DD: In her famous essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” Audre Lorde writes: “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Can you begin by talking about how the chapbooks at Backbone Press embody this kind of bridge?
CS: I love the genre of poetry because of its closeness. A poem can be a single moment or span across a 100 years. And, poems are the author’s personal experience and truth, so as Lorde states, poetry can serve as an agent of change. Choosing to focus on poets of color meant, for me, our press would be considered political. In Tara Betts' 7x7 kwansabas, she deftly writes 25 celebratory poems about historic and iconic Black Americans, resurrecting and introducing many who are lesser known to the world. The form kwansaba, created by Eugene Redmond, consist of seven words to a line, each word no more than seven letters in seven lines of poetry, no easy feat. Additionally, Dariel Saurez’s chapbook, In the Land of Tropical Martyrs, consists of free verse, personal testaments of his Cuban heritage. The narratives are about family elders and universal suffering. I would say both of these titles are necessary bridges across generational and racial lines. Backbone hopes to publish many more titles that engage these broader cultural conversations.
DD: As you’ve just noted, Backbone Press publishes poets of color, and seeks work that is “political, invocative, social, gritty, personal, and poignant.” Can you talk about this mission and how it fits in with current cultural and political events?
CS: It’s important to note when I say poets of color this includes poets of all diverse backgrounds: Asian, Latino, Native American and so on. Our niche is cultural writing, not just poetry, by African American writers. We need more venues and spaces focusing on diversity. Not to say there aren’t prominent poets of color publishing and winning poetry contests; there’s quite a few. The publishing world, however, is pretty slanted and while most people (publishers) believe in diversity, they don’t always practice it. As for the terms listed in our mission, we wanted to attract a variety of styles, not a focus necessarily on form or technique, but the different ways we can define poetry with regards to culture: social influences, connecting differences, the various diasporas. Is the author writing across cultures? Is the use of language distinct, that of a vernacular tongue? Lastly, our publications often draw parallels with current political culture. For example, Eric Tran’s chapbook, Affairs with Men in Suits shines a brilliant and essential contra-light on North Carolina’s HB2, a law passed in the state that has been described as the most anti-LGBT legislation in the country. One might infer from Tran’s title that it is simply a collection of LBGTQ poetry, but the poems themselves explore complex issues of masculinity, insecurities, and the lust and lust-shame that occurs between male lovers who are closeted as a result of their conservative viewpoints. Poets don’t plan these things, but it even includes a heedful, ingenious bathroom sex poem. Tran’s collection is one of satirical, imagined scenarios that address the hypocritical standards by which laws like HB2 emerge. I also consider Suarez’s chapbook, In the Land of Tropical Martyrs, a must-read for those considering a visit to Cuba in light of the recent lift of sanctions by the US.
DD: How did Backbone Press come into being?
CS: Many years ago, I was a graphic and web designer and those skills are invaluable in advertising and publishing. While considering my options after MFA study in 2011, which admittedly were slim, I decided not to return to graphic design as a career, but instead to use that skill set to start the press. I am the founder and managing editor, so it is essentially my endeavor. But, I’ve been lucky to have other editors and an advisory board to help steer things. I also knew early on, Backbone would be a non-profit organization. Micro-press publishing is not an industry known for its profits and I wanted the company to align with the grassroots model, not in the sense of political action, but in practicing the strategies of starting small and increasing participation through social media, word of month, and brand recognition.
DD: Your Advisory Board includes some amazing poets and scholars: Lenard D. Moore, Evie Shockley, Cathy Park Hong, and Sheila Smith McKoy. What role does the Advisory Board plays at Backbone Press?
CS: Per our non-profit status and bylaws, we meet once annually to discuss the year in review, future plans, and to pass a budget. This is typically done with members that are local to Durham, North Carolina where we are based. I also seek the council of non-local members throughout the year as needed. Lenard D. Moore, Sheila Smith McKoy, and Evie Shockley are all members of the Carolina African American Writers Collective (CAAWC), Moore being the founder of the writer’s group, which I’m a member of as well. Cathy Park Hong is on the MFA faculty of Queens University of Charlotte, my alum. She is small in stature, but a mighty force in contemporary poetry and someone whose work and efforts I hugely admire.
DD: C.P. Mangel’s Laundry is much different stylistically and structurally than the other chapbooks you’ve published. It’s a chapbook length poem about a hate crime in prison. The poem references Boethius and the Aryan Brotherhood, quoting Walt Whitman, Amy Lowell, Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Book of Lamentations, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Gustave Flaubert, W. Somerset Maugham, C.P. Cavafy, and others. What do you find most compelling about this chapbook?
CS: The long poem is quite difficult to pull off. The author is challenged to maintain the metaphor, repetition of sound, and direct characters, all while pushing the narrative forward with a natural ease. Mangel, in our opinion, nailed this challenge in Laundry. While there is a rich, interloping narrative that unravels, with both thrill and simplicity, the added epigraphs and quotes interspersed pause the reader, forcing h/she to digest its relevance before continuing in the poem. What compelled me the most was the stunning, in-depth glimpse into prison life and skillful control of the poem from beginning to ending.
DD: Tyree Daye’s Sea Island Blues begins with a fine poem called “When I was New.” This poem includes the following notable stanzas:
The small cedars and pines dancing
under street lamps celebrated
a night without lightning.
And I danced with nothing but gin
in my stomach, Robert Johnson,
in my head,
the devil in my wallet.
When you’re poor hell is the least
of your worries. It’s a hard thing to kick,
loneliness, without drugs or booze.
