Candace Wiley

By Ed Madden

Candace Wiley is just back from Pencil Shout, a small workshop in Kentucky with National Book Award poet Nikky Finney, and later this summer she leaves for Colombia, South America, as the recipient of a Fulbright creative writing fellowship.  Jasper first noticed Wiley at last fall’s Bookin’ It on Main, a celebration of black writers at the Columbia Museum of Art.  Wiley read poems included in Home Is Where, an anthology of African-American poets from the Carolinas (reviewed in Jasper 003).  One of the last writers to take the stage that day, and one of the youngest, she had a confidence and poise that belied her age, and when she read her poem “White Girl,” a stunningly smart performance piece about skin color hierarchies among African Americans, Jasper knew: Candace Wiley is someone to watch.

Born and raised in York, South Carolina, Wiley graduated from Bowie State University in Maryland, a historically black university, and then completed an MA in American literature at Clemson.  This summer, she graduates from USC’s MFA program in creative writing, her thesis a historical novel about African-American experience in the South.  While at USC, she also used extensive historical research on the lives of African Americans to create a series of dialogues and poetry for a prototype of Ghosts of South Carolina College, an I-phone app that will document the lives of the enslaved African Americans who built and maintained antebellum USC.

Wiley was awarded a Fulbright to pursue a similar historical and creative project in San Basilio de Palenque, Colombia, a town founded in the 1600s by escaped slaves from the nearby port of Cartagena.  The people of Palenque have their own language as well as customs that trace back to West Africa, so Wiley will not only have to brush up on her Spanish, but will be learning the Palenque language as well.  Wiley says she will collect narratives and use these as the basis of a creative prose and poetry project.  During the nine-month fellowship, she will also be working in the local school system, helping students to retell the histories and stories of the area. “It’s a way to pass on a story orally,” she says, “and to have them recreate, rearticulate the story in their own way.”

Wiley wrote a lot as a young girl, but it wasn’t until she was at Clemson that she began to think seriously about her writing.  In a workshop there, she says she felt “like people didn’t understand what I was trying to do … I was serious about my work before but I started grappling with what my aesthetic should be.” Most of her poetry had been grounded in the spoken word, and “I was trying to define myself against the workshop.”  Now she says, “My goal is to find a balance between the two,” – between spoken word and the workshop aesthetic of the written word.  Still, she says, “My primary goal is to write so that my mom could pick it up and read it, my best friend, the bus driver.  I want regular folk to be able to read my work and appreciate it as something that is speaking to their experience.”

Her recent experience in the Pencil Shout workshop reaffirmed that sense of responsibility – to what language can do and for whom.  Pencil Shout was a project initiated by Columbia native Nikky Finney, now a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky, and her colleague, Melynda J. Price.  Finney and Price brought together a small group of African-American women from Kentucky and South Carolina, who, says Finney, “were passionate about writing and storytelling.”

“Candace Wiley is like those multi-talented athletes who could excel in any sport she sets her mind to, and you spend all your time hoping she picks your team,” says Kwame Dawes, who taught Wiley in the USC MFA program before moving to the University of Nebraska last year.  “Like those brilliant, skilled students who could choose law, nuclear physics, history, or music and be amazing, and you hope she will choose your discipline … My team is Poetry United. I hope she will play on our team.  We could use her.”


Three-Flag State

South Carolina has three flags: Nation, State, and Confederacy.

It’s just a flag

like memory is just a story

like family is just kin

like this just skin.


Michael 1992

Aside from Jesus, I want to look like

Michael Jackson. His always-flowing hair,

wet-shiny black. Skipping through the prayer

of fainting fans. Long, lean, lithe, movements strike

perfect angles. Pure skin: not black or white.

He is beautiful. Rose-lipped and doe-eyed.

Scream, scat, coo, create first magic moon glide

and pop. Multitudes quickly fall for Mike.

Performing for the couch and T.V. set

I hang a t-shirt by the stretched neckline

on my shrubby, bush hair, feel it swing down

my back and dream it is silky Mike-wet,

I am angular, perfectly divine.

I am pure-skinned and praised, not tree-bark brown.

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