Remica L. Bingham
Remica L. Bingham was kind in taking the time for a lengthy conversation by phone. The following interview is transcribed from that conversation. It was a lively dialogue about divinity as well as what goes into creating poems that will tell the story of experience without ever taking precedence over the relationships with those involved in the memory of those experiences. I enjoyed speaking with Remica and trust you'll enjoy listening to how her work comes to be fully realized on the page. Michele Lesko
ML: What We Ask of Flesh and Conversion are the poetry of “memory and history” as Natasha Trethewey wrote in her response to Conversion. In “Something Divine Let Go,” from What We Ask of Flesh “memory/mounted” is an incredible combination that brings the violent force of memory and longing center stage. The active mounting, taking over the heart of this home in mounting “the table, “ is gripping. Can you speak about memory and what that unearths?
RLB: Which of us has the privilege to not remember? Many parts of my poems come from family experience, people I’ve known, or experiences with recorded histories and current news. Lucille Clifton asked, “Did I say anything that wasn’t true?” This poem, in part, speaks to my memory of my maternal grandmother’s passing. It's my grandmother's poem, and it’s my experience in flashes of memory, which sometimes come as an onslaught. I see an object or smell a scent and the memories that rise push me to write. I’m fully invested in reclaiming shared memories. There was a crazy family story, family lore, about my grandfather’s mistress. It’s the weight women of a certain history and age have to carry and from which they and generations have begun to emerge. Mining memory is my only way to enter into poems.
ML: Poems are a record of social commentary in their own form. Some of yours speak of personal experience. How did poetry become a means of expression for your experiences?
RLB: I remember reading a book of poems—Honey, I Love by Eloise Greenfield—in the third grade and falling in love. I had a wonderful fifth grade teacher who introduced me to Langston Hughes. My family, sometimes unwittingly, helped me pursue poetry. My mother read to me from the time I was in the womb. We didn't have much money, but I always had a library card. We studied the Bible, went to thrift stores, and I bought books. My Aunt Carolyn would let me curl up in her bay window and read for hours. My Aunt Rosie would buy books with black heroes and heroines (I grew up in Phoenix before the King Holiday when the population was only 2% black, so images of myself were hard to find) and ship them to me. That thirst for words stuck with me.
There is a responsibility to family. I try to take care, I ask the people in my life, let them have a say in how it's told, when using experiences that involved them. It's funny because I recall being at a fish fry my relatives, my aunties, and they talked about the poems -as in, "really, you gonna share our business?" The girl in the title poem, "What We Ask of Flesh," is my cousin. She was then and still remains close to me, so before I shared that experience I spoke with her and got her permission before I turned it into the poem it became.
ML: Divinity holds its own place in your poems. It's a powerful underpinning that doesn't preach. Is this a difficult balance?
RLB: Divinity also speaks to the miraculous power women had, which is coming through in the work. I don’t respond well to didactic poetry. I have the spiritual background, a belief system that sustains me and that comes through in my poems. I’m from a long line of faithful folks, but my faith never has to tell others how to feel. I like being able to question without fear, without feeling I’m being hypocritical. I toggle back and forth but never in a way that would be sacrilege. It, the divine, comes through anyway, whether you want it to or not. I learned, when I was college age, to shave poems down, really try to cut out the last five lines because you never want to tell people how to feel. I leave it open. This serves the reader and serves me best as a writer.
ML: Your poems take on their own forms, structures that hit the right note for what is being communicated. What's your process in structuring a new poem?
RLB: I love writing in form and do it to challenge myself. The constraint of the structures often force me to rethink the poem. I played with sections in form in What We Ask of Flesh. Language is so multifaceted, so salve versus salvage in the dictionary form was a way to play with structure and meaning and connotation. The section titled, "The Body Speaks," has different variations in form.
ML: In “The Body Speaks,” your words, “we recall this reaping/when we are left to fire,” are specific to the stoning incident that spurred that poem into being but, in a larger sense, of many atrocities of the flesh from historical record. Poetry adds another layer to that record as the incidents are filtered through the poetic lens. How aware are you, when writing, of adding another voice and layer to the historic record? Section VII ends with “the next time/we are here, if we must be here,/we want to remember/nothing.”
RLB: I never think about that, adding another layer to the historical record. I'd hope that it adds another voice, perspective. I'm enthralled with history and delve into that and do the research. That particular section of the poem speaks of a reincarnated woman, who was stoned to death, decimated by hatred. I don't want to know if this is the possible fate that awaits me or anyone --this remembering or knowing what's to come. Is there the possibility, in coming back, of living in unknowing?
ML: As a Cave Canem Fellow, would you like to speak about how that organization affected you?
RLB: I won a poetry contest in sixth grade, but, no, I didn't believe I was a poet until Cave Canem. I was finishing up my MFA at Bennington College and entered the Cave Canem program. Leaving Cave Canem the first time, I found myself at the airport thinking, saying out loud and believing, "I am a poet." Those fifty-two poets really shifted the way I thought about life and my work. I'm devoted, eternally grateful to Cave Canem. That one moment changed my life.
ML: How do you balance writing, family and your career at the university?
RLB: I'm working on a new book of love poems, Starlight and Error, and I make the time and space for my writing by giving myself definite hours during my research days. I do a lot of writing and revision in my office during those times. I'm a lightning strike writer, where I have to stop in the moment and take whatever's given when it's given. I have a great husband who is really understanding of this. He said about my writing, [it's] "fascinating that you have this passion," and that, that interest in supporting my lightning flash moments, has surprised me; I that his excitement about my work is a gift of his. My son will ask, "Are you doing work-work or your poetry work," because he knows the difference and its importance in the moment of writing. Fortunately, I don't get much pushback about my subject matter in my professional life. Old Dominion is in the south, so they are used to the spiritual aspect, even when I use the Bible and dissect things in it, it's accepted as not being blasphemous but spiritual.
ML: Who are your inspirations?
RLB: Lucille Clifton has been one of my biggest inspirations. So many people inspire me: James Baldwin, August Wilson, Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, Mildred D. Taylor, Walter Dean Myers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Joan Didion, Walter Mosley and plenty others. Some other poets who've influenced me musically and tonally are: Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Alexander, Sharon Olds, Patricia Smith, Martin Espada, Tim Seibles, Ethelbert Miller, Natasha Trethewey, Ed Ochester, Jason Shinder, Toi Derricotte, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and a myriad of folks on any given day.