Monday May 27

Lawson Poetry Len Lawson has been accepted to the Ph.D. in English Literature and Criticism program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is a 2015 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee with poems appearing or forthcoming in Callaloo, [PANK], Connotation Press, Mississippi ReviewWinter Tangerine ReviewPittsburgh Poetry Review, Drunk in a Midnight Choir, and elsewhere. Len is a 2016 Callaloo Fellow and co-founder of the Poets Respond to Race initiative. He teaches writing at Central Carolina Technical College.

Len Lawson interview with Julie Brooks Barbour

In these poems, the past is as immediate as the present. This is abundantly clear in all of the poems, but especially in "[Uneasy] Dreams of a Presidential Hopeful." Could you talk about the importance of merging past and present in the poem?

It's such a great question. Originally, the poem stemmed from after the South Carolina Democratic Primary when a young black girl confronted Hillary Clinton at a rally in Charleston with her sign quoted from Clinton's comment in the 1990's that said, "We must bring [superpredators] to heel." It made me think of the two black women who first confronted Bernie Sanders at a rally and the passion they exhibited. I imagined all the previous presidential candidates getting nightmares from Black Lives Matter protesters popping up out of nowhere. To me, the protests are indeed like our African and African American ancestors coming forth from the past either to oppose the government they never got to protest during their lifetimes or to revisit this generation with the voice of theirs.

The current Black Lives Matter Movement is unique in that the previous generation of the Civil Rights Movement did not impart any of their protest tactics or rituals to this generation; therefore, this generation is going about its protests radically or, as opponents see them, recklessly. However, being reckless is working because their voices are being heard and acknowledged gradually.

In the poem, I wanted to show that this current movement is still in the spirit of past movements with the same burdens and challenges, breeding the same fear and anxiety in government and supporters of white supremacy.

The body is referred to in many of these poems, whether as a victim of violence or as a corpse rising from a grave in floodwater. We are reminded that these bodies are humans who have been silenced. Could you talk about the necessity of giving voice to those who cannot speak?

 I have thought about this a lot. My emotions tell me that these bodies (rather these people who walked, lived, and breathed among us) deserve to rest in peace--emphasis on the rest. They cannot rest if we keep bringing up their names for our own purposes or to have political disputes that amount to wasted time on the Internet and TV. On the contrary, my head tells me that maybe these bodies are not ready to rest. Perhaps the reason their names are still on our lips is because they cannot rest until they have said their peace.

"The Body Is a Cave" is really an investigation of the body. I heard the title in my head out of nowhere once, and I wanted to explore this theory of the body not being convex but concave, always letting things in and not shielding itself or others from it.

Poetry gives voices to the living, the dead, and everyone in between. Specifically, poems can depict voices beyond the grave we've forgotten or we've chosen not to recognize. My best example of this is the voice of my own father who died when I was twelve. I used to have dreams of him early after his death. Then, they subsided to maybe once a year. Now, he shows up in almost every poem I write even when he's not the subject.

I think that's the power of "12-Year-Old Inside Me..." because he erupts in the last line as a result of really being the focus of the poem from the beginning. If he had not died, then there would be no twelve-year-old lamenting his lack of a father figure.

It's definitely the premise of "For the Dead". The sight of caskets emerging from underground like we have never seen jarred me more than any image during the South Carolina Flood Event. It was like a scene out of a horror movie like Poltergeist. Why were they coming out now? What could they tell us about what is happened in our world--in our state--that wasn't being heard with them in their graves? It left me spellbound.

One of the things I notice about "The Body Is a Cave" and "12-Year-Old Inside Me..." is the speaker's search for freedom from fear. Some of my favorite lines from the poems are "the end of police guns that await black boys in city streets / and how not to get sucked through them into a dimension of black oblivion" and " the body is an eye slammed shut / plucked out because it offends so many." As children grow up, they don't expect their culture to react negatively against the bodies they inhabit, but the poems state that this is far from the case. However, by stating these truths, these poems feel like steps toward freedom from fear. Could you talk about this further?

That is a great connection between those poems. Those poems speak to each other when the speaker in "The Body Is a Cave" mentions being vulnerable from the wordspelunking. It flashes back to the childhood of the boy in "12-Year-Old Inside Me...". The boy in "12-Year-Old" fears for his body because no one has taught him to protect it while the speaker in "The Body Is a Cave" perhaps fears the body's own destructive capability. The "12-Year-Old" never questions what his own body can do to harm him, yet I think the speaker of "The Body Is a Cave" would tell him that he should be more concerned about how the absence of a father could destroy him from within and everyone around him.

Earlier you mentioned that the Black Lives Matter movement is seen as a radical one by its opponents. Yet, since this movement has taken shape, I have read and heard so many beautifully honest words from its supporters, and notice support growing among many races and genders. Do you find this to be the case? In what ways do we still have work to do?

It is encouraging when other races embrace BLM and when BLM embraces causes involving other people of color. With so many marginalized groups seeking fair space in the world, each one can learn from the victories and challenges among them. As a person of faith, I'm more interested in that learning process of what draws people together than what divides them. I feel that is the work still left out there. We do not have to live by one another's creeds, but I feel we should not be ignorant to them either. In getting understanding, we cross thresholds that lead away from fear, hate, and violence against each other. That kind of solidarity as a human race doesn't make the news cycle often.


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