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Sylvia Plath once remarked, “I think writers are the most narcissistic people. Well, I mustn’t say this, I like many of them, a great many of my friends are writers.” To be a narcissist or, rather, one who is deeply in love with oneself – even excessively – might be considered an act of revolution, especially in an age when many marginalized people in our world have been tutored in the ways of self-hatred.
To be a writer, to be one who is attuned to reading and reinterpreting the metaphors of life and death, ugliness and beauty, and truth and deceit, is to be engaged in a narcissistic endeavor precisely because writers create worlds drawn from the reservoir of their imaginations. I think poets, like all writers, are narcissistic. And like Plath, I like a great many of them. Indeed, some are my friends.
L. Lamar Wilson is one those great writer-friends who is, as he notes, “prone to arrogant behavior”: a black-queer-(dis)abled-praying poet whose personhood might be rendered illegible in a world often organized around whiteness, heterosexuality, and able-bodied privilege. It seems logical, then, that arrogance is used to counteract processes of invisibility. And what better way to animate oneself and one’s imagined world than through the word, through poetry.
I recently interviewed Wilson, a 2012 Pushcart Prize nominee, who has poems published or forthcoming in journals and anthologies, such as jubilat, African American Review, Callaloo, Rattle, Vinyl, The 100 Best African-American Poems and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Wilson is the winner of the 2011 Beau Boudreaux Poetry Prize, and was twice a finalist for the New Letters Poetry Prize. Wilson’s first book, Sacrilegion, was chosen as the winner of the 2012 Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series and is hot off the presses as you read. In what follows, Wilson talks Sacrilegion, poetry, life, love, and liberation.
Let’s begin with your context–that which informs your work, your walk: Who are you?
I am an introvert who overanalyzes everything. I am a man of many words, words that are just enough for saying what I must say my way, though they may be excessive to some. Thank God for Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Brenda Marie Osbey, Thylias Moss, Claudia Rankine and other masters of the long lyric line and long poem. A good epic is hard to find.
I am prone to tell on myself. The first words in the first poem in Sacrilegion say a lot about me: “I talk too much.”
Where are you from? What life experiences tend to register in your writing?
I have three spaces in three cities I must account for each month, but home will always be that modest brick house on that expansive farm in that quiet, North Florida hamlet, Marianna, where acres upon acres of land lie fallow. It’s been in my post-Emancipation family for about five generations.
I am one who gets asked “pray for me” a lot, but who is rarely offered prayer, except by elderly women, of whom there aren’t enough in my life these days. Those dearly departed raised me well, though, so I oblige the seekers. I was raised to have a healthy Jesus complex; being “like Jesus” (which I deduced as having to be “perfect” at everything I did) was my No. 1 priority for far too long. On the one hand, I got what I prayed for: I’ve literally been told “You remind me of black Jesus” for most of my young adult life, especially the last 12 years of growing interlocked hair that now slaps the small of my back as I walk. Men moving in to kiss me and strangers riddled with chemical addictions alike have called me Jesus. Funny, though, not many church folk have noted the resemblance since I told them I kiss men amorously, which didn’t start happening until I was of legal drinking age, by the way. (Alas, I’m a recovering prude, or, as is PC to say, a very late bloomer.)
The exceptions, of course, are queer men in the black churches in which I’ve grown up, and many of my lovers have been. We are a legion of Jesus freaks. We commit what those who don’t understand call sacrilege. We can’t help it. Many of my lovers have, in fact, have been ministers and have said, “Don’t tell nobody.” Most have said, “I can’t fuck Jesus” only to invert those words and beg for me to be their bodies’ lord and savior in a matter of minutes, if only for one night. All have ended up slinking away in shame, hours, days, weeks later. Most have said they weren’t married; it took a while for me to discern when one was lying. The bold have brandished their bands, which keeps at least some people from asking questions. Not me. I ask. They usually balk when I tell them I don’t get down with mendacity. I can, however, be naïve, or at least I know how to pretend to be when the yen for touch calls. You see, that spiritual desire that drives the human mind will lead it to lie to the flesh, tell it what it doesn’t deserve, shouldn’t taste, shouldn’t want, but the flesh is strong and will have its way.
At the center of every poem I wrote in Sacrilegion, then, is an intense desire to articulate this yearning to feel both the love of a divine force, which the Greeks call agape, and the love of another human’s touch, which we know as eros. To love, as I was taught, everybody. To want to love on every body you meet, and not all sexually, either. To be, daresay, polyamorous. To embrace the complexity of what that means.
