IF THE SOUTH ISN'T THE BAD GUY // an interview with Aziza Barnes & Nabila Lovelace
// by xandria phillips
Nabila Lovelace & Aziza Barnes
I started my MFA in the south in 2014. As a Black, queer poet I immediately felt a dissonance that I struggled to process without a Black writing community. Though she is not a monolith, the south I know bound my writing to place in ways I never expected. When I was asked to interview Aziza Barnes and Nabila Lovelace something like faith flooded my body. These two poets are also the founders of The Conversation, an organization “rooted in carving out space for Black Americans to contend with their Blackness & its infinite permutations in the South.” I’ve often read Aziza and Nabila’s poems while under blankets in my apartment that I share with no one in order to feel less isolated. As the three of us began our conversation, the south knocked on my door with sweet tea and Sorrel. She knew our dialogue was long over-due.
(top photo credit: Jerriod Avant)
XANDRIA: I wanted to start off the interview by talking about both of y’alls existence in the south. Aziza you’re originally from LA, but are currently living in Oxford, Mississippi, and Nabila you’re from Queens, now living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Do you ever feel hyper-visible in the Deep South as a Black person who was not raised there? How has your transplant identity affected your existence in these spaces?
AZIZA: I mean, absolutely.
NABILA: Damn, there’s so many layers to that question. There’s first just the idea of visibility and surveillance, right and I think that that’s a thing that we’ve been talking about a lot – that here I feel incredibly visible, but not seen I would say. Seeing means I see you in that loving manner, but visible? I definitely feel there’s a hyper-awareness of my body in all spaces whether it be the classroom where I’m one of the only Black women who’s there, or whether it be me walking down the street. I notice all the cars that are slowing, and I think now in my life my visibility for me is coopted in my brain. So, before I leave the house I feel like I’m the freshest motherfucker alive, and I curate that space for myself, so when I’m walking that’s what I have in my brain, and when these cars are slowing I think, of course you’re slowing to look at me. I would as well. So I think that that visibility is without a doubt there.
The added layer of the visibility of transplant-ness, I think that comes when I talk to people. I think at first, visually, the thing I get often get, “you look really different,” from like everybody. So I think in that way it sets us apart from the landscape that we’re in. For whatever reason that happens. And being from New York, you start talking and people are like, “Where are you from?”
A: I just remember a couple situations that are kind of my favorite because I’ve lived in a bunch of different places and in each place I’ve gotten the, “you’re different.” Only down here did I get, “you ain’t from here.” Not even in a mean way, and I’m just like “nope.” I get it from my barber, I get it from anybody. It’s gotten to the point where it’s so ferociously obvious, and I’m not trying to blend. Here I couldn’t blend. Everything’s Khaki’s and golf shirts, like what the fuck am I supposed to do with that? Loafers? Goodbye! I’m just not about to go up out my house looking like that.
N: And that’s a particular college look. We have to put that stamp on it. We live in college towns, and high-moneyed college towns. That makes so much of the interaction even more different because we know that this is an insular community in terms of what we’re experiencing of even just Alabama. I know I’m doing a disservice to the fact that I haven’t been to Montgomery, to Mobile, or the Black belt.
A: “You’re not from here.” It’s still loving because I hear that from my barber shop, which is all Black. From the white folks the kindest thing I’ve ever heard to that end on standing out was from a bicycle repairman. This white dude who looked like he was from there, and was very at home in the space, he said, “Are you kin to any other Barnes down here?” And I said, “No.” And he said “Are you sure? Well, there’s one who’s really wonderful. She was a teacher too. I just thought that maybe you were kin.” I’ve never heard a white person say “kin” before, first of all. So, I think that’s a joy of the south. The language is so shared. I could walk down the street, and hear someone talk, and I can’t see their face. I can’t picture it in my mind. Are they white or Black?
