by Lauren K. Alleyne


Without question, Yusef Komunyakaa is one of the luminaries of contemporary American poetry. His impressive career spans well over 40 years, during which he has deeply affected the literary landscape. Komunyakaa’s work is musical, muscular, and finely crafted. His is a poetics of witness — of clear-sighted, unflinching seeing — that compels readers to locate themselves solidly in the moment of the poem, whether it is detailing the ordinary movements of daily life, reentering the otherworld of mythology, or recounting the harrowing details of life in combat. In “Seeing and Re-seeing,” published in the 2005 special issue of Callaloo, poet Toi Derricotte writes of Komunyakaa’s work, “The most permanent thing about the voice is the language it leaves behind—images so real they are like ripe fruit in the mouth” (513).

The confluence of rhythm, form, and sensory detail in Komunyakaa’s poems works to pull the reader along a journey from which she returns transformed. Consider Komunyakaa’s most famous poem, “Facing It,” which opens thus:

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.

The consonance, assonance, and alliteration of the poem’s first line begin its music — the reader fading into the sonic allure of the poem, as squarely inside it as the speaker is inside the monument. The poem’s sounds pull us even deeper in, even as it expresses resistance; the subtle rhymes of “granite,” “wouldn’t,” and “dammit,” and the domino of “t” sounds end abruptly in the word “stone,” at which point the poem surrenders — “I’m flesh.” The poem’s formal and sonic maneuvers work to completely immerse the reader into its world of doubling: we, too, are both “stone” and “flesh”; we are both the “I” and ourselves.

Komunyakaa’s “Heavy Metal Soliloquy” begins with a rapid sequence of images, the poem quickly overwhelming the reader with visual, tactile, and sonic sensations, which work in a similar fashion:

After a nightlong white-hot hellfire
Of blue steel, we rolled into Baghdad,
Plugged into government-issued earphones
Hearing hard rock. The drum machines
& revved-up guitars roared in our heads.
All their gods were crawling on all fours.

Here, we see another key characteristic of Komunyakaa’s — the poem’s turn from one reality and way of seeing to another. The first five lines of this excerpt work within the register of the literal, even in their more poetic moments (e.g., “white-hot hellfire”) but the use of the word “gods” in the sixth line changes the scope and reach of those previous lines, hinging the immediate to the eternal, the mortal to the divine. It is in moments like these that Komunyakaa’s writing brings to light myriad possibilities, offering us new ways of seeing and being ourselves in the order of things.

Yusef Komunyakaa was the subject of Furious Flower’s 2017 Summer Legacy Seminar. He spent a week among the participants — scholars, poets, educators — as they engaged with his work in a variety of ways. What follows is a transcript of the public conversation we had at that event, which has been organized and edited for clarity.

I’m very excited to be having this conversation with you, Yusef. I wanted to do it publicly because we all are scholars, we’re fans, we’re all very excited to be here [at Furious Flower’s 2017 Summer Legacy Seminar], but tell me about your experience here this week: What’s it been like to be the subject instead of the writer?

Especially the shy poet! (Laughs.) It has been really informative because one sits in a place doing what one has to do, but at the same time it’s interesting to see all these in- depth analyses, hear these in-depth analyses and realize what one does is also public. So it’s been great.

We’ve been talking a lot about your form and taking apart really meticulously form in books like Taboo and Talking Dirty to the Gods. But I’ve also read places where you say you write on fragments of envelopes and snatches of things — small spaces. Walk us through that making that you do, which comes from these snatches to the worlds within those poems. What’s that movement like from the fragment to the completed, formal, structured whole?

Well, usually the fragment is really a distilled moment, and it has to do with the music in the phrase or an image — usually image, because I think I probably wanted to be a painter earlier on. The image works for me in a unique way because the mind functions almost as if a hidden camera is in the psyche. What I mean by that is that I want to be able to almost dance to the images I create, because languages are the first music, and the body is a great amplifier: I feel the poem. And these moments, these fragments, when I actually sit down, those pieces converge and flow together to make or create a more complete, whole reality. So it’s not like painting with numbers or anything like that, you know. (Laughs.) But the poem is a symbol; it’s “a made thing,” to go back to Williams. But also going back even farther in my own time or reality, because my father was a carpenter — a finishing carpenter — and I’d be really excited early on when he would cut a board and it would just slide into place. It was perfect symmetry: it made perfect sense even though he had to measure it a number of times. So that’s been my process.

There are other poems, though, that are complete when I start writing them, especially in Talking Dirty to the Gods. I think it had a lot to do with the form, the illusion of symmetry, the four quatrains. Sometimes I would walk to work and assemble the poem in my head — with the line breaks and all of that — and when I got to the office I just wrote it down. But I think it had something to do with the form. Other poems that that are longer, more … not fragmented, but … Hmm, let’s say this: it’s almost like the musician assembling a song. I would like to think of it that way; perhaps it’s an illusion on my part (laughs), but I would like to think of it that way.

What I mean by that is that I want to be able to almost dance to the images I create, because languages are the first music, and the body is a great amplifier: I feel the poem.

You’ve talked a lot about the image, and you’ve written a lot about the image: it’s really essential and it’s central. You’ve also given us, over the years, amazing images of war and some really difficult and violent moments. I’m curious: Can the image do violence? Is there a line or a negotiation you have to wrestle with as a writer who’s creating a precise image of violence? Is there a risk of also enacting that violence or is that the goal? Is there a struggle of the ethics and the aesthetics of that?

The poet is not a journalist, a reporter. What has penetrated one’s psyche one delivers to the page. It’s a process, a negotiation, and if it’s a violent image, it’s a violent image. What’s interesting as I go through the poems and look at the poems is this: since I’ve internalized elements of violence (let’s face it we all do), there’s also the other side of that. There’s the opposite of that [violence] and those things can live side by side. I think that’s what’s happening. If I look at the poems, there are images of nature, there are images that come out of the composite of what one has taken in, and some of those things are beautiful and some of those things are outrageously violent. But I think it has a lot to do with where I grew up and how I grew up. I was very close to nature from the onset. It’s interesting to look at, say for instance, a jewel wasp. Just the idea of the jewel wasp: how it can sting a cockroach and plant an egg, and the roach is eaten from inside? There’s something very violent about that. Nature is that way, isn’t it? It’s not just the human. Nature itself is violent, so it’s not that we celebrate that, but that we respect it.

You wrote, too, that the making of art changes the creator, and I love that. How has writing and art-making changed you? What have you seen in yourself differently?

I suppose growing up in Louisiana, going out into the environment when I [was] six, you know, discovering things I didn’t know, that in a way was a rehearsal for becoming a poet. I think that’s what’s happening. I didn’t know it at the time, you know, looking at things, discovering things, what have you. I realize that in doing that — this is much later — in retrospect, I realized that in taking this venture out into nature, trying to understand things, not purposely but just accidentally, perhaps I was being changed. And much later writing on the page — I write everything in long hand — just the motion of the pen across the paper, that is an action, and it has everything to do with the whole evolution of the human brain, and the dexterity of the hand and what have you. So in doing that I realize that, yes, I’m being changed by the motion of the instrument. We are very complex organisms and we are changed by stimuli: what we come in contact with, what we do, how we see, the spirit of the moment, but also something deeper than that — the complexity of being human.

And that comes a little bit more alive in the act of writing.


I’m curious now about the poem as a finished thing. You’ve talked about the making, the inspiration, the changing. But as one changes and goes back to the poem, it’s a different interaction: how do you know when a poem is done?

It’s a rather intense negotiation. One reason I say this is I haven’t always been totally aware of this. (Laughs.) But, when I was in graduate school I took a class with Howard Moss, who was editor of The New Yorker at the time. And I said, “How many poems do you receive?” He said, “Oh, maybe, oh, 2,000 a week.” And I said, “How do you get through all of those?” and he said, “Oh, well, we don’t.” So I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, sometimes it’s just reading the first few lines.” So the entry of the poem is important. But I took one step farther; I said, how does a poem end? And that is also a process of negotiation. Initially, I write everything down. In revising, I never add, okay? Sometimes, I edit from the bottom of the poem. And the reason for that is that often we have just who we are; we want to make sure the reader receives everything, gets the poem, when in fact the most provocative, truest essence of the poem, we have written past. So that’s what happening — it’s that process of negotiation. But even I’ve written poems that have been published, and I’ve gone back and circled phrases, words, you know? It’s an ongoing process.

We are very complex organisms, and we are changed by stimuli: what we come in contact with, what we do, how we see, the spirit of the moment, but also something deeper than that — the complexity of being human.

You mentioned your teacher, and you’ve written and talked about [Robert] Hayden, [James] Baldwin, [Gwendolyn] Brooks — lots of masters who have really influenced you. Are younger and contemporary writers influencing your work? Are they changing or influencing how you see poetry or write poetry? Who’s exciting you?

Well, I think that’s always present, being in the world. Just being in the world — who we are — we’re taking everything in. And yes, there are voices out there: some of my students, you know, some of their images, they’re rather instructive. The musicality of certain poets doing something different than I’m doing: that is instructive as well. It’s how we live in the world. The spirit of living is important. I’ve been teaching for a very long time now, and there are people doing all kinds of things out there; there are some examples right here, right? Right, Ed? (Laughs, gesturing to poet and former student Ed Pavlic.)

What’s your favorite way or what’s a favorite entry for teaching poetry, and who are some poets you find yourself teaching often?

I try to go across the map. Okay, there are certain writers who seem to always be there. I’m just listing off a couple of those: Robert Hayden is usually there. A poet such as Elizabeth Bishop, she’s usually there. Muriel Rukeyser — and that’s a voice lots of us may not even be aware of, but she is always there, I think. We can go on and on talking about her, really, because I think she’s such an instrumental voice for American poetry. Gwendolyn Brooks is there, especially the first poems. [Amiri] Baraka, especially the first poems. And we can go across the map: translations. [Czeslaw] Milosz is so important. [George] Herbert is so important to me.

I teach a craft course, and it’s really a literature course, and throughout the semester we cover between 12 and 15 substantial books. I’m talking about books, like (gestures to imply thickness), okay? A good example is the last craft course I taught — spring — where the sacred and the profane converge, that was the idea of the course. Starting off with [Gaston] Bachelard’s Poetics of Space and The Psychoanalysis of Fire, coming up to contemporary voices. (I like to surprise myself. I don’t like teaching over and over again the same books, okay? That’s one thing. I don’t like teaching from yellow notepads, you know?) I used to teach the history of African American poetry; we start in 1746 — “Bars Fight” up to contemporary; usually in two semesters from 1746 up to the Harlem Renaissance, then the Harlem Renaissance up to contemporary, so two segments.

Speaking of the sacred and the profane, I know you were raised in a Christian household and have said the music of the South, the rhythms of that upbringing, affected you. God, or at least the idea of God, appears often in your work — overtly, elusively, indirectly, and so I’m really interested in what role the sacred/the divine/the holy — i.e., the idea of God — plays in your writing. How does God feature in your poetics?

God? Okay, okay, I suppose God does appear … (Laughs.) Well there’s a moment when I read as a teenager … I read the Bible through, came back to it again and read it through

Hold on. What version?

King James.

Phew! Okay!

Yes, King James! So I came back to it and since then I’ve read various translations. One of my close friends, Willis Barnstone, has translated the Bible a number of ways, even located the poetry within the context of the Bible. After reading the Bible the second time, I realized I had great questions. I had great questions, okay? (Laughs.) And those questions are still alive in my psyche. Because what was happening around me in the segregated South: it wasn’t lining up, you know? It didn’t make any sense, because I felt like, okay, if one risked walking into a certain kind of church on Sunday morning, there would have been great violence delivered. Okay? That did not work in my psyche. And the other thing I began to look at: wherever Christ appeared in the context of the Bible became an emotional and psychological equation for the socialism. So I saw Christ as a socialist. And that is something I held onto.

I want you to talk a little bit about your relationship to translations: You’ve been translated. Do you translate, and what value do you find in that process? Who are your favorite poets in translation?

One of the favorite poets for me of course is [Pablo] Neruda. Neruda is so important as a world poet. [Federico] Lorca is important. A poet such as Milosz is important. And it’s interesting with Milosz, because I’d come across an image — I think it’s “A Poor Christian [Looks at] the Ghetto,” that particular poem — and there’s an image of a mole with a lantern underground. I had never come across an image quite like that, so that was a very informative image for me. I think it colored a lot of … not necessarily images in my work, but permission — permission to let the brain do what it does best, and that is imagination, going back to Phillis Wheatley’s idea of — her poem “On Imagination” — mental optics. So a poet such as Herbert is so important because of his facility with philosophy. And there are other voices out there, of course, [François] Villon. In Galway Kinnell’s translation of Villon, there’s a line: “I will my bones to the dice-maker.” I said, “Where did that come from?” (Laughs.) So all these things become a composite within one’s psyche, and it is something to not work against but to beckon to. And it gave me permission not to over question the images that came out of my psyche, to embrace them.

It also makes me think of that phrase you say, “Language is first music,” because the music that will arise in another language is different than our music, but then it can influence our music and our images, as you say. Absolutely.

Yes. I was working with a young Vietnamese poet, and he’s a very interesting poet for a simple reason. This was in 1990, that I came in direct contact with him, in Hanoi. He had gone to school in Cuba, and my question to him was Who are the poets there who informed your work? And of course, you know, the first person he said actually wasn’t a Cuban poet: Neruda! And looking at his work — I began to work with him to translate passages of his work — he’s different from any of the other Vietnamese poets and I think it had to do with him spending time in Cuba. Vietnamese have rather interesting relationship to poetry and translation when I think about it because early on there were poetry battles between Chinese and Vietnamese poets! Duels going on with verse, which is a very informed way of dealing with chaos.

