Interview by Tara Betts
Ewing took time to do a brief interview with ACM about her latest volume of poetry, 1919, published June 11 by Haymarket Books. In the following exchange, Ewing considers the Great Migration, summers in Chicago, the writers who informed 1919, housing, education, and the policing of Black bodies. Every one of these points bringing the conversation back to how some policies have changed, and some unfortunately still resonate today.
ACM: Since 1919 is so different from Electric Arches, can you discuss your choices to undertake 1919 and the directions where the book took you?
Ewing: Although there are certainly autobiographical elements to 1919, it’s really engaging to have this other kind of conceit for entering the work. I began my relationship to The Negro in Chicago when I was working on my second book, the nonfiction Ghosts in the Schoolyard, and I wanted an opportunity engage more deeply with this period in history.
Although the poems stand well on their own, you incorporated nine different photographs from 1919-1922, which was when The Negro in Chicago was produced. Please elaborate on their significance in terms of including them in the book.
I’m always interested in thinking about the book as a visual object. I’m grateful that with both books Haymarket has let me think expansively about what “poetry collection” means. I think of Electric Arches more as a curated set of works, mostly poems, circling around a set of ideas and images. I was very much inspired by Claudia Rankine’s Citizen in this regard. With 1919, I also have a pedagogical vision for the book. I want it to be an accessible entry point for people to think about something important that happened that they perhaps haven’t thought much about before, or didn’t know about at all. The photographs help to enable that. I’m also conscious that while many hardcore poetry fans support my work, for many other of my readers this may be the first or the only poetry book they’ve ever read. So I think having work in other media helps to make it a little less terrifying.
You always have this sense of play in your poems where you imagine alternate histories, but in this collection you also wrote persona poems in the voices of historic figures. How did you approach stepping into the shoes of people from a century ago?
I think persona poems are extremely fraught, and often, to be candid, politically pretty terrible and poorly conceived. I think my favorite persona poems in the book are those that are written from the perspective of the street car and the train, actually! But in terms of those that are written from the perspectives of people, they are people who are not famous, people we don’t know much about. Their names appear in this historical document solely to talk about their unjust deaths, which is something we can definitely relate to today, I think. Black people often comment on the fact that when you see some person’s name trending on Twitter among your circles, someone Black who you’ve never heard of, your first thought is, “My God, someone has been murdered again.” And more often than not you’re right. I had that experience with Muhlaysia Booker, rest her weary soul. So I think I wanted to bring, as much as I could and as respectfully as I could, a small moment of narrative to that person’s life and loss. Something beyond just their name.
One of the beautiful things about this book is how it brings us back to the present. I kept thinking of the Sankofa bird flying forward and looking back. When you were working on the book, what moments struck you as absolutely 2019?
The whole thing! Man! I’m totally with you on the Sankofa bird. I am working (slowly) on a book about Afrofuturism and so one of the things I’ve been writing and thinking about is the farcical nature the idea that time move in a unidirectional straight line. But seriously, as I was reading and writing everything I learned about 1919 either made me think, “Wow, what a peculiar historical moment, that is so remarkably different from today” or, more often, “Well, you could literally say this about our time.” Not much in between. That’s sort of how I knew I had to write the book.
Please talk a little bit about the Exodus poems. I’m noticing that poets are writing poems that utilize the same title. I think these poems function in a particular way, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.
Sure, well Terrance Hayes immediately comes to mind with his American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin which contains lots of poems with that title. One thing I like about that it makes it someone disorienting to encounter the poems in a series, in a way that I think provokes a less linear experience of time.
In a sense I think this is a little bit different than that. I actually don’t think of the poems has having the same title so much as being chapters and verses from the same sort of alternate universe book of Exodus I’m writing about in the book. I’m not really religious, but it’s complicated, which I write in my lyric essay about Black Jesus in Electric Arches. I’m sort of into the Bible as a text and into the ways that Black people have made meaning of it. The story of Exodus especially, because arguably it’s the story that has taken on the greatest meaning in African American history, which we generally talk about vis-a-vis enslavement. But it was also used as a metaphorical frame during the Great Migration and I wanted to write about that, to remind folks that this race riot is happening in a context wherein Black people are moving to Chicago, believe it or not, not for the awesome weather, but actually fleeing for their lives. So I wanted to do this reading of Exodus, or maybe we could say re-writing of Exodus, through that lens, and it’s also one of the few places in the book where there are some autobiographical elements.
