“Even language is not on our side.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
J: Don’t you go to school in Tallahassee?
K: Yeah, I’m getting my Ph.D. at FSU, so I go to school and I teach. Your pressmate, Erin Belieu, is here.
She’s just a lovely soul.
Haha, she really is. You know her, right?
Of course I know her, I love her!
I do, too! You just sound so happy.
I’m full of positive statements. I think maybe people aren’t used to that. And so it says something about what we’re going through, right? That when we hear a positive statement, we immediately have to be skeptical about it. I think part of that is because we’re poets and so all we’re ever doing is thinking critically. It’s true that in order to do what we have to do, we have to do that at every turn. We have to think critically and question all of the things that are coming our way. But it becomes problematic when we find a reason to question our joy, which we should be allowed to have like anyone else is allowed to have. How do we begin to balance that? How can we be people who are indeed critically thinking and problematizing in a healthy, skeptical way, and yet still fully enjoy the pleasures that we’re meant to enjoy as it relates to ecstasy, and joy, and life as we know it. I want to figure out how to get the spirit of that into my work.
And I know from your work you are interested in the same thing, right? How is it that I represent myself as a spirit? How is it that I represent myself as something and someone continuous?
Oh, very much.
That representation of the self is a representation of the truth of the human race. And yet, how do I also represent the fact that I know that the human race doesn’t always know how to act like that? We don’t always act like who we really are. We don’t always perform in ways that would suggest we are made of spirit. This is why I love poetry—I don’t think any other art can get at that in the way poetry does. I don’t think any other art can get at how we move back and forth between fear and faith in the way poetry does. That’s what I’m really interested in doing and that’s what I’m really interested in reading. I’m really interested in reading the work that makes that which is complex, complex. Makes difficult that which is difficult.
A lot of the work that I read and don’t like is the work that wants to make simple that which is difficult. Or wants to make difficult that which is really simple.
Totally, totally. So much of what interests me about poetry, and your work specifically, is the way that it has this compulsion to celebrate. But then there are all these external forces conspiring against that deep internal joy, that deep internal exuberance. So it’s the friction—what creates the sparks in these poems is often the friction between that deep desire to acknowledge that exuberant core and the external station that would conspire against it.
Yes, yes. I mean, this is what we’ve been talking about for years—how American poetry is descended from Dickinson and Whitman. That any American poet must find a way for each one of their poems to embody both of those spirits at once. How do we have both ecstasy and irony in one place at one time? Because, in actuality, those are the bodies we live in. Our bodies have those things in one place at one time. I don’t know whether or not this is the case for everyone, but I think it’s also important to understand that I am descended from those two, and that I am also descended from Phillis Wheatley. Being descended from Phillis Wheatley allows me to see what Dickinson and Whitman offer me through a very different kind of light.
At the same time that I am as American as Dickinson and as Whitman, I am also as rejected, or as descended of slaves, as trapped, as kidnapped, as someone like Phyllis Wheatley. So how is that possible? How do I write from a position that is Whitmanian and Dickinsonian, and yet understand that that position in and of itself, because it is the American position, means to kill me. Right? There was no plan for my existence as a thinking being. There was never any plan for that. As a matter of fact, all of our founding documents prove that there was a plan for just the opposite. The plan was actually that I not exist as a thinking being, right?
So that’s another thing poetry allows me. It allows me to deal with being an artist of many backgrounds and to hold great complexity in my very being.
That complexity becomes a charge as you move forward.
Yeah. For me, it becomes a way to think and re-think about tradition. I have the opportunity to carve something new in a tradition—in several traditions—that is a very long and very old tradition. And that seems to be our job. How do we move forward within the tradition as individuals? So says T.S. Eliot. Do you understand what I mean?
And that’s exactly what I’m after. I’m not after a rejection of being a Black gay poet. I’m after understanding what being a Black gay poet might allow me. I’m not the only, or the first, Black gay poet, so what does being a Southern-gay-Black-poet allow me? What can that bring forth in my work? That’s what I’m really interested in seeing. I’m interested in looking at the larger—supposedly larger tradition and all of the traditions within that supposedly larger tradition. I’m going to change that because I hate the word so much because obviously I am one hundred percent an American poet. I am a part of the larger tradition. I am an English-speaking poet.
Even language is not on our side. Even in that moment, right? And so that’s what I mean about being skeptical and questioning. We have to do that every moment. We have to take every opportunity we can to correct ourselves, and that’s what poems allow us to do. That’s why revision is so important. It gives us the opportunity to look back at what we've done and say, "Did I get it right?" before we try to get the work in print. Do you understand what I mean?
Right, yeah, absolutely. Go ahead.
No, I talk so much.
It’s so good.
I hardly ever get to talk to you, Kaveh, and it’s all I ever want.
