blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2

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A Conversation with Rickey Laurentiis
captured October 11, 2016

Gregory Donovan: Rickey doesn’t need an introduction for most of you, but I’ll just simply say that he was raised in New Orleans. He got displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and that shows up in the book. He went back to New Orleans. Ultimately he went on to Sarah Lawrence where he got his undergraduate degree. He got an MFA from Washington University. Since then, he’s published so widely I can’t even begin to tell you all the journals in which his work has appeared. The latest award, of course, is the Levis Reading Prize, and that’s why Rickey is here.

I’ll jump in with “Writing an Elegy.” In it, you handle the oddity that always exists in writing any elegy—very well, I think—which is, if you write an elegy, naturally, it’s just as much, if not more, about the author of the elegy as it is about anyone who is elegized. But in your poem, you don’t really do that exactly. You’re mixed in there of course, but it retells what seem to be variant myths about how the moss got into the trees. One of them involves a story about a conquistador—which I assume you’ve twisted and played with a little bit. But then it ends unexpectedly positively, or at least potentially positively. Those two contrasts between the story of the conquistador’s beard being left in the trees and chasing someone for conquest, versus the idea of a husband braiding a woman’s hair in the trees—I wonder if you’d talk a little bit about your thoughts about writing an elegy at all, and about writing that particular elegy.

Rickey Laurentiis: The plain answer is that I wanted to write a poem about Spanish moss. I’m from New Orleans, and I grew up with it all around me. I usually say this in readings, so I won’t say it tonight when I read it, but it was a problem initially because whereas I see it as a real, tangible, actual emblem of my home—of New Orleans, of the South—it is also that thing that is sort of the romance and the caricature. I have yet to meet one person, at least within America, who doesn’t know what Spanish moss is. So, how to balance what is true to your home and your experience [with what] is also potentially a stereotype. There was that thing, which led me to do the research: “Well, why is it called Spanish moss?”

I learned about lots of different stories, and those were the two that stood out to me. You did a good job of describing them with the Spanish conquistador. The story is one of rape, essentially. In that legend, he’s trying to rape a Native woman, and she is intelligent enough to climb a tree and [she] out-climbs him. He gets tangled up. Then they cut off his head, and then it becomes Spanish moss. Then there are other variants. The elegy part came when I realized, “I’m writing this thing about Spanish moss because I have this interest in the actual material and interest in what it means.” I’m sort of using these violences. I’m using rape, in a certain sense, colonialism, and so that became elegiac in my mind. You said something last night in the workshop about elegy, [about] there being an inherent irony to it because, “Oh, my friend died, but yeah! I get to write a poem about it.” There’s also an ethical question for me inside of that, too. The impulse is to want to write about it because you maybe want to memorialize your friend, or help yourself, but at the same time, is that cool? Like, is that good? What are we doing?

To me it seemed un-impossible not to put myself in there and to have that long question, which literally came out as “Why is it that these violences are in my head and what am I doing with [them]?” I wanted to self-implicate in a way that—maybe because of my subject-position as a black, gay man from the South—no one else would. If I don’t put myself to the gauntlet, I imagine nobody else would. All of that became a process of me thinking about writing an elegy. [I thought,] “Okay, that’s the title, ‘Writing an Elegy.’” I don’t really see it as an elegy, I see it as writing it, trying to get through and get to that answer. I was also reading Jorie Graham’s “Wanting a Child.” I’ve always been intrigued by that kind of title. It’s not like “I had a Child,” or “Here is the Child,” or “Childbirth.” It’s wanting one—that gerund, going toward it. All of that was sort of surfing through my mind at once.

The truth is there was a name for Spanish moss before all of this, which I can’t remember. It’s not in my mind. Why is that? Those are the sort of questions that I was interested in tackling. It was also one of the later poems that I wrote. I wanted to have some kind of idea about what these poems were doing. I felt the need, as I said, to at least put some questions toward it. I’m still that person. But I feel like that’s important—at least for me in my process, in my politics and my poetry.

