A few minutes with ... Adebe DeRango-Adem
By Dane Swan
Throughout my month here at open-book.ca I've been sharing my conversations with various members of the literary community. Our last conversation is with noted poet, Adebe DeRango-Adem. To learn more about her current collection, Terra Incognita please visit here or her Facebook page.
In the description for Terra Incognita, I noticed the phrase, “geography is fate.” Since I've moved to Canada, artists, authors, musicians and academics I've known from the black community have migrated to the US. As a person who has lived on both sides of the border, what is the fate of the black Canadian intellectual in the United States? What are the opportunities that can only be found there?
I'm still busy building my audience/readership in United States, since most of my affinities/ties in the literary world have tended to be in Canada, more specifically in Toronto. The last few years have seen my life become a moment where art imitates life (imitates art). The publication of Terra Incognita coincided with a turn of events that left me in a relative state of exilic questioning, both in terms of my geographic displacement (being between cities, namely New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto), but moreover the turn of events that offered an unknown territory through which I had to find new ways to resolve to keep going. The one thing I will give credit to the United States for, in the literary sense, is the palpable & intimidating feeling you get from practically everyone you meet - a drive towards success. A lot of people want to be successful in United States & the states has a lot of successful people; as such, the hunter kind mentality rubs off even on the most humble of poets. I do see certain opportunities in the US coming my way, namely through the poets who I have either worked with - Ameri Baraka, Ann Waldman, Sonia Sanchez, Charles Bernstein, and the estate of Langston Hughes (The first poem I ever read on American soil was at the house, actually the living room, of Hughes's home in Harlem) - or who I would like to work with at length - Claudia Rankine, Terrence Hayes, & about twenty talented writers of color. The way things are going these days for arts funding in the US is a bit precarious, so the word opportunity is largely a big question mark. However the general feeling of desire, and the willingness coupled with the ability to network and get out there, puts a lot of American poets at an advantage. It's a mentality, modality of being/way of thinking, that can be used to walk through the fire & surge ahead with ones literary dreams.
Where does black Canadian literature fit in the Can Lit canon? For that matter, where does any POC Canadian literature fit in the Can Lit canon?
Black Canadian literature, literature by people of color such as myself... well, that is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous differentiation, being put in my own class of writing, or take arms by declaring a call to disrupt the CanLit monolith... Giving mind to the color of my skin/the shade of my experience.… I feel that my writing flows through me organically, and yet the fact that I share in a Heritage of enslavement, colonialism, displacement, and otherness, does make me feel that my writing is unique. If my writing becomes known as black Canadian writing from a younger generation then I hope it will also be known to revise the image of Canadian-ness in a new way - an image I might add, that has been mistakenly co-opted into an image of whiteness. Canada has been good to me on the literary front, still, having served as a carte Blanche for me as I launched my writing to the world over a decade ago. The opportunities continue, and yet I find myself caught in between worlds at times, namely the world of becoming a respected published author in her own right, and an author or writer worth reading and listening to, who also happens to have experienced oppression. I identify as a black woman and a mixed race black woman as well. I do aspire to have contributed in a meaningful way to Canada's history & future of black arts & letters.
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How does your personal definition of home impact your writing?
I'm in between homes as I write this! I reside in Philadelphia and Toronto, and I consider both my homes for different reasons. I'm very much of the belief that one's authenticity comes into expression artistically when one is spiritually grounded and culturally rooted. Nowadays I see the condition of being in between, between geographical lines, cultural lines, racial lines (i.e. the color line), as having added value to my poetic craft and the act of writing.
Being displaced and relocated in various places, having to carve out my own space and voice in these respective places along the way, has served a higher purpose I think. I think of James Baldwin when he talks about how his deep understanding of what America was & meant, as a nation & entity, emerged when he left to live in France for an extended period. In a sense, it is possible to define oneself outside of the structures and constructions that are provided for us, & venture out into the unknown worlds before us; worlds that will be wrapped up in our ongoing sense of identity as authors & as human beings.
I came across an old bio of yours where you described your poetry as “ballad meets bop.” What did you mean by that phrase? How would you describe your work now?
