The Poetry Project

Perverse Earth

Interview with author of Gossypiin (Red Hen Press, 2022), Ra Malika Imhotep, with Jasmine Gibson

Time is slippery. It is truthfully most present in the geologic formations we and other beings find ourselves in. Sediment, moss, bones and composites of eras. Earth is perverse. Earth insists upon a gestation period. And a decomposition period. These are processes that are co-occurring abstractions that aren’t contractions to the process of life and death. Time is so slippery that when I asked Ra Malika Imhotep to meet with me over zoom on a hot Mercurial August Thursday, time would tumble over a rock face again. You see, I have been waiting to read and talk about Imhotep’s Gossypiin (Red Hen Press, 2022) since the glacial early period of the pandemic. Imhotep has a talent for understanding geologic time and choreo timing. An alchemist, a magician: making tools out of the elemental items of the past, like cotton, grow into a crossroads figure in their burlesque performance as Lil Cotton Flower. Gossypiin asks the audience to push within the earth of what makes the self and to gaze upon the multi-species plant known as cotton and see global resistance. Gossypiin is set to be released in April 2022. This interview has been condensed from a longer conversation.

Jasmine Gibson: Horticulture is significant throughout your book. The title of your book is Gossypiin, the latin genus for cotton. This is also the largest genus of the Gossypieae, and species continue to be discovered. What is the connection of horticulture and the nature of the plant to you?

Ra Malika Imhotep: I’m so obsessed with that journey: the genealogy of the plants. It started with this book Hoodoo Medicine by Faith Mitchell. It’s sort of like a healer’s almanac about the Gullah Geechee people from the Sea Islands. In this book there was an inscription of the cotton plant and the medicinal uses of the plant. At this time, I was deep into the study of plant allies. I was taking classes at this place called Ancestral Apothecary in the Bay. It started at that moment that I had come to realize that cotton was a plant ally, which took my brain a little bit to work around. Socially and historically, predetermined or overdetermined, Black folks’ relationship to cotton is haunted because of the transatlantic slave trade. It became the oppressive plant…the thing we picked…a lot of people have aversions to this plant. Then you have people that think of it as a decorative plant, and that’s a whole other thing (laughs).

JG: The book’s first poem “Gossypium herbaceum” is very tactile. After the quote from Faith Mitchell’s Hoodoo Medicine, the poem starts with “and so, they must’ve plunged hands deep beneath the field gently undoing the crop to coax it out of medicine.” In this poem you hold tension between the narrator’s voice and the voice of the plant. In what ways do you think this relationship facilitates the accumulation of knowledge as resistance?

RMI: When I think about deepening my relationship to plant medicine, I think about the care that is needed for tending to this plant. It opens something in my brain. Again, when we think about the social relationship that cotton has, that is overdetermined by labor. When you think of the labor in a cotton field, you are thinking about this harsh plucking, it’s a very rough process…it cuts the fingers, so when you think about the work that is required to unearth the root, find the root, it’s so much softer and elicit. Because when you’re uprooting the plant, you’re killing it. I think for me it was an exercise in allowing myself to imagine this as a different kind of work. A different performance of labor. And this must have happened, otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten this excerpt from the French colonist or British doctors about what these Black midwives were doing with this plant and using it for the purposes of reproductive self-determination. I think that this is an invitation to the reader to reorient to the cotton plant. It’s a very slow and intimate process. We have well-earned aversion to the cotton plant. I am interested in ecointimacy and ecosexuality, and reestablishing an intimate relationship to the world.

JG: The forest floor, earth’s floor or as you state “under the dirt that holds our feet up” is a major theme in your work. This earth providing respite at least holds the main voices up. What is your connection to the earth, floor/land and various landback demands, or the broader discussion about reparations and climate change?

RMI: I am trying to deepen my relationship to this earth, to this planet in space, to this rock, that I feel like was severed from me by industrialization and the violence of the plantation that has sent my people running from plants and the earth. I find myself in deep study and apprenticeship with folks who have a clear understanding of what it means to be stewards of the land, to respect land. Specifically how we navigate that tender intersection between reparation and rematriation to Black and Indigenous folks. It’s perverse. These relationships we’ve had with stolen land are perverse. How do we be with it? How do we realize that we are a part of it? That is where I am right now. How do I as a Black person come into right relationships with new lands? What is the offering? I think that is what is offered in this book. An offering of ceremony, ritual and bringing the narrator(s) back into relationship with itself.

JG: Gossip! “What We Have Gathered Here To Do” broaches the messy and delicious place of gossip. Some fear it, some worship it. When I think of gossip, I imagine the High Priestess or Queen of Swords, this very staunch but very detailed exactness to secrets and knowledge. Where do you stand on gossip and what is Gossypin saying about gossip?

RMI: The type of gossip I’m interested in is information sharing. It can be protective information sharing, it can be social information sharing. “Who do you think is cute here?” For me it’s deep because I can point to moments if I had listened to some gossip shared with me, I could’ve avoided some violent experiences. That’s just real. If I hadn’t dismissed it as idle chatter…things would’ve been different. Part of the work of this book is a form of disclosure around sexual violence and claiming survivorship.

