Friday, April 22, 2016

Q&A: “Did I Know You Back Then” by Colleen J. McElroy

In celebration of National Poetry Month, The Writer's Center is spotlighting the work of Poet Lore contributors. This installment includes a brief Q&A with poet Colleen J. McElroy about her poem, “Did I know You Back then” (Poet Lore Volume 110, No. 1/2).

Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.


when I came home wearing a gélè my mother
looked at me as if I were a stranger
my father said black is beautiful
my mother insisted I remove the gélè
so she could see all that so-called beauty
and my hair released from the wrap
bounded out in the glossy kinks of an afro

when I came home sporting a brand new
passport and a fellowship to foreign places
my mother unfolded her litany of warnings
and Jennie gave me her standard caution
best learn to pee in a coca cola bottle
she said remembering the jim crow limits
of traveling across these united states

when I came home with a new husband
not from any branch of our extended relations
my mother’s first question as he took
off his coat: how’s your finances?
my hazel-eyed Irishman grinned from ear to ear
and sat down beside my father
to talk military politics and jim beam

when I came home with a PhD
and yet another divorce still fresh my mother
said they’ll find you dead some place
nobody has ever been while she plucked
imaginary lint from my clothes and hair       
the wall behind her chair dedicated to me
adorned with photos drawings awards

when I came home to accept an honor
from a local poetry group my mother
complained that there was no one
in the hotel to look after me and those
who recognized her as my mother
said she sat in the back row grumbling
about missing dinner as I read each poem

when I came home on a stop-over
along a transoceanic route my mother
cooked a box lunch of chicken feet
and rice old style with the toes sticking
up like baby fingers escaping the mire
something for the plane she said
like your granma used to make
pressing the dish in my hand
as if it were the final link to family

each time I came home not enough
or too often  too long and might as well not
each time at the arrival gate she tweaked
loose strands of hair  loose threads
all of me out of whack and out of place
the barriers of what kept us at odds
each from the other in the web of our invention
and always I left taking a little of her with me

Sarah Katz: This poem of seven septets centers on the tense and uncertain relationship between a speaker and her mother. The space given to this relationship—it is a long poem—combined with the anaphoric refrains, give me a sense of continuity, and what some might call the "eternal present." I was especially struck by the cleanness of the final stanza—the way you utilized the small space for the anaphora "each" to enact a conclusion. The speaker seems to "exit" the poem at that same moment, releasing herself from the concerns that incited the poem. Tell me about the process of writing this poem—how did you know that you needed to write a long poem?

Colleen J. McElroy: The poem—“Did I Know You Back Then”—holds the duality of a relationship alluded to even in the title, where the indefinite pronoun You can lead to both the speaker and the subject. This reinforces the bond between mother and daughter, the unavoidable link where they separate and co-exist. The anaphoras confirm this duality—“like mother like daughter” is repeated throughout the poem. For me, poetic rhythms are close to dance rhythms—the heart by way of the ear, the music of the poem. So the cadence is also repetitive, that inevitable dance between the two—step step turn return—more tango than waltz—until the last stanza where both remain caught in a web of their own invention. I never think of a poem as long or short when I am writing it. The poem takes me in its own direction as long as it needs to get there. In this instance, my mother was 101 years old when she died. I was in my late 70s at the time – a lot of narrative ground to cover needing more than a short burst of imagery.

Colleen J. McElroy, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, has received a Before Columbus American Book Award, as well as two Fulbright and NEA Fellowships.  Her most recent publications are A Long Way From St. Louie (travel memoirs), Blood Memory (poems), and Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar, (nonfiction).  Her tenth collection of poems, Blood Memory, was listed in Brooklyn Magazine's Must Read List for 2016. Her work has been featured in The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry, Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Best American Poetry, and others.

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