“We can always change ourselves.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
When did you find out Prelude to Bruise was nominated for the National Book Critic’s Circle award?
Oh, it was so unglamorous and unpoetlike! I was at home in sweatpants. I was enjoying a lazy night watching “The Good Wife.”
Juliana Margulies! I loved ER.
Yes! I love Juliana Margulies! So I finished the episode and checked my phone to see what was going on in Twitter, and all my followers were sending me very nice notes of congratulations for something. I had no idea why! (Laughing) It took a minute to figure out what was happening. Immediately, I was stunned to silence, which is pretty rare for me; I’m not a quiet person. I was looking at my phone and didn’t know what to do. I was just sitting there with my mouth open staring at my phone until my roommate by chance walked into the apartment. I told him what happened and we hugged and did a little dance.
Haha, aw. That’s great.
It was really cool! In poetry, you’re just writing one poem to the next. Over time a narrative or a collection begins to accumulate and then you start thinking about a book, and most of the emphasis at that point is just getting it out. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, write a book I was very proud of, something I felt I would be proud of for a long time. I think I’ve done that for myself, and that was something that happened well before any of these wonderful surprise acknowledgements. It’s nice, but also very odd.
I bet. The book seems particularly interested in exploring the word “boy” and all its various dimensions (in relation to gender, race, sexuality, and age). From the book’s title poem: “Good boy. / Black boy, blue-black boy. / Bad boy—rap rap. // You’ve been broken in. / Begin again, bend.” “Boy” is also the the only name we have for Prelude’s main character.
All of the connotations of “boy” make it, in my opinion, a perfect word to obsess over. And “boy” lies at the heart of my desire to make sense of American masculinity; it’s all there: boys will be boys, the history of race and racism in our country, the idea of boyhood and manhood as “terrains” we traverse and survive, the relationship between fathers and sons, and yes, sex which, interestingly, brings all of these narratives together. One of the challenges of writing poetry as opposed to fiction or nonfiction is that poets face the blank page much more frequently. We’re always starting over rather than working with a sustained narrative. “Boy” and all of its loaded meanings put me to work but also gave me work, if that makes sense. This is why Prelude To Bruise had to be a poetry collection as opposed to a novel; for all of its themes, it is also about American language. I love that a word as simple as “boy” can live so many lives.
I like that idea of a poet returning to a single word as a way of getting past that confrontation with the blank page.
When in the writing or revision process of writing did these notions of “boy” begin to cohere into a single character? Was that always the conceit or did that come along after you’d written a majority of the poems?
“Boy” didn’t appear until maybe two or three years into the process of writing these poems. The earlier poems like “Kudzu” or “Meridian”—
The one about Daedalus?
Yes, yeah, or “In Nashville.” These were poems deeply rooted in the southern landscape and the American south. They were always voices of desire. That’s an obsession of mine. I think that will probably always be true.
It’s hard to pinpoint, because talking about the process becomes a little like revisionist history. But along the way, I was writing poems about dresses. I’ve always been very interested in Alexander McQueen, his life and his work. So I was writing poems inspired by many of his designs and it seemed logical to me that someone had to wear the dress, so I wrote a poem where a boy was wearing a dress. I felt there was a story there, this little kid doing something inadvertently subversive. The story could not really be contained in one poem, if a poem is a moment in which you’re zeroing in on image and sound. You get to the point where you’re trying to cram too much narrative into a single moment and it doesn’t work.
So I would get to what felt like the natural end of a poem, but I was still interested in this boy. Then I was interested in his family. The dynamic of the book really grew out of my fascination with him, out of the befores and the afters of these moments. Over time it became an interesting relationship where Boy becomes my avatar. That’s why I try to be clear that the book is from my life and inspired by my life, but it’s not about me. It’s not autobiographical. He exists as an avatar that allows me to journey through these ideas about identity and language and the body. Towards the end of the process of working on the book, after five or six years, I was kind of tired. I was tired of Boy.
That makes sense.
So one of the last poems in the book has the line, “I’m in the woods again,” and that was something I actually said out loud in a café in Amsterdam. I realized there was still more. I look at each book as its own terrain you have to traverse and invariably, there will be thickets and there will be underground caves that you stumble into. But, when you reach the end of the book, you start to feel like, “Okay, I want to get to the border!”
Right, you sprint for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Yeah, yeah. It took a little bit longer than I’d thought to get there, but every part of the process made the book better. If I’d published this book two or three years ago, I don’t think it would have accomplished what I wanted.
I think a lot of people’s default assumption is that the poetry they read is autobiographical. Charlie Parker said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” which always struck me as a dangerous artist's statement. You’ve been adamant about Prelude not being autobiographical.
