In the space between one self arriving with the intent of killing another, Cortney Lamar Charleston—a Cave Canem fellow and Original Poetry editor here at The Rumpus—has written an astonishing book. Doppelgangbanger, Charleston’s highly anticipated follow-up collection to his debut, Telepathologies, is a dispatch from both the man in the mirror and the country that surrounds that mirror. “I’m beside myself almost always: A side, B side,” writes Charleston, as the book weaves deft recollections of the plight of double consciousness with a lyricism that can only come from a true student of hip-hop. But Charleston’s book is more than a simple series of code switches; it is a speaker’s odyssey out of the masks which we build and those which are thrust into our hands. Charleston reckons with his own masculinity, the fronts we put on, the damages avoided and the damages inflicted.
Whether crafting a still life with Lauryn Hill carved into a desk or recounting how Grand Theft Auto III teaches a young player to “be a pacifist inside / the shell of a violent person” while also illustrating “bad things aren’t bad / if you wear a white man to do them,” Charleston never loses sight of these ways the mask can begin to feel like a vital organ—especially in the early 2000s, where many of the poems are set. Kaleidoscopic yet intimate in its traversal of the heyday of shirtless gangsta rappers and heady gold grills, Doppelgangbanger is a can’t-miss entry in Charleston’s bibliography.
I was lucky to sit a spell with Cortney and with this book that reminded me of the rhyme between “decoy” and “boys” and how much we have each been both. Over Zoom, we discussed double consciousness, reflection, and the intimacy of couplets.
The Rumpus: It’s said that the hardest part of writing a book, and especially a second book, is reconciling the various people that you became across the course of the book’s production. Which of the selves did you find hardest to reconcile as you were approaching the final product of this collection?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: That’s a good question. I guess in thinking about that one of the things that’s important to consider is the length of time between the first poem in the book and the last poem in the book—in terms of chronology and when it was drafted, but not necessarily its placement within the book itself. If I look at that time, it’s a span of a good five years, maybe a little longer. And, another book happened in between that. So, in finishing up this one, I had to reconcile a much younger version of myself that was less confident in voice, and converge with someone a bit older and more surefooted on the page.
So, trying to consider how that younger version of myself connects to the more mature version, in not just the practice and craft of the writing but also the growth I’ve gone through in that time span as well, I think that was critical in putting the final together, in understanding what the proper revisions were and thinking about the structure. One thing that also strikes me is how that helped me grapple with some of the poems that are written more in the style of persona. I think the only reason I was able to effectively pull some of those off is because of that maturity. Without that, I think this would have been a very different book. I’m grateful for that gap of time and that there was another collection in that span because of how it brought me back to these poems with a new eye and a new sense of what they were actually trying to do.
Rumpus: I want to stay on this theme of reflection and reckoning; I’m just stunned by this opening poem. Throughout the book we see so much reckoning with the inner threat versus the outer threat, the speaker seeing himself both murdered and also as the one holding the pistol. How do these notions of doubling and perception end up forming a key thread?
Charleston: I like the frame of that question. Through that process of self-excavation, I realized I was always one of those people who felt I had a strong understanding of who I was. Understanding the life of the interior—someone who is sensitive, thoughtful, cautious, deliberate. And, I also know that one of the difficult things about growing up was that I thought I wasn’t allowed to be the person I was on the interior, outside. There are all of these expectations, all of these codes, all of these roles that I felt I had to play that were somewhat antithetical to who I felt I was. It’s one of those things that made me realize that the whole notion of the inner threat and the outer threat are kind of one and the same.
The reason I felt threatened on the inside is because I felt threatened from the outside. The dissonance is created by the fact that in crossing the barrier of the flesh there’s no easy transition. Outside, I have my abled body, my dark complexion, my lack of height, etc. I know that’s read in a certain way and it can be weaponized against me and in some other ways I can weaponize it. On the inside, I have no intention of picking up a weapon against anybody or anything, but because there is this threat lurking there’s no bridge for the inside to get outside without being thrashed and it creates this doublethink, this entirely different mode of being and thinking that comes to inhabit my body in a weird way as well which can be a threat, not necessarily to others but to myself. The poems are grappling with what happens if I become too defensive, relying on the mask so much that it becomes hard to take off at all.
Rumpus: As you were putting together this book, you’ve mentioned that a third book had emerged. Can you say a little bit more about that, and how you knew these poems weren’t part of Doppelgangbanger?
Charleston: Most definitely. There came a point toward the conclusion of my drafting on Doppelgangbanger when these new poems started to materialize. They didn’t arrive with some great plan, but they started coming rather quickly and were all a very different voice than the collection I was putting the finishing touches on. That was my first clue that something else might be emerging. Furthermore, they were poems that were not necessarily focused on a speaker that was inherently a facsimile of me, but rather reverted back to an “I” that is pluralistic in intention and meaning. They were concerned with the past as a way of explaining the present, like much of my writing is, but they were really nerding out, or beginning to, on history, bringing in figures that have fascinated me for much of my life and certainly during years formulating my personal politics and ethics.
To be real, I’ve even slipped up a bit with my “third book” because there are actually even more poems that are connected to one another that are not associated with the work I just described. Those poems are fewer, but I know what they’re grappling with already and will turn to them once my fun with these historical-contemporary poems, for lack of a better adjective, has coalesced into something with more structure and has been refined. It is nice, however, to think of these other poems I could be working on when I need a change of pace. I’m never truly wholly focused on one project at a time. I’m just concerned about recording the words I’m moved to record; the project materializes later from those impulses, at least for me.
