DOGBYTES interview: Aaron Coleman

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A Cave Canem Fellow and Fulbright Scholar from Metro-Detroit, Aaron Coleman is the winner of the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Contest, The Cincinnati Review Schiff Award, and the American Literary Translator Association’s Jansen Memorial Fellowship. His chapbook, St. Trigger, won the 2015 Button Poetry Prize, and his work can be found in ApogeeBoston ReviewFenceNew York Times Magazine, and elsewhere.  Currently, Coleman is a PhD student at Washington University in St. Louis. Hear Aaron Coleman read from his debut collection, Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018), alongside Camille Dungy and Shane McCrae on April 10, 6:30pm at The New School.

How does your debut, Threat Come Close, challenge the way American discourse thinks and talks about black men?

Whew – this question makes me feel so many things! But first, thank you for the opportunity to chat about Threat Come Close with the Cave Canem family. I’m so grateful to add my voice to the collective.

When I think about black masculinities, and masculinities in general, I sense a desperateness. There is beauty, strength, and joy alongside it, but I want to talk about a sense of desperation born from being alive despite all the ways we are policed in the United States and elsewhere. I mean “policed” in the literal sense but also in psychological and cultural senses of that word: I’m thinking of how we are policed by all the myths, exoticisms, “shoulds,” and social scripts that try to cage what blackness and masculinity can be.

As black men, in all our different forms and origins and orientations, I think we often feel forced to cobble together a kind of makeshift armor. Threat Come Close asks: what kind of life is possible when I see my armor for what it is? Not necessarily throwing it aside but also not clinging to it—just compassionately, vividly seeing it. As a black man, what comes to life for me and my relationships when I vividly see my histories, memories, and imagination; my pain, my privilege, my vulnerability, my tenderness? What happens to me (to any of us) when I listen closely to my own strange music? Threat Come Close opens spaces for seeing, feeling, and living with the complexity of belonging and wandering, of sexuality and desire, of rage and faith…

This question is so important to me – Let me go a bit further by focusing on the title: the odd phrasing of Threat Come Close wouldn’t leave me alone – and I hope black men and everyone, as they sit with it, can get a feel for its valences. Firstly: what happens when we ask the threat, the risk (in whatever social, racial, or personal form or context), to come closer, when we see it up close, beyond the stories around whatever that threat is? At levels of urgency, compassion, and insight, what does that proximity make possible? Secondly: what happens when I or any black man is seen as a “threat [that has] come close” a threat in the midst of American cultures’ realities and mythologies, or as an “I” that was nearly a threat, almost a threat, and survived – is surviving – and lives to tell about it.

I just hope Threat Come Close opens space for all black folx to be and see our whole, intricate selves.

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

John Keene’s short story collection  Counternarratives (New Directions, 2016) has just stayed on my mind. I’m floored by the way each story opens new layers into worlds that mainstream American culture likes to assume are devoid of blackness. The shockingly vibrant yet ephemeral opening story is about a person of color (who has lived all over the world trying to find a way to survive) who is a scout on one of the first ships to reach what is now present-day Manhattan—in 1613. I’m looking into the history of this now and just discovering it’s a fictional story born out of a reality so few of us are aware of! It’s in this sense (and various others) that Keene’s stories – set in locations as various as Brazil, Haiti, DC, and Kentucky – counter reductive narratives that lull us to sleep about the complexity of the past as much as the present. I could go on….lol

What was the most memorable experience that came out of your time as a Fulbright Scholar?

Whew, I could name so many things, but thinking about this chance to connect with the Cave Canem community, I want to highlight a connection I made with a middle-aged black man from Senegal who lived in a neighborhood adjacent to mine in Madrid. One late night we got to talking about the African diaspora (in a mix of Spanish, English, and French), and at one point he says to me, “you black Americans are the fruit of Africa,” and something along the lines of how we’ve slipped so far away but still we shine back on the potential of the continent. It shook me. I didn’t really know how to feel about being called the fruit in that way – and of course Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” also clanged in my mind…I’m still trying to write about it. I wonder if I can create a poem that goes beyond narrative and really does the complexity of that moment justice.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

First things first, I’d say Andre 3000 is someone I’m always reflecting on (their music as much as their public persona), but that’s still pretty close to art. I played a lot of sports up until my early twenties (I finally stopped playing football seriously about mid-way through college) and I think the deep need for faith in your team and yourself (in losses and in wins), the speed and agility of improvisation that takes place while competing, and my own relationship to how I can be in my body…all of those things have stuck with me. I also was a lineman when I played football, so I have this deep respect for what goes on in the trenches and isn’t so easily seen or celebrated. I like the deep mechanics of strategy and technique in sports, too (from football to discus to basketball).

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

After looking at what I wrote above: damn, I watch too many sports! I’m also really into plants; my uncle and I both have a bit of a green thumb (his is serious, mine is on the way) and my first plant was from my grandmother’s funeral. I have a mentor who still has a houseplant that belonged to her mother who passed away years ago. I love how plants have a different sense of time, so you might catch me taking care of my twenty-some house plants or strolling in public parks or gardens in St. Louis. I feel a bit ridiculous writing this, but I could spend a very long time just looking at and lounging underneath trees.

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

Advice is so hard because I don’t know if there are one-size-fits-all things. But still: I think one of the most important things for me has been to actively and doggedly seek out the creative people and works that feed me, no matter how strange or overlooked those people or books (or music or art or whatever) might be.

Both in my life and writing I find myself drawn to authenticity, vulnerability, and compassion – and the poems that have shook me the most are the ones that risk not being the hero, that refuse the easy conclusion, that open new insights and emotions in me because they are open to courageous vulnerability and the complexity of being real.

And a final note of advice I think is just to try to cultivate the ability – maybe the empathy – to sit with any idea and see it for what it is – whether I reject or take any advice (say in a workshop or even in a relationship) I want to be able to listen to it clearly before making a knee-jerk decision of whether it is or isn’t for me.

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

The nicest surprise via a new experience came out of the fact that one morning this winter my partner and I couldn’t find parking to go to the gym at the university we attend. So we ended up checking out the local community center that’s actually just as close to us as school is… That place is a celebration of blackness: from the kind aunties that work the welcome desk to the elderly folks walking and humming (or straight-up singing old spirituals) as they power walk on the elevated track above a basketball court full of teens and little kids. This community center is going to get me through my PhD – returning to my first piece of advice above: it’s the overlooked element that sows so much lightness and joy and intergenerational community reflection in my life. So, hitting the track at the local community center is my recent new thing!

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

I love this question. My first thought here is that my child-self remembers and loves silence. As a young child I spent a fair amount of time by myself, entertaining myself, playing make-believe, drawing, and watching the adults around me…so I think my child-self knows how valuable silence and rhythm and momentum are, how a poem’s pace (how it develops) can transform its energy, and the energy of its readers or listeners.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Damn these are getting hard! …I think it’s been all the things I’ve said no to. The things I’ve stepped away from have allowed me to be quiet enough with myself to see myself and my environments with a nuanced clarity. It may be strange to point to saying no, but I think the relationships I’ve walked away from (from people or when I stopped playing organized sports, or walked away from a job), I think the fear of leaving an opportunity has focused and fueled me; it’s made me get real clear about how much I care about writing, and how I need to make sure that I’m surrounding myself with loving, creative energy and people.

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

I’m just coming up on my second year at the retreat and I can’t wait for it. Two of my favorite memories from summer ’16 were, first: the fish fry/dance party/spades tournament wherein “Knuck if You Buck” came on and the turn up was real – it was a peak black moment in my life! I even saw Willie Perdomo starting to vibe a bit as he stood between the edge of the heavy dancing and the folks that were playing cards…so many of us just joyously talking and laughing. It was a real celebration.

The other moment was when a few of us fellows went across to the cemetery on the hill adjacent to campus to watch the sunrise, I think it was the last morning of the retreat. The experience of writing each night was one of pushing through barriers of creativity and emotion, and to stand with a crew of brilliant black poets that had all spent a week diving into themselves was a powerful thing.