And I Wasn’t Planning To Live Very Long Anyway
But that’s not new
and they’ll tell you
It’s nothing personal
or even about desire
but I’m only a body
of water barely enough
for a cloud at this rate
I was not built for stay
say my name and tell me
you don’t taste fog
or something that fades
in the light like a memory
yes I have dreams
all day I sit and name
every impossible thing
after my own pulse
I am fluent in lonely miracles
Nobody criticizes the river
for racing toward where
everything is its color
everybody wants to go home
If I know anything it’s that
I mean look at me
I’m only a guest
in my own breath
ask anyone in this country
And they’ll tell you
just how well
the sky knows my name
My Father Watches Ferguson Vol. 1
I tried to give you religion
on the South Side
but you never been
into glass houses
Honestly I wasn’t fussed
God is something
St. Louis never gave me
All I know is winter
and construction and retreat
and a relentless swallow
we call a city
this ain’t nothing new to me
You met my friends
shaken their scorched fingers
I told you
comes to rest in us eventually
Shoot once a cop
rolled up next to us
and pulled the trigger
on an empty gun
and his laugh was a fog
You see how thick they went and made the sky?
honestly that’s the religion I know
a heaven low enough to choke on
a god that bring tears to your eyes
just to take back his salt
Honestly I don’t do much praying
how much you don’t look like me
I don’t ask much of you
but for your mother’s sake
don’t fuck around
and end up a fable
My Father Watches Ferguson Vol. 2
I saw something like this before
the eclipse I mean
broad daylight just disappearing
You know how the night hums?
not with god or the remnants
of a siren just a choir in the dark?
Out here we call those Cicadas
bodies just come up out the ground
thousands swallow the whole damn sun
that shit that shit was biblical
But I guess that’s not the rebirth
you were looking for
maybe you wanted the one
where the sky disappears entirely
where the sinners march out the city
where salt is the punishment for nostalgia
Sorry about that but
this is the only story I know
where winter comes calling
and it start raining corpses
and nobody gets ornery about it
All this shit is cyclical
the cicadas know
they put their children straight
in the ground command the body
Now y’all fussed
because they said
he was no angel
mad they left him in the sun
left him to dream of shade
while he rot in the heat and turn a country to salt
you can be mad but you shouldn’t be shocked
you know how I feel about looking back
And/ we laid the copper to the earth/ and declared it the last/ of our dead/ and said praise/ to all the red we are capable of praise/ to this world we have built/as we brush the ash off/ of what we knew to be holy so/ our hands/ were covered in what gods have left/ behind so we built a new everything/ that we could not be killed in/ because/ each of us let loose our bodies/ became a song and lived between the mountains/ when we grew tired/ of what we had to fear/ from the seeds/ and their wicked cousins/ and/ there were no words for “fall”/ that did not mean a coming of color/ and there were no words for “fall”/ that did not mean how sound drips/ out of our mouths until/ we have made a noisy ocean/ for each of our children to revel in/ and there were no words for “fall”/ that were not simply a mistranslation of wings/ and/ that everything we did was a kind of dance/ a forest remembering/ the true purpose of limbs/ and/ we became a good August/and were holy for the shine/ and heat of it/ and the summer offered each of his teeth/ and we forgave the crimes of bones/ because/ we have always known how to let go/ and make it seem like stunting/ like a halo expanding/until all we know/ is that wherever we are/ is an endless light
A few good words with Julian
PDS: In “Negrotopia #1,” instead of traditional line breaks, you use forward slashes and prose-length lines. I thought that this was particularly interesting as I thought about the world building of this poem, that the way the text filled the space felt, luxurious, unapologetic, full, descriptors that served the construction of this black utopia. The long slashed line as uninterrupted interruption. I wondered about your formal choices here—what tension did you see the slashes giving rise to?
JR: I’d been thinking at the time, and am still thinking, about margins and marginalization. I often as I write with the page and presentation in mind am married to the idea of a left side alignment and mostly I am fascinated by the short line because I was raised with the idea of a sentence within a sentence which is how I understand line breaks. Namely I’m Biracial (Black/Afro-Dominican), Bisexual, and I spent my entire educational career in schools that didn’t reflect me racially or class-wise so the language I used or was used on me had a text and a subtext two sentences within a single body, two margins to navigate.
Additionally I am from Chicago because that is home for me but also have been forced due to economic circumstances to move to a lot of different places when I was a kid so I am also from a highway if you think about it which is at the center of a country and also frames a country. What I think I’m getting at here is that by virtue of existing in the middle of a lot of different things in a national context that values certainty even when wrong (shout out to the Tea Party) over a kind of hybridity I’ve had to imagine spaces for myself in the midst of a blessed but also sad childhood. So in this way I learned of joy as a question of interruption; it is, unfortunately, not a static emotion (though the philosopher 50 Cent also illuminates that “joy wouldn’t feel so good if it wasn’t for pain”) and so it has to exist interrupted amidst many different things.
