Fast Five Interviews: Erica Hunt

This summer, from June 18th to the 24th, The Watering Hole Directors Candace Wiley and Monifa Lemons were honored with invitations to attend a week long seminar, Facing It: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa. So inspired, they decided to take the time to interview some intriguing and interesting poetic minds.

Erica Hunt (born March 12, 1955) is a U.S. poet, essayist, teacher, mother, and organizer from New York City. She is often associated with the group of Language poets from her days living in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but her work is also considered central to the avant garde black aesthetic developing after the Civil Rights Movement and Black Arts Movement. Through the 1990s and 2000s, Hunt worked with several non-profits that encourage black philanthropy for black communities and causes. From 1999 to 2010, she was executive director of the 21st Century Foundation located in Harlem. Currently, she is writing and teaching at Wesleyan University.

About the Seminar:
This seminar celebrates and investigates the work of Yusef Komunyakaa, whose career has been marked by creative distinction and critical acclaim, with the poet himself alongside critics, poets, and other scholars. Special thanks to Dr. Joanne Gabbin and the staff at Furious Flower/James Madison University
For more information about Furious Flower, paste the following link:

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TWH: We TWH are here with Erica Hunt doing our Fast Five.  The first question is, what is one thing that our tribe should know about your favorite author?

EH:  I have several favorite authors and I was recently asked what book should I be reading right now that are just on the moment and fresh and pointing in interesting directions.  I want to recommend John Keene, his book “Counternarratives.”  It’s a series of linked short stories of which he reimagines the archive with blackness.  The very first story, for instance, opens with the interior, the psychology, the point of view of a character who is looking at Manhattan Island but it’s all forested and he goes and he hides something on the island.  He buries something on it and it’s just there but he imagines that.  One of these stories deals with a very famous monastery in Kentucky.  That was there in the 1800’s that burned to the ground and he imagines the black servant and how the servant, and that man’s role there and what he observes of the monastery.  And he leaves as an open question, his role in the burning down the monastery.  It’s a great book.  It’s a really great book and it won a lot of awards for John and it’s a real active imagination.

TWH: [laughter]

EH: The other book that I would recommend is a book of poetry by M. NourbeSe Philip, it’s called Zong.  It’s a difficult book.  She’s Trinidadian/Canadian and she wrote it based on a two-page document.  Back in, I think it’s 1815, there was a slave ship that leaves West Africa and the captains incompetent.  He gets lost, there’s a storm and so he takes the cargo, e.g., the Africans, and he throws 125 people overboard.  Then he goes to England, gets to England finally, and goes to court and tries to collect insurance.  This case was very famous.  The boat was called the Zong and the case is famous because it really turned the British public against slavery.  But the court heard the case and all that remains is a two-page document.  NorbeSe began this book saying “I want to honor the dead.  They’re not mentioned by name in this document.  There’s no memorial for them.  I want to honor the dead”, she says.  So, she takes the document and it’s two pages and she uses it as a word bank and she scatters the letters on the page.  Sometimes she uses the words.  Sometimes the letters float on the page.  They’re floating on the waves as if the bodies are littering the sea.  Beneath the ledger line, she names the Africans who are nameless.  Kumasi.  Akosi.  Whatever names below.  And then she follows that, it’s like a hundred pages of this.  Some of it you can sort of make poetic sense of it.  Some of it’s like, she says “there are no words”.  What can you say about this?  And then she follows this with like a fifteen, twenty-page explanation of her process of how she wrote this.  How she tried to write it just using the word bank, you know?  How then she said that’s not doing it either.  I’m gonna just take a hammer to the language.  That the language just can’t even contain this.  I’m gonna just smash this with a hammer, fuck this language.

TWH: All day!

EH:  Right?!  All of that.  So, all of the stages of grief and mourning that never happened for those Africans.  I tell you, I teach that book to undergrads, I teach it to graduates and nobody ever walks out of there without chills because of the profundity of that memorial and memorializing grief.  Taking the grief that finally then is allowed to happen and then how do you make that manifest through a radical attack on the language that would even think that you could put this in a court trial?  That this is even debatable how evil this is.  She does this because she is an attorney and she’s also black, right?  So, she really understands tort.  Really it took her years to write this thing.  She shaved her head.  She walked around always in white.  NorbeSe talks about this and you can see Youtube videos about this as she talks about it and also performances of it, multi-vocal performances of it which are also in themselves very chilling and it’s like nothing else you will see. I think of these two books, and maybe others, as really groundbreaking in how we begin to really reckon with, as Christina Sharp calls it, the afterlife of slavery and then how it continues to impact us and it’s just a couple of ways of taking that into all parts of our being so that there’s really a healing.

