Metta Sáma (previously Lydia Melvin) is author of South of Here (New Issues Press, 2005), which was a finalist in the Yale Younger Series Award, the Paris Review Prize, the Stan and Tom Wick First Book Prize, and a finalist for the Kenyon Review Book Prize. Sáma is a former recipient of the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin’s Center for Creative Learning, a Cave Canem Fellow, and has received her M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing, respectively, from Western Michigan University. Her Ph.D. dissertation (SUNY-Binghamton, 2007), Venus in Limbo, was a finalist for the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at DePauw University and at work on two collections: Efface Me, a book of poems that examines parasitic invasions, erasures, and the nature of bodily disintegration as poetic practice; and The Black Odyssey, a collection of poems about the loves and lives of African Americans in the 1930s-1960s in the South, as well as how the landscape of the South mirrored the lives of African Americans and Native Americans who lived there. She has won research grants from the Newman Foundation and scholarships from the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and the Juniper Summer Writer’s Conference to work on these collections.
This is Lydia (Metta S. Sama) and me at New Issues Press book table at the Associated Writers and Writing Program (AWP) conference in Austin, TX, 2006. I am holding her book while she displays mine. Hers had just come out that year.
I have known Lydia for nearly a decade, and have over these many years admired her creativity and talent. She was the younger woman in the Creative Writing MFA program at WMU while I was working on my Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English. One of my most vivid memories of my friend, Lydia, was when she asked me to allow her take a look at my poetry manuscript that would become my second book of poems and my doctoral dissertation. It was only a weeks before I would take my Ph.D. comprehensive exams at Western Michigan University. We had just returned from co-presenting on a panel at AWP in Palm Springs, and for some reason, Lydia was probably curious about the next trouble I was getting myself into, I thought at the time.
At the time, I felt strange that a younger poet who was also a younger woman that I needed to mentor was asking me to check out and edit my poetry manuscript. I was suspicious, but I gave my manuscript to her. She then took the ninety page manuscript home with her and promised to get back with me within a week or so. She then took the liberty of rearranging my manuscript as if she were the professor of a course, and scheduled a meeting with me. A few days later, she had the audacity to sit me down in the graduate students office area to tell me why she thought my original arrangement of the book was flawed and needed changing. Oh no, I didn’t need to worry; she had already done that, she smiled with confidence. I sat there as humbled as I could be, and listened to Lydia, whom we called Jade then, as she spoke to me about the importance of having my poems speak to one another in the book.
During our little meeting, I struggled with her when she decided to kick out a few of the poems from the book because she felt that they made the book weaker and the book did not need them anyway. “Just because you have had these poems published in literary magazines doesn’t mean they all have to get into this book. They can wait for the next one,” Lydia stressed in that “hello, you getting me?” sort of way. I tell you, I was flabbergasted. I am an African woman, you hear me, and I am in every sense of the word, so when a younger sister claims that sort of authority with me, I kind of get a cultural shock. But I had a lot to learn, I tell you. Many of life’s lessons or the education we get does not come from professors paid to teach us, I have learned.
At that point, I wanted to shout and tell her “No way or go to hell,” but I didn’t. I recall sitting in an office on the six floor of Sprau Tower at WMU, being humiliated by my little girlfriend who, of course, was an editor, qualified to do this sort of thing to me since she had worked with our mentor, the late Herb Scott at New Issues Poetry Press as well as with the student magazine. I knew that she had the authority to do this sort of thing to any one, but I believe that she took the authority to speak with me like this because she and I had provided that kind of space between each other, that kind of atmosphere that gives another friend the freedom to be free with one. Many of us in our busy day to day living very rarely do allow our friends to claim this kind of freedom and many of us are way too afraid to claim this sort of freedom as Lydia was claiming.
I also believed even then that she took the liberty as a black sister to be that to another black sister from across the ocean. It was something cultural, but this cultural relationship is both connected to the culture of poetry and the ethnicity. I believe it was a kind of culture between us that dictated that sort of honesty and ability to care.
