• Broadkill Review

The Power of the Persona Poem: An Interview with M. Nzadi Keita

An Interview with Philadelphia-based Poet, Teacher, and Scholar M. Nzadi Keita


By Caroline N. Simpson


The first sentence of M. Nzadi Keita’s author bio states that she “is a first generation northerner.” Not only central to her own life, the migration of African Americans from the American South to the North is also a significant motif in her writing and research. Her book Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the life of Anna Murray Douglass (Whirlwind Press, 2014) imagines the life and northward journey of Frederick Douglass’s first wife, Anna Murray Douglass. Solely through persona poems, Keita sheds light on how Anna Murray -- free-born and illiterate -- saw the world as an independent woman, mother, and abolitionist. Keita’s fascinating process for constructing her life -- of which very little has been recorded in history -- included research, “gathering energy” from key places, tapping into sensory experiences and imaginings, as well as relating her own experiences as a woman born into a Black working-class family of migrants from the American South.

Keita’s collection showcases the power of the persona poem. Much more than a mere act of imagination, her poems are steeped in history and emotional truth “where the mind, spirit, and body add shape and color to the facts.” David W. Blight, in his 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, quotes from Keita’s poems several times as he delves into the history of the Douglasses.

A quintessential act of literary activism, Keita’s book has resurrected a forgotten voice important not only to the history of abolition in the U.S., but also as a symbol of the often dismissed and invisible Black woman in America, whose resilience, intelligence, and grace need to be known and celebrated. As Sonia Sanchez -- seminal figure in the Black Arts Movement -- writes in the introduction, Anna Murray Douglass “reminds us of ourselves. Striving to be seen. Heard. Understood. Loved.”




Note: In the interview, AMD refers to Anna Murray Douglass and FD refers to Frederick Douglass.


Broadkill Review: On your Dedications page in Brief Evidence of Heaven, you write, “To all those who have lost their stories.” How does the word “lost” describe Anna Murray Douglass’s story? And how can a collection of persona poems, as opposed to another genre, “find” her story?


M. Nzadi Keita: Simply put: almost nobody with a pen and a platform noticed her long enough to write her into history—FD included. At the start of this journey, I went straight to the indexes of every book by and about FD that I could readily access, and found 2-3 sentences in each. They were the same sentences, mostly, that FD wrote in his 1845 Narrative, reporting her existence, her free status, and her travel north to marry FD after he fled Baltimore. Historians, with few exceptions, reduced her to that same quoted material; some even denigrated her, extrapolating on her illiteracy or citing abolitionists who viewed her with hostility. Writing in 1991, William McFeely was a notable exception before David Blight’s book came out in 2018. I read about 20% of the letters available on the Smithsonian Douglass Papers website and found about three mentions of her. Their daughter Rosetta wrote the only document that dwells on her as an individual and active contributor to American history. These days, many more sources give info on AMD than when I began.

Persona poems build on a compelling voice, and look to the human core of that voice, not simply a noteworthy set of facts. Often, this sort of poetry seeks to connect readers to some marvelous moment or context through that interior route, where the mind, spirit, and body add shape and color to the facts.

Broadkill Review: What, in particular, about Anna Murray Douglass’s story did you feel a necessity to be told? Is there an aspect of her journey that strikes you as remarkable, even more so than Frederick Douglass’ famous journey?


M. Nzadi Keita: Absolutely. I think of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem, “To Black Women,” which critics almost never discuss. She opens with the likelihood that whatever they do, Black women will face “cold silence/ no hallelujahs, no hurrahs at all, no handshakes” and urges them to “prevail.” This poem recognizes AMD’s positionality precisely.

AMD was born free and economically poor, into an America where women who looked like her were more likely to be enslaved. She ran the risk of being sold into slavery, like any free Black person. How would a woman like this see a future beyond the next row to hoe or pot of greens to soak? She had to be hell-bent. She had to be determined to learn from and prosper through whatever she encountered. She left a family half-submerged in an enslaved past, living in swampy rural Maryland, in which she was one of 13 children, and made her way to Baltimore. What did she have in mind, before Frederick Bailey showed up on the wharf? She was saving money for something. Attending meetings of the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society for a reason.


The arc of her life shows how being illiterate did not make her unintelligent, period. My interactions with people since the book came out, though, tell me that many assumed that, then and now. Being a dark-skinned Black woman, raised in poverty, did not limit her capacity to dream, plan, analyze, and execute agency. However, I suspect that all the above did create considerable isolation and consequently, emotional pain that she had few avenues to convey, once her husband began rising to prominence.

More broadly, AMD represents Black women, and specifically, working-class women such as those I come from: they’re born into a world that blithely demands any and everything of them, while dismissing the actual fact of their lives, their bodies, their labor, their entire realm of needs, and their entire realm of powers. By being born female into a Black working-class family of migrants from the American south, I was steeped in this knowledge. Later, I realized it more tellingly by studying my maternal grandmother. She was born about 90 years after AMD, but, like her, worked in domestic service and didn’t earn a lot more than AMD did.


