Tommye Blount: No One Gets Off the Hook in My Poems
The Author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue Talks to Peter Mishler
For this installment in our series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Tommye Blount. A Cave Canem alumnus, Tommye Blount is the author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books, 2020) and the chapbook What Are We Not For (Bull City Press, 2016). A graduate from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from Kresge Arts in Detroit and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye now lives in Novi, Michigan.
Peter Mishler: Is there a moment, image, memory, or experience from your childhood that jumps out at you now as hinting at or communicating the possibility that you would become an artist, a poet?
Tommye Blount: Nope, never a poet—ha! That was never a part of my thinking as a child. The need to tell a story, however, was always there. My mother worked in an office at Michigan Bell, a typist of some sort. I forgot how it all started, but she would bring big reams of dot matrix paper home. The sight of it just made me so excited. There was something so stimulating about seeing all of that blank space with no lines or margins. It was very different from the green lined paper we would use learning cursive in school. This was an invitation to fill up as much space as I could. I would doodle and write all over the sheets. There was a child’s hunger for maximalism that faded in my teen and part of my adult years.
In those years, and still now somewhat, there is safety in wanting to take up as less space as possible. It’s partly why the book is big. A challenge to myself, I wanted to force myself to take up, and earn, the space of this book. In a world that would rather deny me, a Black gay man, space I wanted to claim it for this book. I did not come to the realization on my own, but it was partly seeing the work of Detroit artists like Tylonn J. Sawyer and Sydney G. James—artists who have created massive murals in which every wrinkle and hair of its Black subject must be reckoned with. When one encounters the work, they have no choice but to consider the subject.
PM: Could you describe a turning point then that brought you to poetry?
TB: In undergrad at Michigan State University, I had taken creative writing classes and joined an on-campus club called Black Poets Society, but it wasn’t until my last semester in 2001 that I decided that I would actually take an intro poetry course. My instructor was Diane Wakoski, but I had no idea who she was at the time—shame on me! Wakoski got me excited about image making. I left her class enthusiastic about poetry, but without a clue about how to deepen what I had just begun to learn. It took some time, but I met Vievee Francis at the Broadside Press Open Mic series in Detroit. After I read, she beelined toward me, sat down in front of me, stared me straight in my eyes, and asked, “What are you doing with your work?” We’ve been in each other’s lives ever since.
Francis cracked my head wide open to the world of poetry. I call her my first teacher really. She opened her home to me and a handful of other poets, teaching us everything she knew. This was serious study with reading lists and exercises and presentations. Serious. Through her tutelage, I not only learned I could write and talk about poetry, but also that my voice mattered.
It’s also through Francis that I have met some great friends who are all now creating some extraordinary work: Matthew Olzmann (Francis’ husband), Aricka Foreman, Jamaal May, Kahn Davison, francine j. harris, Nandi Comer, Scheherazade Washington Parrish, William Copeland, Airea D. Matthews, and David Blair (who passed in 2011). Because of these poets, I understand the importance of having a writing community. It’s been a dreadful year so far, but it has also been a blessed one, because I get to celebrate collections by Nandi Comer, Aricka Foreman, and francine j. harris. We all have books coming out this year, and I would not have had it any other way.
PM: Could you talk about the inception of your “Fantasia” poems that begin or bookend each section of the collection?
TB: About five years ago, upon doctor’s orders, I started taking walks for exercise. Because of my day job, and my misanthropic tendencies, I chose to walk very early in the morning. So with my headlight and pepper spray, I would head out at 3 in the morning. In my town, no one is out at this time except small animals and the police. In one month, I was stopped twice by the Novi Police Department, because I looked suspicious. Being Black in suburban southeast Michigan, this wasn’t the first time I have had questionable interactions with the police. While in the middle of both interactions, illogically I felt guilt and shame. I knew better, was what I kept telling myself. You shouldn’t be walking at this hour.
The rage didn’t come until some time had passed and I had a chance to digest it all. I replayed the incidents over and over again; thought of different outcomes. I could have died, I could have died. Out of all of that came the “Fantasia for the Man in Blue” poems. In my rage, I started writing chunks in Ross White’s “The Grind”—an online writing group in which participants write something each day for a month, then send off to an email group by midnight. As I wrote my way deeper into the poem, listened to the poem, and moved farther away from the raw emotions that brought me there, it all became stranger and stranger—to me at least.
