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Interview: Rickey Laurentiis

Rickey Laurentiis' poem "You Are Not Christ" appears in the June issue of The Collagist. He was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Nashville Review, Indiana Review, Knockout Literary Magazine, among other journals. A recipient of a Cave Canem fellowship, he has also had poems commissioned from the Studio Museum in Harlem. You can learn more about his current projects at http://rickeylaurentiis.wordpress.com/.

1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "You Are Not Christ"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?

“You Are Not Christ” is a poem that went through radical changes. It began under a different title and was, itself, much longer—nearly two pages. The bulk of that length was due to a middle section that boldly and colorfully described Christ’s crucifixion. That description was flanked at the beginning and end with ideas about water and drowning. Eventually, I realized that this approach wasn’t working. Christ—whether one believes him as the literal Christ/Messiah, or simply appreciates his historical and metaphorical value—is a difficult figure to place in any poem without that poem, itself, drowning. I didn’t want the poem to concern him as much as I wanted it to concern the trauma and, as a friend of mine once put it, the tragedy of water. More specifically, I wanted to interrogate any given (human) body’s relation to this mysterious, vital force. Being from New Orleans, and having lived through (survived?) Katrina, this is not a theme uncommon for me.

2. The line—You are what’s in the lamb/that keeps it kicking—has stuck with me, as a definitive statement in this poem. This seems like the perfect expression for which the rest of the poem was constructed. However, you continue the poem, ending it with “Let it.” How did that sharp instructive line seem like the right fit to pull it all together?

Thank you. I wanted that line to function just in that way, perhaps like flash of lightning in a dark and darkening sky. Still, I didn’t want the poem to end in that moment. I needed to suggest that this was a revelation (if it was a revelation at all) that was brief. Therefore, I needed something to follow it. In some other poems I have written that comprise a manuscript for where all these themes and questions are worked out, I have utilized this phrase “Let it.” When I came to this part of “You Are Not Christ,” I realized this would be a good place to reprise it. “Let it,” to me, sounds wholly human in that it can be read simultaneously as an “instructive” or a command, but also as a plea, a wild call of desperation, as in “Let it, please.” This is human to me because it’s contradictory, a battle of two opposing energies. In this way, I decided to end the poem here so as to mirror the poem’s panicked yet peaceful beginning.

3. The title “You Are Not Christ” seems weighted as an emotional, reactive statement. How did this title develop?

The title was the only place in this poem that, eventually, I realized Christ (at least in such a blatant fashion) could exist. But even still Christ only exists peripherally, as a means to describe what “you” (any human) is not. As I’ve tried to make clear earlier, this poem is concerned with humanity; it is decidedly unconcerned with the divine. We all know or we are all made to believe that Christ might have willingly stepped into the water and, instead of walking it, may have slipped under and readily accepted death, as he did the night he and Judas kissed. There would have been no struggle, no war, only peace. There are certainly other ways to read Christ within the Bible, to determine whether or not he did go gently. Nevertheless, this idea of Christ as so devoted, so faithful, that he would willingly choose death out of love for what wouldn’t/can’t (i.e. humanity) is, I think, quite popular. It’s an interpretation that I remember, while growing up as a child in the Catholic church, was hung over my head (literally, Christ-on-the-Cross loomed over the altar where I served as an altar boy) and that constantly stressed to me that this act of sacrifice is, ironically, the epitome of what it means to live. In order words, it was a reminder that I was not, nor would I ever be, Christ and, for this terrible flaw, should be ashamed. When I made the decision to use this title for this particular poem, I sought to revise this latter idea; to suggest that there is no shame, necessarily, in not being Christ and that there is something strangely (queerly) beautiful about being just what you were created to be. The tragedy is that you may not realize this until the end.

4. As I was reading your blog, the first post I came across attempted to determine what makes a poem “gay.” I was reminded of a previous interview I did with Saeed Jones, whose blog happens to be in your blog roll. He had a blog post discussing the same issue, concluding that the real question deals with where the elements in the poem that identify the poet. Also, your post mentioned the idea of “drowning” as a metaphor for this issue, a topic Jones discussed in both his poem and his answer to my question. How does knowing other artists with similar perspectives and opinions, such as Saeed Jones, affect your writing?

It’s probably safe to say that Saeed and I met through that very question: what is a gay, or queer, poetics? That is to say, we met through Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City, founded by Alex Dimitrov, which, as far as I’ve determined, means to answer this question by means of rigorous, sometimes conflicting, discussion. The post on my blog that you reference was, in fact, a part of the response I gave to Saeed when he first asked me what makes a poem gay. In time, I fleshed out the response more into a kind of mini-essay. Similar to Cave Canem, which is a foundation for the cultivation of African American poets, another organization I am a member of, knowing artists with similar perspectives and opinions to mine and, more importantly, having them as friends, has greatly affected my own writing. Firstly, it gives me confidence to continue writing, to know that my ideas are not only comprehensible but are valuable. Secondly, it challenges me, for it becomes just that more crucial to find one’s original voice as you continue to sing in a chorus of your family. Particular to this theme of drowning, I was both surprised and excited to see that metaphor in the Saeed’s poem that you published last issue. I know, for me, water (and drowning in it) is a dominant image in my poetry not only for the fact that, in its fluidity, it represents a queer sensibility and sexuality but also, as I’ve mentioned earlier, represents a pivotal, life-changing moment in my life. As such, I am certain it will always remain with me and it will be my task to find still new and interesting ways to handle this obsession.

5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?

I’ve several different projects happening at the moment. Having just completed my first manuscript, I’m now involved in the work of sending it out into the world, which is both an arduous and intimidating task. My blog, CAYENNE, which you’ve mentioned, is also a current artistic project I’ve recently begun. There I hope to investigate the way poetics and art intersect with politics, as well as to feature reviews, art and writing from emerging and established artists, particularly those who identify as a queer person of color. Finally, I’ve begun the slow process of writing my first serious work of fiction. It’s still too early to go into great detail about it, but I can say it does feature antebellum New Orleans and, of course, water.

6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?

Breach by Nicole Cooley is lovely, important and necessary contribution to the growing category of books on disaster and trauma. I’ve read and reread Amorous Shepherd, by Dante Micheaux, and have yet to find words to exactly articulate the deep seduction the book has over me. Then there is Toni Morrison, whose oeuvre I’ve been reading all this summer, moving through A Mercy, Beloved, Song of Solomon (which I read side-by-side with the Bible’s Song of Solomon) and now I’m rereading Jazz. I may have to put her down, if only briefly, since Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room and Camus’ The Stranger keep eyeing me from the shelf. I look forward to the release of Rachel Eliza Griffith’s Miracle Arrhythmia scheduled for this September.

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