“I'm trying to add music to the constant pounding, pounding, pounding.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
So you’ve been working on a new book?
Yeah, I just completed one collection of poems, and I finished another that was a collaboration with a Chicago photographer, a man named Michael Abramson. He’s a white guy, and he made a career out of going to south and west-side clubs, mostly African-American parts of the city, going to those clubs in the 70’s to take photographs. They have already been released once with an album of music that they played at those clubs. It was actually nominated for a Grammy. After he died, his wife wanted to reissue the photographs but instead of music she wanted text to accompany them. So they gave me a whole load of photographs.
Oh, that’s awesome.
Yeah, it was amazing. I had such a good time doing it. And that part is finished, it’s actually at the printer. It’s mostly a coffee table book publisher out of Chicago. It’s not a traditional poetry publisher. One of the big challenges is that it hasn’t been taken seriously as a poetry book.
There are a lot of poems in there about the music. A lot of his shots are really hot and steamy dance shots, so there’s a lot of heat and emotion in the poems. So, I’ve got that one, and then I just finished a more traditional poetry manuscript. It’s been busy. I like being busy.
That’s great to hear. Just this morning I was reading about Mary Oliver’s partner, Molly, who was a photographer. Mary wrote this beautiful text alongside a volume of Molly's photos where she talks about how, through studying the photography, the great lesson she’d learned from Molly was that “attention without feeling is only a report. An openness, an empathy was necessary if the attention was to matter.” I thought that was so lovely and true and I wrote it down. It reminds now of your work, the way it builds from your observational instincts as a former reporter, but then draws from what seems to be a sort of deep empathy as well.
Well, that’s very nice of you, thank you.
When you write about Katrina, say, it’s not just a report. There’s a humanity that elevates it. I’m interested to see this photography project because it sounds like it could be a sort of natural vehicle for that kind of witnessing.
Yes. I think that’s our job.
Absolutely. It ties into something that you’ve said in the past that being a black poet is pretty much the same as being any other type of artist except that “when you’re black and focused on the task of witness, the chaos constantly threatens to overwhelm.” I think that’s so poignant today when so many black artists are being asked to speak for their entire community.
Yeah, it’s almost as if you need more than the allotted number of eyes, more than the allotted number of throats. When you’re witnessing, you’re always supposed to look for the voice you’re not hearing. You try to witness from that viewpoint. And one of the things, particularly about a lot of the young black men who are losing their lives, is that I never hear the mother’s point of view. I mean, you may see the mother at the beginning of the story at her worst moment, and then you may see her at the end of the story at her other worst moment when the people in charge blame her son for being gone, you know? So there’s a long poem in the manuscript I just finished about them.
Every time I think that poem is done, something else happens. I had my husband read the manuscript and he said, “This is so heavy. It’s so heavy and so dark and it’s a difficult read.” On one hand you’re trying to be a witness, but on the other you’re trying to make sense of the world for yourself. So a lot of times when I sit down to write, it’s because I’m confounded or angry. I don’t write that much when I’m happy. I don’t write that much when things are going well. I’m out being happy somewhere, you know? But when I need to get on the other side of something, my first refuge is the page.
You do tend to see lately these articles about how the constant discussion of race and the way we discuss it lately is like a stress syndrome for black folks. Every day you wake up it’s like, “Oh my god, let’s go to the news and see what’s happened.” I grew up in the era where we thought, or at least I thought, we were going to be constantly moving forward. Maybe a little step back here and there but mostly constantly moving forward. And now talking to my mother, it feels kind of like when she first got here in the fifties.
I travel quite a bit and when I get to a place, I want to go out to see where I am. I want to put myself in this place and see how it feels. But now I have to be so cautious. I have to ask about the organizers of the event, where can I walk? How far can I walk? Are there some streets I shouldn’t walk? Is there something politically about this place that I need to know that will keep me safe? That’s a really frustrating thing to have to prepare yourself for each day in order to live in each part of the world you encounter, even if you’re only there for a day. I could go to Europe and totally feel all that weight off my shoulders. The chaos is just the work you have to do to feel normal. And that shouldn’t have to happen. The fact is, now you have to sit down and warn your children about walking right and talking right and how to handle a traffic stop. You don’t know just how much of that you can deal with before it overflows, till you can’t do it anymore.
Look at my husband. My husband’s white, so I availed myself of him. I said, “What is it?” I said, “We live here and I feel no different from you. You don’t treat me any differently; I don’t treat you any differently. Everything works out okay. We use the same water, we eat the same food, and you haven’t exploded.” What is it with people? I could understand if we were wielding a lot of power, but we have no real power. I’m just not quite sure what insensitive people want the end to be.