Rumpus: One of the things I loved most about this collection was how its sense of time didn’t run linearly. I felt this most in this series of still-life portraits you’ve arranged throughout the book. To me, this speaks to the unhealed childhood that can result from being Black in a place that predominantly is not and how it creates a feeling of almost un-payable debt. I was wondering how this ordering choice spoke both to your task of reconciling a younger and older Cortney and your other task of reconciling the youthful memories of this speaker with the reality of their present?
Charleston: This was one of the key factors as I was organizing the manuscript. At no point did I ever want it to be arranged linearly, particularly because I felt that I needed to disrupt that expectation of linear narrative. One of the things that would have been lost across the poems if they were arranged linearly would be the tension that comes with self-discovery and self-actualization.
If you’re looking at what that means specifically for Black children, it’s the fact you’re going to live through childhood like anyone else. Children are inquisitive, vulnerable, and observant but at the same time, when you’re dealing with Blackness and all that that comes with the history, the present, the specter of environment, Black children learn they have to learn differently than how other kids learn. You learn the world works in a different way and because of that, you pick up habits and those habits become a part of your behavior and some of that inquisitiveness goes by the wayside. You become hardened, and eventually you have to reckon with what are the things that you picked up that are you and what is something else.
I think by ordering poems non-linearly, that tension comes out more strongly. You get the sense that this is something being grappled with in real time. This felt like the most sincere way that I could think to convey that grappling. Over time, you trace back and find that there were these moments of tension even then, and I just didn’t know how to navigate them; I just kind of stumbled my way through like most people do. The form started to take shape and one of the added benefits was it made the distinction between person and persona clearer over the full arc of the collection.
Rumpus: What was the hardest poem to take out of the book, and how did you know it was time for it to go?
Charleston: It wasn’t just one poem but a series of poems in the original draft titled after an election year (Bush vs. Kerry, Obama vs. McCain, etc.). Those were hard to take out because I do really love those poems and also love that within the set of them they show their own timeline of this burgeoning political understanding of the world that I had intended to compliment the wrestling with environment, connecting the micro to the macro. Why I think they ultimately needed to come out—and I was able to talk about this with Nate Marshall early on in the process—is that when I think about the kind of back and forth between person and persona within the manuscript I don’t know that tension was as well represented in those poems. They started to feel more like fun asides, ultimately I realized there wasn’t enough there to connect to the wider world of the book. Beyond that series of poems, there was a poem about my dad I took out which was easier as a decision because while I loved it, there just wasn’t a great place to put it; it would have been doing fairly similar work to another poem in the collection.
Rumpus: The second section may be my favorite section in the book. As I was working my through it I noted that as the speaker spends more time grappling with the gap between how he sees himself and how the world perceives him, especially as he grapples with himself as a sexual being and what sex requires of him, and his perception of his body as you shift towards couplets. How do you find that stanza structure interacts with your ideas on intimacy?
Charleston: This is a really good example of “trust the poem.” As the poems begin to grapple with intimacy and desire, the couplet structure became almost a comfort zone. I’m a deeply sensitive but also insecure person who is often fearful of being vulnerable. Vulnerability is easiest for me in small spaces; the more people that there are around me the more I feel the desire to put the mask on, to perform. What I desire in intimacy is the ability to kind of strip all that off. The natural thing then is to reduce the number of people who surround me as much as possible. When it comes to sexuality in particular, what I was ultimately searching for is that one person with whom I could be my full self rather than having or letting myself get involved with too many people who would then get a fragment of me but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to be the person I wanted to be. I wouldn’t get to be my full self.
Where this dovetails with masculinity is that there are all these codes about sexual conquest. Sexual conquest as a representation through militaristic language of what a man is supposed to do. Everything is conquest, conquest and violence in everything; that’s the language that’s given to us. In kind of embracing that, I would have been assuring myself of a life where I was constantly at war, fighting to look and be perceived a certain way. The couplet structure reinforces that desire for intimacy, that person through which I imagined I’d find some level of peace, some level of comfort and assurance that I could be myself. On the page, I’m almost idealizing this idea of one and none other.
Rumpus: How has your relationship with form shifted in this book compared with Telepathologies? What informs that?
Charleston: Well, one thing that comes to me immediately is that Telepathologies, even though it has a tremendous amount of formal variation with traditional and improvised forms present, was also anchored by a series of poems where a consistent form was utilized at least among them. I think this was a way to keep myself focused because I lacked some confidence in my abilities. With Doppelgangbanger, a little more sure-footed, I again leaned into my desire for formal diversity, so much so it feels no two poems are arranged in quite the same way. Voice, rhythm, longer lines, a (somewhat even) balance between narrative and lyric impulses: yes, these things help bind these poems together, but so many other choices are rooted specifically in the experience of an individual poem.
Doppelgangbanger is where I became more accepting of this idea that the form a poem takes in all its facets need only to serve that single poem, and I’ve grown to care little about how orderly a read looks or feels across the collection from poem to poem. The muck, in many ways, feels more honest, more authentic to my mind personally and to the lives we live generally; it doesn’t represent a lack of refinement, a lack of discipline, or a lack of consideration. If I can’t have fun on the page, what’s the point? I don’t need to be reminded I’m a serious dude. I need to be reminded I’m alive.
Photograph of Cortney Lamar Charleston by Jeremy Michael Clark.