.The Becoming of Mimi Tempestt

Post-structuralist poet plays with words and identity

The best advice for reading mimi tempestt’s second book, the delicacy of embracing spirals, other than “do it,” is to remember to breathe. Now and then also pause, placing the Berkeley-based writer’s tornado of poetry aside to allow the work’s dizzying effect to lessen. Some people might choose to sob words of appreciation for what is, undeniably, a wildly authentic and longed-for voice from a visionary writer who crafts visceral words that cavort, cascade, collide and connect on the printed page and in live performances.

Often referred to as a “post-structuralist poet,” tempestt is a multidisciplinary artist with a master’s in literature from Mills College. Using she/they pronouns and self-identifying as a queer Black woman, tempestt is currently a UC Santa Cruz doctoral candidate in literature in the creative/critical writing program.

She says her first book, monumental misrememberings, was largely framed by her relationship with her mother and carried themes of survival. Embracing spirals centers on lessons instilled by her father that have ingrained themselves into her identity.

“In the acknowledgment section is the thing about faith,” tempestt says. “It’s always the part that reflects upon a project once it’s done. Not only in this book but in future publications, my readers will see different things. I always start with an anecdote where I talk about a family member or an experience. It’s my reflection of gratitude; the most beneficial thing I could have in my life.”

The coda is left open for readers to interpret, but it is the most honest and “truthful” part of the new book.

“I always say I’m not a liar, I’m an exaggerator,” tempestt says. “The coda’s the most tender and grounding part of the book. It’s the closest approximation to who I really am. It’s true, my father did and does continue to tell me folk tales; different narratives about how one comes into oneself. Society always wants to compete and compare.”

She adds, “That (alternative) narrative by my father is grounding because it reminds me that my journey as a writer, as a Black, bisexual woman, all these ‘isms,’ are unique to me. I have to honor them as I come into the world and into myself.”

Embracing spiral’s other sections arrive as Act One and Act Two. The poems demand an active reader.

“I see the page as a canvas,” tempestt says. “An entire piece that I may hear in a particular way (when performed or ‘spit’ aloud), when I approach it on the page, a different part of my brain kicks in; the page itself renders a different set of artistic practices. What things? Things like line breaks. How I experiment with words: line cross-outs, footnotes. Part of the dizzying effect is the placement of words on the page. I don’t believe in passive reading. The reader has to work a little bit, especially in a book of contemporary poetry. That’s essential. It’s a negotiation that has to happen on the page where I consider voice placement, the style. The page becomes a playground.”

With tempestt’s L.A. background as an underground battle rap artist and her recent interest in jazz, her creative process is fluid, influencing how she spits or, in more conventional language, recites poetry.

“Nothing is ever stuck ‘in true’ about this book,” she says. Two years ago, a hypothetical conversation would have spun around “Blue Black Venus,” an intense poem and one of the first she wrote. “I almost didn’t keep it in because I feel like it’s too intense,” she says. “But it grounds the work altogether and seemed like a launching pad for the rest of the book.”

A year later, “s,” a character who is an amalgamation of standup comedians George Carlin and Dave Chapelle, would have been centerstage.

“I wanted to write a type of trickster or sacred clown,” tempestt says. “I spent the entire summer last year studying stand-up comedy. I went through a list: Who are the best comedians of all time? The top three were Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Dave Chappelle. I studied how to write a stand-up comedy act based off of those two. It became an obsession for me for months.”

One poem, “acceptance,” holds a galaxy of supernova-like strength, its 12 spare lines exploding with brilliant suggestion. Especially in the iterative speaker, an elderly Black woman who utters phrases such as, “she suggested i continue writing into an untapped possibility and the barrels of my eyes.”

The poem reads: “This wise figure, this crone, looks into the eyes of the young speaker and says, girl, life is life. You’re either going to let whatever grief you’re enduring take you out or you brush yourself off and continue. That is the untapped possibility. Write yourself into existence. I’m of the firm belief you can create who you want to be. You have to be brave or vulnerable enough to imagine yourself into the possibilities. That line is acceptance. It’s saying you’ve experienced all these things but that’s not the end of you. Hitting the snag in one place doesn’t mean you’ll hit a snag in another part of the spiral.”

The poem is an introduction to a multitude of selves through the stages of grief. The speaker of the poem travels through a minefield of experiences and trepidations about the meaning and avenues of loss.

“It’s an expression or process of maturity, of healing from oneself and being brave enough to step into a new self,” tempestt says. “I write it so that others get to see my process of grief, however they relate to it. The elderly black woman and acceptance is also the heart in Act Two. There’s that frequency of wisdom.”

The line, “the barrels of my eyes,” is similar to a line in the delicacy of embracing spirals where tempestt writes, “your nearest death bed is a mirror/it looks a lot like my eyes.” The lines are twins, cousins, kinfolk. Wherever eyes are mentioned in this book, tempestt is talking about her own eyes.

Laughing at her audacity, she says, “Truth: I have gorgeous eyes. Eyes say a lot about a person, no matter the mask you put on or the performance. If you see a person’s eyes, you know everything you need to know about them.”

Collective human experiences intrigue tempestt—a woman intimidated and cowering simply because a man enters a room, wanting as a 16-year-old to just record music and being told by your mother, “No, you gotta get your shit together. You gotta go to school.” The layers are suggestive of larger consciousness.

“I put them on the page so the reader can see themselves, but also dispel the performance,” tempestt says. “As a Black woman, I’m supposed to have all these Black experiences but really, I, too, am a human being. I value being Black, bisexual, an L.A. native. But at my core, I’m just this mind, this consciousness trying to navigate the world. There’s that collectivism I want the reader to see throughout this work.”

Reading aloud from the collection, she says the poem “i’ve been an addict much longer than i’ve been myself” has yet to be reckoned with and sticks in her mouth. Anger in the poems comes because “you may want to write about flora and fauna, but you walk out the door and experience racism or sexism,” tempestt says.

She adds, “By the time you come home, sit down to write the poem, the anger after having to traverse all of that shows up. In the poems ‘basquiat’s revenge,’ ‘Black (LA) woman 1’ and ‘2,’ I’m giving y’all a warning shot. We have this idea of what a project centered on identity is going to produce. I had to dispel that. This is not fucking what you expect this to be.”

A year from today, tempestt trusts, the hope she carries in her heart will lead to “whatever reality or potential for my highest good and the highest good of people in my universe exists.” Grateful for faithful readers who stand as a testament to her hard work and City Lights, the publisher who she says has “held me very beautifully,” tempestt takes none of the blessings lightly.

And so she breathes along with her audience, mindful of the physicality, aware she is but “a tiny, squishy thing” creating and responding to a narrative, and pausing, but never ceasing, to embrace her own self braving a new self.

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