“For a lot of us, the Herculean task is just making it to the next thing.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
I think of you as a role model in a lot of ways, but I think maybe chief among them is as a model ambassador of poetry.
I appreciate you saying that, man. I don’t know what kind of approach I model, but I think quite a bit about how poets can be in the world. I was thinking about Mari Evans this morning, who recently passed away. She was one of those writers who I didn’t necessarily model myself after on the page, but I was inspired by the great community work she did. She did the kind of immediate outreach that I’m still trying to figure out right now at this time when we need it so much. The Black Arts poets were all great examples of this—writing these intense poems, but also presenting themselves to the world as neighbors, and community citizens, and activists.
It’s a very different kind of political octave from what I’m able to write and it also seems like it’s exactly what we need to be doing right now. I just can’t figure out how to write it for Donald Trump. I can’t figure out what this new kind of poetry looks like.
I think that’s the thing that just about every poet in America is reckoning with right now. What do we do in the long shadow of this new fascistic regime? Patricia Smith talked to me about how, when she was coming up in Chicago, she used to see Gwendolyn Brooks sitting in the audience at teenage open mics. She’d just be sitting there in the front row listening to these teenage poets and clapping and cheering them on. Once you get there, whatever there means, you’re still a part of the community and you're still delighting in what brought you there, you know?
Yeah, exactly. Maintaining that joy and community in the face of oppression. I saw Gwendolyn Brooks read when I was in grad school. It was about a month before she passed away. She came down to Carbondale and there were easily 3,000 people in the audience. She read for an hour and only read five or six of her own poems.
She mainly read poems written by some of the children she worked with as Poet Laureate of Illinois. These were poems written by third and fourth graders, and she had so much fun reading them. They were good poems, too, which is a testament to Ms. Brooks’s work. She must have been about eighty and still read with great vigor. And then when she got finished, she sat down and she signed books from 8:30 until one in the morning.
Every single person who stood in line got their book signed. And the line stretched around the building. It was incredible. Seamus Heaney did something similar in that he made sure to sign a book for everyone in line. His line was a little shorter than Gwendolyn Brooks's, though, since it was her home court.
And Heaney had a very specific rule. He said he couldn’t sign more than two books per person because he wanted to be sure everyone got a book signed. It was a very thoughtful and necessary gesture, really. He had to protect himself and his time. Which makes it even more remarkable that Gwendolyn Brooks didn’t have that rule. People were stopping and talking to her. She was cutting up with everyone effortlessly. Even though there was a line about a block long, Ms. Brooks didn’t try to get anybody to finish their conversation quickly.
I love that.
It’s next level in the way she was imagining the position of a poet. Friend, educator, entertainer, learner, and all these other things that we are without usually naming them. She was all of it. Both her and Heaney, really.
There was a kind of load-bearing delight in what it was to be a poet. It also seems like a kind of element in your work and in your person. There’s this James Dickey quote that I talk about with my students all the time where he says, “What you have to realize when you write poetry, or if you love poetry, is that poetry is just naturally the greatest goddamn thing that ever was in the whole universe.”
Ha! That’s perfect and also true.
I certainly subscribe to that belief. I get the sense that you feel this way, too—that we’re very privileged to get to be doing this thing and we ought to keep that gratitude close.
Yeah, that’s exactly it. For me, it’s about the willfulness of poetry and sharing rather than some other amorphous personal need. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw you Tweet or post something about yourself and I can’t. I just remember you posting these great passages from other people’s poems and interviews. I’ve found all of these new poems by reading the community work you’re doing. That’s amazing, man. That kind of service comes around and makes us all better. I talk with the writers here at Indiana about this. We have an expectation of community service and sharing. Ross Gay and Cathy Bowman have both taught a class in which the MFAs go into a local charter school and teach poetry to the kids at the school.
Oh, that’s cool.
And part of another MFA class is working in the Bloomington community orchard. There’s an expectation that you are going to give back in some way, but “giving back” is an idea that can be pretty abstract even as you’re doing the work. We’re so focused on trying to be writers and saying the things that need to be said. It’s sometimes easy to miss the ways in which singling out and sharing excellent lines from a poem helps you and everyone else become a better writer. Simply being an avid reader and a generous reader makes you a better writer. It's a poetry fundamental and it's one of the reasons I enjoy going to readings so much.
I can listen and figure out things. Poetry things I can steal.