The best conversations are the ones where I do the least talking. I’m coming from a different position than you, but America didn’t anticipate the presence of people like me being American either. I was born in Tehran, but I’ve lived my whole life here in America. There’s a way in which you come into this negative space where your very humanity is this gap in the planning that this nation had for itself. There is a way in which you can harness that.
That’s fascinating. That’s exactly what I mean. I just think it’s important that we accept the fact that we’re writers. I think we should accept the fact that we’re artists. Obviously we don’t have any choice in that matter. All of us are clearly very smart people. There are other things we could be doing that would be much more financially advantageous. So we can accept the fact that we’re artists as a burden, or we can accept it as the best thing that could possibly ever happen to anyone. And if we can accept that as the best thing that could possibly ever happen to anyone, that changes what we use in our poems and how we use it. And it changes how we look at what we use and how we use it.
The other truth, Kaveh, is that when we’re writing a poem we’re not really thinking about these things. At least for me. I mean, I’m thinking about these things all the time, but I’m thinking about them because I’m thinking about them in the same way that I breathe. I’m thinking about whatever I think about whether I like it or not. It happens inherently and intuitively.
It’s like a compositional part of your consciousness.
Exactly, exactly. And what I’m actually thinking about when I write a poem, I mean what the poem allows me to do is to have those things, and yet to have them at bay. Because when I’m writing a poem, I’m thinking about line length, and line break, and structure, and the kind of ending I want to make, and how the opening works. “What does climax mean in a poem?” is the question that I ask myself all the time. “What is the middle of the poem?” Like, “where is the middle?” “What does it really mean to make a turn in a poem?” I used to tell my students that you only get to say 'but' in a poem once.
Totally, I love that.
But immediately after I told my students that, I went about the business of trying to write poems where I could use 'but' more than once. We’re really trying to see what we can do when we write a poem. “How does this work in second person?” That’s where we’re really getting so many of our joys from.
Yes. That seems very true to me. You have this sort of foundational consciousness where you are constantly thinking about these larger questions, but when you get into the actual process of writing a poem it becomes this game of language.
And to talk about writing a political poem, or to talk about writing a socially engaged poem, just the action of writing a poem is inherently political because you are slowing down the metabolization of language, which is an inherently political act and a socially engaged act because you’re actually thinking about what you’re saying. There’s the poem in The New Testament , "Found: Messiah," where you take this cruel, sort of ghoulish, blog post, and you slow down the language in a way where it just becomes so—I’m getting literal goosebumps just talking about it now—it just becomes so staggering and devastating, and it’s got that ending, you know? That’s an example of how our formal conversation that’s going on in our head just sees language and then changes it into something totally different.
Yes, I agree completely with that. I mean, that’s exactly what I wanted to do and I thank you for saying that. It is true that to simply sit, and think and really contemplate a thing and see it for what it really is, is a political act. But I do want to add that there is a face to every poem.
Did you say a face?
Yeah, a face. It’s got a nose, it has eyes. Sometimes it only has one eye. Some really good poems have thirty. Every poem has a face, and on the face of the poem you can tell whether it's interested in supporting the status quo or whether it’s interested in questioning the status quo.
Absolutely, that’s a great way to say that.
So there is the work that we do when we write a poem that is automatically political. But there is another kind of work that we do when we write a poem that tells us exactly which political side we stand on.
Yeah, yeah. Totally.
We have to be honest about the work we’re doing, and honest about the fact that thoughts lead to actions. Poems are meant to adjust our thoughts and our feelings. We read a poem that we love and we don’t think about or see things the same way we did before we read that poem. That’s the litmus test. And if that’s the case, if our thinking does indeed change, then it follows that we have no choice but for our actions to also change. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
The work still has to be well crafted. It’s funny, when you start talking about this stuff, people like to assume that you mean bad poems are okay to write. I don’t think bad poems are okay to write. I don’t want to read them. The other thing I think people assume when you start talking about this stuff is that you want them to go write about something that they haven’t actually thought about. And that’s not what I want, either. If you’re writing about something you haven’t really thought about, then you’re not going to write a good poem. You know what I mean?
I absolutely know what you mean.
Our poems have to come from our obsessions, our passions, the things that wrack us, our questions about the things that we don’t understand but really want to understand, right? The things that drive us up a wall. For instance, I do have questions about why it is that more poets who aren’t Black have so little to say about things like police brutality, and I have those questions only because I wouldn’t have had those same questions however many years ago. I definitely have those questions now because, you know, everybody is watching the same television news. And everybody has the same social media and everybody is walking around with devices. So there was a time where I could completely understand that if something was not your experience, then you could not have anything to say about it. But it seems to me these things are to a point now where they are indeed everyone’s experience, in some way or another. But, at the same time, I don’t want people writing about a thing that they haven’t really thought about.
