Standards of Beauty, Decolonizing Our Language, and Poetry as a Dialogue With Our Contemporaries: Katelyn Durst on Her Poem "Curl"
In this season of tumult and deep psychic unrest for our country, it hardly seems a coincidence that I'd been pondering bringing in new interviews with poets whose work is inseparable from their activism. Incidentally I'd also been aiming to feature younger voices. By the time of our interview, Katelyn Durst had impressed me not just with her poems of struggle and identity and longing and resilience, but her highly visible and participatory commitment to the social justice that inflames her writing. From a distance of months – I'd interviewed Katelyn back in August – it occured to me while putting together this post that "Curl" is not merely a poem about race or identity, but love. Self-love of the kind Katelyn embodies here, a kind that is so easy to forget in times such as this: just one gift of the many which poets can offer as utterances of comfort in a hurting world. – HLJ
So you and I first met at Grunewald Guild back in May, and I was sitting with you in the lounge area by the kitchen, and you read me this poem and I remember thinking, “this girl is fearless.” Tell me a bit about this piece – what began it for you and how you wrote it.
It’s so great to hear that, because the truth is I often feel afraid. This poem came out of a homework assignment that was given to an international baccalaureate (IB) 11th grade English class I was TA-ing for this school year. The teacher assigned the poem "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid, and the poem really resonated with me, with its fractured repetition. If there’s one thing people talk to me a lot about, it’s my hair. So I went home and wrote down the things I remembered people saying to me about it – as it turns out, they were overwhelmingly negative and hurtful things – and wrote them verbatim into what eventually became this poem.
Straighten your hair just once. Blow dry it or somethin’ and it will be down to your shoulders. Fix your hair. Tie back your hair. Wear a hat over your hair. I knew that was you because of your big hair. Your hair looks like the Medusa’s snakes. Why do you have just one dread lock? Can you go back and look in the mirror. Sit still while I’m braiding your hair. Sit in this chair so I can see the top of your head. Sit outside so that your hair doesn’t get all over the kitchen floor. How do you make black hair look so nice? You should straighten it. Texturize it. Don’t brush it. Brush it with just your brown fingers. You need to buy an actual brush and a comb. Your hair is so dry it would soak up a whole tub of moisturizer. Your hair is so big. Wow, your hair is so beautiful. Can I touch your hair? Have you ever washed your hair? Is that your real hair? Can you do that to my hair? You should straighten your hair. The back of your head is a kitchen. Twist out your hair by sectioning out single sections and twisting small parts of hair together, like a two-strand braid. Make the twists stretch around your head andwear a silk cap at night to help your kitchen from getting poof or static. Long bouncy curls are cute. I saw a guy who had hair like you, so I assumed he was homeless. Men don’t like curls; they don’t want their hands to get stuck when they run their fingers in your hair. Straighten your hair. Natural is the new black, get your weave here. Put flowers in your hair. This hay will never come out of your hair. You have paint in your hair. That braid makes you look like Pocahontas. Cornrows make you look like a boy. Long braids and gym shorts make you look like a boy. Put curlers in your hair to get a more succinct pattern. Bantu knots. Sculpted Afro. Jerry curls. Did you wake up like that? The less black you look, the less likely you are to questioned by police. Don’t put wool hats on your hair, it will mess up your kitchen. How to get your most defined Wash N Go. How to make DIY Clay Wash. How to make natural, black, curly hair look elegant: Pin it up. What’s wrong with your hair? Why does your hair stick up like that? Your hair looks like a lion’s mane. Are you from Africa? Are you from India? What are you? You look like you just got here. I can’t wait to get home and see your beautiful curls...Daddy. Here is a link to several different wigs you should try. It will make you look much prettier. Straighten your hair. Just get your hair wet so it doesn’t look so dry. Is that a stick in your hair? Do you have green beetles in your hair like Bob Marley did? What kind of hairstyle is that? The straighter your hair, the more likely you are to succeed. So, just sit still. Let this heat press away your curls, your kitchen, your blackness. Let it warm you like the love you are sure to soon have.
It’s funny that you mention Kincaid, as a friend just gave me a copy of her book A Small Place, and Kincaid has been on my mind. "Curl" is a longer poem and has an almost obsessive quality to it. Since there’s no other way to say it: that’s a lot of hurtful statements. What’s more is that it strikes me that not all the statements are negative on their face.
I love A Small Place and got to explore misplaced identities in Kincaid’s writing, and so she’s played a pretty significant role on my development as a writer.
With “Curl”, I wanted a longer piece that built on itself into a kind of litany of words and phrases that emphasize the ludicrousness and hurtfulness of some of the things people have said to me in the past. While writing it I realized I was also touching on how those things are bound up with our culture’s consumerism and its unreasonable standards of beauty. For me, race is always going to enter the picture, a black woman who keeps her hair natural and gets constant criticism or input on how she should wear it. Though it’s not all negative statements that I remember: the note from my dad was something I’d found as an adult in a baby box my parents saved, and it really struck my heart and I’ve carried with me. In writing this poem I had to include some positive things as well, because I wanted to remind myself and my readers that the loving and supportive things people say to us and which make us feel valued and beautiful are worth their weight in gold. We should never forget them.
