Sojourner Abehee: Shedding Infinite Light
Sojourner Abehee writes poetry that haunts. Her writing explores the dynamic between immigrants and Americans, with the latter painted as blind to the struggles the former endures. Sojourner writes to inform and to wake up the people who pretend that there is no corruption or abuse in the relationship between foreigners and their new homes. She sheds light where most cast darkness, and it has been a pleasure reading her work, and learning more about her artistic process.
Yasmin Belkhyr: First question: how do you define poetry?
Sojourner Abehee: I think poetry is the way in which we capture experience and come to terms with the limits of memory. I think poetry is a dialogue, but most importantly, I think poetry is a way to process ourselves onto the blank page.
YB: Who is the dialogue between?
SA: I think many dialogues are going on. poems can spark dialogues between the speaker of the poem and the reader, between the author and the reader, between readers themselves etc.
In your poem "Apparitions", was there a specific conversation you wanted the readers to hear?
For sure. I feel like the way Americans interact with the many immigrant communities that make up so much of our daily lives is a bit phony. We pass through so many people but we never stop to consider where they are coming from (emotionally and physically ) and who they are at that said moment. We never stop, just for a second, to think "Who picked the orange I am eating" or " What part of the Asian continent is the woman from who runs my favorite restaurant"? I think my poem "Apparitions" aims at kindling that dialogue. I want my readers to ask questions and be conscious world citizens.
"Apparitions" follows these two characters who visit a restaurant and notice these terrible things happening to the waitresses and ignore it, figure it's not something they need to deal with. What does the "Notes" aspect of the piece aim to achieve?
I think the "Notes on Apparitions" tries to grapple with a reality that a lot of human beings pretend is not there. I think that section tries to shed another light on the same topic. There is a lot of hidden abuse and woe that newcomers to the country face within the work zone. I try to shed light as best I can. I don't know everything and I surely don't understand everything but I am a poet, so I make observations the best I can.
"Apparitions" definitely has a prose element to it; how do you differentiate between a prose and a poem?
I don't really think I can. There's a joke at my school where if a creative writing major is asked "What is prose?", we proceed to walk away because we don't speak of such things, or we answer "The lines go all the way to the margin". To be honest, I think it just depends on what the writer denotes it to be. I read a lot of flash fiction pieces that felt like short prose poems but I can't tell the writer "Um excuse me, your fiction is actually poetry. Just saying." It doesn't work like that. Obviously you want to be conscious about the form in which you are writing in but I honestly don't know what makes it different. It just is.
How do you think going to an arts school has affected your work? Did you write as much or with as much passion before you attended?
I think coming to Interlochen has really forced me to claim my identity as a writer. Prior to attending the academy, I wrote poetry, but I didn't really consider myself a "poet". I had a tendency to sit on a lot a my work. I didn't really put myself out there. But, after coming to Interlochen, I've been able to develop my own voice, and this opportunity has given me both the confidence and the technique to pursue my writing seriously. Because I am enrolled in several writing classes, I am constantly producing new work. But, I think I wrote just as frequently, if not more, prior to coming to the academy.
If you could have lunch with any poet, who would it be and why?
I think I would sit down with Arthur Rimbaud. I just did an extensive project on him, and after some research, I've come to the conclusion that he had a really unfortunate life, but his work is unbelievably magical. I'd ask him how he could stop writing at the age of 19, how form influenced his work, and if his time spent in Ethiopia would have influenced his work if he had lived longer.
Wow, I can't imagine giving up writing at 19.
I know right!! I'd also want to know if he consciously wrote in the surreal mode. This is a mode that constantly haunts and intrigues me!
Writing is something that's been such a big part of my life since I was so young, I doubt I could just stop. Do you think that poets/writers are born or made?
I really like William Stafford's answer to this question. He said "we're all poets when we're little, but some of us stop being poets." Poets are just the people who never stopped seeing the magic. I think everyone speaks in metaphor, and as a result, everyone speaks poems;every breathing thing carries this language within them. So, I guess what I'm saying is that we're all born with the sense of language, but some of us forget or discount it along the way.
You said "everyone speaks in metaphor, and as a result, everyone speaks poems". So, if a person isn't writing that "poetry" down, does it still count as poetry? Do you think it's possible for someone to be a poet if they don't write?
I would have to say yes: people can be poets even if they don't write. For starters, when you take a look at the history of poetry as an art form, poetry started as a oral tradition. It wasn't written down at all. It isn't until people became concerned with the documenting of poetry,as a means of saving it, that it became a written form. But, history aside, some of the most poetic people I know do not write poetry at all. I grew up hearing stories from my grandmother, Sallie McBride, about her life in the North Carolina, at a time when this country was at its ugliest. I grew up listening to this woman recite Yeats and Langston Hughes the way I sing Beyonce songs while I'm getting ready for a new school day. Sallie McBride was a poet. Her cadence and her sense of imagery was truly a gift.
So what do you think justifies the term 'poet'? When would you call someone a poet?
I think a poet is someone who isn't afraid to look into the darkness. A poet is someone who notices things other people leave in that darkness. A poet is someone who takes that dark space and uses language to extract some type of beauty, some type of understanding, and some type of truth.
What is the best piece of writing advice you've ever been given?
This has more to do with the reading of poetry, but I think it's changed how I approach my own poems in general: a poet once told me to "get away from the concept of 'getting' poetry. You don't 'get' jazz, you simply love it".
What is your favorite and least favorite part about writing?
My favorite part about writing is the chance to discover myself in other people's narratives/experiences. Most recently, I've been working on a collection of poems about the Roma ("Gypsy") population in the United States. Through all my research concerning this community, I've come to realize that their story of moving, diaspora, and the hatred they have faced for centuries due to their ethnicity is not too different from my own story. My least favorite part about writing is REVISION. Revision so important but to be completely honest I hate the process itself.
Okay so we have a little tradition for every interview. last question: will you please leave one question behind for our next interviewee?
Do you think that the sound in a poem can supplement the poem itself? How so?