Reading Derrick Austin’s acclaimed debut collection Trouble the Water is a raw, emotional experience that stays with you long after you finish it. The poems are complex, and their subject matter and locations span the globe and the full scope of human emotion. Austin anchors the poems with a focus on what he calls “distressed bodies,” whether those are human bodies distressed by racial violence, bodies of water suffering from human carelessness, or saint's bodies anguished in self-sacrifice. Austin’s speakers uncover realities of life as a queer, black American, and the truths at the center of those realities surface in even the most unexpected places.
Austin answered my questions about Trouble the Water and his approach to subject matter, form, and examining language.
Susan Elliott Brown: In her foreword to Trouble the Water, Mary Szybist hones in on the title and its many connections and possible allusions, from spiritual songs to the Gospel of John. She says, “The title is a command, one that Austin seems to have given himself in writing this book. … These poems come to ‘trouble’ the still waters of old assumptions, to unsettle and renew.”
To what extent is it a writer’s duty to “trouble the water” and challenge the “old assumptions” to which Szybist refers? How do you see this collection performing that duty?
Derrick Austin: Why write poems if not to the refresh language and finely consider it? There are so many ways a poem can challenge our ways of being in the world, and it starts with how poems allow us to choose the right word. It’s the reason I started writing poems as a painfully shy high schooler: writing allowed me the space and time to say exactly what I wanted on the page that I couldn’t utter aloud. Seeing a word for what it means and has meant, the histories of a word, a way of being that feels all too rare these days, is a radical act.
SEB: One of the things that struck me most about this collection is how many places you draw inspiration from. There’s Beyoncé, Shakespeare, tarot cards, European palaces, Virginia Woolf, and an installation in the Domino Sugar Factory, to name only a few. What was challenging about drawing inspiration from so many seemingly disparate sources (and time periods) and still making the collection feel cohesive and of the current moment?
DA: Honestly, the multiplicity of subject matter always felt natural. I was never worried about that while organizing the book. There’s a unity of sensibility that connects the poems whether they’re set in a cathedral, a bedroom, or a coast. It’s also a fact of my life that I’m interested in and thinking about and enjoying all these things. While I’m looking up a painting by Fra Angelico chances are good I’m probably listening to a remix of Beyoncé. Or if I’m watching a Guo Pei fashion show on YouTube, I’ll be reminded of how light glitters off the coast in Florida by the beading or how a particular silhouette looks like a Final Fantasy villain or a Byzantine empress. Juxtaposition creates the tension and release in life and literature. It’s part of the surprise and pleasure.
SEB: In many of the poems in Trouble the Water, the speaker’s body seems to be given to something else, or it becomes something else through a transformation or metaphor. Talk about how you see the body working throughout this collection.
DA: A lot of this giving, this relentless seeking and transformation, comes out of a desire for and to care. The speaker is black and queer in many of these poems and shame, anxiety, and fear saddles both of those identities. One way the poems function is to explore how it is this persona understands what it is to be cared for and how to care for another/oneself. If I make myself beautiful like these paintings, I can be loved. If I make myself self-sacrificing like these saints, I can be loved. These transformations are attempts to make permanent what he perceives as the conditional of care. If I am good or beautiful or broken or sexually compliant, then someone—the divine, the beloved—will always remain. It’s a journey toward self-love, self-care. I’m also thinking of the other bodies in this book: the Gulf, art, the other black figures in the book. Who is cared for and preserved and remembered? Who isn’t? Why?
Primer for Sainthood
So you want to kiss the passionflowers
in his hands, the blooming flies and blood?
So you would fast and serve his meals,
meats and bread, liquors, sweets?
Happily, you say, drunk on the waters
of his smile. And if he does not smile
that day? If out of boredom he says, Kneel
and wash my feet, every day you must
drink of this water. Happily, you say. Again
with this happiness. And if he breaks you?
Batters you with his fists? Batters you
like a door and hands back your happiness
—a dozen knocked teeth—would you say
Again my lord? What wouldn’t you pay
for an endless night with the god? O you
who would starve for such music,
there is another sweetness saved for those
who wash and bind the wounds, who join the feast.
SEB: Somehow, you’ve succeeded at the seemingly impossible task of making queer sexuality and religion not only coexist in the same book, but also somehow fluidly inhabit the same spiritual space. How do you think you were able to do this? How do you see queer sexuality and religion/spirituality as related to one another?
DA: Queerness helped me write the poems. In the sense of queer as homoerotic--there’s plenty that can be read as queer in the Bible as well as literary sources indebted to the Judeo-Christian tradition--and, more importantly, queer as a verb, to disrupt, to trouble. I mentioned earlier how I think writers should work towards a fine (re)consideration of language, a queering of language, and this is how not only writers, but all of us, should live our daily lives. We need to interrogate our historical inheritances, our cultural narratives, and the narratives that work to shape our present. One reason why I’m interested in Christian art from the early middle ages to the Baroque are the ways in which those artists constantly surprise us with the grotesqueness and glory of the human body and the ineffable nature of the spirit. All this through the physical mediums of paint or stone. Christianity is hard and strange and queer. I’ll never forget how in his novel, The World in Evening, Christopher Isherwood pithily wrote: “Baroque art is largely camp about religion.” In way, that’s one sensibility I write out of—Isherwood also writes, “You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.”