I’ve gotten to the point where my appearance and my insistence on my appearance is something that I have to be responsible for because there are people who don’t want me to exist, even here. And I say “even here” because I’m in Mississippi, but I’m not really in Mississippi, I’m in Oxford, Mississippi. It’s like an hour outside of Memphis. It’s kind of the joke of Mississippi. I’ve been talking to my parents a lot, and they're like “Look, your life extends beyond the state that you’re living in. Please remember that you can’t die over no word shit. You just can’t. It’s not what you came there to do.” And I think that extends to the fact that I’m not going to die over the way that I look, but I’m not going to amend the way that I look to suit my location.
N: And someone else’s version of comfortable.
X: How does location influence your writing processes and content?
A: I’m obsessed with this. The other day I was ranting to Nabi because I think in MFA schools in New York – no shade, no shade, no shade (no trees!), so no shade – there’s a lot of this endemic problem of place. Where they’re like “Oh god! I just seem to be writing all these train poems. Where does that come from?” You have decided that your little story, and little body are floating above a place. And because the place is so densely populated, and has been so over-written, you’ve decided that it’s magical that you ride these trains, and totally not part of your environment – that your environment has nothing to do with your poetics which is a crock of shit because all you are is where you are.
So, I moved to Mississippi because there are things that I can only write here. In New York I would never write about cotton. I think that’s so presumptuous. I’ve never seen it. I’ve never held it. But now since I’m down here cotton is everywhere. Cotton is everything. Not to say that Black writers or any writers who engage with cotton are being disingenuous. That’s just my poetics for myself because I’ve always, the way I was raised, been told by the Black community that I’m not Black enough, and told by the white community “what are you?” So, I’m very sensitive about what I pick up and put down, and that’s just me. Please write whatever you need to live.
When it comes to space, I don’t think i be but i ain’t would be the book that it is had I not moved to Mississippi. I wrote that book over the span of three years having lived in Brooklyn, and in Ghana, and here, which is the book I wanted. I got everywhere except Paris, which I think is a mecca for Black people, so that’ll be the next book. But if I hadn’t moved here it would have been a different book. It would have been fine, but I don’t think it would have been the thing that it can be, and that would have been a disservice. And I also think you have to leave anywhere you feel incredibly comfortable for some period of time to see if your comforts were poisons or medicines. You just have to do that.
N: That’s very Derek Walcott in terms of motivation and needing to leave. He said that about Hemingway, I think. Walcott said Hemingway would have been a better writer if he left – and that’s not shade. He’s a great writer.
A: I also think that over-traveling can be ridiculous. Sometimes you gotta plant, and tend.
X: How was The Conversation conceived of, or in other words, what conversation led to The Conversation?
N: Aziza and I have known each other since 2011. We were never in a state at the same time for longer than a week. I was at Emory in Atlanta, she was at NYU. In 2013 I had just come back from Ghana, and Aziza was leaving to go to Ghana, and I had missed her book release party because of that. Every time we ran into each other we’d be like “Damn, I really wanna hang out with you. How does this never happen?” So she was in Ghana in 2013, I was in China in 2013. I took a year and worked abroad. In 2014 I decide to come back from China. I enjoyed my time there, but I wanted to apply to grad school. And I think I could only do that in New York, in a space that I know. In 2014, Aziza graduated from college and decided she was going to stay in New York another year. We were in the same space for the first time ever.
I move back to the city. I’m looking for a job. Aziza is working at the Harlem Children Zone and sends out an email asking if anybody that can read poems with her for her kids. I end up being the only person who comes to do it. We find out that same day that we got into a workshop called “Letters to the Future” run by Erica Hunt. And that changes everything. It’s a free Cave Canem workshop. From there it begins.