We’re informed by what we take in, and we’re also informed by what we push against. And I’m not about going out and using one’s body as a weapon; I’m talking about pushing against that which I think humans have always possessed, that question about mystery.

Speaking of chaos, we are in very chaotic times — nationally and globally, certainly — and we’re wrestling with the complexity of language in a time of language reduction. How can language function? What’s its role? And what’s a poet’s role in times such as these?

It’s interesting because I don’t think of the poem as an emotional ad. What I mean by that is I don’t think the poet can fear the complexity of the language — that’s what he or she is working with. So the poem is not an emotional ad for a moment: going back to something that Gwendolyn Brooks had said, “Art is that which endures.” The poet who’s writing the poem has to be surprised, and that individual is surprised through language, and sometimes it’s the density of the language; it becomes an experience. I don’t think the poet should write down to the reader. There’s a place where they meet. I know for myself, reading poetry, there weren’t really the simple poems, because I like going back to a poem again and again. And sometimes even in writing a poem, I like to be able to say, “Damn, where’d that come from?” I already know; that’s a problem.

So is there a tension between art being the thing that “endures” and art being able to speak to present moment?

The poet isn’t a journalist. In speaking to the present moment, sometimes we speak to the present but we also speak to history and the future. I would like to think of it that way, where it’s not just written in a single moment, dealing with that moment as if I’m a journalist.

I saw a video clip of you saying racism is a land of mental illness. Can you talk a little bit more about that? And do you think there’s a treatment or cure?

Okay, I know the clip you’re talking about. Have I revised that? No. I still believe, yes, it’s a mental illness. And the reason is that you need one factor that can change the personality — I’m talking about on, not just an emotional level, but on a biological level of an individual. That is a mental, I don’t want to say illness; I want to say mental deficiency. That’s what I believe.

Bowen talks about fear, says it’s fear that drives the lynch mob out into the streets. We may be talking about the same thing in different degrees. I think it’s a dialogue — well it’s more than just a dialogue, but — we need to face up to what this is about. And we have to move through something in order to come to the other side of it. This is what I believe. You can’t go around it; you move through it to the other side of it, and perhaps you’ll change. Move through it, and you’re changed. I think it’s also taught: racism is taught. I’m not talking about the fact that one is singled out and tutored, but body language is the first thing. That’s how small children are often taught elements of racism. Children are great readers — they are amazing. And they’re being taught when they’re not aware and even the parents or the adults around them are not aware, by body language.

Going back to the war for a minute. How did that experience inform your use of language, and what did it tell you about social identity?

Going to Vietnam was very instructive, but I suppose I came to war very early. I write about this: there’s a preface to an anthology entitled Inheriting the War where I write about the fact that I’m 6 or 7 and my great uncle, who had been to World War I. He defined it as “on a barrel detail,” which was a strange way of defining World War I and his experience. But then he told me in a graphic way what that meant. There is so much trench warfare, you know, in World War I, there were so many soldiers getting killed that the only thing they could do was bury them there, and then come back and exhume the bodies. And that’s what he was doing. It was a horrific description of war. You have two dog tags, right? Put one in the mouth of the corpse and one in a bag. That was very … well, to carry around that image, I think, was an anti-war statement. The other thing he said was that the only thing he had been taught was to kill, to drink, and gamble.

So bring that back to identity and to language.

Well, I know the history of Blacks fighting in wars. My uncle, I think, fought under the French flag. When I got to Vietnam, I had all this in my head, you know? I wasn’t afraid of the landscape, and consequently when I saw the people often working in the rice paddies and what have you, I said, “Oh, these are peasants.” This same people I’d come from in so many ways in rural Louisiana. And yet I knew — I wasn’t insane — I knew that they could kill you, you know? There was a lot of tension there. Okay, for example, I refused to use those derogatory terms for the Vietnamese. And I would question people about them because I thought it paralleled other similar terms for African Americans — that kind of … you know, degradation. You have to degrade before you can kill. So in a certain sense, I identified with the Vietnamese, and yet I knew that I could get killed by those same individuals. And that’s a real trick inside the head to think about it in that way.

I don’t think the poet should write down to the reader. There’s a place where they meet.

In the rear, that’s where the problems exist between American soldiers. Not in the field, not on the LZs and what have you — you know, when they’re dependent on each other to fend off the enemy — but it was in the rear when they were drinking and trying to forget the war and elements of the war. But mainly when they’re drinking. Then the real American shows up again. That was real problematic. The Vietnamese knew that demarcation, they knew what was happening in the American psyche when it came to race, and sometimes they expertly played up on it. The idea of Hanoi Hannah is a good example of that, right? Her voice penetrated. You know, “Hello GIs. Guess what’s happening back home?” You know, that gets your attention when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. I suppose she saw the parallels. Ho Chi Minh was very interesting because he knew the American constitution, but he also knew all the problems with America, so the Vietnamese were very informed when it came to race. 

What do you read besides poetry? And what other areas of interest do you have? What other disciplines are you interested in?

I suppose since high school I’ve been intensely involved with history. One reason is because I had a superb history teacher, Mrs. Green. And so that’s been going on for a very long time. Philosophy is important to me; when we think of philosophy we think of abstract thinking, but when it converges with nature it becomes doubly interesting for me. Well, I used to assign for students Scientific American, and the reason for that is, well, I didn’t initially know but finally I came up with this: it is where terror and beauty converge, align, and that makes sense to me. But also I think it has something to do with the images; there are some surprising images in science and also [surprising] realities, I think. And questions; questions are so important. I read a little bit of everything, really.

What are some daily practices around your writing process?

It’s a daily practice. Okay, let’s start this way. Okay. I used to think I could remember everything. I had that foolish belief I could remember everything, but no that’s not the case, especially recently. So I keep a pad of paper beside the bed and often I write at least a few lines before my feet touch the floor. I’m not one for remembering every dream, and yet I know that I’m dreaming because we’re all dreaming in some way. So sometimes that first image that I write down seems almost as if it came out of a dream. And yet it is instructive. I’m not talking about where I’m writing for hours at a time; if I’m writing for 30 minutes that’s fine, not sitting there where you’re writing for hours at a time. You don’t have to. I think this is probably true for everyone out here: writing is taking place even when we’re not writing. But we don’t have to be overly conscious of that. You know?

That’s a good segue into advice for emerging writers. What do you tell young writers they need to do or think about? What advice do you have for them?

Okay, my advice is to write every day and to read everything. And don’t worry about getting published. That’s the other thing: don’t worry about getting published. My first collections were small books. A good example of that is that Lost in the Bonewheel Factory. I was reading from that and a publisher, Chris Howell of Lynx House, said, have you sent that out anywhere? And I said, no I haven’t. So I worked on it a couple more months and then I sent it to him, but the main thing is I was interested in hearing the poems come alive. I used to have this straight man that I used to work with (laughs), a poet by the name of Adam Hammer, we were in graduate school together at Colorado State. Adam was so unusual for a simple reason; because when his father had worked on the Oakridge project, the atom bomb, Adam as a teenager had translated Rimbaud. He had gone to University of Massachusetts without a college degree for the graduate program. So he was very unusual, and we used to do these poetry readings together. He was really the quintessential surrealist, an American surrealist; that’s how his mind worked. And we used to play off of each other, which was an interesting experience because I was writing poetry entirely different than his, and so within our poetry reading you would see huge ranges taking place, you know? That was instructive, where the mind could travel.

So you’d advise young poets to expand the range of what they’re exposed to?

Right, right. You don’t want to have 20 poets reading the same poem.

Looking back at this long illustrious career, what are you most proud of? What do you wish you’d known earlier? What do you know for sure? What are you still learning?

That’s a huge question! I suppose what I’m most proud of is that I realize that I have been informed by the place I grew up and it has given me a certain kind of tenacity. That’s what I’m most proud of.

For me, the poem — the new poem, the poem I’m working on — is the poem that I care the most about. Not that I work past poems or anything like that, because I’m constantly returning to poems, but I’ve been informed by the present. The way that I work is that I’m working on more than one collection of poems, side by side, and I move from those places and hopefully being surprised and sometimes fumbling on to something that I never thought I would write about. That’s very important to me — when I thought I would never write about something. When I didn’t even know I would write about it, you know? So one laughs and says, “What in the world? Where did that come from?” And sometimes when I’m working on a poem, I find myself working on another poem within the context of that poem, you know, so that’s important — to realize that sometimes we’re working on multiple things within the context of a given poem.

We’re informed by what we take in, and we’re also informed by what we push against. And I’m not about going out and using one’s body as a weapon; I’m talking about pushing against that which I think humans have always possessed, that question about mystery. That’s what makes us human I think, that we think of the world as mysterious, and consequently because we’re thinking about the world as mysterious it’s always beckoning to us.

That was, to use your favorite word, instructive! Thank you.

Thank you!

Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt

downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish, which won the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press and is forthcoming in April 2019.

by Lauren K. Alleyne

&Patricia Smith is a presence. Whether on the stage or on the page, her voice is powerful, sure, and unmistakable: it compels and captivates; it is insistent and it is urgent. Across the span of her long career as a wordsmith, Smith has deployed her voice as a vessel for empathy, pulling readers and listeners under its spell outside of themselves and into, for a moment, the internal landscape of others. From a skinhead to a Greek god, from hurricane Katrina to Lucky (the dog whose world Katrina destroys), from the mothers of murdered Black boys to the gun that brings their end, Smith “goes there,” delving with both compassion and insightfulness into the worlds of others and bringing their stories into the light. The first section of “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” for example, runs through a litany in the voices of “the mothers of the lost” to whom the poem is dedicated:

that’s my son collapsed there, my son
crumpled there my son lying there
my son positioned there my daughter
repositioned there my daughter as
exhibit A there my daughter dumped
over there my son hidden away there
my son blue there my son dangling
there my son caged there my daughter
on the gurney there on the slab there
in the drawer there my daughter splayed
There my son locked down there my
son hanging there my son bleeding …

The poem dives into the soulscape of these stricken women with a starkness that is both bracing and heartbreaking.

Smith brings to bear all the tools of music in the crafting of her poetic voice, the auditory elements of her work implemented with an enviable deftness. This precision and sonic seamlessness both open the door to the difficult subjects that Smith embraces and also holds the reader within them. The poem transfixes. Then transforms.

The engine of Smith’s work, though, is its scope: her determination to tell the whole story means moments are connected to other moments, which are connected to other stories, which are linked to a history that otherwise might seem too distant to matter. The aforementioned section of “Sagas of the Accidental Saint,” concludes thus:

                        shot as prey shot as conquest shot as
                        solution shot as lesson shot as warning
                        shot as comeback shot as payback shot
                        for sport shot for history that’s my son
                        not being alive anymore there that’s my
                        child coming to rest one layer below
                        the surface of the
                        of my life


In these closing lines, the mothers’ exquisitely rendered grief becomes both microscope and telescope, making visible the way the past holds space in the present and the future, linking the interior and exterior worlds, and unveiling the tangled and multitudinous strands of this story. Smith’s is a formidable and essential voice, and one to which we should continue to pay close attention.

Patricia Smith is the author of ten books. She served as judge for the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize sponsored by the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and she spent an hour in the studio with me talking about her own story. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Tell me about the process of writing Incendiary Art. Where did this book begin?

It didn’t begin the way it ended up. I found a couple of news items about men who had drowned their young daughters, and I knew I was going to write about them. I wrote a poem, and then I started thinking about all the other ways that men can drown their daughters—emotional, psychological, things like that—and that goes back to when I was growing up: I remember the fathers who weren’t in the home but they were in the neighborhood. It was almost accepted that the father would be in the home for a while but then split, and I had so many friends who would point to their fathers on the street and say, “That’s my daddy over there!” I wondered what leads to this dysfunction where a man considers his blood kin so disposable. In both [news stories], the men had gotten angry at the mother and said, “Well, I know how to fix her, I’ll just kill …” and I’m like, “What?!” So initially it was going to be (and get this title, because this is the only time you’re going to hear it) “When Black Men Drown Their Daughters.” And then I thought “Yeah … I’m going to be Alice Walkered or something,” you know? And so I was writing a lot of poems, poems about, for example, that thing in the heartland where some fathers are “marrying” their young daughters and having them vow to be celibate—it’s terrible—and so then I thought maybe I should make it [the collection] all [about] fathers. And so for a long time I had that idea set. But then I felt myself straining—you sort of write it through, you write it out, and you go, “Oh, this is not enough for a book,” you know, and so I put that aside for a while.

I wondered what leads to this dysfunction where a man considers his blood kin so disposable.

Meanwhile, there was this drumbeat, this continuous drumbeat of these lives being lost, usually at the hands of the police. I always tell my students to look for the voice that they’re not hearing, so I said, “Wow, all those people have mothers.” And you see the mother twice: you see the mother at the beginning, in all the chaos where someone comes to her and says, you know, “your son is dead” or “your daughter is dead,” and then you see the mother again at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter is deemed not responsible, and more chaos, and then she’s gone. Okay, so you don’t know what the process is—how do you fill that hollow of having a child and then not having one? And then losing your child so publicly in some instances, too, and then having the child be railroaded and stereotyped in all kinds of ways. So I started with that. That was a little bit easier, because there were so many cases to work with, so I have the mother look at these different cases and say this is her child, this is her child, this is her child, and then I had to write the poems from her point of view. That kind of took over the book …

Now you might be wondering how I got to the title! That’s another thing. There are three movements to this book: there’s the drowned daughters, there’s the saga of the accidental saints (that’s the mothers), and then there’s incendiary art, which started after a Donald Trump rally while he was still running for president, and there’d been attacks on minorities who were coming in to the rallies. They interviewed this one man who had attacked one of the Black people at the rally, and he said, “You know, I sure would like to burn a Black man.” I was like, “What?!” And so it got me thinking about the role of fire in our lives. I thought about when I was growing up, the riots after the MLK assassination, how my whole neighborhood was just burnt to its bones, and it took years and years for it to come back. That, and then Tulsa, which a lot of people don’t know about, and the MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, and the Rodney King riots. I just decided that I wanted to go through—because I did hear someone else say, “Well, they [Black people] go burning their own neighborhoods down”—those two things, and I thought, “I need to stand in the center of the fire for a while and see …”.

