A Q&A with Remica Bingham-Risher
When you ask Cave Canum fellow and poet Remica Bingham-Risher what soul culture is, she will tell you it’s the nuanced living of Black Americans, and more specifically, of contemporary Black American poets. It’s also the name of her newest book, her joyous ode to Black poets and poetry. Equal parts oral history and coming-of-age on the shoulders of giants, Soul Culture: Black Poets, Books, and Questions That Grew Me Up examines firsthand the writing process through interviews with such legends as Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, and Patricia Smith interwoven with Bingham-Risher’s own origin story of becoming a poet. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with her to chat about it.
Christian Coleman: Having published three volumes of poetry, did you feel a nonfiction book like Soul Culture was on the way?
Remica Bingham-Risher: Absolutely not :-). I actually never contemplated writing a book of nonfiction. When I started interviewing Black poets I admired, I did imagine that one day, I’d compile all those interviews. But those would be testaments to the things they were doing in the craft; it wouldn’t have much to do with me. So, it’s interesting that, over time, all the things they taught me kind of melded into this hybrid text, but I couldn’t have imagined it for myself. I’m very grateful.
And to be clear, much of how Soul Culture came to be is because of the brilliance of my editor at Beacon, Haley Lynch, who really encouraged me to let my own voice—the Black woman’s interior voice—shine through.
CC: You conducted interviews with ten masters of Black poetry—E. Ethelbert Miller, Honorée Fannone Jeffers, Lucille Clifton, A. Van Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Forrest Hamer, Erica Hunt, Natasha Trethewey, Patricia Smith, Tim Seibles—over the course of a decade. Tell us what it was like carrying this book in your head and then distilling it into words.
RBR: What’s interesting is it wasn’t much like carrying around a book in my head but was very much like carrying around these various libraries or even encyclopedias of knowledge. Each one of those poets taught me so many things about the way to enter the work that I used their examples when going to the page myself and when figuring out the next step to take in my writing life. I always had a repository of information to pull from and always hoped that other poets would be able to have it, too. That’s why I was interested in making sure that all of the information I gathered from them wasn’t lost.
Distilling these ideas into words was another story. Much of that distillation—taking what they taught me, tracing it back to my own writing life, and uniting it under ideas and themes—happened during the pandemic when I had real down time and when I was very frightened about how my craft would stall out, especially since we couldn’t be in the presence of others. Much of my work feeds on being with other poets—teaching young poets, going to conferences to fill the well, as it may be. So, when working on Soul Culture, I was really creating my own craft course, retracing my own trajectory in a time where I was most lonely and it was difficult to see how we would get back to any other kind of life.
CC: How did you decide on these ten poets to profile in the book?
RBR: They were my absolute favorites, and when I asked, they said yes. Black poets are so generous that even those who were wildly famous and who knew nothing of me gave me the chance to sit with them when I was a burgeoning poet. Their kindness really knew no bounds.
CC: Were there any surprises that came up for you during the interviews?
RBR: Oh, there were surprises at every turn. I was shocked with how open people were, how honest they were about their mistakes and tensions in their communities. I love to get all in people’s business, so when folks started telling me about faux pas that happened, I was all ears. I was also, though I probably shouldn’t have been, surprised at how often James Baldwin and Toni Morrison came up in the conversations. We were supposed to be talking about poets, but almost everyone mentioned one if not both as influences, and it reminded me how overarching their work is in the field of Black literature.
CC: Soul Culture could have easily been a series of individual back-and-forth interviews, but you wove in your own story of getting bitten by the poetry bug and forging your path as a poet. Why was it important to add?
RBR: This was a strategic move: folks read memoir and aren’t often interested in lots of interviews stacked together. That was why we chose the personal essay to tie together so many of these ideas. I really wanted to make sure that, throughout the narrative of this book, people understood that by learning from my elders I was learning how to be. I was coming into my own understanding, and without them, this wouldn’t have been possible. It was also important for me to convey that though this sometimes seems like a difficult path—the artist’s life, the writing life—young up-and-coming artists can do the same.
CC: As a Cave Canem fellow, what are your thoughts on the current discourse that’s critical of writers’ workshops? The main argument being that the established method workshops use is harmful and oppressive for writers from marginalized communities.
RBR: Well, for one thing, Cave Canem was designed to try to break this mold long before it was becoming part of the discourse, so you know: kudos to the fam :-). However, I think as is made evident by some of the anecdotes I included in Soul Culture about my time in graduate school and about the work of brilliant workshop leaders like Erica Hunt, how important and necessary it is for all of us to re-examine that practice. We should think about how we might not limit or stifle the voices of students from any community in our workshops. I’m glad that we’re now coming to the idea that it’s a helpful exercise for us to try to break down some of those practices that have been inhibiting writers for years.
CC: There’s one quote in your book that stands out for me: “Writing rarely gives me answers, but it helps me articulate questions I have about the world and my longing. It’s a safe space, with many rooms, a house Black women have tended for me.” Would you say this line encapsulates the way you live soul culture?
RBR: What a compliment! Thank you for giving my words back to me. I certainly hope this is how I live; I certainly hope this is how I embody soul culture for myself and my students. Black women poets in particular have proven to me the possibility of this life and continue to bolster me daily.
About Remica Bingham-Risher
Remica Bingham-Risher is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian Poet. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Writer’s Chronicle, New Letters, Callaloo, and Essence, among other journals. She is the author of 3 volumes of her own poetry: Conversion, winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award; What We Ask of Flesh, shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Award; and Starlight & Error, winner of the Diode Editions Book Award. She lives in Norfolk, VA with her husband and children.