What The Living Know

In this interview, Hope Fischbach and Randyl Music speak with Lauren K. Alleyne about the many meanings of home, immigrant identity, body/spirit duality, and her second poetry collection Honeyfish (New Issues Press, 2019).

Throughout Honeyfish, the speaker seems unable to secure a true home, even (perhaps especially) in the poem “Prodigal,” whose epigraph from Robert Frost is both reassuring and eerie: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” What does “home” mean to you as an immigrant and frequent traveler?

I think home is both a shifting and stable concept for me. My mother is home. The house I grew up in is home. But also, as an immigrant, I’ve had to consciously make home in other spaces and planes, so home is also Crown Heights Brooklyn, where I eat Caribbean food. It is the ocean, which covers so much of the globe. It is poetry, which follows me everywhere. The part of the Frost piece that everyone tends to focus on is that “they have to take you in,” but the other part is equally as important: “when you have to go there.” What are the places I have no choice but to go to, that I’m diminished without? Those are home, too. 

Several poems discuss your travels (“Self-Portrait with Neo-Nazi Demonstration,” in Leipzig, Germany; “Post-Verdict Renga,” in Provincetown, MA; “Self-Portrait with Burning Crosses,” in Dubuque, IA; the Serifos poems). How does travel influence, inspire, or interfere with your writing, both in terms of theme and in terms of the writing process? 

I’ve been lucky that writing has often allowed me to travel—it’s gotten me jobs, residencies, readings, workshops, all over the country and world, and so in that way, it’s very much a vehicle for exploration of the physical world. And in the inverse, the kind of travel I’ve been able to do means I have deliberately removed myself from a familiar context and placed myself in a space that is new and strange, and that allows one, I think, to discover corners and questions in oneself that may not have otherwise arisen. We are environmentally responsive beings, and changing where we are necessarily changes how we are if we want to survive. And that movement, that shifting and negotiating that occurs in the internal landscape, is the source of poetry, and so travel, for me, inspires writing because it inspires that questioning. 

Can you talk about the spirit/body duality described in the poem “What the Living Know”? How does that duality inform your elegies for Trayvon Martin and others? 

I’m fascinated by that duality. The difference between the body and the corpse is beyond biology, it is spiritual, there is animus and we cannot account for it, quite. The thing about living is that it is a state of potential, and death is the end of potential. We are so intrigued by afterlives because while we’re living/alive, we can’t really comprehend the notion of no more possibility, no more being or becoming. What I’m also interested in is how we foreclose that possibility for others through fear and stereotype and enactments of violence that either psychologically or materially end their ability to be, to keep becoming. That is a place I write from a lot.

In your interview with Emily Ellison, you say that when writing, you “move from one place to another in some visceral way—and even beyond visceral, in some spiritual sense—if the poem is doing its work.” Is there a poem that you feel particularly changed by? 

I think that it’s true for most poems—I am usually writing to find out what I think or to try to wrap language around a feeling. In either case it’s a revelation, a shift in knowing that happens or refuses to happen, right? In “Poetry Workshop After the Verdict,” I’m trying really hard to focus on being a poet—I really wanted to get away from the news, keep it out of the poem/me, but I couldn’t ultimately shift the lens, and that’s what the poem is exploring—that internal weight that won’t be moved when you are told again and again you don’t matter, your people don’t matter. In “Elegy” for Tamir, I really did want to write a curse poem. I was so angry about the murder of that little boy, but there was something else complicating that rage, and I started writing to find out what it was. As the poem moves, what’s revealed to me is that I didn’t want to be in a space that shared anything with what killed him—i.e. hate—that I needed to find a different possibility for myself and for him. And so yes, that poem for me is a vehicle to travel my internal landscapes, to discover how I connect to the world around me, and with each discovery of that, I’m changed, hopefully for the better!

In a sociopolitical landscape of overwhelming violence—hundreds of shootings, daily reports of police brutality, rampant racial terrorism and prejudice—what led you to write poems focusing on the deaths of victims such as Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland? 

There are, indeed so many victims, that it would be impossible to write them all, but these two haunted me. I thought of Trayvon going to the corner store for snacks, which was, in our childhood (in Trinidad) a favorite pastime of my brother’s, and something about that simple, innocuous and ultimately fatal errand just wouldn’t let me go. I also think it happened at a time when I was really experiencing America as a Black person in a small midwestern town, and felt how that space was clearly never going to be one that I could claim as “mine.” Not being allowed to fit into or claim a space can be lethal in America if you are a Black person. It was an awakening. 

Sandra Bland was moving for work. As an immigrant, and someone who has moved for professional purposes across states and countries, mobility and how it is hindered and policed is something I’m keenly aware of, and in Sandra’s case, it was literally moving from one lane to another that got her killed (I think she was killed). I can’t write poems for all the victims, but I am a Black woman in America and a writer, and so my grieving, my fear, my outrage, my rally cries emerge in poems.

In “Heaven?” and “Self-Portrait on the Anniversary of His Death,” you both question the notion of heaven and commemorate the earthly lives of Sandra Bland and your friend Anton. In your interview with Ellison, you suggest you are a writer of faith, a believer in grace; you suggest that your annual mourning of Anton is natural and informal. How does your experience in the church relate to your beliefs about the afterlife and about honoring lost loved ones? 

I was raised Catholic, and am very determinedly a lapsed one now. But of course, so much lingers. If Christ is kept alive through reading the gospels, mining the stories of his life for meaning in ours, why not use the word to rattle the pearly gates of memory, to keep something of love—for a friend, for a community—alive, to love through the word, to make sense of what the world was with and is without that particular soul? 

We are intrigued by poems such as “Kalimera” and “Kalinichta” that touch on the Greek island of Serifos. Can you tell us more about your time there?

I was in Serifos as a Cave Canem Fellow and part of a program run by the University of Missouri in Colombia. We were in Greece for a month, and in Serifos, specifically, for about 3 weeks. It was mind-bending in so many ways, because it felt both so familiar and so foreign at once. That collision was fruitful, as so many poems emerged from that initial experience. I’ve had the opportunity to return to Greece through the Writing Workshops in Greece, where I’ve spent time in Thasos and Thessaloniki, also beautiful, but Serifos was magical in a way I’ve not experienced since.

We notice that your poems mix pleasant words with grim words. Examples of this are in the poem “Killed Boy, Beautiful World”: “How ruthless with beauty / the world seems, clouds / tumbling in streams of white, / the sky dappled, then clear, / then blotted with rain; the news / of death and more death.” Could you say more about this? 

That’s just the duality of life, isn’t it? I think that’s one of the hardest things to hold—how fragile and robust the body is, how breathtakingly beautiful and violent this planet is, how large our species’ capacity for love and hate coexist in this uneasy tension…. 

More from Lauren K. Alleyne, Randyl Music, Hope Fischbach