Chet’la Sebree


Photo: Shannon Woodloe

Literature: Poetry

By: Gail Obenreder

“It is important to me that others feel a connection when they arrive at my work. . .  As a Black woman, I feel a particular responsibility to complicate and elevate conversations about Black women’s lives.” — Chet’la Sebree

Chet’la Sebree seeks accessibility, illumination and connection for herself – and readers – in her widely published poems, several nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She has presented at numerous conferences, often about her work on Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman with whom Thomas Jefferson had children. Her recent poetry collection “focuses on Black female representation and experiences through the lens of Hemings and a contemporary speaker who bears my name.” Entitled Mistress (“an intentionally fraught title”), the work will be published in Fall 2019.

Sebree is a diligent researcher – a discipline acquired from her military father and her mother, who is an attorney and a former chemist – using both traditional (books and archives) and experiential methods. She studied Hemings and her world for six years, going to Monticello in different seasons and even wearing a corset.

Selections from MISTRESS

Paper Epithets, December 1802

Wooly-headed concubine—
a slut as common as pavement—
I am an instrument of Cupid,

a coast of Guinea wench,
his yellow strumpet.

Copper-colored Sally, I am
an industrious and orderly creature,
housekeeper. Somewhere between

mahogany and greasy yellow,
I am not the sage of Monticello.

His flaxen joy, his sable Helen,
his soot-foot bride-to-never-be
Mrs. Sarah Jefferson, only

black wench, negro wench,
wench Sally, never

Sally Hemings.

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The Middletown resident grew up in New Castle County, but she has lived, worked and studied in Pennsylvania, Richmond, and Washington DC (where she completed her MFA and taught at American University). She also lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she worked for a year with former United States Poet Laureate Rita Dove.

It’s no surprise that Sebree is drawn to poetic narrative. She once aspired to be a novelist and still loves the genre, citing the work of Toni Morrison and Phillip Pullman especially. She also draws on a wide swath of influences and interests (art, cooking, wine) for inspiration: “my niece and nephew, friends, . . . visual artists like Alison Saar and Kehinde Wiley, composers like Henryk Górecki . . . I am amazed by people’s talents, brilliance, generosity.”

Work-life balance challenges Sebree. She is not a “wake up and write X number of words person,” finding that “the level of attention required to write poetry is not a level I can function at everyday.” She writes “in fervent bursts during residencies and weeks I take off” and has been a fellow at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, among others.

As well as enabling Sebree to attend writing conferences and retreats, the Fellowship will help continue her latest project (Field Study: A Lyric). The award will also allow her to expand her practice by providing financial flexibility to travel and to purchase a new camera for the photo documentation that is integral to her research.

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