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January 2024 Feature: Sapphire

Sapphire is the award-winning author of Push, which was adapted into the Oscar-winning film Precious. Sapphire has received numerous awards and recognition including the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction; the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s First Novelist Award; and in Great Britain, the Mind Book of the Year Award.

Sapphire is the author of Push, American Dreams, The Kid, and Black Wings & Blind Angels. Push: A Novel, won the Book-of-the-Month Club’s Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction; the Black Caucus of the American Library Association’s First Novelist Award; and in Great Britain, the Mind Book of the Year Award. Named by the Village Voice and Time Out New York as one of the top ten books of 1996, Push was nominated for a NAACP Image Award in the category of Outstanding Literary Work of Fiction. Push was adapted into the Oscar-winning film, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire.  Sapphire’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Black Scholar, Spin, and Bomb. In February of 2007 Arizona State University presented PUSHing Boundaries, PUSHing Art: A Symposium on the Works of Sapphire. Sapphire’s work has been translated into over 18 languages and has been adapted for stage in the United States and Europe. 

The Harlem Trilogy (excerpt)


Mississippi 1910

Pt 1


The House of Satin

Madam Satin’s last paramour, Mr. McKenzie, had fallen blind in love with her. It happens. Not as often as one likes, but it happens. He was the last of a string of lovers, johns, and pimps whom she had extricated herself from. The man before Mr. McKenzie who, she wasn’t sure, but knew it was possible, that he could have been Flossie’s father had come after her with a violence.

Heavily pregnant but nowhere near ready to drop by her own calculations, Madam Satin, nee Mary Ann Cassidy, had gone to a shabby clip joint where she used to work, dropping in on friends to pass a bottle and partake of gossip. She had gone into labor grasping a bottle of stout, laughing convulsively upon hearing that Jane Murray had dodged the cops by dressing as a man. Only to be picked up on another corner by coppers who weren’t looking for her, ‘for appearing in public in men’s clothing. Jane was fined $10 for this, which is more than she would have been fined for hooking. Mary Ann’s guffaws had turned into howls and her convulsive laughter into contractions as she went into labor clutching her bottle of stout. Mary Ann’s hand was extended as she was being carried to a side room with a bed. A girl coming down the hall took the bottle out of Mary Ann’s hand, turned it up and drained it. The girl who hadn’t been invited to partake in the jollities in the dusty parlor narrowed her eyes and scrutinized Mary Ann’s red and contorted face dripping with sweat, tried to remember what she knew about this woman, and when the Aha! ping of recognition sounded, she ran down the hall, out of the door, down the street and down another street and didn’t stop until she ran straight into the man they called Emerald Isle, the notorious pimp and gambler (known to his mother as Francis Michael Gallagher). Mary Ann had run off from this man some months before taking his diamond cufflinks with her when she went. And for five dollars the breathless acquaintance informed the infamous Mr. Emerald Isle she would be happy to tell him where he could find Mary Ann Cassidy. Mr. Emerald Isle picked her up by the scruff of her neck demonstrating to her what he saw as her stray cat status in life and informed her that she would tell him where Mary Ann Cassidy was five dollars or not. She merely answered, “Times a wastin’ Mr. Emerald.” He responded by throwing her to the ground and then throwing two dollars on top of her.

Mary Ann had recognized the loud footfall and loud voice of Mr. Emerald Isle as he walked into the house and had wrapped her newborn in a pus and piss-stained pillow case, climbed out the first-floor window of the shabby and nameless whorehouse with her daughter, and made her way as best she could down the same street she had come to the Convent of the Holy Mother where her cousin was a novice. Madam Satin had asked the nuns to keep her baby girl until she could sort out her life.

She was walking down the street from the convent where she had left her child who, the myth-making creature that she was, she referred to as her only child. What that meant was, she chose to forget having been forced to leave one infant on a trash heap, and years later having sold another child with no regret other than that she should have driven a harder bargain. She decided walking down the street that this last one was her first one and that she would keep it. She was twenty-nine and gifted with looks that had people thinking she was seventeen.

Yes, this child would be her last child. Tears of rage and woe streamed down her alabaster face and she stumbled as she walked down the street fantasizing about killing her pimp. She was determined she would get her child back from the nuns and raise the baby herself if she had to run away or live in hiding in the convent to do it.

