1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Mississippi Drowning"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?
This poem had, as far as I know, two specific points of inspiration. The first is that since I was born in Memphis, the Mississippi River was the body of water I grew up with (or rather, beside). Almost every summer, a child – most often a boy – would try to swim in the river, get pulled under by a riptide, and drown. Or a fisher man would find a body in the river. Those seasonal tragedies were my first cautionary tales in a way and I still think about them often, about the river and its riptide hands.
The second was the interest I had (or have) in the spectacle of death and the way we “watch” victims. (Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others certainly comes to mind.) When the news would report stories of drowned 10 year old boys or the bodies of long-missing women being discovered by fishermen, I was horrified, but then I was intrigued. What did they look like? What happened? What did the water feel like? Of course, I kept these questions to myself, but I didn’t stop thinking about them.
2. I am very intrigued with the way this poem uses pronouns to manipulate mood. Starting the poem, the “I” is used, a move which lulled me into thinking about the speaker—the river/body image combinations, the actions being self-inflicted. However, “Scoop at my sparkle. I’ll give you nothing/but disturbed reflection.” brings in that “you,” creating a different dynamic and seemingly a change in the language of the speaker. Instead of lining his/her own throat with silt and lacing eyelids with algae, the speaker now wants to sing to the “you” and teach the “you” about this important thing that is like breathing. Was this an intentional shift in focus or something that occurred naturally in the writing process? Could you speak about this difference?
My goal was to subvert (or drown) a conventional image of victimhood. I wanted the voice to initially be viewed as a victim but eventually to become empowered and dangerous in his own right. The pronouns are a part of that transformation by first drawing attention to the victim – the “I” and then speaking pointing to the witness – the “you.” By the end, a victim that would typically be helpless and certainly mute is not only speaking, but is explaining what he will do to you if given the chance.
This shift was intentional because, for me, the poem was an attempt to figure out if it’s possible to be a victim and still have some kind of power or influence. In some ways, I would say this is as close as I get to a political poem. I had an argument which sometimes “messes up” my poems but I think it works here for the most part because instead of depending on rhetoric, I tried to let the images and language do the heavy-lifting.
3. The water imagery—algae, river, minnows, etc.—is obviously a large part of the language of this poem. How did this set of images seem to work for you in writing this poem?
Rigoberto Gonzalez, my thesis advisor when I was at Rutgers-Newark, said that every poem has to be its own complete and unique universe. I’ve tried to keep that in mind with all of my poems, but especially when writing in persona. This speaker draws from his “universe” which is to say he refers to what he knows and is surrounded by.
Also, I was intrigued by the possibility of beautifying things like algae, silt, and crawfish which, typically, aren’t regarded as very glamorous. I guess then that the imagery reflects the poem’s main idea of subversion. For the speaker, even something like algae has become alluring in its own way.
4. In a blog post from May 13th of this year, you discuss a question you’ve been looking into about what makes a particular poem gay. Boiling it down, you determined the real question is “Where are you?” You end the post: “Point to the lines and images in your poem and show me where you are.” Obviously, this idea of having a part of oneself in a poem is important. I was wondering which examples of you could be pulled from the lines and images of this particular poem.
The truth is that I’ve been obsessed with drowning for the last year or so, and it has nothing to do with water or even death. It’s about being (or feeling) overwhelmed and overtaken. I mean that as a gay man of color in an increasingly dicey political landscape. And I mean that as an person trying to make sense of the day to day madness we’re all subjected to. That madness is the water and we’re in it, but what if there’s a possibility of somehow thriving in the struggle of it all? That’s where I am; I’m in that question.
5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on turning my MFA thesis into a viable manuscript. “Mississippi Drowning” is a part of that project. Also, I’m slowly but surely making progress on my experiences growing up in the South.
6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
Letters to a Stranger by Thomas James: A Hunger by Lucie Brock-Broido; Ruin by Cynthia Cruz; Regarding the Pain of Others by Susan Sontag; The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarrell McCraney; Ties That Bind by Sarah Schulman; and Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South by E. Patrick Johnson.