Interview by Jasmine Sealy. Photo by Carly Shaia.
Beasa Dukes writes ghost stories. But these stories are far from ephemeral. These stories are about spirits that are born of the earth, that inhabit bodies and influence our every waking moment. Maybe it’s better to say, then, that Dukes writes people stories. Body stories. Stories that live and breathe and dance and fight. “The Heart-Hum,” published in PRISM’s summer issue (55.4), is about two people, tormented by the angry spirits of the city around them and by disconnections between their bodies and spirits, finding the softness in each other when the world around and within them is nothing but pain.
Dukes was born in the Bronx and their writing draws on early memories of the borough’s urban landscape. Their stories’ ghosts aren’t white-sheeted, floating auras. They’re tactile, visceral things. In “The Heart-Hum,” they’re rats and trash and spiders. When Dukes was five, their mother decided to relocate the family to Chesapeake, Virginia. Dukes has remained in West Virginia into adulthood; they graduated from Longwood University and are now pursuing a low-residency MFA at West Virginia Wesleyan. Theirs is an urban imagination grounded in a body that has decided, for now, to remain rural.
Just back from a residency period, Dukes spoke with me via Skype. We talked about hipster bars in cities under conquest and conceptual grass-rolling in the Virginia woods, blood and land, bodies and spirits, and laughing at the hard stuff.
Could you tell me a bit about your path to becoming a writer?
I did my undergrad at Longwood University, in Virginia. I started out as a teacher, or wanting to be a teacher. But I was aimless. I figured I would just do the teacher thing because I knew I needed to do something. Everyone was telling me I needed to do something.
The teachers at Longwood love to have you journal. I was presenting my journal and this teacher pulled me aside and said, “Have you considered that maybe you should be doing something in the English Department, like creative writing?”
So up until that point you’d never considered becoming a writer?
Not really. I was an anime nerd so I thought I’d love to write the next Naruto. It was never anything that serious for me. I wanted to make stories, but you grow up with people saying things like, “Do you really want to do writing?” and, “Art’s not really that stable.” So you kind of get discouraged. But that teacher sent me over to the English Department, where I started studying English Secondary Education. As I started doing poetry workshops and stuff like that I realized that maybe I didn’t want to be a teacher.
There were two professors who helped to open me up a little bit. One was Dr. David Magill, who’s this amazing professor. He does a lot of work on diversity in English departments. He introduced me to a lot of writers that my predominantly white schools didn’t show me.
Who were some of those early writers that inspired you?
For me it was Paul Beatty, his book White Boy Shuffle. Then there was Toni Morrison, the first book I read of hers was Love. And then there was Audre Lorde. Those three most shifted what I could do and what I could bring to my writing.
My first fiction piece was super inspired by a mixture of Toni Morrison and Paul Beatty and how they tell stories. With that rhythmic, quick pace but also that overwhelming lush of details and that picturesque mysticism that Toni Morrison has. I took that and I piled it onto the page.
I didn’t really start honing my writing until I met my creative writing professor Mary Carroll-Hackett; she essentially paved the way for me to realize that this is what I want to do. On the first piece I workshopped she wrote, “Meet me after class,” with a smiley face.
I was like, “Holy crap this amazing woman wants to meet me after class that’s kind of scary,” so I avoided it for a few days. Finally I sat down with her and she was just like, “Alright, you’ve got some chops. We’re going to work on that because you need control.”
I really like that image of you skirting your destiny, just avoiding her door.
I’m really good at avoiding things but she said, “You’re going to get better. We’re going to make sure of it.”
One of the most distinguishing features of your work is the language. Your use of Black Vernacular English, and the way you weave these dream-like metaphors through prose but can also be kind of blunt. I’m thinking of the contrast in the opening lines of “The Heart-Hum”: “I’m deadweight under some monkey bars watching the moon burn a dulled white knot in the dark blue sky.” Followed by, “Snow is all up in my ass crack and I ain’t got no shoes.” There’s this amazing contrast. What’s your relationship to your choice of language?
