We are proud to present Jacqui Germain as our featured artist of March!
Jacqui Germain is a published poet, freelance writer, and contributing Arts and Culture writer with ALIVE Magazine based in St. Louis, MO. She is a 2016 Callaloo Fellow and author of "When the Ghosts Come Ashore," published in 2016 through Button Poetry and Exploding Pinecone Press. She has performed on multiple national stages and been featured on Huffington Post, St. Louis Public Radio, and Ploughshares Journal as part of their Activist-Poet Spotlight Series. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Muzzle Magazine, The Offing, Connotation Press, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and elsewhere, in addition to Sundress Publications' 2015 Best of the Net Anthology and "Crossing the Divide," an anthology of St. Louis poets, published in 2016 by Vagabond Books. Her essays have been published in The New Inquiry, The Establishment, Salon, Feministing, Blavity, and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on historical and contemporary iterations of black, brown, and indigenous resistance, which she believes is deeply urgent work that both exists on the page and extends beyond it. Jacqui is represented by Beotis Creative.
Features editor Nicholas Nichols posed Jacqui some questions, which you can read below.
How’s your spirit been feeling lately?
Funny you should ask—much better, actually. I’d been feeling sort of soggy or murky or just generally laden with things. Heavy, you know? I’d been carrying a lot of things. But I feel lighter. The world feels crisper. It feels like I’m getting my muscles back.
What’s the one question you’re tired of being asked? And why?
How I’m doing, lol. Which is ironic because even though I’ve always hated/avoided the question, I also sort of wish people asked more, and genuinely wanted to hear an honest response. I like being checked on (don’t most people, maybe?) because I tend to isolate myself when I’m struggling. But then there’s also the conflict of not wanting to weigh people down with shit. For the last year or so—and I feel like people are tired of hearing this but—I’ve kind of just disappeared. So a casual, “How are you?” over text or after unexpectedly running into someone after not seeing anyone for months becomes this suddenly complicated, anxiety-inducing moment that feels more intense than it probably should be. Sometimes I’d just rather avoid it altogether.
What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
The idea that this year could be better than the last few. And the knowledge that it can only be better if I put in the careful work of making it so.
How did you find poetry?
It’s kind of a boring story. I loved reading when I was younger. I mean, I flew through books. My parents always said that taking me to the library saved them so much money. So I think I had a different handle on the possibility of words and language at an early age, and it showed up in the, you know, one or two creative writing assignments that elementary school kids are exposed to. Limericks and things.
My librarian one year—who I adored because she knew so many things about books—picked my poem out of the entire class as an example of a good poem and she was just gushing about it. And I was like, Oh, someone I look up to likes the poems I write; I should write more. I read a book about Phillis Wheatley that same year, I think, and it stuck with me.
What keeps you writing poems?
I’m convinced that poems can change the world—which is stupid and childish, maybe. But it’s also just a really dramatic way of saying that I believe that the written word can transform and shift and push and challenge and twist and reconsider and listen and respond and shake and build. To me, poems—taking the liberties that they do with grammar, punctuation, space, etc—offer such potential, if only more of us were imaginative and brave enough to really explore it. I’m not sure if that makes sense.
I think I keep writing poems because of their ability and track record of helping me evolve, and helping my friends evolve, and so on. I have this quote tattooed on my arm: “The first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in.”
I really believe that, at the core of my being. At a time when so much of our world seems in flux, and crisis appears everywhere, and people are so willing to say Fuck it, and take a risk they normally wouldn’t—it’s crucial for us to write into that energy, I think. To create into it. Not the frantic panic, necessarily, but the opportunity. The opportunity for small kinds of freedom. The opportunity for small kinds of reclamation. Remembering that gives me a kind of peace.
What did you want to be as a little kid?
Honestly? An archeologist, at one point. A marine biologist. The owner of a record label. I wanted to start my own school for a while. An orthopedic surgeon. Someone in a large office with very large windows with a few tastefully placed plants.
What was the last thing that moved you emotionally? And why?
I had a moment where I was lying in bed next to my partner the other day and thinking about the last few weeks. We were both naked and I was laying on his chest and I remember being suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude for how gentle he is with my body. Like, certainly there are ranges of intensity and whatnot, right? But I felt safe with him. I trust his hands and his shoulders and his back. I trust his body lying next to me. My safety and autonomy are things he proactively works to prioritize, in all kinds of contexts. And I got emotional realizing I’d never experienced that around a guy before, and realizing that many women and femmes interested in male partners never feel that. Ever.
