E.J. ANTONIO IN CONVERSATION WITH DAVID LAWTON
E.J. Antonio is a recipient of fellowships from the Hurston / Wright Foundation, the Cave Canem Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is the author of the chapbooks Every Child Knows (Premier Poets Chapbook Series, 2007) and Solstice (Red Glass Books, 2013) and a CD, Rituals in the marrow: Recipe for a jam session. Find E.J.'s poetry in the great weather for MEDIA anthology, The Other Side of Violet.
David Lawton: I am curious, E.J., to know the essential poets you return to for inspiration.
E.J. Antonio: Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Sekou Sundiata, Tyehimba Jess. When I worked up my courage to take my first workshop back in 2000/2001, the instructor would lend me books by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Rita Dove from her personal library. I enjoy their work because it's narrative, well crafted, and accessible to a wide audience of readers. Sekou Sundiata was the first poet who sounded to me the way people say I sound to them when I'm reading - he sounded like he was singing. The sound, the music of the words was just as important as the written words. He didn't separate the components, which made perfect sense to me because I've never understood how or why that disconnect exists in modern poetry. Tyehimba Jess deconstructs form and reconstructs it in new ways while holding on to the music of the words. I'm not a formalist and have felt confined by the rhythms inherent in a lot of forms. Tyehimba Jess showed me through his "sonic sonnets" that it is possible to break those rhythms to allow for improvisation.
DL: Because I know how much jazz music has influenced your work, I would also like to know the jazz artists you return to for inspiration as well.
EJA: For me, the term "jazz" encompasses all the different genres of music I heard growing up in East and Central Harlem. If you asked me this question when I was eleven years old, I would have told you Nancy Wilson. When I was twelve, it was Nancy Wilson and Billie Holiday. In my twenties, it was Nancy Wilson, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. But it was also Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and Johnny Mathis and the Jackson 5 and the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and Lionel Richie and all the Latin music coming from the record stores. Today the list is endless because it is music that inspires me. Right now, if I could find someone who can get me into a Yoyo Ma Silk Road Expedition rehearsal just so I can write, that would be a dream.
DL: The influence of jazz music in your work is most evident to me in the musicality of your delivery. Swinging and laying back brilliantly, often without accompaniment. But the performance won't work if the words don't. Can you share with your fellow poets how you work towards this effect?
EJA: Actually, it's not something I work towards. Everyone has their own internal rhythm. Much like a fingerprint, it is unique to the person and very much influenced by culture, upbringing, living conditions, etc... Some welcome it, others fight it, some can't hear it. In my case, all the rhythms of my childhood growing up in East and Central Harlem in the 50s, 60s and 70s come out when I write. It has been this way since I started writing poetry. My writing style utilizes internal rhyme within the lines, which helps to keep the musicality flowing through the poems. And my delivery style is a combination of me, Nancy Wilson and my grandmother who was a "whooping" minister.
DL: Years ago you featured for me at the late, lamented Jujomukti Tea Lounge, bringing along a couple of musicians, including a French Horn. They complimented your reading so well. Coloring the background. A lot of times musicians almost tend to compete with readers. What is the key for developing a collaboration that leads the instrumentalists into the moment of the poem?
EJA: First, figure out who and where you are musically. Second, ask yourself what instrument you hear when you read your work a loud. Third, find an instrumentalist that both suits your style and has played for and respects singers. Why? Instrumentalists who accompany and respect singers are usually good listeners when it comes to the human voice and don’t mind sharing the stage. Listening is the key to how well any collaboration will work. Then give it a try. At worst, you won’t like it. And, at best, you’ll discover a new dimension to your reading style. Lastly, understand that collaboration means different things to different people. Some are content to let the music take center stage over the poem. Others want the music to be back drop for the poem. For me, my words are just as important as the music, and the music is just as important as my words, and I strive for that equalization.
DL: "Geography of the Changing Body: Hands" - your piece in our latest anthology - is a beautiful exploration of the passage of years through the physical. I feel like maybe it is part of a series. Am I right? Regardless, I would like to hear about its development.
EJA: "Geography of the Changing Body" is a series of poems that started out as an exploration of the human body but has morphed into an exploration of change. All the poems start out as prose poems. Most were written during the April 30/30 challenge (i.e., write one poem a day for the month of April). The majority will remain prose poems. Some will change form. "Geography of the Changing Body: Hands" is a poem written during the 30/30 challenge. It is a quickly drawn map that explores how the human body uses its hands from cradle to elder years, how time’s structural changes alter their use, how the psychological trains them to be gentle one minute and weapons the next.
DL: Thank you, E.J. Can you tell us what you are working on currently?
EJA: Well I’m in the process of editing the Geography of the Changing Body poems. And, speaking of collaboration, I’m a member of the Jazz & Poetry Choir Collective (“JPCC”), and we’re preparing for our annual gig at the Bahai Center in NYC in December. The JPCC is a group of instrumentalists and poets that strive to have words and music reach a synergistic level. The group is improvisational in its approach to the work, which creates all sorts of unusual interactions. Of course, I’m writing new work and who knows where that will take me...
E.J. Antonio's work "Geography of the Changing Body: Hands" can be found in The Other Side of Violet (great weather for MEDIA, 2017).
Poetry and prose submissions for great weather for MEDIA anthologies are open October 15 to January 15.