CHAPBOOK CHATS 5: Jamaica Baldwin Talks with “Psalm for Chrysanthemums” Author Nkateko Masinga
To celebrate the launch of the latest in the New-Generation African Poets Chapbook Box Set series, Saba, and the opening of the 2020 Sillerman First Book Prize in African Poetry submissions period, our book prize coordinator, Jamaica Baldwin, is talking to poets whose chapbooks are included in New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba). The series continues this week with a conversation between Jamaica and poet Nkateko Masinga. The interview was conducted via email and has been lightly edited.
Jamaica Baldwin: Your chapbook, Psalm for Chrysanthemums, is published in the gorgeous New-Generations African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba) that just came out. Is this your first book publication? If so, how does it feel to have your first chapbook published as part of this series?
Nkateko Masinga: This is not my first book publication. I have three self-published poetry chapbooks: The Sin In My Blackness (2015), A War Within The Blood (2016), and While The World Was Burning (2017), as well as a digital chapbook, The Heart is a Caged Animal, published by Praxis Magazine in 2019. However, Psalm for Chrysanthemums is my first chapbook with a publisher based outside of Africa. I have been in awe of the work produced by the African Poetry Book Fund over the years, and I am honored that my work was selected for publication in the chapbook series this year. I first met Prof. Kwame Dawes in Nigeria two years ago, at the 2018 Lagos International Poetry Festival, and I could not believe I was featured on the same lineup as one of my all-time literary heroes. I could have never guessed that a year later, he and Chris Abani would be editing my work. It’s been an incredible journey.
JB: To work with one’s literary heroes is always a blessing. Could you describe the process of constructing your chapbook? How did you conceive of ordering the collection?
NM: I began working on the poems that are in the chapbook while I was living in Nigeria as a writer-in-residence at the Ebedi International Writers Residency in January 2019. Constructing the chapbook is a process that occurred after I had returned to South Africa and began trying to make sense of what I had written in the months before. The residency had given me time to explore my obsessions, one of them being the afterlife in the context of Yorùbá spirituality, and this came through strongly in the content of the poems. I placed the poems in the order dictated by the narrative arc of the speaker’s journey through her various reincarnations. I wanted to emphasize that the speaker’s journey with her mental illness and the breakdown of her relationships does not follow a linear path but is rather a cycle with relapses, regrets and regressions along the way. The editors helped me by making suggestions regarding the order, as well as which poems to leave out and how to improve the ones that remained. The poems that were kept followed my initial arc, but with a much-needed trim.
JB: Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?
NM: I do not consider the persistent repetition of images to be something negative, so what others would call a tic I think of as an obsession or preoccupation that I should lean into instead of trying to weed out. By employing poetic forms that require and celebrate repetition, such as the ghazal, pantoum, villanelle, and sestina, I am able to use the phrases or images that haunt me in a way that aids the work. The chapbook has a ghazal at its centre, and the titles of the last three poems form an anaphoric pattern. There would have been more repetition had it not been for the editors’ suggestions that certain poems be cut, so although my technique has limitations that are bound to be exposed in the editing process, in my writing I follow the impulse regardless. In his introduction of the box set, Prof. Kwame Dawes refers to my use of seasons and plant names as a source of metaphor throughout Psalm for Chrysanthemums, and this was the pattern that informed the title of the chapbook. In the titular poem, the speaker prays for rain so that out-of-season flowers can bloom, and then chants a spell in order to reincarnate a failed relationship. This is a pattern the speaker repeats throughout the book; she oscillates quite painfully between life and death, singing mournfully as she goes. I followed my obsessions unashamedly in the writing, so the decision to remove the “tics” that were not fruitful was a byproduct of following the editors’ suggestions, which no doubt made the collection better.
JB: Tell me, what was the most surprising thing about the publication process?
NM: I was surprised by how little control I had over the appearance of the final product. As I mentioned before, I have self-published three of my own chapbooks, so I am accustomed to having full creative control over my work, including the cover art. For this book, I was told by the publisher that they were limited in the artwork available to them, so although the available cover art was a huge shift from what I was used to, I had to understand that my book was part of a series and every author and book in the series was being accommodated within these limited parameters. I think what surprised me was how difficult it was for me to accept this, despite how excited I was about the project overall. There were a lot of mixed feelings because surrendering creative control is a new feeling for me, but I think this year has taught us all to surrender in some way, because we really can’t control everything.
JB: So true. That is a life-long lesson.
This is a gorgeous book. You should be very proud. I’d like to pick up on a question Shara McCallum posed in her preface. “How does being bound to others—a lover and a child—infringe upon the boundaries of the self?” (5). For women, these boundaries of the self are never straightforward. In Psalm for Chrysanthemums the speaker seems to be both slipping away from herself, a phantasma of sorts, as exemplified in this line from the poem “Amaechi,” “I’m certain this is what it means / to disappear while still alive” (11) and hungering for a corporeality beyond her reach. Throughout the book, the speaker is acted upon by men and this too noisy world. In reaction, she appears to stand on the knife edge between “hapless apparition” (22) and Venus Flytrap (the title of the second poem in the manuscript). This knife edge is described beautifully in the last stanza of the poem “Inpatient” when you write, “Of all the things that I tried to ruin with my hands, / what remained were the bodies of others / (holding) breaking entering tearing into me” (19). Could you talk a little bit about the way the book dances with madness, madness as a kind of devouring and being devoured?
