Brenda Marie Osbey

Brenda Marie Osbey is a poet, literary theorist, translator, and historiographer who has published several books of poems, including Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman, History and Other Poems, and All Souls: Essential Poems. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Callaloo, Southern Review, and 2PLUS2. Alongside many critics, she has emphasized the deep relationship her work and thought have to history, especially as it is manifested in New Orleans. As Thadious Davis notes in her book Southscapes– Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature, “[Osbey’s] selective knowledge of a past is part of the cultural logic of her New Orleans as an architectonic space. Historical memory for her is a way to get at the structures of the past.”[1] Living among the vibrant fragments of centuries-old traditions, Osbey collects and distills the voices of the dead embedded in location and legacy.

In her first book, Ceremony for Minneconjoux, Osbey explores themes of seduction, "madness" as a form of resistance, and "how the legacy of strength and endurance is transmitted among [women]"[2]. Osbey disrupts conventional poetic forms in order to break with the false history designed by white settlers. In History and Other Poems, she grapples with the violence committed by Christoper Columbus and Diogo cão, among other colonial agents. Juxtaposing historical accounts with contemporary lyrics and company slogans, Osbey reveals the long shadow that the Transatlantic Slave Trade has cast.

According to the critic Laura Vrana, the themes of Osbey’s poems, as well as the experimental forms which she uses in storytelling, draw from the forms of the griot oral tradition.[3] Working with the past as a presence embedded in historical location, she also explores the way the dead can speak to the living, and the enduring links between their realms. In her American Book Award winning collection, All Saints, she blends tradition, myth, and legend into a deep reverence for and celebration of the dead.

Osbey's historical narrative poems have been influenced by Robert Hayden, Gayl Jones, and Sherley Anne Williams, among others.

In this interview with Carmen R. Gillespie, Osbey discusses the omnipresence of history, the process of reclaiming images through her poetry, the profound ways in which Black Americans have transformed and redefined colonial languages through artistic tradition, expression, and resistance, as well as the beauty, complexity, and unique temporality of New Orleanian culture.

Carmen R. Gillespie, a critic, poet, and educator, received her Bachelor's degree and Master's from JMU-- where she studied with Dr. Joanne Gabbin, the founder of the Furious Flower Poetry Center. She received her Ph.D in Comparative Literature from Emory University, and continued to become a professor of English and the director and founder of the Griot Institute for Africana Studies at Bucknell University. She published three award-winning books of poetry, critical collections on Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, and received several prestigious fellowships for her writing.

More Information:

Interviews: Poems: Essays: Other:

[1]: Davis, Thadious M. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

[2]: Jacqueline Brice-Finch. “Brenda Marie Osbey.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120: American Poets Since World War II, Third Series. Detroit:Gale Research, 1996.

[3]: Vrana, Laura. "On Brenda Marie Osbey, 'whom we have every right to love.'" Summoning Our Saints: The Poetry and Prose of Brenda Marie Osbey (Lexington Books, 2019). The Langston Hughes Review 262. (2020): 203-215.

[4]: Osbey, Brenda Marie. “Writing Home.” The Southern Literary Journal 40, no. 2 (2008): 19–41.

[5]: Osbey, Brenda Marie. “Why We Can’t Talk to You about Voodoo.” The Southern Literary Journal 43, no. 2 (2011): 1–11.

Preferred Citation:

Brenda Marie Osbey Interview, 9/24/2004 (FF0148). Transcribed and edited by Evan Sizemore, 2021-2022, part of the Mellon-funded AudiAnnotate Audiovisual Extensible Workflow Project. Based on video recordings made by WVPT to document the second Furious Flower Poetry Center decennial meeting, September 23-25, 2004. Part of the Furious Flower Poetry Center Conference Records, 1970-2015, UA 0018, Special Collections, Carrier Library, James Madison University Libraries, Harrisonburg, Virginia, media file FF0148. Collection finding aid:

