Justin Phillip Reed, a Most Indecent Black Queer Poet
A Conversation About Race, Debt, and Sex
On the day I interviewed Justin Phillip Reed about his book Indecency (Coffee House Press 2018) at the Atomic Cowboy in St. Louis’ Grove gayborhood, he was wearing a baseball cap which said “Rough trade,” a tee-shirt which said “Feygele,” a shy smile, and a cigar behind his ear. I had first encountered Reed’s work while covering the prosecution of Michael “Tiger Mandingo” Johnson for BuzzFeed News, a Black gay college wrestler who was accused of exposing or transmitting HIV to six mostly white sex partners and who was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
During those years, Reed was completing an MFA at Washington University in St. Louis. We met in person in 2017 when I saw him perform his poem “A Victim Dissolves Into Tears,” which is composed of quotes from one of Johnson’s white sex partners taken from my 2014 story “How College Wrestling Star ‘Tiger Mandingo’ Became An HIV Scapegoat” and text from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man. I interviewed him for Lit Hub on a hot day in June to discuss Reed’s work, Michael Brown, Michael Johnson, and interracial relations. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Steven William Thrasher: I wanted to just start with the cover. What is the image to you?
Justin Phillip Reed: That is… an image of bird shit.
SWT: It is? Okay.
SWT: Because I did a Rorschach test with the person I’m staying with, who’s a former HIV educator, and she thought it looked like cum splattered. But then she said, “My dad would probably think it’s bird shit.” And I thought it was a virus. I thought, “Oh, that makes me think of DNA, RNA, sort of a viral image under a microscope…” But of course, I’m bringing my connection to the book.
JPR: The press sent this image to me as a possible option. I selected it among three. Another one of the images that they sent also included bird shit, but not in this sort of interesting way where it could have been mistaken as cum, which is why I went with it.
SWT: Did the virus ever … did that come to your mind, or no?
JPR: No. It was almost impossible for me to make that jump to the virus while couched in knowing that it’s bird shit and always tying it to one particular poem in the book, “The Requital.”
SWT: I love this phrase, “history’s flattened,” that you had in the first poem (“Performing A Warped Masculinity En Route to the Metro”). How have you thought about, or experienced, history being flattened in this space and this time?
JPR: I think in that moment, I was thinking more of people as kind of visible containers or intersections of histories. But then, when you’re passing, you know, a random person on the street, you don’t really—or at least, I assume that most people don’t—consider that one single person is this really complex—to use Puar, assemblage.
JPR: Yeah. I was thinking that, I’m seeing these people on the street that I might see kind of all the time, or this might be the first time I encounter this person. But that I’m running into them in this space—and this is only a blip in the entire day that they’re living out. I was feeling very heavy in that moment. But in St. Louis, I find that it’s easy for any kind of history—especially concerning Black folks—to always be on the edge of being obliterated. With the way that this city’s planning kind of moves always in the direction of “progress” and trying to forget what had been thriving communities of color, there’s always this possibility to me that those legacies are overwritten. And I’m walking through that constantly.
SWT: How did you first find out about Michael Brown?
JPR: I think a friend texted me. And it was the day of [his shooting by Darren Wilson]. I don’t really remember exactly what the specifics of that exchange were, I just know that we felt immediately that we had to go out and march, and I had never been a person who goes out to a march or a protest, but I felt compelled to do so.
SWT: From a craft perspective, “Portrait with Stiff Upper Lip” was the first poem in the book— and then also “Orientation”—that had this really striking sort of visual sense for me. As a journalist, this is unlike my writing practice at all. It reminded me a little bit of when I first started to read Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip, How engaging it was to read Zong!’s text in this way that to me—as someone who is not a poet—to see poets almost working like sculptors with words. What is your writing process like when you visually imagine what something like this is going to be? Do write text and visualize at the same time? Does one follow the other?“Like, what is supposed to be left unsaid in order to give and to get what one wants in this sexual interaction?”
JPR: In the case of this poem, I think I was just molding these lines, phrases, words, and trying to get them to adhere to the shape of a male-ish figure and profile. But that impulse definitely isn’t from my own interior desire to just suddenly have a visual work on the page. It’s out of studying the work of Douglas Kearney , whose poems are nearly consistently that visual sculpting, and he does sketch them out beforehand.
SWT: In “The Day ______ Died,” were you thinking of anyone in particular? Or is this kind of every black death that you’re encountering in news?
JPR: I can’t even remember who exactly had been murdered that day when I went to work, and my timid white male boss approached me, and wanted to let me know that he was acknowledging me. Really, all I could feel is that this had been happening nonstop.
