An Interview with Tiffany Austin

Tiffany Austin received her BA in English from Spelman College, her MFA in Creative Writing from Chicago State University, her JD from Northeastern University, and her PhD in English from Saint Louis University. She currently teaches rhetorical and creative writing at the College of The Bahamas. Her research and teaching field also includes African Diaspora literature—African American, Afro-Latin, Caribbean, and African literature. 

How would you describe your writing?

My writing has been described as one with a gendered blues aesthetic, but I don’t relate this descriptor to how we generally perceive the blues.  I’ve always admired blues music, not only for its melancholic tones, but for its protest-like and freeing qualities. I grasp its expressive possibilities because of its creative use of language and sound (especially its disguised protest element).  I’m most interested in the embodiment of langtiffany-austinuage—readers’ visceral responses—so my poetry is full of images and elliptical narratives.  The themes range from historical and personal memory to “tenderness” amongst tragedy-fraught events and experiences.  I find myself asking, “What do we desire from memory?”  Within those themes subsist the subjects of cultural belonging, dislocation, gender, and age.  I don’t overtly point to sexuality because I’m more invested in how we sensually engage with ourselves and one another.  Pondering the possibilities for poetry, it’s about how I treat you and you treat me—personally, socially, politically—and that’s what the blues delves into and how it relates.

What should potential audience members expect if they decide to attend? Is there a target audience in your mind?

I once toyed with the term “poetics of quietude” to relate the importance of silences and ellipses in the intersection of some Caribbean and Southern women poets’ works, so my poetry, and especially its engagement with social issues, is not necessarily loud but contemplative.  It often baffles me that there has been this historical argument about whether poetry should be political or not, when the political alludes to the people.  It’s not original for me to say, but we’re always writing politically—as people.  I’m trying to work out something in my poetry, and I like for audiences to take that journey with me.  I truly believe if we use new language, our perspectives and how we engage with problems change as well.  I do not have a target audience; I only hope for one that is willing to listen.

What are your hopes for this presentation?

I hope that audience members will connect language, poetry, and social justice with a new lens.  I remember having a conversation with a young feminist who conjectured that we should take control of the word “bitch.”  But I asked why couldn’t we create a new word that proclaimed the same kind of female power that she desired to express.  I want audience members to assert a type of power in listening to the possibilities for language and political/social action.  When I tell my students that, as primary and secondary students, “unequal education funding” does not violate the constitution (there is no constitutional right to equal education), they are taken aback.  Then, they have to question the definitions of “equal,” “right,” and “education,” and they express how these definitions are ambiguously enacted by political policies through their writing.  So, I continue to ask, what can we gather from the intersection of poetry and social justice?  Our most vulnerable sites can become our most powerful means for shifts.  That’s the conversation to be had.

What do you want people to walk away with? In other words, do you want them to think about your message, learn something new, gain the desire to act, etc.?

I want audience members to think about what role language plays in their perception of ideas, in how they engage with different people.  I seldom ask, “How are you?” because at times I am not prepared for the potential answer.  How do we deliberately engage with one another?  With our privileges?  With disengaging with the soundbites?  I often say, I’m not a multi-tasker because when I am listening to someone, I try to give that person my full attention, and the same applies to my encounter with a social/political issue.  What do I not know? I want audience members to ask questions that lead me to ask questions.

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