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0:07 - 0:07 --e-s-p-i-e. Transcription
0:09 - 0:16 Brenda Marie Osbey, B-r-e-n-d-a M-a-r-i-e O-s-b-e-y. Transcription
0:18 - 0:26 Brenda last night you were reading, the poem Nina Simone, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how she's been a figure of inspiration, or-- Transcription
0:29 - 0:47 The Nina Simone poem came about almost exactly as it's described in the poem. I was away from New Orleans in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in fact, and a friend called, and told me Transcription
0:47 - 0:53 a story about a Nina Simone concert, where she indeed did curse the audience out. Transcription
0:53 - 1:14 And that got me thinking about Nina Simone as a kind of an image, as an overpowering image of my girlhood. My best girlfriend Marceline and I really did have an incident where her sister came into the Transcription
1:14 - 1:19 bedroom and found us messing with her stuff, and said to us, if we wanted to be so grown, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Transcription
1:20 - 1:38 And so the story about the Nina Simone concert, sparked a series of memories about moments in time, when Nina Simone as a kind of iconic figure, sort of rose to the fore in what seemed a very personal Transcription
1:38 - 1:50 way. And so that was how the poem started, it really did sort of bring back those kinds of memories of experiences. Transcription
1:50 - 2:02 In the poem, it seems to me Nina Simone is a symbol of the rejected Black artist, and the artist specifically rejected by the African American community. Are there other figures that Transcription
2:02 - 2:09 you see fitting into that paradigm or, or how do you relate her position to the position of the African American artist generally? Transcription
2:10 - 2:28 It isn't so much that it represents a rejection, I think, as as a tendency to take things for granted, and to take people for granted, and to take singers and poets and artists and Transcription
2:28 - 2:40 voices, all of whom, and all of which represent us-- to take those things for granted because they are in fact there. And because they're part and parcel of the community, they are part of who we are. Transcription
2:41 - 3:03 And so... I think it's just an indication of an age and a time and a sense of what makes sense, of what is right. It's only when we look back later, that it seems that we've committed some-- some Transcription
3:03 - 3:06 great error, some great sin as it were. Transcription
3:07 - 3:19 And, but she becomes in the poem far more symbolic of that entire tendency. But I mean, if you think of popular singers, and how popular singers go in and out of vogue and in and out of style, that Transcription
3:19 - 3:25 kind of thing happens all the time. What was different about Nina Simone was that she represented an era. Transcription
3:26 - 3:40 And my sense is that she knew that she represented that era. And there was a certain kind of cooperation and participation that was expected of all of the rest of us. Transcription
3:40 - 3:52 And my sense, I have a very strong sense that we did not hold up our end of the bargain, but that perhaps there was no way for us to know that until it was too late anyway. And so the poem is a poem Transcription
3:53 - 4:07 about regret. But it's regret about a situation that really can't be changed. And maybe the tone is not so much regret, as as it says it's a kind of recounting a kind of telling to play back against Transcription
4:07 - 4:12 those other images. When we in fact were all the evening news. Transcription
4:13 - 4:31 And it's an attempt to capture, maybe not one era, but a series of eras. And Nina Simone seems to be present throughout. She seems now to have been a constant. And the poem is a sense of our-- of a Transcription
4:31 - 4:40 kind of communal regret, personalized, where the speaker takes on the confessional attitude of the group, of the community, of the "We". Transcription
4:41 - 4:53 And then the other poem you read last night you referred to sugar as such a central part of the African diaspora, one of the main motivations for the slave trade being the production Transcription
4:53 - 5:02 of sugar. Was your poem an attempt to re-appropriate or reclaim sugar as a part of our experience in a more positive sense? Transcription
5:03 - 5:17 Well, I come from a place where sugar is very important. Louisiana was a sugar state. And the portion of the poem that I read-- it's a rather long poem, and I read an excerpt from Transcription
5:17 - 5:29 it. And so that portion is the introduction to the topic of sugar. And much later in the poem, there's all this stuff about the processing of sugar, and the growing of sugar and all of this stuff. Transcription
5:29 - 5:47 But it also-- there are a series of plays on that word sugar, and the many ways that we use it: we call one another sugar, and so forth. And the poem is an attempt to look at the paradox of this Transcription
5:47 - 5:55 sweet, sticky substance, that is also the source of rum, the intoxicating substance, Transcription
5:56 - 6:15 and that that seems to say so much about our experience in the New World-- sugar was one of the reasons we were here. And we produce sugar, and we consume sugar. And when we are ill with diabetes, we Transcription
