It’s no secret that the literary world is dominated by white, male voices. But some writers and editors of color are trying to shift the focus. The Stripes EIC, Aisha Oxley, recently sat down with Sean “Mega” DesVignes, editor of Kinfolks Quarterly, a literary magazine that features black authors exclusively.
Read their conversation below.
AO: Kinfolks went live last year – how and when did you get involved?
SD: I was involved from the jump. Kinfolks is basically the brainchild of Joshua Bennett and Josh and I have a really close relationship, so we’ve always kind of been talking about collaborating on an idea such as Kinfolks in terms of just making a journal specifically for young black artists who are thinking about blackness in very different ways.
AO: In your own words, what is the Kinfolks mission statement?
SD: “However you interpret blackness, send it through.” We want black people to tell their story and the story is not just the South. The story is not just America. The story is not just Africa. I’m of Caribbean descent, so there are stories that I have from that spectrum. The story is all encompassing and that’s what we’re trying to invite. These stories are coming from a multitude of places and experiences. We don’t want to define the question of blackness. We’re more so interested in having our foot in the question.
AO: What’s the poetry selection process like for Kinfolks? As an editor, what do you value most?
SD: It’s one thing to write the poem about the Charleston church shooting. It’s one thing to write that poem. It’s another thing to go back in the lab and craft that poem and make that poem more than just the event. That event harkens back to so many other events. So I think that a poem has to exist outside of the moment that it’s written in. That’s what I really press for in selecting a poem – what poem are you gonna read that you’re gonna keep reading and keep reading for years to come?
That’s what I think the biggest challenge of the journal is – when you’re doing a journal on blackness, especially in today’s climate, you’re gonna get hundreds of poems sometimes about the same things. There’s gonna be 10 poets talking about Charleston, there’s gonna be 10 poets talking about Trayvon Martin… We see those familiar tropes, so it gets to a point where poetry selection is about the craft, the quality and where the poems are going to stand as the days go on.
AO: Speaking of experimentation and craft – what do you think the import of a journal is in bringing new forms of literature to light while focusing exclusively on black writers?
SD: Well, even in my own work, people always question, “Is that poetry?” And I’m always like, “Well, nigga, yeah. It is.”[Kinfolks] is invested in uncovering undiscovered voices. Our award, the Margaret Taylor Burroughs Award, is named after a very important woman in black history but not a lot is said about her. And that speaks to black women being invisible. So what we’re aiming to do is uncover what is already here. We have a wealth of fresh, new, dope stuff already here that there isn’t really a need to go looking and searching when you can just open your back door.
We’re speaking about blackness in its infinite permutations. If you look to your left, there’s Trinidad and Trinidad has a jazz festival and would you ever know that Trinidad has a jazz festival? You probably wouldn’t. But that’s a highlight of its attachment to blackness. There’s a poem in that.
AO: What do you think is the importance of the literary and artistic tradition for black people?
SD: Black people have always responded to trauma with artistic expression. During slavery, we made songs, instruments. In the jazz era, jazz was not only a music revolution but a fashion and a dance revolution as well. And translating this to today’s hip hop culture, the way we respond as being anti-establishment is more than just saying we’re anti-establishment, it’s just in the way we express ourselves. We respond to damn near everything in an artistic manner. It’s actually amazing. Artistic expression is like a black person’s practicality. That’s what’s practical for us, that’s what’s normal and routine for us… I think it’s very important for black people to always be aware that the avenues for creative expression are available because that is where our strengths lie historically.
AO: It must follow that Kinfolks is in a different place now, given the atmosphere of heightened racial tensions in the U.S., especially. If art is a practicality for black people, what do you think is the role or responsibility of black writers and artists in a moment like this?
SD: I struggle with calling it a responsibility because I want black people to write about whatever they want. You should just live your truth. But I think that if you count yourself as someone who is invested in blackness and in making a contribution to writing in general as a black person, then you should respond, but the way in which you respond doesn’t have to be the regular ABC path, it can be JHW or Z23(!). There just has to be different avenues for doing things.
More importantly: what is the poem making you feel, what is it making the audience feel? In these especially turbulent times, what are the ripple effects of these tragedies? What are the waves? When we begin investigating those “waves,” we’ll make everlasting poems. Think about the multitude of shit we as Black people have gone through in the past 7 years alone, that’s source material for a lot of poems, sadly. You don’t want people saying this was the “current events” era or that we in some way, only feed off current events or the current socio-political conflicts of blacks to generate work, we want history to acknowledge that we responded to our crises in intelligent, thought-provoking, and visceral ways.
AO: Do you think there is a particular feeling associated with the black experience that transcends time and/or space?
SD: Blackness is just a whole different feel and I think that once you respect it as such, that’s when you can really unmask the power of it. Being black – it’s the shit but sometimes it’s really shitty. It’s a very unique experience and with that comes a unique way of looking at the world. It’s a way that non-people of color don’t have; they don’t have the experience to see things the way that we see them. Even though I wasn’t around during slavery, we’re living in the ramifications of it now, we’re living in the consequences of it now. So that makes me feel in a completely different way than some other guy. I’m walking with that and I’m carrying that and I’m living with that in my day-to-day life. So I think black people have to respect their experience and once you do that, you realize that we are kind of like X-Men. We can shoot fire out of our fingers.
AO: What do you think about this moment in black literary history? How will people look back on it?
SD: I’ve heard some people calling this moment ‘the new black arts movement.’ I’d have to look into the Black Arts movement but there are certain things I’ve heard about it – that it wasn’t really inviting of women or certain different experiences. But I think that what we’re living in right now is more than just black arts because it’s the LGBTQ experience, there’s the African experience, there are experimental and conceptual trends in black poetry. So I think there needs to be a different term than black arts, because our work is touching on so many different things. It should be called “the young niggas gettin it” movement. Danez [Smith] is gettin it, Josh [Bennett] is gettin it, Aziza Barnes gettin it, Nate [Marshall], Safia [Elhillo], Camoghne Felix… all just gettin it.
AO: I like that. Based on that, why do you think it’s important for black people to have spaces like Kinfolks in today’s literary landscape?
SD: It’s important for black writers to know that this [era] is not a fluke. We’re writing amazing, amazing work. So there always has to be an avenue for the public to read this work. It’s not just this moment; this moment needs to spread out and have a ripple effect on the next 20 to 30 years.
AO: What’s your favorite part of working with Kinfolks?
SD: I’m looking at up to 100 poems during a submission read period. So it’s a lot of work and sometimes that causes me to be dismissive. If you don’t catch me in the first two lines, I’m going to the next person. But it comes to that moment when you read that poem that’s interesting, that’s in a voice that’s not your own, and so you’re taken by it and it has you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end and that is the spark. That’s why I’m an editor for Kinfolks.
AO: What’s been your favorite piece from Kinfolks so far?
SD: “daughter (sung as a broken chord)” by Charleen McClure in the second issue.
AO: Anything else?
SD: Stay black. Look out for our next issue this month.
Check out the Kinfolks website, here.
This interview is part of a series featuring conversations with writers and editors of color, entitled Writing While Black. Read the first interview with Taylor Campbell, here.