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 Kemi Alabi about the communal work that is foundational to a poetry collection’s emergence, and challenging inflexible boundaries of the divine, of pleasure, and of love, all while crafting a new and invigorating lexicon which makes the Black queer body come alive.
In Kemi Alabi’s Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), heaven is already here and anywhere that black, queer folks can commune. In this stunning and other-worldly debut, Alabi’s vast entry to language is both enriched and underscored by the sonic registers that govern every poem. While the poems take on many forms, the true meat of the work is in its lyrical delight. Stretching the very boundaries of language itself, Against Heaven confronts a fraught relationship to the oracular in proximity to the sensual. At the center of all this is a remarkable journey of transformation, and frankly, a book I wish existed when I was much younger and still navigating what felt like an unreachable lexicon for my own body. Alabi’s work reminds me the writer is also one who envisions what was not possible before and gives us new eyes to see.
Against Heaven by Kemi Alabi: Practice-based Poetics
I. S. Jones: When you first held the final version of Against Heaven in your hands, how did you feel? I’m asking this question specifically because, least for me, when I held my chapbook, I felt very, I guess disillusioned might be the word though, but there was a way in which like now that it was a physical book, I felt very emotionally divorced from it now. Did holding the final product change experience for you?
Kemi Alabi: I opened it with some friends, and I immediately burst into tears. Then I became terrified of the book object. Its static nature is terrifying to me. Just the sense of finality. I understood that it wouldn’t be mine anymore, but holding the physical object, I realized, “Okay, this is actually not only not mine, but these poems aren’t even the poem in the air to me. A poem transforms to me, and these don’t do that.” This process split my distinction between the poet and the poem, but also the distinction between the poet, the Poem, and the poem on the page. Of course, my poems have been printed before. I’ve seen them as objects, but the long poem of the book being its own static object—yeah, that terrified me. And I talked to other first-book poets about it, including Xan Phillips, Jennifer Huang, and Chekwube Danladi, who told me she threw her book at the wall [laughs].
So, I was in good company with my shame [laughs]. But because I’m a person of many minds always, it was also kind of like a sacred object to me. As much as I thought I was estranged from it, I loved it still, but I couldn’t really look at it, so honestly what I did was I took the copy and I wrapped it in some cloth, and I put it on my altar so that I can’t see it. I have reverence for the work that went into it and for the poet I was when I wrote it. But sometimes I don’t want to see it.
So yeah, that was my complex relationship to it as an object, but I’m grateful for it as a vehicle. And then I guess lastly, I’ll say my kinky black queer friends have helped me use BDSM to infuse this relationship with a dom/sub dynamic. What if the book object is the sub, and the poem as it exists in the air is the Dom? You know, I’m not even really in that equation and the book object is serving its purpose as being objectified, it’s being abused, and it’s doing whatever it needs to.
IJ: How fitting of you to have done that ritual, that gesture of wrapping the book in cloth, but then also place it on an altar. It quite literally feels like the title itself, right? Spiritual heaven, but against the idea of a specific, Christian heaven, which is you putting it in a cloth and self-containing it. It feels like the cloth itself is the language that you have created within the book. Your unique lexicon that makes the book so decadent with language.
Often poets find themselves engulfed by an idea or several governing ideas that become the foundation for the collection of poems that becomes the book. I’m curious to know how your process led you to what would become the final product. Did you actively set out to put together this book, or did you just write poems over the years, and then realize, “Oh wait! These poems are actually in conversation. There’s a clear sense of connective tissue that binds them together.”
KA: The latter, definitely. And I resisted the idea that I even had a first full-length manuscript for a while because I was so fixated on the idea of a project book—that I needed to begin with an understanding of what the long poem of the book might be. That’s not what I’d been writing toward. My practice wasn’t project-based; it was really one loosie at a time. I love the individual poem and all of the worlds that it contains. It’s a practice-based poetics. I’m always just kind of experimenting. But at one point, I had a few realizations: one, I felt myself taking a turn with my poetic obsessions and craft concerns. And I felt like I had all of this work and I needed it away from me so that I could move on.