Broadkill Review: Describe a pivotal or poignant moment in your research and travels while working on this book.


M. Nzadi Keita: Place sparks my senses and charges my imagination, which makes it a common, if not central, concern in my work. My process of situating myself in proximity to AMD meant traveling to as many of the places where she’d lived as possible. My planned visit to Rochester, NY while on a Cleveland road trip in July of 2011 was fraught from the start. Between full-time teaching and sporadic parental caregiving, I was quite ill. For an asthmatic, an apparent summer cold came with dangerous implications. But I was really hard-headed. Earlier visits to Baltimore and New Bedford had been so valuable to the poems that I risked my health by pressing on. We had to cut the trip much shorter, so I didn’t get to suss out the historic areas of Rochester where many great Douglass moments had transpired. Thanks to the detailed Mt. Hope Cemetery website, though, I led my husband straight to the gravesite where Frederick Douglass, both of his wives, and Annie, the Douglass child who died at 10, were buried. I knew what I was looking for: a granite column, denoting the graves of AMD and her daughter. I was already wheezing, but the statement made by those headstones taxed my spirit as well as my lungs. No passer-by would readily see that Frederick Douglass had had any wife other than Helen Pitts, the second (younger, white, literate) wife whose illustrious stone slab sits beside his. The tribute to the wife who helped him escape from slavery is a short column in the background. Carved on the side, where few would think to look, the dark stone reads “Anna. Wife of Frederick Douglass. Died 1882.” Money may be the actual distinction between these two headstones from what I’ve read, but the symbolism, reflecting what I found so often in research, jabbed hard.


Broadkill Review: In the epigraph of “Perfume,” you include a biographical note written by Anna Murray’s daughter about how her mother was “unrelaxed” around white people and “had little capacity for interracial mingling.” The poem you have written is a series of couplets describing a scene in which Anna hosts white women for tea. The reader feels as suffocated as Anna by the smells, sights, and tastes that you’ve conjured up. In terms of your process, how did you get from the fact in the epigraph to the poem?


Excerpt from “Perfume”:


​​Long before landing

on my porch a buzzard smell

announces them, far off.

Columbine red washes

up their necks.

With hands and handkerchiefs

and fans they shoo it down

but once the tea chat falls

to stuttering, words misbehave,

roll off plates and chase

down the hall, after their eyes.


M. Nzadi Keita: Let me preface by saying my “process” is a non-linear jumble highly associative, and combines consciously collected research with subconscious visual and emotional parallels I have gathered across time. One of my sensory gifts is strong visual imagination and retention. So a few strands, which marinated and stirred and stewed in me produced that poem:

  • In “My Mother As I Recall Her,” Rosetta Douglass Sprague wrote that AMD was meticulous about cleanliness; as a laundress/housekeeper, a keen nose for smells comes with that role, and smells are a potent sense for storytelling.

  • I learned from photos of Cedar Hill, the Douglass’s home in DC, that it had those classic 6-ft. tall windows common to early 19th century homes. They require very long curtains, and my first image was of long white curtains, blowing from a house on a high hill.

  • As mentioned, I conferred body language, gestures, and bearing on AMD from my grandmother and the breed of women who surrounded her.

  • My own life includes countless encounters with white women in superficially social settings where their non-verbal behaviors convey dismay and discomfort with various things about me, be it appearance, socio-economic position, or the setting; I have seen this enough to trace these moments to a rupture in their expectations. The poem gave me a way to put that witness to use.

Broadkill Review: As you note, Anna Murray remained illiterate her entire life, even though she was married to a “famously literate husband.” Frederick Douglass even hired a tutor for her at one point, but the effort was unsuccessful. Despite not being able to speak like her husband’s educated abolitionist circle, many of your poems include the other ways she could express her voice, such as conjuring, gardening, cooking, etc. I was reminded of Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” Did you ever feel during your process that your collection was a continuation of Anna expressing herself in creative ways?


M. Nzadi Keita: I see Brief Evidence of Heaven extending and specifying the affirmative claims of Alice Walker’s essay. It makes the same sort of testament. Brief Evidence of Heaven is a plant grown from the ground that Walker’s essay cleared for valuing and validating women of her mother’s and my grandmother’s time. Those who made beauty that expressed their inner lives as best they could, within multiple constraints. Hopefully, Brief Evidence of Heaven reifies Walker’s work. By imagining that Douglass tried to familiarize herself with the alphabet and practice writing, my book claps back at notions that produced the ‘Mammy’ myth. That myth would strain Black women’s traditional cooking prowess through a delusional sieve to read it only as a signal of devotion to job, to employer, or to their need to feel needed. I want readers to experience her grasping for acts that gave her solace and purpose.

Broadkill Review: Was it difficult to imagine how Anna would have responded to her husband’s betrayals? Or to write poems casting such a dark light on Frederick Douglass, whom history books revere?

