We are delighted to present Cortney Charleston, our featured artist for May! Charleston graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2012 with a BS in Economics and a BA in Urban Studies. He uses verse as a method of engagement around the politics of identity and marginalization, as well as an exploration of the fragility of relationships to other people and to the self. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Rattle, Beloit Poetry Journal, Eleven Eleven, Crab Orchard Review, The Normal School, and others. His poems have received two nominations for the Pushcart Prize. Outside of poetry, he co-manages BLACK PANTONE, a digital space dispelling monolithic interpretation of black identity.
See examples of his work on our homepage or in Issue 2. Below, see what he has to say in an exclusive interview...
When you were an undergraduate at UPenn, you joined and performed in The Excelano Project, a slam poetry collective. What’s the biggest difference, in your opinion, between spoken word and page poetry?
The more I write (and the less I perform), I see very little difference between these two modes of verse. Yes, there are certain effects that can be done with a poem orally that may perhaps be difficult or impossible to replicate on the page, and likewise there are manipulations of text and spatial arrangements on page that can create new or deeper interpretations of poem that can’t be simulated on stage, but we need to refrain from thinking about spoken word and page poetry as two separate art forms. In my opinion, doing so problematizes a few things: (1) Poetry, being a central component of our cultural histories running back to the Antiquity, was founded as an oral art form first and not recognizing this in many ways depreciates what poetry has been in our societies and what poetry can be and do for contemporary audiences; (2) drawing different rules between the written and verbal serves to limit innovation in both places; (3) it raises questions of ownership and authenticity that therefore can marginalize innovative voices that bring something new to either sector. All of these factors are things I have discussed with people many times over, and it’s a question that frequently arises in conversation with poets as well. In my eyes, if you are a gifted poet, you’re a gifted poet. I’m not much one for formalism, for rules – to me, poetry must speak to something significant and intrinsically human. If it doesn’t, or if it obscures that, then for me, it’s a failing piece. People can disagree, but that’s my personal stance.
What was your favorite poem that you ever performed as part of The Excelano Project?
There’s a poem I performed called “Dead Leaves,” which details, in fragments, my relationship with my younger brother as he battles through depression. Being the older brother and probably what most might call “an over-achiever,” I always felt that my presence put a lot more pressure on him as he attempted to find himself. That’s not necessarily true or false in the objective sense, but it’s how I felt, and I believe that’s how he felt; that’s not to say we didn’t have strong love for one another or that he didn’t look up to me or I didn’t see great things in him and encourage him, because all that was a part of our relationship, too. It’s just the fact that guilt was an ever-present element for many years, and as he grappled with his depression I felt responsible in some ways for exacerbating it, and felt culpable for not being as available to him being hundreds of miles away at school. We were also going through a lot of family dissonance at the same time, and all of this weighed on he and me deeply. In many ways, the poem was also a way of mediating my own depressive tendencies, even though I was negotiating his and what it meant for our relationship. Because of that, it’s my favorite poem because it was my most important. Likewise, I think it’s the first piece were my own “voice” truly crystallized and I’ve been running with it ever since. And most importantly, we’ve both become healthier people since that poem was written.
What’s been the most difficult poem to write for you?
I answered this a bit with the last question, but again, I’d say “Dead Leaves” for the nuances of writing the actual poem and the timing of my writing it. That said, I think the most difficult poem to write for me is one that I’ve yet to actually pen. I put myself under the microscope so to speak, but it’s dependent on situation and only for brief moments at a time. While I love the person I am, there’s so much about me over the years I haven’t loved, things I still don’t love. I need to be able to talk to myself about those things in the format of a poem. Not only to admit my faults, which I willingly do, but to document them as a way of truly taking ownership, because you can’t go back on ink. I’m not sure when I’ll write that poem. I just know it’s necessary. And once I have conquered that, I can write a truly honest poem of self-love, which every poet needs to do at some point.
What do you see as the intersection between poetry and social justice?
