Poet devorah major is a forevermore work in progress
By Lou Fancher
Poet and author devorah major eschews the hierarchy of capital letters in her signature and poems and writes to become. To become a better writer, mother, seer, sayer, lover, woman. In her new collection “and then we became” (City Lights, $12.95, 88 pages), major divides the 32 poems into four categories: “spirit,” “other selves,” “fragile” and “whole.”
“So often we see things as you’re alive or you’re dead, as this or that. My understanding of the universe is that we’re constantly in a state of becoming,” she says in an interview.
Berkeley born, but describing herself as “always a San Franciscan,” major is the author of novels, poetry books, short stories and essays. She served as San Francisco’s third poet laureate (2002-2006) and is a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts. Winner of a First Novelist award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award, she created a 2005 spoken word and choral work for the Oakland Symphony and theatrical stage productions.
Unsurprisingly, given her love of water, dance and cosmology and belief that poetry is “word music,” several of the new anthology’s poems find their origin in movement or audible voice. A scientist explaining string theory during a radio broadcast she heard while driving caused her to cement her understanding of an ever-expanding universe in the book’s first poem, “cosmology meditation #1.” She writes, “we are the memory/gestated in days that lasted eons/as the universe womb birthed heat light/rock ice mineral song us/.” Another, “lady bombardier’s desire,” rose from a visceral reaction she had while listening to an interview with a female Air Force pilot. “It was my mind trying to wrap itself around the idea of a woman who’s yearning to bomb people that she’s not met, people she’s not seen. As a mother and a nurturer, I had to process that,” she says.
Poet devorah major says when she is stuck on writing a particular poem, she will read it aloud to herself to get the creative juices flowing again. If the writing of a poem is blocked, major reads aloud. “I think to myself, is that the right note? Is that the right rhythm? When it hits my ear, I can hear if there’s a hole or it falls flat,” she says. Striving for every line to have balance and meaning, major views the poem’s structure much like a painter considers a canvas. “White space on the page is a pause, a breath,” she says. A poem’s line or overall length is determined in less cerebral fashion. “The poem will tell me if it wants length. I don’t tell it. Sometimes, we have an argument, but the poem always wins.”
Of course, even a sestet like “love chant,” written with line lengths that exceed the page’s width and are therefore “broken,” major structured the breaks to create tiny, internal poems. Reading only the fractured endings in the first stanza, the words honor her relationship with her husband, Gregory Harden: “wear your name/pronounced as greg./truth is unsaid./daybreak/birds/whisper.” The full, “outer” poem is a rush of words about “love that doesn’t always crow,” and includes occasions when “we have both said and done ugly things that cannot be unsaid…” Major says her appreciation for editing has grown over the years, and she delights when a short poem is found “hiding inside” the first drafts of a big poem. “I look for that pure note, like at a concert; that simple melody that you’ve never heard before but go out humming.”
The desire to discover new truths and reach deep levels of awareness, she insists, is human. Already appreciating spoken and singing voices, major says she’s recently begun to focus on the background voices in the music she collects and shuffles into personal playlists. “It’s definitely influenced my poetry. I write with more repetition; I’m more thoughtful of the role that the poem’s background meaning plays.”
In poems notable for their directness and brevity, the new collection addresses an astonishing breadth of subjects: ethnicity, gender, homelessness, illness, aging, love, the cosmos and more. As a self-identifying African American woman, she says the concept of race is “in itself racist,” and not conducive to valuing other people and therefore not a part of her work. “I don’t concede race: there’s one race, the human race. There is no “white race.” There are French, German, Irish…but there’s no white race. I am African, Caribbean, American. We need to honor our roots and have pride in them, but that’s not race, it’s culture.”
Poetry, according to major, is a literary form that has and always will be central to life. From ancient, sacred texts to baroque song to “19th-century British ivory tower poets” to contemporary spoken word, poetry slams, R&B, soul music and hip-hop, she says everyone has a poem they own. “All the arts are part of us. Anyone who danced with their mom or dad, sang a little, or wrote or recited a poem—it’s human. If we can realize that, see spirits, some of which are deformed, sick, crippled, we’d see that we all come with faults. If we can see people in their beauty, not in their damage, not in their ugly, we can go to that place of beauty.”