I had a moment before I put the book together when I thought I should just take one of these things, and I felt kind of strange for having these three directions—and there aren’t many poems in the book that aren’t connected to one or more of those segments, so I had to kind of think back to what kind of books am I seeing, what do I want, and it kind of backfired in a way. I love the book, but it’s a very, very hard book for me to do a reading from simply because when you’re doing a reading, you’re measuring—you’re doing long poems, short poems, funny poems, form poems, free verse poems—and there’s no relief. There’s no pull up out of this book. And maybe if I’d thought about that a little bit more, I would have changed direction, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.

It’s a phenomenal book. You say there are three movements, but that doesn’t address the elegy, that final movement at the end of the book that pulls the arc out of that public space into a more personal space. How did that come to be?

Well, so there’s one poem that I don’t like, that I don’t think did what I wanted it to do. I added it at the last minute, and you know how it is, you look back at your book and think, “Why didn’t I revise?” It’s called “Sometimes,” and it’s basically about when Black folks kill their own. I was trying to have that kind of be a segue into the idea that “not-every-life-is-lost-at-the-hands-of-the-police/not-every-hand-is-lost-to-race.” I don’t think it’s effective, but that was meant to be the segue into the next section. I thought about that for a while, and even my editors were saying I had to make sure that that elegy, which is really long, contributed to the book. In a way, it probably should have been in my previous book, but my book before, which sparked the elegy, was out and about before I even thought about the poem. So … I’m not sure … I like it in the book. I’m just not sure its place in the book is cemented in the way that I would like it to be.

It’s interesting, though, because when I read it, what I read was this conflation of both the daughter and the father—the opposite of the drowning in one sense that happens earlier in the book; on the other hand, it’s also another drowning—in the grief. But then there’s also a collapsing of the mother and the daughter: you write, “the daughter dons the widow garb” and so, ultimately, there’s an intense connection between the father and daughter. So to me, that poem pulls all of the things together.

Well, it was kind of losing both my parents in a way. My mother is not an emotionally giving person. She’s a functional parent. She’s a comb your hair, take you to church, check your grades, whoop your butt, you know—she’s that parent. And so my father was the person I told everything to and poured everything out to and the one who, if I say something like, “I wanna be a writer,” he doesn’t say, “Only white people do that,” which is what my mother said, in a way trying to protect me, but my father saw that my future was not in being protected; it was in taking chances. So [when he died], everything just stopped. Everything just stopped. And still, to this day, my mother and I look at each other sometimes and think, “And you would be who?” She doesn’t really know me. She’s not the kind of person who would say, “Tell me about yourself,” or “Tell me about your passions,” so what I’m most passionate about in life, my mother doesn’t recognize. This means nothing to her. So it was like losing both my parents. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over, but it’s also something that infuses the writing. My father was a born storyteller, so I hear his voice all the time. That elegy, I guess, is a move toward writing the poem, the my-father-is-gone poem. I’m not even sure that’s it yet. I’m not even sure that’s it. It doesn’t in any way encompass how important he was in my life. I’d do a whole book about him …

My best friend, the novelist Catherine Chung, has a theory that the book isn’t done until you write something that breaks you. Was there a poem in particular that just took it out of you to write?

It’s funny, because it’s not a very specific poem, it’s at the very end of the book, so I think it’s maybe an entry to another project or book or something, but it was one of the “Incendiary Art” poems—“Incendiary Art: The Body.” I think because it brings all that heat and motion and chaos and question back to the one person standing there, threatened and encouraged or broken or something, you know, and I didn’t realize when I wrote it that it was going to be that poem, but when I go back to the book it’s really difficult for me to read. I pulled it out a couple times, because when I do readings I will do an excerpt from “Accidental Saints” or maybe I’ll do the Emmett Till sonnets, but it’s hard to pull out two or three things, and say, “Oh I’m going to do a 30-minute reading,” and so in the quest for those single poems, I pulled that out and read it a couple times, and the second or third time, I went, “I can’t do that.” It opened up everything that had gone into the book. The same way that you end a poem thinking about what you want the reader to walk away with, I think, “I want the reader to be restless and troubled,” and I didn’t want to tie it up in a knot, and I don’t think that does that. There is some image from a movie, and it has something to do with the cosmos, where everything comes in to this tiny dot of light, and that’s the dot of light. That’s the poem that would probably push me into whatever my next project is.

You have ten books, and earlier, you talked about the connection between Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah and Incendiary Art, so do you revise into a new book from the previous book? Can you talk about the evolution from book to book, and what propels you from one project to another?

There are other things that tie into that. For starters, the fact that I got introduced to writing poetry by getting up on stage and doing it, so a lot of the revision or going back in to work is because I might pull something from my third book and do it in a reading and go, “Oh, I can change it.” I can change it when I’m doing a reading, though I can’t change the book. So instead of me thinking, “Well that book’s gone. It’s out,” I keep resurrecting things and throwing them into the mix; it keeps the poems fluid. Even where I go back and say, “I wish I had written that differently,” I can perform it differently; I can bring it back. And I’ve gone back into previous books and started pulling things out, and thought, “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be reading these things.”

My very first book happened because I was very visible, and there was somebody at a reading who was connected to a publisher who asked if I had a manuscript—which I did not, but I tell everyone if anyone asks you that question, say, “Yes, I do,” and then worry about it when you get home. And so it’s a very undisciplined book because I gathered everything I was reading on stage and stuff, and was like, “Here!” I didn’t know anything about craft or line breaks or anything. If you had snatched a sheet from me on stage, it would look like a block of prose, because I just wanted to get it down so I could read it; I didn’t care what it looked like. And when I would read something and breathe, I just threw a line break. And so that’s how the book came out. And I still love that book, because I was so young. And I think the first three books were kind of like that, although with the second book, which is Big Towns Big Talk, I was thinking music; I wanted to do music poems. I’m a music fanatic. And so I wanted to have a bluesy feel, which was also an excuse to keep me from paying attention to craft (you know, “I want it to feel like improvisation!” you know, yeah, whatever).

I got involved in slam, and my social circle was there, and then I realized that someone can hear a line or a poem or something that really connects with something that’s going on in their life, and they can be changed.

And then when I realized that people really listen, that it wasn’t a recreational exercise … I mean, I got involved in slam, and my social circle was there, and then I realized that someone can hear a line or a poem or something that really connects with something that’s going on in their life, and they can be changed. And so the book Close to Death was my first kind of admission that I was doing something socially that could be important, that I had a venue to tell a story or to address an issue that I didn’t really know was that powerful before, but I still think that the poems weren’t very disciplined. I was still getting a lot of attention for being a performer, and the books were nice, but they were kind of … a backdrop to that. And then I lost that publisher—they went out of business. I never sent a book out to anybody, you know, I’d just been in the right place at the right time, and so I did that, and then I won a contest that published a book, and then I was affiliated with Coffee House which is a real great press, and I talked to them about where I wanted to go.

Blood Dazzler was also my MFA thesis. So in that time I had really dedicated myself to learning craft, learning the language of prosody and learning who the important poets were, which I kinda think I knew, but … You know how we all have those conversations where you have no idea who people are talking about, and I said “yeah” a lot. I knew who the important poets were, but not who influenced them, who they influenced, and giving myself some sense of being part of that lineage somehow was really empowering. Then I felt the books had more of a back to them. I found out that when you put those things in your toolbox, you know, when you learn a lot about craft, then poems that had been just moving around on the page for years because I didn’t know what was wrong with them, it was because they were asking for something I didn’t know yet how to do. And so all of a sudden, it’s like,That’s a sestina!” It’s so wonderful to have those things at your disposal and let the poem tell you what it needs and then say, yes, I have that now. So that was a real turning point for me.

I felt the shift happen around Blood Dazzler, so it’s interesting to hear you articulate it in this way.

It was a lot more confidence. I think the confidence shows even in that I took on telling a whole story in a book. Close to Death was not like that. Close to Death was like African American men in different phases of their lives—some in the south, some in the city—it wasn’t necessarily focused on violence or anything like that. But the thing about Blood Dazzler is there was a whole inner struggle about whether I had the right to write that book, you know, and the concern about appropriating people’s voices. But then I said, “Look, I think the poet’s job is to be a witness, and if I’m just going to be a witness to things that are right in front of me and accessible, then I don’t think I’m doing my work.” And it wasn’t a regional story; it was a human story. And there are a lot of people regionally who were doing work, and I thought, “Well, put our voices together, and you may get the entire story, but I shouldn’t back off because I don’t have any history in the Gulf region.”

And here’s this brief funny story. So Natasha Trethewey is a poet who does have a history in the region, and people had built up to me this whole thing that she’s really upset that you wrote this book and you’re not from there. I’m like, “Why would she be?” And there’s nothing there, but they’re building up this whole thing. Finally at this AWP [conference], I think, they set up an event where she and I were going to have a conversation with each other; people were signing up like it was going to be a cage match, like there was going to be a pit of Jell-O or something and we were gonna go at it—the Gulf region’s mine, arrgh! And so we’re sitting in these chairs, and I’m thinking, “Well, if it’s gonna come up, it’s gonna come up …” And we had this great discussion! She said, “No, I really wanted the viewpoint of somebody who wasn’t there,” and all that, and then we found out that what we did have in common was a murdered parent, and it just kinda came out in the conversation and I just thought, “You know, there are no stories a poet shouldn’t reach for.” There just aren’t.

I want to backtrack a bit and ask you to think about a question: what’s the line between exploitation and exploration of a subject? Especially around current events. You said you wrestled with it. If you had to say what the line is, if you had to articulate what that line might look like, or how you know if you’re stepping over that line as an artist …

I think the answer is: you have to make sure that you write the hell out of it. You can’t slack if you’re in territory that might be questionable. You really have to write it.

Well, I’ve been writing persona poems all my creative career, you know, but I don’t step in and say, “I know everything about what it is to be in this position.” I step in and I look around and say, “Okay, what’s accessible to me? What can I do?” So for example, okay, there’s this skinhead, and I don’t know how he became the way he was, so let me explore and see one possible way this might have happened, which then when I’m out of the persona, enriches who I am, not as a writer but as a person, you know. At least I think it does. I feel that it does.

With [Hurricane] Katrina, there was the poem [I wrote] about the 34 nursing home residents—my mother’s sister was in a nursing home for a long time, and the task of taking care of her was portioned out to a number of people in our family. I was probably in high school, about 16, and they’re like, “It’s your turn to sit with your aunt.” And she was not the formerly God-fearing aunt that I knew. I mean, she would curse like a sailor and throw things, and no one had given me any prep, and it was a very strange place to be. But I remember there were two things they did while I was there. When she was asleep, I would walk around and I would talk to the other residents, and there was always the one woman who would put on full makeup and sit around, and there was the ex-soldier with all his stories were about “the war.” The other thing was that when it got out of hand with my aunt, there was a button my her bed, and if I pushed it, somebody always came to help. When I saw the story about the residents in St. Bernard Parish, and the fact that the administrator, the person who’s supposed to be in charge, had left them and had said, “I’m sure that someone would come and get them,” all I could picture—and this is the hazard of being a poet—is the room is dark, the water is rising, and I could see people pushing the buttons and nothing happening. So that didn’t bring me into the story on a “I am Chicagoan and I’m going to write about something that happened in a place I am not familiar with” level; that brought me in on a human level that could have been moved anywhere. And the fact that we tend to—when it’s on the line—we tend to write off our elders a lot, that’s what pulled me into it.

I did not intend on writing a whole book! I really just wanted to stay in that story for a while, and I remember reading that poem somewhere—and I’m very aware of my audience when I’m reading. That’s one thing I brought over from slamming, that if there’s not enough energy in the room, you change the poem that you’re reading; if there’s too much energy, you want to change the energy in the room, you could pull it down—but there’s a woman right in the front row of the audience and she’s looking at the clock, and she’s looking at her watch, and she’s fidgeting and I’m, like, “Hmmm.” By that time I had just become aware that there might be some people from the Gulf region who’d say that the work didn’t feel true, because I didn’t have anything regional in the poem, so I asked her afterward. I said, “I noticed you were a little uncomfortable, so I wonder if you could tell me about that,” and she was like, “Well, they had Mardi Gras this year …” and I was like, “Wow!” I realized there were a lot of people who just wanted it to be over. They didn’t want to see any more shots of people being lifted in baskets; they didn’t want to hear any more tales of disaster. I think that’s around the time that Monica Lewinsky said, “Hey, I still have the dress,” and everybody went “Whoop! They’ll be fine.” [Turns her face away.] And like [that woman in the audience], they see one building go up and they say, “Wow, New Orleans is fine now.” And that pushed me. I realized I’d been internalizing a lot of things I’d seen, and that some invisible thing had been stopping me from writing, and then I said, “Okay. I’ll do my readings, but before I do my reading about the nursing home resident, I’ll have three to four Katrina poems to say, ‘Let’s take your mind back for a while, know that this is still going on.’ ”

I think the answer is: you have to make sure that you write the hell out of it. You can’t slack if you’re in territory that might be questionable. You really have to write it. And that’s why I was so happy that [writing Blood Dazzler] coincided with me getting a little bit more confident about form and saying, “I can’t think of a form for this poem so let me hold on to it for a while, and maybe it’s something I’d never done before.” It was really important to me that the poems be sound. So if you don’t have a particular interest in the story—and maybe everybody didn’t—that they could appreciate them as poems. I think I’m probably proudest of that book. It represented for me a real departure from territory that I was comfortable with.

