Under Pressure: Naima Yael Tokunow

Naima Yael Tokunow (née Woods) is an educator, writer and editor, currently living in New Mexico. Her work (and life) focus around exploring black femme identity, kinship and futurity. She is the author of three chapbooks, MAKE WITNESS, published in 2016 by Zoo Cake Press, Planetary Bodies, out from Black Warrior Review in 2019, and Shadow Black, selected by Pulitzer Prize winner, Jericho Brown for the Frontier Digital Chapbook Prize in 2020. She is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a TENT Residency Fellow & has attended The Home School workshop in Miami. She proudly edits the Black Voice Series for Puerto del Sol. New work is published or forthcoming from bone bouquet, Bayou, Winter Tangerine, Nat. Brut, juked, Diagram and elsewhere.  

Here, Naima Yael Tokunow discusses how she defines inspiration, word clouds, and art-crushes along with her latest chapbook Shadow Black.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did Shadow Black take to write from conception to publication?

Naima Yael Tokunow: FOUR YEARS! It was my MFA thesis. I published it almost in its entirety poem by poem, but I had sent it out for a few years and no one wanted it, so I just let it live on my computer for a year. I did a lot of editing in 2019 and felt like it was this new and old book that was ready to try and meet the world again. I decided to only send it out to contests because the book deserved it, and in 2019, it won the Frontier Digital Chapbook Prize!

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you?

NYT: Deadlines are great for me! I’m a Taurus, so while I’m super hardworking, I’m also very drawn to only do things that are really pleasurable. Sometimes writing doesn’t feel like pleasure (and sometimes it realllllly does!). Editing is my least pleasurable part of the process, so having an outside deadline to finish/polish things is always really good. As an editor, I try to be tender and soft with my deadlines because I know folks can have a lot of shame around not meeting them, and that’s not good.

SHP: Who are you crushing on arts-wise?

I fall in love with most folks when I read their work. So right now, Aracelis Girmay (The Black Maria). Susan Briante (The Market Wonders). Edwige Danticat (most recently, Krik? Krak!). I also really value my friends’ work, MK (a photographer and multimedia artist) and Lena Kassicieh (designer, potter, visual artist). My husband, Miles Tokunow is working on a durational dance piece on tectonic blackness that has me very excited.

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

NYT: I like that you assume that I write every day! That’s very generous. I do not write every day (or even every week, or month, or season). I’m a new parent and we’re living through a national racial uprising and a pandemic, so just like    e x i s t i n g    feels like a win for me. But, what is good for me is good for my writing. I love to go outside. I love to cook delicious meals. I have to shower, put on body oil. I love to clean. Doing these things makes me healthy and able to write when I can.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

NYT: I don’t know if I have a standalone thing. I’ve had some really incredible teachers over the years who have all said a lot of brilliant things. Be a literary citizen. Write in community. Poetry and prose don’t have to look normative to fit within genre. Reading critically is really important, very little good work is produced in a vacuum. You can write what you know, but you should always be stretching to know more, even if it’s just more about yourself. Also, know that your mentors and teachers aren’t gods. It’s okay to not take the edits. Create your own house with your work. Live in there for a long time.

SHP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

NYT: Neither! I’m an exclusive computer writer! My brain moves way faster than my pen could ever keep up with, so typing is best for me. I keep a document for my current MS that I save as a new “version” each time I add or edit, and a everything else document for random scraps and bits and unfinished things. 

SHP: When it comes to writing/editing, would you consider yourself an editor or more of a curator?

NYT: Both, I think it just depends on the circumstances. I edit the Black Voices Series for Puerto del Sol and in that capacity, I really am just a curator–just trying to build the space for the writer to share and talk about their work without any formal revision suggestions (each featured writer is also interviewed–check out the series here & submit!). But I also edit full-length manuscripts for Jaded Ibis Press (and I’m currently editing their Black Voices Prose Series, so I’m always looking for full-length or collected shorts prose manuscripts! Submit here!), and in that capacity, I’m much more of a traditional editor, copy & content editing and helping bring a novel to life.

SHP: When and how does inspiration find you? For example, do you go outside to find it in nature, or does it suddenly come to you in the middle of the night?

NYT: I feel like I’m coming off as a lil contrarian answering these questions, but I don’t really believe in inspiration! Of course, I’m a human person and sometimes a song or a breeze or someone else’s work will get me going, but if I waited to feel Inspired™, I would never write. I write after researching, after thinking a lot about structure for the project I’m working on, after identifying holes. I have a list of poem titles or themes on a note on my phone and sometimes, I’ll just pick one of those. Inspiration feels really romantic and lovely, but for me, a person with a job and a family and it’s just little by little and informed by a lot of planning and prep, which doesn’t feel sexy, but is true. I don’t know, I was raised by two Virgos.

SHP: If given the chance to adapt your chapbook into a music video or feature length film, which would you pick? 

NYT: Oooo, this is a good question. I feel like a visual album would be a good fit. It’s funny because it’s a chapbook, so in theory, a music video would work, but I think that there’s not quite enough space there to do the mourning and raging and healing that goes on in the book. If Jamilah Woods or Solange wanna fuck around and do a visual album–now that would be fun (“fun” isn’t the right word to talk about an album that would be about black women and violence and freedom, but you know).

SHP: If you could describe Shadow Black in three words, what would they be?

NYT: I’m not sure! A while ago I ran the whole ms through a word cloud and it spit out this little poem, which feels maybe like the best description:

Become black body burning, 

girl god hair, light mouth open.

Poem: shadow, skin, teeth.

Download Shadow Black here!