Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: Kay Bell and “Cry, Sweat, Bleed, Write”

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers three options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger, or an interview about their latest book, or a combination of these.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Kay Bell

is the author of the poetry chapbook, Cry Sweat Bleed Write (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2020). She earned a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing at The City College of New York (CUNY) where she also served as a poetry mentor in the Poetry Outreach program. Kay’s work appears in the book, Brown Molasses Sunday: An Anthology of Black Women Writers, and online in Moko: Caribbean Arts and Letters, The Write Launch, Pithead Chapel and various other venues. Kay is passionate about bringing the arts back into public schools and issues that affect marginalized communities. She lives in the Bronx and considers herself a bibliophile. Visit her here: www.iamkaybell.com

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I started writing poetry in the sixth grade when my teacher, Ms. Nolan, introduced my class to the Haiku. I learned very quickly that I was not only fascinated with writing but with words. I was even known to have been an avid dictionary reader. Soon after sixth grade I started keeping journals. Some pages were filled with venting about my rough childhood but many pages were poems.

1.1. What was it that fascinated you about words?

I believe it was the power of words that fascinated me. I remember reading words like “rhapsody” and “exalt” and feeling what they meant before truly understanding their definitions. Words have the power to make you feel and move you to create and reimagine things. When I found writers like Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Warshan Shire, Claudia Rankine and Amiri Baraka etc. I started to realize what you could do with words. They could be shaped into messages. Important messages. Writers such as these wrote such powerful messages in their poems and for me that was empowering and inspired me to do the same.

2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

When I first started writing it wasn’t that obvious but looking back I definitely see that I wasn’t exposed to that many younger poets. It’s only within the last maybe 5-7 years I have tumbled upon younger poets. I believe writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka definitely dominated the presence of Danez Smith, Evie Ewing, Claudia Rankine etc even a few years ago in my college courses.

2.2. How did they dominate?

I guess when I think of the question of domination I’m thinking about how they get more presence on the classrooms and they’re the writers most people are more familiar with because they get more exposure.

3. What made you tightly structure Cry Sweat Bleed Write round these words and their order?

People always ask me what do I write about. This title became the answer to that question. I think it was inspired by me hearing people say they accomplished victories by blood and tears. It made me think about what I choose to write about. I realized if it makes me cry sweat or bleed it’s worth writing about. That means nothing Is off limits. I write about all my experiences.

4. Seasons are an ongoing theme within the poetry., as in “smashes her face against the seasons”, “From the borders of winter”. Why are the seasons so important to you?

Seasons represent time and change but also they help you feel different emotions. Smashes her face against the seasons shows it happened all the time. As the seasons kept changing, this situation kept happening. Winter is symbolic of death or despair. When you emerge from winter you are emerging from dire circumstances.

So using these references to seasons helps me to convey a message about time and change that I hope will encourage the reader to understand something is changing and many times that includes a change in time, and a range of feelings.

I think mentioning the seasons also helps the reader reflect. This is important because for me, poetry should make you reflect. During reflection, that’s the moment you feel the time changing, and you feel the cold loneliness of winter, you smell the spring flowers, you jump in autumn leaves and you sweat in the heat of summer. You get immersed in the poem using this type of language.

5. What is your daily writing routine?

I do not write everyday. I think about things to write everyday but unless I feel an uncontrollable urge, I usually don’t stop to write. That urge guides me as to what should be on the page. Everyday I play with words, sentences, images, ideas in my mind. When I get a good combination of those things, that is when I feel the urge and start writing. For me this process is organic. I do not like to force myself to write unless I have a deadline. I think writing is like cooking. It takes time. Food has to simmer and absorb in it’s juices. I feel as though I must simmer and absorb the ideas, words etc. I need to let the poetry marinate within me and not rush the process or the result may not be as good.

