An Interview with Ronaldo V. Wilson
Ronaldo V. Wilson is the author of Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, from University of Pittsburgh Press, and Poems of the Black Object from Futurepoem Books. He has held fellowships at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the Vermont Studio Center, Cave Canem, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Yaddo Corporation, and has had four poems nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He teaches creative writing and African American Poetics at Mount Holyoke College. In December 2009, he was interviewed over e-mail about Poems of the Black Object. They discuss, among other things, Notorious B.I.G., New York City in the early '90s, how he earned his early nickname of “Got Rocks,” and why Tony Hoagland’s dirty potato = Ronaldo’s bloody white daddy.
Hey Ronaldo. I’m not really sure how to say this, so I’ll start like this: From what I remember of you, and I just saw you a couple of months ago, here’s how I would describe you:
· Of the world
· Socially savvy
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed this yourself, but your book Poems of the Black Object is really not any of those things. To be generous in my restraint: It’s so terribly disturbing that while I was reading it, I kept turning my head to the side like someone was flicking hot water in my eyes. And so absurd that at points, I just burst out laughing, and then wondered: Who’s more deranged -- you for thinking it, or me for liking it? For our readers, let’s just put out a small warning, shall we?
Disclaimer: It is quite possible when reading this book you may stumble across a walrus representing black suffrage. Also, if you turn around too quickly, you may find yourself in a crack hotel with an old white guy from Stamford in his underwear, the ass completely blood-soaked, saying, “Well, that’s okay, you can still work the front.” Maybe that’s not an exact quote but you get the point.
Let me start by saying thank you for the nice compliments, both the litany of adjectives you use to describe encountering me, and your vivid reactions to the poems. Experiencing off-the-chain-craziness, hot water in the eyes and laughter after reading my poetry is certainly high praise! So while I do aspire to many of the words you use in your list, the writing of poetry offers a space to explore the world in a variety of ways that might attenuate this social self.
Remember, after I read a little, I wrote you a quick e-mail, saying something like “I don't even know how you had the guts to write this stuff.” And you wrote back, “As Biggie said, ‘It was all a dream.’”
The Notorious B.I.G. reference is from the song “Juicy,” which I love, and seems to often pop up in my head at one point or another. This song, in a sense, is about dream as aspiration, and in another sense, dream as reflection, but its allure for me, is in its occasion, the way the artist returns to and claims his destiny as a hip hop artist through extenuated recollection and celebration of his beginnings. There’s a key scene in the film Notorious, based on Biggie Smalls’ life, where the artist holes himself up in the studio with the infamous Mtume “Juicy” remix track, after at first, resisting it when Puff Daddy urges him to set aside his usual tastes. Too R&B, too soft, Big thinks, but after some cajoling by Puff, he falls for and into the seductive sample, and in time, flows with lyrics that eventually reach the world.
When I said to you, “It was all a dream,” I was tapping into how the writing captures my own getting into my own unconscious, my own flow, reaching back into an almost dreamlike, extended period in my life when I was bringing together all of my experiences living in New York, trying to record everything that seemed interesting, complicated, and strange. As you know, as a poetry student at NYU, we had great teachers like Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Cornelius Eady and even had fantastic weekend guest visits by (I still can’t believe it) Stanley Kunitz, and Gwendolyn Brooks! And while Big had Word Up, I had Poets & Writers!
But simply being in New York in the early '90s was exciting, as so many things were in their final throes of glory during the Giuliani Era: sex clubs like J’s The Hangout, The Manhole, The Wall Street Sauna, the wildness of the street walkers of the Meat Packing District, Slam Poetry at the Nuyorican, Nell’s, Club Kids, the Limelight, Boy Bar, then there was the sex cruising routes at Penn Station, Port Authority, Grand Central (See Samuel Delaney’s Times Square Red Times Square Blue), various hotel lobbies, Bryant Park, The New York Public Library, restrooms, elevators, all coalescing into a dizzying arena that informed my work as a poet, then bled into my scholarly work (whether as intense distraction or peaked inspiration) as a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.
