An Interview with the Black Ladies Brunch Collective

An interview with celeste doaks, Tafisha Edwards, Saida Agostini, Katy Richey, Teri Ellen Cross Davis and Anya Creightney by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in 2018 in Little Patuxent Review.

Tafisha Edwards dispensed some blunt advice before reading her poem “Baby What That Mouth Do” at the Baltimore Book Festival this year: “Please. Take your children out. Now.” Edwards pointed out of the City Lit tent where she and four other poets were reading on a steamy Sunday September afternoon.
No, the reading by this group of poets, the the Black Ladies Brunch Collective, or BLBC as they call themselves, was not at all appropriate for the younger set -- poems about vaginas, about dildos, about depression and Prince and nearly irresistible men on motorcycles. The Black Ladies Brunch Collective is six poets: Tafisha Edwards, celeste doaks, Saida Agostini, Katy Richey, Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and Anya Creightney (who was not able to make the Baltimore reading).
The audience whooped and laughed and stayed late to tell the poets their own stories and to have the poets sign their 2017 collection, Not Without Our Laughter: Poems of Humor, Joy and Sexuality.
BLBC started in 2014 as a group of like-minded women from the Baltimore-Washington-Virginia area, gathering to drink mimosas, eat omelets and talk poetry. Then doaks, who eventually edited their collection, proposed a panel for the Split This Rock poetry festival in the spring of 2016, and called it Not Without Our Laughter, after the Langston Hughes novel. The audience loved the panel reading, and Mason Jar Press got in touch with the group and asked for a collection. doaks edited the clutch of poems by her friends in a little less than a year, and the book hit the street in early 2017.
“This book is our invitation to temporary shelter from the storm, an invitation we as black women extend to any and all readers, no matter their gender, sexual orientation, race, or ethnicity. We welcome whomever can tap into our poems for inspiration in their own struggles towards light, harmony, togetherness, joy,” doaks writes in the introduction.
The book collects poems from all six poets, on sex and bad housekeeping and depression and sex and Luther Vandross and Prince and (have we mentioned?) sex.
Reviews have been great: The City Paper named the book Best Poetry Collection of 2017, and Queen Mob’s Tea House online literary magazine said, “Perhaps it’s because the book was born out of a social group and a panel reading, or perhaps it’s because the voices in the collection are so distinct and clear, but whatever the reason, reading Not Without Our Laughter feels like being drawn into in a raucous and clever conversation—at times serious, at times raw, at times laugh-out-loud hilarious—and, in the end, uplifting.”
doaks explains the group’s impetus: “I think one of the reasons we wanted to get together and be with each other is because we feel like a lot of the black women’s voices were not being brought to the forefront. So we thought one of the ways we could do that, was just to support each other. Now, it’s turned into a solid group, a real community, a whole group that is dedicated to each other.”
BLBC still meets for brunch, but also journeys to a friends’ Virginia estate for retreats, and the group reads at poetry venues along the East Coast, including at Sunday Kind of Love in D.C., and the Pratt Library in Baltimore. doaks remembers one reading at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in which a BLBC member had to dash from the reading next door to her hotel room to pick up more copies of the book because they had sold out.
“I knew the end product would be fantastic,” doaks said. “Not because I’m in it, not because I edited it, but just because I have five other strong, resilient, fighter poetry women alongside me. That’s what makes the volume so strong.”


Susan interviewed celeste doaks, the editor of the collection, first, and then gathered the women after the Baltimore Book Festival, but since Anya Creightney was not available for the festival, her responses to the same questions have been integrated into the conversation.

