In April 2022, my friend J. Preston Witt invited me to interview Afro-Panamanian American writer, performer, and educator Darrel Alejandro Holnes as part of a collaborative reading and discussion event presented by Tulsa Artist Fellowship, where Preston and I are both in residence. Darrel is the author of verse collections Stepmotherland (Notre Dame Press, 2022) and Migrant Psalms (Northwestern Press, 2021); he is also a playwright, a researcher, a musician, and a professor, based in New York City. We discussed his prize-winning book Stepmotherland via Zoom, touching on the topics of etymology, ekphrasis, the many facets of devotion, and much more.
Arthur Malcolm Dixon: I’m very happy to be in conversation with Darrel Alejandro Holnes, author of Stepmotherland, winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. I was struck by this collection’s title because I recently worked on a translation from Spanish that involved the concept of stepfamilies—madrastras, padrastros, hijastros, etc.—and I’m fascinated by the difficulty of translating these terms from Spanish to English. Can you tell us how you arrived at this title? Why Stepmotherland?
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: Absolutely. The title of this collection was originally Tierra madrastra. “Tierra madre” means “motherland,” and “madrastra” is the word for “stepmother” in Spanish. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about whether I wanted a Spanish-language title for a book of poems that are primarily in English, where English has such a strong presence. I started playing around with this word, this concept, and I couldn’t find a word in English that really fit the concept, so I made up a word of my own. Stepmotherland is my attempt to fit this concept that I found in Spanish into the English language. I found that this process, in so many ways, paralleled my own journey into this country, trying to take this Black Panamanian version of a human being and fitting it into a US context that doesn’t always have room for someone like me. I’m into building chairs and making sure I’ve got my own seat at the table, and I think there’s something magical about this title. I think it does that work: it builds that chair and it demands a seat at the table. I see the concept of Stepmotherland as something that speaks to the pan-American reality; many people on this continent might not originally be from here. Their lineage connects to countries from all over the world. I think the project of not just the United States but also a lot of Latin American countries is to try to make something new out of all these pieces of cultures that have been left behind, in a way. Even the whole concept of the postcolonial is that these former colonies have been left behind, and they now make up this “third world.” It’s not really about ranking; it’s about an “old world” and a “new world”—the new world being the world of the colonies—and then this “third world” comes out of that. That’s where the term originally comes from. And I think Stepmotherland as an idea really speaks to the way we struggle on this continent with inheritance, we struggle with legacy, we struggle with a history of theft, a history of slavery, a history of genocide, and a history of colonization that is rooted in violence and rooted in erasure, but that also gave birth to everything we are. That struggle and that tension is something I wanted to really highlight with this title, and that tension is something that runs throughout the book.
AMD: I think it’s an extremely apt title. I’d like to talk more about the way language works in the book, which is really fascinating. Reading the collection as a translator made me think about how fantastically difficult it would be to translate a lot of these poems because play with language is already so deeply built into them. I’ll put the question this way: do you see yourself as an English-language poet, or do you even think you can define your practice in linguistic terms?
DAH: When you look at the etymological history of the English language, you find that it’s a language of empire and a language of trade. It has within it words of German origin, of French origin, of Arabic origin that have made their way into the English language. I think of the language I speak as very much a language of the new century. It is a product of a very global education and of all the geopolitics that have impacted me as a subject of capitalistic democracy and “free trade.” I think of my language as the language of my experience—so much of that is in Spanish, so much of that is on the Internet, so much of that is rooted in pidgin slang. Most of the slang I grew up with in Panama is actually a pidgin language; we import words from French, for example, and adapt them to our own spellings and pronunciations. I’ve always been really fascinated by that, because it felt like a secret code—one I understood because I had the context for it, but a code that also makes me feel more foreign when I engage sometimes in English in the United States because if I have the impulse to use any kind of slang that has its origins outside of this country, I will eventually lose somebody in the audience. I’ve instead found that, through poetry, it’s not a loss but a gain, because when the audience stays with you through the poem then they’ll also learn something: they’ll learn a new language, they’ll learn a new word, they’ll learn the code. I discovered that poetry was also a way to teach this code. So my knowledge of the code doesn’t make me foreign, it makes me special.
AMD: Something I loved throughout the book is how you use slang, and how you don’t succumb to the commonly accepted binaries between English and Spanish, or even between different types of Spanish. You’re willing to erase those lines.
DAH: Absolutely. More is possible than people are telling you. That’s the truth. And everywhere you see a boundary is a missed opportunity to connect. So don’t lose that opportunity.
AMD: Speaking of going deep into words and focusing on specific bits of language, some of the poems I enjoy the most from your collection are the definition poems, like “ba•by.” You mentioned that you don’t read it aloud often—why is that, and what is it that attracts you to the definition format?