I demanded however, as we sat there, that she replaced the poems she wanted me to leave out of the manuscript, and she said, “No, Patricia, this book is good the way it is.”
I decided maybe she was right. Maybe there was a lot I needed to learn, and that just because I had published one book didn’t make me an expert. Besides, my dissertation director then, the late Herb Scott was ill and did not have time to look over my book before I could submit it to competitions. I knew he could only take one look at it during one of his better days as he struggled with Cancer. He had promised to look over the book before I would submit it to any competition, but Cancer does not always understand, so Herb and I agreed that he’d look over the manuscript just in time for the dissertation defense. That day, sitting in the office, I gave in to Lydia Mae Melvin, the younger poet and editor, and she took that and made good of it.
I am saying all of this because very many poets I know are like me with their writing. They will not allow anyone to scrutinize their piece or give them advice. But I tell you, very many poetry books today would not be written without the help of good poetry friends like Lydia and all the other classmates we were forced by our place as students to learn from in class.
I entered the book into the Crab Orchard Awards Series Second Book Open Competition November that year after Lydia’s editing and rearranging, just in time for the deadline and just a few days after my very comprehensive exams in four areas of English. I was surprised a few months later when Becoming Ebony, the book that Lydia had rearranged and dumped poems out of won second prize in the Crab Orchard Award Series, Poetry Open Competition, and went on to second print just two months after publication . The book I sometimes call Lydia’s book has done extremely well over the four years of its birth.
I had a lot to learn from the supportive students in the Creative Writing program at WMU, and I had learned it well through Lydia’s insistence and expertise. The amazing thing is that a couple years later, Lydia would ask me to write a blurb for her own book, a beautifully written poetry collection that steals your heart upon first reading it. It is a book alive in its sense of history and family, in its ability to break taboos and boundaries. I wrote the blurb with much honor, laughing at the thought that the little things we take for granted are the biggest things in our lives. Some of the poems that Lydia threw out waited to get into the third book that is coming out soon, but others have to wait longer until another set of poems are ready for another book.
Some people come into our lives and forever change the way we look at life. Lydia did that for me.
Lydia’s book of poems, South of Here (New Issues Press 2005)
Sign. Signifier. Signify. Signified: an American African ghazal
by Lydia Melvin
I’ve heard Death is a white man in black
tie, a man captive in a trick of black.
I hear myth, an earthworm
moving an inch at a time, urging black
earth aside. Elms in winter
displace heat, turn black
as damaged snow. In theatres before curtains
release and withdraw from black,
music lingers, intactly absent. Silence.
Exercise patience. How does black
myth survive? I hear a black
man in red face, red stripes slashing
through hair is death. Black
mothers in kitchens seduce flour
into loaves of bread. And men, black
as coal, squeeze the necks of cotton
stalks, anticipate struggle, create black
gospel, black blues, black jazz, hear
music’s possibilities. Unrelenting black
whips damage-myth their beaten backs.
In Europe the black plague created black
deaths two hundred years prior
to Shakespeare’s Othello, the black
moor, strangled his wife, prior
to the introduction of black
comedy. Before the stock market collapsed in ’87,
brokers held Monday until it too could become black.
Waiting around for another invention, mail lost
its innocence to black, then black sex, black satire, black
ice. Too clever for this set-up? Soon,
dawn will erupt, precise, breathtaking, the un
of black. And here we linger in black
images, repeating phrases as if they are truth.
As if the structurual design of words hold black
like fear. The myths fall in on themselves.
But how we hunt for the blackest
diamonds, the blackest metaphor. Strangers live,
resilient, under interstate overpasses, black
as exhaust and valleys of ashbuds. Heavy as rain
clouds, infinite as nebulae. On the corner, a black
man contains himself in wilting dust particles, jaded
as tossed napkins, spare change, coffee, crows.