the GENDER issue / INTERVIEWS
"I don’t let others outside my culture or gender determine who or what I am. I own the body in the mirror. "
An Interview with
jessica Care moore
by Ariana Benson
In her new collection, We Want Our Bodies Back, poet Jessica Care Moore demands the return of what is rightfully ours.
With her work, Moore is laying claim to more than just the physical form that is often used to define, and confine, black women. Her poems articulate the spiritual power and healing that can be achieved from interrogating our origins, from mining our cultural pasts for gems that will enrich our futures.
In this collection, Moore draws inspiration from legendary black figures, such as Nina Simone, Ntozake Shange and Gwendolyn Brooks, using her poems as vessels through which to pass and preserve the lessons they taught her.
In this way, Moore reinforces the importance of looking to our ancestors for answers. She shows us that in order to repossess our bodies, we must first understand the ways in which we lose them.
The title of your collection seems to speak directly to a repossession of both physical and personal agency. How have you been able reclaim your body, and what did you learn in the process?
I’ve learned that We Want Our Bodies Back has so many different meanings for people. I believe it’s more of a repossession of spirit. The title poem was written for Sandra Bland. Her death had a profound effect on me. I reclaim my stories and our collective bodies through this work. I am still learning so much from this collection the more I share it. I’m so honored that people are finding their own survival stories inside the poems.
The poem “Gratitude is a Recipe for Survival,” appears to have been written over and cover the scope of several days. How does writing a poem in that manner, constantly leaving and returning to the text, affect your writing process?
The poem was a re-write of a poem I actually published in my third book, God is Not an American called “DHS poem #7." I was asked to do a Ted Talk in Vegas around the theme of health care. I wanted to bring attention to the imbalance of health care, and the way black communities have had to use self care as our most reliable source of health and wellness. It also pulls on my personal experience as a single mom artist trying to give my art to the world, create and still pay my bills, and grow wealth and have support when times are slow. We really need this “self-employed” employment to remain the norm in the USA. “Gig workers” are also independent artists, and we are long overdue for support this way, with or without a pandemic.
The sections of your collection are named after Nina Simone songs (“Wild Is the Wind,” “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”). How do you feel these poems connect to Simone’s works?
Nina Simone is one of my personal heroes. Aside from being a brilliant musician and vocalist, she was one of the necessary voices of the Civil Rights Movement. When artists of my generation or younger have no connection to their community, the poor, the imprisoned, tor he voiceless.. I don’t have much respect for them as artists. I’m not an artist for art’s sake. Yes, I write poems, but I also write to move people to action, to ensure women are not invisible. Artists have power, more than politicians, and we can touch the hearts and minds of people. I used the titles of Simone’s songs as a marker for grounding, for myself, and for the reader. These artists, like Nina Simone, keep us sane. They keep us alive.
In the eponymous poem, there’s a particularly striking line that reads, “Invisible doesn’t come in black.” And there are also several places where you seem to reference an extreme focus on black girl’s bodies, often to the point where they lose much of their childhood entirely. Can you talk about the dichotomy of existing in a body that is simultaneously unseen and hyper-visible?
The invisible black woman is a real life issue—it’s as simple as walking up a busy sidewalk, you can feel the entitlement, sometimes especially from a group of white people passing by. Same when they pretend not to see you sitting next to them in first class on a flight. I don’ t think the poems make black girls bodies go away, at all. I used to be a rollercoaster girl, there is a celebration of youth, of being a fearless wild child, of being tough in the poems. Without my childhood, I could not have become this woman. I open with a poem about my daddy, and losing his physical body in 1994. Everything changed for me after that moment. I moved to Brooklyn in 1995 and took on the art world, and with my daddy as ancestor, I felt invincible. I am still that daddy’s girl. I think the world has the extreme lens on our bodies. In my intro, I write about being an athlete and never really paying attention to “how my body looked,” but rather, what I could do with it—the way I could stretch my arms and legs to catch a baseball speeding toward my face at shortstop, or how I could use my body to dribble past girls or boys on the basketball court. I know everyone can see us. Black girls are so beautiful, so bright. We illuminate rooms, no matter how much they pretend not to see us, they do. In Hollywood, in board rooms, on those planes, in classrooms, we are undeniable. I walk that way, with that confidence, when traveling, or when I hit a stage. You can’t hide all these colors, and I never will.
In “On Memory,” there is a line that reads “We a body of mirrors,” another harrowing example of the tension inherent to existing in a black woman’s body. What does it mean to exist as what is projected onto you, and what you reflect back to others?