6:15 - 6:23 say that we have sugar. And we call one another sugar. And we sugarcoat things. Transcription
6:24 - 6:36 And in a city like New Orleans, of course, one of the things we're famous for is pastries, and sweets. And we have all kinds of names for various kinds of sweet, sweet, sweet goods and sweet foods. Transcription
6:37 - 6:49 And one of the ones that is typical of New Orleans is hot calas, and calas are rice cakes, which of course there's a double meaning there because we also were a rice area, Louisiana was rather, not Transcription
6:49 - 6:49 New Orleans. Transcription
6:49 - 7:04 And so rice and sugar together-- compounding of the experience of the enslaved and oppressed. And also, there's a lot of bodily imagery in the poem, because of course this is intense, backbreaking Transcription
7:04 - 7:19 labor. And so the poem is an attempt to look at-- not just at slavery, but at enslavement as a specific kind of violence, Transcription
7:20 - 7:40 as a specific kind of action, and to personalize it in a way that perhaps makes sense to us. One of my firmest beliefs is that no one ever thought of herself as a slave. That "slave" was not anyone's Transcription
7:40 - 7:52 name or job title or, or any other such thing that, that people were persons first, in their own mind's eye and their own imagination prior to anything else. Transcription
7:52 - 8:11 And so in the poem, I create a series of characters who speak. And it's called a cautionary, a cautionary fabulous, a cautionary tale. The title is, "How to Make Sugar, a Cautionary Fabulous Writ Transcription
8:11 - 8:12 Small". Transcription
8:12 - 8:27 So one of the things that the poem does is it appropriates the colonial and colonizing voice, the dehumanizing voice, but writing against that constantly. And I think the authoritative voice in the Transcription
8:27 - 8:39 poem is the voice of the woman who speaks and who is spoken about and who is written about and who is unreachable, unattainable and who remains removed from all of this. Transcription
8:39 - 8:52 And backing her up, I suppose, are the women who are called the vendeurs, the sellers. And there are marketplace scenes and so forth in which the women are observed and observe others observing them. Transcription
8:53 - 8:59 So it's a poem about representation, and a poem about the making of a series of images, Transcription
8:59 - 9:13 and the whole sensual passage about the tying of the tignon, and how important that is, and how it attaches to the free status of these particular women who are vendeurs. I think it's an important Transcription
9:13 - 9:27 point to make that even within the free Black community there is this obsession with containment and tying and burdening. Transcription
9:27 - 9:40 The difference there is that the vendeurs, these free Black women, are doing their own form of containment and tying. Their heads are tied in these sumptuous cloths. There's a passage later on in the Transcription
9:40 - 9:49 poem that I didn't read, that talks about how they layer their ankles in gold and silver bracelets because this represents their freedom, oddly enough. Transcription
9:50 - 10:04 And-- so it's a poem about the making of an image and perhaps the remaking and the reconstituting of a self against such incredible odds, I think. I could be wrong. Transcription
10:05 - 10:18 Your work, obviously, is deeply rooted in New Orleans and its history, and its African American communities. Can you speak a little bit about how you see yourself, potentially as a Transcription
10:18 - 10:19 New Orleans poet? Transcription
10:21 - 10:32 I think it's the most important thing about the work I do is that it's-- it all grows out of an attempt to understand something about New Orleans. One of the things that growing up Transcription
10:32 - 10:42 in New Orleans does is it gives you a sense of an essentially intact cultural environment. Transcription
10:43 - 10:60 And of a cultural environment that is its own thing that clearly is African American, but is African American in its own rather specific, and improvised upon, and constantly improvising way. And so Transcription
10:60 - 11:11 I've spent most of my writing life studying New Orleans, studying the African presence in New Orleans, studying traditional religion in New Orleans, Transcription
11:11 - 11:27 as a way of understanding something about perspective, I suppose. Something about perspective, something about shape, something about how things are made. Because the poem-- I love the word poetry, Transcription
11:27 - 11:39 the word poem. Poesis, the made thing, it is a thing that is made that is constructed that has its own entity in the world. Once it is made, it's apart from me. And it's no longer mine. Transcription
11:39 - 11:56 And it stands out there, if it's any good, it stands out there on its own without me to support it. And so I think that something about New Orleans, something about the specific history of slavery Transcription
11:56 - 12:05 endured there, something about the very specific kinds of resistance, something about our peculiar dance forms, things like the second line, Transcription
