Monday, July 25, 2011

An Interview with L. Lamar Wilson: Part 2

In June, Blast Furnace published Part 1 of a two-part interview with L. Lamar Wilson. Following is Part 2 of the interview.

In your CV posted to UNC Chapel Hill's website, noted was the title of your MFA thesis: All American: Poems. Could you talk a bit about the context of your thesis manuscript? What determined the title of it? Have you included some poetry from that thesis in the Sacrilegion manuscript that you have written? If so, have you seen any of the poems from the All-American thesis change since the time of submitting them for your thesis defense? At what point in your current manuscript, Sacrilegion, did you feel it was complete?

photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
All-American interrogated J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s definition of “American” in Letters from an American Farmer, which has shaped the fairy tale that has evolved in the centuries since its publication. It navigated identities and tropes considered cliché and culturally divisive in an era that wants to eschew the specter of race and difference still looming over us. It questioned the false sense of “middle-class” pluralism that pervades the politics of post-Obama Americanism. Its narratives probed racism, colorism, classism, homophobia, and gender and ability discrimination. Its personae gave voices and faces to those who’ve endured sexual abuse and other issues many suffer in silence. It used various forms, including the blues ballad, sonnet, haiku, ghazal, sestina and blank verse narrative, to give a relentless cadence and pulse to the voices of those facing ostracism, disease, disability and death in a world that too often portrays the elderly, infirmed and otherwise physically challenged as hapless, pitiful victims. Almost all of these issues were subtext in the narratives; homophobia and ability discrimination, which I know intimately, though, were explicitly named in poems like “Finding Fault” and "Cripple."

In the last year, the Southern Baptist I was raised to be began to contend with the contented queer man I've become in new pieces and voices. Sacrilegion was born of this time of revision and re-envisioning the project. Like All-American, Sacrilegion traverses the journey of four generations of a family that has arisen from slavery to what I like to call "homeland security" (bka land wealth) in a rural town that has become a socioeconomic and agricultural wasteland. Sacrilegion is about 70 percent of All-American, heavily nipped and tucked. At its center is a speaker’s discovery of a multiracial ancestry, resulting from the undocumented miscegenation typical of the Deep South; his grappling with and acceptance of his sexual identity and a congenital physical difference that he was raised to ignore in order to survive that town’s (and the world’s) –isms; and his reclamation of his body as whole and divine in the wake of the 21st-century HIV scourge that racks his life and the lives of the men he loves in the urban centers he discovers in adulthood. This speaker follows 20th-century African-American writers' tradition of staking claim on a nation that continues to treat those who do not reflect stereotypes as others or outsiders, a tradition pioneered by giants Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and lesser-knowns like Fenton Johnson and Helene Johnson.

He sings of a different America, where boys and men lurk late and die too soon in their quest for human mirrors of love. Through his journey from child to adult, remixed in the vocal montage format Hughes mastered in bringing Harlem’s despair to life, Sacrilegion also asks the questions most black male poets I love ask: What makes a black man a man? How do black men learn to love themselves and find love in a nation in which their self-actualization poses a threat?

What makes this manuscript different in answering these questions is that an engaged, loving black father’s presence, not absence, offers this speaker resolve to face an unkind world while simultaneously complicating his process of self-acceptance, not because of the father’s physical abuse or neglect but because of his modeling a masculinity that the speaker will never be able to perform. That comes together most powerfully for me in "Giving Up the Ghost," a culmination in the manuscript of two men who love each other “watching from afar / as the other falls over himself, possessed by something / in some holy face calling us away from our right minds, / our bodies, our manhoods’ limitations.”

All that said, have you ever met anyone who always has be the smartest person in the room and who'll inherently shift the focus of any conversation to himself? I know him well because I used to be him. That's where I chose to go to protect myself from the verbal attacks and judgment of others, and that's where All-American was mired. In that space of “Look at me. Look at what I've been through.”