Our friendship took off like a fucking rocket. That workshop was possibly one of the most life-changing things to ever happen to me. Erica Hunt really popped the top off of what could be a poem, and poetics for me. I hadn’t really been in a workshop-workshop ever, and that changed my brain about Black poetics. She first implanted in me the idea that it doesn’t even have to say Black for it to be a Black poem. Anything, a poem about your receipt can be a Back poem. Everything. For us, we immediately started thinking of archival, and we didn’t know exactly what we meant by archival in terms of thinking with these big ideas of Blackness, but it was implanted. Aziza and I were talking one day after workshop, and we were both thinking of applying for an MFA. So, fast-forward, we both get into our southern institutions. Aziza pretty much only applied to one school. I applied to nine. I was still deciding. I had gotten into Alabama. Aziza had already said yes. When I was deciding on Alabama we were like, “there’s no way that we can do this without each other.” And so we made the pact then. I signed the papers for Alabama, Z signed the papers for Mississippi. I was with our friend AJ and I was saying “Aziza and I bout to move to the south. It’s lit. Everybody gotta come and visit us.” AJ suggested we buy a house. The initial idea was a retreat. We would both buy houses and plan a retreat for the diaspora.
Then, honestly that thought left us. We always knew there was a thing that we wanted to do, but we couldn’t put our finger on it. We’d meet up to have these conversations in New York and we would just talk about lineage and life and what it meant: the fact that we were even alive in this city that drives us crazy.
Then we get down here, feet on the ground and the soil, and it feels different. We realized that it was the best decision of our lives.
A: I spoke to Cornelius Eady in the summer at Poet’s House before coming down here, and he gave me all this advice. Cornelius Eady with Toi Derricotte founded Cave Canem. He started telling me all these amazing stories about how Cave Canem started. He said that he had three conversations, and that the first two were with people who were down, but it didn’t pan out, and the last one was with Toi. He said it only worked because “she and I both put the money on it.” He said, “Find the one who’s going to put the money on it with you.” I think our decision to move to the south together was the first act of putting the money on it.
N: Before we even had what we were really going to do – and this is where the fun comes in – October 8th 2015, we dip out, we go to New Orleans for Aziza’s birthday. We literally have the time of our lives. We were on a cloud. Our thought just continued to progress in terms of how we could get everybody down here. Get them paid. And really flip the script so that they can see what we see when we’re living our lives, when we’re in these towns creating roots in the south. Because what we realized in the reckoning of when we got to school and our friends saying things like, “Ya’ll gotta come back alive.” We realized that there was a huge gap in terms of the places we were beginning to understand, and our visions of them, and our politic that we are creating of them, and where our homies might be. Or maybe where we both see eye-to-eye. We wanted to get that documented down. So back came the talking of archival. We wanna make what we want to do a documentary; a talking about Blackness, a real discussion about it. If the south isn’t the bad guy. If the south is more than racism, then what do we have to contend with in the places that we live? The fact that I can’t own anything in New York is insane.
A: The fact that I can’t own anything in Los Angeles is disgusting.
N: I pass FOR SALE signs on land all the time. It’s expansive. That’s a feeling that I’ve never felt in other spaces. I’ve never felt expansive. I’ve never felt that free. That was the exact thing that we wanted to be able to build a space around, which is why we’re rooted here.
And in October we picked seventeen fellows, and we talk about what it means for all different types of folk to want to live in the south or to not have left a lineage of northern folk.
X: I’d like to borrow a question from The Conversation: Cortney Lamar Charleston and Danez Smith. “Imagine the South is a person. What do you all have to reconcile in your relationship? Is it worth it?”
A: I have to reckon with the records that are not kept of my family. I have to reckon with Chillicothe, Ohio which is a town entirely comprised of light-skinned Black people who in-bred just so they wouldn’t have to be Blacker. My family is from a similar town once they moved up there. It speaks to a lot of mental illness that I would need to contend with in the south. How the terror of being killed would make Black people go crazy, so now we have that imbedded in our language. “Oh you crazy,” “Oh that bitch wild,” “That bitch doin’ too much,” or “She extra,” which really just is emotional. I have to contend with mules. I have to contend with my womanhood, my queerness, my ability or inability to have children. The south brings all the up for me.
N: Honestly, I think I get the south more than I get New York, if I’m going to be honest. I think there isn’t much that me and her have to reconcile. The niggas who want me on one side of the fence, I know who they are. We don’t gotta reconcile no shit. I’m gonna live on my side of the fence and you’re gonna live on yours, because that’s how we gonna rock, not because this is the space you’re giving me. Because my money’s green and I decided that this is the space that I’m gonna live in. That’s the space that you’re gonna live in, and that’s how we’re gonna live. That makes more sense to me than a white person who says “Oh my god, but where are you really from?” Part of the reason why I don’t have anything to reconcile with the south is because when she is what I expect there’s nothing unexpected. When she isn’t what I expect, I’m floored.
