“None of What I Create Began With Me”

The “Not Abandon, but Abide” interview series is dedicated to Southern poets abiding by hope in the South. Their poetry actively resists the notion that we all co-sign the actions of the monoculture. Poetry shakes what we thought we knew.

I knew that I needed to involve Marlanda Dekine in “Not Abandon, But Abide” given how connected to place their poetry is. Thresh & Hold is a whole world, in that it really does create a mythical landscape (yet also real) existing across time and populates it with the voices and stories of imagined (yet also actual) people. In other words, it creates the land currently called Georgetown, South Carolina, while also doing so much more than that, too.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi, who judged the 2021 New Southern Voices Poetry Prize, describes Dekine’s book as a “reckoning and a symphony,” both excellent ways to characterize the poetry you’ll find here. It is a symphony because Dekine is able to play, simultaneously, several instruments of knowing (body, ancestry, place, language) and a reckoning because the resulting document of discovery belongs to the poet but also to the reader.  I would call Thresh & Hold an invitation.  I’m an enthusiastic fan.

Dekine works with spoken word and slam poetry, and is the 2023 Spoken Word/Poetry Slam Fellow for South Carolina. I think when you read their work, you will sense in it their attention to the intersection between poem and reader and the belief that language is necessarily an embodied and rooted medium. Dekine begins the bio on their website with the assertion that they are “a poet, a voice, and a presence.” I read Thresh & Hold on the page and also watched it as a collaborative performance, and I suggest you do the same. This interview took place over email in October 2022.

I am hoping we begin with your thoughts about the legibility of one’s own family narrative in Thresh & Hold.  How did you decide what to include (or not) in your portrayals of family?

I have wondered if my work would be perceived as autobiographical, and I have been nervous about that. What I can say is it is and it isn’t. The names of actual ancestors are present, but the poems are not actual accounts of their lives. I enjoy poetry because of the world a poem or poems can make and the questions that can be asked through my poetic process. I read Aimé Césaire (Return to my Native Land) and Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Mother Poem; Ancestors) which led me to masks, persona, dispossession, and dialect. The work of Alice Walker (Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965-1990) and Rita Dove (Thomas and Beulah) helped me feel a kind of permission to incorporate family, both as actual and as myth.

My family tells stories about one another and our ancestors in a very plain-spoken and common way. While eating a meal, it isn’t uncommon to hear a story about a great-great aunt or a cousin who died as a baby in the 1930s. There may be various versions of this one story, and I can allow what flows out of me automatically to tell me which direction I’d like to go or which direction is calling me to create. The process is very spiritual in that way. I utilize automatic writing a lot and it requires that I listen and trust knowing things that I may not know in tangible ways. I may have a family member’s birth certificate as the only record or not even that, so I’m listening beyond the tangible for clues as to who and what this person was. Why I have questions about ancestry is an obsession I cannot explain, except that I’ve had these questions since I was very young.

I agree that any portrayal is the work of the poet’s choices and a part of a larger, created entity, as someone who has been asked about autobiography more than I’d like. That being said, I was so impressed by how full these characterizations felt, how mythical they were in the context of the story.  How intentionally did you begin and end writing Thresh & Hold as a project?  How does this book overlap with other writing you’ve done or hope to do?

I didn’t know I was working on a project or a book. I was spending time with the land around where I grew up, trying to make sense of being alive and trying to be a writer, and remembering stories about family members as well as imagining stories about family members who were passed on before my time. I spoke with an arts administrator at the South Carolina Arts Commission (Ce Scott-Fitz) about ideas around who the “actual planters” were in Plantersville as opposed to the colonial narrative of the great white planters. We talked at length about the local Rice Museum and its histories. I wanted to imagine the untold narratives of those around where I grew up in Plantersville, South Carolina. Who were the people who planted cotton, indigo, and rice? What were their stories and how had their stories made me?

Because of my background in spoken word poetry, I imagined the performance of music and poetry more than a book. While attending MFA programs (NYU Low Residency in Paris; Converse University—I am not enrolled and I did not graduate), I gathered pages and pages of poems that were wondering about these questions. Questions of diversity, inclusion, colonization, and family. All along I wasn’t thinking about a project or a book. I just knew there was a world forming and I wanted to let it out. While in residence with Castle of our Skins (Boston, MA), I had the opportunity to work with a filmmaker (Mahkia Greene), composer (Brittany J. Green), Dancer (Victoria Awkward), and pianist (Zahili Zamora). Together, we created Thresh & Hold: A Communal Ceremony.

I’m curious what you were thinking about during that project—it seems like it came after the poetry, is that right? Was it a work of translation between genres, or something else?

I honestly feel like intuition guides me as I write more so than intention. The production/ceremony happened after the poems were completed but before the book was published. I’d say the performance was more of a work of collaboration across mediums, space, and time. I love the use of the word translation. This was definitely happening to through each artist. I was thinking about my grandmothers and other ancestors during the project and about the music they listened to. I was also thinking a lot about freedom and my connection to who they are, both the good and the bad.

