Rickey Laurentiis is the recipient of fellowships from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in several journals, including Boston Review, Fence, jubilat, the New York Times, Oxford American, and Poetry. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. His poem “Lord and Chariot” appears in the Summer 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poem “Lord and Chariot”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Well, the first and most immediate story that comes to mine regarding this poem takes me back to the summer of 2012 and New Symrna Beach, Florida. I had returned to the Atlantic Center for the Arts after having been the your word Fellow the summer previous, and was listening to Jericho Brown, a friend and mentor and faculty member that summer, give a reading. During his reading he said something (tongue-in-cheek, I suspect) about one not being a “real poet” until they had written a poem about Persephone, and so he read his poem about Persephone. I can’t recall if he was quoting someone else exactly or just making his own joke, but I do remember thinking of my poem, “Lord and Chariot”—which by then had already been written—and imagining that it could serve as my Persephone poem. It certainly wasn’t a conscious decision while I was writing it, but now every time I revisit it I can’t help but hear that subtext—for better or for worse.
Of course, my poem changes the characters quite radically: Persephone becomes an enslaved, black boy and Hades is his white owner. I can tell you that when I was writing the poem I was conscious of a lesson I had learned from Toni Morrison—or, at least, a lesson I attribute to Morrison—which is to write, for myself, what I want to read. To be brief: I needed to see some sort of black queer (male) dynamic set within American (and I mean that in the widest sense, not just the United States, but any and all of the Americas) slavery. That’s to say, I needed to see and find myself within a particular period of history that shapes or, at least, many contend largely figures into my current-day experience on this planet. I can go on and on about this, but I’ll save the space. This is one poem—one piece of writing—in a larger project I’m working on toward reclaiming my brothers (and sisters) of a different desire who have been—for political, social or religious reasons—deliberately erased. I don’t say that the stories are all sweet or, exactly, comforting (as I think “Lord and Chariot” suggests) but they are our stories all the same.
Your poem in KR features a speaker who tempers some of the poem’s most damning pronouncements with the caveat “I think.” Can you tell us a little about your use of hesitancy in this powerful poem?
Funny because “Lord and Chariot” is a persona poem, and I’m not usually one to write persona poems with much ease. Not because I dislike the form itself, but that I dislike or find trouble with all the displays of privilege that the form can often reveal or, even, usher in. You know, to speak in the voice of another person—real or invented—is something not to be taken lightly. You’re essentially playing with ghosts, which is worse than fire.
But, anyway, here it is—the poem, written from the perspective of an enslaved, black boy wedged between desire and abuse. The hesitancy of “I think,” as I consider it, must come from some attempt to stay true to the emotion of the voice. I know all those who were born into chattel slavery were human, but, deliberately, weren’t treated as such—that is, weren’t given the space and agency of a thing called choice, let alone its cousin called decisiveness. This is just one bit of the humanity stolen from the enslaved, and the children of the enslaved, and their children’s children and, therefore, one bit that, still, these United States of America must contend with straightforwardly if it ever hopes to even taste that mighty aspiration of liberty it built, like the bones of the slaves, a nation upon.
The speaker of this poem, I hoped to show, is speaking or rather thinking from the way he’s been cruelly conditioned, even while actively and forcefully pushing against that conditioning. It’s a tug-of-war between “Can I think this?” and “But I do think this”—a terrible, circular, dizzying road.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
In the last five years I’ve graduated from a college known for its intensive undergraduate writing program and, immediately after, pursued and received my MFA. So, essentially, what I’ve learned is to be writing. It really is easier to get caught up in the theatre of “being a writer,” than it is simply (though there’s nothing simple about it) to write. That temptation is like hearing the song of the Sirens—better to plug your ears.
But I’ve also realized that an important part of “to be writing” is to read: actively, voraciously and from in and outside your context. Like practicing one’s scales is an essential routine in the life of the stage pianist—though it’s not necessarily the thing she plays on the stage—reading is crucial practice and development. When people complain of writer’s block, which may or may not exist, I sometimes only hear them say, “I’m sick of reading my own stuff! Recommend something for me to read!” And that’s what I do.
And to the last point: reading almost means nothing if it’s exclusive, by which I mean we should be reading everything we can get our hands on: what’s written in and outside our time, in and outside our cultures. I have a friend who’s a fiction writer who almost exclusively reads contemporary American fiction and I tell him “Joe”—that’s not his name, I’m trying to stay cute here!—“Joe, some of those things you’re trying to figure out in your fiction have already been figured out by Virginia Woolf, just read back a few decades.” He chuckles at me, but I’m serious! If a car manual we’ll help you figure out the problems of a sentence, you had better read it! Why wouldn’t you?
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Visual art, definitely. That is, viewing and confronting visual art. Recently, I was sort of accosted by a friend who accused me of not being a fan of the theatre. That’s not exactly true, but it did make me realize that in terms of cultural or artistic events I attend in NYC the vast majority of them (besides poetry readings) involve the visual arts. I mean, I’ve been to the Brooklyn Museum about five times this year already to see the Wangechi Mutu show three times when it was up and the Art of the Civil Rights Movement twice, and I plan to go back.
I haven’t really worked out for myself what about the visual arts attracts me and marks my writing, but I know it’s there. I sometimes think that, because of my relationship with persona poetry, I’ve come to think of ekphrasis as a substitute. At least if I assume the voice of a painting or sculpture, for example, the nature of the medium already expresses some sort of idea of constructiveness, of fabrication and manipulation. Any notion of “authenticity” or of reaching or claiming it isn’t so much lost, as it’s beyond the point. All of this seems to offer me license to really begin to imagine, which is all I ever want to do.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
Well, I could also be colonizing a people. I know, that’s extreme, especially for one person, but it’s to say there are a myriad of things that I could be doing that’s at least a thousand times more destructive than writing. So, why not write? True, I could also be busy in pursuit of a cure for HIV or for cancer or I could help support institutions that benefit those of us with these conditions. And maybe I am or will be. But I can write all the same and all the while.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by ten leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I eagerly want to meet the challenge of responding to this, but the premise seems so overwhelming that I feel stifled. Mostly, I want to wrestle with this notion of the “cultural product,” a term popular amongst cultural critics (who I think of as our major critics of today) who take anything from a film to a TV commercial to a political speech as given texts that speak, essentially, for or rather reflect, just as essentially, the larger society that made it. Most of these same critics are staunch anti-essentialists, so I shouldn’t have to do much work to make this initial irony known. But, really, I have trouble with this concept overriding the idea of the individual artistic text or design. That’s to say simply (and briefly, for now): a text may be the product or reflective of a larger society that made it, but it’s specifically channeled through an individual’s consciousness—and we shouldn’t easily dismiss this. Bouncing between both these notions is where I find the most robust critical practice lives, especially as it regards literature, film and other (artistic) media. I’m interested in the criticism that reads and analyzes text as text and text as culture. It may take a poet with a PhD to write it, though.
As for books: read them.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
An upcoming project I’m excited about is a collaboration with the International Arts Biennial, Prospect.3 New Orleans. I was asked to write a poem for the citywide arts show by the artistic director, Franklin Sirmans, and the work will appear in some of the show’s publications and venues coming this fall when it opens. I’ve already explained my intense interest in visual art and, since I’m from New Orleans—a city whose culture, aesthetic and attitude figure deeply in my writing—this invitation was obviously very special for me.
Other than this, no particular projects. Themes, ideas, motivations obsess me, but I follow them as they come and for as long as they last.