SWT: What does it mean for you in that poem where you said you “miraculously blacker?”
JPR: That was a feeling that, in this very isolated, white institution, I could go somewhere on campus and sit down in my black paisley joggers, and I could eat granola and still feel like, you know, this is the blackest shit I’m going to have to do all day—to have a moment to myself and feel overwhelmed with not even grief, but just exhaustion.
SWT: “The debt collection mail in columns. I keep trying/ not to smoke or smoke again or smoke so much/ but fuck it” (from “Snowfall Throws Its Pretty Noise Upon a Weary Sameness”). How were you thinking of debt?
JPR: How am I not thinking of debt?
SWT: What came to mind for me, in reading this, was Stacy Abrams, who was running for governor in Georgia, the first black woman to run for governor on a major party ticket. She wrote a really interesting piece about being something like 200,000 dollars in debt, including like 50 thousand dollars, I think, in arrears to the IRS, that she has on a payment plan, and she’s saying why I should not be disqualified. She writes about being in student debt and her parents being sick and her family being sick and medical debt, and how most Americans are in debt. And as is often the case, a black woman is taking on the charge of addressing this condition which actually affects all Americans, but which is often shamed and imagined as Blackness.
JPR: That’s my constant reality. I just had to deal with a very harrowing phone call last week, that I was supposed to follow up with yesterday, that I did not, about my incurred debt. In the first moment of that, when I received the voicemail, I wanted to call back and say, “What about this country’s debt to me?” Anyway.
SWT: I want to turn now to Michael Johnson, which is how we first got to meet each other. When you first encountered this story, you were with a boyfriend at the time.
JPR: He was white.
SWT: Alright, well let’s start there, then. How did the two of you encounter that story at the same time?
JPR: Not at all similarly. This had been a recurring situation for us. Wherein we would be both encountering something like this case on the news. I remember very vividly the night that Jordan Davis was shot, and I was ruined for the rest of that night. But he could not connect to how I was feeling, and it wasn’t in his demeanor to persist. And witnessing my vulnerability more so, he was avoidant and we would generally not talk about it—which certainly led to my discontinuing the relationship, and discontinuing dating white men in general.
SWT: Prior to that you had predominantly dated white men?
JPR: I did.
SWT : You have a line in an earlier poem “To Every Faggot Who Pulverized Me For Being a Faggot,” that says, “To believe that white men had my back / was a facile act: who else so long / prepared me to hate me?”
JPR: It’s always an interesting poem for me to read aloud, as there are more often than not many white people in my audiences. One thing that I would not deny myself while writing this book was to dive deeply into those moments in which I felt my rage and felt somehow betrayed or generally that I had just mismanaged my relationships with people that I was invested in.
SWT: So that first night you and your white boyfriend had different reactions, how did your body react to hearing the story?
JPR: There was a bit of nausea. I also didn’t want to be touching my boyfriend while I was processing this. Because, you know, quiet as it’s kept, he was like so many of—I wouldn’t say, gay white men here in St. Louis, but gay white men in general, in my experience, in that the Black male body is for largely consumption. That’s, you know, very American. What was less easy for me to come to terms with was my sort of complicity in that. My—what was then an insistence in finding partnerships with almost exclusively white men, and the kind of value system that that had brought me for myself.
SWT: I was very touched that your poem “A Victim Dissolves into tears” used quotes from one of the first people I interviewed. You’re using the quotes from my unnamed source, who was—just to clarify—a white person who had sex with Johnson but did not press charges against him (“i am more into white guys,” “only my third black guy,” “I knew they were clean by looking at them”). The poet Saeed Jones was co-editing the story back then, and we used Invisible Man as the frame for our thinking. Like in the first draft, Invisible Man was explicitly in there, with us making references back and forth. By the end, the explicit references all got pulled out. But the architecture stayed there, of how we were thinking about this invisible and hyper visible and finally all alone Black character kind of being driven insane by everything around him. That was what we used as our guide through making this story, so it was really touching that you had put Ellison together with these quotes from this story.
JPR: I feel like it must be subconscious or in the case of the article, subliminal. But those two came together in that poem.
SWT: Do you remember anything about when you first started thinking about Ellison in relation to this case?
JPR: I remember… that that chapter in Invisible Man felt vaguely sexual to me.
SWT: The “Battle Royale” chapter?
