Writing from Spirit: An Interview with Keisha-Gaye Anderson

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Interview by Kayla Brown, Hampton University intern

Keisha-Gaye Anderson, the author of Gathering the Waters, is a poet, professional writer, screenwriter, and transmedia producer, with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The City College, CUNY. She shares her writing life with African Voices. Her poem “The Academy” is featured in AV’s Spring/Summer 2015 issue. For information on Keisha-Gaye Anderson visit www.keishagaye.com. Keisha-Gaye is one of the featured poets in the upcoming Poetic Justice event!

AV: What sparked your interest in writing?

Keisha-Gaye: It seemed to me that my father was always reading something. Reading, writing, or telling stories. In fact, both my parents are great storytellers. Very funny, too! So, writing seemed to me a very natural way of processing the world around me and dissecting my own emotions. As an immigrant child, there is a lot of adjusting that has to happen in one’s mind, on top of all of the emotions that come with being an adolescent. There was a lot to write about.

AV: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

Keisha-Gaye: My early influences were Maya Angelou, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Bronte, William Butler Yeats, and all of those great classics that every child should be forced to read. However, as I began to understand myself to be a serious poet, committed to honing this art form and express ideas in my unique voice, I would say that the poetry of Langston Hughes and Lucille Clifton had the greatest impact on me. The apparent simplicity of the verse belied very complex and big ideas. That kind of economy of words takes a great level of skill, which I really admired. Less is more. Or as Bob would say, “Light like a feather / heavy as lead…”

AV: Do you have a specific writing style?

Keisha-Gaye: I never really thought about it. Perhaps that’s for someone else to investigate? My writing is an extension of me, the written observations of my consciousness as it moves through this experience we know as life, as the personality you know as Keisha. I say that to say, I just sound like “me.” Each one of us is unique and so my style, I don’t think, follows any established style, except in so far as it tends to be rhythmic, play with internal rhyme, incorporate Jamaican English from time to time, and speak to aspects of Afro-Caribbean spirituality in terms of world view and the nature of reality. But I certainly wouldn’t be able to define my style. It’s just me, talking out loud.

AV: What is your writing process? How do you juggle being a writer, mother and working full-time?

Keisha-Gaye: I think the metaphor you’re looking for is spinning plates, not juggling. Running from here to there, keeping everything in motion, so nothing comes crashing down. So my writing process is often writing late at night, after the children are asleep, or writing early in the morning in the Flatbush deli near their school, after I’ve dropped them off. Or it could be on my lunch hour, in the back of some coffee shop or on a park bench. Often, there are times when I want to complete a body of work and I set a weekly schedule for a block of time. I go to a nearby coffee shop every Sunday for a few hours, over several weeks, to get that done. I don’t let anyone disrupt that schedule. But the key for me, as a mom, who also works full time, is working in blocks of time, say 4 weeks or 6 weeks. Then, I give myself a break after completing that group of poems or short story or chapter because balance is everything; your children are only young once.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson with poets Charan P. Morris and Jacqueline Johnson at The Artivist Rises exhibition hosted by African Voices.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson with poets Charan P. Morris and Jacqueline Johnson at AV’s The Artivist Rises exhibition.

AV: What was the inspiration behind your latest poetry book “Gathering the Waters”

Keisha-Gaye: I write poetry constantly. As I was working on my MFA in fiction, I would often take a break from the thesis work by writing or reviewing my poems. Although this was just another form of procrastination (fiction didn’t come as easily to me), I began to realize that I had a significant amount of work that dealt with ancestry, identity, and self-empowerment. I decided to carefully assemble the poems that would work together in a collection and start sending the work out to publishers and contests. I was thrilled to learn that my publisher had selected my manuscript from over 100 submissions. That good news actually gave me a much-need boost in wrapping up my master’s degree. Working full-time, raising two children, and completing a master’s degree is not for the faint of heart or for those with short attentions spans.

AV: Was there a specific message that you wanted readers to grasp after reading, “Gathering the Waters”?

Keisha-Gaye: Well, the last thing I want is for my work to be is didactic; I write my observations and experiences in the form of poetry because it pleases me to do so. It gives me a great feeling of satisfaction and helps me to understand the world and people more deeply. It also enables me to bare witness to this life, its beauty and its injustices. If others enjoy the work, get value from it, or are inspired to live better lives because of it, then I’m extremely happy. If I leave a testimony that can help people make better decisions and treat each other more humanely, then I’m happy. That being said, I did realize after completing the work that one of the consistent messages running through the book is how we are impacted by our ancestors, by the things they pass down to us—material, emotional, and spiritual—and how our lives continue to be a conversation with them, as we are just links in a very long chain that reaches beyond our perception but that definitely influences our journey here on earth. That connection deserves attention and reflection if we want to make the maximum impact in the brief time we are here.

