Barbed Tongues: An Interview with Rachel Godfrey


Image: “Untitled,” by Sara Wallace-Lee, 2016.

Emma Raddatz: How did you begin writing ‘leprosy,’ ‘lust,’ and ‘live’?

Rachel Godfrey: ‘lust,’ the one about the boy, Ivan, I started writing in December because I had sex with him at the end of September, and I tried to erase that that happened. So I started writing ‘lust’ slowly. It was very easy to write because the way I write is I, first, write out all my thoughts in a stream in my journal and then I turn it into something that’s fitting. ‘leprosy,’ I just wrote, it was a weird Saturday night, I was in the ST lab, and I didn’t want to do my work, that’s when I wrote that one. The last one, ‘live,’ I wrote like two days before I submitted it, I don’t know where it came from.

Liz Cettina: What is your writing process like?

R: I have a diary that’s called “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” because of the movie. (It’s one of my favorite movies.) So I’ll type in caps what’s on my mind, and then from that, sometimes I’ll turn that into a short story or a poem depending on how much time I have because I don’t like leaving things undone because then I forget. Most of the time, for my writing, the diary process is where I start.

E: Do you tend to write your poems in one sitting?

R: Most of the time, yes, because otherwise I just forget. Like, if I’m on a roll and I stop, it’s just not going to come back.

E: What is the revision process like for your poems?

R: I come back to poems later. I write poems like I do my French homework. My French teacher always yells at us that you’re supposed to leave, and then come back, and leave, and then come back. That’s exactly my process for writing poems.

L: How does that work with (or against) the moment in which your poems are based?

R: I get angrier about things as time goes on if I try to suppress my feelings about them. So because I tried to forget Ivan as a person completely, I think it was a lot easier to come back to the poem (with all of my anger). I didn’t feel any emotional trauma or anything going back to it, it was more like I’m just still very angry because he sucks. For other poems, going back to it, it depends what I’m writing about. If I’m writing about my family, it’s stuff that has/is built up, so it’s harder to go back and revise that. When I write, I think sometimes I force myself to make the feelings I’ve suppressed more visible to me so that I can finally deal with them, head on.

E: How do you choose titles for your poems?

R: I don’t know, I actually don’t think about it. I just read through the poem and see what word comes to mind. For some reason, all three of these start with ‘l.’

L: What made you choose to present these poems together?

R: I had four poems I was trying to decide between, the fourth was titled ‘lavender,’ which was more, I don’t know, something about it felt really unfinished to me. It was about how I’m allergic to lavender so I was trying to write about that in relation to my relationship with my brother, but I guess because it was a family poem I left it out. The three of these just happened to be together, which is interesting to me because they all have allusions to death, which I didn’t notice until I was looking at them on the website. And I was like, “Oh, shit. I sound kind of sad.”

L: How important is it for you to read your poems aloud, or have a reader look at them on the page?

R: In terms of being read out loud, the first time I ever read a poem out loud was so horrifying. I watched a video of it after, and I was like, “My God, I hate the sound of my voice.” Something about seeing a poem and reading it is more, I don’t know if it’s more important, but it definitely resonates with me more than hearing it out loud. There’s something about the silence around me as I’m reading something that makes me feel it more. In terms of stanza length, as I’m writing, sometimes the thoughts just have to be separated from the other. If there’s a long stanza, that’s more stream of consciousness, to follow with a stanza of three lines feels like the end to the thought, it’s certain.

E: Can you talk about your use of punctuation and capitalization?

R: I think I just write the way I think. I think in that stream of consciousness, so I don’t necessarily need to use punctuation because it stops the thoughts too early.

L: What function does writing serve for you?

R: I started writing because it gave me a way to think things through. I find myself—especially in classes—I’ll have something to say and won’t know how to say it. So I started writing in my journal, but I still wasn’t getting my thoughts out in the way I wanted to. But with poetry, I don’t know what it is about it, even though my poetry is not cohesive to me, when I write poetry I know what I’m saying and that helps me get what I’m thinking out in the exact way I want it. I really like poetry, I really do.

E: What do you mean that your poetry is not cohesive?

R: I think if I really put my mind to it, I could write in a cohesive way. But I don’t know, there’s something about, like whenever I’m writing a poem, I don’t try to be cohesive, I’m just like, “Rachel, write whatever comes to you.” And so sometimes it’ll come out as, “I like blue / Today is Saturday.” And then I’m just like, does this get my feelings across well enough?

L: Do you have any favorite writers?

R: Nayyirah Waheed, I just bought two of her books, one’s Salt and one’s Nejma. Her writing style has influenced mine heavily—her imagery is very straightforward, but even though she’s straightforward, her words are so beautifully put together. I don’t know if it’s conscious for her or if she naturally does it. I like really straightforward poetry. I love Pablo Neruda a lot, I think that’s the first poetry that brought me to tears because he’s such a romantic. I think plays influence my poetry a lot. I’m a very big fan of Amiri Baraka. For one of my classes we read two plays by him, so I read “Dope,” my favorite poem by him. He’s definitely influenced my writing, he’s very straightforward and very blunt, he was as a person and he was in his writing. There’s something about poetry that’s accessible. That’s what resonates with me more, because if I don’t understand what’s being said, then I don’t get anything out of it. I’m not writing for some bourgeois ass people, I’m writing for people that feel, and that’s everyone so there’s no reason to make it complicated.

E: Can you talk about how the writing process for your short stories is different than that for your poems?

R: For short stories, I definitely come back to them more. I’ll hear someone say something, for example, I’ll hear a certain phrase and something about it, I’ll like it, simple as that. So I’ll take that and try to insert it into a first sentence, in my own words, and then I write the intro paragraph. And then I’m like, “I have nothing else,” so I go back to it. Short stories are hard to write, way harder than poetry, because they have to be more cohesive. If I tried to do the, “I like blue / Today is Saturday,” it wouldn’t work, but with poetry, it can.

E: Can you talk about the performances you’re a part of on campus?

R: I’m in a play called “Raza,” Jonah Toussaint wrote it. If you see this Jonah, I love you! We’re not supposed to give anything away, but I can say it’s about a son and his mother. Jonah always says it’s about lynching, but it’s about more than lynching. That’s all I can say. I am not a good actress, I take myself seriously, but I laugh so much. At a rehearsal recently, it was just me and the music director, the point of the rehearsal was to get me to be mean, to channel my anger. For me, if I’m angry about something, I write about it. But they were like, “No, you have to be outright with your anger.” And then we talked about it for a situation in which someone says something racist to you, and they asked me, “What do you do? Do you respond in a way to put them in their place or to educate them?” And I was like, “Both.” And they said, “Just put them in their place,” and that’s what I’m supposed to do for this character. It’s a fun experience. The play goes up during exam week, I believe.

L: How does acting factor into your writing?

R: In high school, I did musicals. They were not good. At my boarding school, I had to do an extra curricular activity because I wasn’t doing a sport, so I did plays and musicals. “Raza” is definitely pushing me out of my comfort zone, especially in terms of the outright anger thing. I feel like that’s factoring into my poetry because, as a person, I’m pretty honest with my feelings, but there are certain things I don’t like talking about. With poetry, I feel more comfortable talking about those things. At first, sharing these poems online made me nervous. But the fact is that this is my art, this is what I love doing. I’ve never said that before, that feels good.

Rachel is a member of the Wesleyan Class of 2019. Read her three poems, ‘leprosy,’ ‘lust,’ and ‘live’ here

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