black god mother this body by Raina J. León
$20.00 | Black Freighter Press | 126 pp. | August 2022 ISBN: 978-1-955953-01-6
Laura Villareal (LV): It’s July as I’m writing this but I want to look into the future a bit since our conversation will be posted in September. By the time this conversation is published, in a fantastic alignment of LLB2 content and Letras Latinas programming, Curated Conversation(s): a Latinx Poetry Show, will have featured a conversation between Raina J. León and Juana Adcock which I encourage you to watch. Anyways, that’s my plug, let’s talk about the book!
We’ve been so lucky in our first season of Warp and Weft to read such innovative books. black god mother this body once again astonishes in its range. It includes visual collages composed of historical records and a variety of artwork made by Raina J. León. These collages and artworks double as “cueing images” which when scanned by an app called HaloVR reveal a new layer of information about them such as videos, maps, and other interactive contact that overlay the images. There’s also a playlist at the end of the book. I love that black god mother this body pushes us to move outside of its pages and has a second life outside of the book as a combination of videos and images for us to explore. I wonder if more poets will push outside of the pages in the coming years. I’m thinking now of Anthony Cody’s new book The Rendering which includes edited images and QR codes that take poets outside of the book as well so hopefully these books signal a shift in how poets will approach their books.
In terms of experience, I read the book first without looking at the cueing images because I’m somewhat of a selective luddite (I can figure most things out, but to quote Bartleby, “I prefer not to.”). Then I re-read it with them which caused me to experience the book in a new way. What was your approach to the book?
Alfredo Aguilar (AA): I appreciated the gesture of extending the experience of the book beyond the printed page. Much like yourself, I read the book through the first time without cueing the images, but I was struck with those instances as they existed on the page. The images opened up a space that while tied to the book created something that I knew existed in a place beyond it, not bound by the limits of the page and, to a degree, written language.
This reminds me of something Juan Felipe Herrera once said regarding process. He was talking about how he’ll often write/draw on varying sizes of cardboard/scraps of paper to push back against what he sees as the domineering 8.5 x 11 page; how it shapes our processes and ultimately what we might imagine and create. To your point, it’ll be exciting to see how poets will continue to use technology in order to extend the experience of the book in ways that aren’t limited to the page.
I do have to admit that on my reread I wasn’t able to fully experience the augmented images as all the devices I have are too old to support the app that was needed. (This is one of many recent indications that it's time for me to upgrade my tech). But I did want to talk about the soundtrack/playlist at the end of the book. For much of the book I felt like I was being permitted access into a private interior space with a focus on the relation between family. I hesitate to say home here because this space goes beyond that, but it is a place where nurturing, hope, fear, and at times injury occurs. The soundtrack added an additional texture to that private interior space; it somehow let me imagine more clearly the spaces in which these poems live. It let me imagine rooms in which this music was playing, maybe in the background, while the task of living goes on. There is also something to be said of the thought and care that goes into a playlist like that. The songs chosen, their order; it's all to evoke a particular feeling or experience. Here it's a move that is both personal and an invitation that moves past the page, into the realm of sound and music and the spaces it creates.
I’m curious; what was your experience of the book when you accessed the augmented images?
LV: Yes, that story about Juan Felipe Herrera was in my mind as I thought about the book. I often think about the page as a container for poems, bound only by those boundaries. However, once you publish poems that started in a 8.5 x 11 container you’ll often have to reimagine them in whatever sized container a publisher wants to house them in. The shape of black god mother this body 8 x 8 is uncommon, do you think it’s meant to preserve the poems’ original form? I also wonder what these poems looked like in the first document where they were gathered. I’m thinking many were written with the page on landscape.
Being unable to access the images is an interesting experience in and of itself. Both of us keep our electronics for as long as they’ll last which means a lot of our electronics can’t download new apps or update existing ones. Technology is fleeting– one day the app, HaloAR, used to view the augmented reality overlay of the cueing images may no longer exist. I guess I’m wondering what that will mean for León’s vision for how the book lives in the world. On one hand, I like the idea of impermanence in art. But on the other hand, I want everything to be preserved for the future.
In “augmented reality earthly abundance divine embodied (art from fele),” the overlay of the cueing image is León who says, “You are accessing this video through the art of my first baby, my son. And you can see his and my fingerprints within it. You can see the fingerprints of all my ancestors in me and the fingerprints of my children and perhaps their descendants through blood or through spirit on me as well.” I like this gesture of digital archivalship, that this video and the art are connecting the poet to the past and future. Any more thoughts on technology?
You know I love a good playlist! Love and agree with everything you’ve said about the playlist. Were there any song combinations that surprised you as you listened? Or, perhaps, was there a particular song that enriched a specific poem for you?
AA: I suspect that the book’s shape is meant to accommodate the poems, as many of them take on longer, unique shapes in addition to the size of the queuing images.
To your point about the fleeting nature of technology, something I’m thinking about now is what can happen when some part of our art is sourced out to and hosted through a third party. There is really no guarantee that the space hosting that part of our art will be around forever or even that it will exist in the same form/experience as it did when it was originally created due to something like an update on an app. There is some sense of ephemerality in all our artistic endeavors, but I think that with third party technology, especially if we’re thinking longer term, how the technology might change and what effect that could have on the experience of the art is something to consider, as how tech might change isn't entirely clear.