Absolutely. I hear people talk about going to readings or subscribing to literary journals as if it’s some kind of tax that you have to pay in order to be a good literary citizen. And I'm like, "This is where I’m getting my juice!" It’s the fuel that goes in the tank, you know?
Definitely. I think I mentioned my plan to just read while in residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Right now, I’m in that place where if I sit down to write, I’m writing an addendum to Map to the Stars. I need to learn some new things before I get back to the page. I need to re-up. Part of that learning is inside of the stacks of literary journals and books that I’m finally getting to explore.
I’m lucky to have that time. You know, not that long ago I had this crazy dream that Galway Kinnell came to talk to me. I never met him, never saw him read. But I had this wild dream that I was sitting in a hospital waiting room and Galway Kinnell showed up in a trench coat and just said, “You really need to get this work done. You need to get it done.” After that, he said, “I’m going to go get a drink of water.” And then I woke up. That was kind of the end of it.
Weird! What do you think that means?
Well, I don’t have a lot of dreams where people show up with imperatives like that, but every time that's happened it’s meant that I needed to make some changes in my intentions on the page. My subconscious literary community was talking to me. I had a dream like that once with Jack Johnson, too, but it was a little bit more aggressive.
Did that dream have Galway Kinnell as well?
Ha! No, no. Jack Johnson and Galway Kinnell in the same dream would have been a whole other thing. I haven’t read Kinnell’s work in a while. Book of Nightmares was a really big deal to me when I was in grad school, but I haven’t picked it up in probably twelve years. The first thing I did after he showed up in the dream was get Book of Nightmares down off the shelf. Clearly, I needed to go back to that book. I think the dream was reminding me that I have to keep working on poems even if I’m not writing poems.
Sure, sure, sure.
I’m not big on taking writing breaks. I have this habit I learned from Yusef Komunyakaa. He told me he always works on two or three books at the same time. I like that. I like the idea of having two or three projects going all the time. No matter what happens, no matter how I feel that day, if it’s time to work, there’s something I can work on. So when I was writing Mixology I was also working on The Big Smoke.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
Yeah. I was bouncing between the two of them for a few years. Later, I was working on The Big Smoke while I was also working on Map to the Stars. That was necessary, too, because I needed to keep a foot in our time.
I was able to keep that multi-project approach going by working on this Jack Johnson graphic novel while I was finishing Map to the Stars. I was able to work that way for about twelve years.
Every so often one thing will take precedence and push the other to the shelf. So when Kevin Young picked Mixology for the National Poetry Series, I put The Big Smoke to the side so I could finish revising. I always thought The Big Smoke was going to be my second book. Then I realized how long it was going to take to write it with the respect it deserved, so I slowed down. Somewhere in there was the dream where Jack Johnson visited me.
I was like, “Four years and I’ll knock this book out. No problem.” Then it took eight years to finish.
I do think there’s a way in which each of your books seem to be, at their core, meditations on bravery. The way that someone like Jack Johnson was brave both in the ring and out. And in Map to the Stars ways that you have to be brave growing up where and how you grew up. I wonder if that might be a useful way to begin talking about the new book.
Yeah, that’s really good. Thanks for reading it, Kaveh.
Thank you for writing it!
The day I felt like I took a step over to the side of the room where I might start thinking of myself as a “writer of poetry” was when I finally gave up trying to be the hero of the poem.
Yes! Yes! That’s so good.
I pushed against the idea that I needed to win all the time for so long, so I think some of the bravery you’re talking about might come from recognizing the fullness of my emotional and physical failures. That’s one of the reasons I’m so intrigued by Jack Johnson. He was so successful, and at the same time he had such a difficult life. Some of the difficulty was of his own making, but most of it was systemic and institutional. But he was still the hero.
So if there is anything that constitutes bravery in Map to the Stars, it was probably writing poems in which everything is so spare and vulnerable. It took a lot of work to get over the fear of going back into those small spaces, that kind of poverty. There is nothing good about being poor and nobody really wants to deal with poverty as it’s happening, right?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
When we were poor, we were hungry and trying really hard not to be hungry. So part of the act of writing the book was going back to a time that has constantly pushed me forward. It’s a motivator: I never want that, I don’t want to be that, I don’t want my daughter to suffer those things. The challenge was going through and figuring out how to codify all of the lack in a way that doesn’t become some sort of exercise in therapy. A narrative, a kind of speaker that might be able to carry us through those complicated moments, if that makes sense.
