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10 QUESTIONS for Meredith Nnoka

Our business is making music
white enough to cover
even the deepest blues.
We steal to earn our keep.
. .

from "Race Music," which appears in the Winter 2016 "Words and Music" issue (Vol. 57, Issue 4), available now.

Tell us about one of the first pieces you’ve written
My first “real poem” was sort of a lengthy rant about the intersections of poverty and race in the U.S.—complete with shifting locations, perspectives, etc. Despite its now-outdated cultural references and overly ambitious project, I’m still oddly proud of it: it was the first time I felt like I got a poem right.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Home base for me is in the cadre of black male poets who’ve gained prominence over the course of my lifetime—Essex Hemphill, Terrance Hayes, Jericho Brown, Tyehimba Jess, etc. But recently I’ve tended to come back most frequently to poets who work with the subjects of love and loss (I’m thinking of Marie Howe and Craig Arnold, specifically), or people I know and love more generally (Laura Eve Engel, Henry Hoke, Jenny Johnson). In terms of prose writers, I’d probably cite Kevin Quashie’s book The Sovereignty of Quiet as the one that made me consider more carefully things like the interior lives of my characters, the power inherent in speaking for others, and the ethics of writing persona/research-based poetry.

What other professions have you worked in?
Mainly education: I taught creative writing (songs and poetry) and ESL to high school students, both in the U.S. and for a bit in France, before settling into my current graduate program at UW-Madison.

What did you want to be when you were young?
Tons of things, but probably most strongly either a folk singer or a therapist. Poetry wasn’t really on my radar until college.

What inspired you to write this piece?
The two poems featured both appear in my recent chapbook, A Hunger Called Music, which is basically a short of history of black music told through persona poems. Music history is sort of my first love, and it was an actual dream to put my weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of black music to use through poetry. For “Race Music,” which is in the section on 1950s R&B, I felt I needed to talk about that genre’s most obvious tension—i.e., that most of that era’s greatest hits were either written by white songwriters or stolen from the original black artist by white producers and then given to white performers. For “Interview with Berry Gordy,” which appears in the soul section, it made sense to try and crack the emotional veneer of/give voice to one of soul music’s major tastemakers, particularly one who was skilled in the art of speaking on behalf of his company, alongside the voices of actual performers. So you could say that in both poems I wanted to address gaps in the chapbook’s arc, but also that I wanted to give a fuller picture of that portion of U.S. history.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Recently I’ve been writing a lot about my parents’ house in rural Maryland, off the Chesapeake Bay. When I think of looking outside, no matter where I am, I think of that water, and to that end it’s become an easy referent in my writing.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I usually listen to music that either evokes the feeling/time period I’m trying to capture in the poem or that includes interesting vocabulary I can pull from. When I was writing about black music, I listened pretty exclusively to the genres I was writing about—from sources such as the archival Lomax recordings (back to the idea of white producers stealing from black singers) or the Motown canon—and try to recreate that mood on the page. I felt like that attention to detail and tone, more than anything else, kept me honest. Now that I’m not working with a particular focus, most recently I’ve been listening a lot of solo women with guitars: Devon Sproule’s album I Love You, Go Easy, which is basically an album of really tender wordplay; Julien Baker’s quietly graceful album Sprained Ankle; and, nearly on repeat, Karen Dalton’s song “Something on Your Mind.”

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Usually my partner; if she’s not available, I’ll pass it on to a friend or an old professor. For me, what’s most useful in getting a second pair of eyes on my work is less the opinion aspect and more the impetus to get the poem as right as possible before someone else reads it. So, in this respect, the feedback is secondary to the pressure that the anticipation of feedback causes.

What are you working on currently?
I’ve been trying to get a project off the ground for a while now about my grandmother’s time living in Nigeria as it was gaining independence, but the amount of archival research that it’ll require has been daunting. So I’ve been contenting myself with writing poems about people I love, and that’s been enough.

What are you reading right now?
These days when I’m not reading for grad school, I’m either attempting to sift through Craig Arnold’s devastating last book Made Flesh, or I’m being moved by Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet. My partner and I also just finished reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time aloud to each other, which I highly recommend doing. Probably next on my list will either be Boualem Sansal’s 2084 : la fin du monde, which is sort of a Franco-Algerian take on 1984, or Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.

Meredith Nnoka is a Smith College graduate with a degree in Africana Studies and English. Originally from outside of Washington, DC, she spent the last year teaching English in France and is currently a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her poems have appeared in Mandala Journal, HEArt Journal, and Riding Light. Her first chapbook, A Hunger Called Music: A Verse History of Black Music, will be available from C&R Press later this year. 

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