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?
CS: My life is populated with new sets of questions and scenarios that I didn’t anticipate being part of my professional career as a writer and arts administrator. The pandemic means that now I ask questions like can you tell I’m wearing sweatpants from this angle and how do I get my neighbors not to vacuum while I’m introducing this visiting writer.
That said, these new sets of questions and scenarios create opportunities for me to be a little more fully myself. It gives people a glimmer of me they might not otherwise see in virtual meetings or events when I describe that outside of my window there are cornfields and people gathering as if no pandemic exists. Sometimes there is even comedic relief when I panic over a giant spider only to confirm it’s on the right side of the windowpane.
The flip side to that is that being a little more fully present means that when I’ve had a bad day, I have little energy for artifice. I choke up a lot more than I would in any class, public event, or meeting before the pandemic. For me, it’s not just the pandemic, which is robbing so many people of their lives, but a troubling election cycle and the continued violence against Black Americans. It’s hard to show up while feeling the weight of all of that. When I sit down to work on my own writing, sometimes I’m fighting against some of this exhaustion. Other times, I’m fueled to get words on the page in this moment.
I have found, though, that when I am fully present in my emotions, whatever they may be, to the meeting, the event, the class, it creates a little space for others feeling similarly to be fully present in their feelings. I know this from being in the audience of events or meetings where someone else being fully present allows me to drop my shoulders a little, allows me to let go of the tears I’ve been holding back. I think that the pandemic has created a lot of unexpected community in that way. We are not only able to show up to readings and events all over the country and world, but we are able to show up in our living rooms, in our sweatpants, in our full humanity.
I’m not sure what this means in the future for us as a literary community. Will we all continue to host virtual readings when we’re all able to travel safely again? I don’t know. As an administrator, I can see why some institutions may move in this direction for financial reasons; however, nothing beats the possibility of human interaction at in-person events. Conversations that happen walking from one room to the next or sitting at dinner are hard to replicate in the digital landscape.
BKR: In the Fierce Womxn Writing Podcast, you speak about the anxiety you felt when you thought about how both of your poetry collections, Mistress (New Issues Press: October, 2019) and the forthcoming Field Study (FSG Originals: June, 2021), were so rooted in research that you weren’t sure how they would look out in the world. You then experienced writer’s block trying to take hold. You said to combat the blockage, sometimes you would start with writing “I don’t know what to write” over and over until it loosened something. What other ways do you deal with writer’s block, trusting your own voice, and navigating others’ opinions of what or how you should write?
CS: Silence is a really important part of my writing practice. When I have writer’s block and when I’m not trusting myself on the page, I usually haven’t spent enough time in silence. I’ve let in too much noise. And that noise could be anything from the television to phone calls with friends to scrolling through Instagram or Twitter. Noise for me is a distraction. Silence allows me to be present.
For me, silence often looks like sitting in front of a window with a cup of tea and no noise in my home. I sit there and observe the way the light interacts with a tree’s leaves rustling in the wind or the courtship of mourning doves. In this silence, I’m actually able to hear what it is that might be calling to me in my work. Often, these aren’t necessarily things I want to say but feel I need to say, feel I need to better understand through the writing. Silence is also useful in navigating other people’s opinions or feedback. If I’ve spent enough time in the quiet understanding why I’m doing what I’m doing on the page, then I feel confident in my ability to either respond to people’s opinions with which I disagree or accept the feedback they’ve offered and revise.
Even though I understand this silence as important to my work, I avoid it sometimes. Silence is terrifying—we don’t know what will creep up. But the more I avoid it, the harder it is to write. And the less I write, the less I feel like myself, so it’s a constant push and pull to cultivate enough space for stillness in order to get onto the page.
BKR: How do you develop your own voice as a poet as you navigate the voices of the speakers in your persona poems? Were there any special challenges in having a contemporary speaker with your own name in your book Mistress?
CS: For Mistress, I wrote many of the poems in the contemporary speaker’s voice before I wrote any successful, persona poems in the voice of Sally Hemings. For instance, “Abito in Ravenna” is one of the oldest poems in the book, written in 2011 or 2012. Although I was finding my voice as a writer, I was having a terrible time finding and differentiating Hemings’ voice in persona poems.
I conducted research about Hemings and her life from 2011 until 2017. During that time, I read books about her, slavery in Virginia, and France on the eve of Revolution; lived in Charlottesville for a year; spent a month living on property owned by Thomas Jefferson; tried on a replica of an 18th-century corset; etc. From 2011 to 2016, however, I primarily wrote terrible poems about Hemings. They felt forced, too laden with research, or just wrong. It wasn’t until I lived in Charlottesville did the project really transform into what it is now. As I filled my mind with her world, I began to see opportunities to imagine different scenarios and saw opportunities to try to write in her imagined voice.