A: You know, the south is just like that cousin you got, that’s always not payin’ they phone bill. That’s the south. You’re so brilliant, just pay your fucking phone bill.
X: Speaking as a Black poet who also relocated to the south for an MFA, your project feels particularly crucial. What do you hope for Black poets residing in the south to gain or take away from The Conversation?
N: I think that it’s good that we’re doing this so we can set a very clear record that we’re not trying to speak for anyone. We both understand that we were not necessarily raised in the south, and for some people –
A: That means a lot –
N: And that’s fine. We understand that there’s a whole lineage of motherfuckers coming down here for an experience, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make a home. Southern Black writers come through! We would love to collaborate. We would love to talk more. We would love to find out what you’re thinking about in terms of our organization because we need your help.
A: I just want to build the house. In watching Beyoncé’s LEMONADE, when she’s sitting on the porch with all them, that’s Diaspora. And I don’t think Beyoncé begrudges Ibeyi for not being from where she’s from. And she doesn’t begrudge Amandla, and she doesn’t begrudge Quvenzhané, or anyone on the fucking porch. I think the disaster that I want to amend is that people want Black bodies in their lineage to only go one generation deep. It’s so insulting to me.
N: It’s ridiculous; the pride that we have for these spaces. We were forcibly moved people. That’s literally what we were. If we’re talking about the number of people who left in terms of The Great Migration, that was a forcible out. There were some people who stayed, and thank god that they did.
There’s a man’s name on the English school building [at the University of Alabama]. His name is John Tyler Morgan. He fought in the Civil War, was a general, was also a senator. In his time as a senator, he literally wanted to move all of the Black people from the south to different countries. He wanted to export them.
A: I think the south at its worst is the north at its most honest.
X: If you had to eat one southern dish for the rest of your duration in the south, which would it be?
A: Molasses pecan pie with vanilla bean ice cream from Lamar Lounge. I would eat that for forever.
N: Crawfish from a real craw boil. I had it once from a homey from the lower 9th, and it was the best thing in my whole-ass life. I would eat that every day.
X: Where do you imagine yourself geographically post-MFA?
A: New Orleans.
X: What is your favorite LEMONADE song? Why?
A: “Don’t Hurt Yourself.” It’s a rock song, and I think Black women have been the pioneers of rock more than anyone. Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta, she speaks to that tradition. “You ain’t married to no average bitch boy / I’m gonna fuck up all your shit boy.” She’s monstrous, and she’s just gonna do it.
*cue Aziza and Nabila slipping into a meditation on monstrosity as Beyoncé*
A: I know I’m afraid of being that monster you think I am. Maybe I am that monster, and I’m fucking up all your shit.
N: Oh no, I am exactly as crazy as you think I am. I’m exactly as monstrous as you think I am. I am exactly as masculine and feminine as you probably have never considered.
A: Look at my hand on my dick. Bitch, bye.
N: I am as queer thinking as you don’t want me to be, and that frightens you. I’m as queer thinking and in body in the frightening way that you have in your head. So if I am the monster that you think I am, what happens when I am?
A: What happens when I decide to live without fear?
N: There is a reckoning. White America is very close to being the minority, and they are shitting themselves. They are so scared. What if we came for that reclamation the way that we should? Taking the bricks out of the buildings that we made. What if we came back for it in that manner? That’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself.”
Honestly, if we’re thinking about the visual album, my favorite is probably “Sorry,” just for those bus scenes. My god!
A: I love how Beyoncé’s on the bus with banjee girl realness.
N: On the bus there’s this beautiful moment where she looks so happy in her eyes and her core. She says to the camera, “I ain’t thinkin’ bout you!” It’s like a liberated fact for her. She’s like, “You know what I woke up thinking about this morning? Water, god, and all the people I love. That excluded you!”