Well, I mean, saying Prelude To Bruise is autobiographical would simply be untrue. Boy’s father hunts him with a rifle, for example. I loved playing with my mother’s make-up but didn’t try on her gowns, as Boy does. There are shards of my own experiences throughout the book — most often the setting or emotional trajectory of the poems — but Boy’s life is markedly different from my own. For the five or six years I was writing these poems, I wrote what I felt, not what was factual. I love that we have that kind of freedom in poetry. I can start with a setting I cull from a memory and then pursue a line or image that I think is worth chasing.
I’ve read the book a few times now, and I’ve been thinking a lot about its lineage. You've talked about reading Blood Dazzler when you were writing it, but I feel another force in there too. Have you spent much time with Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red?
I’ve come to see this book as a sort of southern, black, queer Autobiography of Red.
That is a wonderful compliment!
There's a central character at odds with his own ferality, dealing with sexual violence, with his burgeoning love life and sexual identity, with his mother… I think there are a lot of parallels.
Absolutely. Absolutely. Autobiography of Red is a lodestar. There are few books I feel I have that relationship with. Crush by Richard Siken comes to mind as well. These are books that showed me how poets dived into the waters. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was a way to write, this was a way of making a collection. With Carson, I was stunned the first time and the second time and the fifth times I read that book.
What I love about how the story unfolds as Carson tells it is how you really feel this genuine sense of concern for the main character. You’re actually worried about him! You feel like a helpless parent, thinking, “No, no, don’t go that way!” I definitely aimed for a similar dynamic while I was writing this book, that sense of peril built into the poems, into the brutality of the language itself. This concern was important because one of the threads that goes through the book is the sense of someone who feels unloved, who feels that no one in concerned about them. It’s about the tyranny of isolation. The relationship with the reader becomes very important.
Exactly. There are all these moments where the reader wants to dive in and protect Boy. It’s like watching a horror movie where you want to shout, “Don’t open that door!”
Yeah! Boy is basically the character in the horror film that’s always running upstairs. It’s like, are you crazy? Facing the blank page, I needed a narrative. The narrative became a really important part of the writing process for me. That peril, the protagonist’s disastrous decision-making skills gave me all these opportunities for poems. And the narrative zooms in and zooms out, but provides us all these ways of looking at how we are always stumbling into our humanity, sometimes dangerously. That’s very interesting to me. And some of these are drawn from horrible mistakes and decisions I’ve made. That’s what seems interesting to me. (Laughing) I’ve yet to be able to write a poem about grocery shopping, you know?
Well, that’s something I wanted to talk about too. You obviously have ample poetic chops, but you’re also this sort of pop culture savant. That side of yourself doesn’t enter into your poetry as much. Is that a conscious partitioning?
You know, that’s a good question. I’m not entirely sure if I know the answer! Part of it is that I’m a pretty good compartmentalist. When you first called, I was in a totally different mode. I was interviewing someone for a job and my mind was still there. It took me a few seconds to switch over, to enter into this space. That’s pretty true for my poetry, too. Whatever mode I’m in, I’m all in. I’m interested in pop culture, but I’m interested in a manner that’s about as deep as Twitter allows you to be.
140 characters deep.
Yeah, for sure. There’s a lot there, obviously. It’s not that pop culture isn’t important. I’ve written some essays, some stories about queerness, but I think it’s just not my strength, honestly. There are other people who are much better at it. For me, it’s asking, “What am I in this space for?” With poetry, it’s a totally different world. It’s an escape, it’s a kind of refuge of deep importance. That’s certainly true for this book. I don’t know if other books will be this way, but this book felt like I set up and created this entire world where I could work through these ideas and these questions that had really taunted me my whole life.
I needed it, and it did feel very separate. I think that’s why it has a sense of separateness. I remember a few times where I would try to write poems for the collection that were a bit more contemporary, I just sounded difficult. There’s very little technology in the book except for in the short story, and even then you get the sense it’s in the early nineties. There are no iPhones or Twitter or anything.
I remember talking to Carl Phillips about a negative review he’d gotten early in his career where the reviewer had said something to the effect of, “You’ll never find a pair of boxer shorts in a Carl Phillips poem,” as if that was some supreme indictment against his work.
And Carl said he just thought, “Well, no, you probably won’t. That’s not what I write about.”
Yeah! And that’s fine. That’s great. That’s part of what is wonderful about poetry, wonderful about what can happen when we really have diversity become a reality in literature. No one writer has to do everything. Certainly, no one writer can do everything well. For the time being, Prelude to Bruise is many things, but chief among those things: it’s the book I could write well.