The international financier capitalist Mr. Mackenzie who had been out tippling spied her from the window of his carriage and saw the woe but not the rage, and asked his coachman to slow down to see if he might be of assistance to, what appeared on first glance and second glance too, a young golden-haired girl walking and crying with every step she took. Madam Satin, née Mary Ann Cassidy, an experienced raconteur and street diviner, realized that the man who introduced himself as Mr. Mackenzie was really and truly an angel, and asked God as she knew her, as she had been introduced to her in stank dank basements and alleys by witches, colored Creole women, and Catholic girls who had gone rogue, to Guide her tongue/Treoir Mo Tongu! She could see her perfusion of golden curls and tears had further besotted a man already well along the path to alcoholic stupor. She spoke slowly refusing a brandy and water that would ‘comfort her’ and chose her words carefully because there was a possibility he would remember them, and so that she should not forget what she said, aware his coachman might be straining to listen to every word she said. Mary Ann Cassidy’s life had been one of fluid invention since her mother, an impoverished woman from Dublin, had left with her sister to seek their fortunes in London. They had landed in a London jail and been scraped out of it and transported to America years ago. Both women had had the good sense to eschew forever and always all things English and Protestant and to seek blessing and sanctuary in the true church of the virgin mother, l’église catholique romaine.

Mr. Mackenzie listened to the fair and lovely girl who said she had been turned out of her stepfather’s house when she spurned his advances and had been walking down the street to find the river’s edge and would have walked into it had he not stopped his carriage and saved her. When she drew away from her eyes the handkerchief he had given her and raised those reddened orbs to his, he was impressed by their pale Alpine blue. He pressed some bills in her hand and dropped her off at the Hotel Carmine and told her who to ask for to get a room. And that he hoped he would see her there in two hours when he had finished his morning endeavors. He hoped she would have the forbearance to wait for him, but he understood if she could not and decided to return home, either way the money was hers to keep as he hated to see someone in distress that could so easily be remedied, and not remedy it.

He was an old man and fell in love with her in the way that old men do who intend to spite relatives they know have never loved them for anything but their money. He told her he loved her over morsels of tender beef and later ruby-throated hummingbird cake and Bridgetown rum. After a second glass of rum, he told her that he wanted to marry her. Mary Ann Cassidy was rather cool-headed for a woman who had had to drop a newborn that she had given birth to at seven o’clock that morning at a convent. She repeated that she had rescued herself from her stepfather’s house, why she knew, but for what she wasn’t sure. Mary Ann Cassidy was 29, not 17. She knew she did not want to be hanging around waiting for some old man to die, an old man whose relatives would be hovering over his soon-to-be corpse like buzzards.

She was clear when she told him, “Give what you would give me now. My mother suffers already this very day that I am not there to take care of the house and children while she goes out door to door with a bucket and brush to scrub the marble steps of the rich.”

A third glass of rum and the two were in bed beneath an embroidered coverlet. Her pain and the postpartum blood she left on the sheets were to the drunk man the crying blonde girl’s unasked for proof of virginity.

Even her cousin, who has since learned not to doubt the woman now called Madam Satin Fontaine was shocked when Mary Ann Cassidy who had said she would be returning with provisions for her daughter (they all said that), was back the next day with five hundred dollars for the Convent of the Blessed Virgins and her blonde-haired child. She was going away on business for two months after which she would be back to have her baby baptized and then take her home. She would be back in the wink of an eye/en un clin d’œil. Please sing to the infant in French.

Mary Ann Cassidy left the United States with Mr. McKensie thinking she might find a way off the street, maybe enter an established house where she could make a lot of money. What could she do with a lot of money? Buy a house of her own? Such big thoughts. Her mind which had never been really geared toward imagination made a subtle shift from invention to imagination. A house. I want my own house. What night bird did not want her own house, to be her own woman one day? Although some of the simpler ones just wanted to be married and be taken away from ‘all this’. And what was all this? Mary Ann snorted! More in one day than shop girls got in a week (and those little duckies ended up having to give it away to the boss man or the shop steward to get the goddamned check that they had run their respectable feet off for all week!) And then there were the girls who just wanted oblivion—a pipe or a bottle. But most girls were ambitious, Mary Ann thought.

Ah, but few had the view or means to achieve if they did have vision. So, visions, dreams, and desires were given short shrift. But that night with the old man Mary Ann Cassidy’s vision was if not born, resurrected.

