Saturday, June 11, 2011

An Interview with L. Lamar Wilson: Part 1

It was at the Washington, D.C. Association of Writers and Writing Programs' (AWP) 2011 conference that Blast Furnace first heard L. Lamar Wilson read his poetry. The title of the session featuring him and a handful of other talented writers: "Courting Risk: A Multicultural/Multi-Genre Reading."

His CV testifies to an extensive variety of conference presentations and readings, as well as numerous awards and honors: twice a finalist for the New Letters Poetry Prize; twice a recipient of the National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award for copy-editing; a 2009 International Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize Finalist; a previous recipient of the Emily Morrison Poetry Prize from Virginia Tech; and the list goes on.

In further researching Lamar, we learned he's also a writer of non-fiction, including newspaper feature stories, editorial essays and book reviews. Currently a PhD student at the University of North Carolina (UNC)-Chapel Hill, where he is a teaching fellow, Lamar is also a Cave Canem fellow who has received two Callaloo Writers Workshops fellowships (in 2007  & 2010), among numerous other fellowships and scholarships.

Lamar's poetry is published or forthcoming in several journals and anthologies, including jubilat, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review and 100 Best African-American Poems, edited by Nikki Giovanni. His essays have appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Washington Post, where he has served as a part-time copy editor.

Blast Furnace presents an interview with L. Lamar Wilson in two parts: Part 1, below, and Part 2, which will be posted in September...so please check back with us then to read it in its entirety.

photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Tell about your family backgroundwhere you were born, where you grew up. In some of your poems, a mother and father are mentioned, and in "Dreamboys," a brother and nephew.

I grew up on a farm in a small town in North Florida. I'm the youngest of my parents' four children, though I have a godbrother, ten years my junior, who was raised as their own, and several cousins and best friends of siblings for whom our home was a second home. My parents, siblings and I remain very close, and my elder brother and two of his sons were inspirations for that poem. I often wonder how they'll respond when they read it, especially my nephews, who are now in their teens, but the urgency to convey how parenthood has transformed my brother made writing it so important. It began as a blank verse exercise in a Form and Theory course with Lucinda Roy at Virginia Tech, where I earned my MFA. That form, I've learned, best harnesses my Southern-bred discursiveness, which sometimes weakens a line. The "I"s in my poems are often close to me, though they are not always autobiographical. I honor what a poem needs to succeed beyond my experience in inviting readers into the emotional terrain that inspired it.

What is your earliest memory of writing, and what did you write at that time? Was E. Lynn Harris your main influence, as you've written about him (including a tribute)? Or who or what was influential for you in prompting you to write things down? Did the writing begin as poetry, or did you write in other genres first? Who was the first poet you read who gave you chills?

My earliest memories involve phonic lessons with my grandmother and great aunt, Mary and Eldorado, affectionately called MaMary and Tudda. They were recently retired elementary school teachers. Their home schooling made preschool, kindergarten and most of first grade a cinch. As for creative writing, I composed original fairy tales orally and performed them for the elders in my rural community outside the city limits. I was playwright, lyricist, director, stage manager and lead actor, and I improvised a great deal. (My cousins, who rounded out the cast, always humored me and played along.) There was as much song and dance as there were spoken lines, so maybe musical theater was my first love?

My first memories of reading independently were of fiction. I loved Curious George and the Bobbsey Twins, how they'd amble about town and escape all kinds of trouble unscathed. Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown's knack for solving mysteries by careful reasoning in solitude thrilled me, too. He shared my first name, and although my family always referred to me by my middle name, I hated being teased at school for being a bookworm named "Laaaaaaaay-Roy." It wasn't until I learned about my deceased grandfather's courage at the height of the sharecropping era to buy large expanses of the land on which his wives' ancestors had been "Massa" and slave that I began to take pride in it. (My birth grandmother, Noretha, died shortly after my father was delivered, and her beloved cousin, MaMary, raised my dad. MaMary continues to inspire me at nearly 106.)

My first original text was titled The Mysterious Shadow. It was a Halloween tale; my mother still has it somewhere. The first poem I remember being awestruck by was an excerpt from Longfellow's epic "Song of Hiawatha"; the first poem I remember being giddy over was the nonce verse "One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night." Both were in my elementary school reader. MaMary and Tudda were particularly fond of the latter poem. By then, I also had many blues songs in my head because of Tudda, who was not too sanctified to admit she still loved the blues. "You mannish boy! I don't care," she'd sing to me when I'd put up a fuss about the pickled beets she'd put on my plate. Every Easter, I was Jesus because he had the most lines and I had an impeccable memory. (That Jesus complex still persists, unfortunately. Thank God for Rickey Laurentiis' "You Are Not Christ.")

