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Poetry That Speaks Truth to Power: A Word About “Anarcha Speaks” for National Poetry Month

A Q&A with Dominique Christina

Dominique Christina / Anarcha Speaks

Now, more than ever, we’ve discovered that we need poetry not just to delight and uplift us, but poetry that interrogates our past and present, grieves our injustices, celebrates our ideals, and clings to our hopes. That’s what the poetry we publish does. For National Poetry Month, our blog editor, Christian Coleman, caught up with poet and artist Dominique Christina to chat about her collection, Anarcha Speaks: A History in Poems, from our National Poetry Series and why poetry matters in our politically fraught times.

Christian Coleman: When you got into poetry, did you know at the start that there were social issues you felt the urge to talk about and address in verse? And if so, which issues did you have in mind then?

Dominique Christina: No. When I got into poetry, I was just trying to expel my own ghosts. No lofty notions about saving the world or addressing the ills therein. I just didn’t want to get off the planet with all of those skeletons hanging on my neck. I realized pretty quickly, though, that my personal traumas reflected my/our historical traumas, and in that regard, whatever medicine I am offering to myself, I am also hoping to speak into the dis-ease in such a way that there is balm enough for all of us. 

CC: You said in our previous Q&A that you wrote Anarcha Speaks because Anarcha, an enslaved Black woman who was subjected to medical experiments by Dr. J. Marion Sims, needed a reckoning. You also shine a light on an aspect of American slavery history that isn’t popularly discussed: medical experimentations on the enslaved. Did you have other goals in mind for the collection, other things for readers to take away from Anarcha’s story?

DC: I would hope that readers would be inclined to examine the history of medical experimentation on colonized bodies from the medical treatment of slaves during the Atlantic Slave Trade, to experiments done on enslaved women who suffered labor and delivery trauma with focused attention (obviously) paid to Anarcha, to Samuel Cartwright’s coining of the term “drapetomania” to describe the phenomena of slaves running away and deeming it a mental condition, to human zoos and the legacy of Saartjie Baartman (Hottentot) to the Tuskegee experiments, to the connection between the eugenics movement and medical apartheid in America, to experiments of black prisoners in the 1990s and present-day realities for African Americans who are still subjected to medical disparities and “othering.” Oh yes. I want folks to be willing to examine all of it. I do. 

CC: Were you surprised after finding out in your research that the gynecological treatments that are still in practice today resulted from the experiments Anarcha endured?

DC: I was not surprised to learn the history of gynecology. Anybody who has ever had a pap smear will likely understand my lack of surprise. It is torturous. It is. Procedurally, gynecological exams are incredibly triggering and counter-intuitive to women and how our bodies work. So no. Not surprised. Just deeply sad and perpetually offended. 

CC: How do you see Anarcha Speaks speaking to today’s issues of medical racism? I’m thinking about the CDC’s findings of Black women in the US being three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy than white women.

DC: I would hope that Anarcha’s story illuminates the terrifying and maddening reality that these things still occur. A brilliant black poet named Walela Nehanda experienced this first hand recently in Los Angeles when they went into the emergency room with a bronchial infection as a result of being immunosuppressed from chemo and cancer. They were disregarded, mishandled, and misdiagnosed in such a way that it was actually life threatening. My sister Rachel McKibbens, Chicana poet, went to the hospital with pneumonia and bronchitis. She was given albuterol. Multiple treatments. And somehow the doctors didn’t notice she was having an obvious allergic reaction to the albuterol which was causing her lungs to actually close. I recognize that not every medical mishap is nefarious but there is a necessary conversation about how often women of color are ignored in those situations and how their bodies are still participated on in a way that dehumanizes and devalues them. 

CC: Last year, the Atlantic published an article about the resurgence of poetry across various media and how poetry, despite numerous predictions of its death, is more than alive and well and finding more readers who are younger (18-24), women, and people of color. What’s your take on this and on the state of poetry in our politically fraught times?

DC: Listen. Don’t pay attention to ANYBODY who says poetry is on the decline. Poetry is the people. We are the real translators and legislators of this world. We show you how possible language is. How magic it is. I’m a heathen but . . . what’s the Bible say? “In the beginning was the word?” That part. Poetry is forever.

CC: And lastly, how do you see poetry raising awareness around issues of social justice or being an agent of change?

DC: I am about raising consciousness. And again, poetry is language without a life jacket. It is dangerous. It is witchcraft. It takes risks. It offers much. It redeems. It convicts. And we need that. The culture needs that. That’s what poetry does. It raises consciousness. It is a culture keeper and a culture creator. And . . . we’re gonna win.


About Dominique Christina 

Dominique Christina was a classroom teacher at the secondary and post-secondary level for ten years. She was the National Poetry Champion in 2011 and Women of the World Slam Champion in 2012 and 2014. She is the author of The BonesThe BreakingThe BalmThey Are All Me; and This Is Woman’s Work. She has been a featured speaker at hundreds of colleges and universities nationally and internationally. Follow her on Twitter at @nyarloka and visit her website.