Being Known Changes Our Relationship to Everything | A Conversation with Saida Agostini

In the video below, you can watch my recent conversation with Saida Agostini, poet and President of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, about her new book, let the dead in (Alan Squire, 2022). It is a book deeply rooted in Black Queer female Guyanese American experiences, which, in this instance, translates into poems of magic, family, and joy as well as poems of violence, oppression, and survival. On one hand, let the dead in deals with the beauty and power of, say, lovemaking and truth-telling, while, on the other hand, it deals with those hard truths that need to be told, such as slavery and sexual assault.

We began our conversation with how Saida came to poetry. After initially struggling with literacy as a young child and even being held back a grade, Saida went to live with her grandmother who was “intent that no child would leave her house without a really core understanding of language.” Having been a schoolteacher back in Guyana, Granny taught Saida to read and write. Moreover, when Saida came home from school one day having written a poem comparing friendship to a flower, Granny called her a “genius.” Seeing her language capacities through her grandmother’s eyes, Saida kept writing poetry ever since.

Another thing Saida received from her grandmother and other relatives is a wealth of stories, particularly including fantastical, magical stories. These fables taught her, “we are always just a thin line away from everything else.” After traveling to Guyana on a research grant, Saida “became really fascinated then with how is it we use mythology in a subversive practice, that isn’t so much about its origin, you know, to harm us and to quite frankly starve us and scare us, but reimagine these folks [stories] as practices toward freedom.” In the book, a series of poems deal with mythological beings, including the Moongazer. The Dutch enslavers originally created stories of the Moongazer to frighten and control enslaved people in Guyana. But Agostini recovers and rewrites the Moongazer’s story in a humanizing way, recasting them as formerly an enslaved human whose loss had transformed them into something more than human and who would never harm their own people.

On that same research trip Saida had hoped to find information about her own family history, such as what ships they were brought from Africa on. But she learned that, because her ancestors had been considered property by the Dutch, their names were never written down. That information is lost. Saida’s family even has a picture of her great grandmother but no one living knows her name. Such experiences have stressed for Saida the importance of names, as she told me when I asked about one particularly compelling poem in the book. “2 fat black women are making love” ends with the two lovers touching each other “like they have names, like we will know / them.” About those concluding lines, I asked, “Being known changes our relationship to everything?” “Yeah,” Saida explained, “because when you are known, when you’re at the center, all of a sudden your whole world shifts, right? I become more expansive because I’m not expending energy trying to imagine or create a system for understanding things that I’ve never been able to understand about myself. That access is already there.”

In my favorite poems in the book, a sequence about a character named Chickenfoot, Saida offers such knowing to members of her own family. Chickenfoot is a man who has a “big spirit.” He is like many of the men in her family who, when they walk in a room, are immediately seen as a “badass.” These men, Saida explained, too often feel that they must be powerful only, never tender. But having to cut off one’s inner tenderness to perform a certain type of masculinity—they have “machetes in their car . . . but they can’t cry”—comes at a cost. So these Chickenfoot poems, Saida told me, are a “love letter” to these men. She sees them. They are known.

Through these poems, may we at least figuratively know them too, know all the people Saida writes about, and may that change our relation to everything.

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