Her first plan, not enough had transpired for it to be so; but the old fellow wouldn’t have known that, was to track him down and ensnare him a few months hence as the father of her child. But no that would be so clumsy, she thought. But better than she could have planned would be revealed over breakfast. The fool wanted to marry her now. He believed her! When would that happen again? The man who thought the tearful girl’s pain and effluvium following childbirth were the blood of a virgin whose maidenhead had been pierced by his propulsive penetrations was a new beginning for Mary Ann Cassidy. She realized that she had now begun a new chapter of her life and that it would begin with a rewriting of the first chapter. This was no problem as she was creative.

He told her he had a business trip and he wanted her to accompany him to the continent. Later she would ask someone where that was. At the time she just nodded. He gave her money, more money than she had ever seen, to purchase a wardrobe. He mentioned a couple of shops she had only stood outside of before. She took a phaeton straight away to the convent and gave half the money to her cousin. Her cousin burst into tears and clutched her neck as she kissed her. They were both rebuked. Her cousin put her green agate cross around her neck. The Mother Superior rebuked again but looked away because the bit of her that was sentimental was touched despite her hard position at the top by this young woman with enough iron in her spine to claw her way up.

The convent was not an orphanage per se. The sisters allowed girls of many different circumstances to leave children for three months, after which the children were then sent off to orphanages. The girls are told at the time they leave their children that the nuns kept no records and that they would send the children off and into good hands, but that they did not keep track of whether those good hands were from Baton Rouge, Detroit, or Saskatchewan. The nuns would wait ninety days. The girls promised. Perhaps they had intended to, but few came back. Looking at Mary Ann Cassidy’s fine head of golden curls and small eyes like frozen blue water the nuns did not think looking at her the first time she would be back.

When she came back eighty-five days later she had learned a language. In the time they had been gone the old man, Mr. Mackenzie, had only fallen deeper in love with the blonde and would not be disabused by comments muttered in low voices, by old acquaintances he would not call friends, who offered warnings about her, he coolly withdrew himself and his paying-for-the-next-round-of-drinks largess. He watched her win at the gambling table one night. It was the beginner’s luck big win that the house orchestrates to draw the new gambler in and begin the cycle of win-lose win-lose that ends with them losing if not everything close to everything. He watched Mary Ann Cassidy swoop upon her chips like a hawk grabbing a chicken’s neck and walk away from the table. Mr. Mackenzie was impressed with this stolid good sense and decided to reward it. Observing her listen over the course of three months to the language spoken around the resort, he heard her pieced-together patois of street French transform into the language that was spoken in the casino and at the track—French.

“Tell me about yourself,” he said watching her watch everything as if she was one of those newfangled movie camera machines recording everything.

Busy watching the waiter as he set a platter of raw oysters in the shell on the table, she didn’t answer. She watched how Mr. Mackenzie used a little fork, not his fingers and tongue as she was used to doing at the tavern. She had nothing to tell him she thought as she shook out a napkin and observed how he handled his cutlery.

“Me?” she said finally, “there is not much to tell. I don’t like talking about myself. It's unladylike.” Despite her intention not to she had forgotten some of what she told him on the street after getting in his carriage. The old guy had been drunk, but not that drunk.

Mr. Mackenzie nodded at the waiter to fill Mary Ann Cassidy’s glass. She demurred. An old pimp had told her, Never drink as much or more than your mark ‘less you end up a mark yourself!

“Well, my father was a French Creole and my mother the same. My father sent us all to school where we learned proper French, it’s coming back to me hearing it here. But we was kids and clung to our patois at home and spoke English in the street. My mother died and my father took another wife and she straight away wanted me to take care of her kids, she brought two to the union. My father was a night watchman and was killed in a robbery and my stepmother married again. And there I was, a stepchild to one parent and a step-stepchild to the other parent. It wasn’t long before I was having to fight him off. So, that’s where we run into one another. I couldn’t take no more.”

The waiter had reappeared, “And the lady what would you like/Et la dame qu’est-ce que vous aimeriez?

Je voudrais un café noir, s’il vous plait/I would like a black coffee please,” she replied.

“You learn fast,” he said.

“Yes, I put myself in it I guess you could say,” Mary Ann Cassidy said. “Well, I guess that’s all there is to say about me. My mother always said a lady’s got to have some mystery, you know.” She attempted a playfulness she did not feel. “And what about you Mr. Mackenzie?”

She listened and heard nothing new. He was a rich man and had not been happy at home. Oh, why did they marry in the first place! The café noir kept her awake. His children didn’t appreciate him, all they wanted was his money. Well, give it to them, she thought! His wife had died after a long illness and he was free to marry again and was struck by her beauty and, despite everything, her character.