Where has your mind been since November 8th, 2016?
Everywhere. Scattered. Kind of a controlled flailing, if you will.
Why write about St. Louis and not your home of Ohio?
Well, for one, home and belonging have always been a strange thing to me. We moved around a bit when I was growing up, so I don’t really think of Ohio (or Cincinnati, specifically), as home, in any real grounded sense. I grew up in a majority white suburb of Cincinnati, and lots of things about Cincinnati and Ohio will always be familiar to me—like, we have the best ice cream and chili in the country, and you can fight me on that—but in terms of writing about place, St. Louis as a city is far more familiar and malleable to me than Cincinnati ever was. St. Louis is actually the city I’ve lived in longer than anywhere else.
Can you recall a major obstacle in writing the book and how you overcame it?
Before it was even a fully-formed book, I started judging it. It felt like a lot of people had been waiting for a collection from me and were expecting it to be this ground-breaking, earth-shattering thing. As I was editing it, I was sure that people would read it and be disappointed or underwhelmed by it. Which was weird. After it was published I was almost handing it to people and apologizing at the same time, lol.
I think, looking back, I put a lot of pressure on myself. It’s not that I’m not proud of it, but it’s a first chapbook. There’s still so much left for me. It’s just the first one. I think I get distracted by other people a lot instead of just concentrating on my own work, my own process, and learning how to develop the environment and habits I need to produce things I’m proud of. That was a major obstacle for me. I fell into that desperately deep hole of comparing myself and my work to my friends and peers instead of just celebrating and being grateful for them. I don’t know if I’ve overcome it, to be honest. But I’ve been working through it.
Does violence have a place in Black Liberation?
Yes, which can mean a number of things, but assuming you mean physical violence. In a literal sense, I’ve been thinking a lot about a willingness to be bloodied in order to make sure people survive this country. So like, point blank, how many of us are willing to literally throw hands to protect one of our trans siblings from a group of drunk men harassing them? What are we willing to risk for each other’s lives?
White supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, American nationalism—all of these structures need targets in order to function. White supremacy requires Black people to be relegated to the margins, no matter what our occasional hypervisibility might suggest. Capitalism literally needs poverty, and deliberately maintains it. American nationalism needs war, needs imperialism, needs the language of terrorism located in foreign places. So when we talk about Black Liberation, which wants to disrupt, deconstruct, and destroy all of those things, we’re talking about work that’s already steeped in violence.
But more than answering this question, I’m always interested in how and why the relationship between violence and Black resistance/liberation/freedom is so contested and narrowly defined. Like, I also see violence as it relates to Black liberation being in proximity to love. It’s also in proximity to discipline. It’s in proximity to kinship. If we know that Black people aren’t these thoughtlessly violent beasts—if we believe that Black people are complex and multifaceted human beings, then why not with this, too?
What is the future for America if it continues on its path?
Can hope be found in literature?
I think so.
If you could imagine a Black utopia, what would it look like?
I actually don’t know how to answer that question yet. Not in literal terms, anyway. Like, I could say a Black utopia looks anti-capitalist. Or I could say that in a Black utopia, patriarchy would be over. But what does that mean?
I think, especially for folks who are concerned with Black liberation, we have to be willing to admit that we don’t know all the answers yet. I know it’s not “cool” or “woke” to say you don’t know something but, like, if I’m still learning how to love and take care of myself, and love and take care of other people, I certainly don’t know the specifics of a Black utopia. I think we have to be honest about what we need first before we can imagine a place where those needs are met.
“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.” – Octavia Butler
I’m interested in your thoughts on science fiction and why more writers of color aren’t using it to their advantage.
I mean, I guess I’m not wholly convinced writers of color aren’t already doing that. Part of me wants to say that science fiction isn’t portrayed as a genre that welcomes writers of color—but also we’ve been dreaming up things and making up stories for literally centuries.
When it comes to art, certainly, whenever I notice that people of color are underrepresented in whatever space, I just assume it’s already poppin’ elsewhere, and probably in another more inventive, less recognizable variation. There are so many things people of color have been doing for decades—but it’s in a slightly different form, or isn’t in English, or doesn’t have a name at all, or isn’t written down and published by recognizable presses, so it vanishes. Or people assume it never existed in the first place.
If you had the opportunity to speak to yourself at the beginning of your writing career, what do’s and don’ts would you have established?
Read more. Read diligently, read casually, just read more. You have to keep yourself, your spirit, your energy, and your creativity all well-fed if you want to produce anything worthwhile. Also, take your time. It’s possible to write with urgency without rushing through the work. Also, read more.
