The PdS Black Voices Series Presents: ISAAC PICKELL
We are all living fiction
It never occurred
to me to open
the window, the hell
would I want
with the sky?
The sky’s stuck
in last year’s snow
or something else
soft to sink into;
maybe we’d sound
soft enough on another
a repository for all those
things that can’t be killed.
I trust near misses
more than wounds
& someday you will
even if you die first
& even then not
a day will pass
when you don’t
for the first time.
Every day on the drive
into the city we talk
about what has happened
to our city and on
the drive back out
we talk about our days,
drowning in basic comforts.
Today I was those people,
praying for the motor to kick
back through Highland Park
but misery isn’t a place, even
if some prefer the company
to nothing at all. It’s an elephant.
You’re not supposed to name it.
We’re busy making another great
flood; I hope I live long enough to see
the birth of fable, comforted as I am
by stubbornnesses bigger than me.
Anything that size succumbs so slowly:
in Detroit, our famous homegrown
department store filled all thirty floors
of a skyscraper: when they rigged
the building with explosives and surrounded it
with bulldozers, people openly wept on the streets
while others applauded and laughed, here comes
the neighborhood. Even Venus and Mars are only faking
stasis, Mars moving away from the sun and Venus
slowly returning to her. Eventually your name
and your town may no longer share an orbit,
but that takes a very long time. Eventually,
our rocks will be swallowed by the same fire
so keep running museums with your scissors
pointy end up, carving captions to make
the classics accessible.
Memories come with poltergeists,
what we made and what
we make our burden, resting
together on one blank page
in a book we claimed to know
the end of. Only the past’s future
doesn’t have an ending: the decay
of indecision is, maybe,
a better decay than the other sorts
smashing yourself until you are whole.
So here comes the neighborhood, the malaise
of close-cropped neon green lawns, just so
Sentences and other promises
there is a man in an alley who looks to either side before meeting your eyes he is selling matches for a dollar a stick in front of him is a little hole no wider than your hips it echoes when you look he'll light the match for no extra charge and gestures to the scarred ground promising full cabinets for your children only the driest of tears you'll feel better once you're through another you hands him a dollar and watches the echoes drowned out by the sounds of a thousand people screaming for their lives there is one more hole you must not have seen no wider than your fist that starts to gurgle with blood you turn to the man and see that it will grow into a geyser you ask the man "who is down there and what is happening to them" "I don’t know" and he hands back your dollar. holding
nothing but shuttered and still standing proud with palm on elbow and palm on elbow held tight by too many nails in debt to the man who made you promise never take anything:
from a funeral, not your
bread or flour not even
flowers not even candy
but you will not be brushed or dusted into rows cut from your roots and your dirt’s still supple when the sun is replaced by winter you will not be processed and stripped and bleached and quality checked you will not be filtered through the finest mesh leaving most of you behind No. No, you will not be bottled you will not be sold as a drink with a
pulse. sit the dark until the sun comes, dream about the places that make you nostalgic, lovers you haven’t met, wait for the man to leave, don't listen even if you hear him say i swear that i will marry you some day. let history decide what did or did not happen
A few good words with Isaac
PDS: I want a t-shirt (baseball hat, patch, etc.) that reads “no one understands / ‘no’ is a full sentence,” because it touches deeply a part of me (and I’m sure many others) that’s been socialized to equivocate, explain or otherwise make more palatable our rejections. Talk about your relationship to “no.” [Editor's note: The quoted line existed in an earlier draft of the poem, and although it's not included in this published version, I still think the line, question & response were important to share.]
IP: My relationship to “no” developed only as an inverse to the expected response, as something someone somewhere else gave and received. This is probably true of most blond-haired boys, no matter what sort of history preceded them. I got used to hearing no before I got used to saying it; people don’t ask blond-haired boys very many things they wouldn’t ask of themselves.
My father worked eighty hours a week which meant I spent most of my time tagging along with a mother who didn’t much look like me in a town where not many others looked like her, either. I heard her say no to a lot of people who didn’t think that was one of the multiple-choice answers: “thank you so much for keeping the school clean,” “we’re actually out of rooms,” “where are that boy’s parents.” People never trusted her no’s and I’m still not sure I trust my own, which I find don’t go nearly so far anymore, now that I’ve lost my appetite for saying yes when people assume who I am.
