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 Jayson Smith and Jerriod Avant are the eighth installment.
the great thing about having a secret is / it stays a secret
& what i’m saying
is there’s a hierarchy
of shit to care about:
a sum of bone
you recognize. affirmations.
inevitable nausea. an open-
at a cold sun.
pretty about private
as always, i’m alone
— over context, in summary.
a world, choose a
profitless church. another
would be brave.
Would you, as a POC writer in 2016, move to Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, commonly known as the Deep South? Why or why not?
Jayson Smith: Here’s the thing: New York is all I’ve known for twenty-four years. I can tell you the fastest way uptown and my bodega man toasts the bread on my bacon egg and cheese before I ask. This is my home, and I think a lot about what that means in the age of gentrification—I jokingly say sometimes all my best friends (including, you, Jerriod) are transplants, but I think there’s a truth to how I’m surrounded by people who have a different relationship to this place than me—there’s never been an option for me to stop working because “going back home” would still mean staying here and facing the enormity of all I did not do. I guess in that way, I feel a kind of responsibility?—
which leads to the other thing: New York is all I’ve known, for twenty-four years. I live in a wonderful but kind of tiny apartment and battle constant anxiety on the A train. Space is one of the hardest things to come by in NYC, physically or otherwise. Everyone is fighting for it at one point or another, and I think that would be the most enticing thing about living in the South. When I went to Oxford to visit Aziza, I remember how in love I was with seeing these giant swaths of land with “for sale” signs. It was a real “how, Sway” moment cause that’s just not a possibility for me here, and it made me think hard about the kind of life I want to live, both as an artist and person. What obligations do I have to my home? What obligations do I have to myself? I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m most invested in the possibility of space: both what it means to carve one out here and in the South.
Jerriod Avant: I would. I would love to. What makes it difficult is my experience with the way the Deep South in general, doesn’t fund the arts the way the Midwest, East Coast, and West Coast tend to be committed to doing. There are some opportunities and I’m a student to many of the writers who are doing great and fresh work in these opportunities in the South today. I’ll say Mississippi especially because that’s my home. I could name every funded, fine arts opportunity there in two minutes. Maybe I should’ve kept playing football. Maybe I played the wrong game.
Smith: A lot of your work has dealt intensely with grief and loss—how were you able to create enough distance to explore these memories as a subject?
Avant: A professor mentioned the word “exile” in class one day and the question was how felt about our relationship between it and whatever we may have considered to be home. I found out when I moved from Mississippi to Kentucky in 2008 that a lot of times I was too close to the thing I was trying to describe and make come alive with the dead trees of pencil and paper. It was then that I had the distance, having stepped back from the thing I didn’t always know how to name.
Avant: How do you decide on the things you choose to refuse in your writing, if anything? And when I say “refuse,” I’m talking about refusal as a way of survival, a way of maintaining life—how do you refuse the things that threaten that?
Smith: For a long time I think I avoided narrative out of fear of the danger in legibility. I think a lot about Claudia Rankine in Citizen and what it means to be hyper-visible both inside and outside of my work. What/who am I exposing myself to?
The self in reality and the self in the poem is a dangerous conflation to make. I am able to protect myself because the poem exists—it means survival has already happened. So in that way, knowing the moment is moved to the point of memory, I can be as legible as the poem requires without any threat to my psyche. I don’t have to worry about refusal when the poem is one—a refusal to allow the moment to exist as it once did. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah said some shit about Dave Chappelle that I think about all the time: basically how his exit from the show was one of the foremost acts of autonomy that she’s seen from a black artist. I think about autonomy a lot in my own work, and see the poem as a chance to regain or establish autonomy in a new way, through language—and isn’t that a part of survival? Healing, even?
Smith: In poems like “ v. Animal Planet: An Ekphrastic Poem ” you write “the lions rip the gazelles of themselves” and I shudder. Every time. What is your responsibility to violence in your work? What do your allegiances fall in your poems?
Avant: My responsibility to violence is to make the most efficient use of it. The adults who raised me were clear about when it was time and when it was not time for violence. My responsibility is to not be negligent and cause unnecessary harm. To a listener or reader. My allegiance is only to truth. Sheer truth. Funny truth. Hard truth. Sad truth. To get whatever story I have in me to either shed light, ask a question, give life to a particular voice that I know has not been heard or to show a particular parallel like I try to paint in a poem like v. Animal Planet: An Ekphrastic Poem. My allegiance is to justice, story, disruption, keepin’ it fresh, and honoring the traditions I look up to.
Smith: I’ve noticed that your poems about Mississippi are almost exclusively in couplets, which traditionally symbolize a kind of love or yearning—if this is the goal, what does it mean to continuously write about home from this lens? What new things do you learn about memory and place?
Avant: I’m in love with that place more and more each day. I tell my friends nowadays when I go home I take empty suitcases with me. But to hinge on your question about “distance,” to try and answer, I’ll use L.T.D.’s lyrics from their song, “Concentrate On You” to sorta explain my relationship and love of Mississippi and how it seems to tend to only wanna grow. How leaving, how the departure makes you wanna return, how departure is also a evoked return to something. I leave parties all the time and say “Shyt, I should’ve stayed my Black ass at home.” I departed a place, that was good to me, I failed to appreciate it the most at the time, long enough for me to decide to depart, departed, and then returned after realizing how much I didn’t appreciate what I left. So to not have a place you’ve always had, and to be in love with the wanting and yearning of that place… Jeffrey Osbourne sings:
You’re a silhouette of splendor. Our love to remember. Oh it helps me through, these hours I spend away from you.
People wonder how I do it.
Oh aint nothing to it.
These gentle thoughts of you,
make it all worth going through.
You gave me a special kinda feeling. Makes it so easy and oh so pleasin’ to…
Concentrate on you (concentrate on you) Concentrate on you yeah yeah (concentrate on you)
Oh takes separation to bring appreciation; and I want to thank you, for all the love too. The secret lies within our minds, the love we share and the time that binds, helps me
Concentrate on you (concentrate on you) Ah ha Concentrate on you (concentrate on you) yeah, Concentrate on you (concentrate on you) Concentrate on you, oh yeah…
The new things I tend to learn regarding memory and space are usually grounded in how for me, home will always last even if I can’t touch it, hear it, taste it or smell it. Home for me at some point turned out to be internal as much if not more than it was external.
Living in a POC/QPOC body, do you feel you have mobility in the United States? If not, where do you feel you cannot go? What unspoken/spoken rules about mobility have you inherited?
Smith: My favorite spot during my commute on the A is the double seat, adjacent to the door that leads to the next car. If you end up sitting there (particularly in the seat nearest to the wall), you’re basically sectioned off from the crowd of passengers by the person sitting next to and in front of you. There is no one behind you. It’s a smallness that you can choose.
To be a black/queer person in America is to constantly renegotiate the space that I am actually taking up versus the space I think I’m taking up. The white heteropatriarchy is really just out here (and in here) and not the wave—in addition to the fact that I’m just generally fucking tall—it makes my physical presence something I’m always hyper-aware of. I’ve conditioned myself to lead with apologies. I own up to things that aren’t my fault. The past few years have been a real acknowledgment and unlearning of that, but mobility is an issue for me regardless of place because everything I’ve internalized says “your body is not welcome here.” It’s fucked up.
Avant: I feel mobile. The more I began to travel the more comfortable in it and anxious for it I became. First twenty-two years in Mississippi, one in Missouri, five years in Kentucky, two in New York, and almost one in Massachusetts. It’s like after you’ve kicked down one door you feel you can kick down another one and another one and another one. I get to compare and contrast certain living situations, the way we all incorporate breads and other carbs into the meal but the ways we may prepare the bread or carb differently is a kind of thing that excites me about being and becoming more mobile and keeps me encouraged. At Spalding University’s Low-Res MFA in Louisville, KY, I got my start at international travel. It opened me up in ways I still can’t quite name. And so this collage of light began to be a celebration and I think it always to be a a celebration when that happens. It’s also true that in certain spaces I feel more foreign than others. Certain places I don’t feel welcome in at all but I have to remember that in those types of situations, I’m gonna shoot for under rather than over and that I’m usually not the one who’s always doing the most benefitting.
Avant: Can you talk about the pair, of one thing reading has taught you and one thing writing has taught you and the relationship between the two, if any?
Smith: If I did not read as much as I did over the course of my life, I would not be a writer today. Full stop. It is crucial to the process. I’m a writer because I love books, first and foremost—they were my safe place when I didn’t have the language for my body or anything around me. They created the world I knew, the world I wanted to be in, & the world I wanted to make. When a good book decides to snatch my edges and complicate how I see the world, I’m going back to the page with the intention to replicate that feeling, knowing that I’ll fail and that the failure will be worth something. That’s crucial to staying sane, I think.
Avant: What books are in your bag right now?
Smith: Jenny Boully, of the mismatched teacups, of the single serving spoons: a book of failures. Dawn Lundy Martin, Discipline. TJ Jarrett, Ain’t No Grave. Amiri Baraka, SOS. Harmony Holiday, Negro League Baseball.
Just have to shout out the talismans in this lineup: Discipline was a HUGE, HUGE step in my formation as a poet. When I first picked it up (like most books that ended up saving my life), I had no idea what the work was trying to do, but knew I needed it somehow. My original copy is battered like you wouldn’t believe. I read that book over and over and over again, and kind of grew up with it as a poet. S.O.S. is just… fuck, Jerriod. We’ve talked about this at length, but Amiri’s speakers are so damn complicated and nuanced and sad and angry as hell and denied, denied, denied. I’m working through it chronologically and it’s really liberating to approach his work at this stage in my life as a poet. It feels like reading my parents or something. There are things I’m able to understand now that I wouldn’t have a few years ago—just in the context of what it means to be alive (and therefore) suffering, you know? Harmony Holiday makes me never want to write a sentence again and keep writing sentences for the rest of my black-ass life. That is all.
Smith: Okay, so let’s talk about these photos real quick. Wendy Xu once wrote “most things lose interest when you are quiet and small”—your Instagram is the counter-argument to that. It seems like your project as a whole is one of magnification: move a (seemingly) small thing to the center, and it will become larger-than-life. What do you center in your work? What is quiet?
Wendy Xu is amazing and one the kindest, first of all. Quiet and small is how I try and enter new spaces. It’s like going into someone’s home for the first time. You give yourself to the space, you give them time until they say so to feel you out in the space. You can’t be prepared for what you may discover in these moments, or what gifts the house may have in store for you or what gifts you may unknowingly have to offer in return. But behavior can fuck that up for you. They way you treat people usually fucks it up for everybody. So I center patience, the sincere, authentic voice, the small gesture usually gone unnoticed or unidentified, these all usually have a pile of beautiful language behind them waiting to be translated. So in large part, seeing, makes this possible. Being able to see how small things can make huge differences and have large reaches. Those are the kinds of things I try to keep center and be a quiet light over the entire room.
v. Animal Planet: An Ekphrastic Poem
It could’ve been the stiff crack
of bone or rapid gunfire
exploding bits of red in the air.
Because only for animals is it
natural to marinate for hours
in postmortem under sun.
The lions rip the gazelles
of themselves. They know
how sweet, the blood is.
Jayson P. Smith is a Bronx-born, Brooklyn based writer. A 2014 Pushcart Prize Nominee & Callaloo fellow, Jayson’s work appears in fields magazine, Twelfth House, boundary2, Day One, & The Rumpus. An Urban Word NYC Mentor by day, Jayson is Poetry Editor at Union Station Magazine & reader for The Atlas Review. Jayson lives in Brooklyn and at jaysonpsmith.com.
A. H. Jerriod Avant is poet from Longtown, MS. A graduate of Jackson State University, Jerriod has earned M.F.A. degrees from Spalding University and New York University, where he was a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow. A graduate of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Brown University, his poems have appeared in the Mississippi Review, Boston Review, Pinwheel, Louisville Review, The Rumpus, Callaloo and other journals. Jerriod was a finalist for the 2015 Mississippi Review Prize, recipient of the Joseph F. McCrindle Online Editorial Fellowship at Poets & Writers, a Vermont Studio Center residency and a 2015 – 2016 Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship.
Editor’s note: This concludes the series, but not The Conversation. You can follow The Conversation on Twitter @bashconvo and on Facebook. It’s been our extreme pleasure and honor to offer a home to this series. Many thanks to all the writers who organized and contributed to this, and we appreciate the trust you placed in us.