By Nina Correa White
Starlight & Error is the third of three published collections of poetry by Remica Bingham-Risher. Remica grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, though her family roots lead back to Norfolk. She received her bachelor’s degree in writing at Old Dominion University, and then went on to receive her MFA from Bennington College. She currently resides in Norfolk.
NW: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
RB: Really early on, actually. In the fifth grade, I had a teacher who read us a Langston Hughes poem, and I was like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life!” It’s a poem called Mother to Son, which I really loved. It’s an extended metaphor of this mother talking to her son. So that teacher first introduced me to poetry. I won my first poetry contest in the fifth grade. I won a district poetry contest (still the only trophy to my name, because I’m not athletic). I was alwaysa reader, and words were always really important, but I’d been writing probably in earnest since then. I had no idea that being a poet was an actual thing until I came to undergrad. I actually came to school thinking I was going to be a journalist. But then, I got here, found Tim Siebles’ book a little bit before I ever got here and suddenly realized that there are contemporary black poets out there writing and publishing and living their lives. And that was the end of journalism for me. Then I decided to kind of jump ship once I took a few classes with Tim and started thinking in earnest about ways to move my life in that direction.
NW: What writers/poets have influenced you the most?
RB: Lucille Clifton is a writer that just changed everything I understood about economy of language and writing about the interior personal. Like writing clearly, writing in a voice of my own, one that my grandmother understood. So Lucille Clifton kind of changed all the things. If you haven’t read her, read her. Everyone in life needs to read Lucille Clifton! And then this answer kind of changes steadily every time I give it, but today, the people that are coming to mind are James Baldwin, Martin Espada, Elizabeth Alexander. Sharon Olds kid of flipped me on my head when I was really young. Her first book is called Satan Says, which already commands attention, but it just talks really frankly and clearly about sex, about motherhood, about parents, putting peoples’ business in the street. I couldn’t even believe that was possible.
NW: I’ve noticed the common themes of love, music, songs, family, and relationships in your book, Starlight & Error. In what ways do you feel these themes all intersect?
RB: That’s interesting. So it’s kind of like when you’re in a house, and you’re growing up, and you don’t realize the themes of the house until you leave the house. Like you realize there are themes in the kitchen, themes in the kind of music you listen to, and then what that music does to the family, and how that music brings you together. Soul music has been something that has been a part of my psyche since even before I had a psyche. And soul music is built around the same kind of things as everything else, I think. Love, but also a very deep sense of togetherness, like we’re going to get through this together, working together. I guess that comes from black American sensibility. So I think that always came back to me: that we are always linked together. And I think that’s how it all ties together in Starlight & Error. The book is a lot about how we cycle back to each other, and how we’re all connected, whether we want to be or not, for better or for worse. Just thinking about the themes that played out again and again as I grew up, and how they’ve kind of been traced throughout my life in it’s entirety.
NW: There also is a tone of violence and sadness interwoven within these recurring themes. How would you say this ties in?
RB: I was really conscious of that. Violence is absolutely one of those themes that comes back, and in particular for me, the book came from me being married (almost eight years ago now) and acquiring children. A lot of what started happening in the world started seeming a lot more immediate to me, in particular during that time where there were a lot of crazy things going on. Trayvon Martin happened right after we got married, and then everything kind of went downhill. There was the Black Lives Matter movement and all the way through for me, around December 2014 when one of my very best friends from middle school was shot by police in Phoenix. And his name became lumped in with some of those names in the headlines, and it just became so immediate. I was frightened for the kid I was raising, who was four when we got married and about nine or ten when all this started going down. I think so much of our household conversations started going back to, “how do we protect ourselves? How do we protect our families?” And I started thinking about how all these mothers before me, including my own, have had to have these conversations in their minds. How do we just make sure that they’re safe? So again, going back to that cyclical nature of things, I just started tracing those things out, and sometimes they come out in my work. When you’re on your own, all that seems important, but it’s all very different when you have to be in that role of “protector.” When you start mothering, there’s a very different click that happens, and everything is different. There has never been a time in my life that I have been as fearful as I am on a daily basis than now that I am a mother.
NW: With family being a big inspiration for your poetry in this book, what is something that you wish for your audience to deduce about the matter of family?
RB: That we are all equally messed up, but that doesn’t mean that we have to give up on each other. I really think that the common joke, especially in the states today is “what is the nuclear family?” That we are all just this big, jumbled mess of things. But what I hope someone would take away from this is that hindsight is twenty-twenty. When you are a kid, you think that your parents can do no wrong, and then when they make a mistake, it’s the thing that may actually shift your whole life. We spend so much time just ruminating on that and blaming them for that, and then when you get into that position yourself, that’s when you realize that you are still just a person, and that you’re gonna mess up. Looking back on that now, I think, “wow, they really did the best they could, trying to make their way out of that.” For my parents and my aunt and uncle who were kind of like my second set of parents, I now realize how easy it is to not realize how difficult it is to take care of others. So for my kids, looking back on this, I hope they understand what me and their father do, that we are just trying to do the best that we can to make sure they are safe and happy. And that they know that any disruptions that happen, we didn’t mean it, I swear.
NW: In what ways has music influenced your writing?
RB: In every way. Music is such a huge thing. And really, before I was even a writer, there were really only ever two options for my life: I was going to be a singer, or I was going to be a writer. And I studied voice even here at ODU. I was a vocal music minor before writing just took over everything in life. So everything shifted, and I moved from journalism into poetry, and I dropped that minor and moved it to African American history because I was raised in Phoenix, so far away from black history, but it was what I was deeply interested in. All that shift happened here; I though for a long time that I was working toward Broadway. I wanted to be just famous enough to get into Stevie Wonder concerts unnoticed, you know, not so famous that I couldn’t walk through stores. So for me, music shaped everything that I remember. My earliest memories are of music. Phrasing often is shaped by music, like my poem If It’s Magic that’s named after a Stevie Wonder song. I realize now that I try to phrase things the way Stevie does. So much that I know about sound and rhythm and even craft (like a song narrative), is a wonder to behold, and all that kind of comes back in my writing. It really is constant. Only now, because I am talking to you, there is not a song playing in my head. It really is just a constant loop.
NW: Who are some of the most influential people in your life?
RB: I think my mother, obviously, just influencing this walk of life. My mother read to me since I was in the womb. I don’t think she had any idea that that’s what she was doing. She just thought it was a good idea to read to babies, but she really kind of set the path for me. And then my father is the artist in my life, who actually did the cover art for my first book, Conversion. He’s not just a visual artist, but we also have the same kind of layered wit and the same way of looking at things on more than a surface level. And then my grandmothers. I was really fortunate to have not only my grandmothers, but also two great grandmothers alive for a very long time. So I got all this extended history and lineage through their actual voices, and I think that link to family and that link to history comes back over and over in my books. The book I’m working on now actually is very distinctly tied to my grandmothers.