Poet Examines Diversity of Violence and Hope

As we prepare for the long holiday weekend, I am eager to erase from memory the pictures of violence from this week’s local, national and international news. Yet I can’t stop thinking about the fatal stabbing of a  23-year-old African American Bowie State University student by a  22-year-old white University of Maryland student in what police called a “totally unprovoked” attack. Or the suicide bombing at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in England that killed 22 people. Or the Montana congressional candidate’s assault on a journalist who approached him with question about healthcare on the eve of the special election there.

Of course this is just a sampling of the stories of violent and inhumane behavior reported daily around the world; the news out of Syria alone can shatter one’s heart, much less their belief in humanity. The political turmoil everywhere seems to have thrown society into chaos.

But periodically throughout the week, I opened my copy of Fabric (2017), a book of poetry by Lucinda Roy, an alumni distinguished professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Science at Virginia Tech University. I had interviewed Roy last year when I was working on an article on the current debate around the nation about legalizing guns on campus. She had known the 23-year-old man who went on a shooting spree on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, killing 32 people before committing suicide. That was just one of a series of horrific events she has witnessed in various parts of the world.

In  Fabric, Roy includes several depictions of violence, from war torn Sierra Leone, where “Children construct an anguished catalog / of wishes: rice, prosthetic limbs, divining rods” to the campus of Virginia Tech, where “Spring or fall it’s a solemn story: Seung –/ hungry, chimerical, his sunglasses winking in the room’s pale light, his sorrow / sinking us both, as if our shoes are stone / tablets and the carpet is mud — waits. Silence / expands like a lung. Cho is under the gun.”

I recently asked Roy a few questions about her book, and have included her answers in their entirety below.

 

Q: Your collection of poems in Fabric offers descriptions of varying forms of violence and abuse as well as a human reaction to suffering. Why did you choose to pull together such a collection?

I was hoping Fabric would be relevant and that it would touch those who, like me, have often been much closer to violence and abuse than we would like. I wanted to write about the most challenging aspects of living in the world. These challenges include the suffering people endure in one of the poorest countries in Africa and challenges that arise in the wake of war. I also included poems about the insidiousness of prejudice, and poems related to the mass shooting we endured at Virginia Tech. These aren’t the only subjects I tackle, however. There are love poems and nature poems, poems about art, and a poem about Jane Austen, too. I wanted to explore experience in all its diversity—not only mine but the experiences of others who may seem, initially at least, to have little in common with us.

There’s a tendency in some contemporary American poetry to write about the self and to avoid the political and the controversial. As a woman of color who has lived and worked on three different continents, that’s not where I want to go with my poetry. Poetry is a genre capable of distilling the most troubling paradoxes and exploring a wide range of experiences. The genre obliges us to look and look again, to peel back the layers of experience and see what we can discover about humanity and the world around us.

Suffering changes us in ways we often can’t predict. If it’s profound enough, it doesn’t allow for falsehoods or pretension. It forces us to confront things honestly; it becomes very difficult to hide behind glib assumptions or clichés. On the other side of suffering there’s something else too. It’s not all pain and sorrow. There is also courage and perseverance, grace and a hard-won joy. I’ve seen that in people, and I’ve attempted to capture it in some of these poems. In the poem about the young girl in the fistula clinic in West Africa, for example, I hope there’s something celebratory in the girl’s determination to “tell the boys no” at the end of the poem. In the series of ekphrastic poems written in response to the amazing African masks in the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond, there are tragic narratives and unrequited love, but there is also the power of ritual and the vitality of the dance.

And in “A Majority of One,” the opening poem, I hope there is defiance. I wanted to write about a racial insult that has haunted me since adolescence. I wanted to tackle the “n” word in such a way that it is robbed of its power to inflict harm. Words can only be used to demean and destroy if we let them. Some words must be resisted through a purposeful transformation. I suppose I hope that’s what some of these poems are—purposeful transformations.

Q: You have been a witness to varying forms of oppression and violence in many parts of the world, is that correct? Can you describe that a little bit?

After I graduated from King’s College, London, I lived and taught for two years in Sierra Leone, a country that has been ravaged in recent years by a brutal civil war. In 2006/2007, I returned to see if I could find out if my students and a family I had been close to had survived. I was able to find the family, and I also located a few of my students. I returned to Virginia Tech after that and was relieved to come back to a country that hadn’t been wounded nearly as much as Sierra Leone, a place where most people lived in relative safety. But that same semester the shootings occurred here at Virginia Tech, and 32 people were killed before the shooter committed suicide. Afterwards, when I realized that the shooter was a student for whom I’d tried to get help, I knew I would have to speak out about campus vulnerability because a tragedy like that could happen anywhere, and we appeared to be a country in denial about the extent and severity of the threat.

I’m biracial. My father was Jamaican, my mother English. When I was born in December 1955, there weren’t many mixed race children around. My mother who had left school at 13 was soon widowed. (My father was 8 when his schooling ended.) I mention this because wealth and privilege shield people from suffering. If you grow up poor, you don’t come into the world thinking it’s fair or that justice is assured. You enter locations more warily, force yourself to become observant as a defense mechanism. At least, I think I did that. But I don’t think it was a disadvantage to grow up this way. In fact, I was very lucky because my parents were the most educated self-educated people I’ve ever known. (My father honed his very basic reading skills by retrieving a copy of Charle Dickens’ Little Dorritt from the trash and teaching himself to read it; my mother got her secondary-school education at forty and became a successful teacher.) I didn’t want this book only to focus on one particular part of the world or a single culture because my own life is a fusion of cultures and differences, and I see the richness in that.

Q: Why is the book titled “Fabric”?

Fabric was one of the few words I felt was broad enough to house the types of poems in the book. The title is taken from a poem in the collection by the same name. It comes at the end of Section II, a section entitled “Domestic Science.” The poems in that section deal with the domestic in the broadest sense of the word, but they’re often a subversion or critique of our assumptions related to domesticity. The word “science” is as important as the word “domestic,” so I wanted the title to suggest the fabric of space/time, the fabrics we wear, and the fabric in the title poem—a sari-length of silk that has been calling to me to sew it into a blouse for many years. I wanted to write about how I was too cowardly and too preoccupied to heed that call.

The same sari fabric is featured on the cover of the book, along with a painting from a Middle Passage series I’m working. It depicts an African artist—a carver of masks like my father, who was the Jamaican Maroon carver, a tradition handed down from father to son since the 1700s. I liked the idea of fusing African/Diasporan and Indian art on the cover. We tend to make gendered assumptions about clothing and fabric, so I also was striving for the male-female balance suggested by the painting and the cloth.

At the end of the poem “Fabric,” I write about how challenging it can be to “baste ourselves / to time and place, all the while praying for permanence to take hold.” I was trying to capture the transience of existence, the way events in our lives seem to undulate between the tenses, and how important it is to dare to make things—a blouse, a painting, a political statement, a poem, a marriage, children, music—because few people in this world have an opportunity to live to their full potential.

Poetry can serve as a kind of bridge between cultures and ways of seeing, a way to bridge the divide of race, gender, and other things that separate us from each other. I hope they also demonstrate that joy lives in the seams of despair. Poetry, especially during a period of extreme division, has the capacity to do the work other kinds of writing can’t do. For me, poetry is how I bear witness to the fabric of life in all its terrible and all its glorious manifestations. I like to think of it as the “god particle” physicists are searching for—the miraculous particle that gives voice to what matters, in a language all its own.

Note: Lucida Roy also is the author of  No Right to Remain Silent: What We’ve Learned from the Tragedy at Virginia Tech (2010).

-Christina L. Lyons

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