The angels of sleep press your silhouette
on the wall across the room.
And I heard a Geechee woman sing a song
that flew up like cardinals we were told
to blow kisses at for good luck.
We sat on a live oak branch
that hung men and women
who cried freedom in G major.
These stanzas typify Daye’s skill at creating poems where the present is a place freighted with pasts and vanishings, old grievances, loneliness, and the living legacy of systemic violence against black and brown bodies. Using these stanzas as a starting point, can you tell us how Daye’s chapbook is in dialogue with the work of Dariel Suarez, Eric Tran, and Allison Joseph?
CS: First, I should say I love that poem and I love the depth Tyree accomplishes in his poetry. He is a very young poet, an MFA student, but his soul is old and wise. I think the correlation between the writers you mention is each author’s intention to explore the human condition. While Tran does so through human/homosexuality, the other authors are doing so through race and other means. To delve further, each manuscript examines race through the lens of place. Allison Joseph’s Trace Particles tackles America as a whole. Through pop culture parodies, we are forced to examine our part in America’s social failures. Whereas, Tyree Daye and Dariel Suarez’s poems are immersed in precise places and the reader is afforded close, vivid experiences through their witness and chronicling. Perhaps the more important commonality in these works is the sense of alienation, an often persistent presence in cultural writing. That alienation, the desire for others to understand and acknowledge it, in many ways, becomes a shared culture.
DD: How has your work as an editor and book publisher influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial and publishing work?
CS: I certainly read more poetry now as par for the course in this position. I very much try to keep the two roles of publisher and writer separate. I also volunteer in youth detention homes where I hold poetry workshops for young offenders, usually black boys. The publishing and workshops are community efforts for me. Poetry is exchange—pain on paper, or healing. It is not something the world can afford to dismiss. Being an editor has made me a more recognized writer in the industry.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor?
CS: When I started Backbone I thought mostly in terms of having a space, less about the strategies it takes to maintain or grow such a space. So much of small publishing depends on support from the entire literary community and I was a barely known poet and not yet a publisher. A friend, Jonathan Farmer, recommended I use CRWROPPS to advertise and get the word out, so to speak. Not only did Allison Joseph, the owner and moderator, list our call for submissions for free, she submitted Trace Particles for consideration. I was so moved by her gesture to entrust us with her work. I felt the universe was working in my favor; that Backbone could transcend from idea to actuality.
DD: What is your personal definition of poetry?
CS: I have but one, tell the truth.
DD: Can you tell us about the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize?
CS: The second encouraging experience I had as a young editor was the opportunity to establish The Lucille Clifton Annual Poetry Contest. Clifton’s work hugely influenced my writing life. It was the sole reason I pursued an MFA in poetry. I was planning to attend a summer writer’s conference where she was on the faculty and I wanted to come as a poet serious about the craft, even if that only meant an MFA candidate. She passed away a few months before the conference. With the cordial permissions of Sidney and Gillian Clifton the prize was launched in 2012. It is held each spring and honors Clifton’s prolific work. Sidney Clifton provided the salient words below:
“As the daughter of poet Lucille Clifton, I am thrilled to see Backbone Press honor my mother's work with the annual Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize. My mother's life and work bore testament to her courageous innate ability to distill life's most wondrous and terrible moments into words that will continue to sear and resonate. Her life, her way of seeing and walking in the world were the backbone of her work. I am her daughter. Her backbone is mine. And yours.”
DD: On that note, it would be fitting for us to end the conversation with the words of a poet who has Lucille Clifton’s words (literally) tattooed on her arm. Tara Betts is a spiritual heir to Clifton, and a tremendous poet in her own right. Her chapbook, 7x7 Kwansabas, is, by far, my favorite in your catalog. Here is her poem, consisting of five linked kwansabas:
The Autobiography Suite-in-Progress
You see parents where others see black
sock and white sock. A pair mated
to make you and the hump pushing
you from only child to big sister,
only girl, basket of eggs, not bearer
of the family name, meant for skirts,
singing to moons, putting pins in maps.
Virgin looked like a broken ring shoved
to the back of a drawer. Avoid
telling your mother that pyro sounds like
kiss, pop, boom that creeps to shudder
rush through pelvis and chest. She made
you in such fluent heat. You learn
this tongue leaves you, a popped kernel.
My torch of ire made itself plain.
A man took me on and off
like a pair of pants. I sifted
through books, ever loyal, yet not knowing
what would lift my head, heavy from
stone pressed into my brain. Blues songs
on repeat weigh down each sunrise, again.
When 6 trains smashed ease from joints
and winter stole browns from my temples
so they matched storms numbing my brain,
as it grew to hate paper, ink,
soothe itself with blood songs that whisper
lack of vitamin B, iron, much more.
I curl like wet hair, curved note.
I scaled the ivory tower not wifedom,
found muscles I never thought I had.
I am looking past three short years
when the last two decades blinked shut,
and brought me here. Swept away fog
that slowed me as death turned common.
Clear, urgent, ready to raise these fists.
Crystal Simone Smith is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Routes Home, (Finishing Line Press, 2013), Running Music, (Longleaf Press, 2014) and a forthcoming collection of haiku, Wild Flowers. Her work has appeared in Callaloo, Nimrod, Barrow Street, Frogpond, African American Review, and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop and the Yale Summer Writers Conference. She holds a BA in Studio Art Design from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an MFA in Poetry from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Durham, NC. She teaches English Composition and Creative Writing and is the Founder and Managing Editor of Backbone Press.