12:06 - 12:23 things like hot calas, the bending of form, the recreating, and the fracturing of form, and space, and time, a kind of disbelief even in time; that history isn't the past, history is what happens. And Transcription
12:23 - 12:36 so history is acting in us, we are acting in it, and we were acting upon it all of the time, that it's always all going on. And that's the beauty of the dance that we call second line, Transcription
12:36 - 12:49 that while the primary procession is taking place, the formal procession is taking place, there's this band, or rather there are multiple bands of people gathered along the side, who are doing these Transcription
12:49 - 13:01 other things. And each time they do the other thing, it takes a different form. Nobody dances the second line exactly the same way twice. There's certain basic steps, certain basic movements, and you Transcription
13:02 - 13:04 do countless variations on those. Transcription
13:04 - 13:16 And the beauty of the thing is that somehow we all can do it, I don't know any New Orleanians who can't do it, we all can do it. We all recognize it when we see it. And yet we all do it differently. Transcription
13:17 - 13:27 We know what is and is not second line. But it's always changing, it's constantly changing. And-- so everything is always happening. Transcription
13:28 - 13:43 And it isn't an ahistorical approach. It's probably a multi-layered approach to history as a thing from within, as opposed to a thing imposed from without. And that's the thing is that I have a Transcription
13:43 - 13:50 fascination with history. And I have a fascination with poets who have a problem with history. Transcription
13:51 - 14:02 And I think some of our greatest poets, certainly some of our greatest narrative poets have a problem with history. And that is the thing that makes them so compelling. Robert Hayden has a problem Transcription
14:02 - 14:16 with history, and so he writes in history, in order to work out these narrative moments and to make them real to us. Gayl Jones has a problem with history, and she's always rediscovering it and Transcription
14:16 - 14:17 reshaping it. Transcription
14:17 - 14:29 Sherley Anne Williams has a problem with history in her long narrative poems. Jay Wright has a problem with history. And so history becomes the problem. It becomes the thing that you look at, the Transcription
14:29 - 14:42 thing that you worry, the thing that you finger. It's the scab, it's the sore, and you work around it constantly. It's always there, and it never quite goes away. It's never finished. And therefore Transcription
14:42 - 14:43 neither are we. Transcription
14:44 - 14:57 So that we're constantly working, and it isn't so much revising, as it is re-visioning. That we have to learn to see history in our own image, so to speak. We have to, I think, learn and we have to Transcription
14:57 - 15:07 teach ourselves over and over again what our history really is, and what our place is in our history, or histories. Transcription
15:08 - 15:22 So, poetry in some ways it sounds like is a way of rewriting official histories in your work. I'm wondering if the form, the long poem particularly, allows you to deal with your Transcription
15:22 - 15:27 concerns about simultaneity of experience, multiplicity, and improvisation? Transcription
15:28 - 15:40 Yeah, the long narrative poem-- it seems to me the older I get the longer the poems get! The long narrative poem has become for me an ideal form. On the one hand, it's quite open, Transcription
15:40 - 15:53 you can do all kinds of things, you can have a multitude of narrative and lyric voices happening in there. Recently, I've been experimenting with rhyme in the long poem. Transcription
15:54 - 16:09 And it's an open form. And yet, at the same time, it's a form that breaks certain boundaries, in a very conscientious way. When we think of narrative, I think it's common to think of a story with a Transcription
16:09 - 16:17 beginning, middle, and end. And yet, if you look at truly fine narrative poems, that doesn't exist in truly fine narrative, narrative poems. Transcription
16:17 - 16:29 In Robert Hayden's Middle Passage, for instance, there is not a beginning, middle and end. We begin in the middle or at the end, we can't tell which it is, it depends on who's actually reading Transcription
16:29 - 16:39 the poem. But we have snippets and passages and excerpts of things, of documents, of things that both support and critique reality. Transcription
16:39 - 16:58 And because we have all of that laid bare for us, it's like walking into a room where we have the option to rearrange everything each time we enter the room. Or perhaps each time we enter the room, we Transcription
16:58 - 17:11 see the room as a different environment, and we organize it to suit our purposes for that moment. So that the poem exists in a kind of moment that is that moment at that time. Transcription
17:12 - 17:20 So then the poem exists-- or does it create then a whole? Or is it another type of representation of a fragmentation? Transcription
17:23 - 17:34 I wonder that there are these wholes that we constantly seek out. I wonder. I was raised in a tradition that believes very much in whole, in the whole, in the beauty of the whole. Transcription