GD: So, in constructing the book, at some point the book began to talk back to you and make demands on you?

RL: It was a little bit before I knew it was a book. I had a few poems and they were this thing. [It’s similar to the stage] right before [a] hurricane is named, that place where it is right before that. And then you name it, and then it becomes the book. And probably that process of it talking back is why it became a book. That’s it. That makes sense to me. That sort of process, that sort of revision is how I got to see, “Okay, this is a book. It’s talking.”

Audience: I just wanted to ask what your dreams are like.

RL: The second poem in the book is my dream, which is “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men.” That was a literal dream and it happened twice in the exact same way. And I woke up. This was the only poem that I’ve ever been able to just wake up and write. Now, it didn’t look like it does on the paper. I had to go back and revise it, but pretty much all of it just sort of came out. It was a pretty horrific dream. I’m not necessarily interested in completely refurbishing the dream or in bringing it out. But in the dream, I saw two men I thought to be African being hanged in a tree—not as in lynched, but just hanging and then being set on fire, presumably for being gay. And then I became the fire.

I don’t know what to make of that. I’m not a psychotherapist, but I said, “I’m a poet. So maybe I can write it down.” It happened twice. If it didn’t happen twice, I probably would’ve wanted to forget it. But that it had insistence meant that I needed to do it. Then, once it was on the page as this strange assortment of words, the revision process was about trying to make sense of it. That poem, too, I guess, hopes to interrogate why I had that dream, to interrogate the privilege wrapped up in being a black, gay, or American [man] having empathy for the situation, but yet also knowing that I’m distant from that and sort of all the complicated thorns that are involved in all of those sorts of things.

All my dreams are not like that. I don’t want you to think that. Some of them are. Sometimes they’re very dark and sometimes they’re not. It’s like the beginning of “Black Boy” by Richard Wright. His first memory is of him burning down his house. There’s a reason why he remembers that: it’s a traumatic experience. Eventually, he gets a severe whipping from his parents—maybe understandably, because he burned down the house. He remembers all that with vivid detail. Arguably, he wouldn’t have remembered the happy moment, and what is that about? Why do we remember the scar as opposed to the nice things? I don’t know if that’s answering your question because I don’t always remember my dreams, but the ones I remember are like that one.

GD: In that poem, as in so many of your poems (both the ones we’ve already discussed), there’s self-reflection. It’s not just “I dreamt two men.” It’s “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men.” Seeing—and often interrogating yourself as you’re seeing—becomes part of your process of how you make poems and how you see the world, I assume. It’s like a self-consciousness.

RL: Years ago, I was reading (and I’m still obsessed with) Carolyn Forché and the notion of witness. And I think that is the one important contribution to poetry and to politics. But then I began to question witness. Are we witnessing the witnessing? And it is a way I live in the world because it’s directly coming out of Katrina—seeing what others were seeing and not seeing, and also what I wasn’t able to see because I was living it. There’s all these ways of seeing something that I think we either obscure or don’t think about. We need to do more than just empathy.

We need to actually interrogate why we’re empathetic, or why not, or why we feel inclined to talk about something. Even the situation in Haiti, whether we’re looking at it or not, why? What sorts of ways are we giving charity? How? Just doing it is great, of course. I think I need to do that. It’s not to say I always have an answer or I’m trying to find the moral high ground. Oftentimes I find myself in a briar patch. I guess it’s a tricky place. It helps me write the poem, but it also helps me be a good person, I hope. That’s why I write poems—to try to make myself better through excavating all the bad shit, or talking about it. Sorry to be frank.

