Cortney Lamar Charleston Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour
Your poems deal with issues of social justice in such a way that we are reminded, as humans, of the ways in which we treat one another. In your poem, “Facing the Music,” the speaker states, “People assume that God has hands – like our own hands, / which are used to touch each other’s lives in cruel or / unusually beautiful ways.” These lines remind us that we have a choice in how we treat one another, and I’m interested in the ways this is reflected in your work.
To be honest, before you posed this question, I hadn’t actively considered the role of choice in my work, but now, pausing on this thought, I understand it underpins so much of what I write. It’s fitting, I think, that choice continues to work its way into my poetry as I grapple with worldly and weighty topics.
So often, especially in recent months, I find myself wrestling with nefarious actions that have been perpetrated by individuals (and made largely permissible by institutions or other social structures), and though the immediate consequences of these actions are definite and unable to be changed, I often find myself dwelling on the moment before what we know as definite becomes definite. That moment is expansive, and within the imagination, I feel, always expanding. Anything can happen in that moment. Evil is not yet done, and good (or God, if you prefer) is well within our reach. There is hope in that space, that moment. There is hope before any choice is made and any action is taken. A good choice allows that hope to live on; a poor choice snuffs it out.
In using poetry to critique the normative functioning of our society as inherently violent or unequal or unfair, it is imperative that I invite readers into that moment of pre-determination as often and as well as I can, because it offers them a chance to reject the violence I’m critiquing and make a conscious decision in doing so. This is important because I feel most of the violence committed in the world is done without our conscious minds being immediately involved, and that the acts are often so small (or appear that way), that they slip by without anyone acknowledging, aside from (maybe) the harmed party. We need to teach ourselves, by and large, to see the damage we inflict on those around us; there can be no social justice without that.
I’d like to take the discussion to the flipside of hope, if I may. When a violent act occurs and we believe in hope, we’re stunned. You mentioned that many acts of violence slip by without acknowledgment. Too often we mourn those who left us. The speakers in two of your poems, “The Melanin” and “Meditation on Black Death Ending with an X-Ray” are haunted by ghosts. Could you talk about your use of the departed in these poems?
I think about the dearly departed often, as I'm sure is common for many of us. For me, this preoccupation not only includes those who have touched my life directly, but the many, many, many ancestors who came before me, who managed to survive when the world, through various means, sought only to kill them. I feel their presence around me. I feel their presence within me, in this body. I do not see them (typically) manifest in physical form as some flighty apparition as is pictured when someone mentions the word "ghost." What I see, instead, is what was done to them – I see the whip, I see the rope, I see the gun, all in vivid detail, while the victimized body is amorphous, devoid of any markers of identity aside from color: no gender, no age, just race.
I invent these images in my mind, yes, but I do so influenced by concrete documentation: film, and historical text, and, sometimes, first-person accounts – from family, from friends, from myself. To be haunted by ghosts, in the context of my work, means to be visited by violence in perpetuity; to be haunted by ghosts means to recognize that at any time, and without warning or provocation, there is the possibility that I, and others like me, become the figment of someone else's imagination – a fuzzy detail framed inside a scene with a clear and specific malice. That malice is the ghost, the undying suffering, the thing not yet gone for good to the other side.
You work with narratives of identity in various ways, not only in your poetry but also in BLACK PANTONE, of which you are a founder. Could you talk about how this project began as well as your continued involvement with it?
BLACK PANTONE came out of series of conversations with my partner, Ruani Ribe. Since the murder of Trayvon Martin, I’ve struggled mightily to find spiritual balance, an anxiety that went into overdrive once George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in July 2013. Here I was, just over a year removed from college, a bright kid who, to that point, seemingly made all the right choices in life – and with that acquittal, it really kicked in that my level-headedness, my respectability, my promise could not guarantee my safety me from violent, anti-black pathology.
Sure, these are truths I've carried, consciously even, my entire life... but when you've fully formed as a thinking being, when you've developed a vocabulary for describing your dehumanizing experiences, seeing the catastrophe of that trial and the assassination of Trayvon's character hurt in a way too many have felt (read: black people) but not enough (read: white people, the political and demographic majority) can comprehend. In this situation, I realized that having control over my own narrative and image is essential, and that said assertion was equally true for black peoples collectively. I wanted black peoples to explain what it meant to be black and what it didn't mean (in their own lives), and to offer them a platform to speak that was open and accessible. I knew there was no singular definition of blackness I or anyone else could provide from just our own perspectives, but that is precisely why I thought the project was necessary: the world needed to understand black people are multifaceted, diverse and self-actualizing.
I approached Ruani about working on it with me because I knew she would bring a different and vital perspective. First, as an intellectual, she has always been concerned with representations of marginalized populations in the media. Second, she has a particular investment in deconstructing the idea of what blackness looks like physically and what it means culturally. As a biracial woman whose black relatives come from outside of the United States (Brazil, Ghana), she took a very different path toward her racial identity than I did to mine being a black male, born to black parents who were culturally African-American, meaning my mind was governed from birth by an American understanding of racial politics. Just within our own narratives, I found so much power in both the places of harmony and the places of dissonance, and BLACK PANTONE was an attempt to multiply that power.