6. What is the significance of the quotes at the beginning of each section of your book?

Each quote serves as a prologue for its chapter. I wanted to show the range of emotion and the connection to the title. The quotes work to do just this. I might add for each section except ”cry” I already knew from the beginning of creating the book, what quote I would use for that section because when I saw that word that quote popped in my head. For instance, sweat. Reading Hurston’s essay Sweat early on in college stuck with me and whenever I hear that word I think of the essay.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

Nikki giovanni was one of the first poets that influenced me. Her writing is practical, bold, confident and revolutionary. Her work influenced me to write in a way that was accessible to non- poets/writers and she also taught me to write with confidence and courage by boldly speaking in ways and on subjects not always well received. I also think Ntozake Shange and Sonia Sanchez played a major role in shaping the structure of my poems. They were doing things with language and structure that I had not previously seen before reading their work. I am still working to incorporate more of that in my work but I definitely incorporate it. For instance the poems Untitled 6; Magic; and Liberation all play with the structure. These ideas would have not have not materialized in my work, had it not been for writers like Sanchez and Shange.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Today I’m really engrossed in Ocean Yvoung, Danez Smith, Warshan Shire, Camile Rankine, and Terrance Haynes. I mean there are others but these authors work lie next to me on my nightstand and I go back to them when I need inspiration. I love what they do with language, form, structure and imagery. They help me to envision what I’m going to write about and then my imagination and creativity finishes it off. I also love what they are writing about: Blackness, sexuality, religion, gender, family dysfunction etc. So many raw intense often taboo subjects. I have to say that even some traditional poets are on my nightstand for easy retrieval as well: Charles Simic, W.S.Merwin, Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka are names among those poets. These writers keep inspiring me.

8.1. What do Ocean Vuong, Danez Smith, Warshan Shire, Camile Rankine, and Terrance Haynes do with language, form, structure and imagery that really inspires you?

They create their own rules. For instance, Ocean Vuong’s poem Aubade with Burning City, he weaves lyrics to a song throughout the poem. The lyrics gives the poem movement. I can hear the song throughout the poem and each line becomes intensified. The poem becomes the song and the song becomes the poem. There is no beginning or end to this. The song also work to help facilitate this image of a perfect world where the images of the soldiers and war carry so many ugly secrets. Terrance Haynes reimagines the sonnet. He gives it life in his book, American Sonnet for my past and future assassin. This book actually inspired my poem: Work Sonnet. It gave me the permission to reimagine the sonnet and make it my own. Camille Rankine is thought provoking, as with all these poets, but there is something about her language and imagery that makes me stop and read her poems over and over again in one sitting. I’m constantly reflecting on her ideas and language choices. One poem that stands out to me is Vespertine. She says:

I’m an acre of empty
desert, anyway. A spent white flower. A pale
honey scent wilted away.

I have to take it all in.
I have to digest it. I ask myself what is an acre? A spent white flower? A honey scent wilted?
She is sparse but always fulfilling. She sends me searching for answers. Danez Smith and Warshan do some of these same things. Provoke me with language that forces me to reflect, search for answers, and lastly inspires me to write my own stories that bare some of the same pain, courage, love and resilience.

9. There is a loneliness in these poems, the sense of being abandoned, of being misplaced, distanced from everything, and an aching.

Absolutely. I was a foster child and not having my parents around always fostered a sense of loneliness and abandonment within me. I met my dad last year for the first time and my mom when I was 11 and never had a good relationship with her. The absence of a real patent child bond has always made me feel alienated. It has also affected all of my relationships, whether with my husband or my own children. I have always felt like people don’t understand me or I’m alone and I know now that the void I felt came from not having a healthy relationship with my mom and not knowing my dad. It has cause some to ache profoundly.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?

There is no magical way to become a writer. Becoming a writer is easy. I think the mere desire to be one places you in position to become one. But becoming a good writer develops over time. Good writers learn how to be creative, they imagine, edit/revise their work and take criticism. Both good and bad criticism is good in my eyes. Even the bad criticism you can take the meat and leave the bones: there is always something to learn. Good Writers are not magicians. They’re critical thinkers, they read ALOT and they have opened themselves to a variety of writing styles and techniques.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

Right now I am working on a novel loosely based on my experience in foster care and how that shaped my life and relationships. I have another poetry book set to be published next year, Diary of an Intercessor.  It was actually my thesis in grad school and is based on my relationship with God and shares some of my struggles and victories with religion and church. I also just finished a book of poems I started writing around the time I met my dad, called Pilgrimage.

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