That poem was always in my mind, once I had the book talking to me and I was thinking about order. Which is horrifying. That was the hardest part, right? The order of the poems? But I knew I wanted that to be the second poem. Because to me the second poems are the most important in the book. That’s my secret. The scene between the first and the second poem is the tender spot. ’Cause you don’t see it. Whatever happens [during] that shift is so important to me, in being able to go between. And then, larger than that, the scene between the first book and the second book is an important thing. I knew I wanted that to be there. If I say, “hanging,” and people look at my face, they’re gonna have one idea what I mean there. But it purposely wants to leave America and interrogate my own Americanness. I wanted that to be crucially in one’s mind when they went through it. So that it’s not just: “Black American Author Interrogates the South.” That’s wonderful, but I’m trying to interrogate a lot of things.

GD: That’s related to something that you mentioned in an interview when you talked about your mentor and friend, Carl Phillips. You talked about him mentioning that identity can be crucial, yet incidental in the writing of a poem. It should be the identity of the poem itself rather than simply the [identity of the] poet that determines what’s going to happen in the poem. That seems to be related to what you were just talking about.

RL: It is related. I think about  . . . mentors or artists I like in terms of permission, permitting me to do something that I didn’t think available to me. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t come back and say, “I don’t know, Carl, anymore about that.” But it gave me a permission to get to that place. Identity is both crucial and incidental. I don’t walk around saying, “I’m a black gay man from the South. La, la, la, la, la.” It’s only when I’m in a situation where it’s called out, because of maybe sometimes violence, or maybe sometimes love. It’s brought to bear. It’s  . . . crucial in the way that I see the world and it’s a part of me, but it’s also incidental.

Sometimes when I’m writing poems, I know the act of writing seems very self-referential. Thinking doesn’t work that way, but writing is very [self-conscious]: you know you’re doing it. Sometimes I’m thinking, “Well, even if I want to make [my identity] incidental, I’m not sure that’s always possible. And even if I want to make it crucial, I’m not sure it’s possible.” It’s related, but sometimes I’m like, “I don’t know, Carl. Maybe it’s a little bit more complicated than that.”

We’ve had conversations and we argue about that all the time, which is useful. I don’t think it’s one way all the time. I think it changes from moment to moment, poem to poem. There’s been lots of times when I feel the need to implicate myself and put myself in the poem, [and other times when] I feel like I have to get out of the way of the poem. Maybe to get out of the way just to come back in another way. The long poem in the book [was] like that, where I just needed to evacuate and let this engagement with the Wallace Stevens and with the historical texts I was looking at and [with] the language in the certain sense take precedence. Then, mysteriously, a boy pops up and—oh, okay, there I am. I wouldn’t have invented that if I knew that. It just came. It feels like a prison. But sometimes prisons are good.

David Wojahn: Rickey, when my class was talking about the book,they talked about the level of formal sheen. A lot of poems are sonnets or dismembered sonnets. You have your epigraph for Auden, your epigraph for Stevens. You’ve got the “Black Gentleman” poem that seems to be a portrait of Robert Hayden. I would be interested in hearing who were the poets who really inspired you, because it seems like there are a lot of people whose voices you’ve incorporated in this book.

RL: You named three of them right there: Stevens, Hayden, and Auden. Maybe about a year ago, I was in Hartford, where Wallace Stevens is from, and I learned of a society called “The Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens.” And I was like, “Yup! There we go. That’s it.” Yes, I want to be a friend and an enemy, which allows me to take what I want and incorporate not just formal strategies but also thought. Wallace Stevens’s contribution to American poetry and to me is these concepts of the imagination, which I think sometimes in his own writing betray his own political stances. There’s some poems where I think he gets out of the way of that. I don’t know if he knows it. But because he’s going toward the imagination, I’m like, “Oh, I can see myself in there.” Then there are other poems where negresses are walking in the woods and I’m like, “Oh! Okay, there’s Wallace Stevens again.” So I’m going back and forth. Having that tension allows me both the intimacy and the critical distance to engage in hopefully a productive way.

