Abdul Ali: How did your title come to you? It's actually quite clever and appropriate..."Whiskey in the Garden of Eden." It's a dramatic incongruity.
Sarah Browning: Thank you. The title comes from a poem in the book called, “Things They Never Tell You.” The poem asks, “Was there whiskey in the garden – / heat to cool / the blood that calls / to the blue wing at the edge of the sky?”
So whiskey is both the transgressive (the bad girl in the garden) and a tonic to dampen down the longing, the blue wing. The poem concludes:
There is that apple.
They don’t say
how long Eve dreamed
– her belly taut with the tang of it –
before she took.
At the time I wrote the poem, I was preoccupied with the question of women’s ambition and longing. I think we have a very complicated relationship to these things in our society – witness the really hateful misogyny so often directed at women who are ambitious or sexually assertive. In those years I was asking myself: What is it OK to want? I come from a family that emphasized putting others first, which is a good thing, of course, but it meant that it didn’t feel alright to want things for myself. I’m doing a lot better with this now, thanks in part to writing about it.
As an aside, I should note that titles are very hard for me in general. The book had four or five as a manuscript and I lately came across a page in a notebook on which I tried out another 15 or 20 options. I’m glad the final choice is a hit.
Abdul Ali: You sensitively deal with themes ranging from feeling like an outsider moving into a "Chocolate City" and being a political activist. Can you speak on the different voices that you assume in this work?
Sarah Browning: The fact is that I always write from who I am, we all do. I try to write from the experience as honestly as I can.
I was born into an activist family and grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the late 60s and early 70s. It was a time of war and intense social change. The neighborhood was mixed, racially and by social class. So, unlike some white people, who grow up without an awareness of their race, I have always been acutely aware of the fact that I am white and middle class (my father was an academic, my mother a social worker and then a health administrator). And of the privileges that my skin color afford me. I studied American social history in college and have worked as a community organizer in public housing and as a political organizer. So I know our history and am aware of the fact that social forces are always present in all our human interactions. A poem in the book about an encounter with a young Black man when I was 13 or so says “so much / of our history is in this moment / … 400 years that brought us to this street.”
When I moved to DC, I had lived in a very monochromatic part of Massachusetts for several years and so I was at first acutely aware of my race. And I bought a house in Petworth, a predominantly African-American neighborhood. By doing so, I am contributing to the gentrification of the city and of Petworth. I have many conflicted feelings about it: On the one hand, it is outrageous that housing prices have climbed so high that people who grew up in Petworth can’t afford to buy a house here. That long-time DC residents are being forced out of the city. On the other hand, I don’t want to live in an all-white neighborhood and I couldn’t afford to buy a house in one even if I wanted to. So I bought here. I want to live in a vibrant, diverse city, where people of all races, ethnicities, and social classes live side by side and enrich each other’s lives. That’s what I want for my child. We’ll have to work hard to make that happen and it may be too late. I don’t know.
In the poems I try to be truthful about the complexity of these issues – how they feel, how they are lived (by me, that is; of course they are lived very differently by others). As the great Sekou Sundiata, who we so sadly lost last week, said, these are questions of the first person plural; that is, they are deeply personal issues that implicate each of us personally and they are public issues as well. I try to hang out at that intersection as much as possible.
Abdul Ali: How long did it take you to complete this book? What was your hardest challenge finishing this work?
Sarah Browning: Oy – I knew someone would ask this question eventually. This is my first book of poems. I started writing seriously about 15 years ago and almost right away began publishing poems in literary journals. I first put a manuscript together 10 years ago. It bears very little resemblance to Whiskey in the Garden of Eden – just a handful of poems remain from that first version. I sent it to the ridiculous first-book prizes out there off and on (spending a ton on copying and postage costs, entry fees…), all the while revising and renaming. I had a baby. I tore the manuscript apart and sat on it for a year. Friends made very helpful suggestions on structuring it. And finally, I was fortunate enough to be approached by the folks at the Word Works, who asked me if I had a manuscript and then were kind enough to decide to publish it.
