Interview with Tatiana M.R. Johnson

“The connection between my spiritual ‘girl’ self to what my ancestors must have done to survive is absolutely cosmic.”

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I know I am alive and important enough to live forever because Tatiana’s poems suggest I am so. Her work exists on a plane that is innately spiritual, black and female. She pours into me a sweetness that is unparalleled; one that breaks open parts of me and allow other parts to feel whole. Each line break and choice in diction sparks a jolt that reverberates long after I’ve left Johnson’s work. Her words remind me of cool morning dew on grass; naturally beautiful, deeply intricate, and designed only by god. Enjoy.

-Porsha Olayiwola

Tatiana M.R. Johnson is a black woman artist, writer and 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI nominee from Boston. Her writing explores identity, trauma, especially inherited trauma and what it means to heal. She feels especially good when someone tells her that they felt something by reading her work. Her first collection of poems for the love of black girls will be released July 2017. She has been published in Fog Machine, Hypertrophic Press, Maps for Teeth Magazine, Madcap Review and Broad! MagazineBuy her book and visit her website. 

 

Which writers have most influenced your work, and this book in particular?

Sandra Cisneros! She is so funny and candid in Loose Woman. She talks about womanhood in such a grotesque and eloquent way and I believe that to be true to my experience of being a black girl. My hope is to be as honest as she is with this particular book.
I love Olivia Gatwood’s book New American Best Friend because the poems seem to document the moments where girls “learn to be girls” while no one else is watching. She truly captures those pivotal moments where you learn who and what a girl should be, but the loneliness of reconciling all of those lessons.
Nikki Gionvanni is a huge part of this work because she was the first black poet I ever read. She whispers in her poems, she rants in her poems, and she is honest in her poems. She is so loud and present. I have always wanted to be that way, not just as a writer but also as a person.
Lastly, the snippets and the feelings I get when hearing poetry all over has also contributed to this book. From hearing a black youth poet named Andrine Pierresaint to listening to my sister Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s fiery-femme narratives, I am inspired pretty consistently to be an honest storyteller of my black femme experience.

Your book is in part about sisterhood. In your mind, which contemporary works are sisters to your own collection?

Aleshea Harris’ play “Is God Is” is kind of a big sister to this book. Not only because the playwright is a sister of mine, but because this particular play is an incredible work that talks about sisterhood in the face of trauma. It is a magical surrealist play that explores healing, loving, and ultimately revenge.  Historically, the black woman experience can consist of an almost masochistic way of loving. It consists of loving others in spite of the self. Her play talks about this and the ways loving our families’ and our abusers can be destructive. When I was creating my book I thought about her characters struggling to be seen and loved — I want my work to be a place of refuge like that for black women.
Another work that I am honored to say my work is kin with is Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homecoming. I have never cried so much when reading a book. I was struck by the way she recounts the ways black women have been sexualized, stolen, raped, killed, ignored and etc. This history experienced by black women makes writing with the intention of creating safe spaces for black women so urgent. Gyasi also shows so many nuances in recounting these stories about black women. The narrative of pain and trauma isn’t the same for all of us. The narrative of being strong isn’t the same for all of us. The narrative for survival is.
There is also one particular moment in Toni Morrison’s Beloved that has been crucial to the creation of this work. I remember reading it for the first time and getting chills. It’s the moment where Baby Suggs, a black matriarch, prays and urges the black women to love themselves. This one part is perhaps the older, much more, mature sister of this collection of poetry.

What’s a quote from one of these works that you carry with you or have posted somewhere nearby as a reminder or a balm?

The entire section I mentioned above:

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” – Toni Morrison “Beloved”

The language in your book seems rooted in the spiritual realm, yet resolute and expansive in its reclamation. It’s very powerful. Would you share your thoughts about how spirituality informs your writing process?

On a personal level, I’ve always been incredibly spiritual because it has always been a means of escapism for me. I grew up in a pretty traumatic household and I used writing, reading, and day dreaming to imagine a different world for myself. This experience connects with the greater black American experience of storytelling and creation as a means for escaping the trauma and violence associated with being black in America. I find this process of creating other worlds to be incredibly spiritual. The connection between my spiritual “girl” self to what my ancestors must have done to survive is absolutely cosmic.
The capacity for us to inherit the ability to survive from our ancestors is inherently spiritual. For me that spirituality of connecting to stories and experiences before me is crucial. I do this when sitting with the women in my family. By looking at photos. By connecting with the women around me. By listening. I describe these things as huge parts of spirituality and my writing process because it is truly magical to connect to parts of the past and the future in connecting with others. It’s not mathematical or scientific, it’s otherworldly. I use that to guide my writing.

What’s your favorite poem in for the love of black girls?

My favorite poem is “origin story of surviving” because it touches on the stories of my mother and grandmother but also shows the ways survival has been a fire in my family’s history. I am proud to have come from the women I have come from. This is the only poem my mother has read and she likes it, which means a lot to me.

What have you found to be your biggest challenge as a writer in 2018?

My biggest challenge as a writer is struggling with imposter syndrome. I love writing and telling the stories I tell, but I think in this digital age it is incredibly easy to compare yourself to other writers and judge your accomplishments against their accomplishments. It is hard to enjoy the work you create without feeling the need to get crowds of approval. This process of experiencing imposter syndrome is humbling, though, because it is a reminder to accept yourself where you are. It is also a reminder to love your own voice even if no one is hearing it.

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?

There are so many things I want to tell my younger self. I want to tell her she is beautiful. That she is smart. That she is wonderful as she is. That she is important. That she can do anything. Most of all I want to tell her she is seen and heard, that her voice is essential. That she can create her own universes. That she should continue pretending to be a witch with her friends. I would tell her that this act of believing in magic with the girls around her is more powerful than she will ever know. I would tell her that she shouldn’t let anyone stop her from being as free as possible. That she can take care of herself, but good friends can too. That whatever she believes is possible because she was born under the sun, and what can’t a person do when born under so much power?

 

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