This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Shayla Lawz, whose debut poetry book, speculation n., will be published on October 28 by Autumn House Press. Inundated by the news of the state murder of Black people, Lawz wrestles with how to believe in the future as a queer Black woman. An early line in the collection reads, “There is a dream in which I turn off the NEWS, yet it follows me.” There appears to be no escape, and yet the speaker refuses to surrender. “I log off the internet. I say, I am not dead yet.” Using inventive forms—including audio elements that readers are invited to access online—Lawz conveys the devastation of public anti-Black violence and private losses, while also beginning to chart a path forward. The collection as a whole declares, “i am alive, i am alive!” and speculates of a better future. “Innovative, inimitable, endlessly urgent, speculation, n. is far more than just a collection of poems,” writes Ilya Kaminsky, who selected the manuscript as winner of the Autumn House Poetry Contest. “It is a dazzling verbal and visual performance, a concerto, a book of our days that is as heart-wrenching as it is an accurate portrayal of what it means to live and sing in America today.” Shayla Lawz is a writer and interdisciplinary artist from Jersey City. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, McSweeney’s, and Obsidian, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she teaches at Pratt Institute.
1. How long did it take you to write speculation, n.?
The book came to me at three different stages, at three different moments in my life. The first poems started as something else—maybe fiction, maybe parts of a play—and were written between 2017 and 2018. They didn’t exist in the world as they do now; at that time, they were ideas on their way to becoming something and I was just trying to find a body for them.
I was finishing grad school and had gone through a series of events that left me in a state of disbelief. It was as if I was without sound and honestly without many words to write. I became preoccupied with what sound meant in those circumstances: what volume meant in terms of public “truth” or at least its appearance, and what silence meant in terms of personal or private refusal. So the “writing” that started the book at first happened through other modes. I was up late at night, playing with different forms as a way of surviving and healing through the present moment. If I didn’t have the words, If I didn’t have sound, I could create it—I could bring it into the work. That’s where the TV, the radio, and the devices that appear in the book came from; they were portals that I created to theorize about media representation/communication but also to input whatever images I wanted. I look at that beginning process as a kind of making, rather than writing. So much of what was present at that time was the feeling, which remains deeply important.
In 2018 I wrote the first real poems toward the book. I was in Florida at AWP, and I found myself for the first time saying aloud to an editor all the things that I hoped this book would be. I had expanded from my personal grief to the collective, considering spectatorship. I was reading Fred Moten, Saidiya Hartman, and Hortense Spillers. I had this idea of the news and the images that we see: how the images that look like us are us in some sense if we look close enough and become us if we look too long. The paranoia of being watched, but also of being forgotten. I thought particularly of how Black people are represented in moments of anti-Black violence—state, institutional, or otherwise. I thought again of sound and refusal. What it means to replace one image with another, to use sound as interruption, to disrupt the “news” in our everyday lives for personal truth. I spent my time on the plane back home thinking of what our bodies are capable of, what they do for us and what they could be. As soon as I landed, I had the first poem. And I didn’t realize it then, but I had the rest somewhere too.
A lot was written but it still wasn’t the book. The third shift happened between the end of 2019 and 2020 when I realized that I had lived so far beyond where the book “ended”—that what was missing was my documentation of my living, really living. So, I leaned more into the images of what we could be, but more specifically what I could be with images of my own future. Then I realized that I was struggling with a title that didn’t feel representative of where I or where the work had gone/taken me. I was writing more into the future and into the earth, but still thinking of the news images that began this writing and then I came across the definition of “speculation.” The title, speculation, n., is an image itself that represents four definitions of the word and four parts of the book which are representative of both where the book began with the news and where it ends with the futurity of the body. When I found this title, the book finally shifted in feeling, with the speculative and living now being the central image. In 2021 I worked mostly on editing but made some important structural changes related to how the music appears in the text and the performative aspect. So I would say it took four long years, 2017 to 2021, spanning three different junctures in my writing and personal life.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
The most challenging part of writing the book were those moments of silence where I felt that I had something deeply important to say—to the reader, to the world, and perhaps most importantly to myself—and I struggled to find the right words or the right form to do so. The other challenging part, which is related to that, was letting it go. I don’t think words are ever really enough. Not the words we say to each other. Not the words we write. But there’s this understanding that we must have that what we’ve said is enough for the present moment which allows us to let the words go be with the reader and with the world. Even knowing this, that letting go is still tough.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I tend to write in the early mornings and sometimes on my phone throughout the day if I witness something or if a line comes to me. Or even if a song influences me to write, which often happens. A lot of times it’s sporadic; I have a hard time writing for hours on end, so I tend to write for an hour here, an hour there.
