‘Conveying Identity’ Panellist
Interview conducted by Sharron Green
Dara Kalima is the New York-, or, as she would insist on telling you, Bronx-based author of a recent memoir Still Laughin’ and three poetry collections Black Man, Black Woman, Black Child; Casualty of Love and Two X Chromosomes with an Extra Shot of Melanin.
I first met Dara during the 2020 lockdown. A fellow Instapoet (@darakalima) she was running international poetry workshops with Poetix University founder Tonii Langhorne. @poetixu courses certainly inspired many of my Viral Odes pandemic poems and Dara took on a Vice President role in the organisation. Dara is a prolific poet and ‘eats prompts for breakfast’ — to date she has written nearly 2,000 poems, and whilst she isn’t satisfied with all of them, she is proud of the time she has invested in her craft.
We are thrilled that she is joining us on the Conveying Identity panel and I caught up with her beforehand to discuss her writing. These are the edited highlights from our interview.
You have written a number of poetry books Dara, what inspires you to write?
My first poetry collection Black Man, Black Woman, Black Child was written during a time of loss — of my grandmother and an election and the connections I had with an organisation — writing it was a form of self-help and rediscovery. I wrote the poem Black Man, Black Woman, Black Child to bring my family together and in time it, along with the rest of the collection, became part of the Black Lives Matter conversation. Casualty of Love is about sexual assault and was written before the #MeToo Movement started but is my contribution to that — because a lot of people don’t talk about sexual assault. Then I became part of a movement tackling intersectional feminism. In the United States, when women fought for the vote, Black women were a big part of that movement, and yet white women got the right to vote, but Black women didn’t. I wrote Two X Chromosomes with an Extra Shot of Melanin to question — who are the allies of Black women? We are here in all of these conversations, but who is here for us when we say we have a particular problem? I write to tap into my concerns, but there’s a universal nature to them.
And which style or forms do you prefer writing in?
In college I was told that my fiction was terrible and for some reason that took me out of writing. I don’t know why I listened to that but when it comes to writing, egos are very fragile. I still can’t really write fiction — I can’t get past that block of someone’s words 20 years ago. But I blog and share via my website so my other writing voice is still viable. I like writing essays and that’s essentially what formed my memoir Still Laughin’. But poetry is always going to have my heart. I like prose poetry and that’s what I perform but each of my collections has forms. I believe every poet should understand poetic forms and have them in their arsenal even if they never use them, because every tool makes you stronger.
What do you find challenging about writing?
The hardest thing about writing is being honest. It’s being vulnerable. Even if you’re hiding issues and are purposefully being vague. You can be private, but you need to be honest about the emotions, about the experience, so that it’s still universal. I don’t have to slice open my vein and bleed everywhere for you to get it, but the writing has to be honest for people to relate to it. I think a lot of people are not necessarily honest with themselves and therefore not honest when they pick up their pens.
Could you talk about performing your poems and how important that is to you?
I really started in 2015 when I released my first book, because I realised no one was going to buy a book if they didn’t know who I was, and if they didn’t have a sample of what I could do. It has been fun and transformative and amazing — I got to perform in Scotland!
I come from theatre. I don’t like acting, but I like using the tools I got from acting to share my poetry. During a show, one person left in the middle of the performance because she was triggered, but she came back and explained that she too was a victim and the poem resonated too closely with her, and then we hugged it out. When I signed her book I said, “We are bigger than what was done to us.” Just having those healing moments, moments of recognition with people means everything.
I don’t perform in exclusively Black spaces. That’s not where my work resonates most. But being a person who’s performing in mixed spaces, I tend to make white people uncomfortable if they don’t get it, and that’s good. The Black people are very happy that someone has spoken up on their behalf, and so hopefully by the end of the day, some people go home learning. And some people feel confident that they’ve been seen, and that’s the most important part.
What advice would you give your younger self about writing?
Stop holding back. I get mad at myself when I look at Black Man, Black Woman, Black Child. The whole book is about what it means to be Black and I never talk about white people or explicitly about racism. I wish I had been bolder, sooner. Society tells me as a woman, as a Black person to hold back. Plus, maybe because I am getting older, I’m finally unlearning or speaking up more, and it may also be the backlash of 2020. With the death of George Floyd, being home and able to just be in my own skin. I’m more likely to speak up than I was — I would tell the younger me “Go for it. That’s it, speak out.”
Which book or author has most inspired you and why?
