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?