Mitchell L. H. Douglas interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Mitchell, your first book of poetry, Cooling Board, was nominated for an NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Literary Work-Poetry category as well as a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the forthcoming \blak\ \al-fə bet\, has won the 2011 Persea Books Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award. I assume that volume will be published soon and that the three poems represented in this month’s Congeries are from a third volume. Given the attention that your first book has garnered, I imagine that you might be a bit apprehensive about the second’s reception. True? Anything you’d like to say about the manuscript for the 3rd book?
“La Ofrenda” will appear in \blak\ \al-fə bet\ (which will be published on Feb. 6, 2013). “Ekphrasis: At the Table” is an outtake from \blak\ \al-fə bet\ (it’s a poem I’ve liked for some time, but ultimately couldn’t make work with the narrative presented in the manuscript). “The Fears” is a newer poem that has not been committed to a manuscript.
It’s true, I’m concerned about how \blak\ \al-fə bet\ will be received, but not for the reasons some would expect. While Cooling Board was written in persona about an artist I admire, Donny Hathaway, \blak\ \al-fə bet\ is autobiographical. I am grateful for the way Cooling Board was received, and I’m hoping \blak\ \al-fə bet\ receives similar attention. The success of a book should be about the proficiency of the poems, but I’m also hoping readers will accept my family and our story into their lives.
As for the third book, it’s too early to discuss the concept. I can say that the project is underway and that I am dedicating the summer of 2012 to work on it at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota. I have a residency there in July thanks to the Lexi Rudnitsky prize.
The Cooling Board addresses soul singer Donny Hathaway, who committed suicide in 1979, and it’s a book length poem. What can you tell us about \blak\ \al-fə bet\ in terms of style and/or content?
The narrative at the center of \blak\ \al-fə bet\ is the death of a Southern matriarch and how the loss affects her family. Readers will see Kentucky and Alabama roots reflected in the poems as well the way place impacts voice. There is also a poetic form I invented that will debut in this book. My hope is that it will get readers talking and encourage other poets to take to the form the way they have embraced Afaa Michael Weaver’s Bop for example. New forms, I believe, create excitement and interest in the genre. If someone asks “What’s new in poetry?” you can point to new forms like Ruth Ellen Kocher’s Gigan or the Golden Shovel by Terrance Hayes and see poetry as an innovative and evolving art.
A cooling board is a board used to present a dead body. During winter in some rural areas, since the earth was frozen and it was nearly impossible to bury a dead person, the body would have been wrapped and placed in an out building the ground thawed out. This fact is referred to in a number of songs, including Hathaway’s "Thank You, Master (For My Soul)." Dark stuff and the three poems here are also full of darkness. What is it about such subject matter that compels you to write about it?
You can’t talk about Donny’s life without discussing his death. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves, and this slight is due, I believe, to his suicide. There is a stigma that goes with suicide that has clouded his legacy. There is no Donny Hathaway biography (the only full-length texts devoted to him are mine and Ed Pavlic’s, which is also a book of poems). This is why Cooling Board begins with “Essex House Hotel,” a poem about Donny’s suicide. Essentially I was saying, “OK, he committed suicide, but that’s not all there is to this man.” The rest of the book examines his development as an artist, the way he found his voice as a musician, and the people who loved and supported him. When we get past his suicide, you realize there is so much more to Donny’s story that is worth our time.
On the Afro-Punk blog site, you describe yourself as an “Affrilachian Poet, Hip-Hop Head, and Afro-Punk.” How has punk and Hip-Hop music influenced your poetry? What does it mean to be an Afro-Punk?
The Afro-Punk movement started with the James Spooner documentary of the same name that released in 2003. It was a way for blacks who liked Punk to proudly claim their allegiance (even when the scenes they were involved in didn’t always understand their presence). Of course, the contributions by blacks in Punk music go back several decades before the movie’s release: Death, Poly Styrene of the X-Ray Spex, Bad Brains, D.H. Peligro of the Dead Kennedys, Fishbone . . . he list goes on.
