Interview with Kayla Rodney on Swimming Home (Publisher: Unlikely Books, 2019)

JS: Your book directly references Hurricane Cindy, Hurricane Gustav, Hurricane Rita, and Hurricane Isabel. What influenced your decision of which you included, which you left out, and how you approached their recorded history in poetry?

KR: To be honest, there wasn’t any particular rhyme or reason regarding which I decided to include and which I didn’t, which was part of the point. I just made sure they were chronological. I wanted to level out all the storms into similar experiences. That’s not to say there aren’t those who did not experience great suffering from these hurricanes, but that for the purposes of the collection, I needed to show my speaker existing through history and time, which meant also bringing my speaker through various storms.

JS: Your book is layered with language from myths, biblical references, dialogue, lyrical poetry, and the recurring theme of a desire for home, the “Promise Land,” and a return to roots, ancestral and geographical. Would you speak to how these layers communicate with each other throughout the book and your inspiration for this particular weaving? 

KR: I became incredibly enchanted with Greek mythology while in high school during a unit in Brad Richard’s creative writing course at Lusher Charter High School. I absorbed those narratives but then I realized how much the Greek and Roman mythology means to New Orleans. People live on streets and in projects named after Greek and Roman mythological figures and places. So it only seemed right to marry the two within the collection. Then I began to think more about the fact people are constantly migrating to and from the city during moments of evacuation and how now, 15 years after Katrina, people are still far from home, some feeling like they are constantly drifting because they didn’t have the option of moving back. That constant journey to go home is an odyssey and needed to be discussed like one. 

What it all boils down to is that people from New Orleans always want to be home because there is something about the city that draws you back to it, and many families from the city have lived there for generations, my own included. So while being away from home, writing about this need to connect with my roots in a geographical sense moved me to discussing the history of the city, my own history with the city, and how history, culture, and family intertwine so intimately for everyone who can truly call themselves a New Orleanian. I truly believe I was successful in bringing all those things together.

JS: Love is a major motif throughout the book: its physical manifestation, sensuality and power, as well as its ephemeral and eternal natures. You tie this back to The Odyssey when Odysseus chooses to leave Calypso, his lover of seven years, to return home. You also make connections between Calypso’s grief and the hurricanes, as well as to the biblical flood and God’s anger (“This God is insane / doesn’t he know that flooding / the earth expecting / different results makes him a / mad man, obsessed with rain” p 27). Could you speak to your thinking behind the ways you intentionally intertwined love, loss, anger, and its mark upon the earth in your collection?

KR: I absolutely love writing about love and sensuality, especially since I’ve always believed it powerful to discuss moments before and after sex. I don’t think I have many poems that address the actual moment of sex. If so, it is not a huge portion of the poems. That’s intentional as I believe sex itself is not the most intimate thing two people (or more depending on how one engages) can do. Intimacy is sleeping next to someone and trusting them for all the hours that your eyes are closed, or in the case of these poems, trusting them when the electricity is out and you can’t leave your house for days.

Firstly, I wanted to make sure my readers know how intimate a storm really is in all kinds of ways. You are stuck indoors in the dark, sometimes surrounded by candles, for days at a time while the rain and the wind swirl around you, and because there’s no electricity, that hurricane background noise is all you can hear. Those moments bring people together. In fact, there’s a running joke about not wanting to go to a plethora of baby showers after a storm, because it seems like people have nothing better to do while being stuck inside. It’s also not just a romantic intimacy though. Families can get closer together during these times as well. I wanted to show how these hurricanes become moments of intense bonding for those trapped inside together.

I also needed to address all the people who were never able to go home after Katrina. All the people that were pining after the city just to find out the city took their land or that some transplant built an organic deconstructed gumbo restaurant where they had their hole-in-the-wall bar. I could not sanitize storms. That’s what Odysseus represents. He represents that journey back to New Orleans that, for some, has taken years upon years. He represents a constant desire for home despite how comfortable one may be somewhere else. Yet and still, Calypso will always long to have her Odysseus back, because everywhere we go, we bring something with us that cannot be found anywhere else, and we can also see the value of the places we’ve had to evacuate to. I also believe that only a great woman could truly represent all the power of water, all the ways it ebbs, flows, grows, evaporates, builds, and destroys. Calypso seemed like the perfect figure to represent that. 

Simultaneously, when Katrina hit, everyone was telling us that we should have been wiped off the map. I remember being told my city was a city of sin and that it deserved the flood. I remember wondering why this was allowed to happen and, for a while, feeling like God had abandoned us. Some of the writing within the collection is reflective of those moments of doubt, those moments where I felt maybe God wasn’t there. 

