Roger Bonair-Agard Interview
Michele Lesko: This statement from an interview with you at NPR says it for me, at some point, what poetry is, as we start into our schooling, becomes a matter of definition by academia. But even so...there have been movements that have sought to reclaim it from those towers and return it to the mass of folk. I ’m on that journey to reclaim poetry, to bring its connections to “the mass of folk.” I teach contemporary black poets to incarcerated high school boys because I want them to recognize themselves, their journeys, in poetry, to see the respect for black voices in the established world of writing. To me, many of these poets are carrying on the tradition of the griot. Do you recognize your story, your poems, as the news of a generation?
Roger Bonair-Agard: Certainly they’re the news of this generation. On one level, they’re reportage of what I see, who I am, and translation of those things for the very contemporary world of which I’m a part. What I hope I’m doing, though, is viewing all of these, additionally, through the lenses of previous generations. Indeed, previous generations’ work and wisdoms are often the hieroglyphs by which I attempt to render the contemporary. In this way I hope the poems and the stories are gaining a multi-generational wisdom as they develop, and perhaps even imparting one.
ML: In your poem “Mandate,” first published in Rattle, y ou name your crew “sophisticates,” calling out the clever codes young men learn to represent themselves, and it soon becomes haunting, “most of our friends were still alive.” You give readers that moment of possibility and show it will soon end for many boys. That’s the tragic injustice of this generation that connects to generations past. Will you describe how you recognized poetry could save you from becoming one of those lost?
so we practiced memorizing where
our defenders were
so we could look the other way
as we went past them
cuz it was only cool
if you made it seem effortless
we were sophisticates like that
looking for immortality in the tales of others
and most of our friends were still alive
RBA: To be sure I think that this is one of the tragedies that repeats itself one generation after the next. The human body, soul, will, hold the knowledge and wonder of all of which it’s capable until some place in late adolescence or early adulthood, when a light gets dimmed. Call it being swallowed up by capitalism’s demands, or global inequity, or simple adulthood, but at some point, for the vast majority of us the fuse becomes unlit. For some of us, very real death is the upshot of that tragedy, and for some of us it is a death more metaphorical but no less real. For me, having been into the arts as a teenager (I excelled at theatre, wrote a lot of poems, told a lot of stories to laughter in corner bars), and, having moved to New York City at 19, I too was faced with the turmoil of being untethered from my dreams, from the planet it felt like. Perhaps, had you asked me then I’d have told you I was fine, but I was going to clubs every weekend, getting in massive brawls in those clubs every other weekend, partying and carousing in the most dangerous circumstances, and, eventually, registering for school (I went to Hunter College in NYC). It was there that a young woman I knew from back home forced me out of my house one winter night and took me to a poetry reading. It took me all of about three minutes in that dusty loft in Greenpoint to realize that poetry is what I was missing, what I needed to do. I went back home that night and began writing. It was 1994. I haven’t stopped since. I was playing varsity soccer for Hunter College and for a few other leagues outside of school as well. When I started going AWOL from games because I wanted to write or I wanted to see this poet or that poet I knew I had begun the process of saving myself. The further I moved away from that moment, the more I understood how narrowly I had avoided the chasm.
ML: How does a momentary image or word enter you and finally come to be a poem?
RBA: There are so many ways this happens for me. Sometimes it is because I get together with folk, and we tell stories, and I realize that this is a story or a moment in a story that wants to become something. Used to be I always thought it wanted to be a poem. Lately, I’m realizing they want to be other things too – short stories, essays, one act plays. My writing friends are often the ones who are like “bredren, you ent write about this yet?!” In fact, Jamaican novelist Colin Channer and poet Kwame Dawes are pivotal in helping me recognize those moments, recognize the intersections from which these poems might come. Once the image or word has been identified, I begin. I’ve learned over the years to trust my organic narrative flow and begin wherever and let the initial rhythm tell me what genre I’m writing in and in what order the thing needs to be told. Hopefully that first draft allows me to get it all out, so that I can then begin the process of editing. Equally as often though, the idea sticks in the craw so to speak, and I have to revisit and revisit it, sometimes coming up with several beginnings which may or may not become sections, or the poem itself, or, eventually abandoned, the scrapyard for work later on.
ML: Did you enter the poetry world with or without the support of your peers?