It was like a movie—ha! The idea of structuring the book around the poems came when I was driving home from work one night; I could see the entire book from end to end. It was weird and scary. Thus the “Fantasia” poems became the scaffolding; each poem striking a note and allowing the poems around them to rise up to that register. All of the minor poems riff, and complicate, the action happening the major “Fantasia” poems. The final section isn’t as tonally heavy as the other sections, so I wanted the last iteration of the “Fantasia” poem to act as a kind of volta bringing the collection back to the beginning—a haunting that refuses to let up.
PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
TB: Strangest? Well, what I do know is that poetry isn’t as strange as most people, those who are not regular readers or practitioners of poetry, think it is. When, in the few times it happens, I am chatting with coworkers or family or friends who are flirting with poetry, I always try to avoid as much mystic talk and mystery as possible. It is work—okay, with a bit of play. This is something that was first hammered into me by Vievee Francis, then later reiterated by mentors at Warren Wilson College. I am just against the idea that the writing of poetry must always include talk of magic. Now, I don’t mean to imply that there isn’t always room for strange things to happen within a poem. To be sure, there must always be a sense of surprise, risk, and discovery experienced when writing, and reading, a poem.
PM: What for you would be the most dangerous result of thinking too much about this strangeness or magic?
TB: Ugh—I hope my previous answer regarding strangeness didn’t come off as if I am agitated or something. Ha! I just like to be careful about perpetuating the Romantic view of writing poems as strange, magical, and mysterious. Poetry is one of the best artistic tools we have to both encapsulate and enact lived experiences. It can move on the page in a way that complicates or reiterates the information being delivered. My best poems are organisms on the page in conversation with the larger organism reading the poem.
I suppose I am also thinking about the barriers that exists around poetry in terms of readership. Don’t get me wrong, there are articles in the last few years championing a rise in the popularity of poetry, but I still find people are resistant to the genre. I’m going to sound like I am running in a pageant, but poetry can change the world if everyone can access it. How many arguments and wars began over linguistic misunderstandings? How about slavery, racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.? All have been argued for in religious books that are usually lyrical texts bursting with figuration—one of the major building blocks of poetry. What happens when figuration, a device used to compare tenor and vehicle, is misread as all tenor. The figure gets lost and thus the meaning gets lost. Poetry teaches us (practitioners and readers of it) and can teach many, in a visceral way, that language is powerful yet deadly when we’re not careful.
PM: I like what you were saying about the bigness of the book, and I wondered if you could talk about an experience of a poem that you felt resistant to or unsure of pushing forward or exploring further and what that was like for you. I wondered specifically about the outstanding long poem “My God, Lick Him Clean.”
TB: “My God, Lick Him Clean” was definitely a challenging poem to write. Detroit Institute of Arts asked me to be a part of its series “Poetry is Art / Art is Poetry.” Several poets in and around Detroit were asked to select a piece of art then write an ekphrastic poem. Well, I knew immediately which painting I wanted to address. “Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead” by Peter Williams has haunted me for years. It’s positioned in its gallery in such a way that it always catches me off guard. No matter what exhibit I am there to see, the painting would always find me. It’s always larger than I remember. Each time I look at that face—which graces the cover of the book—I find something new layered within, because there are so many motifs from the past and the not-so-distant past writhing together to make the portrait.
Honesty time: I am a selfish and narcissistic poet. It’s why I am always so reluctant to call this poem ekphrastic, because the self (myself) wants to hog up the frame. When I was at Cave Canem, so many summers ago, Carl Phillips gave a lecture in which he mentioned how our obsessions always find us. It was liberating to me to say the least. Writing “My God, Lick Him Clean” I indulged all of my obsessions, so that all of my Black and gay and voyeuristic selves are in conversation with the painting. All of those selves are itching to speak, and do speak, in the poem.In my own work, when I foolishly have aimed for hyperrealism, it has become heavily laden with detail and description, thus reading as false and plastic.