I discovered Punk and Hip-Hop at critical times in my life. When I was seven, I moved to Iowa City, Iowa, from Louisville, Kentucky, and it was culture shock (my Dad was completing a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa). I never felt like I fit in because I was often the only black kid in class. I was nine years old when my best friend played the Clash and the Undertones for me, and my life was forever changed. When I turned 13 we went to local Punk shows, and soon after I had a mohawk and started writing poems. It was the political lyrics I heard in 30-second Punk anthems that moved me to write poems of my own (it also had a lot to do, I believe, with the brevity of my poems). There was also the lesson if you were committed to a specific genre of music, you, as the fan, witnessed it live. I still believe that, which is why concerts and literary readings are so important to me.
Just when I was getting comfortable with Iowa City, we moved to Columbus, Ohio. I still loved Punk, but this was my freshman year in high school and an incredibly exciting time in Hip-Hop (UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne,” Roxanne Shante answering back with “Roxanne’s Revenge,” Kurtis Blow’s last hurrah with songs like “A.J. Scratch” and “Basketball.” I was witnessing the passing of the torch from Old School to New School in Hip-Hop and embracing a music that lifted my spirits in my new surroundings. One of the highlights of my difficult year in Columbus was seeing a Kurtis Blow concert (I also argued with my parents about why I couldn’t go to a bar to see a Battalion of Saints show, another story entirely). Once again, I didn’t fit in (this time not because of my race but because I was so painfully square compared to my classmates) and once again, music saved me.
Punk helped get me to the page. Hip-Hop gave me a sense of music to aspire to in my work and the clear message that rhythm creates tone and even place in poems.
On that site you also write, “You can be my friend if...you believe art is not only beautiful but an agent of change: socially & spiritually.” This, of course, flies in the face of those who insist that poetry makes nothing happen, affects no change. How do you respond to such people?
If you create art, it should be with the intent of making people think differently once they have witnessed your work. Why bring new art into the world if you have no intent of changing the way people think and feel? Don’t clutter the landscape with billboards, pick the right flowers and plant your garden well. This is non-negotiable with me.
And you also list some of your favorite books (which are also some of my own favorite books!). I’m interested in why two of them particularly, Li-Young Lee’s Rose and Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems are on the list. What about these two volumes speaks to you, and how has any of that carried over into your poetry (if it has)?
Lee and O’Hara are poets I admire and teach often. Lee has a sense of quiet magic that appears so effortless it almost feels accidental (of course, if it seems easy you know that can’t be the case, which is a testament to his talent). A poem like “In the Morning” is a good example. Lee gives us an account of the routine matters of a day and by the end of the poem we realize that part of the routine that has gone on “half a hundred years” is the mother flirting with the father, the son as speaker of the poem telling the reader all. It’s a private moment rendered with such skill, the reader feels as though they are intruding. I still smile when I read it and hear my students’ reaction.
As for O’Hara, his poems are so New York, the “I do this, I do that” style representative of the constant movement of the city. That’s his magic. “A Step Away From Them” and “The Day Lady Died” are just a few examples of how he captures that spirit, the way that even in a city’s chaos that there are times when “Everything suddenly honks,” a sense of urban synchronicity. I think my poetry is constantly trying to live up to Lee’s frankness in image and O’Hara’s action in witness.
You’re a cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets. I became aware of your group while living in West Virginia a while ago, and its presence is a great gift to those interested in the culture of Appalachia. Among the notable poets associated with the group are Nikky Finney and Frank X Walker (whose work appeared in an early issue of Connotation Press in the guest-edited feature by Jim Harms ). The web site for the group describes its mission this way: “The Affrilachian Poets are a multicultural group of poets devoted to the aesthetic of making the invisible visible. Underneath their feet you can hear the roar of the Appalachian culture and landscape.” Can you talk a little bit about your role in the organization and its accomplishments up to now? Along with Cave Canem, the group seems, to me, to have been vital in bringing crucial American voices to our attention.
I am very proud to be both a cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem fellow. Affrilachian Poets Frank X Walker, Kelly Norman Ellis, Randall Horton, Bianca Spriggs, Amanda Johnston, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Stephanie Pruitt, Natasha Marin, Makalani Bandele, and Keith Wilson are also Cave Canem fellows. Our cofounder Nikky Finney is Cave Canem faculty, and Affrilachian Poet Parneshia Jones is on the board of directors for Cave Canem. The Affrilachian Poets helped nurture my life in poetry early on and we are a real family. People ask about membership, but we rarely add new members. Maintaining the family dynamic is important to us. Cave Canem continues to challenge me as a writer by putting me in contact with poets from around the world who, like me, are considering their contribution to contemporary letters as African-American poets.
