It didn’t happen. In 2017, four African-American artists—Adam Pendleton, Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson, and Julie Mehretu—bought her house as an act of political preservation after the 2016 presidential election. Several months ago, when I decided to take a trip to North Carolina, I sent a long email to the artists explaining my intent—to look for Nina, to locate my ancestors—and I received a swift reply that read: I’m afraid the house is not accessible. All the best for your project. I was devastated, but it felt as though Nina were already testing my resolve. She had faced countless closed doors during her career. Now what was I going to do with mine?
As an artist, processing rejection is part of the contract. And I had often heard this defiant refusal in Nina’s music: wavering inside her signature contralto like grit-dark silk, unlocking a broader notion, to me, about the psychological mood of disallowance. What does it mean for me, as a Black writer, to not have acute access to the source of my inspiration? I’ve never been to Africa, and yet, the handprints and rhythms of the continent saturate all of my poems. And doesn’t Nina’s voice seem as if it comes from everywhere, entirely Southern but also diasporic, ancient even, as if it were already present, hovering above the waters before the world was built like the face of God?
What does it mean to see yourself everywhere and not know where you come from? What does it truly mean to be from a place—to be from North Carolina? For Nina Simone, born as Eunice Waymon, Tryon was a beginning, where her origin story started, where she learned to play Bach and Beethoven from Miss Mazzy, a white lady who lived a mile away in the Gillette Woods and had no children, but treated Simone as a daughter. But Tryon was a closed door, a place that couldn’t contain her dazzling, global future. A place she had to leave so she could start. And for me, North Carolina was a type of Southern Mecca, a sacred site I knew I had to reckon and wrestle with by making a pilgrimage, paying homage to my family’s slave roots, facing the damage that made me.
I took a cue from Simone’s life and went to Tryon anyway, without permission.
Three years ago, when I arrived at Vanderbilt University for my Master of Fine Arts in poetry, I felt less than, like an imposter—inadequate because I hadn’t majored in English during college. “Where are the gaps in your reading?” a professor asked me during a recruitment weekend reception while I stuffed a giant chilled shrimp, doused in cocktail sauce, into my mouth. “Everywhere,” I mumbled, exposing myself before I would be exposed. So in an effort to learn more about the traditional Western literary canon, I undertook an independent study on British Romantic Poetry with Professor Mark Jarman, utilizing close reading and textual analysis, and writing weekly poems in response. I wanted to know the rules before I broke the rules. We began with the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” in which William Wordsworth writes:
. . . poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.
This idea was new to me. I had made a habit of rushing and pushing through poems. And reading Wordsworth’s famous statement, I realized that I had believed the psychological state necessary for writing poems was in opposition to tranquility. I decided to try a new approach. What would happen if I wrote out of a tranquil state of mind instead of chaos?
Empowered by this insight, I understood that through stillness I could access trauma. My scholarship at Vanderbilt had generously afforded me time and space to chase my obsessions, to read and write endlessly. So when it came time to respond to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” my poem “The Rime of Nina Simone” unfurled as I feverishly wrote twelve pages, devouring my entire weekend in the spring of 2016. I had recently watched the Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, and like Coleridge’s weary sailor, returned from sea with his story to tell, Nina haunted me. She was everywhere. Nina became the ancient mariner in my life, interrupting me, warning me about her pitfalls and passions. Her presence captivated me and wouldn’t shake loose till she became a central character to my desires on and off the page.
In the poem, I tried to locate my truth as a poet—specifically a Black, female poet—in the biography of another artist and activist. The poem begins with an invocation:
How a Slave Ship was driven by capitalism and racism inside the triangle
of the transatlantic slave trade; and of the strange things that befell;
and in what manner Nina Simone came back from the dead to her
own Country to stop a graduate student on the way to workshop.
While the lessons of formalism were important in the initial composition of this piece, they were inadequate in capturing Simone’s signature sound, an amalgam of the traditional and the modern. I broke away from the strict rhymed quatrains and improvised with the placement of my lines in tandem with the driving symphonic nature of her capacious music. I created something that felt fresh by pushing forth the idea of the ballad. I could feel the twin claims of form and freedom converging, creating a hybrid poem inspired inside and outside of the myopic canon, just as Nina’s pirouetting fingers smashed together Bach and Baldwin and the blues.
I have conversations with the dead, especially dead Black women. By doing so, I locate my story and myself within the past. Galvanized by Coleridge’s poem, I found myself in a dialogue, engaging with Nina as a way of having a conversation with myself:
Come here, she says.
Sorry, I can’t—I’m late. I’m—
I need to tell you something about yourself.Listen, little girl:
For every pain
there is a longer song.
The body pours
its own music.
to play Bach
for endless encores. But
they wouldn’t let me
and they won’t let you.
Things have changed, Miss Simone.
I have a scholarship. They want me here.
They want my poems. They want—
Do they want you,
she says, sucking
her ghost teeth,
or your Black pain?
What’s the difference? I say.