In your most recent collection, The New Testament, you wrote in one of your poems, “Hustle”: “I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” Overall, your work seems to revolve around issues of sexuality, love, violence, masculinity, family, spirituality, mortality, and race (among other things, of course). When someone attempts to categorize you exclusively as a “homosexual” or a “gym rat” or a “Southern black man” or a “’religious’ poet,” etc (while misrepresenting or failing to acknowledge the other parts of your identity), how do you resist such curtailment or oversimplification of your identity?
Well, I don’t exactly “resist” any identifiers because I don’t automatically think of it as “curtailment” or “oversimplification.” So yes, the parenthetical phase in your question is of utmost importance.
I know others think that Southern is only Southern and that black is only black and that gay is only gay, but I know those terms to be expansive and expanding.
Yes, I’m bothered when people use those terms to limit and when people see them as limiting. All that is to say that it’s a matter of knowing who is making use of the term and to what end they are using it. (I actually wish I were a “gym rat,” because I imagine that if I were I’d be a lot finer and a lot less self-conscious about how I look physically. Still, I don’t assume that the gym rats I meet aren’t poets because I know poets who love to workout like Kyle Dargan and John Murrillo.) I don’t see anything wrong with people calling me black so long as I know they do that with the knowledge of there existing in this world George Washington Carver and Dominique Dawes and the poet and birdwatcher Sean Hill. And any attention to the history of art would show that being called gay might very well be the best compliment of all time.
Also…: I knew Jorie Graham and Mark Strand were white the first time I read books by them. I knew Strand was (supposed to be whatever we call) straight. I knew Graham was born in New York and raised in Italy. I don’t know these poets’ relationship to exercise. And as far as I can tell, I never held any of this against any of them. People are under this weird impression that when we read poets I love like Plath and Lowell and Ashbery that we don’t know we’re reading white people. Well, I’m not under that impression. They are white. And as far as I can tell, they don’t want to be anything other than white and have no reason to be offended by the fact that I know they are white. I want that same thing for black gay Southern gym rat poets. Know it and love me! Not “know it and love me anyway.” Not “know it and love me in spite of.” Not “know it and think it’s a shame when he makes use of it in his poems.” I want people to pick up my books and read and say, “Damn, he did a great thing here!” And I want them to accept the fact that me doing that great thing is informed by a tradition that is not only straight, white, fat, and New Englander.
Like every other poet on the planet, I pull from the elements of my life in order to make my poems. My black life matters.
But your question, though, was how do I resist the relentless pigeonholing that goes on. My answer is that I try to answer questions like this one as honestly as I know how with the hope that people see the answer and at least begin to think about the compulsory hetero-normative whiteness that reigns over so much of our lives. Other than that, I just try to write my ass off and let a bunch of jealous bitches suffer. I’m not foolish enough to think I’m everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a damn shame if I’m offering the flavor you need and you’re looking for socially constructed excuses not to quench your own thirst all because of my author photo.
You possess a strong connection to music, as evidenced in your first collection, Please, which features tributes to late 60s and 70s soul icons such as Diana Ross, Minnie Riperton, and Janis Joplin. Can you tell us a bit about the emotional connection you feel with when listening to these particular artists and how they inspire your poems? Are there artists in later decades—perhaps even in the 2000s and onwards—that inspire you in any similar ways?
Hmm…I think it’s a good idea to enjoy as much as you can of whatever it is you enjoy. I like to hear people sing. I’m particularly attracted to singers who at first seem to have limited talent but figure ways through their performances to make that talent go a long way toward emotional impact. So I like Mary J. Blige’s TheBreakthrough—which is as about as recent as I go lately–because it seems to me an album about a voice in recovery. And I like Gladys Knight because she’s simply never thought of lack of range as a limitation in spite of having people like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle as her contemporaries.
You once wrote that you “strive to be clear—not obvious.” What advice would you give to students of poetry (or writing in general) to help them improve the clarity of their work?
Being circuitous doesn’t equal sounding wise. What you know sounds like knowledge, so be as exact about it as possible in as many ways as you can.
If you had to convince a young (I say young because, although I could be wrong, I’ve noticed that this sentiment occurs more frequently among younger generations) reader who claims that she or he doesn’t appreciate poetry as a literary form, how would you go about cultivating a new perspective in her/his mind?
I think that’s as simple as reminding people that poetry is art. When we drive with the car radio playing, hear song after song without paying any particular attention. After a few songs play, a song we love comes on, and we turn up the volume and turn our car seats into miniature dancefloors. Nothing about this experience leads us to believe that we don’t like music. We pass by visual art—sculptures, paintings—all day without noticing. Every once in a while, though, we come upon a piece of art that, for whatever reason, makes us stare in wonder. That experience doesn’t leave us thinking that we want the walls of our homes to remain as bare as they are the day we move in. I think we’d understand and come to love more poetry the more we put ourselves in a position that poetry can do its work on us. We make ourselves available to music and visual art. We can make ourselves available to poetry and cast aside what of it doesn’t feed us while expecting to encounter what does.
Go to readings. Or just watch them on YouTube for heaven’s sake. Go to bookstores. Pick up books, and put them down if you don’t like them. I believe that what we think we love today might lead us back to some of those books we put down so quickly yesterday. But we have to be where the poetry is. If any one art enhances your life, then making yourself available to any other art is worth it.
How do you teach, train, and/or force your ego to stay away from your serving the poem?
All of this is a matter of training oneself to become more and more vulnerable to his or her work. My trouble in life has been that I’m not willing to become vulnerable to other people, so maybe that makes it easier for me to be vulnerable to my poems. I don’t know. I do know that real writing takes real risk—the willingness to lose time and reputation. Once your body has been compromised or once you lose your parents or once you understand that, yes, you are going to die, maybe then it’s easier to see time and reputation through a lens more conducive to that of a writer. As it is, we’re all trained to see the world through the lens of gain after gain without any acceptance for the fact that, in reality, no gain is made without some series of losses.