“The truth is a really slippery thing.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How old are the oldest poems in Incorrect Merciful Impulses?
I think the oldest poems came from when I was at Columbia. There are a few in there from those days, so almost ten years.
And you did your MFA at Columbia, right?
That’s great. And then before this book you wrote Slow Dance with Trip Wire, which was selected for the Poetry Society of America award in 2010. Was it just a total out of the blue surprise to you when Cornelius Eady picked it?
It was a total out of the blue surprise. It’s so interesting because I was working at Cave Canem, which is the organization that he co-founded. At that point I think I had met him one time. He had come into the office and I was working as the program communications coordinator and we had limited interaction. I don’t even know if he knew I was a poet or anything, so it was just a very cool thing that he ended up choosing that work.
It shot you onto the scene in a very public way. That’s a big prize. And then there was a long delay, by poetry standards, between that and this new collection, which is your first full-length.
I’m a very slow writer and that does give me some anxiety, but in terms of the book—that chapbook came out in 2011, and then this manuscript was selected in 2014. So that’s a three-year gap between that chapbook coming out and this book being finished and actually being accepted for publication, which isn’t such a long time, in my mind. And now the book is out, in 2016. I’m pretty comfortable with a five to seven year gap between works coming out. I don’t like to rush those kinds of decisions. I want to feel really ready and very much that I’m intentional about putting stuff in the world. The nice thing about it was having that chapbook; it was kind of shocking to me that people were reading it. Like people would say, "I love Slow Dance with Trip Wire," and I would be like, "I can’t believe you even liked—" I wasn’t expecting that part. When I actually got selected I was like, "This is so cool, I can give this to my mom and dad!" I just didn’t make the next leap to the fact that people would be able to read this, so it was nice to have that out in the world while I was working on a full-length collection. And to have it introduce itself and introduce me to people.
Yeah, it kind of takes the edge off and it gives people something to whet their appetites. And I think that the fact that these poems in the new collection were sort of painstakingly crafted is evident in reading them. There’s definitely a sort of tonal cohesiveness to the book.
I try not to put too much pressure on myself and on the work to be a certain thing. I would just write whatever it was I was concerned with at the time. And then every few months I might take stock and see what I have, and how the poems are hanging together, and what I thought belonged together and what didn’t. I would take a look at that and then step away and keep writing. I finished the collection while I was in a residency at the MacDowell Colony. I went there thinking, "Okay, I’m very close. I can tell I’m close to finishing this, and I want to just do the work of really evaluating where I am, and what needs to be added, and what themes are coming through, and what I need to develop." That was the point where I started to think more about how it was working as a collection. And I did write some poems while I was there that I thought helped to really bring out the themes, and tie things together, and fill in some of the gaps that maybe I hadn’t gotten to yet. So there was some work like that, but for the most part I just let myself do whatever I was interested in, and then later on I would take stock and think, "Okay, I have these concerns, these certain themes that I’m coming back to again and again," and then bring that out.
The same concerns, but filtered through all these different influence filters. There’s Nietzsche in one poem, and you're quoting The Avengers in another poem, and then you’re quoting Marcus Aurelius. It’s like this life is being lived and infused with all this language, and infused with all these influences, and that’s showing up in the poems in an interesting way.
Yeah, yeah. I like that. I like how that can come through. It’s just a lot of what’s coming into my mind and coming before my eyes that comes through in the work. I guess it has a contemplative feeling over time, this accumulation of different things that the speaker and, you know, me, essentially—the different things I’m encountering and processing.
Yeah. And just looking at the collection as a whole, the first poem, "Tender" is this litany of addresses to a second person like, "Dear caged thing / There was something about you," and then the final poem in the book ends with this litany of "we have been"'s. It’s almost like the collection is a movement from an address to an other towards an inclusion of the self with that other, you know?
Yeah, yeah, definitely.
That’s an interesting kind of architecture.
Yeah. You know, at some point in that process, when I sensed that I really had a book coming together, I knew that "Tender" would be the opening poem because I did like the way it is a litany of all these different addressees. There is a lot of "you" in the book, and I like that "Tender" kind of introduces all the different people and ideas and tropes that could be in that position, that could be the you that’s addressed throughout that collection. There's so much shifting of that address that it felt like the right way to enter. Like, here’s one idea of who could be the other, and here’s another and another. And then, when I was at MacDowell, I wrote "We" and I knew when I wrote it that it would be the end of the collection. It mirrors the form, in a way, that anaphora in "Tender," and I really liked that it had that inclusive quality. The book is very much concerned with how we interact with the other, how we reach out and connect, or withdraw, and the messages that we receive about the other and the way that affects our behavior, and all that, you know? And I like the idea of ending on a poem that was centered on what we had in common, our shared origins, our intertwined histories. It felt really appropriate to close the collection that way, to surround the collection with those two poems.