So the challenge of finding a publisher was significant. But more importantly, the poems about race, and especially about how race often played itself out on the streets of my childhood, were very difficult to write, very vulnerable, very scary (more on this below). It took me many, many years and drafts to write and complete these poems and to feel OK about putting them out in the world. And then they needed to find their right place within the book. When I finally figured out their position – in the second section called “Some Borders,” after a first section of poems written about Washington, DC, the war, raising a child in these circumstances – I realized that the book was at last done, and ready to be launched.
Abdul Ali: What sustains your activism?
Sarah Browning: That I am not alone. I find community in the other spectacular poet-activists here in DC who I am privileged to call friends, companions, inspiration. I find community in the poets I read – from Walt Whitman to June Jordan to Muriel Rukeyser to Pablo Neruda to our living contemporary writers. And I know our history: that all the great improvements to our society have come as a result of social movements: the right to vote – for women and people of color; the 40-hour work week; the end to the Vietnam War. We have a long way to go but only we can take us there, the poets and the activists. As Paulo Freire says, we make the way by walking.
Abdul Ali: Your poem "The Beautiful African American Workshop Leader Tells Us to Write About Difference" is probably one of your most vulnerable poems. You even write in all italics. Can you expand on why you made that choice? And how you navigate feeling different in the various spaces you travel through in the DC area?
Sarah Browning: The poem relates an experience I had when I was probably 6 or 7, of older Black girls throwing rocks at my friend and me as we walked home from the library, holding hands. My friend was Black and I am, obviously, white. The girls were giving my friend, who I call Robin in the poem, a hard time for being friends with a white girl. They called me a honky bitch. This was not an isolated incident but because I was so young it seared itself on my consciousness.
I tried to write about this experience for many years. But it made me very uneasy. And still does. It was a very specific historical moment – it would have been about 1969 or 1970: the height of the Black Power Movement, of separatism. And a time when Black people were feeling empowered to express their very legitimate anger at a deeply, malevolently racist society. Of course two six-year-old girls are never an appropriate target for anger, but that’s often how things work: suppressed anger explodes and the target hardly matters. Little kids, of course, don’t understand these things and there was very little discussion in my household about that anger and that threat of violence. We basically pretended it wasn’t going on.
There is a lot of silence from white people about race. Because these stories are a part of my experience of race (though only a part – I had close Black friends all through my childhood and spent many hours of warmth and grace with them and their families), I felt that it was important to write about them. But we do still live in a very racist society and I didn’t want to give fodder to the racists by telling these stories in a cavalier manner. And I certainly didn’t want to equate my experience with that of Black children who face a daily, grinding racism – from the media, popular culture, and our leaders, as well as in personal encounters from an early age. As Ethelbert Miller pointed out when we talked about this, I could easily escape this tension by leaving the city, going elsewhere, visiting relatives; while Black people live with a permanent unease and uncertainty.
So I wanted to be very careful in the way that I presented these poems. I wrote this particular poem dozens of times, trying to get it right. One of the times I wrote it, I was the only white person in a writing workshop at a conference Black Voices for Peace had organized. The workshop leader really did give us this exercise, to write about the first time we learned about difference. I wrote the story of the girls and my friend Robin, but didn’t get up and read what I’d written. Later I wrote about the uneasiness I had felt writing the story in that setting. One of the challenges with these poems was how to balance the child voice – the direct relating of the experience itself – with the adult voice of understanding what was going on. I finally realized that the title could provide that framing adult perspective. So the whole poem, the story itself, is in italics, as being remembered by the adult self, in a self-aware act of writing.
I was still wrestling with this material when I moved to DC and it has been in discussion with several writer-activists (most particularly E. Ethelbert Miller, as I mentioned before, Yael Flusberg, Michele Elliott, Becky Thompson, and Reuben Jackson) that I was able to come unstuck. I am very grateful to them and to all the other writers and activists in this city – Black, white, Latino, Asian – who have encouraged me to write honestly about race. It’s scary, but I know it is worth it. We only make progress by taking risks and talking with one another honestly, across our differences and in the presence of our similarities. I know that poetry can reach across these chasms, humanize us for one another. If we open ourselves to it. In these desperate times, I feel we don’t have a choice. We have to choose poetry.