1. Prelude to Bruise
“I like my black boys broke, or broken.”
“When I finally wrote this poem, I had been thinking about the words “black” and “blue” for months. I’d say them over and over again to myself, repeating and re-arranging them to see how they sounded. The pairing of these two particular colors is, of course, loaded with meanings. It applies violence and the aftermath, the bruising. And I was interested in the idea of bruises being physical memories.
So, I had all of these ideas swarming in my brain but no poem to show for it until I heard Mark Doty read a poem about bootblacks. The moment I heard him say “bootblack” which sounds an like echo of “blue-black,” I bolted up in my seat. That night, I sat down at my desk, saying the names of cities that start with a “B.” When I got to Birmingham, it all came together. That’s how most of these poems happen. I obsess over words or sounds or images until there’s a breakthrough that brings all of them together. Birmingham, AL is such a potent symbol of the troubled history of race in America, setting a poem about bootblacks and blue-black bodies there just seemed like the culmination of everything I was trying to do. I wrote the poem very quickly while saying it out loud, line by line. I was afraid that if I thought about it for too long, it would fall apart in my hands.
As for the scene described in the poem itself, well… The poem isn’t autobiographical, thankfully, but the first time a man said “nigger” to my face, it was in the middle of having sex.”
2. “Don’t Let The Sun Set On You”
“YOU BETTER RUN // IF YOU CAN READ // THIS SIGN.”
“This is a found poem constructed entirely out of words and phrases from a 2006 Washington Post article about sundown towns. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1968, there were hundreds of towns across the country with billboards stating the people of color had to leave the town by sundown. One sign said “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On You In—“ and then it would have the name of the town. The history of sundown towns is understandably shocking and, I think, hard to imagine were even possible. But they were very common. Levvitown — the first suburban development in America — was a sundown town.
And since Prelude To Bruise is about personal journeys as well as the collision of history and identity, I felt it was important to consider the various dangers and realities in the midst of staking a claim to our life. In my mind, the poem is about a black man driving through rural Kentucky just before sunset. Where will he go? Can he find a motel where it’s safe to stay? What if he runs out of gas?
Recently, as I was reading about the enforced curfews in Ferguson, the poem took on another shade of meaning. An essential question in this collection is “How far have I come?” And the events in Ferguson certainly make me wonder how far have we come from the era of sundown towns.”
“Her ghost slips into the room wearing nothing but the memory / of a song…”
“My mother had a fatal heart attack the night before Mother’s Day in 2011. The experience of losing her broke me down. I quit my job teaching high school English and pretty much locked myself in my apartment for a while, writing poems and crying hysterically. One morning, I woke up with tear streaks dried on my face. I think I’d been crying in my sleep which my mother herself used to do.
Right before she passed away, I was teaching my 12th grade students Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. At one point in the novel, a grieving mother walks toward her child’s casket hollering out “Mercy!” over and over again. I didn’t really understand that moment in the book until I was grieving myself. The poem is about a speaker realizing the person most capable of comforting him is also the person he has lost.”
“…in this town everything born black / also burns.”
““Anthracite” is a lyrical origin story that, in my mind, sets the events of the book in motion. All of the themes that we see throughout Prelude To Bruise are here: the blues, journeys, the body, vulnerability, danger and, of course, the threat of violence. Reincarnation is referenced in the poem too — “Which of your lives is this?” — because it’s a journey in which we have to transform in order to keep moving forward.
Also, I thought it’d just be so cool to have a black man literally fall from the sky and land in the middle of a cotton field! In my mind, this beautiful, strange man has no idea where he is so he also doesn’t understand the history and culture of the place he’s landed in. I feel like one aspect of experiencing racism is the sense of being startled by it, the shock of brutality. This man has no idea what he’s up against and, in fact, his beauty is only going to make life more dangerous for him.”
5. Skin Like Brick Dust
“I didn’t know / your name, so I kissed one / into your mouth.”
“A building’s brick façade did crash to the street and onto a crowded bus in Harlem in 2012. The sirens and news helicopters woke me up in my apartment three blocks away. Other than that though, the poem is fictional. I do that quite a bit in my poetry which can get a bit awkward when people ask me questions at readings. I don’t think you have to tell the truth in order to tell the Truth.
These poems are my attempt to answer or, at least, engage several questions. One of them is “How do we use other people, and their bodies, to express ourselves?” The speaker in the poem is, whether he knows it or not, using the man he’s sleeping with to convince himself of something. I think that’s deeply human.This dynamic appears throughout the book in different ways, but I wanted a poem that was a bit more subtle and quiet in its own way. Really, this poem and the poem “Prelude To Bruise” exist on a continuum. In both poems, the speakers are using another man to fulfill a need that, frankly, no person is capable of satisfying.”