I want to backtrack to your MFA, because I feel like you’ve referenced it as parallel to Blood Dazzler—what was challenging, surprising, fun about that process for you?

I didn’t go in, as so many people do, looking for the program to give me a voice. I know sometimes it’s like, “I’m going to use this program to find out who I am.” I knew I could hone my voice, I could do other things with my voice, and I wanted a program to alert me to those possibilities. But that thing that I talked about before, about having some sense of how I fit in the canon and where, that was the most important thing for me. I was the person in the front row, my arm shooting up all the time, because we have a way of talking like people already know everything, especially in the MFA, like, “Well we’re all here because we’re so well-versed in all the poetic everything, you know.” So they would mention names and I’d go, “I’m sorry, can you give me a list of books so I can become familiar with this poet that we’re talking about as though I’m already familiar with them?” I didn’t care what people thought. I just wanted to leave with stuff that I feel like I had missed out on, you know. I was in a workshop on non-western forms, and I was like, “Yes! I can do this and this,” and then maybe we’d concentrate on villanelles and do things like that. Somebody tried to get me to love Emily Dickinson, and I don’t. And what was really funny about it is she was almost moved to tears because I was doing the reading and it was fine, but I just didn’t relate, you know, and so she was like, “But you’re a woman. Can’t you see?” And I just looked at her. It was fantastic. “You know what I really love? I love how passionate you are about this.” And that’s what made me want to read more Emily Dickinson, not that you say that there’s some weird connection that I’m missing that you want, that you need me to get, because that’s not going to happen, I could tell you. “I’ve read enough to know it’s not going to happen, but anybody who’s as passionate about something as you are,” I said, I love that you love her that much.”

And there were the discussions where you could turn to anyone and just start talking about writing, and it wasn’t like when you got home and it’s like, “Oh, you did that nice, cute poetry thing.” So I felt that it was really just time for me, and I was very greedy and very possessive of my time there. Of course, there’s always more that you can learn, but I think that what I did there really changed me as a poet. It just opened up so many other doors. I was able to look at poems that I loved and that I went to again and again and again, not knowing why, and it’s because the poet had done something technically to help heighten my response to the poem, but I couldn’t see it. I could feel it, but I didn’t see it. Now I can look at a poem and go, “Ummmm! I see how you did that! I see how you shifted that rhyme scheme!” I mean, even poets that I’ve loved for a long time, like I’ve loved Gwendolyn Brooks, but when you really look at the technical things she did in her poems … So it opened that up for me. It gave me—and I don’t even think this was a primary thing—it gave me a legitimacy in a way. I wanted to teach, and people were asking me to teach, but for short stints—come here for a month or something—and I thought, “What am I going to do so that I am surrounded by my art all the time? So that if I’m not writing, I’m talking to other people who want to write?” And I knew I needed to have the degree to have that flexibility, that there’d be more places that I could go to. I miss it. I kinda wish that I could just take another couple years and just do it all over again! And you can, of course, do it on your own, you can do your reading, but you don’t, right? Because life. Because deadlines. Because money. You can do it on your own, but to be in that place, where everybody kinda looks at each other once in a while and smiles—and I’m sure a lot of people don’t have this experience—but it was so wonderful already having the sense of self and saying, “I want to see how much more that can be, and you guys are going to show me!”

You write across multiple genres: what’s that like? How do you know when something’s a poem versus an essay? What do you take with you into other genres, or what do you have to leave behind?

I realized that a lot of what I know about characterization or the arc of a story comes from poetry because, if you look at it, a good poem should include an entire story in a really tight and controlled space, so every single word has to do work. When you’re cutting, you’re cutting all that stuff—“You’re not in service to me, word! Away with you!”

First of all poetry is at the root of all of it. I have a thing when I have to do a speech or something (and I’m terrified of public speaking when it’s not a reading, like, you know, a keynote address or something): I always, always, write a short poem to lead in to the thing, because it grounds me. It’s the same way going into other genres. When I wrote my first major short story, it was about a woman who was psychologically abused by her teenage son. When she went for help, she met a woman who did a poetry therapy thing, and she would go off on the days that she had it really rough, and she was keeping a notebook of poems, and that got me into the story. I realized that a lot of what I know about characterization or the arc of a story comes from poetry because, if you look at it, a good poem should include an entire story in a really tight and controlled space, so every single word has to do work. When you’re cutting, you’re cutting all that stuff—“You’re not in service to me, word! Away with you!” And so, when I’m allowed the privilege of opening one of those stories up and I have space and I can really concentrate on the characterization or the setting or things like that, poetic language comes into view. And I was surprised, because there’s always these articles that are like “10 Ways to Write a Short Story,” and so I thought there would be some technical aspect of it that I’d have to study up on, but I just did a story. And I love story. That’s what leads me to poems. A really good story is like … really? Are you kidding? And you find maybe a little snapshot of that story and you write a poem, but that doesn’t mean the whole story leaves you. So I take poetic sensibility into the story, and I let that get me through. I love describing people. I love describing characters.

And about the essay thing—it’s funny you should say that—I have this poem that’s actually in Jimi Savannah about my mother, and it’s called “Annie Pearl Upward,” and it was a little longer before, and I sent it out— I can’t remember to what magazine—and then I get this note that says, “We’ve chosen this for The Best American Essays,” and I go, “Wow. Wow! Okay!” So when I’m teaching creative non-fiction and we’re talking about lyric essays, I’m blurring that line all the time about what you can do and the chances you can take and the forms that you can write in, and sometimes prose poetry is moving its way in there and stuff. So when someone says so now write an essay, I immediately—remember when I told you that that if you first snatched a paper from me when I was first reading on stage, it’d just be this block?—I actually will write poems out and put an essay stamp on them. Folks are like, “Thanks for the essay,” and I say, “You’re welcome.” I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t try to write because the grounding, the poetic grounding, is so strong. I don’t think a lot of poets who say, “Well yeah, I can do poetry, but I can’t write a short story,” or “I would never try a novel.” No, no, no, no, no!

So many words!

I know it’s a lot of words, but it’s only a few at a time. And then I started reading novels that weren’t necessarily … they were more like snapshots in the life of someone. They were more like interconnected short stories, but disparate, and so the narrative arc goes through the stories, so your character starts here and ends here, but you don’t have to. The thing I hate is the pesky part when you have the storyboards and whatnot. I can’t do that.

I’m blurring that line all the time about what you can do and the chances you can take and the forms that you can write in…

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a project now that comes out of Incendiary Art, out of the “Accidental Saints” suite with the mothers. I was thinking, once everything’s over—and this came to me so clearly—she wakes up one morning and she’s got to go to the laundromat, and she hasn’t had to go to the laundromat since that happened. Or she has to go to church. Or she is lonely and she meets a man and she makes love again for the first time. And how nothing she does with the rest of her life can not be connected to her child. And so I’m starting to write a series of short stories and all the short stories have exactly the same beginning. It either comes in dreams or it’s something she’s thinking back on, and it’s the time when someone comes to the door and says … and sometimes they ring the door of a big house, sometimes they’re downstairs knocking because there’s no doorbell and the elevator doesn’t work. So it’s not the same woman all the time, but it’s the same woman in a way. And then she goes and there’s a story about the door and how this woman reacts and then there’s a story how she goes back to church or she goes to the local club to listen to the blues, and I dunno if it’s going to work. I thought about it. I put it on the shelf. I thought about it again, and I say that if something keeps coming back to me that way, that’s the thing I need to be writing …

I love collaborations, and so I have—my husband and I have—this huge collection of 19th century photos. We have cabinet cards and daguerreotypes and tintypes and things, so much so that we have no place to store them. We’ll probably wind up leaving them with someone who can store them: it’s a really large collection of African American photos. So I had proposed for a grant that I would do a series of dramatic monologues and kind of have an “Our Town” kind of thing with these photos, and have a book with these photos. And that’s a thing that draws on what I’ve learned about characterization. At first it was just gonna be photo-poem, photo-poem, but then I thought, no. Let’s have them connect somehow and have a focal point—a woman who’s a focal point—and have these other things that are written around her and these other voices around her. And if you hear me talk about any other projects besides the two I’ve just mentioned to you, stop me, because I really need to get this stuff done!

You’re a teacher now, what is the thing you try to have your students leave your class with? What’s the thing you try to gift them most earnestly?

Everyone has a passion. Everyone’s craving something. It might be something simple. It might be I need to know where I’m sleeping tonight, or it could be I want to win a Pulitzer Prize, but for a lot of my students, they don’t reach, they don’t reach far enough, their dreams are so small, it’s like they’ve kind of figured out I’m just going to dream about what I’m sure I can attain, you know. So I try to introduce them to so many different stories and different ways of telling them. Like okay, we’re going to do the book, and now we’re going to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where you could see the guy who was waiting out in line with you come on stage and do something, and then he’s going to disappear, but you’re going to come to class the next week, and you’re going to be full of his story. Okay. So the story doesn’t have to be spectacular, you just have to tell it in a way that it’s unforgettable … so stories about people braiding hair, make me see it. One thing that has happened, and I think this is what is kind of driving me, they go, they leave, and then they show up a year two years later at a reading or someplace, and they’re like, I never forgot what you said about … so I stopped expecting the immediate payoff of in a classroom where they’re working for As.

It’s a blind faith thing in a lot of ways. I think just showing them how excited I am about what I do, and that I’m a working writer, I’m not somebody who’s looking back at the good old days, and saying “Oh, when I was …” so it makes it more immediate for them. And then to take them to see working writers who are close to them in age, who aren’t necessarily … you know, this is not a money-making enterprise. You have to really love something about it, not just the audience, because the audience is fickle. And then with each student, you kind of have to figure out what’s going to draw that particular student in. And that’s kind of like most of the work.

Who is in your poetic pantheon? Who are the writers you really feel led you to poetry, taught you how to write, move you still?

I used to have a list of people that I’d say when asked that question. And I realized I made up the list and it wasn’t the real list, and I was saying what the person who was interviewing me probably wanted to hear or what the school where I was would like me to say.

I want the true list.

Gwendolyn Brooks is on the true list. I’ve never seen anyone be able to … not tweak language, but just own it. I want to write about simple things in the way that you will not forget. I said one time in an interview that my goal was to be thought of the way Gwen Brooks was thought of, and it felt like such a travesty coming out of my mouth, but I really aspire to that level of artistry. Not adulation or anything, but just that … her stamp was on everything: you could read something that she wrote and know it’s her without her name being on it, and that’s like the ultimate to me. Stephen Dobyns: that’s my guilty (white male) pleasure. When I was just trying to surround myself with books (I was still on slam and doing that) I used to volunteer at bookstores, and there was one bookstore in Chicago where I had a lot of downtime, so I’d go to the poetry section and I’d start pulling down books. And I didn’t know who I was supposed to be reading, so I wasn’t going through picking out books. I was just like, “Let’s see,” and I’d read like the first three and just go no, yes, no, trying to kind of figure out what is that I love and why. And there was a book he wrote called Cemetery Nights, and I pulled it down and had no idea who it was. Stephen writes about those little tiny horrors—the things that happen in our lives that we rush to pave over and think, “Thank God that thing is over! I never have to look at that again!” But once you become a poet and you’re a true poet and you look over your shoulder, that pavement you think you buried something under is going like this [undulating motion]; you cannot say that you’re a poet unless you unearth those stories and see where they lead you. He was the first one that—I would just sometimes be so disturbed by things that he’d choose to write about because they were just so … It was like taking me and just being like “Look!” and because of the way he did it, I couldn’t turn away from it. And so that gave me permission: You can write about that stuff? You can go that deep? And he remains that for me. It’s sort of like your first lover, your first poet who really says this is something that I want to do with my life as opposed to something this is something I do in my spare time. And when you start to see people who have six or seven books and you go they’ve committed to this, this is what they do, you know. He was one of those first people.

I have a real affection, a real debt to the people who pump gas, school secretaries, mothers, drunks, ex-cons, who felt that they had a story that was pushing them hard enough to come and stand up in a room full of strangers, you know, and maybe come back. 

And something I’ve realized lately is when I was—I’m originally from Chicago—so when I was going out and reading at a bunch of open mics and features and things like that, there were about six places every night you could read poetry. So we used to just write a poem, you’d read here, and then the whole group would just head on over to another place and you’d hear everybody’s poems. So I have a real affection, a real debt to the people who pump gas, school secretaries, mothers, drunks, ex-cons, who felt that they had a story that was pushing them hard enough to come and stand up in a room full of strangers, you know, and maybe come back. For a lot of them, that was their first real community. I can remember lines and poems from people twenty years ago. Never saw them again. They may have never come back, but the risk involved in being that naked and need[ing] to say your life out loud that way, I think that those people have probably pushed me more than anybody that I can open a book and read. I miss that. I love when you’re doing a reading and you see somebody’s eyes go, “I could! That’s happened to me, and I just didn’t know there was a way to do it.” I would love to see people run out of the reading with pens going, “Whaaaaaa!” You know? They’re more important, and I think I need to start saying that more. Because I want—I hate the phrase “ordinary people”—but I want people to see what’s accessible, what they can do, what they can reach, and how it can help them move from day to day. And maybe it turns into something, or maybe it doesn’t, but that story lasts because I still remember it.

Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt

downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014)

by Lauren K. Alleyne


Love—a radical, inclusive, and transformative love—undergirds the work of poet Danez Smith. In the world of Smith’s poems, love is abundant: these poems love Black people, queer people, God, kin and self and strangers alike. These poems decenter through love, erasing margins and reconfiguring the world as a space in which the marginalized body is worthy, the dismissed spirit is honored.  They imagine lovingly. They critique lovingly. They mourn and celebrate and insist lovingly.

Within this powerful framework, Smith’s poems offer a rigorous exploration of the systems we inhabit that corrupt love, that work instead through fear, oppression and division. Which is to say, there is no fluff here. Love is claimed as a powerful ally against injustice, a force harnessed in service of a greater good. There is love enough, these poems argue, to make a new world if we choose to, and they proceed to do just that. “summer somewhere,” the opening poem to Smith’s newly released collection Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), for example, posits a radical counter-reality that sees, nurtures and loves killed Black boys in a heaven where they get to experience what it’s like to “live/on land who loves [them] back.” In this way, the poems constantly hold before us the chasm between the possibility of actualized love and the realities we inhabit:

please, don’t call
us dead, call us alive someplace better.

we say our own names when we pray.
we go out for sweets & come back.

The poems also show the difficulty of loving in the world as it exists. We are flawed, human, and fall short of our own possibilities.  “& even the black guy’s profile reads  sorry no black guys”  shows how we have all been diminished in our capacity to love both ourselves and each other, and demonstrates a compassionate resistance: “if no one has told you, you are beautiful & lovable & black & enough & so—you pretty you—am i.”

Love, does, however, have its limits. In “dear white america,” Smith writes, “i tried to love you but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones.” Excising hate, willful apathy and destructive blindness is also part of the work of love these poems manifest. Ultimately, Smith’s work serves as a call to love and act courageously, to expand our capacity for compassion and care, and to “Let ruin end here.”

In the studio at James Madison University, I spoke with Smith about how poetry can be a tool in the work of making better our imperfect yet wonderful world.

Smith is the author of [insert] Boy (YesYes Books, 2014), which won the 2014 Lambda Literary Award; the chapbook, Black Movie (Button Poetry, 2015); and Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), which is currently a National Book Award Finalist.

Tell me about how you came to poetry.

So I started writing the earliest things that I could call poems around the eighth grade. I had this notebook that I covered in duct tape, and it said “Danez’s Thoughts & Ideas” in a Sharpie on it. And so there were poem-ish things that I didn’t know to call poems, words, maybe diary entries. There were also drawings and writings about my theories on time and how the universe worked and other weird stuff, and then extremely horrible misogynistic rap—very, very bad raps that were just like complete lies about all the women I didn’t want and cars I didn’t have—that I was trying to emulate from all my favorite rappers.

And then in ninth grade, my school, Minnesota Central High School, had a very storied social justice based theater program that I got involved in through my teacher Jan Mandell. The whole purpose of the class was to get us to think about social justice through the lens of theater. We wrote our own plays. We didn’t worry about learning scripts or all that, and part of writing our own plays and these community theater pieces was writing monologues. But they weren’t monologues per se because we didn’t necessarily have characters; instead everybody was talking about whatever social justice issues we decided we needed to address.

And then Paul Florez and Rafael Casal, these two poets who were based in the Bay Area at the time, came to our high school through Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices and performed for us, and it was amazing. We all looked at each other because we hadn’t realized that what we’d been writing as monologues were actually poems. They [Flores and Casal] were doing a better version of what we’d been doing. This was also the same time that Def Poetry was on HBO, bringing spoken word into the national consciousness again, and for me, for a long time, poetry had been dead. I didn’t realize there were people living who wrote it. We’d never been shown a living poet in school. And so we really latched on to it. Once we saw them, we were like, “Cool! We’re poets! We love poetry!” So we started a little open mic in our school, and the next year we organized a team to go to Brave New Voices International Teen Poetry Slam for the first time, which was in The Hague that year. And I was hooked. Ever since then, I’ve been okay/comfortable calling myself a poet.

Tell me a little bit about Brave New Voices and your experience with it.

Brave New Voices will be in its twentieth year in 2017. Youth Speaks is the local organization that focuses on bringing spoken word and hip hop to youth in the Bay Area, and Brave New Voices is the national organization. Youth Speaks is the largest national spoken word organization out there. Brave New Voices is one of their national programs that brings 500 to 600 youth from all over the world—English-speaking countries, mainly—to whatever city it’s hosted in that year, just for a festival of poetry and social justice, and getting to meet each other. I went for the first time in 2005, and it blew my mind! Not only did I know there were living poets now, but they all looked like me, and they were my age. It was completely transformative to experience that and to see that poetry was something viable and real and to know that it was still affecting people’s lives and that it was still harboring a community for folks. And so for me, falling in love with poetry through Brave New Voices and through my local community in Minneapolis was always a gift—poetry was there, but also there was that gift of community that it gave me, you know? Immediately in poetry for me, from the very genesis of my time as a poet, was communing with folks. It was about being in a room and sharing ideas. It was about creating and making each other laugh, and making each other think, and asking each other questions. So Brave New Voices was really mind blowing for me because it immediately shifted my mind about poetry from some solitary act to this global experience.

You’re a member of two collectives, Sad Boy Supper Club and Dark Noise. How are they different? What’s your role in them? How do they help you with your writing?

Sad Boy Supper Club is maybe a step below a collective. What had happened was … [Laughs] myself and three other poets Sam Sax, Cam Awkward-Rich, and Hieu Minh Nguyen were already a group of friends, and we wanted to slam together one time, so we went to the Rustbelt Poetry Slam, which is a regional poetry slam, and we just had a great time. Also, the folks of the Sad Boy Supper Club are some of my first readers. I think it’s important to note I never really had other queer friends, and so they’re my first group of friends that identified as queer that I have a lot of ties with.

Dark Noise was different. Dark Noise was actually brought together and formed in a very particular way. It was the brainchild of Fatimah Asghar and Aaron Samuels, and they sort of invited us all to have a conversation about what making a collective would look like. When Dark Noise came together we were all twenty-three; we were all at a similar stage in our careers and trying to figure out if we had careers; and it was just a space for us to sort of … feel. We needed a space where we could say the things that were uncomfortable to say in public spaces, a space to feel like our art was cared for and was insulated. We were all transitioning from the spoken word/slam realm to the literary world, which immediately felt more white and harsh to us. And so we were all very scared and didn’t know what it meant to have all these white folks looking at our work now. And, you know, both of those places I think about as homes—all the collectives.

With Dark Noise, when we were first talking about what we were besides a group of friends who love each other—and I do think that it’s important that we center love—everybody was more a performance collective or people who had open mics. But Dark Noise was different from that. We didn’t even live in the same city. We were six artists living in about five different cities, and that’s shifted all over the place since then. But we wanted to be radical and intentional about the ways in which we loved each other. And Dark Noise is really the only experience I ever had like that. With Sad Boys, I was friends with all of them to various degrees before we came together, and [the collective] solidified much of our friendships for me. And naming it felt important. Dark Noise was really an experiment in love for me. I didn’t know several members of the collective when we met up. But I remember we met at Jamila and Fati’s apartment in Chicago in the winter of 2012, and it was a magical energy in the room; it was something so spiritual. Having folks in this great literary landscape that are not as concerned about the words but are concerned about the vessel that is me, and that also support the words as well: that is what Dark Noise does for me. That is a very special thing. And I love seeing different collectives and people naming themselves. There is a power to naming these friendships and relationships we all have. But to be intentional about the ways in which I care for people: that’s what those collectives bring to me.

I want to step back to the idea of audience. You mentioned stepping back from the world of performance to the literary page, which you say felt harsher and whiter. I’m interested in that idea. As a creator, who are you thinking of when you write? You’ve said in some places that you write for the “queer Black boy,” almost in some sense for the self you were, and that’s really clear and present in [insert] boy and in Black Movie, but then you address other readers in your poems, too. “Short Film” for example, says “ … dear reader, what does it feel like to be safe and white?” That tells me that you’re aware of another audience, so how do you think about audience as you’re writing and scripting the work?

This is not a simple question. I think about audience all the time. I think it’s probably a question I’ll wrestle with for the rest of my artistic life! My first mind is usually to say that I’m writing for me, but that’s never really true, I think, because I come from a performance background, and there’s always a second thought behind the I’m just writing this for me that asks, What is this going to sound like in the ears of other people? and Who is this going to be useful for? 

I’m usually writing for Black folks, I think, because that’s who I am of. I love to write poems that my family can engage with, the folks that I grew up with can engage with. In that question of audience for me is also a question of accessibility. I’m oftentimes interested in having widely accessible work that can be engaged with both by somebody who never engaged with poetry but is also interested in the work and the seasoned poetry reader. But then I think there’re a lot of times, too, when I think about the white gaze. When I first started being a writer in the public sense I was very taken aback by the idea of the white gaze, and what that did to my work, and what it meant. A lot of my early poems, at least early in terms of publishing, were very mournful and tried to mourn for Black people in a particular way—even a lot of the first poems in [Insert] Boy. But once I was aware that there were so many folks that didn’t know how to feel about that mourning in public, and about letting people into our intimate spaces, and about letting people into our Black and miraculous and fragile psyche, I wanted to do something with that looking. As in, If I have your attention, what am I going to do with it? If I know that you are engaging with my work, if I know you as an outsider who I might consider my kin, how do I manipulate your viewing of me so that it’s useful for the people that I’m usually writing about? You know, I know you’re looking; what am I gonna say to you now that I have your attention? And that is also an attempt to challenge the reader, especially the non-Black reader, or the non-queer reader, and also to invite them in in a particular kind of way. If we know that they’re looking, we can challenge them but also invite them to play, to take that step in. And not to step in to be comfortable, but to step in to wrestle. That’s become important to me. That question of audience is often hard, and sometimes I don’t know until the second or third or fourth draft of a poem who I’m really trying to write for.

Let’s talk about the process of writing a poem. Where does it begin? What are the stages you move through?

You know, I think I’ve gone through various modes of how I write. How I’m writing depends on my life at the moment. A lot of the poems from Black Movie, for example, started on my phone, and a lot of the poems in my next book, Don’t Call Us Dead, too. I was living in the Bay Area, and I had a 15 – 20 minute train ride to and from work, and there was nothing to do on the BART but stand there—your phone service doesn’t work, there’s all these tunnels—so if I wasn’t reading a book, I wrote on my phone and I knew I could get a pretty okay draft of something done in the time it took to go to and from work. Many of my poems started there. And then there’ve been other times in my life where I’ve had more strategic writing processes; I’m thinking of Sad Boy Supper Club. Me and Sam Sax would for a long time just sit up all night on Facebook Messenger, just talking back and forth, and if one of us got silent for a while, we knew they were writing a poem. I know for Black Movie, Sam saw all those poems, because some nights I’d just sit up and write three of them, because I was talking to a friend, and we were talking about life and poetry, and then he’d say something that’d spark something in me, and I’d go away and type away, and I’d be like, Here, read this, I just wrote it in the last 15 minutes. And so that’s where a lot of that comes from.

Right now, poems have been coming a little bit slower. I used to be a very fast writer. I used to be the type of dude that was writing 5, 6, 10 poems a week. Even if I didn’t use them all, I know I made words happen on the page. I can’t be that dude anymore. Now I look back and think, What were you on?! Now it’s a bit slower, now a bit of language comes to me, just a tiny bit, a fragment, and I’ll wrestle with it for a while. I have a little notebook (okay a lot of notebooks— some are small, some are huge and would take up this whole table) where I’d just write a phrase down a couple times, and it wouldn’t really announce itself, or what it wants me to do with it yet. I think about it while I’m grocery shopping, think about it while I’m in the shower. Eventually, I’ll sit down and write out the poem. Now I think I want the language to be more precious and rare. I think that’s required me to slow down a little bit. I think I’ve written all the poems that I know how to write. And now I’m trying to move into that space where I’m writing into the unknown, and writing to surprise myself. And that happens all the time; I think that’s how you know you’re having a growth spurt, that moment when you’re bored with yourself. I’m on the precipice of one: I need it to happen.

What’s your biggest challenge right now? Is it time? Is it getting the work together? What’s hard?

Right now the biggest challenge isn’t time per se … I think it is that element of surprise. I was just telling Fati the other day that I haven’t written a lot of poems lately, and by lately I mean two to three months, that have really… shocked me or surprised me. I’ve written poems that I knew I could write, and I think they’re good poems; they’re standard Danez hits. Sort of like you know Beyonce is going to give you a particular kind of song, and every album you look forward to that song. Or like Gucci Mane (I’m really big into rap) so like Gucci Mane and Azaelia Banks write the same song over and over again, and I know how to make the same kind of poem over and over again. So now it’s really just trying to reach towards and away from lexicons and dialects that I own. Like I want to write thriller poems that use the language that I use all the time when I’m talking with my homies, that raise Black dialect to the level of intellect, and that still wrestles with stuff but within the Black dialect. And I also want to reach away from what I know and find words and phrasings and thoughts and fragments that I don’t necessary deal with. And I’m having … I dunno if I’m having trouble with the poems, but I’m having trouble with my own patience. You know, I have to let it build. And I think I am learning how to not pump stuff out so fast, which is hard for me because I just want it to hurry up and come, but sometimes a poem takes two months or three months or a year to write, and it’s hard! And so now it’s getting used to that slowness, and being okay to wallow in the thought is what I’m struggling with right now.