TWH: Wow!  Awesome…wow! What is your writing practice?

EH:  I write every day.  I meditate every day.  I write every day.  I also, like Yusef was describing right now, I write dreams.

TWH: Instruction.

EH:  Yeah.  That’s instruction.  Then I try to write something every day.  It allows me to speak actually.  It’s funny because I wouldn’t be able to fully inhabit language in a way, because there’s so many ways that one is silenced all day, every day.

TWH: When do you hit the page?

EH:  I keep journals and I’m very much a believer of writing things out by hand first and then going back and then maybe even writing it by hand again, maybe on slips of paper.  Then I do a kind of organizing of the pieces.  Sometimes I’ll go back a couple of years and look at what I was writing on this day some years ago and then I’ll put it back in.

TWH:  Like to shuffle them around the table and then rearrange them in different ways.

EH:  Yeah.

TWH:  Now that’s interesting.  You know, Dr. Dawes said that the shape of the page affects the way you write the poem.  When you break the pages up, you’ve changed the shape of the page and suddenly you’ve changed the poem.

EH:  Yes, and also you can stay right.  You can hang onto your left margin or you can go across.  You can do a steer.  It just depends.  It depends on the content and what’s expressed.  Right now, I’m writing a series of poems of mourning as a mom of a black son, black daughter, black children walking into other people’s shoes and situations.  It’s very hard to write.  But when I can stay there, I’m getting some poems done that I’ve read out loud.

TWH:   What non-writing activities do you do that fuels your writing activities?

EH:  I love to be in the company of poets.  Not all poets – because poets can be crazy – but I love to be in the company of poets.  I do a lot of community building of various sorts.  I host things at my house, just talks, parties, you know?  Host when somebody comes to town.  I’m on a couple of boards of poetry organizations.  I love to cook, you know, and I realize that I have this interesting gift for hospitality so, I’ll do that.  And then, what else do I do?  I dunno, I hang out with my children.  I chat with them.  I’m very involved with my family.  I’ll walk.  You know?  Those things.

TWH:  Ok.  You literally answered question number four in question number one and gave us both together because I cannot wait to see the videos of one of the poets you gave us.  Question four was, give us a good book suggestion.  So, we want to talk about mentorship.  We want to ask how you would suggest any of our tribe members, emerging poets, to go about finding a mentor?  What that process looks like for you?  Or what advice you would give to them?

EH:  There’s a couple kinds of mentorship that strikes me.  There’s like the mentorship of your peers.  Like you go through a workshop and you find someone that is really your reader.  They feed you vitally, like I was saying, they feed you.  You have interesting conversations with them.  I have a friend, Tonya Foster, she’s a peer and we do a lot of things together.  She’s a poet and a scholar.  So, we cook together.  She’s from Louisiana, we cook gumbo.  I’m the Caribbean, we cook rice and peas and curry.  We hang out and eat.  We talk about Sylvia Winter who’s a black philosopher.  We talk about Christina Sharp, and then we talk about poetry and we read each other’s work so then I think there’s mentors, those are where they might be a teacher you’ve had or they might be someone you admire.  I don’t know quite how to do that.  I think you go to readings, right?  Go up to the person who you just adored having heard what they read and talk to them about what it meant to you.  Like, I really heard this, I heard that.  Be specific and take notes.  Always take notes at a reading.  Don’t go to a reading without taking notes, because how can you remember what happened?  I mean I can’t.  Even when I was younger, I could not remember, so I’d write and I’d put them in quotes so that I’d know, when I go back, that this was someone’s line with their name like this is so-and-so’s line, at this reading.  And this is me brainstorming but and then I’d say…then I’d go up to them and say “I really like that line about da-da-da-da” and you say it exactly and they go [gasp] — you listened.  You heard me.  You heard me.  “And it made me think da-da-da-da, and I also like”, have a couple of those lines.  Have at least three or four of those lines written down and you say “I really like and that’s a way of engaging someone you do not know that is a poet.  Poetry depends, not entirely, but it depends crucially on reception.  Someone’s gotta receive it.  And then you have to document that you did receive it, that you did hear it and then you engage in that.  Poets love that kind of engagement and I don’t know a poet that would turn that down no matter how advanced and mature they are in their career.  People love that and they will engage.  You can say from there you can say that door is a little bit open for you to say, I hope you don’t mind but would you have coffee or tea with me some time?  Can we get into a conversation, I don’t know if you have time to do this but I would so much appreciate just even a conversation.  So, that might be a way to, someone you don’t know who you want to try to have a relationship with and to open the door to that possibility.

TWH:  Absolutely!  That’s the end of our Fast Five questions.

Special thanks to TWH Tribe Tanisha Hall for transcribing.