I’m not sending you in to write a poem about race when you haven’t known that you’ve had a race your entire life. I would like for you to get that down first. If we can get you to the point where you see yourself as white as opposed to seeing yourself as normal, then that’s a good start. So that’s what I’m for. There are people who see beautiful trees and don’t even notice them, but I don’t think they need to write about nature. You don’t need to write about saving our planet, which is dying by the way, if you haven’t thought about the fact that she’s dying because your poem is not going to be good. You don’t realize that, for instance, when you were a kid you walked around on concrete with bare feet. Now realize the fact that you will scorch the bottom of your feet if you put your bare feet on concrete today. If you want proof that the planet is indeed getting hotter, use your memory. Those are the kinds of things that are of interest to me—that we actually make material out of what we are thinking about, and that we begin to question why we aren’t thinking about the things that are right in front of us. That seems weird to me.
I would go as far as saying we are not questioning the things that are right in front of us because we have been allowed not to. We have the privilege not to. And there are some privileges we should not take advantage of. Sooner or later, if you keep seeing people get shot, if you realize there is no proper way for Black and Brown people in this country to interact with law enforcement, there is no having been subdued, or having completely complied, that means you won’t just get killed. I think we should make a decision about whether or not we’re okay with that. I don’t know who has not seen enough of these videos to know that if you have yet to think about this, then you’ve also said you are okay with it.
Right, right. I keep thinking about what you said about the poems having faces, and how the The New Testament epigraph, a James Baldwin quote, corresponds directly to that, “one’s enemy—sees the face you wear, and this face can elicit the most extraordinary reactions.” I keep thinking about the poems that are willfully clinching their eyes closed to try to deny the existence of these things that are very much a part of our daily experience. But if a poem isn’t paying attention to the world, then I’m not going to be inclined to listen to it.
Yes, exactly. Exactly.
This is very much a part of everybody’s daily experience unless they are actively trying to avoid it, which is a whole other conversation. And for it not to permeate the conversation at all is telling. It’s telling in the ways that you are describing.
Yeah, yeah, yes. I mean, there has to be some way that we can write a poem about running on the beach and enjoying running on the beach. A lot of us are spending a lot of time running on the beach. I’m serious. There’s got to be a way that we can write the poem about looking forward to our weekend getaway in the Hamptons. I mean, seriously, that’s really what many of us are thinking about. We’re thinking about how we can get away to the Hamptons. But, sooner or later, we have to question why we are thinking about some things but not thinking about others? And we have to write poems about that 'why?' “Oh yeah, I have seen this over and over and over again, and I’m not thinking about it, so maybe I could at least write a poem about why I’m not thinking about this thing that I’m seeing over and over again.”
Yeah. And I think that the negative space of something that is very deliberately left out of a conversation becomes an element of the poem, too.
I write a lot about addiction now, but it was something I had been trying to avoid putting in my work for a long time. It was just this conversation that I didn’t want to have anywhere that anyone was actually going to be able to read it. You know what I mean?
Yes, yes, yes. Oh, I know.
You’ve spoken in the past about how your family didn’t know about your HIV status, but you’ve since written about that more. There are these things we don’t want to engage in our work that then ultimately find their way into the work.
Yeah, I learned years ago that the thing you are avoiding is actually the big thing. The thing you are resisting is actually the thing that is begging to come to the page. It’s like, “Hey talk about me, I’m here.”
It's something that’s sort of been marinating in your subconscious for so long that it’s really going to come out. It’s really going to have something to say when it’s ready.
The marinating that it has done is what allows you to deal with it in terms of line, and line break, and other craft elements. That’s what allows you to actually begin to make metaphor for it. Because you dealt with it in your head for so long that now you can finally make something of it.
Yeah, yeah. I love that.
You can make something of it without ending up in tears. The tears that you have when you write about that thing are different from the tears you have, in terms of your memory, of being in the midst of that thing.
It’s fascinating to think about the sort of alchemy of that action. You take a memory that turns into tears. Already there’s this correlation between the abstract and the concrete, where this memory is this very abstract thing, and these tears are this very physiological response. And then you can turn that into this poem, which is this thing that has ink and is on a page, or it’s in the air and it has vibrations and sound. It’s this consistent transmutation of the lived experience into all of these different forms. There's something really really charged and poignant to me about that. I’ve never gotten over that magic.
I think it’s really wonderful that you’re doing all of the work that you're doing as a member of the poetry community. Can I just say that? I think it’s wonderful. I love that about you, and I love that—I just love that we’re all together.
I know, I know.