JG: Movement is an aspect of your work. The eastern seaboard, Georgia, North, some light, some dark, some Johnson. Some Perkins. Even Lil Cotton Flower moves throughout the book. How do you determine where to travel, where to uproot, where to “misremember”?

RMI: Part of it is following the errant migration habits of my folks. Pulling together fragments of stories that narrate their journeys and knowing that I may not have it right and I don’t have to have it right. That there is something about the way I remember to misremember that does its own work. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of books, a lot of good books, that narrate this journey of a return to the South, that I don’t identify with. I think what I’m trying to do is narrate from a place where this is in your blood already. When the haunts and the haints and the scary parts, the juicy parts and the parts that don’t make sense. Even the parts of my life that I’ve come to associate with the North or New York, all started in Georgia. What does it mean to name that…to narrate that? There is something about reckoning with the migration stories that I’ve inherited, and how they all come back to this red clay. It all informs my orientation to gossip, to cotton, to survival, to suffering, to pleasure, it all comes back to this red clay. It’s just different ways to get to it.

JG: What were the conditions to create Gossypin? What were you reading, listening or eating at the time?

RMI: I feel like the conditions were multifaceted because the manuscript was compiled between 2014-2018. Starting in my senior year of college. Some of the conditions were reading Ntoztake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf and working with the Greek lesbian poet Olga Broumas at Brandeis. I also was in the frozen hellhole of Boston (Imhotep and Gibson share a giggle about Boston). I was hungry for conversations between people. I found an interview between Toni Morrison and Ntoztake Shange. I found an interview with Gloria Naylor and Toni Morrison. I was reading Morrison, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale Hurston. I also was in the first year of my program at Berkeley in African Diaspora Studies. I was probably eating all over the place but I was in a plant class, I remember a lot of roses, tinctures, and nettles. Also I think it feels important to say that a lot of it was written on what feels like stolen time. I had to turn off all the academic, art, social stuff and be with my feelings. I was also working through Black spectacular death, whether that was Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin or the number of Trans and Cis women that were murdered as I worked on the manuscript.

JG: I really enjoyed your episode on “The Reparations Show” with Morgan Johnson. I really liked how you brought Dr. Doris Davenport and really loved her quote of “ain’t nobody come from nothing” and Miyuki Baker and how y’all talked about freedom found within Black Feminist practices. Can you tell more about the constellation of thought and practice you find yourself in currently?

RMI: Shoutout to Momma D! She is a true firebrand. One of the things I love most about her is that she was there! She was in lesbian separatist parties, southern arts parties…she’s just been in the room and she’s always been herself. I think of her as a beloved elder. I feel aligned with the radical Black Feminist Tradition. I’ve been re-reading Alice Walker and Lucille Clifton. These are people that just knew things. About being, about being with the earth. And they wasn’t always liked. I really could exhaust myself naming all the people I feel indebted to. There’s something in a queer Black Feminism that understands its politics as a connection to the planet and beyond…that feels like my tradition. A tradition of organizing, not afraid of putting the body on the line but also wild imagination. The audacity to tell stories even if people aren’t going to like it.

JG: Alchemy. What is your approach to Rootwork as a ritual?

RMI: The call I was on before this one was about Virgo season being a time of internal alchemy. I thought, “Absolutely.” For me, that’s rootwork. The types of ceremony of bringing the self and bringing the ancestors in for healing, for integration. Putting together the manuscript and putting it into the world, is a part of the spell. As I was writing the book, I was on my own journey discovering how important ritual was as a part of my life. I think that shows in the writing, the logic of harvest, it’s all very witchy. Even when I think about gossip in relation to Silvia Federici, it’s all in defense of witchcraft.

JG: Choreopoem: what is your movement process and tell me about Lil Cotton Flower?

RMI: I think the vessel that Ra Malika moves through is Lil Cotton Flower. I think part of the playing that happens through this trickster figure has been inherited through a lineage of doll makers and storytellers. Lil Cotton Flower emerges as a playful being that has this level of embodiment that Ra Malika Imhotep may not always have access to. You don’t always get to see Lil Cotton Flower move because you hear them on the page but through the stories and songs that they tell, you get a glimpse at the…movement. It’s about the dance, the movement, it’s about being shamelessly in flesh. That is how Lil Cotton Flower moves. Lil Cotton Flower is able to move that way because they know they are more imagination than blood. They understand themselves to be free in ways that are not necessarily open to Black femmes and women in this world. In that, Lil Cotton Flower expresses themselves through a variety of mediums whether that be West African dance, Modern dance, Burlesque or, as some described it, “art stripping.” Lil Cotton Flower offers an answer to the question of what to do with the Black nude figure. Their answer is, “Fuck it, I’m just going to be in it.” Show it off, cover it up, but don’t be shamed. That’s how Lil Cotton Flower operates in Shange’s tradition: putting forth a shameless reckoning of Black Feminine Aliveness with all of its joy and its sadness.

#267 – Winter 2022