Chanell Ruth was selected by TBR’s Editors as the Spring 2012 Center-Featured Series Poet. In Bottom of Midnight, Ruth courageously delves into the world of abused children. You can read her series poem in the Spring 2012 Issue of Tidal Basin Review. Meanwhile, check out TBR’s interview with Chanell Ruth below!
INTERVIEW WITH TIDAL BASIN REVIEW SERIES POET, CHANELL RUTH AND TIDAL BASIN REVIEW POETRY EDITOR, TRUTH THOMAS
(Interview conducted via email correspondence in April of 2012)
Truth Thomas: It would be impossible to read your series, “Bottom of Midnight,” and not be moved by the pain that it expresses, especially with regard to child abuse early on in the piece. It is difficult, necessary, and important work. Was it equally difficult to write—to open yourself up to this subject as courageously as you do?
Chanell Ruth: For me, all writing is difficult, but yes. This was particularly so, as I was quite resistant to the subject matter for a while. Actually, I was adamant about not writing about this. Even though I was being urged to write these stories, I was reticent to approach them because I felt like they weren’t my own. I have interacted with, cared for and taught abused children in many aspects of my personal and professional life. The adults and young adults who I teach often cause me to ask “What happened to you in your life…”I urge them to tell their stories. In all my writing courses, I teach students how to find voice. And many times, abuse, neglect, lovelessness, powerlessness and feelings of annihilation of “the self” surface. I did this, but I kept avoiding the stories of these lost, long gone children and my relationship to the theme. After I realized they were, are my stories, I got brave. In 2010, I started to work through the stories of these children I know and don’t know. That work eventually became this collection.
T: What advice would you offer to new writers with regard to writing what is painful to write?
CR: Write it. When you aren’t ready, when you are. The characters will come down on you in a way you can’t hold if you just get open to receive. Do be resistant. An elder writer once told me that whatever you avoid is what you need to write. I take that with me. I tell my students, there is no such thing as writers block. We are constantly thinking; we cannot or do not write when we refuse to write the truth. When I feel like I have nothing to say, I say what is happening in the “right/write now”? There is no way to be silent then, when something is always happening.
T: What is also evident in your series is a reflection of the consequence of the loss of innocence—for both boys and girls. What prompted this work?
CR: I hear these stories; then, I hear silence. Again, I see what I construe as the remnants of neglect and abuse every day, present in those who beg for literacy. I see equality in the pain represented in males and females and we know that males are silenced even more so in this misogynistic, homophobic culture. Even though organizations like the National Center for Victims of Sexual Abuse publish dated, therefore less jarring statistics, we know that current research states, 1 in 4 girls report having been sexually abused, but what about the boys? It is actually a report of 1 in 5. Not the difference that most people think. We just have to expose sexual abuse. Period.
T: The speaker’s voice in your poem series is very much that of a blues bathed teacher. Indeed, in “VIII. Missionaries,” we read: “I am not a messiah / but they sit at my hands and feet / pouring offerings of words in their tongue / I can only remind them that they matter.” Who is your classroom and why do you suggest a miracle-maker is needed to reach them?
CR: As a teacher, I constantly champion the power of the word. Though it may sound cliché, they have healing power. Listeners, readers, students are my classroom. I think we should all be learning and teaching as long as we are breathing. I learn with and teach whoever is listening and willing to respond. This Messiah is suggested because many 80s babies, digital natives and millennials have neither the power, nor skill, nor desire to simply respond, to engage in necessary dialogue. It is critical that they get back these simple tools, but every day, they are bombarded with messages that suggest the opposite. There is nothing to say, you can say it in 40 characters or fewer, what you got to say isn’t good enough, so borrow your words from a rap song or Wikipedia. “It’s gonna take a miracle. Yes, it’s gonna take a miracle.” But the speaker says, “I am not a Messiah / but…” The speaker knows that what teachers do every day is miraculous. Even our survival is.
T: Do you have hope that America’s most broken children, those you refer to as “broken and belittled, silenced by education,” can be unbroken?
CR: Absolutely. There is always hope, even in the damnedest of situations. Hope is what we are made of. That hope is why I feel like this work is so important. America’s children have to know that they do have voice and that they have to tell what they know. I see hip-hop culture, the spoken word movement moving these youth. I see something burning still. Always.
T: What do you see as your role as a poet—particularly a black poet—in contemporary America?
CR: I think it is important to tell stories. I think the black poet comes from that tradition. I try to speak to the streets, travels, the everyday, the ordinary. I have a respect for language and its ability to illuminate everyday things. At the same time I have to hold onto music, rhythm. I think that the contemporary black writer has to write for these times and always connect to our historical experience: be here and there at once. I hear myself continue to say silence. I think the poet’s role is to eradicate silence.