I was put to work as writer, orator, singer and trumpeter in regional and state church conventions from the time I could enunciate and perform to MaMary’s satisfaction, which is ironic because I’m very shy when faced with public speaking and performance now. I became self-conscious about standing in front of an audience around puberty. At that point, my “sweetness,” as they called it, became more apparent as did the extent of my left hand’s paralysis as a result of a congenital spinal cord injury. I was respected as “smart” for what one hand could do and teased as “a crippled sissy” for what the other could not. I still struggle with the fear of being teased, but I don’t let it inhibit me anymore from opportunities to share my gifts.

I discovered Mr. Harris at Florida A and M, my undergraduate alma mater, and met him months before he died when he visited Virginia Tech. His novels, especially Just as I Am, were guilty pleasures at FAMU, dreamscapes for me to enter and imagine my happily-ever-after. As I tried to convey in my Washington Post piece, his narratives resonated with me less and less over time, but I'll always appreciate him for his generous spirit and for making same-gender-loving life less foreign to my people, who are at once intrigued and reviled by how we love.

As I revise my first collection of poems, I return to the work of Lucille Clifton a lot, which has become cliché to say since her transition. Nonetheless, readers connect with the work she produced at every stage of her career. It resonates across generations, racial lines and educational levels. Folk from my little country town who’ve had little schooling love her, and all astute academic poetry readers I know appreciate her plainspoken brilliance. I had an opportunity to meet her the summer before she transitioned, but I was unable to make the trip, hoping I'd have another chance. Every time I read her poetry, she won’t let me feel sorry for myself. Her work reminds me to focus on seizing the time I have to find the precise, timeless words, that they'll speak long after I'm done with this body's work.

When we met, you'd mentioned you've experienced people close to you battle and succumb to AIDS. Is writing about it cathartic? How have others respondedin hearing you read, or in reading itto your writing about it?

I'm not sure I'd call it cathartic, in the classical sense of purging, but writing poems like "Woe Unto You, Sons," "In the Lion's Den," and "It Could Happen to Anyone, or a Letter to the Boy" has helped me accept that my beloveds chose, as many do, to keep their journeys with HIV and AIDS private, even though we were so conversationally intimate about seemingly every other aspect of our lives: faith, family, work, dating, play. Not a day goes by that I don't miss each of them. Like most writers I know, I live a pretty isolated life, so they are my poems' first readers. I imagine them laughing and crying with me. I've lost several, at least five, in the past two years alone, and newly positive brothers keep finding me on their journeys to healing. When I'm writing about how it feels to have the specter of HIV hanging over your head—which every man faces, consciously or subconsciously, when he enters or is entered by another man sexually, even with the sheath of safety protecting him—I'm trying to articulate what I've seen in the eyes of those I've loved that they can't say. I intuit it long before the extent of their illnesses can no longer be hidden. I'm trying to name that cross so that others, especially black women—to whom J.L. King and his ilk have done a great disservice—can understand the paradox of sexual intimacy among black men in an era when, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 16 will be diagnosed with the virus in his lifetime. That one in 32 black women face the same diagnosis speaks to the shame that keeps important conversations from taking place across gender lines, too. The least respected among us are those, like me, like my beloveds, who cannot hide how we choose to love, who cannot and don't want to feign anything other than our own truth. We are often, even among our own people, seen and treated as weak and expendable and easily forgotten. Well, I won't go easily. I know that much is true.

My friends who have not transitioned tell me I'm brave for writing about these issues, I believe, because they love me. They rarely critique the craft or clarity of the poems, which I always welcome. But I had one professor in my MFA program outright ask, "Do you have AIDS?" I simply told the professor no; I didn't bother explaining the difference between HIV and AIDS. I was more interested in the success of the poem before us than leading an HIV/AIDS seminar. Honestly, that kind of response can incite a stifling paranoia, if you let it, but I keep close at all times the words of those whose courage I'm honoring: my beloveds, Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, Reginald Shepherd, Miguel Algarin, Gary Fisher, Marvin K. White, Tim'm West, D.A. Powell, Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Nikki Giovanni and Lucille Clifton goad me. I like to slip those women in there, though I know nothing of their experience with HIV, because I love how they say whatever is on their minds without apology but with a sense that readers are waiting, eagerly, for what they have to say. I hope to never stop doing that, fiercely speaking and inviting others to listen. The poems I return to invite me into the lives and minds they mine and simultaneously usher me into the recesses of myself, awaken something there that I must name, that I must interrogate. I can only pray that my work inspires that kind of introspection and makes others want to live closer to their own truths. Catharsis for others is more important to me than my own.

You write a good deal about your black heritage, being a gay man, and disability pertaining to your hand. Have you encountered prejudices about the content of your work in that regard? Were you able to write boldly about your sexuality from the onset, or did you go through a period in your life where you felt you needed to either censor or hide your writing because being gay was viewed negatively (while in many societies/social and religious circles, it is still regarded in this way)? How did you overcome that fear?

