Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a poet, writer, and artist. Her debut pamphlet, Girl B, was published by the African Poetry Book Fund in 2017. Shortly following the publication of her debut collection, Quiet (Faber & Faber, 2022), she sat down with our Reviews Editor Isabelle Baafi to talk about the complexities of language, and the act of creating spaces for re-imagining and reclaiming.

Isabelle Baafi: How did quiet emerge as a persistent theme?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: I’d been thinking for a while about how poetry so often seems like a game of approximations, especially for those of us for whom the English language is a hostile tool to work with, given its history. I was interested in what we do to put words to our own uses, considering what is said as much as what isn’t. This was a key thread that formed the creative aspect of my PhD, and the foundation for what would become the collection. A while later, I was involved in a programme of events honouring Toni Morrison at the ICA. DJ Lynnée Denise was also part of the roster, and I was stunned by how she used a blend of music, film, image, and archival material – a practice that she brilliantly terms DJ Scholarship – in a talk about Morrison’s work. It was transformative just to witness. We spoke afterwards about Morrison’s oeuvre, about how assuredly resonant yet understated her writing is, and also about Saidiya Hartman, whom I’d interviewed a week before. I mentioned how both writers’ work held such powerful quietude at their core, which was when Lynnée asked if I’d read The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, by Kevin Quashie. And what a gift that was, because that text – once I got my hands on it – gave me a framework for what I’d written already, and for how I could push further, deeper, into thinking about the black interior; about the inner life as both an individual and communal source of liberation; about fugitivity and even surveillance. It was ironic because quiet is a word that has followed me for most of my life, usually as a synonym for introversion, but Quashie’s text assisted me in working with it as a poetics, a site of emanations that shape the entirety of our lived experiences.

IB: The collection reclaims and redefines both quiet and noise, with ‘white noise’ being the inescapable cacophony of white supremacy’s ideologies and functions, and ‘black noise’ being the absence and antithesis of white noise – a specific type of quiet which is a bulwark against psychic assault. Throughout the collection, quiet/ black noise manifests as declaration, refuge, protest, discovery, and much more. Where do you find black noise in your life?

VAB: Funnily enough, I actually did consider naming the book Quiet/Black Noise, exactly as you’ve put it here. I liked the doubleness of that as a title. The reason why I didn’t call it that was because I felt that Quiet, for all its perceived simplicity and plainness, was way more subversive given the scope of the book. It is quiet, but also, it isn’t. It toys with the assumptions that are made about it. Arriving at the meaning of ‘black noise’ was incredibly helpful for me because, while by definition it suggests a kind of quiet that’s inflected by seemingly random, unscripted instances of sound, it also felt numinous and useful as a kind of praxis of black imagining and acting or non-acting. I mean this in the sense that it encompasses not only a kind of minimalism but also a kind of unwarranted liberation – a potential to break character, to lose composure (what is randomness if not something uncomposed?), to glitch, to go off-script so that a new plot might occur – and the belief that this can happen of its own accord, organically. In that apparent lack of sound there is, too, the subterranean, the underground, that ‘undercommons’ that Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write about.

A space where, beyond surveillance, something other happens. There is a quote by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge that I didn’t use in the book but still keep as a touchstone: When no one observes us, not even ourselves, our particles regain their wave aspect. I’m so fascinated by all of this – the paradoxical idea that black noise is a kind of potent empty space that is simultaneously full of possibility. And in the locale of my own life, I would translate black noise as a necessary psychological landscape. One that can be stepped into, or fallen into, especially during the most mundane activities – cooking, washing up, going out for a walk, listening to a specific song. Seemingly vacant acts which, out of the safety of their routineness, sometimes throw open new portals of thought.

IB: The poem ‘revision’ also grapples with linguistic frustrations: the theft and suppression of language through imperial violence, the longing for one’s ancestral language, the shifts and connections between languages, the capacity of language to supplant one truth for another. You’ve explored some of these tensions in other projects, such as your poetry, translation, and film series Mother Tongues. How have you navigated this linguistic tension since the series came out? What is your relationship with language now, particularly Ga?

VAB: I feel a sense of loyalty to the effort it takes to keep Ga alive in my life. It’s mostly through conversations with my mother and asking her for translations of words and sayings. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at a household object and reminding myself of what it’s called in the language. Or trying to do that and then realising that I’ve forgotten. And then learning again becomes a kind of re-memory. It can be frustrating because, as the poem explores, there’s no other way to see this than as having been robbed of the chance to live more fully in a different language-world, one that might fit us better – those of us to whom this applies – and not the one of our colonisers. All the same, the language is still alive. I take it word by word.

IB: In an interview with Saidiya Hartman, you wrote that her ‘respect for silence […] is what enables her to write so fluidly into the voids and failures of history.’ Would you say that you had a similar intention with Quiet? To write into history’s voids and failures? If so, what did you hope to deposit there, and do you feel like you succeeded?

VAB: In that piece in The White Review, what I’m celebrating about Hartman is the sense that it takes skill to know how to write just enough. Only enough – and not too much. Such finely calibrated, meticulous control. And integrity, too. To know what not to say, whether because it’s not your place and the secrets aren’t yours to tell, or because you know less than you could easily pretend to, or because you want to write for those who are really looking closely and know what to notice – not just those who will throw a passing spectatorial glance. In terms of writing about history, there has to be respect for the ways that you weren’t there – respect enough not to force your way in. In which case, working with care for those who were there demands the kind of writing that constructs a negative space for their existences: to at least gesture at the shape that contained their happenings. Hartman’s work does this in incredibly delicate and rich ways. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in the same way, but the attempt itself has felt worthy. The book has done for me what I needed it to, which was to be a place in which I worked things out. That’s a personal fulfilment. I hope that the work contains something of what it reaches towards, that its gifts are felt and its failures forgiven. If there’s anything I’d like the book to leave in those voids, I would want it to be that act of reaching.