For me language is really supposed to be fun. And I’ve always had a hard time with academia, all of the technical terms. I’m not good with figuring that out so I try to find ways to translate what I understand about language, and that’s usually through my body, and in some ways my relationship to dance. I’m not a proficient dancer, but I do love the way dance communicates.
I’m very visual and auditory. I can’t spell. I’m always sounding things out and often I’m sounding things out wrong. If I like the way things sound in my mouth, I’m going to write it. For me it’s a way of playing.
Your work explores dark themes but there are also great moments of humour. When you said that one of your early influences was Paul Beatty, that made a lot of sense to me because you also use satire. How do you create these moments of humour?
That’s always a hard question for me because I don’t always think about it too hard. I’m the type of person who just explodes things onto a page and then has to dial back if something’s not working. For me it’s a matter of getting people to understand without wagging your finger at them. I guess instinctually I use dark humour to do that.
People are typically more receptive to dark humour because it takes them a minute to realize what they’re laughing at. I live off that kind of duality—you’re sitting there laughing at this horrible moment and you’re just like, “Oh man I’m a terrible person, I might have to re-evaluate my entire existence.”
Well that’s the great thing about humour—it can act as a bridge, as a way of engaging people in a conversation they might not otherwise feel comfortable having, because you’re making them laugh.
I’m a very sarcastic and blunt person. I’m also very hardcore into advocacy for gender and race but I have to give myself a break because it’s hard constantly navigating your life as an advocate.
Is writing a release for you then, or is it a difficult process?
It’s definitely a release. There can be weeks I don’t write and then suddenly all of it’s there. It just kind of works itself out, then I go back and edit. I’m a person that processes my emotions on the page. A lot of my professors say that many writers write to question, not always to have the answer. I do that too.
I’m a really visceral, body person—when I read something, especially something I connect with, my body feels it. I read Beloved and I was knotted up for two days. Whatever I consume I process through my body. I try to figure out how my body is reacting, then put that feeling on the page.
“The Heart-Hum” is very physical. Some of your other work features dancing and fighting. The body is front and center. How do you explore the body on the page as a concept?
The body is the most important vessel for grounding a story. When you forget the body, you’re just kind of floating and it’s hard to keep the story together. There’s a natural necessity for rhythm in your body, because your body has a heartbeat.
I went through a serious dysphoria for a while and I disassociated a lot to cope with it. I’m a strong believer in balancing out the spirit, the body, and the mind. When my spirit was kind of out of my body, I could feel my body totally falling apart. So for me, with writing, I’m piecing together the parts that were lost in that state of listless, aimless disconnection.
And you do that on the page?
Yeah, it’s about putting those pieces back together and trying to maintain those pieces. Or even trying to express what it feels like when those pieces fall apart.
There’s a queer Cree poet named Billy-Ray Belcourt who has this line in one of his poems, “the body is a myth.” I’m curious what you think of that statement, that idea of the body as a myth.
Our bodies are superimposed with everyone’s perceptions and linked to binaries, which distort the ways we then perceive our own bodies. This perception is manufactured, and it excludes people who don’t fit, or can’t fit, or don’t want to fit. So I think there’s truth to that statement. And your body is also temporary.
I read a post you wrote online in which you talked about vulnerability and softness and how it’s very important for you to create moments of vulnerability in your work. Why is that so important for you?
I have lived a very angry life, whether I was aware of it or not. I feel like there are people who are just angry. Sometimes it’s a righteous anger. I think there always has to be a point where, not that you have to let it go but—you give yourself the time to just breathe. And give yourself time to just be you, be in the moment. There has to be a moment where you’re gentle with yourself. And in order to be gentle with yourself sometimes you have to reshape things, gently.
When you live in poverty it’s a harsh and ugly thing but I always try to incorporate some balance. There are always some really tender moments. When I was living in the Bronx, we had all these older black women from the South who would always feed us. There has to be a moment where you feel okay—creating gentle, soft things can give you that.