SEB: Race is another major theme in Trouble the Water. “Blaxploitation” is a powerful sestina in which every line ends with “black.” The beautiful “Magnolia” paints a haunting racially-based metaphor and ends with the declaration, “I can’t stand to / look ahead / at another dead black boy.” Talk about the ways in which blackness informs the poems in this collection, from the “religious poems” to the poems that seem to be more of our current political moment.
DA: My being a black American is inextricable from everything I write including the poems about the BP oil spill to the religious poems. Poems like “Sweet Boys” or “Magnolia” are often mentioned as coming out of or being influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence against black people. Those poems do come of these violences and the movement to end them, but this political moment isn’t sudden or passing for me. I was black before the BLM movement. Violence against black people isn’t new. I often wonder if those poems would attract so much attention if they were written before the current wave of media attention toward black deaths. Likewise, I think about how the other poems aren’t often talked about as being about race or how blackness exists within them. The religious and ecological poems all deal with distressed bodies, be they saints or the Gulf of Mexico. Here is a body of water we have harmed and are bound to, if not by morality and love then by the very fact that so much of what we consume and rely on comes from that Gulf. Here is something we have taken for granted. I think of the casual disregard for black and brown lives. I think of Flint, Michigan.
after Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby
define this temple of erasure and refinement.
Sweet boys like tropic flowers, machetes, and blood-sweat.
Sweet boys and their archaic smiles. Pursed lips
like the leaves of an unopened book. Sweet boys shock
the antebellum night like ghost trees blanched by salt.
Sweet boys, the Southern Gothic swaying in your dreams
to make your sleep easy, their bodies now magical––
burning, dismembered, singing—to make the myth
easy. Take a picture. Sweet boys consider the daily minstrelsy:
white men throwing signs and smiling for photos,
their grins like flesh wounds, and there, the white woman
assessing the sphinx's ass and genitals. Photo. Photo. Photo.
Sweet boys think, This is what it is to be a nigger. A language
of locusts and honey in your mouths, a poultice of resin
in the mouths of the dead. Sweet boys like jawbreakers.
Sweet boys balloon with fire. Sweet boys chase each other through
a burning mansion, and you all merely marvel at the light.
SEB: This collection is a tour de force of formal dexterity. Besides the masterful “Blaxploitation,” “St. Matthew’s Pentecostal Church” is another powerful sestina. “Summertime” is an inventive villanelle, and sonnets of varying degrees of experimentation pepper the collection. Talk about how you chose the forms you implemented in these and other poems. How do you think formalism works with the themes you explore in Trouble the Water?
DA: Thank you! When I started reading poetry in high school, I was mesmerized by Dickinson and Keats. To be able to write in meter and rhyme seemed like the most magical thing. Formally ambitious poets excite me. It’s the game of it: being able to, not only successfully fulfill the form, but to keep it fresh and animated and of your time. It’s so boring to read contemporary formal verse that reads like it was written in 1940. Folks like Robert Hayden and James Merrill, Agha Shahid Ali and Derek Walcott, Erica Dawson and Nicole Sealey, to name a few, make me giddy with the ways they revive forms folks endlessly call dead or boring. In an interview with Lisa Hiton, I talked about how form connects to the idea of manners and survival; but here I’ll say, I love how form makes one think through their own work. There aren’t as many shortcuts or evasions within the boundaries of form. It forces an honesty in the work, an openness that helps me. It’s why I love obsessive, strict forms like the sestina and villanelle.
A pipe burst somewhere. The record kept turning
Porgy and Bess. Granddad sang the old blues tune.
I told him my name. The water was burning
when we went to the coast, green and churning
like collards in the kitchen. It was June.
A pipe burst somewhere. The record kept turning.
He took worm-colored pills at ten in the morning,
sometimes he wandered off. I’d find him at noon,
streets away, calling my name. Water was burning
from Gulf Breeze to Grand Isle, the Gulf swirling
like vinyl. Egrets blackened the bayou.
A pipe burst somewhere. The record kept turning
when we watched the news in the nursing
home: men in white scanned the dunes.
I told him my name, that the water was burning.
He looked through my eyes and sang fish are jumpin. . .
I said his name, washed his feet, left the room.
A pipe burst somewhere. The record kept turning.
I told him my name. The water was burning.
Derrick Austin is the author of Trouble the Water. He is the 2016–2017 Ron Wallace Poetry Fellow at The Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. A Cave Canem fellow, his work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2015, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion, and New England Review. He was a finalist for the 2017 Kate Tufts Discovery Award.