I love the phrase “uninterrupted interruption” here because that is a pretty accurate summation of the process of writing the poem itself. It was a genuine question of finding the timbers on which to build this new world, a lot of stopping and starting and that is often where the forward slashes go. I wanted to build a feeling within the reader a kind of mosaic understanding of what I imagine to be a shelter for Afro Diasporic people to escape this world which tries so hard to destroy us; a world in which we are centered. It’s not a thought that can exist all at once, at least in my head, there are full thoughts that can be read as prosaic but are really more an attempt at an architecture built from rubble, genesis brick by brick.
PDS: In reading both volumes of the “My Father Watches Ferguson” series I thought about elegy and creation narratives and salt. I thought a lot about salt. In “Vol. 1,” you write about “a god that bring tears to your eyes / just to take back his salt” and in “Vol. 2” it’s “left him to dream of shade / while he rot in the heat and turn a country to salt / you can be mad but you shouldn’t be shocked / you know how I feel about looking back.” Salt is punishing here, and salt is also a marker of grief. What weight does the language and imagery hold for you?
JR: I think it gets back to those questions of duality that run through a lot of my work. If nothing reflects you growing up you can develop a natural desire to understand every aspect of something to find the part you can point to and say “Yo, that’s me!” and so this is how I understand imagery, what is every use of this object? What is every angle? and always a subtext but an increasingly conscious thought for me How can this be used to hurt me?
With salt I think a lot about how tears are compilations of salt and something jagged can be pressed into liquid by the power of grief. Grief here operates as an agent of change which accompanies the change in national attention to the ongoing genocide of Black people that came when Mike Brown was murdered, grief transfigures and in this way is a godlike force within the poem. My father is not a religious man by any real stretch of the imagination but I recall watching him watch the Ferguson feed as both a 60 year old Black man and a St. Louis native and seeing him talk about capital G God more frequently than I could remember. Since my dad is also a Midwest kid who left his hometown but unlike me has absolutely no desire to return it made me think of the idea of Lot’s Wife and how much can we look back before we turn to salt, before we too are transfigured (and punished) by the transformative power of grief.
PDS: What poems/poets/work make you ecstatic? I’ve found that the literary moments that allow for black joy are some of the most important in imagining, as you do in “Negrotopia #1” a world in which we are allowed all our magic.
JR: Any work that involves a centering of joy, a reimagining of space or history that allows for People of Color and specifically Black people to have a sanctuary however brief it might be. I have been blessed with many mentors and friends who encourage me always to push myself to write “the hard poem” and while the poem that documents the ruining, maiming or murder of Black body is never easy to write (as a sliding scale of hard to easy would imply though it’s obviously much more of a spectrum than that) I find it much more “the hard poem” to write about joy.
One of the many sad facts of being a Black artist in a time where so much visibility is granted to actions of police/state sanctioned and sponsored violence against Black people is that in order to write the Black death poem it is not hard to imagine what is shoved in my face by autoplay settings. The Black joy poem is hard because I am forcing myself to imagine a better world, one for which I have very little frame of reference because the world has always been the world in some capacity. Great examples that come to me off the top of my head about work that engages with this that I really love are Jacqui Germain’s poem about “Unbuttoned & Unbothered: On Imagining That Freedom Probably Feels Like Getting The Itis”, Hanif Abdurraqib’s, “Some I Love Who Are Dead” and Danez Smith’s, “Summer, Somewhere” all of which fill me with a kind of hope that is untainted which is rare these days.
I’m thinking now about a speech Kanye West made about how “creativity is our oil” and I think I would amend that to say that joy too is our oil which is why we are inculcated with the idea of it as useless and flimsy by the same people hoping to appropriate and profit from it. So I am excited by any work that defends that by the simple act of naming it ours and performing it each day.
Other poets who just plain excite me? I’m going to leave a number of people off by accident and I already feel terribly about it but thinking now: Noel Quiñones, Aziza Barnes, George Abraham, Ocean Vuong, Aracelis Girmay, Nicholas Nichols, Natalie Diaz, Nate Marshall, Gabriel Ramirez, Jericho Brown, Jamal Parker, Morgan Parker, Vievee Francis, Nkosi Nkululeko, Greg Pardlo, Itiola Jones, Sam Sax, Angel Nafis, Jayson Smith, Cam Awkward-Rich, Franny Choi, Xandria Phillips, Loma, Safiya Sinclair, Eduardo C. Corral and Safia Elhillo. I have to stop there but so much more, so much more.
Julian Randall is a Living Queer Black poet from Chicago. He is a 2016 Callaloo fellow, Lois Morrell Poetry Prize winner and the 2015 National College Slam (CUPSI) Best Poet. He is also a cofounder of the Afrolatinx poetry collective Piel Cafe. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Nepantla, Winter Tangerine Review, Vinyl, Puerto del Sol and African Voices. He is a candidate for his MFA in Poetry at Ole Miss.