Words by Ashia Ajani
Kemi Alabi’s debut poetry collection, Against Heaven, connects environmental abundance with queer futurity.
Against Heaven opens with a golden shovel poem.
The golden shovel form was invented by poet Terrance Hayes, written to honor one of Hayes’s literary heroes, the often overlooked Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). It borrows a word from lines of existing poetry or lyrics and uses them as the last word of each line in a new poem. Of course, a collective so committed to the transformative power of language would begin with a form that borrows language and gives it new meaning. In creating this meaning, the author centers the Earth as a place of abundance, as the divine material we all can experience (and shape), not wait until an uncertain heaven to achieve. Here, there are “trees drooling sugar” and “cherries in heat.” This is but an entry to the vast expanse of Kemi Alabi, the author of Against Heaven, selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award. Through embodied eroticism, queer radicalization of language and deliberate lyricism, Alabi recenters the body and Earth as sites of pleasure in a world that constantly tries to deny us abundance.
But form isn’t the only way Alabi emboldens an inherent kinship with the environment. As a Nigerian-American poet, cultural strategist, and shapeshifter, Alabi is familiar with how language can bend and evolve to our own needs. Their familiarity and boldness with language is awe-inspiring; they crack it open, stir up all of the yummy goodness within, transform it into new iterations of itself. But they are also acutely aware of the shortcomings of the medium. True, this has been the work of Western institutions; appropriate Indigenous wisdom, rewrite the wild as heretical, guard the secrets of the Earth so that its descendents feel estranged from its power. And this point is laid bare in Alabi’s work: to understand the layered reality that is the contemporary climate crisis and queer demonization, one must analyze the religious ideologies that founded the United States. But what comes after that realization?
Alabi’s poetry is akin to spellwork. They undo previous indoctrination, shedding lies about the unnatural, reaffirming the innate existence of queer life. When so much political rhetoric demonizes queer and trans autonomy, Alabi’s poems offer a salve, a place where we had lay our heads and be washed over by peace. By connecting abolition and anti-carceral practice with a pleasure politic, they demonstrate how poetry can help us cope with the disheartening cascades of empire:
all i forced you to know of thirst. Yes
body, you are owed a whole lake.
At its core, Against Heaven, reveals the many ways in which we limit ourselves and our connection to the Earth, and demands us to lean into the beauty of harvest, of self and social cultivation.
Below, I speak with Alabi about Against Heaven, Black ecological kinship and queer environmental poetry. Alabi entered the Zoom room, their on-screen background brimming with lush green trees. “These are my cousins,” they said with a soft smile, gesturing behind them. And then, the conversation unfolded.
Tell us about your background and the influences and approaches you have when it comes to writing.
Poetry has always been part of my life. I’m grateful for the oral traditions my poetry comes from. As I deepened my poetic practice, it always lived in the air as something sonic. I’ve spent the last eight years doing cultural strategy work in a movement-building context and, through there, found a rich writing community. I feel really rooted in a lineage of Black queer and larger QTPOC poetics that have existed outside of academic and other literary institutions. I’ve studied political science and philosophy, that’s where the power of language became really apparent to me: understanding just how powerful language is in constructing our imagination, some [parts of] culture being our shared imagination. Language is such a primary building block of our world, and the sonic is a critical component of poetry—it can alter the molecules in a room and enliven in a particular way.
And what do you think is the function of language during the climate crisis?
I’m of maybe two opposing minds about it. One thing I am trying to hold in my life and also, in this collection, is contradictions living right next to one another. The empire tries to flatten and make things very binary. We know we live in a really rich, full spectrum of experience, which involves a lot of what looks like contradiction. Poetry does a great job of holding a contradiction from a place of just being present with it and not necessarily trying to resolve it.
I’ve been reading The Spell of the Sensuous. It describes the ways humans have estranged ourselves from the natural world and dives into how language is part of that estrangement. Not the oral component of language, but the alphabet, the written word and how that was critical in moving humans away from actual participation with the world, critical to the mind-body separation that we claim to experience. Human estrangement from all other animal life and in the natural world makes us think we are these beings of a separate type of consciousness that are acting on the world instead of with the world.
