Self Interview

1) What influenced you or interested you in poetry?

Polyrhythms. I was that kid who the teacher had to reprimand twice every ten minutes for rapping his pencil against the desk. Early nineties hip-hop, symphonic, and jazz band, Mom and Dad's Curtis Mayfield and Frankie Beverly records—my love for poetry began in direct response to a pretty good soundtrack. That is to say, before anything else I was interested in sound, and working those sounds out on the page. Each year I ask more and more of myself toward fine-tuning technical proficiencies, but attention to the line's music is almost always the wellspring from which my work draws its drive.

2) How does your relationship with hip-hop play into your writing?

Music is always playing in the periphery of my day to day. When I'm driving around town the knob flips between Backspin (classic) and the other hip-hop stations on satellite radio. When I'm walking toward a classroom or jogging very slowly somewhere, chances are, there's an emcee inside of my headphones. And don't let me get obsessed with a verse—I'll wear the repeat button out. First and foremost, the music is always running through me. When I sit down to my laptop I can't help but want to bounce a little bit. Many of my poems begin, unwittingly, by being tuned to the cadences of rap. 

3) How does poetry allow you to express yourself? Why is it your medium of choice?

So much of our day-to-day lives are about chatter: filling free moments clicking away at cell phones, or having long winded conversations about work, after work, during after-work obligations, all to stay connected. For me, the act of publishing a poem is about sharing a connection with a stranger over a small joke or a serious thing I've been working up to say over the past however many months—except that connection happens within the span of three minutes while I'm elsewhere. I dig the concision and compression of language poetry requires, as well as its built-in capacity for openness.

4) How did you arrive at the title, Silencer?

 I've got a group of friends I used to see for dinner every other Wednesday. A really hyphenated, down-to -arth bunch with varying perspectives (lawyer/actor, accountant/painter, skateboarder/chain-link fence company owner, etc.) that often led to random conversations about what the DOW was doing, which paints to mix to produce x color, and the best parking lots to skate. But whenever we got on the topic of gun violence, and I brought up injustices perpetrated against African Americans, our table would get very quiet and uncomfortable—as if they'd like me to be silent or change the subject. For a while I was worried that I was being silenced, and so, as a kind of therapy, I began writing "silencers"—poems that address gun violence and police brutality against African Americans in the news, without specifically invoking case details.

On the other hand, Silencer also speaks to the argumentative approach that the book's less subtle poems (I call them "conjectures") embody. I've written these to read like jury-swaying closing arguments.

5) Did you know right away what kinds of themes you wanted to convey in Silencer, or did they develop over time or even change as you wrote?

Not right away, no. Back in 2011, I started working on a collection that contained lyric poems about faith, as well as praise poems to and against Midwestern Suburbia—hermetically sealed lawns, Uzi sprinkler heads, and an ever out of reach American Dream. Those themes are still notable touchstones, but after a certain point writing about want ran its course, and I spent a good amount of time spinning my wheels. When Trayvon Martin was gunned down in February of 2012, suddenly my desires and small quips about the Christian concept of "sin" felt like first-world problems. I spent months revisiting the thought that there are those of us for whom privileges like quality public education, the right to a fair trial/sentencing, and justice are readily attainable. And then there are marginalized groups like African Americans, for whom concepts like the American Dream are secondary to concerns about inequity and straight up and down safety. To my mind, the themes in Silencer evolved and developed as the social mood of the country began to shift starkly in the media.

6) Tell us about the cover art!

Incredible, isn't it! I first fell in love with Kehinde Wiley's work at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I would steal away ten minutes to look at his paintings whenever I was near the museum. I especially liked the idea of black men on horses: adorned, regal, and fresh to death. The cover art is titled Conspicuous Fraud Series #1, (Eminence). I'm most attracted to the way the painting's black centerpiece navigates his suit and tie existence—the wide and leaning shirt collar, the play in the cut of his jacket. But more than anything I love his unruly, unforgivably black hair. The way it refuses to be contained within the frame. To my mind, there's a kinship between some of the book's arguments, their formal containers, and the subversion I see happening on the cover.