The Affrilachian Poets formed organically at the University of Kentucky in 1991. We were students and faculty members who knew each other and just happened to write poetry. Frank X Walker’s vision as the creator of the term Affrilachian was for our poetry to live beyond the page. Not only did we write, we workshopped, and shared our poetry at local readings in Lexington. Over the years, that dedication led to publications and travel to major literary festivals, universities, and cities across the United States. You’ll find us on panels at AWP or reading in New York, Chicago, and D.C. We even had a bus in 2009. We are notorious road warriors!
I learned early on as a member of the Affrilachian Poets that the way we raise our national profile and honor the art is through publication. In 1997, the fact that a major anthology like Spirit & Flame featured Frank, Kelly, and Nikky was huge for us. I saw the work they put in, the books that followed, and I said “I want to contribute to that.” When I publish individual poems and books it’s a win for the Affrilachian Poets and Cave Canem. My work proves the value of both organizations. I am trying to honor all they’ve done for me.
Ekphrasis: At the Table
(after a photo of Wendell Berry by James Baker Hall)
Oh, the head pushed back in a weary blues, forearm in foreground, vice of skin & bone tight w/ a life’s work. What verse has turned your head, poet, spliced your insides to seeds, mixed every particle into something fragile? This is your “days long gone” pose, your “sun has set” profile—a crop of deep brow, heavy breath. Is this some lonesome diner that calls after the hour’s hard hand, the table for resting elbows when your heart sows holler? Such comfort in this space, no shame, no dark to hide the jaw, its plow of light. Eyes: closed. Lips: parted. An auger’s sigh…as if dark could cloak this flowered murmur. Cry.
As poeta, I am sensitive
to certain truths: how
my verse sometimes falls
into a hammered riff of “b,”
how a short line
is a sharp line,
the mention of crimson
cliché. How names are poetry,
the rap of a family’s honor
blessing the ear. Sometimes
What do you have to offer?
I bring these heightened senses
to an altar of remembrance.
Abuela—center of our earth—
we honor you
w/one tall burning candle,
black light, harvest moon;
a needle with unblocked eye,
thimble, fabric scraps
for patchwork magic; two bowls:
one of flour for the sustenance
you baked, the other
filled w/coffee beans
for the morning cup
you drank deep.
I could grind these dark cells,
mix the flour with buttermilk,
but they would not be your offerings,
I must bear.
before pencil-filled circles, our hand
feeding the machine
our dreams, El Dia
de los Muertos
will raise its skinless head
to laugh at the idea
can we honor the death
of a loveless effort:
the destruction of confidence,
violent mass, what weapons
a lie reveals? We wish
you were here to see us
add a bowl of oil
& a bullet
to la ofrenda, laugh
the blood of eight away.
& a bullet to la ofrenda, laugh
the blood of eight away.
Bound in the wounded tale
of dream, more
than winding sheet,
hours of earth pitched atop,
the drop of pebble on wood,
grim rhythm, Reaper’s
open hand, leveled scythe.
I do not know the minutes ahead,
the number afforded,
what seconds can be bought
when buried. Time
is fickle host. No sun
to raise me from the pine;
the box as trap
before my time.
…your open box tops,
& six-point stars. Yes.
Time for new fears.
80s trips to Chicago—
Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall
The drive from Iowa City
to the South Side,
involuntary dance moves
conjured @ the close of car doors.
Michael’s scarred tenor: serenade
in brick city air. Bare-
knuckled, sister’s stories
bruised their way to memory.
The welt that won’t heal:
how a group of boys cornered, questioned
Who do you represent?
No one, she said,
& she spent the day in their company,
the cult of Barksdale
her eyes through the winded city.
years wind above our heads
like the El, & my heart
throbs in my throat
when Dad says
When’s the last time
we saw Chicago?
Sometimes, the city—
is coffin. How deep
Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths