating this issue, and if so, if you had any advice?
DB: I have. A couple of years ago I was a finalist in a popular poetry contest, and the poem made some references to my sexual assault. One of the other finalists DMed me to very gruffly ask if I’d be willing to submit a conference panel proposal about “rape and stuff,” and I was like, “What??” It wasn’t the nature of the question that was upsetting; I think sexual violence is an important conversation. It was the tone. It was as if she was trying to tick a box or something, and I politely declined. I don’t think anyone can write about something as complicated, as historical, as ubiquitous as sexual violence without risking becoming ‘that writer,’ but it’s important to me to draw distinctions between my reality and folks’ perceptions of my reality. It’s like this: My life is bigger than my assault, and my assault is bigger than what people try to boil it down to. I haven’t even fully wrapped my brain around my own experience; surely no one else has. So I let people keep their designations, which say more about them than they could ever say about me.
SL: Finally, what lines are stuck in your head these days?
DB: Lots of song lyrics, actually. I’ve been listening to Whitney Houston’s cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” which contains two sets of contradictory lines: “Things look so bad everywhere./In this whole world, what is fair?” But then later, it also says, “I could light the night up with my soul on fire;/I could make the sun shine from pure desire. Let me feel that love over me. Let me feel how strong it could be.” I love the dichotomy of the observation and the wish, the sense of despair and self-determination. I need a deep understanding of both of those to survive right now.
I’ve also been hyping myself up over my book, and the two songs that come to mind are Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” and Megan Thee Stallion’s “Freak Nasty.” I think of the person who harmed me when I hear Adele say, “I set fire to the rain, and I threw us into the flames”; it’s like, by telling my story, I’ve destroyed the secret I’ve been holding about us, and it feels good to do that, even without ever identifying him. For “Freak Nasty,” I love the line, “I like to show out for them haters talking bad about me.” That one’s significance speaks for itself.