The penultimate poem, "Syzygy," kind of bleeds into "We" in a cool way, ending with “we clap our hands / in captivity then carve our name / in the floor." And then "We" begins, "we have been the buyer, the bought / the boy's blood in the dirt,” which is a really sort of deft movement.
I like the idea of traveling into that first person plural, you know, moving into it and having that be where we end it.
Yeah, it’s like that Frost quote, "If you have 24 poems in a book, the book itself should be the 25th." The craft of the book itself is really remarkable. I could have a conversation with you about any poem, but I think "Wilt" is emblematic of what you’re doing in the whole collection. There’s this sort of fragmented, halting syntax that maybe evokes Plath, or even Creeley. You know, like “I dislike this warmth, I worry / at my own fat want, a hobby,” and then the great last sentiment, “I am dirt / and all the nights that keep ending like this: / I return from the party, my life is smoke, / I fall asleep trying to seduce you.” I don't want to ask you to reveal all your secrets!
I can but I don’t want to demystify it for everybody! It’s actually kind of a weird origin story.
I love weird origin stories!
I was watching the American version of The Office. You know how they have those little snippets when the episode is over, right before they go into the next show?
So, at the end of the episode, Dwight is giving this monologue of the perfect crime, and I was just really struck by the rhythm and syntax of his monologue. Something about it struck me, so I transcribed it, and I did a sort of negative translation of that speech, and then I worked with that to produce this poem.
Some of it is from that, which is bizarre. But what happens a lot of times when I start a poem in a very intentional way like that is it will start as one thing and then transform into something else. So it started with that and then it travelled into other areas. I think some of that syntactical strangeness and rhythm that I enjoyed about the monologue survived in the poem, and then some of it ended up connecting with another set of notes that I had been collecting. The way that I generally write is that I have a notebook with phrases and ideas, just snatches of things that I collect and form into something larger, so that when I did this exercise, it ended up kind of dovetailing with other ideas that I had been playing with and that’s how this poem started to materialize.
I would’ve never guessed that’s where this came from. It’s so interesting the way that pop culture things like The Office and The Avengers can find their ways into these poems. So many poets today sort of sing the exquisite mundane and have poems that are full of Snapchat or mimosas, but it’s interesting the way that you create space for the exquisite mundane in these poems without calling them by name. There’s still something very elemental, and primal, and organic about the language of this poem. About the language of a lot of these poems.
Yeah, those things influence me and end up in the poems, but in a way that’s maybe not recognizable all the time. So the word "Snapchat" is not in the poem, but sometimes it's in the work even if it’s not literally on the page.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
There are a few poems in this book that started after I watched some movie, or were inspired by something that I saw on TV, or something that is popular culture, or the mundane, you know? And it ends up leading to something in the work.
Totally. I remember Carl Phillips telling me that, as a way of condemning one of his early books, a reviewer said something like, "You’ll never read about a pair of boxer briefs in a Carl Phillips poem," which is a ridiculous criticism of his poems, but Carl said, “Well, no, you probably won’t. That’s not what I write about." But that’s not to say that Carl Phillips has never encountered a pair of boxer briefs, or that they’re not part of his psychic life. It’s just not an element of the vernacular that he mines when he turns to the page.
I really love that story about Dwight's monologue. Can we talk about "Dry Harbour" a little bit? It’s a poem that’s dedicated to who I imagine is your grandfather?
Yeah, it's my grandfather.
And it has that wrenching line that I could tattoo on my forehead because it’s so gorgeous, “Oh, people of earth, / how easily they slip / back into it." It's this kind of staggering utterance. It’s sort of an elegy, but it does more than just elegize a single person.
