Interview with Opal Palmer Adisa, January 8, 2014
Hi Opal !
It’s a joy and honor to have some of your poems included in this edition of SpicyLetter. I’m also thrilled that you agreed to be interviewed.
In so many ways your work exemplifies the journal’s vision—to expose as many readers as possible to working writers who consistently affect readers by what they write, help to inform culture and who know the often solitary pursuit of creative writing even when there’s no promise of an audience. And they also know the essential truth that writing is a local and communal relationship with self and others that often has little to do with commercial success.
I’m very interested by the longevity of your work and how distinct from the commercial success of your books, the local and communal success of your work just keeps on giving. Can you talk a little about it?
A writer writes and that is who I am, and unfortunately that has nothing to do with the commercial success, or lack there of, of my work. I have things I want/need to say and share, which change over time, the content, or specific slant of the content, but not the pressing desire/need to share with readers. I feel very fortunate that my work for the last 20 plus years has had a consistent readership and has been used widely.
For example my short story collection, Bake-Face and Other Guava Stories, 1985 and my novel, It Begins With Tears, 1997, both were taught in over 20 universities in the USA, The Caribbean as well as South Africa and a few European countries. The novel has been analyzed in doctoral dissertations and master of art thesis and my poetry is still widely taught and anthologized. So, on both a large as well as small scale I have enjoyed longevity and success of my work, as well as a wide and varied readership. Yet I have not sold anywhere near to a million copies, as of yet, of any of my works. I have to remind myself that despite the relative small readership in terms of commercial success, my writings have secured consistent readership and a solid standing in the academic community, which was always my aim. But I would be remiss if I omitted the grass-root level where the work also resonates with many. Always, I am gratified that my work garners support and is meaningful to communities that some might say are opposite ends of the pole. I believe that speaks to the nuance of my work and its arc – it speaks to many people at once.
You were born in Jamaica. How has your book themes been shaped by your native place? And, how does the form and aesthetics of your books reflect that place?
Jamaica refuses to let me loose. Being reared in that society at the time when I was born, towards the end of the colonial era, has and continues to influence and inform my work. I am still writing about Jamaica, and I suspect that I always will, after all my navel string is buried there. While it might appear that this new poetry collection, 4-Headed Woman, has left Jamaica behind as there is no direct collection, reference to Jamaica that I can think of in it, everything about who I am and what I do is informed by my Jamaicanism. A person’s aesthetic is derived from how they speak, what they eat, the language in which they think, and for me that is Jamaica, and I am so grateful for this society that has spawned me. The theme and content of my first book, Market Woman, a chapbook of poems, 1979, to this latest collection is centered in and around Jamaica. Jamaica serves as both the setting as well as the substance of the content – I write about its people, its culture, and its geography. It feeds and infuses my work and I; we are inseparable.
In light of the incredible shift that now’s happening in the book publishing world that changing the who, what and why of books and what’s published for lots of people and niche groups too, how do you see yourself proceeding with your work?
I have never allowed my work to be influenced by trends in the publishing world, which has always been precarious, at best. While the method of publishing has changed, e-books, for example, which translates into a new readership —these changes do impact readership, yet I cannot nor do I want to ignore them. I plan to have my works converted and be accessible via e-books and the new technology. However, the content of my work will not change. I still believe my work has a strong universal element and I strive for longevity –the same credence as Shakespeare, et al and the other so-called classics that are being taught hundreds of years after the authors have died– such is my aim and reach.
You’ve just published a new book of poems called 4-Headed Woman. What’s the book about? Are the poems near and dear to your heart and likened to previous work or do the poems point in another direction—another state of mind?
