Ancestors and Inspiration: An Interview with Akua Lezli Hope

Akua Lezli Hope is one of our accomplished and inspiring members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. She’s the author of the award-winning collection  Embouchure, Poems on Jazz and Other Musics, published by ArtFarm Press in 1995. She is a founding member of the Black Writers Union and the New Renaissance Writers Guild, and had previously served as an Area Coordinator for Amnesty International. Her forthcoming collection Them Gone won  Red Paint Hill Publishing’s  2015 Editor’s Prize.  Hope won the 2015 Science Fiction Poetry Association Short Poem Award for  “Metis Emits.” She has her website at http://www.akualezlihope.com/
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An African-American artist, poet and writer, she holds degrees in psychology, journalism, and business from her studies at Williams College and Columbia University. A third-generation New Yorker, Akua Lezli Hope was born in Manhattan with roots in the South Bronx and Queens. She’s had a lifelong love affair with science fiction, and her speculative poetry was published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Strange Horizons, Eye to the Telescope and elsewhere. She’s also been featured in Sisterfire, an anthology of Black Womanist fiction and poetry (HarperPerennial), Erotique Noire/Black Erotica (Doubleday/Anchor), and Confirmation, an anthology of African-American women writers (Quill/Morrow). Her story, The Becoming is included in Dark Matter: The Anthology of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction by Black Writers— a New York Times notable book when it was first published. You can also find her work in The 100 Best African American Poems;Too Much Boogie, Erotic Remixes of the Dirty  Blues, Rattle, The Killens Review, Breath and Shadow, Stone Canoe, Three Coyotes, The Year’s Best Writing, and Writer’s Digest Guide.
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Among her other literary distinctions, Akua Lezli Hope won a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as a Ragdale U. S.-Africa Fellowship. She has twice won an Artists Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts (1987, 2003).

 As a performer and speaker, she has given over 100 readings to audiences in colleges, prisons, parks, museums, restaurants and bars.Her artistic background includes music as both a vocalist and a saxophone player, and hand paper-making, as well as sculpture and glasswork.  In 2005, she became a paraplegic from transverse myelitis, a rare idiopathic auto-immune disease, and is currently developing a paratransit nonprofit so that she and others may get around in her small town.

We’re honored to have her as a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, where she is also an active volunteer who happily shares her verse, ideas, and perspective with us, and she recently took time out generously to answer a few questions for SPECPO and our readers:


Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a writer? What was one of the hardest things for you to learn?
 

I always created with words, from before I was literate. The first born of the third generation on my mother’s side, the third of the the third generation in  on my father’s, I was always around adults who spoke to me, told me stories, taught me songs. I dictated my first poems to my mother who wrote them and read them back to me. The most difficult thing for me to learn was to overcome my impatience — impatience with accomplishing an envisioned effect or evocation.

When are you most satisfied with a poem?
I am most satisfied when a poem works on several levels, when it sings, rings, plays the changes, and invokes the transcendent.
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What’s a poem you usually suggest for a reader who wants to read you for the very first time?

It depends on the reader. I possess a multiplicity of identities, some of which remain unintegrated and I write from those many selves.

What’s been your family’s response to your path as a writer?

My parents were encouraging, supportive and enthusiastic. It was their brown paper bag jacketed books that I first read, after exhausting the slight children’s literature of my era. My father’s gorgeously illustrated  story books  (George Macdonald) were a delight  I remember getting their permission, as required by the library and school to read Animal Farm, Brave New World and 1984 in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades. My father gave me the gift of a subscription to Analog when I was 12, one of my all-time favorite gifts. My father’s teacher and neighbor was the poet Countee Cullen. As a  young adult, they came to every reading I invited them to, in New York City. They are departed, now but I learned that they kept newspaper clippings.
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Who do you look up to as your literary heroes and heroines?

There are so many writers I admire and each era of my journey there are new ones — Derek Walcott,  Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anna Ahkmatova, Pablo Neruda, Osip Mandlestam, Czeslaw Milosv, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, Robert Hayden, Madeline L’Engle, Philip K. Dick, Emily Dickinson, Audre Lorde, Ursula LeGuin, Louis May Alcott, Neil Gaiman,come to mind, but if I write this tomorrow, I’ll have another list.

What was the impetus for Them Gone?

The need to bear witness to my people and their unsung lives of determination, diligence and quiet heroism. All four of my grandparents came to America, developed businesses, raised children, sent some to war, sent some to college. All their children were literate and eloquent, as they were. They gave me a feather nest and wings of love and understanding. I didn’t see this depicted in the over culture so I wanted to do some praise singing and thanksgiving for the heartache and the backbreaking they went through, that I and my siblings and cousins could be.

Do you have any poetry projects you really hope to take on in the next few years?

Yes. I won’t elucidate because I’m a bit superstitious about announcing what is not yet done. I have 4 chapbooks making the rounds —Being Here, Health Care, Papermaking and shifting titled one of speculative poetry and there’s a fourth one I wanted to self publish as an E-book on Crocheting but I can’t afford  the cost of poetry encoding.

What’s your favorite music to listen to as you write?

That varies a lot. It depends on my mood and what I’m writing. I studied the violin, cello and bassoon, sang in several youth choirs and graduated form a music program in high school. After grad school I bought a tenor sax and took lessons. In adulthood I took voice lessons and engaged an Italian tutor so I could sing my favorite arias. I was a dj in college and in grad school and have accumulated more than 3,000 records, and hundreds of CDs. Most of these are jazz.

I am just figuring out streaming, as I like big full sound through the air.  Lately I’ve been listening to my favorite anime music though it’s disrupted writing as I decided to try to learn the songs. Indigenous/world music, sometimes Britten when it’s not jazz.
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If you could have any creature, fantastic or real, for a traveling companion, what would it be?

I don’t want a creature, who if fully endowed, would have it’s own multi-sensate journey and paths to follow. I remember in a Delaney book how some guys went hunting and shot these bird things and shot was actually a sensory harpoon, so they  were hooked to them and went on the creatures journey, felling what they felt. Ah! yes in Avatar,  the sensate braid, plugged you into the horse and the bird. So I want the ability to travel and connect in that way, to plug into the greater realm, beyond the limits of my singular physicality.

Coffee or Tea?

Neither. I can’t do caffeine anymore. I make my own boiled water concoctions of chopped ginger, leaves from the yard when they grow, cinnamon sticks, cloves, sometimes ginseng, sometimes apple cider, squeezed citrus, juicerator-ed carrots, apples, beets.

What’s your preferred writing space?
There are two – in bed and, as now, at a tiny place on my table on my computer.We often talk about how a poet gets started, but what keeps you going?

Duty, purpose, that’s why I’m here, history, serving the ancestors. So many strived and died for me to be here, so the least I can do, is persist and write.

What’s your advice for beginning writers who want to write poetry?

Read and write, then read some more and write some more, daily. Our technology has made both so easy, so much easier than it ever has been to access books, information, instruction and example. It is so easy to encode and record one’s arrangements of words and thoughts.

So write and read.
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