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This month, Sibling Rivalry Press released Prime: Poetry & Conversation, a lively collection of verse and dialogue between poets Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams, and L. Lamar Wilson.
Prime: Poetry & Conversation is a first-of-its-kind document of poetry and ongoing conversation in the black, queer literary community. Sparked into existence by a Best American Poetry blog from Jericho Brown in which he singled out some of the most exciting young, black, and gay men writing today, Prime features poems by and dialogue between poets Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams, and L. Lamar Wilson. Jericho Brown provides the introduction for this collection, which is proudly published by Sibling Rivalry Press.
In the book’s introductory essay, poet Jericho Brown offers a beautifully rendered paean to the young voices presented in this collection.
The first time I saw Nikki Giovanni give a public reading of her work, I was an undergrad at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. I remember a lot of what she said, but I sometimes wish I would forget her answer to a question someone in the audience asked just after the reading:
Q: What advice would you give to a young writer?
A: Never say no.
Giovanni’s answer is the right answer, the truth. But I’ll be damned if it ain’t the hardest part of what we do when we make poems or when we contribute to any poetry community (whether it’s by way of writing reviews or hosting readings or encouraging young poets who may or may not have a fingernail of talent).
The poet’s life is not an easy life, for to live it well one must be prepared to follow the strangest and slightest notions, to take self-effacing risks, to jump off cliffs that are nowhere but in the mind. People look at you crazy because you feel all the bruises that come at the end of a plummet, but they don’t see a single blemish. Don’t believe me? Ask Adrienne Rich. In “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” she says:
For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of the mind is needed, freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thought like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience, it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is renaming.
In mid-December of 2011, The Best American Poetry Blog asked me to post something substantive every day for a week. And at the moment they asked, I was so mad at Nikki Giovanni that I didn’t know what to do. In spite of the common desire to do nothing during the holidays but be drunk, I couldn’t say no because it was an opportunity for me to take advantage of the BAP platform and ask some questions I thought the larger world should be asking. It was a chance for me to show others some work I had seen and loved and that I thought wasn’t getting enough recognition. It was an opportunity for me to tell my man I love him and let the world know how much I try to make gratitude the center of my life.
As I write this, I am most grateful for the work of Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Saeed Jones, Rickey Laurentiis, Phillip B. Williams, and L. Lamar Wilson, the young, black, and gay men I referred to that week as The Phantastique 5.
When a group of black bodies stands
out from the rest and needs to be remembered
because they all resemble each other, some
use highlighters to brighten the black bodies . . .
These lines from Phillip B. Williams’ “Manifesto” seem to me the best from which to begin a description of Prime. Over and again the work in this small anthology presents lawmaking lines of direct statement that ask the reader to re-envision the very act of reading and what that act means for subjective perception. What is text to those so often left out of literature? What is literature to those unwritten or written wrongly?
Throughout these poems, our eyes are turned toward so many objects we thought we knew, thought had seen properly. Now we face even the furniture that sits about us as if it is slanted and painted new colors until we have no choice but to re-see ourselves, or as Darrel Holnes would say, “Only the living have a reflection and you see yourself.”
These poets are living indeed, and forging with each of their words the stuff of life, whether through complaint: “I’ll tell you my problem/I’m a man who would love/another man, whether/as a son, whether as a—” (Laurentiis) or ironic praise: “You cannot tell a soul/Must lie still be quiet/Just take it like the man/You always wanted inside” (Wilson).
I am most taken, though, by how much these poems mean to participate in life to the point of being redeemed by that participation. These poets, in spite of being perfect candidates for that which is only academic and/or only conceptual, write as if poetry can speak directly to the soul, as if poetry is quite possibly the last hope they have to reach beyond themselves and touch anyone who perceives them:
. . . Like a son rushing
to his mother’s stumble, the poet catches her
as if his arms are the prayer’s answer
& when her knees meet the earth
so do his . . .
(from “The Poet’s Revolver Opens Its Mouth” by Saeed Jones).
Prime is a lovely (and loving) book by five men bound to change the way we read poetry because this is a book of poetry by poets committed to allowing the poems they write to change them. None of these poets ever say no.