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Photo: (c) 2004 Teri Elam-Blanchard

I  N  T  E  R  V  I  E  W
Fall 2003

by Kim Michaels

Getting Cherryl Floyd-Miller to sit still for more than 30 minutes seems nearly impossible. And how could she sit still? She wears many hats: This summer, she completed a one-year directing internship with Actor's Express Theatre; she just had the world premiere of her play Settling Sophia with New World Stage Theatre in North Carolina; she's a co-organizer for INTERVALS, a new poetry series in Atlanta; her debut poetry collection UTTERANCE: A Museology of Kin, was released in September from Sadorian Publications; and she teaches creative writing courses at the Spruill Center for the Arts. I caught up with her on a day she when she wanted to take a walk along the Chattahoochee River. What follows is an excerpt from our discussion.



Whose work has influenced you?


This is always a difficult question for me because I think people are always expecting a single answer. The truth is, I have many muses and influences. I could name some of my favorites (Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Harryette Mullen, Jay Wright, Robert Hayden, Lorca ...), but the list would be so long. I like reading poets who seem to have found their own music who have arrived at the event in writing where sound and meaning and the order of words on the page show that someone is completely comfortable exploring his or her own language.


How has the nature of family influenced your work?


I've learned quite a bit about the nature of families in recent years. One of the most controversial things that I always say is that families are highly conspiratorial. What I mean by that is when it comes to most things, especially the truth, the family unit as a whole decides what will be spoken and unspoken, what will be regarded as the truth and what will be disregarded. In my family, for example, this conspiracy centers around silence. We have a habit of keeping secrets. We don't talk about the things that we need to talk to each other about. It's almost as if we prefer the pain to the confrontation. And we all do it without ever agreeing to do it. This kind of dynamic has certainly influenced me as a woman; but it also becomes an undercurrent articulated in my work. Family seems to always be at the root of what I write.


How does your family view your work as a writer?


I believe that my family knows that I'm a creative person ... but they have not always supported or understood that in me. Writing, which is not a lucrative profession by a long shot, is my life. But I feel that it often makes me an outsider. After many years of torturing myself about it, I am finally okay with that. What has become so ironic to me is that I come from a long tradition of creative people. My mother, a splendid craftsperson, can make anything that she can envision ... and on days when she's willing to admit it, she's an extraordinary writer ... but not for the public, mind you. My father is a gospel singer. He's got music in his bones and sings regionally with a group. But I doubt that he'd ever take it to the next level and pursue it as a life the way that I have. That would require that he call himself an artist, and at 50-something, he's still not ready internally for that. My brothers are both singers/musicians. My aunties are elaborate cooks and seamstresses who make clothing without patterns. It's in us all.


The funny thing is that I don't believe anyone sees what they do as being creative ... or even that they created me. So, in a weird sort of way, they don't see themselves. It's easier for me to be the weird artist than it is for anyone to admit that they create this way too.


Do you consider yourself a Southern writer? If so, what makes you a Southern writer?


Absolutely, I am a Southern writer. I was born, educated and still live in the South. It is filled with both traditions that I wish I could change and traditions that I'm extremely proud of. Much of my work across genres deals with characters or themes from the Southern tradition: foods, folklore, colloquialisms, genteel manner(isms), race/class systems, small towns ... And the way that I pursue writing, too, is very grounded in the approaches by some of the greatest storytellers who are also from the Southern tradition William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Lee Smith, Dori Sanders, Tina McElroy Ansa, Kathryn Stripling Byer ... these are people who are gifted in the art of storytelling. I recently was talking to Scott Pardue, whose theatre produced my first play, and he quoted something to me that was most profound and sticks with me: "The South is the conscience of the nation." I believe that. What occurs among us here in the South is what lies beneath the surface of cultures in so many other regions.


There is a poem in the collection which talks about making choices between your children and your work as an artist. Is this something that has affected you personally? Tell me more about what that struggle has been like.


Yes. Yes, yes. It's deeply personal. I think on some levels, there has always been the push by some people to make me choose between my children and my poems ... and I have refused. I get so frustrated at everyone's idea of what a mother should and should not do. The hugest example I can think of is when I left my husband, a family member said to me that I shouldn't be dating. Never mind that my ex-husband started dating another woman before I left him and that he was still enjoying that privilege. I doubt very seriously that it ever occurred to anyone to give him the same warning. And I doubt that any man I know has ever been asked to choose between a job or an art and his children. It disturbs me.


Does music influence your work?


Some people who create music are some of the greatest poets I know. John Coltrane. Etta James. India.Arie. Cassandra Wilson. Dianne Reeves. Billy Joel. James Taylor. Ledisi. Music heavily influences my work. I will go back to a quote here by Carlos Santana: "Music alters the molecular structure of the listener." That's what I'm reaching for with my work. I want the words that make the reader changed or new.


Since you write across genres, I'd like to talk about your work outside of poetry. I know that you're a playwright and that you've published short fiction. What was it like to transition to other genres?


I didn't intend to write across genres, really. For so long at least 20 years I was strictly a poet. I didn't want to write anything else. But that assumes that I'm in control of this thing. That I chose writing. I didn't; it chose me. One Christmas, I was spending time with my children and writing poems. I noticed the words were rhymed (something unusual for me) and came with a tune in my head. I sang them out loud, and pretty soon, the kids joined in. I stepped back for a moment and listened to them singing the thing that I'd just created and it hit me: Voice is something that can't be shut inside a box. I knew that a lifetime of poetry had just escalated in literary terms to something infinite and unconfined to more than one set way of capturing my world.


That one song became about 20. I started writing short fiction. I dusted off a play I'd written in college and began to rewrite it. And two winters ago, I completed a novel. I haven't looked back. Poetry is my first love and my base, it is the way I do language, but I'm a writer ... period, which means (as long as I understand structure) I can write in any genre I want.


Do you consider yourself a renaissance writer?

The word renaissance resonates with people who consider themselves African-American writers for many reasons. Mostly, it connects us to an era when black writers thrived in Harlem, New York and in other places in the world like Paris. It gives us hope that we can tell our stories on our own terms. Some people believe we are in a new renaissance in black writing. If by that they mean that we can now write whatever we want without fear of alienating an audience, that we are not restricted to certain subject matters or styles, then yes, I am a renaissance writer. I want to write something powerful in many genres and then settle down into one in which I write most of the time. But I sometimes really hate labels. They set you up to be kept in a box. Even if you're trying to define something for yourself, it opens the door for others to limit you. And what I want to be true about myself is that I am a writer who doesn't cave to those limits.

Want another dose? See Cherryl's Bad Girls Press interview.

Hunger begins at home. ~Cherryl Floyd-Miller