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DOGBYTES Interview: Camille Rankine

Rankine, Camille

Camille Rankine’s first full-length collection of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses was published by Copper Canyon Press in January 2016. She is the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship, and a recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Atlas Review, American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Octopus Magazine, Paper Darts, Phantom Books, A Public Space, Tin House, and elsewhere. She is a visiting professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst’s MFA for Poets and Writers, and lives in New York City.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

I think there are a lot of ways to be in the world as a poet who promotes social justice. Not just through one’s own writing, but through community, and by helping to create and enrich spaces for people to connect and share their words. The possibility for connection through poetry is a powerful thing. I’ve heard the argument made that literature isn’t an effective avenue for social justice, and I couldn’t disagree more. Even if poems don’t conspicuously engage with social issues, they’re the work of one mind speaking out to an imagined other. There’s a reaching act there. A desire to be heard, to communicate. Too often we remove ourselves from what we think of as foreign, as other, as apart from us, irrelevant to our lives, our reality. And in this distance we become less and less human to one another. That makes the injustices we enact and enable that much easier to allow, to carry out. To me, literature is one way of shrinking the distance between individual experiences and helping us to understand each other as human, making the fact of another’s humanity felt and unmistakable, making it harder to ignore, harder to forget for our own comfort or convenience. I believe that’s an essential part of any effort toward social justice.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

This is supposed to be an easy question, I think, but for me it’s always a challenging one. I have a hard time with the concept of “best” anything, especially books, which have so many different ways of being good. I’ve mostly been reading for work, for teaching, and that makes my reading life is a bit of a blur. When I’m preparing a syllabus, there’s a whirlwind of texts moving through my hands and not everything ends up in the class. But I’ve spent time with some incredible books this way over the past year. The Racial Imaginary, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda. Audre Lorde’s essays in Sister Outsider. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. TJ Jarrett’s Zion. The Gorgeous Nothings, a collection of facsimiles of poems Emily Dickinson drafted on scraps of envelopes. Cynthia Cruz’s Wunderkammer. Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus.  Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You. So much goodness. But this summer I’m spending more time reading purely for pleasure. I want to read all the novels.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Driving in the snow. And parallel parking in New York City. The key is: don’t panic.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

BBC World Service. I listen to the radio every day.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I do a lot of service work in the literary community. I serve as Membership Director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, I’m Chair of the Board of The Poetry Project, and I help organize programming for the Brooklyn Book Festival in my position as co-chair for the Brooklyn Literary Council’s Poetry Committee. In between all the work, I like to binge-watch TV to turn my mind-noise down a bit. And then I have other creative pursuits I pick up when I have the time – mostly music and photography. Also, I like to cook. And I try very hard not to spend my money because I don’t have a lot of it to spend, but New York makes that difficult. This city is a talented pickpocket.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets; to all emerging poets?

  1. Don’t let rejection silence you.
  2. Take your time.
  3. Define success for yourself, and don’t try to be any other poet but the poet you are, the poet that you have the potential to be.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

I don’t know. I guess I tend not to make assumptions—my attitude about whatever’s to come seems to be “we’ll see!” I will say that in the 90s spending all night in internet chat rooms, I never anticipated that acronyms like LOL would become such a widespread mainstay of our everyday communication that even my mom would be using them. Hi, Mom!

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was never at the retreat as a fellow, only as Cave Canem staff, so my experience of it was different from those who were there as writers. The two retreats I attended—in 2010 and 2011—were the hardest work weeks of my life. But they were also two of the most beautiful. It was a privilege to witness this community of artists listening to each other, loving each other, and lifting each other up. And the time I spent with the retreat staff was incredibly fun, in a sort of delirious way. Working with Amanda Johnston was magic. And Hallie Hobson. And Marcus Jackson. And Yezmin Villarreal, a most talented intern who is now a most talented journalist in LA. I’ll love them forever. Cave Canem is all about the people. The fellows are the heart and soul of the organization. And even though I had to be up and in the office by 8 am every morning, I couldn’t help but stay up way too late every night and talk and drink and laugh. I was so fed by that time. And I was exhausted every day, but it was absolutely worth it.

