For Melania Luisa Marte, Poems Are for Spellcasting

2 months ago 53

If ever there was a poetry collection you yearn to viscerally sink your teeth into, as if biting into a freshly ripe mango, it’s Melania Luisa Marte’s Plantains And Our Becoming. Even the cover is stunning, but it’s the poems within that unrestrainedly pulse with life, joy, rage, and love. It’s a book grown and nurtured in a lush Caribbean garden, both real and ancestral, that tracks the path of an Afro-Latina embracing her experience as a Black woman, daughter, and granddaughter, in all its complicated and wondrous beauty.

Marte, a NYC native who currently splits her time between Dallas, Texas, and her parents’ homeland, the Dominican Republic, is already a widely celebrated performance poet who has dominated slam stages across the country and whose poem “Afro-Latina” was featured on Instagram’s IG TV. Plantains And Our Becoming is the follow up to her debut collection, MELA, which came out in 2018. While Marte continues to call out the violent anti-Black racism that permeates Latinx culture, countries, and spaces, her current collection is also deeply personal and tied to the Dominican Republic. She stewards the land as her abuela did, a place where she grows the comida and medicina (oftentimes both) those of us in the Caribbean diaspora, and even on the islands themselves, have lost connection to. In both the garden and on the page, Marte brings us back into the Earth and plants her poems verdantly within us.

It was a delight to email with Marte about her new book, her love for Black women, and how poetry can embody true magic.

Angela María Spring: Felicidades, what an earth-shaking debut collection! Plantains And Our Becoming is an invitation to witness your a powerful journey, as an Afro-Latina and a daughter of immigrants; as a Black woman and mother; and also allows us into your sacred homes of NYC and the Dominican Republic. There is so much happening here, it’s astounding, we get to see a poet’s becoming and that is rare, precious thing. Can you tell us a little about the path to how these poems became a book?

Melania Luisa Marte: What a generous and thoughtful compliment! Thank you! I honestly think this collection came from one burning question that took on many different forms. I was sitting on my porch in Bonao looking out at the plantains and the mountainside. My partner and I had been farming the land for weeks and that morning the wind was flowing. The plants looked so peaceful which to me was so profound considering many of them had just been replanted, moved around on the land to make space for their siblings, and even more worrisome just days before a storm had also hit us. And yet, they were unfazed. I was like, THAT. That’s what I want to write about. That’s what I need and maybe all of us need. A reminder of “how we green things made it.” I want that. I want to be so present and certain in my survival that nothing and no one can shake me. I want to write something that reminds me, reminds us of why we need our roots, our guides, our faith. They all keep us sturdy and steady as we frolic towards our future. And so each poem I wrote was with that in mind.  

Knowing that we would have to go back in time but we would get to that place where rest, joy, and love find us whole and becoming.  

AMS: What did you find to be your biggest challenge focusing your work on the page, shaping it into a book, versus writing for and performing on the stage? And what did you discover is joyful about focusing on the page?

MLM: From 2016 to the present, I had been spending months back and forth between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. trying to answer many questions that would come up in my writing. Many of the poems felt like lists, archival notes, random phrases, and scribblings from family and friends. My biggest challenge was how to keep my essence while shape shifting throughout the collection and staying true to the story I wanted to tell. I definitely challenged myself more than I usually do for performance poems, but I do feel that reading my poems aloud as I wrote helped me not lose that spark that makes poetry so beautiful. I’m not sure if it’s something I can easily describe but I just know the poem is where it needs to be when I read it aloud. I know the slam poets will feel me on this. LOL. 

AMS: You have a stunning blurb from Elizabeth Acevedo on your advanced reader copy and it underscores just how influential the school of Afro-Dominican diaspora poetry is with poets like Acevedo, Roberto Carlos García, Yesenia Montilla, and Jasminne Mendez. I think you all are doing some of the most important work in contemporary poetry today and I’d love to hear you speak a little on your experience being a part of such a powerful community and how it influences/has influenced your own writing.

MLM: I love poetry. If I can be known for that one thing, then I am a happy camper. I don’t take lightly how many folks have championed my work and gifted me opportunities to share my poetry and stories. And I am always super grateful for Elizabeth Acevedo, and other women writers like Yesika Salgado, Elisabet Velazquez, and my Dallas Poetry Slam mentor, Sherrie Zantea, who from jump helped me see the potential in my writing and inspired me to polish and give my best to poetry and believe in my words. 

AMS: Plantains and Our Becoming has three very distinct sections, each containing their own narrative and logic, but I was particularly struck by the last section, which is truly a celebration of love in all its forms, admiration for not only a lover and for the self, for one’s own Black body, but also includes odes to so many wonderful Black women, whether they’re friends or artists or writers. But that love already begins to take full shape in the first section with the poem “Abuelita’s Garden” and I just wanted to stay there forever. It’s such a beautiful poem, full of so much earth, culture, tradition and belonging. The line “We are all becoming our best greenest thing,” echoes in the third section’s poem, “Thank You, Toni,” with the line, “For writing me back to Earth.” Can you speak a little about the importance of these women for you and why love and your writing for you are so intimately tied to the land, how this book is actually your own garden offering?

