At the Same we love connecting readers with authors, and, today, we interviewed poet, Carla Cherry. We’re excited to introduce her book Honeysuckle Me with readers around the world!
the Same: Tell us about yourself!
Carla Cherry: I am a 46-year-old English teacher and poet from the Bronx, New York. I am the great-great granddaughter of slaves from North Carolina and Kentucky. The first of my maternal grandmother’s grandchildren to graduate from college. Alumna of Spelman College, New York University, and Lehman College. Mother of an adult son who is an aspiring writer. A nostalgic fan of hip hop culture. Student of Chicago-style stepping. A restaurant-loving vegan who has at least one bookshelf in every room of my apartment.
tS: Tell us about your journey to becoming an author. How did you come to be a writer? Have you always wanted to write?
CC: From an early age, I was immersed in narratives. I would spend hours looking through my baby book and family photo albums, and asked my parents to tell me the stories behind the pictures. My parents told my sister and me stories about our grandparents’ sojourn to New York City from the South, how my great-grandmother created the quilt we sat on at family picnics, and the pranks my parents and their siblings played on each other.
My mother taught me how to read when I was two and a half years old. She read to my sister and I before bedtime, and my parents always surrounded us with literature. Daddy used to take my sister and I to the Black Liberation Bookstore on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, so we could buy books. I found Nikki Giovanni’s ego-tripping and other poems for young people, and fell in love with her poem “Ego Tripping”. I began writing my own poems, and my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Harriet Pine, encouraged me. On the last day of school that year, she gave me my first diary. I made several booklets of my poems, with covers in sparkling glitter.
One year, my father helped organize a book fair at the Harlem School of the Arts where I studied piano and flute, and he let me speak to author Brenda Wilkinson on the phone! I was floored. And when I found my father’s old typewriter, I called myself a writer and wrote the beginnings of a novel about a girl named Martine. Those pages are probably part of a landfill now.
I was most inspired to become a published poet in 2005. My father died after a long battle with multiple myeloma. My cousin Alice came to his wake and gave me a copy of her book of poetry, Up Close and Personal. I propped it up on one of my bookshelves, and retreated into mourning. Overcome with grief and job-related stress, I began to eat so voraciously, I developed an eating disorder and acid-reflux disease. The acid affected my ability to speak, so I went to an otolaryngologist who helped me create an alkaline diet. After I healed, I was determined to never self-harm again, and I returned to my healthiest outlets: reading and writing. I read Alice’s book of poetry, sifted through my old notebooks, compiled all the poems I had ever written, and chose the ones I wanted to polish. I wrote more poems in response to events in my personal life and the outside world. I took a poetry workshop at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on the Upper West Side with poet Jacqueline Johnson, and another workshop in the Bronx with poet Cecily Parks. Both women pushed me to move away from writing poems featuring speakers that mostly told stories and develop my imagery.
When I became more confident about my writing, I submitted a poem I wrote about my niece to Anderbo, and “Niece” was accepted! Afterwards, I spent three years revising and writing poems until I had162 pages of poems and a short story. I spent several months investigating print-on-demand publishers until I came across Wasteland Press. I sent in the manuscript for what became my first book, Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings. Now here I am, with three books of poetry.
tS: Have you ever had to struggle for your voice to be heard? Tell us about that.
CC: I never struggled to voice my opinion as a student, but I struggled to be confident about my voice as a writer. When I released Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings in 2008, my best friend, Dr. Tanya Manning-Yarde, invited me to go with her to an extremely popular open mic in Manhattan, Urban Juke Joint, and I read a couple of poems that the audience received very well. On other nights that I attended, there were dynamic spoken-word poets who had their work memorized, infused singing and dancing into their performances, and the crowd would cheer, whistle, and stomp in response. I thought to myself, “I can’t do that!” I lost confidence in myself, and stopped going to open mics on a regular basis.
However, as I continued to write poetry, I still felt the desire to share it. Writing for the sake of personal fulfillment has its place, but part of the joy of artistry is sharing it. In 2014, I was earning my second master’s degree at Lehman College at the City University of New York, and saw a flyer on campus for their literary journal, Obscura. They published several of my poems. Feeling more confident, I submitted poems to print and online literary journals such as Eunoia Review, Random Sample Review, and MemoryHouse magazine, and I now have about 20 poems published in various publications.
In 2015, I started performing poems at open mics again. After I performed my poem “Perceptions” at her open mic, Stark Reality Open Mic, the hostess, Viviana Duncan invited me to be the featured poet at her August 2015 open mic. In 2016, Underground Books sponsored a poetry contest for their Jackie Robinson Poetry Day, and I won first prize that year for my poem about jazz, “Bits and Pieces”, and I won second prize this year.