A body of mirrors...the line definitely is about reflection. I have seen myself as something beyond the media’s imagination since I was quite young. I understand that I had what I called “black girl juice.” I knew art and writing was magic and could take this body all over the world. That poem, dedicated to Techno legend and pioneer, Jeff Mills, is about seeing ourselves in the future, not just a reflection on the past. I have never allowed myself to be labeled without discussion, context, or evaluation. I am not a “spoken word’ artist, but, I am inter-disciplinary. I work with music, so I’m a music artist, the way Gil Scott-Heron was a poet and music artist. I do perform my work, and some of it is simply written and intended to be read in a book. I don’t let others outside my culture or gender determine who or what I am. I own the body in the mirror.
As a sophomore at Spelman College, I was able to see an early performance of “Salt City,” the choreopoem whose superheroine protagonist you reference in this collection. Black women, for their strength and tenacity, are often described as real-world “superheroes,” though this seems to be another way that our bodies are taken from us, and made into something other than human. What are the costs of this kind of “heroism,” and is there a way for black women to reclaim our bodies while maintaining our superpowers?
Salt City!! My dream project! I was able to produce the large scale version of that performance workshop with my incredible director Aku Kadogo in Detroit last year. To answer your question, absolutely. The most incredible moments in Detroit were with the young black girls in the audience. One 7-year old girl in a beautiful white dress asked me during the Q&A why I wrote this story about the future, and I told her I wrote it so she could see herself in it. I don’t think heroism takes us into a non-human place. Salt is born with powers, as girls often are—not comic book powers, real power, saving lives power. Again, this work is a spiritual work, based in ancestral memory, ancient history, African oral tradition, futurism, love, and survival. Salt was still vulnerable and falls in love with Aingku, from the “next world.” The mantra at the end of the work is “We The Ones They Couldn’t Kill.” It feels more relevant than ever right now with the way COVID-19 is hitting the black community, my people, in Detroit.
Does my cape often feel heavy? Absolutely. Self care is necessary. I feel everything, you know? Poets really do, mothers do. I love my community tremendously. Sometimes I allow myself to be tired, take long baths, cry, yoga, meditate, and unplug so I can go back out and save the planet a little more. It’s not the life for everyone, but I’m built for it. We are.
In the poem “They Say She’s Different,” there’s a line that reads “muses ain’t for idle worship, you know?” This line struck me as poignant, especially in the context of this collection, that seems to an intellectual descendant of many muses you reference (Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, to name a few). How did you use the voices of these legendary artists to anchor and amplify your own?
Muses are necessary! I’ve been a muse, and have muses, mentors, moments, and great loves, that inspire me and carry me. Sonia Sanchez is a dear friend, mentor my sister and is Mama Sonia to me. She keeps me grounded, and I love our conversations about poems, love, and motherhood. I would not exist if not for Ntozake, Maya, Amiri, Nikki, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, The Last Poets, Haki. I always lift up my elders and I pray one day I will be honored to be one for some future generation of poets and activists.
There’s also a place where you reference the idea of “metaphorical daughters” whose work figuratively descends from that of the women who first inspired them to write. Who were the “metaphorical mothers” that raised you?
Ntozake Shange, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Patti Smith (my rock & roll poet model), Nikki Giovanni..there are so many. I was blessed to have shared stages and mics with many of them—the women I only knew through reading books at my library on Joy Road in Detroit. I never imagined them knowing my name one day. It’s a deep, beautiful life.
In that same vein, what would you like your own “metaphorical daughters” to learn from your poetry, and your life as a whole?
Wow. I have metaphorical daughters, that’s for sure. This answer can really be a book in itself!!
I only want my daughters to be free. I want them to know that their voices and bodies are powerful beyond measure. I want them to know they are the global majority and to never allow anyone to call them less than what they are. I want my daughters to know it will not be easy when you are smart, well read, and a boss. Never let anyone—any man, any woman, any person—dim your light! There are light dimmers everywhere. There will be people you will have to let go of in the course of your life so you can grow. Always be around people who are smarter than you, who you can learn from. You don’t need hundreds of friends. A small group of reliable humans will get you through anything!! Never wait for someone else to validate your work. Find the value in what you do. You must give back. It’s a part of the work. Don’t hide behind your poems. Be Present and continue to RESIST.
Ariana Benson is a writer from Chesapeake, Virginia. She is an alumna of Spelman College and is currently pursuing a MA in Poetic Practice at Royal Holloway, University of London.