The first thing to know about the poet brian g. gilmore is this: he prefers the lowercase. brian g. gilmore. But people don’t always get it right. Can you blame them? This is a guy (the middle initial “g” is for “guy,” by the way) who gets props from Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me. There he is, one of the DC poets on the roll call of artists who shaped Coates: “Ethelbert Miller. Kenneth Carroll. Brian Gilmore. It’s important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”
gilmore is a poet of the invisible, of those exploited by the fine print—the little letters you overlook that hook you for a payday loan, say, or the lowercase lives getting evicted from their homes every day. A year ago, as I finished writing Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry, a book of experimental essays, I arranged some readings for gilmore, whose work I write about and have always admired. He had just published come see about me, marvin with Wayne State’s Made in Michigan Writers Series. Poetry about the American Midwest, cities, Black lives, joys, and sorrows. That seems like a lifetime ago, and a different world, but the collection—gilmore’s fourth book—feels more current than ever. Like it dropped yesterday. Or tomorrow.
It’s a lyrical homage of sorts to Marvin Gaye, who acts as patron saint for the poet making his own way in Michigan, where gilmore is a housing rights attorney, social justice advocate, and clinical professor and director of the Housing Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law. But, of course, the book is more than that—it’s a cultural mapping, a post-industrial elegy, a crying out by a Black man trying to survive this American blizzard, where, in “winter,” a stunning haiku, things get erased—words, lives: “cold michigan streets / ‘black lives matter’ sign / nearly covered w/ snow.”
Perhaps this is a perfect moment for a conversation with a poet who had to put his book promotion on hold as the nation shut down. Maybe we needed time to catch up with gilmore, time to process his elegies for the voiceless, time to think more about this middle of America he guides the reader through, the land of Detroit and Dayton, Kenosha and Minneapolis. gilmore and I spoke about his fascination with the Midwest, what he sees working each day in the court system, and the role of poetry for ordinary people.
The Rumpus: It’s been quite a year since your book appeared, so let’s talk about time. Your first book was Elvis Presley is alive and well and living in Harlem. Now, there’s come see about me, marvin. Within the new collection, we find Civil War reenactments in Michigan, shuttered factories, eternal brutalities. Has the book changed over this year? Do you look at it differently now, with some distance from it?
brian g. gilmore: It’s a book about life in the Midwest, from the viewpoint of an outsider, someone from the East Coast—DC, to be specific—so it has distance. But I think it is a reflection of what is seen by many right now. Post-industrial US is not pretty. It is uglier than we are willing to acknowledge, and all of the tensions that come with a failing society, and a failing society rooted in class and race inequalities, are more intense. Michigan, as it turns out, is the key state in US industrial history, with Detroit and Flint and Lansing, so the pain started there a long time ago and is mutating now, though the state is doing a decent job under the circumstances. I look at the book the same way, pretty much. It says what I wanted to say at the time: it is saying to Marvin Gaye over and over, “Okay, I get it.” But also, perhaps love can help us, make us survive this crazy period.
Rumpus: Michigan is, or was, car country. And this is very much a book of highways and crossroads. There are toll booth workers, scars of streetcar tracks in Lansing where you memorialize Malcolm X’s father (“he died a hundred / deaths for what he believed”). Why has the Midwest come to the center of the poetic map over the past few years? I’m thinking of a book like Kwame Dawes’s Nebraska, for example.
gilmore: This is a great question because there are numerous anthologies and books coming out about being Black and in the Midwest. Angela Flournoy has a book out about Detroit and segregated housing, the novel The Turner House. There is also a great anthology out called Black in the Middle. I read Dawes’s book just recently and it is fine work as well. Black poets in a strange place. For Black poets, writers, and artists, the Midwest has a particular hold on us because this is our second stop here in the West. Most of us can trace our roots to the South, which was pretty wicked for centuries. Then we came north and built new lives. A new world. Still, there is white supremacy and inequality, and when things go bad for the US they really go bad for Black Americans. They have gone bad with the collapse of the industries here. But the Midwest is rich in Black history and culture, so it will be, in the coming years, even more of a place for art. Prince and Motown and the Jackson Five and Chicago with the blues all are Midwest. Funk music was founded and created in Ohio—Dayton, Ohio. So, I think it is just getting started, this fascination with the Midwest and the voices here. Detroit, and many other cities in the Midwest, are full of dynamic Black poets.
Rumpus: America is a land of unmarked graves in your work. Everywhere, it seems, is a palimpsest, a site written over, half-erased. Black Lives Matter signs buried in the snow. What’s the poet’s job today, in a culture where Confederate monuments are coming down?
gilmore: As I tell people all the time, I think the poet’s job today, as it has always been, is to communicate. To say something we can understand or at least consider for our own lives. Poets have to come to the art for whatever reason they want or need. I came to it not just for the love of words and literature and ideas but to try to convince people to do better. That South Africa’s apartheid was wrong. That racism and poverty in the US is wrong. That violence against women is wrong. Like Clarence Major, like Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, I wanted to make some beauty.
Poets, many of them, are very sensitive, and they notice things. Maybe they are hyperaware of things. I am not sure if awareness of history drives everyone’s work, but I’m not sure how you cannot understand that we are part of a history that will be told one day. We need to get it down on paper, on video, on something, so people can learn from the wrong they did, and the right. Amiri Baraka used to say, of America, you better write it down, otherwise no one will ever believe it actually happened. He was, of course, referring to the madness of this country when he said that, the decadent and dystopian ideals being pushed by some that have shaped history here in such a profound way.