It’s a little trickier when the people are alive, because you can’t be like, “Well, no!” But there’s been lots of people [who’ve influenced me] who are contemporary. I’ve mentioned Jorie Graham, Carl Phillips, Frank Bidart. I am cerebral. I’m in my mind a lot. And oftentimes that’s a burden, so I also read a lot of poets who don’t naturally come to me. If there’s a pantheon, I guess they’re the minor. That’s not to say that they’re lesser poets, just [that] they don’t come to me immediately.

But the poets who engage the body really viscerally are helpful for me. It’s important for me to tether it. It wasn’t important necessarily for Wallace Stevens to tether it. He wanted to have the “poem at the end of the mind.” He wants to have a poem and then you go off. But it’s important for me to almost do the opposite: [to] be out there and then come back to the body. To that end, Sharon Olds is really important. Louis Glück is important. Even poets I don’t like, I think they’re productive to read because I can say, “Okay, that’s interesting. I think that strategy is interesting. I don’t like how you deployed it, but maybe I can take it,” or, “I’m not interested in any of this and now I know.” And so I can better name it and articulate it to myself.

I’m a very selfish and voracious reader. I just am greedy. I just read everything. I never really understood the idea of not reading certain people. Politically, I get it. I get why it’s important to suggest that there are more things to be read. But that doesn’t mean that I would stop reading, let’s just say, the “Dead White Men.” I can read them. I can also disagree with them. The moment I realized I could say that (and I’m using “Dead White Men” as a sort of shorthand), I realized that just because I’m reading [them] doesn’t mean that I have to agree with them or to accept their testimony as the only one. If I read them, I can actually argue with them, which puts me in a better position to do something. If I didn’t have that knowledge, then in a way I’m reifying their power ’cause their testimony just stands unchecked.

Wallace Stevens is probably my favorite poet, certainly my favorite Modernist poet. But if I had never read him, out of some whatever kind of stance, I wouldn’t have been able to agree with it, take [from] it what I want, and also challenge it or push back. I guess I learned that from Frank Bidart. ’Cause he’s always talking about, “Oh, I was arguing with Eliot in this poem.” And I was like, “Okay, well [if] he feels like he can do it, maybe I can try.”

And then also there was a question about outside influences—not just poetry. Visual art is recognized in the book. I think I’m a failed painter. I think that’s what it is. It goes back to the seeing thing. Painters know this: what you see isn’t always reliable. Vermeer, did he do the “Girl with a Pearl Earring”? Have you ever studied his colors? Inside just white, there’s yellows and there’s blues. He’s making what looked like a flat color have a tangible texture. He knows, or he sees, all these other colors inside of it. That seems true to my experience with the world, and that also teaches me something. Every moment, there are these other things inside of the moment sort of reverberating, echoing.

I think this is also true of music. I was a band geek. I play xylophone, and one day my band director made us form a chord, which is so important. I don’t know why these basic things are not done. If you’ve ever played music, you know a chord is the three notes, but it’s more than that. They make these semitones. That’s why chords reverberate and resonate. They have these little semitones that are made sometimes discordantly, sometimes harmoniously, inside the chord, so that every time you do anything that resonates, there are these other things inside of it, too. Some of them are sweet sounding and some of them are painful. Color does that. Sound does that. Poems should do that. I think words do that all by themselves.

Other arts really help me even when I teach. I like to bring in other examples, ’cause I think there’s a way we can talk really honestly about poetry if we get outside of poetry. If we talk about color, actually we’re talking about poems the whole time. Write it down, then just [replace] the word “color” with “poems.” And then you’ll have written a dissertation about something, and you just don’t know because we’re poets. It’s the opposite when you talk to painters. I ask them to talk about words or sound, they go all over the world. I ask them to talk about color, and then they get exhausted. And they don’t want to go any further. And I never really formally studied [painting or music]. I did painting and music in high school, but I’m just interested in them.

Audience: I got to “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” and by the time I got to the ninth stanza I was in tears. How did you make it to fifty? Did you know you were going all the way to fifty? How did you know you were done with that set?