And we like each other. A lot of us really don’t like each other. I didn’t know this at first. I’m really only recently coming to have a complete understanding of this. But, you know, a lot of us have whatever kind of history we’ve had with each other, or we find our poetics to be so diametrically opposed that we are not interested in one another. That does happen. But the other thing that happens that I really love about you, and that I love about poets is that everybody, and I’ve said this elsewhere, but I really believe everybody is such a wonderful ambassador to and for poetry. I love that. I love the fact that you’re doing this interview with me and we’re having this conversation and we’re doing this because we somehow think this is for poetry itself. As opposed to it being for Jericho, or for Kaveh. Do you understand what I’m saying?
I don’t know a poet who is not teaching, or mentoring, or editing a magazine, or running a blog, or doing a contest, or running a reading series, or—I don’t know that you could say that about all the other writers. In terms of the “in it” that we all do, that everyone of us do to keep the thing alive, to keep the thing going and talked about, even if it’s only among ourselves. We’re all in it to either make poetry better for one another, or to introduce it to those who have yet to meet its magic. I just love that about poetry. And I’m really glad that we get to do that together, and I appreciate you.
You always think of me, and that’s so sweet. You always take these pictures of my poems and tweet them out into the world. And I always feel like, "Oh, wow. He read my poem." I really appreciate that. I’m serious, you don’t know how much that means to me. When y’all had that conversation on All Up In Your Ears with Jonathan and francine and Gaby, I never told y’all by voice, but I just sat there and cried.
Are you serious?
Yes! I mean, I’ve been wanting to be a poet for a very long time. When I was a very young, I mean like six, seven, eight years old, I was like, “I’m going to be a poet.” And I had no idea what that meant. I just kept saying it out loud, and my mom and dad kept telling me, "Don’t say that." So to be in a position where I could hear people who I admire so much, people I respect, actually making conversation out of the work that I’ve done—that’s it. That’s a dream come true.
I’ve always said that one of the most important days of my life—I’d given a reading at a Cave Canem anniversary, or something—this is before I’d had a book come out. Terrance Hayes was at the reading. And when I was very young, I mean 22 years old, we met and he was a wonderful mentor to me. He really taught me how community works in poetry. I really felt like I learned that from him. I remember giving this reading years after having met him, and I remember after the reading he came up to me and he told me that he was proud of me. I remember thinking to myself, "Well that’s it. Everything else is gravy." I still feel that way. And so I have extra. I mean really, I’ve gotten so much extra that I always feel that it's my responsibility to say yes to every damn thing. Nobody has gotten more lagniappe than Jericho Brown.
I really appreciate that.
And it’s what I mean to do when I write poems. I mean to write poems that folk can look at and definitely say, "Okay, he’s really pushing. He’s trying to do the work." They don’t even have to say that I succeed every time. But I want it to be clear in my work that I’m not playing. This is who I am. There’s plenty of play in the work, obviously, yes. But I mean to be a poet. I intend it. I mean to progress this tradition. I’m in it. I’m in it for it. The only thing that’s going to stop me is death. As long as I’m here, that’s what I’m going to do. I know that people like you and people like Gaby also mean that. That’s the thing that excites me. I love that y’all have that podcast and that y’all just sit around and talk about a poem a piece. That just floors me. People can pretend that’s not a big deal, but that’s such a big deal. To create that kind of space. It’s a big deal, and we have to continue to do this.
I was always somebody’s child when I was first writing. I still feel like I’m somebody’s child. There was always somebody taking me to the side, asking to see my poems, telling me not to send them nowhere because they were a hot mess. I’m not doing anything that I’m supposed to be doing if I’m not also doing that. I gotta write the best poems I can ever write, but I’ve also got to be a member of this community in every way that I can possibly be a member of it.
Oh, I think so much of that—and we’re almost out of time, so I’ll try to wrap it up after this—
Yeah, because I’m about to go get my hair done, and I've driven all the way to the salon on this phone, and I’m like, “Girl, Ms. Candy is gonna get in my head. I’m gonna come out of here a new man, honey.”
I’ll let you get to Ms. Candy in just two shakes of a lamb’s tail, but just to put a bow on everything—I think that there are some for whom poetry is just this constant source of joy, and exuberance, and vitality, and whatever you want to call it, and it becomes too unbearable to hold it all in to yourself. There’s no way to hoard that sort of joy, and so you have to push it out. And I think you are an exemplar of that. You brought the word 'ambassador' into the conversation, and I think that’s very apt. I think you are an exemplar of that, of being a good ambassador for the craft. You’re listed in the acknowledgements of every other book I read. And I think that’s just what we do. If you really care about this craft the way that people who really love it tend to, you just have to push it outward because it’s unbearable to hoard that kind of joy.
Do you have any final words you want to say before I let you go?
No, I just want to tell you that I love you and I really appreciate you for calling me.
Interview Posted: November 21, 2016
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