For instance, I was in Paris twice in my early twenties. While I was writing Mistress, I was desperate to return because I wanted to be able to write about Hemings’ time in France as richly as I felt I was able to write about her time in Charlottesville. For me, France was a few fuzzy memories. And then, as I began to map parallels of the contemporary speaker’s experiences on Hemings’, it occurred to me that those experiences could be just as hazy for Hemings. She lived in Paris in her early teens while Jefferson was an ambassador to France. It was a mere two years of her sixty-two-year life.
These sorts of correlations between the contemporary speaker and Hemings provided lots of opportunities for me to distinctly imagine how the contemporary might feel about something compared to how Hemings would. The middle section of the book actually functions as a back and forth of the two speaker’s experiences as young women in the world as they meditate on sexual violence, desire, and motherhood. For instance, both speakers have a poem titled “Winter Warm.”
I had not set out to name the contemporary speaker, but when I wrote “Je Suis Sally, August 2017” everything changed. In the poem, Hemings addresses the contemporary speaker in her own time and place. The poem came to me after I’d been asked: “why are you writing about Sally Hemings” for the umpteenth time. I blurted out something to the effect of I’m trying to save her from the limited narrative history has afforded her. As soon as I said it, I thought how presumptuous. Also, that’s not true. In that moment, I realized I was writing about her in hopes of better understanding how to navigate my circumstances as a young woman in the world. And I wondered, how would Hemings feel about this? Enter: the poem. When I arrived to the “Chet’la, I cannot save you” line, it just felt right to put my name there. I could have made up a name, a person in the present. But that didn’t seem fair.
One of the things I constantly struggled with during the book was the violence of the project. I was assuming the voice of a woman rendered more or less voiceless throughout history and making her fodder for my creative pursuits. I hoped I was doing more good than harm, but I also recognized that I might be doing harm. Not only did she live but her descendants still live. If I was going to implicate her in the narrative I created, I might as well implicate myself.
BKR: In a recent Poets & Writers interview with Julian Randall, Nate Marshall talked a bit about his first book and his hope for transformation through language: “One of my biggest critiques of Wild Hundreds is that the primary narrator gets to come off largely heroic, and as I get older I find less use for that. So I thought, how do I implicate myself? But not just as a way to self-flagellate. How do we take a step forward? How do we transform from this?” In your interview with The Collegian you touched on the same subject. You tell the story of when you burned your hand and how it impacted Mistress: “I recognized that, 'Oh, pain is transformative and fire is transformative’ and realized that I needed something about the transformative power in the book … [I]t became clear that the one poem that I hadn’t written was specifically about Sally Hemings as a good mother and it’s called 'Dusky Sally' and it’s talking about her attending fire.” In your experience, how does language have a transformative power? And why did you feel you needed it in the book? How can that aid the reader to also take a step forward?
CS: We often remember the most generous or most biting things people have said to us. Sometimes those things that people have said impact our future trajectories. Did someone articulate faith in you? Did someone articulate doubt? Has what that person said impacted where you are in your life right now?
I wanted to introduce something into the conversation about Hemings that was different, that potentially had the capacity to transform the way we see her in history. If I was going to write about her, I needed to be doing something other than retelling a story we already knew. When we think of Sally Hemings, we often think of her in conversation with Thomas Jefferson. I even do this. When giving people the Cliff Notes version of my collection, I explain that Hemings was an enslaved woman who gave birth to at least six children by Jefferson. But I wanted to transform the conversation surrounding her life. And I realized when writing “Dusky Sally, February 1817” that Hemings likely saw herself as a good mother.
Although it’s not often discussed, Hemings negotiated for the freedom of her children. Jefferson promised to free each of their children upon the age of 21 if she returned to the United States from Paris, where she could have petitioned for her freedom. She transformed not only her children’s lives but the lives of their descendants. That transformative power, however, came at a great cost to her. I wanted to acknowledge that sacrifice. I wanted readers to see her and acknowledge that sacrifice.
BKR: Do you usually have an audience in mind when writing a poem? What advice do you have for poets struggling with whether or not to write to a particular audience?
CS: I have to write first and foremost for myself. If I think about audience too acutely, then I find myself blocked, unable to write because I’m trying to anticipate how readers might engage with what I want to say. Since I start off writing for me, sometimes I write things that I determine are just for me. Writing is how I process the world, how I make meaning, how I come to understand. Sometimes some things are just for me. I actually think that’s how I avoid getting burnt out about writing. I write for myself, and then think about whether or not I want to share it with the world.