It’s constantly living like you have your hand out in front of you to feel where you’re going before you get there, and that’s just a really frightening and frustrating way to live. When you’re a writer and you’re trying to find exactly the right words to encompass that feeling so people will understand, and it’s consistently elusive. I’d love to just be able to say, “And here it is.” You can’t, but you keep writing.
I have a workshop I teach about writing toward a wall. I think all of us have something we know we should be writing that we’re not writing, for whatever reason. This is the wall I feel like I’m writing toward. It’s not like I get on the other side and there will be racial harmony or anything, but what I can hope for at this point is to come to terms with it myself. To kind of feel okay. This is why I’m cautious, this is the way I’m going to have to live the rest of my life instead of searching for some pie in the sky day where everyone’s going to join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” It’s not going to happen. It’s not going to happen.
But the fact that there’s a danger in being an African-American body moving from place to place, that feels, although it’s not, relatively new to me because I grew up in what I thought was supposed to be an enlightened age. And writing takes it toll. I mean, there’s so much dark stuff in the book. The things that I’m working to get on the other side of now, I’m trying to even them out, to add music to the constant pounding, pounding, pounding.
Sure. Absolutely. It’s unfortunate that we’re in this cultural moment where there’s a necessity for addressing that darkness, because there is a very real danger that it might just stay unlit, unilluminated. You talk about how parents of African-American children have to talk to them, and one thing that was particularly shocking to me—there was that instance where the mayor of New York City was under fire because he said that he’d talked to his son Dante about how to interact with the police.
Oh sure, yeah.
And so many people were furious at him for saying that, but I don’t see how he could have not had that conversation with his son in this ugly historical moment.
Oh, sure. I mean, every parent has to have some form of that conversation, even if it’s the old don’t-drink-and-drive or watch-out-for-your-friends, you know? It’s just that I can’t see how anyone, given the current climate, can imagine an African-American parent not saying that.
Or a white parent of an African-American child or a biracial child or whatever. You don’t just send your children out unprepared for that. If you’re in a car with a bunch of other kids or a group of white kids, you’re not going to be treated the same. It’s almost like the parents in the south who had to tell their kids in the 50’s how to talk to white people. "Yes sir," "yes ma’am," that’s coming back.
You have to speak, especially to policemen, in a certain way. You can’t walk in a neighborhood, an unfamiliar neighborhood, in a certain way. It shouldn’t be an unfamiliar neighborhood at all. You get in trouble, you knock on a door, and suddenly somebody calls the police or they shoot you through the door or the police come and shoot you. It’s life and death. How could anybody object to the mayor trying to protect his son? That makes no sense.
Right. I thought maybe we could talk a little about Blood Dazzler as the tenth anniversary of Katrina approaches?
Sure. I am starting to reintroduce those poems to my readings, because I want people to be transported back to that time and remember that it’s been ten years. Also, there’s the fact that I go into schools nowadays, and sometimes I have to explain what Katrina was before I can talk.
You’d be amazed at how ill-informed a lot of high school and college students are.
I ask if they remember what Katrina was and they quickly bring up the Google page, and I say, “Well yeah, that’s going to tell you two or three things.” But it’s not enough to just scan the headlines and go, "Oh, that’s too bad." Even high-schoolers weren’t in the midst of it. When you think of it, it was ten years ago. So if I go into a high school now, you talk about people who were five and six years old.
And if your parents don’t sit you down to talk to you about it, you don’t know. There are not any books anywhere. You really have to have people in your life who are concerned about you knowing what happened and the chance that it may happen again. So I just think part of the reason I put Blood Dazzler together is because I know how flash in the pan everything is. Katrina was only a big story until the next story came along. Even if somebody encounters the book ten years from now, at least they look at it and think, “Oh, that’s right, Katrina happened.”
People honestly think New Orleans is right back where it was before Katrina. We don’t hear anything about it so it’s like, “That’s good, New Orleans survived.” Well yes, in a way it did, it’s still here, but in so many other ways, it didn’t. So I think one of the good things about a portrait of witness is that whether the audience wants to or not, you can turn them into witnesses any time you choose. You can say, “We’re going to go back, we’re going to look at this again. And I’m going to try my best to get you back to this moment.” Where we were and how did we feel about it? Maybe we’ll look into it now and see how far we have or haven’t come since then.
Even if they know Katrina was a big storm that affected the gulf region a decade ago, all of the nuance, all of the racial realities illuminated by the situation are totally lost.
The politics of it. They don’t know any of the story really.
And that was the story, those racial and political realities.