As a reader, the turning point for me emerges in the poem “or does it explode.” Which of course your title comes from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” which was later referenced by Lorraine Hansberry when she titled her play A Raisin in the Sun. That poem hints at the impending violence and still mimics that speech of the dozens. What was the turning point for you as you were writing and sequencing these poems?
Thanks for calling out that lineage! You know, people often mistakenly think that poem is also called “A Raisin in the Sun” and I think it’s important to get the name right because ultimately I think Hughes was writing about place in a way that is also important to me. There’s something about the imagery in the poem that kind of put me in mind of the dozens. Like for one thing, there’s that blend of the incredible figurative language and mastery of idiom that Black people include as part of everyday speech. Like, for real, when I was in third grade kids were on the school bus talking about how someone’s mama could hula-hoop in a Cheerio. What?! That’s brilliant! I see something similar in Hughes taking this extraordinarily abstract thing, a dream deferred, and turns it into something so concrete. Like, ever since I was a kid I’ve been extremely grossed out by the image of something crusting and sugaring over like a syrupy sweet, set in juxtaposition to the smell of rotten meat. I was probably 12 when I read that for the first time and it’s always just sincerely bothered me. So I wanted to extend that idea in this poem. Also, you know, that poem is specifically thinking about heat and the perceived danger of heat in the city, from Do the Right Thing to Chance talking about “everybody dying in the summer.”
So true. You talked about a number of tragedies in 1919, and I was curious about stories that you couldn’t include in the book. Which ones do you wish you could’ve included or wrote about for the book, if any?
So many of them. I think one thing I wish I could have had space to include was this long litany of survey results described in one part of The Negro in Chicago. Basically they did this survey to try to document White people’s stereotypes about Black people and many of them are still stereotypes in the present, while many of them were extremely bizarre. Things like: if you hit a Black person in the head with a cobblestone it’ll break. Every Black cook has a secret lover and they’re stealing all the best parts of their cooking to give to the lover on the low. When Black people become educated it turns them into criminals. Some of them are still around: Black people like to wear gold teeth (the 1919 version of fronts and grills, I guess); Black people can sing and dance really well; Black people are too loud and boisterous in public. Just a whole laundry list. I wanted to do something with that and I couldn’t think of a good way to enter it because honestly what I wanted was just to show people the list itself. But anyone can do that. It’s in The Negro in Chicago and it begins on page 443.
As a sociologist, did you see suggestions in The Negro in Chicago that could still be applicable? Are there some things you would suggest? That’s what I want to know, especially when the book lays out so much truth about how race, class, and segregation still works in Chicago.
For sure. I think that’s part of what makes the report so sad. There are all these recommendations that could apply in 2019. Like they point out that Black people face higher arrest rates and conviction rates, and that inequality should be addressed right away, that it’s specifically because of what they called “race prejudice” and that we should have justice reform in order to get fairness in sentencing. They called for Black neighborhoods to get better street repair and trash pickup. They said Black schools needed more high quality teachers and that teachers and principals should be selected based partially on their demonstrated record of treating Black children fairly. And two of the most notable things: they called for a permanent city commission dedicated to preventing racial discord and inequality, and for an end to housing segregation. These are all demands you could make today, and the list goes on.
Dr. Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Poetry magazine, and Sixty Inches from Center. She is part of the MFA faculty at Chicago State University and Stonecoast – University of Southern Maine. When she’s not teaching, Tara works with dedicated teams at ACM and The Langston Hughes Review as poetry editor. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
Dr. Eve L. Ewing is a sociologist of education and a writer from Chicago. She is the author of Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. She is also author of Electric Arches, which received awards from the American Library Association and the Poetry Society of America and was named one of the year’s best books by NPR and The Chicago Tribune. She is the co-author (with Nate Marshall) of the play No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. She also writes the Ironheart series for Marvel Comics. Ewing is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other venues. Read poems from her collection here.