And maybe the unity of resistance to hatred that will stop that hatred seems improbable. Maybe an orthodox Jewish congregation will never stand in protective vigil outside a gay and lesbian community center, or the clinic of an abortion provider. Maybe a Black student organization will never rally for Asian American Rights….
Maybe. But, meanwhile, I am moving on an irrepressible wish that all of us will: All of us will build that circle of our common safety that all of us deserve.
The writer and activist June Jordan wrote these words in 1999, in the weeks after a white supremacist opened fire in a Jewish community center in Los Angeles and then killed a Filipino American postal worker a few miles away. Even as the world presented evidence against hope, Jordan moved “on an irrepressible wish.” She insisted on her own freedom—“I am Black and I am female and I am a mother and I am bisexual and I am a nationalist and I am an antinationalist. And I mean to be fully and freely all that I am!” she wrote—and understood that personal freedom is inextricable from collective freedom. She wrote poems and prose and drafted plans for equitable—beautiful—public housing projects. Meanwhile, I am moving: a vector into a future free from white supremacy and all of its attendant structures. Jordan taught Black English in classrooms and marched in the streets to demand that that language, and the people who speak it, be celebrated, safe, loved. She knew her work as an artist, activist, and educator was part of a single project: to create a loving world.
Two decades later, five poets have come together to form a collective—named Poets at the End of the World—to partake in this project and continue the creative legacy of Jordan and others. The collective is comprised of Ama Codjoe, Donika Kelly, Nicole Sealey, Evie Shockley, and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon—five poets, five Black women, friends in letters and in living. In their poems, each poet in her own way holds language accountable to love and open toward possibilities for just futures. Collectively, they materially contribute to realizing those futures. Represented by Eloisa Amezcua of Costura Creative, Poets at the End of the World is available for readings, panels, workshops, and other events—at least three of the five members will be present at any booking—and donates all honoraria to causes agreed upon by the collective. Poets at the End of the World extends the paths laid by June Jordan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde, who insisted that it was not enough to fight against violence—we must also cultivate the forms we desire. An honest appraisal of what is, a running leap toward what might be. I am moving.
As the poets are scattered across the globe from New Jersey to Rome, we had a conversation about the collective’s origins, work, and vision via Google Docs over three weeks in January.
Ama Codjoe is the author of the chapbook Blood of the Air (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She is the recipient of a 2017 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, the Georgia Review’s 2018 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize, a 2019 Disquiet Literary Prize, a 2019 Oscar Williams and Gene Derwood Award, and a 2019 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship.
Donika Kelly is the author of the chapbook Aviarium and the full-length collections The Renunciations, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2021, and Bestiary, the winner of the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. A Cave Canem graduate fellow, Donika is an assistant professor at Baruch College.
Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named. Formerly the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation, she is concurrently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.
Evie Shockley has published four books of poetry and criticism, most recently semiautomatic, winner of the 2018 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Recipient of the 2019 Lannan Literary Award for Poetry, she is professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon is the author of Open Interval, a 2009 National Book Award finalist; and Black Swan, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is the coauthor of the chapbooks Poems in Conversation and a Conversation with Elizabeth Alexander and Leading With a Naked Body with Leela Chantrelle.
I’d love to start by borrowing an opening question from Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton, the hosts of the podcast Another Round: What do you do, and why?
Codjoe: When I was a teenager, I read an essay by the feminist, lesbian priest Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward. She instructed the reader to “make justice.” I fell in love with the phrase. What does the collective do? We do poetry, we do community, we do justice. We do it because we need poetry, community, and justice ourselves—and because we want to support organizations that strive to build and sustain spaces of safety, creativity, and power in a world that does not guarantee everyone access to such spaces.
Kelly: This is a moment to think past the amplification of ourselves. We wanted to be of service, to reroute material resources to organizations that are doing meaningful work in local communities. One of the ways that has manifested is in our committment to donate our collective honoraria to organizations aligned with our mission to make the world more safe, just, and equitable for us all.
