4/4: Portraits of Self and You – Aisha Sasha John

Kim Minkus

I first encountered the work of Aisha Sasha John in issue 3.12 of TCR. I was using this issue of TCR to look at Erin Mouré’s translations of Nicole Brossard’s “Tressaillir / Quivering” and also Meredith Quartermain’s “The Not of What She Didn’t Know” with my creative writing class. I was putting my class through a number of exercises to get them to respond to the aural and visual qualities of words and to try to write “outside” themselves. So when I encountered Aisha’s “self-portrait self-hugging” part of “Two Poems from The Shining Material” I was a little knocked off balance. Both this poem and the next – “Celia” appeared to be deeply personal and made me re-think some of the methods I was using with my class, because Aisha’s poems were utterly “inside” the self and were also utterly compelling. This fall I plan to use poems from Aisha’s book The Shining Material to urge my students to “travel deep” and create a “portrait” of themselves like the following from  “self-portrait self-hugging.”

I’m elegant now: not hiding, not
covering all the stuck want
it’s elegant even to name it:
oh silk, feathers, clouds
blush and rub soft elegant smooth
all of his elegant slimness I hate him
I want him it’s superior it’s famous it’s elegant
hating want what
I’m still soft.

KM: Your first book The Shining Material (BookThug 2011) proceeded from the idea of the self-portrait, as you explain in your BookThug interview, so I was surprised and intrigued to see poems from The Book of You in TCR’s 40th Anniversary Issue. How is portraiture utilized in both of these works? Also, how do the “I” and “You” speak to each other across these poems? (Note: You can read excerpts from The Book of You in Aisha’s most recent chapbook with BookThug – Gimme yr little quiet)

ASJ: In The Shining Material, self-portraiture allowed me to foreground the self as a way of getting over my then- discomfort with using my own experience in my work. In The Book of You, my work-in-progress, portraiture is a concern in a different sense: in many ways The Book of You is a portrait of a year, and it looks at how the year and the day work as units of experience.

The Book of You was actually written with a constraint concerning time: the book would exclusively comprise material generated in a single calendar year. This, of course, created a tension while I was writing it: a continuous assessment about the shape, the look of the year. Sometimes I wanted to quit it because I felt like I’d already arrived at a “good” shape – why keep going? Often I resented the year limitation – what if on day 367, I wrote a damn good poem? Too bad. I felt a tension while writing The Book of You between recording the year and writing it – between being and constructing. In my dance practice as well as in my poetry, I’m interested in the creation that happens as a result of faithfulness to an intention. I want to be surprised by what I end up making – I want to discover – rather than be limited by ideas of what I imagine myself able to make.

To touch on your question about the I – you dynamic, portraiture also characterizes The Book of You in that the work features multiple yous which are not always distinguishable from each other–they blur; what’s consistent is the I. It could be argued that The Book of You is a portrait of an “I” through a bunch of “yous.”  There’s blurring in the work between the I and you as well: this blur is commensurate with my experience of relationships and of selfhood. I’m over trying to “figure out” this I – you stuff (as if that is even possible) – again, I like to look at it, though, and see how it plays out. Basically I am trying, like Turner (thanks Michael Winter) “to paint what I see, not what I know.”

KM: Dance and poetry are part of your spiritual practice. Are you able to put into words how these two art forms connect you to the spirit?

ASJ: When I’m doing my work – be it dance or writing – and it’s working, that experience of it “working” feels holy and I would describe myself at that point as being in the spirit. I would say that sometimes when I’m dancing, be it in practice or performance, and that sometimes with writing, be it in the composition/revision or performance, it is a numinous experience: it’s like “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” – I think of it often like that, an incredible sustained note.

KM: Some of your poems read as very connective. The poem “The Shining Material” is a call-and-response poem with an incantatory pattern and language that calls on the body and breath of the reader. Is this the ideal situation for you as a poet, where readers can connect with each other and each other’s bodies through your words?

ASJ: I am glad to hear you find the poems connective; that, certainly, is the point. In “The Shining Material,” the call-and-response encourages, well, forces audience participation, which is exciting to me and also natural and right. I grew up in the church and most of my early experiences of poetry were Biblical/liturgical. I also firmly believe that the poem is a spoken thing, begins once uttered, and that the page is (just) the score, and a call-and-response poem makes that truth plain. In terms of readers connecting with each other – my intention was more that we all act as a unit, a unit of parts: call/inhale; response/exhale. Yes, I am interested in communion, in feelings of oneness. I suppose this collapse is parallel to the I-You thing – just realized this parallel as I’m writing this (thanks!).

KM: I am interested in communities of women writers and there has been a great deal of activity this summer regarding critical practice by women. Do you see yourself as part of a critical community or is there something else that acts as an equivalent for you as an artist?

ASJ: Yes – I’m not sure one can be an artist and not be part of a critical community, whether or not one contributes publicly in critical discourse. I have some essays on the go, but I haven’t – before now – been interested in writing reviews. The conversations that arose this summer out of the CWILA study have actually changed my position on this. Basically, I’m excited now at the prospect of reviewing a book that strikes me as excellent, especially if that book hasn’t or isn’t being widely read.

I have witnessed a lot of hostility and ugliness go down in poetry circles and literary circles in general and it’s turned me off, no – it’s scared me – from participating. I’ve felt outside of it and I’ve lambasted it privately and I’ve been dismayed. I think what I’ve realized in large part thanks to the summer’s activity is that I might dislike a lot of what transpires in the poetry community, but that does not make me outside it; no, I am inside. And though it’s my prerogative to be quiet – or rather – to reserve my critical practice for my work and for live conversation, I am starting to think that exercising power, by, say, drawing attention to work I think readers deserve to know about, is an alternative that is more in keeping with my values, and that the same effort and energy that it takes for me to not give a shit about what people think about my work, I’ll just have to apply to any possible hostility I’ll encounter as a critic. If I can speak, then maybe I must; if a healthier literary community is what I want to be a member of, then perhaps I should try and help create one with my own actions.

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