“The role that art plays in our social movements is not lost upon me, as art is the artifact that best captures what it means to live through a time; a history book can tell you what happened but it can’t tell you what it felt like if you weren’t there.”
Telepathologies (Saturnalia Books, 2017)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I’m originally from the suburbs of Chicago, the eldest of four children born to two native, Black Chicagoans. In my early years, I grew up bouncing between the suburbs and the South Side of Chicago, which is where a lot of family and community was for me; of particular importance, regarding community, was my church―Logos Baptist Assembly. I was a church kid through and through, and while it explains so much of who I am and how I see the world, I also think my love of language, of words and their emotive and transformational power, stems from encountering oratory in the sanctuary.
Given I was likewise growing up in the 1990s, it was a transformative time in popular music, with hip-hop having thoroughly gripped the nation’s attention. The hip-hop acts I heard on the ai rwaves, from Tupac Shakur to Lauryn Hill, were my first and most favorite poets, showing me the dexterity and imaginative possibilities of language. I was mesmerized, though it would be many years before I picked up a pen in the name of poetry. That moment came for me in college, my freshman year, at a time when I was feeling emotionally vulnerable, socially isolated and ready to tip over―poetry became the outlet to balance myself through that time and moving forward. The spark was when I went to a spoken word performance thrown by fellow students at the school; it is at that moment when I felt something call to me, felt something that pushed me to the page and the stage.
What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect who you are and are trying to be as a person?
I try to align the content of my work with the content of my character. I’m a deeply emotional and sensitive man who has always lived with a strong sense of right and wrong, of equity and equality, of fairness and empathy. Given that I am also a Black man―an African American man―I’ve been forced to stare wrongness and inequality and non-empathetics in the face my entire life, and yet, I’ve also been given so many models who have worked to remove these concerns from the lives of people who look like me and my loved ones, if not my own directly. To me, that is a labor worthy of my time and my body; that is labor worthy of art, labor that needs art, in fact, to have any real chance at being fruitful, in my opinion.
The role that art plays in our social movements is not lost upon me, as art is the artifact that best captures what it means to live through a time; a history book can tell you what happened but it can’t tell you what it felt like if you weren’t there. Thus, my work tries to relay this, for those who are here now and need the affirmation that their struggle is not a lonely one, and for those who may come after me who must contend with the world my generation and those before mine have given them. From an aesthetic point of view, this means, also, that my poems are very frequently marked by specific events, to better position them in time but also to ensure that we can better identify what elements of the human experience transcend that same flimsy concept.
What songs soundtrack your making of your book?
I listened to SO MUCH music as I was writing and editing the book, but some songs that jump out from memory:
“Alright” – Kendrick Lamar
“The Charade” – D’Angelo & the Vanguard
“Freedom” – Beyoncé (feat. Kendrick Lamar)
“Penitentiary Philosophy” – Erykah Badu
“Acid Rain” – Chance The Rapper
“Nothing Even Matters” – Lauryn Hill (feat. D’Angelo)
“Fight the Power” – Public Enemy
“Krazy” – Tupac Shakur
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” – Marvin Gaye
“Cranes in the Sky” – Solange
What are some of your favorite books? Or what are some books that have influenced you?
I struggle with favorite books, but talking about books that have been influential is a bit easier, because I’m remembering the shift it caused in me upon finishing it, even if I can’t recall how much I “enjoyed” the read or haven’t revisited it in a very long time (if I have at all). Here’s a quick list:
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X with Alex Haley
What might these books suggest about your writing?
I’d say they suggest a preoccupation with community, legacy, marginalization, and masculinity’s troublesome connection to all these things.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
Obsessions? I’d say Black death, or, rather, America’s obsession with the death and killing of Black people in so many ways. Violence as a concept with nearly infinite multiplicity is something I’m always thinking about.
What’s your book about?
If I’m being brief, I usually describe it as an exploration of anti-Black pathology. If I’m being truthful, I’d say I’m too tired to explain it. Perhaps, then, the book is fundamentally about exhaustion: my exhaustion, the exhaustion I see every day in members of my community.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
Telepathologies came from the merger of two places in my mind: (1) telepathy, by which I wished to speak to how ideas are seemingly communicated and adopted without the need of verbal expression (image being very important here) and (2) pathology, by which I wished to relate the pervasiveness of racism and the study of it to that of disease. Funny enough, I didn’t realize telepathology was a real (but somewhat obscure) word at the time, but its meaning dovetails nicely with the book’s goal and its structure—it refers to the use of telecommunicative technologies in the delivery of medical records. Cool, right?
Anyway, the arrangement of the book is meant to further play off this idea of study (and it’s something I devised with tremendous assistance from my editor at Saturnalia Books, Chris Salerno). Each section of the book begins with a different definition of telepathology (as defined by me) that relates to the content of that particular section. The book itself is fairly thick for a poetry collection, which also is part of the experience of making the poems inside feel more like a volume full of academic/primary research. It’s something some folks might not think about at all, but it’s something that endears the collection to me that much more.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
One poem that immediately comes to mind here is “Meditation on Wings and Meeting Gabriel in a Philadelphia Prison.” During my undergraduate years, I would hold poetry workshops for juveniles detained in adult Philly jails through an organization called the Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project (YASP also was an advocacy organization working to end the practice of housing juveniles in adult facilities). Given the boys and girls in the workshops were overwhelmingly Black (and Latino/a/x), not much younger than me, I couldn’t help but interrogate the proximities and distances between us, what led each of us to the same space in very different ways. The poem really zooms in on one student in particular, Gabriel, who just seemed like the sweetest and most innocent person in the room—quiet, soft-spoken, but simply dark-skinned. At times, that’s all it takes, and I wanted to admit and honor that.
If you want to read the poem, it’s up online over at Thrush Poetry Journal!
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
My revision practice can be a bit inconsistent from poem to poem, but the one constant is that I absolutely must read the poem aloud several times. Always. If it doesn’t sound right, it isn’t right.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?
The question would be: Why the third section?
My answer would be another question: What does exposure to violence do to us?
What are you working on now?
I’m nearing the end of another full-length manuscript and at the beginning of a third. I’ll refrain from speaking about the third since it’s still so fresh, but the second will have a bit more autobiographical inspiration with the intent of looking at Black masculinity as performance and the duality inherent in that; it’ll grapple with race, and class, and sexuality and power, but ultimately all of those topics are enveloped in this interior study of an able-bodied Black, hetero, masculine speaker.
How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?
I’m not sure I am contending with it. In some ways, I feel like I don’t have the right to remove myself from the flood, at least not for too long. I’m well aware of the toll it takes on my mental, physical and spiritual energy, so at times, yes, I do allow myself space to recuperate and to withdraw, but I ultimately know there’s a fight going on that I can’t ignore. And I won’t.
Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poems have appeared (or are forthcoming) in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, New England Review, AGNI, TriQuarterly and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus.