New York author Sapphire challenges the literary languor that afflicts
much poetry by taking it out of its rarified academic arena to a
more visceral realm with her fiercely honest and uncompromising
work. Sapphire's potent imagery and acute ability to plumb the harrowing
depths of her characters' lives has resulted in a body of work that
stands as some of the most affecting in contemporary American letters.
book of poetry and prose, entitled American Dreams (Serpent's
Tail, 1994), was a searing journey into the urban realities of emotional
and physical abuse, poverty, and violence. Push (Knopf, 1996),
Sapphire's debut novel, tells a painful story in the voice of Precious
Jones, a 16-year-old African-American girl who lives in Harlem.
Pregnant for the second time by her father and abused by her mother,
the narrator also struggles with illiteracy and later, the knowledge
that she is HIV positive. Push won the Book-of-the-Month
Club Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction and the Black Caucus
of the American Library Association's First Novelist Award for 1997.
of her most recent collection Black Wings & Blind Angels
(Knopf, 1999): "Sapphire's poetic ear always remains close to the
page, alert, fearless, confronting what so many would sooner forget."
Yet it is this "fearless" emotional intensity which has proven difficult
for some readers to handle. Her poem "Wild Thing" from American
Dreams was the catalyst for the dismissal of John Frohnmeyer,
chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, under the Bush
Sr. administration. The controversial piece, based on an actual
brutal rape of a female jogger in Central Park, convincingly exposes
the mindset of a teen rapist. This character portrait forcefully
illustrates how racism, classism, and sexism can combust into a
time we heard Sapphire perform was at the San Francisco Book Festival
in 1999. Her moving, raw, and sometimes disturbing poetry riveted
the audience and we vowed to interview her one day. Fortunately
for Comet, Sapphire served as artist-in-residence last summer at
the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, California, where
we had the opportunity to meet her. She was warm, genuine, and funny
as she shared with us her insights and reflections on the American
dream, the cycle of oppression, and the ultimate transformative
power of art.
It seems like in your
early writing you were exorcising some of your own demons, and now
you're doing that for society.
I think in many ways
I was doing exactly that, exorcising my own demons, and there was
a very cathartic process to the poetry. Even though people have
told me it's painful to hear, it was a bloodletting. But in Push
it was very different. After writing Push, I didn't have that feeling
of catharsis. In Push, instead of releasing demons, I took on demons.
I took on this horrible mother - I mean, not that I had a great
mother, but she wasn't as horrible as the one in Push - a horrible
father, a societal condition that I was in many ways only an observer
of. I came to Harlem as an adult. I went there to go to college,
so this whole condition of not having language, of being illiterate,
of dire poverty, of welfare, was something that I was encountering
in my students. So I took on more than I had ever experienced in
my life. I encountered these young women - and men, but I chose
to talk about the women - young women and men's stories - and I
knew that they needed to be told.
One of the themes we
found very compelling in Push is how art is a transformative force.
Because Precious learns to read, the future opens up to her, she
learns to write.
Precious does become
an artist in the book, but she's already a child who's predisposed
to art. Part of the oppression that she's suffered has taught her
to do what artists do anyway: dissociate from their present surroundings
and enter into themselves and come out with something else. So you
already see that she's a child that's capable of daydreaming, fantasizing,
of spacing out, and so with some structure, this becomes the beginning
of a child who has a facility with language and observation.
What really happens for
Precious in the beginning is that she is not so much deprived of
her ability to become an artist, but she's deprived of her ability
to become fully human because she doesn't have language. If there's
anything that separates us from the animal kingdom or from infancy,
it's the acquisition of language. And in the book what we see Precious
has is the ability to begin to name herself. The power to describe
herself, whether she'll be a victim or a survivor, whether she'll
be an unwed mother or a single mother. All of these things are language.
How she will view herself and how she has viewed herself has a lot
to do with how other people have defined her. Is she stupid or is
she a late bloomer? You know, all of these things are just language,
but they're the difference between surviving and not surviving.
Is her child worth taking to a shelter? Is it worth it for her to
invest this energy into her own life? And ultimately she decides
that she is worth it, and we see the system decides that she's not
worth it, that school shouldn't happen for her, that she should
be punished for her condition, be sent to work, as opposed to be
allowed to pursue the American dream.
You have an extraordinary
empathy that allows you to enter into characters and then write
from their perspective, even characters that are unsympathetic.
What is your process of getting inside?
A lot of that for me
is just acute observation. And then in some ways just being saturated
with the character. While this particular child never existed, she
is a composite character of many of the children I met. So everyday,
being inundated with their speech, their language, their problems,
their stories, and even when I didn't want to, having to listen.
I mean, I'm not deaf, I had to listen. And so you begin to take
that on. And the character and the situation and the fiction come
out of a way of trying to process your own experience. Their experiences
become my experience. I became the witness. I didn't ask to do it.
I'm like all people, if I can avoid pain I will. I'm in a deep avoidance
pattern like most Americans. But I encountered these stories, and
I became the witness and then from the witness I became the one
who gives the testimony, who tells the story for others who perhaps
can't tell their stories.
Is serving as witness
part of the responsibility of an artist?
Well, I think that every
artist will have to figure out what is her responsibility. I think
that our literature and the world have been enriched by artists
who have totally focused on themselves. My favorite painter is Frida
Kahlo whose strongest paintings are portraits of herself. So I certainly
don't want to say that there's anything an artist should do. Probably
that's the worst word an artist can have is "should." For me, coming
out of my background, my culture and who I was, I assumed the role
of witness. So that was what I needed to do. And at some point just
as a human being, whether as an artist or not, you look at a situation
and people and you may realize - I'm seeing something much bigger
than my own life. I could keep writing about myself, or I could
look at what was being shown to me and talk about it, and that was
important. And it was certainly a turning point in my life. And
I think Push is a bigger book than American Dreams. Not a better
book, but a bigger book.
You said that "one of
the myths we've been taught is that oppression creates moral superiority.
I'm here to tell you that the more oppressed a person is, the more
oppressive they will be." Can you discuss the cycle of abuse?
I think that this myth
that if you are a survivor of a crime or societal oppression that
you're going to be a good person or a noble person is wrong. We
know that the effect of genocide on the Native American population
has been poverty and alcoholism. We certainly can't say that the
survivors of the Holocaust who went on to establish the state of
Israel have been particularly kind to the Palestinian people. We
can't say that African Americans who survived slavery are particularly
empathic or loving. So racism and abuse tend to make people more
oppressive. Like the people that came out of World War II, survivors
of World War II and Vietnam. They [the veterans] came back unable
to parent, unable to love, unable to function, devastated from Vietnam.
So what oppression gives you is what we now call post-traumatic
stress. And it's a syndrome that some people die of. And certainly
some people are able to take pain and agony and make something out
of it, but most people are not. You're certainly not going to think
of Rwanda as being a nation that will produce a lot right now. They've
had 800,000 people murdered. And what is going to be the effect
of that on the culture, how do they deal? So that's what I mean.
But I do think that there's been a romanticizing of survivors. And
artists play into that. It could just be their own nŠivetŽ, that
they don't really understand it, but I think that's wrong, to think
that someone is going to be raped and then grow up to be a better
parent, a more empathic parent, as opposed to grow up to fuck their
own kids. But I think that we know that hatred and hostility breed
hatred and hostility. There's no interruption.
You talked a lot about
how our society destroys our youth. Can you tell us more about that?
I think it's bigger than
just our youth. And also, I should say, a lot of kids make it. A
lot of kids make it, so I don't want to negate that. I think that
what you really have to look at with youth is depression and fatalism
and the lack of hope that kids are really functioning in. And the
fact that, you know, Littleton, Colorado, wasn't ghetto kids. Those
kids walked in there to kill. Whatever the images of themselves,
whatever they had been given in white middle class culture. Both
of them were children of soldiers, their dads were Marines, so throw
that in too. But more and more children are acting out in ways,
suicidally. More and more kids really want to die. I think that's
an issue. Whether this society is destroying them, maybe that's
too dramatic, but the reality is that we have a culture of people
who are being profoundly hurt, and a lot of it is youth.
What do you think artists
and writers can do?
We can do our art, set
up and show a new value system. In Push I try to show not just the
obvious things - that my character is not so-called beautiful -
but that she functions in a mode of cooperation with her peers.
So they're not sitting around talking about who has the highest
SAT scores or booby-trapping their supplies - you used to hear about
dancers putting nails and glass in other dancers' toe shoes at auditions
and stuff like that. So actually we see a world, a little microcosm
where people get better by helping each other. They help each other.
And we can show that as not just do-gooderism, because these are
some pretty rough characters, but we can show what they get in return
for it. That there's something to be gained by this, that living
with other people in mind can benefit you as a human being. So I
think we can do that, and I think the other thing we can do is begin
to de-romanticize [violence] - like in "Blood on the Tracks" (a
poem from Black Wings & Blind Angels), the character is pretty pathetic.