IB: The poem ‘dear little b,’ questions the act of capitalising versus not capitalising, and the word in which the b appears is never mentioned, but for me it evoked the b in ‘black’ – not to mention the b in bell hooks (who advocated for the un-capitalisation and of her name in order to equalise its letters), and perhaps even the b in Bulley – an English name that, considering your Ghanaian heritage, I would guess is a vestige of imperial violence committed against your ancestors. What are your thoughts on the capitalisation of any or all the b’s mentioned above?

VAB: In ‘dear little b,’ and across the book there is a reckoning with the idea of not wanting to be entirely visible or legible – be that to anyone at all, or more directly to an external, objectifying eye, such as the state or even the marketplace in which one (or one’s work) exists. There’s a lot of irony in asking ‘haven’t we been capital forever?’ but there is just as much seriousness in that question too. It’s not a light-hearted enquiry. Ultimately the question is about the intentions behind capitalisation (or the lack of it), about wanting to pay attention to where such demands are superficially or stylistically motivated. Essentially: when does it become a call for recognition (and whose recognition?), and does that alter a material condition (B/black life in an anti-black world) or merely reform its presentation? Letters are the bread and butter of a writer, and yet in the process of stringing them together as words we forget that they are, at their basic components, symbols first, signs.

I’m thinking now of the essay ‘Ode to the Ampersand’ by Donnalyn Xu, which mentions how the ampersand is the shape of a ligature, for example. It’s literally a drawing of a knot. Or a bow. So, in the space of ‘dear little b’ there’s a cautiousness about signs and their uses. The poem rejects capital(isation) as a signifier of validation and humanness, turning instead towards the lowercase – the ‘laying low’ – as a modality that recognises what has also been necessary for black survival.

IB: It occurs to me that your work is very political, but without the apparent obligation to be polemical or haranguing; it flows in the same love- centred vein as the works of June Jordan, bell hooks, and Audre Lorde. Is the question of performing one’s politics ‘loudly enough’ or ‘visibly enough’ something you think about? Is it a pressure you have ever felt?

VAB: June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks are each luminaries for me; I find in their work a choice to be direct, to write with urgency, without mincing words. Thinking about the pressure to ‘perform’ one’s politics, I see this as a noisy artefact of social media’s relentlessly consumer-focused, branding-heavy algorithms, many of which have probably restructured our neural get pathways by now. I mentioned earlier that quiet is a word that’s followed me for a long time. I haven’t liked this until recently. Once I realised that the difficulty I had with being described in that way was because of the pressure you mentioned – a pressure that prioritised I artifice over substance – everything changed. Is it safe for our politics to be a performance in the first place? What if they were embodied? And can we tell the difference? I want to make a habit of asking: if I believe X, what does that look like in practice – especially when nobody is looking? Poems are one thing, but what do I actually need to do? We use the word ‘love’ often, for example. But what would we do if we couldn’t say love to make it known and felt through action?

IB: The poem ‘About Ana’ is remarkable for how it reverberates in the wake of Ana Mendieta’s death (widely considered to have been at the hands of her husband) – reclaiming it in a poem that is both sensual and liberating. How has Mendieta’s work inspired you? What was your experience of writing the poem, and navigating such a sensitive subject? Was the poem always like this, or did it change much over time?

VAB: ‘About Ana’ came about quickly and didn’t change much through edits. I wrote it following a session that Pascale Petit facilitated during a retreat for The Complete Works. We had been given images to write from and I had the one described in the poem, which is a still from Mendieta’s film Untitled (Blood + Feathers #2). I was drawn to her work for the way she used her body in relationship to the earth – as though her body was once a part of it but had been separated and was seeking to return. The poem charts a process of thinking about her death, and it maintains a certain observational distance until just before the end, when the loss sets in. It was only after writing the poem that I noticed the echoes between her work and her death, the feathers and flight and falling.

IB: You write so attentively about the tiny, seemingly insignificant moments of life – buying onions, looking at tulips, chatting with a friend, watching a cat play. Does the profundity of these moments occur to you in the moment? That is, do you compose internally as you experience life, or are these epiphanies gleaned in retrospect?

VAB: I think the weight of a moment absolutely does occur to me in the midst of it, which is why I have to write things down later. ‘Whose Name Means Honey’ was written on the Central Line on the way home from the experience that it’s about. I’m writing as a way to keep things that feel like they’ll be lost otherwise – by me, through forgetfulness, or to the wear and tear of the world. Writing about certain moments feels like giving them the space on an altar that they deserve, so I can revisit them later. At the same time I also know that a poem can often be a kind of hoarding. I try to remind myself to treasure the ephemeral.

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Autumn 2022

Issue 103

Featuring a wholly new look, the magazine’s first radical redesign in twenty years, the Autumn 2022 issue of Poetry London carries a new poem by our featured author, Mark Ford, in addition to work by Katie Peterson, Khairani Barokka, Bernard O’Donoghue, Rachel Mannheimer, Oksana Maksymchuk, Shash Trevett and Jee Leong Koh. This issue also features the winners of the 2022 Poetry London Prize, judged by Romalyn Ante, as well as interviews with Pascale Petit and Victoria Adukwei Bulley.
Prose contributions include the 2022 Verve Poetry Festival Lecture by Stephanie Sy-Quia, Zoë Brigley on writing through borderline personality disorder, and the literary influence of Sylvia Plath and Jean Rhys, and reviews by Stephanie Burt, David Wheatley and Jennifer Wong, review collections by Victoria Chang, Paul Tran, Thomas Lynch, Carl Phillips, Claire Askew and Simone Atangana Bekono.
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