Shockley, Evie - color gls

2016 Cave Canem retreat faculty member Evie Shockley is the author of four collections of poetry—most recently, the new black, winner of the 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry—as well as a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry. Her poetry and essays appear widely in journals and anthologies, recently including Boston Review, pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture, Los Angeles Review of Books, Poetry, Bone Bouquet, Best American Poetry 2015 and Best American Experimental Writing 2015. Her honors include the 2015 Stephen Henderson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry and the 2012 Holmes National Poetry Prize.  Currently serving as creative editor for Feminist Studies, Shockley is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

What can poets do to promote social justice? 

Poets can do the same things anyone else can do, broadly speaking: vote, organize, donate (time or money) to the people or groups who are doing good work, get out in the streets, build institutions, run for office, help raise awareness about the issues, and work on living life daily in ways that make social justice more likely or more available in one’s own corner of the world. Voting may sound lame or retro, compared to protesting in the face of an increasingly militarized police or tweeting comments to millions of people via trending hashtags, but believe me: it’s one of those rights you don’t want to learn to appreciate because you’ve lost it. Use the right to vote on election days—and throughout the rest of the year, use all your other rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, with a vengeance.

Now, with all that said, poets do have a special set of skills and inclinations that can come in handy in doing the work. We can give the gift of time by reading at a rally; we can help raise money by reading at a benefit or contributing a poem to a publication whose proceeds will be used for a worthy cause; and, of course, we can write poems about subjects that we want people to think about, poems that will inspire and encourage activists, poems that remember what must not be forgotten. I feel especially strongly that one of the strengths of poetry is making connections—or making connections visible—and, therefore, one of the ways we can use our art to promote social justice is by writing in ways that help people see that the small pieces of the puzzle we’re each focused on all come together in the big picture. Most people want to live in a just world. What we need more than anything right now is for more of us to understand that our various ideas about what justice looks like are not necessarily competing or conflicting, but are connected and interdependent. The struggle to transform the world into a place where we can all live in peace, in good health, in joy—regardless of who we are, where we were born, what religious beliefs we hold (if any), what our anatomy looks like, and so forth—is one that requires all of us, working together on a wide range of issues that we’ve been led to believe are “special interests” or incompatible goals, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year? 

I have read a lot of good books this past year. Rather than single out one as the “best,” let me amplify the praise I’ve already given to a poetry book just released a couple months ago: play dead, by francine j. harris, is a truly memorable book, in terms of its language, images, and subjects.  It will open you and enter you and teach you. I also finally (finally) read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets last year, and I was blown away by the voice and the structure of that book.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time? 

I taught a poetry workshop in prison (at the Rose M. Singer Center at Rikers) for the first time this spring. It was very rewarding and not an experience I’m likely to forget. I have an even greater appreciation for those who teach inside the prison system on a regular basis.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art. 

It depends. If “art” is shorthand for “visual art,” then the answer is music. All kinds of music have left their mark on my writing, but I would have to make special mention of Prince, especially right now, because without his music in my life, I would be a different person than I am.  If “art” is meant to include all the art forms, then I would point to the ways my work is influenced by people talking.  I listen to people talking—on the subway, on film and TV, in my classes, in restaurants, on the sidewalks, on the radio—and I learn something new about language every day.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money? 

I go to see as much theatre as I can; it has overtaken movies as my favorite art form for storytelling. I’m a lackadaisical foodie, meaning that I love good food, good wine, and long, leisurely meals with good friends and wide-ranging conversation, but I don’t take the trouble to do much research about chefs, restaurants, vineyards, and such. So there’s a lot of trial and error involved! And I’m always looking for recommendations from people who know about these things.  I go for walks—sometimes power-walks as a form of workout, and other times just rambles in the park, or walks to get from here to there in my neighborhood or in the city. I watch the comedy/news shows that come on late-night TV (though I watch them on YouTube; we don’t own a TV). I travel a good bit, though more often for work than vacations. Oh—and it almost goes without saying, but it should be said—I spend time with my family: partner, parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews. I cherish the hours—and the years (16, and counting!)—with my partner, and I’m an especially doting auntie. I also commune with my cats.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging black poets; to all emerging poets? 

