When I was a student here, men were allowed in the dorms only between the hours of 6 pm and 11:30 pm—11:25, really. He had to show his student ID to get on campus. You had to meet him at the gate. Or maybe he’d meet you outside your dorm. Text you when he got there. You’d come down into the warm Atlanta air, wearing something casual, but cute—and there he’d be, sitting on a bench, or a brick wall, or the steps, scrolling through his phone, always with a backpack, and he’d follow you into the lobby, where you’d sign him in, try not to make eye contact with the girl behind the desk, and take the elevator up two flights, where you’d stare at each other for those 25 seconds, or, he’d bound up the stairs, and you’d calmly follow, unlock the door to your room, where your roommate had already cleared out for the night, and your bed, just this once, was made, made for sitting, talking, cuddling, kissing, touching, all above the covers, all for 5 hours and 25 minutes.
A crush can be light, low-calorie, breezing through Beverly Hills with the top down, smiley faces after all of your phrases, the singsong voice you use when you talk to him. A crush can be a hand brushing your bare arm and the thrill of it. A crush can be doodling your name with his, a teenage monogram. But a crush can be tyranny. Captivity. It can be the lingering side effect of love. It can be the stunted, never-born romance that played and played out in your head. Anything can remind you of him—punctuation, a phone charger, anyone who wears glasses. You skitter across his mind; he texts and derails your day, a U-turn on your once-sunny highway. Now, it’s tangled hair, and not rain—but the non-commitment of clouds. Now, it’s just you, standing there, waiting above ground outside the station for his reply, though that rumble is your train and who knows how long it’ll take him, how long those sliding doors will stay open.
If you’ve never heard “A House is Not a Home” (wait, do you know Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go for That”?) then you’ve certainly never heard “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love.” And if you’ve never heard this song, which, I guarantee you, you haven’t, then what do we have to talk about?
I can’t tell if I’m making you whiter than you really are. I can’t tell if you’re just trying to be down: noting other interracial couples, name-dropping ex-Black-girlfriends, correcting me on my orishas (Oshun is the river orisha. Oya is the ocean orisha).
What am I even doing here, in this open source, open mind field? Holding hands with you, getting stared at on the train, smiling at your white friends, my face straining, thinking, When can I go back to my life?
Some of us seem eager to settle down, don’t we? We are ready for our life partner to appear, keys to the sedan in hand. We are pushy, impatient, trying to shove a person into a spouse-shaped box. We are perfectionists who expect the very same. We are too hard on ourselves. We love ourselves too much to be alone. We love ourselves too much not to try. Anything, once.
A few good words with Kyla
PDS: In “Stephanie Mills,” you mention two songs about love—“A House is Not a Home” covers the loneliness of a space that you no longer share with your lover, and the title of “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love” is in fact a summary of the song on embracing love’s transformative power—in a poem that complicates love. The possibilities of loving a white man, its projections and discomforts, the yearning for partnership. How do these songs speak to the questions this poem’s speaker asks herself?
KM: Luther Vandross’s “A House Is Not a Home” and Stephanie Mills’ “I Have Learned to Respect the Power of Love” are both very wistful, melancholy songs that are perfect to listen to when you are melodramatically wishing you had somebody to love. They’re also both old songs that you can’t help but hear the dated-ness in, which just adds to the silliness of listening to such a song when you’re home alone, wishing you had somebody to love.
In terms of dating and interracial dating, one thing people often say is that a) they want to have the same musical tastes as their partner, which is often countered by b) that such a thing is not important. And some people prefer intra-racial dating because they don’t want to have to explain their culture to somebody else.
I was writing about hope, albeit an irrational hope (which is the same thing the “you” in the poem seems to exhibit—a hope that I’ll just up and become his wife)—that despite a lack of commonality with someone, your relationship might still work. And the self-consciousness of overanalyzing one’s tastes, which is how people get into “open source, open mind fields”—thinking that they’ve limited their options too much, so they “open their minds” to things that aren’t necessarily a good fit.
PDS: I have a large soft heart for black love poems/writing—I think that it allows us a tenderness and vulnerability that we are not often given by non-black gazes. What fulfills you as a writer in writing on love?
KM: I somehow only write about love in poems, and these poems are old, and I’ve been writing more nonfiction lately, so I’m not sure what shape love takes when I write about it. Probably a youthful, aspirational form: I wrote about love long before I’d ever been in love. I wrote a lot about longing, unreached potential, disappointment. That was how I thought of love before I got hip.
PDS: What was the last book you read that you absolutely loved? What forthcoming book are you really excited for?
KM: The last book that I loved and read was New People by Danzy Senna. I love how unabashed it is in mocking its young, “woke” protagonist, and how openly funny it is. I love multi-toned work that can hold both humor and seriousness at once. Similar to “Stephanie Mills,” which is about trying to like someone you don’t really like, Maria in New People watches her relationship from the outside, and is kind of resigned to her partner, despite her lack of passion for him. I loved this description of her sex life: “It's just a penis inside a vagina, an ancient and wholesome pairing, like cookies and milk.”
As far as forthcoming books…my own? It’s not forthcoming officially, but it is coming forth out of my brain as we speak. It’s about my non-immediate family, the people I’m related to that I’ve only gotten to know as an adult. It too has an old song title for a name: Stevie Wonder’s A Seed Is a Star.
Kyla Marshell is a creative writer whose poems, essays, articles and interviews have appeared in Blackbird, Bookforum, BuzzFeed, ESPNw, Gawker, The Guardian, O, the Oprah Magazine, and elsewhere. She has earned Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships and residencies to the Vermont Studio Center and Fine Arts Work Center. In 2013, Ebony.com named her one of "7 Young Black Writers You Should Know." She is a graduate of Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence College; and is at work on a memoir about the meaning of family via relationships with her distant relatives.