It’s not healthy to always fixate on the sharp and hard angles. It’s important to take a moment to think about that gnarly relationship you have with someone, but also to think about what keeps you coming back to them. That’s what “The Heart-Hum” was about. What keeps us coming back to this person? It’s that gentleness, and knowing that even though it hurts to be with them, this is a creature that’s also been hurt so badly, so you have to find a tenderness for them. It’s weird—I don’t think I’ve ever actually written a mother who’s been as amazing as my mother.
How did you end up doing the MFA program you’re in now?
I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I wasn’t really feeling up for a big school. I didn’t feel comfortable with myself. I didn’t feel mentally stable. By the end of my undergrad I was struggling. I was tired of the people, tired of the space.
Longwood wasn’t the most diverse and open school. It was a predominantly white school with some wonky characters. Mary said, “You need to be doing something else after you graduate because you will self-sabotage and you won’t do what you’re supposed to do.”
She knows me pretty well—I probably would have done that. I would have ended up just working and not writing. Mary pitched me the idea of West Virginia Wesleyan, where she was already a visiting professor. And I don’t have any regrets, I’ve met some amazing people. It’s a really amazing family and an underrated program.
Being in an MFA program, has that had an influence on the way you write?
Yes. I have permission to write as openly and as freely as I want, and there are people willing and eager to accept that part of my process and to help shape it and help encourage my art in any way. Compared to what I’ve heard about other programs, it’s probably the most tender-spirited place. That helps a lot with the whole concept of softness.
A lot of the people in West Virginia have backgrounds where they’re poor mountain people with that same harshness and poverty that I understand, even though it’s in a different landscape, and they’re trying to create voice within that. I didn’t know about what the Appalachian people fought for. It’s been a beautiful experience, a beautiful connection I have with them.
I learned a lot about the LGBT community in West Virginia too, because there are gay, lesbian, and non-binary folks in our program who are vocal about queer issues. We actually have a lot of queer professors from West Virginia, bringing their perspectives. It definitely helps my writing because it’s a good vibe to be a part of.
Especially for someone like you, who, as you said, works out a lot of your thoughts and feelings on the page.
Yeah, during my undergrad at Longwood, I hid myself away in Mary’s office a lot. Because that was a safe spot. There’s a bad history at Longwood. My final year there, someone put up a noose in the lounge and that was never handled. And you know what nooses stand for in a predominantly white community with a heavy connection to Confederate history. So I didn’t stay on campus as much and I didn’t write as much, and if so only in my little spaces. Having the love of the community now that I’m in grad school really helps.
Could you ever see yourself moving back to New York, or to some other big city, to pursue your writing?
I visited Brooklyn in May, and it was not the Brooklyn I remembered. The project department was gutted out for a bar—
A bar that will probably only last a couple of months.
Exactly. The people I met there were nice and cool and I really enjoyed it. I went for a reading for No Tokens Journal. And those people were amazing. But it was also weird. The whole landscape was weird and white and strange. I don’t know how I’d feel about going back to New York because I know they’re slowly moving into the Bronx area, in conquest. And I don’t know if I can deal with that.
I don’t know where I want to be right now. I do like people sometimes, but only sometimes. I kind of like being in the woods where nobody can bug me and I can watch deer and roll in the grass and whatever. Not that I’ve ever rolled in the grass, that’s a concept.
You want to live somewhere where grass rolling is an option.
Yes! Exactly. I do roll in the snow. I love snow.
Would it be hard for you to write in isolation?
For me it’s easier to have a second mind to look at my work just to tell me if I’ve missed something. Because I understand my characters so well; I’m in their bodies as I’m writing their bodies. I’m interacting with them as intimately as possible. It’s helpful to have another person tell me if they get it or not.
I’m a bit more confident in my fiction work—because a lot of my poetry is mixed with non-fiction, I don’t know how to categorize it. Having other people look at it can help with that.
Your work definitely blurs the lines between fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. What questions are you currently exploring in your work?
