Featured Poet Interview | Isabelle Baafi
This month's featured poet is Isabelle Baafi, whose three-voiced "Sister Wives" marries sensual language with careful attention to the line. We talked to Isabelle about voice, language, and honoring heritage.
Jacqueline Boucher: “Sister Wives” is this stunning mix of sensuous language and an almost sinister warning simmering underneath. Can you speak to the tension you were working to create in this piece?
Isabelle Baafi: Thank you for asking. “Sister Wives” is a conversation between three women, who are connected but not defined by the husband they share.
When I wrote it, I was witnessing competition and resentment between some of the women I knew (and over a man no less) – and I thought that that was such a shame. As women, we gain so much power from our unity and mutual support. So I decided to write a poem in which a group of women, for whom hatred and resentment would seem obvious, choose instead to
love, nuture and protect one another. Each strand of the poem represents this – the urge to please, to feed and to warn, in the face of manifold dangers.
Also, to give it a little more context, the poem is set in precolonial Africa, and was born out of a story and poetry collection – both of which I’m still working on!
JB: Formatting is crucial in any poem, but it feels especially intentional in this one. What role do you see form taking in “Sister Wives?”
IB: As I said, the poem was originally part of a larger project, which I wanted to imbue with as much of my African heritage as possible. And so the form is inspired by “hocketing” a
pioneering trademark of African music, in which melodies are threaded together by multiple musicians playing separate parts. But unlike harmonies, each part is played in succession, not all at once. For instance:
Musician A: hello my Musician B: name is Musician C: Isabelle Baafi
On the page, I gave each voice its own alignment (left, centre, right) to convey the ‘trinity’ of voices – but their narratives are also interwoven, to create an additional discourse of desire and preservation.
JB: How are you taking care of yourself during the COVID-19 outbreak?
IB: Taking care of myself by staying indoors, washing my hands whenever I have to go out, and otherwise continuing to live as normally as possible. Thankfully I work from home, so my routine hasn’t been affected much.
Additionally, I’m a Christian and my faith has really helped me to stave off fear, hold onto hope, and remember that this dark cloud will soon pass.
Finally, I think it’s important for us to stay connected online, and to encourage one another in every way we can. It’s a grave situation, but together we can get through it. The heroism of many frontline health workers around the world has demonstrated that.
JB: What are you reading right now that excites you?
IB: I just finished Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, and it’s amazing. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.
JB: What’s your favorite bone?
IB: Ha ha, what a great question!
Probably my cheekbones, because I quite like my round cheeks!
Isabelle Baafi is a writer and poet. She was the winner of the 2019 Vincent Cooper Literary Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition. Her work has been published or is forthcoming with Anthropocene, Broken Sleep Books, Verve Poetry Press, and elsewhere. She is currently working on her debut poetry collection.