As it stands now, BLACK PANTONE has been inactive for awhile. Neither Ruani nor myself have been able to devote the time we needed to make it thrive on the scale we wanted it to, seeing as our professional commitments have increased. But in our own ways, it is an ongoing work that we take with us into other arenas; my poetry is certainly a continued commitment to the organizing ideals behind BLACK PANTONE, which I think is evident as folks become more familiar with my work. As for the original BLACK PANTONE project, I can't comment on what will happen in the near future, but don't be surprised if it pops up again in some other way; it's never far from my mind, and certainly not far from my heart.
When it happens, turn the stereo
all the way down. If it’s dark,
nighttime, turn on the overhead light.Don’t panic.
Keep your hands on the steering wheel.
Never make any sudden movements.
Hold your breath.Don’t panic.
If he asks to see your license,
give it to him; your wallet should be
in sight, not in your pocket.Don’t panic.
Calmly ask to reach into
your glove compartment for your
registration, insurance card, if requested.Don’t panic.
For any other type of question,
keep a tight lip, nod only, then
inquire if you may leave, politely.Don’t panic.
Speak slowly. Speak softly.
Use your best English at all times.
Suggest a hint of cursive in your tone.Don’t panic.
He needs to think you know somebody
significant: the Lord or a good
lawyer. Cochran’s ghost or Holy.Don’t panic.
Make him think he’ll have to answer
if you don’t drive away as dark
as you came into his steel-blue eyes.
If he panics
in cold blood.
Facing the Music
for Sandra Bland
"You just slammed my head into the ground. Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear…”
- LIVE RECORDING
My eyes need not be mint to face the music – ask my man
Ray, or rather, ask Stevie, who is still here with us to be heard,
just how far an ear can go. I don't know if you believe in
Sundays, sir, but from where I stand in my croc-skin shoes,
my pinstripe suit and matching hat tipped just so, I say sound,
that slight, polite interruption of still air, is the atom of
everything worth loving in this world, and every person.
People assume that God has hands – like our own hands,
which are used to touch each other’s lives in cruel or
unusually beautiful ways. But, again, it is only assumption.
Yet we know, in the lakes of our bones and from this book
tucked under my arm, that God has a voice, as a poet does,
and everything orbits said voice like a chorus of charge.
This, I wager, is why we are most excited by what we hear
or at least, can imagine as coming from a kind of mouth.
And I imagine it was one word or another that excited
your arresting officer, something she said, maybe, causing
this commotion outside the jail. Forgive me for my doubts,
sir, but I have seen lies sold as law before, as the lone star
in the blackest sky effectively guiding us into iron shackles.
I have seen a routine traffic stop become a routine for aspiring
actors before, and recently. Please do not assault my intelligence,
which is always denoted by the asking of hard questions. Do not
assault me with your aggressive language. Do not assault me with
those gorgeous hands, as what the charge against her suggested.
But if you must, if what I’m saying excites you to that extent,
take my eyes and nothing else, because I do not need them mint
to face the music. Allow me my ears, because without them I can
only know God through the fear that He is speaking to me and
I do not know to accept His offer of a better place than this.
I walk into a room full of ghosts, their translucent intentions packed
from wall to wall. I avoid speaking. There’s a human piñata –
a mob victim – hanging in the back of my mouth I don’t want them
to see or smell. Every night I dream about him and every night
he has a different name, one with an urban suffix or an apostrophe.
Death has a color that’s often described as slimming; I’m
not actually as thin as I appear. The wind can’t blow me away
and call it change. It tries to beat me down over decades like a rock.
A paper airplane rides it through the air, lands in my kinked
hair and catches, to their amazement. As we study electrical
charges, my head becomes the choice conductor and sometimes
the voltage is more than they bargained for. They haven’t
learned how much water I’m made of, how many slave ships
I’ve swallowed down the hatch. My brain buoys the memory
of them above the blood. At times, they whisper about revenge
but I keep my teeth confined. I act fitting for a petting zoo,
though it is only because I’m still young. The parents worry that,
eventually, their girls will see my gun and that I’ll secure a second.
Their eyes hawk me closely, so I play a pocketknife: mind my
manners and retract the threat. I try not to spook the ghosts.
Meditation on Black Death Ending with an X-Ray
for Freddie Gray
Elegy: lament for the dearly departed: an act of dedication or tribute: a monument best made with wet tongue and warm blood: when the bow of a name slides over tightened vocal chords: movement as over violins playing a song of remembrance: they were here: alive: until they died: it was the white rock and the white-wash what did it: the white-wash and the projects' lead paint: the projects' lead paint and the lead: the lead and the gun: the gun and the hand: the hand and the foot: the foot and the other foot: the other foot and someone other’s: someone other's and then another's: maybe they marched and marched and marched against some young man's spine on some old 'marching' orders: in some cases a van is foot enough: its doors mirror a thug mouth: shut tight: not speaking on how he snapped in half:
the video only caught his screams:
body limp while being loaded:
everybody is screaming now: taking to the streets: marching on nobody's orders: the human heart is its own beating drum: stethoscopes say there's a thin line between house parties and war: even gangsters boogie to freedom songs: folks are trying to ‘get free’ out here: the free water is flammable but they drink it anyway: they said all they got left is the fire in their bellies to keep warm: they all black over there: like a fire ate them alive: they are the color of burning: smoke: cloud formations: gone with the wind wherever it takes them: a better place: into the lungs of the Lord: menthol-lover: going off X-ray: through a thicker skin: viewing holy organs: what play the notes of life: an interplay between light and dark: a point bullet-pointed: bang bang: black.