A Telling Erasure: An Interview with Candace Wiley

Candace Wiley, along with Monifa Lemons, has carved out a place in the South where poets of color in varying stages in their career can come and build family by way of their craft. Wiley was born in S.C., graduated with her B.A. from Bowie State University, an H.B.C.U. in M.D., her M.A. from Clemson University, and her M.F.A. at the University of South Carolina. Wiley has recently finished a Fulbright Fellowship in San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia. The town was founded by Africans who had escaped from Cartagena slavery and the people have their own language and customs that trace back to the Bantu and Kikongo in West Africa. Candace is now living, teaching, and writing in South Carolina.

Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, 2015, Electronic Corpse, Prairie Schooner, pluck!, Jasper, and Home is Where, among others. Wiley granted Chaparral an interview.

I.S. Jones: So tell me how you and Monifa Lemons came to co-create The Watering Hole.

Candace Wiley: We always refer to the Cave Canem South workshops, launched by Kwame Dawes, as our parentage. In February 2010 and June 2011, Cave Canem had two rare southern workshops, in Columbia, South Carolina facilitated by Nikky Finney, Frank X Walker, Patricia Smith, and of course Dr. Dawes. Monifa (co-founder of The Watering Hole) and I were both in attendance and it was that first taste of the “black poetry planet” that we would continue pursuing years later when we created our own space.

I was in an M.F.A. program at the time, so to workshop with all of these African American poets and facilitators was in stark contrast to the typical feel, atmosphere, and intention of an M.F.A. workshop. It refreshed me. Monifa, on the other hand, was in the Spoken Word world, which in our area often targets performance more than workshop. The experience was poignant and necessary for both of us.

In 2012, Monifa and I went to Pencil Shout, hosted by Nikky Finney. She invited some writers from Kentucky and South Carolina to gather together in Kentucky and talk about poetry, blackness, womanhood, and mindfulness. A few weeks later, I attended Callaloo in Providence, R.I. with Vievee Francis and Greg Pardlo. Those two weeks were soul shifting. These were pivotal moments for us. In 2012, I moved to Columbia, South America. Suddenly, not being a part of a writing community, after three years in the M.F.A. and Spoken Word communities, I felt off kilter. The great thing was that since I was a Fulbright Fellow, I had the time and freedom to pursue the books that I wanted to read and write the topics I wanted to write in the style I wanted to write them in. I grew a lot during that time period, but at the same time I realized how much I needed a writing community.

In 2013, Monifa reached out to me, while I was still overseas, about putting together a retreat to replace the defunct Cave Canem South workshops. I looked at her original plan, cut the fat, and outlined a strategy for us—two women who had no real status in the writing community—to build this vision. We put out a call through social media and it worked! That first retreat was facilitated by Tyehimba Jess, Remica Bingham-Risher, and Lita Hooper-Simanga. Their generosity and graciousness changed everything for us.
That first retreat was so barebones. Everyone pitched in to make it happen. Anyone and everyone—fellows, facilitators, Monifa, and I—were moving chairs, lighting the fireplace, frying fish, scrubbing plates, and going on store runs. There was no room for hierarchy in such a small operation, but that really forced everyone to See each other and value each other. It’s been that way ever since. We learn and grow at each other’s feet.

Jones: What have TWH Fellows (past and present) taught you about yourself and your own writing process?

Wiley: One thing about TWH which surprises me, and it shouldn’t but it’s something I hold dearly, is that I have the power to create the world and community that I want to live in. That may come off as abstract and egoistical, but this is what I’m trying to say: if I want to live in a community of giving people who are concerned about each other as human beings, who are interested in the emotional, artistic, and career development of each other, who are genuinely motivated to help each other, who can think of nothing better to do with their lives than talk about the art, produce the art, and help each other in the art, if that’s the place I want to live in, then that’s the place I need to create.

We try to select our fellows very strategically and actually charge our graduate fellows with the task of choosing the entering fellows. In the application, the poetry is the major component. Then we look at the cover letter to see if this is the kind of person who would enter the space thinking of community. This is the same thing we look at when we solicit facilitators. We ask facilitators who we know have a heart for community. We try to collect the puzzle pieces for the dopest retreat well before anyone packs a suitcase.

What I get out of TWH Tribe (that’s what our fellows call themselves) is this reinvestment in an artist community, an artist’s way of life, and human-to-human openness. Every year, I’m just more stimulated to live the other 360 days of my life as if I’m still in the retreat space. It’s always a cold shower stepping away from the TWH Retreat, but I try to hold onto some of that TWH tribe warmth. At TWH Retreat, I’m surrounded by all of these great writers who are so dedicated and passionate that it’s hard to leave and not carry some of that dedication and passion with you.

Jones: Your own work has been published widely in places such as pluck!, The New Sound, and Prairie Schooner, and most notably The Best American Poetry 2015. You mentioned in conversation that once your poem “Dear Black Barbie” was published, it wasn’t as a big a deal as you had initially made it. What did this particular publication teach you about visibility and voice as an artist?