Susan Thornton Hobby: Your introduction is a really good road map to the book. The word that stuck out to me was the word “remedy,” like the book was a good dose of medicine. What is the remedy for?

celeste doaks: That’s a very loaded question now, in the times we’re in. No one could foresee what the landscape of America would look like at this time. In fact, when I was busy putting together the book, asking the girls for poems, and we were writing some new works, too, when I was busy culling it together, I was really under the impression that we would have Hillary Clinton as our first female president. In my mind, I think, while the introduction said something about remedy, I thought it would be a good tribute to the first female president for this volume of great female poetry to be coming into the world.
But obviously, it stands as something quite different now. Whatever your political beliefs, I think most people in America would say that America is in a very tenuous time right now, whether we’re looking at Charlottesville [the white Supremacist march and murder in August 2017], or the replacing of Obamacare, which also stands to be related to issues in the book, like mental health issues. All of these things are tied in together.
Now my word remedy – I didn’t think it would be a prophecy then -- now it sort of stands as a salve for the country. There are enough serious things going on in the media and the world; art is always a way of bringing people together. That being said, art sometimes – not all the time—but sometimes needs to take a lighter approach. Especially thinking about Langston Hughes’ novel (Not Without Laughter), the text that comes up for me is that African-Americans have always done this, a way to deal with adverse situations is through laughter. It’s really important, during whatever trying times we’re going through, especially women, to be able to relate to each other, to see each other as whole and intersectional, and not be ashamed or embarrassed of things that could be stereotypically thought of as anti-female, whether that’s power, whether that’s being honest about issues about mental health, whether that’s ideas in the book about keeping a dirty house, that might give you a mouse or a roach, all of these sorts of things are things that can be dealt with with a lighter hand and allow people to see how this is political and challenging and pertinent and necessary, but also to provide some humor and laughter.

STH: I thought it was wonderful that you included not just poems about laughter and triumph, but some poems about troubles, like Tafisha Edwards’ #NotYourModelSurvivor. Can you explain why you thought that was important to include?

celeste doaks: That goes back to the idea of women being afraid to tell your stories. I find that in my daily life, not just BLBC, a group of women I am tightly affiliated with, but even in my interpersonal relationships, whether it’s date rape or mental breakdowns or postpartum depression, that women are so shamed in talking about, but at times, there can be even humorous moments in some of these things. … Yes, this thing happened, but if you survived that difficult moment, isn’t it OK to look back at that thing and find some humor? The most important part is about resistance and survival and being able to share their stories. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say, I read Tafisha’s poem or I read Katy Richey’s poem and I felt exactly like that. That is a testament to how much more the literary world needs to expand and open up and feel inspired to tell their stories.

STH: OK, now we’ve got to talk about sex, because there are so many good poems about body parts and lust.

celeste doaks: There are. I’ve written one! My sex poem in the volume, my husband cringes when I read it, because it’s not about him, it’s about a fantasy about another man. Anyway! The biker poem is definitely not about my husband. So yes, we should talk about that!

STH: What’s important about including poems about sex, especially black women’s sex?

celeste doaks: I’m trying to think about the ways you see black women’s sexuality in the world. One of the things that has come up about black women is the fetishization of being looked at, as being desired, but fetishized. Not really accepted holistically for their beauty in all its forms. Even body parts, a lot of times, if you watch TV, or if you have looked at artwork, it’s body parts, not really looked at as sex and sexuality for black women. All of us – almost – have poems of sexuality. And I thought, I haven’t read much on the market that extolls our sexuality, so I’d like to see some of these poems. They end up being some of the high points of the volume. And also queer women’s sexuality, that’s what Saida Agostini’s “Adventures of a Third Limb” is really about, just making sure that black women across the spectrum are represented in all their various forms of orientation and sexuality. That’s really important too.
We all sit around, and all of us laugh about it. Once we’ve had a couple of mimosas, people really start to say some funny things. The point is, we talk about exes, we talk about husbands, we talk about all of the things that are in the volume – of course, poetry is not always strictly autobiographical, but most of us, I would venture to say, speaking for myself, but I think the girls would say the same – that most of the issues that are in the volume are issues that are true, whether the details have been skewed or not. The fantasy about the man on the Harley is very true, right? All of us are pulling from our life experience to write poems that resonate, but also to show that black women are much more than objects to be fetishized, and we want to show the breadth of black women’s sexuality across orientations, and to make sure to be inclusive is really important. I also feel that queer black women’s sexual experiences have really been mitigated in the literary world for sure. … [Sex] is sometimes funny, and it’s sometimes sad, and it’s sometimes joyous, it’s all those things. It’s not monolithic. …