In regards to the poem “Sankofa,” I’m interested to hear about your thought process in the piece. Sankofa means to go back and get it, but we the readers are faced with this heavy cesura and/or erasure.
It’s actually not an erasure. There are a handful of words omitted throughout, but the bulk of the poem is just formatted to have a great number of visibly distracting, seemingly inconsistent spaces across the text. The idea of the piece, and the reason for both the poem title “Sankofa” and the chapbook’s title, When the Ghosts Come Ashore, was that I wanted to imagine a world in which the past could come back and sit next to us. Chat with us over breakfast. Walk with us through a park. Even stand alongside us when while we protest.
The people we imagine as ancestors, as our foremothers, guiding us or watching over us or what have you. I wanted to imagine a world in which those people could literally come back and interact with us. Literally come back and, as I’m writing “Sankofa,” hover next to my elbow or shuffle the letters or push some words around on the page because they’re bored and invisible and why not let their presence be known? Why not flick a word or two onto the floor?
The larger conversation, to me, is about what it means to seriously consider history. You can’t wrestle with a thing from the past without making space for it in the present. Something has to shift. You can’t excavate something without making space for it. You can’t face the past without disturbing the present. All this talk of reparations and whichever government apologizing for this and that genocide and whatever else about the Civil Rights Movement and what have you—it blows my mind that people think they can travel down those holes of history and come out unchanged, and expect the rest of us to do the same.
In the poem “The Harvest,” there is a change in alignment from left to right halfway through the poem. Why?
Well, first, the change in alignment represents a shift in the poem. There was sort of an escalation to that point, and then a kind of de-escalation afterward. Second, I wanted the reader to feel slightly off-kilter while reading it. Not deeply unsettled or anything, just not fully within their comfort zone, if that makes sense.
What are some of your feelings about what seems to be a proliferation of poetry in the mainstream? For example: Danez Smith and Warsaw Shire.
I think it’s wonderful—if anything, maybe it means we’ll stop seeing those painfully unimaginative, reoccurring “Is Poetry Dead?” essays pop up every few years. Poetry can be such a liberatory space for people of color, as so much of art can. So I think being exposed to poetry is an important part of feeding our imagination, our creativity, our capacity for love, our ability to explore things differently.
I think it’s important, too, to talk about which poems and which poets are in these mainstream spaces. It matters that a queer Black poet like Danez is read in Buzzfeed Reader or heard on the Colbert Show. It absolutely matters that their work is visible. It matters that Warsan Shire, a brown-skinned woman poet from the continent, is writing about place and country and citizenship and memory. It matters that her work is visible. I’m far, far less interested in, say, reading Calvin Trillin in The New Yorker, for example. That’s far less (read: not at all) interesting to me.
How has your view of crafting poetry changed, if at all, since the release of your first book?
How hasn’t it changed? I think going through the process of putting a manuscript together changes you, whether it eventually becomes a book or not. Certainly publishing it does—seeing it in book form, thumbing through the pages, seeing your name along the spine. If anything, I’ve slowed down a lot, and gradually stopped beating myself up for it. I used to write 3-5 decent poems a week, but that frequency has since declined considerably, for a number of reasons. I’ve felt really shitty about it for some time now, but I’ve learned to be patient with myself and my craft. I’ve learned how important it is to keep my spirit and creativity well-fed if I’m going to produce anything worthwhile.
Perhaps more than anything, I’ve learned how much environment affects my ability to create. There are certain things I need in place—certain amounts of stability, of solitude, of stimulation, of sleep, of water, of peace of mind—in order to be able to take the risks I want to take, and become the kind of writer I’d like to become.
Well, I guess the easy and unfortunate answer would be patriarchy and racism. Shout out to intersecting oppressions. I mean, we know contributions don’t correlate to visibility or success in this country. Like, this country can literally need your “contributions” so badly they’ll go to war to keep you enslaved, and you’ll still be treated like shit for centuries afterward. Hell, you can build complete cities, college campuses, supply the whole economy for entire regions. It really doesn’t matter.
What’s on your music rotation right now?
Been listening to BlkSwn (Smino Brown) a lot. He released it earlier in March, and it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard before. I also get pretty ridiculous when “Caroline” (Aminé) comes on. I know all the words and most of the ad-libs. The video is truly the best thing I’ve seen in so long. ANTI (Rihanna), always. Also, in all seriousness, I can’t sit still when Migos starts playing. When I need something slower, I reach for City and Colour’s Bring Me Your Love.
