Putting the Muse in Muse: Remica Bingham-Risher on Soul and Creative Process
by Danie Watson
“Soul music probably speaks to me because it’s the music of my heart—it’s the music I was conceived to, raised around, brought up with, the music that most makes me think of home,” says Remica Bingham-Risher, author of What We Ask of Flesh (Etruscan Press, 2013), and Starlight & Error (Diode Editions, 2017).
Music is seen as a tool for self-discovery and self-expression, and has always been a part of Bingham-Risher’s writing, especially as of late. She thought of herself as both a singer and a deep listener long before she imagined she’d be a poet, and tried to emulate the rhythms and tones she heard in music in her poetry.
Bingham-Risher’s second poetry collection, What We Ask of Flesh (2013) is also rooted in music. Patricia Smith, author of Blood Dazzler and Teahouse of the Almighty introduced What We Ask of Flesh comparing Bingham-Risher to one who “gravitates to the addictive sugar of soul music.” What We Ask of Flesh allows the body to become an instrument as words explored the connection between what was and is.
“Soul culture is rooted in deep pain, longing and incessant innovation. It’s black people reinventing a thing again and again until it speaks, in myriad ways, to love, loss, hunger, triumphant joy. This is something I worked hard to tap into in my latest work. I wanted to show how hard fought our love is, and how resplendent,” Bingham-Risher says.
Bingham-Risher doesn’t listen to music while she writes, but rather, while she edits. “When I get that first lightning flash of inspiration, I usually try to block everything out and scribble through the idea very quickly,” she says. “When I’m revising, however, I often turn to music to reinforce tone or to move myself along.”
It isn’t just the lyrics that inspire Bingham-Risher, but rather the voice behind the words.
“When I call someone a soul singer, I am referring to the glow or grit in their voice that reminds me somehow of the bright yearning someone has spun years before them. Some of the soul I’m hearkening back to is classic Motown soul (Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye), ’80s pop soul (New Edition,Michael Jackson), soul-filled folk and jazz (Tracy Chapman, Grover Washington, Jr.) and more. My aim with these poems wasn’t to highlight the genius of these voices but to trace my path through them, and to trace love’s path through all of it,” Bingham-Risher says.
While soul music stemmed from call and response cadences of preacher and congregation, Bingham-Risher crafts her poems as a response.
One of the tracks on the Starlight & Error playlist, “Standing in the Shadows of Love” by the Four Tops allowed for her to answer. After her friend, Rumain Brisbon, died at the hands of police in 2014, the song became her muse, allowing her to hear the song differently.
She says, “Everything about the song moves me—the tempo, the pitch, Levi Stubbs’ gravel and pleading—but I started to hear the song differently after my friend’s death. I was writing poems about motherhood and the song eventually led to a poem about mothers left to deal with life after their sons have been taken from them. In essence, the song was the call and my poem, “Getting Ready for the Heartache to Come or A Body Intercepting Light” became the response and a kind of healing for me.”
But soul isn’t just inspiring her poetry. Bingham-Risher presented an essay at AWP17 during the panel “Beyond Sex: The Poetics of Desire” that was also inspired by the Four Tops Ballad. Her essay was a part of a work-in-progress called Blood on the Page: Ten Poet from the Black Arts Movement Through Cave Canem and is a series of interviews she conducted with poets and personal essays.
She says, “I’m always trying to answer my own questions or maybe, in their broadest sense, I’m calling out to the Divine. Sometimes when I read scripture or the poems of others, I get an answer back.”
To hear what songs inspired Bingham-Risher’s collection find her full playlist here.
Danie Watson is pursuing her M.A. in fiction from Wilkes University and serves as a graduate assistant with Etruscan Press.