STH: So many of these poems speak to each other, “Ars Poetica with Fever” and “Atomic Snowstorm” and “Baby What That Mouth Can Do” and “Kamal and Beebe.” Explain that process. Did you read the poems to each other and then react? Or how did that work?

celeste doaks: My now-friend and publisher Michael Tager came up with the idea about everyone responding to a single poem in the volume. We picked poems that were emblematic of the collection, and then we matched them up totally randomly and sent them to the girls, so they could choose from two poems to respond to … . The responses were just fantastic, “Ars Poetica with Fever,” and all of these poems and their corresponding responses were so vivid and so fresh, fresh takes on whatever the other BLBC member had written.

STH: Talk to me about Prince; he’s everywhere in this collection.

celeste doaks: (Laughs.) Yeah. Another one we really talk about is Luther Vandross.

STH: That’s right, he had the Johnson & Johnson shine to him!

celeste doaks: Exactly! (Laughs again.) That’s another thing we do at the brunches, when we’re at someone’s house, is we listen to music. Maybe we put on Spotify, oh, let’s listen to such and such, so the music is on in the background while we drink mimosas or prosecco. BLBC also had a Prince repast [after the musician died]. We all got together and I wore my Prince T-shirt and Teri pulled out her Prince albums and we watched video concerts of Prince, and then we watched “Under the Cherry Moon” at our retreat last year. We love Prince, his passing was such a great loss to the musical world.
Prince shows up in the collection because we all love and worship him. … Before the collection came out, we talked about it. I said, “Oh, I have a Prince poem.” And Katy said, “Yeah, I’ve written about him a couple of times too.” Some of the intersections, or the things that showed up in the book, or things that we realized one on one, are intersections we don’t even know we had. It’s really comforting that other women are thinking and doing the same things. Poets often stay so isolated. The writing happens in an office or at home. It’s often a very solitary art form, but it’s really great to be able to talk, in community and out loud, about what you’re working on or what your new obsession in poetry is. So Prince definitely had to show up because we love Prince in real life, but that Prince has shown up in a number of poems over the years, it just makes sense that he lives in the collection. And also, that his death is so recent, I thought this would be a good tribute to someone we all love, whose music was all so monumental in our lives. He’s an icon for us. He’s a pillar of resistance to restrictive sexual regimes. That’s a reason for him to be in the collection too.

After their reading at the Baltimore Book Festival, the poets gathered at a little table near the harbor to talk.

STH: What do you get from the audiences at your group readings?

Anya Creightney: I think there’s something really playful when we are together at our events. People love fun and they like to be welcomed. They like to feel part of something. More than anything, that’s something I’ve noticed at our readings. As we, together, have more fun with each other, it builds and builds. I’ve noticed a generosity of good will, it seems the audience is engaged and it makes it equally easy for us to feel comfortable and want to share.

Teri Ellen Cross Davis: Affirmation! That’s beautiful. It’s nice to see people so touched. It’s nice also in a weird reversal, the poems you know you’ve written, but that they get to hear about themselves in that way.

Tafisha Edwards: It’s a great feedback loop. We’re affirmed by the response, by the laughter, by the questions. Not necessarily for the poems that already exist, but when we go and speak to each other, and continue to do readings and continue to travel, we know that our work isn’t in vain.

Saida Agostini: When we have a day like today, there was a lot of people there, a lot of people of color, and people stopped and came in, to me this is one of my favorite readings we’ve done, because it felt more community-engaged, and I like that. I love the way that you framed it, Katy, our intent is to engage people and bring people in, and just be vulnerable. That intimacy is so important.

STH: What are some of your best memories from your get-togethers?

celeste doaks: Saida getting mad and yelling at people about Luther!

