blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2

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back RICKEY LAURENTIIS | 19th Annual Levis Prize

A Reading by Rickey Laurentiis
October 11th, 2016

Gregory Donovan:
Now it’s my pleasure to switch hats and introduce you to tonight’s main attraction. We’re celebrating Rickey Laurentiis as the winner of the 2016 Levis Reading Prize.

Rickey Laurentiis was raised in New Orleans, got displaced from there for a while by Hurricane Katrina, did his undergraduate work at Sarah Lawrence, and went on to earn his MFA in Creative Writing degree from Washington University in St. Louis.

He now resides in Brooklyn, New York, where he has taught at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College, in addition to working with young people in Harlem. His poems have been published so widely in so many different literary journals of note that I can’t list them all, but a brief mention of a few will do: The Boston Review, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Oxford American, The New York Times… that should do. He has been the recipient of numerous honors as well, including a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship along with fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy. His book Boy with Thorn not only won our prize, but also was selected by poet Terrance Hayes for the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for a 2016 Lambda Literary Award and the Thom Gunn Award from the Publishing Triangle. Laurentiis also was named one of the top ten debut poets of 2015 by Poets & Writers Magazine and one of “31 Contemporary Poets You Must Read” by Buzzfeed.

As important as such honors can be, however, the most important thing I can tell you about him has to do with the exceptional quality and intensity of the writing he has published. As I told my students today in our workshop, I knew his book was deserving of the award after reading only the first two poems in the book, and the rest of the collection completely confirmed my own expectation, so that the final judges—my fellow poetry faculty members here at VCU and I—arrived at the selection of his book very quickly. The book is musically and technically sophisticated and memorable for the skillful display of precise diction, unexpected and delightful rhythms and inventive forms, yet even more, what stays with you after reading the book is the rigorous thinking and equally responsible self-awareness and even self-critique that carries on throughout the book, making it spiritually, morally, and philosophically profound. The poems examine the multiplicities and complexities of American violence while also interrogating the author’s fascination with that violence. The poems often describe what is seen, and what cannot be unseen: "What is it the mind won't / unsee, beautiful flaw?" A constant tension is set up throughout between the intensities of outrage and hurt and those associated with passion and compassion. The poems move through many layers of time, bringing the past into revealing confrontations with the present, and all the while the narrator in each of them is characteristically looking back at himself, in his time of "modernity," wondering why he keeps "tearing open again" a past incident, knowing that it will pierce him in his own time, that these "antique violences" will be something that he will again have to imagine, and that imagining will be "a thorn," difficult to remove. Poems that enact a complicated sense of responsibility and unflinching honesty, of sympathetic understanding as well as angry indictment? You want those? Then here’s Rickey Laurentiis and Boy with Thorn.

Rickey Laurentiis:
[“One Country,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

Thank you for that introduction. It means a lot to be heard, so thank you Greg. And thank you Kathy, and thank you Thom, and thank you David, and thank you to all the students who also read my book and heard me. I didn’t expect to be emotional, but that’s what happens, right? I’m just really happy to be here and to be in the company of writers and readers who take this as seriously and as importantly as I do—as we all do—so thank you for that. I’m going to be okay. I’m going to get it together. And I’m going to read some poems. The next poem is called “Conditions for a Southern Gothic.”

[“Conditions for a Southern Gothic,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

I never really know what to say between poems. Space is important—the silence. I started collecting these quotes that I like. And I decided I would read those between, in some cases. This is a person, you may have heard of, called James Baldwin, you know, writer. That’s the cover. The cover is a painting by Glenn Ligon, who’s an amazing painter, an abstract painter, as he calls himself. And he takes text, everyone from Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Pryor and James Baldwin, and he abstracts it. He keeps painting over it with coal dust and blackness. And he keeps doing it until the text itself becomes a texture. If you happen to ever see the actual painting, the book too, if you move it, there’s different lights and colors that live inside, supposedly, the flat blackness. But we know different. So this is a passage from James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village.” That’s what I wanted. I was lucky to get it.

This is from an essay called “The Male Prison.” James Baldwin says:

“Whether or not homosexuality is natural seems completely pointless to me [sic]—pointless because I really do not see what difference the answer makes. It seems clear, in any case, at least in the world we know, that no matter what encyclopedias of psychological [sic] and scientific knowledge are brought to bear the answer can never [sic] be Yes. And one of the reasons for this is that it would rob the normal—who are simply the many—of their very necessary sense of security and order.”

[“I Saw I Dreamt Two Men,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

I have a friend. His name is Jericho Brown. He’s a poet. Long ago he said that “You’re not a poet until you write a poem about Persephone.” And I was like “Oh, I guess I better write a poem about Persephone.” I don’t know if I agree with that. But to the extent that it matters, this is the poem that came out of me thinking about Persephone.

[“Lord and Chariot,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

[“King of Shade, King of Scorpions,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

In that poem I was thinking about Ganymede. Ganymede is an amazing person in my life. He’s also the figure for Aquarius, which is what I am. I am Ganymede. Ganymede apparently, in myth, was the most beautiful boy in the world, according to whatever metrics—so beautiful that the rapist, that Zeus is, came down and decided to take him. Right? But to teach you about male privilege: he takes Ganymede and, instead of Leda who just leaves, he brings him up and makes him the cupbearer, which is where we get Aquarius, the bearer of the water. That angered Hera, his wife, and then she tried to like, okay, I’m skipping over a lot, and a lot of things happened. But eventually, to teach us something about, maybe, queer sensibility, Ganymede says, “You know what, I’m already here—I’m going to figure out how to do something.” So he goes to Zeus and he says—he convinces him to make him immortal, and then Zeus throws him to the sky and he becomes Aquarius. So that’s me. I feel a connection to all of those things in that story.