Sealey: Last fall, for example, the Fringe Foundation generously funded the collective’s debut reading at Cave Canem Foundation—donating $5,000 to the nonprofit that serves Black poets. This means that the organization will be able to do more good work. Helping to enable such work is our motivation. Poets at the End of the World has a running list of movements and institutions we’d like to support in this way. The next organization we hope to support is the Baltimore-based FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, which aims to “promote a culture of consent...where sex is empowering and pleasurable rather than coercive and violent.”
Shockley: When we make poetry, we transform our understanding of the world as it is into our vision for what it could be. Our poetry, in all its variety, becomes part of what identifies and sustains the things that are beautiful and good, and also dissects and challenges the things that suppress justice and joy. The collective enables our art to make that kind of contribution twice over: first, through the poems themselves and, second, by funding organizations whose work helps to enact similar visions of beauty and justice.
Van Clief-Stefanon: There’s another very important thing we do: We speak with one another regularly. We schedule time to do this. We established early that being in regular contact with one another would be foundational to our work of building and sustaining creative space. During our conversations, before moving on to whatever business is at hand, we check in with each other, discussing our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
Starting as far back as you’d like—in your personal and/or collective journeys—would you say a bit about how Poets at the End of the World came into being?
Shockley: On the last day of AWP Tampa in 2018, Nicole and I finally found a few minutes to really talk, to indulge in some mutual dreaming about how we could best make our love and admiration for Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and Gwendolyn Brooks manifest in the world. These poets modeled how caring deeply about craft could go hand in hand with caring deeply about the state and fate of one’s families and communities, particularly the people most vulnerable to abuses of power. We let ourselves imagine how wonderful it would be to work together on a project that would celebrate these amazing women and their work—as poets, as activists—by following their example.
Sealey: When Evie and I came to the idea of a service-oriented collective, we both began to laugh—this was it, this was the thing! My mind immediately went to Ama and Donika, who just so happened to be rounding the corner. Evie’s mind went to Lyrae, who she texted and who responded within minutes.
Codjoe: As soon as we walked up, Evie said, “Want to join our collective?” and Donika and I said, “Yes.”
Kelly: I wasn’t sure what it would mean to be in a collective—I’m a pretty solitary person in a lot of ways, but somehow, it was as if I’d been waiting for that question, for that moment for years. My “yes” was immediate.
Van Clief-Stefanon: I got a text from Evie saying that she had “a proposition for [me], involving Audre, June, and Lucille…and lifting and raising collectivity and light.” She couldn’t call to discuss it that afternoon, but she wrote, “Just say yes!!” And because it was Evie, and because I have known her now for more than two decades, and because, as I wrote back to her, “I have nothing but faith, love, and trust for any idea [she has] for us,” without even knowing to what I’d agreed, I said, “Yes!!!”
Sealey: Then, there, Poets at the End of the World was born.
I’m struck by the rush of the “yes” of this all. Would you say more about the commitments of that certainty? What exactly are you saying “yes” to when you come together as Poets at the End of the World?
Sealey: I’ve loved these women for years. My husband [the poet John Murillo] and Lyrae taught together ten years ago; we’ve all remained tight since. Evie and I seemed to always miss each other, but have been drawn to each other for as long as I can remember. Donika and I became fast friends when we overlapped as fellows at the 2009 Cave Canem retreat. Ama and I met at a writing workshop some fifteen years prior, and ten years after that she was stuffing gift bags at my wedding. We know each other well. Well enough to say “yes” before a request, an invitation is fully formed because we’d been saying “yes” to sisterhood all these years.
Kelly: I was saying “yes” to possibility, to community. The external push, here in the form of Nicole and Evie’s question, so simply and warmly put: Will you join us? The question allowed me to open the door into a room of sisterhood and possibility.
Van Clief-Stefanon: Like Donika, I’m pretty introverted. I can be anxious, almost to the point of agoraphobia. I’ve thought a lot and written a lot based on thinking about how to say “No.” It’s been a long and ongoing journey, teaching myself to say “No.” For me, Poets at the End of the World follows the path of “see[ing] to be” that Miss Lucille’s work illuminated. When I say “yes” to Poets at the End of the World, I am saying “yes” to living that work, to seeing that work to be.
Codjoe: When thinking back to the yeses, I am reminded of the litany of synonyms that opens Clifton’s The Book of Light. The “yes” was built on years of friendship, to varying degrees, with Donika, Evie, Lyrae, and Nicole—whose commitment to service and justice I trust and in whose company I am continually flooded by light, even during challenge or struggle. I don’t have any full-blooded sisters, but in spite of that—or maybe, because of it—sisterhood has always been important to me.
The second “yes” to Clifton, Lorde, Jordan, and Brooks was built on my love for their work, thinking, and practices. As a reader, I have been in relation with some of these writers since I was a teenager. And isn’t that, too, a kind of friendship?
Shockley: When I think about how generously Gwendolyn Brooks gave—of her time, her funds, her expertise, and her spirit—I am overwhelmed. She sponsored writing contests for students that she funded out of pocket, and hosted awards ceremonies for the winners she had selected. She famously offered poetry workshops to members of the Blackstone Rangers, for which she was surely not being paid. I have friends whom she mentored when they were budding poets. I was not a direct recipient of her generosity except twice, when I was one of the devotees happily standing in a very long line after a reading to get my book signed. Her book-signing lines were always long and slow-moving because she was so beloved and because she had a real exchange with each person who stepped up. I was so in awe of her; I barely saw her as human.
But later, spending time with Lucille Clifton, I came to understand what a toll that must have taken on Brooks, even if she was energized by the people her work touched. Lucille would tell me, after a day or evening of reading, teaching, talking poetry: “Girl, I am tired.” I came to see some of the ways she would protect herself from giving beyond what was healthy.
For me, Poets at the End of the World represents a way we can share our poetry and transform the value of that work into monetary support for organizations that are making good things happen in the world. At the same time, through our shared mission and shared boundaries, our relationships with one another serve not only to sustain and nurture us, but also to keep us honest about what we have the capacity to do.
The name of your collective refers to a section of Clifton’s “shapeshifter poems”:
the poem at the end of the world
is the poem the little girl breathes
into her pillow the one
she cannot tell the one
there is no one to hear this poem
is a political poem is a war poem is a
universal poem but is not about
these things this poem
is about one human heart this poem
is the poem at the end of the world
What does calling yourselves “Poets at the End of the World” mean to you?
Codjoe: Evie brought the name to our first meeting, and the air shifted in the room when we heard it. In the vastest view, the name “Poets at the End of the World” reminds me of how people of African descent on any side of the Atlantic have felt for the last four centuries: as if we were at the edge of the world—that the world might end, has ended over and again. I think of the Door of No Return as one symbol of that ending. And in a smaller “one human heart” sense, the collective’s name is about the girl in Clifton’s poem who has no one to protect or hear her. Whoever is doing work on behalf of that little girl—on behalf of and in collaboration with Indigenous communities, trans youth, survivors of rape—that is who we’d like to support.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.
Jordan describes her work as a feminist as “against such sorrow... against such suicide... against such deliberated strangulation of the possible lives of women,” and as learning “to love myself well enough to love you (whoever you are).” I see the collective participating in a tradition of poem-ing as holding the human heart, and of naming as breaking bars rather than breaking the heart against them.
Kelly: Poets at the End of the World resonates with me in a literal way as well: It is an acknowledgment of the state of the world and a practice of hope. I tend to have low reserves of hope, especially now, when so many vulnerable people are being openly targeted within and by the U.S. government. Our name reminds me that yes, we are at the end of an era in this world, but to work in and toward community is a practice of hope.
Sealey: For the most part, the world is a wreck—we’re building walls to keep certain people out and walls to keep certain others in; we’re waging wars; cops are killing Black people with impunity; a trans person is murdered every day; and on and on and on. I trust that there’s love on the other side of this madness. Beauty, too. There has to be. Which is why, for me, “Poets at the End of the World” means the end of what is as well as the beginning of what can be—a small gesture, yes, but a gesture nonetheless.
Shockley: Part of what it means to speak of “Poets at the End of the World” is to say that as long as there is a world, there will be poetry. And as long as there’s poetry, there is the possibility of a world in which we can survive—and thrive.
How has being part of a collective informed your own poetic practice?
Sealey: I mean—Ama, Donika, Evie, and Lyrae wrote Blood of the Air, Bestiary, semiautomatic and ]Open Interval[, respectively—brilliant craftswomen and prizewinners all! So, in addition to my husband, mom, and dads, I now have four more people I want to impress with my poems. And, these women’s influence on me goes well beyond the page. They inform my personhood with their collective example—helping me to be a better global citizen.
Shockley: The experience of hearing our very distinct voices and aesthetics circulating in the same room over the course of an hour or so is moving, invigorating, and a little intoxicating—at least for me. Lyrae rings the power notes of a Southern spiritual and fills the room; Ama’s poetry slips in like a cat, hiding its teeth and its appetite; Nicole’s bursts through doors unapologetically, like a strong, cool, bracing wind; and Donika unravels the veils and shrouds with a tool that only looks like a paper clip. The beauties and truths of their art create a rich context for me to work and play in. To borrow a phrase from Zora Neale Hurston, these women encourage me to “jump at de sun”!
Kelly: Being a part of this collective reminds me—when I’m writing, when I’m giving a reading—of the many lineages of which I am a part. That we began with Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Audre Lorde is one frame. That we are ourselves and writing now is another. There are other frames, other lines, of course, but there’s an immediacy, a kind of materiality that the collective calls forth. To be connected to Ama, Evie, Lyrae, and Nicole, and to be committed to a mission that is larger than the smallness of my own singular life, imbues my approach to my work with joy.
Codjoe: It is heartening to know we will cheer for one another and feel what some call “sympathetic joy.” And there is so much to celebrate: Nicole is living and writing in Rome for the Rome Prize; Evie was recently awarded a Lannan fellowship; Donika’s newest collection, The Renunciations, will be published next year; and Lyrae’s recently published essay in Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African-American Poetry made me weep when I heard her read from it. The sheer strength of their writing propels me in ways not about competition. I carry these women, along with all the writers who inspire me, to the desk with me when I write.
Van Clief-Stefanon: I feel challenged and inspired, but also harbored. I am grateful for the grace of these women with whom it is my privilege to think and make.
Would you leave us with a few lines of poetry that fortify you to do the work of collaborating to make way toward wider futures?
Shockley: From Audre Lorde’s “Coal”: Love is a word another kind of open. And the closing lines of Lucille Clifton’s anthem: come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.
Sealey: Lucille Clifton’s “why some people be mad at me sometimes”: they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and i keep on remembering / mine. And, from June Jordan’s “Poem about My Rights”: I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own my own my own.
Van Clief-Stefanon: From June Jordan’s “Poem Number Two on Bell’s Theorem, or The New Physicality of Long Distance Love”: There is no chance that we will fall apart / There is no chance / There are no parts. And Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Second Sermon on the Warpland”: Nevertheless, live. / Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.
Codjoe: The closing stanza of Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival”: So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.
Kelly: From the end of Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Paul Robeson”: we are each other’s / harvest; / we are each other’s / business; / we are each other’s / magnitude and bond.
Claire Schwartz is the author of bound (Button Poetry, 2018). She is poetry editor of Jewish Currents.