Tommye, let me begin by pointing out to our readers that you are currently an account coordinator for a Fortune 500 company that provides print and related services. It’s no secret that most working poets these days toil in academia, not in the world in which most Americans are employed. I regularly try to persuade students into not seeking one of the very few tenure track jobs available to creative writers in academia, strongly suggesting that they opt for a career in an occupation that provides more opportunity and, perhaps, a wider palette of experience from which to draw as subject matter. You have followed that very route by getting an Advertising degree from Michigan State University before getting your MFA. That said, there are significant advantages for the few writers who do find secure jobs in academia. Could you speak to this and your choice of profession? When you publish a first book, will you try for the academic job after all?
John, I was afraid you’d ask this question. To say there is one or another trajectory for a writing life is very limiting. My friends and I discuss this all of the time. Yes, my current job is as an Account Coordinator, but I’m actually a graphic designer by trade—which I keep thinking one day will mesh with the writing. I’m not sure I have the authority to say which option, as you have presented, is better than the other. If one wishes to go straight through the “academic track,” then Godspeed. If one does not, then good luck just the same. Who is to judge what a writer’s life is to be? There are writers, working in seemingly disparate fields, I look up to: C. Dale Young, Thomas Lynch, Toby Barlow, and Rafael Campo. Each one, in my eyes at least, has figured out that the writing life is interwoven with the working life; one sphere feeds the other. Each has forged his own path without compromise. As for me, I am still battling with this idea.
I am not like most students of poetry—and I do still consider myself a student. All of my learning has come from apprenticeships. By the time I got serious about poetry, I was already working as a Production Artist for an adverting agency. There was a bit of a time gap between my graduation from MSU in 2001 and when I began studying under poet Vievee Francis in about 2004.
Francis took me, and a handful of other poets, under her wing. Out of her living room, she ran rigorous workshops on craft. From these workshops came the foundation for all that I know of poetry. To this very day, she remains a constant in my life. If it were not for Francis, I would have never heard of Cave Canem.
Cave Canem, founded by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, is an organization dedicated to the growth of contemporary African American writers. Every summer, it holds an intense week-long residency. It was there that I developed a clearer sense of myself as a writer. Although when I arrived to Warren Wilson’s low residency MFA program, I had a somewhat clear sense of who I was as a writer, the school forced me deeper into this discovery of voice. Apprenticing too is at the heart of this program.
Look at me I am rambling. My point is this: there are many paths a writer can forge. For me, apprenticeships have been much of my education. And I don’t feel that one is less dedicated or less serious than others simply because he or she chooses not to teach on a university level. With all of that said, perhaps one day I will be in a position, either out of my living room or formally for a school, to teach and mentor others as many folks have done for me. Who knows?
I’m guessing that “Bling Elegy,” if it isn’t actually about Justin Bieber, as about someone like Justin Bieber, and it could certainly suggest a range of self-destructive pop stars and actors. Like many of your poems, it’s in an interesting tonal register, somewhat mocking or wry in this case, that helps to inform the poem. Could you talk about this poem a bit, and also about how you use tonal inflection in your poetry?
Pedro Almodovar is one of my favorite filmmakers. He is able to shift tone at the bat of a fake eyelash and I eat it up. A scene might begin in bawdy hilarity then end in terror. Just as Almodovar relies on many tools to shape tone (camera angle, the actor’s expression, lighting, color, etc.), so too does the poet.
Tone is an output of how the parts of a poem’s machine are working together or not working together. It isn’t just rhyme or diction or syntax alone that contributes to a mood, but all of those elements and more.
Although I should know better, I always make the mistake of relegating elegy to the dead realm of melancholy and just plain old sadness. Yes, there is a bit of sadness in “Bling Elegy” that underlies the wry mockery you hear, John. When writing a poem, I’m never under the impression that I wield complete control of what a reader might sense, neither do I wish to possess such control, but then again I don’t feel powerless either.
I’m in love with the idea of camp and I continue to wrestle with ways to suffuse some of the traits of it with other moods. Camp, as a science of the fashionably bad and tacky, has its own sort of beauty. For me, it is the collision of various tones (“registers” as you put it) that could turn out just plain awful or good. This appeals to my thirst for risk and recklessness in my own poems. Of course one is never conscious at the time he’s creating camp—as it happens outside of its author’s intended purpose. My quest for camp might be a Sisyphean task, but can’t poetry be an art of splendid failures? These are the types of poems to which I am drawn. Look at Mary Szybist’s annunciation poems in Incarndaine or many of Matthew Olzmann’s poems in Mezzanines! These are risky works that tonally could go wrong at any moment, but they don’t. Each poem is a miracle. When I read them, I am always floored at how invested I am by the end.
So, yes, there is something to be said about pursuing the “bad” idea. Attributes some poets may deem as easy and undesirable are elements I unabashedly use in “Bling Elegy.” For example, there are many peek-a-boo line endings: platinum / blond; galactic / or go home; god baby, / baby, baby. There is an irresponsible play happening for me as a poet that is mirroring the irresponsible play of the subject of the poem. With these kinds of choices, I wanted to make a showy poem; a blinged-out elegy—a glamorous sadness.
In a brief interview in The Collagist in 2010, you say that you were at work on a series of poems around the tale of Pinocchio and other fairy tales. Is “The Cull” a poem in that series? What about these children’s stories engages with your poetic sensibilities?
