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Aight reader, let's keep it a buck: when was the last time you read a whole collection of poetry? A year ago? This morning? No shame regardless, but let me put the urgency of the question to you another way: When was the last time you let a Black grxl's Southern English serve as a love song, funerary rite, and freedom anthem for Black femme folks? What about one that also serves as corrective to the doublespeak of feigned white solidarity?
If the answer is never, let your first time be today. Because here's the truth, Black as ever: Aurielle Marie's debut collection Gumbo Ya Ya slaps.
Black English/AAVE/Ebonics has been forced into the same fugitivity as its speakers, constantly evolving to avoid capture, comprehension, and decipherment by those who might mean to do us harm. Aurielle brings their commitments as an abolitionist to the page in their treatment of dialect and resists the policing of our speech, allowing our words their rightful sovereignty: "absolute and unresolved."
Marie's Gumbo Ya Ya shows just what Black Southern speech can do when we aren't so busy forcing it to translate.
"[W]hat I was also trying to do in the book is create a safe space for Black femme folks at the expense of other people's comfort, right? Like, we will be comfortable here and gathered here to whatever degree is necessary, even if it means shunning people outside of the we," Marie said.
The Atlanta-raised poet intros the concept of gumbo ya ya (the sensory experience achieved when all your kinfolks are talking at once) as a way to live into the messiness and multiplicity of an intersectional Blackness. With poem titles, like "grxl gospel i: all the women were white all the Black folk, men & so, we were brave," Marie's poetry collection is one of the most thrilling debuts released in years.
See also: 'The rest of the world tells us that these bodies are killing us'
Gumbo Ya Ya was selected by poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney as the 2020 Cave Canem Poetry Prize Winner. Cave Canem is the premiere bastion of Black poetics, and has supported many Black Southern voices, including Jericho Brown, Taylor Johnson, Nicole Sealey (and even me) but it's not the only hush harbor around. The natural affinity between Marie and Kearney, the contest judge, is no surprise. Kearney often surfaces the hidden kinships and quadruple-entendres undergirding Black linguistics and performance. If you haven't read his Mess And Mess And, do.
The marvel for me is the fidelity to spoken language that Marie is able to achieve. I just wanted to say everything aloud. Through the permissiveness of the multiple grammars at work, Marie reveals the paucity and meagreness of a whiter-tighter English. Freed from the shackles of apologetic apostrophes, and bucking the constraints of traditional typeset in Douglas Kearney-fashion, Aurielle's words overlap, fugue, and multiply on the page.
Many reviewers use the word conjure when talking about recent poetic works but few collections actually do it. Aurielle welcomes the presence of all their egun, or ancestors. That also includes biological family, even the problematic members.
It's clear Aurielle has made a practice of loving their folx honestly on and off the page. "I was able to utilize [that practice] as a way of stringing together all of the ways that violence kind of crosses over from the structural to the personal, from the institutional to the intimate, without making monsters," said the poet.
In deftly powerful verse, Marie acknowledges the ubiquity of assaults, the precarity of safety and the audacity of queer Black grxl survival in the thick of it all. My God was chastised, and my pen reignited.
"oh, god. oh, me.
Oh, yes. damn i'm slick! damn, i spill the thick of me
and it is not blood. i'll say it as many times as I see fit. Oh,
the possibilities of being ego. thank you…"
— gxrl gospel iii: marigold
Scalawag was the first publication to publish Aurielle's work back in 2014. It was an honor to catch up with them years later to talk about their new release, poetics as praxis, and pushing back against the mythology of "good Southern girls."
The following excerpts from our interview were edited for length and clarity.
Alysia Nicole Harris: Talk to me about the title of the book, Gumbo Ya Ya.
Aurielle Marie: Gumbo ya ya is a term that I stumbled upon in random conversations with family throughout my life because I've got some real lineage in my family, and stuff trickles down, you know. Things and phrases and practices trickle down… So Gumbo Ya Ya was a term that I heard in my family space and kind of knew what it meant. I just thought it meant that folks were loud, and like, you know, needed to stop yelling.
I've been on this long arc of deepening a spiritual practice, and I was reading a book called Jambalaya by Luisah Teish, who is wonderful in a lot of ways, and not so wonderful in other ways, but wonderful in a lot of ways. She talked about gumbo ya ya as a sensorial experience, you know, the sound that takes over a room when family is getting together, that sort of buzzing humm that happens. And for me, it just stuck. It's like, 'Oh my God. That's like, the Blackest thing!' And one of the things I love so much is that thrumming, people are talking over one another, you jump in and out of conversations. Amazing. I just held on to it.
I had said that I was going to write a book… and for a long time the project I was working on was just about being Black and queer in the South—being a Black girl in the South, and queerness, kind of like, pop sprinkled in there, because I don't think that I understood myself as queer until I wasn't a child anymore. So it didn't really intersect until I started to think about gender as an expansive thing, and how I was maybe operating outside of binary gender. What I've come to now know, I understand myself as a genderqueer person, and how I was queering gender for myself as a child. And then it started to get really intricate in the book. We were talking about gender, and then I was writing about gender-based violence. Then I was talking about fathers, and then somehow I was starting to talk about fathers and police. Then I was talking about mothers, and it just got really full, and I was like, 'What is happening here?' And I was like, 'Oh, this is that noise.' This is just the hum in the room when you know that you're alive and living.
