“Knowing the page is blank and full of so many possibilities is what drives me.”
What Are We Not For (Bull City Press, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the chapbook, or one that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
What Are We Not For
but to be broken
like the deer resting on the side of the highway,
in a bed made of
its insides? Isn’t the scene
always the same—the rump and legs
frozen in its last kick?
I too have lost my gaze,
the grip of the wheel—
like the one that plowed into
the deer. Wheel, will—it’s all the same.
And the ear does fail me at times,
as it must have the deer
that should have listened better.
Francine, on the other end of the line,
tells me I’m not listening; to listen
to my body or I won’t last long. We never
last long, do we? It all breaks—
the line pulsing forward, the line pause,
the long bone of it all. After all,
I am a broken animal. I am brokered
in the name of the wheel.
Why did you choose this poem?
“What Are We Not For” is a kind of synecdoche for the book. The sensibility of the poem and the way it behaves enacts a belief about the body—it is all too willing to harm and be harmed. In the book, there is suspicion of the body’s motives and the lengths it is willing to go in the name of self-fulfillment.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
Living in a Black gay man’s body in American today is overwhelming for me. So one of the things I am interested in recording are the sites at which there are breakdowns in the connective tissue between a body’s intent and the actions/postures that that intent manifests. It is at these sites of experience, I see desire, violence, tenderness, cruelty, and love vying for space. This collection looks at spaces in which men and boys are forced into narrow proximities of each other; spaces in which each is forced to touch (emotionally and physically) the other.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem in this collection is “Of a Wicked Boy.” The poem you see is the descendant of so many versions over the span of ten years or so. But the original poem came from a writing exercise given to me by poet Vievee Francis in 2006 or 2007, I think. The prompt went something like: write about a horse in the first stanza; in the second stanza, write about a nightmare or dream; finally write about a city in the last stanza. You can still see the pentimento of that original project in the poem now.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Initially, the construction of the chapbook was built around motifs, something like, “in this poem, I have a bird, and then in the next poem, there is a man dressed like a bird.” This created the sensation of a very linear and orderly narrative. But, then Matthew Olzmann, my editor, got me to question what might happen if I troubled that order. One example is what happened with what I call my “dog suite” of poems.
“Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the Dog Comes Back”, “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy,” was the original order of the dog suite. In that order, each poem built on the one before to create a larger narrative. All of the poems were bunched together in the manuscript that way as well. What we ended up doing was: separating them across the collection; then transposing the last and penultimate poems. This new arrangement still gives the poems space to talk to each other. But also the poems are now able to react in a way I hadn’t thought before to the poems around them. This creates, I hope, a sense of wildness, abandon, uncertainty, and discovery.
As I stated before, the title poem is truly the central poem to the book, yet it does not sit at the center of the book—this was intentional on a structural level. The speakers in these poems are often heading either willingly or blindly toward danger and risk. Safety and stability are not an option for the men and boys moving through these poems. The title of the collection mimics this sense. The natural and bodily inclination is always to “correct” the title when read aloud to “What We Are Not For.” The mind wants to resist what is being read. There is comfort in having the subject in control of that verb. But comfort is not the space for this collection. By prioritizing the verb before the subject, the syntax clues one in on what I am after, I hope, with each poem. It should feel wrong when it is spoken. There should be a sense of unease. I am also in love with the way the syntax of the title wrestles with nomenclature. It is at once a question, a dare, and an edict.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
There are no “misfits” in the collection. But a poem that I think is reaching beyond the collection, that may or may not guide me in a full-length collection, is “The Lynching of Frank Embree.” This poem, like “Of a Wicked Boy,” has haunted me for years. Moving through the world in a Black gay man’s body, there are tricky spaces in which I am forced to move through. In this poem, I seek to trouble this historical Black body that I have inherited. What I do with this body and the larger societal repercussions of those actions are all things I think I am not done writing about.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
One of the many lessons I picked up from my time at Warren Wilson College was allowing myself the space and time to explore all of a draft’s possibilities. I mean “possibilities” in the broadest of sense. I’m slow, so it wasn’t until the last couple of years that I was able to go, “Oh, right! I can do whatever I want with this poem!” So one of my strategies is to go easy on myself when drafting a poem. I don’t write well under pressure. For me, writing has to be play. I love turning a poem backward sentence by sentence. I like to pull a sentence from the middle of a poem and make it the last sentence to see what will happen. Received formal conceits (sonnets, villanelles, etc.) also work well for me; they force me into different choices that I would not have made consciously. Because it is so easy for me to write in the present and past tenses, I might challenge myself to write in future tense. Perspectives and vantage points are always fun to toy around with. The list goes on and on.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like?
Bull City Press is a dream press. Ross White and Matthew Olzmann have held my hand through this whole process. The emphasis has always been, “Tommye, what do you want to do?” I feel quite spoiled.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
The brilliant Philip McFee and Flying Hand Studio came up with the cover design and art. The art is actually a composite of different images, I think. Ross White and I had a conversation about how I see the aesthetics of the collection. I also sent art samples of some of my favorite visual artists. What came back to me was the cover you see now. It made feel, and still makes me feel, uncomfortable and unsettled, which is what the poems are owed. Yes, it is quite the risk having a cover like this, but so too are the poems inside.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Noah Stetzer’s Because I Can See Needing a Knife, from Red Bird Press, is hands-down one of the most searing chapbooks I have read this year. In these poems, the emotional intelligence is backed up by a keen sense of a poem’s mechanics. Noah is one of my favorite poets.
Another chapbook I am obsessed with is Aricka Foreman’s Dream with a Glass Chamber—from YesYes Books. I am in awe of the way she toys around with sound. There are moments when her poems build toward a wall of sound that registers at odds with what is happening on the level of information. But even that is just the blade’s edge of what Foreman is up to in this collection.
What are you working on now?
I’ve stopped telling people that I’m working on a full-length manuscript. By doing so, I’ve placed a lot of needless pressure on myself. As I said earlier, my strategy is now to allow myself time and space for possibility. I will just say that I’m just writing poems. I follow threads, as I mentioned earlier in the case of “The Lynching of Frank Embree,” but I am just giving myself space to create and travel.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
I’ve actually made a return to an old habit of mine—writing in longhand. As technology has improved over the years, it’s easier to just type up a poem right quick. Well, I have a problem with that. I can be easily fooled—I’ve learned. On screen, a draft can go, “Look at me and how perfect I look in this Word document.” But in reality, that draft should not see the light of day. I try and stick close to longhand for as long as I can in my process. I write very slowly, so I need to work things out. I carry pencils and a pencil sharpener with me everywhere.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
The same thing Vievee Francis told me years ago: read everything. You can’t call yourself a writer if you are not a book lover first. And don’t just read stuff you think you would like, but read the stuff you think you won’t like too. Are there blurbs on the back cover of that book? Read those people too. I want to go even further, and say read essays and reviews on writing. Heck, why not even write a review of a book you’ve read—just for yourself. This helps to start articulating what it is you are doing or want to do in your own work.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
My mother used to do office work at Michigan Bell in the 80’s. I remember getting so excited when she would bring home these huge reams of dot matrix printer paper. I used to get so giddy about all of that blank space waiting for me to fill it with whatever I wanted. That same giddiness is still true for me today. Knowing the page is blank and full of so many possibilities is what drives me.
Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye Blount now lives in the nearby suburb of Novi, Michigan. He has been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work has either appeared or is forthcoming in the following journals: Poetry, New England Review, Phantom, Ninth Letter, Third Coast, Ecotone, and others.