Dazzling mermaid-loving poetess Bianca Spriggs is one of the artists featured in the Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition I wrote about on Friday, and she’ll be at the opening weekend events in Charleston September 6th through 8th screening the film she made based on her mermaid poem, “Waterbody” (from her chapbook How Swallowtails Become Dragons), which I include at the end of this post. It’s such a stunning poem, inspired in part by other mermaid poems she lovingly mentions below and that I generously link to in an effort to increase your poetics generally. “Waterbody” is about a human woman who nurses a sickly mermaid back to health, and turns into a mermaid in the process (it’s infectious!) as the mermaid goes through a transformation of her own. Themes very dear to my heart and no doubt yours.
Here’s the film:
Below, I talk to Bianca about “Waterbody,” Mami Wata, mermaid tails, Kentucky, and mermaids generally.
So tell me about Waterbody. What inspired the poem? Why a film?
Inspiration for me is usually the cross-pollination of seemingly disparate details. “Waterbody,” the poem, was no different. A couple of years ago during April, which is National Poetry Month, I was participating in a write-a-poem-a-day challenge for the entire month. That year, I was stranded in a job I didn’t fit in with and was reaching out into the literary world for inspiration in similar narratives. I found myself thinking quite a bit about the melancholy tenor of found-mermaid poems by two of my favorite poets, “I Want a Mermaid,” by Charles Bukowski and “A Mermaid in the Cornfield” by Katerina Stoykova-Klemer. And also the thrilling work of Jason deCaires Taylor who installs magnificent and vast underwater sculptures. So my poem was inspired overall by this notion of speculation over abandoned “water-bodies.”
The film came about a year later while my collaborator, photographer Angel Clark, and I were on a short road trip. I used www.shipmycar.info shipped my vehicle, and we were going back home. Angel’s a visual person and while she liked hearing the poem at my readings, she kept mentioning how cool certain scenes would be it would be if someone ever made it into a film. Because it is such a strong visual medium, film is transcendental and often more accessible than a poem, especially with social media and video forums like Vimeo. I felt that it would be fascinating to see how the poem would translate to the screen visually and sonically without the crutch of language to guide the plot.
Do you have any other mermaid poems/art?
Yes. Once you start making art with mermaids, it’s hard to stop! The other poems I have about mermaids are not as clearly influenced by Western mermaid iconography as “Waterbody.” They are based on other water entities, mostly from the African diaspora like the simbi and jengu. The jengu is one of my favorites right now because it is so evocative; it’s a Cameroonian water spirit described as beautiful with long, wooly hair, and gapped teeth.
I also collect, sketch, and draw mermaids all the time. I’ve got a large painting I did several years ago which is a constant no matter where I live. After a move, when I finally decide where to put her, it’s become sort of like the official house-warming tradition for me, like okay, now we’re home.
Have mermaids always inspired you?
Oh, sure. And all of the women who belong to the waves. Sirens. Selkies. And, like a lot of little girls, I grew up watching the Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.” I could probably still sing (badly) most of the songs from that film. But even before then, I’ve always loved mermaids everything. As a child, I owned a vivid watercolor-illustrated version of the Hans Christian Andersen story and the images have lingered with me into adulthood. The details, like how much excruciating pain the mermaid endured to be human, resounded with me.
In undergrad, I learned about Mami Wata from Professor Henry Drewal when he came to visit a class I was taking on African art and culture. Haven’t been the same since. I adore her iconography and have since loved learning everything I can about how Mami Wata and how other water deities have remained fixtures among the lore and legends in the African diaspora.
What is it that’s so fascinating about mermaids, anyway?
That’s a good question…mermaids have this real feral quality about them. In my imagination, they’re not exactly the sweet things that popular narratives would have you believe. To me, they’re a proud, primordial, fierce, and formal race. I love that they are stewards of an element, of a world that humans have yet to completely overwhelm and ruin. And yet they resemble us.
Can you tell me about the mermaid tails/make-up in the film? How involved were you in that process?
I was heavily involved. I wanted the mermaids to have an urban-whimsy to them, so we were all about showing off the girls’ tattoos and piercings if they had any. We wanted to have the dreads in there. And to let Heather, who played the mermaid in the beginning, you know, keep her heart-stopping ‘do with the half-shaved head. I worked with Haddie Rae, who also doubled as one of my production assistants on conceptualizing the jewelry which had everything from leaves and flowers to twine, beads, and bottle caps. And I commissioned the earrings Heather wore from multimedia artist, Claudia Akyeampong.
The tails we ordered from Fin Fun online. We needed them pretty quickly to stay on schedule and this woman worked really fast for us. She got them to us lickety-split and they swam great. Budget-wise, I mean, we couldn’t really afford someone like Eric the Mertailor, lol (One day, though! Onnnne day!), so Fin Fun was right in our price range. They made great blank canvases, too. I wanted the girls’ tails to look like they’d just swam out of an act called “Cirque du Sirena,” so Haddie and I literally sewed white faux rose petals for days onto those tails. I painted them a little to give them some visual depth. And Haddie used the rest of the petals for the bras.