Yeah, that was it. So I’m putting together a little video presentation talking a little bit about the genesis of the poems and some of the other work that was done, some of the work other writers did on Katrina, trying to have it occupy people’s minds again.
That’s an instance of poetry doing real useful work. It’s illuminating facts about the world people may not know or may not remember. It’s not just esoteric psychic life stuff.
Oh yeah, yeah.
I’m always grateful for poetry that does that. I mean, I guess I like esoteric psychic life stuff too. You talk about how “coming up and learning to be a poet was about how you learned to be a witness, not a perfect witness but a curious one.” And I love that distinction, how they’re not necessarily interchangeable.
Right. My witnessing doesn’t mean that afterwards I’m going to have things figured out. Sometimes I like it when the witnessing raises more questions than it answers, because that’s an invitation to dig deeper than where I am. Even when I was doing Blood Dazzler, people were asking me why I decided to personify the storm. And I said it was because I’d never been a storm before. I’d never been a storm before, I never knew what it felt like to be relentlessly hurtling toward some place and knowing that wherever you end up you were going to damage, you were going to kill. Sometimes the witnessing means putting yourself in an improbable position that way. There are no wrong turns.
I love the way that you talk about that. It seems to me that a sort of curiosity, as you describe it, is so central to being a poet. Or what it is to want to write poetry you know. To just want to discover. You’ve taught everyone from K-12ers to grad students— what do you do to generate that curiosity in your students?
Yeah! One of the most damaging things you can do is just come in somewhere and say, “We’re going to write poetry!” That messes with so many people’s heads, so immediately they feel like there’s this other cloak they have to slip on. Their language changes, their outlook changes. They look at something really normal and go, “Oh, that can’t be a poem.” They’ve got all these things they’ve picked up about what a poem is supposed to do and mean and it’s hard to say, “Okay, we’re going to drop all of that at the door.”
So instead I don’t talk about poetry at first. I try not to talk about it at all. I try not to hand out poems because everybody’s already got something that they’re intentionally curious about or something that feels unsettled with or unreckoned with in their own lives. What works best for me, because it works across the board with kindergarteners and with college students, is to first just talk about what’s unsettled. Sometimes I tell them how great stories come from really ordinary places and it depends on how you approach that place. Especially my students in college, they think they don’t have anything to write about. Nothing to write about, nothing to write about, nothing to write about. So I get them talking on something and I tell them, “Well, there’s a possibility.”
It’s just that we’re so used to shutting off things that don’t engage us in a major way. Something has got to blow up in our faces for us to be interested. If we’re just walking from point A to point B, we’ve got blinders on. We’re not seeing poetry, we’re not seeing the possibilities. And if you learn how to open your eyes a little wider, you go insane because every time you step out the door there are eight million things coming at you, even on a quiet street. I think training people to see what they’ve trained themselves not to see is really important, engaging all of their senses and then mixing all of those senses up. Basically, you have to teach people to walk through their lives again.
Lately I’ve been doing workshops where we don’t write any poems. We just talk about how to re-see them, and then if the poems come they come from that. You don’t have to strain. Let’s just get back to seeing it. And that works. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing poetry or nonfiction or plays or whatever, we really do need to do that, because so many things come at us so quickly all the time. It’s like you concentrate on something for three seconds and then something is calling your attention away. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re not engaged at all unless we’re doing something. That’s switched from the way it should be. You can go out and make your own world interesting. You don’t need to wait for it to happen to you. You establish a base coat by teaching attentiveness before you get into the actual writing.
Oh yeah. And then I walk into my classes and the students still aren’t sure they want to be writers. I teach writing but I teach writing to people who have decided that they want to get a degree because they come from families of workers where that’s what’s considered success. Even if they don’t write anything else—maybe they become teachers or they become engineers—seeing the world differently is going to benefit the people that they’re teaching and the people they’re going to be working for. That helped me with that feeling of, “Oh my god, I’m wasting my life because I’m not teaching students who are going to become writers.” Yeah, that’s not all success is.
Yes! I love that. People get so beat up about teaching writing to people who won’t become career writers. But a high school physics teacher doesn’t teach all of his physics students thinking every one of them is going to go on to become an astrophysicist either.
That’s really wonderful. It’s cool to hear you talk about attentiveness, because it seems like that concentrated observation of your various stations, or of the stations inhabited by your characters, is a critical element of your poems too. The geographic location of the poems is so important—your mother going from Alabama to Chicago in Jimi Savannah and then the whole Katrina region of Blood Dazzler, the places are almost like characters. In fact, place literally is a character in some of your poems. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about poetry as cartography in that way.
Sure. When my mother came up from the south, she was very ashamed of being from the south. She wanted her life to begin once she hit Chicago. When I would question her about where she was from she would say, “What do you want to know about that for? You’re from Chicago, why do you want to talk about the south?” She equated being southern with being poor and being backward. So after my father died, I grew up not really knowing or feeling any root beside the one that had kind of been forced upon me in Chicago. So I tend to collect places. I tend to try places on as home, like, what if this had been the place where I grew up? Or if this had been? I try to wrap the places around myself as much as I can, and that doesn’t necessarily mean state or a city or a country. It could be a certain kind of room.
It’s also because I got started in poetry by getting up on stage. It was really important for me to set the scene for the listener because I only had one chance, they only hear the poem once. They can’t go back and reread it, they can’t stop you and ask you to back up. So I really had to paint a stark picture of where I was, what was surrounding me, what was surrounding the people in my pieces. I’ve worked really hard on trying to paint that picture and using as many of the senses as I can. So the combination of those two things might be what you’re seeing.
My husband used to be an editor at the Associated Press and he’s a really really good reader for me in that way, because I can read something to him and ask, “Can you see it?” If there is some aspect of it that he can’t see, he lets me know what it is and I can work on getting that into the poem somehow. The hard part is not pouring it all on at the beginning. It’s learning how to space those moments, those lines throughout the poem as opposed to saying, “Okay, here’s ten lines about where you are, now let’s start the poem.” That’s probably the thing that I work the hardest on.
That’s fascinating. It’s useful to hear that it’s a product of effort and labor and not just some superpower, not some angel who blew his trumpet and then suddenly you had that ability.
Haha, oh, trust me. No, no, no. No angel. That’s what has taken me so long with this last manuscript too. So many of the poems touch on the same ground that the only thing that is really pulling each one up and out on its own is a sense of place. It’s been a lot of work.
Sounds great. I can’t wait to read it. So, since we’ve already covered what you’ve got coming out, I wondered if we could close with you sharing a little about your friendship with Gwendolyn Brooks, which just seems like such an unspeakably cool thing.
You know what though, it’s funny. It’s not that unusual. She was so out there and so visible and doing things in Chicago. The first time I met her, it was at a big event that was meant to bring together the poor man’s poets and the academic poets, so to speak. And it was five hours in a blues club on a winter afternoon in Chicago, so of course the place was packed. I wasn’t even writing poetry yet, and she was just down in the front row watching, she was commenting on the poets and talking to them about their poems and particular lines. She was never the way we look at some of our noted poets now, like they are on these pedestals and you see them some place and you’re afraid to approach them. If you were in Chicago at the right time, you never got that feeling about her.
Ahh, that’s so wonderful!
And although you knew that she was really accomplished, there was just nothing about her that said hierarchy. Meeting her and watching her sit at that meeting for hours and pay enough attention to comment and talk to the younger poets was incredible. And then those younger poets, they felt like they had access to her and grew up doing very much the same things I do now. I talked to somebody and I referred to her as “Gwen” and their eyes got really wide, like, Gwen? But that’s what everybody called her! She loved my first book and right up until the time that she died, if you needed something, she’d show up any place. Open mics, anything like that. She stayed hungry to hear other people’s work, as opposed to sitting in an ivory tower and insulating. Think of how many of our so-called elite poets you ever see at any poetry readings besides their own.
Yeah, that’s a great point. I love thinking about her just sitting at an open mic, at little local readings with young people.
Some people reach a certain point and decide they don’t have to hear other people’s poetry anymore. But you never reach that point. One of the things that I’m really grateful for having come up through the slam is that some of the people will ask, well, who are your favorite poets? And I have to tell them that I used to go to a place on the north side of Chicago every Sunday. There would be some guy on stage who was a dad or a secretary or a kindergarten teacher, and it was really important. They had something that was important enough to them that they were willing to get up in front of a room full of strangers and say it. And that kind of courage, that kind of shifting canvas, that’s huge. If you really want to know what people are thinking and what they’re dreaming about, you should go to an open mic two or three weeks in a row. Some of those poems were so memorable that I still draw on them. The idea that I would ever reach the point where I would go, “Well that was fun, thank god I don’t have to do that anymore,” that’s just ludicrous.
I totally get that. I used to live in the Midwest, so I was able to go to the Green Mill slam a few times, and seeing what was happening there was always such a shot in the veins.
That was my home for nine years. That was Sunday space, all the time. My whole week revolved around being there on Sunday. It was just an amazing time, a great place. Sometimes you’d hear, not even a whole poem, but a line in someone’s poem, and it might have been inconsequential in their poem but it could push you harder than you’ve ever been pushed. You have to keep giving that a chance to happen.
Interview Posted: September 8, 2015
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