Monday Aug 08

Lawson Poetry Shayla Lawson is (and / or, at times, has been) an amateur acrobat, an architect, a Dutch housewife, & dog mother to one irascible hound. Her work has appeared in print & online at Tin House, GRAMMA, Salon, The Offing, Guernica, Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, & MiPOesias.  She is the author of: A Speed Education in Human Being, PANTONE, & the forthcoming I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean. A 2017 Oregon Literary & MacDowell Colony Fellow, she is also a member of The Affrilachian Poets.

Shayla Lawson interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour

In these poems, the speaker reveals a self at risk. These lines from “American Wedding” echo through each poem: “I stay clear / of getting marked—too terrified / what may take / hold and possess me.” In these poems, the possession might be emotional or psychological, but it’s also artistic, so that part of the self starts to disappear until the speaker becomes aware it’s happening. For instance in “Seigfried,” the speaker states, “the glimmer of God / I once housed often leaves me.” It’s not only the speaker’s self-awareness that matters in these poems, but an awareness of the self in the world. Could you talk more about this?

I think awareness of the self in the world particularly as it relates to risk, is one of the key factors at play in the experience of marginalized individuals, especially black people.

The Black experience in contemporary America is fraught with peril. That social terror translated historically into religious "fear"—a reverence attributed to a higher power—is often meted out under the ever-present risk of violence.

I wanted to approach this topic in the same way I saw it appear, both overtly and discretely, in Frank Ocean's music. The phrase the glimmer of God is a direct quote from a verse in the Frank Ocean song "Seigfried" which frames the "self at risk" in an existential way, presumably due to its color:

Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought
That could think of the dreamer that thought
That could think of dreaming and getting a glimmer of God
I be dreaming a dream in a thought
That could dream about a thought
That could think about dreaming a dream
Where I can not…

(Where I can not.) Possession is a form of containment, but so is fear. Therein lies the Biblical paradox at the root of these poems—on each end of the spectrum (moral v. Immoral, Right v. Wrong, Good v. Evil) lies a system of control outside the self. So the awareness present in the poems is an attempt to recalibrate, to achieve autonomy—equilibrium.

Could you talk about how these poems reach a state of equilibrium? How does the self get there spiritually?

The poems are not necessarily meant to achieve equilibrium on the page inasmuch in their union with their source material. In this performance of “Seigfriedyou can see how the poem and song work in equipoise—the two halves combining to create a whole, or third entity. I think of spirituality as a quest for belonging.  I think the self achieves a sense of balance when it can recognize itself reflected and refracted in those connections, when the self feels inundated within a sense of purpose. Much like a person searching for spiritual fulfillment, these poems are not only being read, they are listening, they are interpreting, they are offering to their referenced texts new meaning.

I love how your performance of “Seigfried” takes on different movements as it progresses! It’s powerfully orchestrated. I admire the different ways you use your voice in your performances, through recitation and singing. How did the shaylalawsonvideoproject get started?

The shaylalawsonvideoproject never really got started the way I intended. I still use the Vimeo channel to upload performances but, bleh! so much of it feels so old to me now. I started it as a way of working on A Speed Education in Human Being—collaborating with other artists to reexamine the content in my first collection (I guess I'm still a little partial to "Five Piece Hustle" and "When Brooklyn Says 'Anaan'"). I guess it's neat to see how my interest in collaboration continues to evolve.

Your poem “Nights” is one of my favorites because of the way it moves between fantasies: “the chance to finally hold / his knuckle in the stark of Days” and “Like we’re always stuck / in the meet cute / for someone else’s musical.” The line I love most in this poem: “Some Days / the only way being a black girl feels / magic is that it isn’t / real.” Fantasy can make us believe we belong, but it’s fleeting. The true connection here is the one between the young girls nicknaming “all the bruhs” on summer nights and, later, watching the fantasy burn together. This connection is a powerful part of the poem, and I’d love to hear you talk more about it.

"Nights" is one of my favorite poems too. In the introduction to Boys Don't Cry, Frank Ocean describes portions of Blonde as reimagined versions of his boyhood. In my version of Blond(e), the section of the book of which "Nights" is a part, there's a lot of interplay between fantasy and reality, masculinity and femininity, past and future.

