I Had to Go There: Talking with Enzo Silon Surin
The poems in Enzo Silon Surin’s debut full-length collection reach off the page and grab you by the throat—which makes its title, When My Body Was a Clinched Fist, particularly appropriate. Full of tight, lyrical language, these poems reveal as though in a strobe light moments from the life of a young Haitian immigrant growing up in Queens during the height of the War on Drugs. The book’s final poem, “When the Body Returns as A One-Hundred-Year-Old Fist,” provides the connective tissue for those strobed moments.
Enzo and I first crossed paths on Instagram when I discovered Central Square Press, a small press where he features the voices of Black poets who may have had trouble publishing their work elsewhere. But it turned out Enzo and I were connected outside of social media as well. A fellow Lesley MFA alum, Enzo offered a seminar about his experience starting a small press, and how creative expression can be a means for social action. Enzo looks at the whole person, not just the poet. He encourages his students to pay extra attention to self-care when tackling difficult experiences in their work. His own poetic tribe, the Next Verse Poets, does the same. “We really support each other,” he says. “Not just in poetry but in life.”
Enzo Silon Surin is a Haitian-born poet, educator, publisher and social advocate, is the author of When My Body Was A Clinched Fist (Black Lawrence Press, July 2020), and the chapbooks, A Letter of Resignation: An American Libretto (2017) and Higher Ground (2006). He is a PEN New England Celebrated New Voice in Poetry, the recipient of a Brother Thomas Fellowship from The Boston Foundation and a 2020 Denis Diderot [A-i-R] Grant as an Artist-in-Residence at Chateau d’Orquevaux in Orquevaux, France. He is currently Professor of English at Bunker Hill Community College and the founding editor and publisher at Central Square Press.
I caught up with Enzo via phone on a Saturday evening while he was riding his bike along the waterfront in Lynn, Massachusetts. “It’s bedtime at home so it wasn’t going to be the most peaceful time,” he said. Our conversation ranged from his manuscript to our shared love of early ’90s rap music to the role poetry plays in working through traumatic situations.
The Rumpus: Tell me a little bit about When My Body Was a Clinched Fist. What started that project?
Enzo Silon Surin: It started with a few poems about a friend who was murdered when I was in high school. I spent years not knowing how to tell that story. During my brief stint in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, one of my instructors there said, “You should consider writing this as a memoir.” So I abandoned the poems. But prose was not the correct genre. The exercise did provide me with the necessary entry point, though. Finishing Line Press published my chapbook Higher Ground, in 2006. But I didn’t feel like I’d done the experience justice. At Lesley my thesis ended up addressing my childhood in Haiti and Queens, New York. But it was trying to address too much. At the end of the day, there were actually two separate manuscripts: the side of me that grew up in Haiti, and the side that grew up in New York. I realized I needed to tell the New York story first.
Rumpus: Yes, the book is very much about New York.
Surin: I wanted to convey these experiences of being an urban Black youth in New York City from the mid-’80s to mid-’90s. I lost a few friends to street violence, so I wanted to tell that story. I picked the simpler story to tell, but it was far from easy to tell it. I had to relive a lot of trauma in order to convey the experiences.
Rumpus: What do you think poetry’s role is in recovering from traumatic situations?
Surin: I am grateful for poetry and think it can be a very effective tool in the recovery process, but I don’t think it’s the only thing. I’ve come to realize that not everyone has the opportunity to use poetry to address trauma, nor does every poet want to use it for purpose. It is one way to articulate and understand an experience, but it doesn’t take the place of therapy. It doesn’t take the place of the other hard work that one must do to address trauma in their life.
Rumpus: I would agree with that. Therapy is a way to grapple with the emotions and to reframe what happened. And poetry, in my experience, allows me to express things that can’t be expressed in the same way that you do in therapy. Poetry does allow you to heal in a way that therapy alone doesn’t, but it’s not a replacement for therapy.
Surin: When I teach creative writing, especially my Introduction to Poetry Writing course, lots of students think they can work out their trauma in class. At the beginning of each semester, before we discuss any of their writing, I always put some safety measures in place. I instruct them to pay attention to how certain subject matters resonate with them, and if they sense that writing about such a subject might cause them to unravel, to make sure they have a support system in place, which might include therapy. The page is not the only answer. We need to talk about self-care, too. The writing might be raw, or heavy, or you might put something on the page that you didn’t intend to. You need to have a support system in place, as general practice, to help you make sense of your experiences, to help put you back together.
