In her most recent work, the Somali-born, Ohio-raised poet is looking identity square in the face.
BY REMY RAMIREZ
IMHO, poets should be some of the only people communicating reality to the masses these days. Unlike the news, with its robotic maneuvering through daily heartbreaks, unlike the patriarchs who get off on cynicism, poets have access to the kind of seeing unsullied by callousness. In every challenge and condition, they see the truth of our struggle to experience humanity fully. Or anyway, that’s certainly the case in The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony, the most recent collection by Somali-born, Columbus, Ohio-raised poet Ladan Osman. From wrestling with a child’s pain as she learns about Section 8, to making peace with the sexualization of suffering women, Osman’s collection (winner of the African Poetry Book Series, BTW), puts a magnifying glass to the American experience, both as an intimately-familiar insider and as a displaced outsider. The result is #BlackGirlMagic in its finest form.
Talk about how or why you started writing poetry.
I started pretty young. It was largely in response to the Maya Angelou poem “When I Think About Myself.” I was amazed that you could accomplish so much in such a small space, and that the communication was so direct. I distinctly remember thinking it would be nice to try that because it was doing something different than a story was, even though it had the impact of a story, and it drew you in like a story. There was such a freedom in that for me because I felt like it was for everybody and available to me. Writing helps me even now. It gives me an avenue through which to communicate with others because the speakers in my poems are sometimes more present, more bold, and more of aware of what they’re feeling than I am. That’s one thing I really appreciate about poetry; it gives me the opportunity to exercise different kinds of intellect and knowing. It helps my own self-awareness so that I can be better with other people. So on one hand, it is for work and about the craft itself, but besides that, what drew me to it was the sense I had as an extremely shy and uncomfortable child that I couldn’t articulate myself. Also, when English is your second language and you have parents who are immigrants (although their English is excellent), you have the sense that a mastery of English will give you freedom in the U.S. There was definitely that, too.
You’re Somali-American and Muslim. I wonder if that influenced the sense of displacement—that “outsider” feeling that carries a lot of these poems.
For sure. Even if you don’t have the language for it, you are told in very direct ways—and a lot of that is through people shouting slurs—that you’re not the norm (whatever that means), that no one is centering their best feelings on someone who looks like you or has your background. As a child, you experience that as an acute understanding that you have to be really careful—and there are so many ways that you can make mistakes because there are teachers, or police officers, or social workers who already interpret you as a mistake for having come to the U.S. My personality made it somewhat easier to navigate that because I wasn’t deeply interested in engaging with other people. It’s a lot easier to be a loner when your background already seems to support that. But it also gives you the opportunity to watch what’s going on around you and how small that thinking is. I try not to carry that on me now because it doesn’t actually mean anything. I know there are things we need to resist politically and socially, but I can’t let that have spiritual meaning to me. I can write about displacement and dislocation, I can write about the pain of feeling out of place. Even as an adult I have visited African nations, and when I’m there, I really sense how much I’m an American. And when I’m in the U.S., how much I’m not an American. I’m something else. There’s that sense that something has been taken away from you, you know, this kind of low-grade sense of injustice. But it’s unclear who did it, or why, or if that’s even a healthy way to think. My writing helps me work around that in a more productive way.
Talk about the title “The Kitchen-Dwellers Testimony” and the significance of the kitchen for you.
The title comes from a Somali phrase. It’s a word for a specific kind of oven, but it’s also a kind of joke or name that people give almost exclusively to women. It means someone who just really loves being all up in the kitchen doing domestic work. I always understood it as a way to make fun of a woman, which I thought was strange because in every culture that I know, women are so often encouraged to be in the kitchen and in interior spaces. So it just seemed that there are insults from every corner, that there’s no way to win. I’m really interested in that. I also didn’t want to leave behind the space in which people gather, in which things are made. The kitchen table was where I could go to write. I always try to have multiple desks, but I keep going back to the table in the kitchen or dining room. Oddly, there is such a resistance that I am deeply confused by as an artist: writing about any indoor space as a woman seems to be offensive sometimes to other women, as if I don’t have my own agency and am opting to downsize myself. I am a fully sovereign being, whether I’m standing in a field, in a body of water, or in a kitchen. But there’s always a reader who’s so ready to say, “Look how she’s making herself small. She doesn’t even know how abused she is. She doesn’t know how much her culture and her religion have made her small.” But it’s actually that thinking that is really small.
I also really loved the poem “Trouble.” One thing that really struck me was this dichotomy between the surface playfulness of the language and the darkness of the language’s actual meaning. In a way, it sort of feels like an extended metaphor about that gap between what we see on the surface and what lives underneath—like it was on some level talking about how depression operates in our culture. Is that a stretch?