When my grandfather died, my family asked me to read a poem at the funeral. They wanted me to write something, but funerals happen so quickly, and I’m not a very fast writer. And it was just something that I wished I could’ve done, but I knew I wouldn't have been capable of putting something together that I felt was good enough, and appropriate, and would really honor the event and his life. So I read a poem by somebody else at the funeral. And in the different talks that the family gave—my dad has a huge family, he has nine siblings—so everyone spoke about my grandfather's life, and one of my uncles talked about how my grandfather had told him this story of when he was a child and he was swimming in Kingston Harbour, and how people would let their horses swim in the water to let them cool down, and he'd talked to my uncle about what it was like to swim with these horses. And I was really struck by the story because it wasn’t often, or maybe it was never, that I would hear a story about my grandfather before he was my grandfather—before he was even my father’s father—and what occupied his mind and what struck him as an individual. It’s a thing that happens when you become an adult, you start to understand your family as individual human beings with their own lives. Lives that existed before you. And that was the moment that I understood that in a real way about my grandfather.
So after the funeral I thought a lot about the story my uncle told, and that’s where the poem came from originally. It started there and, as with most things that I write that start with one thing, it ended up being about a lot more—so it was also really about family, and history, and how we end up where we are, and how much violence can go into our existence. And how much violence went into my existence—the fact that I am here and how much blood was shed for that to be possible. It's a bizarre thing to think about. You know, another one of my uncles said once that he wished that Jamaica had never become involved in the slave trade, that Columbus had never stumbled upon the island, and I told him we wouldn’t exist in that case, and he said, "That’s okay." And I was like, "I don’t know if that’s okay with me. I don’t know how to feel about that." So those were the thoughts I was having when I wrote this. It’s that sense of tragedy, and loss, and how exhausting that can be when you also want to be happy that you are alive.
Yeah, and how do you maintain the duality of mourning the cost while celebrating the gain?
And just looking at this poem now, “you are the boy watching / the horses leap over your head / to cool themselves // in the harbour.” That image is on the line between this kind of wondrous magical thing and a very menacing one because horses are huge animals and if they're leaping over your head—a stray hoof and you’re done.
Yeah, that’s kind of a glorious and terrifying image at the same time.
And it evokes exactly what you’re talking about without flashing it in neon lights. The title of the collection is something I wanted to talk about, too—it comes from Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays, which are these posters of very strong, political, individualistic how-to voices. And it seems to me that the spirit of those voices is definitely here in the poems. “Shriek when the pain hits," "Sentimentality delays the removal of the dangerously backward.” What was the connection there?
Yeah. I knew of Jenny Holzer’s work, but I discovered her Inflammatory Essays about a year before I had commissioned the manuscript, so a lot of the poems actually already existed, but I just felt this instant—
Yeah, a lot of them had already been written when I encountered this work, and I felt a kinship with that voice, with that kind of propagandic language of the state. The way that that reads, I just loved it. It’s so unflinching and striking and scary at the same time, and also made a little bit scarier by the fact that it felt like a sort of speech that could actually exist in the world, you know? It’s so real. I just really love that about it, so when I saw that phrase, "incorrect merciful impulses," I immediately was in love with it and I wanted that to be the title. I don't think the work in the book is employing that voice exactly, but the connection that I see is—I feel like these poems exist in a world where those essays are blaring over a loud speaker. It’s like the speaker in the poems is coexisting with the voice in those Inflammatory Essays, and is reacting to that voice in different ways—it’s influencing the speaker, and the speaker is really grappling with that sort of input from the society that surrounds them.
That’s great. It’s interesting to hear you talk about that. I think it’s a perfect title for what you’re doing in the collection. Even if you don’t know Holzer’s work, the title still relates to the poems, and primes you for the poems. And the way that it also relates to Holzer’s work feels charged with what she was up to. In an earlier interview you said, “I tell the truth but I try to be kind about it.” Which is really great. It seems like a cool take on Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant."
You know, I don’t even know if that’s true of my writing—at the time, I meant it more of myself as a person. I feel like that phrase sometimes resurfaces from the internet, and I’m like, "Is that really true of my poetry?" I’ve wondered about that actually since that quote has kind of popped up with the release of my book, and I’m not sure, but it's interesting to think about, to try to look at my writing through that lens. I don’t know if my poems are very kind. And I’m not even sure how true they are, so it’s a sentence that I wouldn’t have thought to necessarily attach to my work. I do think that the work is trying to get at the truth, but the truth is a really slippery thing. And I think the poems are sometimes after kindness, but not always. I think truth and kindness are what they are traveling toward, or trying to excavate, but they also exist in a harsh reality and they’re navigating that.
