A Poet's Life: On Making, On Being, On Surviving with Baba Badji '15

Rebecca Pinwei Tseng
April 07, 2022
Baba Badji headshot.

A Poet’s Life is a series where we talk with Columbia poets about everything from living as a poet to making a living as a poet.

Here, we talk with alumnus Baba Badji '15 about poetic resistance, recovering the archive, and how privacy holds a poem together.


Listen to Badji read “Omar Blondin Diop’s Diary II” below.

Badji is a Senegalese American poet, translator, researcher. He is a fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice and a postdoctoral fellow in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. Badji's research and teaching interests center on the links between the various forms of postcolonial studies, with a particular focus on translation, literature, and Négritude in Anglophone and Francophone cultures. His work has appeared in Europe NowFree Verse EditionsTransverse JournalSnapdragon JournalFoothill Journal, and elsewhere. 

Badji's debut collection of poems, Ghost Letters, was longlisted for a 2021 National Book Award for Poetry.

Cover image for Ghost Letters by Baba Badji

"Omar Blondin Diop’s Diary II" is a diary entry from the perspective of Diop, who was an anti-colonial revolutionary activist and artist in Senegal who passed away in prison in 1973. How did you come to write this poem from this perspective?

Baba Badji (BB): "Omar Blondin Diop’s Diary II" is from the second collection of poetry I'm currently working on. In my first collection, I wrote letters addressed to imagined characters and figures, but in my second collection, the letters are addressed to actual heroic figures from fables. I am tracing African fables and writing back to African fables, and I am tracing Blackness through fables from Africa and the United States. I am revisiting the archive because I want to go against the limits of the archives and stretch the archive to allow accessibility for my audience and for folks across the diaspora.

I was doing research for my dissertation on Négritude and looking at Négritude in 1930s Paris when I came across Omar Blondin Diop. He was a heroic figure, but his story is completely erased in the archive. Omar came to Senegal from Paris to liberate his people, so he was a revolutionary figure, but for me, he's also a heroic myth. I wanted to have a conversation with him and write back to him in this poem. 

In your first book Ghost Letters, there is a ghost mother who presides over the collection. In "Omar Blondin Diop’s Diary II," there's the image of the umbilical cord. The cord is intertwined with the maternal body, which is mentioned in the last line, "Momma came with sacred tears, a blanket & milk for blessing." How do you see the mother figure functioning through her appearance in your work?

BB: In my first collection, the mother figure is Africa, or the motherland that holds tradition together. In my second collection, the heroic figure becomes the mother. The myth of Blackness and the myth of Africa as a continent and diaspora starts with motherhood. If all the mothers were leaders in Africa, there wouldn’t be talk of war. When writing this poem, I was wondering what Omar's mother was feeling when her son was captured for trying to save his people. He died in prison without even seeing his mother. I imagined the mother visiting the prison to bring him blankets and blessings, to give him strength, like every Black mother who visits her son in jails around the world. Motherhood holds us together.

The role of the mother is also important across generations. The mother tends to be the one who worries, who feeds and provides. Every great man has a wonderful and powerful mother behind his back, but what about those who don't have these kinds of mother figures? They tend to struggle a lot. The idea of the ghost mother became a way to communicate with my own identity because I don't know my real mother, but I see her in dreams. In this way, the symbol of the mother is a tool for survival. I don't do poetry because it's cool or hip or intellectual—I do poetry to heal. I do poetry to survive. 

Your first collection works with an epistolary form, and this poem, written as a diary entry, also works in that realm. What draws you to the epistolary form?

BB: I think I'm breaking away from American definitions of poetry. I want to break away from the poetry school and its boundaries, such as not being able to express what we feel and how we think. I don't want to write poetry as I was taught in the workshop—I want to write something different. The form of the diary is part of that poetic resistance because the epistolary form allows for a private and secure conversation. The only way to be closer to my poetry, my speakers, and my audience is when I write to them.

I would love to learn more about breaking away from the poetry school.

BB: I'm grateful for everything—every institution I've been in, everything I've learned from my professors. They gave me productive tools to be in conversation with them, but they also gave me tools to be free. They said, “I taught you this, but take it and fly with it.” They gave me great tools that I have to use, not against them, but to move forward and grow. I want to break away from the idea of poetry by making my poetry accessible to every kind of reader. I can break away from the logic of American poetry or Western poetry, but as long as the poem has meaning that can be shared universally or across the diaspora, that's poetry. In Africa, poetry was used to heal and protect society. Poetry was used as medicine. People wrote poetry when they wanted to feel good. That's the kind of poetry I'm interested in.