RBA: More or less, yes. I was headed to law school, when I was taken to that poetry reading in Greenpoint. In fact the young lady who took me, my best friend from high school back home, and I, all attended Hunter College. We were all Political Science majors; were all taking pre-law classes. Two of the three of us are now attorneys. A couple years after that poetry reading night I abandoned the journey about a week before taking the LSAT. I’d already had conditional acceptance from a few law schools. As such, for many people, what I was doing was either incredibly brave or incredibly crazy. I only saw it as what was absolutely necessary, if I was going to be useful at all in the world; if I was to survive. My best friend would call me from law school and say “Rog! You would destroy this! Reconsider pahdnah! You’ll have something to fall back on.” I’d tell him “nah man. I’d end up with quarter million dollars debt and no zeal to do the work I’d need to do to repay it.” Still, he recognized a year after beginning work as an attorney that I would not have survived that world, that I was in the place that I had to be in. Today, he’s the biggest supporter of the decision I made then.
ML: Did your status as a finalist for The National Book Award for your collection, Bury My Clothes, change your career in any way?
RBA: I was long-listed, so more of a semi-finalist than finalist. It’s hard to say. Certainly there are gigs I’ve got as a result. However, so many other things were happening at that time for me. I had a newborn baby, my first, and was the stay at home parent for much of her first year. Personally, I’d also been struggling with other difficulties that probably didn’t allow me to mine the good fortune of that nomination the way I might have liked. I’d like to say that I didn’t require the confidence of mainstream recognition like that, but it did give me a confidence to continue along the trajectory I was on. Bury My Clothes was a brash move for me. It’s a big book of poems – 160 pages. It begins and ends with short memoir pieces. It took some risks both formally and ideologically, so I felt somewhat vindicated by the nod.
It also ramped me into the work for my next book (which I’d already begun), Where Brooklyn At?! which is a collection of what I call ‘gone’ poems that are a gentrification lament. Willow Books will be publishing that in 2016. I can’t discount what the ‘success’ of Bury My Clothes did (it also won the Society of Midland Authors award for poetry 2013), for my willingness to be outlandish in moments in this new book, for the continued validation we all crave at one point or another.
ML: When you read a poem you’ve published in a book, do you still get the sense you might want to change a word or two?
RBA: No poem is ever done – I’m sure you’ve heard before – so I treat any poem that I still have interest in reading aloud as something that I’m still scanning for opportunities to pull some blossom from, even if that is only the removal of an item of punctuation. I change things. I change things back. I re-render line breaks. I amend titles.
ML: How does performing spoken word change your writing?
RBA: Rather than how it changes my writing, I’d say it impacts how I conceive of the idea of the poem, and its relationship to the body; which is to say, that page or performance, the poem IS the body. It’s just a matter of where the poem is manifesting. The page is the body. Its white spaces are silences. Its print is utterance. Its line-breaks might be hesitations. The body’s shrinking might have something to do with context of one word versus the next in a given situation, and so on and so on. The body in performance and the body on the page are all of a piece.
ML: What bit of advice will you share with emerging poets?
RBA: It’s really boring advice of course but read, read, read, read, write, write, write. Note I said more ‘reads’ than ‘writes.’ But also understand that the world you are consuming is also a reading – the music you listen to and the newspapers you read and the sports you consume, and the times you get drunk with your friends, are all study. Read even things you dislike. You’ll come to know your lane that way; understand what your body wants of the poem, or rather what a poem wants of your body. It’s always about what the poem wants. Be present to the poem in the crossover dribble and the Ali shuffle. Be present to the poem in the flung teargas canister and your mother’s harassing phone call that you’re going to wish you could hear 30 years from now when she’s gone. Be present to the poem in your blood and in the dreams you’re currently abandoning. Be present to those whom you love and touch.
ML: Which is your favorite poem at this time, and which is the poem you return to that gives you solace?
RBA: I return to Derek Walcott’s "The Schooner Flight," for its effortless rendering of the land and the sea and the people in a hybrid tongue I recognize and own. I return to his "Light of the World" for its lanterns on light poles and enamel plates rattling in a cozy kitchen, for the black skinned beauty in the van with him and the fireflies lighting the path to the house. Right now I’m re-visiting Yasiin Bey’s (recorded as Mos Def) "The New Danger," for the track/poem "Close Edge," which is one of the smoothest brag tracks ever, and very reminiscent of the Trinidadian Midnight Robber tradition. I’m writing these days in the alter ego character of Kaiso Money, so Bey’s work is what is carrying the drum beat in my blood these days.
ML: Your students reside in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center. How has this teaching environment and, in particular, your student body affected your writing?
RBA: At Free Write Arts and Literacy, we understand that our goal is the eradication of juvenile incarceration and that what we’re doing is equipping young people to speak to their own conditions in a way that might be able to impact those conditions. As such, I understand the possibility of my own poems in a far more concrete way. I’ve come to more fully understand that the act of writing poems and the conversation about “what poems can do” is not an esoteric one. It means that no choices I make (at least not the ones I have conscious control over) can be lightly taken. They must mean what they say. They must speak to whom they claim to speak, without half-step or bullshit. They must continue my march, and encourage the march of others, away from the chasm.