The Conversation is an eight-part series put together by Aziza Barnes and Nabila Lovelace and hosted by The Rumpus. Read more about the project here. These poems and conversations from Cortney Lamar Charleston and Danez Smith are the first installment.
Leland & James & Me & Sometimes Jamal
boys, we are no longer boys &
no longer boys. what we’ve become scares our country down
to the teeth, which, at times, we are stuck in.
if this poem finds you, i hope it lets you hold a dolla
& talks shit about your shoes before it gives you
a good hug, the kind where you pound a fist
into a brotha’s spine as if his spine is a fist.
how have you been since those summers we learned
to be black & shouldered? play fighting
& fighting-fighting until the blood came. I would
bruise any boy for the boys who bruised me.
my aces, my wild kin. you were the first niggas
i learned to call my niggas. a kind of marriage, no?
were we not wives all hitched to the same boy?
were we not the same boy? back then, i was barely
a body & knew nothing but my dumb hunger for
a body to make sense out of mine & now more
than any girl i kissed behind the garage or in the hall
i miss how your fists in my chest said i love you. sweet
brothers, if you see me before i see you, sucker punch me.
you crack my tooth & i know who i am.
Cortney Lamar Charleston: What are the first things—words, images—that come to mind when you hear or read “the South”?
Danez Smith: A plate of well-buttered grits, old Cadillac in the front yard, aunts drinking iced water on porches, Confederate flags on Jeeps, miles & miles & miles of sky, dirt roads, small churches next to small cemeteries, really really beautiful black people.
Charleston: What role does the American South, particularly the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana), play in your personal narrative, if any? Do you have direct experiences with the South or is the relationship ancestral, more spiritual than physical?
Smith: My people from Mississippi and Georgia. My maternal grandparents are from Egypt, MS. What a name, right? My dad and that whole side of the family still live mostly in the Georgia. I think of myself as a second-generation Great Migration migrant, my mom’s generation being the first in the family to be raised mostly out of the South. The South has always felt like something very alive in my family and how I understand myself, my family, my blackness, and my world.
Charleston: Your work is highly intersectional, exploring how the delineations of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and faith have defined your lived experience and that of others in any number of communities you are part of. Does the South, in your creative imagination, loom over all these intersections or merely certain facets of your identity?
Smith: I think I can make the argument for the South looming over it all, mostly because I was raised by southern people. Growing up living with two very southern grandparents, in a community where a lot of folks could tell you what Southern city their people still live in, in churches where the pastor’s Mississippi boom rang off the walls, it feels like the South had to have some kind of influence on my knowledge and learning of the world. The South never feels far away. It’s something that I can trace back to from anywhere if I take the time. The South feels very essential in understanding, to my understanding of my family and my blackness, and so everything about me.
Charleston: What responsibilities do you believe writers/poets of color bear in writing about the South or invoking it in their work? Are those responsibilities different depending on whether the writer is immediately from the South or not? Black or not?
Smith: I think like writing about any culture, we have to make use our work is ripe with humanity and not stereotype (unless that’s the project). The South is a super diverse landscape, so I think its important to know what “South” your talking about. The South is 1000 different places, it’s an involving, complex thing. The responsibility of any writer, regardless of race or birth place, is to not be lazy and fall into writing of a South that is stripped of its nuance, its place in history but also its place in the future.
Charleston: Riffing off your latest chapbook title (“Black Movie”) a bit… the South is the setting of a movie starring you—whichever southern state you most prefer. What is that movie about? What is the plot line and what is the message?
Smith: Okay. Okay. Two options. If it’s a comedy, it’s a mockumentary with me and one of my best friends driving across the South in search of the best strip club chicken wings. If it’s a drama, I don’t think I would be in it, but I think it would love to write a screenplay about my family in Egypt, Mississippi. An old black love story or something. And with no white people in it. Just black people being beautiful and running through fields in the name of love. Something really with a lot of wide shots that captures the beauty of the Mississippi and a soundtrack by Big K.R.I.T.
