Burning Sugar: A Q+A with Cicely Belle Blain

A rare insight into revolutionary writing

Emma Mendez // Contributor 

“I think I would like people to walk away with a bit of rage,” said author Cicely Belle Blain. I had the opportunity to virtually sit down with Blain to discuss their new poetry book Burning Sugar, as well as their process, emotional journey, and hopes, for this September’s issue of the Courier.  

Blain, a Black and mixed queer femme, is a passionate and action-oriented individual striving to create communities in a world based on respect and true liberation. Blain is now carrying their work forward through the poetry of Burning Sugar, dropping September 29th. 

At 26, Blain is the CEO of their own social justice-led diversity and inclusion consulting company, founder of the Black Lives Matter Vancouver chapter, columnist for Xtra Magazine, as well as an activist and writer. With the  Black Lives Matter movement gaining more momentum following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and the increasing rallying cry for radical change, Burning Sugar deals with the legacy of colonialism, how it impacts Black lives and the presence this legacy has in the lives of marginalized peoples.  

EM: I want to ask you about your history and relationship with poetry. When did your journey with poetry start? And how? Was there a particular moment when you realized that you had to write Burning Sugar as a poetry book?  

CBB: I used to always love poetry as a kid. I loved rhyming poetry or funny poetry. My grandma’s always been into poetry and would make me read these old-time poetry books. It was always kind of an interest in the back of my mind. I didn’t actually start writing poetry probably until I went to university and tried to do a bit of slam poetry, but realized that was not my jam at all. The performing of poetry is very different from the writing of poetry. So after that, I was like, “maybe this is not for me.” But then I realized I don’t have to perform it, I can write it.  

I just always have a selection of poems developing, it was never really an intentional vision for it. It was just kind of, “I’ll just write some poems, keep them in this book, whatever.” Then I saw that Vivek Shraya was advertising for this kind of contest where they select a Black, Indigenous, or Person of Colour (BIPOC) writer from within Canada, anyone under 30. I was thinking, “okay, I have a bunch of poems sitting around, what if I put them together and made it a book?” I totally thought, “there is no way anybody will be interested in these random ramblings,” and a few months later, I got this call from Vivek. I was thinking, “oh my God, I’m on the phone with my idol, this is ridiculous!” She was like “Hey, we’d love to publish your book.” I was like “WOOOOOOO!” 

EM: I don’t know if there was a moment or if there was just something that told you that you had to tackle these very big, broad, and difficult themes with this book?  

CBB: What Burning Sugar was two years ago before it began the whole editing process and working with Vivek and with the publishers, was very different from what it is now. There were definitely elements of that, but as soon as I knew it was being published, I did want to tell a specific story and have a specific narrative of these pieces around anti-Blackness, oppression, and systemic racism. That’s what I talk about in my work and that’s what I talk about as an activist, and so I knew that I wanted that to be a thread throughout the book. The way that the book is structured, it’s split up into three sections. The first one is about places I’ve been and poems that I’ve written whilst there. So that’s kind of an easy inspiration, wherever I travel to just be inspired by what’s around me and to write about things in that way. The second chapter is about art. So just visiting galleries and witnessing art and responding to it. That was already a natural process that I had. Then I think with the actual publication, I got to make it more cohesive and bring it all together with this underpinning narrative bringing to light the experiences of Black folks and people who are marginalized in different ways, but still through a poetic sort of lens.  

EM: Was there a particular section of poems that was harder to write or put together? Was there a section or poem in particular which you’re most proud of, or that had the most impact on you personally?  

CBB: The Child section was the hardest because it’s the most personal. Up until this point I’ve done a lot of writing, but it’s usually political commentary or book reviews or things that are connected to my identity, but not so personal about who I am. So that part was definitely pretty intense. To write these things and realize that once it’s out there, it’s out there and people are gonna read it. Especially talking about my family struggles or trauma in my family’s past and things like that. I’m pretty out there, and have a presence online and stuff. But I rarely post super personal stuff, so that was the most challenging part; to make this book unique, it had to have my voice and experiences that only I’ve had. My favourite poem is “North Carolina,” as that poem includes the reason behind the name of the book. It talks about visiting a former slave plantation for the first time and feeling the weight of history and trauma in the air, it’s sort of the crux of why I wrote the book. 

EM: You’re incredibly busy, you’re the CEO of your own consulting company and, on top of that, you’re an activist, columnist, and so much more. What’s next for you? Are you thinking of writing another book?  

CBB: I definitely want to write more. I would love the idea of Burning Sugar having a follow-up. Sometimes the inspiration just strikes, and I always have a bunch of poems in my back pocket. What I learned throughout this whole process is sometimes I feel like a lot of writers think a piece of work is not good if it’s not published. But I learned that it’s okay that I just have a bunch of poems that the world will never see, that’s fine. You curate and pick and choose which ones get published. I’m hoping to be working on some new projects over the fall. I definitely want to write a non-fiction book that has some language around helping people through their process of unlearning anti-Blackness, it’s been my passion for a while. But I’m really excited about the opportunities Burning Sugar has presented and the interest. I’m excited to be doing a bunch of festivals over the next few months. Like there’s one coming up where I’m speaking at the same festival as Roxanne Gay so that’s super exciting. Just to see my name on this list with Vivek Shraya and Roxanne Gay and Elle Jones is like woah! This makes no sense! But I’m excited.  

EM: What do you think is the most urgent thing that you really hope and wish for, as a creative and as an activist, that people walk away with after they’ve read your poems?  

CBB: I think I would like people to walk away with a bit of rage. Especially when you read poetry you’re expecting a calming or a whimsical experience. That’s the kind of reputation that poetry has, but actually, it can also be used to incite rage, and anger, and frustration about the world that we live in. Everyone has different learning styles and maybe for folks who are into poetry, this will kind of be an accessible way for them to understand the nuances of the Black experience and how frustrating the world can be sometimes. But still also a sense of hope, I tried to include some hopeful narratives in there as well. I also think because of the cover, it’s kind of friendly and with bright colours; people might pick it up. This could be the first time that they’re entering into this world. I hope that it’s a starting point for some, but also wherever folks are at on their journey, I hope they can find something in it that sparks a conversation or a reflection on our world.  

* This interview has been edited for brevity  

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