The poetry book that I read most when I was a kid was called The Black Poets and it was a poetry anthology. Especially the Harlem Renaissance section. There was Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Claude McKay, Paul Laurence Dunbar. A whole world of beautiful poetry that you could access at any time. The Black Poets was essential in my house and it seems to be a book that a lot of Black poets have — it’s like my poetry Bible.
Langston Hughes was the poet that most inspired me. His last house is in Harlem, and I spent a lot of 2019 writing there — I felt his energy and it felt safe. He was fascinating — he was a poet, playwright and a musician. I feel most connected to him, he has always coloured my life and I write things that are inspired by him or odes to his poems.
When do you find time to write? How does it fit in with the other parts of your life?
I am very busy with Poetix University. I have a podcast with Tonii called Word2WordZ. I am launching my own podcast “On behalf of” where I’ll be interviewing people on behalf of different communities. I am known as The Community Poet and run the Black Authors Collaborative. When do I find time to write? I write most days, whenever it hits me, so at night, in the morning, in the middle of work, during my commute. I have a friend that I share writing practice with every couple of weeks. I’m starting back the ‘Art of Breathing and Writing’ which will be monthly. I write whenever I can, because writing is sacred to me, it is so important.
Have you ever had writer’s block and if so, how did you overcome it?
I don’t believe in writer’s block. Nikki Giovanni said it at a talk, and I agree – there is no such thing. It’s just bad practice. If you have a good writing practice, you can write, you may not write what you want to — it might not be the next great novel, but sometimes you just have to dump the bad stuff to get to the good. The reasons why people don’t successfully complete the National Poetry Month Challenge are that they don’t have a commitment to completing it and they’re so worried about writing the best poems over 30 days that they don’t give themselves the right to just practice. That’s why I use poetry forms, not to actually complete the form perfectly, but to try something different, shake it up and play. It’s writing to write, and if you can do that you can write anything. A writing practice doesn’t have to be every day, it just has to be consistent. Even if it’s inconsistently consistent — if it’s every three weeks. If you have a practice to tap into, then you always have the ability to write. My goal is to write every day.
Where do you like to write?
If I could write anywhere it would be in nature. I miss feeling the wind. I like sitting in places where it’s relatively quiet but not silent — like in a coffee shop. One thing I liked about Langston Hughes’ home was that the person who owned the house had a giant tortoise. When I was working there, if I couldn’t write, I stopped focusing on my memoir and sat in a different seat. I breathed for five minutes, did a sitting meditation and then wrote for five minutes about the tortoise walking around the backyard. One of my favourite poems recently was about sitting under a deathtrap. I was in New Mexico on a retreat with Natalie Goldberg, we were in the meditation hall, and I looked up to see spiders’ webs on the lamp. What are spiders’ webs? A death trap! I like being in places where I can zone out — where there’s enough quiet and enough stimulus.
Do you also teach or mentor writers?
I started the Black Authors Collaborative because a lot of people ask me questions, so I do a lot of one-off mentoring. That’s why I’m also part of Siimple, an offshoot of iiPublishing where we help self-published authors get their books out. We help them get that last piece together — like the book cover for example or a bio. If I have a mission in life it is to help other writers get their work out there. This is not a competition. The world needs us, especially those that the world doesn’t typically publish or listen to. I’m here to help you be heard.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m hoping to release a book next year. In three months, I hope to be finished writing and I can start editing. I’ve been writing it for the last eighteen months but I’m having a hard time focusing on it. As I hit middle age, I’ve realised I’m starting to write a lot about my body and ageing and what that means. To wake up in pain, to know my shoulder or my knees don’t do what they used to – I’m trying to weave it all together. Also, the things in our heads, that we tell ourselves, that society has told us that we ingest. The things we don’t talk about to an extent, and that’s the premise of the next book.
Thank-you Dara for a great introduction. I’m looking forward to hearing more insights on the Conveying Identity panel and it will be wonderful to see you perform your poetry.
To learn more about Dara’s role in the 2022 Festival, and to buy her most recent work, head to her section of SNWF’s Meet Our Guests.
Enjoyed this interview? Let us know what you think in the comments below, or start a discussion on our social media accounts.
About the Author
Sharron Green is a poet and Creative Writing MA graduate from the University of Surrey who enrolled after the 2020 Surrey New Writers Festival. This year she will be joining the Creative Brand Identity panel and chairing the Open Mic.