Keisha-Gaye Anderson

the door

me and Nina: Q&A with author Monica Hand

February 5, 2012

Nina Simone put a spell on me the first time I heard her deep, earthy voice. I knew that her sound was a potent truth, distilled from a long and complex journey.

Monica Hand’s first collection of poetry, me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2011), echoes the earnestness of the ‘High Priestess of Soul’ through rhythmic, honest, and revealing verse that skillfully plays with form and perspective. It’s an inward and outward look at the currents that move us through life, which can either engulf us or wash us clean.

I sat down recently with Monica, a book artist, Cave Canem fellow, and award-winning poet, to discuss me and Nina.

KGA--I feel like this book was a long time in the making. Talk about the evolution of this collection.

MH--The first Nina poem was written during a Caven Canem Regional workshop, led by Kate Rushin in 2007. I finished the manuscript in January 2010 and it won the Kinereth Gensler prize later that year. I have been moving towards this moment, my first full-length publication, for much longer. There have been many other poems and a few unpublished manuscripts. This is the first one to make it from the file cabinet to the bookstore. I am grateful to have finally reached this milestone.

KGA--What does poetry allow you to say that other literary forms do not?

MH--Poetry is a window from which you can look outside of yourself into the world and a mirror from which you can see inside of yourself. Poems do not have to be linear or representational. They can be painterly, epigrammatic, and wild. What distinguishes a poem from other literary forms is being redefined. I am interested in hybrid forms that combine verse and longer, more prosaic lines. In some of the poems in the manuscript, I even experiment with dialogue.

KGA--There are many conversations with and about Nina Simone in the text. Talk a bit about this thread that runs through the book, as well as the title.

MH--My intention was to write beyond biography and autobiography. I am happiest when the “Nina” and the “me” blur. Regret, loss, alienation, the need to be touched, joy, jubilation, and hope—these are emotions everyone has experienced at one time or another. I was interested in learning more about these states and at the same time chronicle, in part, a significant period in African American history. me and Nina is the story I used to contextualize the emotional impact of the journey one takes towards self-actualization in a world that would deny you an easy path.

The book is a fugue – a theme is stated, then repeated and then varied with accompanying contrapuntal lines. This is what I was thinking when I created the different voices that speak in the collection. I was also thinking of fugue or fugue state as in a disordered state of mind, in which somebody wanders from home and experiences a loss of memory related only to the previous, rejected environment. There are a lot of poems about what is remembered and what is not remembered. Memory is quite unreliable in that we often have very selective memory. I think my favorite two lines in the entire manuscript are from “Daddy Bop”: some truth some lies I’m telling you/some truth some lies I’m telling you.

KGA--Who is Nina Simone to you?

MH--When I first began the project, Nina Simone was an exquisite musician that I admired. Along the way I realized that she was so much more. She was a queen, a trendsetter, a liberator, a warrior, and a role model. I had a major breakthrough when I realized that I first fell in love with her music when I was a teenager and that her music didn’t just sooth me. Her music inspired me. Her example helped me feel better about myself as a black female. Through her eyes, I saw myself as beautiful, talented and strong. Her example helped many black people – young and old – feel encouraged in the face of adversity and racism. The poem “Libation” is my praise poem to her.

KGA--You employ a few different poetic forms in the collection. How do you arrive at decisions about form? How essential is the form of the poem in conveying meaning?

MH--I am attracted to forms because they help me manage the madness in my head and to write about the madness in the world. I actually find freedom in the constraints. Often I discover words and language choices that I don’t think I would have discovered otherwise if I had not been writing in a particular form. However when the form becomes too restrictive, I fracture it. Everything around us is breaking down. Poems need to reflect the times we live in. I write within what poet Saeed Jones calls queer poetics: “Queer implies a slipperiness, a subversion of expectations and conventions, and an inability to sit still, a refusal to obey.”

While working on the manuscript I became obsessed with the use of anagrams. I would spend hours annotating the words I found in a root word. I was constantly awed by what I discovered in this process. It stunned me that when I first looked at the word “daughter,” the first word I saw was “hurt.” The poet Fannie Howe, wrote, “All poets write in hopes of discovering something that they didn’t know before, something that only the words, let loose can reveal."

Poetic forms help me let loose.

KGA--Harlem and the city in general also seem to have a big impact on your work. Talk about that.

MH--Right now I live in the Bronx but I lived in Harlem while I was writing me and Nina. I moved to New York in October 2004 and lived in Harlem for 7 years. I loved living in Harlem and hope to move back there some day. The very first day I stepped off the train at 125th and Lenox, I felt like I had stepped into history and was face-to-face with my cultural legacy. This is the place where Langston Hughes lived and other poets, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance.

KGA--How did you become interested in poetry? Give us a little background on your evolution as a poet.

MH--My mother introduced me to poetry. The first poems I knew were bible verses and nursery rhymes. Later, the young people who taught in the Seton Hall University Upward Bound program at that I attended my senior year of high school further nurtured my interest in poetry. I've been hooked since.

KGA--What do you hope readers will take away from this collection?

MH--I hope readers enjoy the collection and that they find poems that resonate with them. In the telling, there is the healing.

Monica earned her MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation from Drew University. She is a Cave Canem fellow and founding member of Poets for Ayiti, a diverse collective of poets committed to the power of poetry to transform and educate. Monica also designs unique artist’s books, chapbooks and blank books. She founded and directed the Poetry Slam Academy, a Maryland-based after school and Saturday program for middle-school and high school youth interested in writing and performing poetry. She is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award and several Montgomery County, MD Humanities Grants. Her work has appeared in such literary journals as Black Renaissance Noire, Naugatuck River Review, The Sow’s Ear, For the Crowns of Your Heads (co-editor, contributor), The Mom Egg, and The Caribbean Writer (translation). Monica has worked as a poetry instructor at the New York Public Library, Cave Canem Foundation, and also directed a series of workshops on Writing Place in Harlem, NY.