Malcolm Friend Interview, with Davon Loeb
What role does Seattle play in your poetry?
Seattle is a place I frequently come back to in my poetry. First and foremost, it’s home. It’s the city I was born and raised in. Really, it’s what I know. And it’s a city that I’ve really been thinking about my experiences in and relationship with because I haven’t lived there full time in the last six years. I went to college in Nashville and am about to start the last year of my MFA at the University of Pittsburgh, and that space has really made me think about what Seattle really means to me as a space and particularly as a place I call home.
In reference to your poems, “Ode to Bob Marley, Ending in Inheritance” published by Word Riot and “Afro-Seattleite Fragment #17: Love Letter To Macklemore,” how does music inspire your writing?
Music inspires my writing in its social aspect. Yes, we all have individual interactions with music, and I don’t mean to downplay that in any way, but music can also make and speak for communities, and becomes an area where identity formation can occur. There are a lot of ways in which what you listen to can place you into a certain community. This is something especially important to me because much of my poetry is exploring identity, both as someone who is mixed (having an African-American mother and a Puerto Rican father) and someone who grew up a person of color in Seattle, a city that doesn’t have a large population of color, in particular having a small African-American population and Puerto Rican population, something I would become more aware of when I went to a predominantly white, private high school in a predominantly white neighborhood. Suddenly, I was being introduced to music in a different way. I had people talking about The Beatles the same way my parents talked about Stevie Wonder or The Temptations or Héctor Lavoe or Tito Puente. Which isn’t to say that I hated The Beatles or anything—it just wasn’t the music I was raised on, the music that was played at home.
At the same time, I also became more aware of music that came specifically out of Seattle, something I had never really thought about because neither of my parents are from Seattle. Listening to Seattle music was a way to further fit in with my peers in high school. In college, when for the first time I was around mostly people from other parts of the country, it was a way for me to feel connected to home and claim a certain pride in it. What was Macklemore doing? What were Khingz and Gabriel Teodros and Blue Scholars doing? As I got more and more into poetry in college, music, or writing about music, allowed a way for me to explore these different aspects of my identity, what it meant to me to be African-American, to be Puerto Rican, to be from Seattle.
The combination of personal narrative and social commentary was very poignant in your poems. How important is it for you to tell your story while telling the stories of others?
I think there are really two answers to this. The first is that I’m always thinking about how my particular story fits into larger narratives, whether that be as an African-American, a Puerto Rican, or a person of color in Seattle. There are aspects of my story that fall in line with histories that have existed long before me and will go on long after me and the combination of my own personal narrative with these different social commentaries is a way of acknowledging that. The other side to this question is that, as much as I’m reflecting on these different issues, it’s important to remember that my views are coming as a result of my particular experiences. No matter what point I want to make about issues of race in Seattle or America as a whole, I’m speaking from my own experiences, which not everybody shares.
The selected poems are partly titled, “Afro-Seattleite Fragment Fragment (#1 and #17).” Are these poems from a larger collection? And if so, can you explain what is the overall vision for the body of work?
The Afro-Seattleite Fragments are a larger project that I’ve been working on for the last few years and they’re really trying to get at what it’s like to be Black in Seattle and, more specifically, what it was like for me to grow up Black in Seattle. Like I said earlier, Seattle doesn’t have a huge Black population. Compared to the national average, it proportionally actually has a fairly small one. There’s also this idea that a lot of people in Seattle have that the city is incredibly progressive, and that issues of race don’t haunt it the way they do the rest of the country. The first fragment I wrote (which I should clarify isn’t #1; there’s been reordering as I’ve written them) was after the 2014 NFC Championship Game. At the end of the game Richard Sherman tipped an attempted touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree into Malcolm Smith’s arms, giving the Seahawks the victory, and in the postgame interview he was loud, brash, yelling. A lot of people outside of Seattle were unhappy with what he had said and the demeanor with which he said it and went on to call him classless and even a thug. Keep in mind that this is a Stanford graduate. As a lot of people in Seattle came out talking about this labeling being racist, all I could think about was how in high school people said similar things about Rainier Beach, the neighborhood I grew up in.
The Afro-Seattleite Fragments came out of this weird way in which I saw some people from Seattle talking about issues of race as they manifest on a national level while at the same time paying little attention to how they manifest in our own city. They’re my own way of talking about my experiences as a person of color in Seattle. They contain poems like the ones here but also poems of celebration, poems dedicated to places like Silver Fork, a now-closed restaurant that I basically grew up in, and people like Ken Griffey, Jr., as well as Khingz and Gabriel Teodros, two Seattle rappers who helped me learn to celebrate the neighborhood I grew up in.