Though I still think most of my best ideas or “epiphanies” come in the late/quiet hours of the night between 1 AM and 4 AM. It’s less feasible now that I actually want/need sleep! But there’s just something revelatory about the hours we spend alone with the world. There’s a poem in the book called “4 AM” coupled with a quote by James Baldwin that expresses this sentiment—the significance of that alone time when we realize that we’re not really alone, but with the world. I love what comes to me at that time.
4. What are you reading right now?
Sho by Douglas Kearney, DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi, and there’s one book which I can say I’m always reading which is Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón. I started my reading of it a few years ago by opening to whatever page felt right at the moment and have continued that practice when I want to return to it.
5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
This is hard because I feel like every writer is recognized by someone, in some significant way. But I’ll say Edwidge Danticat because those who know, know—and many people do. But those who don’t, have no idea what a beautiful gift they are missing.
6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I do recommend that writers pursue an MFA but not as their “only option.” It’s a great place for resources and for time to write; and its certainly good—or maybe even necessary in some cases —if you want to teach. It can also be a good place to build community. However, from my own experience and unfortunately from the experiences of too many others, it’s a notoriously difficult environment for Black writers and other writers of color. If you’re writing in less “traditional” forms especially, it can be a space where your ideas are desired but not necessarily understood. For me what was most beneficial were the communities I became a part of after the MFA where I saw my writing nurtured and perhaps most importantly, where I felt nurtured as a person. Though, as someone from my economic background, I certainly understand that the MFA is also a place where financial resources can make writing sustainable for the first time. So I would not say don’t pursue an MFA out of fear. Instead I say pursue it knowing the history of institutions, with a strong protection of your voice and your well-being, and while intentionally building a surrounding community of support.
7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of speculation, n.?
I was surprised to learn how important the act of truth-making through writing can be for healing. There were moments when I was using the text as a future image of what my own life could be. So while some poems were difficult in that they forced me to relive moments or ways of feeling, other poems were instructions or intentions for ways of being. That’s where a lot of the futurity in the text comes from—saying we will be here or “there are Black people in the future,” in the stars, in the earth, etcetera. But also saying, I will be here. I am here. There were many moments of writing that told me, I am here. I was surprised by those revelations.
8. What, if anything, will you miss most about working on the book?
I will miss the revelatory moments; it’s somewhat true that the initial feeling is maintained somewhere in the reading and rereading of the work. But that first instance only happens once. I also will miss the play and joy that happened at the beginning when I was trying to figure out exactly what this all was. I miss some of the first moments performing the work which informed some of the text. There’re a lot that I learned then about what I did and did not want the book to be, but also there was freedom in figuring it out enough to try again.
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My mom because even if she’s a more traditional reader and can sometimes be confused by the experimental/interdisciplinary nature of my work, she’s an avid reader and deeply loves books so she always knows if a book feels good. Which is so important to me. I think every book should feel good in some way, whatever that might mean for that particular book.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
The best piece of writing advice I’ve heard is from Toni Morrison. This is probably unsurprising because she’s the greatest. But what may be surprising is that I was fortunate enough to hear it directly from her. I met her in Brooklyn at a reading a few years before starting this book. And during the conversation after the reading, she answered my question, “What have you learned from the women you created?” She was honestly moved by the question which felt unbelievable to witness. She talked about Sula, and this refrain at the end of the book “We was girls together…O Lord, Sula…girl, girl, girlgirlgirl.” And what she said was that this moment was a kind of cry, a revelation, a kind of call to herself. “Think of all you haven’t done for someone you loved.” And what I took from her saying that was how important it is for the text to be a voice to the reader, but also a voice that speaks back to you, the writer, that echoes a truth you need to hear So, from that moment on I always considered this to be a kind of rule and also a permission: Yes, the work must speak to the reader, to the world, but the last person that it must speak to if it is any good at all is me. It must tell me the truth.