MLM: I love being a woman and I love women. It is honestly the highest honor to get to be a Black woman in this lifetime and hopefully in the next one too. It is my greatest accomplishment.  I once wrote that in a post once on social media and some white man commented and said, “that’s a really low bar to set for yourself.” And I laughed. I replied, “how you gon’ hate outside the club, if you can’t even get in.” I can literally cackle for hours when I think about it because being a Black woman is so powerful that your very existence provokes people. That just drives me to make it my mission to remind women and young girls of how powerful they are. In this collection, I really wanted to pay homage to all the women in my life who remind me of how blessed and gifted I am and how important it is to “keep that thang on you,” and by “thang” I mean faith, perseverance, confidence in the evergreen garden in you. So yes, haha. We can definitely call this my own garden offering. 

AMS: I think for those of us in the U.S. whose parents come from the Caribbean or Central/South America, we grow up being told by everyone around us that this country is where we are supposed to learn how to belong but see that everywhere, especially for Afro-Latinx people, that it’s not true. And Latinidad is another front for the racism/colorism of Latin America, both of which perpetrate as much anti-Blackness as the United States. But you carved out your own path and moved back to your parents’ home, the Dominican Republic. In the introduction to the book’s second part, you write so beautifully an you about what led you back to the island and I’d love to hear more about how choosing your motherland means choosing your truth.

MLM: Identity is so complex and I really just didn’t want to have any regrets or fears about my origin story. I wanted to free myself of those identity insecurities and live my life authentically. For me, because my parents loved their place of birth so much, it meant retracing the places that made us all feel our freest. And to this day, anytime my spirit is in crisis or my body is sick, I book a flight to my abuelita’s backyard in the countryside and I resurrect. I really feel like the motherland chose me, and I simply became a good servant to the truth. These poems became something so much bigger than me and my origin story. And I’m honestly still unraveling the beauty in that. It’s so profound to write something and have it grow into something so much bigger than you could have ever imagined. I come from really humble folks who like to keep their heads down and stay present in the labor of the soil. But they work hard and in turn can be very hard on themselves. My abuelita every now and then reminds me that it is also important to look up and out and have gratitude for all that our hands can do. She loves to sit and drink her coffee and stare out into her garden and hum. I want to channel her and keep humming my truth.  

AMS: Plantains mean something very important and sacred to me (and mangoes, so I loved all the mangoes in this book), but it was so integral to your book that it made it into the title I’d love if you’d share with us what plantains mean to you, what they represent in your own life?

MLM: For me, plantains became something very symbolic of the survival of African descendants in the Americas and beyond. Plantains are loving, earthy, and beautiful. The Black Diaspora loves plantains and I personally believe plantains love us. Haha. I know that’s weird to say because we are literally eating them but I think we are giving them purpose and they thank us for that. I was a vegetarian from the age of eleven until I was nineteen and I refused to eat my mother’s meat dishes but one thing I would always have with my rice and beans were fried plantains. I love plantains in any form from mangú to sweet plantain; the limit does not exist. I learned so much about my family through conversations in the kitchen, and, to me, it’s so important to know our history. The kitchen has always been a space for rekindling our stories, our culture, and our spirits. I feel like plantains are so symbolic of how we survive and move forward. We channel them because they are a part of us as much as they are a part of the earth. 

AMS: In “Dance With Me,” an epistolary poem to the father, you write, “Father, I wish I had chosen to be a magician but I am a poet.” This line haunts me because I believe poets are magicians and each poem a spell, words that arrow the poet’s will and energy into a form, and your book has so much powerful word magic. When on the stage, you command the energy of the crowd. But it made me wonder what your definition of magic is, because I’ve found everyone has a different definition, and if based on that definition, you might be open to the idea that your poems are magic?

MLM: I love that! I do believe poets can be magicians, and each poem can be spellcasting. In this poem, I was exploring how much of my own magic had sort of been stripped from me. How much of the magic I carry, I didn’t even know I possessed because of body politics, racism, sexism, and the policing of the black body. This poem was that vulnerable moment where you sit with how taxed your spirit can feel having to fight so many battles in countries that make it hard to love yourself. And I wanted to be honest about that. We don’t always feel as magical as we are. And sometimes we need that reminder. So thank you, for the reminder.

AMS: Who have you been reading lately that you can’t get out of your head? And who should we be reading or following?

MLM: Whenever I need a good laugh, I pick up My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Hilarious and haunting is definitely the experience I need that sort of shakes me out of whatever I am going through.  I always revisit The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison when I need a reminder of why I write.  I also have been reading lots of self-help right now and books that are honest AF about the ways society punishes Black women for existing: 

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