EDITOR’S NOTE: My friend, poet and educator Curtis Crisler, recently taught my debut poetry collection, DRIFT, to his students at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. He emailed me his students’ questions, which resulted in this cyber conversation:
What did you say to the girl who approached you to apologize for her behavior towards you?
All I could do was accept her apology. She caught me off-guard because I hadn’t seen, or thought of, that person in so long. It’s always refreshing, though, when you have encounters like that, when someone from your past goes out of their way to try to make things right. All I could do was appreciate that moment and accept her apology.
Do you think the apology had anything to do with your success?
No. This person didn’t know I was a poet. I’m not on TV and I’ve been on the radio (a few people heard me on NPR, but that’s it). She didn’t know then what I was doing with my life. Again, I think she realized the opportunity to make things right and took it.
How do you feel about your first collection of poems? Are you happy with how they ended up, or do you wish you could change some things?
I’m always going to want to change things. I guess that’s the nature of writers. When I wrote DRIFT, I did my best with what I knew then. That’s all we can do. Since Willow Books published DRIFT, I completed grad school with way more knowledge of the craft than I had when I wrote those poems. While I would change some things in that collection, I’m glad it’s the way it is. I look at it as a marker for where I was at that time. I’m currently shopping around a new manuscript for what I hope will be a second book. It’s tentatively titled POINT BLANK. In that manuscript, I’m working with a whole different set of techniques that I’m excited about. I’m excited to continue to grow as a writer.
How did you come to the title, Drift?
I went through the manuscript, looking for a poem that I would title the collection after. When I came across “Drift,” I realized that, just how the speaker was drifting through that moment, the speaker also drifts throughout the collection. My goal was to take the reader from love, to social commentary, to poems about my family, to brotherhood, and so on. I wanted to bring the reader inside the speaker’s head, to have him/her drift along and experience those moments the way the speaker did. DRIFT sets up that expectation.
What inspired you to write “Blackberry Speaks/Txt?”
I had a BlackBerry then, and I was sick of hearing about the iPhone. I’ve since upgraded to an Android phone. But I thought about how the BlackBerry had its heyday as a device once used by state and federal lawmakers, businessmen and women, etc. And in a blink, it became outdated. Then I got to thinking about our elderly, who hold so much wisdom, but we miss out because we think they don’t know what they’re talking about. The idea is, “They’ve lived their lives. What they know about mine?” So I wanted to explore that through the voice of an unappreciated BlackBerry. I wanted it to be humorous and serious all at once.
What was it that made you want to be a poet?
My first encounter with poetry was a traumatic experience. There’s nothing more traumatic than knowing that if you couldn’t recite the assigned poem, you’d be on the wall during recess, watching your friends have fun. Once I got over my first encounter, I realized poetry wasn’t so bad. I wrote it for the girls in high school, then later became serious about it during undergrad. The more I read, the more I appreciated the craft, the more I saw what was possible—the subjects I could tackle, the various literary devices I could use, the different ways I could connect with people. Cait Johnson, a former mentor of mine, once said: “Poetry’s a shortcut to empathy.” I like to think that, as poets, we’re helping to shape society’s conscience. While that’s ambitious, and at the risk of romanticizing poetry, I think there’s something to be said about the fact that people turn to poems to celebrate love and remember those who pass on.
When did you know you were a poet?
I’d have to say it was when the older writers, who I saw as legends in D.C.’s arts community, pulled me aside and red-inked my paper. These were writers who didn’t waste their time with folks who weren’t serious. The fact that they saw or heard something in my work, enough to look it over and offer their critiques, still stays with me. They were passing their wisdom on to me. That’s not to be taken lightly. Some of those writers have moved on to other cities. The ones I do see, I always make sure I tell them—even nearly a decade later—how much I appreciated what they did for me.
Who are your favorite poets and why? Which writer was your biggest inspiration when you first began to write?
Whoa! I’ll start with my inspiration, which was Sonia Sanchez. I had her book, SHAKE LOOSE MY SKIN. It was a poetry collection that included her micro fiction. I had to read that book a few times to really appreciate it. I initially picked it up because another writer told me Ms. Sanchez was someone whose work I should know. So when I was able to appreciate SHAKE LOOSE, she showed that poems could both be a bullhorn for justice and quiet as a whisper in a lover’s ear. I loved her range and what she was capable of talking about in her work. Other writers that inspire me are Yusef Komunyakaa (I’m still in love with NEON VERNACULAR), Patricia Smith, Ai (she was my introduction to persona poems), Martin Espada, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns (I still go back to VELOCITIES), Sherman Alexie, and the list goes on.
