My grandmother had the greatest basement I have ever seen or will see. The ground floor the house she lived with my grandfather was conventional enough to blend in with the houses in the area. A flight of steps down was two bedrooms, a small bar, a card table, a bookshelf, a tv console, a speaker system, and a place for the 2300 records she acquired while tending a pool hall for 28 years. After a combination of Alcohol, harassment, and Panther extortion forced her to retire from both the Army laundry room and the 6th street bar in 1970, she collected her regulars almost every week there to get together and play cards.
When I was 9 years old, I became her “Right Hand Little Man”. My father had had a breakdown in his sobriety, a cyclical tantrum in which he had given me a black eye, apologized profusely, and then-in a move of desperation-tried to pass it off as a form of punishment for my hyperactivity and addiction to candy. Caught in a bind between her sensitivity to the cards dealt to him and anger toward his actions, my grandmother broke him down verbally. She told him that if he wanted to be either dope or liquor sick, the least he could do was drop my brother and I off at the house. That night, my grandmother taught me to make Hoagy Sandwiches, Brandy Alexanders, and Whiskey Sours, then proceeded to tell me the rules of the house( most of them which centered around me being quiet).
Along with the table of books and articles my mother and her aunts used to have and pass around almost every weekday, my grandmother’s basement was the template for my education and imagination. Being a 10-year “Son-of-a-white-feminist/grandchild-of-hard boundingly graceful-pool-hall-boss” wasn’t the way to make yourself popular in my age group, but it was a binary center for some of the most wonderful memories I ever had. For five years-that October evening in 1987 to the summer of 1992 where my mother and aunts stopped speaking and my uncles decided they couldn’t ever be in a room with my father again-my childhood was filled with their brilliant discussions about art, sports, literature, history, and culture. As many of you know, it was filled with moments of unspeakable trauma; but when I decided to try and get healthy, it was those memories-what my family and extended family taught me-that helped me get better as well develop the coping mechanisms to survive in society.
To be more specific about the last sentence, it was my grandfather taking me in when I was a 23-year-old mess and being my male role model. And If “Homeboy Songs” was my book, then “Up South” is my Grandfathers. And my Grandmother’s. And my aunts. and uncle And everybody who came from the south to give Tacoma the foundations it has.
When I wrote The Homeboy Songs, I was surveying the territory of my life and trying to see it in context with the lives and territories of other writers. I’m proud of my first book. It was the thing I needed to write before I could write anything else. I had to name and make sense of my home turf and do it in the street and lyric languages inundated in my head growing up. I knew nothing bout poetry politics or what black writers were supposed to do or say when I wrote the poems in them, and I’m grateful for the audience reception to them.
But Up South had to be my surrealist folk book, and my reasons for writing it are complex. I’m not a political writer per se, but the current events of this decade shocked my imagination into a sort of surreal state. I have fewer rights and am in more danger as a conscious black person than any time in my life or my parents’ life.My response to this was to go inward, create art about grandparents, great aunts, and great uncles, and try to understand the rituals and coping mechanisms they had to make it in society. My political act wasn’t to make poems that served as rhetorical statements but to center my imagination around the world of my ancestors and the complex ways that they affected the community that they lived in.
I also wanted to go deeper into the rootwork that I dabbed into in “Homeboy Songs”. My goal with my first book was to incorporate the language and rhetoric of the black church into form the way that Federico Garcia Lorca incorporated the language and rhetoric of flamenco culture into various forms, and with “Up South” I wanted to go deeper with call and response and various Muslim and west African linguistic chants and refrains( The Kharja, Especially) and connect them with various linguistic and cultural rituals of black people.
Another thing I wanted to do with this book is continue to broaden my voice. In the past few years, I had become furious with the unwillingness of so many American postmodern poets and scholars to engage in global discussions about experimental poetics. These past few years, I got heavy into the Ultraists, the school of 1927, The Creationist School, and the Polish School of poetry, and I did so to get my mind off American “innovators” engaging in hipster street theater over dead black bodies. This global century has fostered beautiful dialogues about imagery, metaphor, breath, and the poetic line, and too many American discussions have mistaken innovative though with versions of white racial grievance politics, littered with man-baby provocateurs who belch out “finished” first drafts in the name of “automatic writing” and demand you believe their skill on faith.
With “Up South” I didn’t want to be an Ugly American. I wanted to show intellectual kinship with some of the ideas in innovations I saw in Vallejo, Dario, Paz, Mistral, Hikmet, and Amichai. These poems have called for a different style than the “Street/Schooled Lashley Voice”. My primary fear is getting out of that style, that comfort zone, and whether or not the poems succeed or fail away from it. I’m scared. But I’m also excited.
I want to thank Small Doggies Press for allowing me to be in left field, and being cool people with a lot of integrity. I want to thank my friends who “kept me” in the last three years through some really scary times. Two weeks before The Homeboy Songs came out, I lost my closest friend to a heroin overdose, and tried to commit suicide by a vodka, pill, and cough syrup cocktail. I couldn’t have dedicated myself to sobriety and made it through some horrific pain if it wasn’t for them, and they know they are.
America, I would love to see you. The next couple of years will be a hell of a ride.