Ten Questions for Sheila Carter-Jones

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Sheila Carter-Jones, whose new poetry collection, Every Hard Sweetness, is out today from BOA Editions. In this dynamic work that bridges the lyric and experimental, Carter-Jones explores the intersection of personal and sociocultural history. In a mix of archival images, erasures, and more traditional verse, Carter-Jones unfolds the narrative of her father’s wrongful detainment in a state mental hospital and the fallout for her family during his nearly seven years inside the facility during the height of the Civil Rights movement. She documents her father’s institutionalization as a symptom of a broad scheme to criminalize and incarcerate Black men, one that dates to the nation’s founding and continues into the present. Carter-Jones also explores the will to survive, as she traces her and her family’s life in the shadow of their patriarch’s absence, witnessing their daily rounds of work and intimacies that sustain life despite oppression and peril: “With tiny gestures I put fork to / mouth,” she writes in “Fissured.” Terrance Hayes praises Every Hard Sweetness, calling it “a fabulous combination of old school storytelling and vibrant hybrid experimentation. ... Carter-Jones weaves masterful stories from the mercurial feelings and rhythms of everyday experience.” Sheila Carter-Jones is the author of Three Birds Deep (Broadside Lotus Press, 2012), winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Book Award. A recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Carter-Jones has published poems in the Mom Egg Review, Northside Chronicle, Pittsburgh Quarterly, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in creative writing from Carlow University, where she facilitates writing workshops for the Madwomen in the Attic Program.

Sheila Carter-Jones, author of Every Hard Sweetness.   (Credit: Corey Lankford)

1. How long did it take you to write Every Hard Sweetness?  
It took so many years to write Every Hard Sweetness. I really can’t count the years in definite numerical terms. I had been writing around the hard sweetnesses for a very long time—more than twenty years.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?  
The most challenging thing about writing the book was how to manage and balance my emotions with language that could not only express but also hold and carry those same emotions forward without destroying the interior of each poem.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write
I write at my dining room table, where I can see the sun rise in the early morning. It’s so peacefully quiet I can sit with myself undisturbed. It is my poetic ritual to write or read-into-writing every day. This is how I center myself for the day.

4. What are you reading right now?
I read several books at one time. I’m realizing that I read to contextualize my work, and I don’t mean necessarily just for setting or history but for the language, rhythms, cadences, and nuances of image and metaphor that begin to take shape in my mind. Once I feel the movement of a story or facts, I am led into my own writing sensibilities. All this is to say that I am reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard, and What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché.

5. What was your strategy for organizing the poems in this collection?
I began to organize the poems based on the symbol for infinity. That is, I moved from one connecting poem to another—whether in time, space, or personal and public experience—in order to create the appearance of one endless experience that African American people go through at various times and places, and always. And I must admit that I didn’t know I was doing this until the poems made me aware of the unconscious movement that was taking place. I learned more deeply that creative energy has a way of doing its own thing—and to trust it and fight against allowing my mind to censor it.

6. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
I would recommend that writers think deeply, perhaps over a period of time, about how they want to experience their writing, what work they want their writing to do in the world, and how they want their work to enter and live in the world to do that work. From this viewpoint, at least a well thought out decision can be made as to whether there is any value in pursuing an MFA.

7. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Every Hard Sweetness?
I was surprised to learn that I actually could use words and images to act as purveyors of emotion. With this understanding, or from this perspective, I could write the hurting things while focusing on language, language use, and structure. Also that’s how I ended up using pictures and graphics to deepen meaning—a kind of see-for-yourself idea.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Every Hard Sweetness, what would you say?
This is an opportunity to develop a courageous spirit. Be brave! Be brave! Above all, be brave!

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
To complete this book I did a meditative practice every day, morning, and evening. I did yoga. I played my flute, running notes together—never a song, just making sounds that seemed to correspond to my feelings. I guess one could say it was improvisation. I went to my hometown and walked to the creek to sit quietly. I talked with old friends and new ones. I spoke with the two journalists who investigated the state hospital I write about in the book and met with one of them. I did research and read the book the other journalist had written as a result of the investigation.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Never be ashamed or embarrassed about your life.” This advice opened me and rearranged my heart. It helped me begin to understand how I could get writing to function for me, to lift me.