Q&A with Ama Codjoe, author of The Bluest Nude

Ama Codjoe is the author of Bluest Nude (Milkweed Editions, 2022) and the prize-winning chapbook Blood of the Air (Northwestern University Press, 2020). The Offing published her poem, Love Jones, on May 28, 2015. Publisher Ashaki M. Jackson conducted the Q&A.

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Ashaki Jackson: I am frightened by the range of this work and the feelings that follow me off the page. I find the most tender parts of your work to be you rolling your mother’s hair as she sits between your knees and the texture of a mastectomy scar under a lover’s fingertip. There is also such rich and elegant language in narratives around the breast, the face, childhood bodies, the womb. Anatomy marks time, but you’re also using the body to relay closeness, departure, and vulnerability. I’d love to hear more about how you conceptualize anatomy in this work.

Ama Codjoe: In the months since Bluest Nude’s publication, I have begun to think of the speakers and subjects of the collection as a tribe — a family of mothers, daughters, artists, ghosts, figures of art — who exist in a single space, the book. Let’s say all of these characters travel to the imagined space of “Heaven as Olympic Spa,” an affordable real-life spa in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and one at a time they lay down on the masseuse’s table. The masseuse begins to rub Aunt Jemima’s shoulder, for instance, kneading the knot in the muscle. The masseuse can feel history’s entanglements, terror, and violence — there is a story there in Aunt Jemima’s shoulder, in her breast, in her hips, in the soles of her feet. For all of us, and for all of the women gathered in the book, the body is a map to memory, joy, passion, oppression, inheritance, coming together, coming undone… Each of the speakers in Bluest Nude has their own map, their own resonant anatomy that leads them toward and away from others. We are marked, in our bodies, by such intimacy.

AJ: There is grace in the statement “we are marked, in our bodies, by such intimacy.” Your work resonated with me because it was a portal to memories I have only accessed through pressure on particular body parts. When I trained, I used PVC pipe and Rumble Rollers on my thighs to reach deep knots. These aren’t gentle tools. There were moments when I applied pressure and remembered the kindness of one man and the unkindness of another. You’ve allowed readers to see what your knots yield. How did you negotiate how much truth and intimacy you would share with readers?

AC: Pain is a message to pay attention. What often captivates my attention is painful, to use the analogy and reality we’re building together through this conversation — it is the knot. And much like the tools you describe, I use the pressure of writing poems to relieve the pain and loosen the knot. I’m most concerned with and beholden to how writing, how loosening the knot, helps me exist on this planet. Suffering is non-negotiable, and I am grateful for how poem-making helps me live with and through what is painful and cherish what is joyful. With all of this in mind, I aim to craft poems that have blood in them, that give something to the reader.

AJ: It was nice to revisit poems that debuted in your prize-winning chapbook, Blood in the Air (Northwestern University Press, 2020). What was your process integrating those pieces into Bluest Nude or building Bluest Nude around those pieces?

AC: I have a very clear memory of what I think of as “the moment” Bluest Nude became itself. Essentially, while contemplating what the book could be, I made three piles of poems: one pile of poems was from the chapbook Blood of the Air; one pile consisted of a manuscript I thought would be my first full-length collection; and the third pile were poems that formed the nexus of Bluest Nude, newer poems concerning the black feminine nude in art and life. After organizing these poems into piles I “listened” to them. If I felt they resonated with the themes of what was becoming Bluest Nude, I let them drift over into the fourth pile: the book.

AJ: You also seemed to listen very closely to Black artists who, I feel, guided me throughout your collection. Carrie Mae Weems’s quote “It’s essential that I do this work and it’s essential that I do it with my body,” for example, is well-timed to move us to “Posing Nude,” the poem after Deana Lawson’s photograph, that questions how much we know about the real or imagined intimacies of two subjects in a frame. You also gift us–among others–Betye Saar, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Mickalene Thomas, and Simone Leigh. Tell us about your decision to use Black art to scaffold your collection.

AC: I knew there were certain voices, like those of Carrie Mae Weems and Mickalene Thomas, that I felt had to be in Bluest Nude despite the fact that I hadn’t written poems about these artists’ work. In addition, I wanted the epigraphs to speak directly to the poems that preceded and followed them; in a way, the poems “answer” the epigraphs — a call and response. By including many artists in the collection — beginning with Simone Leigh’s art work on the cover and the opening epigraph by Lorraine O’Grady — I aim to demonstrate an ethics of collectivity, of lineage, and of multiplicity, contradiction, and wholeness. These are artists whose work accompanies me as I breathe and write. I love that you call them guides, Ashaki. They are certainly guides in my life and in my art-making.

AJ: Bluest Nude has been well-received across social media. Many readers of your work seem delighted if not outright titillated by “Poem After Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” “Why I Left the Garden,” and “On Seeing and Being Seen.” I think these are exemplar pieces that reveal vulnerability, tenderness and sexuality among Black women and Black femmes. It feels almost sacrificial to give up these sweet details. I feel the consensus about these poems is best captured by Imani Davis’s annotations shared on Twitter. Any thoughts about how your work has been held, amplified, and annotated thus far?

Photographs of Codjoe's "Poem After Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima" enthusiastically annotated by poet Imani Davis and circulated on Twitter. In response to Codjoe's line "What if I unclench the valleys/of my fist, and lay down/the wailing baby?" Davis circles "I unclench the valleys" and notes, "OK, she's carrying with this connotative diction." In response to Codjoe's line "Gonna climb the men who, when they see my face, turn into stony mountains," Davis circles the entire line and offers, "PURRR they bricked uppp PERIOD" in dialectical interpretation and praise. Davis responds "EXACTLY" to Codjoe's line "Gonna scowl and scream and shepherd my hollering into a green/ pasture." Davis circles and underlines Codjoe's energetic phrases in call and response and ends the annotations in the large white space after the poem with UGH, a term of feeling and overwhelm.
Images of Codjoe’s “Poem After Betye Saar’s The Liberation of Aunt Jemima” enthusiastically annotated by doctoral student and Offing contributor Imani Davis (@imanixdavis) via Twitter

AC: Davis’s annotations are everything for many reasons, chief among them is how Davis evidences, physically and materially, a gracious engagement with the text. I’m humbled by this engagement. I’m not on social media, but I have received emails from readers and every so often a friend will screen shot a comment from Instagram or Twitter. These responses deeply matter to me — I cherish them — they feel both personal and not about me at all. I sincerely feel honored to have just one reader spend time with Bluest Nude. The encounter between a single reader and a single text is an intimate one — it is a gift of my life to be a reader. Honestly, I hadn’t given much thought to how the book would be received; the expectations I’d held were for me and for what I hoped to make.

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Love Jones

“They’re about to miss each other / again.”

Happy and Well

She told my grandmother on the phone,
Sometimes—they’re just too happy.