|Born||(1971-11-18) November 18, 1971
Columbia, South Carolina
|Alma mater||Coker College,
University of Pittsburgh
|Notable awards||National Book Award for Poetry|
While the debate over banned books usually seems to happen just outside the gates of government, it takes on a new danger and urgency when legislators get involved. Their actions cause voices to be silenced both inside and outside the books. That’s un-American.
The thing that I’ve decided is, I don’t want to be invisible, but I’d like to be transparent. I want people to see what I’m thinking and see through me.
Art is not the kind of thing where you get what you put into it all the time. So I learned to not expect anything other than the sort of joy of having a poem in front of me.
Poems are a form of music, and language just happens to be our instrument – language and breath.
So the best way to understand poetry, which is made by men, is to imitate, and that goes back to making work as a kind of doorway into new work, as opposed to making work as a mirror of the old work.
The summer I got to Pittsburgh for graduate school, I house-sat for a Ph.D. student who had a lot of books. One of the books that I found was ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov. That was eye opening. I’ve probably read it every other year since my 20s.
I became a poet in Pittsburgh. When I lived in the South, I was a basketball player and primarily a jock. An English teacher essentially suggested that I send the poems that I’d been writing – really just for him – to a few programs, so that when I wound up in Pittsburgh, it’s where I figured out that I could actually be a poet.
When I applied for grad school, I did not specify genre. I said I wanted an MFA in Creative Writing. I was so cute and stupid! The admissions committee at Pitt decided to put me in poetry.
I always turn to Frank O’Hara and David Berman’s ‘Actual Air,’ which came out in 1999. He’s a poet I haven’t tired of.
I value teaching. It’s one of the places I get inspiration, engagement.
We can’t really know ourselves because we have not created ourselves. But we can know computers, we can know cars, because anything that we made, we can understand.
When I was in high school, I remember writing a research paper, and the teacher said I should write about Langston Hughes. I felt as if I was the only black dude who didn’t like Langston Hughes. He didn’t seem as dark and layered as someone like Flannery O’Connor.
We look at the Mona Lisa and say we’re going to do our version of the Mona Lisa. We mirror it. But exaptation would say that painting the Mona Lisa would lead to a whole new place… Bugs Bunny.
My working habit is to separate my aims as a painting from my aims as a poet. They come from very different places and ultimately lead me to very different places… I’ll leave what I mean by ‘places’ ambiguous.
Anyone reading contemporary poetry – especially contemporary African-American poetry – will quickly see that race is an enduring subject. What some don’t realize is just how diverse the handling of that subject is. It’s as diverse as blackness.
Poems are not read: they are reread. Reread the poem, then read between the lines, then look at it, then watch it, then peek at it: handle it like an object. Contemplate its shadows, angles and dimensions.
Pittsburgh was the first chance to be in a classroom with other writers, to have conversations with other writers. In fact, after graduate school, I lived in Japan, Ohio and New Orleans, and only upon leaving Pittsburgh did I see what a special community it was for poets, so I was eager to come back. It’s a strong arts community across the board.