Ballad meets Bop is a rehashing, perhaps a revisioning & re-envisioning of the beat writers who so moved me for years & years. I like to think of my writing as containing a beat spirit, broadly defined -- as a kind of a holler back to the hip lot of writers of the 50s and 60s who associated with the underground & jazz & blues, and wanted to be known simultaneously as poets, Saints, gangsters & all in between, a time in American history that for all its literary worth, also had a strong political stance as many of the audiences that crowded these rooms full of jazz poetry & smoke happened to be rooms where racially mixed friends mingled and jived together in the spirit of togetherness, the jovial and joyous aspect of life that can't come from anything synthetic & only real life! O the grittiness of it & the dark beauty of it all.
To me ballad meets bop also hearkens to the jazz tradition itself, spoken word poetry against the cadences of jazz beats & on a larger scale the rise of jazz as a popular musical form. At heart, I hope to be bardic in my application of the spirit when I write, & my love of jazz is something almost innate, or at least, lives within me & through my work & poetic style. All I know is I have to keep writing. And that the meaning of my life depends precisely upon the continuation of each breath & each stroke of a pen, each turn of phrase. I also simply envy musicians, & always wanted to curate a poetry series where jazz would mix & mingle to a beat & poets would read & audiences would snap or clap or even swing to the beat. That has always been my fantasy -- of the ultimate poetry event… so stay tuned my dear reader!
Finally, any new projects that readers should look out for?
Three! I have felt peculiarly productive this past few months. I am working on a novel, my first venture into fiction, & finding a publisher for it. Broadly speaking, the book is set in New York City, Philadelphia & Toronto (once again a product of my own global trotting) & ultimately engages with questions of desire, Love, commitment, trauma and resistance, through the eyes of a young black/interracial woman. I'm also in the process of putting together a call for submissions for an anthology project's second run with Andrea Thompson, my fellow poet & basically sister. Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out (published by Inanna in 2010) will be going for its second round this time, and we are hoping to publish this year. Women who are interested in participating and submitting their work should be in touch with me via any social media handle. The anthology will explore the writing, art & photography of mixed race women across North America, similar to our first anthology ... yet THE FIRE THIS TIME & the various political questions many of us women have in terms of our safety & self-care are more urgent than ever to address. We want to create yet again a sanctuary space for women to explore the ways we can bloom where we are planted ... please look out for the call for submissions!
Lastly, I am putting the final touches on my poetry manuscript, title not yet released, & I do have a couple publishers in mind who I would relish the opportunity to work with. This book seeks to make an imprint upon the psychic space we collectively share & yet make our own. In this poetry collection ideas around the transversing of personal identity become entrenched within the spaces of the social, camaraderie, & futurity: how does the precariousness of life create a will to see through to my own future? How can we rise as a phoenix would from the proverbial ashes, without turning the midnight oil, or giving up on the world entirely? How can we from any relative rock bottom keep our eyes on the stars? What gives us the hope to stay afloat? These are all questions easier written than answered & that I seek to bring light to in my favorite writing form of all.
Adebe DeRango-Adem was called a young Canadian author to watch in 2016 by Canada’s current parliamentary poet laureate, the prolific George Elliott Clarke.
A former student of Anne Waldman and Amiri Baraka through the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, Adebe is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Ex Nihilo (2010) and Terra Incognita (2015).
Ex Nihilo was nominated for the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize, while her most recent book, Terra Incognita, published in 2015, was a finalist for the Pat Lowther award. The book explores various racial discourses and interracial crossings both buried in the grand narratives of history and the everyday experiences of being mixed-race. Poems from the collection were also longlisted for the inaugural Cosmonauts Avenue Poetry Prize, as judged by award-winning American poet Claudia Rankine. She is currently an English doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Dane Swan is a Bermuda-raised, Toronto-based internationally published poet, writer and musician. His first collection, Bending the Continuum was launched by Guernica Editions in the Spring of 2011. The collection was a recommended mid-summer read by Open Book: Toronto. In 2013 Dane was short listed for the Monica Ladell Award (Scarborough Arts) for his poem "Stopwatch."