To this end, I am a womanist. I prefer this to “black male feminist”; I feel no need to affirm my masculinity in owning my love of the Colored, mannish women who reared me, whose spirit I carry with me everywhere I go. I found a deeper love of God and self in embracing Alice Walker’s lessons in In Search of Mother’s Gardens and Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic.”
But here’s where my art-making gets tricky: My flesh – which encodes and signifies the physical elements of my holy, erotic power – is abled differently. Because of a congenital condition, Erb’s palsy, I have to do with one hand what others do with two. It took 30 years to own this (dis)ability; I mean, I explained it away at every turn when I was unsuccessful at hiding it. Saying I was “paralyzed” made it true, and my family and I vowed never to own any weakness. Which goes part and parcel, I suspect, with how my ancestors had the unmitigated gall to march into banks and keep buying more of what they knew would give their children’s children the ultimate freedom: acres of land, a queer, black space free of the white, patriarchal gaze, with all of its guilt and shame. I call it odd, queer, because in it there was no guilt or shame for my differently abled flesh. Outside that space, however, I was verbally assailed mercilessly, in large part, ironically, by other brown and black boys and men. But I am prone, like my grandmother and her grandmother, to arrogant behavior, to doing that which others say I can’t or shouldn’t, based on the limitations they perceive in my way.
Sacrilegion, then, is a collection of formal and free-verse poetic movements and lyrical ballads organized around notions of embodiment, transcendence, place, raciality and sexuality. What was your vision for the book?
Sacrilegion is an exorcism of the “demons” of perfectionism and respectability, the necessary evils that gave my people a semblance of freedom, and here I mean my nuclear family, who had the audacity to buy the land on which their people had been slaves, and my greater African American families, particularly my Southern black hyper-religious families, who had the audacity to sing into being a belief in Jesus that was co-determinant with a belief in their own liberation, to say, “White America, you’ve been using God’s name in vain; let me show you what my Jesus can do.” In this way, these “demons” were once necessary components for our collective sense of spiritual wholeness in a time when we were deemed subhuman, second-class citizens. We decided they were essential for us to plumb the depths of agape and eros at our disposal so that we might be Jesus’ ambassadors in a wicked, oppressive world.
Sacrilegion is obsessed with what was an unspoken, haunting conundrum for so long in my life and in the lives of my people, and it dares my families to go with its speakers into this very queer space in which we find our twenty-first century lives. Far too many of my cosmopolitan, self-aggrandizing loved ones think they must be “post-_____ (black? Southern? religious?),” to keep their faiths and queerness private, in order to actualize an American consciousness unhinged by the specter of chattel slavery and this persistent strain of homophobia that agape and eros have yet to cure. Sacrilegion probes its speakers’ journeys–ones very close to mine, others historical, all (re)imagined, some fictively–with hubris and humiliation, those dichotomous realities that manifest in flesh not unlike my own, which is at once revered as holy and reviled as undesirable.
What “work” do you expect the book to do in the world?
I want it to be widely legible. From its title – which can be pronounced, I pray, at least two ways – to each poem inside its covers, Sacrilegion is invested in the tactility and plasticity of America’s languages, not only the Southern black Englishes I grew up speaking, but also Spanish, Spanglish, Yoruba, and other African diasporic tongues that have (re)shaped ours. I was recently interviewed by students in Romania, who had discovered my poems through playwright and scholar Rebecca Nesvet, a mutual friend in my Ph.D. program, and I was amazed at the extent to which they got how religious oppression makes one feel, that what I articulated of my rural U.S. South experience with God resonated with their Eastern European experiences with the divine.
In this way, what I mean, more simply, is that I want to be accessible to the church people I grew up I loving, who don’t normally engage poetry, to penetrate their mental blocks and social bubbles, and to resonate with scholarly, MFA-friendly readers, who often eschew emotionally transparent, “confessional”, religious verse. Hopefully, all will see and feel the implicit complexities in the poems and their speakers’ subject positions. I hope I am pushing forward a long-standing tradition of conversations with idealized/idolized divine, conversations that were once quite common in poetry.
Most of all, I pray that Sacrilegion lets my queer, black, (dis)abled, and faith-filled families know someone is out here on the battlefield, telling his truths and hopefully offering a glimpse of theirs, too.
