The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Justin Phillip Reed about his debut collection, Indecency, why he loves struggling with connotation, and the way “not responsible” can morph into “irresponsible.”
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: In the piece I wrote about why I chose your book, I talked about the way you used the word indecency to describe violence, and that my own experience with the word didn’t see it used that way, though I think it’s incredibly apt. Can you talk some about your concept of the term as you used it in the book?
Justin Phillip Reed: Sure, a bit. I had a deep and refreshing conversation with Luther Hughes over at St. Louis Magazine about this, I think, last week, and he asked this question. Most often I think of “indecency” in the realm of vulnerability, as “decency” was introduced to me as a term concerning the leveraging of power masked as etiquette and rightness.
Justin Phillip Reed: So, I guess I mean for it to be uncertain in the book who or what is and isn’t in/decent.
Brian S: Can I just interject and say that I’m happy someone else asked this question? Makes me feel less concerned for my own ignorance.
Justin Phillip Reed: I think it isn’t ignorant at all! I’m taken with the possibility of single-word titles to anchor (or not) readers.
Brian S: Right. I felt the ways you were working that definition around some—violence as indecent, but also that challenge to those who would consider sexuality indecent. And then even at times a questioning of your own take on it. A sense of uncertainty maybe? Like you’re not here to define things so much as raise possibilities.
Justin Phillip Reed: I find that words and named concepts tend to erupt with definitions the longer I sit with them, which isn’t how we tend to think of defining. Connotation is wild and vigorous and proliferate and one of my favorite things to struggle with.
Brian S: Like the opening paragraph on the fourth page of the poem “Paroxysm”:
The moment is wry with erotics: in the police, a desire to end resistance, but in that must lie an urge toward the end of policing—which you can’t believe. The theory refutes itself like a hand in a slamming door.
Justin Phillip Reed: Yeah, I suppose it’s a little post-structuralist—binaries don’t hold up well at all under a little scrutiny. Whenever I talk about poems in beginner workshops, I always try to get folks to witness the “galaxies” of words.
And then to witness a line—which becomes a string of galaxies at play and intersecting—opens up possibility and, to be honest, a little productive anxiety.
Brian S: I wonder sometimes if that’s what drew me to poetry as a youngster. I was raised in a faith that mostly preached binaries but was happy to get into symbolic interpretations when it suited the doctrinal need.
Justin Phillip Reed: Listen. The 23 Psalm is one of my favorite poems and packs so much euphemism and metaphor into so few lines.
Brian S: It’s a brilliant piece of writing and often of translation. That’s one of the many sections of the Psalms where a translator can make a world of difference.
Justin Phillip Reed: Because it deals almost entirely in symbol, which I’m sure gets kinda crazy in a language in which “thy rod and thy staff” have no referent.
Brian S: I found myself rereading your book today in preparation for this chat, and the news of yet another school shooting was on the TV above my head at the store/cafe where I work, and I opened up to the poem “A Statement from No One, Incorporated” which starts with a line from Hanif Abdurraqib. Your opening line is “We are not responsible,” and while I don’t think this is the primary meaning, I kept reading that as a statement about our society as in we are not mature enough to handle our business as adults. We are irresponsible, in fact. Is that in the subtext of the poem?
Justin Phillip Reed: Irresponsible, yes. Refusing accountability, yes. Having little or no regard or karmic sense of recklessly handled lives, yes. I was responding to Hanif, whose tweet was responding to the court decisions in the Freddy Gray case. But beyond it’s specific functions, this poem is within the realm of larger US complicity. I consider “A Statement from No One, Incorporated” a persona poem, and not actually a sincere, reflexive use of the collective “we.”
Brian S: And it feels like we’ve been at the point that when this happens, or when the police shoot/arrest/harass a person of color just for being in public, that we know what roles all the various public figures are going to enact for us. And we wonder how soon the next one will happen.
Justin Phillip Reed: I wouldn’t venture to say that everyone responds the same to the fleshed obliteration of state-remunerative police killings. That trauma has specificity. But there is something immature—rather, un-maturing—about the white ascendency whose machinations these violent cycles are a part of.
Brian S: Oh, I think I worded my comment poorly. I didn’t mean to suggest that everyone reacts the same. I was thinking more about public figures, especially politicians and lobbyists and pundits, the people who tend to shape public discourse. Like I can almost write the NRA’s response for them at this point, because they’ve said the same thing every time this happens.
How long did you work on this collection? And what’s the oldest poem in the book?
Justin Phillip Reed: I think Indecency might be four years old at the tip of its oldest poem. Which is a very young book, I know. I think I first drafted “Carolina Prayer” in 2013.
Justin Phillip Reed: I’ll feel differently about this when I’m older and have cultivated, as I say, more patience. But I appreciate that this book chronicles for me a “moment” that felt inescapable, infinite, and unbearable.
Brian S: I think a lot of the book’s energy comes from that feeling. Some of it might be your age and the need to develop more patience, but as someone who’s pushing fifty, let me say that this moment feels pretty inescapable, infinite, and unbearable to me too much of the time. This is a weird world we’re living in right now.
Justin Phillip Reed: Lately I’m trying to witness it as less “weird,” though, because that tends to become a trap in which I excuse it all as bizarre instead of actual tangible ramifications of thoughts, decisions, and acts by actual flawed people.
Brian S: That’s fair. I joke with friends about the time travelers fucking everything up just to make the Cubs win the World Series and how it was absolutely not worth it, but that plays into the same mindset, that we’re not where we are because of it’s the logical culmination of white supremacy and capitalism fucking each other’s brains out for centuries.
Who are you reading lately?
Justin Phillip Reed: Lately I’m simplifying and trying to finish books. I can’t say if I’m doing that well. I’m finishing The Iliad. I’m reading Renee Gladman’s Calamities, Jorie Graham’s Dream of the Unified Field, Orwell’s 1984. I’m looking ahead at a large pile of new (to me) James Baldwin texts. A couple of days ago I read Simone White’s chaplet Metro Boomin Want Some More Nigga and it shook my core to read such rich sensory experience of contemporary music.
Brian S: I haven’t read The Iliad since my freshman year as an undergrad, but I did read Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, and I recommend it highly. And I’ve been reading Baldwin on and off myself lately, too. Such great work. I’ll have to check that [Simone White chaplet] out!
Justin Phillip Reed: I’d like to think that once Achilles is dead, I’ll take a break from the Greeks, but to know me is to know that’s probably not happening.
Brian S: An aside about Baldwin—are those texts unread because they weren’t assigned when you were in college? Because that was the case for me. And the more I read of him (and I’ve dived into Toni Morrison for the same reason), I think it’s damn near criminal that he’s not assigned more.
Justin Phillip Reed: They certainly weren’t assigned. There was perhaps one instance in my first creative nonfiction workshop where we encountered a bit of Baldwin as included in The Art of the Personal Essay anthology, but I’m not even sure we seriously discussed him. I had to come to Baldwin outside of coursework. This is a trajectory I’ve come to expect in my learning. Most of these—the stack is sitting right beside me—are unread, though, because they are rarely available in one place.
Brian S: Me, too. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us tonight. It’s been a great conversation. And thanks for such a terrific book.
Justin Phillip Reed: Thank you again for reading and for choosing the book! And thanks for inviting me to chat.