Ama Codjoe is a poet and a contributing editor at The Yale Review. Her work often draws on visual arts—especially painting and sculpture by contemporary Black woman artists, circling the question of self-portraiture: how we make and remake ourselves through seeing and perception. Codjoe corresponded with senior editor Rachel Mannheimer shortly after the publication of her debut poetry collection, Bluest Nude, in September, about the ways that poetry can follow from the body, from music, and from the possibilities we refuse to foreclose.
The poet on writing the Black feminine nudeRachel Mannheimer
Rachel Mannheimer Your poem “After the Apocalypse” first appeared in The Yale Review’s “Pandemic Files” in 2020. In Bluest Nude, the poem is broken into discrete sections that appear at intervals throughout the book, and the word “apocalypse” has also been removed, leaving a blank space. I wonder if you could speak about the composition and revision of that work.
Ama Codjoe I began composing “After the Apocalypse” in my head while walking down the eerie, emptied streets of Manhattan in the spring of 2020 and finished it while self-quarantined in my mother’s guest bedroom in West Tennessee. In the early days of the pandemic, the poem became a place to put my anxiety, uncertainty, longing, and unease.
After it was published, the poet Jenny Xie wrote to me that she hoped it would be included in my collection. At first, I thought, “Nope, it’ll be in the next one.” But then I started thinking about ways to incorporate the poem and found it could be reshaped to serve the book. Though it may not be clear to a reader of the original version, “the apocalypse” always alluded to different kinds of endings. Replacing the word “apocalypse” with a blank made the possibility of multiple meanings clearer. The blank also allowed the poem to absorb and reflect what was happening in the surrounding poems. I love this quality in poems: the sponge-like shapeshifting they possess in relationship to what precedes and follows them.
I am compelled by the music of poetry. I listen for the song and follow where it leads.
RM Your poems make wonderful use of rhyme and repetition; I think of these beautiful lines from “Marigolds of Fire”: “The sky / turns stormy. He forgets the umbrella. She wants / to storm out. He believes she’ll leave. He forgets / to call. She calls him a name. She takes it / back. . . . He takes it black, no sugar.”
Elsewhere, too, images reappear, and words recur with torqued meanings or as homonyms. Can you speak about the importance of sound and of echoes, whether sonic or visual, to your writing process?
AC Somehow this question conjures up John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme: the repetition and transformation of Coltrane’s four notes / syllables (“a love supreme”) is enthralling—I’ve just paused to listen to it—yes, yes, and amen. Whether in a single poem or across the book, I want repetition to function in the same way a jazz riff or a blues lyric deepens, upends, mocks, and resounds. It’s a practice blues musicians and the literary critic Cheryl A. Wall call “worrying the line,” and for me, the use of repetition as a kind of transformation is a natural consequence of following sound. The words of the dancer, choreographer, and scholar Pearl Primus also come to mind: “My life has been like traveling up a river. Every now and then I would hear singing around the bend, and so around the bend I would go and become occupied with living.” There is a balance of intention, improvisation, pleasure, and surrender in the act of worrying the line. As a reader and as a writer, I am compelled by the music of poetry. I listen for the song and follow where it leads.
RM Your long poem “She Said” feels formally distinct—shattered across the page, with space for silences—and constitutes its own section in the book. This poem, too, utilizes repetition, but to different effect; it suggests a kind of stutter, or a feeling of constriction. Could you tell us about the genesis of that poem?
AC “She Said” began with two impulses: first, I wanted to utilize documentary poetics as a mode of composition, and second, I felt compelled to write about Artemisia Gentileschi, the seventeenth-century Italian painter. When I read the court transcript of the trial in which Gentileschi’s father sued her rapist, I found a way into the poem. As it happened, I began composing “She Said” in September 2018, days after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee. As I listened to the hearings and the political commentary, I heard almost verbatim language from the 1612 trial.
The centuries-old pattern of putting the victim herself on trial is a violence. Finally, for many, including myself, the Kavanaugh hearings instigated a more personal reckoning. “She Said” speaks to a shade of blue that accompanies sexual assault, the body made vulnerable, the body violated—and the silences, repetitions, and omissions that never fail to accompany this violence.
RM “Highly anticipated” is a phrase we use a lot in publishing, but in the case of your book, it’s apt; you’ve been writing and publishing poems—and finding readers—for some time. Can you talk a bit about your journey in poetry?
AC I’ve always been a writer. My family and grade-school teachers would not be surprised to hold a book I’d authored in their hands. And yet, I did not share my writing widely until I heard the words “Cave Canem,” a home for black poetry. From then on, I became a poet in community with others. The transition from alone to among—and from novice to apprentice—compelled me to consider how publishing my work might allow me to offer poems within the traditions that nourish me. Still, I was not in a rush. I wanted the offering to feel authentic, earned, and worthy of inclusion in the mighty river of literature. A river I have walked alongside, drunken from, and bathed in all my life.
For many years the book was other versions of itself. Like many debut authors, I reworked and revised manuscripts, submitting them to contests and sharing them with trusted readers. Meanwhile, in 2018, Mary Austin Speaker, the creative director at Milkweed Editions, read some of my work online and invited me to send her a manuscript when it was ready. Two years later, she became the book’s editor, and would also design its gorgeous cover.
I became aware of an objective to write poems about the black feminine nude as she moves through time, space, history, and vulnerability.
RM I’m glad you brought up the cover; it’s stunning, featuring Simone Leigh’s ceramic sculpture Martinique (2020). I read that Leigh’s title references a statue, on Martinique, of Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon, who was said to have encouraged her husband in reinstating slavery in the colonies. The statue was decapitated in the 1990s, and Martinique represents that act of protest but also the ghosts of history. At the same time, the material and hand-built-ness of the sculpture reminds me of the lovers in “Marigolds of Fire,” “[f]ormed from clay,” and of other poems in which the body is tenderly handled, lotioned, bathed. Then there is the wide-hipped figure itself, distinctly womanly, shaped like a bottle (recalling Aunt Jemima elsewhere) but also like a bell—a music-maker, possibly even a figure of the poet. There is so much art and ekphrasis in Bluest Nude, and I’m curious how other art forms inform your practice. How did you come to Leigh’s work and to this image that manages to encompass so many dimensions of the book?
AC I’ll take any chance I can get to rave about Simone Leigh. I don’t remember the very first time I experienced Leigh’s work, but I remember her sculptures and social practice being featured in a workshop for teaching artists in the South Bronx in 2015 or 2016—I kept the handout from that workshop for many years afterward. I recall being unsettled and fascinated by her feminine figures with blank spaces where eyes would normally be. Leigh is an artist deeply concerned with seeing, perception, and gaze, and her artistic and social practices never fail to carry historical resonances and tethers to elsewhere.
Art like Leigh’s becomes a part of me. Sometimes, this means I can’t write about it, and other times that I can’t not write about it. This is true for paintings, collage, photography, sculpture, assemblage, film, and theater. Ekphrasis in my practice includes all kinds of art. Because Bluest Nude centers the body, it felt natural to include poems referencing, for instance, the choreography of Pina Bausch and Trisha Brown.
At some point in the process of writing, I became aware of an objective to write poems about the black feminine nude as she moves through time, space, history, and vulnerability. The art critic John Berger distinguishes being naked (nakedness) from being seen as naked (nudity). Still, it’s not the distinction of word choice I find most captivating but the relationship between seer and seen: the conflicts between how the naked speaker sees and experiences her own nakedness and how others do.