That makes total sense. And your point is well taken—when you are in the throes of poverty or extreme hunger, you are too busy trying to figure out where to eat or how to get your electric bill paid to sit down and write a sestina.
Yeah, exactly. It's sort of like storing an experience for later, though it doesn’t rule out immediacy. Do you know Brian Turner?
I know his work, I don’t know him personally.
Brian is one of my wife Stacey Brown’s best friends. They went to grad school together. He wrote his first book, Here, Bullet, while he was deployed in Iraq. He sent the poems back to Stacey to keep, sometimes in the mail, sometimes by email. Later he said he needed to get the poems on the page because he didn’t know how long he would survive there. That is a totally different kind of imperative, and the poems he wrote under that duress are incredible. He had the chance to polish them up when he came back to the U.S., but they were already so powerful and immediate. I wouldn’t presume to speak on Brian’s creative process, but maybe he was able to distill those visceral moments and then go back and shape things after. He calcified the emotion in the instant, then addressed the craft later.
I always think about Celan translating Shakespeare in a Nazi ghetto, or Nazim Hikmet writing while he was in jail. But I feel like the reason those are notable is because they are so exceptional. It wasn’t like they were able to do what they did because of their circumstance, it was Herculean because they were able to do it in spite of those circumstances.
No doubt. For a lot of us, the Herculean task is just making it to the next thing. So to create inside of that is a whole other thing entirely. And so maybe it’s not an accident that some brilliant poets find their way to poetry while they are under intense emotional pressure in the world. Or in prison, where there is profound anxiety overlapping monotony and routine every day. I’m thinking about the great Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight now.
I was just thinking of him. When you said the poets who have found their way to poetry while in prison, I was just thinking Etheridge Knight.
Gwendolyn Brooks was instrumental in supporting Knight’s work while he was in prison and afterward, so there’s another example of community begetting more community. There’s a poem in Map to the Stars about Bertha Ross Park, where I used to play ball. Etheridge Knight is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery right across the street.
Oh, really? I didn’t know that. I used to live right across the street from Crown Hill.
Yes! He’s buried there. I used to play ball right where Etheridge Knight is buried and I had no idea.
That’s wild! That’s so wild.
You know, my chronology is wrong. He died in 1991, so he was buried there when I came back to Bertha Ross in college. He was alive when I played in high school. Of course, I had no idea of who he was in high school and that’s when he was running his Free People’s Workshops in downtown Indy. That kind of proximity to poetry and I was busy shooting free throws.
One of the real miracles of the book is the way that it's so suffused with the local—the Village Pantry and the White River, but then it also moves to the cosmological. From Lafayette Square Mall to the heliosphere. In fact, the book opens with the 30th Street Bridge and literally ends with the word “heliosphere.” It’s this perfect movement from one to the other. It’s this thing where the cornfields really give you space to imagine. Give you space to look upwards.
Yeah, yeah. Thank you for that. It makes me feel like I communicated what I was working toward in a lot of ways. Before I get into this, the first poem—what I originally wrote anyway—included a Richard Pryor joke that I’ll tell quickly. Two Black men are peeing off the Golden Gate Bridge, and one of the dudes looks at his friend and says, “Man this water is cold,” and the other dude looks back and says “Yeah, and it’s deep, too.” That always makes me laugh. It’s the most cartoon version of black masculinity, and Pryor is able to spotlight it in really great ways. When I originally wrote the poem, I had that actual joke as the ending. I realized later there was no way I could start this book with that joke. I couldn’t go there on the first page, even though the joke encapsulates some of the absurdities of masculinity I wanted to get into in the poems— the misunderstandings of it and the performances of it.
Yeah, you still have, "two brothers are peeing into / the monochromatic current."
Right. Even at the beginning I was trying to find a new modulation for these things. I knew Richard Pryor was going to be a part of the book. I knew that Sun Ra was going to be a part of it, and the fact that Richard Pryor and Sun Ra grew up fatherless. But how do you set those characters in Indianapolis? I’d been trying to work through the connections and the co-dependencies in science and astrophysics, but with the city as a lens. I spent a while researching radio astronomy and the Voyager space missions, and all of these other little bits and pieces of outward-looking science.