Rumpus: What did your support system look like when you were writing these poems?
Surin: Good question. It was great to have Cate Marvin as a mentor at Lesley. She just kept nudging me slowly: if you can go a little bit further, go ahead. If not, move on to another piece. And we did this for many nights during my thesis semester.
At the end of my thesis, I thought I was done. But I was up at 2 a.m. one night, and I called her—which is unreal, by the way—but she said, “I was up anyway.” She said, “You know there’s a poem you haven’t written yet, right?” And I said, “Yes, that’s why I’m up.” She said, “As tough as it is, you have to write it.” And that’s the poem that eventually became the title poem of the manuscript, “My Body as a Clinched Fist,” a poem about a friend who was jumped by a mob.
Rumpus: You describe the experience as the moment when your body first curled into the shape of a fist.
Surin: The original title of the manuscript was Born to Triggers. I had to get into the psychology of it to get to the fist. I realized that my body had been engaged in this lifelong battle with trauma to keep itself from becoming a permanent fist.
Rumpus: You have a great quote about that from Peter Levine’s book Trauma and Memory. The idea that the body is hardwired into a state of hypervigilance. I know exactly the state that you’re talking about. The notion of the body as a “clinched fist” runs throughout this manuscript. It gives it structure. When did you first come up with that phrase?
Surin: I think the poem that started it was “Birth of a Clinched Fist.” Fistfights were how many of these guys handled their problems. I thought about what that meant for me, and how I was fighting, too, except I wasn’t using my fists outwardly. I was curling inward. The intensity, the anxiety that I dealt with most of my childhood—and even into adulthood—was because my body was tucking into itself for protection.
And then I realized, that’s what you do with a fist. You can use it to fight, but you can also use it to protect something. If you want to hold something tight in your hand, it’s in the shape of a fist. Going through the manuscript, I saw examples of fists everywhere. And that the body was involved in this clenching. But I realized that clenched with an “e” was not enough. A life-long love affair with the dictionary led me to “clinched,” with an “i.” It’s a boxing term, “clinched.” It’s when two boxers are grappling with each other in close proximity. They have their fists ready but neither of them is able to throw a punch. It’s still strategizing. It’s a struggle.
That represented what was happening to me because I didn’t get into fistfights. I did whatever I could to avoid them. I could always see to the end of every fight, that there wouldn’t be an actual end. It was so important to save face on the streets. I was always concerned about paybacks and repercussions. So, what do you do with that? Do you fight or do you avoid it? My body would decide what to do on its own. I would shut down, basically. And that’s when poetry helped me. On Friday nights, I was writing raps, I was writing poetry, instead of being out on the streets.
Rumpus: So, you didn’t seek to write a series of poems using the term “a clinched fist.” It was something you found in retrospect, and wove into poems you had already written.
Surin: Oh, yes. A lot of these poems had different titles. For example, “Letters to a Young Fist,” was previously published in Soundings East as “Letters to a Young Thug.”
Rumpus: The clinched fist becomes a term for not just you, but for all of the young boys who are being threatened and have to protect themselves.
Surin: Yes. It’s very hard for me to stay angry, even at those boys who jumped my friend. I carried that anger for a very long time. But I had to create a new narrative. That’s not who I am. And it doesn’t really solve anything. There’s a kid named Greg who very much represents that for me—I mention him several times in the book. Here’s a kid in the sixth grade, the leader of this gang called The A Team. All they did was walk around and jump people. They would go to the corner store and just pick someone to jump. One day I witnessed that. I was literally standing next to them and I watched them talking: “What about him?” “No, what about him?” Now why didn’t they jump me? I don’t know. At some point, I realized Greg was one of those fists. He became a clinched fist. I’m not sure how early that happened for him. But if you think about the sixth grade, that’s an eleven-year-old kid. That’s crazy.
Rumpus: That is.