RL: I started that because I was in a class with Carl Phillips called “History Poetry.” That’s what he called it. This is the one poem that was an assignment. We had to write a long poem and it had to somehow engage history, by which he meant it had to meditate or talk about some part of history or historical period, or incorporate a received form or historical form of some kind. The poems in there are short poems, and I feel really comfortable and also excited by the short lyrics. How dense can you make it and run away? So I was just like, “I can’t do this. I’m not going to be able to do this. I’m going to fail. I’m going to be the first person to fail the MFA. He’s going to hate me.” I’m very dramatic. And so I was like, “I need a way to do this.”

At the time, I had just begun really reading Wallace Stevens. I had taken a class at Sarah Lawrence called “Nine American Poets,” which is basically like a Modernist class. I was introduced to Wallace Stevens there. From that moment on, I was like, “What is this guy up to?” I got to the poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” and I said, “I can probably do that. I can compose”—I didn’t know it was going to be fifty—“I can compose, I don’t know ten, twenty of these little short things, and I will have done the assignment . . . I don’t even know what they’re gonna talk about, but I’m using a historical form. Check. Okay. We can do it.” So there’s a logistical thing right there, which I think is important because it’s very intimidating to go to a blank piece of paper, for me.

But then I’m reading that poem over and over and over. I am myself. I am my identity, “crucial and yet incidental.” I am reading the title. At some point, I randomly go to the library and get this book called Without Sanctuary, which is these collections of lynching photography. I learn about the history of Hallmark cards and photographs and its connection to lynching history. I’m reading that poem. I’m writing the poem. It just comes. It just starts to happen. If I had sat down and said, “I’m gonna write a fifty-section poem about this,” it wouldn’t have happened.

A crucible, that’s the image in my mind: all these things coming together and being pressurized. Then there’s a part where I realize I’m doing this. It’s all these little games I’m not necessarily interested in people knowing. Actually, I don’t want them to know. That’s the honest truth. It’s just the games in my head to keep me going. I think it’s the seventh section [where] I started doing sestinas inside of it. It was the same thing. I was like, “I don’t know how I want to do seven more of these, so every seventh one, I’ll do the next stanza of a sestina.” And then I did that with a pantoum. I did all these games and buried them in there. I’m not interested in being like, “Oh, I can do a sestina.” That’s not the point. The point was to keep writing. I made up games for myself.

The order changed a little bit. I had them all printed out, covering my apartment. It was a very depressing time. I had pictures up. No one wanted to come over. I would go home, and I would be in that. Sometimes it would be like, “I can’t do this anymore.” I was at twenty-four. (Not the twenty-four that you see, but the twenty-four from what I wrote.) I wrote a lot. I didn’t even end up putting them all in. But I had to get there, so [I thought], “Let’s do a sestina.” I used those six words. I can use them again. That’s why I think forms are useful, because they’re generative. You know one thing at least. If I know deeply that one thing, it will lead me to what I don’t yet know or what I don’t want to know. But what’s true is that the first [section] I wrote was the first one. And the last one I wrote was the last one. Take that all for what you will. And the title also came last.

I don’t think I could replicate it. I’m interested in writing longer poems. I think that there was something instructive about that. It took me two years. That’s important to realize. It took me the entire length of the MFA and a little bit longer. I finished the assignment. It was in the fall and I turned something in. But then I kept going.

GD: I realized after we had decided to give you this award that the most recent book by Larry Levis has a very long central-section poem responding to Wallace Stevens, where he is a friend and an enemy in that poem as well. It’s an interesting parallel or some kind of mysterious concatenation the universe produced for us all.

One of the things that you do to complicate the process of invoking your own identity is to enrich that with external or other elements, like the opening poem—talking about those two first poems and the interaction between them you wanted to produce. When a reader first starts reading it and they know that the name of it is “Southern Gothic,” if they’re aware that it’s written by an African American poet, they’re going to expect certain things to happen. Maybe what they didn’t expect to happen was [that] they would run into Orpheus. That enrichment with mythology and external mythic depth that you produce there, I thought that tremendously enriched that poem. And it enriches the interaction between those two first poems as well.