Rumpus: Let’s talk madness and your line of work. A lot of what you’ve been doing for years has come into focus recently. There’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership, a story you’re well aware of as a housing rights lawyer. Many of your poems take place in eviction courts, a kind of absurdist theater. In one poem someone “hits me over the / head w/a chair.” In another, the court is just a bucket of crabs with “nonstop snapping.” What do you see in the courts today? Is it that bad? Worse?
gilmore: I have always been a lawyer for the so-called “dregs” of society. The poor. The mentally disabled. Those who don’t (and can’t) pay their bills. People facing eviction all the time. Poverty and racism is our court system. Most of the cases in court have been figured out. Insurance companies sue one another and some settlement is reached. Company A sues Company B for stealing their intellectual property. Yet, the things I see are the hidden realities. Poor people barely making it. They don’t have enough money, they are trying to numb the pain of their lives with alcohol and opioids, and they struggle. The courts are being asked to sort this out every day. It is an absurdist theater. We, social justice lawyers, are fighting for that tiny thread of daylight they can slip through and survive another few months. The judges know the players. The judges and the lawyers (myself included) know we are part of a ridiculous system.
Rumpus: I have heard you talk about incarceration and housing in the same sentence before.
gilmore: Mass incarceration is big business. It keeps a lot of people employed and is a waste of resources and human beings. It is. Well, that same system exists in Landlord-Tenant courts and in civil courts where people are sued over debts. I know so many lawyers who don’t do legal work; they just collect debts. They sued people, they don’t show, they take a judgment and then they try to find them, so they can garnish their wages. This is not a way to run a country or a legal system. Most of this is because of economic inequality. Capitalism run amok for the last forty years. The reason people are always in eviction court is because they don’t make enough money and their rent is too high. They might pay their rent but then miss some car payment. This is fundamentally a decadent, indecent society that demonstrates less and less humanity as it enters its imperial death spiral.
Rumpus: That reminds me of a shirt you like to wear to Zoom poetry readings. In very small print it reads, “most people ignore / most poetry because / most poetry ignores / most people.” Is poetry easier to ignore these days, in the age of Zoom? Is that a worry?
gilmore: Well, it’s been rough. My book was named a Michigan Notable Book for 2020 and we were set to go on tour with the other winners. That would have been throughout Michigan in the libraries and other spots. However, we had to cancel the events. I did a podcast interview and there is the interview I did with you for the Library of Michigan series where I wore that shirt, with the Adrian Mitchell quote. That is, strangely enough, receiving some occasional traffic. It was disappointing not to do the spring 2020 tour I had planned but as my mother would say, it is what it is.
Rumpus: Here are some of the people you don’t ignore in your poetry: the people of Flint, the people of Idlewild (once called Michigan’s “Black Eden”), and then there’s a white dude (in “o canada”), your landscaper. “He cuts my grass detests the black president.” We see him “dancing butterball / naked on social media,” and you write, “his wife is dying my big bro’s wife has the same disease / this is where we all meet most days it is our balm / & burden.” This is humor that can break a heart. Does this come from DC? I’m thinking of writers like Kenneth Carroll. I’ve seen him break up a room just by reading the title of his poem “Snookie Johnson Goes Down to the Recruiter’s Office Near Benning Road & Starts Some Shit.”
gilmore: Great question. All I can really say is the poetry school I came up in and respect is interested in ordinary citizens, ordinary people, with good and bad traits. Rarely would I write a poem about a famous person. They don’t need my promotion; they have publicists and fan clubs.
Rumpus: You map Michigan, and the intersections of race and class, but your state is almost liminal, presided over by Marvin. An imagined country that’s also real. Mother, for you, is a toll booth worker “w/ a beautiful afro” who can “see across the centuries.” “We / want / to be / seen” is how another poem about Lansing ends.
gilmore: I guess my view of it is kind of universal but also specific. I originally just began thinking of what Marvin Gaye encountered. DC is a very different city from Detroit and the Midwest, although there are similarities. And the DC I came up in is more indicative of the prideful spirit of Motown as opposed to the dismal trailer park existence of Eminem. That is real out here and I wanted people—especially non-whites—to understand class issues at work in the country. That is who I see in my work as a law professor and tenant lawyer.
It is a terrible thing that has been done out here, but imagine: the average Black person is still considered beneath all of that, even if they have means. The racial caste system Marvin likely encountered out here likely was similar to DC, I am sure. Detroit now, though, feels the hit of post-industrialization across racial and class lines. DC? Not so much. It’s a bubble of a world. It’s such a different city than any other in the US. So, I felt okay writing as a total outsider though I was seeing it and living it as well.
Rumpus: That kind of insider/outsider vision makes me think of sports in your poems, which feel strange and new. In Minneapolis you see Somalians in the snow “darker than / chunks of coal kicking around a soccer ball.” I was just reading Allen Iverson’s tribute to Kobe Bryant, which is a brilliant pop-poetic elegy. And it’s all about those ties, that feeling of connection: “Greatness needs company, and we needed each other.” What answers do you find in sports these days?
gilmore: ”Sports is life,” I say to my kids. And my wife. My wife, Elanna, used to dismiss that line. But it’s true. It is when you lose and win in sports, when you succeed and don’t succeed that you learn what life will be like. Up and down. Some wins and losses. I can remember losing games coming up—baseball, basketball, tennis matches—and they hurt bad. But they prepared me for life. The ebb and flow. That is what is so beautiful about sports now, especially a game like soccer, and now basketball, which has a similar culture. We play the game, and it is what we do, but it isn’t what we are. We are human beings.
Photograph of brian g. gilmore by Steven Cummings.