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Black Poet Listening: Lessons in Making Poetry a Life

By Remica Bingham-Risher

Black woman contemplating_Dellon Thomas
Photo credit: Dellon Thomas

For a long time, I was making a list in my head of the writers who changed me, the ones I had to meet. I started planning too late and missed James Baldwin, who died when I was six. I hadn't yet been gobsmacked by his short story “Sonny’s Blues” then, but read my way through his whole milieu my freshman year of college. I met Toni Morrison (thank goodness) but didn’t get to ask her questions, flanked as she was by other booklovers. Who I regret missing the most is August Wilson, as lines from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Jitney still wake me up some nights. He died a year after I’d begun interviewing Black writers whose words I’d carried in book bags, jean pockets and purses, words that helped me wrestle with the world and cobble together a life. I was on the periphery of his circle; some of my teachers knew him, so there’s the six degrees of separation. Now that I’ve sat with many of my exemplars, I regret loving him from a distance. 

Still, I’m sure some would have cautioned me: Don’t meet your heroes. We’ve all heard the admonition or gone down the rabbit hole of a celebrity run-in spun out in a series of threads. Heroes are, more often than not, disappointing in their dismissal or aloofness at best, or at worst, their rough, underhanded malice. 

Maybe writers are different. Maybe poets especially just appreciate getting any love at all. The ones I’ve been given the privilege of sitting with have been eager to have someone ask about their trajectory. Over a decade or so, I interviewed Black poets I admired. Not the most famous ones, not the most erudite or elite, but those who’d knocked the wind out of me when I read their work. When I began asking, though only a few knew me or anything about my work, most said absolutely yes, asked for no compensation, and gave me hours of their time, just because I was hungry to learn about how I might venture out onto the literary landscape. Hence, I always began with: Do you remember your first encounter with poetry? Then, in one way or another, followed up with questions about what they read, who their communities were, how they sustained themselves. In other words: How did you make poetry a life? 

My memoir, Soul Culture: Black Poets, Books and Questions That Grew Me Up, is the culmination of these inquiries. In the book, I sit with writers like Lucille Clifton, A. Van Jordan, Forrest Hamer, and Tim Seibles, then process their shared histories. They taught me many things, not least of all reinforcing what my grandmother, Mary, would always say: Nothing fails but a try or Closed mouths don’t get fed. Meaning: Ask for what you need, and who knows what the universe might supply? In all their generosity, here’s what they taught me.

The Value of Listening

I’ve found that when people are complaining about apathy or inattentiveness, they are mostly complaining about listening. It’s out of vogue, what with our quick quips and lightning-fast replies expected all hours of the day, to actually sit and listen. But listening at the feet of elders is sometimes how we acknowledge a whole community, a whole movement’s history. Being ‘quick about listening, slow about speaking,’ as one Biblical verse points out, ensures you might actually form a relationship with someone you admire, might get a lesson you had no idea you needed, or something to bolster you in the face of coming storms. When I sat with Sonia Sanchez, for instance, she went back to a long poem she’d written decade before, “Just Don’t Never Give Up on Love.” It’s about how you miss so much when you’re rushing, about romantic love and not that at all, but really about how a young girl learns from an elderly woman who shares the bench at the park where her children play. The lessons are: Don’t take the elders for granted; love is a fire, but care is how you tend the flame. 

Childhood is a Gift

In my talks with writers about how they began swirling around a life with words, most if not all reminded me that children, given space enough and time, can carry their wonder into every part of their lives. For some, it took years for the blaring worries of race and trauma to steel them. For some, like Erica Hunt and especially for me, worry set in as soon as there were others to care for. Our children, our students (as most poets walk the path of teachers as well) then bear the burden of our worry. But as children themselves, the writers I sat with reminded me that childhood was the only time they remember being as wide as the ocean, endless and gobbling up dreams, carefree. And writers need flights of fancy. What else will bring them to the page but imagination cultivated and untamed again and again? 

Give Flowers to the Living

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and I, in our conversation, went back to tending the altars of ancestors, but writing this book, reaching out to larger-than-life figures that seemed impossible to reach but were very down-to-earth, easygoing human beings, reminds me that everybody wants their flowers now. Everybody wants somebody to hold onto and carry them. By asking if they’d tell me about their path, I was really saying to those writers who’d shaped me: This is a job well done, you are a wonder. And like Lucille Clifton reminded me then, with her candor and wild laughter, and still asks all of us: Won’t you celebrate with me? Black folks, especially, know how tenuous and fleeting life can be. We miss our chance to love up on so many folks, so the joy they had when I sat with these writers taught me: Why not say it outright as much as we can? I love you. You changed me.  

Grown Folks Spill the Tea

If you read any of my own poems, you’ll find out pretty quickly how much I like being in grown folks’ business, so these interviews were a win-win for me. Finding out what Patricia Smith felt when she left the Boston Globe or in the moments after her father died; or which grad schoolteacher told Natasha Trethewey to forget about writing about her Blackness and her mother and to think about the conflict in Ireland instead; or whether E. Ethelbert Miller and June Jordan were lovers. This is the kind of gossip I was giddy about and, with years long past and nobody really studying them, the kind of tea poets poured out happily. After a while, people don’t see any reason to lie—they’ve lived, they’ve learned—so they just tell it like it is, and that’s when the good stuff comes out. They’ll tell on other grown folks, they’ll tell you the rules they’ve broken, then give you permission to do likewise. 


When someone on Twitter asked authors to describe their upcoming book in three words, I posted Black poet listening. I relish in this gift, that writers have been patient enough to teach me by sharing their own stories, that my Black interior life, my woman-mother-hybrid self is worth bearing out. That just like them—and just like all of us—somebody, somewhere, should hear me.


About the Author 

Remica Bingham-Risher is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian Poet. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Writer’s ChronicleNew LettersCallaloo, 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. Follow her online at, on Twitter (@remicawriter), and on Instagram (@remicawriter).