Kwoya Fagin Maples, author of Mend: Poems, amplifies the forgotten voices of black women whose bodies were used to further science at the expense of their humanity through her profoundly intimate, and sometimes devastating, verse. This collection of poems explores imagined memories and experiences relayed from hospital beds. The speakers challenge James Marion Sims’s lies, mourn their trampled dignity, name their suffering in spirit, and speak of their bodies as “bruised fruit.” At the same time, they are more than his victims, and the poems celebrate their humanity, their feelings, their memories, and their selves. A finalist for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, this debut collection illuminates a complex and disturbing chapter of the African American experience.
How did you first become acquainted with James Marion Sims, and did you learn about his experimentation on enslaved women at the same time, or did that knowledge come later?
I didn’t intentionally set out to write historical persona poems. I was at a time in my writing career where I was weary of writing about myself. I’d just graduated from my MFA program and I felt a little lost—not knowing the direction I wanted my writing to take. Before Mend, I mainly wrote lyrical or language poems. During a Cave Canem summer workshop another writer mentioned the story of enslaved women—mothers, who were the subjects of gynecological experimentation conducted by Dr. James Marion Sims of Montgomery, Alabama. I’d been asking her about her own experience with motherhood. When I got back to my room, I googled the story, and I was immediately captivated by it. There was so little information online about it at that time, and no record of the women’s experiences. Not even all of their names. All of this was stunning and heartbreaking. I suppose from the beginning I deeply connected with the women emotionally—as if they were my family. At that time, I knew this story had not been told from their perspective. I imagined they’d been waiting on it to be told. I wrote one poem that same night. It was titled “The Door.” It is fortuitous that my editor, Lisa Williams, later chose it to be the book’s prefatory poem.
Can you describe the research you did in preparing to write these poems?
I began by collecting and studying slave narratives. Most of my research was conducted by use of the Library of Congress. I listened to music recordings from that time period and studied photographs of southern enslaved women in order to develop voices. I read Sims’s autobiography, surgical notes, and letters. By the time I finished writing Mend, I’d poured through hundreds of slave narratives and read several books surrounding the case, including Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, which related several cases of medical experimentation conducted on people of color in the United States. Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other unnamed women of Mt. Meigs were not alone. I found that medical experimentation was commonly practiced by doctors and slaveholders. In her book, Washington uses the term “medical plantations,” arguing that what yielded for these doctors (instead of a traditional crop) was advancement in their respective fields and establishment of wealth. The poem I wrote in direct response to this idea is “What Yields,” an eleven-sectioned sonnet corona in Mend.
After spending so much time in research, when the poems came again for the book, they came in the voices of the women themselves. In 2011, at a writing residency provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, I began writing. I hadn’t written anything since that first poem a year earlier. I didn’t feel I’d have permission until I’d done my due diligence of researching. I didn’t automatically feel as though I could tell these women’s stories just because I was a black woman. I’d never been born a slave. Something that happened in the process of writing this book that I didn’t expect was how my own experience with matrescence would affect the work. In March of 2012, I found I was pregnant for the first time. After having written poems that endeavored to show the scope of the women’s lives, including their motherhood, there was so much I wanted to go back and revise. I didn’t plan on how being a mother would affect my work or the poems of this collection, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised.
How do the persona poems in Mend compare to your other poetry?
Mend is my first collection of historical persona poetry. I’ve written only a few other persona poems. My other work draws from my personal impressions and life experiences. I’m not an overtly political poet, but my work is political, nonetheless. Often, an argument is being made. The book I’m currently writing draws mainly from my childhood, and shows my obsession with the ocean. I’m from Charleston, SC, and that enters my work as well.
Earlier this year, the statue commemorating Sims was removed from New York’s Central Park and will be relocated to the Brooklyn cemetery where he is buried. It will include a plaque explaining the “legacy of non-consensual medical experimentation on women of color broadly and Black women specifically that Sims has come to symbolize.” Is this an appropriate step for the city to take and what more can or should be done concerning his memorials there and elsewhere?
The Sims statue removal in New York was pivotal and refreshing. It meant that people were hearing the story of Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the unnamed women, and listening. Later in the year, when I heard that the mayor of Columbia, SC was interested in having the statue of Sims removed from the Statehouse there, I knew I wanted to be part of efforts to make it happen. I contacted Joy Priest, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, and we began organizing a protest in the form of a poetry marathon. I traveled from Birmingham to South Carolina. The protest was held in front of Sims’s statue. All day we read poetry, essays, and facts related to this case in medical history. Poetry is a powerful form of resistance. While we held up posters, we also passed out fliers with information about Sims and the experimentation. We reverenced the voices of Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy along with all the unnamed women by bringing them into the frame.
People who cause trauma to others should not be reverenced or held in such high esteem that they have statues erected in their honor. People with any moral decency should agree. Sims’s actions as a doctor jeopardized the lives of human beings and caused irreparable harm. Sims’s monuments were built in his honor without consideration of the circumstances surrounding his success. The women whose bodies he profited from became meaningless the day his statue was erected. Their existence was completely ignored. With these statues and others like it, marginalized people repeatedly receive the message that their experiences are of no importance. When we rectify our mistakes by removing or modifying problematic monuments or statues, we give people an opportunity to heal.