Character? And what was he doing to it, she sneered, bringing her to these glistening gold gambling casinos and ravishing her nightly. The word that came to Mary Ann’s mind was, sum. He needed to settle a ‘sum’ on her head, she thought as he prattled on about what he owned and how big a man he was. Yes, he must take her to the bank and settle a sum on her head. She would never marry him or anybody else.

“May I take this, Madam?” the waiter asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Mackenzie answered, “we are satisfied.”


On the voyage home he watched her and fell, old man that he was, deeper in love with his creation of a pure girl set upon and wronged by a wicked stepfather. He knew he was sick and had planned for a long time to spite his children. So, they, after she spent a night at the convent where she obtained a birth certificate for herself as well as her daughter, both stamped with Satin Fontaine and signed by the Monsignor. She waited around for an hour for her daughter to be baptized, retrieved a baptismal certificate for her baby, and as long as they were at it she asked, could she have one for herself. She then headed for the bank. If her papers did not seem unusual and like an abundance of fresh ink it was perhaps because they were issued and common in an age of invention.

She retrieved her child and installed it with a nursemaid in a hotel and went to the Bank of Mississippi where she met Mr. Mackenzie and announced her presence and her name—Satin Fontaine and her readiness to begin a new life that Mr. Mackenzie could be honored to be a part of it.

The bank manager raised his eyebrows but they dropped and he nodded when Mr. Mackenzie took out his checkbook and wallet. Satin agreed to half the sum being in annuities that would begin paying monthly sums immediately, and the rest in cash. She was quite capable of managing her money she assured the bank officer. Mr. Mackenzie agreed.

She repaired to the hotel and gave instructions to the maid. She was ready to move on.

Mr. Mackenzie returned to New York divested of fully one-third of his fortune. He waited for Mary Ann Cassidy to join him in New York. It was a scene from theater, the kind-hearted gentleman and the blond vision of loveliness in distress. They would play their parts. He had played this role in his past, though it had never cost him as much before. It was a new role for Satin Fontaine nee Mary Ann Cassidy. She flubbed her lines in ways that would have cost a lesser actress her part but being clever she was not recast.

She had seen a house, a large house, a house on President Street, in Le Quartier Canard Blanc. She wanted to buy it. Now that she could afford them, she had dreams. She planned. She knew how to work hard. Two weeks after he had gone back North, she took a deep breath and wrote to Mr. Mackenzie and told him, she had changed her plans and decided not to come to New York and marry him. He could reach her at the convent where she was now a novice and to which she had given all her worldly goods upon taking her vows. Mr. Mackenzie was not a fool, but he felt his days were numbered (they actually turned out to be more in number than he had thought), and old though he may have been he was at the top of his game, he set about his business, his fortunes doubled, and he did not smart at the piece of it lost but what did chagrin him was the loss of his cherished role in this bit of theater.

Flossie was seven years old when Mr. Mackenzie returned to Blue Gulf Town, Mississippi. His business had brought him to the Mississippi Sound again and for the last time. He knew where to find Mary Ann Cassidy now Madam Satin. When he entered her house he was escorted to the parlor as was par for the course for gentlemen callers of his caliber. He gazed at the six-foot-tall slender black servant who had escorted him to the parlor. She wore gold hoop earrings, a black bustier, see-thru lace brocade black harem pants, a shiny belt made of foreign coins around her waist, and very smart kid-skin boots. He had never seen a get-up quite like that anywhere else. She looked like the sleek gold-collared black panthers he had seen in cheap oil paintings of exotic Eastern harems on whorehouse walls, except she didn’t look cheap or even attainable.

“I would like to see Madam Satin,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” she answered, “She is busy. I will be happy to attend to you. Tell me what you wish.”

“She will see me. Tell her Mr. Mackenzie is here. She should make haste I have a train to catch,” he said.

When she heard who awaited her in the parlor, Madam Satin’s first impulse was to throw a veil over her head and run out the backdoor of her own house. But she thought again and sent Maria back to the parlor via the back staircase, and Maria pulled back the deep-purple velvet curtain of the little schoolroom by day and counting house by night, and invited Mr. Mackenzie in. After a financial transaction had been made Maria led him to Madam Satin’s boudoir.

