As the events in Ferguson, MO unfolded this August, I joined millions of other Americans to watch it play out on Twitter. This is all we knew: a young unarmed black man was shot, repeatedly, by a white police officer. The young man’s body laid dead in the street for four hours before he was taken to a coroner. No ambulance was called. No attempts to save his life were made. None of us will soon forget the grainy photo of a dead boy in a gray sweatshirt and khaki short pants, his navy blue underwear or his head turned eternally left. In the days after Mike Brown’s murder, we would watch the police descend on the people of Ferguson like a biblical plague. Protesters were harassed, arrested, shot with everything from tear gas to rubber bullets. Journalists began protecting the protesters until even the journalists weren’t safe from the human rights violations.
We wept; we did. We tweeted and we asked for answers. Help. Hope. Presidential address. A comment. An arrest. We could not look away from our computer screens. Ferguson conjured images of Detroit and Los Angeles. Some said Gaza. Others Tiananmen.
How does one return to the ritual of everyday life after the worst parts of humanity has reared its loathsome head? How do we arrive at a place where smiles are possible, and laughter is possible and getting out of bed doesn’t feel like a weight. Where do we find pleasure, cheer, goodwill, even, in the world after a young man is killed for nothing? For me that answer has always been poetry. I have always found the answers to the most troubling questions between the quiet yet riotous pages of a volume of poetry. Brian Gilmore’s third collection, We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters, arrived when I needed it most. The world was falling apart, but I had poetry. Brian navigates the streets of Washington DC as only a native can, recalling a community of proud men and troubled sons. He invokes the blues, the everyday working Joe, and a sense of hope, painted by the speaker’s survival. More than anything Brian celebrates black teenage-hood in the inner city—those few, choice years where anything seems possible, best friends become whole lives and our noses are wide open, our hands hungry to hold the entire world.
Brian Gilmore is a poet, writer, public interest attorney, and columnist with the Progressive Media Project. He is a Cave Canem Fellow (1997), Kimbilio Fellow (2014), and is the author of two other collections of poetry: elvis presley is alive and well and living in harlem, and Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: Poem for Duke Ellington. He teaches law at the Michigan State University College of Law, where he lectures and writes on contemporary issues relating to housing and economic inequality, dividing his time between Michigan and his beloved birthplace, Washington, D.C.
The Rumpus: We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters is your third collection of poetry and I would argue your most personal collection yet. What is the inspiration for this collection?
Brian Gilmore: I’ve written a lot of personal poems over the years but never over a sustained period. I started writing this collection before my second book, some of the poems go back that far, but then I got really interested in the Duke Ellington book. That was a very personal book to me in that Ellington is from DC and I’m from DC and the poems reflect the moments and themes that I wanted to capture, especially the poem “Billy Bathgate.” That poem sets the stage for the other poems—remembering growing up and being a in a community of people and family—it was a special place to grow up. People stuck together, and I didn’t want that to get away from me. The rest of the book tries to tell that story; it has a cinematic quality to it.
Rumpus: Tell me a little bit more about the cover art for the book because it’s a personal photograph. What’s the story behind it?
Gilmore: Truth Thomas, the publisher, told me to send in some personal photographers that captured what I was trying to do with the book. I could not find the Billy Bathgate photo, and my brother, who took the photograph, couldn’t find it either, so I sent this one in. Truth and he felt like it captured the spirit of the book. When I was at my first reading for the book, my brother approached me and told me that our father took that picture. He said that we were all in the alley, hanging out, horseplay, listening to music and stuff, and Dad came out and said he had one photograph left to take in his camera. This was an old camera, you had to shoot all of the shots and then you could take the film out and get it developed. And he took the picture. I never knew that. Now the book is credited with my father taking the photo. It was quite amazing to me because I just never remembered that. It absolutely blew me away.
Rumpus: I read this collection as the events in Ferguson, MO unfolded, and it felt, to me, like a companion text to the murder and protests. Can we talk about the criminalization and policing of young black men and how that works in this collection?
Gilmore: Michael Brown’s murder, when you think about the New York Times saying that he was no angel, well, nobody is an angel. We were young men coming up in the world and we took risks and we did things to draw the attention of people, especially the police. I remember the police were always chasing us. They came around just to chase us, just to bother us. Coming up in the world, you do things that are exploratory: you drink alcohol, you ride in the wrong car, you had fun. We stuck together and we had fun in our community, in our neighborhood. It was a really great place to grow up. We had a support system; I grew up at a time when all of the parents were your parents. Someone told you not to do something, and you didn’t do it. Black people, black men, have always been criminalized, but it’s more pronounced now. The criminal justice policies and the attitude that the country has forged towards black men makes it okay. It’s the Guiliani (Mayor Rudolph) mode of trying to make the the victim look like a bad person in order to justify their death to the public. It’s one of the reasons I wrote the Rodney King trilogy that’s in the book. Guiliani’s move was to release their records and show that, well, he was a criminal anyway so who cares. This is what they’re trying to do with Michael Brown and it’s tragic but not surprising.
Rumpus: You are a poet but also a fiction writer and lawyer. What kind of law do you practice and how does that lens effect your writing?
Gilmore: I became a poet and lawyer all at once. I was a poet and a student activist. I wanted to make life better for people. I went to a social justice law school—public interest—David Clarke School of Law, it’s a clinical law school. I spent my time helping poor people in DC with their legal problems. That’s the work I wanted to do, and that’s the work that I still do. The law occurs—even though it’s technical and theoretical and lawyers who teachers want to make themselves seem deep and distant and scientific and smart but when it gets down to it, the law happens in the lives of everyday people. I never wanted to lose touch with that. And I feel the same way about my poetry: poetry is about the lives of ordinary people. At least for me it is. When you get down to it, these laws change and they’re sophisticated and no one can understand them but a select few, but they’re going to most impact the postal worker and the elderly and the truck driver. My intent has always been to do this kind of work—to help the people who are trying to feed their kids, get their kids to school, medical care, dental care. I would have left law if I had to do any other kind of work.
Rumpus: Your body of work leans heavily on black music, in fact, you’ve written an entire collection, Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: Poem for Duke Ellington, on jazz. Talk to me about how music enters your work.
Gilmore: Music was very central to my life growing up. I used to play bass guitar. I was in a blues band, and I was almost in a gospel band. I always felt like I wanted to write about music and musicians, but I also wanted my literature to become music itself. That’s what writers, but poets, especially, are trying to do. We are trying to make music on the page. Poets will continue to seek that out. There are poems with improvisational passages, blues patterns, jazz patterns. I want to write music itself. I told the poet Al Young that and he laughed because he knew what I was saying. What musicians do is incredible. We have our own African American traditions in music that are present in our literature, the call and response, the jazz, the repetition, but it doesn’t get focused on. They focus on what black poets and writers say but not how we say it.
Rumpus: I want to talk about the poem “the tonight show (for tony).” It is a very intimate poem where we have two friends getting high, a father taking notice, and instead of humiliating or punishing the boys, spending time with them. I want to talk about this poem in conversation with “avalon”, a poem where a young man is leaving home to find his way for the very first time, rendering his father silent. When we think about the way that black fatherhood is pathologized, it makes these particular poems that much more mighty.
Gilmore: Those poems are real events. A lot of times poets like to be behind the veil, but those were real events in my life. One of my father’s greatest qualities is that he was very discreet. He recognized that people don’t like to be embarrassed. It’s very important for your self esteem to not be called out in front of your friends. He could have handled that a different way, but it wasn’t his style at all. He would talk to me later, but he didn’t want to make me look bad. The second poem is based on a story he told me about coming back from the service and telling his father that he had to go. The underlying story is that my father was the seventh son. He had an older brother who was expected to come home and help run the family insurance business. He came back to see if he could stay and work the business at that house, but it didn’t end up that way. He sized it up and told his father the only way he could help was by leaving.
I also want to discuss multiple father figures, which is another theme in the book. I’ve always benefited from individual black men who were there for me—uncles, employers, poets, people I met along the way. The late Amiri Baraka was a very important figure to all of us in DC. Haki Madhubuti in Chicago, he published my first book. My two brothers, they were father figures to me, even though they’re not much older than me, they were always trying to keep me on the straight and narrow, especially my brother Keith. I had a lot of fathers in my house and in my community. I was surrounded by black men who went to work and did regular stuff. They are my heroes—the guy cleaning his yard, taking out the trash.
Rumpus: It’s a similar sentiment that we find in Robert Hayden’s “Sunday Mornings.”
Gilmore: That’s what people don’t realize. It’s not always something big and spectacular. It’s about doing what has to be done. It’s about going to work and keeping the community together. It’s just that simple.
Rumpus: Another striking poem is “new jersey drive for r dwayne betts.” In the poem you say, i almost lost my mind right there and later, your children tell you there is nothing there. And the there is equally your youth, it is hijinks, it is gentrification. The poem is remarkably vulnerable. The black artist, the black person is always doing the work of humanizing their experience. What does it mean to humanize the story of your youth in this way?
Gilmore: This goes back to Michael Brown. We do things as kids; not bad things, just mischievous things. The poem itself is about community and seeing it and what it is becoming and what it was. What we had is gone. We had our moment, and it got away from us. Things have been torn down: where we used to listen to music and drink beer and eat pork rinds and cut up and just get away. You need good times when you’re younger and things are carefree. I hope my children have good times and rich experiences because they will one day have to make their way in the world, but there will be no more carefree life. Some of it is gentrification and some of it is the passage of time. At times, as a young black boy growing up in the United States, I felt like I was losing my mind because the country has a serious racial problem. You don’t understand all of the things you do and the risks you take. There was a lot of chance taking. You don’t get it and you don’t understand what’s been imposed on you—the DuBois notion of seeing yourself through the eyes of others.
My parents, my father especially, told us we had no need to feel ashamed about being black people. We were proud of who we were and our history and our culture. He told us it was a great struggle for what we have now and there would be a struggle to continue to keep it, to make something of ourselves in the world.
We made it. The guys in that poem. After all of that, we made it and we got on with our lives.
Rumpus: This collection stands on the relationship between the speaker and his father and in part two, it is revealed that the father has dementia. This dementia is written, though, to parallel the father’s experiences in the Korean War and being abroad and at war with one’s self but making it back, making it home for the sake of children and legacy. Talk about your decision to approach the disease this way.
Gilmore: As Truth and I went through the poems, he noticed my father’s role in the book and he asked for some more poems about my father. I gave him a couple of more, and he wanted to put them in, one of those poems being “Revolution.” My father died in 2001, right after 9/11. My father was sick at that time so 9/11 didn’t hit me the way it hit everybody else. I needed to be there for my father at that time, at the end. “The Art of Romare Bearden” is another poem that I wanted to be in there to discuss our relationship. Again, my father was a very discreet person who did not like to impose himself upon others. He served his family and his community, his church and his city. He worked for the city of Washington, DC for many years, and I wanted to make sure that came out. I was more worried about my mother than anyone else because it was painful for her to watch him slow down in the end, but, you know, the poem fits so I’m glad I didn’t take it out. Truth pushed me and gave me the space to say what I needed to say.
Rumpus: In the final poems of this collection, the speaker moves from being a son to being a father of daughters. They aren’t the usual ramblings about what kind of women these girls will be morally, instead, the speaker reflects on the strength, slyness and intelligence of his daughters, commenting that “she could bring down the mob.” I want to talk about these poems in conversations with the black boy poems and the argument that black girlhood isn’t protected or talked about in the same way as black boyhood.
Gilmore: Each of the poem is an attempt to write a poem that is more personal to them. I did not want to write a feel good poem. I wanted to write a poem to each of them about who they were, in those specific moments. The poems are a play on The Godfather trilogy because I have three daughters. The Godfather is essentially about the relationship of a father between his sons, but I wanted to write a poem that said to my daughter, This is what’s important about my relationship to you.
We need more books about black girls and what they need and their world. It is vitally important for black girls to be nurtured and supported. They deserve to control their images and have healthy communities. We have to support our black girls because the load is heavier for them. I’m talking about leadership. When Michael Brown happened, black women were beneath the surface, running things, leading the protests. Look at Trayvon Martin’s mother.
I don’t know how my girls feel about being leaders, but we try to impress upon them that they don’t need to walk behind anyone else. I noticed that in class, in school, they respond better to black women writers and poets because everything is dominated by males. But when a black woman appears on the page, I see my girls change.
Rumpus: Do you have any advice for an emerging writer who is coming up?
Gilmore: Give it a thousand percent; figure out your voice and your direction. Don’t limit yourself. Read writers from all communities. Read as much as you can. You have to give it your all. There are a lot of writers out there, and you can’t tell them apart. They play the slow lane, teach at some school, write a few books but you can’t remember a single poem that they’ve written.
Photograph of brian g. gilmore by Steven Cummings.