  1. Read widely. Read poetry, but not just poetry. Read literature, but not just literature. To Black poets, I would say: get as familiar with the traditions of Black poetry as you are with your bedroom. To other poets, I would say: if you haven’t already done so, bring Black poetry out of the attic and basement and into your living room and your kitchen.
  2. Seek to be influenced. You want to be influenced, the way Prince was influenced by James Brown, the way D’Angelo was influenced by Prince. Go ahead and try to be like Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks, like Jayne Cortez or Bob Kaufman, like Reginald Shepard or Erica Hunt, like Yusef Komunyakaa or Robert Hayden, like Lucille Clifton or Suheir Hammad, like Rita Dove or Ed Roberson. You wish! But try—and in the process of trying, in the process of figuring out what makes their poetry so compelling, in the process of discovering what they do that allows them to slay you again and again and again, you may become a most fabulous YOU.
  3. Remind yourself regularly why you write. There are many ways to be a poet, many paths one can walk in making that journey, and it can be helpful at times to remember that you don’t need to be on the path to a Nobel Prize to be living the poet’s life that you dreamed of: making a difference with your words, meeting wonderful and interesting people, and having the top of your head taken off (mind. blown.) on a regular basis.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has? 

I find this a difficult question to answer. I think I always assume things will change, and they always do, even when they stay the same.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer? 

I don’t think there’s one thing that has “most” shaped me as a writer.  Rather, I think one thing that has helped me a great deal is the understanding that I am, as a writer, a composite of all of my life experiences.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times? 

I was at CC in 1997, ’98, and ’99, the organization’s second, third, and fourth years, when the retreats were still held in upstate NY, at Mount St. Alphonsus.  My memories are many and dear.  I remember that the first CC poet I met was Shara McCallum.  I remember waking at dawn and watching the deer on the lawn with Robin Caudell.  I remember Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon singing spirituals in the little chapel. I remember walking down to the Hudson River in the pitch black dark with a group that included Brandon Johnson and Robin Dunn.  I remember walking down the monastery’s long halls, hearing Tyehimba Jess’s blues coming from the open door of his room.  I remember G.E. Patterson repeatedly saying, writing, or doing things that made me surprised or thoughtful or happy.

I remember Lucille Clifton, with whom I’d already studied at Duke, introducing me at lunch to Sonia Sanchez, whose first words to me were “Can I get you some beans, sister?” (both of them modeling how we must take care of one another). I remember Elizabeth Alexander bringing her first child, Solomon, to the retreat just weeks after he was born.  I remember Afaa M. Weaver teaching a group of us (including Yona Harvey) about a form he’d just invented, called the “bop.” I remember sitting on the monastery roof one night with a group that included Michelle Courtney Berry, Jonathan Smith, and Tim Seibles, and seeing a shooting star. I remember Father Francis Gargani cheering us on (and reminding us to be quiet) and dancing like Gene Kelly at the parties on the final nights.

I remember Michael Harper being stern, patriarchal, and magnificent. I remember Phebus Etienne being quiet in all the ways her poems were not. I remember Vincent Woodard in the opening circle, opening us all up.

I remember sitting at lunch with Reggie Harris and Cornelius Eady, who—when I said I didn’t really buy poetry books—asked me who I thought would buy them (especially books by black poets), if we didn’t. I remember Duriel Harris teaching me how to pronounce her name. I remember hearing Tracie Morris perform a soundscape (“Chain Gang”) for the first time. I remember giovanni singleton reading to us the colors of the J. Crew catalog. I remember Joel Dias Porter (“Renegade”) arguing with everyone, passionately. I remember workshopping with John Keene, Brian Gilmore, Taiyon Coleman, and Yolanda Wisher, just to name a few. I remember Erica Doyle introducing Harryette Mullen, punning about the “amusing drudgery” of her work. I remember Honorée Jeffers reading her “Tuscaloosa” poem. I remember Carrie McCray telling us about Ota Benga.  I remember Toi Derricotte’s ever-ready smile—and her ability to take each one of her workshops to the bone.  I remember Carolyn Micklem running herself ragged so the rest of us could just think and talk and breathe poetry for seven whole days.

I remember you all: January Gill, Bakar Wilson, Kate Rushin, Lenard Moore, Dawn Lundy Martin, Ronaldo Wilson, Kendra Hamilton, Holly Bass, Hayes Davis, Teri Cross, Toni Lightfoot—all of you whose names I am still singing as I force myself to bring this list to a premature close. And I remember Ernesto Mercer, in white, leading the first Cave Canem graduation ceremonies, blessing us and our poems and our journeys onward.

dargan-kyle-looking-down

Kyle Dargan is the author of four collections of poetry, Honest Engine (2015), Logorrhea Dementia (2010), Bouquet of Hungers (2007) and The Listening (2003), all published by the University of Georgia Press. For his work, he has received the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. His books have also been finalists for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Eric Hoffer Awards Grand Prize. He is currently an Associate Professor of literature and director of creative writing at American University and is the founder and editor of POST NO ILLS magazine. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Dargan is a graduate of Saint Benedict’s Prep, The University of Virginia and Indiana University.