In the poem you read today, as well as many of the poems in Ghost Letters, you write in multiple languages. You are fluent in English, French, Wolof, Mending, and Diola, and call on these languages in your writing. Why is the writing of multiple languages important in breaking away from Western institutions and addressing the themes of home, belonging, and diaspora?

BB: Breaking away comes with risk and a sense of outsiderness, but there's a positive side to breaking away from the norm. For instance, if I were at Columbia in a workshop, I don’t think I would take this poem to workshop. People would say, “Why the French or why a diary or who is Omar Blondin Diop?” I would need to explain everything, so I didn't take poems to workshop that were in Wolof or different dialects. In my poems, I'm interested in reaching toward my roots and tracing origins, heritage, and tradition. Mixing languages allows me to be in control. The Western reader has a very fine ear, but Western eyes tend to struggle. So in that sense, I want to trap my Western readers on the page. They either get it or they hit the exit door. Poetry needs to be this way for me to feel any kind of closeness to the reader.

In my first collection, I gave my readers a glossary, but people don't see the glossary until they finish the collection. Once they get to the glossary, they say, “Oh my God, I didn't even know there was a glossary.” It's a sweet way of creating a dialogue between the poet and the reader. There's a sense of collaboration that happens when someone sees a French line in a poem and thinks, “Do I have to Google this? I don't know what this means and there's no footnote to explain anything.” In my poems, I want to create dialogue and a sense of deep, private communication with the reader. I want to be closer to my reader—for them to stop and look up a word or not pay attention to it.

As a translator and a researcher, how do you see these fields interacting with your creative work?

BB: The archive is key—we have to revisit and recover the archive. As a storyteller, poet, an artist, and a researcher, I am in conversation with the archive, but I also want to rewrite the archive. What opened up the idea of the archive for me is research. I’m not just tracing fables from Senegal, but also tracing fables from the Gambia, from Nigeria, from Botswana, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Haiti, and bringing them together. I’m writing a collage of these fables and saying, “We are all related, but we were told that we are not related. They divided us.” They’ve told us for so long that the diaspora is disconnected, vast, complicated, and complex, but we are saying, "No, we are more connected than you think." Our job as poets, as artists, is to recover everything. Poetry is a way of keeping the diaspora.

How did poetry become something that has so much meaning in your daily life?

BB: The best poets are toddlers because they tend not to forget anything [laughs]. They know who's mean to them. They know who's kind to them. If you meet a toddler and give them a piece of paper, they will write the best poems, because the mind is sharp and hungry and there isn't anything to block it. I came to poetry because when I was young, I was always quiet. I wasn't a big talker, and I wanted to be close to my feelings. In middle school, instead of doing my math homework, I would go home and read and write. I didn't know I was writing poetry then. As a kid, I used to think it was really cool to just sit somewhere and pretend you are writing. There's something ineffable about it. It gives you power. It gives you privacy.

But to answer your question straight and frankly, my grandmother is the spine of my work. She is 92 now and lives in Senegal. I saw her a couple of weeks ago when I was in Senegal. Whenever I write a poem, she holds everything together. That's why in a lot of my work, you see the grandmother coming in and out.

How do you see privacy functioning in your poems?

BB: “Privacy” is not a romanticized word, but poets—we are all private. We are private in the poem and we all have secrets. Whatever you do in your private life, whatever you do privately to build your poems—it all counts. When you are a poet, people take you seriously, but you have so much struggle. You deal with so much and are in so much pain. Poems become a private space where you express everything. The only power I have is poetry. As a poet, privacy becomes a way to hold everything together.

What can poetry reveal that other forms of art don’t or can’t?

BB: Poetry is a sort of like a blanket [laughs]. You have theater and all these forms of art, but poetry is a blanket, not the pillow or the bed. You take it and you protect yourself. It becomes a tool for protection and a tool for questioning.

Poetry is also nature. It's the forest. You can walk in there and think, “Ah, I can breathe.” When I go to poetry, I feel safe.

Whether through language, music, or the other ways we present ourselves to the world, why is self-expression so important to the human experience?

BB: Self-expression is a way of protecting ourselves and an important tool for the human mind. It's been a really hard two years, with the pandemic and everything that is happening. If you don't have the platform or the space to self-express, you get hurt. If no one hurts you, you hurt yourself, because it becomes unbearable. You have to find a way to self-express.

Self-expression is also a way of being curious. When you are writing, you are questioning yourself and researching the self. You are researching the soul and the things that are troubling you. Whether through writing a diary or poetry or reading, self-expression is an act that questions identity and the self. You are searching for something that is not clear because if it were clear, you wouldn’t keep looking for it.