A. Martine is a trilingual writer, musician and artist of color who goes where the waves take her. She might have been a kraken in a past life. She’s an Assistant Editor at Reckoning Press and a co-Editor-in-Chief/Producer of The Nasiona. Her collection AT SEA was shortlisted for the 2019 Kingdoms in the Wild Poetry Prize. Some words found or forthcoming in: Déraciné, The Rumpus, Moonchild Magazine, Marias at Sampaguitas, Luna Luna, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Pussy Magic, South Broadway Ghost Society, Gone Lawn, Boston Accent Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic, Figure 1, Tenderness Lit. @Maelllstrom/www.amartine.com.
Why poetry/writing? What pulls you into the page? What poets/writers first inspired you?
I think I’ll never be able to adequately answer the first part of this question: inexplicably, I’ve been drawn to storytelling since I could pick up a pen. I would spend hours as a child drawing comics with elaborate (and incredibly dramatic) plot lines, and give even the most random object a fabulous backstory. Maybe it’s that my Senegalese/Mauritanian backgrounds are so deeply rooted in oral storytelling. Maybe it’s that writing makes me feel less alienated to my fellow human beings. Maybe it’s that I’ve always found greater comfort in written words than in spoken ones. All I know is that I come to the page with perpetual questions, and that it helps make sense of everything.
I got initially sucked into writing via horror, actually. Guy de Maupassant, Charles Baudelaire and Daphne du Maurier shattered me from a young age, along with the gruesome fairytales and mythologies from around the world I devoured constantly. They got me interested in human nature at its worst. As I grew older and moved through trauma in its many forms, however, I started getting drawn to the more confessional, intimate side of things: Apollinaire, Sylvia Plath, Arthur Rimbaud, Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman, to name a few, shaped a lot of the way I write.
What have you been working on, and what exciting things do you have planned?
In addition to my editorial work with Reckoning Press and The Nasiona, I am juggling so many concurrent projects, I sometimes feel like an octopus! Poetry-wise, I finished a collection last year, and am currently putting together a second one. I am finishing songs for a first album, which I’ll hopefully be done with by the end of the year, or in early 2021. I’m working on two fiction novels, one of which is a novel-in-stories, and I’m halfway through writing a personal essay collection (of which “A Million Little Smiles” will be part!). When things get a little less hectic, I’m planning two more projects: a graphic novel I started but sidelined a while ago, as well as the expansion of a short script into a full-length screenplay.
What was the first thing you had published, and how has your writing or focus changed since then?
The first thing I published, while I was a student at Columbia College Chicago, was a short story in Hair Trigger called “When Shirley Smiled.” It’s about a woman struggling with whether she is a bad mother, or whether her young daughter is fundamentally evil. At the time, I wasn’t sending out a lot of poems. I was much more focused on fiction, especially genre, and while I still wrote about deeply personal things through fiction, I did feel that I was hiding behind the characters.
Since then, I’ve gotten less inhibited about laying myself bare, and I find that poetry and nonfiction offer a much more immediate — and cathartic — outlet for doing so. I am still committed to fiction writing, but I’m deliberately putting it on a back-burner for the moment, because those projects require a different kind of singular focus.
What would you say is the center of your work? What motivates you? Where does a new poem or piece begin for you?
Everything started to take shape when I realized that a lot of what I write inevitably circles back to grief. Be it: long-buried grief, almost-there grief, grief for a country, a people, a culture; yet-to-come grief, the death of a person, an idea, of hope, of Self and self-love. Along those lines, it is also important — vital I’d even say — to tackle womanhood and race in my work. They are undercurrents to what I write because they are cornerstones of my identity.
I’ve been motivated, first of all, to give myself a voice. Having always been profoundly introverted, writing is a validation. But I am also motivated to continue shattering the notion that mental illness, recovery, addiction, etc. don’t belong to Black girls like me. We are so seldom Seen that we grow up trivializing our own pain, and/or believing that there aren’t millions of us feeling the same way. If just one person can relate to my work, then I’ve done what I set out to.
As for where a piece begins: a poem usually comes from a feeling. I don’t always know what I’m trying to say right off the bat. Sometimes it’s a sentence leading to another sentence, my intuition guiding the writing of it. Sometimes I pull tarot cards and sit with what they stir up, and I go from there. Fiction and nonfiction, however, come from a very different place. It’s intellectual. There’s an idea I’ve been mulling over, a story I want to tell, and I usually map it down in precise outlines before I write.
How have current events affected your work?
Be it poetry or essays, I have always written with issues surrounding race, intersectional feminism and cultural identity in mind. Another thread in my work is displacement, aloneness vs. loneliness. The current events have only exacerbated this.
The ongoing anti-racism protests were debilitating, initially. Like many of my BIPOC peers, I’ve unfortunately been used to intolerance; still, the fury and powerlessness were simultaneously raw and numbing. Writing felt pointless. After that initial desperation, I’ve felt that it’s even more necessary for me, and other writers of color, to either take a seat at the table, or continue making my own table. I’ve been writing with even more fervor about growing up multicultural, about navigating systemic racism as a Black woman, about micro-aggressive behavior that goes unchecked. On the flipside, an unforeseen thing about the pandemic is that it has pulled that dormant idealist in me from its slumber. I have felt more attached to my fellow human beings, to this beautiful planet, to life itself, have felt more motivated to fight for the best in everything, in any way I can through my work.
What space does or should poetry/writing occupy right now?
I believe in the immense power of writing to convey powerful, restorative messages. But for far too long, the writing world hasn’t sufficiently reflected its panorama of voices. For a lot of traditional gatekeepers, this has been a moment of reckoning regarding the ways in which they’ve failed those aforementioned marginalized voices. I think the best in poetry has always been uncomfortable, honest, and challenging, and this goes for writing in general. Large-scale devastation, I believe, makes us more reflective: what better time than this to turn to reading as another form of listening? Why not read something from a country you don’t know? A genre you’ve always looked down on? A form you’ve never tried? Let us widen the scope of what is considered mainstream and palatable. Let us give platforms to long-ignored voices that could educate, make empathetic.
Name some poets/writers you’re really excited about right now. Who do you have on your shelf/in your ear/on your mind?
Everything Danez Smith writes is magical, and heartbreaking, and necessary. I love them so much and feel seen every time I read a poem of theirs on being Black in America. Morgan Parker’s writing is a masterpiece, Jihyun Yun is a wordsmith of no comparison, and Maggie Smith cuts me to the quick faster than hello. I am also really into Kaveh Akbar, Ocean Vuong, Ada Limón and Hanif Abdurraqib, at the moment.
What advice would you give to a writer just starting out? If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
To a budding writer: this is easy to say, but don’t give Impostor Syndrome the time of day. It doesn’t matter if you don’t tick the traditional boxes that are silently being used to gauge your worth. It doesn’t matter that you don’t have an MFA, a publishing credit, or much experience. Don’t be so scared of rejection. Don’t take it as a reflection on your person as a whole. All that matters are your passion for the written word, and your willingness to put your entire life-force into getting better at it.
The advice would mostly be the same for my younger self, but I’d add: be flexible about the craft. Strip a poem to its bare bones. Saw those bones into pieces. Stick those pieces elsewhere. Make a new skeleton. Kill your darlings. Trust in your talent, in your ability to recreate the magic every time.
You can read A. Martine’s work in the seventh issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released June 26th.