The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, I.S. Jones spoke with poet Aricka Foreman about leaping from her chapbook to her debut full-length collection, Salt Body Shimmer (YesYes Books, 2020), the uses of water and land throughout, and her decision to go with YesYes Books.
In Salt Body Shimmer, Foreman’s work concerns itself with multiple, inherited violences through the lens of women in a generation. Rich in its lyrical tenor, the book is intimately political for the way in which it is deeply rooted in the geography of the South as well as the geography of the body. Memory is often a slippery beast throughout Foreman’s work, as readers are pulled back and forth through time and its deeply private moments. Negotiating gender, class, race, divinity, and history, Salt Body Shimmer is a debut that never flinches from saying out loud what is often unutterable. When I think about an American experience, I look to this book for its elegant ability to blend many spiritual practices. This is a world crafted through the lens of women who have had to learn spells older than themselves, who have had to create a path for their survival.
Salt Body Shimmer by Aricka Foreman: A Sea-like Sensemaking
I. S. Jones: Before Salt Body Shimmer, you had a limited-edition chapbook also with YesYes Books called Dream with A Glass Chamber. Your chapbook was described as “a response to grief and its complicated rituals.” With your debut collection, there is grief, but what seems more prominent is ritual. Here, in the landscape you have crafted, there is an inextricable binding thread between ritual, spirituality, and Black girlhood. How did your chapbook prepare you to craft a full-length collection and how does the lens of orishas, of Yoruba spirituality, give you language to confront some of the more fraught aspects of black girlhood?
Aricka Foreman: This is a great question, thank you. I think Dream allowed me some grace. I could embrace the process. It’s a book that deals very intentionally with grief, but I think part of what I gained from that work was honing it on paying intention/attention to the questions that rose from it. And that the point is not to answer the question(s) but live with the discomfort of wrestling with inquiry as its own creative mode. There’s an entire tradition of poets who write toward Western ideologies and their figures: Greek and Roman influences still have such a stronghold given we produce work in English. We’ve made these mythologies their own canon. Yoruba, Candomble, Lacumi: these traditions are their own canons, too. I was interested in picking up the threads I’d find in my research, imagining the possible figures who might help the speaker navigate through Black girlhood. Even in Greek mythology, the gods guide the protagonists through epic trials and journeys, attempting to save beloveds from the underworld. As we’re learning more intensely these days, we’re living in and sharing Hades. Recognizing a Black, Brown, Indigenous ecosystem often keeps me from being swallowed up by violence, I hoped to focus on how to break and paint language to live through the happening of those traumas. Girlhood is not easy. And Black girlhood has its own interwoven adoptions we often don’t fully apprehend while we’re busy trying to ride through it. There’s a resistance to that old knowing. I wanted to make room to ask and accept. To keep what informs us as a touchstone if we want it.
IJ: You made the choice to publish both your chapbook and full-length with the same press, which is something that does happen but not often. Can you speak further about your choice to stay with YesYes Books? When deciding on a press for Salt Body Shimmer, what were things you wanted, things you expected, and how did YesYes show you they were the right press for your book and how you hoped it would be presented to the world?
AF: KMA Sullivan asked me for a book years before Dream was even a thing. And not to necessarily publish it, but she was just interested in what I was working on. And she was persistent without being pushy. Over the years, we’d stay in contact sometimes never talking about a book at all. I knew I wasn’t ready yet, but that I would be. And then I lost three people in one year to various circumstances, the hardest was a close friend Blair who the book is dedicated to. She reached out to offer her condolences and offered support in whatever I needed. Just, you know, very human. And that cemented my trust, that she’d care enough about me to care about the work. And that she’d tell me the truth.
I wanted my chapbook and my debut to be held with care— to not be just a catalog number. And I knew I had a very specific vision for how I wanted it to operate in the world as an object. YesYes makes gorgeous art objects that work hand-in-hand with the language inside its pages. And as far as small presses go, the entire staff hustles with excitement about getting your book into as many folks’ hands as possible. I think all of that was critical to these emerging projects. I knew that my work found a home.
IJ: I want to talk about how the poems are ordered in the book, which seems to be governed by a thematic structure. For example, the poem “Hydrocephalus As a Misnomer For Water God”, a poem that does an elegant job of straddling the space between the divine and sickness, ends with the lines: “What is Atlantis to a child born in The Wake / but iridescent, sharp as shells, ready to / open the flesh” which then segues us into “Blue Magic”, a poem with a title that is double and triple jointed for how it evokes the might of the sea while also the unruly beauty of Black hair. Even if poems were written years apart, how did you decide on the ordering?
AF: I have to thank Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake for pressing that poem. I read the work of many Black women critical-creative historians while forming Salt Body Shimmer. But I also want to honor the intuitive power of allowing poems to find their roots. While the ocean was a large metaphor, it functions so specifically for those of us on this side of a diaspora. And I wanted to key into a language, rich and dexterous, that could tie all that history. I was invited to my first hair show in Detroit very early; and the pageantry, contemporary art display, born from migration, music, and performance: I found it exquisite. That technology goes where you go. The violence of industry, commerce, imperialism, and conquest…it all marks our relationships to the sea. And we’ve managed to adopt some beauty from it. I’d be complicit in that violence if I didn’t name its origins. And: who else could name a care product Blue Magic?