Another person you may have heard of, called Audre Lourde, this is what she has to say:

“The erotic is a measure between [sic] our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings. [  . . . ] This is one reason why the erotic is so feared, and so often relegated to the bedroom alone, when it is recognized at all. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.”

[“Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame,” Rickey Laurentiis, Literary Hub, 2016. Web.]

I like to add new poems. That seems fair, because we’re all writing. They’re new! Let’s see how that goes. I’m silly at heart, even though there’s a sadness. There’s a silliness in the middle of it.

I spent some time in St. Louis for my graduate program at Washington University. I loved my program and I loved working with the professors there, but I did not love St. Louis, for reasons that should be pretty understandable now, right? I sort of sensed it in the air, which is not to say that it’s specific to St. Louis. St. Louis is an emblem for America.

But I sensed it. I felt like it was a place about to implode or explode. After I graduated, the summer after, is when Michael Brown was murdered. It was sort of this situation where you had been in this city and you had been experiencing it and if you were me you had this sort of experience with this thing. I was literally out the country looking back at that space and trying to . . . to grapple with it. The way I do that is hopefully through poetry.

Something that Officer Wilson (who, if you remember, was the police officer that killed Michael Brown) said—I don’t know the verb—it troubled me? I guess? So he said, speaking of Michael Brown, “[He] had the most [sic] aggressive face. [That’s] the only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.” He continues, “As he’s [sic] coming toward me [ . . . ] I keep telling him to get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot a series of shots. I don’t know how many I shot, I just knew I shot it.” Get on the ground. So I wrote this.

[“Continuance,” Rickey Laurentiis, New Republic, 2015.]

Last new thing. And then I’ll go back to the safe thing. I had the opportunity to visit Palestine, or Israel, depending on where you sit with that I suppose, this May. Frankly what I saw there is, is not justifiable, is not excusable. And I’ve been writing towards that. But this is a short little thing. I started writing it before and then I kind of finished it after. It has no title. It’s just a thing.

[“Untitled,” Rickey Laurentiis, 2016.]

Hopefully it will be an essay, but we’ll see. I’m going to read the poem that Greg quoted from earlier today in his wonderful introduction. The simple backstory is that I wanted to write a story about Spanish moss. That’s all I wanted. And then as I discovered I was doing that, I realized, there’s a problem with that because it is both a real thing that I saw in New Orleans, it is a real thing that I think of in my memory, but it’s also this fiction or stereotype of the South. I had to figure out a way to deal with both of those. This is called “Writing an Elegy.”

[“Writing an Elegy,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

This is—I’m going to stop doing this. You know Toni Morrison. It’s hard to say your favorite quotes, but I read this quote probably daily. It’s important. It’s an important quote. She says:

“The function, the very serious function, of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

She mentions racism, but I think that goes for sexism, and homophobia, and all the things that say, “You are less than.” And then you have to involve your time proving that you are not. But what if we didn’t.

[“Study in Black,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

[“This Pair This Marriage of Two,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

The teacher is Auden and Carl Phillips. That poem mentions ekphrasis, which is something that I either depend upon, rely upon, or need to keep moving. This next poem is an ekphrastic piece that speaks to and also reimagines a painting by a Dutch painter. The title of the poem is also a tribute to that painting. But for reasons that may become apparent to you once I say it, curators have revised it. And that’s interesting to me—that notion of revision. It’s not clear that the painter himself titled the painting that. There’s three layers of things happening there. There’s the painting and whatever the title was. There was some institution naming it the title that the poem is. And then there’s someone coming later in the nineties saying “Oh no! That’s not right anymore. Let’s title it something else.” There’s something happening in that history. This is called “Vanitas with Negro Boy, seventeenth century, oil on canvas.”

[“Vanitas with Negro Boy,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

I really like that essay, Greg. So you taught me something. When he did this thing here, I was like “Oh my God, what a way to get into the poem and also get into the essay.” That was just masterful how that happened. This guy’s a genius, how he just did that. He got you into the poem without even reading it first. And then of course by the time the poem came, you needed to hear it to have that sort of language with it.

That image of the Christ swinging is—I grew up in New Orleans, which is a severely Catholic town, particularly a large population of black Catholics, as I was raised. I always think there’s something to the fact that every Sunday—I was also an alter boy and all this—I’m watching this sort of eroticized body in suffering. And then people are like “Why are you so brutal in your writing?” I’m like, “Well I looked at that, every Sunday, this, this beautiful, lithe—he was white—but lithe figure crucified. That’s—okay, come on—that’s gonna lead you down a road that you can’t come from.” So anyway, I had that in mind. Also this notion of the darkening trapeze and that waiting is important. This is called “You Are Not Christ.”

[“You Are Not Christ,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

[“No Ararat,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, U of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

I’m gonna read two more poems. I have one more little quote for you, which is the shortest, by Natasha Trethewey, from one of her poems. She says “I was hurt into poetry.” Of course she is referencing [Auden] Yeats: “Ireland hurt me into poetry.” Just brilliant. I certainly understand that. I was hurt into poetry, too.

[“Southern Gothic,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

Thank you, for all the stuff I’ve done up here, the antics and the poems, for listening. This is the title poem. It’s also an ekphrastic poem of a sculpture that has been replicated many times throughout history, such that we don’t know who made the original. The one I originally saw was this miniature in an antique shop in St. Louis. Then the one I researched was this bronze sculpture. It shows a boy withdrawing a thorn from his foot. Something about that—it goes back to Catholicism—I just came back, and I was like “There’s an image there.” And I had no idea that it would become a book. It feels right to end with that. This is “Boy with Thorn, first century B.C., bronze.”

[“Boy with Thorn,” Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.]

Thank you.  

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