There might be an quiet expectation for a debut poetry collection to serve as a charming introduction to the world of the author, but, even if poetry aspires towards serving as a venue for sincerity and vulnerability, it is an act of bravery for a poet to begin her or his career with a collection rooted in painful and dark histories—especially so for African-American women who, four-hundred years into the American experiment, must still question the basic weight of their lives in the country’s moral consciousness.
“In 2006 I had an ordeal with medicine . To recover, I learn why ghost come to me. The research question is: Why am I patient?” This conclusion to the opening poem in Bettina Judd’s debut collection Patient (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) speaks to the emotional uncertainty that results from the collision of personal and public history as related to the “black” female body—as medical subject, as specimen, as spectacle. Far from a feel-good subject, the eye-opening book affirms the fact that some of our worst wounds must first be opened and examined in order to properly heal.
POST NO ILLS: The title of the opening poem (“In 2006 I Had an Ordeal with Medicine”) holds a certain tension—the immediacy of the “I” and the dispassion, or distance, of “an ordeal with medicine.” As voices, how do the “researcher” and the “patient” share the body of the speaker in your book? What was your experience in separating those two perspectives throughout the poems and when did you settle upon that as a necessary element of the collection?
BETTINA JUDD: A Black woman is the researcher and the patient. She is also the tension. That tension, for me, is a pillar of the project. It was there before I began writing it. I’m really starting at this point in the narrative where the speaker as patient, simultaneously becomes researcher.
To be a patient is to be a kind of witness to one’s body. Since Black women are not often seen as reliable witnesses, being a patient and a Black woman is a precarious position. So, what if she were researcher? Perhaps she has to be the researcher of her own body to have any kind of justice or care. But then is the function of research (historically speaking) any more reliable? Well, we know, historically, for Black people this is not true. Research, whether anthropological or medical, has abused the trust and the bodies of Black people. So that tension, that space between the personal narrative and the attempt to distance oneself in the narrative is where ghosts, histories of unethical research on Black people, find their shape.
PNI: Thinking about interiority, the poems explicitly highlight the disparity between the shallow fascination with the bodies, the flesh, of African-American women and the disregard for the emotional and psychological terrain of enduring that gaze and visceral violation. The poetic form and typography in the book are defining characteristics. As employed in the poems, do they function as representations of the aforementioned disconnect?
JUDD: There are some ways that I used form and typography to reveal the text behind the text, the incomplete thought, the fractured way ofspeaking through and around ghosts. The quasi-contrapuntal poems do that, for example. Then there are other times where my relationship to the project as more visual comes through. There is a poem in the voice of Joice Heth, announcing her own death as if she were a showman that shapes into a funnel. She disappears. But the typography also attempts to reflect the style of an old paper announcement. Her speaking in the poem is performance. It is mocking her audience.
PNI: Towards the end of the collection, in the poem “Of Air and Sea,” you write “I do not want to be responsible/ for the retelling.” And in “When Asked ‘Where Do You Come up with This Stuff?’,” you suggest “memories do not wait for the word to bring them to life”—as if alluding to the idea that you are, unavoidably, the receiver of stories, your own and those of other African-American women. How did you balance “telling” versus “rendering” when engaging the histories of these women, and what were your concerns while doing so?
JUDD: No one wants to be the bearer of bad news or sad stories. The speaker is really wrestling with the fact that the bad news is her story—it is about her experience with medicine. The mundanity of her life is a set up. I would say that the attempt to strike a balance between telling and rendering in the voice of the researcher is a dilemma throughout the book. I know there is an impulse to recreate these women—for the women to be able to tell their stories but that’s not what slavery leaves us. We don’t get to know how these Black women in Alabama sound. We don’t get to know their interior lives. Any attempt to do so is really telling us more about the person trying to tell the story.
I had concerns about misrepresenting the stories, about telling untruths because I could find no more about the women who were enslaved. I had concerns that I hadn’t done enough research. I didn’t track them down hard enough. I have concerns about the families of the women who died more recently—whether or not they would appreciate me talking about their family members. But then I realized that this is the concern of the researcher, too. Her inquiry has the potential for a different form of violence, another erasure.
PNI: This book mines a history rife with ironies. (Anarcha Wescott only became valuable as a research subject for Marion Sims after her birthing complications rendered her of little commercial value to her enslaver. Henrietta Lacks’ cells are ubiquitous in the world of medical research though she was buried without a headstone.) The speaker situates herself on this painful continuum that, considering the current concern and appreciation for the bodies of African-American women, has yet to curve towards compassion. Is all the haunting and “ghosting” in the book, in that history, tempered by any hope?
JUDD: I have always been particularly drawn to the aspect of Black feminist thought that has been about reassuring Black women that we aren’t imagining things. That we haven’t lost our minds. Giving real historical context to Black women’s embodied experiences can be helpful, but it is a double-edged sword. Context mining is a recovery project, and we can never recover anything whole in the context of enslavement or experimentation. Once again we are faced with acute pain of knowing what that erasure means, the acute pain of what we actually find. I think acknowledging Black women’s pain is an important first step towards healing. I won’t pretend to know what should happen after that.
PNI: In the acknowledgements and credits, you point to the work of female African-American writers before you who entered and rendered the body with bravery—Lucille Clifton, Toi Derricotte. The ending of Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956” might also speak to the project of Patient. Writing of her grandmother’s work experience in the Jim Crow south, Trethewey closes the poem:
Her lips tighten speaking
of quitting time when
the colored women filed out slowly
to have their purses checked,
the insides laid open and exposed
by the boss’s hand.
when she recalls the soiled Kotex
she saved, stuffed into hag
in her purse, and Adam’s look
on one white man’s face, his hand
deep in knowledge.
For readers dipping their hands into your book, what is the “knowledge” you hope they leave the collection marked with?
JUDD: That is beautiful, ha. I hope, too, that folks get it in all of the senses that Black women’s pain is real. In whatever visceral ways that it is experienced, I hope for empathy.
BETTINA JUDD was born in Baltimore, Maryland and raised in Southern California. She teaches courses in Black women’s art, Black culture, and Black feminist thought. She has received fellowships from the Five Colleges, the Vermont Studio Center and the University of Maryland. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and her poems have appeared in Torch, Mythium, Meridians and other journals and anthologies. More about her can be found at www.bettinajudd.com and www.patientpoems.com.