RL: I also didn’t expect to run into Orpheus. And I feel like he comes up a lot in the book. The last poem I wrote in the book—wrote for the book, not the last poem of the book—was the one, the Basquiat one, where there’s also a dismembered head (because there’s a dismembered head in his paintings). There’s a lot of headlessness, or dismembered heads. I still don’t know what to make of that exactly. Maybe the poems just say it for themselves. To your point, I had decided, “You know what, it would be fun. Let’s go write a southern gothic poem in which I use Orpheus.” Sometimes I want to do that thing and it ends up being about butterflies. It’s just the generative thing that leads me. It’s the triggering town.

The story of that first poem is interesting. I was in Mary Jo Bang’s workshop. I had turned in another poem. At this time, I’m aware: I like southern gothic. Before I even knew it was southern gothic, I was reading those novels as a little boy. I would obsessively read the particular copy of To Kill a Mockingbird every summer until—I would say—I lost the book in Katrina, just because I thought it was a good book. And later on, I’m like, “Oh, this book is talking about everything: gender, sexuality, race, region, class, everything, children, adults.” The book is perfect. I love it. And you can read it as a child. You can read it as an adult. This is my argument for To Kill a Mockingbird. Anyway, I was reading that literature. I knew by that time when I was in the workshop that I was interested in it. Because I was interested in the question “What does the southern gothic lyric look like?” What could it do? Does it depend on narrative? Do you actually need to have characters, have an empathetic relationship to them to be able to understand their monstrosity? And if you don’t have that available to you or you’re not interested in that, in the lyric moment, how do you still create a gothic sensibility or atmosphere that doesn’t become cheap? Like, “Oh, zombies are here.” It’s very easy to do that.

So I had turned in this other poem that probably was doing that cheaply. Or at least that was how I was hearing it. People were like, “I don’t really know why the house is haunted. Why is there a ghost?” I could very well have gone home—maybe I did [go home]—and edit that poem to death, or to perfection, or whatever. But what I heard was, “Oh, I need to come to terms [with] and articulate for myself my argument for the southern gothic. These are the conditions in which I am working.” And then I wrote that poem.

Workshop is very generative if you can listen. If you can listen really, really well, it’s sometimes not even about the poem that’s actually being workshopped. It’s about hearing, for me, what other people were saying, and saying, “I’m still interested in this thing. It’s okay that you’re not interested in southern gothic. But I am.” So how do I create a world or poem in which you become that, or you see it as inevitable? So I wrote that poem. And it was doing all these things that I wasn’t really expecting. Then I put it away. I don’t even know if I brought it to workshop. It really was a poem for me.

Eventually, I was like, “Oh, well that’s going to be the first poem.” I don’t want you to come up with a story per se, because I’m not necessarily working with that. It’s just these are the words or the conditions or the ideas that I want you to have in your head. [I want to suggest that] there are really positive things with the imagination and then there are really negative things. All of the terrible things in the world come by way of the imagination. Someone imagined slavery, and then it became real. For a time, I was really interested in medieval torture devices. If you’ve ever gone into the Catherine’s wheel, someone imagined that and designed it and made it. [The] possibility of imagination is so large. What if we used that power for something else? I don’t know what could be possible. This interrogation of the imagination, that’s coming from Stevens.

What’s important for me is to place, in the beginning, just the word [“imagination”]. Whether or not people kept it is up to them in their reading experience. But just to have that is important. Does that answer your question?

GD: Definitely. I really like, too, how you end with this indictment of none other than God.

RL: My grandmother loved that.

GD: You just start at the top. And the failure of imagination that would produce this very negative energy in the world—it’s a balancing. That’s an ancient philosophical question. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then where did evil come from? I think in Job, Satan asks him that question.

