Danusha Laméris’ poetry is warm and inviting, like staying up late and talking to a close friend; her poems allow for intimacy and the witnessing of a life unfolding. You are just as likely to encounter poems steeped in desire, joy, and accounts of the natural world as you are pieces that express loss and grief. Obsidian intern Zakia Carpenter-Hall spoke with Laméris about her poems, process and advice to other poets. What follows is an abridged version of that conversation.
Zakia Carpenter-Hall: I want to get a sense of what drew you to poetry, to language, or playing with words.
Danusha Laméris: It has a lot to do with my family. Specifically, my mother is from Barbados and my dad from Holland. There’s a musicality to both of their accents. Also, my mother had a photographic memory and a British education; she grew up half in London. She would recite Tennyson while stuck in traffic, and I think that’s pretty unusual. Hearing my grandfather speaking with his friends, who were all writers, I just could not believe how beautifully they spoke to one another, or even to me, a child.
In addition to that, having hard life experiences that were really challenging in my upbringing and adulthood and not knowing what to do with that material. And it was like, oh, there’s an altar that I can put this on; it’s that altar of language.
ZCH: You have the poem ‘Ashbud’ about your mother and her photographic memory. Did she use language as a comfort reciting those different texts that she remembered from childhood and do you also use language as a comfort?
DL: That’s interesting because a lot of my mother’s life and difficulties were a mystery to me. She didn’t really talk about them, like much of her generation. But when you’re saying that, I’m thinking that must be exactly why she turned to those memorised words because they can be a kind of balm. So whatever suffering she went through, she always had inside of her that store of poetry. And I like to say poems and poetry has raised me in a way. Because it’s the poems themselves—reading other poets’ work—that gave me the wisdom I need. And the poets I’ve met through a life of writing carried me in so many ways.
ZCH: I really like that moment in ‘Elegy in an Orchard’ when you are talking to the poet, Larry Levis, on the page as if he could still interact and speak to you. That is linked to the idea of being raised by poetry, having this kind of dialogue. I think we’re always in conversation with someone in our poems. Who or what do you converse with?
DL: That’s really fun to think about. I am definitely in conversation with the dead, with my brother who died and my son; I have poetry as a way to stay in conversation with them. And I am also finding myself in conversation with American poets like Walt Whitman and Emerson. It is interesting because they are these dead white guys who, sort of, laid out the foundations of American poetry, but there are so many other voices that we didn’t hear. I like that I can continue the conversation that they were having with the world, with the natural world as this Black woman living now, over 150 years later. I’m also in artistic conversation with Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye and Lucille Clifton.
ZCH: I remember a poem about your brother, ‘The Grass’, where you evoke one of Whitman’s most memorable lines: ‘What is the grass?’ Could you talk a little bit about your use of nature in your work and what it means to you?
DL: Poems are a way that I try to burrow down into the grass, into the dirt, and back to a primal sense of being. I live on a few acres here and we have all these creatures circling where we live: mountain lions to coyotes to raccoons. But it helps living close to it so that I can attend and notice what goes on.
ZCH: And how in your writing process do you get closer to the primal? I want to talk about the body and desire in your work.
DL: I feel that, in Bonfire Opera, there is this arc of trying to get to that transcendent place through the body and desire, not as an end in itself but as a doorway. The body is a kind of door, or a temple with doors. And the title poem plays with that idea of ‘body as cathedral’. So it’s like, ‘How do we get into what’s most essentially true?’ Desire takes us there, but so does a tree. And so does the river and so do the earthworms. What are the things? I guess, to me, that’s desire and the body: it’s one of the primary ways to get past the veil of ordinariness into the realm of the holy.
ZCH: Before you said that, I had thought about the portals and even ecstasy and passion as portals. Do you see a power in reclaiming pleasure in your work? I noticed that the speakers of your poems often allow themselves their full desires. I wondered about that and how you see it as a Black woman, as it is rarer to find that in Black women’s writing and poetry in particular.
DL: It can be so fraught with the danger of being seen as oversexed or as an object. A lot of things about it can feel dangerous for many writers. And I think that I have not been afraid of that for whatever reason. My core belief about writing is that it’s a realm in which we can explore and also reveal our humanity. What is true of humans is true of me. The way that I tie that to race is that very often I don’t write about race explicitly. There are times when I do, but often I don’t—not intentionally. My thinking around it is, I get to be a human and talk about all of my humanity. To me, that is a political moment. I get to be a woman and have desire—and I’m 50! Age, ethnicity, race, gender, all of that stuff. I’m a human and so I have all the fears and all the wants. And I hope that I’m still writing about those things when I’m 70.
