Q: When and why did you decide to become a writer?
A: Well, I don’t know if I decided to become a writer. My first career was that I was a lawyer before I was a writer, so my expectations were that I would go to law school when I was an undergraduate, and that’s what I did. When I was an undergraduate at Wesleyan, I was thinking about urban politics and political theory, and I applied to law school almost immediately upon graduation. And then, while I was in law school, I kind of realized that that was not what I was interested in. I was very young — I was 22 when I started law school, so I had taken one year away from college, and I applied to law school during that year, and I was back in school a year later — and it just wasn’t a good fit. I think I knew from the beginning, and I started taking classes in the graduate division at Harvard. One of the courses I took was a postwar American poetry course. I had always sort of been a secret writer of poetry — even as a very, very young person in high school, I sort of suspected I was interested in writing, but I was not interested in the English tradition. So when I returned to law school and realized I was more interested in writing, and poetry in particular, than anything else, I started to kind of take it more seriously, even though I did practice law for seven years after graduating.
So I didn’t learn. I never really declared my juvenile interest in being a writer; it just became more and more urgent.
Q: Why poetry specifically? Have you explored other genres?
A: I write criticism, so I’m technically also a literary critic. I write essays, but even more than writing essays, I think of myself as writing a kind of hybrid poetic theory, a kind of criticism that’s pretty specifically philosophical. I think poetry and philosophy are cousins, so I’m really interested in the connections between prose that can do both things. But also sometimes things just become prose. I still think, in a book that’s primarily poetry, there are going to be sections that are prose for a lot of reasons. And I’m not sure that I have articulable reasons for why some things need to be prose at a given moment. Ask William Carlos Williams.
Q: How do you feel that your identity affects your work?
A: I think my identity is my work. There’s no separation between my identity and my work. Even though I’m operating in the post-postmodern moment in which we think of authorship as something that’s very suspect, I’m one of those people who believes in the rehabilitation of the author. I think that the most exciting work being done today in poetry is work that is deeply invested in identity and tries to write from a very specific location in space and time.
Q: What location are you writing from?
A: Right now, I’m on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Tompkins. It’s that specific. Where are you today, where will you be tomorrow, what are your human connections, what people do you talk to on a regular basis, who are you in conversation with, who’s your community. It’s also important to have a geopolitical location in mind when you’re writing. I do think about race all the time. I think about the transformations of the fortunes of the United States, what it means to be someone who is African-American — I don’t usually use that term, I just usually say black — but to be a black American person, there is a lot of pressure on the idea of American blackness and whether or not that continues to be a viable location to operate or write from in a world in which the global has a lot more currency. I guess one of the things I’m interested in is making a case for the continued relevance of that location.
Q: Do you see your work as political? Do you write it with a purpose?
A: I think that writers go to great pains to distinguish their work from political activism all the time, and I’m actually interested in not doing that sometimes. I think that taking my own work seriously as a kind of acting in the world is one of the things I’m interested in conceptually, that there are all kinds of politics, and one of the ways of being political is to try and develop or invent new languages about existence. I think that’s really what my work does — at least that’s what I try to do, to be inventive about what kind of things we can say about ourselves. That’s an important step towards offering people tools for activism, I think, whether or not one is in the street. I think people should be in the streets sometimes. Without the language to describe problems, I think it’s very difficult to devise solutions to those problems. I think of my work as trying to offer people alternative languages for thinking about world problems, personal problems, problems of feeling. In some ways, I’m a very traditional lyric poet in that I think about problems of feeling and observation; but problems of feeling and observation are historically located. To think about what it’s like for me at this moment to be alive is also offering people a conversation about what it’s like to be alive at this time.
Q: Do you think it is worth it for artists, specifically writers, to get a higher degree? Is an MFA worth the cost?
A: I’m a strange case because I got an MFA partly because I was looking to exit the practice of law, and it was an institutional excuse in some ways. I was working full-time as a lawyer, and it was a way for me to take time away from my job to think about and try to develop work that would help me to change my life. I was 30 when I got my MFA — that’s not old, but it’s not right out of undergraduate school. I wasn’t looking at the MFA as a terminal degree that would allow me to teach; I think it’s common knowledge that the MFA is increasingly not a terminal degree that will allow you to teach except in very rare, exceptional cases. It will allow you to teach a lot of composition, which I did do. I did that primarily to see whether I wanted to get a Ph.D. — I had never taught. The MFA allowed me to think about whether I wanted to be a scholar, a poet scholar, in a way that I hadn’t had space before, so it was incredibly valuable for me. Having said that, it was also incredibly expensive. I borrowed the money for the MFA, and I still owe that money. But my perspective on debt is that I think education costs money, and the world that we live in right now requires us to borrow that money, and whether that’s right or wrong, I think fear of participating in that economy is maybe not helpful. The expectation that one will emerge from their education, especially higher graduate education, at this point without debt is maybe an unrealistic expectation until we see some very radical changes. It’s such a complex question about university economies, I can talk about this for many hours.
Q: You write in a variety of styles. How do you start a poem? Do you have a shape in mind when you start?
A: I have a lot of things in mind. I don’t have an endgame in mind, but I do have some expectations. Like I’ll give it a title. For example, the poem “Stingray” is part of a manuscript that I’ve been working on, and it took a few months to construct that poem. It began with: I saw something, a boat on the New Jersey turnpike, and the brand was Stingray, and I realized that it was the image I had been looking for for a poem I had been thinking about for a long time. That was how it started. I started to make notes on associations about the Stingray, which for me was a very powerful image, a certain kind of coolness, maleness, but also just a beautiful animal that lives at the bottom of the ocean, just like flat and weird. All these very broad kinds of associations seemed really like something I could work with, and the poem developed over the course of a long time. I had to wait after I saw that image to find the rhythm of the poem before I could begin it, and eventually that came too when I started thinking about it.
Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
A: Read outside the mainstream canon as much as possible. It’s important to dig a little deeper and to try and find evidence of where writing is happening, whether that means reading writing in translation, or the first book of a poet never heard of before on a press that’s very small and only distributed on small press distribution — which is where all the poetry I read pretty much comes from. The non-large press has the writing where it’s happening not because people get paid but because they have this pressing need to make work. Find those places where you can and figure out what your relationship is to the urgency of making. Especially poems: It’s not a way to make a living. It’s a lifestyle, or a way of thinking, and there will always be other ways to organize your life, but you can’t cheat the poetry itself. You have to invest in the poems in the way that they require and find out for yourself what is most pressing for you, and I think it’s really important to discover all the excitement that’s taking place outside the places where people are telling you you should look.