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An Interview with Thomas Kneeland


Thomas Kneeland is the author of We Be Walkin’ Blackly in the Deep (Marian University Department of Media, Communication, and Design) and a 2022 Frontier Poetry Global Poetry Prize finalist for the continent of Africa. He is a 2024 Speculative Play & Just Futurities Scholar-in-Residence, which is funded by Indiana University, the Mellon Foundation, IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute, IUPUI Center for Africana Studies & Culture, and the Ray Bradbury Center. He is also the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of The Elevation Review. His current and forthcoming publication credits include Southern Humanities Review, The Amistad, The Rumpus, Vagabond City Lit, Up the Staircase Quarterly, South Florida Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. Thomas received his BA in English Writing from DePauw University, an MA in Ministry with a Worship Arts Specialization from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University, and an MFA in Poetry from Butler University.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

Looking back on my life, retrospectively, I’ve always been a writer and an artist. I can remember hiding folders and folders of original song lyrics. It wasn’t until I attended college, however, that my love for writing really settled in. I knew very early on in my undergraduate career that I wanted to be a writer and professor of English. And although the latter has not happened yet, I’m heavily influenced by Black and Latinx poets—Dr. Joshua Bennett, Gwendolyn Brooks, Natasha Trethewey, Dr. Taylor Byas, Elizabeth Acevedo, José Olivarez, Yusef Komunyakaa, and others.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

Last year, I called my grandmother on her seventy-third birthday. Somewhere in the conversation she revealed to me that her father’s parents (my great-great-grandparents) were Cuban. On her mother’s side, my great-great-grandparents were Nigerian and American Indian (Choctaw). Being thirty-one at the time, I had so many questions and although my grandmother couldn’t provide every answer, I knew I could do my own research. So I began searching ancestry records for traces of my family, and I was pleased with what I’d found.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

Although there is a deep, Cuban history behind the name “Cienfuegos,” the initial reason for choosing this title is because I discovered Cubans with the last name “Kneeland” who left Cienfuegos for Amite, Louisiana, which is where my grandmother’s side of the family began at the turn of the 20th century.

Describe your dream book cover.

My dream book cover would depict both of my great-great-grandparents, reflective of their Afrocuban culture.

What books did you read (for research or comfort) throughout your writing process?

I’ve read a number of books for both research and comfort to help me along the writing process:

CUBA: An American History by Ada Ferrer

Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora

Omeros by Derek Walcott

I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times by Dr. Taylor Byas

Promises of Gold by José Olivarez

Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

The point of the collection, in part, is a personal exploration of identity through ancestry. But for the larger audience, I hope that readers are able to understand the importance of preserving and amplifying the stories of people in marginalized communities, whose histories are at risk of being erased by those in positions of power.

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