“ON OUR BIRTHDAY, LORRAINE HANSBERRY & I DISCUSS SUNLIGHT” by Tariq Thompson is the winning poem for the 2023 Previously Published Poem Prize, selected by Palette editors. We’re honored to share this vibrant poem with you.
This poem was first published in The Adroit Journal, issue 36.
ON OUR BIRTHDAY, LORRAINE
HANSBERRY & I DISCUSS SUNLIGHT
In my youth, I swallowed watermelon seeds
& panicked. Visions of striped fruit taking
Root in my belly plagued me. Momma told
Me nothing grows without sunlight, so I
Learned dark lived in me. O, Lorraine, I have
Been called strange & fruity, too: melon &
Lemon. Apple, mango, pine, cherry. Bananas,
Passion, black & berry. You know, it haunts
Me that so many versions of “Strange Fruit” exist.
In Nina’s, she sings the word strange like she is
About to break. In Billie’s, like she is alone. This
Is history’s cruelest duet: two voices trembling loss.
The word loss is really a villain. I’ve murmured it enough
That, if I’m tired, I can trick myself into hearing love.
—originally published in The Adroit Journal
Interview with Tariq Thompson
by AT Hincapie
AT Hincapie: In your winning poem, the speaker addresses several cultural icons whose works have highlighted racial tensions and tragedies in American history. Why might it help to write in conversation with other voices from the past? Do you see these women informing your own modern worldview?
Tariq Thompson: There’s an Evie Shockley quote that prefaces her poem “duck, duck, redux” that I think is a great starting point for this question: “Those who cannot forget the past are destined to remix it.” The past is here with us right now. It’s not some distant place; the past is carried in our mothers and grandmothers who live(d) it, in the media we engage with, in the forces that organize (and disorganize) our lives. So, a pursuit like this—a conversation across time—is, in my mind, more of a casual but necessary endeavor. What Lorraine Hansberry was thinking and experiencing in the ’50s & ’60s is wholly relevant to how I move through the world today—she was Black and queer, too. Were our concerns so different? Did we love so differently? Fear differently? Where might we meet one another? It feels heightened for me personally because of our shared birthday; each year, I think, my god, what was Lorraine doing today, decades ago? Was she smiling? Kissing on somebody? Laughing, despairing, taking a good nap, eating some good food…?
AH: Palette Poetry recently held an Ekphrastic Challenge that gave writers the task of responding directly to other artistic works, and your poem accomplishes this feat with beautiful results. It’s interesting to note that the song “Strange Fruit” mentioned in this poem is itself an adaptation of Lewis Allan’s original poem, and your poem continues in a similar tradition. What benefit do you see in using these kinds of external sources to inform your own writing, and how might this help to support your observations in this poem?
TT: I think we’re always engaging with art—it orients us. It’s just another language, another mode of communication. I think ekphrasis is especially helpful when you view it as a true conversation—when I listen to Al Green’s “Your Love is Like the Morning Sun,” he’s talking to me. He’s in my ear, he’s telling me something I need to know. Same applies when I watch Living Single—I’m a part of a conversation that defies time. My laughter, my shock, my sadness defies time. I’m right there with them. So if I write a poem about Al Green or Living Single, I’m continuing that conversation. When I listened to “Strange Fruit”—its many iterations—I could see the thread. All the folks that were talking and been talking and continue to talk to one another. I wanted to be a part of that, and by that point, I already was.
AH: The extended metaphor of fruit becomes much more than simple sustenance in this poem, as the speaker admits: “You know, it haunts/ Me that so many versions of ‘Strange Fruit’ exist…” Even Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play, A Raisin in the Sun, uses similar metaphors to compare lynching victims to images of fruit hanging from trees. Why do you feel that it is important for these artists— and for yourself—to continue discussing these shameful parts of human nature, or to remind new generations about the horrors of the past?
TT: Witness. We, and I’m talking especially of Black folks here, must see one another. Despite the violence. Despite the loss. We must hold one another even when we can’t touch one another. A poem’s one way to do that—emphasis on “one way.”
AH: From a craft perspective, the strategy of brevity in the poem accompanied by a long descriptive title seems to me to mirror poetic traditions from Zen masters like Hanshan or Xie Lingyun, especially given the emphasis on natural imagery of growth and sunlight. Would you say this meditative impulse help to ground the speaker of this poem in calm and nonviolent protest, even when faced with such threats?
TT: The tradition of this sonnet, and the rest of my birthday sonnets, locate themselves in the legacy of the “American Sonnet,” penned popularly first by Wanda Coleman, and then continued by Terrance Hayes. While I recognize the meditative nature of the poem (perhaps also due to the lyric “I”), I wouldn’t say this poem is about grounding the speaker in “calm, nonviolent protest,” nor is it interested in it.
AH: Despite the metaphors around violence in your poem and in the works that have inspired it, the title emphasizes a positive image of “sunlight” emerging through this darkness. What light do you see shining on this “strange fruit” in the present or the future? How can the trauma of loss truly build toward love, as the poem suggests?
TT: It’s strange answering this question now. When I wrote this poem in early 2020 I had a wildly different orientation of loss. My Nana passed away in June of last year. She was (is) my light, the origin of my language. If you had asked me this question in the summer or fall, I likely would have told you that I was wrong, that I had set myself and everyone else up, and that I couldn’t see a way forward. But as time widens, I close my eyes and I see her face in the darkness…so, the darkness for me is actually bound right up with the light, both positive images, both guiding forces.
I’ve been grappling with the fact that she left me her journals—a literal archive of her living. Some days I wonder why? I think it’s because she trusted that I would still be alive to read them. She believed in my living. In my endurance. That’s the light: this trust in one another, in ourselves, to still be here. That we will and can carve out a “here.”