If you could have dessert with any writer that has died, who would it be, what would y’all eat, and why?
Okay, the dessert would be a triple layer chocolate cake with chocolate filling and chocolate icing with chocolate chips on top. And two scoops of Cookies N’ Crème ice cream from UDF, which is a gas station in Ohio known for their ice cream. As for the writer, probably Lorraine Hansberry. She was a literal badass. It warms me to know there’s a legacy of Black women writers who were considered a threat to the American empire. Remembering that encourages me to be braver with my own writing, and to push myself beyond writing, too.
Some would describe writing as entering a cave. What do you bring into the cave to find your way back out?
I’m really not sure. I haven’t been in the cave for a while, and I’m a very different person than I was the last time I was there. I don’t think that’s something I’ll really be able to identify until I take the time to develop my own habits around my craft. I’m still trying to identify my needs, as the writer I am now. And that’s different from the writer I’ve been. So I’m not exactly sure how to fully answer that yet. Leisure reading helps a lot—not in an escapism kind of way, but just to slow down and shift gears for a half hour or so. It’s a very grounding, mindful experience for me.
“I had one therapist who told me that every neurosis and blockage could be traced to a locus of fear. She would ask me, again and again, “What is the fear?” and though I never liked my answers—alternately “death” and “abandonment”—I became obsessed with asking the question. For white police officers who commit murder, for white politicians and heads of television networks or publishing houses or universities who—though they admit their inefficacy in protecting, promoting and celebrating minorities, do not step down from their own posts to make way—the answer, always, is the fear of relinquishing control.” – Morgan Parker, The New York Times
“I present these questions to admit again, like so many black theorists and activists and writers have known and said for decades, that black Americans more often than not are placed in incredibly unnatural social and psychological predicaments with few resources to navigate them without some cost to either themselves or their community, or oftentimes both. We’re existing in a crisis moment that, again, calls on us to fight for our survival in a myriad of ways. My hope now is that our sanity and humanity will remain whole for the duration of the fight.” – Jacqui Germain, Salon
Why isn’t the black mental state being cared for and researched more? Where do you believe the line should be drawn for a person of color in their own lives by how much of the outside world they carry with them?
It’s always been difficult for me to draw that line for myself—even as a kid, I carried everything. I absorbed everything. I think as a person of color, as a Black woman, you’re taught to always be willing to rearrange that line to figure out how best to survive. So it has always felt in flux for me, in a way.
I feel bad bringing up the protests in Ferguson again, but when the uprising happened, that floppy-ass line flew the fuck away. I didn’t think I could afford to keep it. For a lot of us, protesting every night and tweeting and documenting and going to meetings and doing jail support—we carried everything we witnessed and experienced with us.
It felt like we didn’t have time to establish those kinds of protective lines or boundaries. It all happened so fast. And kept happening for months. We didn’t have time to be discerning about details, at least not consistently. I was terrified for myself and for my loved ones and for the city I called home—and I believe deeply in the likelihood that Black people experience fear more often than they realize, and that they’re socialized to perform it as something else—so I just grabbed everything, absorbed as much as I could, and held on for dear life. We’d figure it out later, you know? We’ll deal with it, sort it out, talk it through, remember it—later.
But all that unprocessed shit turned into me sort of demanding that other people be willing to essentially give up their boundaries and be in this unhealthy place with me. In my head, that was what showing up required of us. I couldn’t imagine healthy ways to resist—the crisis seemed too big and too heavy. And I’d been sitting with that tension for a while, unwilling to unpack it. But some time later, I read this interview in Kweli Journal with Ariana Brown, and she talks about being “responsible for the spirits [she calls] into a room or onto a page.” She says, “The spirits I conjure are there first and foremost to protect and support the people I am writing for, second to disturb our oppressors. That is the truth of my work.”
I remember the first time I read that, I closed the window on my computer and just sat staring at the screen for a while. And by the time I was ready to revisit it, weeks had passed. First and foremost to protect and support the people. First and foremost. Second, to disturb our oppressors. In all the tumult, my god, I was willing to let our collective well-being be collateral. It was a wake-up call that gave me so much peace to internalize. The line between the outside world and what we carry with us matters. It matters so much.
What’s next for Jacqui Germain?
In regards to poetry? Figuring out what my own practice looks like; I’ve never taken the time to do that before. Developing healthy habits and traditions around my work. Learning how to be more disciplined, more loving, more discerning. Starting my 30/30 for National Poetry Month. Drinking more water. Reading more books. Reading so many more books. And later, working on a full-length manuscript.