That’s an interesting approach to building a collection: write the book you can write well. And you’re not saying not to experiment—
No, of course not. It’s really a conversation about the final product. It’s something you can really only realize in retrospect, because you’re certainly experimenting. I have folders and folders and folders of dead poems. All poets do, I think. But I also had mentors who were really honest with me emphasize that when you’re publishing a book, you’re really making an offering. You’re making a contribution to your community. If that’s the case, you must be strict with yourself. You have look at yourself in the editing process and make sure that every poem belongs, that you’re not just putting another poem in the book because you wanted another poem in the book.
Each has to add something substantive to the overall collection besides bulk.
While we’re talking about the book’s community, I did want to say—certain poems in the book became relevant in ways you couldn’t have predicted in writing the book. I’m thinking specifically of “Don’t Let the Sun Set on You,” which is the first poem I’ve ever read about sundown towns. The book came out and then there were these protests in Ferguson and elsewhere where the protesters were subject to enforced curfews. All of a sudden, this poem about something as antiquated-seeming as sundown towns became really relevant.
Yes. I’ve thought about this a great deal too. The book was published at the beginning of September, so we were planning all the readings and the book launches and tending to that aspect of publishing the book, and Ferguson is happening. Soon after, Eric Garner was killed in New York. So then, two things happened, two things that happen with any book. One, the present moment of the world in which your book now exists begins to color how you look at the book and at the poems. “Don’t Let the Sun Set on You,” “Anthracite,” which opens the book.
Him falling to earth…
Exactly. I often dedicate that poem to Michael Brown’s family, now. I think about what his mother said in her first press conference. She talks about how you work so hard to raise your child and make a space for this black boy in the world, and then you deal with the shattering heartbreak of it still not being good enough.
It has that line, “Beware of how they want you.”
Yeah! I think about Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and all of these people when I’m discussing the book now. At the time, police brutality and stop and frisk were not at the forefront of my mind.
The other thing that happens is that your book enters into conversation with all the other books that are published. Citizen by Claudia Rankine was also out. I’m always grateful and honored to have my book out at the same time as hers because I’m looking at the differences, the ways our works are in conversation as writers and readers. [insert] boy, Danez Smith’s collection, too. It’s weird! The world happens, and then the books happen, and it all continues to color the poems. It’s important. The entire point is to write something that engages your life, and that has to exist beyond the years that you were writing the poems themselves.
Yeah, there’re a lot of shared themes between Prelude and [insert] boy, but they’re very different collections too. Citizen as well—that was also nominated for the Book Critic’s Circle Choice Award.
Yeah, which is wild, right? (Laughing) My name in the same sentence as Claudia Rankine’s is just unreal!
I talked with her for this same project! You guys have all these connections.
Do you think you’re done writing about Boy? I think poets often find themselves zooming out with their second collections.
That’s a good question. I thought I was done writing about Boy many times, and then he became what I always hoped he would: a human being with a will, with his own questions he insisted I work to find the answers to. So, I don’t know. The next poetry collection is a while off. I’m working on a memoir right now.
Yeah. I think I knew the book was done when I felt a door had closed behind me. There was definitely a moment where I thought, “I’m going to write a poem today,” and I would sit down to write the poem, and nothing would happen. It went on like that for a few weeks, and what I realized that what I was trying to do was write poems for this book over and over, but the story was closed. It felt weird and it felt like I was imitating a past version of myself. So then I read. Then I went out and lived.
One of the things that has happened in the years since then, as an LGBT editor, I work with a team of reporters and writers. In the last few years I’ve learned a great deal about international LGBT issues. Working with reporters about that aspect of coverage has really changed me and humbled me. There’s so much out there in the world. Here in the United States, we talk about what it means to be a gay man and there’s this sense of triumph, of breakthrough. That’s not true to the experiences of many people around the world. When I sit down to write poems, I’ve found myself grappling with the conversation around that larger story. (Laughing) Though to be fair, I’ve found the moment I start talking about poems I’m writing, it all changes.
I can imagine. That sort of global perspective of what it means to be LGBTQ is interesting. It wasn’t that long ago in America that we were still incarcerating and chemically castrating people, and lots of places in the world are still there, or worse. I’d be interested to see more writing about that global story.
Yeah! I’m interested to see where it goes.
I want to talk about what’s happening in these poems sonically, with the music of the language. I feel like this would be an interesting collection to me even if I didn’t understand English. There are moments of such lushness. How do you think about sound as you’re writing?
Wow, that’s an interesting thought. Before I was writing, I was doing theater and performing. I’ve always been doing different sorts of performance, whether it was holding my family hostage and performing in front of the fireplace or being in school plays. The problem was that when I was doing theater in school, I was always frustrated because there weren’t parts for boys like me. That’s part of why I wrote this book. I was reading “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and I wanted to be Martha! Why couldn’t I be the difficult drunk disillusioned wife? It didn’t seem fair. So the poems I was writing at the time were kind of persona pieces. The voice has always been important.
