Funeral Diva by Pamela Sneed (City Lights Books, 2020).
In an interview on the Ezra Klein Show, the two-term American poet laureate Tracy K. Smith describes poetry as “insisting on a different logic…trying to pull out a different part of how we perceive the world.” Pamela Sneed’s book, Funeral Diva, part prose and part verse, captures this “new logic,” documenting her coming of age as a young queer Black woman-artist in New York City in the 1980s. Sneed references fictional characters and historical events against “ordinary” moments in black lives, wanting us to see the architecture of black lives through a historical framework. The intersections of these aspects in her writing create new windows and mirrors that amplify their voices.
Funeral Diva shares similarities with Nikky Finney’s poetry and essay collection Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, published in the same year; both writers use poetry to bind the personal life of the author with the history of black America. Finney uses “artifacts” such as newspaper clippings, personal and artistic images, and her own writing to reinforce these themes, giving the book an art gallery type of feeling—there are many things to see, touch, and read. While Funeral Diva doesn’t have this curatorial approach, Sneed chronicles black lives by constantly referencing writing by both famous and obscure black writers, and including their importance in the literary world. These writers are mirrors—black people can see themselves represented within their writing—without the gaze of otherness. At the same time, Funeral Diva creates a window where everyone, including black straight people, see through a black queer women’s point of view.
Though metaphorical, this window is an “artifact.” It encourages many outside of these identities—gay, black, queer—to value the empathy and insight it adds to their lives. Finney and Sneed insist that black writers should be archivists of their own memories to sidestep a myopic history that has not included them.
To that end, Funeral Diva is a conversation between the author and her lived experience. Sometimes Sneed pivots between different time periods, memories, and experiences in rapid succession. At other times, her ideas are threaded throughout the narrative, anchoring readers in the themes of how homophobia, brutality, and racial disparities are sustained beyond America’s Jim Crow Era. In the essay/poem, “Hold Tight,” Sneed says:
Let’s be clear, it wasn’t Isis or Islam
That licensed that man to walk into a gay bar
And massacre those white and gay POC
It was America with heinous gun laws...
It was here in America he learned apartheid policies
Separate and unequal