The order was sea-like. Those poems, particularly, had to move as you noticed. There needed to be that thread. It was irresistible, and that is its own sense-making.
IJ: Can you speak more to the physical geography of where these poems take place? There seem to be two worlds: the South (as an epicenter of tradition, generational pain, but also lush fields and space) and the Body (as an epicenter of sexual violence and betrayal, but also memory which seems to pull the narrator back and forth through time).
AF: We’re all descendants of migration, and that’s hard to move away from. I feel lucky, having been communally raised by Mississippi grandparents who found one another at the tail-end of the Southern Migration in Chicago, before moving to Inkster, MI. I find the links in subtle ways. How I’m raised and still say lightning bugs. If Blackness is a technology, then why wouldn’t our bodies be data centers? We record the narratives, what we witness, and cross-reference. We’re informed by those reports. But I have a strong reaction to the pastoral. Even landscapes that aren’t every day accessible to me feel like home.
It’s the only way I can travel and find rooting, or encounter memories I’ve never had. In Cuba, a friend and I had a running joke, that nobody liked cainito but me. And I can’t articulate what about it feels like to know it with my two hands. There’s something about that bodily kinship that I can’t ignore.
On America’s South: it’s more global than we remember to give credit. The ports, plantations; degradation and horror; the resistance of our songs and dances, cuisines and faith…there’s no way to separate any of that. I think I’m trying to branch out of American imperialism as a centered experience while recognizing what I can salvage from its violence. America is so young. America’s got a lot to answer for how we had to make a way. So I try to make room for and tend to the somatic. My body: an archive. It must be preserved in the names of all who left something behind, and they left a ledger.
IJ: What did the process of completing a manuscript and publishing it teach you about yourself? On the professional and marketing side of the process, what did you find yourself learning along the way? For example, there is a long, exhaustive marketing questionnaire authors often must fill out, which will include questions such as, “Do you have poems translated into other languages?” “Do you have a Wikipedia page?” “What demographic is your book targeted towards?”
AF: Publishing a book is weird, and not the same as writing a book. In the writing, you insist, and you want a healthy-enough ego to risk but not to get swallowed up by the biz of it. But I know what my publisher imparted, and how I clap for vital works: the author is the book’s best chance for triumph.
I had a crash course because of the pandemic. But I’ve also been in a community with generous, brilliant folks from before the book was even a thought. I had to lean on my people, and I’m so grateful I did. They are sharp, critical, and generous. Because YesYes Books is intuitive about the ecosystem of the work and how it lives in the world, there are some questions that are more industry-driven and less about process. YYB did the sales part great. The details of that weight were kept from me as much as possible. I’d already done my job in making, everything after was author-driven to support the book’s reach. I dreamt of a world where my book could thrive and YYB lifted me up in that.
I’ve said how much I abhor capitalism, but also, the point is to get the work in front of as many people who can vibe with it as possible. That felt really important with my debut. I had to have a space not to be an editor, a Board member, or an educator. I needed to have my work diligently be held in the way it deserved.
IJ: The book pulls its title from the final line in “Consent Is A Labyrinth Of Yes:” “Nothing stands still Starkness and light Her salt body, shadow and shimmer Her afraid but not yet done not yet.” Salt and Body seem to coincide with one another; salt comes from the human body: “I’ve learned the salt of the earth art of settling, / my body fatigued, progeny of two small Mississippi towns, / their lightning bugs fat like dream songs trapped in a mason jar” and bodies of oceans: “I learned two things: I was not the first / of our line to hold a fraction of the sea’s language, / salt degrading the world’s fragile questions.” I can physically see the bodies opened and closed across the book: “[…] and its orange corona was the tree and scaled skin pressed into there or was a boy between my body the tree speaking nothing of consequence was time buffering […].” Yet the word ‘shimmer’ only appears on page 41. What was the choice behind ‘shimmer’ being in the title if it is not as pronounced in the book?
AF: The book is shimmer too, in that it’s the iridescent-vital that hums all over the landscape, apprehended amongst the noise if you pay attention. We talk a lot about the Black lives as site, as anchor, as transactional. And through insistence, we demand: Imagine! Dream!
If we give ourselves space and quietude, we recognize ourselves as crystals turning in the light. Perhaps that’s the healing you notice. Perhaps that’s the salve we always knew was there. We just didn’t have a name for it. Not yet, but I’m writing to find out.
Aricka Foreman is an American poet and interdisciplinary writer from Detroit MI. Author of the chapbook Dream with a Glass Chamber, and Salt Body Shimmer (YesYes Books), she has earned fellowships from Cave Canem, Callaloo, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. She serves on the Board of Directors for The Offing, and spends her time in Chicago, IL engaging poetry with photography & video.