“I Am Black and Reflective.” Keith S. Wilson Talks to Jericho Brown

Two Poets Talk Truth, Tradition, Form, and More

Poets Jericho Brown and Keith S. Wilson sat down to talk about influences, poetics, and more in their new collections, The Tradition and Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love.

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Jericho Brown: I am particularly impressed by the poem “The Way I Hold My Hands,” which seems a love poem to your own father that manages to make use of the erotic and of the images of touch itself.  It accuses the father while being tender toward him and the self. Can you talk about how you came to the writing and revision of this poem? Now that your book is in the world, have you thought at all about the differences between your real father and the one you had to render to make these poems sing? How are they the same or different?

Keith S. Wilson: “The Way I Hold My Hands” was actually this failed idea for a poem I kept returning to about the literal way I hold my body and hands. I remember being a boy and actively thinking about whether the way I walked was right, about whether I was moving correctly. I remember being told at school I walked like a girl, and that led me to remember other times I had been told whatever was the way I might think or move or act if nobody were watching should be filtered into something I could be proud of. I write about my dad in that poem, and in general, because I think I became him. I think lots of us come to that wild discovery at some point: that we are repeating, word for word, something we once fought against. But I share his name. I look like him, I think. We used to argue a lot, about practically everything, and I wrote about him much more than is reflected in this book. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer over ten years ago, and all of that stopped. I spent every night in the hospital with him and it didn’t seem important anymore to prove I was right, or to say whatever I was trying to say in those poems to the whole world, which I think was a version of me saying again, in a language I knew I was uniquely capable to speak “I am right.” A language that almost nobody I knew could speak to me in, and so nobody could address me in, or argue with me over.

He recovered from his surgery, against all odds, and among the many ways that I changed from all that, one thing I took away with that became reflected in the way I thought about what became this book was my relationship to the truth. I think many men believe they have access to the truth, and wield it like a weapon because they’ve never had to actually reckon with who they hurt. I don’t know. All of that became a lens with which to view love, and relationships, and responsibility. Things that are more important than poetry. It’s interesting, the way your collection also begins not only with fathers and violence, but with both of those as forces that can and do shape a country. As mythic. Those first few poems kill me, and I just think I want to get you to talk about them. But I think I didn’t quite answer this question myself, of what to do with the space between our real lives, our real fathers, and what we have put on the page. How do you navigate that space? And what do you consider as you navigate it, and make from your own experiences and observations something that, as you put it, sings?

I’m saying all of this to say that—as for singing—I can make poems work when I can look at them outside of myself whether or not they have my own personal experiences in them.

JB: I don’t think I do very much navigating.  I really try to have everything possible at my access and to lose my mind when I’m writing poems. I know the man in my poems is not my actual father, that the poems use any and everything I know about and associate with fatherhood or motherhood or 80s R&B or the Bible or whatever else language seems to move toward. I wouldn’t say that I make things up or lie. 

I mean if anyone needs to know that my real dad could be low down or that I had a literal fight with him I’m still proud of . . . well, that’s all true. But nothing of the actuality of him being low down or me being low down enough to hit him is the exact same as what I present in poems where he appears.

I think we’ve gotten way too worried about whether or not a thing has actually happened to a poet, and I think that makes this a hard time for actual poems. I don’t for a minute wonder how much a screenwriter or actor or fiction writer knows firsthand of her subject. And I know that poetry is not non-fiction. So I’m a little frustrated these days with where that leaves us, with how important it is to readers that I fought my father (I did!), I have a son (I don’t!), I was raped (I was!). I’m saying all of this to say that—as for singing—I can make poems work when I can look at them outside of myself whether or not they have my own personal experiences in them. When I can see them as objects in that way, I can tinker, I can make a machine. 

If it were my own actual toe, I wouldn’t want to make a machine of it. I need my toes, all of them!

So many of my poems—even the ones that seem to have the most narrative intentions—are made through splicing and piling and seeing what juxtapositions of lines that were written decades apart can do for one another. I mean I never really think about my dad when the myth of my dad appears in a poem. Much of your work appears to come from a similar origin in its making. “Fieldnotes” is one of a few poems in parts in the book. I love the way this poem grabs at so much of your knowledge and life and marries it all into a lovely one. Can you say some things about the crafting of this particular poem?  And about your sense of writing a poem in parts?

KSW: “Fieldnotes” began as a series of notes on “black.” Not just the word or the concept, but the strangeness about it—that the color black, for instance, is literally the color of all visible light being absorbed, and yet something can be black and reflective. I am black and reflective. But those kinds of ideas, and the leaps between them, destroyed the way I had been writing poems up to that point. I started to just cannibalize my own poems, cutting out whatever worked from anything I had ever written and pinning it to the wall. The poem is in parts because of that, and because I am in love with the structure of Claudia Rankine’s work—that much of what fuels a poem can be the order we receive it, and what we choose not to say. Those kind of leaps can begin to communicate the feeling of that moment my father showed me cotton at the side of the road. He didn’t give me a speech, but I think about that moment a lot. If this was a movie, or any narrative, there might be a pull for my father and I to have a conversation. But a poem in parts can approach a showing of my DNA. Here is what you might need to hear what I hear when my father speaks.

Black is literally the color of all visible light being absorbed, and yet something can be black and reflective. I am black and reflective.

I am something of a formalist, which I think people believe means someone who writes in received forms like sonnets or ghazals. And I write those too, but I am so moved and driven by the form any individual poem takes, and what its taking that form is saying. So among other things, Fieldnotes asserts itself as something akin to the notes a scientist might take. To break apart, as if empirically, what a field means to me. But that of course is not a form that existed before I wrote it. I want to hear about your Duplex poems, which is a form you’ve invented with a kind of repetition reminiscent of a sonnet crown or especially a ghazal. But the repetition in a ghazal actually takes a line—a breath—before its next repetition. A duplex repeats a line (or a reimagining of a line) far more quickly than that. It reminds me of the blues, or maybe this is strange, but it also makes me think of “Like a Prayer” (which Madonna owes to black music and the gospel). And then the final duplex of the collection is a cento, but it borrows not from outside poems but from previous duplexes. Can you talk about your use of repetition, and creating a form?

JB: I can’t look at cotton without crying. I mean I can wear it. But I can’t look at it on the vine. My ancestors on both sides all the way down to my mother were cotton pickers. To this very day, my mom—in her very late sixties now—is lauded by her siblings for how much cotton she could pick at such a young age. Her father—my grandfather—was a sharecropper. From the looks of it, he died of exhaustion when my mother was nine. He had come to Louisiana because his brother killed a white man: right after that event, half of my grandfather’s family at the time headed west in the middle of the night. All the anger and violence my father’s mother and my mother’s father ever set in motion in this world I trace back to cotton.

I think something about their lives—the difficulties and accompanying discipline—have a lot to do with my relationship to form. So many received forms come from societies as imperial as the cotton industry. 

But form is how a poet survives (whether through a received form or not). My inventing a form comes from my attraction to difficulty. And I thank God that difficulty—and discipline—have a place in my life as an artist . . . that I get to choose them. I thank God that I’m free to write and to not know how to pick cotton.

People seem to think it’s the syllabic count, but the hardest thing about the repeated line in the duplex is repurposing it the second time it’s said (as is the case with so many European forms) or having need of repeating the line for emphasis (as is the case with the blues). AJ Verdelle says, “repetition is holy.” If I can think of it this way, if I can think of the form as a chant for the casting of spells in a spiritual exercise, then I can figure the best way to make echo happen. Echo is of greater use to us than repetition.

There’s this whole tradition in black poetics of witness and testament and responsibility to one another that is absent from what is taught about tradition in poetry workshops.

Some of this effect comes through in your poem “I Find Myself Defending Pigeons.” I love how this poem is spiritual without being about the spiritual and feel that its repetition lends itself to what in the poem you call, “theology.” And I love that the visual form here seems to contradict the poem’s anaphoras. And something about all of this must have something to do with what the poem names, “imperialist.” Please say more about this poem. Also can you talk about your relationship with or your resistance to sentimentality?

KSW: I think when folks push back at sentimentality, they think they’re recoiling from falseness. But I’m sad. All the time. The advantage of that is I am not afraid that my melancholy is inauthentic. And I’m hopeful, maybe because I have to be. What I’m not is ironic or sarcastic—which are modes of performative falseness that people embrace. That kind of falseness makes up the body of the internet, and it’s in my pocket all the time if I need it. But I never need it. I need hope.

When I was little, some kids across the street were swinging sticks and throwing rocks at a pigeon because for some reason he wouldn’t fly away. My dad came out and yelled at everyone for being cruel, and took the pigeon into our garage. That pigeon ate wild bird seed my dad bought for it, and it shit on everything, but especially my dad’s power tools. We named him Router after the tool he liked best. And when it could fly, my dad let it go and you could always tell which pigeon it was because it wobbled. I wrote “I Find Myself Defending Pigeons” as a kind of prose poem because of that contrast you’re referring to. But also the poem is making an argument for radical love within the confines of its form. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote her epic poem “The Anniad” in trochaic trimeter about a black woman. I am in that tradition of trying to find beauty and love and hope in a world, imperialistic and capitalistic, that demands of us everything but that.

And speaking of tradition—your book, and the title poem, are named after “The Tradition.” When I think of Brooks, I cannot help but think of the way in which she and others are so much a part of a tradition that is not always fully embraced by American poetics. As you say in the title poem: “We thought / Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt.” There’s this whole tradition in black poetics of witness and testament and responsibility to one another that is almost wholly absent from what is taught about tradition across the country in poetry workshops. I would argue it’s totally absent, for instance, from what is perhaps the most famous essay about poetic tradition, Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” But your work is infused with it. You have a poem, “After Avery Young,” that has likes that hearken back to his poetry (“Blk ice is ice you can’t see.”) but also to the poetry that he is referring back to himself, to the Black Arts Movement. Can you tell me what tradition means to you? How it shows up in these and other poems?

What is written remains, always, unfinished.

JB: Oh, this is interesting because I’m often ironic . . . in my work and my daily life (but humor is also a kind of irony). I think it’s actually important to poetry that it can be free to wink as much as people have to wink in order to survive. And I kind of love the nod I feel Eliot making—whether he likes it or not—when he says, “Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind” in the essay you mention. And a sentence soon thereafter allows for a future he couldn’t have planned: ” . . . we might remind ourselves that criticism is as inevitable as breathing, and that we should be none the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel an emotion about it . . . “ 

But of course, you’re right if you mean just that Eliot didn’t say, “black people too.”

Tradition, for me, has to do with servicing my attractions. If I like a style of painting, I am only doing justice to myself as an artist to find out who participates in that style and from where it evolved and what styles are its offshoots. Or at least, that’s the first part of what I think when I’m thinking of how I’m working with tradition as a poet. The second part is more important. The entire time I’m servicing my attraction, I am asking myself why I am—and (more often with the history of poetry in English) how dare I be—attracted to whatever art I’ve decided to study. I do that work because I believe better knowing the history of a thing makes me and it a part of one another’s community. And I ask that question so I can always see myself as an unique being—an individual!—in that community. If we dare to ask ourselves why we have the attractions we have . . . well, if we can do that, we will always have deep and complex poetry among us.

I am always trying to show respect to the khaleesi while thinking of ways to remind her I am free. I love that I stand in so many traditions. It gives me a lot to continue to prove to myself. And since we’re talking tradition, can you speak to your attraction to a kind of scientific language I see coming through in “Black Matters” and “Heliocentric?” I’m particularly interested in how these brilliant poems make us have to think about Lawrence and Homer in terms of an unexpected syntax of theorems. What is your relationship to these writers here?

KSW: One answer to this is my dad was an electrical engineer, and what the church was to his parents, science was to him. Anything that lifts us up is holy and in my house that was science. We watched Star Trek: The Next Generation together and my favorite character was Geordie, because study and care seemed like they could very literally save the world. On one hand, if something matters to me—whether it is police brutality or an expression of love or regret—invoking my private, holy language is one way of being dead serious, of writing a contract to myself, that what I say here needs to be worthy.

But there’s something practical there too—what poets would call craft, though I don’t have craft considerations until I am done writing a thing and have moved on to editing it. But accessing scientific language allows me to hybridize poetry (which many people associate with intense subjectivity or personal expression) with associations that might come with science: that what is being said is in earnest, that it is “objective,” that it attempts to be true, that it is bigger or more important than its maker, that its discoveries are fundamentally woven into the universe to be discovered, even that it is practical. And what is written remains, always, unfinished. When Newton wrote his theories, nobody decided “well, that’s all there is to say about gravity.” Poetry can feel so final. My poem “Heliocentric,” ends with a comma. The copy editors made sure I meant to do it on purpose and I did, but what if all poetry is like that? What if we treat every poem as if it ends in a comma?

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Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love by Keith S. Wilson is out now via Copper Canyon Press.

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Jericho Brown is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and he is the winner of the Whiting Writer’s Award. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues 2008), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. His third collection is The Tradition (Copper Canyon 2019). His poems have appeared in The Bennington Review, Buzzfeed, Fence, jubilat, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, TIME magazine, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry. He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.
Keith S. Wilson is a game designer, Affrilachian Poet, Cave Canem fellow, and graduate of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He is the 2018-19 Kenyon Review Poetry Fellow, and the recipient of scholarships from Bread Loaf as well as MacDowell, Tin House, Community of Writers, Miami Writers Institute, UCross, Millay Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center, among others. Keith serves as Assistant Poetry Editor at Four Way Review and Digital Media Editor at Obsidian Journal. Keith lives in Chicago. His first book, Fieldnotes on Ordinary Love is out now.





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