In the playlist I was pleasantly surprised by the juxtaposition of the song “Aguanile” and “This is America;” rhythmically I heard a commonality though each song has a very different mood. For me I felt the group of songs enriched the interior space of the collection as a whole. Did specific songs speak to a particular poem for you?
LV: Not necessarily a single song, but I enjoyed the cento-esque use of the song titles in the last poem in the book called “soundtrack.” Not sure if you noticed, but the playlist includes music by Beyoncé, Solange, and Blue Ivy which to me felt like a reinforcement of the themes of family, motherhood, and bonds among women. Additionally, I liked that “Brown Skin Girl”— which features Beyonce and her daughter Blue Ivy—mirrored León’s collaboration with her own child in the artwork in “augmented reality earthly abundance divine embodied (art from fele).” I agree that on the whole the playlist enriched the collection.
AA: I hadn’t noticed that; something mirroring that is definitely here in this collection. While we’re talking about poems, I was hoping to touch on a poem here. Towards the front of the book there is a fairly long poem (“blackety black black solstice cleave” which is about 30 pages) that takes on a great deal of subjects like family, colorism, gender roles, lineage, mothering, grief and so much more. The poem made an impression on me as it speaks to many of the themes that recur throughout the book and León very deftly ties these themes together to create a compelling resonance. In this poem I got a clearer sense of how all these themes are interconnected and interact with one another especially in the speaker’s life and in the lives of those around her. It made clear that no strand exists alone. Before I get further into this poem, I’m curious what you noticed about it and what stood out to you.
LV: Oh, yes, I wanted to talk to you about “blackety black black solstice cleave.” It covers so much topical ground in its 32 pages. For the most part, the poem is lineated like prose, written in fragments that are cohesive as they reckon with what it feels and looks like to live as a black woman, an Afro-Latina, and simply a woman in this world. At the beginning the poet frames the poem as a story where the speaker is “two girls overlapping in time.” I admire the exploration of plural identity in the book. Selfhood is simultaneously split, converging, and fluid.
“there is a black girl who will try to kill a black boy, because he is a light-skinned boy and a vessel for colorism and racism and white supremacy and patriarchy. she doesn’t have the names for that. she will try to kill her sweet little brother, who reminds her, in her womanhood of her own son’s shy tenderness, how she could have squelched it. she wants to be free, because she knows she already is.”
When we are young, we’re like sponges soaking up social cues and we understand the world through what we hear, see, and experience. We’re told not to be or act in certain ways but we’re not often told why. We often don’t have language to understand why violence like white supremacy, patriarchy, racism, and colorism makes us feel angry, restless, nervous, uncomfortable, etc... but we understand when it's a subtext of what we’re being told not to be. A moment in the poem that highlighted that was, “i don’t know what a puta is. i just know i am not supposed to be one. / what am i supposed to be is never explicitly defined.”
The speaker’s titi (aunt) becomes an archetype in the poem. Throughout the poem, we see her enact stereotypical norms for a woman in heteropatriarchal society. She tries to enforce them on the speaker, but thankfully, the speaker questions and resists:
what does titi have to teach me?
her whole mass is the sacrifice:
the lessons to fight for a black feminist liberation written in what she could not live herself,
the rules were different and so she lived within them.
This section arrives early in the poem so it amplifies the many times the speaker remembers and resists what her titi tells her. She works to define herself on her own terms throughout the book. I’m reminded of a quote by Audre Lorde in which she says, “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” I love the many celebratory feminist moments in the poem. I love that she uses her titi’s attempts to make her conform to a heteropatriarchy as lessons.
What resonated with you?
AA: Those are all great moments in the poem. I felt that so much of what this poem is circling is what we learn from those closest us at a young age sometimes by what they say or how they treat us, learning how some of that action/language is tied up in colorism/sexism/white supremacy, and deciding how and if we want to move through the world differently as we interact with the younger people in our life. I’m thinking particularly about a moment where the speaker talks about her brother’s godparents (one of them titi):
when we were children, they would come to pick him up. leaving me behind. he went to watch the fights on television or out to dinner. he went many places with them that i don't know. they showed him generosity and care…
i was always left behind. to be included would have meant more.
There is an exclusion that the speaker is touching on that is mentioned elsewhere in the poem that has to do with her brother being both male and lighter skinned. The speaker keeps those moments and that time in her life in mind when she become madrina to two little girls:
i never leave their siblings behind. i claim them as my god children too, though we have not been consecrated in that way. i do this because of how i felt for years. generosity is seeing the whole, how a child wants to be drawn into the circle, not pushed out of it…
i will always be titi. this, too, is a generosity that even in my reflection on the name, i am pulling my titi close.
