Interview with Bianca Lynne Spriggs
Affrilachian Poet and Cave Canem Fellow, Bianca Lynne Spriggs, is into almost everything. The secret language of whales. The far expanses of the galaxy. All things seen and unseen, as the catechism goes. We met the morning after her reading here at Appalachian State, and what I thought would be a fairly straightforward conversation about some of the themes that had arisen the night before —her interest in animals, her work as an activist and an author—became something much more interesting, and fun, a kind of hang-on-for-your-life ride through her imaginative landscape.
Nathan Poole: I wanted to start by talking about this poem of yours, “Hounded.” It seems the fate of animals, human and nonhuman, are linked here. That animals follow us, and we follow them, and this poem follows that following, if that makes any sense. I’m curious if that reading seems fair, and if you’re interested in these kinds of linked fates, between animals? The end of the poem, especially, which reads “then from / her chest, I hold on until bone cracks, steel tongue / lookin’ for the let loose that will end/ her. And me.”
You can read this poem at http://www.duendeliterary.org/bianca-spriggs/
Bianca Spriggs: That poem is about the intersection between people and things that are not people, or animals that are not people, and how we invade their space and how we force them to deal with us, and then we punish them if they don’t deal with us appropriately, the way that we’ve decided. You know? So this poem is about a dog that followed me through the neighborhood. The dog had its little territory that it walked around, but one day – and it didn’t like me for some reason –one day it just kept following me and was very menacing, but I didn’t really understand what was lost between us in translation. I always respected her and her space, but one day she just was like “I’m gonna make sure you go when I walk down the neighborhood.”
NP: So she just followed you along and forced you out?
BS: Yeah, well, just very territorial, you know? And it reminded me that she’s a dog and I’m a person, and if she gets really angry, or upset, then she could hurt me, or I could hurt her. She’s got teeth, and she’s got claws, and speed, and it made me very aware of the tenuous relationship that we have with animals that we’ve tamed. There seems to be an agreement that we’re not really gonna mess with each other, you know? We domesticate you but then you’re also teaching us how to interact, a reflexive investigation. I think that’s what the poem is most concerned with.
I didn’t really kill a dog, you know. But my mind was like, “would I be able to if I had to “how domestic are they, really? what changes? and then what have I domesticated inside of me that I would change very quickly to rise to the occasion?”
NP: Oh, that’s so interesting. I can detect that sense wilderness, two domesticated animals, so to speak, right on the edge of wildness, capable of calling out each other’s wildness, at the center of the poem.
BS: Especially in an urban space.
NP: Yes, where things are supposed to be tame, whatever that means.
BS: So I’m not out killing dogs. But a lot of people want to know, “was it a dog? was it a person” And I try not to give it away, I’m always interested in what other people think it is, but no matter what I say, it’s going to disappoint them.
NP: You once said in an interview that you don’t deny the “impulse of the dream,” or the “blurring of worlds.” And there seems to be an intentional blurring of worlds between the non-human and the human perspectives in your work. I’m thinking especially of the poem “I Would Make a Good Owl.” Is the imaginative freedom in this poem something you’ve always allowed yourself as a writer? Where did this instinct to not deny what you call the “impulse of the dream” come from?
BS: I’m trying to figure out how to answer; no one’s ever asked me anything quite like that before. I daydream a lot and I go into lapses of reverie quite often and it’s something that I’ve done my whole life, so if I look bored or something, it’s not anything personal. My mind just kind of takes off. It has to do with animals a lot. When I was a little girl, I was really impressed by the Dr. Doolittle series and his ability to communicate with animals, and I was just enraptured by that idea. And I held on to that idea that I was going to be a naturalist until I went to a pet store and I told the guy, who was probably just some bored teenager, you know, working a shift at the pet store, that I was going to be a naturalist and talk to the animals like Dr. Doolittle. And he was like, “that’s not a real thing. You know that, right?” Who does that? What a hateful person. I mean, come on. So I even went so far – I was pre-vet when I started college, and then I realized you had to take chemistry classes, so I went running back to the humanities building where I belong. I thought they were just going to let you play with the animals, you know? But it’s sort of that interest in, “what are they talking about?” You know, like when I asked last night, the blue whales have these big brains, and they have these languages and these cultures that we know nothing about really. What are they talking about down there, man? I really just want to know, because they have an understanding of the world that is very different than ours, and I’m just really interested in how they see it. So it’s like I can’t talk to them, so I have to kind of imagine what it must be like.
NP: That reminds me of a comment you made about the freedom you feel as a poet to not be specialized in one particular field. I think that the idea of specialization has a way of deterring us from curiosity, you know? And you’re wondering what these whales are saying to one another, but I think that the non-poets in the world get to a point where they stop asking those questions.
BS: Well, I think about poetry as a laboratory. I feel like a mad scientist, and I’m trying to invent something and I don’t know what it is; I won’t know what it is until I see it. And so everything is fair game. And I think that I call people who aren’t artists, this may be bad, but I call them “civilians.” I think civilians leave the idea of play and imagination, you know, playing “what if” and imaginary friends, and all of that. You have to become serious and get a mortgage and pay your taxes on time and take a vacation twice a year and then you die.
