Radical Self-Care for Black Woman by Katelyn Rivas Book Cover

Ancestral Healing: An Interview with Katelyn Rivas

In her collection, Radical Self-Care for Black Women, Katelyn Rivas thoughtfully exposes her wounds to the light. Her work documents healing and all its nonlinear shapes—their curvature and spiraling, waxing, and waning density. But Rivas doesn’t endure this process alone. She calls on her ancestors and invites readers, especially Black femme folks, to enter this radical and imaginative realm too. In this interview, Katelyn Rivas discusses the spiritual nature of writing, the importance of believing in what is possible, and how poetry fills dark chasms for us all. 

Loré Yessuff (LY): Do you know how to articulate what you love about poetry? I have such a hard time articulating what exactly it is that I love. Do you know how to describe it?

Katelyn Rivas (KR): I don’t know. I mean, that’s why we write poetry, right? I love the ability to express myself and think about the world. I’ve spent a lot of time observing people and nature and culture. And so it’s just awesome to be able to store those things up and then release them in this imagery hand-off. It’s a really important thing for me to have that passing through me. And I definitely feel it’s very spiritual too. It’s not just about me.

LY: Can you talk more about the spiritual aspect of poetry? How does poetry connect you to your spirituality?

KR: Poetry is something that allows me to connect with greater humanity. There are times when I’ve written poems that have come out of thin air; it feels divinely inspired or something. I feel a strong connection to something bigger, whether through nature imagery or the lineage of women in my family and trying to channel them and imagine them.

LY: I love that you brought up your ancestry because I thought about how ancestry and ancestral healing tend to show up a lot in your collection. It seems to ground your poems. Why do you gravitate toward writing about those topics?

KR: Yeah, that came about organically. It was not my purpose to write that way, but I’ve always used my writing for personal healing. But it became a sort of ancestral healing. I was starting to think about my own mother. I am an adoptee, and I was raised in a white family, very much removed from black culture. 

As an adult, I’ve spent more time living in cities, figuring out my own identity, and wrestling with it. It’s such a big deal to be an adoptee. We’re 1% of the population. There’s so much information that we don’t have about our own biological and medical pasts. And there’s so much missing. It is a loss that I’ve experienced my whole life, but really as an adult, I started dealing with it more. 

I wrote the poem, “Listening to My Mother is an Act of Learning to Love Myself…” I think it was January 2018. It was a dark moment in my life. I had just moved to Seattle from Detroit, and it was my third time returning to Seattle. I loved the area and wanted to live there. I had a lot of friends there, and I had this cool job, but then I ended up being laid off two months after I moved. I was just feeling sad and super depressed. And I was dealing with a lot of bigger mental illness stuff. But all of a sudden, this poem about learning to love myself came to me. That poem wrapped me up in possibility and helped me to keep going. From there, I just haven’t been able to stop writing about the idea of mothering. 

I’m still writing about that topic now, which makes me happy and excited, but also, wow, it’s so crazy that I’m still writing transformable poems about this one particular subject. 

LY: I’m looking at the poem right now, and there’s a line that says, “refining the dark chasms, you will tread, but are never to dwell in,” Considering this line and what you just said, I’m interpreting that your poetry is a way to fill that dark chasm, to fill that hole or to understand it or put a magnifying glass to it, which is beautiful and brave and inspiring. Thank you for sharing that.

LY: Which poem filled you with the most joy to write? Or maybe there are multiple that did. 

KR: “Self-Portrait As Exile,” I think, is one of the poems that felt joyful. All of them, in a way, provide some kind of release. But that one was written during a time when I was thinking about my family and how I had lived in all these different places and trying to think about where I belong and that kind of thing. The lens of that poem and the landscape of that poem made me feel happy. There’s a lot of active verbs, like dancing and leaping. There’s a lot of moments where you’re kind of experiencing something different from reality, but it feels possible because it’s about things changing. And so, I dunno; I feel like that was a really important problem for me.

