It’s so good to get a chance to talk to you about your first book of poems, Trouble the Water. So I wanna try something a bit different. I’m not that interested in asking the usual questions and just talking about writing. Let’s talk about your influences outside of literature as a way to frame the conversation.

Yes! Thank God. Haha.


I mean writers are people too and have other interests. Hopefully.

Exactly! I am nothing if not filled with vaguely entertaining ephemera.


I want to learn about some of your formative texts that aren’t exclusively on the page. Let’s start with music. What are some genres or musicians that you think hover over Trouble the Water?

R&B is and always will be my lifeblood. It’s the music my parents played most often. Usually contemporary (90s at the time) but my folks listened to the greats of the 60s, 70s, and 80s too. But for me, it was 90s R&B that was my foundation. Especially by women. Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, Sade, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu. So many.


What was it about those artists in particular?

I always think of how James Merrill, one of my favorite poets, said that listening to opera taught him more about writing than reading poems did. I never went to the opera but I had R&B and those women’s voices are electrifying. I think something Merrill was getting at is how even though he didn’t necessarily absorb the lyrics, he heard the voices of those grand divas. That’s basically what happened to me too, sound before sense, pleasure before meaning.


Can you go on about what you mean by pleasure before meaning?

Sure, it’s basically the way I enjoy a lot of art. It’s that irresistible draw to something even though I might not grasp the meaning. And I don’t mean pleasure in the easy sense of feeling good, but pleasure in the sense of something honest, original, and intelligent done well. Billie singing “Strange Fruit” is pleasurable though the song itself is about violence against and the deaths of black people. If a work of art hooks itself into me, I’ll come back to it as many times as I need to. It’ll be there waiting for me.


And to bring all this together: how did R&B lead you to these ideas in your writing? Pleasure before meaning and poems that are honest, original, and intelligent?

I once joked on Facebook about how I would write a Buzzfeed article of the ten songs I listened to as a kid and loved that I had no business listening to. Kelly Price’s “Friend of Mine” and the remix? Gurl, I was 8 when Soul of a Woman came out. “She was a friend of mine / She left with my man / She lied, cheated, took all I had”? I was still watching Thundercats. I was an anxious, effeminate, queer boy. These women gave me space to feel what I could barely understand as a kid and were really one of my safe havens when I hit adolescence. Pleasure and pain, loneliness, confusion, desire (for men), ecstasy—themes as old as time but rendered through black women’s sensibilities. I felt at home there.


You can feel that in so many of the poems. The intermingling of all these contradictory feelings written in this intense, erotic way. There’s an obvious connection with the metaphysical poets and erotic mystics like St. Teresa.

John Donne wrote “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me,” but Janet sang about wanting rope burn.


Switching genres a bit, how about a movie that you think would give us secret access to the book?

The Wings of the Dove.


The movie based on the Henry James novel?

The very one. There’s a strong possibility it’s my most watched movie on Netflix.


How did you find it? What draws you to it?

Confession: I’ve never read the book, but I watched it in an American Lit class in college. I remember the opening scene where the protagonists, lovers Kate Croy (Helena Bonham Carter) and Merton Densher (Linus Roache), meet on a subway in New York City, passing furtive glances but never talking, until they’re alone in an elevator and begin kissing. I think most of the class burst into giggles, but the movement from discretion to passion made total sense. This was a film for me. So the story, briefly—spoiler alert for a movie from the 90s and a book published in 1902, I guess—Kate and Merton are star-crossed lovers. They can’t afford to be married, so when Kate meets Milly Theale, a sweet, beautiful, American heiress dying of some turn-of-the-century illness, the lovers conspire to get a piece of Milly’s fortune. Kate basically pimps out her boyfriend, so Millie falls in love with him enough to leave him some of her money so that he can marry Kate.


Damn. That’s so messy.

Right? It’s divine! The stuff of reality TV. Unfortunately, Kate and Merton screw themselves over because Merton falls in love with Milly, but since she’s dead, she’s forever crystalized in his memory as something perfect and true which he betrayed. As for the movie, it’s gorgeous. I have a weakness for period pieces in general, the drag of it all: the costumes, the scenery, the high feeling. The bulk of the movie takes place in Venice which—


Like your sequence of poems City of Rivers.

Yeah, sorta. It’s loosely inspired by Venice. I’ve never been sadly. But when I was working on that sequence I was thinking of Europe and water and how I wanted a setting that connected the waters of the Gulf Coast with these international waters. But I’d like to think The Wings of the Dove is at work in that section of the book.