Wiley: Let me start by saying that my B.A.P. publication was and is still an incredibly big deal! I’d taught Best American Poetry for several years. As soon as I began to teach poetry, I was teaching the B.A.P. anthology as a textbook. I love David Lehman. His work in building this corner of the industry is necessary. I love Sherman Alexie, who has always been a voice for poets and writers of color and who edited B.A.P. 2015. I love Denise Duhamel. “Dear Black Barbie” is an After Poem inspired by her poetry collection Kinky. I love Prairie Schooner, which nominated the poem in the first place—-a poem that I’d started under the tutelage of Ed Madden in U.S.C.’s M.F.A. program. This publication was a dream for which universe had lined up the stars and colluded on my behalf. It was an enormous deal! Your question seems to invite a response that indicates that I’ve transcended publication in some way. Nah. Not there yet. I was ecstatic!

The thing is, I was notified of my acceptance probably eight months before the world knew. That’s a lot of time to get used to the idea in silence. (They’d asked us not to announce it.) I had time to revel in my own bigness and come to terms with my own smallness. These achievements lead to a kind of humility before the industry. Though I’d excelled with this poem, looking out into the rest of the field makes me cognizant of my own smallness among all of these greats-—living and historical. Being a Best American Poet is amazing for me and is yet another source of motivation. I can’t rest on that laurel and expect to still progress as a writer.

What is very sobering is that when I tell non-poets that I’m a Best American Poet, it doesn’t mean anything to them. It doesn’t matter. They respond with more energy when I say, “I fried some fish last night.” That also keeps me from thinking more of myself than I should. It just reminds me to keep putting the work in.

Jones: On top of being a poet, professor, and director of a nonprofit, you also write about Afrofuturism. Even though the plight of persons of color has largely shaped Sci-Fi as we know it, why do you think it is lacking in diverse voices? Do you feel your own work seeks to engage the constant danger that black and brown bodies face or does your work approach race and race relations in an even more subversive way?

Wiley: It’s hard to be a writer or reader in a genre that doesn’t seem to be invested in you. In general, Fantasy and Sci-Fi pretend that people of color and otherwise othered people don’t exist at all in an enchanted yesteryear or a scientific future or that they don’t exist with any significance (in numbers, purpose, presence, etc.).

Afrofuturism works to write people of color into these genres. My poetic work explores space, the deep sea, mythology, and speculative futures as part of the African diaspora. I try to address questions that I’ve had in ways that are reasonable within any of these alternate universes.

Q: Why haven’t we found bodies from the Middle Passage?
A: Because Africans who were tossed or jumped overboard during the Middle Passage were transformed by Yoruba deities into colorful undead merfolk.

Q: From where does the legend of the Flying African begin?
A: From a Klingon transporter on a Bird of Prey warship.

Q: Where do giants like Goliath come from?
A: Well, when a human and a Klingon really love each other,…

Q: Why do police shoot unarmed black people?
A: Because they are mutants who can shapeshift.

As it stands, the mainstream U.S. culture doesn’t see us in the past (Fantasy). They don’t see us in the future (Sci-Fi). How can I reasonably expect for them to see us in the present? If they don’t believe we exist as three-dimensional humans in the pasts or futures of the most imaginative genres we have, why would I believe they see us as three-dimensional humans in present reality? Often Fantasy and Sci-Fi texts establish a framework through which the author presents her vision of the best of all worlds (even if only momentarily, even in dystopian texts), and in those spaces, non-white, non-cis, non-het. folks are a rarity. It’s a seemingly strategic erasure when my image and the images of the people I love don’t exist anywhere except for this moment—-this moment in which I live and breathe. And this moment, too, is precarious. Just look at the Orlando tragedy. By simply living in our differences, we can be erased by the fear of that very beauty.

Jones: What is on the horizon for Candace Wiley, in terms of poems or research? Is there anything you are excited about?

The Watering Hole is fundraising for our fourth annual winter retreat, Dec. 26-30, located as always on Lake Marion at Santee State Park, South Carolina, among Live Oaks dripping Spanish Moss, pristine lake views, and glimpses of curious wildlife. This year, we’ll have phenomenal, award-winning facilitators: Evie Shockley, L. Lamar Wilson, Bettina Judd, Sharan Strange, and Dasan Ahanu. The application period closed in August, but the readings are free and open to the public, so we’d love to have you swing by!

The Watering Hole is also planning a summer retreat series. Stay tuned for news about that.

As a teacher, I’ve been pursuing two ideas in my literature classes this semester. In one set of classes, we’re exploring the ways in which black women navigate, compromise, and protect what they individually view as personal freedom. In part, this involves understanding the political and social constraints for black women that are embedded into contemporary U.S. culture and where these come from. We do this using bell hooks. Then we read for where hooks’s theories stand, fail, or need scaffolding in Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Patricia Smith, Ntozake Shange, Nnedi Okorafor and other women writers of the African diaspora, including Warsan Shire and Beyonce.

In another set of classes, we’re following the idea of “Waste People” in U.S. Literature, with a lens trained on the ways that low-income white and black people intersect. As our theoretical foundation, we’re using Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, Douglas A. Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. We look at how Africans in America appear or fail to appear in so-called standard American Literature texts, as well as how lower class Caucasian Americans appear in so-called standard African American Literature texts. The idea is to give students an historical context of which they are most likely unaware, connect this context to the talking points in our current political arena, and to follow the strategic historical division of low-income black and white people, who have more political and social interests in common than not.

Finally, I’m finishing an Afrofuturist poetry collection and giving readings at various universities and bookstores right now. If you are hiring poets, contact us at twhtribe@twhpoetry.org. We’d love to come visit you!