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 freedo