Honorée Fannone Jeffers

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s first book, The Gospel of Barbecue, was chosen for the 1999 Wick Prize for Poetry by Lucille Clifton, who called it “sweet and sassy, hot and biting.” This collection, finalist for the 2001 Paterson Poetry Prize and Converse College’s 2002 Julia Peterkin Award winner, is rich with flavor and music, but also with stories of personal and political violation. “I hear people and I feel them inside of me, inside my skin, she says. “The people who come to me come because I understand and I’ve been there. They are voiceless.”

Jeffers credits “the courageous authors who spoke to me in my childhood” for her own inspiration, writers like James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, and dedicates her second volume, Outlandish Blues, “to Mama and Mr. Langston Hughes.” She also acknowledges and the poems reflect her large debt to many black recording artists, including Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Aretha Franklin. The book is full of fiery and forthright lyrics that burst from the page into song. Outlandish Blues explores the “blue notes shared by the secular and spiritual traditions” and features such diverse characters as Dinah Washington and Lot’s Wife. Despair is met with wit and grace and sweaty honesty: “I don’t write uplifting poems. The uplift is in the survival.”

A founding member of Cave Canem, the writer’s colony for African American poets, Jeffers is recipient of awards from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women, and has been a fellow at Breadloaf and MacDowell colonies. While she grew up in Kokomo, Indiana, and currently teaches at the University of Oklahoma, Jeffers was educated at Talladega College and the University of Alabama, and ended up spending some twenty years in Alabama, which she still considers home.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2004 (with Tim Seibles)

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

And they thought we were
talking about heaven.
After all, we had not studied
the masters’ poesy, we knew
nothing about central metaphors,
conceits, literary vehicles.
Chariots carrying us home
on the underground railroad.
No, we were picking cotton
or tobacco or peaches and glorifying
tragedy with our voices.
We were weeping bitter, large tears.

From THE GOSPEL OF BARBECUE (Kent State University Press, 2000)

An Old Lady Told Me

An old lady told me, Every real woman
has a rape fantasy at least once in her life.
I refuse to believe her. I’m a real woman.
I’ve never had a rape fantasy.
I’ve never imagined they come at night
myself tied to a four post bed with Hermés
silk scarves, the ones with the little appropriate
they come to hurt us they come riding symbols
all over them while a faceless they called our names
man bends above me, his narrow hips pointed
right they were our neighbors at my brain.
I know that old lady thinks I dream of power,
of giving it up to someone else or having it stolen
and having that feel good. She thinks I want
distance, but where is the part about blood and fists,
my gargling with gasoline a million times?
Or the scene where they knew our names
they took hurt us hurt us we tried to be modest

we tried I scratch his name to hide ourselves
to cover on a public bathroom wall our heads
with sheets they hurt us we ran when the bullets
started the paint slicing off they buried my daughter
as easily as my skin by the trees over there ?

From THE GOSPEL OF BARBECUE (Kent State University Press, 2000)

Unidentified Female Student, Former Slave

(Talladega College, circa 1885)

You might have heard a story like this one well
but I’m telling this one to you now.
I was five when the soldiers came.

Master worked me twenty years longer.
How could I know? One day he left me alone
and an unwatched pot started to boil. By the time

he came back home I was cleaned of him and singing,
There’s a man going round taking names.
Ready, set, and I was gone, walking. Could I see

beyond his yard? Did I have a thought to read or write
or count past God’s creation? A barefooted
girl!-and you remember, you woman who will take

your pen to write my life. This is what the truth was like:
Master’s clouds followed me to the steps of this school.
Dear reader, when you think on this years after I have died

and I am dust, think on a great and awful morning
when I learned my freedom. Think that the skin on my
back was cared when I dared step out into the world,

when my Master stood trembling and weeping
on his front porch and he cursed me beyond knowing.

From OUTLANDISH BLUES (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)