And also I want to move past grief. I want to move past shame. And I think that grief is definitely a useful emotion and a necessary one, but I am really interested in trying to find the poetics of joy right now, in trying to find those more nuanced and quiet places that I can look. I think for a long time I have looked to the loudest thing in the room, and written about it, and I’m trying to see what I’ve left unnoticed.

I want to follow up on the idea of a “poetics of joy” and a search for the “quiet things.” I watched your TED Talk, and in it you talked about that idea of being asked a question that then sparks something, some sort of ‘open door.’ What questions are you trying to name now?

Right now in my writing, I’m asking myself a lot of questions about friendship, and what the texture of that particular kind of love is, and what the basic necessity of a friend is. I’ve been having a lot of thoughts about the difference between when you grow up and have your family— you know, you love your mom because she’s your mom, but also because she feeds you and makes sure you have things, and buys you toys—and the idea of friendship. Your first friend is the first person you love that doesn’t provide you with anything but love, and that [understanding that] I necessitate nothing from you but you is a very interesting thing for me. And I want to figure out where we really hold friendship in our hearts and what are the particulars of that. And so I am writing about my friends a lot right now, and it’s fun.

It seems very clear that your self and all the ways that you think about self are the source of the poetry, and you’ve said in other places, “It’s me.” And the word confessional is itself a contested label to give to one’s work; I want to know what you think is necessary about the confessional? What’s important about writing or claiming the confessional?

There’s something so brutally honest about the confessional, but also it’s the way I was raised, you know? When I think about the confessional, I do think about all those great confessional authors that have led us to now, but I also think about church, and how I grew up, and the idea of confessing, and the idea of admitting, and offering it up. I come from a very Christian background: Baptist. And I think about all the times it was just like, “Let go. Let God.” You need to admit it, then lay your burdens down, and for me that’s what makes me feel the most clean. I need to write these confessional poems so that I can be clean. And I need to write in such a way that you see the dirt, you know, that you don’t always see the mucky water, but I want you to see the pieces of that dirt in there. I want you to feel that soot. And so the confessional for me is instinctual. It’s an honesty that I think I’ve been indoctrinated into. And maybe a dishonesty, too—I lie hella in those poems! [Laughs] But there’s still something true in there!

And I think for me in that question of audience and that question of accessibility also lies the roadmap to why I am so confessional. To confess, I think, means to be clear. You can’t really have a foggy confession—that’s not really confessing. You can, but, you know, it’s like saying Hey Pastor, I did some thangs. You can’t say that. You have to say the thing that was done, so I think that in that question of accessibility, it’s not also just giving people accessibility to what I’m trying to say, or my experience, but it’s also giving me access to myself. When I kind of move my own mirrors out of the way and I open up all those doors, and finally get to see clearly to the root of me … And that’s what I think confession does.

What does it do for the audience or the reader?

I think it invites them in, whether they want to be invited in or not I hope … well, I’ve heard it from folks, and I’m glad I’ve heard it, that they read my work, and they’re able to admit things to themselves, or they’re able to finally start to talk about the stories in their lives that they weren’t able to talk about. They’ll say “I’ve never seen somebody say this so bare, or say this so brave.” I’ve heard the word bravery thrown around, and I don’t know if its bravery, but I hope that it allows folks to stand up in themselves a little harder. And I hope it allows them, if not to speak that honesty or to speak that clearly about themselves, then to at least engage with it within themselves internally.

And then there’s the question of not just confessional poetry, but poetry in general. This is always a loaded question, but you write and talk about writing about grief, Blackness, “Black as hell poems,” queer poems, into violence and a very, very imperfect world. What’s a poet’s job or a poem’s job in terms of relating to that imperfect world?

Hmm … I think about poems as gathering grounds. You know I think we all can gather in a poem and really meditate on something, or commune around something, or feast on something. I think that’s tied to my coming to poetry through spoken word, which was a very blessed experience because I don’t necessarily understand the idea of the lonely poet toiling away in the night; for me the act of poetry is always necessitated by other people. You can’t be a spoken word artist by yourself. Or maybe you can? [Laughs] And so that idea of what we do when we gather, you know, what do we do together? We commune; we laugh; we cry; we mourn; we praise; we destroy; we build. I want the poem to be all that. I think poetry at its best creates co-conspirators in the work. Somebody comes into the poem and they become a partner in healing or your partner in mourning, or they become an activist homie in the work. It gets us riled up; it calms us down. But I think what poetry does at its best is offer that human connection.

I’m not interested per se in poetry that seeks to push people out or poetry that blocks you from getting to its heart. Though sometimes I like it. I think every type of poetry is cool sometimes, but for me I think of Lucille Clifton, I think of Amiri Baraka, I think of Langston Hughes, I think of a lot of the great Def poets, I think of Suheir Hammad, I think about all these folks whose work for me has always been about inviting people, not only into the poet’s experience, but into their own experience, and inviting people to leave the poem and shout some shit out in the real world. And so that’s what I think poems offer us. They offer us temporary sanctuary, but after we leave that space, either we take a little bit of that sanctuary with us, or we go back into the world knowing about that imperfectness, and we leave with maybe a tiny tool to help perfect it a little bit more.

 I want to go to the idea of the body, which is in these poems. There’s an interesting tension inherent in writing about the body: it’s what you’re in, it’s your vehicle; but it also is or can become abstract in the poem. I’m going to quote you to yourself: “The body is too sacred to be left out of my poems.”

 Oooh!  I said that?

You said that! So, talk to me about the body, about writing the body, and how you do that.

You know, as a Black queer man-looking thing moving throughout the world, I ain’t got no choice but to think about the body. My body is a point of contention all of my life, you know? How my body moves through space either as an actor or as an endangered artifact in this American context; how my body desires other bodies or pushes up against other bodies, and how that’s supposedly supposed to make me burn in some place; every act that my body can take, even just existing is dangerous, and so I’m always thinking about my body. But at the same time I think that the body is so holy and it’s beautiful. I think when you know the danger your body is in you have a different relationship to it, and you know just how precious that is because you know just how easy it is to lose it. And so I am always thinking about my body not even just in poems but as I move throughout the world—thinking about how I offer up my body to other people, whether that be through work or how I feed other people or whatever. It’s unavoidable. Wait. What was the question? I’m sorry! I’m just like, I’m gonna go on about the body!

How do you deal with that in language? What are some of the tools you take to all of that complexity?

Fleda Brown, an amazing poet from Michigan, did a Q&A one time at my MFA program and said that in order to really write about something, you should try to write away from it for a very long time. And I think I spent a very long time trying to write away from the body, and I know that there’s something very important that keeps on pulling me back. I’ll try my hardest to not talk about the body, especially like hands and mouths, which are my two favorite things to ever put in a poem, and they always come up, and I’m like, Okay, I tried to write away from you and here you are, so you deserve to be here. Like, Hi hand, hi mouth, good to see y’all again. I just deal with it because I don’t know any other vessel with which to touch other things in my poems, you know? It’s going back to that idea of the confessional, right? I think I have a hard time thinking about that idea that the lyric ‘I’ is just this voice speaking out into anonymous space. I dunno how to disembody the voice from the body, especially when my body is all that people use or need to make an assumption about me. My body speaks for me before I even say anything, and so if I am going to be this voice speaking into a room, my body has to be present; my body is what colors and textures that voice, my body is what holds that voice, and so… you know, it’s hard. I don’t know how to talk about the things I talk about and not bring in the body. I don’t know how to talk about queerness divorced from the body; I don’t know how to talk about race divorced from the body; I don’t know how to talk about God divorced from the body.

So for me the body is my link to everything else I write in my poetry. You know, it is about that physical act of touch that, as a person, is very important to me. I’m very touch heavy. It’s my love language. (Have you ever taken that test? It’s a good test! You’ve got to take the love language test!) I’m very heavy on touch, and so the body is that catalyst, is that bridge to everything else in my work. I can’t really engage with the world without first contending with this tiny world that I have.

I’m going to zone in on that tiny world, because you brought up queerness and race and I want to talk about gender and the specific role of it. [Insert] Boy is gendered, and I know you prefer gender-neutral pronouns, but there’s an emphatic masculinity, I want to say, in [Insert] Boy—a challenge to it, an exploration of it—so I want to know how you see gender in general, but also how you work with that note in the poems.

I identify as gender neutral, but I cannot divorce myself from boyness in any type of way. I’ve spent so much of my life being a boy and being socialized as a boy; no matter how I view myself I will always be my mother’s son— I will always be a grandson; I will always be the boy in the family. And I love boyness in that way. I do have a lot of fond memories of that. But romantically, I sleep with men—I say I’ll whatever with anybody, but most of the time they tend to be men more often than not—so I’m constantly wrestling with boyness, and I think I will for the rest of my life. The next book definitely contends with that, too. It’s how I learned to see the world; it’s how the world sees me.

And I always think about the shackles of masculinity. Masculinity is a sad thing. Men are so desperate to be not-men, or to find a new way of doing it, Good Lord! And so I think for me a lot of that wrestling with masculinity that happens in [Insert] Boy is me questioning and wrestling with my gender as well, and really thinking about if I do wear this moniker of boy, of man, what does that mean? What tribe am I a part of then? What histories do I hold if I am that? And I think that I am that, and I wonder oftentimes, too, how my race makes my gender even more complicated. For a long time, I didn’t identify as gender queer because I had only seen it filtered through a white body, and I’d never seen other black folks who were still wrestling with gender. I’d met transfolk, but never anybody who was in that liminal space. And so I mean it’s still very new for me and I’m trying to think about it, although it feels true. And oftentimes I even wonder what my gender would look like if I maybe had less of a strong relationship to my family, or if sometimes I say, if my grandmother wasn’t alive… I care a lot about that woman, and being gay was hard enough … the gay thing was one thing, but I dunno if grandma can handle …

“Danez killed grandma!”

Yes, “Danez killed grandma. He showed up to Thanksgiving in some heels and micro braids…” and as much as I would love to do that, I mean, these are things that I think about, right? And so it’s like, what does gender mean as a peace that we negotiate with other people and with the world and what that intimate space is. And I think that what I’m trying to do is a play on masculinity: If we are to be men—cis men—in this masculine way. How does that body, that vessel, mean? How do we negotiate with the world around us? How does the world negotiate us and deal with us? And I think especially in that idea of violence and danger, right?  Gender neutral or not, I have a Black man body, and I think about that. There’s no person of color, whatever gender, that doesn’t walk through the world wondering/knowing how dangerous that is, and so until I don’t, until I am not read as a Black man, or until the Black man identity is not as feared or unfairly mythical as it is, then I will always have to have these questions about my shape within the world. So masculinity is a tricky thing: I hate it. I hate it. I hate men so much. We’re horrible people! We do such bad things!

But again, I think there’s a wrestling because I think there’s also a tenderness to the boy, a tenderness for men in [Insert] Boy.

Well they need it, you know! I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of the common discourse about manhood: it’s tenderness. It gets to be such a hard, amorphous, just like—not amorphous, amorphable? Is that a word? It is this unmovable monument that so many men are stuck in. I want to bring softness. The masculine cannot exist without the feminine; it has to engage with it in some way, and who says that femininity is necessarily soft? But I want to bring that tenderness. I want to bring that softness. I want to introduce men to a wider side of manhood and to think about what it means to need, to be held, to need love, to need quiet, to need … to need. And to be okay with that needing is a lot of what I’m trying to do, and you know, I hope—especially for my straight Black men homies—that they can get past the queer stuff and see that there is a need for us to engage with vulnerability.

I think the poem about your grandfather is one that really wrestles with that, right? Here’s this guy at the end of his life who comes to need to be held to do things, and there’s almost a lifelong unlearning that has to happen by force in the poem.


You said “mythical.” So I’m going to turn to myth. Black Movie takes on The Lion King, Sleeping Beauty, fairy tales, the Bible—as does [Insert] Boy—all of these huge cultural narratives. Talk to me a little bit about your relationship to those bigger stories and how you work with them in a poem.

I’ve always been obsessed with the mythic, with the imaginative, in some way. I’m a big comic book head. I’m always up in somebody’s alternate-reality TV show and cartoon and all that kind of stuff. All that stuff fascinates me. And so those same desires are what gets me interested in the Bible—which could be a cartoon or could be a comic book very easily, you know—and the Greeks. I’m always obsessed with how we blend the magical and the real, and I think that is the space that I live in a lot of the time. I do believe in these types of things and I’m very interested in how the spiritual and unreal is real in our lives and so I think a lot of my work does seek to smash those right up against one another. You know, something like the Bible, I’m trying to subvert. I’m trying to take the Bible and push queerness inside of it, or take God, you know … I can’t write a sex poem without using some religious imagery somewhere in there, and it is recognizing this holiness that feels of my upbringing, but also feels instinctual.

I’m interested in language that lifts us into the surreal, because we are surreal beings. We’re real and we’re also surreal, and you know, we dream, which is the most surreal thing in the world. Any creature that has the ability to fabricate all these worlds within its mind subconsciously is worthy of bringing that same type of fabric-making that we have in dreams into our real world and into our writing. Through dealing with the surreal and dealing with the imaginative, we also show the real life possibilities of things. So if I want to show you that we live in this flawed world, I want to make it flawed in a way that’s so fantastic that it reaches past your understanding of the flawed world in a way that lets you come back to the flaw, thinking, but also to point us toward better realities, too. Ross Gay said in this panel one time that if we want to have a world without prisons, then we have to write about worlds without prisons, so that way people know that’s possible, right? And I think for me that’s ringing true a lot lately, so I’ve been trying to use myth and magic to lift us into safety and to lift us into freedom and to lift us into newer possibilities. Through the surreal we get that exaggeration for our audience and our readers that allows them to settle back into their own worlds, but a little bit extended, stretched. You know, you stretch it all the way out, so that way you come back a little bit bigger than you were before.