DAH: At the time when I was writing the definition poems, I was reading A. Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, and I was also reading Bird Eating Bird by Kristin Naca, which are two collections that are very, very concerned with language. M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A centers on the first African-American student to ever win the National Spelling Bee—I believe it was in the forties or fifties—and her win was stolen from her because they refused to give her the prize. That collection is very concerned with spelling, the ways we learn language, and the power of language. And Kristen Naca’s Bird Eating Bird is about learning Spanish. I learned from those collections how you can use the study of language to tell a story. I had these stories that I wanted to share, but I felt that they necessitated a particular vocabulary, and if I was able to find that vocabulary I would be able to tell those stories. So I made a list of key words, kind of like magic words that would unlock my ability to tell the story, and “baby” was one of them.
AMD: We hear so often of poetry as a question of giving names to certain things, or of defining. That’s what drew me to these poems in which the definition itself is the poem. Something else that stood out to me throughout the collection were the ekphrastic poems. What drew you to ekphrastic writing, and particularly to the religious imagery that comes through in some of your ekphrastic poems?
DAH: I think of all my friends who are lapsed Catholics or former Catholics or recovering Catholics—the whole variety. A lot of us continue to be haunted by the iconography. It becomes burned into you in a way, even if you are someone who doesn’t believe or you get to a point where you renounce your faith. If you grew up in that culture, I think there’s something really powerful about it and really moving, and for me it’s something really global. I was in Bulgaria, seeing Orthodox churches everywhere, and I recognized a lot of the iconography. I was in Kenya and I had the same experience, and of course I have that same experience in Panama too. So it was a way of speaking a very global language, because I’m working with these icons that are pervasive throughout multiple cultures but that are also unique. As a Black person I’ve always been really fascinated by the culture of the Black Madonna, and also there are these paintings in which, over time, the skin color of the figures has turned black. They are sometimes venerated or worshiped by the local community. That’s so interesting to me in a country like Bulgaria where the Black population is so small, and consequently there’s also a lot of racism. I experienced microaggressions in a small Bulgarian village where they also venerated this Black Madonna. That’s fascinating to me. I think about what we worship and why, and so much of this book is about worship as well—the ways we worship family, the ways we worship the nation-state, the ways we worship sex, the ways we worship each other. I think so much of being in love is about devotion, and so much of Renaissance painting and sculpture is about devotion. That devotion includes those who worship at the church of art and art history. I felt so moved when I saw Michelangelo’s Pietà because you can also see your own stories in it. When I looked at the Pietà I was also able to see my own experiences and the experiences of people in my community in the narrative that’s represented by that iconography. It’s a place of investigation, another way of asking these questions through artistic engagement.
AMD: Through ekphrastic poems like yours, canonical art—and it doesn’t get much more canonical than Michelangelo—can become manipulable, almost customizable. In your poem on the Pietà, you paint it with different colors, not as a pure, empty whiteness but as something else. It reminded me too of misconception of Greek classical sculpture being purely white when in fact it was not. You really explore the power dynamic between canonical art and noncanonical art—if such a division exists—in these poems.
DAH: In doing so, I’m also elevating these other stories. What really fascinates me about most of the Bible is the fact that the majority of the people in the Bible are not kings and queens—so, what does it mean to tell their stories in a way that is supposed to be exemplary, putting them on a pedestal? How do you venerate them? I’m also interested in the veneration of the mother figure, which makes its way into Christianity and specifically Catholicism from cults dedicated to the veneration of the mother in the Mediterranean, as well as Western Europe and the land now known as Italy. Growing up in Panama, Mother’s Day is actually the biggest sales day of the year for stores. It’s bigger than Christmas, it’s bigger than any other holiday because this is a country where women are sometimes venerated and where motherhood in particular is really venerated. I feel that my relationship with my mother is also deeply cultural, so if I’m writing about her then I’m writing about my culture, and if I’m writing about my culture then I’m writing about my mother. I’m excited by the opportunity that comes from these ekphrastic poems.
AMD: One final question about where the inspirations behind this collection come from. I sense that they’re quite diverse and wide-ranging; there are some poems that are very historical, some that are clearly derived from personal experience, some that are inspired by other pieces of art. To what extent do you see yourself as a researcher, or as a person deliberately seeking out questions or themes to write on, and to what extent does it just come organically through what you happen to observe?
DAH: I think it’s both. My research is very organic because I research outside of any particular project, typically. I research because I’m curious and I want to know. I think of myself as a lifelong learner—I’m always a student of the world and a student of experience. That’s why I love to travel and try new things. So many of the poems in the book come from questions; the questions lead to experiences and the experiences inspire the poems. If I didn’t nurture my curiosity, if I dismissed it, and if I was absolute about my relationship with knowledge, then I would have no creative soul. That curiosity that every child has is at the heart of any artist’s creative spirit. So don’t grow up too fast. Don’t grow up at all, really. I’ve been able to perfect my skills as a researcher because I’ve worked with ethnographers and anthropologists who have trained me to conduct oral histories and historical and literary reviews that led to ethnographic plays and research-based plays. Once you learn to ride a bike, you can’t unlearn it. Once you learn to find the answers to the questions you have, you’ll never stop seeking out more information. I’m constantly trying to learn more about the world, about myself, about community, about culture, about history. That investigation created this book. And I hope to continue investigating. I think the poems will come.