In this episode, Niall Munro talks with poet celeste doaks.
celeste doaks is a poet and journalist. She is the author of Cornrows and Cornfields, a collection of poems published in 2015 by Wrecking Ball Press. The book was listed as one of the Ten Best Books of 2015 by Beltway Quarterly Poetry. In 2017, she edited and contributed to the anthology Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Joy, and Sexuality, published by Mason Jar Press. And in 2019 she published American Herstory, which was the winner of Backbone Press’s 2018 chapbook competition. The chapbook, which we talk about in the podcast, was named best chapbook by the Maryland Poet Laureate, Grace Cavalieri, and includes poems about First Lady Michelle Obama.
celeste has received numerous awards, such as a 2017 Rubys Grant in Literary Arts, a Lucille Clifton Scholarship, and residencies at Atlantic Center of the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
In addition to American Herstory, on the podcast we also discuss celeste’s five forthcoming poems about the nineteenth-century African American entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant and an article that celeste wrote in Ms. Magazine about a recent innovative online concert given by the singer-songwriter Erykah Badu. We also mention celeste’s monthly book recommendation column, which blends together celeste’s thoughts about literature with astrology, Litscope, and her review of the poet Rachel Long’s book My Darling from the Lions, out now in the UK but soon to appear in the US.
On the podcast, celeste reads two poems from American Herstory: the title poem (originally published in Split This Rock's Quarry) and also ‘What the First Lady Found in my Homage’, and we talk about what Michelle Obama’s role as First Lady has meant for American life and politics; the recent election of Kamala Harris to the Vice Presidency; and a number of significant but neglected American women. celeste also explains how she wrote about Michelle Obama through the art work that the First Lady chose for the White House and what these choices can tell us about not just Obama herself, but America more generally.
It was such a pleasure to hear celeste read these poems and to talk to her about them. I urge you to check out American Herstory; it’s a truly vibrant and exciting collection of poems that explores - through humour, fine detail, and beautifully-imagined situations - Michelle Obama’s experience in the White House and some of the positive and painful challenges that came with that, as well as thinking through black women’s experiences in the United States now. And make sure you look out for celeste’s fascinating and important forthcoming poems about Mary Ellen Pleasant in Volume 33 of the Chicago Quarterly Review.
Copyright information: please note that the copyrights of all the poems displayed on the website and sent out on the mailing list are held by the respective authors, translators or estates, and no work should be reproduced without first gaining permission from the individual publishers.
Tell them it's always under attack. Tell them there's no cure
for the disease, or answer to the riddle. Tell them you asked many
before you, some who won, some who lost.
You consulted Assata, Roe vs. Wade, Harriet and Joycelyn Elders
to no avail. Her words on contraception twisted into a bitter pretzel.
The bits broken off, used to destroy her.
Tell them it's always under attack, its predators everywhere. They lurk
behind Mississippi clinics or around Georgetown blocks dressed
in blue uniform. Tell them you have the cure, somewhere at home,
deep in your cabinets, mixed in a mason jar, don't tell them
it consists of breast milk, dreams, butterflies, civil rights marches,
burned bras, a piece of Madame CJ Walker's hair, prayers,
Amelia Earhart's drive, hot-water cornbread, and Sally Ride's fearlessness.
Lie to them, tell them it's rosemary oil, then bottle it. Sell it
to every woman in America who will drink it. Then watch all
the naysayers disappear.
by celeste doaks
What the First Lady Found in my Homage
- inspired by the abstract painting by Joseph Albers entitled 'Homage to the Square: Elected II'
At first the connections wouldn't come to my eyes. I only saw
separate stars hanging amid a black night. My work a Big Dipper
not yet discovered; but she found softness in my squares, complexity
in my simplicity. A steely grey hugging a cerulean blue; that blue
spooning the marigold center, holding on tight to love. In my painting
she found something holy, something worth traveling to, like
the Ganges River, the water a blue blessing. Perhaps she found
my chromatic interactions a bit poetic, each hue defining the other,
a metaphor hard to decipher, but easy to feel. And my four corners
probably reveal more about my Germanic upbringing than I care to admit. But
she found vulnerability of this outsider looking for home, a recognition of
herself or maybe her husband in it. She understood my abstractions
rooted in discipline, like an architect rising to his drawing board
each morning at five, reworking last night's sketches. Eyes
blood shot dark. Despite the hard edges, in my homage she
found all the bridges bringing the sky just a bit closer to earth.
by celeste doaks