RL: That’s why Satan is not liked, because he asks the questions. And he’s like, “Go away! Don’t talk to me.” Sorry for anyone who’s religious. In a literary sense, that character is always asking the questions—like when he’s in the desert, to Jesus, “Well why don’t you just make the bread? Make the rock into bread if you can.” And Jesus is like, “No. Go away.”

Satan is a very interesting character in that sense. Not to divulge into theology, but I think he’s just very interesting because he’s asking these questions. That [was] the accusation I was given from my mom: “You ask too many questions.” She was being playful. But why is that a problem to ask questions? Is it because we don’t want to get to the answer? All these things are in my mind swirling. And they come out as an indictment against God. Take that for what you will.

Audience: In many of your poems in your book, you separate [sections of poems and phrases] using numbers. It elicits a different response from every reader [depending on] their personal relationship to [numbers]—when they see a list of numbers on a page, whether it’s a multiple choice question, or something on a wall, or a list of things you can’t do. I wanted to know, what is your relationship with numbers as you’ve used them?

RL: There are three poems that come out to me that do that. There’s the long poem, “Boy with Thorn,” and the first poem that do that. But then there are others. The long poem came because, as I said, I was using the structure of Wallace Stevens. To the extent that there was a normative way that numbers are used as sectioning devices. [In] “Boy with Thorn,” I was actively wanting to play against that. I was obsessed and still am obsessed with Jorie Graham. The End of Beauty is where I got it from. It’s this sort of idea of incorporating numbers to suggest sequence and to suggest 1-2-3-4 stability, when actually you use it to cut through and suggest the opposite: “That section is not done. It’s bleeding into the next. You’re actually just saying the same thing again and again and again.”

There is this obscure poem by Wallace Stevens. I forget the title. It has “pineapple” in it. (I can never remember his titles because his titles are, you know, over there.) But he talks about this pineapple at the table and trying to imagine it, and then [the Stevens poem] has this logician’s wand and A and B and C, and I was like, “That’s really intriguing.” I don’t know if I have thought about a poem as a space of logic in that way. And actually organizing [“Conditions for a Southern Gothic”] as if it was a sort of mathematical thing was my attempt of incorporating that: “Okay, such that 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and 5.”

I was interested in numbers in all those different ways. And again, it wasn’t until later when I put them together I’m like, “Oh, there are a lot of numbers. There’s a lot of number stuff happening here.” In some ways, they’re just typical ordering devices. In other ways, I mean for them to be seen. There’s a way in which we read where you just ignore the numbers, which is fine, and I think some poems call for that. But then there are others where I hope that you see that it’s actually a part of the process that’s there.

GD: Your poem, “Boy with Thorn,” is obviously one of those numbered poems. That poem takes great liberties with what has become maybe too common in poetry. I think we poetry teachers often assign ekphrastic poems because it’s a great assignment. It gets people outside of themselves. They actually start dealing with the details of imagery. We’re helping them along. It’s cheating on their behalf, saying, “Look, [if] you do this, you’re probably gonna end up with something kind of interesting.” But you defeat that utterly in your “Boy with Thorn.” (Although you did send me off looking at those statues and pondering.) You arrive at a philosophical understanding of the necessity of pain and almost the desirability of it. In fact, that’s a theme that plays throughout your poem—that there’s repulsion and attraction to violence and sensuality. Those rock back and forth throughout the poem.

RL: I agree with everything you just said. It seems, for me, the terror of violence is that I am attracted to it. What does that make me? And then that makes me repel from it. So it’s this sort of circular prison, in a way. And certainly anyone with strength in writing can write about the horrors of violence. I think it’s important to also be honest and to be okay. There are lots of horrible things about this world. I’m not the first to name it, and I won’t be the last. But again, how am I implicated in that? And why am I even drawn to that? One of my favorite quotes is Morrison’s “ . . . racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.”