Come to think of it, I think when you wrote that, “As Biggie said, ‘It was all a dream.’” you were talking about your last book, Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man. But I really want you to tell me this book, Poems of the Black Object, is all just a dream, too. Can you tell me that? And can you hold me, mommy?
Mommy-me thinks that maybe your interest in the dreamscapes are a good place to really jump right in at another angle, as I think more about where the boundaries (street/bed; library/hotel; urinal/phone booth; book/hand; dream/journal) are present, drawn, or even break between my autobiographical self and the various speakers in the poetry. Simply put, the various narrators in both books, at times, emerge in dreams, or at least in the realm of the dream as poetic landscape.
The tension in many of the poems, I think, comes from living between two distinct places in New York. While I kept an apartment in New York, first in Manhattan, before moving to Brooklyn, I also maintained a relationship with my partner of now 18 years. We share a house on Long Island. After my various adventures in the city, during the week, I would get on the L.I.R.R. come home, collapse, study, dream, eat, get fed, spoiled, and generate more material. Often, my work is framed around and within the grounds of this house. In fact, Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man came out of emerging from our bed (often fresh from dreams) into the work, walking down the stairs from the bedroom, into the small office, sleepy at the desk, and right to the laptop. I wanted to write something that felt natural, easy, something that did not have the forced compression of the poem or the drive of the literary essay, but drew upon both of these forces with equal vigor. I wanted to get unconscious with the work, to be as free as possible with the sentence, and then the paragraph, but I also wanted to be hyper sensitive to sound, picture, image, open to various shapes that I would discover. I would wake up, become this Brown Boy, and start to capture what he saw, heard, felt, without the press of any expectation, but to be super attentive. Writing from dreams, or more accurately, the liminal space between dream and wake space, I think, was key to my working process.
Maybe this technique had to do with my time at the Fine Arts Work Center, where I was preparing for the first set of my PhD oral examinations, working on an article on Ellen Gallagher’s paintings, all the while, writing poems. To manage the load, I found that I slept a lot and wrote just out of naps, reading, preparing, working to find a place where I would feel the most open, even vulnerable, like a baby waking up fresh to the world, still groggy but hungry to communicate.
When I moved to South Hadley, to finish my dissertation and to start teaching full time, I started to record a series of dreams over about a two-year period. I finished a long poem called, “Dream In a Fair,” that made its way into Poems of the Black Object which is made up of an amalgam of those dreams, and once again, it spirals between waking and dream states, something I am still interested in exploring as a mode through which to map out a kind of patterned consciousness from what is ostensibly almost purely, unconscious, was it all a dream? -- The poem asks and asks.
Your process is really close to mine actually -- and to a lot of poets, I would assume. I’ve always called it “squinting my mind” -- in other words, narrowing the mind to filter out “sense” -- thereby allowing only the most essential, unprocessed images/sounds/images sneak through the crack in their natural state. And your explanation about coming down in the morning, tired, and wanting to break away from the compression/form of the poem and the purposeful movement of the essay helps to explain the hybrid nature of both books. Which I was going to ask about but now don’t have to.
Well, I’d agree -- perhaps the very patterns that we choose to write in beg a kind of constant move towards opening the unconscious gap you speak of, flow, in Big’s case, or in mine, meditation, what I attempt to achieve in my daily yoga classes, the line, sound, the extended pattern that happens when one returns consciously to that squint by maintaining the compression that happens behind the eyes. I try to describe the need to attend to this moment in the poem “In-An-Imprint,” “…An arc of light. A burst that brights above a sidewalk you walk. Your own language against that flash…” is the way that I attempt to capture the features of that sensory experience, and to translate it into the poem. However, I hate to make it sound like poetry, for me, is so completely grounded in the unconscious and the effortless, because the very act of writing poetry, for me, is not only constantly negotiating how to tap into that unconscious space, but how to communicate very precise ideas, often arguments so often, in my work, about race, sexuality, and desire.
“Juicy” is your story, kind of, right? At NYU you were eating “sardines for dinner” and now you’re all “lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool.” Well, not the pool. But still, interviews. And I mentioned our upcoming interview to Daniel Nester, our former classmate, and he was like, “Yeah, Ronaldo: He’s a total rock star now. “ I think you should publish your next book under Notorious R.V.W.