That’s interesting. To me, the quote sort of related to one of the first things I ever saw of your writing, which was from when you were blogging for the Poetry Foundation. One of the essays you wrote was the "What We Write About When We Write About" essay, and there were lines in it that were the funniest things in the world to me, and I remember just sending it out to everyone.
Well, the “forgive me white male poets of a certain class, some of my best friends are you!” For all the push towards progress and inclusivity, we’re still in a form that’s dominated by white male poets, and inevitably some of them are bound to be friends. And so whenever we’re trying to make room for ourselves, we’re also pushing back against the space that is held by the people we’re close to, you know?
I just thought that was a really wonderful articulation of that sentiment. “I know you must feel singled out, it’s not your fault you were born this way.” That’s brilliant. What was the reception to that essay like?
I was happy with the reception. A lot of people really gave me great feedback and loved the essay, which surprised me a bit, actually. I was a little worried about putting it out there. It’s becoming less and less scary for me because I’ve been able to step forward more and talk about these things, but it can be scary to talk about the role that your race and gender play in the way that you are allowed to exist in the poetry world. And people feel really uncomfortable when you point out disparity. You know, when you point out the fact that like 90% of the readings in Williamsburg feature all white people. When you point that stuff out, people become sensitive. I think it feels like something is being taken away from you, or you’re being accused of something, but really it’s just an attempt to open up a conversation about what the reality is, and what poets like me are facing. And the reality is that I’m not taking anything from you because it was never yours to begin with. No one owns opportunity.
So I was a little worried about putting it out there, but now I think that I should be—everyone should be able to talk about those things, and I see the conversation happening more and more and that’s great. And now when I look back at the essay, it doesn’t seem so scary anymore. People were really happy to see it, and I got a really good, mostly positive response about it. A couple of people were less thrilled, but I didn’t get a lot of trolls in my inbox.
That’s great. It’s a risky proposition, being so sincere on the internet. And now you’re one of the main figures involved with VIDA, which is related to that move towards creating space in this world.
I originally met Cate Marvin, who is one of the co-founders of VIDA, a few years back. I was participating in a panel on feminism in poetry, and I had always really been interested in VIDA and what they do, and we connected at that point and stayed in touch. She would reach out occasionally to ask for advice. Then eventually I joined the board, and I tried to help where I could and apply my experience and put whatever time I could into it. I just became more and more involved. I tend to throw myself into a lot of things. I like to be able to use the knowledge I have for something I believe in and to work for those causes. It’s been really great to be a part of VIDA and to see it really grow and stabilize, and now we’re doing more intersectional work and that conversation is so important. It’s been exciting and I’m really happy to be a part of it.
Yeah, it’s a huge indispensable part of our poet lives now.
Yeah, it’s great. When I first wrote that essay for the Poetry Foundation, I don’t know if it was my perception or the reality, but I felt like those conversations were just starting to seep out into the mainstream literary world, and I was very afraid—you know, because when you step out and talk about those issues, and you’re saying, "Look, white male poets are kind of allowed to do whatever they want and talk about whatever they want without scrutiny, and that’s their privilege, and I don’t have that privilege." It feels a little bit like you’re biting the hand that feeds you because those poets are also sort of running the show in a lot of ways, and, at the same time, I don’t hate them—they're great. I think that it’s nice now that there are a lot more platforms for that sort of conversation, and we don’t have to apologize for having that conversation. We can feel less and less afraid. And I think VIDA is one way of pushing that forward.
That’s great. I’m grateful for the work that you are all doing, and I know that there are millions of people like me who feel similarly. Do you want to talk a little bit about what you’re working on with your poems right now?
I’m just kind of doing what I’m doing. Working on new poems again. Slowly, as usual. As usual, very slowly. It’s been interesting to have this book out, to have finished the book in the first place, after so many years, and then be like, "What am I doing now? What’s next?" It’s a daunting feeling. For a while I did have some anxiety about what was next, but now I’m letting myself slowly move forward, and write more, and think about the next thing, and I think it’s coming into shape, coming into focus a little bit. It’s still blurry, but it’s starting to maybe be something. But you know, I’m not ready to pin it down quite yet. So it’ll probably be a few years.
That’s wonderful. I’ll be anxiously awaiting it. And meanwhile, you’ve given everyone this really substantive, important, significant collection to gnaw on for a few years.
Well, I hope people enjoy it!
Interview Posted: August 1, 2016
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