Charleston: Imagine the South is a person. What do you all have to reconcile in your relationship? Is it worth it?
Smith: I don’t think I have anything to reconcile with the South. We good. The South is my favorite cousin. I think a lot of the things I would have to reconcile with the South I would have to reconcile with the rest of the country too. I understand the world has being dangerous to my queer Black self no matter where I am. But the South that I understand, the South of today, is good with me, safer & more promising that the place my people, some of my people, traveled up from, but it could be home. I might wife the South yet.
Smith: As the Black Midwestern folks that you (Chicago) and I (Minneapolis) both are, I’m wondering how you grew up viewing the South? Does the South influence who you are as a Chicagoan? Also, maybe my favorite black question, where yo people from?
Charleston: The South was my distant home in the sense that it inspired in me some internal conflict but also a deep, deep love. With my grandparents coming from the South (Mississippi, namely Jackson and Louisville with some roots in Louisiana as well), so many things that I grew understanding as family tradition are merely regional, cultural traditions that were carried to Chicago. That’s not a unique story, especially not on Chicago’s South and West Sides; damn near everybody’s kin came from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, or a small representation of some other southern states during the Great Migration—this, in so many ways, establishes the foundation for what black life in Chicago is like, informing everything from how we use space to how we speak to what and how we cook and eat. The Migration was inspired by the racial conflict in the South and the black economic servitude it underscored; the act of migration and its inspirations, in some ways, were mirrored later as blacks sought out of inner-cities, which laid the foundation for the life I lived personally. I think about that parallel often.
Smith: Your work unpacks and explodes many ideas about blackness and race in America, and I think you do a great job at creating a wide landscape. Where does the South figure into your work? How does the South figure into your personal relationship to blackness? If and when do you find yourself writing with the South in mind?
Charleston: It’s difficult for me to sum up, but I’d say that The South is the Holy Spirit that guides my hand as I write as it pertains to race, certainly. I don’t use it as a backdrop, but use the specter of it to deconstruct racism by playing to (and subverting) people’s stereotyping of the South as the epicenter of racial antipathy, but then localizing that same antipathy in the actions (or opportunistic inactions) of whites from all places and in all stations who might think themselves more evolved than the Southerners they, historically, have looked down upon for their presupposed rabid intolerance.
Smith: So the influence of hip-hop is evident in your work. Realest question: who are your top three rappers from the South? Show your work.
Charleston: Damn. See, these are the types of questions that ruin relationships. I never know what folks really want when they ask for a “Top #” list with something so subjective, so I’ll give my personal favorites and my picks for “greatest” which takes their impact on the game into account:
Top 3 favorites: Andre 3000 (OutKast classics + the greatest rap feature of all-time). Phonte (from Little Brother to Foreign Exchange to his solo album, entirely too dope). J. Cole (despite the ‘boring’ label some give him, I just really bang with Cole and have since I first heard The Warm Up). Honorable mentions to Missy Elliott and to Ludacris, who has one of the dopest voices I’ve ever heard and a great run from Incognegro to The Red Light District.
Top 3 greatest: Scarface (do I really have to defend Scarface’s record?), Andre 3000 (interchangeable with ‘Face but I wanted to big ‘Face up since 3 Stacks was on my other list as well), Lil’ Wayne (Carter II to the mixtapes to Carter III is a dope-ass run). Honorable mentions to T.I., Bun B, and Missy Elliott.
Smith: How has your understanding of your identity changed as you traveled and moved across the country? How has the world and its geographies influenced your writing and changed it as you moved through it?
Charleston: Moving around has helped me understand, with clearer distinction, what blackness is and isn’t, and what being black exposes one’s body to. Because so much of my recent writing is dedicated to exploring the mal-effects of anti-black pathology, this has been invaluable. I can deconstruct mechanisms of oppression in ways that I couldn’t before. Though I never believed racism was somehow confined only to certain spaces and places, as some might, it does take firsthand experience to see the ways in which social environment causes it to manifest and mutate. I think my work in the past year or so has certainly reflected that complexity and the sharpening of my eyes.