I know many writers who thrive in this space and publish best-selling work from it, and granted, all writers have their share of a necessary hubris and narcissism, but art that lives beyond its creator's ego and lifetime must incite readers to say, if only unconsciously in the reading, “I see myself in this field, in that basement, in that hospital bed. How did s/he know I felt that way?” That's what makes readers return to the classics we call timeless. That's what I'm aiming to create and re-create now. Those who know spiritual and emotional isolation and verbal abuse as I've known it often find human interactions difficult to trust, enter, navigate and sustain. How one breaks free of that is what I'm hoping Sacrilegion articulates. I'm praying that it more than adequately invites readers into the multiracial, hyper-religious, queer and disabled experience in ways they haven't been and makes them see their way into, through and out of their own quandaries. Moreover, I am interested in both learned and everyday readers. Because my natural diction often errs on the multi-syllabic, multi-phasal prosaic side, I work hard in my poems to make each line clean and lean.
So when will Sacrilegion be complete? When whoever opts to publish it says I can’t revise it anymore. Or when, if that publisher never comes calling, I decide it's ready enough to publish it myself. It’s taken me a very long time to answer your insightful questions. I mull and revise incessantly anything that I write. I’m not sure I’ll ever stop trying to refine Sacrilegion. Maybe I’m making it very hard for myself to publish this book by tackling Southern black Judeo-Christianity in the plainspoken way that I do. Maybe I'll never fully get beyond “Look at me” as I desire. Nonetheless, I’m most interested in clearly articulating and excavating the psychic trauma that grief and these –isms can have until one begins the journey to healing. Many writers mask what I’m naming in metaphor or otherwise make it voyeuristically pleasurable for readers, and there’s a place for their work in the canon. I’m not here, though, to entertain you. I'm praying, though, that I can inspire you to take off your masks and heal, too.

Could you speak a bit on your writing craft? Is your approach in writing poetry different than your approach to writing nonfiction, for example? In addition to your personal history, where do you seek inspiration?

Everything I write stems from the same hunger for the words apropos for the moments at hand and those I’m trying to recapture. Poetry is the most challenging genre for me, which is why it remains an obsession. I grew up having to tackle physical tasks that were difficult for me but seamless for others and feeling like I had to make it look seamless, too. I’m always on the hunt for a challenge. Essays and other types of creative nonfiction come most naturally. Even fiction, with all of its demands (characterization, conflict, plot, dialogue, etc.), is less taxing. On the one hand, I’ve always loved the sentence, how one can say so much with so few words, how another can wow and unlayer as it sprawls. But poetry and its syntax demand economy and clarity, especially in complex, lyric pieces’ sentences; even epic narratives must have mystery to succeed. Another part of the challenge that draws me to poetry is the emotional honesty I demand of it. Contrivance turns me off quickly; one hint of it, and a poem is done for me. In this way, I embrace that my poetry will, for the foreseeable future, be rooted in story and song because in them my work is most aesthetically pure. It’s funny how I still thrive on everything I fell in love with in those African-inspired Greek tragedies that I read and those plays I made up as a small child.

Even now, as I type, I’ve just realized that a baby bat has somehow gotten trapped in between my windowpane and the screen that was supposed to have kept him or her out of the rut that he or she is in. I can’t help seeing my own journey in his or her struggle for freedom. I can’t help wanting to honor our struggles, their uniqueness, their universality, in this response. Once I finish these sentences, I’ll call the apartment super and see how we can set him or her safely free, even as I know that in this heat and at this height from the ground, it’s going to be almost impossible to save him or her. But I’m not calling anyone or going anywhere until I write these sentences, until I meditate on the beautiful quandaries we sentient beings, with all our desires and curiosities, get ourselves into on any given moment in any given day. Moments like this one inspire me. They are what keep me writing, even if I fail, even if no one thinks my musings are good enough to share beyond my sharing them. I’m trapped in this cycle of writing the world as I see it. I’m spent on many a day, yet I don’t know where else to turn but to another page or blank screen. So here we are. Right where we want to be. Together, if worlds apart.

