The Colorado Poet, Issue #38, Winter 2023

chaos! restlessness! (and recognizing the holy): an Interview with Tameca L Coleman on their Debut Book, an identity polyptych.

Tameca L Coleman (Meca'Ayo) has published a powerful first book, an identity polyptych, with The Elephants press.   An identity polyptych is a hybrid of poetry, prose, and photography, based on their MFA thesis from the Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program. Coleman identifies as a queer poetry-centric multi-genre writer and artist who publishes in both writing and photography. They were recently nominated as a finalist for Poet Laureate in both Adams County and the State of Colorado.
KW: In an interview with Tarpaulin Sky Magazine, you describe your book as both diary and, facetiously, whatever you could make “stick” to the wall. But I’ll argue that you make short shrift of that. The design of your book closely parallels the polyptych, that “winged” altarpiece made up of images designed to edify the worshippers on complex religious story.  Made of separate panels, hinged or folded together, the polyptych is meant to break away from the main altarpiece, as are the sections of your book. Its panels outside are plain, (I’m thinking now about your mother in your book telling you to be plain, to not attract attention), in contrast to the colorful complex story images they hide. You may have started your book with “gobstoppers” on the wall, but, somewhere along the line, you leapt into the polyptych as metaphor. Tell us about that moment of insight.

TLC: I really appreciate your acknowledgement of the polyptych in this workIt was something I had to fight for, really stay stubborn about. So many people, many of them very good readers, told me that the polyptych was not clear or crisp enough, not defined enough, perhaps not framed enough. In my mind it always was: I'm talking about familial estrangement, identity as a mixed-race Black person, and movement towards reconciliation. These three themes served as my thesis for this book. Talking about them was a goal, and, in pure essay form, I journeyed towards the three parts of this goal, even if I didn't get to the clarity I yearned for. 

I love, too, your insight about how the separate panels, though hinged or folded together, can break away from the main subject or altarpiece. Those pieces often inform each other, show expanded details of the main panel, show how each framed subject is related. My polyptychs are Venn diagrams, perhaps, but polyptychs, nonetheless. Each frame is a question and daily meditation. I'm not sure if there was a specific moment, but I kept these three subjects in mind as one of the ways I organized this book as much of it got cut away to discard and/or save for other projects and experiments.


KW: You say that you hope your readers recognize the arc of your book, its move into reconciliation through those penultimate poems: […coal and kindling….], which takes place in a church, and […testify…], in which you finally really see your father, “no longer fuzzy/like the face from a dream.” Gander online and the narrative “arc” seems to be the writer’s perennial quest. And, yet, is the arc always necessary? Or warranted? An essay in AWP’s Chronicle, The Postmodern Memoir, argues that unlike the sensationalist memoirist who eschews truth “for gain,” the postmodernist memoirist recognizes the nonlinearity and “chaos” of experience and perception and the memoirist as an unreliable narrator. Why did you feel the necessity of an arc in this book? And how do you feel the book moves toward that arc? I find myself thinking about the final image in your book: your father with “tension in his face like he was crying/or shitting.” If that is the culmination of arc and resolution, it is not an easy one.

TLC: In the interview that Julia Cohen and Abby Hagler had with me at Tarpaulin Sky, I mentioned very briefly a lesson from writer David Hicks, the founder of our MFA program, about narrative arc. I started my MFA writing fiction since we could study in a couple of genres. an identity polyptych is a hybrid work that strings together quotes, images, vignettes, poems, lists, etc. It needed some kind of structure, or I thought it did. The original manuscript I turned in to Khadijah Queen, my mentor for the last two semesters of my MFA, reflected my chaotic and restless mind. It was an unwieldy beast of miscellany and I was self-conscious of that. (It was two or three times the length of what an identity polyptych turned out to be.) I had no idea how to tie all of these pieces together because I was writing from every angle (and genre) I could think of to try to say what I did not know how to say. I wanted to "trust the catalog" as another one of my MFA mentors, Eric Baus, teaches, but I also knew there was simultaneously too much and not enough for the manuscript to work as it was. 

I cannot remember who first told me I should try the narrative arc as an organizing factor, or if I somehow decided to try that based on readings/studies/conversations with peers, etc. And I do not feel that I adhered to the classic narrative arc (chaos! restlessness! and I truthfully get tired of forms and norms), but I did have a few points I wanted to hit, one of which was to move towards reconciliation (and perhaps restoration). This is something I've wanted my whole life and that yearning for reconciliation, understanding, and connection became my driving force in the book.