Smith: Do you see yourself, Cortney Charleston in the year 2016, ever moving to or spending significant time in the Deep South? Why or why not?
Charleston: You know, I can see myself living in the Deep South, but in my head, it’s as an older person. I’m still not quite sure why, but I think a movement south would signify my making it, in a sense. I’d be making a homecoming of sorts, to get that key forty acres owed, build whatever I wanted on it and for whatever purpose I desired: which, in my case, would be to save it as a place where all my peoples come to feel loved, especially when the world doesn’t love them.
Smith: What questions do you have for “The South”?
Charleston: Why is your food SO DAMN GOOD?! What are your plans for exporting “Southern Hospitality”? What is the best brand of hot sauce? Do you believe sweet tea should be free at all restaurants? How do you define rich? What’s your most underrated city? Who are your favorite and least favorite US presidents and why? Why should I care about the SEC? Would you come if I invited you to a Juneteenth BBQ?
Autophobia: Fear of Self
The history of red begins and ends with me, did you know?
Violence is the apple of my eye, its skin winking in the light like
a triggered alarm. I sleep with a cannon in my hand. My belly is
full of lead; my upset stomach is settled by bullets, awaiting spark
to spit up. A gun muzzle in the mouth, whether mine or yours,
leaves just enough space between chapped lips to hold a hymn
note: hallelujah. Read your Bible. I’m Cain as much as I’m Abel.
I’m an angel, sometimes. I’m all three of them at once: a trinity
or a triangular symbol of potentiality, of mathematical change.
I can’t count the number of brothers I could be done in by, that
I could do in myself, if only I speak what I know—the boy would
be finished for all intents and purposes: a name, a vapor. But we’d
have our mamas’ colors in common, always; the whispers would
travel pews like plates of small bills and coins, crown them unholy
messes of motherhood, but nobody truly knows what happened
back in that garden so many translations ago, if the apple in those
verses is in my eyes because it was in hers first, if it’s metaphor
for a swollen appetite. Blame sugar, I guess; blame what’s sweet
enough to damn. Diabetes runs in my family: what does it make
of the space between bodies canvased by shadow? I hear it draws
closed: boys lock eyes, stab each other in the dark, scream out for
their very souls. I can see it, like I see the choir director walking
by me. She calls him sweet; I think no homo and laugh where only
God hears me judge. I take to water and wade with my face down.
–Cortney Lamar Charleston
Cortney Lamar Charleston is a poet based in Jersey City, NJ. Cortney is originally from the Chicago suburbs and has ancestral roots in Mississippi and Louisiana. He is a Cave Canem fellow and has received multiple nominations for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net award anthologies. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Eleven Eleven, Fugue, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Journal, The Normal School, Pleiades, Rattle, Southern Humanities Review and elsewhere. He is currently working on his first full-length manuscript.
Danez Smith is the author of [ insert] boy ( YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award& the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and D on’t Call Us Dead( Graywolf Press, 2017). Danez is also the author of two chapbooks, h ands on your knees (2013, Penmanship Books) and b lack movie ( 2015, Button Poetry), winner of the Button Poetry Prize. Thier work has published & featured widely including in P oetry Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Buzzfeed, Blavity, & Ploughshares. They are a 2014 Ruth Lilly – Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, a Cave Canem and VONA alum, and recipient of a McKnight Foundation Fellowship. They are a 2-time Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, placing 2nd in 2014. Danez is a founding member of the Dark Noise Collective. They are an MFA candidate at The University of Michigan and currently teach with InsideOut Detroit. They are from St. Paul, MN.
The Conversation continues tomorrow with Desiree Bailey and Sean DeVinges.