At the top of that heap is Tim Seibles, who was my mentor both the first and last residency of my MFA program. What he admired about Jimi Hendrix and Sade Adu, he applied it to his poems. Just as Hendrix and Adu kept working at their craft until the product was seamless, Tim works at a poem ‘til all of it sings loud. There’s no weak lines in Tim’s work. His ability to use humor to tackle serious social issues is a skill I still admire. He’s been called the master of the “tickle-punch” poetry. He uses humor to trick his readers into dropping their guard, then he punches them with the message. When their guards go up, he tickles them again, then punches them with the message. He does that over and over. Because of him, I try to max out my poem’s full potential every time I write.
What moments in your life were your biggest influences for your writings?
The influences came from time with my family and from past romantic relationships. I write more about my family in my new manuscript. In DRIFT, they make brief appearances because I wanted to capture D.C., at least how I experienced that city. The biggest influence is people watching. I do it with a poet-friend of mine, Derrick Weston Brown. We’re always interested in the nonverbal communication between strangers. It’s a great way to get material for new pieces—that is after reading other writers, of course.
I really like your poem 3a.m.—what inspired that poem?
Thanks! “3a.m.” was inspired by an ex-girlfriend, who had it in her mind we were going to get married. There’s the irony (she broke up with me). But I thought about our late night caper for food. I remembered how good it felt just being with her. That moment at the late night diner somehow burned itself into my mind. I didn’t know then that I’d write a poem about that night. I guess writers have those moments, when we’re sponges, soaking up every detail of a moment. Then years later, a song or smell brings those details out and you’re far enough away from that moment that you can write it.
It seems much of your poetry is symmetric in regards to lines per stanza. Why is that so?
At the time I wrote those poems, I would have told you it was for uniformity of stanzas. But I recently found out I have OCD, particularly, “purely obsessional” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (some of those symptoms include intrusive thoughts and psychological compulsions). I think that has something to do with what my wife sees as me being neurotic, where I’m obsessed with the order of things. Tim Seibles helped me break out of that. He said, “Bruh, you’re poems don’t have to be neat. It’s OK if your stanzas are a little messy.”
Where do you like to write your poetry?
Anywhere there’s noise—coffee shops (especially with the cappuccino machines whining and music spooling through hanging speakers), classrooms, restaurants (I got inspired by an Al Green song at the CiCi’s pizza buffet), outside on any street corner, etc.
Before writing, do you have certain rituals or certain things you always do? Example: Where you write, certain notebook/computer, etc? Or do you just jot down ideas as they come to you?
I tend to write in my head, at first. I’ll have an idea and let it incubate. Sometimes I’ll share that idea with Derrick and our conversation about it will help me figure out how to execute it. Other times, it incubated in my head, with a few lines coming to me. I’ll let it build until I have to put it on the page. Once I get it all out, I put the poem away, then come back to it after a few weeks or months. I try to put as much distance as I can between me and the poem (that’s my process now; it wasn’t when I wrote DRIFT). In the past, I sent raw work to friends for suggestions. Now, I distance myself from the poems by coming back to them after a few weeks or months. That’s when my mind’s fresh and I can play around with stanzas—moving them around, starting the poem with the last, second, or next to last stanza. Other times, I’ll ask myself questions: how much of the story is in this poem? Will someone coming to this poem without the information I have understand what’s going on in the poem? I also have the voices of people I’ve workshopped with—former mentors, friends, etc. I anticipate the questions they would ask if they saw the poem. Once I get it the poem to where I’m satisfied, I send it to a few trustful readers. I say trustful because these are people who are honest with me. They’ll let me know what’s working and what I need to work on. They also tell me when I have to scrap it and start over.
I love the titles to your poems, so how do you come up with them because when reading some of them they made me stop and think, where did he get this from? (After reading the poem).
Thank you. I don’t like titling my poems before I’ve finished a draft. So I’ll write a poem, then go through it, looking for the title. Sometimes the title answers a question posed by the poem. The title may set up the reader’s expectation. Either way, the title is doing work. That’s the goal.
When writing a poem, do you have a set message that you are trying to get across to your readers, or do you just write and see what your finished poems turn out to be?