I got caught up in the way that everything is co-dependent—one star’s gravity implicates another star and the planets around it. On a fundamental level all of the stars and planets are a linked system and they are all spinning outwardly together. So I started thinking about the ways in which we do that on Earth, too. Psychological and economic gravities push and pull each other. When we lived in Section 8 the gravity was much tighter. Everyone was right next to each other in their wants and needs. When we got out into the suburbs with big spaces of corn fields and empty lots, we had less gravity and a bigger sky, if that makes sense.
That’s beautiful. It makes a lot of sense. There are a million directions I want to go from what you just said. You allude to the ways in which moving to the suburbs came with its own set of difficulties. Like in "Ascendant Blacks," when you talk about Guion Bluford, the first Black man in space, you talk about how he wouldn’t even fly over Martinsville in the daytime. I’m well acquainted with that Indianapolis, too.
It’s a complicated and difficult city sometimes—especially for us, those citizens of color. And the suburbs are a whole other kind of difficult. So much of my experience with Indy was in the 1980s and 1990s and I imagine it would’ve been difficult—in different ways maybe, but equally difficult—being in Indianapolis later. When were you here?
I was in Indianapolis specifically from 2012-2015, I guess. I imagine it would be worse now in the Trump-y Islamophobic way. There were difficulties even then—driving down I-65 toward Indianapolis from the North, you always pass that one sign where you take one off-ramp to get to Whitestown and one to get to Brownsburg. They are pointing in opposite directions and it’s the least subtle metaphor ever. You couldn’t put it in a poem because it’s too on the nose.
Haha, right! In the 1980s, the deal was that if you were of color you could not go to a town with a color in the name. That was just standard operating procedure. Greenwood, Whitestown, Greenfield, Brownsburg—you stay away from any of those places because there was nothing waiting for you inside the town limits except trouble. My sister and her family live in Greenwood now, and my first thought was, "What are you doing there? You can’t be there. You aren’t supposed to live in that town." I was nervous for them. But she told me it’s different now. Maybe a little, but not really. It’s more inclusive, sure, but it’s still predicated on the same expectations and positions of racial privilege.
It’s just moved one layer lower. It’s still there, rippling under the surface of everything. I’ve talked about some of the greater miracles of the book and some of the more holistic things it’s doing that are just staggering to me. But one of the things that is true across all of your work, but I think it's especially forefronted in this book, is the way that your register of particulars is so precise. Even stuff you're remembering from twenty or thirty years ago is spot on. The one that got me was “8 - 9 - * - 1 - 4 / still plays the Close Encounters of the Third Kind / theme." You remember numbers—it’s everything I love about poetry and it’s this tiny, tiny thing. It’s a portal to this other place, and time, and experience. Are you making stuff up? Are you looking at Wikipedia? Do you have old diaries?
Thanks for saying that. I’m so glad those details spoke to you. I have very, very vivid memories of this time and I was mainly able to rely on them. There’s a grip of autobiographical detail in the poems. They aren’t necessarily autobiographical in event though, right?
But there are these moments I remember so clearly—like the phone ringing while I was hiding in the kitchen with my brother and sister. Or the sound of the neighbors fighting and how it echoed through the walls. I was terrified, frankly. It’s imprinted in a way.
That’s interesting. The heat of the fear sort of seared it into your memory.
That's definitely the case with the Close Encounters theme—people would sometimes crank call and play that. You pick up the phone and there’s some person on the other end playing 8 - 9 - * - 1 - 4. So part of the way I broke the seal of that fear was by figuring out what buttons needed to be pushed to play the song.
Right? Just sitting there dialing numbers until I got it right. I remember it was partly a way for me to have a little bit more courage for my brother and sister. I never name them in the book. It’s just “we” or “us” all the time.
The book is dedicated to them though, right?
Yeah, yeah. It’s dedicated to my brother and sister. And so my mom calls me the next day after I gave her a copy. She stayed up all night reading because that’s what moms do. She calls me the next morning and says, “I need to correct some things in your book.” Here we go. I said, "Mom, these are poems. Not an autobiography. Not a memoir, so don’t start trying to correct things." She said, “No. I really, really need to correct this.” We went on like that for a while, but it turned out that she just wanted to make the point that things were actually worse than I laid out in the poems. That I used to hide food in Section 8 and in the suburbs for a while. I was really surprised by that. I remembered how to play the Close Encounters theme, but I didn’t remember I kept stashing bread under my bed after we moved to the land of plenty.
Oh, wow. That’s fascinating.
How long does it take to get past those fears? It’s too malleable to call it anything that you can’t shake, but as a kid, all those behaviors were learned and ingrained. One thing I worried about while writing this book was the fact that so many of my friends have been fortunate to not have the upbringing I had. I mean I’ve got this incredible mom, I’ve got this incredible step-father and I know I’m lucky. Luckier than many people. But poetry is a wide range of cultural and social experiments. There’s a kind of privilege in writing poems to begin with—being literate, making the time to put words on page, existing in a space where poetry would even be offered or available. I can’t believe I get to do this with you on a Saturday. I get to talk about poetry, the greatest gift. It’s incredible to me. Such a privilege.
So one of my fears was that I would not be able to articulate what it feels like to someone who has never had that sense of hunger, that sheer lack, without it becoming tragic. I didn’t want the poems to become some kind of poverty diorama: “Oh poor little Black boy in HUD. He’s hungry.” I didn’t want that. That is a flat, dismissive narration of a complex experience, so I tried to add texture by not introducing anything outside of the archive of the book. And by that I mean I tried to stop what the poems know and what the characters in the book know in 1988, when the book “happens.”
Oh, that’s cool. I hadn’t thought about that.
Does that make sense?
I didn’t want any references outside of that time. I went backwards to the '50s or '60s or whatever, but not forward. I wanted to frame it in a way so that it was a discrete experience, and that’s when I realized Richard Pryor, Basquiat, and Sun Ra would be central movers in the book. I wanted it to be comprised of immediate moments, characters, and events that could speak for themselves.
I think that it’s such an achievement in that specific way because it’s such a portal into this experience that feels whole. And all of the things we’re talking about are a part of it. Like sitting in an apartment without lights on, looking at the neighbors' house and dreaming the lights in the windows are motherships. Or fantasizing about the astronauts. It just feels like a complete psychic ecosystem. It doesn’t feel one-dimensional in the way you alluded to. No one is just sad or just hungry.
Man, that makes me so happy. Thank you for saying that. I wish we would’ve had this conversation three months ago when I was chewing my nails down to the bottoms worrying about the book’s tendencies. When The Big Smoke came out I was scared. I was petrified that I was going to get something wrong. I wanted to render Jack Johnson’s story and the history around it with the respect it deserved. This new book involves another kind of anxiety, especially after having worked with an imaginary buffer between my emotional connectivity and the material in The Big Smoke. There was a space between the reader and me, and Jack Johnson was the space—the poems were about him, and I could navigate those emotional moments without self-consciousness since it wasn’t me. The poems in Map to the Stars are so much closer in proximity even if they’re not fully autobiographical, and that’s scary. You know what I mean. You’re working through similar narrative and lyric tensions in Portrait of an Alcoholic and Calling a Wolf a Wolf. I’m really excited about the new book, by the way. You’re dealing with issues of proximity, and honesty, and creativity in really elegant ways, and so you’re already there. I got a break from that pressure for a little bit in the last book thanks to historical persona. When I came back to my own emotional geography, I was like, "Ah, this hurts."
It definitely taps a reservoir that has to be refilled in some way. You can’t just sit down and hammer out fifteen of these things in a week.
Yeah, that’s part of why I’m taking a break from writing poems for a bit. I'm taking a few months to read and see what the poems look like after I learn some things. I actually started a new book of poems, but I put it away. They felt a little bit too similar in register to the previous work. Sonic register is a big part of Map to the Stars. I was listening to all this great '80s pop and early hip hop while I was writing the poems. It struck me that the synthesizers, the pre-programmed Casio beats everybody used then are high register stuff. Really trebly. So when I was writing the poems, I leaned toward that kind of register. Lots of “i” sounds, lots of “e” sounds, lots of “s” sounds. This new book is called Hearing Damage, but I’ve realized I’m still leaning on the vowel and consonant combinations that I used in Map. I need to move away from that music. I need listen to a whole bunch of Future and Metro Boomin.
Yeah, that really dark, grimy stuff.
Yeah, I need to go back to Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) or whatever dense, bass heavy music, so that I can get my internal voice back into the register of a grown-ass man.
You know? Instead of an 11-year-old.
It’s going to take a little while to do that.
Well, I can’t wait to read that. I hope we get to talk about this book more because I have so much more to say. I can’t extol its virtues to you enough, or just extol what it has meant to me to be able to have this book in the world, you know? I’m sincerely grateful for it and I’m grateful for you. I hope that we get to talk about it more soon.
Thank you, man. I do, too. Thanks for taking the time.
Interview Posted: July 31, 2017
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