Chet’la Sebree

Intertextual Poetics

In October 2019, I traveled to the University of Potsdam for the Symposium on African American Worldmaking in the Long Nineteenth Century to present on research I’d conducted for my poetry collection, Mistress. The collection unfolds via a cross-generational conversation about Black women’s experiences through the imagined voices of Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who gave birth to at least six of Thomas Jefferson’s children, and a contemporary speaker who shares my name.

While in Potsdam, I delivered a collaborative presentation called the Art of Interpretation, with scholar and public historian Niya Bates, about the research for Mistress. While in Potsdam, I was reunited with Hannah Spahn, who had been in residence with me at the International Center for Jefferson Studies where I conducted research, at the symposium organized by her and Nicole Waller. While in Potsdam, I was working on my second book Field Study, which became a book-length lyric examining how racism, sexism, and colorism impact the way one Black woman sees herself and desires others through personal reflections and research. While in Potsdam, I met Dirk Wiemann, who offered, in a talk on the differences between “worlding” and “worldmaking,” that “the new world was built on the ruins of what had been unmade, destroyed,” which inspired a new thread about personal ruins in Field Study. While in Potsdam, I met Johanna Heide, who invited me back to Germany in November 2022 to participate in the Minor Cosmopolitan Assembly at Silent Green in Berlin, where I was able to not only rejoin Niya in an expanded conversation about Art & the Archive, but able to read my poetry.

Figure 1&2: Covers of Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019) and Field Study (New York: FSG Originals, 2021). 

I’ve included this list of linkages not only to show what brought me to the Minor Cosmopolitan Assembly’s Poetry Night but to also demonstrate how I build worlds in my poetics. My process is experiential, associative, and intertextual, which I hope renders the language in my work visceral for my readers. During the Poetry Night, I read selections from both Mistress and Field Study, and I hope some of what I’ll share here will help transport readers back into that night of readings and performance.

From Mistress, I’ll share two poems: the first of which is “Paper Epithets, December 1802.” In the poem, the imagined voice of Sally Hemings responds to the way her contemporaries discussed her utilizing language from newspaper articles. “Paper Epithets” explores how no one ever sees Hemings for who she really is.

I often read this poem to underscore not only how distorted her rendering was in nineteenth century newspapers but to encourage readers and audiences to acknowledge that my work is also a distortion. As much as I want to explore Hemings’ legacy, I recognize the potential violence of persona poetry, which steps into the imagined voice of someone other than the writer of the poems, and its capacity to continue to obfuscate someone’s true identity. I believe this reality is underscored through the video recording I’ve provided of the poem, as viewers witness me read it in my modern context—in my academic office a world away from the world in which Hemings was enslaved. 

Figure 3: Video recording of “Paper Epithets, December 1802,” by Chet’la Sebree © 2023.

Figure 4: “Paper Epithets, December 1802” from Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019)

The second poem I’ve included from Mistress is “Nightingale of America.” In the poem, the contemporary speaker, Chet’la, explores the ways in which her and Hemings’ lives move toward and away from each others’—how they’ve both traveled abroad, how they’ve both been in undesirable situations with men, and how they’ve both lost children. In this way, the contemporary speaker acknowledges how their stories, while separated by both time and circumstance, are interrelated. 

Figure 5: Audio recording of “Nightingale of America,” by Chet’la Sebree © 2023.

Figure 6: “Nightingale of America” from Chet’la Sebree’s Mistress (Kalamazoo, MI: New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2019).

Both “Paper Epithets, December 1802” and “Nightingale of America” demonstrate how both Hemings and the contemporary speaker have been silenced or misrepresented by history or their experiences, unable to be fully present. Later in Mistress— in a poem called “Je Suis Sally, August 2017”—Hemings, however, beseeches the contemporary Chet’la to find her own way forward, to take up space, to reject the silencing. At the close of writing Mistress, the words I penned in Hemings’ voice felt like a call to action that I, the writer of the poem, wanted to answer. I tried to do just that in Field Study.

When people ask if I am the contemporary speaker in Mistress or the speaker of Field Study, I tell them the truest thing I can say is that the Chet’la speaker in Mistress is finally taking up the space, the space that Sally invites her to step into, in Field Study. In the latter, the speaker is ready to ask questions, to explore, and to make new, as she conducts an anthropological, observational study of her life and relationships in conversation with pop culture characters, philosophers, poets, friends, family, and scholars like bell hooks, Aira Jackson-Sams, Audre Lorde, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Olivia Pope, and Dirk Wiemann.

Figure 7: Some of the books used in the research and writing of Field Study.

In the opening of Field Study, the speaker declares: “I’m not good a small talk.” And, from there, she delves into her investigation—one in which she must look back in order to look forward.

Links above are excerpts from Field Study published online at the following:

Lit Hub: https://lithub.com/a-poem-by-chetla-sebree/ 

The New Republic: https://newrepublic.com/article/161600/emfield-studyem 

The Yale Review: https://yalereview.org/article/whole 

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