 

What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Honest Engine?

With Honest Engine—unlike my other three books in which I was still figuring out what I wanted to achieve as a poet, a communicator—I knew well before the book was published that I had hit the sweet spot, I knew I was actually executing at my optimum capacity at that time. Refining that—when you are already exceeding what you assumed your abilities to be—was challenging. I was afraid of doing too much and ruining the recipe, or that I was delusional and the manuscript was not as strong as I thought it to be. It helps to have poet colleagues and editors you trust, and, luckily, I did. Their honesty—and confidence—kept me from rendering the book overwrought.

On Twitter, you often encourage poets to “push for the book.” Why is it so important to complete this step?

Well, I mostly say (or tweet) this to people who I know have manuscripts on hard drives or under their beds. It’s not something that generally validates or completes a poet—no one should feel that way—but I do want people who have ventured the audacity to produce and present a book to the world to follow through. I always say that whenever you send out a manuscript, it should be stronger by the time you get a response. Releasing it should free you (and encourage you) to allow it to grow, and I want people to believe they can stay engaged in that process or cycle of release and growth until their manuscripts find a home.

How might social media enhance our collective effort towards social justice?

When it comes to social justice, I am more interested in hacking than social media. To me, social media amplifies and, on occasion, clarifies narratives, but hacking actually grants access to change the narrative. It gets people access to the information that those who—tacitly or explicitly—want to maintain inequalities and disenfranchisement need to keep out of the public record. Politically, I would say hacking tends to be thought of as a tool of The State—espionage—but the people who really need hackers and hacktivists are the ones whom The State denies rights and resources and access. The world needs to be able to see how a web is being woven behind firewalls.

What does the phrase “do the work” mean to you as a poet?

“Do the work” means many things. It means be serious about your craft as a poet—as in not more serious than you are about networking and promoting yourself. It also means the work one does to or with the self to grow. Growing as a human being and growing as an artist, those two phenomena are impossibly connected. I like to be active about moving back and forth between the two. It’s almost like pistons—pushing hard in one direction acts as the compression before ignition and the push back in the other direction.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

Outside of literature or art—does Japanese anime count as non-literature or non-art? If so, then I would claim that first. At this phase of my life, many of the ideas that push me (as in challenge or stimulate) creatively come from anime. Visual narratives that do not begin with the limitations of what can or cannot be done with film just tend to be more inventive in the way they can and do probe the human psyche. Of the serious and dramatic stuff, loved Durarara! Loved Ghost in a Shell. Loved Full Metal Alchemist. Loved Death Note. Attack on Titan. Parasyte. Evangelion. The Gundam series. Yu Yu Hakusho. Akira.

One of the things I appreciate about anime is that the settings are often imagined spaces within real environments. (Think of One Punch Man taking place in Japan but all the cities are “City A,” “City B” etc., or Akira’s “Neo-Tokyo”—a city built in a crater following a third world war.) I’ve given myself a little moratorium on writing about America after my next book, Anagnorisis, is published, but whenever I get back to that, I want to write about America using imagined spaces nestled within our history but not beholden to its rules. I’m excited to see what aspects of my imagination that might allow me to access.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

I actually spend a lot of time responding to and communicating with people who write me—former students, other writers, complete (and I say this lovingly, or jokingly) randos. If my writing is doing the work of actually communicating and connecting with people—who then reach out to me—I feel an obligation to respond. (Luckily, though, I’m not that popular of a poet.)

Aside from that, I play basketball and lift weights a lot. Those things don’t really make it into my writing, but they inform—as philosophies—a lot of my life. I’m always thinking in terms of basketball-to-life, or weightlifting-to-life. Darry Strickland—another CC fellow—he thinks a lot like that. He’s like a sage. (He played Division I college ball and has coached a lot.) Conversations with him that blend all these worlds are a blessing.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging poets?