There's been a way that this whole born-to-lose, James Dean culture
has been romanticized, you know, the shallow person, the killer,
and the hardened person who can't feel. We need to show that it's
limited, and not to be romanticized or imitated. This whole belief
that our art excuses us from a certain kind of socially responsible
behavior. We need to dispel that too. We're accountable in a certain
kind of way. And everyone has to decide how.
Do you feel that writing
has saved your life?
I think it has. I think
that the process of trying to become an artist in all the different
forms I tried to work in, has certainly - if there's a difference
between me and the people I write about, it's that I write. That
would be the big difference, and that there is something about the
process of learning to be an artist that has changed me. I'm not
the person I would have been had I not been an artist.
It takes an awful lot
of courage to write as honestly as you do. Where do you get that
When I finished Black
Wings & Blind Angels, I felt like it was an honest book, but I didn't
feel it was as honest as it could get. There are writers I read,
like Sharon Olds and think, damn! I want to go there too, I want
to get that honest. And I know that I'm not there, but I keep pushing
for it. And I think in Push I got more honest than I could get with
myself, because it's a character, so she's able to say things and
do things that I could never admit to. Also, I have to deal with
the fact I'm not the same person who wrote American Dreams. And
that no matter what I write, it's always a construction. It's art,
I'm not writing autobiography. I think many people do not give African
Americans imaginative capacity. So I have found that many things
that I write that are art, that are not true, people take them and
read them as the "I", they interpret it as actual reality. So that's
been very problematic for me, my family (laughs). So now that I'm
more aware of it, it pulls me back. I have to fight against it.
At one point I was dealing with an admissions process, and I had
submitted poems to get in someplace, and one of the poems was "Wild
Thing" and the people attributed it to me. And later I heard about
this, and they were hesitant to let me in because they thought I
might be a psychopath. So that's something I've had to deal with
a lot. I have a certain distance now, that more and more critics
and intellectuals have approached the books and are able to put
the distance between the artist as creator and the artist as lived
experience of the work. But it's still a challenge.
You mention Sharon Olds,
who are some of your other influences?
Sharon Olds, I really
really admire. Lucille Clifton has been a big influence on me. The
poet from Arizona, Ai - Killing Floor, Sin, Cruelty - I would say
she's one of the most important poets that I ever read. Certainly
novelists, Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison - I really
have drawn deeply from black literature. Richard Wright, the whole
concept of the protest novel, James Baldwin. Flannery O'Connor is
absolutely a favorite of mine. Kafka. I read a lot of Dickinson,
Dostoevsky. Also, I was very very influenced by the poets around
me in that New York scene like Bob Holman, Willy Predomo, Paul Beatty,
all of these fabulous Nuyorican poets were very important to me.
Bay Area poets - I used to live here in the '70s, so some of the
first poets I saw were Jessica Hagedorn and Ntozake Shange when
they were collaborating and working together and putting elements
of music and dance into poetry, so this was just absolutely fantastic
You said once that "I'm
still awed by the mystery of life. I want to live and create and
be part of an evolution that is moving us to a higher place in the
planet." You mentioned before how part of you feels hopeful and
part of you feels cynical. Overall and ultimately, do you feel hopeful?
I read somewhere that
part of the reason we're cynical is we now expect more from people.
In the olden days we expected to gather around the guillotine and
watch someone's head roll down the street. This was commonplace.
Part of the reason people are appalled by capital punishment is
that we know we're beyond it. People are sickened at this. We talk
about things like child abuse, but you know, come on, a couple hundred
years ago, the marriage age was 12, wasn't it? So what we're looking
at now is we expect more from women, so we are outraged when a 12-year-old
has a child, because it is limiting what she can do in life. So
now we have debunked over and over again the pseudo-scientific basis
of racism, from measuring people's skulls to IQ's to whatever. So
after the Holocaust, after slavery, to see racist ideology reinstated
and treated as science, it's - we're enraged. So things that were
taken for granted 100, 200 years ago, we are very upset about. We're
livid that women are getting 60 cents to the dollar, come on! A
hundred years ago we couldn't even own property. We were owned property,
black people too. So believe me, people 200 years ago would be grateful
for our problems today.
I think there's hope
and we're making progress. When I grew up it was obvious who the
good guys and bad guys were. Now it really is not so much about
the group that you were born into. More and more it's about how
you choose to live your life. Are you going to turn your back or
are you going to turn toward it. Let me have this choice. It's a
privilege. Three hundred years ago when I was a slave I didn't have
the choice of whether I was going to be an activist or not, whether
I was going to cooperate. But now we have a choice.
For a longer version
of our interview with Sapphire, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.