Ultimately, if I do decide a piece is for the rest of the world, I consider my positionality and my responsibility. For instance, I try to understand why I’ve written this piece, try to conceive of my gaps in understanding, and evaluate if there’s harm in what I’ve done. I also try to understand my relationship to my audience. Is it to educate? Is it to elevate? Is it to relate? Sometimes I don’t know all of these answers. And, if I don’t, I know it might be that I need to sit with the piece longer until I better understand its conversation and its aims.
BKR: The concept of naming plays a large role in your book Mistress. The first poem “Ab Ovo (or, Eve’s daughter)” ends with the lines:
We know nothing
of her daughter except her name
means beautiful blue
that she knew
two brothers before the flood.
And the last poem “Ab Hinc (or, Sono Chet’la)” which means “hereafter (or, I am Chet’la)” in which the narrator names herself “...all while being a mistress in all/ my incarnations, prepared to rule the world,/ pen sonnets, bear babies,/ in an A-line frock and crotch-less panties.” There is also the poem “Paper Epithets, December 1802” which is a found poem made up of all the “nicknames” James Thomson Callender called Sally Hemings in newspapers. This demeaning language is spoken in Ms.Hemings’ voice as she makes clear the real truth of this naming.
I am not the sage of Monticello.
His flaxen joy, his sable Helen,
his soot-foot bride-to-never-be
Mrs. Sarah Jefferson, only
black wench, negro wench,
wench Sally, never
the woman that I am.
Can you speak to the power of naming others, naming oneself, and the practice of white patriarchal structures to use this proprietary language even now? How does your poetry address this, disrupt this, subvert this, nullify this, etc?
CS: I tried to write an answer to this question, but I felt like I couldn’t do it justice without writing a researched essay, haha, so I stopped myself. I really, really love this question, though. Thanks for asking it!
BKR: Critical Fabulation is a methodology that Saidiya Hartman employs when constructing her works using historical research, critical theory, and fictional narrative. This practice not only fills in the gaps of fragmentary records but uses it “ to interrogate the authority of historical archives as the singular source of credible information about the past” (MacArthur Foundation). How did this play a part in your research on Sally Hemings? What about your forthcoming collection?
CS: When I first started writing Mistress in 2011, I relied on what existed in the archives. Since I had little understanding of 18th and 19th century Virginia, I leaned on these texts heavily. I used letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, and any other primary source materials I could get my hands on to start writing poems about Hemings. The poems, as you can imagine, were stiff. I was retelling history but not illuminating it in any interesting way. The other issue was that all of these historical documents with which I was engaging were written by men.
Hemings is voiceless in the archives, so initially, I was constructing her story through the men who wrote about her. Callender painted Hemings as “wench” in early nineteenth-century newspaper articles. Overseer Edmund Bacon claimed she had sexual relations with different men. Jefferson’s references to Hemings primarily come in his Farm Book—an accounting record. And so on. I didn’t want Hemings to continue to exist in the mouths of men, so I had to create, had to exist in the gaps, had to find the silences in her history—of which there were many—and populate them with my imagination. In this way, I rejected what these few men had to say and used the fragments to paint a new portrait.
Conversely, Field Study, my forthcoming collection, sort of resists filling in the gaps. For a field study, a researcher collects raw, observational data. And, for the book, that’s what I did. I collected data and presented it for the readers to pull together and digest. Where Mistress took me to research libraries, writing residencies, and to plantations, Field Study took me to dinner parties, art museums, and movie theaters. Walking the streets of DC was research, going through the music archives of my teens was research, cleaning out my family’s basement was research. And I was able to bring these fragments of my personal life into the book that acts as a study of a single field—the speaker’s life. The book will likely open with an epigraph from Tressie McMillan Cottom from her essay “Girl G” in Thick: And Other Essays which reads “Black women do not have all the answers. We are not superheroes, and ours is not the definite worldview. But we are trustworthy subjects, of our own experiences and of ways of knowing.” In this way, I’m privileging a singular source in Field Study, even though I agree with Hartman. That said, the book cites movies, TV shows, court cases, history, art, philosophy, music, etc. Although the poem aims to tell a singular woman’s story, as to resist any monolithic representations of black womanhood, this woman’s story is constructed through the intersections of culture and history—bringing many different voices and ideas together.
BKR: Can you talk more about Field Study? What can readers expect? What has been different in the process of writing it as opposed to Mistress? What have you learned about Chet’la Sebree, the poet?