It took a long time, at least five years, to get where I am with my sense of what risks I take well and those I've not yet mastered, those I need to tackle. I'd like to hope I still am discovering things lurking within that need naming. But the journey began in earnest when I was a senior at FAMU, where I was a hard-working, church-going, closeted, queer virgin, newspaper journalist and English student. Amid all that sexual and intellectual exploration and brilliance (any good university has its share of both), I was generally miserable and wanted to die. I never took a creative writing class (though among its amazing faculty is Rick Campbell) because I never wanted anyone to know how very sad I was, but I wrote a lot about wanting to die and read a lot of James Baldwin, who reminded me what love can do to keep death at bay. I'm not sure if my journalism colleagues could sense my struggle amid all the singing, working and excelling I did to keep myself afloat, to keep moving toward my dream: then an editing job at a mainstream, top-10 daily. Music remains my muse and balm. My senior year, during Christmas season, I discovered the songbook of Donny Hathaway, and I learned that he fell from the Essex Hotel's 15th floor, possibly listening to the voices in his head.

I'm not schizophrenic, as he had been diagnosed, but I know how voices in your head can tell you life isn't worth living, that what you have and who you are isn't enough. I started writing to silence those voices. I keep writing to transform them.

Once I moved after college to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and discovered that city's slam stars Dasha Kelly, Dan Vaughn, Kwabena Nixon, Miss Jazzi and Ernest Gibson at Club Mecca, I entered that scene as a reporter, hook singer and trumpeter. (I played and sang on one of Dasha's albums and was often called up to do a hook in between the other artists' verses. I also started a small feature on the scene in the Journal-Sentinel, where I was a copy editor.) One night at Mecca, I decided to share one of my depressing epic poems. It was a heartfelt but very flawed piece by the standards I know today. I figured that since the crowd was accustomed to poems about other male amateurs' love of vaginas, surely they could handle my piece about a thug who abandons his male lover, who was what we call a snap queen. (It wasn't autobiographical, though everyone assumed it was.)

When I came down from my impassioned reverie of song and verse, only Dan, Kwa, Dasha and a few others stood around me. The once-packed room was mostly empty. They gave me love for my courage, and then Dan, who was hosting, told me to never read a poem like that again without warning him so that he could prepare the crowd. That was my first lesson, as an adult, in paying attention to one's audience. After that, I continued to write privately. Ultimately, I didn't break free of a lot of my fears of rejection until I moved to Atlanta, where I was faced with a great deal of rejection along with my own mortality and that of friends and family in 2006 and 2007. I went into a deeper seclusion to cope with it, writing more still, going about life as if I were A-OK, buying a house, sending birthday jingles and cards, working so very hard to convince myself all would be well. If you tell yourself something long enough, which is a different perspective on prayer and faith, I suppose, your body and mind listen. After about a year, I began to emerge from that deep funk and decided I truly wanted to live and live well. I haven't looked back, though I still face bouts of the doldrums from time to time and get mired in life's minutiae. Even now, I still speak at times from a place of grieving when I don't intend to, and I sometimes forget to count my many blessings. Those who are for me, who see the potential of the work and the loving heart of the person behind the poems, check me and remind me how much I have to give thanks for. They keep pushing me to see the love all around me. Those who don't give a damn disperse and gossip, I suppose. But I keep reaching for light, inside and outside myself, and worry less and less about the narratives others might spin. As Mary Oliver writes in "Heavy," one of my favorite poems from Thirst, "That time / I thought I could not / go any closer to grief / without dying / I went closer, / and I did not die. / Surely God / had His hand in this."

Studying at Virginia Tech helped me a great deal with understanding the craft and aesthetic evolution of poetry from the African-inspired Greeks' musical theater (see, we all start there, don't we?) to the present day, and it was at my first Cave Canem retreat in 2008 that I began to try to find a way into this work, to lend my voice to the conversation. My fellow workshoppers Jamaal May, Evan Burton, Cedric Tillman, Kevin Vaughn, Iain Haley Pollock, E.J. Antonio, Myronn Hardy and Lillian Bertram were very supportive and pushed me to keep digging. So many others there encouraged me. I haven't stopped. Every time I write, I'm freer of fear of others' ability to define who I am. In fact, responding to these questions has done a great deal of help. Thank you.

