A Writer’s Insight: Bernardo Wade

Bernardo Wade’s poem, “God Made Dirt, & Dirt Ain’t Popeyes,” appears in the Autumn 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here, Bernardo discusses the importance of family and place in his work, along with his favorite food at Popeyes.

Zach Shultz, editorial assistant: You open the poem with a note about your decision to use the sestina form. Can you tell us about that decision, and for readers unfamiliar with this form, can you talk more about why you chose the sestina as a container for this particular poem? 

Bernardo Wade: In a way my decision was coaxed, or, maybe, I was lucky someone else loved me enough to suggest something outside of my comfort zone. It was near the tail end of an MFA workshop when another poet, on Zoom, shouted out of nowhere, “Bernardo! I think you should write a sestina!” To be fair, we were giving each other prompts, but I did ask myself at the time, “Why a sestina?”

I had a vague understanding of its constraints, knowing, similar to the villianelle or ghazal, that if I was to repeat the same words at the end of a line, it should be interesting, maybe surprising. Then another poet said, “Don’t be boring! Break the form!” Class ended, and from the dining room of my mother’s kitchen in New Orleans—remember, we were on Zoom—I started playing around with the form.

I remember thinking if I could get a kind of conversational tone down alloyed with a certain rhythm, the repeated word would feel less protrusive. There was a Popeyes box sitting on the counter, and I started thinking about what buttermilk was and who thought to dip chicken in it. Eventually, I had the first draft of this poem.

When an idea for a poem starts to bloom in your mind, do you already have a form in mind, or does the poem itself dictate which form you ultimately choose to bring it to life? 

For the most part, I try to get language down that might surprise me. When the content reveals something I hadn’t thought of before, maybe then I start considering the form. For this poem, I’m indebted to Aurielle Marie’s “Unlike Every Other Poem I Found You In” published by Split Lip Magazine. I almost forgot about my sestina, then I read theirs, and thought, Wow, I really dig how this poem breaks from the left alignment.

The influence of their poem helped me see how I could let mine breathe. Breaking away from a five or six beat line, I could make the rhythm feel a bit more playful, more interesting to me.

Family, particularly the connection with a mother, comes through as a salient theme in your poem, and also in a lot of your work. Can you talk about the central role that family plays in your work? 

I think about this a lot. I only come from two places—my mother and father. In that way, it’s a sort of poetics of place. No matter how much, at times, I think I’m different from them, they are a kind of genesis for my understanding of the world. I try not to get mired down by a binary of whether they were good or bad parents. Maybe I’m just old enough to understand they had their own shit with them—that we all do.

I’m all about having a speaker that takes fictive liberties in poems, making up details that might add a little more emotive entanglement. Yet, in my experience, the more I revise a poem, the closer it comes down to the truth of things, to the truth of what, as I see it, happened. I guess I’ve tried to revise my life in the same way: a continual peeling back to find a more consistent, sympathetic ethos. And isn’t that the juice? To learn how to love and give a little more of yourself. I think I’m indebted to my friend Ross, who showed me that writing is connected to how we live, how we breathe all this in.

New Orleans leaves a heavy imprint in this poem and much of your other work. How does New Orleans as a place influence your art? 

Born and raised, baby. Born and raised. My father once said, “Don’t forget, you from some place.” New Orleanians definitely going to tell you where they from. We love our city. If I’m a part of any tradition, it’s that one.

Has your relationship between place and poetry changed since you moved away from the city? 

Moving to Bloomington changed my relationship with nature. I’d only lived in cities before. During the pandemic we got an Aussie mix, Calliope, and I started walking her nearly every day in the woods. There was something in the everydayness of walking through there that shifted something inside of me. I became aware of the seasons—New Orleans doesn’t really have seasons in the same way—the transitions things take, need to take. This might sound basic to some folk, but, for me, I always had a fear of the woods, like it was a place not for me, not safe.


What excites you most in the work of other poets writing today? What do you look for in poetry? 

I like poets that are going for it. A well-crafted poem is cool, but what about those poems where the craft breaks down a little bit and the poet hits you with that chin shot? I guess in poetry we can call it a love tap.

I also look for poetry that’s being its weird self. Though I don’t know if I have criteria, I like poems that do more than try to impress with language. I want something that brings me somewhere, in and outside of myself, somewhere I haven’t been before. When I was leaving for break, I grabbed Ama Codjoe and Paul Tran’s new joints. Wow, both of those books are… it. Also brought Yusef’s Magic City—I’ve kept that one close for a little minute now.
This piece reads like a love letter to the speaker’s mother. Can you talk about the influence of your own mother, or maternal figures from your life, in your work? 

In my mother’s house, the kitchen is its heart. Though she did cook for a living, it felt like my whole life people would pull up a stool, pour a glass of wine, and unwind. There was always hella gossip and sorrow and advice and joy and screaming—the good, the bad, and the ugly—in the kitchen. Good food, too. My mom can really cook. Maybe my ideas around telling stories started from listening to grown folks talk in the kitchen.

Poetry, much of the time for me, is about listening. I think of a poem as world building—the beginning of something that wasn’t there begins with that first word on that first line. That feels kind of grandiose when I say it, but it helps me. Sometimes I think my poems are saying, “Hey, come over here, I got a story to tell YOU!” Like it’s the unspoken first line of all my poems. I think that comes from my mother, the tradition of storytelling that I found in her kitchen.

Is this poem part of a chapbook or larger poetry collection? What are you currently working on?

I think, just recently, I thought, Oh dang, I might have a li’l something something here. Might be a full-length in the works, yeah.

Last question: What’s your favorite item off the menu at Popeyes?  

Now this is a good question. I usually do the same order. Growing up, I did love the mashed potatoes, though, today, Big Box, spicy, with a breast and a thigh, red beans and coleslaw, pepper on the side. If I’m home, I have to stop and grab a Big Shot, pineapple or strawberry. There is no Popeyes in Bloomington! Every time I’m in Indianapolis, which is mostly to go to the airport, I stop and grab a big box of Popeyes. I got to.

Bernardo Wade is a Black writer from New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the editor of the Indiana Review and is a Watering Hole Fellow. He won the 2021 Puerto del Sol Poetry Prize and has works appearing or forthcoming in Ecotone, Guernica, and The Cincinnati Review.

Zach Shultz is an MFA Candidate at Louisiana State University and former nonfiction editor for New Delta Review. He is a 2019 Lambda Literary nonfiction fellow and a 2022 Indiana University Writers’ Conference fiction fellow. His work has appeared in LitHubElectric LiteratureThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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