LY: I love that poem! Actually, I underlined the line: “and I will find an open city that has dancing hands and teenagers with laughter waiting in their throats.” I love the movement in that, and it’s such a beautiful image, especially the “laughter waiting in their throats.” I’ve been laughing a lot today because my cat makes me laugh. I understood what that meant when I read it. But even if it were a day when I was really sad, that would have inspired me and made me hopeful for another day where I’d feel joyful again. I appreciated that line.

KR: That’s so cool. Thanks for sharing that. I like hearing that. I spent a lot of my life working in community organizing with young people in really hard situations. I was kind of inspired by that experience. Many folks aren’t able to be children or be young people for different reasons. So I was using my radical imagination at that moment. 

LY: It came out and shined. I love it. What does the future hold for your poetry? You mentioned that you’re working on some new poems. Are you exploring similar themes or venturing into new ones?

KR: I’m still venturing into the mothering theme. It’s coming from a different kind of perspective now. It’s hard to explain fully. It’s a little bit more vulnerable and painful, but it’s an important part of the healing process and mourning that loss. I’ve been able to provide through my poems the very visceral experience of wanting to know who your mother is or who they were, but not being able to do that and just that longing, which is hard and tender, but it’s important.

LY: Wonderful, I’m excited to read those poems. How do you nourish your creative side when you’re not working?

KR: Cooking is a strong outlet for me. I grew up in a household where everybody was a home cook, so that’s something that was passed down to me, something I’m proud of. I have a pretty strong crafting practice, whether it’s embroidery or something similar—just a tactile activity. Once you figure it out, you can zone out and just do this repetitive, kind of meditative thing. I also try to practice meditation. I have a really strong bath process, which shows up a lot in my poems. I read a lot about bathing. That’s important to me. I feel I can connect to the black women in my lineage and even in the lineage of just like black history. I have a lot of really great friends that I have deep conversations with. And my husband, we have a great relationship and very deep conversations as well. 

LY: I’m struck by what you said about your crafting practice. The tactile part, the kind of meditative nature, the circular thing that you’re doing with your hands. That shows up in your writing a lot. I feel like sometimes your poems are wanting to touch their readers. The different scents or different foods or like different plants. Your own body, your hair. There’s a lot of texture that you’re exploring. I think it’s really funny that your love for tactile experiences shows up in your poems, maybe in a way that you didn’t even realize. 

KR: That was cool. I never really thought about it from that perspective. That’s awesome.

LY: How do you balance your day job with creative work? 

KR: It’s so hard. It’s an ongoing process. Basically, my whole working life I’ve been doing social service-type work. Seven years ago, I started doing that from a more creative perspective. So I was doing teaching artist-type work, therapeutic poetry, and art therapy. That kind of led me to where I am now, working as an arts administrator in community arts. It’s a big part of my life. Though I’m not specifically working in poetry currently, I see the larger poetry world as something that I’m a part of. It can be really hard to find spaces to write outside of work. I’m in a workshop here in Detroit, so that’s helping me stay accountable. And I started an MFA program last year, but I left it because it just wasn’t the right direction for me, but it did help me realize how much I needed to continue doing this. I feel like the writing process is more than just sitting down and writing itself. Everything else in my life is part of the writing process. Even if I’m not writing every day, I’m still in that process. 

LY: That’s great. It seems like you have a very intuitive practice, which is cool and hard to achieve. What books are you reading?

KR: Safia Elhillo’s Home Is Not a Country

Leila Chatti’s Deluge

Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ Seeing the Body

Anything that Flower Press publishes 

LY: And lastly, what’s been inspiring you lately?

KR: I love seeing the flowers come out. There’s not a ton of them out yet, but I’ve seen a few irises popping through. I work with people that create murals for my job, so that process always inspires me. 

Purchase Radical Self-Care for Black Women by Katelyn Rivas: https://www.flowerflowerpress.press/shop/radical-self-care-for-black-women

Learn more about Katelyn Rivas and her work: https://fabulouslyfeminist.com/blogs/news/feminist-movers-makers-shakers-katelyn-rivas-and-the-free-black-womens-library-of-detroit

Learn more about Loré Yessuff and her work: https://loreyessuff.com/