The key piece I would suggest is to always think of yourself as an emerging poet. That language of “emerging poet” has always been empty to me. I had my first book, the Cave Canem prize, at twenty-three and my third by thirty. By the industry’s standards, I was out of the emerging “phase” by my late twenties, but that was ridiculous. Number of books has nothing to do with degree of development. Finding a space for my process and continued growth was difficult, and I have people coming to me for mentorship when I’m thinking “yo, I’ve been in this game just as long, if not less time, than you.” Rather than fit a category, I just embraced being an emerging writer all the time—always emerging into my next iteration. So try that. Try being a, to steal Oliver de le Paz’s term, poet citizen—to the country but also to the field of poetry. What are the “civic duties” of poetry we need to attend to? And this last bit, it may not be great advice for everyone, but have a bit of a chip on your shoulder about your work. I’ve only felt wholly inadequate reading next to one other poet—Lucille Clifton. (A privilege but, to this day, I think, “what the hell was twenty-something-year-old me doing on stage with her?”) But anybody else, I want to feel like I earned my space next to her or him because—(recall)—I did the work and I’ll keep doing the work.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

Over time, I began to believe that my birth city, Newark, New Jersey, would never change from being a majority blk, majority lower-income city. The September 11th attacks changed Newark’s post-riots trajectory. New York companies and workers felt safer in New Jersey. Downtown Newark is practically becoming a college town. The old Bamberger’s (Macy’s) where my grandmother worked as a girl once, that’s going to be a Whole Foods soon, but that kind of change has been forty years in the making. D.C. is very different in terms of development. You’ll feel whiplash watching neighborhoods gentrify in D.C.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Being negro. Negotiating and managing “whiteness” almost constantly—which is exhausting. Living as both one of the nation’s greatest fears and one of its clearest examples of disenfranchisement, you’re constantly distinguishing people’s reaction to you. It sharpens your eye, as long as you don’t let that racial animus consume you. As a cis-het blk man, occasionally I need to remind myself that life is so much bigger than the struggle against “white” supremacy. Being a being—not just a human but a sentient entity in the universe—is bigger than that.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What’s a favorite memory from those times?

I attended in ’02 and ’03 I believe. Never “graduated.” I’ve popped back in for readings and things a few times. I remember, my second year, as a joke, some of us advertised a party, The Denmark Vesey Club, that really did not go over well with some of the faculty (though some of the faculty were at the party)—particularly Nikky Finney, who went in on us the next day. For someone like her, who would have died to have a space like Cave Canem when she was a younger writer, it was just unfathomable that we wouldn’t treat the time and space with supreme reverence. I still remember that “talking to.” It still hurts, but I am ever grateful to her for doing that as an elder, for modeling how we need to see to the integrity of our spaces, especially since we have so few and they are not guaranteed. And, sure, I was twenty-four and less mature then. But after that, the stakes, the urgency, of life as a poet became very clear to me, and Nikky Finney still serves as a model in that regard.

Tyehimba

Detroit native Tyehimba Jess’ first book of poetry, leadbelly, was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.” Olio, his second collection, was published by Wave Books in April 2016. Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU alumnus, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004-2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000 – 2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He exhibited his poetry at the 2011 TEDxNashville Conference. Jess is an Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island.

 

What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Olio?

Well, there were a lot of challenges. The hardest was trying to figure out the overall motifs in the book, and how to make them complement each other. The book has a circular motif, one that is expressed through a double crown of sonnets for the Fisk Jubilee Singers and a series of interviews about the life of Scott Joplin. That circular motion is echoed in the contrapuntal poems that employ stichomythia. The mixture of forms throughout the book mirrors the interchange between personas. The circular motion of history is also emphasized in the list of burned black churches that surround the Fisk sonnets. There are a lot of moving parts that are trying to work together throughout the book, and the challenge was to try to approach each one differently, with due respect and diligence, and to have them mesh together as one unit.

You wrote a poem in response to the video project and movement #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. What can poets do to promote social justice?

Well, I’d first say that we all have to find our own path towards fighting injustice. There are so many ways to do so through our writing, the petitions we sign, the marches we attend, the institutions we build, etc. For myself, I accept that I am a work in progress, one trying to recognize and work against the ways that disparities between race, gender, gender orientation and preference, and class create a world smaller and dimmer than our collective human potential. When I work collectively with a circle of humanity listening deeply to each other, when we have face-to-face, voice-to-voice conversations that take us beyond the Facebook or Twitter post, when we can strive to even agree to disagree in order to preserve a degree of mutual respect in order to achieve mutual goals, I believe we will be able to more effectively promote a justice that serves all of us.

This goes beyond writing the “politically correct” poem, or making the cogent analysis or blog post at the right moment. It means trying to listen deeply to each other in a real, human sense so that we see beyond the issues and into the place where we can respect each other’s humanity. These public, electronic forums often flatten out nuance and destroy subtleties that would otherwise encourage us to interact more humanely with each other—to really listen.

But then listening is an essential part of writing a good poem, isn’t it? So, that’s what this poet is trying to do right now—listen to those around me to understand their perspectives, listen to the many rivers of history, listen beyond rhetoric and try my best to think carefully before I speak in order to avoid simplistic and incomplete answers to complicated questions. And then to act according to what I have discovered through that listening—with care.

And I know I’ll stumble along the way and find new ways to be wrong; but I guess the challenge is to recognize this as a life struggle that don’t stop till we’re in the ground. And even then, if we’re doing our job as poets successfully, our words will continue to do their work in the world after we’re gone. So write for the ages.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

A book that immediately comes to mind is Vievee Francis’ stunning Forest Primeval. I believe this was a breakthrough book for Vievee. Her craft is so brilliantly tight and wild, the search into self so deliberate, brutal, tender and searing.

I’d also have to say that John Keene’s Counternarratives is so ambitious in its scope, so well executed, so historically thorough and full of surprises, that it really set the bar high for me.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

I have learned quite a bit from riding a motorcycle over the past eight years. I’ve learned about patience, the kind of patience you need when you’re being passed by semi trucks in a sudden thunderstorm; the importance of knowing one’s limitations; how to avoid overrunning the turn and going dangerously off course; overcoming fear, the kind of fear when you’re on a bridge, leaning into the crosswind that’s trying to push you across lanes; how to focus, concentrating on the place you want to go in order to get there safely. I’ve learned how to maintain the many parts of my 19-year-old Honda, learned more about the importance of proper preparation for the journey. I’ve learned more about anticipating the moves of those around me—to read the traffic around me, looking as far ahead as the eye can see for possible accidents and competing egos on the highway ahead. I’ve learned more about how to sacrifice ego when it comes to reaching a goal on the road, and how to never take smooth pavement and a sunny day for granted. I’ve learned to weave between the lines when necessary but to respect the lightness of my weight against the tons of metal I pass. I’ve learned how beautiful so many parts of the country are in the sunset. I’ve even learned how to camp out on my own and the wonders of a portable hammock and evening shade. I’ve learned a passion that’s brought me closer to my brother, who now rides almost more than me! I never thought I’d learn that much from being in that motorcycle seat for so long. But there it is. I guess we can learn from anything if we try.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Right now I’m spending a lot of time getting ready to be married! I’m lucky enough to have a lady that wants to spend the rest of her time on the planet with me, so I’m spending a lot of time getting ready for this next journey together.

What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets; to all emerging poets?

1. Don’t stop writing, even when you feel discouraged. My formula is 1>0: it’s always better to have at least something on the page rather than nothing. You can always revise, and revise, and revise…

2. Know your histories. Research the many histories of the country in which you were born, the country in which you live, and the people from which you come. Read beyond those histories to understand global context. History often repeats or rhymes with itself. By engaging and recognizing those patterns we have the opportunity to reference lessons that are continuously new, ancient and true to the human experience.

3. Read extensively. Set your standards for yourself as high as possible.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Probably the fact that I grew up in a house full of books has influenced me the most as a writer. My father was constantly reading; he had lots of full bookshelves in the house and subscriptions to every magazine from Time to National Geographic to Ebony and two newspapers. And my mother was never tiring in her desire to see me read and write well. Without that early influence, I might have never dreamed of being a writer.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat?

I was at CC in 1997, 1999, and 2001. I served as a retreat administrator/aide for three years, 2002, 2003 and 2004.

What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

The first time I saw the CC reading during my first year. The talent in the room blew me away. I knew immediately that I had to step up my game. It was a real eye opener and the beginning of a kind of self-reconstruction—I had found a community of folks who were listening to hear each other and grow from what they heard. I’ll never forget feeling that I had finally found my crew.