About your book’s thematic interweaving of diversity, inclusion, colonization, and family, it feels like language is tied to all four.  In “Perhaps I Am a Fugitive of Empathy,” the speaker is “Exhausted of singing in / an empire’s hopeful choir.” In “Why We Say ‘The Village,” you talk about “the right / to take up space and name it what we want.” How is language a form of control or liberation in Thresh & Hold

In “Perhaps I Am A Fugitive of Empathy,” the poem ends with words from Nikki Giovanni: “if you don’t understand yourself / you don’t understand anybody else.” I’m not sure but I think the language reclaims the body/bodies and self/selves. The use of white space felt natural, like having room to breathe and wander while making a declaration. Words like “I don’t care about” and “I’ve been sitting with my grandmas / in their photographs” are all about liberation and reclaiming control. This is true for the second poem you mentioned as well. Another poem that comes to mind is “Grain Memory” where gender-neutral pronouns from the Gullah-Geechee language are used and the speaker is told, “Do not be trapped by language.”

How did you decide when to use e/em in Thresh & Hold vs. (for instance) they? 

The language from my ancestors’ mouths felt more important to me than my own. For example, I will always feel I am my parent’s daughter, even though I am gender non-conforming. I tried using the “e/em” pronoun throughout the entire manuscript. I wanted to see what could happen. Recognizing that Gullah-Geechee culture is not gender inclusive, I opted to reclaim and reshape the pronoun. In “Grain Memory,” I decided the speaker would use that language. The speaker adopts the language going forward. I was also inspired by Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s use of symbol and breath in place of pronouns. I’m still interested in the idea of the pronouns being used throughout a collection or performance of poems. Maybe I’ll do it one day!

To me, your use of e/em feels almost understated. I would contrast this “understatement”—I’m not sure if that’s the right idea—with a title like “My Black, Rural, Queer Childhood,” which seems to announce a preoccupation with both memory and identity.

Before colonization of African peoples, gender norms weren’t what they are now. We have been gendered, raced, classed, and so forth. I think I understate my use of “e/em” because our current gender norms are a derivative of European colonization.

Thresh & Hold seems to point to the way that neither identity nor history are static things, yet we persist in thinking them to be so. You note the erasure of Black history in “Preface” and a desire to rewrite the “local Rice Museum” version of history in “Plantersville, South Carolina.” When did this theme first become important in your writing?

The entire collection, Thresh & Hold, can be seen as its own museum, including personal narratives, maps, flora, creatures, etc. The idea that I come from a historic place has been present with me since I was a young child. I think this is when it first became present in my writing – journal entries, homework assignments and such as a child. I grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood and my teachers and early preachers were Black until I was around 10 or 12 years old. Local and national Black history was taught to us very young, including Black spirituality and the brutality endured by those before us. Later, as an adult, I found out that people everywhere didn’t learn the same things.

In “Preface” what might come to the surface is the actual as opposed to the oft-romanticized language of the ‘old South.’ The erased language consists of fiction written as fact. One can easily come across the Preface of the Rice Museum’s pamphlet, A Goodly Heritage, and believe it is true. It was written by studious writers and historians after all. “Plantersville, South Carolina” is a poem meant to take the reader by the hand and show them around a place.

Returning to what you say about being taught Black history very young, I’m thinking of the role elders have in shaping one’s worldview, in your book, Silas, Thelma, Mose, Lizzie. I wonder what these figures reveal about kinds of knowledge?

I think bodily knowledge, especially somatics, becomes important more so than intellectual knowing. There were things my body knew about as a child that I couldn’t put words to. There are things that it knows now that I’m learning to feel into so that I might find the language. A large part of the research for Thresh & Hold included touching ancestral objects and visiting ancestral land. There is a lot of somatic input. Walking barefoot, watching animals, and holding my dead relative’s tools, that sort of thing. I also think there is another kind of knowing that we use to survive and it affects our psychic energy. These knowings can present as mental illness, emotional disorders, or traumas.

Your “Notes & Research” section at the end of Thresh & Hold is a fantastic resource for readers as much as it is a list of citations. What guiding strategy or intention did you have when putting together that list? 

I believe in Black feminism, and I am a Black feminist. This decision came from my knowing that none of what I create began with me. It begins with a maternal and spiritual lineage. Some of this lineage I can touch. Some I can feel but I am unable to name. I may not consciously remember where I learned something, but I know it doesn’t start with me.

I love that. Okay, here is one more question about you. What is your day to day life like? Has Thresh & Hold changed “home” for you? What are you working on, what delights you each day? In other words, what would you want readers to know about you?

I wake up without an alarm most days and I have two cups of coffee. I let my dog out, and I begin to read. I write lines or speak lines into my phone’s voice recorder, lines that come while walking or sitting or doing some household task. Thresh & Hold helps me sit with my “home” as a place of depth and magic. I’d want readers to know that I don’t believe all my ancestors were good people, and I do believe that it is part of my work to reckon with their lives and this place that we were brought to live. I’d want them to know that my favorite thing to do is read my work aloud, and I am grateful for every opportunity I get to do so. I’d want to wink at them and say maybe there’ll be an audiobook on the way.

Thresh & Hold
By Marlanda Dekine
Hub City Press
Published March 29, 2022