I can’t resist comment, because I had a pretty split life as a poetry graduate student. During the week in Manhattan and later Brooklyn and the Bronx, I was a real graduate student, living on loans, working various jobs, studying, writing, but on the weekends, I struggled less, maybe hardly at all, spread out in Long Island, where I worked out, went on winery tours, shopped, and often dined on Arctic Char, Foie Gras, Rack of Lamb, various Ragouts, Molten Chocolate Cake, etc., etc with my partner. I am not sure why I have always gravitated towards opulence. My father was in the Navy for many years, then retired and worked for the government, until the military base where he worked closed, and my mother who trained as a journalist in the Philippines later became a certified nurses assistant in the US, which she still does today, so we were never rich. But, in any case, one of my mother’s favorite lines for me was “You think your rich!” Growing up, one of our treats was having dinner on the ship when we were stationed near one, or occasionally, at the NCO club on the base. I remember one dining experience when my siblings ordered the typical children-friendly burgers and fries, while I, at 6 or 7, ordered a filet mignon. I was teased the whole time, and the distance was marked between us, when my salad came first, then my soup and they sat with nothing. It was the first, and only time I can recall that I ate alone in front of my family. Of course, it didn’t help when I tried to share, they refused, and called me “Got Rocks,” but in any case, I learned then that I loved everything about the “fanciness” of that meal and somehow can still feel the resonant tension of that day.
And in terms of interviews -- I don’t like pools much -- I prefer the ocean! In fact, my days as a PhD student were even more decadent. At one point, thanks to my partner, who also loves the water, I had to re-take sections of my first comp exams because I swore up and down during that very important summer when I should have been huddled in the library, I would study successfully on the beach, in between touring Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Hamptons, all the while dusting sand off my books and baking in the sun failing to master during that time much of anything I could prove about periodicity, scansion, meter -- those were the days!
The Days. I love thinking about The Days, any of them really. Funny story: My friend David was over the other day, and he was all kicked back, feet up on our ottoman, and he started digging around in this basket of books I keep by my reading chair, and he just looked so… relaxed… so I figured I’d mix things up, so I was like, “Oooh, no wait, you should read THIS!” and I opened up to the short vignette, “Blood,” in “The Black Objects Memory” (aka “bloody underwear poem”) and was like, “Okay, I’ll be right back!” and left the room. A few minutes later, I came bouncing back and found him, eyes all milked over, mouth half open.
Me: “So, what’dya think?! GOOD, right?”
David [total monotone]: “I... feel... traumatized.”
So that’s GOOD, right? Poems that have feelings and make people feel feelings?
I do understand, it’s hard not to be traumatized as one encounters such human vulnerability, the grey old man in that poem bleeding, first as private spectacle in the hotel room, then on the subway platform, all the while still all alone in the city -- add to this that the old man is marked (in the poem) as white, wealthy, horny, closeted, married, and otherwise, by outward appearances, seemingly stable. All the while, this black object, the poetic I, as idea, recorder, reporter reads and recounts the old white man’s vulnerability, and gives it -- in detail -- back to the viewer in his own measured, prosaic voice. I love poetry for allowing the tools with which one can capture, create and perform such an experience for the reader that tests the shifting limits of trauma by mapping out the power arrangements in such an encounter between human beings.
Of course, one can “read” the poem in any way one wishes, by simply feeling traumatized, which as the author, I’d certainly call a success. But another thing I am attempting to point out in the poem is to unveil assumptions of race, class, and gender that manifest within the titanic structure of the kind of man (type/trope/design/flesh) that the speaker of the poem experiences. One would be surprised at the utter sexy debacle that exists within those highly structured suits and ties, and even certain heavy knit sweaters, the sheer force of stitch-form that contains, suspends age, fat, bulk, lump. After the jacket -- after the belt -- after the crisp shirt, the body bulges all over the place.
Utter sexy debacle. I just wanted to retype that to see how it felt. So, let me frame off my next question by mentioning a podcast I listened to with Kate Daniels interviewing Tony Hoagland. Daniels basically notes that when Hoagland was reading his “Rap Music” poem, she could feel the audience become more and more tense as the poem progressed. Here’s a little bit of the poem:
I don't know what's going on inside that portable torture chamber,
but I have a bad suspicion
there's a lot of dead white people in there
and what I'm not supposed to say
is that black for me is a country
more foreign than China or Vagina
more alarming than going down Niagara on Viagra
And it makes me feel stupid when I get close
like a little white dog on the edge of the big dark woods
She brings up that Hoagland’s gotten heat for the way he’s so directly, even aggressively, addressed race, and Hoagland responds. Here's an excerpt of the interview:
Hoagland: Black American poets have written powerfully, eloquently [and] explored American race; white poets largely haven't. Why? Because it's impossible to talk about [race] without showing your own unacknowledged racism. It's like pulling a potato out of the dirt. [...] You hold it up, and the potato is covered with dirt, and a person could say, "Eew! Look at your potato. It's all DIRTY with racism." But I sort of feel like, "Hey, I pulled up this big potato!"
Daniels: AND? [audience laughs] Go on... I pulled up this big potato... AND? [audience laughs again]
Hoagland: [stumbles around a little]. And… here, catch! [pause] But it's OUR potato! [audience laughs] I haven't found it possible to [approach the subject of race] in a clean way. It's so rare that truth rides into the room on the horse of niceness. It often comes in on the horse of meanness or aggressiveness because there's a membrane to break. It's in me, and it's in the representative humans around me. It makes poetry exciting, to write to see if you can go out to the periphery, not just the cultural periphery, but whatever the perimeter of what you know and don't know is. [...] There's so much that has never been talked about, and it's poets' jobs to do that.
So, Ronaldo, I'm just doing my job here. Pulling up my big dirty potato for all to see: I was little apprehensive, thinking about reading your books. Here’s why. The first book has "Brown" in the title. The second book has "Black" in the title. I tried to tell myself, “Don’t be stupid; you’re white, so what?” But my irrational mind kept returning to the thought: “The books are basically labeled by color, and here I am, not brown or black, so can this be for me? Is it supposed to be? And, if I’m truthful, am I going to feel like the white, clueless dork, hopelessly outside out touch with African-American humor/emotion/sensibility.” Let's not even get into the fact that you're a gay man and I'm a straight woman. It was such a relief to read the first page and think, “Whew, thank god I’m human. I know this.” Maybe some parts I knew less than others, but, in general, I felt tuned in and affected. Did you think about the titles of your books, and how they might rest in the minds of your readers or potential readers?
In part, both of the titles come out of a literary and cultural tradition of African American letters. Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man gestures toward Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in particular, and of course, to a certain extent Washington’s Up From Slavery: an Autobiography, and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, texts I’d studied in college and graduate school in various courses in English and African American Studies. I don’t mean to lump these works together, but I like the way the works reveal an extenuated life, and a tension within that life oscillating inside the inhumanity of slavery and the conceptual possibility of what freedom means through the careful articulation of one’s story. As I was starting Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, I was also becoming acquainted with the work of the artist Kara Walker, and her pleasure-danger trove of some of these themes, and her hyper-sexualized and disturbing attention to the antebellum period in her visual art and writing. In part, I think her long luxurious titles attracted me to coming up with a long book title of my own. Of course, whether slave narrative or artwork, these texts for me operate in the American imaginary, and in some ways, whether consciously or not, I was interested in tapping into that stream through my poetry. The drafts I wrote felt like a long story, and for a long time I imagined the book more a novel than a cycle of poems, but felt that the writing could be compressed into a book of poems as the years passed. Eventually, I wanted the title to really work at unveiling that compression and threat of extension that I worked through in each piece.
This tension, perhaps, directs the reader’s confrontation with what is implicit in the title. That is, the very question of how my dear reader might like to witness or be reminded of his or her subjective relationship to whiteness is as important as his or her relationship to browness, or manness, or boyness, which is constantly vexed and titillating, maybe a tough pill to swallow, but I try to make it go down easy (or rough) with my own careful work, in sentence after sentence in my own contemporary ________ narrative.
Poems of the Black Object came out of a longer more fractured process. The title emerged more like a splinter that traveled underneath the skin for a long time. I lost track of how many permutations passed before I settled on it, but it came from writing, then abandoning at least five totally different manuscripts with various titles over maybe twelve years. I was writing poems along side my dissertation, “Black Bodies Black Fields: 20th Century and Contemporary Poetics of the Black Body in African American Poetry and Visual Culture,” which explores the intersections between contemporary black poets and visual artists. Central to my research was looking at the writing of the Black revolutionary and psychiatrist from Martinique, Frantz Fanon. In Black Skin White Masks, Fanon illuminates the difficult task of re-composing the black self through its history of oppression. He speaks of being “sealed” into a “crushing objecthood.” Setting forth his own conceptual frame, he demands an explanation from “the other [that] fixed [him] there,” only to report that, “Nothing happened. I burst apart. Now the fragments have been put together by another self.” What are the poetics of the black body suggested in the realization of one’s self as the excised, exploded and then the re-configured? More particularly, what are the ways that one imagines a revised self that detaches into pieces whose embodied fragments mark the process of its own new becoming? These are the questions that drive my critical project, and to a large extent, help to frame my intent throughout the second book of poems, one I hope is captured in the title, a way of distancing myself from and engaging with the Black Object, a way of giving over to the idea of black subjectivity as something intrinsic and at a constant remove from the speaker of the text. As I constructed the book manuscript, I imaged it divided into art installation spaces, where I could show in sections what these configurations might look like, how they might be tested and evolve in the conceptual space of the poem.
Poems of the Black Object opens up into a different kind of categorization of race, and blackness in particular, than does Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, but I feel like I needed to write one to feed the other, and I wanted them to build towards one another, so at least I could demonstrate, in my own hand, what I was absorbing from working through the tough questions in the dissertation. I loved the idea of letting the Black Object direct how this absorption might manifest and eventually speak to the reader, inviting her or him or [IT] into the work (maybe even through rejection/objection to the title).
I like the idea of being invited in and being invited to do whatever with the given materials. It’s like being invited to a party, for which the host has spent 10 years preparing, and you arrive and there’s all this weird stuff out, and the host is nowhere to be found. What do we do with these electric fins and this tub of blue petroleum jelly? Ideas, people? So, do you agree with Hoagland? Is it your job as a poet to drive at the things people don’t want to talk about, e.g., race, sexuality? Or in a more general way, to go out to the perimeter of the unknown and kick up some dust? It’s always so weird when anybody uses any sentence with “a poet’s job is...” in it.
Maybe one way to begin an answer to whether or not I agree with Hoagland -- of course, if pressed immediately I’d say yes -- is to return to your friend David’s feeling of being traumatized after his encounter with the short vignette, “Blood,” in “The Black Objects Memory.”
Where Hoagland offers the dirty potato, I offer the bloody white daddy! We own both of them as perhaps connected points of our contemporary poetic American imaginary. In this way, I’d say I share a certain sensibility with Hoagland. For me, however, it is important to note that as I was writing the series of poems in the Black Object cycle, I was invested in reading and writing about the violated black body in my critical prose, exploring works by Cornelius Eady (“What I’m Made Of”) or Lucille Clifton (“jasper texas 1998”) or Gwendolyn Brooks ( “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother burns bacon” and “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till”). I was also reading closely the art work and writings of Adrian Piper’s Mythic Being Series, Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, and looking at the artwork of Ellen Gallagher (“Preserve”) and another artist visual artist William Pope.L (“Hole Theory”) that mined/mines blackness as complicated, spatial fields of representation that helped me to see how the black body, subject and figure might be articulated through abstraction as a kind of answer to this violation, and answer that can’t quite ever be fully synthesized.
What’s exciting about Hoagland’s stance, for me, is his willingness to engage in both the problem of representation, and the dearth of expressivity in what he sees as a larger problem for white American poets. I hate to speak for all or any kind of poet, black, white, brown or kettle, but what I can say is that many of the African American poets and artists I admire are able to articulate an almost objective relationship to race, one that allows them to present the black body as a conceptual field, a vast and complicated object, that contends with this violence. Yet no matter how traumatizing or uncomfortable, as Hoagland might argue -- and I would add, no matter how pleasurable -- the found pieces help to frame our much needed and puzzled perceptions.
Pleasure is my favorite frame. Thank you for adding that. So I did an interview with Kathleen Rooney a couple months ago, and in the interview she quoted Forster: “The work of art assumes the existence of the perfect spectator, and is indifferent to the fact that no such person exists.” I keep thinking about that quote now. Who’s your “perfect spectator” for these particular books?
I don’t really write with a particular figure, or perfect spectator in mind, but I do find my work is in direct conversation with other writers. I work with two other poets Dawn Lundy Martin and Duriel E. Harris, co-founders of the Black Took Collective, a group we founded while fellows at the Cave Canem retreat in 1999. The collective, perhaps, comes closest to standing in as a perfect spectator, as we are always trying to figure out what questions to ask one another to help us decipher our relationship to our work. We often perform together, pressing ourselves to think or not think about unconscious structures that trap us into being marked as poets, black bodies, queer writers, and people who are interested in exploring and exploding the very category of representations that make and bind us. We do this by experimenting with the range of our voices by writing with one another in private, across email, sometimes, in chat rooms. And when we practice in person, we role play, exercise and exorcise through writing, cooking, hanging out, reading, dancing, mixing, making films, taking pictures, discussing poets and poetry, and documenting, documenting, documenting.
We recently gave a performance at the &Now Conference of Innovative Writing & the Literary Arts at the SUNY Buffalo Poetics program, where we screened our “practice” sessions as we performed some of our play/work in front of screened video footage of our working process. We also projected “live writing” via laptop on two screens while one or both of us read, our voices sometimes remixed and manipulated in connection to the video and writing. In our “assaults” as we call them, we are often preoccupied with some central questions -- what is a black poet, a black poem? What is a black conceptual space, and how can multiple forms and approaches to thinking about race, sexuality and representation activate in the face of violation, silence, terror, and the press of stereotype? How do we speak, and perform what cannot or is the most difficult to utter -- something that Dawn often reminds us of in our explorations.
The richest material comes from how we engage and interact with one another and the audience, making more complicated our own works. At one of our first performances at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, we phoned one another up on cell phones during our respective readings. Duriel pulled members of the audience up to the stage to dance with us. The poet, our special guest, Bakar Wilson passed out “Coon Journals,” asking them to respond to the reading as we performed. I broke to music by Tricky after reading the “Breaking Black” poems. These activities coupled with how we approach and write about the practice of poetry help us to complicate our own relationship to our art. By engaging and interacting with the audience and one another, and documenting this process, we aim to push the idea of a “poetry reading” to an audience, incorporating them into the range of our work, often times reaching or helping to create the kind of spectators with whom we wish to engage.
That performance sounds nuts. I’m sorry I’m in Chicago and missed it. Maybe I should have cell phoned in? I would have loved to have had my own “Coon Journal.” Not so sure about the public dancing part though. As my friend Jim Henry says and I agree: I’m so uptight, I can’t even dance with myself, alone, in my apartment. But maybe I would have made an exception, if only to help you shape me into the kind of spectator with whom you might wish to engage.
Well, you’ve always been that kind of spectator, Liz. Funny, back in New York, we did not even have cell phones, not even e-mail I think -- we communicated almost purely through poetry. Thanks for the opportunity to continue our conversation in this most interesting way.
Elizabeth Hildreth lives in Chicago and works as a writer and instructional designer. She and Ronaldo Wilson, as mentioned above, met at NYU as spring chickens. They sat across from each other in Cornelius Eady and Sharon Olds’ workshops, and went on a trip to Vermont during which they celebrated some poets’ birthdays and sang the song, “Go ____, it’s your birfday. Go, ____, it’s your birfday.” No dancing occurred.