Silence, Violence, and the Art of Self-Implication: An Interview with Chet’la Sebree

Chet’la Sebree is a writer reaching toward transformative moments that often wrestle with unreliable historical narratives, questions of loss and grief, and the truth of self. To inhabit a voice, her own or the speakers in her poems, she walks through the tricky terrain without avoiding self-implication, producing for her readers an offering refined by fire. Her work is ever-evolving, and she’s not afraid to address subjects once viewed as too intimate, even in confessional poetry. Edit: she may be afraid, but she does it anyway, and her readers walk away all the better for it. They walk away with a richer experience thanks to her bravery and connection to her craft.

Chet’la Sebree: I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t writing. My oldest journal dates back to maybe second grade; it was a red, spiral-bound notebook. I still have it!

My mom instilled in me, at a very young age, a love of reading. I was a child who felt like going to the library was a reward for good behavior. On top of reading, I had an active imagination. Together, the two things led me to the page to create my own words and worlds. In middle school, I wrote poems. In high school, I decided that journalism wasn’t a good fit and drafted a short story collection. In college, I continued to write as a creative writing minor. It was actually a classmate’s poem that opened me up to the possibilities of poetry. I didn’t know it then, but her short, two-page poem about how her father’s grief over her uncle’s suicide caused a shift in me. After she read it, I knew I wanted to be invested in writing that had that sort of impact; I didn’t know then, though, that I’d end up writing poems.

My voice as a poet didn’t really start to emerge until after I lost my aunt to terminal brain cancer in 2014. In my grief, I started to evaluate what I valued not only in the world but also in my writing. I say that hesitantly because I don’t want to celebrate loss or grief; I just think the loss came at a time in which I was coming into my own in a number of different ways. I understood that I valued vulnerability and candor in poetry. I wanted to render experiences deeply human in all of its uncomfortable complexities. This realization led to pieces like “Bellovedere”—a poem about staring at a tampon in the toilet—in my first book Mistress.

Although I think I’ve stumbled upon something that will continue to be a part of my poetic voice, I do hope my voice continues to grow. I hope my voice has grown between Mistress and my second book Field Study, and I hope it continues to change as I continue to learn and grow.

BKR: You’re a writer, professor, Director of a literary arts center, public speaker, artistic collaborator, and so much more. How has the pandemic affected all the iterations of your professional life? How do you see a “new normal” emerging for writers, creators, and the arts community in general?