See that’s just it—I don’t see them as children’s stories. One of my larger obsessions is demarcating the lines between hero worship and villainy. This is the space from which springs “Bling Elegy,” “Spoiler Alert,” and “The Cull.” After all, I am a black queer man moving through the world in this big black queer body. There is never a moment I am not negotiating the roles of hero and villain: how do I make myself less threatening; how do I make myself more frightening; how to not offend someone; how not to get offended. In “The Cull,” we see Peter Pan, trapped in his stunted body, revealing himself to be more cruel than any villain. Similarly there is the speaker in “Bling Elegy” relishing in the fall of a young pop star—who is but another stunted boy. And in “Spoiler Alert” one is hardly sure where the hero ends and the villain begins.
The drama in many of your poems, including “Spoiler Alert,” seems to take place in cars and on roadsides. Is this something that you’ve noticed? What’s up with that?
Someone once told me that place shows itself in the work no matter how hard one is resistant to it. I was born and raised in Detroit, but now live just outside it in a suburb called Novi. It must be 20 years since I have lived within the city, although much of my family and friends still live there. It’s too late. The city has already made its mark on me.
Detroit is a blue-collar city in which you work or starve. This could be why I am so adamant about working a regular 9-to-5. For 20-something years, my father worked on a Chrysler assembly line that my sister works on now. Every morning at 3 or so, my brother drives a few miles into the city to drive buses through that city. Work is work here.
But despite of the Woodward line bus my brother drives all over town, this place is built for the automobile. Sprawling for miles and miles beyond the last bus stop—it’s big. Inescapable. Without a car, life can be difficult to navigate here. A car is both a burden and a necessity. Sometimes it can mean the difference between feeding a family and starving. Of course this is one of my motifs? Why wouldn’t it be?
In “Spoiler Alert “the car serves a different. The car isn’t going anywhere. It’s an anchored object that grounds all of the other details and bits of narrative shifting all over the place. Beyond the car, the poem moves in the way a movie trailer moves—zipping from one narrative possibility to another in a small amount of time. When I watch a trailer I have to constantly adjust my expectations, which in this case is a way of seeing, as the mini-narrative (a narrative representing the larger one) unfolds in 5 minutes. For example, a trailer for a horror film might start out with bright lighting, gentle music, and the actors frolicking in a field. But somewhere along this mini-narrative, it will derail into a dark place—the lighting disappears and the music becomes more doom-filled.
Do you now have a full manuscript out in the world, trying to find a home with a publisher?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a manuscript out in the world, but I am working very hard on my first one. My mind does not move as swiftly as most, so writing takes me a long while.
Change your name to something
wholesome, then go platinum
blond. The world is your
egg shell and when you've outgrown that
break it on another celestial house. Go galactic
or go home to Canada. Think of Mercury
or, better still, Pluto—how quickly
one can be downgraded from his former glory.
You are a god and there are legions of worshippers
wanting to descend beneath the arena stage
with you holding their hand
at the end of the night. And you lead them
through one dark corridor after another.
In your dressing room, you feed them
green M&M's and something—seeded,
pitted, skinned—from your thousand dollar
fruit tray. Yes, you are a god, baby,
baby, baby. Oh nothing can touch you.
Go on, you know what we want, don’t you?
Give us the big bang.
In a world, there is a road; it all begins
with a road: dark, woods reaching
across for more woods, not a cell tower
for miles. Flat lands. A tire
gets a flat from a pothole. Or
a gunshot? The car isn’t going anywhere
and you know what is coming. The driver
is alone and gets out to see the damage
and you know what is coming. But
it’s not a pothole or gunshot. A
mammal: an animal: a large
thing with hair: a (What is it called?)
doe: a dead doe resembling the one
in those poems: a motif
someone has written about—
a star chewing the scenery no more. Gah!
But it smells like iron
and cocoa butter lotion and
Sour Patch Kids. It’s as small as a
it is a child; a girl
with a coriander part greased down
the middle of her crown. Two braids
as thick as antlers. Two barrettes—
green plastic butterflies or bows or
something. But girls can't grow beards
and mustaches like that. Their shoulders
are not that broad; their hips not that narrow.
A dead man is in a heap on the road. Our actor
recognizes him, then wipes his eyes. He
can't believe what he is seeing. What can be seen in
this fog, having rained
all week? They are brothers. Twin brothers.
They look so much alike they could be
the same person. They are the same person,
or at least the audience, you, is meant to
think they are the same person. A stunt double:
a body to bear the pain for another body
in the way lovers sometimes can do. But
there are no lovers in this story. There is no
love between the hero and the dead man. No, the dead man
is your hero. The villain
gets to drive off in the moonrise.
…and when they seem to be growing up,
which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.
It takes every bit of magic in me
to cup my name back inside their mouths
in the final aria of the Neverbird’s crow,
in the slumber of a stray night.
It’s the hum of a lost mum’s lullaby
that betrays their allegiance to this home
built against the murmur
of memory. It’s the hullaballoo of their blood
that startles me when each takes my hand
at the promise of some secret grotto
or hollowed hull. There is no need for dust
when I walk them through this thicket,
cutting down what has grown back.
At the clearing, I whisper, Make a wish,
point toward the moon gnashing
the last bit of stars
as if it were a looted silver tooth
raking the faces of some two-headed doubloon.
It’s a kind of mercy,
the breasts once suckled, by now, have emptied
into the bite of another son’s mouth.
Before the wish can finish,
my cutlass has already hushed their coo
and growing dark and darker still
is the shadow I always forget is there
guiding me in the swift light.