DOGBYTES Interview: Derrick Austin

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A Cave Canem fellow and Assistant Poetry Editor at Memorious, Derrick Austin’s poems and essays can be found in numerous publications such as Best American Poetry 2015, New England Review, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, and Blavity, among others. Selected by Mary Szybist for the A. Poulin Jr, Poetry Prize, Austin’s debut, Trouble the Water (BOA Editions, 2016), was additionally honored as a finalist for the 2017 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, the 2017 Norma Faber First Book Award, and the 2017 Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Derrick Austin will emcee the Cave Canem Fellows Off-Site Reading at AWP Tampa, on Wednesday, March 7th, 2018, 7pm.

The description of your debut collection, Trouble the Water, states that the poems “interrogate what it means to be…’fully human as a queer, black body.’” Are there any revelations on that inquiry which came to you in the process of writing the book?

It’s an ongoing inquiry, one of those questions that shades the life and work. But, through writing Trouble the Water, I freed myself from flawed, inherited narratives. The cultural narratives concerning blackness in mainstream media are often so narrow and reductive. Growing up, I often felt alienated from many of them. Not that I’m some special case. Mainstream media has long had problems showcasing the multiplicity of black life in America. I harbored so much shame. I remember, in my teens, never feeling black enough—whatever that meant. It took years to realize those anxieties had nothing to do with blackness and everything to do with the white gaze and the vicious limitations of that gaze. By the time I finished my book I was just doing me. One glory of blackness is its limitlessness, its strangeness. We’re all just trying to live out here.

What does the public have to gain by reading poetry?

On the one hand, I think the public has everything to gain from reading poetry. A part of me bristles at the idea that reading poetry imparts some kind of specialized knowledge. I think one can learn as much from reading poetry as from reading fiction, a biography, an essay, etc. Sure, there are limits to this comparison, but one can learn so much about the world from a poem’s details and perspectives. On the other hand, poetry forces us to slow down. Slowing down feels like such a luxury. It’s partially why I started writing poems in the first place. Poetry is one of the last places where it’s vital that we carefully consider what we say and how we say it. Lord knows that’s something we need more of these days.

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

Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s Rocket Fantastic. It’s such a heart-filling book. The way that book orients itself towards joy, happiness, messiness, and freedom inspires me. Formally, the book is wildly smart: loose but never sloppy, unabashedly sexy, fun, and sad too — and the utterly inventive way the book interrogates gender through symbol and breath. I could keep gushing forever.

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

Walking on a frozen lake. I walked out and the ice didn’t crack under me. I’d call that a victory.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

Costume dramas. 

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

These past few years, going to the movies. I really love going to the movie theater and living somewhere else for two hours. It’s a transport like no other. Also nothing beats happy hour with friends. 

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

  • The writing life is a long game. Don’t fret if you don’t win an award, get published in a big journal, or receive a residency. These are important insofar as getting financial support, readings, or jobs in academia. I won’t pretend that these things aren’t important. We’ve gotta eat and we’ve got bills to pay. However, as far as your art is concerned trust yourself and trust your poems. They’ll find their way.
  • Find your community and foster it. Find the writers and artists that feed your work and yourself. You’re not just a writer; you’re a person. You’ll need someone to send silly gifs to at midnight and talk about life.
  • Don’t lose the joy in this life. Writing is a hard path. You’ll doubt yourself. You’ll be broke. You won’t write. You’ll wonder why the hell you’re doing this. Through it all don’t lose the sense of wonder that comes with writing and reading and being part of this living tradition.

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

Being lonely. Never feeling like I fit in anywhere. Being deeply queer from the jump. I’ve got a soft spot for things that are strange, that aren’t popular, that even feel old-fashioned. I guess one would call that taste.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

It’s not a life experience but all through my life my friends have made me feel safe and loved. I learned how to be myself among friends. I learned to value community.

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

2014 and 2015. I have far too many sweet memories of my time at CC. The best way to encapsulate them all is the epic dance party that closes out each retreat. It’s the best family reunion. It’s celebrating with family you didn’t know you needed.


Photo Credit: Yanyi