The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Nicole Sealey talks to writer Metta Sáma, who is the author of After After/After “Sleeping to Dream” (Nous-Zot Press), Nocturne Trio (YesYes Books), and the forthcoming le animal & other strange creatures (Miel Books). Poems, stories, and essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Baffler, Rædleaf Poetry, Entropy, Transitions, Dismantled Almosts Anthology, Heir Apparent, All About Skin, The Feminist Wire, and others. Sáma is the director of both the Creative Writing Program and Center for Women Writers at Salem College, where she is also Assistant Professor of Creative Writing.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

I’m still trying to understand what we mean when we say “writer.” If we mean that our spirit mind heart body psyche are those of a writer, then I’ve been a writer since before I became a real reader, so sometime around two or three years old. I live inside of stories & impressions that I build daily, that I add to, revise, revive. These stories, these impressions, have always been a way that I’ve identified myself as a human in the world. The medium in which those stories those impressions are shared has shifted over the years. Once, I wanted to share those impressions those stories through modern dance. Once, I wanted to share through photography. Once, still, I wanted to share through the law. Other times, I’ve wanted to share through violin, guitar, upright bass. Recently, through drum, through trumpet. 

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

No one’s! I actually find the whole “great artists steal” idea to be a crock of bullshit. Great artists always attribute; “[we’re] sensitive about [our] shit,” as Erykah Badu said, so we’re sensitive about having our work taken away from us, re-hashed, sampled, pulled out of context, used up, etc. No one wants to be robbed/mugged of their style, form, language. That said, I borrow freely, wisely, and when I have the time & the chops, I’ll borrow that “Whereas” form of Layli LongSoldier’s for a book-length project I want to do on Brown v. Board of Education. 

Where is your favorite place to write?

I enjoy writing anywhere where I can be physically naked, public parks, my living room, bathtub, bed. 

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

Hasn’t everyone!? Yes, I’ve been arrested. I don’t recall why I was pulled over, speeding maybe, I speed, or maybe driving on a busted taillight, I often have taillights out, but no, it was daytime, so that wasn’t it, whatever it was I was arrested after they entered my info. They called my parents to secure my car. I’ll never forget it. My mom & dad showing up. Me in the backseat of the cop car. Handcuffed. My mom’s anguish. My face, dead. My mom’s anguish turning to outrage at my deadened face. I was a grown ass woman and my parents were about to bail me out of jail for writing bad checks. The child they always feared would be jailed for protesting at this or that rally, for being in the center of every activism. In jail for writing bad grocery store checks. At the jail, I tried to formulate some poems. I was new to writing poetry, so in that early, narrow phase where a poet only sees herself as a poet & tries to make every experience in the world a poem. 

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

Currently everything cult, commune, intentional community, start-up religion, religious fervor, blind faith, charisma, charm, the body, always always the body. 

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

Rape. Love.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

The responsibility of this writer is to be ethical, conscientious, non-judgmental, curious, free free free.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

I believe that there is a crew of us who believe this, yes, & we do the work of (broad) social justice & often create work that focuses on (broad) social justice and other intersections. 

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

I would send the written work of every person who has been unjustly imprisoned/has had family members/friends unjustly imprisoned & has written about their experiences, writings by Anna Akhmatova, Oscar Wilde, Martin Luther King, Jr, Nawal el Saadawi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for example.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?


Poets Metta Sáma and Timothy Liu will read from their most recent collections and then participate in a moderated conversation with Cave Canem graduate fellow zakia henderson-brown at The New School’s Wollman Hall on September 16, 2015, at 6:30pm. Visit Cave Canem’s full calendar here.

Nicole Sealey is the Programs Director at Cave Canem Foundation and the author of The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press. Her honors include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Copper Nickel, Ploughshares, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. Nicole will be interviewing a distinguished and diverse group of Cave Canem fellows and friends. Visit her at