Late one summer afternoon, Christell Victoria Roach was riding home to Cutler Bay from the beach with her parents, her older sister and three older brothers. “Joy and Pain,” a soulful electronic number by Maze and Frankie Beverly, played on the radio.
“Joy and pain are like sunshine and rain,” Beverly sang.
That song invoked an epiphany about the wholeness of blues that inspires the poetry she writes today.
“I’m writing about the blues and the stories of joy and pain,” she says. “I’m writing about the sunshine of Miami, the rain of Miami.”
Roach, now 26, performed some of her poems this past Saturday at the Ward Rooming House Gallery in Overtown, which used to be a place to stay for Black and Native American visitors. The Academy of American Poets Prize winner and soon-to-be Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University invited the public to hear her work in a place of special significance. The rooming house was built in 1925 by Roach’s great great great grandfather Shaddrack Ward, who moved from Key West to Miami in 1894.
Roach is moved by the deep roots of her family’s past in South Florida. The first time she visited Ward Rooming House was when her father took her there for an audition to read her work long ago. It was then that she learned of her family ties to the place.
“People spend all their lives not getting to make it back to their homeland or their motherland,” Roach said. “For the first time, Miami felt like somewhere that I could call home, like something that I belonged to.”
Roach grew up in Cutler Bay with her parents and siblings. Her father, Kevin, was a social-studies and special education teacher who always encouraged reading at home. None of his kids were allowed to have TVs in their bedrooms, but they could read as many books from his library as they wanted.
“I used to tell Christell, ‘It probably sucks for you to have a father who’s an educator because you don’t get any time off,’” said Kevin Roach at the weekend gathering.
As a child, she began musical training in chorus and the viola, which set her on a path to Miami Arts Charter. She intended on only pursuing an orchestra track in school until one of her teachers suggested she audition for the creative-writing track as well.
Roach went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and African-American studies from Emory University in 2019, and last week graduated from the University of Miami’s MFA program.
“Some people accept the call to be pastors; some people have the gift of a voice to sing,” said Roach. “When it comes to poetry, I do feel called to poetry.”
Raised in the church, Roach feels that her religion and poetry are bonded. Poetry isn’t something she does as a project, she said, it comes intuitively. And she started young.
“The more that I wrote, the more poetry felt like prayer, poetry felt like talking to God,” she said. “Poetry felt like asking questions, poetry felt like being in conversation with my ancestors.”
Writing has also given her a way to explore her family history. She referenced a Miami Herald article by Leonard Pitts Jr. in which he talked about “the dignity of memory.” Remembering a person is a way of honoring their contributions. Roach does this by writing about her grandparents in love on Virginia Key, for example.
“I feel that everything that I write, perform, speak is a love letter to my community but accessible to all of us, and I want it to be,” she said.
On Saturday, Roach held a reading and graduation party at the historic rooming house. Those closest to her participated in a “roast and toast.” Everyone got to hear of her “bad cooking” from one of her nephews and the heartwarming eight-hour phone conversation with one of her best friends.
Family, friends and strangers were able to witness how Roach’s poetry comes alive when she reads. To her, performing is a way of being vulnerable in public.
“In the Black community especially, coming from a history of not owning your person or not having access to spaces that were always yours,” she said. “It’s what I admire about the blues, for example… It’s a tradition of public intimacy that I feel very much a part of when I perform, that it’s mine but it’s also ours…”
At the end of the summer, Roach will be moving to California, where she will be one of five poets selected as Wallace Stegner fellows in Poetry at Stanford University. She doesn’t know how she feels about the move yet, but she is excited about the opportunity.
Even though she’s leaving, she says, Miami is her home. “When you get out of the water you still kind of feel the waves pulling you,” Roach said, “that’s how I feel about Miami.”