NM: Thank you so much, Jamaica. Throughout the glimpses that we see of her life, the speaker in Psalm for Chrysanthemums is always held, in one way or another: bound to the earth by a sense of responsibility and commitment to her lover and child, being admitted and held involuntarily in the psychiatric hospital, transfiguring to various non-human forms. The “breaking entering tearing” alludes to being physically abused and her perceived loss of body autonomy due to these violations, a condition which then manifests as mental dissociation as she cannot reconcile the body she is expected to live in with the desire to stay on earth for the sake of her loved ones. The juxtaposition of her slipping away from herself and the hungering for an alternative corporeality emphasizes the complicatedness of her suicidality; she wants to leave the sheath that is her body, but not to be separated from the ones she loves. In her dissociations from her body she experiments with different ways of existing. As an apparition, she has to surrender her voice to wild animals. As a devourer of men, she has an unquenchable appetite. When she steals the body of her nemesis, which is perhaps her last attempt at autonomy, she finally says, “I wanted this” and it is a sentiment I can relate to; wanting to be someone else, someone loved and less damaged.
The image of dancing with madness reminds me of how non-linear the journey towards healing is, and I think that if there is to be dancing, let there be music also, the entire orchestra. The speaker wants to have a voice, even in death, and I think her devouring of other bodies is an attempt to avenge herself. The knife edge is an interesting image. The speaker is tormented by her knife-wielding nemesis in “Catharsis” and later she considers a knife as an alternative to the train tracks, so she is constantly in a dangerous place. There is a saying in Sepedi, “Mmangwana o tshwara thipa ka bogaleng”, which means that a mother holds a knife by its sharp end, and I think the speaker does this not only in how she attempts to stay on earth for her family, but also in how she lunges towards death, as if she doubts its finality.
JB: The image of surrendering one’s voice to wild animals is a powerful one. I appreciate your generous response. What project(s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?
NM: I am perpetually in conversation with fellow African writers, for the literary magazine Africa in Dialogue: I recently published my conversation with Sihle Ntuli, author of the recently published poetry chapbook Rumblin’ (uHlanga Press, 2020), and right now I am speaking with Rhodasi Mwale, winner of the 2020 Kalemba Short Story Prize. Conducting and curating literary interviews has been an incredible source of comfort for me in a year when opportunities to converse with fellow writers have been curbed by the cancellation of some literary festivals. I am also preparing for my performance at the 2020 Lagos International Poetry Festival at the end of October. This is the first time that the festival will be exclusively online, so although I am sad that I cannot go to Nigeria, a country I love very much, I am honored to be invited to share my work at the first-ever digital version of one of my favourite poetry festivals. And finally, after five chapbooks in five years, I am now working on a very different artistic project. Hopefully it is something I will be able to share with the world in the near future.
JB: This has been an incredibly tough year in so many ways. Yet there have been some unexpected connections, insights and new ways of being in the world that have sprung from this hardship. Is there anything you’ve learned this year? Any insight, hope, experience, etc., you’d like to share with us?
NM: On a personal level, I have learned to slow down and be more intentional with following my self-care routine. In previous years I often worked until I reached burnout, which led to a complicated and costly recovery process. This year has been different because I have been at home for most of the year and more in tune with what is best for my physical and mental health. On a professional level, I have learned to appreciate and make better use of the digital platforms that are available to me as a writer and literary interviewer. Although I was very discouraged when events that I was planning to attend were canceled early in the year, the move to the digital space means that more people have access to literary platforms than in previous years when they would have had to travel long distances in order to attend in-person events.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add about your chapbook, the series, poetry in general, the world, anything at all?
NM: Firstly, I want to say thank you for this wonderful conversation. I often forget what it feels like to be on the other side of an interview, so this has been amazing, and I am grateful for the opportunity to talk in such detail about my work. The poems in my chapbook document my own struggle with mental illness and are part of a larger project called “Wither / With Her,” which gives readers a glimpse into life with mental illness. It was comforting to give the speaker my fears, obsessions, ideations and secrets to hold as her own. My twenties have so far been punctuated by an intense longing for what I do not have: children, a husband, a mind free from illness. It was helpful to name these in my book, as a way of saying “this is where it hurts.” Poetry continues to give me a voice, and for that I am thankful.
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa in Dialogue, an online interview magazine that archives creative and critical insights with Africa’s leading storytellers, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is the author of a digital chapbook titled THE HEART IS A CAGED ANIMAL, published by Praxis Magazine. Her latest chapbook, PSALM FOR CHRYSANTHEMUMS, has been selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.
Jamaica Baldwin grew up in Santa Cruz, CA. She earned her B.A. in Afro-American Studies from Smith College and her M.F.A. in poetry from Pacific University. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Third Coast, Prairie Schooner, Hayden’s Ferry, Rattle, The Missouri Review, and TriQuarterly, among others. She was the winner of the 2019 San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference Contest in Poetry and received an honorable mention for the 2019 International Literary Award’s Rita Dove Prize. Her writing has been supported by Hedgebrook and the Jack Straw Writers program. Jamaica lives in Lincoln where she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Creative Writing (poetry) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.