I’m loving that play of contrasts, and how this poem has multiple speakers in it even as it builds thematically into an interrogation of identity and belonging. There's that word “microagression”, the term we use for statements directed at people of color that aren’t malicious but are still hurtful.
It’s nothing other than a microaggression to have people say things like “May I touch your hair”, “Could you do that to my hair”, “Is that your real hair”, or “What hairstyle is that?”
And of course having someone just reach out and touch your hair is a deep wounding for so many blacks. Back in high school I remember watching this documentary called Cold Water, and there was a scene in it where two young women (both women of color) were discussing the affection and connection inherent in the gesture of playing with someone’s hair. But there’s this other story around the touching of hair as a kind of violation. With this poem I feel as if you’re speaking to both those truths, as if you’re arguing with yourself.
I’ve never seen Cold Water, but it sounds interesting – there's definitely a disconnect between touching someone's hair out of earned intimacy or affection versus touching someone's hair because you can't believe it's real or you’re simply curious what it feels like. It's the difference in loving and exoticizing. On the one hand you have someone touching you out of regard and tenderness, and on the other someone who has no connection with you just wants to touch your hair because it's a strange new fruit. It’s almost like at the zoo where there are signs that say not to feed the animals but people do it anyway.
Wow, what an analogy. Worse than a museum artifact.
A notable feature of this poem is its absence of line breaks; you just poured the length of it into one long paragraph. Was that its original form?
That was its original form. And I must say that my other poem, "Girl”, was written as a prose poem also – I just felt it was the appropriate form for this piece. I was interested in bringing home the full scope of these different statements, presenting them in a way that was perhaps a bit “anti-poem”, that is, really having others read the poem without line breaks or anything fancy and to take the words unfiltered and for what they are. I didn't really feel that this poem had enough connection to "Girl" to warrant a response to Jamaica Kincaid's own “Girl", though I may do that in the future. I’ve recently read the “mirror poems” of Sharon Olds and other poets, where they write a poem as a response to another poet. I really like that idea because it reminds me how our work is an ongoing dialogue with those around us. I’ve loved the times I have shared “Curl” with people who recognized it as having been derived from Kincaid’s “Girl”. And so it definitely has a strong shared existence.
Reading anything interesting these days besides Kincaid? Any thoughts on how your reading inspires your writing?
I’m always reading something interesting. I’ve been loving Rupi Kaur a lot these days. Her Milk & Honey inspires to me to be a truth-teller and to keep singing my song in those moments when I feel most silenced. I also enjoy Anis Mojani – his new book The Pocketknife Bible is an insight into the life a child who’s growing up and learning how to trust himself through painful and complex struggles of identity and belonging. I'm also reading Rising Strong by Brene Brown. I think all these texts inspire me to actually say what I want to say, to not be afraid, and to face life’s fear and pain and beauty through my reading and writing. Especially through poetry.
Your background is of relevance here, so let's talk about that. You were adopted and are multiracial. The closing lines of your poem speak to your "blackness" – race is a recurring them in your poems.
Race comes through a lot, and especially here, as in "the less black you look, the less likely you are to get questioned by the police", or "the straighter your hair, the more likely you are to succeed". I also had some fun in playing with the word “kitchen”, a term that describes the back of your head where the hair is curliest or the hardest to brush. I want to make sure readers don't think that the term is only a metaphor, though it could easily be just that, and I did grow up having my hair braided by a white mother inside our kitchen. When I talk about straightening away your kitchen and your blackness, what I’m really interested in is the decolonizing of that word. I’m calling into question the belief that once you straighten your hair, everything in your world will be right and that people will actually love you. The last couple sentences are what I want to haunt people with: “Let this heat press away your curls, your kitchen, your blackness. Let it warm you like the love you are sure to soon have.” A lot of individuals still buy into that falsehood and it’s been the source of trauma across the black community as a whole. Somehow, having "straight/nice" hair has come to be associated with having a better education and more economic status. To this day it’s hard for me to feel confident about my hair in job interviews because I don't want people to be like “woah, her hair is crazy,” but I also don't want people to be like “whah, your hair is crazy, can I touch it?” (Sarcasm, but for real!) So the poem was actually birthed out of a series of comments made by my black co-workers who were encouraging me to straighten my hair. I must have heard that suggestion at least seven times within a two-week period. And I hear these things from white, black and all people, all the time. I'm not sure which of these is the most hurtful.
A friend and I used to talk a lot about this topic of racial self-hatred – those dealing with it would not frame it as self-hatred per se but self-preservation; as simply "I'm doing whatever I have to do to get a leg up." But that leg up is in the wider context of a culture that won’t embrace you as you are. I keep thinking of James Baldwin: "You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you, because if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you’re in trouble."