JS: Your first poem of the book, “Making Groceries,” is arguably a hybrid poem with the adopted form of a grocery list. What drew you to placing this poem first? How did you go about collecting these juxtaposed images, “two day old French bread for pudding,” and “the bom bom bom of open palms on congo drums in Congo Square, dirty chained feet dance in the Africa of their psyches” (p 1), for example? What is your process for imagining, recording, and extending upon images?

KR: When I wrote this poem I wanted to encapsulate all the elements of my city, and by default the collection, into one piece. I was inspired by Ginsberg’s Howl and how it picks up and maintains its speed throughout as well as how the lines and, therefore, images just grow until they become these large, never-ending things. New Orleans also feels like this large, growing, never-ending thing, so it fit perfectly. Then as I was putting the collection together, I felt it should start off the book because it forces the reader to jump into both the city and the collection head first. 

While thinking about New Orleans, I thought of all the organized chaos that defines my city. That’s when I decided a grocery list of chaos seemed like the perfect way of approaching it because a grocery list is how we organize, in some way, what we need from the store, but in my experience they always seem sporadic and mildly unorganized, and when you get to the store you end up buying things that aren’t on the list anyway. That’s part of the reason it starts with listed items that your average New Orleanian may actually buy then turns into the mouthful of a poem. I also felt a grocery list was indicative of New Orleans’ most well-known attribute: food. Going from there, I wanted the poem to feel like a sensory overload, like a well made pot of gumbo with all the things that make the city bubbling in the pot. Every growing image just adding to the flavor profile of New Orleans.

To be quite honest, this poem really stands out from the rest of the book in terms of length in every way. It’s longer in page length as well as having much longer lines. This is not my norm so I surprised myself while writing it. I know people say poems just come to them and it’s just a big poet cliche, but this poem really did smack me over the head and tell me to write it. I’d been away from home as an extended move for the first time in my life and that drastic change truly pulled so much out of me. The images just kept coming because I wanted to make sure that every forgotten or underappreciated element of New Orleans I could think of had space to exist in full. That meant when I wrote about my slave ancestors dancing in Congo Square, I also needed to talk about their desire for home, the thing that may have kept them going, just like the thought of home keeps us going after every storm. When I wrote about the water rushing in, I needed to talk about those who it swept away. Everything deserved space and I wanted to make sure I provided it, so unlike the little, contained poems that are my way of practicing constraint and composure on the page, this one asked to be wild and free, so it was allowed to be just that. 

JS: There are several short, untitled, italicized poems that seem to indicate a change upcoming; a kind of poetic foreshadowing with a question, statement, or piece of dialogue that the reader is meant to meditate on that will inform what they read next. What drew you to this particular form for these poems? Are these separate italicized poems interconnected? Were they written as a series? Is this a poetic style you use often?

KR: These poems are explicitly meant to give New Orleanians, who are often considered unworthy of high artistic consideration, a space in a high art form. As someone from New Orleans who has had her accent nearly trained out of her, using the New Orleans accent to discuss issues I heard discussed on the news after Katrina or to discuss other unrelated issues in the city was important and paramount. The Black voice of New Orleans is slowly being drowned out by transplants who want to claim the city as their own at the expense of people who have been there for generations. Writing in my accent allowed me to embrace that part of myself fully. That is my accent at its heaviest, but it is also that of my friends, family members, and well known locally famous people. To record in my poetry a part of myself that has often been considered ignorant gave me a sense of pride. It also serves the purpose of forcing people who like to forget that our accent and the issues we face exist to acknowledge a very distinct Black voice. Those that tell themselves they are New Orleanians have an opportunity to truly give a New Orleanian voice. While doing so, the reader is forced to struggle through reading our words instead of constantly forcing the New Orleanian to conform to a white standard of speaking. It is not meant to make the reader feel ignorant, but to make them understand what it is like to be considered ignorant just because you don’t speak in the same way as the dominant group. In all of this, it is to remind the reader who the city truly belongs to— the people with the accents who are often misunderstood.  

JS: Would you speak to your use of dialogue and dialect in the book? In what ways do these moments summon home, identity, and place for you? How do these hybrid spaces and languages within language highlight and heighten meanings in your book as well as inform your understanding of the world? 

KR: I truly believe that it is important for me to be my authentic self at all possible times, so being able to express that self was fulfilling. Many moments of dialogue where I’m discussing real moments in my life are also from real conversations or things people I’m close to say regularly. It made me feel like I could have my family be a part of the artistic element of my life. Having these dialogues within the collection also helped me make the book a little more like an autobiography of sorts. The reader is getting to know me and the people that have come into my life and that’s something I know I enjoy when I’m reading a collection of poetry. Art is supposed to reflect life, so having these hybrid elements in the text allows a true reflection of my life and who I am as well as what the city was and is. 