Your CV indicates you're a very busy man. How do you balance writing, teaching, panel presentations, readings, and your personal downtime?

You know the answer to this better than many: not as well as I should. I’m learning to say “No” and “Not right now” to myself and others more. I’ve been in catch-up mode since 2007 when I decided to marry lives in journalism, creative writing and literary criticism. I have a soundtrack for everything I do, though I’m old-school and have chosen not to buy an iPod. I’m concerned about crashing into someone or something while I’m scrolling through it trying to find Celia’s “No Encuentro Palabras” when I can’t think clearly or when I’m especially giddy about some prospective beau and need Gladys and her Pips’ “Love Overboard.” Instead, every car I own or rent must have satellite radio or at least a six-CD changer, preferably both, and all of the essential music has been downloaded to my laptop’s iTunes when I’m at home in solitude.

To wind down, I put on Amel Larrieux, Cassandra Wilson or Lizz Wright, and I inevitably end up crying. To weep (or “ugly cry,” as I grew up calling it), I play Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers, Phyllis Hyman, Mahalia Jackson, the Clark Sisters or any gospel, really.

To shuffle along, I put on the pop-gospel girls Dionne or Barbra or Whitney, except if I put on Aretha or Luther or Patti—we have always been on a first-name basis with each other, you see—I’m crying or weeping in no time.

To groove, LaBelle, Isaac Hayes, the Eurthymics or Fleetwood Mac do me right. If I’m really feelin’ like sweating, I’ll add Fela Kuti, Ulali, early solo-Michael Jackson, Ms. Janet (especially when she’s nasty; “Throb” on repeat is heaven!), the funkmasters Parliament, Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly Stone and ’nem, Fatback, Basement Jaxx, Moby or my favorite Booty Mix of 1990s hits (especially “The Butt,” “Daisy Dukes” or anything Uncle Luke blessed).

To laugh, any blues record I can find suffices, especially those of James Cotton, Etta James or Millie Jackson, who may have missed her comic calling.

When the writing gets most intense, though, I can only stand to hear the whir of my laptop’s fan and hard drive and the tapping of its keys. The music in my head is enough for me to get my groove on.

Talk about your connections to your professors at Virginia Tech, particularly Nikki Giovanni and Bob Hicok. You've worked with them on at least one project during or since receiving your MFA from Virginia Tech. Could you talk about the project?

Bob is a fiery tennis player; Nikki says she is pretty good, too, but we’ve never gotten to play. I miss Bob telling me, “Just [bleep]in’ say it,” so I have to say it to myself now. Halfway through my program, I was blessed to take an independent study on the Black Arts Movement with Nikki in which I discovered and fell in love with Carolyn Rodgers, A.B. Spellman and Henry Dumas. Around the same time, I was in Bob Hicok’s poetry workshop, where I became enamored with Mary Oliver and W.S. Merwin, and deepened my appreciation for Yusef Komunyakaa. For her 100 Best … But I Cheated, Nikki chose a poem I wrote in this difficult season. Amid all this intellectual wonder, I thought my mother was dying of breast cancer. I wrote that poem in one sitting in one afternoon in which first she and then Bob said the words Bishop also says to us all (“Write it!”) in their own singular ways. It’s called “Ars Poetica: Nov. 7, 2008.” My mother and her illness are not mentioned in the poem. I still couldn’t say “it” then, but I did say a lot of other things that needed to be named, including my very subtle critique of Wallace Stevens’ "Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery" and poems of its milieu (thank goodness Terrance Hayes re-engaged this dialogue in Lighthead), and my very explicit critique of HIV antiretroviral medications in what my friend, soul singer Donnie Johnson, calls our “over-the-counter culture.” I don’t talk to Bob, Nikki or Donnie as much as I’d like, but I sure wish I could get the former two at a dinner table to discuss poetry. I owe a lot of everything I do to both of them and their fearless, peerless wisdom.

Since I’ve moved on from VT, Nikki has invited me to be part of an amazing tribute to Lucille Clifton and has been very supportive of my scholarly work on the New Negro Renaissance and Black Arts writers we studied together as I pursue a PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill. In addition, I’m part of a cohort of Bob’s students, past and present, who are editing and reading submissions for Toad, an emerging literary journal we conceptualized last spring and launched early this year. Our third issue has recently gone live.

You are Copy Editor for Torch. In theAboutsection on the journal's website, it statesWe prefer our contributors to take risks and offer a diverse body of work that examines and challenges preconceived notions regarding race, ethnicity, gender roles, and identity.” Taking risks and challenging preconceived notions come to mind when reading your poetry. As a writer, would you say you have an unspoken mission statement for yourself? If so, what would that mission statement be?

What I say to myself (and to anyone who’ll listen): If you’re not trying to transform others with your words, stay away from the page or mike, and please don’t ask me or anyone else for your time and attention. A lot of what I read is obviously trying to impress a small group of people who write and publish contemporary poetry. Every book I love pulses with a desire to connect with and transform the worldviews of any given person who encounters its words. Every book I love is holy. Timeless. Anointed. Lives. Haunts. That’s what I’m striving to create.

P.S. Amanda Johnston, “somebody loves you, baby. You know who it is …”

When did you see your first poem get published? Which poem was it, and in what publication? When did you first realize you had written something that impacted others? In what way? In receiving your many recognitions, awards/prizes, scholarships and fellowships, is there one that stands out as being particularly meaningful to you? Which one, and why?

Thank you for the opportunity to say the name Randall Horton, who is unmatched, in my experience, in his humility with and generosity to young poets, particularly those of color. His Reverie, for Midwestern writers, published a very raw, Blacks-Arts-inspired critique of my first run-in with crazy, racist cops called “Drive-by.” (Unfortunately, there have been far too many others all over the Southeast as recently as last month.) It’s a piece whose craft is far from what most journals (and honestly what I now) would consider skillful, but he saw the heart in it—he sees and respects it in us all—and decided to share it with Reverie’s readers. The best part is that two years later, he’s the same ol’ Alabama-bred, D.C. homeboy with the coolest hats. He’s still telling the world, “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.” Even after earning his PhD, winning an NEA grant and starting other journals and a host of other projects. Man, what a gift!

Since I’ve started this journey with poetry, I have been sufficiently and thankfully humbled by the brilliance and generosity of Randall and so many others, and recognition has come at times when I was most discouraged. These hints here and there let me know that I’m doing something that intrigues those judging various contests or editing various journals. I’ve been a finalist for, but not won, prizes from New Letters, Crab Orchard Review and Knockout. Virginia Tech honored some poems with its top MFA prize, and, of course, now there’s Cream City Review’s prize. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I, too, want to win an NEA grant someday, but that’s mostly for the freedom it allows one to write without doing work that distracts from it. I’m a hard worker. I often have had to work two or three gigs simultaneously to pay the bills that I’ve accumulated as I pursue my dreams. Prominent editing jobs and giving liberally to those I love may make it seem as though I am well-off, but I drank the whole “It’s better to give than to receive” Kool-Aid as a child. For better or worse. One thing I know: I always have what I need when I need it, boundless love included.

Speaking of supplying my needs, speaking of unmatched love, there’s Cave Canem, my extended family. I returned earlier this summer from my last journey to a retreat whose power and wonder I can’t begin to put into words. If I start naming all of the beautiful CC people, in addition to Randall, who’ve touched me with their own work and in their support of mine, I’d lose track and count of time and space. But I’ll just say, thank God for Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady and Carolyn and Sarah Micklem's vision and for Alison Meyers, Camille Rankine and Hafizah Geter’s day-to-day commitment to that vision. The Cave Canem workshop is the only one in which I’ve seen women and men of all shades of the diaspora, sexual identities, socioeconomic backgrounds and belief systems loving, respecting and demanding the best of one another without hesitation or apology. Aside from those experiences, you and others pulling me aside after my AWP reading and stopping me on the streets of D.C. to say that my words resonated are probably the greatest gifts I’ve received thus far as a writer. There truly is no place like that home, like Cave Canem.