NP: Ha. And then it’s over.
BS: And then it’s over. And for what? I think poetry allows me to investigate the connections between all things so what do blue whales have in common with higher physics or astronomy? I’m looking at connections between everything in the cosmos and the natural world and I think people who don’t make art on a regular basis, forget that everything is connected, and you can put yourself in the place, a sort of feeling-place or thinking-place. And empathy is the casualty of that. Because once you can imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes or someone else’s experience you cultivate compassion. And I don’t think we’re practiced at that. So it is about pretending you’re an owl or a bird-woman, or a dragon in your bathroom, but it’s more than that. If you can do that, then you can apply that same technique to your life and say, “I’m worthy of this. I want to know this. I want to know more.” You don’t have to feel limited. So imagination is a human birth-right and it’s the first thing to go when you grow up.
NP: I love that you connect the imagination to compassion; it reminds me of the project of William Carlos Williams, and also a Lydia Davis essay, “The Caterpillar,” where Davis is in bed and finds a little caterpillar on her hand and decides, instead of killing this caterpillar, or just tossing it away, she’s going to walk it out to the garden and release it. But she loses it going down the stairs and once that small gesture of empathy begins—and I see you going in this direction – the compassion causes Davis’s to obsess about this caterpillar. Every time she goes up and down the stairs she’s worried that she’s stepping on it. She’s examining pieces of dirt, wondering “could this have been it?”
BS: Yeah, yeah, yeah! And that can keep people from having a certain quality of life.
NP: Right, because compassion sends you on this quest to understand something and how do you turn it off?
BS: Well, because you have more than a caterpillar to take care of. I have a similar essay where I thought I was saving a butterfly that I thought was being eaten alive by ants, and I save it and I put it in my studio and it dies anyway. From the frost, because a cold snap came and it had come out too early and had fallen and ants were like, “yes!” and I was like, “no!” I saw too many anthropomorphized animals on television growing up. I thought I was saving it, and what I really did was deprive ants of a very necessary sort of food. So, yeah, it can be problematic. And all things are in balance. I mean, like it’s finding a balance between the two, but not to deny the impulse to be compassionate to someone just because you don’t know them or you don’t know their experience.
NP: I can’t wait to read that. So, shifting a little here, you often write about issues of power, history, and race. And your poem “Alchemist” takes up those themes, but the poem also skirts reality. The world of the poem feels magical, it doesn’t feel like our modern, empirical world. I’m wondering, is that what you call speculative poetry at work?
You can read this poem at http://www.stilljournal.net/bianca-spriggs-poetry.php
BS: Yeah, that’s kind of going back to that blurring of world things. I grew up in the church and so this is a world of miracles and Heaven.
NP: Oh, interesting.
BS: Yeah, my mom’s a minister, so I grew up with the stories of the Old and New Testament, and those narratives threaded my life pretty heavily. And I’m still familiar with them, so I don’t think that the world, the phenomenal world, is really outside of that wheelhouse. You have the accouterments of the blessed oil and your waters…
NP: That’s vivid imagery. I know, as one who grew up in the South.
BS Yeah, and you have your rituals. I’m very interested in rituals right now. Americans don’t really have a sense of rituals. We’re skeptics. We want proof, we want examples, we want criteria, you know, works cited pages and bibliographies. And I think we just don’t have enough answers, so people are looking for answers right now, and there is a return to mysticism, of reading narratives and cards and tea leaves and crystals and stuff like that, which I find fascinating, because there’s people on YouTube with thousands of followers making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on Taro decks and readings. And I’m like, “what do you put on your taxes, man? Do you put ‘psychic readings’ on your taxes?” How does that work? People are looking for answers; they’re desperate for them. There are things we still don’t understand or still don’t know, and that’s okay. And there are things that we do know that we can’t explain or justify and that’s okay too. Giving people permission to say, “you know what? I can’t explain it” and that’s alright.
NP: That reminds me of something that happened last night, during the Q&A, after your reading, it seemed a few of us wanted to pin you down in that regard.
BS: Really? Did they?
NP: Well, if not pin you down, they wanted to hear more about your personal ideology, and if you were coming from any particular religious tradition. Do you get that question a lot after readings?
BS: No, I don’t. That’s why I was very surprised by it last night. I think that’s just an impulse to classify and label and orient and say well, “if she’s like a mystic, then she’s just gonna be into this stuff right there” But then I’m also talking about science and particle theory and they’re like “what?” or “well maybe she’s a poet” And my job is to investigate all those things and see what their connections are so I don’t mind trying to be pinned down. They can try. I’m very slippery.
NP: That’s wonderful. So let’s see how this goes. Your poem “Mixed Media in the Age of the Anthropocene.”
BS: Oh my gosh, you’re the second person who’s brought that up and I had almost completely forgotten about that poem.
You can read this poem at http://www.duendeliterary.org/bianca-spriggs/
NP: I was hoping you might read this one.
BS: Did you find it online somewhere?