What made her know he had come to rescue her again? She took down her chignon and let her luxuriant golden curls fall unrestrained on her shoulders and donned a white silk camisole over a simple white corset that he would unlace with those fingers that trembled to reveal her still high pink-tipped breasts white as driven snow. She eschewed her imported French perfume and dabbed a vanilla-scented mixture Maria had conjured for protection on her wrists. She took off her diamond earrings.

Underneath the scent of confectioner’s vanilla was the smell he had never forgotten—the musky stink between her legs mingled with the pong of sweat from under her arms, and her breath that had somehow always smelled like ripe strawberries. It had not changed. He unlaced her stays with firm sober fingers that began to tremble as her form was revealed. He almost wept as he sucked her breasts. She drew him to her and educated whore that she was, she did what she needed to do to help an old man get an erection. And when he heaved inside of her there was no ‘almost’, he did weep. And Madam Satin could see he was not worthy of her shame. She had not wronged him! What were a few lies or a bit of dissembling if a man came back to you, paid for his pleasure, sucked, and swallowed what was between your legs, and wept on your breast? She had not deceived him.

No, Madam Satin had not deceived him. And when Mr. Mackenzie left Blue Gulf and caught the train to New Orleans to finish up his business before he returned to New York he left her with gifts, among which was the diamond wedding ring he had bought seven years ago for her.

That was twelve years ago. Mr. Mackenzie has since died. And Madam Satin has continued to rise.


Poem Found in Scientific American  

On November 16. 2022 an article

In Scientific American, a reputable magazine

as magazines go, calls the question

that I now put to you my friends:

“Who is dying from COVID now, and why”

Is something a poem if you have to tell someone it’s a poem?

Wouldn’t they know by the end rhyme

or the number of beats in the line—

ta DAH ta DAH ta DAH ta DAH ta DAH

five times across the page

It doesn’t sound like: She is gone!

The shock of that—one million times

She is gone She is gone She is gone—

not like a friendship gone bad like it had

or money borrowed and not paid back

but like gone, like the ship disappearing

over the horizon. She is gone.

She wrote me some time ago:


Sorry for sending this card so late

I have not been in the Holiday spirit

at all. I got fired from my job on

November, 15 after 16 plus years on the

same job So, basically I have to start

over again from scratch In this day and

age and [at] my age is not easy. They

just fired another person last week after

30 years on the job. Every since they

merged with this other company they

have been getting rid of people in one way

or the other



I have something to say about that



The article asks who? Who? Her, that’s who!

While the total number of COVID deaths

has fallen, the burden

is shift-shifting-shifts even more toward

people older than 64…COVID deaths among people age 65 and older more than doubled between April and July this year rising by 125%...Racism and discrimination play an outsize role.

Another friend denise h. bell was a poet.

She described herself as “a mature published poet”.

Her poems, as I interpreted them, shone a light on

marginalization, ageism, poverty

She had been published in Rattle of which

she was duly proud. Had done time at the Board

of Ed. Had been accepted to Cave Canem workshop

at over the age of 64 that was, we considered, quite an honor.

A stunning poem titled remember my name about an older man

who has retired and sees himself in the diminished light of one

whom society feels has outlived his usefulness.

The poem ends with lines hoping his wife puts

“a picture on my obituary”

so people remember who he was.

denise h. bell

denise h. bell

denise h. bell

denise h. bell

denise h. bell

denise h. bell

denise h. bell

denise h. bell

denise h. bell denise h. bell denise h. bell denise h. bell


Overall, the article says, U.S. life

expectancy has dropped significantly

significant signify sign—

sign of late-stage capitalism—my words

Not the article, who questions the hangman

until he comes for them—

Who thinks he is coming for them

What is my crime you cry out


The article says, “That is unprecedented,

She’s talking about the drop in life expectancy.

And we had so few expectations—

To publish a poem, to be remembered on a lover’s lips,

fantasy of a new lover’s kiss—Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s old man finds love with a 14-year-old. It happens to old men in novels—mostly old white men w/14-year-olds of either sex.

Though there was "Harold and Maude,"

but look what happened to her!


At the peak of the recent surge in August

2022, 91.9% of all deaths around the country were

among people 65 and older—squeezed out workers,

ticket punchers, bouncers, beer hall, beach ball

Gramps, Ma’Dear, Auntie, Grammie

Spinster sitting at the wheel spinning thread

The scissors, the hand that snips the thread

dragged off her stool and slapped on a stainless

steel gurney intubated in the hospital hallway—

to be not strong enough to fight for resources

all that tax money to Uncle Sam

the sanity lost in Vietnam

what you did to your kids when you got back from Korea

what you saw in WWII when they emptied the camps

the leg you left behind in Iraq

the student that attacked you at Public School 321—

you didn’t deserve that, but you got it.