What rules, if any, do you have in your writing classroom, particularly the workshop? What advice do you give about writing to your students? Whats the most vital advice someone gave to you when you were an undergrad and graduate student?

My primary classroom rule is that students approach the page—their own and especially those of others—with sincerity and investment. When writing, I demand that they be true to their conceits, and when responding to others’ writing, I demand that they not respond reflexively from unacknowledged aesthetic biases to their peers’ work. One of my Cave Canem teachers, Claudia Rankine, helped me articulate how to examine the logic in a poem most clearly to my students. I have read enough work in a number of genres as an editor, student and bibliophile that I tend to adapt my lesson plans to my students’ individual needs and to the collective tenor of the class. In short, I stress the importance of clarity of purpose and openness to revision. If you’re in a workshop, you should expect feedback, respect the time and attention of those who give it to you and with whom you share it, and commit yourself to careful consideration of how readers’ responses jibe with your desired responses. It all starts there, though, staying sensitive to your impulses, getting to the root of the purpose driving them and seeing that purpose through as best you can.

All that said, I understand that many of my students are still in the gathering and purging phases, both of which are essential to art-making. College may be the first place that they are allowed to truly sort through their lived experience and its residue in their current decision- and art-making. I don't expect what I've defined here as art from every one of them, but I encourage them to consider invitation to an audience as much as I can in their quest for excavation of their own truths.

To that end, the best advice I've been given throughout all of my schooling? “Don't waste your time—or mine.” 

How is your progress with your PhD? What are you writing now? What do you envision for your future in the literary world? Do you have a specific goal you are working towards, or a dream you hope to make a reality?

I’m a few weeks into my second year in the program and my last semester of coursework. If all goes well, I’ll take my written and oral exams and get my prospectus approved in the next year-and-a-half. Then I’ll have a couple of years to complete the dissertation, though I’m already shaping chapters now as I write papers for my classes. I came into the program with a pretty clear vision of my project as a comparatist and Caribbean- and African-Americanist, though I’m developing a theoretical lens through which I can contextualize my close readings of poetry from the early 20th century as I examine how poets of color eulogize their dead and how white poets effigize the black bodies, living, imagined and dearly departed, that haunt them.

My ultimate dream is to return to the region, ideally the town, in which I was raised and offer young people what I didn’t have growing up: a scholar and creative writer of color in their midst who can at once be an example of what is possible for them given their innate small-town charisma and wisdom and a voice that demands that they do more than I have done to tear down the walls of institutional –isms that are tailor-made to protect the status quo there. I may have a hard row to hoe to see this dream through, but I’m going to live every minute believing it’s possible. Otherwise, I’d despair, and I’ve had enough of the madness and paranoia despair inspires.

Of the courses that you currently teach, which is the most challenging for you as instructor and why? What has been most rewarding about teaching?

Composition courses are difficult for a host of reasons, chief among them limited time with a sizable group, pedagogical gestures one has to make to one’s institution, and students who are only taking the classes because they’re prerequisites.

The most rewarding experience has been inspiring a majority of the cynics and skeptics I've taught, many of whom have often BSed their way through high school, to invest in one or more pieces of prose so much that they find themselves returning to their sentences again and again to perfect them over a 15-week period. Every semester, reading their final portfolios and letters about the course’s impact moves me to tears. Very seldom do they pander. I’m so open and direct with them about my expectations from Day 1 that they soon realize that their masks won’t protect them in my courses. Reading their polished work, then, is the greatest reward.

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  1. This is an outstanding review about a standing out person!
    Thanks, Lamar, for being so great-tious!
    Karen (H/W)