Ten Questions for Omotara James

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Omotara James, whose debut poetry collection, Song of My Softening, is out now from Alice James Books. In these intimate lyrics, James explores family history, memory, and the body as a site of emotional, social, and cultural knowledge. The poems play the scales between high lyric music—as in “Pier 52,” in which a lover “looks through the wound of my life like it’s light. So I let him. The last cube of ice.”—and bold humor: “Bitch, / wake up! Why are you / sleeping?” God queries the speaker of “When I Dream of Escape.” Desire—for sustenance in the form of food, sex, or spiritual fulfillment—is a recurrent theme, one that serves as a counterpoint to some of the collection’s other primary concerns: betrayal, loss, and violation. “I ask: is pain grief, leaving the body? / If so, freshly-seeded trauma stay close,” James writes in “Black Woman Gets a Massage: Has Discourse With God.” Library Journal calls Song of My Softening “a stunning debut.... It’s not often that fat women feel such thorough representation of themselves...not only in the beautiful moments but in the sorrowful ones.” Omotara James is the recipient of the 2023 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation, a 92NY Discovery Poetry Award, a Bread Loaf Katharine Bakeless Nason Award in Poetry, and other honors. Her chapbook, Daughter Tongue (Akashic Books, 2018), was selected by the African Poetry Book Fund for the New Generation African Poets Box Set, and her poems have appeared in the Nation, BOMB, the Paris Review, and elsewhere.

Omotara James, author of Song of My Softening.  

1. How long did it take you to write Song of My Softening?  
In a way, I have been working on Song of My Softening for over thirty years. I remember being about eight years old, pressing my pencil to my first diary, trying to articulate an experience for which I had no words. I’m referencing “Untouched,” which is one of the first poems to appear in the collection but was actually one of the last poems to be written. The oldest poem to appear in this book was drafted around 2007 or 2008, which would make this collection sixteen or seventeen years in the making.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
Finishing the book presented the largest challenge. I loved writing this book. I couldn’t stop writing. Each time I felt the book was complete, I would write new poems that felt essential to the text as I understood it. The collection was solicited soon after I finished my MFA program. I was in the midst of processing the death of a loved one while completing my thesis. When the book was accepted the following year, in 2020, as a society we were collectively thrown into grief over losing family members and close friends. The collection became my healing site, my safest place. My refusal to part with it came out of not knowing who I would be without it. Who I would be if I wasn’t writing my first book was too frightening a concept to confront. But eventually I did part with it, albeit begrudgingly. Inside the work of the book, I felt like my best self. As I felt my most knowing self come to the fore, I refused to let her go. The person I was while writing the book was my best friend and sharpest critic, and it took me a minute to realise emotionally that this person wasn’t going anywhere.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I tend to write every day and everywhere. I write in bed, at the kitchen table, outside on my balcony, in the loo. Many of these poems began while I was driving and had to pull over, or on the train to my MFA program. More than a few of these poems were written in the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House at New York University between the hours of 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM, waiting for the Uber surge-charges to fall. That stated, I also can go days or weeks without working on a project. But I’m usually writing in some capacity, even it’s only a voice memo or text message I send to myself. There’s always something I’m trying to articulate to myself that keeps me up at night; I relish the opportunity. Mainly I find myself writing in those unguarded moments, in which one allows the yearnings of one’s life to align flush with one’s God-given desires.

4. What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading all of the books in my bed, which I shove into a corner at night and hope don’t poke me in the eye while I’m sleeping: The Ferguson Report: An Erasure by Nicole Sealey; I Am Still With You: A Reckoning With Silence, Inheritance, and History by Emmanuel Iduma; The Best American Essays 2022, edited by Alexander Chee; and Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma by Melanie Brooks. I’m also reading a precious advance copy of Redwood Court by DéLana R. A. Dameron. The richness of the characters and the discourse between the stories is exciting and fresh. There’s always an audiobook in rotation, and right now it’s Yellowface by Rebecca F. Kuang.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
The old standards of innocence and experience form the structure of the text. The speaker of the poems continues to interrogate the slippage between these concepts, as she navigates and reflects on the constraints of a life. In many conventional texts, the innocence of a character, especially a femme character, is not decided by what the character does but rather by what is done to her. This conditions the reader to accept that they are removed from the agency of their own innocence. I work to challenge that reading of innocence. That definition of innocence. This text is broken down so that innocence and experience are based on the choices made by the speaker. The speaker is very much aware of her own agency in the world of experience. To be clear, this is not a work of autobiography, but it is a text crafted from the perspective of my lived experiences.