In your poetry is a tension between religious and sexual ecstasy, from the perspective of an "I" who's a gay man, and whose backstory is having grown up in the church. In particular, there is a respect or reverence present in your writing for religious zeal, or faith, while the poems simultaneously express that same reverence about physical intimacy. Of note are the subtle, but deliberate placements of hymn lyrics, such as those from "Amazing Grace" and "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power," as well as a line from Psalm 139 in some of your pieces. Talk about that tension, and how it continues to be a territory from which you write.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a force more powerful and vast than I can imagine that keeps all in order amid the chaos that our humanity creates, that keeps my mind and body well even when I do not rely on (wo)man-made remedies. I cannot rationalize away this power, which I felt inside and outside myself long before I learned the names of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Allah, Jehovah, Moses, Yemaja, Oshun, Osiris, Zeus and Confucius, all of whose teachings and ethos I have studied. I was raised in a church with a very apostolic, shouting pastor who transformed a very traditional, conservative group of Missionary Baptists into borderline hyper-conservative Pentecostals. I never could shout or speak in tongues, so to some I'm not really "redeemed," especially as an openly queer lover of Millie Jackson. To my childhood friends, though, I had a direct connection to Peter, God and heaven's gates, and my presence in their house parties could keep them out, so I wasn't welcome. I secretly popped it to Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Brandy and slow-dragged to Luther Vandross and Isaac Hayes with an imaginary partner I hadn't yet met in the sanctity of my bedroom.

I've wanted to feel this power within myself and to share it with an equally divine mind and body, breathing and kneading and yearning in sync with my divine mind and body, as long as I can remember, as much as that pastor and his wife, now nearly 90 years young, do, I presume, and as much as those grown-up children, now in their 30s and 40s, do. When I write, I'm railing against all who argue that our universal desire for communion with this all-consuming power within ourselves and with others, regardless of gender or other identity markers, is unholy. I choose to identify this God as one who is without gender, or [is] at least all genders, and I worship when I can at Baptist and Methodist churches that give me glimpses of the range of community, song, dance, emotionality and silence that have helped me withstand all that would end my journey on this side of forever. Some call it faith, some soul, some go-go. (Smile, Thomas Sayers Ellis.) But what I feel when I write is the same thing felt by those who wrote and rewrote books in the canonized and not-canonized bibles billions study. I'm not sure if or where my work will fit into the poetic canon's sanctioned bibles, if I'll be revered by everyday people and world's best poets like Clifton and Oliver. "In the beginning was the [W/w]ord ..." Well, it's the only salvation I care to know.

Do you ever worry about your work being pigeon-holed because of its subject matter? Have you encountered rejection of your work because of its content, or have you seen a shift occur over time where literary journals and editors are more open to work that takes risks such as yours?

I face a lot of rejection in life in general. At times I can be a bit serious, sad and intense and more than a little too forthcoming in conversation, but I've realized others' notions of me start in my head. They intuit what I feel about myself, and they mirror it, concavely or convexly. A mirror is a terrible thing to waste. A lot of people smarter than I have theories about this phenomenon. At any rate, if I second-guess my [W/w]ord choice, rooted in my divine humanity, if I reject a thought that comes in the crafting of something meaningful without interrogating its original merit—based upon whether some journal editor or publisher will give the Facebook "like" we all desire by publishing it—and if instead my impetus is choosing words that I think will land on a prominent, respected page, I'm already selling my soul down the river to a plantation my granddaddy and his wives' great-great-granddaddy didn't own, and I'm all about authenticity amid community building and transformation.

For example, because free-verse repetition is "in," I see a lot of free-verse poems these days in literary journals that arbitrarily use repetition in ways that don't speak to my internal metronome or aesthetic ear, especially my understanding of epistrophe. I will not bow to worship at the Church of Repetition for Repetition's Sake. That said, a lot of my favorite free-verse and formal poems, written by me and others, use repetition in ways that are at once familiar and inventive. Every time I write a line, I'm reaching for those words that are at once familiar and inventive. One of my new favorite original poems, "Ratiocination," just won Cream City Review's Beau Boudreaux Poetry Prize. It will make me a little less deep in debt than I am. When I was writing it, though, I was just that man-child again, trying to use a word I'd just learned and to connect it with other words that conveyed what I experienced with a lover I may never hold again. One of my students taught me that word, which means "a reasoned train of thought," having found it in one of my favorite books, The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse. (I send my creative writing students on a scavenger hunt to the library to find their favorite lines from their favorite poem in Owl and to find in those lines a gateway into a poem that matters to them. It does wonders in tuning their aesthetic ears and teaching them about revision, the po-biz and a host of other things.)

"Ratiocination" will not speak to some minds and bodies; I know because several journal editors rejected it before Quraysh Ali Lansana and Derrick Harriell honored it with that prize. But what if I'd told myself I couldn't possibly "win" a thing with a word from an anthology of poems honored for being "bad," so why bother? Ah, the art of losing isn't hard to master, is it, Señora Bishop? But when you learn to surrender yourself to your he/art, I tell you; there's not a feeling like it. Sometimes, an unexpected blessing comes, and it literally pays, too. Those moments are rare, but I cherish the surrender most. It's an often scary, often lonesome, but always rewarding place to live.