From some of my earlier responses, I sense you can gather that I believe poetry has been and is integral record of the human experience. Accordingly, I place a significant amount of weight on poetry as a tool for the construction of a more just society – not the only tool, but an important one nonetheless. See, when we speak about “social justice” what we’re really talking about is the need of certain populations to be seen and treated as fully human: to be completely protected by the law, to be respected by mainstream culture and institutions of power, to be able to live freely. Period. Poetry, therefore, being our truest “human” record, needs to expand the borders of what defines a human experience by making “outsider” narratives part of the overall ethos. We need more people writing about what it means to be a racial or ethnic minority, we need more people writing about what it’s like to be a part of the LGBTQ community, we need more people writing about what it means to be a woman in a world privileging men, we need more people writing about what it’s like to be poor in a wealthy and capitalist society – I think you get the idea, here. As these stories become more widely circulated and more integrated into the instruction of poetry, we are giving people less of a reason to think of the authors and communities they depict as “other.” We are giving more opportunities for people to empathize, maybe even sympathize, with the disaffected and disadvantaged. We are doing the work of changing hearts – it may be a slow process, but it’s necessary.
You have a fellowship from Cave Canem right now. Can you tell us what a fellowship like that entails?
To be honest, the news is still so fresh, I’m not exactly sure all it entails! I will say, that as a Cave Canem Fellow, I’ll be attending a weeklong retreat in June with other fellows of the African diaspora. We’ll be writing, holding workshops with esteemed faculty and, generally, just enjoying one another’s company. It’s an artist community, which is the entire reason why I wanted to be a part of it. The relationship is also something that continues after the retreat has ended. Cave Canem holds a number of programs throughout the year that can benefit people further developing their craft (fellows and non-fellows, alike) and the organization takes pride in trumpeting the successes of its fellows, helping to expose their work to new audiences and giving them credibility with those audiences. Furthermore, Cave Canem pushes fellows to come back for multiple retreats (three, to be exact) to allow them to aid in the development of incoming members such as myself. Basically, I’m pretty stoked to be going! I can’t wait to meet everyone, to hear their words, and share my own, my nervousness be damned.
What’s it like balancing a full-time job with your other artistic/social justice commitments?
It’s not easy, I’ll say that. If anything, I’m not devoting enough time to my other endeavors outside of work. Don’t get me wrong – I truly do have a fantastic job. I have the respect of my co-workers and my clients, and I have the fortune of doing intellectually engaging work, at least in my opinion. But with the job, comes the commitment – several hours a day in the office with your mind “on,” hours spent commuting back and forth between the workplace and home, working “off-the-clock” when it is necessary: all that time adds up. And beyond that, there’s time put into doing things around the home, though I have help in that regard. Anyway, I’d say I still make time to write and work on other projects, but I find it difficult to give those the attention they need to flourish to the degree I want them to. Time is the most precious resource I have, and unfortunately, I have to prioritize work over other passions insofar as it helps actually pay for me to have a comfortable life. But I will say, in a world where so many like me are not living comfortably, it does put a bit of tension into everything I do on the job. I’m mindful of my blessings.
BLACK PANTONE is a project dedicated to breaking down the myth of black interchangeability; the website features swatches of black skin that reveal unique stories and histories when clicked. What inspired you to that particular design and structure?
The design came out of a brainstorming session with my partner, Ruani Ribe. I gravitate more towards narrative and text, while she is very much a visual-artist and designer. The idea of different shades is something that struck her as a fit with our mission; they layout was actually an idea that she had in her back pocket for another concept entirely, but as we talked more about how to meld my desire to record black narratives with hers of providing a visual deconstruction of blackness, it became apparent this was a sure-fire way to marry our two specific interests. Additionally, the design of the site allows these narratives to be stacked on top of one another, seemingly forever, so as the project grows, you get a sense of scale as well as the differences in pigmentation. That was an important facet of the design as well. All in all, we’re really proud of it. We just need to be able to promote it more and get people engaging the project (whether reading or submitting) more frequently, but as said before, time is so, so precious.
If you could be remembered for anything, what would you be remembered for?
If I could have it go my way, I’d say people would remember Cortney Lamar Charleston for being a decent, honest and loving person who wrote the truth, rather than someone who simply wrote beautifully. I want people to think of my poems (or anything else I do) as machines that keep humming and building a better world even after I’m gone.