I don’t think it’s a stretch. I was frustrated at the time I was writing it, and a bit depressed. It was probably 2012/2013; I’d revised the manuscript a few times, I’d added a bunch of poems, and I was just really tired of feeling rejected professionally and personally. So that poem was a way of flexing, like, “I not only understand English and poetry, but I understand it well enough to mess with it, so that when you hear me read this poem versus when you see it in front of you, you’ll have different kinds of experiences, and you have to challenge whether you as a reader have a full understanding of these words.” Because it took quite a while to get validation from other people, I had to be able to give it to myself. That was one of the poems that I wrote toward the end, and I was satisfied with what it had done. It also was for all the ESL folks who sometimes use the wrong words, but… actually, I don’t even know if they’re the wrong words. Very often it feels like they choose much more beautiful words that make the meaning richer. But traditional American English would say, “That’s not right, you’re not saying it the right way.” That was distressing for me, too. Some of those phrases came from things I actually heard or thought I heard. I very often mis-hear things, and the way I mis-hear them is strange and fantastic. I wanted to incorporate that, too, because I knew there were many people out there who—whether it was due to the way they experience the world psychologically, and/or to some experience with language—would know what I meant.
I know you don’t identify fully as American, but there is something so deeply American about many of these poems. “Section 8” is a great example, and another is “The Woman in the Field,” not just because the image was so reminiscent to me of my own childhood, but also because of the way you drew on the image of corn, corn being such a strong symbol of the American experience.
I lived in a townhouse in Columbus, and if you walked probably 10 or 15 minutes behind that neighborhood, there was just this random cornfield. That’s the experience I was used to, and how shocking it was at times because it looked quite regular, and the next thing you know, you have mud to your ankles, there are really high grasses and an intense fog, you can’t see where you’re going. And the strangeness of all these empty fields and abandoned strip malls—that’s so much a part of the landscape with which I’m familiar. And when you’re driving, just going and going, and the night is so inky, and so much of that has to do with what grows and grows in a way that looks like surplus—like, who’s tending to this? Why is it in this seemingly random place? Do we actually need this much? I think all the time about how geographically diverse and big the U.S. is, and how much has been constructed over time, and how so much of that was impossible without slave labor, other forms of forced labor, and also seriously undervalued labor that of course continues today. I tend to think of that whenever I see railroad tracks or a field of wheat or corn. That it’s beautiful and nourishing—but also eerie and chilling. It has its ghosts and pressures, and I don’t think we should let go of that.
Let’s talk about “The Pilgrims.” I loved the sexual tension between madness and the speaker, but what I thought was so unusual was the kind of equality between them—that they were both pilgrims in search of their spiritual truths. Was this poem a way for you to reframe how we think about madness, as a sort of partner to us, rather than a dominator?
Yeah for sure, and I really appreciate this question. I was thinking about how hysterical women are sexualized. Like, when a woman is panicked in a movie—if you close your eyes and just listen, it sounds really sexual. As if the point of it is to sound like it’s alluring, the act of letting something break you. And I really don’t like the language of the punctured woman who can just be entered and violated. Because I consider myself already intact, I don’t understand what it means to say that I’m broken. So I was thinking about the language that is present and the language I’m trying to resist, but also seeing that madness is something that’s partnered with woman-identified people. It’s like this sexy, somewhat evil spirit thing that accompanies you and makes you dangerous, but also alluring and desirable because you are broken. That a woman saying, “I really need help,” or weeping in public is also erotic. And how painful that is to people who are trying to keep it together—that you don’t even feel safe to break down because of the way femme people are handled, that this very human thing you need to do, to let out and express, is seen as part of your character. Like, “Of course you’re going to break down; we’re just waiting for it to happen to you.” I can’t stand how the fear of being stigmatized prevents people from asking for help.
We’re in a culture where if a male-identified person commits a horrendous crime or lashes out, it’s okay to label that an instance of the mind breaking, a “mental health problem.” Meanwhile, femme people are in a consistent state of horror for showing any sign of emotional disturbance on the street or at work because there are so many things that already feel precarious. Just walking out of the house, it takes one minute before someone says something stupid, like catcalls or something. I think the speaker and madness had to go take a walk, because otherwise we’re in a space that encourages us to implode and then blames us for it. Like, “Look at you—you’re a mess.” It’s unfair, and I think some of that was from growing up not knowing the right social cues and being a loner. As an adult now, and a teacher, I wonder why the automatic reaction is to turn away from each other in these moments. It feels like what we’re saying to woman-identified people who are struggling is, “Too bad for you—madness is your lifelong companion.” I would rather not shy away from letting that be a complex image. It’s somewhat monstrous, it’s kind of scary, but it’s also not that scary if it’s willing to walk and seek knowledge with you. It’s actually not that bad. It’s often better than what we offer each other.
If you had to create an image to symbolize your relationship to poetry, what would it be?
That’s a really good question. Probably a river similar to the Mississippi. Actually, I think it’s called the Meander Belt. There have been attempts over time to reroute it and control its movement, but it always works to return to its route. I am so interested in the movement of water—that even if it takes eons, it works around, or through, or over, or under. And so it would be something like that. I feel like it takes me a lot of time to finish things. The “Meander Belt” is perfect because that’s exactly what it feels like when I’m writing and how I think about what is supposed to be an obstacle. I have to ask, “Is this really in my way, or do I just have to learn to go around or through this thing?” Because poetry is both craft and spiritual work on our own selves, or can be, it’s also professional and outward, and that part is a lot harder for me to figure out—like, should I be tweeting or something? I don’t really know. That feels like what requires a meandering of sorts. It’s actually really beautiful if you look at maps of the Meander Belt—they keep trying to block the Mississippi; it’s fascinating what it decided to do.