One of the things that fascinated me about Frank Ocean as a muse is the ways his boyhood is woven into pivotal moments within millennial black culture: Hurricane Katrina, the election of a bi-racial president, post-racial identity, the burgeoning acceptance of queerness and the abject
violence we've seen executed upon young black bodies. Much in the way that the two representative spellings of Ocean's album (Blond & Blonde) explore the merger of masculine and feminine representations, I use the voice of a black female speaker in many of these poems to round out the discussion of childhood (e.g. "boyhood") created in the songs.

I took "Nights" as an opportunity to create a dialogue around black girlhood that is often on the margins of our cultural conversations about race. Although it is widely recognized that Black Lives Matter is a movement led by queer black women, most people associate it with the
murders of cisgendered black men. Artists like June Jordan & Audre Lorde are responsible for bringing the world the term "self care" to address black women's work within the Civil Rights Movement—how often their devotion to the cause and their community kept them from administering proper attention to their own personhood. Now, the term shows up as a hashtag to every Gweneth Paltrowesque social feed... So often, the intricacies of black girl love, black girl vulnerability are given a subordinate place in storytelling—even in writing by black women, even in my own. I wanted to write a poem that addressed black girlhood, what it feels like to have a crush, what it feels like to have that crush you, what it feels like to move through that as a body relegated to the world of "Best Supporting/ Actress," even in her own narrative.

In the same Boys Don't Cry article that references Frank Ocean's devotion to his imagined boyhood, he references a photograph of a young blonde as the inspiration for his album. "I put myself in her seat then I played it all out in my head. ... Then backwards and forward again. There it is—I got free." It was impossible for me to conduct this examination of Frank Ocean's music and memoir through poetry without addressing its representations of black women.

We have the auntie figure represented in the ubiquitous presence of Rosie Watson in the interludes of both channel ORANGE and Blonde, and odes attributed to men of color. But depictions of black girls within the framework of Ocean's romantic lyrics are pretty sparse. In the song "Nights," Frank Ocean lives with a (potentially black female) lover in Houston, recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and an addiction to "white girl" (cocaine). I'm interested in examining all of this through the lens of social critique; even in creative work heralded as groundbreaking for its examination of what blackness could be—the work is arguably light on depictions of what black women are.

In this way, I am reminded of "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" by Sherman Alexie—"In the great American Indian novel...all of the white people will be Indians and the Indians will be ghosts." Black femininity harnesses so much revolutionary power. But so often this capability is divorced from our culture's responsibility to loving black female bodies. I wanted my version of "Nights" to take a look at those things; to love both black boy and girlhood.

That Alexie quote is so powerful, and reminds me of your poem “Dust”: “I quit writing. / I turn to dust.” In this poem the speaker repeats, “I’m nothing special,” which is a way of hiding but also preserving the self—“Know / what you can’t see, you can’t take.” As the poem progresses, this coping mechanism doesn’t hold; the speaker realizes that quitting doesn’t help, it destroys. The poem ends in a place of strength, but what is most interesting is what happens before the self gets to this place: the hiding, and the coping through quitting as a response to the outside world.

The structural elements you talked about in "Dust" are exactly the things that attracted me to the song. It's definitely a Frank Ocean B-side, a lesser-known track from Nostaligia,ULTRA that I don't hear a lot of buzz about, but I think it's rhetorical structure is pretty powerful: "When the ink dries and the pages turn to dust so will we." I like the direct metaphoric link between writing and religion (the verse is a play on Genesis 3:19). Initially, I started working on my version of "Dust" as an erasure poem—I got really interested in the connection between [music] sampling and palimpsest. I really wanted to stick to the integrity of how the phrasing of the original song uses slight variations of the same text in order to advance the story. There was a Fader article recently that posed the question "What type of writer is Frank Ocean?" to a collection of contemporary writers. Although no one referenced "Dust," the article did mention a quote from Roberto Bolano's Antwerp that feels directly linked to the place "Dust" is speaking to: "Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I'm at the end of my strength. Odes to the human and the divine."

The way you connect and merge your words with Frank Ocean's is very inspiring. Is there a full-length of these poems forthcoming?

I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean. Saturnalia Books. 15 March 2018.

I’m really looking forward to your new collection, Shayla. Thank you so much for talking with us about your poems!


‘People always try
to find ways to keep
magic inside them’
the first boy
who took my hand
says three months after
my last.

               A tiny diamond
toils down my ring
finger. A generation
littered in tattoo; I stay clear
of getting marked—too terrified
what may take
hold & possess me.
                                 I don’t wear
a veil but hear
the three-fold chord
when I ballgown down
the aisle. I was

                         very good
being at arranged, wonderful
with beginnings—like television
in America. I don’t understand
why I’m given away.

                                   In the end                   
I have daydreams
of a needle flood
with ink. I crush a fountain
pen : watch my sole
disperse into a deep blue ocean.



To put the Devil out of place 
I quit writing :
what he can’t read, he can’t take; sure as be. I’m nothing special.
Just a book
marked with the lit end of a match. I’m not too proud
to burn it back, I wish I could

But there’s no erasing           past the best advice I got

                                                            I quit writing.
I turn to dust.

Sometimes I hear the library of my loves laughing
at me. Everything I worship, I either disappear or destroy.

I’m nothing
special. Know
what you can’t see, you can’t take—my ink, my one truth
left.                  I wrote everything we are.
I’m not too proud;
I’d take it all back
         in like the lit end of a match.     I can’t erase

the past, but leave no ink behind        (the dust I was
                                                            the dust I do

I return to the book & rip through the pages
with all my quit.
                                                            I keep
I don’t put you. Out
here, I find religion
is just the best advice I got over & over
                                                                        —the pages turn
                                                                                                to prayer.


like this we nickname
all the bruhs. Like Bapo
Fluff & Reggie Whats
Prez, The Impossible Negro.
Big Booty Clarence (whose
nickname was just ‘Clarence’)
or Paco—no relation.
We felt like summer
was gonna last. Forever. Dozens
of orange roses direct to our door
-step & freshly cut
fades, combing by Vespas
to help us load groceries or hand
-painted sketches of our high school year
book photo. And if our moms ever asked
‘we don’t know how that boy happened
to get our {block right; chaos; home
telephone number},’ like we weren’t up
in our rooms signing bootleg love
letters in Cherry Coke lip
balm & the slow grind
of our tears.                             Nights

like this spin bees into honeysuckle
all soft buzz & earthy odes:
to every less-fresh prince. Like last
summer, when we dozed
next to Lonny on the sofa
of our late-flick-turned-make
-shift-sleepover. Like everything
we imagined, deciding not to kiss
closer as the screen glow
etched a memory of his face. We knew
we’d be next
in the memory
a chance to finally hold
his knuckle in the stark of       Days

where the boys
all had nicknames
for us, like: Females & Nah
Girl! …Who? & Don’t Be…
You-Such-A, & Alone. Pretty
Tina passing by by
morning, on Lonny’s spokes
strands laughing like a string
quartet as his allegiance bleaches
to all our midnight
notes—that was all it took
for us to let go
the dream entirely; for the fantasy
to burn & well our eyes
like a dozen
discarded petals. Some           Days

the only way being a black girl feels
magic is that it isn’t
real. Like we’re always stuck
in the meet cute
for someone else’s musical, like
we’re Best Supporting
Actress. Ha. But who are we
kidding? This isn’t our first
time around the {disco; cul-de-sac;
fire department}. We watch
them ride off in the sun
-set & retreat back to the night
of day. Blinds
closed, heads covered. Headphones.
A full stack of burned



I’m not brave. You should have seen how I learned
to swim, clinging to the back of Bridget
‘s braid as the chlorine covered my nasal
cavity, the long back of my lungs. Every tiny thing
a blur like the color scheme of most American
homes: Pacific
Northwest. That summer
we learned to distinguish ourselves
through the shape of our bathing
suits in swimming pools. My speckled
face marked most for consumption.
I would never be a mer-
maid. I would always
have a fretful relationship
with the coast.
A crab—one Valkyrie—her
pincer clenched tight around the cast
iron edge between life & ether
swim legs testing the void as they
arch & rouge. I say, “her”
because I saw what she was
once I lifted the carapace. The ocean
of future / bodies swallowing
its womb like a harvest, those solar
flares that fought
alive, so different
from the others.          
                                  Of course, when I say, ‘Ocean’
I am thinking about myself—how every time
I approach she is never the same
woman; the glimmer of God
I once housed often leaves me. All my life
I have spent in the battle
above which I can barely
keep my head.