Luke Cage? What do you think?

I have not watched too many episodes of it, but he is fine. He is definitely fine. I do not appreciate the respectability politics of it. You know, he had that whole thing in the second episode about the N-word, and I was just like, Get away. But the women on that show are fantastic. And I do love that Luke Cage has always been a character for decades now.

I’m not a comic head, so I don’t know the back-story.

Oh, yeah. So Luke Cage was Blaxploitation Superman, had been with his lil afro back in the day. There’s always been something to the bulletproof Black man that is such a …  and especially in this moment, right? So the fact that Luke Cage in 2016 is getting this hit TV show is big! And that’s always what I loved about Marvel is that they’re not scared to actually raise our world, to actually use their characters to say something very strong about our world. Before Luke Cage, it was Jessica Jones, who is this woman who has all these powers, whose whole storyline was dealing with domestic abuse, and trying to get rid of this lover. And I love that Marvel is not scared to take it there and to really give people powers that would be useful in the real world. How many of us wish to be Luke Cage? I wish we could be bulletproof in those moments. And so, yeah, it’s phenomenal in some ways. But there’s also other things that I kinda side eye.


Yes, Imperfect.

So the other theme I noticed resonates both in the book and in your comments during other interviews, and I think even just when you’re talking; you reference this idea of multiples—multiple realities, multiple gods, multiple selves. Tell me more about why that idea of plurality is so intriguing to you?

You know, I like me some Whitman. I am large. I contain multitudes of crazy motherfuckas. But I like playing with how we view a thing. I like the idea that I can show you this—my own body, let’s say—from six different vantage points, and over here I look like a fish, and over here I look like a tree, and over here I look like a halfway decrepit building, and over here I look like a fire hydrant, whatever. I like playing with those views because it goes back to that idea of mythic-ness. I always like the gods that could turn into a thing. You know Zeus (problematic a character as he is): I like that sometimes he’s a swan, sometimes he’s a cloud of gold dust coming down and descending on folks, and I like to think that in poetry I’m allowed to live these other experiences in that same way. In poetry I am allowed to be winged; I am allowed to exist in ways that this physical reality does not let me, and so there’s a lot in those multitudes, a lot of childhood imaginations; when you’re a kid you want to be everything when you grow up, and in poetry that’s my way to be everything. I like blurring those lines between what’s a god and what’s human, you know, the ways in which we are godly. Those multitudes allow me to play with that image and to play dress up—to drag—as these different entities in a cool way.

Tell me about what you’re working on now.

So, my next book is gone; it’s away from me. [Laughs]. It’s called Don’t Call Us Dead and it’s closely related to [Insert] Boy and Black Movie, I think. Well, in some ways. There’s a long poem in there called “summer somewhere,” which I think is a more accurate attempt of something that I tried to do in [Insert] Boy with the poem “Song of the Wreckage,” which was supposed to be a quadruple sestina that failed … it was bad …

QUADURPLE sestina?!

Quadruple sestina: Twenty-four 24-line poems. I wrote them. They were trash. I kept eight. But “summer somewhere” seeks to build an imagined paradise or heaven that is exclusive to murdered Black men and boys. And so there are those same themes of violence, but this time I’m much more interested in healing than I am in grieving—although that sense of grief is there. But then it contends with my own mortality. I was diagnosed with HIV in 2014, and a lot of the book stems from there, and this sudden shift that I had from this fear of the external world and what it would do to my body to now this internal view of what might body could do to itself. And so it wrestles with those differences; some of the poems I wrote when I got diagnosed, and I was trying to process and sort of learning to live with this virus and what it means to renegotiate mortality. And then there’re some poems that blur those two worlds together: What does it mean to be? To live in a world where the world and your body are both coming at you at the same time? So that’s the next book, and then, there’s a chapbook about friendship that’ll come out at some point. Maybe that’ll be a full book one day—I like writing about my friends.

So what’s that process like? Do you say, “I’m gonna write a book,” or do you write a poem at a time and then amass them? And then what’s the process of moving from “here’s a scrap of language” to “Here’s a poem” to “Here’s a collection that I’m gonna shape and organize and them present to the world?” What’s that movement?

Black Movie was very intentional about being a book. I wrote “Dinosaurs in the Hood,” in January 2014 and then a month later I was like, Oh, I wonder if I could do that again?! And for a long time that was my process. I have so many series of poems that will never see the world because they’re trash, but if I wrote one thing, I would always try to dig the well until it’s just empty. And so Black Movie was like “Dinosaurs in the Hood” happened—that was the first poem (it was the last poem in the book)—and the second was “Sleeping Beauty in the Hood” (which is the first poem in the book). I was really trying to dive into this idea, and I found myself obsessed with trying to write through this lens of film.

[Insert] Boy was just a modge podge: like, I want a book! And what could it be about? And it’s actually interesting; the version of the book that got accepted by YesYes is completely different than the version that eventually got published. I think there’s something like thirteen poems that were in what got accepted as compared to what actually got published, so basically a complete overhaul.

But yeah, I think a lot of times I do have that same question, like if I have a question I’ll write the poem I’ll know the poem doesn’t answer the question completely, and so its about trying to write those other poems that kind of complete the question that sort of make up the answer to that one simple question. But then sometimes it’s by accident, like this friendship stuff. It was very much by accident. I just looked up in the middle of summer and I was like, If I had to have a book right now—I was in my MFA program, so, I was like Oh, I have to write a thesis next year,soif I had to have a thesis tomorrow what would it be about? And I was like Oh, I got like thirty-five pages of new poems about friends, and oh, well this is half way there. But oftentimes, I don’t know what I’m interested in. A lot of times for me it’s the poem, then the poems, and then, eventually, maybe, the book.

Do you have a secret or a trick for organization of a collection? You have done it twice…

I know. You want me to reveal my tricks. My only secret is that I always try to end with joy. I understand that I write a lot about heavy stuff, but my only thing is that you should leave the book uplifted. Even if we move through hell and high water, I want always want people to leave the book feeling like something else is possible, and like we’re moving toward solutions, and feel like we’re moving toward joy. That’s my only thing with how I tend to order. So now, all the books I ever publish will tend to joy [Laughs]. It’s really the only thing. Otherwise it’s just about putting it all out there and asking the poems to talk to you, and really that’s kinda what my friends are for. I’ll be like, Listen, I feel this is where it’s supposed to start, this is how it ends, tell me how the middle goes …

What is something that keeps you sane outside of writing?

Cooking. Especially for other people. Or just for me. When I’m sad I make myself a steak. And working out. Which is new. (Well, it was like that, and then it wasn’t like that, and now it is like that again, where if I haven’t run for a couple days I’m very aware of it.) It helps to clear my head. And then, you know, I am a very big location person, and so I know that I’m not okay if I haven’t been to Minneapolis in a long time, and I think actually that’s where I need to live for the rest of my life, because I know how to be there. I know who I am there. And there’s nothing better than sitting on my porch with my grandma; we split a watermelon—and [Laughs] yes, that’s the most stereotypical thing I’ve ever said, but it’s totally true. We split that watermelon, and just watch people walk by.

If you could go back in time to any age and tell yourself something that you at that age needed to hear, what age would it be and what would you say?

Hmmm. I would go back and tell my 14-year-old self that it was okay to be nice, and you don’t have to be the loudest or the meanest person in the room in order to take care of yourself, because I was definitely mean. Like, if you made fun of everybody, then nobody could make fun of you. I’m nice now. And I’ve always been nice to homies, but I have a list of people that for our high school ten-year reunion, I have to go back and apologize to, say, I was mean to you for no reason. I actually really liked you, and I just didn’t know how to act as a human.

And I think I would go back, since we’re thinking about this, I would go back to 22- or 23-year- old- Danez, and tell him that it’s okay to slow down, and it’s okay to wait. You don’t need to try to rush everything. I tell my little homies in the literature world this, and they look at me like What are you talking about because you had a book at 23-24? But the act of slowing down is so important. I think I was in such a rush to have a something— especially getting caught up in between the literary and spoken-word worlds—I was so ready to have a book. I needed it at that moment, and I’m glad that it happened. It’s hard to regret your first book when it did well, but I was in such a rush. I think there are still ways in which I am very much at the beginning of my poetry career. These two books, like, I love them, but also I was just running and running and running, and I think I needed to take a breath and breathe.

And you’re breathing now! What advice would you give to the readers and viewers of The Fight & The Fiddle?

A good mentor of mine, Rafael Casal, said you should take in three times as much art as you output, which I find to be very true. Even when I’m stuck, I realize I haven’t gone to a museum in a while, or haven’t listened to music in a new way for a while or haven’t read a book in a new way for a while. And then, I think we’d talked about questions a lot, I keep a literal list of the questions I’m asking myself. And so if you figure out how you’re trying to figure out the world, I think your writing will figure out itself. I always have to know what I’m trying to look at in my daily life, and that sort of guides me to where I’m looking in my poems.

Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompts

downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014)

by Lauren K. Alleyne

“Listen like a safecracker, navigate
the intricate ruptures by ear …”
—from “Marginalia” by Gregory Pardlo

Pardlo cover _200px
Vol. 1, Iss. 1 | Gregory Pardlo | Summer 2017

A master of the image, Gregory Pardlo demonstrates how the poet’s eye can both arrest and transcend time. Consider a poem like “Double Dutch,” in which he describes the movements of a young girl playing thus: “the bells tied to her shoestrings rouse the gods / who’ve lain in the dust before the Dutch / acquired Manhattan. How she dances / patterns like a dust-heavy bee retracing / its travels in scale before the hive. How / the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope / slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.” This exquisitely rendered scene is a carnival of the senses—tantalizing the eye and ear, tickling the nostrils, throbbing with motion and touch—deliciously present. At the same time, the image draws us back to a time that predates the republic, juxtaposing the language of commerce, acquisition, and colonialism onto this girl’s body and its luminous enactment of liberty; it is a portal in and through time and, as Pardlo says, a “keyhole … the possibility of opening.”

Textured with history, myth, allusion, Pardlo’s poems also possess a wry self-reflexivity that reassures readers they are partners with the authorial voice on the journey of the poem, rather than spectators in an esoteric endeavor. However, readers are also expected to pull their own weight, as the poems are vehicles for dense explorations of the limits and complexities of the human condition. “I don’t know what is in me I can’t contain,” Pardlo writes in the ekphrastic poem, “Bipolar,” and indeed many of his poems are transcripts of seeking—the lyric artist painstakingly arranging and rearranging the units of language to code, recode, and question what exists and what lies beyond the known.

Pardlo read at James Madison University on March 23, 2017. In the studio earlier that day, he spoke with me about his projects, his process, and poetry as a means to discovery. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

At the University of Virginia last week, I attended a symposium—they’ve recently opened a center for poetry and poetics—and the subject of the inaugural symposium is the question I’m going to ask you right now: What is a poem? 

Well, in my workshops when I’m teaching, I have this exercise that I’m going to give away now, because it kind of gets students to back into the question of what is a poem. So I’ll say, “What’s a poem made of?” We can often start there. And somebody will say, “Words.” (Well, they’ll say a lot of other stuff—“feelings,” etcetera—but I say I’m trying to get to the materials, and then we’ll get to “words.”) Then I say, “Give me some words,” and then I start writing words on the board, all over the place, and it’s a big hodgepodge mess—some big, some small, some cursive. And I step back and I say, “How do you like my poem?” (Laughs.) And the responses are just fascinating. Some people get maaaad! (Laughs.) People get defensive; they get scared …

I say this to say a poem—how we define a poem—is more indicative of the individual’s own perceptions of her/his limits. So, for example, I’ve had students who come from self-professed strict backgrounds, and there’s a lot of fidelity to the idea of a poem. The poem has to be metered and rhymed, and it has to participate in the tradition in a very faithful way. Of course, no it doesn’t, but that’s what they’ve decided. And so what I want my students to do—and often when I’m teaching, I’m teaching myself—so I want my students to think about where they’re drawing the line in terms of how to define a poem, and to be responsible for it.

So. Your next question might be: where do you draw the line?

Where do you draw the line, Greg?

I want to keep finding that line. It becomes a problem when I think I know where the line is. As soon as I fool myself into believing—or being comfortable with, at any rate—the idea that I know what a poem is, then I’m in trouble! I have to always be in a state of doubt and suspicion.

I love that exercise and the collection of words. If you could try, though, how would you define what moves a collection of words, or a feeling, into the realm of the poetic, into a poem?

Well, that’s the thing. As soon as you have language, you have, arguably, poetry. Which is not to say you have intention. I’m very liberal about these things, and I’m open to the idea that at some point what matters is subjective, so what matters is who is looking at it. If I’m the one crafting the thing, I’m the one determining the parameters and the limits, but there’s also the reader involved, and so there’s found poetry all over the place, right? And none of that has any intention. It’s what we’ve projected on to it. When does it come into the realm of poetry? The reader can decide that it’s poetry. For me, when does it come into the realm of poetry? I’d say—and this isn’t entirely right yet—I’d say when there is a central image. I think about the image as a kind of keyhole into the larger poem. I don’t know what’s on the other side of that door, but there is a keyhole there and, therefore, there is the possibility of opening.

You said once that “a poem fails if it’s in service of the poet’s ego,” which is a really wonderful way of putting it. Who or what should a poem serve?

Well it shouldn’t serve the idea. I mean that’s what I advocate getting away from: the idea of the poem being in service of anything. Now, I recognize, too, that there are [other arguments] … I think back to W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous statement—“I don’t give a damn about any literature that’s not propaganda”—and certainly we’ve gone through the Black Arts Movement, where the work is put in service of some communal collective ideal. Great. But what I mean by the poem should not be in service of the ego is that the poem should not—or, rather, the person writing the poem should not wish to have him or herself viewed in a particular way by virtue of the poem.

So the poem is not a mirror of the author.

The poem is not a mirror of the author. Of course, it comes out of the author’s mind and imagination, but if I’m writing, for example, and I want the reader to think well of me, and, by the same token, if I want the reader to chastise me because I’m feeling guilty about something, then I’m using the poem in a way that skews it away from … I’ll use the word “art.”

In some sense, the poem is not in service of art, but its goal is art. Art is the thing that it’s moving toward. Maybe beauty?

Well, that’s the big fuzzy question, which is truth and beauty—how do we know when we’ve arrived there? And you know, I’m happy with it being a big fuzzy question.

How does the poem or the poet fit into the bigger picture, into the bigger organization of things? 

So, I will contradict myself. I think the poem, whether it’s intended or not, has an ethos, and that it’s in an ethical relationship to the context in which it is received; that is the culture, the society, the community. So whether or not I have an agenda for the poem, there is going to be a relationship to an environment. As benign as I may think my work is—say I’m writing about mountains and rivers—there is a relationship. That’s unavoidable.

When we recognize the poem has an ethos, my argument is that the poet has some—I’m hesitating to use the word “obligation”—maybe a responsibility to be conscious of the ethos, of how the poem is either affirming or undermining or in conversation with the dominant narratives of society. So if I am writing a poem to be in conversation with a normative notion of race or gender, and I should probably be aware of that, probably be conscious that those are the narratives that I’m operating in. Now the problem is that when you have these big sort of master narratives, it’s hard for most people to be aware of them because we’re so immersed in them. So I guess I think about it in terms of a process of getting to various degrees of self-awareness. There’s no way we can be aware of all the narratives that the poem is operating in, but in the process of writing the poem, I want to keep thinking about those narratives and how my poem is going to communicate within them. That has nothing to do with the content of the poem. I think there’s a difference. How do I explain this now? … Okay, so the metaphors that I choose, the way I construct the speaking voice on the page, the way that the world is seen, these can be entirely interior to or aside from the actual content or what the poem is about. But they, nonetheless, are participating in various narratives, so that’s where I put the idea of responsibility and ethos.

You mention the process: What is your process? How does a poem begin? How does it evolve? And how do you know it’s done? 

Well, I can answer the last part of that because I’ve thought about it an awful lot, and I know the poem is done when something happens in the poem that I did not expect. If what’s on the page is familiar to me and does not challenge my perception of the larger narratives or behavior, then the poem’s not done, and I have to keep working at it until something happens that was completely unexpected. The question of process … who knows? Who knows where this stuff comes from? (Laughs.) Sometimes I’m actually intentional about it, and I sit down at my desk and I’m going to start writing until something happens or something begins to happen. Other times, something in the world occurs, and … well, I’m a little cynical about this one, because, you know, anytime people find out you’re a poet, the minute something happens—somebody spills a glass of water—they’re like, “Oh! That’s a poem! You better write that poem!” And you’re like, “No! That’s not how it works!” (Laughing) I guess people want to be helpful; they want to contribute.

So you sit down to write, or something moves you, or somebody spills a glass of water, and you have your image. Walk me through what happens next. Are you writing line by line, are you writing to the image, are you writing to sound? All of the above? Longhand? Notebook?

Absolutely longhand. And it’s a combination. I can’t separate out the writing through sound versus image. But I’m always writing against logic, writing against the kind of predictable semantics. But then I’m also very often trying to capture a narrative. Then there are those times when we have our handy received forms that give us a starting point, you know, a sonnet or pantoum, or golden shovel, for example.

As you mentioned received forms, I’m thinking about modality in your work. And I’m really interested in it because in several interviews you’ve talked about the pain in the lyric, that it’s not without cost, a psychic cost. And many of your poems are lyric, but as you mentioned, you also write narrative, and you use the persona, and I’m interested in several questions there: Are there different costs within the different modes, and can you parse those out? How do you deploy mode? And given that it is costly and painful in that way, why are you drawn to the lyric, anyway?

The payoff is this moment of discovery when something happens that surprises me. I go to and read poetry for those moments, and so when I am writing poetry, it’s just another way of looking for that moment. But it’s a different story when I’m rooting around in my own head looking for these things. And so I guess, like I said, I’m always writing through sound, and if I’m writing through a received form it’s a kind of way of backing into an emotional danger zone, right? I always tell my students we have denial for a very good reason—to keep us sane, to keep us safe, so that we can move through our day with some measure of sanity. But my job when I sit down to write is to circumvent that wall. That wall is crafty! It doesn’t want anybody to get behind the lines, so I have to find ways, to trick myself or distract myself from the project by looking at/concentrating on craft for the first several drafts, then after a while, I can ask, what’s that?

So when you see what’s there, how do you know when the poem needs to be narrative versus persona versus lyric? Let’s take, for example, the wonderful poem “Alienation Effects.” That is an incredible persona, and a really unexpected one. Where did that come from and how/why did you make that choice of the persona?

Luis Althusser had a memoir, The Future Lasts Forever, which I came across in a bookstore and was flipping through. I’d read some of his work as a philosopher, and I was curious and was kind of being nosy, and I noticed this detail that he’d murdered his wife. And I was like, “WHAT?! How does that happen?” And I found myself thinking about it more and more, and so I didn’t know where it was going and the reason that it’s so long is that it took me so long to dig up what was hiding inside of it. I kept looking for something. I guess my clue is if I keep thinking about it, then there’s something there.

I’m still pushing you on mode, just because you choose his voice as opposed to your lyric curiosity or a narrative retelling of that story. 

It’s a device. I want to recreate my path to the surprise for the reader, and the way in—one part of that surprise. So if the way in was Luis Althusser, then that’s how it’s going to go down. And when it’s a lyric, when I’m backing in through a list of images, and after a while the images begin to coalesce into something, it’s like “Oh! Okay! That’s where that was going!” But I want to preserve, again, the process, the getting there.

That brings me to the question of the reader. Who are you imagining you’re writing for? And I say imagining because I know you’re not thinking Grandma might read this in order to compose, but I assume that we all have some sort of audience in mind. Your work is layered and textured with lots of references and allusions, so who are these folks? What do they need? What do you want them to come back with from the journey you’re taking them on?

Delight, and it’s horribly overblown or hubristic to say it, but enlightenment. I guess it’s something I aspire to. The reader is, I suppose, the younger version of myself that felt locked out, that felt underestimated, that felt dismissed. I’m writing the poem for that undergraduate who did not have a way in to classical literature, to canonical literature, but could have had a way in through pop culture or a curious question or a swinging lyric—and I want that kid to have access to the poem. Once, in this case, they get in there, I’m going to ask ‘em to do some work! I’m not carrying you! But, yeah, we’re going to work together. And I do want to maintain a sense of generosity. So, that said, I know there are readers who are not gonna stay with me, and that’s a sacrifice that I’m willing to make. And there are readers who are just not going to dig it, and that’s absolutely fine. It’s odd: the one thing I do not want is to be popular….

You do not want to be popular?!

(Laughing) The irony! The irony! It’s kind of cliché at the same time, right, so I’m thinking of Jonathan Franzen years ago rejecting the Oprah Winfrey book selection. I’m aware of the associations with elitism and ego when someone says, “I don’t want to be popular,” and maybe there isn’t a door out of that. How do you save yourself, Pardlo? Get out of this one! (Laughs.)

Well, here’s the thing. I don’t want to imagine a broad readership. I don’t want to intend a broad readership, because that is a disservice to the reader. I’m reducing the reader from a complex individual to a demographic. I’m flattening the reader out to an idea of “general people” and that is the disservice, that is the condescension. So I imagine a very unique reader with a very unique set of interests who is open to change and challenge and who is curious.

I want to go back to that kid you mentioned earlier. What was your first meaningful encounter with poetry?

Until very recently, actually, I have been telling people that it was when I got to Rutgers in Camden and took my first poetry workshop. But I was writing very bad rap lyrics in high school, as well. So I go back to seventh or eighth grade, when I wrote a rap song and a classmate saw it and convinced me that it had to be re-written in calligraphy, and I thought, That’s silly, but fine, sure, okay, you wanna do that? So he takes the paper and I never see it again. And it was really confusing to me. Why would anyone steal words on a page? That was a really productive moment—this stuff has that kind of value? People care like that about it? I was just having fun! But then recently in an interview someone asked me a similar question and somewhere at the back of my head Robert Louis Stevenson came to mind, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and I wondered, Why am I thinking about this book? And I kept thinking maybe I saw it somewhere recently or someone mentioned it, and I was talking to my mother some time after on the phone, and I was like, “Have you ever heard of this book, A Child’s Garden of Verses?” She says, “What? We read that book together every night! You love that book!” And then she started reciting—“Don’t you remember this poem?”—and she recited another. Now I’m getting choked up. But it was wild. Denial, right? The mind puts up these walls, and then says “Now you’re ready to know this.”

That’s beautiful. Who are some acknowledged patron saints of poetry, some folks on the other side of the denial wall, who taught you how to write?

Yusef [Komunyakaa], absolutely. He came to Rutgers in Camden where I was an undergrad at the time, and gave a reading and I was just like, What?! What just happened?! I was walking around in a daze. And the next day I rush to the bookstore, and I get Neon Vernacular, and I’m sitting on the bus in West Philly, weeping, because that keyhole that I’d been looking through had a world much larger than I’d anticipated. I think that’s one of the moments that I want to share. So Yusef was a big model for me in that regard. And then [Walt] Whitman. I was a big Whitman fan, I guess because of the largeness, the expansiveness, the inclusiveness; that was very attractive to me. And Hopkins. I remember reading [Gerard Manley] Hopkins and thinking, What is this guy doing? Why is he torturing the language like this? So I think what maybe if we’re looking for a connecting throughline, there’s a degree of intensity that I’m looking for.

What is the strangest place poetry has ever taken you?

You mean geographically or emotionally?

You once said your advice to poets is to travel, to go somewhere strange, and I had the same response you’re having right now: should poems make us travel to strange places in the world or in our own heads?

Well, certainly, since we were talking about “Alienation Effects”: that took me to some strange places. I dunno. It’s hard to say now because they’re no longer strange once I’ve gotten there. They’re strange in the process, but after … less so.

I can say that there are some poems that have done things in the world that I didn’t expect and never foresaw happening. So it’s interesting to get an email with a link to a YouTube video of some children reciting one of your poems. That’s taking me to some place really …

Where were these kids? Just out in the world memorizing poems?


That is wonderful. And strange. And wonderful!


The poet John Blake did a TED Talk about reading Marty McConnell’s poem, “Instructions for a Body,” and the last line (“Do not let the universe regret you”) was one of the motivations for him to reassess his life. I think that’s a big demand of poetry, but I ask the question because sometimes people have answers like that for it: Has a poem ever changed your life?

There was a poem that I came across, and it had meaning only to me, and it was, I remember, it was Pattiann Rogers’s “All the Elements of the Scene” and she broke the fourth wall, as it were, and I was like, You can’t do that! You know, so my parameters, or the line I’d been policing as to what is or is not a poem was at the level of addressing the reader, and when she broke that rule—made me aware of that rule—it gave me permission to do all kinds of things.

Let’s talk about essays. Did you finish the MFA in Creative Non-Fiction?

Yes, I’m polishing now. I’m in that stage where I could go on polishing for a very long time, but I’m painfully aware that at some point I have to let it go.

How are you finding writing in prose similar or different to poetry?

Digest led me to the essays. And I’m thinking about the sort of landscape of ideas that I could craft within an essay and the way that I could move rhetorically through an essay, the way that I could draw on various materials and all the stuff, everything; whatever you can do in an essay, you can do in a poem, right? But I dunno, there were a bunch of poets-turned-essayists and I guess I just wanted to experiment with the form and then got into it. I’ve been working on a PhD, too, and so I’d done a lot of academic writing, and I was frustrated with the limits of academic writing and I wanted to get out of that context and say, you know, Haha! I’m gonna do it anyway! I’m gonna do what I wanna do! and take the academic essay in a more lyric direction.

But I also had this story, this family story, that I knew I had not in any way addressed. I have one poem in Totem, “Winter After the Strike,” but that doesn’t go anywhere near the depth of the experience of the air traffic control strike in 1981, and I wanted to know more, too. I knew there was a world of knowledge that I didn’t understand, and didn’t have access to, and so the essay allowed me to do the research. But there are the same kind of demands of emotional surprise, the same thrills of transgressing against the form—and I know there are people very close to me who are going to say, “That’s not an essay, that’s way too lyrical, and you’ve gone off the rails!” But it’s fun: I enjoy it.

And so what do we have to look forward to? What’s ahead for Gregory Pardlo?

There are a couple of projects on the horizon. First, this essay collection. The other is a collection of poems that I’m loath to talk about because they’re dangerous for me—very dangerous for me right now. And that’s precisely why I have to pursue them. So there is that.

How exciting! A dangerous collection is brewing!

Dangerous for me. Other people probably won’t find it daunting or surprising. And there’s also a craft book.

Wonderful! Thank you for sharing!

Thank you for a great conversation!

Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompts

downloadLauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014).