17:35 - 17:45 That a thing is good when it is beautiful, a thing is beautiful when it is whole, that wholeness and beauty and health all go together, that those are all the same thing. And so on the one hand I was Transcription
17:45 - 17:50 brought up in a tradition that holds very dearly to that principle. Transcription
17:51 - 18:07 And yet at the same time, the poems that I write are by nature fragmentary, and purposely fragmenting the scene, or the character, or the speaker, or the narrative, or the image. Transcription
18:08 - 18:21 There are lots of images of broken things, and sometimes stanzas seem to end at a point where nothing has actually happened. Something might be about to happen. But we don't know yet what that is, and Transcription
18:21 - 18:33 we don't find out in that poem. So that we get bits and pieces. And the thing is, it isn't the story that's important, it is the thing that, eventually, we begin to realize as readers. Transcription
18:33 - 18:46 It isn't the story that matters in the narrative poem, it's how the story is being told, why the story is being told. And who are the voices telling these stories? And do we trust them? Do we know Transcription
18:46 - 18:49 them? Are they us? Transcription
18:51 - 19:10 So it's about possibilities, I think, much more so than about the story itself. And I think that's a major difference between the writing of prose fiction, and the writing of the narrative poem, that Transcription
19:11 - 19:15 the purpose is different. My purpose is never to tell a story when I start out. Transcription
19:15 - 19:29 What happens is that I come across a story, I find a story, or a story finds me, and I find it compelling in some way, and try to see how many ways I can approach that story, and how many versions or Transcription
19:29 - 19:41 voices that story might exist in. And sometimes within the same character, within the same narrative, within the same narrator, there might be multiple voices going on, so. Transcription
19:41 - 19:53 And in terms of the larger picture of African American poetry, do you have a sense of yourself as a part of a movement or part of a contemporary sensibility? Transcription
19:55 - 20:14 A part of a movement, I would say probably not, in all honesty, probably not. I started publishing in the late 1970s, and I certainly have some major influences and some major Transcription
20:16 - 20:18 references, I think. Transcription
20:19 - 20:36 But I've never, I've never been a joiner. And so I've never seen my work as belonging to a particular movement. I do see that it belongs in a certain moment, though. But those are really questions, I Transcription
20:36 - 20:41 suppose, to be determined later, after the passage of much time. Transcription
20:43 - 21:03 But I do see African American poetry attempting to acquire a new freshness, a new kind of experimentation with language that is perhaps not quite so reverent as it once was, that there is a newly Transcription
21:03 - 21:05 awakened sense of play, Transcription
21:05 - 21:16 and a newly awakened sense of-- and when I talk about play, I'm talking about taking a kind of joy in the language and seeing the language as the instrument that it is. So that there is not such an Transcription
21:17 - 21:23 awe of the beauty of language, that we can also toy with the ugliness of language. Transcription
21:25 - 21:38 And that we can represent horrible things in beautiful language is one of the most shocking, one of the most shocking things. I think it happens in prose fiction quite a lot as well. There's that Transcription
21:38 - 21:51 beautiful passage in Toni Morrison's Beloved where Sethe is attempting to behead her child because the slavers are coming. And it's one of the most beautiful passages, I think, in the English Transcription
21:51 - 21:52 language. Transcription
21:53 - 22:12 And there is a kind of holy quiet that surrounds that moment. That's the moment of poetry. That's the stuff that we that we hold to and cling to, and embrace. And yet the act is so horrible, that we Transcription
22:12 - 22:13 are able to see a kind of beauty in it. Transcription
22:15 - 22:28 Holy quiet. That's a lovely phrase. I'm thinking about your knowledge of language, and languages, and I'm wondering how being fluent in several languages influences your own work, Transcription
22:29 - 22:31 and your understanding of the complexities of language and meaning. Transcription
22:33 - 22:46 I would say I have an obsession with language and languages, and that I collect language and languages, I suppose, in the way that other people collect objects. Transcription
22:48 - 22:60 And it goes back pretty far, I suppose. I've always had a fascination with language and with languages, because something tells me that there's always something in there, there's always some Transcription
22:60 - 23:10 possibility in there. And of course, there are things that we can express in certain languages that we can't express in other languages there-- finally, there are things that are non-translatable. Transcription