What I found so compelling between these two parts of the poem is this tension between how one receives a wound or is wounded in youth and then as an adult the attempt to in some way rectify that hurt by being more caring and more generous to younger persons. In some way it is the act of an older self allowing a kindness to a younger self that was not given or withheld. An interesting part of this is that in becoming titi to these younger girls the speaker feels she is holding her titi closer as well, even as she tries to be more generous than she was. It's as if in order to be different from her titi the speaker has to remember her more clearly, has to hold her closer so that she isn’t just like her.
This resonates with a moment near the end of the poem where the speaker talks about her confirmation with titi as her sponsor:
looking back now, i realize i also wanted her to love me, to show love to me in a way that wasn’t barbed with expectations for my behavior as a woman, as boricua, as black or not black at all. I wanted her to love me as an extension of pure faith. I wanted the grace to be seen as whole, human, strong…
i knew, even then, that the way she showed love would never be what i wanted or imagined.
if i could teach my younger self, i would tell her to study the ways that she showed love already; that’s what i do often now.
as a mother, i look back on another woman who offered me mothering in her own way, who taught me how to be in how i learned to resist. i had to determine my own truth and not follow her or any other.
Here the speaker reflects on her younger self’s desire or expectation of love from titi, the love titi could not give, and ultimately the speaker’s recognition of the kind of love she had in fact given her. This reads as a moment of coming to terms with the complexity of the love we desire from those who raise us, how sometimes that desire goes unfulfilled, but instead of being angry at that moment to reflect and see the ways those people showed love even in small gestures. The speaker is a mother herself now, and considers the ways titi both loved and harmed while finding her own way to mother her children and the young around her.
Another moment that stood out to me was when the speaker travels to Puerto Rico for a baby shower and titi:
she talks about feminism in the new world, how proud she is of me for my education and that i travel, how in her day they never would have had a co-ed baby shower.
first, i think this is what i have always wanted: finally to be seen.
second, that she must be on drugs.
next, that maybe her daughter or granddaughter have had the honest conversation with her in ways i never could. feminist anything so new in the mouth i have studied my whole life…
i hear her say to her daughter, “aren't you going to serve your husband?” how quick the return! How minute the fissure!
This was such a clear and resonating moment for me. León captures precisely how older relatives seem, at least in thought, to be aware or learned about progressive ideas that seek to undo oppression, but it hasn’t really translated to how they interact with others. Just that swiftness of talking about feminism one minute and bothering a daughter to serve her husband is spot on and illustrates how deeply rooted the actions/language in oppressive paradigms are. It isn’t enough to just know and talk about progressive ideology; it also has to carry over into how we act and that I think is some of the most difficult and transformative work.
Were there other parts in this poem that you wanted to touch on or perhaps another poem that spoke to you?
LV: Honestly, our whole conversation could be on that poem. It’s so rich and full! Perhaps we could look at some of the poems that embody what Alexis Pauline Gumbs aptly describes in her blurb as “portal[s] to infinite divine possibility” that are full of “multi-faceted generosity.”
She offers some of the most tender and generous verses filled with “infinite divine possibility” I have ever encountered. Tension and linguistic texture occur when violent realities and the invocation of magic– these protection spells, these letters to the future that carry abundance in their envelopes– melt from page to page or from line to line. The poems that move me the most are written for and about her son. I keep returning to “a time magic” dedicated to her son. She writes invocations like, “you are firelight cast free i write you the spell of freedom in water” and “this spell the first work of your tempo may you see generations be free be free be free.” I think these spells, wishes, hopes, and letters to the future are vital.
What poem(s) did you feel embodied “multi-faced generosity?”
AA: For me, one of the examples that comes to mind when thinking about the kind of generosity you're describing can be found in the poem “beyond hardware.” This poem is one in a series of prose poems and León uses this form to good effect weaving through narrative and poetic flourishes while touching on desire, her children, and the self, among other topics. In this poem the speaker is addressing her child and makes room for the person they will become and their eventual autonomy:
now sometimes i forget the sex i bore and use pronouns that are mine for you. shake loose of it all. i never asked you to tell me your name; you told me at the your being start. all i know is that i bore you. nursed you as i was able. only you can name you. i know nothing else.
The speaker in this poem considers that what she has named her child and the pronouns that she has given her child may not align with who the child will grow up to be. It strikes me as incredibly generous to think about making room for that as a parent, especially at such an early stage when the child is dependent on the mother for survival. There is a loosening of parental authority on the child’s self that makes room and respects the child’s autonomy.
In several poems, the speaker herself deals with many predetermined roles pushed onto her largely by family about how she should act as mother, wife, and woman, which she nevertheless resists. The freedom she carved out for herself is then extended to her child. To give one’s child, early on their independence, space to determine for themselves who they are: their name, their pronouns, their self is such a gift. As the speaker notes, to know and assume nothing else about her child along with less rigid expectations about who that child should be also makes space for the parent to learn and see wholly who their child is and will become.
Alfredo Aguilar is the author of On This Side of the Desert (Kent State University Press, 2020), selected by Natalie Diaz for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. He is a recipient of 92Y’s Discovery Poetry Contest and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Frost Place. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Waxwing, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Born and raised in North County San Diego, he now resides in Central Texas where he is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers.
Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She earned her MFA at Rutgers University—Newark and has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts, National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Program, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at University of Texas-Austin. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.