CS: If I’m being honest, I have such a difficult time explaining Field Study. For promotional materials, my editors landed on “genre-bending.” In conversation, I’ve also called it a hybrid text and a prose poem. In Rick Barot’s generous description of the book as one of the Academy of American Poets judges for the James Laughlin Award, he said that the book-length poem was an “intersectionality of genres—the epistolary mode, the lyric essay, the commonplace book, the confession, the literary collage, the tweet-like salvo.” All of this to say, it’s many things and no one thing at all. And that’s sort of what I wanted from the project, so I get that’s a success? The party line I’ve been giving is that it’s a book-length poem that explores how racism, sexism, and colorism impact one Black woman’s identity formation and desire as she looks at how she ended up in a relationship with a white man. The poem started as a brief, lyric essay on Shonda Rhimes’ TV show Scandal and depictions of interracial desire. I knew immediately that I had no interest in providing any sort of definitive commentary—just observations. Very quickly, the title became Field Study.
The process for both books was somewhat similar. I knew that I wanted to learn, wanted to discover, through the act of writing. For Mistress, I was writing poems and finding the threads. I knew I wanted to write about Sally Hemings, but I didn’t know why. As I kept writing and pulling together these conversations, I found that I was writing about representation and Black women’s experiences and motherhood quite a bit. And then, it became this game of Tetris. The poem that opens the book “Ab Ovo (or Eve’s Daughter)” used to be called “Carnal Knowledge of an Apple” and was nowhere near the beginning of the book. Similarly, the opening lines of “Ab Hinc (or Sono Chet’la)” used to be part of a poem called “My Anodyne.”
With Field Study, I had a better understanding of the threads going into the project. And, since I knew the threads, I also knew that the research landscape was much broader. Even still, like with the correlations between the two speakers in Mistress, I was making surprising connections along the way. For instance, in the poem, I bring ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus into conversation with Disney’s Pocahontas and the biblical Hagar into conversation with the 2017 Women’s March.
Perhaps the most striking difference for me for writing Field Study was that I knew the book was going to be published before I was finished writing it. I toiled away on Mistress for years and completed the book before sending it off for consideration by publishers. The pressure of knowing Field Study would come out into the world was nerve-wracking. What if I couldn’t deliver? What if the book-length poem, which I’d never written before, didn’t come together? It was a different type of pressure and stress.
Also, unlike Mistress, I sort of knew where the book was headed. When I sold the book to FSG, I’d already written the book’s final lines. I knew I wanted to integrate quotes from history, sociology, movies, and books. I knew that I wanted to talk about art and representation. I knew the arc, but there was still so much to discover in the middle.
I walked away from Field Study feeling like I have no idea who I am as a poet, or as a writer in general since I’ve been feeling called to write nonfiction. Before Field Study, there were two things I knew about myself as a poet; I loved a line break and a sonnet. More than half of the poems in Mistress are either sonnets or started off as sonnets. Field Study is written entirely in little prose blocks and the only thing that perhaps references a sonnet in the work is its tendency to shift abruptly in a volta-like way. Even when I was writing other poems when writing Field Study, I still tended to write in prose poems, unable to find an appropriate line break. I still love a line break and a sonnet, but I guess I’m no longer defined by those things in my poetics.
And, I also don’t feel as tethered to poetry as the singular definition of myself as writer, which is frightening. In writing, Field Study, people asked: “is it nonfiction?” It’s not. But it does pull on the essay form—particularly the way it braids history and culture into the poem—and there are moments of truth throughout it. But, in writing the poem, I did ask myself: what gets to exist in the gaps, and do I feel pulled to respond to the gaps more in my work? The answer to that second part is yes. So much of poetry is a conversation of silence and white space, and I’m feeling less and less like I can continue to be silent about certain things. That’s not to say that I intend to abandon poetry; in fact, I’ve found my way back to sonnets since finishing Field Study. I just think that there are some conversations I want to continue in prose to see what happens.
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To find out more about Chet’la Sebree, her publications, projects, and upcoming events, visit her website: chetlasebree.com.
Thanks to Chet’la for agreeing to do this interview and for such meditative answers to the questions. The unanswered question was left as is in hopes that readers will consider it as they read her collection, but also as a catalyst for their own research and consideration of what it means to name and be named. This interview was conducted by Kari Ann Ebert, Interview Editor. Winner of the 2020 Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry, her work has appeared in journals such as Mojave River Review, Philadelphia Stories, Gigantic Sequins, and Gargoyle. She was recently awarded an Individual Artist Fellowship by the Delaware Division of the Arts (2020). She lives and writes in Dover, DE