AH: You wrote in the title poem, "If I put a gun to your head, could you explain how this is not a book about race?" Can you tell me why it was really important to ask that question to the reader?
AM: My background is in community organizing. For a long time, I thought I had to choose between [poetry and organizing]. I've been trying to figure out how to do the both/and, how to be the artist and also someone who is deeply committed to racial justice, abolition, and anti-capitalism. Gumbo YaYa, I had a publisher before I won the Cave Canem prize. I was working with that publisher, and it was just, it was a really difficult relationship. They didn't understand how to hold all of me and all of the book. And there were questions that came up in the few conversations we had about the text itself that let me know that they were hoping that I could sanitize or clarify some of the rhetorical play around race or confrontation that I was writing up in the book toward the white reader specifically.
[The editors] never asked me, you know, is this a book about race? But like white folks don't often ask directly. I felt that the critique that I was getting was that I needed to make this a book that made sense to white people, or at least to my white editors. And in order to do that, it couldn't be a book that tried to tackle race in the ways that I wanted to, which was to be very clear about who the "we" and the "you" are when I'm talking. So I think I was just being a bit of a Sagittarius and being sarcastic and petty [with that line], in that I was trying to acknowledge that I understood that there is a wide readership, that there are people who are going to read the book who aren't a part of my "we."
In many places throughout the book, but especially in Gumbo Ya Ya, the title piece, I was trying to anticipate where non-Black people would try to land with some of the work and how they would try to make it applicable to themselves, and trying to call them out on that landing spot, because what I was also trying to do in the book was create a safe space for Black femme folks at the expense of other people's comfort.."
AH: I was gonna ask you a question about repetition and interruption, because it feels like there are sometimes multiple speakers in poems. You use forms like the ghazal, the pantoum, and the sestina, which all utilize repetition. So I'm curious what the importance of that kind of repetitive invocation is?
AM: I'm very much in my linguistic bag, you know, about how multiple diasporic cultures repeat things to articulate importance or urgency. I'm thinking about how Southern folks will say now, now, the same way that West African folks who speak English will say now now, to mean right now. Repetition in a cultural sense is not seen as proper English; is not seen as correct. That [repetition] leaks its way into spiritual practice, whether an invocation, or a hex, or chant, or some conjure work. Sometimes you're just repeating a word over and over again, and it changes and you envision different things each time, depending on what you're doing. As someone who does have a lineage of folks who are conjurers, repetition is the thing that makes other things possible. So, I tried to utilize it intentionally throughout the book, and was just naturally drawn to forms that did that work too, because that bias is in my blood.
AH: There's so many aspects of kinship in your book where you're talking about family, friendship, or love, or violence. I'm curious how you define kinship, or how you are coming to experience kinship in the book, when so many of the examples that we have are also examples of very deep instances of violence?
AM: Our relationship to our families—no matter what those relationships are, even if there is no relationship—are our first practices of love, our first practices of trust, our first practices of audacity. They are our first. And so troubled though the relationship between Black femme folks and our peoples may be, they are our first.
See also: Sasha Rewrites Uhmareka
If I'm talking about fathers and police, it's not to make them synonymous but to articulate how violence slopes upward or downward and kind of moves through the body in similar ways.
You know, it's easy—it's easy to talk about police. It's easy to talk about police violence, at least for me. I have an intimate relationship with pigs and they guns and they batons and all of that. It was much harder to talk about how the man I love can't love me back beyond his own wounds or his own hurt, and in that way, hurts me.
AH: In "transhistorical for the x in my gxrls," you wrote: "I find antithesis to be a powerful origin." Could you expound on that phrase?
AM: There's this very particular thing that happens when folks raise Black girls, where there are narratives about our personhood that we either take on and adjust beneath them, or we reject them and try to create ourselves in the void between what we've rejected and where we are. And I went that way. I couldn't deal with the dissonance [and the distance] between what a good Southern Black girl was supposed to be and what I was. I mean from jump, like out the gate. Four years old, like, just fighting it. I'm climbing trees, I'm cussin', you know. I'm running around with boys, and then I'm being salacious, and then I'm being fast, and then I'm like, you know, dating white men. Like my first date was with a little white boy because, "Oh don't bring a white boy home if you a Black Southern girl."
I knew that I wasn't the frilly-sock, church-dress, hair-staying-straight, crossing-my-legs girl. I knew I wasn't that. I didn't know what the hell was going on, but I knew what I wasn't. That really was the only articulation that I had: What I wasn't. It was scary. There were a lot of consequences that seem trivial now, right? Like I got in trouble for not wearing dresses to church. My mother would make me wear the ugliest thing in my closet that she knew I hated because I wouldn't put on the dress. That seems frivolous now, but at the time, it was a whole world. And so that [dissent/negative articulation] has continued. It has continued because, even as an organizer, I don't know what freedom looks like. I don't know what liberation will be. I don't know what the landing place will be. But I know there are no police there. There are no prisons there. I know that everyone eats good. I know that there is no sexual violence.
I have the space and capacity to do some world-building, because at least I know what is not going to be there. I know what I got to get rid of to get there. And that, at least for me, is a starting point. The antithesis, the negative space is a starting point. And it's very Black. That's a Black gxrl anthem.