So from the outset, I knew that the poem, structurally, needed to be large enough to hold all of that movement and shifting. And I knew that I needed sectioning, to allow room for time leaps and tonal shifts. Initially the poem had numbered sections whose chronology was elliptical. Martha Rhodes, one of my favorite poets, my editor and my friend, challenged me to see what the poem would sound and feel like without numbers. At first, I hated this choice—ha! I had become so used to the rhythm of the poem with the numbering. But eventually I realized, by getting rid of the numbers, the poem gained breath (because reading the poem with the numbers encouraged unintended breathlessness) and spaces for the eye to rest before the shifts occur.
PM: Could you talk specifically about the inception of the second section of the collection, your poems regarding gay adult film performers and the industry?
TB: Oh, the second section! Ha! The title of my book is purposefully deceptive; there isn’t just a man in blue but there are many men in blue. The second section takes as its muse men from blue movies; specifically Black gay men from adult movies. Movies present us, Americans, with a vision of a world and we cosign that vision by buying tickets or streaming at home. Certainly, the same is true for adult films. Sites like Xtube and Pornhub use viewer data to categorize and prioritize scenes and movies depending on our tastes, so there are labels like “Most Popular” or “Most Liked” or “Most Viewed” and so on.
Porn has always been an unabashed and shameless presentation of secretly held beliefs and desires around race, gender, and beauty. I am drawn to the world of pornography because of this honesty—which, we know because it is a movie with sets and scripts and makeup, is dishonest. Pornography gives us fantasies we wouldn’t dare express in front of company. This is also an industry in which, if one looks, finds Black gay men—like Bobby Blake and Diesel Washington among others—having a say in how their bodies are used. Like the speaker in the “Fantasia” poems, the actors in this section refuse to relinquish the grips on their narratives.
PM: Can you make an observation about your experience of writing poems in which the first-person is more closely tethered to your life as opposed to the dramatic monologues in the collection?
TB: When I first started writing, I had an overly simplified view of what first-person could be and do within the lyric mode. I became restrained and beholden to The Truth—some need to get it all right, which can be a fool’s errand. By no means do I mean to be prescriptive with this statement, because it works for some poets I love, but for this collection, first-person is not so simple. Take the “Fantasia” poems, with its replayed moment, there is so much pressure that the persona has no choice but to bifurcate, so that it can be both within (as an actor would) and without the experience like a director or camera. Not only does the lyric mode allow for time to loop back on itself, but it allows the lyric self to be both watcher and watched, performer and audience.
PM: Would you comment on your relationship to cinema, especially as it relates to your poetry?
TB: In Chris Turner’s translation of an Yves Bonnefoy lecture called Poetry and Photography, Bonnefoy explores how historically technological advances, coupled with artistic shifts, has had a direct influence on how we both digest the real world around us and, for artists, create new images. In portraiture, when the popular preference went from painting to photography, we began to embrace a world that is less controlled; more open to error and chance. Anyway, this influence on seeing, of course, happens with the cinema.
I read this Vulture article called “Motion Smoothing Is Ruining Cinema.” Nuanced title (ha!) but there are some valuable gems in the piece. As viewers, we’re used to seeing movies and television (for those of us who still have them) programs with certain film and lens treatments. What has happened is that television manufacturers have defaulted the sets to motion smoothing—a zero sum means of blending frame rates regardless of the image maker’s intention. My television set is a few models too old for this technology, but I witnessed it over a friend’s house. The result was startling to me, because the images had a hyperrealistic look to them—an Uncanny Valley sensation emerged. Where I am getting at is this: cinema, movies, film, whatever one prefers, matters more than many give it credit for. I’ve heard some of my very smart friends call it wasting time in the dark, but I beg to differ. If it did not matter, there would not be such backlash of nonrepresentation (in front of and behind the camera) of marginalized groups; and celebration when that representation happens.I’m no scientist, but on a visceral level, there is something in the brain that can detect the chasm between what reads as truth and what reads as false.
With my chapbook, What Are We Not For, I was interested in the breakdown between one’s intent (who/what they mean to be in the world) and how that intent gets read by the world at large—by those outside of the body/self. With Fantasia for the Man in Blue, this consideration has expanded. In the book, the relationships between performer and audience str a large part of the collection. There is always a performer (or a subject) in conflict with an audience (or an observer).