Now you’re on this gurney waiting for a bed

you are not welcome in because of Medi-

care’s low reimbursement rates.

You look at a little plastic machine

attached to your finger saying 70, 60, 50—

You don’t feel so much,

you thought dying would feel different.

And then suddenly it does! Grabbing you

by the throat you think about your apartment

all your things—things you traded your time and

life for—watches—the one red Gucci bag—

you were scared to carry on the subway.

You call out the tube goes in your throat

you think Jesus. The article says younger

people are still dying at higher rates,

I’m reading but I can hear the man’s voice rise

in pitch, “Under normal conditions in

the U.S. younger people rarely die.”

“Black people are dying at higher rates.”

He doesn’t know to say it’s been that way

since slavery. But he does say, “That’s not

even acknowledging American Indians,

Alaska Natives and Pacific Islanders…”

Whose land

Whose land

we stand upon—

Who were decimated with guns & type-

writers banging out cowboy novels:

home home on a plane.

It’s November 22, 2022, two days

before Thanksgiving I’m reading all this.

I’ve seen the affable old white guy say on TV,

“The pandemic is over.”

He grins, his granddaughter fairytales

on the White House lawn—so pearl pristine sun-

shine and green grass, the top of the chain—


The article says:

“We’re still in the middle of this crisis.

The most vulnerable will not just be left behind

but will be sentenced to death.”


ta DAH ta DAH ta DAH stopped on a dime

Nobody wants to hear that end rhyme

ta DAH ta DAH ta DAH stopped for a dime.



This interview was conducted between Jae Nichelle and Sapphire on January 2, 2024.

From Push to The Kid to these excerpts from The Harlem Trilogy, your body of work has shown a remarkable evolution in style and narrative. How do you see your writing style and storytelling approach evolving over the years? Are there specific influences, experiences, or literary movements that have shaped your journey as an author?


As the stories I wanted to tell over the years differed and changed, my style also evolved and changed. What I needed was different for The Kid than what I needed for Push. Push is written in an intimate first person in the voice of a girl with limited education. She’s sixteen when the novel starts and eighteen when it ends. There’s an earnestness and purity to this character. That was deliberate, AIDS was highly stigmatized at the time (still is to some degree). In personal ads, folks would say things like, “I’m clean,” when they were discussing their HIV-negative status. She’s a highly “reliable narrator”. Abdul in The Kid is not. He’s a tormented soul who at times lies to himself. His ability to love himself and the world is called into question. Unlike his mother, he’s highly literate and worldly. Both novels deal with the effects of intergenerational violence, racism, homophobia, art, literacy, and class. Both novels are told in the first person, so we see the world through the character’s eyes. But they’re very different. The question for me as a writer is, what will serve the story, what conceit, technique, device, etc. will bring this story into being? I think that is where “style” should emanate from, what will serve the text. With The Harlem Trilogy, I am telling an intergenerational story that begins in 1910 and takes the reader up to a few years past the Obama presidency. I had to use different storytelling techniques, but the question remained the same, what will serve the text?

When I think of primary influences on me as a young writer I think of Ntozake Shangé. I was studying dance with Raymond Sawyer and Ed Mock in San Francisco. One of the dancers in Raymond’s company was Ntozake Shangé. She was beginning to create the work that would make her famous, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuff. I would watch her artistic collaborations with choreographers like Raymond Sawyer, Paula Moss, Halifu Osumare and poets like Jessica Hagedorn, and various jazz musicians. I was mesmerized. This had a profound effect on my developing artistic sensibilities. I was in California, they went to New York. So, it was obvious New York was the place to be. In New York, I discovered people like Pedro Pietri, Miguel Algarin, Dael Orlandersmith, Bob Holman, the Pussy Poets, Carl Hancock Rux, Janice Erlbaum, Patricia Smith, June Jordan, Sandra Maria Esteves, Sarah Jones, Paul Beatty—the whole movement that was the Nuyorican Poets Café. In 1994 my work was included in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. Pedro Pietri, June Jordan, and Ai remain foundational poets for me. Speaking of spoken word, in 2010 I recorded June Jordan’s novel, His Own Where, for Audible audiobook. It was such a thrill to do that for a work and a person I admired.


