We are proud to have Justin Phillip Reed as our featured artist of December!
Justin Phillip Reed is the author of A History of Flamboyance (YesYes Books, 2016). His first full-length collection of poetry, Indecency, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in 2018. His work is forthcoming in African American Review, Black Warrior Review, and The Iowa Review. He lives in Saint Louis and coordinates public programming for the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.
Our features editor Nicholas Nichols posed Justin some questions. Read below how he answered them.
If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
When you were a little kid, what did you want to be? What changed?
Train conductor, architect, Olympic rope-jumper, Aaliyah, fantasy novelist, whoever designs rollercoasters, astronomer, touring heavy metal bassist, visual artist, journalist, et al. What didn’t change.
Can you remember the poem(s) that made you want to become a poet?
Music drew me toward the poetic impulse. I wrote lyrics before I wrote “poetry,” so it’d be inaccurate of me to immediately name poems. I think of Slimkid’s flow on Korn’s “Cameltosis,” From First to Last’s Heroine, and lyrics by Chino Moreno of Deftones have been probably as influential as the first time I read Carl Phillips’s poem “Cortege.”
Could you please describe the current state of publishing today from your perspective?
I couldn’t. My thoughts on the business of publishing change weekly, it seems. A month ago, I only wanted to publish poems on my website. After the election, I was even less in the mood to contend with editors’ personal politics or wait six months for a rejection. Likewise it irked me to no end to read such as “the world needs ___ writers now more than ever” because, shit, are ___ writers more useless when liberalism is outside of crisis? But since then I’ve read work that I was grateful to read, and this week I think publishing is okay.
What tips would you have for a budding writer working towards becoming published?
(This is just as well a note to self.) Work on your craft. It’s all too easy to publish fifty pieces of which only two are distinctly memorable.
When did A History of Flamboyance first manifest itself?
It’s hard to pinpoint. At least the title has existed since my senior year of college, above a poem that, for whatever reason, I subjected to both an extended metaphor involving a messenger god and a reflection on what, by then, I already felt was the haunt of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and its effects on the gay populace. The poem ended “Our children play spades on this heirloom / and lose religion. We make an awful racket of burying our dead.” Much of that sentiment survived and seeded the chapbook, which was published after grad school. “Torch Song: Straight Boy” was the second poem I ever published and predates everything else in the collection, but there was no collection to consider until it was an assignment in a craft course on “the literary sequence” in the first year of my MFA.
What are some of the challenges you faced when writing the book?
I and/or it refused to sit still.
How has unrequited love shaped your poetry?
Goodness. You can blame unrequited love for all of my poetry.
If you could only listen to 3 trip-hop artists, who would they be?
Massive Attack, Sneaker Pimps (with either Kelli Ali or Chris Corner), and Tricky on his best days. And I wanna make the argument that trip hop was also Missy Elliott circa Supa Dupa Fly, but that requires language I don’t have yet.
What inspired “404-PAGE NOT FOUND”? Would you be so kind as to explain the writing process behind the piece?
I remember feeling utterly daunted by the distance between a satisfactory historical presence of Black queers and me. I was researching our cultural productions, and I was frustrated that so much of that presence seemed relegated to asides, footnotes, and rumors. So little was simply offered. (I had flashbacks of owning the Microsoft Encarta encyclopedia PC program as a preteen, when I typed in “homosexuality” and I got the article on Little Richard.)
Ironic to the poem’s contents, the webpage form is found. The sidebar is mimetic of a blip or ad – a new form of static – and its contents are the most indulgent: they include my past obsession with planetary science and space-time travel/theory, my continual interest in the trade-daddy tendencies of gods and demigods in the Greco-Roman pantheons, and my fascination with the energies of death and grief.
When did you begin writing essays? And why?
(a) We kept journals in elementary school and spent the first few minutes of each day responding to a prompt using autobiography. I’ve been a narcissist and masochist ever since.
(b) In high school, I was told that the distance between a point, a, and a second point, b, is a straight line. When I turned to apply that theorem to my life, I realized that, in addition to being the least interesting thing graphed on a Cartesian coordinate system, “straight” was unpleasant and imprecise for getting to a point.
What are some misconceptions of Southern writers that you liked to see rectified?
That there is a singular, monolithic Southern narrative. That such a narrative could be expendable. That one Southern writer is a sufficient narrator of an overwhelming abundance of people, places, and times collapsed under “the South.”
Where do you feel is the place for the Southern narrative in letters (poetry, essays, etc)?
Why should people care about your work?
Should they? These pages ask me the same thing. Then, the words come. The words came to me when people didn’t care, and they tend to keep coming regardless.
What was your proudest moment as a writer?
Probably winning the Lieutenant Governor’s writing award for my school district in the third grade. Or when I got to introduce Dawn Lundy Martin as a second-year MFA, but that was less pride and more nuclear admiration with an anxious electrical frizz.
In the context of your poem “True or False,” what is the difference between surviving and living?
I’m not sure – probably the same difference it is in the context of my life. Survival has usually seemed to me a matter of the biological imperative, to which I’ve always had a thoroughly queer and vexed relationship. I’m a cliché, but my idea of living requires risk and uncertainty, and occasionally necessitates the feeling of wanting to die. I don’t mean suicide, though that question is not alien to it. I mean a certain dissatisfaction that breeds the curiosity of wanting to know what death is. If I say I want to live, I think I’m admitting a willingness to risk being driven out from this world if I find that it isn’t enough.
How has violence played a role in your life coming into your identity as a queer black man?
Violence has been frequently all of it, in the sense that violence is at any moment foreseen – and therefore lived already – within me, or it is shockingly absent, which leads to another complex. I have to speak of this in the present tense. I navigate the world for days in this limbo between violence that appears explicitly either anti-Black or anti-queer, though of course it’s all anti-Black and anti-queer. My thinking, my feeling, my loving has been, if not completely, then irreversibly warped by this awareness.
What do you believe is being lost in the fragility of people’s perception and performance of masculinity?
What we allege is (and kill to preserve as) masculine is so compressed and robotic I cannot imagine that those confines even mean to accommodate the fullness of a person. Maybe we’ll just compensate by carrying less and less of ourselves to lose.
What are your thoughts on Trump’s America?
What do you fear most for the future of letters?
An age of parataxis.
What are some key books that have shaped your poetics?
Just to name a few: Dawn Lundy Martin’s DISCIPLINE, Carl Phillips’s Speak Low, Ai’s Cruelty, Douglas Kearney’s Patter, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, Frank Bidart’s Watching the Spring Festival, and of course Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark.
I was re-reading James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process” and a quote stuck me:
“Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone. That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality – a banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed. Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world. There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
Do you agree with Baldwin, and can you be so kind as to talk about the cities that you have created?
I was just in conversation with Jason Howell at Howlarium about Baldwin’s artist. I tend to agree with him that the artist belongs to that wilderness, but I’d argue that it isn’t the artist’s role to “illuminate” or “conquer” or make walkable that place. Rather, I want to be the artist who insists on the wildness of it, the deceptiveness of its paths, its light tricks, its covered depths and sudden altitudes. There’s no map of the spirit that I could offer that would allow someone else to share my journey exactly. There’s no definition of “human” I’ve found satisfactory enough to want to model a world on it.
And, for the sake of this metaphor, I might take a machete and descend into myself, but I’m still the thing with the machete.