Right now I’m exploring landscape, blood, and ancestry. The spirituality of ancestral blood and the landscape it brings to us: family, things beyond family, generational interactions.
I’m always exploring identity and the ways identity is shaped. I’m also really into the merging of spirits, interactions, visitations, things like that. You see hints of that in “The Heart-Hum.” That dream-like sense of being and how that merges with reality, and copes with reality. I’m seeing how that goes, seeing how this writing communicates with me. Mostly through poems.
Do you have plans for any long-form work?
I do. I don’t know how I feel about it because I’m used to keeping things really short and to the point. But during my last MFA residency I wrote a thirty-six page monster. I call it a monster because I don’t know what to do with it. I was kind of overwhelmed by it. It’s fiction about these black queer kids who are conduits for the spirit world. They can see the spirits and hear them, sometimes in different frequencies and colours. They’re kind of blessed and cursed by their interaction with the otherworldly entities.
And how does this spirit focus in your work relate to your exploration of landscapes?
Octavia Butler’s Parable of Sower gave me some of the language for what I’m trying to do. It’s like the landscape shapes what you think you know or don’t know. And spirits shape themselves from that landscape.
You’ll have entities like the old spider woman in “The Heart-Hum,” who was in the trash bin’s jacket. That was inspired by New York, where they keep their trash on the sidewalk. And the giant golden spirit rat was inspired by New York rats. It’s essentially about the way spirits manifest themselves into these kind of weird uncertain creatures, entities that are otherworldly but also familiar. The way spirits interact with poverty, with crowds, with the overall energy surrounding them. It’s a fun subject for me.
Is there a relationship between these more mystical elements in your writing and the visceral, body focus? How do those concepts interact?
The characters I come up with are deeply affected by the energies that spirits give off. They’re having their spirits pulled by so many different things. And your spirit is part of your body, so if you’re not able to reign in your spirit, then your body gets all muddled or confused.
Your body has to find a way to be grounded, to interact with this coming together and this tearing apart. Not to say that spirits are evil or want to take over, but they want to be heard, so you’re always overwhelmed. Especially because the characters I write are often young and they don’t have people teaching them, so they’re afraid.
I’m exploring what your body can or can’t do within these spaces of circling spirits. And of course within the energies of other people, who are so afraid that you end up picking up their fear. In “The Heart-Hum,” the characters were very much affected by the anger outside the window and the anger inside the house. That energy possessed them and their bodies became these overwhelming boxes of everyone else’s emotions. It just pushes outwards because they don’t know what to do with it except release it.
It’s really fascinating the way your characters are so grounded in this spirit world. Did you grow up in a household where talk of spirits and the supernatural was common?
Not in the way that I embrace it now. There were superstitions like, “You can’t kill a spider in the house,” but never anything overtly similar to how I envision the relationship between spirits and people and spirits and the land. That’s something I had to shape on my own. That’s why a lot of the spirits I write about are mixed in with Native American folklore, and African folklore. It’s a merging of these things to help me understand what I understand about spirits and their existence.
How did you begin to explore those concepts of spirits and folklore?
Mary taught me a lot. She herself is Cherokee and Irish. And my friends and I always have conversations about how we interact with spirits. How spirituality is such an individual structure but how it all comes together in some way. It deeply fascinates me and helps me comprehend things in a different way when I incorporate the spirit world into my everyday life. It helps me figure out how to translate what I believe into visuals. Into moments. Into softness. Into heat. How to give it sensation. How to give it heartbeat.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Beasa Dukes is a twenty-three year old, black, bi-gendered person. They have been published in PANK, No Tokens Journal, GTK Press, Paper Nautilus, Polychrome Ink, GrubStreet Journal, Foglifter Journal, and Writing For Peace Summit. They focus-write and play around with gender, race, sexuality, off-pulse spirit stuff, and the body to explore identity. They can be found on Facebook.
Jasmine Sealy is a Barbadian-Canadian writer. Her work has been published by or is forthcoming in Vehicule Press, Caitlin Press, The New Quarterly, and Adda Stories.