Thursday Sep 28

TreasureShieldsRedmond Treasure Shields Redmond, a native of Mississippi, is a St. Louis-based poet, performer and educator. She has published poetry in such notable anthologies as Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Breaking Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cane Canem’s First Decade and in journals that include The Sou'wester and The African American Review. Redmond has received a fellowship to the FineArts Works Center, and her poem, "around the time of medgar" was nominated for a 2011 Pushcart Prize. Treasure is a Cave Canem fellow and has received an MFA from the University of Memphis. Presently, she divides her time between being an assistant professor of English at Southwestern Illinois College and doctoral studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Treasure Shields Redmond Interview, with Joani Reese

Treasure, your work is powerful, both on the page and as spoken word. Have you always written with an ear toward oral performance?

I do think sound has always entered into the equation for me when I am writing.  I would trace the roots of that sound consideration to being raised in Mississippi in the Baptist church, where music was such a big part of the worship service.  I have also always loved dialect, idiom and story telling.

To add, when I was in junior high, I became enamored with Hip Hop music and spent a great deal of my adolescence and early twenties composing raps or Hip Hop verse, which is very dependent on rhyme and sound.

Interestingly I am very hesitant to use rhyme nowadays.  Rhyme in poetry is a master's tool, and I am not there yet.

I love that you say "rhyme in poetry is a master's tool, and I'm not there yet."  Many people unfamiliar with the challenge of using rhyme effectively would have trouble agreeing with you, but I know exactly what you mean.  Rhyme is both the easiest and most difficult part of poetry to master, depending on one's placement on the road. How did that life growing up in Mississippi influence your work—were there certain influences in the local community you admired?

Well, listening to the often improvised and spontaneous prayers in church definitely gave me a knack for the turn of a phrase.  The call and response and the repetition also gave me a deep appreciation for the many africanisms that exist as cultural hold overs in African American culture. I definitely see the black church as an African place as well. To add, my grade school music teachers were wonderful! This little town – Meridian, Mississippi – had a wealth of openness to the arts.  I was in community theatre, show choir, speech competitions, and I was in honors dance as well.

How involved are you in the poetry scene where you live in St. Louis?  Is it a vibrant one?

I have purposefully tried to immerse myself in the local poetry scene here. At the institutional level, I have endeavored to keep up with major writers who come to the universities.  At the city level, I have made it a point to collaborate with the Regional Arts Commission and the St. Louis poetry center to read publicly and attend readings of other local poets. Recently I organized a Missouri Cave Canem reading that was funded by the St. Louis Urban League and the RAC. It was very successful. I haven't mentioned my association with Cave Canem. I completed my fellowship with CC in 2002, and it still remains the single greatest influence on the way I revise my work. 

You mention Cave Canem. For our readers who aren't familiar with CC, could you explain who they are and what they do?

Cave Canem is a group that was founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady.  The organization has now become the vanguard organization for African American poets.  I attended workshops between the years of 2000 and 2002.  While there I workshopped with Nikky Finney, Michael Harper, Yusef Komenyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Toi Derricotte, and Cornelius Eady, among others.  When I was accepted to CC I had just received my MFA from the University of Memphis.  I believe going to CC was akin to getting a PhD in poetry.  It was life changing for my work.  It was there that I learned how to revise my work and it was there that I truly fell in love with the workshop process.  I love workshop!  I love it of course for the good it can do your writing but I also love the therapeutic element of it and even the confrontational element of it.

You’ve been fortunate to work with some of the most talented poets working today. Lucky you! Who are your favorite poets and whose work do you think has most influenced your own work and why?

Well first off, I love poetry!  I have audio of poetry on my iPhone loaded into iTunes. I also love the poetry magazine podcast and I follow every journal and poetry organization on twitter. I love William Stafford.  I love Lucille Clifton. I adore e. e. cummings and Amiri Baraka. I love Nikky Finney and Natasha Trethewey, too.  My earliest influences were the poets I was introduced to through the church. This would include James Weldon Johnson and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Later, the black arts movement poets like Nikki Giovanni, my dad (Eugene B. Redmond) and Mari Evans were big influencers. I read the Bontemps anthology and the Randall anthology The Black Poets as a teen and they both blew my mind.

You're presently completing a PhD program.  What are you studying, and what do you hope to do with your PhD?  Are you going to include your poetry as a selling point for any future academic jobs, or are you aiming more toward a less creative teaching gig with poetry as your artistic outlet?