23:12 - 23:23 There's no French word for gumbo. Because the concept doesn't exist, because the experience doesn't exist, because the ingredients don't exist. So you make it as best you possibly can in this other Transcription
23:23 - 23:39 environment, but you have to call it gumbo. That's what it is. And... and yet there's a layering that takes place there. There's a layering of experience, and a layering of language. Transcription
23:39 - 23:58 And one of the things that fascinates me about Black folk, wherever we find them is the extent to which we have always joyed in language. We're a tongue people. We believe in loose tongues and free Transcription
23:58 - 24:11 tongues. And one of the things that I think it's very easy to forget nowadays with the 21st century, one of the things that's very easy to forget, is that we came to the new world as a multilingual Transcription
24:11 - 24:11 people. Transcription
24:13 - 24:30 And we perhaps lost or discarded languages along the way. And I think there's a kind of imperative that we make some attempt to reclaim some of those languages, as best we possibly can. And to embrace Transcription
24:30 - 24:31 language. Transcription
24:32 - 24:42 And language is one of those things that's, of course, always been used against us as a tool, as a weapon. And it's the kind of thing that we've always embraced and said-- a perfect example of that is Transcription
24:42 - 24:54 Creole language. You take the master's language, which might be French or Spanish or Portuguese or Dutch. And you say this is your language. This is the language of the master. This is the language in Transcription
24:54 - 25:01 which you control me. This is the language in which you turn me into an abject object. This is the language in which you denigrate me. Transcription
25:03 - 25:22 doing with this language now? Can you speak this language. And of course, the reality is that you find very few people who are not born into a creole speaking environment, who speak those languages Transcription
25:22 - 25:23 and understand those languages. Transcription
25:24 - 25:37 And even when we translate those languages into our use of English, which certainly is what happens in a place like Louisiana, you find us coming up with these newly concocted arrangements of language Transcription
25:37 - 25:39 and turns of phrase, Transcription
25:39 - 25:55 and that's the thing I think, where we find beauty in the language is it's the turn of phrase. It isn't the funny spellings of plantation dialect. And poets who use Black folk speech, we're never Transcription
25:55 - 26:11 really trying to do plantation dialect that was imposed from the exterior. They were trying to capture the authenticity of Black skill: the ability to improvise and to make language, to make words. Transcription
26:11 - 26:23 And finally, that's what poetry is really all about. More so I think than all of the other literary art forms, poetry is lodged in language, and you have to go through the language-- there is no other Transcription
26:23 - 26:37 way. If it doesn't exist in the poem, if it doesn't exist in the text, then it ain't there. And you can't, you can't put it there, you have to enter the poem through the language. And part of what Transcription
26:37 - 26:40 that means is that you have to be able to enter the poet's world. Transcription
26:42 - 26:53 And is that-- entering the poet's world, minority poets or African American poets-- do you find that that's a particularly difficult thing for audiences to do, or how do you Transcription
26:53 - 26:55 negotiate that gap as a poet? Transcription
26:56 - 27:11 It's less difficult for audiences to do it I think, than for academics and critics to do. Because, again, academics and critics frequently are imposing an external structure. And Transcription
27:11 - 27:25 the difference that we see is-- I think it's best illustrated when we look at the difference in audience response at a live poetry reading, and the dearth of criticism and critical study of African Transcription
27:25 - 27:26 American poetry. Transcription
27:28 - 27:39 Huge gap, there's a huge gap there. The audience listening to the poem, seeing the poem, hearing the poem being performed, understands the poem, grasps the poem, responds to the poem in the moment. Transcription
27:41 - 27:53 And that's a wonderful thing to be a part of. One of the best things about poetry is the live poetry reading. Because there's a kind of energy that takes place, there's something that passes between Transcription
27:53 - 27:55 the poet and the audience, when it's working. Transcription
27:56 - 28:05 When everything is going well, there's this energy that passes back and forth between the poet and the audience. And we feed on that, it's a mutual thing. That doesn't necessarily happen with the Transcription
28:05 - 28:16 critic. It doesn't necessarily happen. Because there's this attempt to impose this order from outside. And one of the things that the poet, of course, wants to do is to break the rules, and to destroy Transcription
28:16 - 28:19 the order, and perhaps to create a new order. Transcription
28:20 - 28:29 Well, I mean we were talking about the importance of performance, it sounds to me, in terms of your own work and energy that you derive from audiences. How would you distinguish what Transcription