AV: Do you remember writing your first poem? Tell us about it. How old were you?

Keisha-Gaye: I think I was about 8 or 9 when I wrote a poem called “Desert Flower Girl.” I think the theme had something to do with a girl overcoming great obstacles and triumphing at the end of her journey through a hostile place. I don’t remember the words but I know I rhymed the hell out of that poem…lol. I’ve remained obsessed with that idea, of having to pass through many difficult obstacles by one’s self but, if persevering enough, enjoying a guaranteed victory in the end and serving as a lantern for those a bit lost on the path.

AV: How important is accessibility of meaning in poems? Do you think one should have to work hard to “figure out” the poem?

Keisha-Gaye: What I have to say, in the form of poetry, has to be understood if it is to be of any use to anyone. As I said, I do write for myself first, but I also don’t feel the need to write unnecessarily obtuse because I definitely want others to connect to what I have written, on some level that moves them to act in ways that positively transform them. Things said plainly, and artfully, have more impact on me as a reader. And the record of my lived experience, in the form of poetry, won’t be much of a record if the references can only be deciphered by me. But that’s just my preference.

AV: Are there any books that you are currently reading right now?

Keisha-Gaye: After listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates read from his new book, Between the World and Me, on Democracy Now, I went right out to get my copy. The writing is stunningly beautiful. It’s a skillful analysis of these times we’re living in and what it means to be black in America.

AV: What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?

Keisha-Gaye: That the names of my ancestors from West Africa would be listed as cargo on a slave ship is one sort of erasure. That I face micro aggressions today, solely based on me being the obvious product of that ancestry, is another attempt at erasure. But of course, you understand that we cannot be erased. We live in music and fiction and poetry. We shape the world like a network of rivers. Our stories give each generation context for the present set of circumstances that continues to challenge our very right to exist. Our stories are an important counterbalance to a faulty mythos that robs the majority Americans of the ability to truly understand how this country was formed and how much they actually have in common with those made to exist on the margins of society, generation after generation. In that way, our stories are also a mirror for the wider society. Sometimes they don’t like what they see, but the mirror doesn’t lie.

AV: How did you get into screenwriting and producing field? Was it difficult?

Keisha-Gaye: Being a dutiful Jamaican daughter, I needed to leave Syracuse University headed toward a “profession.” I loved writing poetry and fiction, but I was afraid to look at it as anything more than just a hobby. So, I studied journalism, which I really did enjoy very much. I worked in print and television for many years, and did documentary work I was very proud of at networks like CBS and PBS. I traveled the country interviewing a number of fascinating people—some very famous—who I otherwise would never have come into contact with. So I am grateful for those experiences. Was it difficult? Of course! Any time you want to excel in a competitive field like television, in New York City, you’re going to have to work hard, be smart, and be enterprising. And I was. I achieved everything I set out to on that career track I’m grateful for the things I learned.

AV: What does “being creative” mean to you?

Keisha-Gaye: It means listening well. To yourself. To the world you can see and the world you can’t see. It means being open enough to translate and transcribe the information that comes to you without judgment or censorship. To be a conduit for those inspired words is a tremendous gift and it’s not to be taken lightly.

AV: Out of all of the written works that you have done, which is your favorite and why?

Keisha-Gaye: When you write something you’re really proud of, it’s like falling in love. In that sense, I have many loves. It’s hard to choose one. But, I think my favorite in the near future will be my upcoming novel. Soon come!

AV: What books have influenced your life the most?

Keisha-Gaye: Oh, there are so many! The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Of Water and the Spirit by Malidoma Some, Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov, Mosquito by Gayl Jones, The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due….the list is really long.

AV: What are some new projects that you are currently working on?

Keisha-Gaye: I’m currently curating a poetry/theatrical event at the Weeksville Heritage Center as a part of the upcoming Beat Festival in September and I’m also collaborating with a group of reggae musicians to record several of my poems.

AV: Do you have any advice for other young writers?

Keisha-Gaye: Always be true to your story, your voice—don’t try to sound like anyone else. Writing is difficult but should also be enjoyable. Relax and let your characters say/do outrageous things (you can edit later). Write the edgiest truths that come to you in your poetry and don’t censor yourself. Remember that you are gifted with the ability to express ideas that others may not be able to. But perhaps most importantly, write on a regular basis. Make it like brushing your teeth. Pick a routine that works for you and stick to it, and don’t let anyone disrupt that space you carve out for yourself.

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