I am presently in a PhD program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  It has been the hardest academic thing I have ever done!  They truly haze you in doctoral work.  The pages you must produce, the reading load, and the theoretical constructs you must be confronted with all wear on you.  I will be completing my coursework this summer.  It is a milestone, but I can't really celebrate because there are several daunting reading, testing, and writing tasks I still have to complete.  I am studying English literature and criticism.  My dissertation will have some creative elements.  I plan to look at Fannie Lou Hamer as a folkloric figure, find her literary ancestors, and then look into contemporary writing to explore her descendants.  I plan to use the PhD to increase my marketability, mobility, and income.  I would love to teach courses in creative writing and Black literature.  Poetry informs my life, so I would find it difficult to have it as a "side gig.”

I love the poem "caveat" in all its ironic honesty.  The speaker siding in empathy with Jackie Kennedy and the image of her as a runner anticipating a new kind of freedom is certainly a unique take on the grieving widow.  What was your impetus for the poem's direction?

The wonderful thing about poetry is that it is a "feeling" art.  If I were a historical novelist writing about Jackie O, I would have to go to her family crest, and watch Grey Gardens, and situate her as a post war woman, and look into the history of the town in which she was raised, and, and, and.  But because I am a poet, I can connect with her as a woman and a mother and as someone who's been married to a philandering asshole.  Much of being a woman in this country has been marked by realism and expediency.  An enslaved African woman had no real mate choice.  If her owner wanted her, he could have her.  The wife of the owner was forced into a deep silence about this, and that silence continues today.  “Caveat,” which is what I titled the poem, brings to bear that women's stories are often about silence; that Jackie O's story is often an asterisk to the real American focus, which is the men.  But after her husband was killed, Mrs. Kennedy went on to have this storied life, with an exotic billionaire husband and a fabled New York apartment and those glasses!  In many ways, she was freed by JFK's death

Thank you, Treasure, for your answers, your poems, and your video recordings. I wish you great success in your life as a performer, educator, and poet.


and the baby began to grow again

and you were gone
to pick up an antique car
we couldn't possibly afford
& i was four months pregnant
with our daughter
& you were on the highway
barreling towards an affair
i thought i wished you dead

all day the day before
you drove away promising
to return, and i thought: if he died
if it were like a story
i heard told by a man
still wearing his wedding ring
if you were the one driving
& behind a truck
& impatient
& you began to inch to
the left
just to see if you could go around
this obstacle
& it was quick

& that place in your neck that snaps
& turns a man off
that place that booms sweetly
like the old heater
in the cold apartment where I was raised

if it were quick you see
& you looked up briefly and saw
our daughter floating in warm amnio
& you smiled
& you died

all this tabulated on my mind's
but as the hours wore on
the shroud of your death
began to settle

& i couldn't get you on the phone
& i was four months pregnant
with our daughter
& all i could do
was push my fist into
my tight eyes and know
that you were already dead
& it should not be so

i could not abide by your wishes
& bury you in some tracksuit
after the fashion of some
rappers whose verses you loved

& my belly stood like
an obstacle
i couldn't see around
& how long would it
take the sheriffs to
find me?
it should not be so.

& i regretted this fantasy
& i cursed it
& i longed to see you rubbing
your bare feet together
while eating greens on our couch
& the phone rang
& it was you
& the tears ran
over the cleft of my lip
into my mouth
& the baby began to grow again

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the celluloid vision of jackie o
reflexively reaching for kennedy's brains;
too fast for even her
aristocratic hands.

did she think
she could put it all back together?

her archival papers
(now cool to the touch)
reveal she knew of his philandering –
indiscriminate, blatant, and numerous.
her mother counseled her to stay . . .

so maybe that reflexive jump
on the back of a motorcade
was not as mothers flinch,
watching deathless sons
in football games.
but more as a runner,
anticipating the crisp gun shot.

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all they saw
were the whites of her heels
winking back at them

her dark elbow
shoulder high

the wrench – a blur
above her nappy plaits
as she whirled it
as if to wring its neck

as if to sanctify it

as if to show it to the ghosts
as proof of her oath: “i swear
‘fo god”

they say the sound
she made – more like warning
than a scream

slingshot soprano, returning
going away
like fingers
from cotton sack to row

they say the sound
was a choctaw vibrato,

water moccasin
across a clay bottom creek

wail rising
spine through skin
[you can wail here]
“i swear ‘fo god”

they say the sound was a tearing/
birthing herself
breech, feet first
pulling the ankle
of her own twin soul
[you can moan here]

they say the sound was birthright/
takeback sound
[you can clap here]

the clap of a generation
righting itself

the sound she made as her yellow legs
carried her out of the screen door

away from the man
she thought she killed

away from the tableau
of 3 terrified colored babies

away from the dazed living room
away from the sound of a skull giving way