Remica Bingham-Risher, a native of Phoenix, Arizona, is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian Poet. Among other journals, her work has been published in The Writer’s Chronicle, New Letters, Callaloo and Essence. She is the author of Conversion (Lotus, 2006) winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, What We Ask of Flesh (Etruscan, 2013) shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and Starlight & Error (Diode, 2017) winner of the Diode Editions Book Award and a finalist for the Library of Virginia Book Award. She is the Director of Quality Enhancement Plan Initiatives at Old Dominion University. She resides in Norfolk, VA with her husband and children.
Why is poetry your chosen form for capturing the world?
Poetry is the most succinct, clear way that I can catch snapshot moments of the present and past. There are so many arts that I love and rely on—photography painting, dance, but poetry is the only one that helps me take my jumble of experiences and emotions and put them into a kind of order.
Your poetry uses bodies and flesh to capture important elements of our human lives—how is that choice to render the physical flesh and body important for your poetry?
The body is a vessel for so many things. It carries us and carries all of our memory. It houses us and houses what we hope to bring into the world. For women, I think the news as of late has made it painfully clear, there is another element of the body for many, it comes with a built in fear—fear that it can be taken, used against us. This unfortunately is the history of our living. So when evoking the body, I am often trying to make sense of how we live, despite knowing the danger of moving through the world in a certain skin. I am also fascinated by the unwavering resilience that often comes with this living.
How does your experimentation with language and form help you to engage with social issues?
It seems like an oxymoron but sometimes working in formal verse—having constraints for the work—helps you address social issues in a more measured, careful way. I have to turn to formal verse when I am overcome with emotion. It is hard to temper emotion—how you feel about something—when it comes to the page, but craft must trump this or there’s nothing less than emotional spillage happening, not a poem. I also love the challenge of trying to find ways to make my imaginings fit into a type of container, or even making that container fit my ideas.
In “Nikka Rosa,” Nikki Giovanni says “Black Love is Black wealth”—how does your poetry resonate with that statement?
I certainly can’t speak for all black folks, no one can do that: we are not a monolith, for sure. However, my experience as a little black girl growing up was that despite what suffering we might endure, there was also great joy (this is the same for Nikki, as I remember the poem ending “...we were quite happy”) and wonder in the fact that nothing we’d suffered ever stopped us from growing. Certainly, we were rich with experience, loving, rife with dreaming, full with the knowledge that Ms. Lucille (Clifton) always reminded us of, that “every day something tried to kill us and had failed.”
Family seems an important theme in your work, both immediate and historical. How do you locate your poetry within connections to family?
I think being a part of this random web of folks—linked to them by blood and miraculous happenstance—is just a guiding force for most of what we’ll do in our lives. Even family that isn’t here really shapes you. I am writing now, in earnest, about two of my ancestresses—my maternal grandmother and paternal great-great-great grandmother who just by chance crossed paths in Petersburg, Virginia around 1940—and what I’m finding is that their voices, lives and lore still follows us around everywhere. Much of what both sides of my family holds dear (or fears) today, still comes from the lives and experiences of those women. Family holds us, it makes us, and guides us in this life and beyond.
What writers do you read and why are they important to you?
This answer changes all the time, but some of the constants will always be: Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Alexander, Walter Dean Myers, Pablo Neruda, James Baldwin, Sharon Olds. Some of the folks I’ve been going back to lately are: Natasha Trethewey, Matt Rasmussen, Mitch Albom, Greg Orr, Aracelis Girmay, and Adrienne Rich. I get something different from everything I read, but I am mostly looking to be surprised—by beautiful phrasing, endings, narrative loops, insights and reconciling of fear—over and over again.