You know what makes Anastacia-Reneé shake her head and stare off into the middle distance? The game.
"If you're a little over 30, you grew up in the game," she tells me over a Pimm's Cup and a bowl of pretty good olives at Cafe Presse. "From the moment you got your MFA and your first Facebook, the moment you started tumbling and tweeting, you've been in the game."
The game she's talking about is the new form of poetry's oldest but least-discussed tradition: the christening of the Hot Young Thing.
Anastacia-Reneé says she didn't play the game. In a way, she's always been, as the phrase goes, too old for that shit. She married and had two kids in her early 20s, didn't jump from undergrad straight into an MFA, and didn't move to the East Coast with her manuscript under her arm.
She's practiced her craft for the last 18 years every night between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., the only time she has to herself after solo parenting, teaching at three programs, and trying to keep her house in order. Thus her path to publishing, at 45, her first three major books—(v.), Forget It, and Answer(Me), all of which are due out this year, which is insane—looks a lot different than the path many younger poets take.
As we talk about poets whose game play is particularly conspicuous, Anastacia-Reneé is laughing and beaming. But she's also nervous. She's eating the olives kinda quickly, fumbling with the pits. Finally, she just tells me.
Talking about the game makes her nervous. If you don't play the game, it's hard to win the respect and the jobs and frankly the grant money that comes along with it. Though she's been regularly reading and teaching around town for the last five years, she's nervous no one will come to her upcoming book launches. Nervous people will come, but they won't buy books. Nervous most of all, perhaps, that the books will sell but people won't read them and really think about the black girl songs, as Ntozake Shange puts it, that she's singing in those books.
Though she's lived and written in Seattle longer than she's lived anywhere else in her adult life, and though she's fresh off her gig as the latest Hugo House writer-in-residence, she doesn't really consider herself "a local poet." Partly due to her ex-husband's time in the navy, she's lived everywhere from Missouri to California to Japan, and she's written prose as well as award-winning journalism. She developed a solo show at the Project Room called 9 Ounces, which has also been performed at Hugo House and Twilight Gallery.
Throughout all of this, she says, she has always suffered from a case of the "you-got-its."
When she was working at "the good McDonald's" on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City as a teen to ease the financial burden on her single mother? Don't worry about Anastacia-Reneé. "She got it."
When the KKK rode onto the campus of Culver-Stockton College on the second day of school and cornered all the black students in the Kappa Alpha Psi house? Don't worry. "She got it."
When she married and gave birth to two kids while everyone else was partying at college, when she was publishing poems in small journals even before securing her BA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in her late 30s, clearly this was all evidence of her having "got it."
And she did have it. She had her shit together. But projecting the appearance of always having her shit together, she says, came with some drawbacks.
Even though her life-altering fellowship at Cave Canem, an all-black poetry society that runs a weeklong conference every year, was the first time she ever felt "in [her] space around all black and brown writers," she still felt as if her age disadvantaged her. "Nobody was like, 'Girl, let me help you,'" she says. "It was more like, 'She got it.' Everyone thought I was on the way. And because of my pride, of course I was like, 'Yes, I am. I'm on my way.'"
The "you got it" mentality is part of the strong black woman archetype. "You can never admit that you don't got it," she says. "If you look like you got it and you don't feel like you have it, then it's another strike against you. So you walk around like, 'Course I got it.'"
When she tells me she deals with the same situation in the Seattle literary scene, I raise my eyebrow. She headlines readings all the time!
"Reading is different from people valuing you," she counters. "Someone will call you and ask you to read in a minute, but it doesn't mean they want to pay you. They don't want to channel you into something greater, or introduce you to someone who might want to put on your show. It just means they want to headline you for paper's sake. I've been pimped a lot in Seattle for that."
She goes on, "And every time you saw me read, I had taught at Seattle Girls' School all day, came home to Mukilteo, cooked dinner, helped the boys with their homework, drove to Seattle, drove all the way back to Mukilteo..." she pauses, looking away from me, staring up at the light streaming through the windows near the ceiling, and asking herself aloud if she really wants to say what she's about to say.
"Me and the kids fled Japan after I divorced my husband. We came back to Seattle in 2012 with no house, no car, no job. I picked my Seattle life back up, but it was in shambles," she says, with tears welling in her eyes. "I was a single mom fresh from a divorce, living out of the Extended Stay in Mukilteo for months. But I was still gigging, still teaching... And I'm still not the It Girl, but I've just worked so hard in my life and in my art that I don't feel excited" about three books coming out at once. "I just feel like it's time."
Each of her new books looks and sounds and feels completely different from the others. Forget It is the book she's most afraid of, because she's billing it as fictional memoir "but a lot of that shit is true," she says. "It feels like walking around naked."
Answer(Me), she admits, is lesbian erotica, but she won't let them put it on that shelf. "I feel like a man and a woman can go home with a hard-on from that book," she says. That may be true.
(v.), published by Gramma Press, tells the story of the artist as a black mother trying to raise two black boys in a world where Charleena Lyles was just killed in front of her own children. One poem articulates the fear. The title is "What's Your Emergency." The two lines that follow are "one cop to another: we are out of chalk." The inside cover features blurbs from Pulitzer Prize–winner Tyehimba Jess and National Book Award–winner Terrance Hayes.
Though the three books clearly differ in terms of subject, tone, and level of surrealism, many of Anastacia-Reneé's formal inventions and punny ticks serve the goal of liberation. Her lines rush across the page like they're trying to run off to the next one. Parenthetical asides keep the primary voice honest; footnotes add context to the main text or allow the voice to linger longer on a scrap of nostalgia while the poem veers off into pain. She'll often draw your attention to the "mourn" in morning or the "cyst" in systemic, as if the English language itself had foretold the troubles her speakers face. This use of pun as prophesy and escape hatch points to a sad irony in poetry: You might be able to escape the fixed meaning of a word, but you can't escape fate. The poems do end, after all.
Though she's dropping three books in one year, she says she's nowhere near done: "There's so much inside me. There are so many more shows. There are so many more books. This isn't my end."