JPR: The pursuit, I think it was chapter 13. It was the pursuit of… now I can’t remember the white character’s name. He kind of chased down the protagonist to—I guess talk to him and bring him into the organization where he eventually became a kind of diversity representative for it. It had, I think, in it for me this latent awareness of how I felt sometimes used by my previous boyfriends to get at the idea of their own progress, their “transcending of race,” which somehow coincided with the utter erasure of my Blackness. I think my attraction to that chapter and particularly the language of it was—what I felt was a thread of penetration running through it. How the white man in pursuit kind of wanted to penetrate the world of this protagonist, but also invite him to penetrate the organization. Because what might also be interesting too is that, the language I kind of coopt from that chapter is all, I think, the protagonist’s language, that I’m here using for the “victim.”
JPR: Because I think it’s less about how the figure in Invisible Man is identified and more about the, like, power negotiation of it? Which has, you know, been written all over Michael’s case review. It’s less about how the figure identifies and more about the power negotiation. And this gets back to my trying to figure out what is the language of that power, what that language looks like for the Black person in the interracial partnership, whether it is romantic or sexual—how complicity functions and how one finds agency in complicity.
I have a poem in Indecency dedicated to Rogan Hardy of Harlem Hookups, and I think often of how even when he’s more often than not taking the passive position in his porn, it still seems as though he has somehow located some sort of power in which he pursues—collects—these white men to fuck him. And still finds himself central in that power dynamic. It’s almost as if it’s less about how he is flattened as his Black body and more about how he can flatten those partners to serve his needs. But the question, always, then is: How are his needs influenced by the larger political realm?
SWT: So, you said you’re engaging the protagonist of the Invisible Man for the victim, and you’re also using “victim’s” quotes while erasing Michael’s quotes from the “victim”?
JPR: I suppose—although I’m thinking of how the “victim” tries to translate Michael back to you.
SWT: Right. I mean also—I was thinking about this earlier today when I was taking notes, of this—this is not really Michael, this is Michael through the victim, through me, and then through you.
JPR: But also: Michael as his presentation, as his “Tiger Mandingo” figure, which is already a flattening, intentionally. I mean, it’s so deeply about the refusal of nuance, to even arrive at this conflict. Like, what is supposed to be left unsaid in order to give and to get what one wants in this sexual interaction?
SWT: I love the way you phrase that. That’s a dynamic that I have wrestled with that the law doesn’t care about. The law is only concerned with did he disclose or not, in this very sort of juridical way. My other editor on that story was Mark Schoofs, and one of the things that we always found really fascinating about this case, is that these things are negotiated in incredibly complicated ways. Having sex with someone is very complicated— how it’s negotiated, the nuance of it. And as you so well put it, [prosecuting Johnson for HIV] is very flat. To perpetuate the fantasy of what the “victim” wants in this, which he wants to get bred by a big black dick, that’s what he was looking for—and for him to be able to get that in a way that he can believe that he’s also at no risk for the very normative experience of being open to STIs… what does he have to refuse to be able to engage in that fantasy?
JPR: Right. It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance. In that you want this… hyper penetrative figure, but you reject that either the figure could be penetrated, and I mean that in the sense of carrying whatever, like, possible infection or simply their own individuation, their own baggage as a person. All of that has to get left behind—except that what you desire in the figure is how its inscribed with risk.
SWT: I love the line in “Paroxysm” in which you write of the white couple, “you arrive at the university and stand up like a necrotic thumb.” It’s really beautiful and I love the way that you’re writing about the figure of the screaming figure not being Black, and thinking back to the poem where you’re talking about disappearing Black girls (“Pushing Up Onto Its Elbows, the Fable Lifts Itself Into Fact”) and sort of the ways Blackness is not supposed angry, right? Like, the anger and rage is something that we don’t see in primarily white spaces. We don’t see an affirmation of having Black anger itself, it is something that we are suppressing.
JPR: It’s really easy to be caught up in that kind of binary where if I were to be flat and inhabit this kind of—what is called like the angry Black trope—that I somehow buy into whatever stereotype that has nothing to do with me. On the other side of that, if I suspend all of that, if I suppress my anger, that I am then doing the work that the institution tells me to do. It seems like there’s really no way out of that. Because if I’m the angry Black figure, I’m available for study. If I’m the suppressed and complicit figure, then I’m available for labor. So, either way it’s labor.
Justin Phillip Reed is a South Carolina native and the author of Indecency (Coffee House Press, 2018). His work has appeared in African American Review, Best American Essays, Callaloo, The Kenyon Review, Obsidian, and elsewhere. Justin lives in St. Louis. Come see about him at justinphillipreed.com.
Steven William Thrasher publishes regularly in the New York Times, Guardian, Esquire and BuzzFeed. He is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at NYU, and in 2019 he will become the inaugural Daniel Renberg Chair of media coverage of sexual and gender minorities at Northwestern University.