With that said, I’ve charged the poems with the task of navigating the exchange of power and agency between these two figures. Against various forms of resistance, the personae must seek control of the narratives around their bodies. Those that are successful, find pleasure and fulfillment, but, sadly, there are many in the collection who fail—finding pain and death. What better way of handling all of this than utilizing the tropes and techniques of film.
PM: To what extent do you think your poems might attempt to reject or avoid this “motion smoothing.” I am thinking about your comment regarding maximalism and reckoning of every “wrinkle and hair” in the work of other Detroit artists.
TB: What intrigues me most about all of this motion smoothing business is how it quickly leads to talk of Uncanny Valley. I’m no scientist, but on a visceral level, there is something in the brain that can detect the chasm between what reads as truth and what reads as false. In my own imagery, I’m not interested in absolute truth: getting every detail and description exactly right. What I am interested in is the approximation to the truth.
Elizabeth Bishop is one of American poetry’s maestros of image. She includes just enough imagistic information to allow the reader to step in and do some work too. (For example: the fish in “The Fish” is more than fishy enough without needing exact genus or taxonomy.) It’s this active exchange between the poem and reader that gives the sensation of vivid perception. In my own work, when I foolishly have aimed for hyperrealism, it has become heavily laden with detail and description, thus reading as false and plastic. The same is true for my experience with visual art. When I have viewed the work of Sawyer and James up close, I can see the swipes and the changed mind. But when I view the work a few steps back, the details are all there in glorious precision. It’s because the work demands the viewer to do some work to complete the exchange.
PM: I’d like to shift to some of the people who populate your poems. Have you always written about your brother?
TB: Right. So this would probably be a good time to discuss one of the other threads in the book—brotherhood. Although many of the poems have some specter of my brother in them, they usually stray far away from autobiography. When “brother” appears, sure, it is my brother—in the domestic sense—but, more so, it is also my brother in a diasporic sense, a larger implication. Part of the difficulty for me putting this book together was figuring out how to both celebrate my Black brothers while holding them accountable at the same time, which is something very real for me—a Black gay man in Detroit, in the Midwest. So when I say, “my brother,” there are many brothers implicated.
PM: Could you say more about this balance of accountability and celebration?
TB: The book, among many other things, is one Black gay man’s examination of Black brotherhood and what that looks like in America. I want to celebrate it, but I also mean to complicate the conversations within that brotherhood. This book does not contain poems of easy answers or solutions. No one gets off the hook in my poems. I am in mourning for, and in a state of terror around, Black men and boys who have been, and will be, senselessly murdered by police and citizens who police.
At the same time, Black men have harmed me because I am gay. The blow hits me harder when it comes from Black men, because there is a deep knowing and understanding there that can be so easily voided and dismissed. Many will know that I am not walking new territory here. For years, writers better than I have handled this subject less ham-handedly than I have managed. As an initial research, one needs only to read the seminal anthologies In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, edited by Joseph Beam and Freedom in this Village: Twenty-Five Years of Black Gay Men’s Writing, edited by E. Lynn Harris.
PM: One of the most significant people who appear in this collection is your father whose poem transcribes his autopsy report. I wonder about how you think this piece converses with the book as a whole.
TB: People will probably think it very odd, but I read my father’s autopsy report often. At first, I would read it as a kind of penance, because I wasn’t there when he died. (Grief and guilt can be so closely linked.) Now, especially after having written “Portrait of My Father,” I see the report as something I am lucky to have. As I touched on earlier, this book is concerned with people, especially Black men, trying to control the narratives around their bodies. My father, at least the version that exists in this poem and others, was never able to control his body’s narrative, so, in my mind, he wanders in a kind of limbo. He’s trapped in his own terrors and fears; stuck, even after death, in his own blues.
“I am a poet after all,” is a proclamation made at the beginning of the book is not one made lightly. What does a son, who is a poet, do when he has been handed the actual narrative, the autopsy report, of his father’s body? This poem, and others like “Icarus Does the Dishes,” “Geppetto’s Lament,” “The Suit,” etc. are my attempts at wrangling my father’s narrative and, as a result, getting a grip of my own body’s narrative. Orchestrating this fantasia of figures and voices like my father, Luther Vandross, porn actors, etc. is my way of creating my own self-portrait; my attempt at finding the narrative around my body. See? I told you I was a selfish and narcissistic poet.