On Layers and Wildness: A Conversation with Aurielle Marie
In the seven years since I graduated from the University of Houston’s creative writing program, I’ve joked that I needed to deprogram with translation before I could write my own poems again. Though translation gives rise to its own anxieties of faithfulness and freedom, when I step inside another poet’s lines, I am able to escape my own inner critic and focus on finding their brand of poetic magic, which often jumpstarts my pen. While some incredible classes in Houston launched me out in a shrimp boat to think about ecopoetics on the Gulf of Mexico, I also attended workshops that asked for much quieter poems, in a tradition I didn’t fit into. One professor sent an email asking for “more wildness, please,” saying students needed to break out from the “safe” workshop poem. When I arrived to class after sending in an invented form borrowing from C++ computer coding language, he said, “I didn’t mean you.” While workshops felt vital for giving me deadlines and ensuring I “produced” poems, they also made me step back from the sound-driven play that had made me fall in love with poetry in the first place. I began to think of love and pleasure as immature sparks of motivation, which I needed to outgrow in order to become a “real poet.”
I’ve read many poets since then who happily explode what I think the potential of the page might offer, and Aurielle Marie’s Gumbo Ya Ya breathed life into my desire to return to my more experimental impulses. Marie’s debut collection takes poetry to a level of visual art that had me grinning and wanting to share it with others. Her opening poem, “notes [on intersectionality] & acknowledgments,” opens with two pages formatted in the familiar left-justified stanzas of contemporary poems. But on the third page, the phrase “I acknowledge” is repeated and followed by disjointed, out of line text: “I am angry. I am tired. I am scared … ” and “[y]ou will hear what you want … ” The second half of these lines is then obscured by a swarm of “I am angry,” repeated, layered, and turned around a center point so that we must draw ourselves into the page to make out what the hidden text says. Marie explores the speaker’s identity as a queer Black femme from the deep south and her experiences being obscured, ignored, or willfully misunderstood, using layered text to weave these ideas through the poems themselves so that the reader, too, must untangle these words and thoughts alongside her.
Marie’s command of music and images feels like true alchemy, and the collection is brimming with moments that brought me chills, none more so than her closing poem “in the event i become some unrecognizable beast,” where she tells us:
i bring ritual in the creole of angels—
my mother’s tongue. i bring with me, salt and what i’ve done
with the mud. am i not an altar? […]
Ashia Ajani offers a brilliant account of the collection in “Behold the Alchemy of Black Gxrlhood.” My own reading of Gumbo Ya Ya brought into sharp relief some of what Marie shared in the VS podcast interview Aurielle Marie vs. Audacity:
My mind changes about form when I am introduced to it and sucked up into the world of Black poetics, and Brown poetics, because it gives me a school of thought that is embracing and inviting in the wild, and giving it a place to sort of like, marinate and really just grow fatty and thick and luscious.
Gumbo Ya Ya was written for me, and it was written, somehow, for the poems still needing to grow. Inhabiting its pages cured a wound difficult to name:
[…] i pull three nylon sutures.
i’ve eaten from my own soft, & stayed
An excerpt of my conversation with Marie, conducted over email and phone in November 2021, follows:
How did you come to layering text in Gumbo Ya Ya?
Repetition is sacred work. Used by my old folk in ritual, used by our ancestors to conjure, repetition is the delicate thing that makes magic possible. For a while, this consideration in Gumbo Ya Ya was small and sparse. I felt constrained by the line, sanitized by the margins of the book, even. The pressure I was feeling to conform, or to produce a “traditional” debut that resembled “traditional” poetics was astounding; I was being nudged into—let’s call it “singular” voice—by my former publisher and by my peers and professors in my graduate workshops. It took me a long time to realize that this push toward the singular, the conventional, was itself an iteration of the very same anti-Blackness my book was trying to reveal. Gumbo Ya Ya is about the multiplicity, the polyphonic, the fugitive mechanics of Blackness, and I realized that I was policing the execution of such a thing. So I gave myself permission to explore what it looked like to build poetic articulations of fugitivity and multiplicity. Repetition and stacking became the vessel for the thing I had been running from.
At what point in your poetic process does that layering/formatting come in, and how do you edit/experiment with it? Could you talk about what you do on page 70/71 with “gumbo ya ya,” and how the phrase “we just multiply /multiply” turned into the word “multiply,” itself multiplied many times over across the two-page spread?
It shows up differently depending on the poem, I think. The title poem from Gumbo Ya Ya for example is actually a resurrection of about fifteen poems I’d removed from the original manuscript, and at different points the repetition acted as a suture threading these shards of poems back whole. “Multiply” showed up in my head throughout the editing process; first as an incantation, then as an instruction, then an invocation, and so on. I wanted to demonstrate all of that without writing some fat ass CliffsNotes (lol). It needed to swell, it needed to be physical. And so it was. Every time I go back to that page, I find myself trying to weed through the multiplies, trying to read each one.
Can you share more about how you interact with forms, both traditional and newly invented, in your poetic practice? Do you see layering or more “experimental” leaps across the page intersecting with your identities? In this particular book, it feels tied to your title and the opening definition of Gumbo Ya Ya as “the soup of noise made by everyone talking at once,” but it also feels bigger than this!
I have a love/hate relationship with form. I’m sensitive to the ways so many forms are applied as wranglers for chaos. I love chaos! I don’t think we should shy away from the messiness of life, and I loathe the way we’re taught to use form to “neaten” the mess of a poem. Naturally I’m drawn to forms that permit us to explore the wildness without beating it back, forms that invite multiplicity. The sestina and the contrapuntal are favorites of mine, along with Black forms invented by brilliant Black poets like the kwansaba, the duplex, and the crown. Of course, my poetic biases can’t be removed from my orientation to the world, and a big part of that is my identity. I think one of the points Gumbo Ya Ya tries to make is that the very words on the page are an execution of a real thing. That poetry is a practice of world-making. We should think of form as the tools helping us build the world.
I’m thinking about how “notes [on intersectionality] & acknowledgments” opens as a more traditional free verse poem, but gets wilder on page three, with the layering of “I am angry” obscuring the words “I am scared. I am lonely.” At times, the layering makes the words almost illegible, so we are forced to lean into the book/text, which make me see the book as physical object in which letters appear as three-dimensional objects.
How do you think about engaging the reader through these experimental forms, and when or how do you choose to deploy lines and images that give the reader pause because of their sheer beauty. (I’m thinking of this line: “who broke her hot comb on / the morning’s rough edge.”)
Consent is really sexy (lol). The first poem of any collection is always an introduction to the larger text, but in this case I wanted readers to sort of practice their relationship to the book by immersing them in a smaller-scale gumbo throughout the first piece. I wanted a reader to be clear about the stakes of the text, the modality of the language, and I wanted them to be clear about how clearly I understood my goals. I think when it comes to writers who tackle the subject of race and gender, it’s easy for especially white readers to do their own sanitization as they read. So the direct address, the layered and obscured text, all of this was a way of disrupting the clean separation between subject, book, and reader. All of this was done to clarify the “we” of the text (Black queer folks) and create points of familiarity/access. All while keeping in mind that this intentionality only revealed to themselves—I’m not there. If a reader didn’t take the time to consider the layered text in the first piece, they might never take that time to consider any of the layered text. The physical collection is a mirror, and a portal in that way.
Layla Benitez-James is the author of God Suspected My Heart Was a Geode but He Had to Make Sure (Jai-Alai Books, 2017), selected by Major Jackson for Cave Canem’s 2017 Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize. Benitez-James has served as the Director of Literary Outreach for the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid and...