You do a lot of work with teens and in particular with teens who live in poverty. Tell us a little about that.
I’ve been working with inner city youth and vulnerable youth populations for the last six years. I believe God gave me this desire to work with urban youth, and I’ve had incredible opportunities to partner with the most visionary youth I can imagine, all across the country from Chicago to LA to Seattle to Denver, and soon-to-be Flint! I enjoy working with non-profits who value community development and raising up youth with strong, positive identities and self-worth. Currently I’m working on a grant for a project that through a series of art installations promotes positive perceptions of youth of color, a kind of "social advertisement" by youth in the neighborhood of Rainier Beach in Seattle. I’m also doing poetry therapy with students around violence and normalized trauma in their communities due to the war on black bodies, especially on the young. The team I’ve been working with is loosely affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement while also taking it further to create a new movement called "My Life Matters." The purpose of this language is to reinforce these young peoples’ identities, empower them to share their stories, and help them fight injustice in their communities in a real and meaningful way.
No doubt you collect a ton of ideas for your writing by doing this work. Maybe tell us a little about your poetry education – where it’s been, where it’s going. What advice would you offer to poets who are writing poetry on their own?
I started writing songs at a young age, in middle and early high school, as a way of coping with depression. Then in middle school, I wrote an essay for what I thought was just an essay prompt titled " If The Capitol Walls Could Speak". Our seventh grade teacher entered these essays in the Daughters of Revolution essay writing contest and my essay ended up winning locally in the county, state and region. It went on to be one of the top 10 nationally. Then in high school I took a creative writing class and loved it so much I kept writing and eventually had a piece published in Teen Inc my senior year of high school. I didn't know that creative writing was a profession until I was about 20 and took classes at a community college under a few wonderful mentors. I often considered doing social work because I’d worked with urban communities and loved that. But I didn’t want to do work that wasn't creative. So I stuck with poetry and it stuck with me, and I fell in love with it and continue to be awed by it. I studied creative writing and art as an undergrad; now I’m earning my master's in urban studies and community arts. The degree program is based on trauma-informed arts creation, with the purpose of transforming urban and displaced communities into hope havens that are equipped for resiliency. I’m incredibly excited to be using my background in poetry and art in this way.
The advice I have for others is to keep on writing, even when it’s difficult. I recently came out of a season where I was dealing with anxiety and didn't write for almost a year. Now I’m writing quite often. Do whatever it takes to stay inspired: surround yourself with your favorite quotes and books and objects; put stickies on your mirror and in your car or on your bike that remind you of the creative energy you possess and can offer in the future as a gift to others. Get together with friends who are creative and/or passionate about writing and encourage each other to pursue your individual goals. Set strong deadlines; gather over good food and submit to your favorite publications. Celebrate each other’s successes. Read poems together that inspire you to wonder and go outside and adventure and love.
Is there any “homework” you’d like to assign our readers?
I'd like for readers to write a self-portrait poem that is a response to something that is going on in their lives or in the wider world, using this poem as a guide or perhaps a mirror. When writing a self-portrait poem, consider who you most truly are in this instance and dive wholeheartedly into what that means. Strive for simplicity in language and image and see what happens.
Readers can send their poems to me at katelyn.durst[at]gmail.com and I will send readers a poem back of my own self-portrait.
Share a poem you love, and tell us why you love it.
You know, I have to go with this older yet very rich poem that I often return to. It’s "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand. I love the lines, "There is no happiness like mine, I have been eating poetry." To me this poem is not just about devouring a poem you love and staying in love with that thing. It’s also about the beauty in the process of reading and performing poetry, how it transforms and heals us so that we can become wild and embodied in the way we’re meant to be. When Strand talks about “romping with joy in the bookish dark”, I think about my struggles with anxiety, depression, PTSD. And I think about poetry. It's like when you’re sitting in a theater and someone kills the lights, and for a while you’re sitting in darkness but then the movie begins, with music and people laughing and learning to love, and you realize that you’re not so alone after all.
KATELYN DURST is a poet, community artist, creative activist, teacher and youth worker. She has worked within urban youth development and urban community development for ten years in cities such as Chicago, Denver,DC, LA, Seattle and Flint (MI). A current artist-in-residence at Flint Public Art Project, she has taught poetry for six years and conducted poetry therapy workshops at a youth psychiatric hospital and Freedom Schools, a workshop focused on healing from the unjust deaths of youth of color. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Controlled Burn, The Lightkeeper, Deep Fried Poetry, The Offbeat, Teen Ink, New Poetry Magazine and Tayo Literary Magazine. In her spare time, Katelyn rides her bicycle named Ebony Jade, bakes gluten-free pastries, and dreams of her next adventure of becoming an urban beekeeper. She is pursuing a master’s degree in Urban Studies and Community Arts from Eastern University.