How do your poems address racial identity, interracial conflicts, and the impact of these factors on education?
Somewhat related to my answer to an earlier question, I’m really interested in the intersection between history and personal experience. Whenever I write about my racial identity and my experience because of it, it’s with this intersection in mind. Again, though, part of this process is realizing how my experience impacts my views on racial identity. These reflections on identity really come from the fact that once I got into high school my spaces of learning were predominantly white, something that made me think more about how race was a part of my experience than I necessarily had to in middle school, when most of my classmates were Black and Filipino. With regards to interracial conflict, I think the choice of the term conflict is an interesting one just because most of my own conflicts came in the form of microagressions, things done by so-called well-meaning people who didn’t realize (or maybe didn’t care to realize) how racist or racially insensitive their actions and comments were, and the subsequent invalidation of my feelings when I expressed unhappiness. Tying it to education, some of these things were exacerbated by the fact that they were happening to me during school hours, and that I was going to school on the other side of town. I knew that my high school, Seattle Prep, was predominantly white (something my middle school classmates reminded me and others who were going there) but I had no idea what that meant on a day-to-day level, how it would tire me out. There were a number of Black students who transferred between the time I first got there to graduation. There were people who talked about how they couldn’t cut it, and I often wondered how much of it was just being tired of being Black in a predominantly white space. I remember the bus ride home being the best part of my day, because I was finally leaving a space and neighborhood that was strange and sometimes felt unwelcoming to me and going home.
When I write, I’m writing with this in mind. That a space of education was also a place I couldn’t wait to leave every day, and not just in the usual ways a teenager is excited to leave high school. Which isn’t to say Prep was an evil space or that I didn’t also have a lot of fun in high school or make friends that I still keep in contact with today, just that it was also a time where, for the first time really, I was made aware of my racial identity and difference. When I write about things inspired by that time, I’m often thinking of how to represent that—both in terms of the words I choose, but also in terms of presentation on the page. How can I represent that dissonance physically on the page? I’ve found that I’m really interested in disruption—caused by spacing, caused by line breaks, caused by shorter lines. And I think that comes from my experience as a person of color in Seattle, often being disrupted, and often made to feel like a disruption myself.
Afro-Seattleite Fragment #17: Love Letter To Macklemore
—after Marcus Wicker
When I think of you,
it’s usually morning carpools.
The absence of conversation
between me and Kevin,
how I kept wishing for the hour-long
bus rides because I could lean
against the window, no expectation
to talk to anyone.
I didn’t really want to listen to you.
You were 2Pac minus
Black Panther parents,
Snoop Dogg raised in Capitol Hill
instead of by Crips.
But your music saved a shy Black boy
At some point you seduced me.
Something about a white boy
owning his privilege
and condemning our city racist
eased the hours I spent
in your Capitol Hill.
And Kevin was Filipino,
so that meant something, right?
I rocked to “White Privilege”
and “Claiming the City,”
called them 206 anthems in college.
I could un-feel Smitty and Mark’s
rough hands in my hair.
All those white boys
who buried their fingers
in my scalp, those shovels
digging into me,
thinking they’d find something
I was hiding. Claiming me.
Reminding me no space was mine,
not even this body, always trying
to un-nap my roots,
these clumps of hair
that shrunk back onto my head,
this body that shrunk back into itself
on the bus back to the South End.
I never imagined you
mistook your attempts at penance
for confessions of love
and threw myself at you.
And isn’t that,
your guilt earning my love,
isn’t that the beauty
Afro-Seattleite Fragment #1: Black Kid, White City
“Compared with other large U.S. cities, Seattle is pretty white.”
—The Seattle Times
“Reppin’ South End seems a death wish.”
you are black
wabash ave is black
rainier ave is black
henderson st is black
the 7 and the 106 are black
the south end is black
the cd is black
your city is
as shutdown school hallways
(school closure is black)
(shootings are black)
(death is black)
your city is
you are not white
the north end is white
broadway is white
downtown is white
west seattle is white
the 49 and 60 are white
your city is
as fluorescent lights in school hallways
(good schools are white)
as cop-gun muzzle flash
(shootings are white)
as full-feathered angel wings
(death is white)
you are not
but your city is