It can be said that the first half of life is for reeling and the second half is dedicated to healing and revealing. The speaker switches between the present tense and the reflective flashback, because as the speaker accrues experience, every previous experience bears down on the present moment, expanding it. In other words, the past acts continuously on the present moment, so that the slippage between tenses forms the organic timeline and organising principle of the collection.

I also endeavor to frame the impact of music on poetics and vice versa. Musical groupings and instruments mark different sections of the text.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I would recommend that writers engage with other writers. To the writer starting out: Find the best readers of your work, the folks who get you and don’t want to change your project, but who are also not afraid to ask questions. Gift someone else the privilege of your knowledge and experience. Holding space for others is the best education in empathy. Empathy can only improve the rigor of your work. There’s nothing more sacred than the poetry talks I have with a couple of close friends. One is from my MFA program and the other is from a writing conference I attended. Wherever you think you can find your peers, go there, and tend to those friendships. If you find someone in a local workshop who relates to your work and gives you helpful feedback, take an interest in their project and be generous. I only ever regret the times when I could have and should have been more generous. Those were my greatest lessons.

I am entirely grateful for my MFA experience, and I would do it again. However, I am not advocating for anyone to plunge themselves into debt for an MFA program. Don’t do that.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Song of My Softening?
My affinity for ekphrasis. I enjoy art of every register: high and low. I am always moved by the gesture of love and hope contained within art that doesn’t lend itself to that reading. I was also surprised by the satisfaction of a full rhyme properly placed. Especially amongst my peers, the presence of a full rhyme felt lowbrow or out of place. Reclaiming and centering the full rhyme almost felt like a rebellious act.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Song of My Softening, what would you say?
No matter how bad it gets, don’t give up. All is not lost. Cultivate a ritual for retreat and return. Also, trust your instincts. Your instinct to wait to publish is right. You only get one debut. Most systems are created to exclude and/or exhaust you. Folks will try to divide you from your body-autonomy, your personal agency, and from your instinct. Don’t listen to them. You are the expert on what you feel, so you’re going to have to learn how to listen to yourself. This will literally save your life. All of your poems are waiting for you, and you’ll write them when you’re ready. You’re going to surprise yourself.

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
We concentrate so much on writing process, but actually in my experience writing the book is the last stage of the process of cultivating attention and awareness and interrogating my own motivations to create art. For me this included meditation and therapy.

I was a fine arts minor in college, and reconnecting to my love of art and art history has been important to my writing process. Buying my little house plants and trying to take care of them as best as I can has contributed to the balance of this book project. Most of all, music. Music as a spiritual practice and as a physical practice has grounded me within this book. I immersed myself in the music of my youth, even if it was the music I didn’t care for at the time but existed in the zeitgeist while I was growing up. I’ve always depended on music to lift my spirits, to be my confidant and collaborator, and to understand me. It helps me unlock my inner consciousness.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
When I was at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Vievee Francis gave us an incredible writing prompt around understanding our personal ethos. In addition to stressing rigor, she emphasized the importance of care with respect to process. She said when writing about a difficult subject it’s important to create a way into the work as well as a way out of the work. She was speaking toward writing rituals, which allow a delineation between writing life and real life. She gave examples.

The trope of writers having to suffer for their art is something we internalise, even when we realise it’s an unhealthy trope. This advice reflects a generosity of process, which will find its way into the work. I try to turn this advice over whenever possible to anyone who might need it as much as I did.