Tafisha Edwards: Yes, at the Prince repast, “the Luther incident”

Teri Ellen Cross Davis: Yes!

celeste doaks: Yes, put it in quotes. [Saida felt Luther Vandross was being given short shrift after Prince’s death and wanted to make sure BLBC’s second musical patron saint was getting his due.]

Katy Richey: Here’s a nice moment from our retreat: Trying to find a movie to watch together.

(The group laughs.)

celeste doaks: Took us like an hour.

Anya Creightney: At Teri’s house, at a particularly stressful point for me, I remember I arrived with some wine and was saying hello as I was opening the wine and everyone sort of received me and we were laughing and it was such a sweet environment and so warm. And we talked about real things, but by the end, I felt I was rejuvenated leaving as much as I felt welcomed arriving. That seems to be the throughline.

STH: What do you think you bring out in each other when you get together?

Teri Ellen Cross Davis: I feel more fearless. It all circles back. This becomes the central thing. I go back to “Knowledge of the Brown Body.” [her poem written in response to Agostini’s poem “Harriet Tubman is a Lesbian.”] There’s no way I could have written that without Saida’s poem to pull all that stuff out of me. Not only to pull all of that out of me, but to say, “Walk this tightrope with no net underneath, but we got you.”

Saida Agostini: I feel support and love, but also the fearlessness piece. I think they’re all interconnected. I’ve been challenged as a poet and an artist, to take myself seriously because everyone here takes me seriously. It’s a really beautiful thing.

STH: In the book, there are a series of poems that other poets respond to with their own poems. How did that work?

celeste doaks: When I read Tafisha’s response to Anya’s poem, I was like, “Wow, she blew it out the water!”
I would have never thought about that. This is what I’m saying when I said their work is constantly inspiring me. When I see them do stuff, I say, “Maybe one day in life, I could do that.” And all the response poems in what they brought out in each other. It felt like no limits.

Katy Richey: I feel like our unique voices came out in that response. Tafisha said, ‘I’m gonna do something y’all ain’t never thought about. How ’bout that?’ And I’m more like, that’s beautiful, but I’m sad. Saida was like, ‘That’s nice, Katy, but I’m gonna write five pages on your little list poem here.’ We all came with our own sense of it. Our voices were really clear in our responses.

Saida Agostini: It was fascinating to read, afterwards, because it felt like we were all in conversation with each other. Those poems really brought it out. Those poems definitely mirrored our real lives in that because we’re constantly in conversation with each other about a lot of the topics that are brought up in the poems.

STH: With all the troubles that are going on in the world, especially as it relates to people of color, why should we laugh?

Teri Ellen Cross Davis: It’s healthy! It helps us stay sane, it helps us relieve tension, it helps us cope.

Tafisha Edwards: Because it’s pleasurable.

Teri Ellen Cross Davis: And we deserve pleasure.

Anya Creightney: It’s not that laughter is meant to replace any sort of thoughtful dialogue or hard work or activism or however you want to frame your contribution. It’s a yin and a yang, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t do fierce work without rest. I think part of work is also play. … As the challenges become more grave, it’s all the more important that we remind ourselves of our own traditions, our own comedic traditions, which are rich. That’s the reason I think it’s important, at its core, to rest and to affirm all the hard work and the commitment that it takes to get back up on the horse. It’s soul-crushing to hear some of the things that are said, over and over and over again. How could it not take some sort of existential toll? After a while, if you don’t give yourself a pause … . And what’s the best kind of pause but laughter? That’s the only kind of existential bandaid that I can think of.

celeste doaks: And it’s historical. It has been done for a long time. That’s the model we’re thinking of: Langston Hughes’ novel, and how laughter has been resistance for African American people before the collective came along. Long history of comedic resistance, whether it’s Richard Pryor from a long time ago, or Key and Peele now. WE look to these people to provide political resistance, but also laughter. We have to all be able to laugh or we’ll all just jump in the harbor.

Saida Agostini: It’s either we laugh or we die, we have to make a choice.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2018. All rights reserved.