I started my book with a question and an intense moment, kind of by accident. "I do not know when reconciliation comes" was a poem I wrote a couple years or more after I turned in my thesis, and, at the time, it was one of the angriest things I'd written and that I wouldn't burn or rip to shreds. My book ends in the Black Church because the forgiveness my father demanded was warranted, even if I could not grant it in time, and because I did see a miracle, which was a moment on those pews where he made a decision then and there to change. And there's a cliffhanger there, too, because reconciliation never happened. My father passed away very shortly after my book was published, and of course decades had passed from that moment in the church to now without our having had the privilege and blessing to be able to get to know each other and have the chance to heal somehow. 

To be honest, Broc Russell, the editor and publisher at The Elephants, gave insights into the arrangement of the book that further created this sense of narrative arc or at least flow. I think previous to his editing, I was trying to piece out the book in sequential time, but for the flow of the work, for the narrative arc to really work, we had to time travel. 

I do end with my father having a tension in his face like he's crying or shitting. For me, that strain is in a James Joyce's holiest / redeemed characters are in the shit house kind of shitting. That moment is a holy moment and I recognized it then, as I do now, as a miraculous one. I felt connected to my father in that moment in a way I hadn't remembered being connected to him, and I knew that moment was real. I knew he was being honest. That was a miracle I did not get to see lived out but I saw the exact moment it happened.


KW:  The photographs in your book add a complex, and ironic, layer to your text. Way back in 2014, The New Yorker published, A Thousand Words: Writing From Photographs by Casey Cep. She quotes the literary critic, James Wood, who complained then about the wooden descriptions of photographs he kept finding, saying that “the unpracticed novelist cleaves to the static.” In contrast, Cep lauds the “new kind of ekphrasis” created by photography, which has been embraced by our culture of selfie-takers and Instagram documentarians. There is nothing “wooden” in how you use your photographs: they beautifully reflect and disintegrate the text. Talk about your photos in the book.

TLC: There is indeed a lot of irony in those photographs. I hint at it on page 42 under an image of my brothers and me where I note, "We look happy here." We are smiling for our grandmother in this picture who is behind the lens. My brothers and I grew up in a tumultuous and abusive environment. This environment did not teach us to be kind to each other. The secret in this photograph is that we are sitting more closely than usual and we are trying not to touch each other. We are shifting, moving our hands out of each other's way, and simultaneously trying to be good and smile for Grandma. This picture looks differently now, doesn't it? 

The photographs are also important because my family's artifacts have gotten lost and keep getting lost. Some of the images in this book are poor cellphone snaps of photos, so there's a glare or fuzziness or a strange crop. One photo I was thinking of, I didn't find in time to make it into the book (but it is in the interview at Tarpaulin Sky). Most of the photos in this book came back to my family in a box of things my father very angrily sent to us, or got sent to us through a family friend (the strange unreliability of memory means we may never know who sent that box or how we obtained it), and when they arrived, the box’s contents smelled of kerosene which had been poured all over them. It is our understanding that my father intended to burn those remnants of our lives together after my mother and grandparents flew us to another state. Most of what would have been important to us didn't make it, and we had lost more than that in various other moves from state to state when my father was in the Airforce. It seemed like every time we moved, we left something, and started over. 

When I left my mother's house at 19, I wasn't sure I would ever go back, and I "stole" some of those photos and tucked them into my luggage. I wasn’t sure I was coming back, butI still needed something to remind me where I was from. 


KW:  First book right out of an MFA program, artist, teacher, reviewer, massage therapist:  what’s next for you?

TLC: I'm not sure what is next! I feel restless. I feel like I've had a lot of personal failures and heavy disappointments, friendship breakups, misunderstandings, betrayals, mental health trials, and questionings of what I am supposed to be doing on this planet. I've also continued to work in my very sporadic way in various mediums because I am not sure what else to do. Sometimes I do this in ways that seek connection, sometimes in ways that feel like little exorcisms (and none of them have been published yet). I've run some events with varying capacities. I have a poetry postcard project, I've collaborated and will collaborate with artists in various mediums (I post most of these updates on my Instagram and website), I am getting back to singing, focusing on my health, and wondering what it's all for sometimes. 

My greatest joys come from experiencing nature. All the roles I play? All the works I tend towards? All the things I remember and/or think I am? I'm never really sure what any of that is for. 

Hear Tameca L Coleman reading their work at inverted syntax