Surin: I saw him maybe two years later. He looked like life had beat him up. And he said, “Yeah, you know, I’ve been locked up.” At thirteen, he looked like he was already an old man. And he said, “Hey, don’t turn out like me.” I mean, who says that? At thirteen. He reached out to me, to encourage me, he signed my yearbook, he said, “Keep on writing.” And I thought, why would he care about me? I knew a lot of Gregs, people that you would think are complete menaces to society, that people thought we should just throw away. But there were signs of life in all of them. Which means at some point they became clinched fists—there was something that they were trying to protect inside of themselves. And that’s why I end up changing a lot of the titles to include the word “fist,” because it wasn’t just me.
Rumpus: These lines in “Elegy for a Clinched Fist” really echo what you’re saying: “Every June we bid farewell to a class / of fists whose return was not promised…” That’s a tough thing to grow up with, seeing boys just like you falling prey to violence.
Surin: Yes. That particular poem reminds me of why I decided go deep into this manuscript. I was invited to a junior high school reunion. At first, I thought it would be nice. But as the reunion drew closer, I became more and more apprehensive. At some point I was filled with intense anxiety, to the point of anxiety attack. That was when I realized all the trauma connected to my junior high school experience. I didn’t end up going. But I did start writing those poems more intently.
Rumpus: I want to take a minute to talk about how tight and polished the language is throughout these poems. The first one, “Birth of a Clinched Fist,” really sets the tone. How long did you work on these poems before they were finished?
Surin: When I finished my MFA, I had the manuscript and I thought, “Well, this is done. Bring on the contracts!” [Laughs]
At some point, I realized what was missing from the manuscript was the pathology of the anxiety. I needed to accept that I was traumatized. I started to read books about trauma, and I recognized myself in them. I accepted it. It wasn’t easy to do, but I had to do it.
But what was missing from the manuscript was also New York City. I had written these poems about NYC, but I was still holding it at arm’s length. I had to go there. I immersed myself in the music that I listened to around that time. The music itself helped me to identify the beats and the rhythms that I needed to put into the manuscript. But the music also helped me frame the experience more accurately. Nas, a Queens rapper, on his landmark debut album Illmatic, has a song called “The Message,” and the first line of that song is “fake thug, no love.” Growing up in that environment, you couldn’t fake it. You couldn’t be a fake thug. And you couldn’t remain sidelined for too long. Eventually, the streets would force you to choose.
Rumpus: I tend to think of the writing life as encompassing three kinds of work. There’s the generative work where you have to turn off the inner critic and get into that flow state. Then there’s the revision work, which is more intellectual and often involves other people. And then there’s the po-biz, where you’re sending out your work, or promoting a book. How do you balance these? Especially considering that you’re also a father and a professor, and that you run Central Square Press.
Surin: Yeah, all those hats. [Laughs] I spend a lot of time alone with my work, in that writing zone, where I am mulling over lines. I tend to avoid writer’s groups.
Rumpus: You have to be careful. Sometimes you get terrible advice.
Surin: You do. You have to decide when you want to involve someone else in the process of a poem. Typically, when somebody else sees it is when I’m ready to submit it and I need a set of eyes to edit for clarification, or if I’m struggling to articulate something.
Submission for me is a completely different process. I know a lot of folks who can both write and submit. When I’m writing I’m writing, period. I have a lot of poems that probably should be out in the world, but I’m not ready to send them yet because the submission process itself is daunting. That’s the business side. That takes a lot of work and creative energy.
Rumpus: That rotation through these different phases, the creation, the revision, and the submission—is that an organic process for you? Or do you find that you tend to do one at particular times of the year?
Surin: I often find spring and fall to be good seasons for writing, but revising and submitting the work is more of an organic process. It’s probably why I don’t get published as often. I let a lot of the work sit. Other times, it is because of the hats. Sometimes I’ll push some poems away and say, I’m not in the mood to work on it right now because it requires something I cannot provide at the moment.
Rumpus: You’ve got to do that, though. You can’t force it with poetry. You have to let things take as long as they’re going to take. It’s frustrating. I would like to be done with this poem or that poem, and the poem’s not done until it’s done.
Surin: Right. But you see other people getting published, and winning awards. And they’re getting awards because they’re publishing, and they’re getting published because they’re sending out their work. You have to be able to withstand that amount of pressure.
Photograph of Enzo Silon Surin by Richard Howard.