When I’m writing the poem, it takes a while for it to come into focus. I write the poem one line at a time. I stop, then I rewrite the line, and then I mess up my stop and rewrite the whole thing. By the time I have a body to speak of, I start reading the poem out loud and editing as I continue to work on it. It takes a long time. What I’ve found is that whenever I get to part of the poem that I stumble over, a part that just doesn’t ring right when I say it, or I keep accidentally substituting a word, I can change it. Yusef Komunyakaa says the ear is a wonderful editor. That’s how I use the revision process. I think that builds a sonic drive to the poem. I try not to think about it too much. I’m horrible at formal poetry. (Laughing) I’m ashamed to say it, but I have no ear for scansion.
Well, maybe not consciously.
Yeah, and that’s part of it. It’s intuitive. It’s music. It just feels right and sounds right. Did it do something to you when you said it? Every single poem in the book, I read out loud many many times as I was writing it. I believe in poetry as an oral tradition. Poetry readings are a very special part of writing and publishing. It’s built into our community, this special relationship between poets and readers. It’s an opportunity to reach something you wouldn’t reach on your own by sitting and reading on. I love it. It’s not surplus.
Absolutely. It’s an essential part, especially in terms of building the community, of reaching people who maybe don’t know yet that they want to sit down with a particular book of poetry for a few hours.
That’s one thing I think is uniquely American. In so much of the world, poets are crucial. They’re often in peril because what they’re writing is actively dangerous to systems of power. In the United States, poetry is regarded as this flowery, head-in-the-clouds afterthought. We’re very unique that way. You often hear people say, “I don’t like poetry, but I liked this poem.” That’s funny to me.
Lots of people have been writing of late about shifting the way we think about the success of poetry away from the collection to the individual unit of poetry, the poem. If you look at it that way, you find that poetry is being read plenty, that poetry is thriving, because people read poems online, they share them with each other, they send poems back and forth. Maybe they’re not buying entire collections of Akhmatova’s poetry, but they’re posting her poems on Instagram.
Right. And you know, I’m of two minds about this. One side says poetry exists to speak to what exists without language, to dynamics and feelings that defy casual language. Poetry exists to attempt a gesture at naming that. Of course it’s going to be difficult to package.
On the other side, I think it’s absolutely wonderful poetry exists without much thought of profit. It’s about the poetry, it’s about the themes and the art. I wouldn’t have been able to write these poems if I had to think about whether or not people would buy this book, if I had to be worried about what poems would sell. That’s an impossible position to be in when you’re trying to write poems.
Right. Okay, we’ve been going a while now, but I did want to talk about one last thing—I read an interview in which you described yourself as a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism. Can you talk about what that is and what it means in terms of your day-to-day life?
Sure. My mother started practicing Nichiren Buddhism when she was in her twenties. It’s a Buddhist practice with no priests or temples. Basically, it’s a belief that all of us have a Buddha nature inside ourselves instead of there being some huge important figure on the outside. It’s about tapping into the infinite potential inside of ourselves. I have it, you have it, everyone has it. It’s all about that idea of infinite potential. I think of it as a life philosophy more than as a religion because it has really informed how I go about my life, how I see myself in relation to people around me.
For the book in particular, something that I think is pretty clear is this idea of esho funi, the oneness of self and environment. That can be the natural environment, it can be the people who sit next to you at work, it can be your community, it can be your civilization. The idea of esho funi is that the environment is the shadow of the self, that they’re connected and reflect one another. That’s a huge idea that has impacted my writing, the natural environment and the internal life of the speakers in the poems are always one and the same, always flow in and out of each other like water or the kudzu vine. It’s all synced up. That definitely comes from my understanding of Nichiren Buddhism.
That’s fascinating. It’ll be interesting to go back to read your poems knowing about what that is in your life.
Right. An example: when I was growing up, if I was complaining about class or getting along with other kids in school, the conversation would be about what I needed to change in myself. Esho funi says that if you change yourself, that will immediately be reflected in your environment. I have found that to be very true. So you look at “Kudzu Vine,” obviously it’s a poem about a fire, but it’s also a poem about desire, about the human body, a poem about rebellious aggressive voices. There’s no separation between the natural images and images of the body itself.
The first line of the poem, “I won’t be forgiven for what I’ve made of myself,” directly addresses the notion of an internal locus of control, that idea of esho funi—“what I’ve made of myself” versus “what’s been made of me.”
Right, right. And it’s interesting, because if that’s the case, there is always hope. We can always change ourselves. Over the course of the book, that’s something Boy begins to realize. He begins to look inwards more and so it becomes less about the wrongs that are being done at the hands of other people and more about what he is doing and how is he living and what he is becoming. It’s about reconciling identity with responsibility.
Interview Posted: March 16, 2015
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