28:29 - 28:31 you do in poetry reading from spoken word poetry [inaudible]? Transcription
28:34 - 28:52 I think it's quite different. I could be very wrong about this, but spoken word seems to me to involve a truly theatrical bent and intent. I think what happens when I'm reading, Transcription
28:53 - 28:55 I'm trying to read well, Transcription
28:56 - 29:10 I'm trying to read the poem in the voices that are speaking in the poem whether there are narrators functioning as actual narrators or not, and that's quite different. And I think what happens also is Transcription
29:10 - 29:19 that there is the ability to improvise, it's not that I'm reading words that aren't on the page, or that I'm leaving out words that are on the page. Transcription
29:19 - 29:33 But each reading of the poem is going to be different than every other reading of the poem, a poem like the Nina Simone poem-- there are occasions where I will read it with more or less verve, with Transcription
29:33 - 29:43 more or less bounce, with more or less volume, with more or less emphasis on certain lines, phrases, stanzas. Transcription
29:44 - 30:01 And that happens-- very, much of that happens in the moment when the poet realizes who that audience is and what that response is like, and so it becomes a kind of a wave that you ride. Transcription
30:01 - 30:04 And you're saying to come back to that idea of improvisation? Transcription
30:05 - 30:07 And what are you working on now [inaudible] projects? Transcription
30:05 - 30:05 Mmhmm. Transcription
30:08 - 30:24 Lots of things. I'm working on lots of things. I'm working on a series of essays about my experiences in France, going back to France after more than 20 years, 30-some years, 30 Transcription
30:24 - 30:25 years I guess. Transcription
30:27 - 30:39 I did my undergrad as-- part of my undergraduate studies I did in France and returned to the southern region for six months to work on a new book project that's a bilingual French-English (smattering Transcription
30:39 - 30:52 of Creole), project about slavery and resistance in Louisiana under the French colonial regime. So that's one project, and then there are two other poetry manuscripts. Transcription
30:54 - 31:09 Also having to do with Louisiana, with New Orleans as a topic. But one of them does a lot of experimentation with rhyme, which I've never used, or never used to great effect before. I also write Transcription
31:09 - 31:14 creative nonfiction. So there's a body of essays that I'm working on right now. Transcription
31:14 - 31:33 And then there is a series of, I guess, for lack of a better word, dispatches about my experiences returning to France after all of those years, looking at French racism, which not only has not Transcription
31:33 - 31:39 improved in the past 30 years, but has intensified and worsened in rather graphic ways. Transcription
31:40 - 31:55 And so there're always a number of projects going on when, when I'm working well, I'm working on a number of projects. Because just because one thing isn't going well, at one moment, doesn't mean that Transcription
31:55 - 31:58 I can't work on something else. So there's always something, some iron in the fire. Transcription
32:01 - 32:11 The way that you're speaking of your experiences in France and New Orleans, it seems to me that you've constructed yourself in feeling as if you're a person with multiple influences Transcription
32:11 - 32:25 and multiple identities in terms of your heritage. And I'm wondering how the label of African American either fits that description or fits your self-- your self-structure or in some ways may even be Transcription
32:25 - 32:25 limiting? Transcription
32:26 - 32:39 I think it fits perfectly. I think it's about as precise and as exact as we can get. I really think it is because it means a lot of different things at the same time. Of course, Transcription
32:39 - 32:56 historically, we're an African people in the Americas. And there're so many versions and variations of that. And of course, there's a tendency to think of African American as a monolith, which of Transcription
32:56 - 32:58 course, it never is, never was. Transcription
32:59 - 33:11 And there has been a tendency sometimes on the part of critics looking at my work to say, well, this is not African American, this is not Black-- this is New Orleans. And while New Orleans certainly Transcription
33:11 - 33:16 is its own space, its own culture, that space and that culture have always been Black space. Transcription
33:17 - 33:29 And so it's one of those-- one of the things that I always say is that when we make those kinds of distinctions, that slavery under the French was better or slavery under the Spaniards was better or Transcription
33:29 - 33:37 slavery under the British-- my slave master's better than your slave master never made any sense to me at all. We're talking about different experiences, we're talking about different cultural Transcription
33:37 - 33:45 influences, we're talking about different approaches to acquiring and claiming freedom. Transcription
33:47 - 33:60 And a lot of that stuff is contained in language. And in part, there's a very practical side to that, a lot of that is contained in language, because law is written in language. And so once you have Transcription