M. Nzadi Keita: From the start, I viewed the book as a set of explorations into AMD as a very particular person having a unique set of life experiences, and not as a biography in poems. That meant I could dive into undisclosed, and even unchartable realms, such as how the clouds gossiped about her and FD. I resolved to focus on her in faceted detail, rather than the overt and sensational –i.e. predictable—elements like FD’s relationships with white women. As the book fleshed out, I felt that fully avoiding this subject would be a flaw and would earn it harsh critique, but she had so many dimensions that I wasn’t feeling drawn. I wasn’t looking for that angle. And for me, there’s no worse process than sitting down, saying ‘I’m going to write a poem about…’ in a dictatorial way. I knew something might arise, the deeper I got into the work. And that it would be a long time forming up. Imagining how I would feel in her shoes was not hard; I am a cis-Black woman and mother, married to a Black man with a somewhat public identity, and an heir to the bitter, hostile regard American culture reserves for us. Setting that aside to think about AMD’s self-regard, possible shapes the relationship dynamics with her husband took, and the jungle of 19th c. identity politics that surrounded them was harder.

Yes, people at my readings invariably include some who are aggrieved and disoriented, even angry, that the book tarnishes their take on FD, but that reaction is usually mediated by the new ideas the poems force them to reckon with. More often, people are just angry about the same thing I was: all we didn’t know.


Broadkill Review: What did you learn about yourself, as a writer and/or about your process, through writing this collection of persona poems?

M. Nzadi Keita: I didn’t know how much I loved research. It was a relief to have as a route to building the skeleton of a poem. Made me feel very productive without actually making a poem. The joy of research is that when you’re devoted to learning something and the trail into the subject is obscured, every chip and chunk of info is mind-tingling.


Process has never been as multi-dimensional. That was lovely; I got away from the desk, took more walks, became more curious and attentive, collected maps, photographs, and info that I didn’t worry about putting to immediate use. For example, I still have documents saved detailing Maryland state laws from the 1830s. I spent a few hours reading about flowers that grew in the Rochester area to get that reference to “gentian” into the “Perfume” poem.


I discovered how much of persona work involves pre-writing, by listening to people, observing how people move, gathering energy from places, and objects. A whole piece of my process was staring at the portrait of AMD, asking questions about her, and ethical questions of myself. I come from a Black southern culture in which people are thought to continue in a spiritual realm after death, so I wanted to proceed in a respectful way. I had to question whether she would approve and how my work would seem to her.


Broadkill Review: You included a note from the last email you received from Amiri Baraka: “A wonderful book, of the first several pieces I’ve read. I’ll get back to you shortly.” Was he one of your mentors or inspirations on this project?

M. Nzadi Keita: My exposure to some aspects of Amiri Baraka’s intellectual scope, activist politics and artistic bravery made him an inspiration since I began to write in undergrad. After we met in the late 80s, Baraka became a casual mentor, a teasing literary dad, and a quiet encourager—not frequently, but steadily. He had read an early sample of Brief Evidence of Heaven by the time the Dodge Poetry Festival came to Newark, where I sat in a packed auditorium, enjoying his onstage interview. Although we hadn’t spoken yet, he had seen me, and announced my project to the crowd, calling it an important book. Simultaneously, he was acknowledging his respect for me and pressing me to keep going. He may have even said, ‘I hope she finishes it soon.’ By the time I sent the whole manuscript, he was in his final year, struggling with health issues, and unable to send me a blurb, so I used that last email from him to respond to his affirmation.


The following poem was written to be included in Brief Evidence of Heaven but got excluded from the final galleys:


Mrs. Douglass Takes Tea At the Anti-Slavery Society

Lips alone make so much to study.

Let your eyes take in some quiet.

Wait until a shoulder turns. Look again.

Those lips steal the story,

from twig to branch to ash.

Add the eyes, the hands, the shoulders,

and you’ve got a book: the cover, the marks, and all the pages.

Every sound my heart holds back

to sit and handle in the dark starts with lips.

Sour fruit that I’ve seen shrivel

and come back to life. Cleaver. Torch.

Broken shell of an egg,

fish scale, soup spoon.

The longer you look, the more comes true.



Broadkill Review: I see on your website that you have a manuscript underway. What project are you currently working on?


M. Nzadi Keita: What started as one poetry baby morphed into twins, so there are two in the works. The one that’s growing faster, Migration Letters, has gone out into the world, seeking a home. African-American migration from the U.S. South to the North is its core subject. I’m fascinated by its parallels and contrasts to immigrant experiences. As you might guess, I’m a product of that culture. My parents came to Philadelphia as children from Georgia and South Carolina respectively, and I refer to myself as a “first-generation northerner.” I’m someone raised in the urban north by southern, rural Black people—family and community. The poems launch from that perspective. It was an insular culture that valued keeping quiet about the self. That makes the process more personally difficult, even though the research abounds.


The following poem is from Keita’s collection, Migration Letters:


173.


Squeezing fresh oranges for juice

and setting the weighted glass

pitcher to chill far back in the fridge

was worth the work. In the thirties

you stood in uniform. Spun

a metal wheel to start

the cloudy gush that cranked

to bee-yellow pulp for those extra

children you gave a folded