peculiar‘s most recent Featured Writer is Mia S. Willis, who drapes you in their poetry; a small thread of it hooks to you, and before you finish, you trail the words behind you—a train of images you can’t shake. This poetry you can’t untangle yourself from is why we’ve chosen Willis as our featured writer. Their powerful words have earned them a Pushcart Prize nomination, several poetry slam titles, and a soon-to-be-published debut poetry collection. Willis took the time to answer a few questions about their craft, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share their responses with you.
When did you start writing?
I wrote my first poem after the sudden death of my oldest sister, Brandi, in 2012. In fact, my early work is comprised mostly of lyrical missives to her à la Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Woman. These pieces stand as a monument to my grief; they were and perhaps still are the most benevolent but necessary exorcism both for Brandi and for me.
Why do you write?
I think of my writing as an extension of my Rinzai Zen Buddhist meditation; it allows me to understand the world and to survive it. In a way, I believe I’ve developed Stockholm Syndrome for life in this queer Black body. Some days it is a cage; others it is an oculus. I am alive on these days whether I want to be or not, and so long as this is true, I will write so that I can continue to, as Dominique Christina once put it, “crawl out of graves”.
What poets and writers do you read?
Danez Smith. Maggie Nelson. M. Less. Ariana Brown. Lindsay Young. Thích Nhất Hạnh. Dominique Christina. Rainer Maria Rilke. Justice Ameer. Asia Bryant-Wilkerson.
What’s your writing process?
My process is incredibly emotional; I am usually driven by questions of morality, of gender, of nationality, and of culture. These queries are typically products of happenings in my daily life; for example, the titular poem in my forthcoming chapbook, “monster house.”, serves as my exploration of the ways in which physical spaces have the power to exorcise those who inhabit them (either with permission or by force). It was borne out of a negative experience I had with a white cisgender man™ in which he appropriated work written by a feminine poet (who is also my partner) about their experiences in girlhood. The poem “how to exorcise a boy (monster house).” serves as my response to this offense: “this house is a monster ready to make a meal out of any mortal bold enough to desecrate its hallowed ground”.
What inspires you to write?
“Everything is everything.” – NoName, Room 25 (2018)
What’s your favorite thing you’ve ever written?
I’m currently working on a collection of kwansabas (African American celebration poems) on the subject of my Black queer body. This creative process is allowing me to fall in love with both the words I write and the topic(s) on which I write them.
What effect do you hope your writing will have on people?
My favorite review came from a poetry slam attendee who said that my work is reminiscent of a “sadder, gayer Freddie Brooks from A Different World”. From this comment, I gleaned that my work gives most folx a joyful Black queer sandwich cookie with a dollop of melancholy in the middle. I’m largely content with that analysis.
Where do you see yourself in the future?
- Faithful to myself and others. “Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” – Hebrews 11:1, The Bible (4000s BCE-96 AD)
- Happy. “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations (161-180 AD)
- In love with myself and others. “Every person is a world to explore.” – Thích Nhất Hạnh, How to Love (2014)
What’s it like being queer where you live?
I grew up in North Carolina, a place where Black queer folx are hung either on the cross or in their closets. The hardest thing I have ever done is continue to live when I wanted to die. “Remember that none of it killed me; that all of it could have.” – Dominique Christina, The Bones, The Breaking, The Balm: A Colored Girl’s Hymnal (2014)
Thankfully, because of my father and my queer chosen family, I survived the shame and I am still unlearning it. My queer family is multiracial and multigenerational. Our gender and romantic identities combine in more ways than mismatched socks. We counsel each other through good times and bad. We cook meals for one another. We read each other’s poems. We watch ridiculous television shows together. We give one another the space to exist exactly as we are. This is the kind of home I had to run away in order to find.
What makes you peculiar?
My undergraduate degrees are in Anthropology and Classical Civilization. I am currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Classical Archaeology and am writing my thesis on the syncretism of Apollo and the Thracian Horseman in Hellenistic Thrace. My education has trained me to be a student of the world in both the past and the present as well as to interrogate the motives of those who claim to be its teachers. My time in academia has demonstrated to me that a) Black is the beginning, b) queer transcends space, time, and language, and c) nothing is nothing, therefore no one is no one.
Mia S. Willis is a 23-year-old African American artist and adventurer from Charlotte, North Carolina. Mia is a recipient of the 2018 Foothill Editors’ Prize for their poem “hecatomb,” which was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Their work has been showcased by WORDPEACE, Foothill: a Journal of Poetry, Button Poetry and Slamfind. In 2018, Mia ranked fourth out of 96 femme poets at the Women of the World Poetry Slam, placed fifth out of 150 poets at the Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam, and won the Capturing Fire Slam. They were also a member of Tender Bitch, the winning poetry performance team at the 2018 Feminine Empowerment Movement Slam Tournament. Mia’s debut poetry collection, “monster house.”, was the 2018 winner of the Cave Canem Foundation’s Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize and will be published by Jai-Alai Books in April 2019.