And then two, I did discover the Poem of the book, all the ways in which my poems were talking to each other. I went back to my old journals, and I saw a note from maybe a decade ago, that was just a shaming note to myself: “stop writing about God and sex.” I looked at all my poems and went, huh, well, that’s clearly been my obsession for a very long time. I wanted to understand how and why, and then I just wanted to get out of these poems’ way. I did some work, of course, to strengthen that connective tissue between the poems, but I also really did appreciate the range of the collection. It’s really sprawling, something I can continue to write into for a long time. But I found myself in this era of my practice where I needed to let the work loose.
I feel like Against Heaven is very much a collection in which all the poems are in conversation with each other, but they’re also contradicting each other. It’s such a grappling, and there are so many different throughlines. Honestly, it’s not what I expected for a first book. I almost didn’t send it out because I was like, “you know what? I actually want my first book to read like a different type of project.” I really landed on the dilemma of what it means to get in your poems’ way. And I didn’t want to be that poet who was like, “No, I need to be this perfectionist. All of my intentions needs to be mapped onto whatever this is before I feel comfortable stepping aside and letting the poems do their work in the world.” Through practice, I found the poems. Through practice, I found that throughline. And then I was like, “okay, let me give this a shot.”
IJ: I love what you said about getting out of the poem was way. I needed to hear that because I’m guilty of that, too. I also appreciate the fact that you resist this perhaps contemporary trend of needing to write a book governed by a specific project. Nicole Sealey talked about this in passing, how when she put together Ordinary Beast, she wasn’t interested in a clear, narrative structure. Rather, she had these poems that felt like they wanted to build a house together. So, she sought to build the house. She resisted other people’s vision of what they thought her books should be and followed her own heart about that. I really love that you two are of the same mind in that way.
In 2016, the Bajan visual artist Llanor Alleyne had their exhibit “WRITTEN IN THE BODY” in Barbados. All of their artwork is gorgeous and brightly colored, like your work, and you chose their piece “Seraphina” as cover art for Against Heaven. How does this piece speak to what Against Heaven seeks to translate to its audience as opposed to their other pieces such as “Lisha” or “Abbey + Saran” or “Kimba”?
KA: I so appreciate that question. And to begin to answer it, I’ll explain how it was chosen, because that was not the first piece I selected. It was a very quick process. It was the first thing I needed to do once I started: I connected with Graywolf, and they were like, “great, what’s your cover art?” I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t know! You just told me about a week ago that my book is being published, and I’m still dumbfounded.” I went on this hunt, and I first found this amazing piece by local Black queer artist Brittney Leeanne Williams, “Blood Baptism 2.”
I was obsessed with it. It’s of a very different intensity, this black figure engulfed in red tongue-like flames, which is different from “Seraphina,” a softer, livelier image of a more ambiguous figure entwined with floral arrangements. You know, one was giving hell, right? I’m still very obsessed with that image because it does capture a valence of Against Heaven, which is this underworld journey. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the rights for that artwork. Of course, that broke my heart, but it was crunch time. Graywolf tells me, “okay, you have two weeks. Can you find something else?” I don’t know anything about visual art, how am I supposed to do this?
Another shoutout to Xan Phillips because it was through one of their recommendations that I stumbled on Alleyne’s work. Shoutout to Chantz Erolin at Graywolf, my editor, who gave me the opportunity to make the collection more molten again—that’s when I understood it wasn’t all an underworld journey. A lot of the feedback I’ve gotten about my own poetry is that the blood is there, right? But through other folks’ lens and my re-entry into the work, I understood that it was as much about rapture, an impassioned aliveness, as it was about the ways that we are obstructed and destroyed by systems. All the elements are present in Against Heaven, but I was too focused on the flames and not the water and not the earth.
I began to understand that there is a lushness here. There is a sensual embrace that I’m curious about, not just the underworld journey, which had become my laser focus. I loved the oppositional idea of Against Heaven and I still do. Half of the collection is also this idea of against, as in, “right up against,” a cheek-to-cheek tenderness. The redirection allowed me to explore that more, and then I stumbled on Alleyne’s “Written On The Body” collection. My mind didn’t make the decision, my body did. It was recognition of that tender valence that through my too-cerebral understanding of my own work, I had discarded. I’m like, no, the blood, the blood! [laughs].
