Visiting professor Brenda Marie Osbey operates at the intersection between poetry and history
Herald: You grew up in New Orleans, a city with a history of deep cultural pride and resilience, and I was wondering how this might have informed the vibrancy and sense of identity in your own works.
Osbey: Well, my family actually goes back to slavery and freedom here. We’ve been here since 1719, so this is the deepest history that I know. It’s everything I know, everything I have, and it’s the root of all things for me.
Herald: I’m sure you’re well aware that Brown’s founders and early benefactors were very much entwined with the slave trade. Conversely, Rhode Island prides itself on its history of religious freedom. How do you approach this unsettling contradiction, including its present-day implications?
Osbey: It isn’t that different from the rest of this nation’s history with slavery. The primary difference seems to be that in recent years at least, Brown has taken a very strong interest in the history of the slave trade in Rhode Island. That, I think, is somewhat unique. Other institutions have begun to do that, but it seems to me that Brown was among the first to look at the history of its own institution in the making and framing of slavery and the American slave trade.
Brown has a network of libraries that is absolutely fantastic. If you don’t avail yourself of the library resources that Brown University has, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. And in fact, if you’re particularly interested in poetry, Brown has one of the best poetry collections in the nation. I first used Brown’s American poetry collection back in the 1980s.
Herald: Your poems create a sort of running dialogue with the past by using snippets of voices and songs, which seem to traverse the gaps of time and space that often alienate history from modernity. Do you feel your readers need to already know the historical background of your poetry to fully appreciate it?
Osbey: I don’t know that you need that background, but frankly, we’re living in a society where there is not so great an appreciation of history. For instance, the extent to which people in my grandparents’ generation knew and understood history — we don’t have that kind of broad, general, overreaching public concept of history anymore. But that’s why every poem in my book “All Saints,” except for the first one, has a glossary. The glossary includes not just terminology, but historical information — dates, times, places — in addition to perhaps obscure allusions to strange myths, to literature, to geography and so forth.
I think that people who read poetry on a regular basis have a particular kind of sense of language to begin with. People who don’t traditionally read poetry frequently bring to it a fresher, cleaner perspective. At the beginning of classes, I always ask where my history and political science majors are. Because they understand work in the context of time and history and social development, those students are very good at keeping everybody else grounded. English majors, literary arts majors, people who are interested in literary criticism and so forth, frequently ignore those shaping forces, the forces of time and social movements. They jump straight into language with a certain sense that each work is a discrete item in and of itself — which is true, of course, but it’s also true that each work is related to other works and each author is related to other authors and no one’s really right in seclusion and total solitude.
Herald: I agree that a lot of people can be intimidated by history. One example that immediately comes to mind is the summer reading for the class of 2016, which was a history book by Charles Rappleye.
Osbey: Oh, “Sons of Providence”?
Herald: Yes. And apparently almost no one read the whole thing. It was dry. But one thing about your poetry is that it is heavily researched, but it also has a sense of humanity and an almost Wordsworthian emotional urgency. The factual element is obviously important for context, but what role do you feel the intensity of poetry plays in molding research into something that feels more real than, say, “Sons of Providence”?
Osbey: That’s a very big one for me. I count myself among a number of poets in the African-American narrative tradition that looks at history and posits itself — that is, the work — as having what I like to call a “problem with history.” This history is the thing that drives the work that I do and any poem for me usually begins with a kind of problem with history.
But I think that just as we often think that history is dry, cold, hard facts that are unrelated to us, we often have a tendency to think that poetry is meaningless language that has nothing to do with real life. The work that I’m doing, and the work that many Africana poets are doing, is at that juncture of lived experience. And so sometimes when I’m researching and going through these original archival documents, the documents themselves have a kind of power of language in their own right.
In the poetry of the late, great Robert Hayden, for instance, in the famous poem “Middle Passage” — it’s because of that poem, by the way, that we use the term “middle passage” to mean all the things we use it to mean. It referred to a specific point in the transatlantic slave trade. It was a geographical and navigational and maritime term and nothing more. We use it now to mean all of the experiences of those captured Africans because of Robert Hayden’s poem “Middle Passage.” In that poem, what Robert Hayden does is he quotes the ship’s log of actual slave ships. So in that poem, we never hear the voices of the captured Africans. We only hear the voices of the white ship’s crew, the captains, the slavers. And when we hear the quoted passages from the ship’s log, from the captain’s diary, the rhetoric, the court testimonies in the Amistad case, for instance — what he does in that poem is he allows the slavers and traders and dealers to condemn themselves in their own words, in their own language. And all of the passages he uses are in fact from the historical documents themselves.
For lack of a better term, we like to talk about the magic of language, and I think it helps to create a certain kind of rhythm, a certain kind of harmony. One of the issues that’s important to keep in mind about poetry is that there must always be that musicality, and one of the best ways I think to achieve that is to look at the harmonics of poetry, not to focus simply on the lyricism. The long narrative poem allows the poet to address the harmonics of poetry and of language — all of that juicy stuff at the root of the human tongue.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.