In “Poem Found in Scientific American,” I had to pause and take in the question “Is something a poem if you have to tell someone it’s a poem?” The piece itself is such an intricate collaboration of news, voices, and eulogy. What role has your poetry played for you in difficult times and political moments?


With a piece like “Poem Found in Scientific American” the methodologies of visual artists like Betye Saar who uses assemblage, Romare Bearden the master collagist, and Rosie Lee Thomkins the quilt maker guide me. And as the title of the poem reflects found poetry is important to the working of this poem. Found Poetry can be defined as: “A borrowed text, a piece of writing that takes an existing text and presents it as a poem. Something that was never intended to be a poem—a newspaper article, a street sign, a letter, a scrap of conversation—is refashioned as a poem, often through lineation…”. That’s from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. The other word that comes to mind is collage, which etymologically stems from French, gluing, from coller to glue…” Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged.

The first time I remember using this type of collage form, i.e., mixing documents and poetry was when my brother had been murdered.

I had asked his ex-girlfriend to send me the documents she had concerning his death, the death certificate, etc. Time passed; I forgot about the request. Some months later I got an 8 by 11 manilla envelope in the mail. I opened it not knowing what it was or who it was from. The envelope contained my brother’s birth certificate, his death certificate, and his autopsy report. You know, information, data, the reductive facts.

The facts often tell their own story, for example, as I write this, 8,000 children have been killed in Gaza by Israeli bombs and the IDF fighting forces. Those are the facts. Now juxtapose those facts with a clip of a denying obfuscating Israeli government official saying, “We don’t know who killed those children”, and then maybe show a picture of a Palestinian mother preparing her child for a funeral by enshrouding them in these pristine white sheets we see on the news. By ‘collaging’ all this we tell another story. We do this now, so our story exists, at least for us, as a contradiction to the official narrative. Which in the case of Israel and the United States is that Israel is trying to irradicate Hamas. We begin to see through snips of data, a leaked government memo that calls the current moment an “OPPORTUNITY” to move the Palestinians out of Gaza, we juxtapose that with a real estate company offering Israeli Jews seaside property in Gaza. By employing the artistic methodology of the African American quiltmaker, we get a different story. Taking broken and shattered pieces of existence and pasting or stitching them together into a coherent text through the act of collage or assemblage allows my brain to make an explanatory and perhaps healing work of art. Romare Bearden worked in a lot of mediums but it was his work as a collagist that really, like that of the African American women quilt makers, had a profound effect on me. So “collage” or “assemblage” is an opportunity to take our shattered selves and make them whole.

The following is an excerpt from the poem AUTOPSY REPORT 86-13504 published in 1994. I used official documents, poetry, and personal correspondence:

3.    Autopsy Report 86–13504

From the anatomic findings and pertinent history

I ascribe death to craniocerebral injuries

Los Angeles, Ca. October 14, 1986, @ 1230 hours









the body is that of a well-developed black male

74 inches in length


weighing 179 pounds

appearing the stated 38 years of age

37! he was 37!

the hair is long

measuring 6 inches in length

in an afro style.

there is also a moustache

& slight beard growththe sclerae are white

& the irises are brown.

nose shows blood

the left ear contains blood & fly eggs.

the mouth shows fly eggs on the hard palate

the teeth appear to be intact

thorax symmetrical

configuration normal abdomen flat


extremities show no


clubbing, edema or deformity



4. …extensive

Head and Nervous System








you said it was fuck

or be fucked.

said they let you out

with a string attached to

your ass to pull you back

if you breathe wrong.


5.    Dear Sapphire,

I sent a letter up to the other address explaining the times and change of life. Since the happenings of the last letter things look better being that I remember where I was a year ago (in jail). Also walking down Sunset to get my last check from the big ‘Z’ I happen to look behind me and see this sister and white boy walking together. She looked as if she didn’t want to be bothered, so I gave her the high sign and she ducked into a phone booth and I into a store. She came out and we started walking down the street arm and arm exchanging words no names yet.

She told me she had a friend around the corner with some jam, so we walked by and got Hi. Found out later she is S— S— of Earth, Wind and Fire. Spent last night at her apartment on Sunset. Saph, for the record I have never been so Hi! In my life and awake to remember it: wine, coke, hash and opium. Yes, once again I am in love chasing the happiness (so called) that we all chase.

Other than that money is getting funny.

Power to Us

Lord Lofton


There are themes of trauma, violence, and uncovering complex identities in your work. How do you take care of yourself while writing?