I needed that visual art to ground the work. The long poem of this book is taking us through these different worlds and then turning us [the readers] towards something else. And “Seraphina” is that something else. I gravitated towards that piece in particular because of the embrace. There’s this figure without some of the gendered characteristics of the other bodies in the collection—which was important to me as this enby person who is trying to think about gender more expansively—in this embrace of a wild, colorful explosion that could be coming from within, that could be exploding from the figure’s body. It’s not super clear, the origin. Because of the intimacy and interiority of Against Heaven, that felt really resonant. And then there is this white background, this intense contrast, and it reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” That contrast felt really crucial to the heaven the speakers are against and the heaven they are seeking and trying to embrace: this kind of blank whiteness that will swallow them versus this rewilding earth that’s embracing them and that they’re embracing back in all of its chaos and bounty and pleasure.
IJ: I’m fascinated by the word “against,” because of course, there are a lot of ways in which the book is against heteronormativity, against a rigid binary of what romantic love looks like. Your Polyamory Defense poem is against empire, but it’s also in praise of community and love. I’m thinking here of your poem, “We Would Hex The President but.”
I’m also thinking of “Love poem -1: Chicago (CST) to Bangalore (GMT +5:30)” with the understanding that it was written in praise of a dear person in your life, fellow poet Sanam Sheriff, who was influential, not only to that poem, but to the collection as a whole. I’m curious about how much of the book you wrote within community, in close proximity to your people, and how much of the book you wrote by yourself, so to speak. I think there’s this pervasive myth that as poets, we work in silos. There’s some truth to that, but at the same time, we need community—to refresh us, to replenish us, and for us to pour back into. Community expands the range of our internal landscape and shows us what’s possible. I feel in part that that’s what Against Heaven is doing.
KA: I love that question. It’s making me think of Mariame Kaba, an abolitionist organizer, who says, “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” I find that my poetry practice is so much richer because of community. I can access more pleasure when informed by other people’s work. Right now, I find myself in a state of poetic isolation, which I hate. I’m like, these are horrible working conditions. Most of my poetic practice has been in spaces where I can generate with other people, even when I’m thinking about when I was back in college with my poetry group, Speak for Yourself; on Tuesday evenings, we would have workshop. We would write toward each other.
Even in high school, I moved from writing alone to my senior year creative writing class—suddenly, I found my people. At lunchtime, we would write and share with each other. We would go to the coffee shop on weekends and write with each other. Even from my very early poetry stages, I was moving from a very lonely poetic space to a more exciting, more experimental, exploratory, and generative practice with other people.
I think it’s always a toggle. Against Heaven emerged in so many different spaces. Some of those poems go back to the Boston Poetry Slam, they are poems I wrote for their open mics. Some of those poems go back to Tin House, Pink Door, Winter Tangerine, and Shira Erlichman’s In Surreal Life workshop. All of the work is in the shadow of my time with Echoing Ida, a group of Black women and non-binary writers who were writing primarily op-eds and other journalistic pieces rooted in reproductive justice. My role from 2014 to early 2021 was coordinating and leading this group through monthly trainings and annual retreats. I was so steeped in that work with them as organizers and writers who were trying to honor Ida B. Wells, who once said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
I can point to a person who was integral to every poem, for the most part. But I also think that some of the most potent poems in this collection were written from a place of extreme isolation. Because that’s just how we end up living our lives. But there’s no poem that I haven’t first read to a person or a group of people—all of the poems lived in the air and were shared with others before they were printed in a journal or in this book.
To your question: I’m not a writer without community, even when I’m in short-term isolation or feeling estranged from an active writing community. Even if I’m solo, there are still the books that I’m always referring to and communing with to understand what it is I’m trying to do with this work.
Kemi Alabi is the author of Against Heaven (Graywolf Press, 2022), selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award. Their poems and essays appear in The Atlantic, Poetry, Boston Review, Catapult, Guernica, them., the BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2, Best New Poets 2019, and elsewhere. Selected by Chen Chen as winner of the 2020 Beacon Street Poetry Prize, Kemi has received Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and Brittle Paper Award nominations along with support from MacDowell, Civitella Ranieri, Tin House and Pink Door.
Kemi believes in the world-shifting power of words and the radical imaginations of Black queer and trans people. As cultural strategy director of Forward Together, they built political power with cultural workers of color through programs like Echoing Ida, a home for Black women and nonbinary writers, and annual art campaigns like Trans Day of Resilience. The Echoing Ida Collection, coedited with Cynthia R. Greenlee and Janna Zinzi, is available now from Feminist Press.
Born in Wisconsin on a Sunday in July, Kemi now lives in Chicago, IL.