Yalie Saweda Kamara is a few months into a two-year term as the poet laureate of Cincinnati and the Mercantile Library. She is a native of Oakland, Calif., whose family is from Sierra Leone. She holds a master’s of fine arts from Indiana University in Bloomington, and was just awarded a Ph.D in creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. She’s published two collections of poetry and is the editor of a forthcoming anthology called “What You Need To Know About Me: Youth Writers on their Experience of Migration.” She’ll be holding “office hours” at the Mercantile Library on June 10, June 24, and July 8 from 10 AM--2 PM. “I'll be there to talk about the poems people bring, the poems on my mind, and we'll be able to do some writing together,” she says. More dates will be announced next month on the Cincinnati Poet Laureate Facebook page. David Holthaus interviewed her about her work, her life, and her inspirations.
Q: Congratulations on being named poet laureate. What does was that mean for you personally?
A: It's an incredible honor. It's like being an ambassador of poetry. Part of what that entails is bringing arts programming to different places, not just formal institutions but informal places, too. And engaging with groups of people who may not know they are already poets.
Q: “Poet laureate of Cincinnati” – sounds pretty official.
A: It also means being a student of the place that you're living, and that you're representing. I'm a California native, from the Bay Area, and I've been living in the Midwest for the last seven years, four of which have been spent in Cincinnati. Part of my responsibility is to be student of the city, which has incredible history, political, artistic, social histories, and environmental histories that I'm really looking forward to learning more about.
Q: How were you attracted to writing and to poetry?
A: I'm not quite sure but I do have some theories. My theory is that it has to do with being a first-generation American. My family's from Sierra Leone in West Africa. English was not my first language. Creole was my first language, which is the lingua franca of Sierra Leone. So, I was attuned to the nuances of language in that way.
I also come from a family of storytellers. Not in a formal way, but just the ways that people narrate stories in my family has always been so interesting to me. Not just for entertainment, but for learning lessons, for teaching particular things.
On a more practical level, my first name is Yalie, which comes from the term jelimuso, which is the name given to a caste of West African female storytellers. So, like, I never had a chance to be anything else!
[You can scroll to the bottom to read one of Yalie’s poems.]
Part of my responsibility [as poet laureate] is to be student of the city, which has incredible history, political, artistic, social histories, and environmental histories.Q: Was there a moment or experience where you were able to see yourself as a writer and have the confidence that this is something that you could do?
A: I didn't shine in a particular area in high school. It was a really competitive, really intense college prep school in Oakland, and I was home for spring break, and I was flipping through stations, and I popped onto our local PBS station and I saw a guy with a cool hat on, and I was like, I wonder what this is about at 11 o'clock at night? It ended up being something called “Poetic License,” a documentary on the first youth poetry slam in America that took place years before. I'd never seen anything like that. I didn't know that was possible. I didn't know what a slam was. That actually changed my life watching that documentary. That was the moment where I realized that there was a space for young people to write.
Q: What kind of impact can poetry have today?
A: There's an argument that a song could be a poem. I’m thinking about the impact of hip hop and rap music. Rap is poetry. It's ubiquitous; it's everywhere. Music is everywhere. Poetry is very subtly woven into the fabric of our cultures. In terms of the contemporary impact of poetry, I'm thinking about Amanda Gorman’s work and how she created a moment that so many people were able to engage with and feel empowered by her work and were able to hold on to lines and images and messages and metaphors. She helped create a lane for access so people could feel as though they could partake in poetry.
Q: There’s so much competition for our attention, how can people get engaged with poetry?
A: It implores people to dig into the uniqueness of their own narratives and their own stories. Poetry can act as sort of a light through which their stories can be seen. It reminds us that we're not alone, and that there are others who have experienced something that we've experienced. There's a community that's built through experience. It gives the courage to read about one's own story.
Q: How important is it for students just people in general to be aware of poets like yourself, women of color, contemporary poets, rather than the just the classic poets?
A: I find Walt Whitman's language to be really interesting. There's things about his imagery and the audacity of his imagery that I find super compelling. So, it’s been useful for me as a writer to read some of these works. But it is more nourishing to read a fuller scope of works, to expand the canon to include other voices, voices of BIPOC writers, queer writers, writers from different marginalized backgrounds, and hearing those stories and understanding that, just as language is fluid, so is writing.
Q: Writing is hard. Do you have a method or a discipline?
A: I'm not a prolific writer. I don’t sit down and something runs through me and I write pages on pages. I'm not that type of writer. Part of my method is sitting with things. I like to meditate on things for a very long time. I’ll carry an idea with me for a very long time, like years, sometimes, or months, and mull it over in my mind. Every day, a few lines come to me, and I'll just kind of sit with those lines. I might record them on my phone and just kind of talk through an idea. I sit with things and then words come to me, but it's not as if they wash over me; I have to chase them down a little bit.
Q: You mentioned that, you might want to do some events in atypical places for poetry and reach people who are not particularly attuned to poetry. Any more specific ideas about that?
A: I am very interested in serving marginalized populations. And I'm interested in being in places where people don't necessarily think they have a story that's worthy of sharing. This comes from, perhaps, my background as an educator, and as a young person from a marginalized background, as a first-generation American black woman not necessarily knowing the power of my story. So, it will be places that have folks that may share that sentiment.
On location at the Mercantile Library, Kamara shares her poem, Besaydoo, from the historical magazine display.Q: You draw on your experience as the wellspring for your ideas?
A: Often it is. But my experiences are not just biographical experiences, they're also my interests, the things that I'm fascinated by. A great number of my poems have been biographical or historical as they pertain to my life and my family. I have been doing a lot more writing that requires some serious researching. And thinking about how you write a poem based on a life outside of your own, where there's nothing you shared with this person but breathing on earth.
By Yalie Kamara
While sipping coffee in my mother’s Toyota, we hear the birdcall of two teenage boys
in the parking lot: Aiight, one says, Besaydoo, the other returns, as they reach
for each other. Their cupped handshake pops like the first, fat, firecrackers of summer,
their fingers shimmy as if they’re solving a Rubik’s cube just beyond our sight. Moments
later, their Schwinns head in opposite directions. My mother turns to me, revealing the
milky, John-Waters-mustache-thin foam on her upper lip, Wetin dem bin say?
Besaydoo? Nar English? she asks, tickled by this tangle of new language. Alright.
Be safe dude, I pull apart each syllable like string cheese for her. Oh yah, dem nar real padi,
she smiles, surprisingly broken by the tenderness expressed by what half my family might call
thugs. Besaydoo. Besaydoo. Besaydoo, we chirp in the car, then nightly into our phones
after I leave California. Besaydoo, she says as she softly muffles the rattling of my bones
in newfound sobriety. Besaydoo, I say years later, her response made raspy by an oxygen
treatment at the ER. Besaydoo, we whisper to each other across the country. Like
some word from deep in a somewhere too newborn-pure for the outdoors, but we
saw those two boys do it, in broad daylight, under a decadent, ruinous, sun.
Originally published in The Adroit Journal