Read an Excerpt from ‘Nepantla Issue #2’: Carl Phillips & Rickey Laurentiis in Conversation
Author: Christopher Soto
September 13, 2015
Nepantla Issue 2 will launch on September 17, 2015 on the Lambda Literary website.
In the following interview poets Rickey Laurentiis and Carl Phillips discuss Ferguson, outsiderness, and literary responsibility! Rickey Laurentiis is the author of Boy with Thorn, selected by Terrance Hayes for the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, forthcoming from University of Pittsburgh Press in Fall 2015. Carl Phillips is the author of Reconnaissance, newly released from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in Summer 2015. Carl Phillips teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, where Rickey Laurentiis completed his MFA.
The full length version of this interview will appear in the second issue of Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color on September 17, 2015 (on the Lambda Literary website).
Laurentiis: I’m thinking about something you mentioned earlier, about how you’ve now lived in St Louis the longest you’ve lived anywhere, St Louis which only a year ago exploded with regard to Ferguson, the murder of Michael Brown and the subsequent #BlackLivesMatter movement. I’m not going to ask if any of that has implications on you or your work because I’m sure, even if subconsciously, it does. It certainly has on me, for how do I escape these threats of erasure? Anyway, I wonder how you filter this news, these times we’re in, that particular noise, while also listening to yourself—in your poems? A giant question, maybe an impossible one, but anything you’d have to say I’m sure would be enlightening….
Phillips: What you say [previously] about writing honestly from our hearts, minds, instincts as a writer, in particular—may be the very bridge we need for getting to your question about Ferguson, the relationship between the personal world of my poems and the public events that are, of course, part of my personal life, too. So many angles from which to approach this subject! You’re right, Ferguson and all of the events that have emerged from and/or come to light around it—these have necessarily affected me; but where, for many, these events seem to have been a revelation, for me they have been a reinforcement of what I’ve known all my life, not least of all because of having been born pre-Civil Rights, and to a bi-racial (black, white) couple who were sometimes denied the right to travel together, were refused housing, and married in a time when their marriage was illegal in many states. Meanwhile, in my time here in St. Louis, I’ve been stopped at least three times and asked for proof that I owned the car I was driving—in each case, I have no doubt that the issue was my being black; and in each case, as soon as I showed a Washington University ID, I received apologies and was told that I was of course not “the type” they were worried about—all kinds of problems, right there….
How any of that has found its way into my poetry is difficult to say, or to say easily. For starters, I do believe that poetry is ultimately not a transcription of experience but a transformation of it—that’s at least what it is, for me. I don’t expect that I’m going to end up writing poems that speak directly to the events of Ferguson in such a way that Ferguson itself appears in the poem, or racial injustice is specifically addressed—that’s not the kind of poet that I am and, going back to what you said about trusting our instincts, I have long ago known that I’m more a poet who tries to get at the psychological and emotional textures of a life without grounding them in specifics of particular events in the news. I’ve never written a 9/11 poem, in that sense, if what’s meant is a poem that actually describes the events of that day and meditates on the meaning/meaninglessness of it all—and yet, I believe that every poem I’ve written since that day is necessarily filtered through the lens of that event and my experience of it; maybe it comes across in terms of how I address fragility, or vulnerability, or assumptions we once had about what was and wasn’t possible, hard to say.
Getting back to Ferguson, what I notice more isn’t how the events there have filtered into my work, but how certain things I’ve long investigated have turned out to be large points of discussion for the #BlackLivesMatter movement and for people, generally, when addressing race right now. Specifically, from the start I’ve been concerned with the body—how we conduct it, vs. how we’re told we should conduct it; and once we get into being told how to conduct it, that raises the other issue I’ve long been concerned with, namely power, who gets to hold it, what the responsibilities are of holding it, who doesn’t get to hold it, how—if at all—can power be handled with something like fluidity, within an intimate relationship, but also within the relationship between the personal and the public spheres, one’s own body and—again—the society that thinks to dictate how that body should be handled. Granted, when I’ve spoken of the body, it’s largely been in the sexual arena, and that’s the same with power. But I feel very much in conversation, at the same time, with what’s being said lately about the black body, about police as the manifestation of societally endorsed power, and about the tensions that result when the body, the black body in particular, resists the restraints being imposed by those in power. Somewhere in all of this, there’s a related fear of otherness, be it in terms of color, as here, or by extension in terms of sex, gender—we’re back to queerness, I suppose. I like to think that what I’m writing resonates, at the psychological and emotional level, with what has been happening in terms of Ferguson and the conversations around it. I think the most honest thing I can do, and still be true to the only poet I can ultimately be, is to record my version of how it feels to be alive right now, in this climate. There are other versions, and we need all of them, in order to see and feel clearly, accurately, the times we live in, and to be able to ask questions accordingly. Certainly I’m writing the only poems I can write. So, to get back to the original question, I don’t feel that I’m filtering the news of Ferguson, while also listening to myself in poems—I think it all gets mixed together, who I am has been filtered through the events of Ferguson, largely in ways that I’m sure I’m not aware of; Ferguson becomes yet another lens of experience through which I can’t help but see the world around me differently. And, interestingly, to me, those poems that I wrote before Ferguson happened now read differently to me, nuanced as they now are by events that they weren’t originally intended to speak to.
Laurentiis: You’re right. The question of Ferguson can be approached via so many angles and avenues, it’s that “pregnant” of a—what? Image? Symbol? Event? As you respond, I’m recalling the opening lines of one other poem in Reconnaissance that suppose “what if suffering is in fact for nothing— / no particular wisdom after, blooming flower-like, / blood in the water?” It’s a scary proposition, at least a bit unnerving. A reversal of the time-worn (Greek? Christian? Egyptian?) notion that, eventually, through tribulation will come some new, better, earned knowledge. You could apply these lines to almost any situation—major or local—but now I’m thinking about what you’ve said about how it all—Ferguson, the policing and killing of black bodies, the reinforcement, as opposed to new revelation, of these notions of power—about how it all gets mixed up in you, probably in no discernible or conscious way, but in such a way that these three-and-a-half lines, at least for me, can’t be totally divorced from the situation in Ferguson and Baltimore and America in general. And as I said, it’s scary. What if all this suffering—and I hear I specifically mean that stricken upon the black body—is for nothing, leads to nothing, no salvation or redemption in the end? What then?
I think I share a lot of your feelings regarding how one’s poems come about in times like these, which even as I say that I recognize are not so quite unlike times before our own except that maybe we’re more easily bombarded with viral images of these tragedies, recreating these deaths in some sense. Anyway, I don’t think I ever set to write a poem that is very directly related to certain events, though I would also be lying if I said I didn’t have a voice in my head insisting that, somehow, a part of my duty is to regard those events in some way. It may be like how I’ve said form, in general, slowly comes to take hold of a particular poem—it’s not a deliberate decision from the onset, but eventually may reveal itself. Ultimately, I agree with you: I recognize that simply being—and that runs the gamut of emotions from joy to frustration to sadness to pride—I recognize simply being in this world, writing as a gay, black poet, is in some sense still revolutionary in itself. And I recognize that to write down what it feels like for that particular subjectivity to live in this world is all I can do, if I’m to be, as you say, honest.
But it’s difficult to say how long before those images, those breaking news reports and court cases and exonerations and what have you—difficult to say how long before they take a toll on me. And the toll could be in any way: calcification, erosion of the spirit, one’s sense of hope . . . That’s why I guess I was reminded of those lines from earlier. It’s probably why I come to poetry, at all: not always to be comforted, but to be sometimes discomfited since, in any either case, the sensation is yet a realization that I’m still alive, that I am matter. Maybe that’s what it means to be a part of these communities and traditions, like the one you raised at the very beginning of our conversation. Maybe it’s means just to be alive, and writing.
Phillips: I agree with you, it seems that it can be enough, just to be writing, if we are writing responsibly, which is to say not divorced from what’s happening, in terms of suffering, around us. What parts we choose to speak to directly isn’t always a choice, I think. The fear surrounding the events at Ferguson and elsewhere, the sense of vulnerability, the apparent meaninglessness of the black body, the particular conundrum I feel in being stranded as a body—half black, half —in a kind of no-man’s-land where it’s difficult to gauge at any moment the difference between acceptance and tolerance, the degree to which acceptance comes only because my body doesn’t pose, to some, as black a threat as another’s: it’s impossible for me to avoid feeling all of this, incorporating it into my sensibility, not just as a poet, but as a human being. The margins that I write from are maybe more recognizably grounded in sexual queerness than in race. But there is no racelessness in this world. I hope that I speak to any person whose outsiderness keeps leaving them somehow grappling. I hope my poems are a kind of grappling that they can relate to, a way of showing that we’re together in this. Your poems do the same, I believe.
Laurentiis: Yes, to write responsibly, to remain connected… I’m reminded of Baldwin, again, who authored one of my favorite quotes related to this: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” There’s the work.