Community! For years I attended a meeting of women who had survived sexual abuse. I stopped going for various reasons. But during the pandemic, I joined a Zoom support group. That was incredibly important for me. I also regularly see a therapist. That has worked for me. When I lived in Manhattan there was a church, St Francis Assisi on 31st St, that had student therapists you could see for thirty to thirty-five dollars a session. We need more avenues to access therapy even if you don’t have money or private insurance. Of course, the real solution is MEDICARE FOR ALL, destigmatizing mental health issues, and free mental health services for all. We have to question how we can afford to finance war in Ukraine and Israel while we do without healthcare.

How do you rest and recharge? 

I try to pay attention to diet and exercise, it’s about progress, not perfection. You never get all this stuff right. Ultimately it comes down to I want to be here for the work and I have to be alive to do it!


As a spoken word artist, what is your current relationship with the performance of your work?

Because of the pandemic and my personal health vulnerabilities, I have chosen to limit in-person presentations. So ZOOM is a big word for me right now. When I think of the performance of my work now, I see productions or movies. I would love to see Push, the musical. I would love to see a one-person choreopoem stage or film adaptation of The Kid.


Over time, your work has had a profound impact on readers from around the world, sparking important conversations and challenging societal norms. I love the anecdote you shared in The Poet Speaks Podcast about a young woman who stopped you on the street to tell you Push was her favorite book!  Can you share any other memorable experiences or encounters with readers who have been deeply affected by your writing? How do you feel in those moments?

One moment that stands out for me is The Kid and Push both being translated into French, Chinese, Portuguese, and Italian, so readers could really get a sense of the world I was writing about in a way they could not if only Push had been translated.

Another moment that stands out was in November of 2022 I was invited to the Syracuse YMCA Downtown Writers Center as part of the Syracuse Symposium series: It Takes a Village: Recovering Our Children Through Literature & Literacy. I was honored to be invited. I had presented at this venue, Syracuse YMCA Downtown Writers Center, twelve or thirteen years ago. So, when the presenter was introducing me, he said, “She performed here 12 years ago”, then he said, “Some of those same people who were here twelve years ago are here tonight.” That just went all through me, it gave me a tremendous feeling of community and continuity. The work is so much bigger than bestseller lists and prizes. We’re, at least I am, trying to get the oppressor’s foot off our individual and collective neck as we simultaneously try to make something beautiful out of our existence.

Do you have any hidden talents or special interests that people would be surprised to learn?

Yes, I’m a visual arts person and have tried my hand at small assemblages and doll-making.

What, if anything, is giving you hope these days?

The continued blossoming of Black women’s writing and other forms of art. I’m inspired by the new BRILLIANT voices in Black women’s scholarship.

I’m inspired by the anything is possible-ness of Serena Williams and Simone Biles!

I’m inspired by the resistance that has sprung up all over the world, in the street and online, to the ongoing genocide in Gaza. There has been such a bold courageous response to the illegal mass punishment inflicted on the women and children of Gaza. It has given me great hope.

I’m inspired by South African International Relations and Cooperation Minister Dr. Naledi Pandor who announced South Africa would be bringing charges of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.


How can people support you right now?

The best way to support me is to read the work. Make sure it’s not taken off the shelves in your local libraries. Support the brilliant scholarship, Sapphire’s Literary Breakthrough: Erotic Literacies, Feminist Pedagogies, and Environmental Justice Perspectives by Elizabeth McNeil, Neal A. Lester, DoVeanna Fulton, and Lynette D. Myles about my work. And most of all keep writing and publishing your own brilliant and needed work!


Name other Black Women writers people should know.

Novelist: Bessie Head, author of When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power. (Born in South Africa to a white mother in a mental hospital at a time when interracial relationships were illegal; Bessie Head would go on to become one of Africa’s most influential writers.)

Poet: Ai, author of the National Book Award winner Vice and The Collected Poems of Ai edited by Yusef Komunyakaa (Ai is known for her mastery of the dramatic monologue and exploration of outré subject matter.)

Memoirist: Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. (Notice the words “Written by Herself”. Until Harriet Jacobs wrote her memoir female African American slave narratives were written (and the content often censored) by white women amanuenses. Harriet Jacobs’ memoir was a game-changer.)

Scholar: Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, author of They Were Her Property: White Women as

Slave Owners in the American South which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History, the Dan David Prize, and the Merle Curti Social History Award. (A tour de force They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South is also a game-changer and required reading for anyone interested in Black women’s lives, studies, and stories.)



Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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