NP: Yeah. This is the one that I’ve been obsessing over. There’s so much at play here.
BS: Really? Did you look up the image?
NP: I did. So the figure of this woman, this piece of furniture—oh and I love how you use the word “piece” in the poem, with all its sexual suggestiveness—but anyway, the woman in Melgaard’s sculpture, she’s not real, and yet she worries about what you call “the real obscenities of our age,” the obscenities of the Anthropocene. There is a great deal of irony at play, first verbal irony in the use of the word “piece,” and then cosmic irony, in the sense that this unreal, plastic figure is more concerned about the things we aren’t concerned about, things like acid rain and holes in the ozone. I was curious if this is supposed to be a kind of critique of our unfeelingness when it comes to the natural world?
BS: Yes! That sounds great. Can I look at it again? I haven’t looked at it in a while. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve even thought of this piece. I remember being very affected by the conversations and the interviews that were surrounding it and people were like, “Oh, you’re just taking it too seriously. It’s just a piece of art.” But the fact that it looked like a black woman that someone was sitting on just made it really complicated.
NP: Right, and it was a white model in the photo-shoot in which the sculpture first appeared. And so the sculpture itself became famous because it was featured in a photo-shoot as this thing we’re not supposed to even notice… really treating it like a piece of furniture as opposed to a provocative piece of art. Which I think made the photo-shoot itself so problematic, which in turn made the piece famous, or infamous.
BS: Okay, so this is what I can address in that poem, the priorities and where our focus is. We’re so focused on this woman sitting on this chair that we’re not thinking about the fact that the bees are on the endangered species list or we’re not thinking about our relationship to the actual world around us, and we’re projecting narratives onto a chair and this woman and who she must be sitting on the chair. That’s something I am interested in in my work – what are we prioritizing and what are we doing about it?
NP: And how do those priorities relate to our nature? I’m thinking especially about, and we talked about this already, your poem, “I Would Make a Good Owl” in which you write, “given the right nature I could kill small nesting bird things.” That nature, a sense of organic beings that are bound together, sharing the physical conditions of life. It seems to me that you’re imagining what it would feel like to inhabit that predatory place. If you have any commentary on your intentions there, or your sense of that line, I’d love to hear. Does it have extensions in the rest of your work, this kind of exchanging of animal natures, moving from the predatory to the prey, and back again?
BS: That line is interesting because it’s not just about the body or the entity but also the environment. So, going back to the “Hounded” piece, if something attacked me, there would be something in me that was willing to attack back, and what are the conditions that create that circumstance, you know? And how do they change from one particular circumstance to another. But in that particular poem, it isn’t just about given the right predatory nature, but also, am I in an environment where I feel permission to do that and safe to do that? Because we make choices based on where we are as much as who we are; there are things that I can get away with when with my friends, that I’m not going to get away with in a classroom. So your nature changes and adapts; it’s mutable. I’m very interested in code-switching in that sense. But the code-switching, my ability to do that, is not so different from the ability to shape-shift and turn into an owl and have owlets if I needed to for whatever reason. Just to know what it’s like!
NP: Wonderful. Well, before we go on to this last question, I think, as we’ve discussed these poems, and your work in general, it seems that the primal being is just under the surface, and that’s so interesting, and now I think I’m wanting to go back and read the work again with that in mind. That sense of wildness being just below the surface…
BS: I mean human beings, we still have that reptile brain. We’ve got that R-complex we’re worried about. And so dominance, aggression, territory, control. Blood, breath. That kind of thing, and it’s interested in just a few things: survival, for one, and then eating, having sex and making more of ourselves. And literally the other layers of the brain evolved to protect that area and help it do what it wants to do. So you have your limbic system which is all emotion and memory, and that’s because reptiles don’t retain memory. So they’re pure instinct, like “that’s a fire, and I’m running away,” but the limbic system evolved so we could remember what’s dangerous to us and attach emotions and memory so that we wouldn’t do something that would harm us again. So, “that didn’t feel good. That’s a threat to my survival. Ah! I’m not going towards that.” The neocortex, which is all analytical skills, logic, and problem-solving, so “how do we get out of this situation so it doesn’t hurt us?” This white-collar world, where we’re all so polite.
NP: I can hear you changing codes; I can hear the scientist. And yes, so polite.
BS: We’re all so polite. Those emails that we send that are just, “I can’t believe Becky said …” I’m just gonna type to her! – it’s all coming from the R-complex. It’s still territory. Or she did something to me, and now I have to be aggressive. So what happens when we tamp all that down, and we just deny that r-complex? We just become more and more polite, and then somebody snaps and we have a tragedy on our hands.
NP: Yes, and you see poetry as form that often exposes our animal nature…
BS: At least investigating it. And reminding myself. Sure, I wrote poetry for an audience, but these poems are helping me save my own life, too. And they’re an outlet for me to let off some steam. So that dream-world, that place of reverie, or subconscious, I’m constantly investigating that, because whatever drives and motivates me is going to somehow manifest into my conscious decisions. So poetry is a way for me to investigate those decisions. And be very proactive about it in that sense.