Insofar that that section is where we see the lovers interact with each other most intensely? The poems there are very sexual, but there are others like “Byzantine Gold” and “St. Sebastian’s Executioner” that are rife with violence. Even the opening poem for that section “Catacombs of San Callisto” mingles longing in the setting of a crypt.

The thing about the movie is it’s a bit of a fairy tale: beautiful dying princess leaves the lovers a gift that’s also a curse. It’s something luminous with darkness at its edges and center. How sexuality mingles with death and love with boredom, violence, and betrayal. It’s all simultaneous. It doesn’t deny the joy, but it doesn’t ignore the complexities either.


I want to touch on something tangentially related to the film. As it’s set in Venice, there must be scenes in or near St. Mark’s, which reminds me how much your book is filled with all kinds of art—sacred and secular, ancient and contemporary, and in so many different modes. How did ekphrasis become so important and generative for you?

Ever since I was a kid I was a low-key art junkie even if I didn’t have words to express it. I remember in an art class in elementary school, there was a picture of Monet’s Woman with a Parasol. I thought it was so beautiful. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite paintings. But I think my obsession with ekphrasis stems from two things. The first is that ekphrasis forces you to grapple with both the social and the aesthetic. The thing about art is we usually encounter it in museums, which completely removes those objects from their literal and social contexts.


They become nothing but beautiful things.

Exactly! Portraits of royalty had political implications while altarpieces and reliquaries are mystical and didactic. Then there are things like silverware or ceramics that served practical functions. When I’m writing ekphrastic poems I always keep that in mind and bring my own experience to bear as well.


And it’s fascinating to hear you talk about that particularly because most of those poems are about European art. Did you need to reconcile your writing about these subjects with your being a black artist?

I remember feeling really guilty about it when I was a baby poet, in undergrad and high school, largely because I hadn’t yet found any black poets with similar interest. Poets like Natasha Trethewey, Cyrus Cassells, and Carl Phillips really gave me the permission to go with it. And now I don’t care and just run amok. And this connects to the other reason why I’m so invested in ekphrasis: so much of my life as a gay, black man is tied to looking, to gazing.


The white gaze?

That’s a part of it. Looking, intensely looking and being aware, isn’t just part of my artistic practice, it’s part of just surviving in America. I’m gay and black. I have to be constantly aware of where I am, who I’m with, and my body and actions in relation to other people. Am I being too aggressive? Am I being too quiet? Am I being too femme? Where are my hands at? Don’t reach in your bag. And then there’s the whole sexual aspect of looking and what one desires and inscribes upon another person. Being aware of how we read texts and people isn’t an academic exercise for me.


Before we end this interview, can you talk about Trouble the Water in relationship to the South?

 Such a small question. No big deal. So I moved to the Florida at 11 and left the state shortly after I turned 22. I’m from the panhandle (Eglin AFB, then Niceville) and went to college in Tampa, so I spent most of my time on the Gulf Coast. I wouldn’t call myself southern, but the landscape left its mark on me. The endless heat and humidity. How animals, plants, and the water don’t care about where you live, they’ll march on in. Florida is aggressively lush. Then, of course, I’m black in the south. Trayvon Martin was killed the year after I left. How can I not reckon with that in my poems? At far as my book, I wrote a lot about ecological loss and harm, natural in the case of hurricanes and manmade in the case of the BP Oil spill. It’s especially poignant that I’m talking about this while folks in Flint, MI are fighting for access to clean water and healthcare after being poisoned by toxic water. Who does ecological mismanagement and degradation impact the most? The poor and black and brown people. The time I lived on the Gulf coincided with that series of vicious hurricane seasons that culminated in Hurricane Katrina, then the spill. I think what may be at the heart of a lot of these eco-poems are thoughts about home and belonging and what binds us—the water and what happens to it, in it.


Anything to close the interview with?

I can’t wait for Rupaul’s Drag Race. I’m Team Bob the Drag Queen, Kim Chi, and Dax ExclamationPoint.

Florida is my adopted home and as far as I’m concerned Zora Neale Hurston is its patron saint. I’m just trying to do right by Zora.


Trouble the Water

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DERRICK AUSTIN is the author of Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, Spring 2016), selected by Mary Szybist for the 2015 A Poulin Jr Prize. A Cave Canem fellow, he earned his MFA from the University of Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2015, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, New England Review, Callaloo, Nimrod, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. He is the Social Media Coordinator for The Offing.

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