Cherene Sherrard’s writing “explores the nuanced and multifaceted aspects of Black life in the diaspora.” Her newest poetry collection, Grimoire, expands upon her debut collection, Vixen, both published by Autumn House Press. In Grimoire, writes poet Terrance Hayes, “Sherrard reminds us that poetry, like cooking, is as much about ingredients as ingenuity. Her ingredients are positively cornucopian, but it’s Sherrard’s keen, enlivening spirit that gives this remarkable book its flavor.” Grimoire is described as a work that “explores Black motherhood while addressing themes such as the recovery and preservation of ancestral knowledge and the creative and ingenuous modes of human survival.” As author Chanda Feldman concludes, “Ultimately, the poems themselves are the spell and salve that dazzle, writing that conjures the sober magic of endurance.”
Sherrard earned her bachelor of arts in English and American Studies at UCLA, and her doctorate in English at Cornell University. She is the author of Portraits of the New Negro Woman: Visual and Literary Culture in the Harlem Renaissance, Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color, and the editor of A Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. Her chapbook, Mistress, Reclining was the winner of the New Women’s Voices award from Finishing Line Press. Her creative nonfiction and poetry have been published in The Rumpus, Plume, The New York Times Magazine, Verse Daily, The Journal, Terrain.org, Blackbird, Water~Stone Review, Prairie Schooner, and numerous other journals. She has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Wisconsin Arts Board Grant and poetry fellowships to Ragdale and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She is the Sally Mead Hands-Bascom Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she currently teaches nineteenth and twentieth century American and African American literature, cultural studies, and feminist theory.
Literary Mama Editorial Assistant, Kimberly Lee, interviewed Sherrard by email.
Kimberly Lee: A grimoire has been defined by Merriam-Webster as a magician’s manual. What meaning or significance do you hope readers will ascribe to the collection as a result of its title?
Cherene Sherrard: A grimoire is a book of power, often passed down within families, or from an expert to an apprentice. Alchemists used them to record their formulas, or “recipes,” for transforming matter. This arcane meaning informs my title as does the intergenerational cultural knowledge that Black families have shared in the form of everyday wisdom, family histories, and of course, recipes.
KL: A number of poems in Grimoire reference Malinda Russell, the late nineteenth century author of the first known cookbook by an African American. You serve as the president of an organization that celebrates the life and work of Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins, a prolific Black playwright and novelist, also of the late 1800s. How does your interest in and connection to these and other historic figures inspire and inform your work?
CS: I’ve always been fascinated by brave Black women who exceeded societal circumstances and the limited expectations of others. Hopkins was a Renaissance woman who was ahead of her time. A trained opera singer, she wrote novels and articles, and edited The Colored American Magazine. Scholars of early Black women’s writing often confront archival dead ends. The papers and effects of women of color, and of women in general, were not typically seen as worthy of preservation. Thus they appear in the archive, on the rare occasion, primarily through the eyes of others, or in fragments. Poetry and other art forms can help fill in those historical gaps.
KL: Speaking of Hopkins, she once said that “fiction is a record of growth and development from generation to generation.” Do you agree with this statement? If so, what place does your work hold in the record? What state of affairs does your poetry document?
CS: In ways I didn’t initially imagine, the poems in Grimoire crystallize many of the anxieties of the current moment, especially racial disparities in education and health. When I dedicated the book to “the mothers,” I hoped its spells and recipes would sustain and comfort. I didn’t anticipate how 2020 would increase the sisterhood of women mourning children who have been lost to state violence, and how the COVID-19 pandemic would exacerbate poverty and precarity.
KL: Your first poetry collection, Vixen, has been regarded as an examination of “Black female representation within a historical, cultural, and artistic framework.” What themes are explored in Grimoire? Is it a continuation or expansion of work that began in Vixen?
CS: Grimoire hones in on maternal health and labor—the physical and psychic work it takes to bear and rear Black children. I do see it as an expansion of the themes of representation and the female body explored in Vixen. Malinda Russell’s main motivation for publishing a cookbook was to financially support her son, who only had the use of one arm. For a nineteenth century Black boy, whose employment opportunities were already extremely limited, his disability might have been catastrophic. That struck a chord with me as a mother of Black sons.
KL: Grimoire’s poems present a variety of moods—humor, restraint, wistfulness, annoyance, and many others—as you probe different subject matter. Can you share your creative process in determining how you approach a particular topic?
CS: Our response to events, traumatic or otherwise, can be unexpected. Humor and restraint are particularly valuable tools for coping with trauma and depression, whether resulting from bullying and harassment, or from the genocidal consequences of white supremacy. Emotive reactions are often contradictory. When writing about myself, or from the perspective of others, I try to capture that tension.
KL: The presence of your sons is felt in many of Grimoire’s poems, as you grapple with various topics, including education, safety, even Halloween costumes. In a recent series of essays on Literary Mama’s blog, a few mothers discussed the reasons why they write about their children, or in the alternative, choose not to. What are your thoughts about the role that motherhood plays in your work?
CS: My sons have always been a central part of my life, but it’s only recently, as they edge towards manhood, that they have begun to appear in my writing. For better or worse, my mental well-being is tied up with theirs. I’ve built up my racial armor, but I can’t always shield them. When they face the roadblocks of systematic racism, in school or in team sports, it is suffocating. In Imani Perry’s Breathe: A Letter to My Sons she writes, “When it is your child? It is torture. And I am charged with holding back the torrent of my rage.” When I read that line I winced in recognition, but I also felt relief because it validated my anger.
KL: Poems such as “Outcome” and “Linea Negra” shine a light on the racial disparities that exist in maternal health, regardless of class and income level. Black and Indigenous women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. The selections in the second part of Grimoire may be the first time I’ve seen this issue addressed in poetry. What were your thoughts in choosing to confront this situation through a different medium?
CS: Even before public health advocates and celebrities like Serena Williams spoke out about the disparity, the birth stories told by my sister-friends often relayed how doctors dismissed what they had to say about their own bodies. This type of medical racism, at a time when you are uniquely vulnerable, is particularly pernicious. I wanted to expose and validate those experiences, historic and contemporary, without further exploiting or pathologizing their pain.
KL: Who were your earliest influences in the area of poetry? Do you remember the first poem that had a deep impact and sparked your interest in the genre?
CS: Sonia Sanchez’s collection Homegirls and Handgrenades was the earliest collection I could get my hands on, but in terms of impact, I have to credit Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “The Venus Hottentot.” It drove home how powerfully poetry could resurrect the past and give voice to the silenced. Finally, the musicality and formal innovation of Gwendolyn Brooks’s life’s work is one of the great courses in twentieth century Black poetry.
KL: In terms of a poem’s meaning, is there such a thing as “solving the poem” by discovering the author’s exact intent, or is it up for individual interpretation? Are there particular ideas or notions that you hope readers of Grimoire will take away from the work?
CS: I like to think there’s a layering effect. There are a number of references, some which readers will readily recognize, and others that are more obscure. You may not know the music of Nina Simone or Parliament; you may be unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s The Tempest; you may not be acquainted with Zora Neale Hurston’s research in Haiti. You may be unaware of certain practices, for example, that enslaved women used the herb pennyroyal for contraception. Even if you aren’t acquainted with that material, though, you will still be able to access multiple aspects of these poems. There are lots of Easter eggs, but also I’ve laid the clues within and between the line breaks. Good poems always need to be read multiple times as well as aloud to give up their secrets.