The ears, I ordered from Aradani Studios online. They’ve got amazing costume pieces and latex elf ears and stuff. And I worked with my girl, Pink, who is some kind of hair and makeup genius, to finalize the look with sequins and shimmer and weave and flowers and all that.
What is your involvement in the Mermaids and Merwomen in Black Folklore: A Fiber Arts Exhibition? Will you be attending?
I am one of the poets who is featured in the book Cookie put together revolving around the fiber artists. I’m thrilled to be apart of this exhibition. I saw the call for submissions awhile back and had no idea about the scale of what she was putting together. It’s going to be such a special event, I just couldn’t see missing it. So, I will be there to meet all the other mermaid artists and poets who are coming. Cookie also liked the film and so, I will be screening “Waterbody” during the opening weekend and reading the poem at some point. And you know, I will most likely be wandering around in the ocean some morning practicing my mermaid call.
Do you yourself identify as a mermaid?
I used to. When I was very young. Growing up in Florida, I swam all the time, but since we moved to Kentucky, I’ve become somewhat landlocked, you know? I think I’m one of those sad-story mermaids who’s trapped in a human’s body, but maybe now it’s too late to go back. I think part of me will always be mermaid, which is why identify with them so much and go looking for them in my writing.
Do the African water spirits/mermaids have special significance to you?
Definitely. Like I mentioned, the water entities and Mami Wata are so fascinating to me. They’ve affected my personal mythology I imagine for mermaid civilization. For instance, I’ve got a YA novel in the works about Black mermaids in Kentucky. I love the world I’ve created for freshwater mermaids based on my own experiences here. Kentucky has a gorgeous landscape and beautiful rivers and streams and I enjoy thinking about how mermaids might have arrived and evolved here. But Kentucky also has a past rife with racial tension. So as someone who writes primarily in the vein of magical realism, how do I reconcile the two? Part of that includes incorporating a bit of legend in regards to how these water folk followed ships across the Middle Passage to protect as many slaves as they could. That kind of lore is irresistible. I just imagined that the further inland the slaves went, the mermaids followed where they could.
And finally, do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
Always, no matter what, stay hydrated.
by Bianca Spriggs
[published in Union Station]
I was born underwater—Erykah Badu, On and On
I think I’d like a mermaid to love—Charles Bukowski, I want a mermaid
You don’t see them
even in the wild that often anymore.
She is far from home, I can tell—
her hair is a mess, gums bleeding;
she says she’s been living off
of the soybean oil they soak sardines in,
rooting around in dumpsters behind townhomes
with plenty of people who own cats.
Her scales might have been opalescent
once, but have dimmed
and are sloughing off in great strings
from around her fins.
Her skin probably used to be
something like rose gold
but is frayed and faded to rust.
It would be the broken mermaid
that came to me.
She likes to sunbathe on my deck.
She likes for me to fill up the kiddy pool,
set it up in the grass and let her splash around
until the sprinklers come on.
She says even in the ocean
women make compromises.
To her, being with me is like being in the wild.
But for me, she doesn’t mind
letting herself feel a little tame.
On Sunday, her tail splits right down the middle.
I am giving her a bath because she’s got a thing
for bubbles and it justs pull apart
like she’s busted a seam.
We are so surprised, we laugh.
She screeches, startling the cat (who follows her
around like a lost lover, licking at her fins and scales
while we watch TV).
She kicks her new legs and the scales fly
away from her like coins.
I tell her not to pick at what she has left—
her skin, so pink and new,
is as glossy as the inside of a carp’s mouth.
Her arms find their way around my neck
because I’ve shown her how to embrace
when we are pleased or frightened
and we stay like this, sobbing,
until the water turns to salt.
I keep my hair down so she cannot see
the gills that gape in my neck.
I wear socks so she does not see the webbing
that has grown between my toes.
I am cold all of the time and spend most
of the day sunbathing on the deck.
We try to keep her fins when they fall off
to make room for her feet.
We hang them to dry like they are roses
but while we are making dinner,
the cat climbs the curtains to rip them down.
She asks me to cut her hair.
She has no more use for locks studded with pearls and shells.
Tonight, while she is asleep, I fill the kiddy pool
beneath a full moon and take off all of my clothes
because they only irritate what is budding underneath.
She caught me with my head
in the aquarium for a breath of fresh air.
She insists on taking me herself.
My tail has grown too large to fit comfortably
in the bathtub, and the sardines just taste like road-kill.
The scales itch and my dying skin stinks.
I trail fluid everywhere and it’s difficult
to get used to new organs and orifices.
I am becoming a nuisance, I can tell,
so I make it easy for her.
I tell her I want to go.
So, we make ready.
She takes apart the cowry necklaces
we bought from the street festival and weaves
the shells into my hair.
She pours sea salt into warm bathwater
and scrubs until my skin is bright as rose gold.
Even when light barely pierces a surface,
when it splinters through the flotsam,
spindling into as many rapid points as a night sky,
a body will find what it needs to make itself at home.
I am a frozen ocean, thawing,
tectonic plateaus of ice breaking
at the seams before an engorged sun.
Spools of kelp unravel—
they are my hair.
I am an ocean remembering
she is an ocean.