ZCH: Longing and loss are also themes in your work and you mentioned being in poetic conversation with your brother and son who both passed away. What impact have those major events had on your writing?
DL: In a way, I think that those events probably fractured me, broke me or a part of me. When terrible things happen, it leaves a kind of fissure. What do we do with that? Writing has helped me to hold a space for it and fill that space with what comes in poems. It’s a process for me of integration to address those fissures by just attending to the broken places. I think that there’s such a fear of loss.
ZCH: And grief as well, I think.
DL: And grief. The loss, the grief that’s associated—we don’t want that. In a way having had that very intensely—you know my thirties were like: boom, boom, boom, losses—and having survived to tell about it, I think that the losses have also given me an appreciation of life. The absence has created space for something else to happen.
ZCH: Does that sense of an experience being unresolved spark poems for you typically?
DL: It’s so different each time. I’ve trained myself to notice the stories I tell. I think that can be a rich way for poets to gain entry to a poem, another way is through the stories our families tell. It’s like, oh, that’s interesting: there’s that story again. But other times they mostly arrive as a first line: ‘In those days, there was a woman in our circle / who was known, not only for her beauty, / but also for taking off all her clothes and singing opera’ (‘Bonfire Opera’). I think that was sort of a combination; those lines arrived and then I was like, oh, I have to tell that story.
ZCH: And does hearing yourself tell that story spark a sense of its strangeness? I guess when it’s in you, you might not realise how the story might appear to others.
DL: That’s a wonderful point because we don’t know what we as writers are sitting on in terms of the goldmine of our stories. We just don’t know because we’ve heard them too often, it could be a story my aunt always tells. We take it for granted, but other people don’t know those stories.
ZCH: How do you develop your poems?
DL: I like to give myself a very regular writing practice. I have two parts. One is at night where I will sit with the notes that I have taken or the drafts I have and really give them some attention. That might be for an hour, two hours or more. Lately, I’ve had less time. So, even if I have a half hour, I try to just attend to my drafts, often skipping between different poems. Asking, ‘Do I have anything more to say about this one? What about this one?’ And the other half of my practice is that, at some point during the day, I read. That allows me to consider myself first and foremost a reader. I read more than I write during the day. And reading makes you want to write, so while I’m reading, I write notes to myself. And sometimes even a full draft will appear. But very often it’s just a stanza or a line. And I go, ‘I gotta get back to that’. And I go on reading.
ZCH: It seems like you don’t let the writing get in the way of the reading. It’s nice to put the line aside and continue reading, to have that commitment.
DL: It’s a commitment to reading. We need both to get the poetry deep in our inner ear.
ZCH: What advice do you have for writers?
DL: I think it is really important for us to make personal anthologies. What I mean by that is to gather together work that you most love. Mine is this fat binder. Poems that really stick to me, I will print out, and put there.
Knowing what you love helps show you who you are. And it’s really important to know who you are as a writer so you can develop in a way that you are meant to develop. You’re not trying to be everybody else, and that is a real pitfall that I see. I read things and go, ‘I wish my mind were that associative and wild.’ ‘I wish I was more like so and so,’ in other words. And one way I have dealt with that is really looking at people I’ve loved and whose writing I may be even more aligned to in style and going, ‘See, I love what they’re doing and that is more of my natural expression so it’s okay that I’m not all those other things.’ You’re never going to be all the things.
I love so many things, but if something really inspires me it probably speaks to something about my own expression. It’s about becoming aware of that so we’re not trying to be everybody. That’s maybe the fine tuning of it. Reading the writers we really resonate with, that gives us the rungs on the ladder to work our way up craft-wise.
I write to keep doorways open for myself as best I can, a sense of curiosity and of becoming and of changing very incrementally the way I hold the world and my own stories. I write to have those micro-awakenings. They’re very small. But I hope that they’re cumulative over a lifetime.
ZCH: I feel it’s also connected to this sense of general awe and wonder. When you’re out in the world, are you particularly attuned to that?
DL: I think, like everybody, I get caught up in my to do list. I need to drop something off at the post office. I need to do laundry. I have a call I need to do with somebody. And so I think that I need to practice noticing. Like looking at pigeons: are they ugly or are they beautiful? What’s going on with them? They’re everywhere and I notice them. I think that a lot of it is really wanting to notice the world while I’m in it and poetry helps me do that.
ZCH: Poetry is a great practice for noticing.
DL: Isn’t it? It turns out noticing is the balm for almost everything. I don’t know things that can’t be addressed by that—the capacity to really notice.
Danusha Laméris authored The Moons of August and Bonfire Opera, winner of the Northern California Book Award in Poetry. Her work has also appeared in The Best American Poetry and The New York Times. She is a Poet Laureate emeritus of Santa Cruz County, California.