As the next step in developing my confidence, I recruited Tanya to do a poetry showcase and book signing with me at New York City’s famed Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I told her that she was going to have to publish her book of poetry that she had put aside while she dedicated her life to be a wife and full-time mother. She published Every Watering Word through Wasteland Press, and our showcase on October 28, 2017 was fantastic! My cousin, jazz percussionist Eric McPherson, and his friends, saxophonist Abraham Burton and bassist John Hebert, provided musical accompaniment, and the audience loved it. We sold dozens of our books that night and were able to give hundreds of dollars to organizations such as The Innocence Project and Hassan’s Place, which works with autistic children and their families.
Doing the showcase demonstrated to both of us the power of owning your voice, that dedication to producing good work will result in people supporting you, and you can help other people through the artistic process.
tS: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
CC: When I was four years old, my parents bought me a subscription to Ebony Jr. magazine, which featured many articles about black history and interviews of black professionals and entertainers that I spent hours reading. I was able to see myself and African-American people in a positive light through the printed word, and the pride it evoked in me taught me the power of written language. Although I attended solid elementary and secondary schools, it was rare for us to be taught anything about African and African-American contributions to science, technology, mathematics, history, literature, or music. My early readings and the scholarship of luminaries such as Ivan Van Sertima, Paula Giddings, and John Hope Franklin gave me the foundation to debunk the myths of race as I encountered them in the classroom, the workplace, and beyond.
tS: What was your favorite book as a young girl?
CC: Peaches by Dindga McCannon, a beautifully written coming-of-age story of an adolescent girl in Harlem, was my favorite.
tS: Which female authors have most influenced you as a writer?
CC: Many female authors influenced my love of storytelling, and they are responsible for my tendency towards writing narrative poetry. As a child, I loved Brenda Wilkinson’s novels Ludell and Ludell and Willie. I adored Alice Childress’s novels, A Short Walk, Rainbow Jordan, and A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich. Toni Morrison became my favorite author, especially because of The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, and Beloved. I loved Maya Angelou also. I adored I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together in My Name, Singing and Swinging and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas. Louise Meriwether’s Daddy Was a Numbers Runner was another favorite, as were Rosa Guy’s novels The Friends, Ruby, and Edith Jackson.
As an undergraduate, my professor Dr. Michael Gomez introduced me to Maryse Conde. I loved her novels Segu and I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.
I loved Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah, and Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with The Pearl Earring.
Sonia Sanchez also influenced my poetry. I loved Shake Loose My Skin. She has a masterful way of creating relatable speakers and the imagery in her poems is incredible.
tS: Tell us about one female author we may not have heard of whom you think we ought to read.
CC: I recently came across Imani Cezanne’s poetry; she’s an awesome spoken word poet. My favorites are “Angry Black Woman” and “#flyingwhileblack”. Please check her out!
tS: Tell us about your books.
CC: My latest book, my third, Honeysuckle Me, is a collection of love poems—love of dancing, romantic love, a teacher’s love for her students, a woman’s love for and with a man, and the complicated, often unrequited love I have for this country.
tS: Tell us about the process of writing your books.
CC:Honeysuckle Me emanated from two sources of inspiration: poet Robert Lee Brewer and my poetry mentor, spoken-word poet and writer, Rainmaker. Robert has a blog, Poetic Asides, in Writer’s Digest, and I participated in his April 2017 Poem-a-day Challenge. During this past spring and summer, I did a series of workshops with Rainmaker. As I reviewed the poems I was writing, I noticed that love was a common theme, so I decided to create a book of my twenty favorites.
I read and revised each poem multiple times, ensuring that each word, line break, punctuation mark, or image served its best purpose, whether it was to help the reader visualize something, create a sense of rhythm, or convey the theme. I had several people read the poems and used their feedback to revise the poems again until it felt as if there was nothing else I could do to make them speak to my audience.
tS: Did writing your book change you as a woman? What did you learn?
CC: Writing Honeysuckle Me didn’t change me as a woman, but was another step in my journey towards genuine self-acceptance. I spent most of my life being intimidated by other people I perceived as more accomplished, more attractive, and talented than me. I addressed this lifelong wrangling in a poem I wrote in my thirties, titled “Elusive I” that appears in Gnat Feathers and Butterfly Wings:
“i have spent half my life
figuring out why
i always liked looking in windows
more than mirrors”
I have learned that self-acceptance is paramount, especially for women who are duty-bound to take care of other people. If you don’t love yourself and take time to nourish and use the gifts God gave you, you don’t live a full life. I am so glad that I write. It allows me to attune with myself, and in turn, connect with other people. With that end in mind, my friend Tanya and I are doing a second showcase and book signing at Adinkra House in Montclair, New Jersey on the evening of Saturday, January 6, 2018.
If you’re in the area, and enjoy poetry and music, tickets are available through Eventbrite!
If you enjoyed getting to know Carla as much as we did, make sure to connect with her on social media and online!