I am not being facetious when I say every poem I write and publish is near and dear to my heart, but once they are published, they are like my children, I release them to the world and wish them well, but continue to love them from afar. These poems, in this collection, are no different. I do, however, see a distinct departure in these poems than in previous collections; I feel as if I am trying less, so achieve more. The poems might appear whimsical, but are deeply philosophical, layered with both cultural and historical underpinnings, with a tinge of humor. I would liken these poems to an airy room that gets lots of sun and breeze; they allow readers of varied depth of understanding to run with them without fear, to clutch them as friends and yet be vulnerable. Divided into four sections the poems explore and examine what it means to be a woman today, a busy professional, who must have at least four heads in order to cope with her life, career, children, and her man. The poems look intimately at what it means to be a modern woman in all its myriad details, blurring the line between private and public.
I’m fascinated by the philosophical voice and tone in your work. Does your work as a teacher come through in your work? Does the teaching inform your writing or does the writing inform your teaching?
I have been being a teacher almost as long as I publicly claimed writing. They enjoy a symbiotic relationship and I believe greatly inform each other, although sometimes teaching can get in the way of my creative desires. I suspect my teaching persona influences how I tell stories, whether in poetic or prose form. As I reflect more deeply on this question, I see now that my teaching has forced me to listen more keenly and perhaps has even contributed to my more philosophical stance, but then too that might be a result of maturity of age and experience. At times teaching serves as the bed in which creativity is nurtured, but once the seeds have sprouted you the writer have to abandon teaching and its demand in order for the creativity, the writing of poems and novels, to be given the room and freedom they need in order to be born
What are you reading lately? What strikes your fancy with new creative writers? Do you read the more obscure writers—maybe local writers who affect small audiences and are remembered for a night and their names disappear with the wind?
I tend not to read when I am writing and presently, I am in a very creative, outpouring phase. I always have more books lined up that I can read, more books than I will ever have the opportunity to read. My reading is very varied. I have many friends and colleagues who are writers so I read their works as I want them to read my work. It is very overwhelming. I have students who are writing, ex-students who send me their books, books to review, endless, exhausting. About ten year ago I would boast that I read everything by new Caribbean writers, now there are so many, in all genres, it is impossible to keep up. I find I don’t know or even get to a quarter of the writers from this region anymore, which is why editing an anthology is so appealing because I am forced to know some of what’s is out there. I have read Merle Collins new collection, Carole Boyce Davies fine personal narrative, I am reading the works of two friends, Umi Vaughan and J. Douglass Allen-Taylor – it’s whatever someone happens to send me these days, as well as whatever I seek out with the intention of teaching or using as a guide for my students.
Finally, considering the potential for increased visibility of writers of the Black Diaspora with new windows of opportunities through the internet and viable self-publishing, what would you like to read more of—to discover through other writers of color?
This is a great and important question. While I am excited by the deluge of work being released as a result of self-publishing and the freedom it affords writers, I am also appalled by the poor quality of work. Yes, some good work is being produced, but a great deal of it is downright awful, poorly written with almost little to no editing either for content, flow and/or grammar. It is a free for all, so someone who has not studied the craft, and I don’t mean formally in terms of a degree or the academy, who has not read five or more book by any serious writer, but who has an idea, knocks it out, gets it published with a slick cover and now goes around calling him/herself a writer. In no other professional field is this being allowed, and writing is a profession, mine, so I take it very seriously and I, (and this does sound elitist,) don’t want to be linked with those “throw-together” writers, who could not begin to argue their way out of a sentence.
My stance is very unpopular, but I will stick to it. Writing is what I do, with a great deal of care, that consumes a lot of my time and head space and therefore I want my profession to be honored. That said, I want to read more varied Caribbean stories, more varied, engaging stories that grip me, stories that explore culture and history, stories that seek to unearth, magical, other worldly stories, stories that teach me something I don’t know, stories that force me to think and perceive something from a vantage point different from my own, stories that linger, make the hairs on my arm stand up, stories that redeem us, and here I speak specifically of people of African descent, stories that restore our pride and sense of self, stories that restore manhood to our youth and men, stories that make us work together and build viable coalitions that are self-determined and self-sustaining.
Opal… thank you and may the writing muses continue with you…. Thank you much. I’m honored and look forward to continued meetings with your work.