33:60 - 34:13 the Black codes promulgated in the French Caribbean, and later in Louisiana, that sets the tone for how freedom will be denied and claimed and bartered against. Transcription
34:14 - 34:32 And so certainly African American, I think entirely fits who I am and what I do. But the other thing that I think is that when we look at the Americas, in the broader sense, the things that we single Transcription
34:32 - 34:42 out, as having uniquely to do with the Americas, as opposed to those things having to do with Europe, those things having to do with Africa, Transcription
34:43 - 34:60 what we're looking at is the influence of people of African descent in the new world. And I don't think we yet realize the hugeness of that reality. I don't think we yet understand what that means. Transcription
34:60 - 35:16 When ever American culture is transported, what is transported and what is received is something that is Black in its origins. And that's something that I think we need to be very clear about stating Transcription
35:16 - 35:25 and laying claim to and making clear for ourselves, because I think we often are not aware of the extent of our influence in the culture. Transcription
35:26 - 35:40 And I think in part, it's because the United States in particular is such a large space geographically, and such a broad space culturally, that it's easy for us not to look beyond the boundaries of Transcription
35:40 - 35:51 the 48 states. But once we step outside of that, and we begin to look at cultures across the world, things begin to make much more sense to us. Transcription
35:51 - 36:07 And our role in the world begins to make much more sense to us. And how we are depicted and represented, and how we are written about and spoken about, and how we claim the language and languages in Transcription
36:07 - 36:20 which we will write about our own selves, and our own experiences-- those are the things that actually signify America and the Americas in terms of culture, and in terms of cultural transmissions. Transcription
36:20 - 36:34 And I think that, maybe it's a little bit easier for poets to be aware of that, because I think poets may have a tendency to read across genres and across languages, much more so than other folk, it Transcription
36:34 - 36:46 isn't uncommon for poets to read bilingually, trilingually, or at least to work with bilingual texts. It isn't as unusual perhaps for us to do that. Transcription
36:48 - 37:06 And to work with translators of our work. It isn't uncommon that translations of prose fiction occur without any participation by the author. It's somewhat rare that such translations occur without Transcription
37:06 - 37:11 the participation of the poet. That's somewhat rare, actually. Transcription
37:11 - 37:14 Getting a [inaudible] is like being a sort of [inaudible] poetry. Transcription
37:14 - 37:26 It really is, it really is, and deciding what remains in the original language, and what gets translated becomes the tricky part. And that's finally how we determine what is or is Transcription
37:26 - 37:29 not a good translation of a poem. Transcription
37:29 - 37:29 In terms-- Transcription
37:29 - 37:31 I think, one short question. Transcription
37:32 - 37:32 Okay. Transcription
37:32 - 37:34 A short question with a shorter answer. Transcription
37:36 - 37:42 Just to conclude, what directions do you see African or American poetry going in the 21st century? Transcription
37:42 - 37:58 I think that we're in a place now where African American poetry in the 21st century is the vanguard. And I think we're maybe not quite aware of that. But African American poetry in Transcription
37:58 - 38:08 the 20th century really is the vanguard, and frankly, always has been the cutting edge for what was happening in poetry in this society. Transcription
38:10 - 38:29 That we were the modernizers of language in the 1910s and 20s. We brought jazz into written art. We transformed language, we brought in the vernacular, we remade the American language. It is as much Transcription
38:29 - 38:33 ours perhaps more ours than any other group. Transcription
38:33 - 38:35 Well thank you so much for your time. Transcription
38:37 - 38:42 Excellent. Thank you! You guys need more time. We need more tape! Transcription
38:44 - 38:51 Oh oh, don't move yet. We're just gonna get 30 seconds of tape, okay. If you guys could just have any kind of conversation, just don't all talk at once [inaudible]. Transcription
38:53 - 38:55 So, you're taking off tomorrow, right? Transcription
38:56 - 39:03 Yep, yep. I get back home tomorrow. This has been really really good. [Inaudible]. Transcription
39:03 - 39:04 It has been. Transcription
39:04 - 39:05 Wait, no wait, don't look at me! Transcription
39:07 - 39:07 Sorry. Transcription
39:17 - 39:18 frequently out of the country then? Transcription
39:19 - 39:26 Well, no, not frequently. I went to school in France when I was a kid, when I was an undergraduate. And this going back with-- Transcription
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Brenda Marie Osbey Interview, 9/24/2004 (FF0148) at JMU Scholarly Commons.

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