JS: In what ways has New Orleans shaped and influenced who you’ve become as a poet and artist? What other experiences have shaped your style and voice?

KS: New Orleans is a unique city where you can turn almost any corner and experience art, so growing up there made becoming an artist easy. In fact, when I tried to fight it, nothing went right, but when I accepted that I am meant to be an artist, I was able to use elements of my hometown to create poetry that understands, on a personal level, the importance of cadence and music, beat and rhythm. New Orleans is the birthplace of Jazz and as such, it gives those who truly embrace it an inherent understanding of what it takes to make something musical and rhythmic. Being able to take that with me to different states has made a difference in how I can incorporate those experiences into my writing. When I moved to California, I brought New Orleans with me and then I was able to take that experience and fold it into my full personal narrative. As someone who also spent half her life in California as a child, it already had a place in my history. Between these two experiences there were the countless evacuations that added to my semi transient experiences. Having lived in these different states is something that further connected me to the Odysseus experience. I feel that my work strongly calls for something that is missed. Even now since writing the book, my work is calling for something that was missed by my ancestors, or missed by a part of myself that longs for something that I have yet to experience. I believe that my work has, over time, grown to represent desire for things that I or people before me have lost or been forced to leave behind, and that is what the experience of evacuation is for those who have to do it. It is also the experience of those who leave a state they love to accomplish new goals. That’s also what the the transatlantic slave trade caused for those captured and enslaved against their will. I want to call on all those experiences when I can. 

JS: Your book spans New Orleans, California, Greece, Houston. Where else would you like to go?   

KR: Full disclosure, I have never been to Greece! I have always wanted to go to Italy and Greece as well as Africa. I have this dream of doing a tour of Africa based on my genetic makeup. Poets don’t make that much money though so maybe a racist white person dying to send someone back to Africa will fund the trip.

JS: What would you like your book to teach its communities of readers? What are its multiple lessons for its intended audiences? What did it teach you, in the writing of it?

KR: I want my book to teach people that place and home are important. As soon as I touched down in San Diego and watched my mama drive away to the airport a longing for home hit me and I realized I’d reached a turning point in my life. I also realized I needed to record that feeling whenever I could because I didn’t know how often I would be able to travel home. This writing experience became my way to go home whenever I wanted to. I also want people to embrace their history, both personal and cultural. Who are you? How do you expect to write something embedded with truth if you don’t know your own? Explore who you are. Explore your background. What does that teach you about yourself? Your family? I want people to know that it is okay to write about exactly what interests you. I thought maybe a book about hurricanes, especially Katrina, was a bit behind the starting line, but then I realized that not too many collections have been written from the perspective of my generation of native New Orleanians. Then as time went, more and more people were telling me how much they connected with the book even as outsiders. Your audience will come. Don’t let anyone deter you. These are also all the things the writing process taught me. Being my authentic self always feels good and knowing that I could do that in Swimming Home was refreshing, especially as a Black woman who is often told to be less of herself for the comfort of others. 

JS: What are you writing now? How has composing, collecting, and publishing Swimming Home changed what you will compose in the future? In what ways are you inspired into new directions?

KR: Right now, I’m trying to write longer pieces. I feel as though Swimming Home asked to be written, and specifically to be written the way it was written. I think the collection was actually living inside of me and maybe would have driven me up a wall if I didn’t do what it asked. It’s done now and therefore I am moving on from the subject, but not from the book itself. It is my first ever collection that a publisher, Jonathan Penton of Unlikely Books, believed in and put effort behind. That is special and will always mean something. It is also, if I do say so myself, a great first book! Now, I have moved into writing about my ancestors. As I’ve studied more about the history and culture of Africans and African Americans, it seems that there are new voices demanding space in my writing. They are long-winded voices. They are voices with a lot of passion, pain, love, and reflective surfaces. I’m vibing with them right now and I’m loving it.

Kayla Rodney and Janel Spencer

Dr. Kayla Rodney, a New Orleans native, has been studying and writing poetry for the last fifteen years. She’s a graduate of Lusher Charter High School, Xavier University of Louisiana, San Diego State University, and University of Florida. After being displaced due to Katrina, and then later migrating to different cities for her education, she felt a pull to write about home and the tremendous power of community, landscape, family, and water. She is the author of SWIMMING HOME (Unlikely Books, 2019) and is currently a lecturer at Clayton State University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Janel Spencer is a poet and teacher from Tucson, Arizona. She graduated from San Diego State University with her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry and currently teaches at Pima Community College. Her poetry and translations have appeared in Poetry International, ​riverbabble, Madwoman Etc, TSPJ, and the San Diego Poetry Annual.

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