T he upcoming, empowering poetry anthology The BreakBeat Poets Volume 2: Black Girl Magic, edited by Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds, and Chicago poetry staple Jamila Woods, quickly manifested itself from a short conversation between Browne and Kevin Coval, one of the editors of the first BreakBeat Poets anthology, a collection of hip-hop poetry that came out in 2015. Although it's billed as a sequel, the book-which will be released in paperback on April 3 and is available as an e-book now-can stand by itself: its dense, entrancing, necessary works by more than 60 black women poets create a black-girl-centric world of their own. Along with Woods's contribution, "My Afropuffs," and Browne's powerful "If 2017 Was a Poem Title," the book includes a plethora of sensual, sexy, painful, superreal subject matter. That includes Venessa Marco's "Offwhite," which faces the very personal black topic of colorism, and "Big Black Bitch" by Bianca Lynne Spriggs, which tells the story of the first black woman mail carrier, Mary Fields. The book provides a well-rounded look at what it means to be a black woman and in the process serves as a platform for our voices and bodies, revealing our maneuvers through the world as deeply relevant to and deserving of literary space.
I spoke with Browne-who's based in New York and who contributed to the first BreakBeat Poets anthology-about the inception and concept of the book and about how she, Simmonds, and Woods were able to create such a bright and heartbreaking world of black girl magic poetry.
Tell me the roots and formation of the anthology.
We [the editors] were already in this real conversation about a need for black women to have spaces specifically where they can reclaim their voice and celebrate without being asked to be small, to be put into corners and in boxes where they can not only be contained but categorized. Black Girl Magic was a response and war cry for not just being one way, but being messy and brilliant and understanding the ever-changing forms of the black women's body.
What was your process of choosing the poetry for the book?
The process began like most anthologies: we sent out the e-mail blast, then we began courting our personal favorites. After we siphoned it down to a skeleton of a book-like, what do the hands look like? how firm is the spine?-we began scouring online for missing links and voices and narratives that felt imperative to this quilt of queens.
You wrote a poem called "Black Girl Magic" before you started working on the book. Did you or your poem have anything to do with the title?
It was a starting point for the discussion, but the BreakBeat Poets' editors-founders [Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall] seemed already interested in a book focusing on the contemporary and burgeoning women's voices [that are] re-creating the literary canon.
How was it to connect with and work with Jamila Woods?
I met Jamila through the YCA [Young Chicago Authors]. They brought me in for some youth programming, where I did the first draft of the poem "Black Girl Magic." I knew her through the poetry performance circle, but I got to spend a lot more time with her during this time [in Chicago]. It was always peripheral acknowledgement and acquaintanceship, and now it's sistership. Jamila is a joy. Not only is she focused on providing space for further marginalized voices within the context of blackness and womanhood but she's a touchstone for art and music and the way in which they transcend boundaries of status, economics, and regions.
How did the conversation between you and Kevin Coval go about making Black Girl Magic volume two of the BreakBeat Poets?
We were just chopping shop after I did the performance in Chicago and the [audience] response to the poem was so visceral, I said to Kevin, "You know, you should let me do an anthology!" In hindsight, it was real brazen for me to say that, but he said, "Absolutely," and didn't flinch. I thought we were just chopping it up, but literally within three months he said, "Hey, I'm sending Haymarket [Books] your way to sign contracts to do the Black Girl Magic anthology." While I knew it needed to happen, I thought there would be so much more investment and time I had to put into it. It felt so bizarre.
Black women have been getting a lot of positive press and cultural attention in the last couple of years. What do you attribute that to?
I think the "positive" press is really just an overdue reflective pool of the way black women have been categorized, stereotyped, flattened, and ignored. So the positive really is just what it's always been: Black women are amazing. They create movements, fashion, trends, and children. Black women are the backbones of communities, we are true partners, we are staunch supporters in sisterhood and become beacons for those wracked into silence following tragedies. Our humanity has always been commodified, because to love ourselves truly would cause this whole capitalist infrastructure to dissolve into ash. Black women are the freshest of the fresh. Anything that doesn't celebrate a black woman is only a distraction.