I guess the golden rule has always been contingent in this country.
PDS: Talk to us about formatting in “Sentences and other promises”—how is form built in your work? What makes a poem need a prose block or an offset margin, a creative use of white space, over one that’s “traditional” in its lineated, left justified construct?
IP: I was told by a professor once that I was a “digital notebook poet” — while I’m still unsure if this was a dig, compliment, or just an observation, it does ring somewhat true: most of my work is composed in the notes and voice memos apps on my phone, though I do occasionally fill up pieces of paper. This sort of nomadic conception, often piecing together the same thought from splintered times and places, I’d argue is the only way to ever really finish a thought.
So poems come together in these explicitly anti-aesthetic places and a lot of them die right there on the vine. I tend to get all the words down before I ever move them to Word, which for some reason feels kind of final, maybe just because you have to name Word documents so it seems like there should be a title, even if it’s “make this a poem.docx” Now all that language gets to confront a brand new blankness. I really treasure this method, where I get to write every poem twice — not different drafts, but truly different acts of composition.
Which is a long way of setting up an answer to your question. I try to honor what the poem is getting at, what it’s trying to learn or feel while not forgetting how it came to be. If I’m transferring words that came in a flood, filling the back of a scrap paper or recorded with a driving rhythm at four in the morning, that work is going to find its way into prose blocks, which I think of as big, bursting stanzas rather than some discrete formal choice separate from the “traditional,” and I approach shape and white space just like I would if the poem were left justified couplets. Shape can be suggestive, maybe hinting toward the work’s posture where blocks or towers are more sturdy or defensive, protecting the sentences, keeping their syntax safe. Margins I suppose work the same way I treat tabbed lines in verse — pure elision.
Or I guess because I’m a PhD student I should practice saying more with less and just posit that my choices with form are deferential to the poem’s ontology and epistemology.
PDS: Which book makes you most love your blackness? What writer’s own self-love (or community love) makes you most love yourself?
IP: There are endless books that make me love blackness, the love within or of our community, that love’s whisper in Gwendolyn Brooks’ early stuff like A Street in Bronzeville or its brashness in Douglas Kearney’s Buck Studies or Dawn Lundy Martin’s Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. But there are few books that make me love my blackness, which I’m really more okay with than the first half of this sentence might suggest. There are two obvious reasons for this lack: representations of passing are rare, especially today, and passing has always been a hard thing to love from the inside or out of it. What you do find is the shame of privilege, the vacant antagonism of being in the white world, the violence to and consumption of blackness that produced someone with fair skin and light eyes.
If there was one book that really stuck with me, that helped me at least embrace my blackness, it was Nella Larsen’s classic, even though the title and moral are a bit on the head of nail. There’s always a choice to be made in a body that passes and Passing treats both sides of that choice with an honesty that’s tender yet unapologetic. There’s nothing passive in passing, or in choosing to refuse it.
An embrace isn’t quite love though, or at least not necessarily so. The writers that make me love my blackness relocate the experience of passing from the sole burden of their characters onto a shared space, or project, between the writer and reader. Renee Gladman’s Ravicka novels and Octavia Butler’s Parables deeply love their central characters, so much so that they form them in a world that imagines blackness outside of or beyond its relationship to the past few hundred years of white supremacy. Many readers (even in a graduate seminar!) get to the end of these books and try to raise the “question” of the character’s race as if this is some sort of theoretical unknown, which is exactly how those readers (even in a graduate seminar!) raise the question of my blackness, too. Maybe that’s just me loving a writer’s self-love without having to deal with what my whiteness means.
Isaac Pickell is a biracial poet working out of Detroit where he is a PhD student and teacher at Wayne State University, focusing on the borderlands of black literature. His work's most recently found in Cotton Xenomorph, Fence, and Pleiades, and he was a finalist for the Black Lawrence Press' 2018 Black River Chapbook Competition and 2019 Hudson Prize. Isaac has taken a seat in all fifty states and has so much to look forwards to.