2018 New Issues Poetry Prize
Cathy Park Hong, Judge
“From the first poem in Mistress, Chet’la Sebree’s voice gripped me and held on. Sebree’s vision of the persona poem is startling: the narrator is both Sally Hemings and a woman in the present merged to a consciousness un-nesting the ‘holler hidden in her.’ Like Kara Walker’s murals, Sebree runs from—and faces—the dark looming historical forces of miscegenation, enslavement, and the abjection of the black female body. The ghost of Sally Hemings as aberration, as mistress, determines the speaker’s id; tugs at her solitary fantasies; a violent erotic invasion that she inverts and turns on its head with lines etched in rage. Sebree’s language is a scythe that glints wildly. Mistress is truly an astonishing, unforgettable debut.”
—Cathy Park Hong
“In her skillful, moving debut, Chet’la Sebree sketches one of the most charged and intriguing figures in our nation’s history: Sally Hemings. While Hemings’ contours are drawn from the grievously limited historical record, her interior life is richly filled in through Sebree’s creative, forthright reckoning with how the two black women’s relationships to men, motherhood, and the meaning of freedom might parallel. This palimpsest of 19th- and 21st-century lives, rendered in evocative, finely crafted poems, reminds us that our forebears’ complicated desires can be no more or less easily understood than our own.”
“The story of Sally Hemings—mulatta, mother-matriarch of America—has never been told like this before. Thank you, thank you to Chet’la Sebree for giving voice to Sally’s/her/our desire, grief, and rage. Thank you for this fearless poet, who dares to present Sally as mistress of her own body and fate, while raising the difficult questions Sally’s narrative demands we ask: about miscegenation, rape, and what it means for a black woman to own her sexuality. Dismantling one of America’s Edenic myths, Mistress ‘severs silence’ with a ferocity that runs all the way down to the root of each poem’s language, its diction, syntax, and voice. Yet, even as Sebree’s poems eviscerate, they are restoring history, teaching us how to ‘bear this legacy.’”
“Mistress goes where traditional historical literature cannot by immersing the reader in the heart and soul of Sally Hemings through the profoundly similar experiences of modern Black women. Chet’la Sebree uses her carefully researched collection of poems to engage Black womanhood, sexuality, and humanity, but also to upend the mythology surrounding the relationship dynamics between enslaved women and their masters. Sensuous, tantalizing, and gut-wrenching at the same time—Mistress is a must-read.”
Born and raised in the Mid-Atlantic, Chet’la Sebree is a poet, editor, and educator. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Guernica, and Pleiades, in addition to other journals and anthologies. She was the 2014-2016 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University and has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Richard H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies. She holds an MFA from American University.