Let’s imagine not that the history didn’t happen as is, but [that] we get to some utopia in which sexism is defeated, racism is defeated. We’re in paradise again. What would I be writing then? I don’t know. But can I imagine it? Can I get to it? Until that moment comes, or maybe toward getting to that moment, I am sort of attracted to thinking about extensively these violences that actually prohibit me from getting to that moment in my own writing. I want to be honest about that, and it probably is going to be the thing I write about forever. Because I’m still writing poems where I’m like, “I am thinking about how I’m thinking about this all the time.” Being honest about that is fun. It’s helpful for me, but there is a struggle with it. And that’s the craft part where I’m like, “Okay, I can just say this.”

And that can be maybe an interesting essay. But what makes it a poem is incorporating the crafts and strategies and the techniques we have with music and line and image to hopefully—and with numbers as well—to make you hear the struggle that I’m having. It’s not like I’ve come to this revelation about why I walk around with a thorn in my foot and “la, la, la.” No! You imagine that someone’s limping with that [thorn in his foot]. That’s what I think [the poem is] doing as well. Then I want the failure to be in it—to be seen and heard and recognized.

The ekphrastic part allows you to get away, outside of yourself, supposedly. If you’re me, that means you do this figure eight and you come back, and you’re like, “Oh!” But you come back. All that other curved stuff, that’s also you as well. That’s important for me to get to that sort of formation.

But also there was a poem, “Vanitas with Negro Boy,” which was important because you can write about [a piece of art], but you can also say, “What is a piece of art? What makes it a piece of art? Why is it a piece of art? Who has named it such? Why trust the old masters?” And then maybe writing about the piece of art is a revision of the art. “Vanitas,” by the end, it doesn’t look like what I imply it looks like. I just sort of take it over. For me, that was a way of saying, “I can do this.”

Even with “Boy with Thorn,” that’s a Greco-Roman boy from a couple of centuries ago. What does a modern black gay man have to do with that? [I thought], “Oh, let’s find out. I can take it over.” Why not? Picasso took over African masks and made Modernism. So why can’t I do the same, and then be accountable for what that means and interrogate that to the extent that I can in the process? Those are the questions that I have hanging like the sword of Damocles over my head.

Audience: In our conversation, you had mentioned Foucault and how it may have been influential in the writing. Could you elaborate on that?

RL: I love theory. I love it. A lot of people are like, “No, it’ll mess up your writing!” But I find theory to be one of the places that language is really at its strangest. That’s probably the [biggest] critique of it—that it’s not immediately accessible or decipherable. And it isn’t. But what [theorists are] doing with [language] is really interesting. Thinking about power as a technology.

I studied Latin in high school, which is probably important to name. I was never really a good thinker in Latin. I could translate fairly well, but etymology was really what was interesting to me to see—where an English derivative derived from. That goes back to the idea [that] inside of words, there are many other words. Thinking about power as a technology is like, “Well let me go back to the word ‘technology’ and see what lives. What does it actually mean?” [You see] it’s kind of related to the word “touch.” And then you’re like, “Oh! There is something about technology that brings us close tangibly. And then thinking about power is that.” That’s Foucault.

Poems, I think, do that, exploiting music and exploiting image much more. But I do think theory attempts to wrangle language in a way that enacts what [the theorists are] saying in a way that journalism doesn’t, for instance, or [in] a way that many kinds of fiction don’t. That’s why I’ve always been attracted to theory, or [to] Foucault specifically. What they’re talking about is interesting. Because they’re just playing. And then philosophy, too, is involved in this [manipulation of language]. So I just like that. It leads me into these questions. We could sit here forever and just keep asking questions and never answer them, and I would just have the best day. Another question begets another question and another, another, another. I feel like theory is the one space, or the one of many spaces, that just sort of luxuriates in that. [In] this political climate right now, I think we need a lot more questions. So I’m very happy to be luxuriating [in] that space.

GD: Well, thank you very much for answering our questions.

RL: Of course.  

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