The other mind understands the power of building our shared imagination, and language’s role in helping us actually figure out what is possible. I believe in the power of spell casting and prayer sonically shaping the world. Still, English I think is the most dangerous weapon that human beings have ever created and the only language I speak. I’m Yoruba Nigerian and my father never taught me his language, so I’m this monolingual speaker, who is a poet. My one medium is this tool that has been wielded against all of not just humanity, but the Earth too. But also, how do I use language to un-become? What are ways to reclaim the origins of language’s power without replicating some of what empire has done?
“I believe in the power of spell casting and prayer sonically shaping the world.”
Among queer people, there is a hesitancy to lean into the work of prayer because of how violent it has been against us. How does your work re-center queerness in spiritual and environmental engagement?
I grew up in the Baptist Church. My uncle’s a bishop; we went to his church every Sunday. Even when I left home and went to college, I was in my college’s gospel choir. I didn’t even awaken to a different type of faith and spirituality until much later. I felt really estranged from the idea of prayer because it was connected to like, talking to my white sky daddy, and I’m like, What the fuck is that? When I say prayer, it’s the power of language to shape reality. When I think about our relationship to the Earth and the route back to that connection being through the senses that we have, I imagine just a pure sensuality that we have in relationship to our environment. The organized religion of this empire can also sever folks’ relationship to the divine because it has appropriated the divine to mean something that’s really violent and harmful. I think the way that queer folks, despite the threats of a society that prioritizes hetero-patriarchy, still find routes to pleasure, defy those norms.
The body is a route back to the type of spirituality that reconnects us to all of life. I think queer folks have a little secret about how to make that return. It’s a defiance to want to lean into what is actually pleasurable. Through that defiance, I think that’s good practice for what it means to defy the empire and return to our real human connection to the rest of life. A lot of Black queer feminist, womanist thinkers have named pleasure politics as critical to healing an estrangement that’s been forced on us by the empire, its organized religions and its various supremacies.
“The Earth is not something to find—it’s something that we are.”
It seems like there’s a renaissance of environmental writing, especially among queer writers. What do you make of this connection?
I think we are present to the ways capitalism is determining our leaders’ approach to the climate crisis. We’re seeing the ways this pandemic has been approached and know the climate crisis will be approached in a similar way: the rich and powerful will be able to reconfigure their privatized society to escape the brunt of things and other folks will be left on their own.
I think a lot of Black queer folks see the collective solution is not going to come from this nation, but a much smaller way of organizing, being interdependent in ways that better guarantee our survival. I think folks are trying to reclaim our bodies and our labor from capitalism. I like to ground things in Black queerness, because when we think about this estrangement from our bodies, we must think about how American capitalism is grounded in the enslavement of Africans.
Our bodies are not just for labor, they are sites of pleasure. What type of society do we create when we center pleasure and care instead of extraction, knowing that what is being done to the Earth is what is also being done to our bodies: exploitation and extraction? I think that there is kinship that queer Black folks can more easily create to the Earth than we can to white patriarchy; an important key to circumventing what the empire might have ordained for us.
What advice would you share for Black folks, Black queer folks, who want to commune more intentionally with nature?
The Earth is not something to find—it’s something that we are. The distance we feel is artificial, imposed by white patriarchal constructions of the world and barriers imposed on our day-to-day environments. I don’t think the first invitation is to travel elsewhere; it’s to tap into the rhythms and cycles of one’s own body and senses. To really notice one’s sounds, smells, sights, tastes, and feelings. That noticing will lead elsewhere—even in a city, there’s the sky, the birds, the wind. Nature isn’t elsewhere, even if the most preserved parts are made inaccessible to many. How can we reawaken our senses to that relationship? How can we realign ourselves with the Earth—with life—and not the death cults of the various supremacies humans have created? These are urgent questions, as we share the same fate. I think those questions are present in Against Heaven, answered through an exploration of pleasure as an awakening to the senses, and that awakening being an opportunity to reconnect to our bodies—and the entire natural, sensuous world.