Finally, as I’ve said in other interviews, the specter of HIV/AIDS has haunted me most of my life. As a child, I watched it destroy loved ones and watched others’ humanity be destroyed by their fear and loathing of what they didn’t understand. And in this nation that is insistent upon policing black male flesh – of making black men guilty until proven innocent of a crime – we have legalized ignorance and fear of those men who choose to experience eros with other men and keep those choices private. As much as we want to say that this “Know Your Status” campaign is an epistemology of empowerment, it is equally a “Prove Your Innocence” campaign. As current laws in many states stand, those living with this virus and its illnesses are in peril of being found guilty of attempted murder at any moment someone says “S/he didn’t tell me.” Emerging in a twenty-first-century moment that is so steeped in the rhetoric of hope around this virus, Sacrilegion aims to articulate how it feels to contend with the cruel optimism one deemed a potential criminal knows intimately.
It is my hope that my work forces us to face our fears of HIV/AIDS. Life has brought me intimately close to facing my own, and I hope Sacrilegion gives readers their own sublime experience in the mirror.
You’ve noted elsewhere that the writing of poetry is one of your “obsessions.” Can you say more about poetry’s force in your life and its enchanting power?
The economy that writing poetry requires has helped me get out of the way of my words and has transformed the missionary impulse I learned in the church to cultivate into that of witness(ing). Everything I feel I need to explain here, in this prose, is palpable in my poems without explanation. That’s why I return to poetry, its forms and formal irreverence, early and often.
Writing poetry, and Sacrilegion in particular, has affirmed this truth I cling to with an exacting certainty: Every body, all flesh, is a mirror, and, as Mama and Daddy taught me, a mirror is a terrible thing to waste.
You see, I have always been a voyeur, and I have almost always loved looking at my naked flesh in mirrors. This important lesson – of knowing one’s flesh is a mirror image of the multifaceted divine – is the reason I only embrace my complex ontology as a gift now. For years, I walked through this world feeling cursed by my polyamorous Jesus complex, by my paralysis, by this unwelcome companion; many of my kindred that I encounter still do. Writing Sacrilegion helped me excavate the feeling of being blessed with a curse.
Which poets, works, inspire you? And, which, if any, helped to shaped Sacrilegion?
Mrs. Mable Banks, Mrs. Nellie Hubbard, Mrs. Lola M. Cason, and my dearest beloveds, Eldorado Marie “Tudda” Long Grandberry Smith and Mary “MaMary” Elizabeth Long Wilson, laid such a firm foundation and gave me a clear charge to keep. These women, who never spoke of a desire to be known beyond Jackson County, Florida, knew how to tell a story, how to pace their voices and where to put the emphasis, which we call “your weight” back home. They taught me well. As for my formal education, “Resurrection Sunday” and “Substantia Nigra,” two of the most important poems in the book for me, would not have been written had I not read Helene Johnson’s “A Southern Road.” Lucille Clifton’s Book of Light and Mercy and the personae of our African American master-ventriloquists (Ai, Sterling Brown, Fenton Johnson, and James Weldon Johnson) gave me the courage to commit sacrilege: to re-imagine Lot’s daughters as incest victims, not perpetrators, as it is written in our alleged Good Book; to empathize with a sex worker turned sociopathic murderer; to consider HIV a contemporary Legion, wandering through this wasteland, this graveyard that is post-1980s black America, looking for mirrors, hungry for God’s love, too.
Sacrilegion would not exist without the ambivalent horror in Lucy Terry Prince’s “Bars Fight,” without Various Subjects and Phillis Wheatley’s exegetical interventions in it, without Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Aunt Chloe poems. Gary Fisher’s posthumous musings (thank you, Eve Sedgwick!), Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies and Melvin Dixon’s Love’s Instruments especially paved the way for this book. As much as I love Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry and essays, I love her most for making sure Dixon’s voice has a life after his untimely death. Nikki Giovanni’s The Women and the Men, Marilyn Nelson’s The Homeplace and Mama’s Promises, Moss’s Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, Rita Dove’s Mother Love, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City, Rankine’s The End of the Alphabet, and Mary Oliver’s Thirst are as vital to me as Sharon Olds’s Satan Says, Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, D.A. Powell’s Tea and Rilke’s Book of Hours, which gave Sacrilegion its epigraph. I love H.D.’s Hymen, all things Elizabeth Bishop and Anne Sexton, especially the latter’s “Lonely Ballad of the Masturbator.” I love String Light by C.D. Wright. I love Fred Moten’s B. Jenkins and W.S. Merwin’s The Pupil, all that e.e. cummings, Harryette Mullen and Ed Roberson have given us. I could go on and on about the books I read in the four years I worked on Sacrilegion, all of which I cherish and keep near at all times. I am an insatiable, voracious bibliophile.
Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths