Abdul Ali: I'd like to know how the process of writing your first book and receiving the kind of recognition you did either helped or intimidated you to begin work on something new?
L. Lamar Wilson: It's really been a startling and beautiful experience, having Sacrilegion flourish first on the basis of word-of-mouth and love for Carolina Wren Press's always excellent work. Then came a number of very generous reviews and opportunities to read around the country. Then its poems morphed into a staged musical performance in Miami, and now, nearly four years after publication, they're beginning to appear in anthologies in the States and abroad (the Ukraine and possibly Germany soon). We're in our third printing of Sacrilegion, with more than 1,000 books in print, absolutely astounding for such a small press. I won the CWR prize in the midst of completing my doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill, so I was eye-deep in scholarly essays and books about queer theory, sound studies, critical race studies, Afro-pessimism, and African American poetics. Now that I'm soon closing that chapter with the imminent conferral of the PhD, the hardest part has been consistently adherring to my early-morning writing rituals from which the best drafts of poems always emerge.
AA: How do you know when a subject is right for your poems? And how are your approaching book #2 in terms of discovering your project?
LLW:Poems start as a line a voice in my head says with such clarity that I must write it down. I rarely say to myself, "I'm going to write a poem today about __________." It starts with a line, then another, then others flow. I'm about a third of the way into my second full-length poetry collection now, and I've realized that in it, I'm continuing the journey I began with Sacrilegion, which featured “Resurrection Sunday,” a long poem that revisits a 1934 lynching in my hometown and generated the collection’s title. Whereas Sacrilegion limns the tightrope of piety, profligacy, contrition, and abjection through the voice and lens of one speaker marked “disabled” and “queer,” this new book's speakers command more mythic voices who meditate on the psychological impact of the recent upsurge in anti-black, State-sanctioned brutality on African Americans’ consciousness and the ways this violence affects our intimate choices. The ascendance of a neo-Nazi sympathizer to the presidency again has brought the KKK and related hate groups from the shadows, and America is experiencing its third wave of a so-called "Reconstruction." Just as Barack Obama's presidency sparked white male rage this time, black men's prominent leadership roles in the U.S. government in the wake of the Civil War and the past century's Civil Rights Movement fueled the first and second waves as angry white men threw public tantrums and terrorized every non-white male in their paths.
I grew up among the men and women who survived the hate crimes white men committed without recourse in the early- to mid-1900s, including the aforementioned lynching in a close-knit North Florida community that gives this second full-length collection its title. This book aims to gather the wisdom I gleaned from these now-deceased ancestors about thriving, basking in joy even, after witnessing such horror and enduring subsequent attacks by white male terrorists. Thus far, I have juxtaposed a series of “How To …” pieces with those that ponder the ways the imagery and video footage of dead and dying black people in the present day are shaping historical memories about a past that had been narrated as dead upon Obama’s election. We are a generation of men and women daily assaulted by these images and videos, and this book considers the revolutionary power in physical intimacy among black and brown men and women in sports, fieldwork, worship, and irreverent, sensual play—then and now. It also continues a long “middle passage” poem that explores the journey of the earliest-known African American survivors of white male terrorism: writers who had to unlearn their native Wolof, Twi, and other Igbo languages and master the King’s English.
AA: Do you have a poem you'd like to share with the readers of this blog?
LLW: Ninety-four percent of black women tried to save the soul of America on Nov. 8, 2016. White male terrorism, to which many white women & far too many black men & other people of color have pledged allegiance, found a way into the White House through the "electoral college," the back-door entrance wealthy white men crafted into the Constitution to keep themselves in power. My ars poetica for this book, "How to Break Bread," will soon be published in Crazyhorse, but another, which explores my inner battle with responding to white male terrorism in my work, was published in Prime: Poetry and Conversation (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014).
Only i missing here to make sense of it,
As in internecine, as in interred, the deeper
Meaning of it all, bad news for every body.
How to step into its gays again & trade places
With its queens, its Medeas & Madeas? Is this
What made i scant, shunned? Of what man & manner
Is i supposed to hate itself this time? It’s always
The woman’s fault anyway. It’s always God’s will.
O soul, who do you hate? Why can’t you stop beating
Your meaty obsession with muscles & bears, lionizing
The easy pray? Jocastas and their pregnant pauses.
Prayer works only if you walk by sight, not blind faith,
& i will never fit this profile your i’s write, that you
Expect these eyes to replicate in every body we write,
Our black market McCoyed. It’s too heavy, the wait
Of this i broken beyond its selves, enough for you &
You & you to enter. Chipola, Chattahoochee, Suwanee,
Tallahatchie, Jordan, Euphrates, Styx. Ol’ Man River …
This time, i am bound to cross these on your buts, but i
Won’t bare this burden, these inches forecast, alone
Any longer. You are coming with. You’ll have to help me carry the weight
& carnage of water, the audacity that keeps it flowing, no matter
The human cargo, the marriage of breath & marrow,
Of hope snapped by the whir of a fan’s blades
By the backs of a man’s tied hands begging for
The father & the son & the holy bitch i refuse to call him.
& what do i know of wading, of the prick of death
Entered each time you’s open your back doors?
Just a backwoods song as keepsake have i
To offer you. You should listen while
i show you you in i. m a l e v i o l e n c e.
Your innards spilled on the turned page that tells
The same story you’s wrote on the one before i
Fell in the deep end, black&bluesed & saw you coralled
In the continental shelf below i, blooming.
You should know i hate loving you.
You should know i will never stop.
AA: What advice would you have for your fellow poets who are trying to figure out the complicated journey of being an artist and navigating the poetry biz?
LLW: First, don't believe the hype: yours or anyone else's. Believe only the growth (or the lack thereof) you see in the mirrors that poems are. Ask yourself whether your poems or the poems of the poets you love are still teaching you new things. If not, act—revise or otherwise turn the proverbial page—accordingly. Second, paraphrasing something Nikki Giovanni told me early in my journey, "Writers write. Write more, fail better, fail less. You can't publish anything if you're not writing every day. Write what comes and worry about genre or publishing venue after the work is done." To that end, I think a lot about Henry Dumas these days, not only because his life and career were cut short by senseless police violence amid that second wave of Reconstruction, but also because the brother wrote prodigiously before publishing a full collection. Poems. Fiction. Songs. Essays-in-verse. What we are lauding today as innovative, genre-bending work, Dumas did in the decade before his 1968 murder. Thank goodness beloved elders Toni Morrison and Eugene Redmond collected his genius in Play Ebony Play Ivory, Ark of Bones, and Echo Tree. Dumas knew the urgency of the moment, knew that what he saw happening to others might befall him, too, so he didn't throw away his shot. These days, we talk a lot about Alexander Hamilton, another prodigious brother killed by a jealous white man, because of the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's play, but Dumas stands out to me because it's clear he wasn't following any treatise from LeRoi Jones-cum-Amiri Baraka or Larry Neal. Yet, he's left us a prescient tapestry to admire, a pattern to follow, as we quilt our own patchwork to freedom of fear of white male terrorism. The field hollers of his 1930s-1940s Arkansas childhood meld so hauntingly with the protest cries of the decade we would lose him to a white man's bullet. I'll be navigating the secrets he's left us with a group of young writers later this month at The Watering Hole.
L. Lamar Wilson is the author of Sacrilegion (Carolina Wren Press, 2013) and co-author of Prime: Poems and Conversation (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). He teaches creative writing and African American poetics at The University of Alabama.
Abdul Ali is the author of Trouble Sleeping, winner of 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize. He currently teaches High School English at a private college preparatory school in Baltimore, MD. You can follow him @abdulali_ .