I usually have a message or something I want to communicate. That’s the idea I mentioned in response to a previous question. Once I get the idea, I have to figure out how I’m going to approach it. I look at the poem as a vehicle that’s going to help me drive my point home. That’s something I’ve learned from Tim Seibles and the older writers I’ve workshopped with. With that said, I do let the poem surprise me. If I realize I’m forcing the poem to go in one direction, I ease up and let it take me somewhere else. I figure if I’m excited about the process, that makes the reader’s journey to that message just as exciting.
Did you ever worry about legal issues when you wrote about drugs?
No. I never did drugs. I hung out with people who did them. I never judged them. Plus, I was not incriminating myself or them. If I mention names, it’s first names only. And I make sure they’re common names J
Was it difficult to talk about sexual things?
Not at all. I’m not the only person in the world that loves sex. I figure there are other people out there feel the same way I do. My goal as a writer is to make sure the reader experiences my poems in a way that makes him/her recall their own experiences and bring up memories they thought they’d forgotten. If I do that, then that’s where I’ve connected with the reader. That’s always my goal.
What do you do when you run out of ideas?
I read as much as I can—both in and outside my genres (poetry and creative nonfiction). I go to museums. I spend time with my wife, in-laws, and my family. The whole point is to live. Experience new things. The poems will come. But, in the meantime, I’m in sponge mode.
What do you think about when you write your poetry, or what do you feel?
Unlike some poets I’ve heard say they get a line or two, I get an image. If a scent or song recalls a memory, I see what happened during that moment, which heightens my senses. Ask my wife, when she sees me in that moment, I’m usually staring into space. But, to me, I’m briefly reliving that moment. I soak out all the details, then start to write.
Have you written poetry all (or most of) your life? What was your first exposure to it?
I’m 32. I’ve written poetry, seriously, for 14 years. In total, I’d say I’ve been writing for 16 years—that’s me including the silly poems I wrote when I started. My first exposure was in 4th grade. My English teacher, Ms. Garrison, had us read and recite poems. It was mandatory. If we couldn’t recite it, we didn’t get recess, hence, the traumatic experience I mentioned earlier.
When I studied poetry again in middle school, I fell in love with the rhyme and rhythm. Now that I don’t rhyme anymore in my poems, the rhythm stayed with me. I love rhythm in a poem.
Was your journey to becoming a published poet a difficult one?
That journey required me to learn patience. I had to develop tough skin and know that rejection would be a part of that process. But rejection is good, because it makes it possible to appreciate when things come through. Rejection’s also good because it humbles you. It’s a constant reminder that what you’re trying to do is going to take some work.
When you first began to write poetry, did you feel like you were constrained? If so, what did you do to free yourself?
What constrained me in the beginning was meter. That’s how I learned poetry. I wrote sonnets and other forms. While I enjoyed that, I felt like the meter and form wasn’t allowing me to say what I wanted to say. I’m not against all forms. I actually like the villanelle, bop (an African American form), ghazal, gigan (another African American form), and pantoum.
But I didn’t feel like the sonnet allowed me to say what I really wanted to say (there are some formalist poets who’ll disagree with me, and that’s fine J). It wasn’t until I read Langston Hughes’ later works, along with Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez, that I discovered free verse. I loved the freedom. But, with that freedom, comes great responsibility. Free verse may look easy, but it’s hard. Since you’re not writing in form, it’s easy for someone to argue that what you’re writing is not a poem. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing anecdotes instead of poems. With free verse, you have to consider a lot of poetic devices—is there rhythm and alliteration? Are my lines sharp, do they snap? Does this poem go beyond the moment? Is it bigger than the moment? What’s the takeaway from this?
It’s just so many things to consider. That’s why reading writers who write free verse well helps reinforce those literary devices that really make the poem sing.
What inspired you to write “Quasimodo in NYC?”
If you’re familiar with the story about the hunchback of Notre Dame, then you know it’s really a tale about unrequited love. We’ve all been there—you like someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you. That’s what makes Quasimodo’s story so universal. Before I met my wife, I went through a Quasimodo moment when I kept running into women who couldn’t return what I felt for them. This poem was about a particular woman who I thought had the same feelings for me that I had for her. Anyway, when it wasn’t so, I went for a walk. We both met up at an annual writer’s conference that New York City hosted that year. I wrote the poem through Quasimodo’s persona because I connected with the hunchback. After a few rejections, you don’t feel so attractive.