T: Relatedly, what is the comprehensive literary vision that frames your work?
CR: I hope to blend the narrative and lyric forms with honesty, authenticity, and trust in language. I believe in revisionist’s history though, when I narrate. We are told there has to be something off base, testing reality, when we narrate. My writing is very much rooted in the experience and memory, so I rely on realism and surrealism. And sometimes fantasy. Whatever I do, I want to make the page the truth.
T: One of the other points that comes through quite clearly in your poem is the idea that wounded people wound people. Was it challenging to express this theme—which you do masterfully well—without preaching?
CR: Thank you for using the “M” word. I think the hurt people, hurt people theme may have been the easy part to express, just by focusing on characters, but I suppose it was difficult not to be preachy. This collection was not meant to preach, but to bear witness. If there is a cycle of pain to parenthood, then there is one for fostering and teaching, as well. The whole body of the family suffers in the wake of abuse. The speaker wants to observe, record and does judge, but in the end there is reflection and redemption.
T: How did you approach the crafting of this stirring non-sermon sermon?
CR: I wrote one poem at a time trying to focus on each character in the family and focus perspective to each. I started with the theme and let the stories come. I had some wonderful workshopping with Kelli Stevens Kane, my workshop teacher Tyehimba Jess and renegade teacher, Tony Medina, who literally made me turn one of the poems upside down. I don’t think I would have tackled this without them. The first poem was “I. Family Services,” and I began with a line that I had been holding in my head for years, given to me by a mentor, “How could he do this to a girl so young?” This question of stolen innocence continued to return. I wanted to answer the question and pose others with each poem. The final poem ends with a question. With abuse, “Why?” and “How?” are always questions. I kept returning to that idea as I crafted the poems into the series.
T: If it is true that every city has a poetic accent, how would you describe the poetic accent of Chicago?
CR: Since the Midwest is a crossroads, we are sympathetic to language; we are borrowers. I never hear any regional dialect that I will not adopt. I hear it, analyze its creativity, and if it suits me, suits my and our traditions, I will pick it up. It is also innovative; we make and keep our own linguistic traditions. It is innately southern, a call and response, a sermon. Everything is a soliloquy. I often get accused of speaking unclearly or too softly. When I do, it is because my voice rests; becomes guttural; it almost clicks, like my grandma Josie’s strong Mississippi dialect. And sometimes I hear myself getting my southern belle on, like Grandma Doris. In Chicago, language is not only a vehicle, but a marker. It lets the listener hear more than your words, and Chicago aint loud, but it’s loud. It is like a blues song, slow, and fast like a jazz scat, but it always hinges on rhythm. And it has humor. I hear the most inventive things said in Chicago streets: humorous and curious things. When I hear the people, I tell them so. I repeat their words and sayings. That is what would be done in the south. We brought that here with us.
T: Another aspect of your piece that pierces is the intense anger, and bitterness at human suffering (again, particularly that of child abuse). You often use neat stanzas to contain that firestorm of emotion which creates an ironic tension in this series. It reads as if the poems are almost ready to explode from the hurt that lives inside them. Was this formatting style intentional or did it sprint from your pen under the coaching of the muse?
CR: A bit of both. I cannot claim what the ancestors give me, but I wanted the speaker to sound as if this is all a secret to be told. I was conscious of creating controlled, taut lines. I wanted the poems to be economical rather than sprawling, since you have only so much time to tell a secret. I also wanted the anger and pain to linger, so I worked to reconcile the intentions and musings.
T: We are honored to have your work within our pages. Unreserved thanks. Your series poem is art that cannot be ignored. It reflects what is ugly and beautiful about our world in a way that aspires to heal humanity. Chicago is blessed to have you. We are blessed to have you. Please tell our readers what projects are coming up next for you.
CR: Thank you. I feel honored to have such a light shined on this series. It certainly is meant to start a healing process. I will continue my work with City Colleges of Chicago this summer, teaching for Level Up, a college readiness program; I am also developing a writing series for writing about illness that I will teach this summer. A new collection of poems is brewing and I will do some research in Savannah this summer and get knee deep into the findings this winter at Vermont Studio Center. And I have to say, “Yes we Cannes!” I am headed to France to support the short film “Swimmin’ Lesson” produced by Shahari Moore and Christine List, who called on me to act in the film. That’s very exciting. It all is. I am blessed. Thanks Again.
Chanell Ruth, MFA, poet, educator, and performer, has served as Poetry Editor of Warpland Literary Journal. Her poems have been anthologized in texts, including Spaces Between Us and curated in The Citizen’s Picnic: Lynching in America from 1865 to Present. Chanell has attended Hurston/Wright and Callaloo workshops.
Truth Thomas is a musician, poet, educator and Poetry Editor of the Tidal Basin Review.