The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Talking Poetry with Rickey Laurentiis

Rickey Laurentiis. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

When I first contacted poet Rickey Laurentiis a few weeks ago, he was preparing to defend his MFA thesis at Washington University in St. Louis. This, I thought, was ironic: the 24-year-old has been awarded an NEA Poetry Fellowship, a Cave Canem Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a fellowship from the Atlantic Center for the Creative Arts, but had not yet completed his MFA. Although in most cases the degree precedes the accolades, Laurentiis’s uncommon path perhaps shouldn’t be surprising for someone so uncommonly gifted.

A native of New Orleans, Laurentiis uses language as a balm and as a blade; his words are at once soothing and piercing, conspiratorial and confrontational. In his poems, many of which focus on religion, sexuality, and Hurricane Katrina, Laurentiis takes the fears and insecurities of life and somehow makes them beautiful---things to be celebrated and explored rather than therapied away. In the e-mail interview below, the poet opens up about his creative process, identity, artistic collaboration, and why he thinks “moist” is an amazing word.

NEA: When did you first begin writing? Do you remember the first poem you wrote?

RICKEY LAURENTIIS: Some of my first memories include being seated on my grandfather’s lap and being read the newspaper comics. He was a fantastic reader, assuming new voices for different characters, stopping to make sure I understood the jokes and punchlines. He wasn’t reading to me Robert Frost or even Langston Hughes, but he was teaching me (perhaps unwittingly) important lessons about language, storytelling, inflection and, overall, the joys of reading all the same. And though I can’t exactly remember a moment when I couldn’t read (I started very early), I do remember having a feeling of suddenly wanting to read to my grandfather in a kind of fair exchange. I remember realizing that I could do this and, more, I might even be able to write comics and stories like this to share.

So I did. The first things I wrote were attempts at fiction. Little prose vignettes. Terrible stories that were always too interested in the minute details as oppose to character or plot. I remember writing one story that was meant to be a horror story about a family who had, unbeknownst to them, just moved to Japan and into a haunted house. But I spent pages simply describing the house, each room, each corridor, how the wind made certain things creak! Here, I think, was something of the poet in me (more interested in image than, say, narrative) peeking out, but it still wouldn’t be till much later when I was approaching middle school that I realized one could be a poet, could write poems in today’s world. I guess I must have eventually started writing poems, or poem-like things, when my mother decided to give me her old copy of Nikki Giovanni’s Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day, which I still own. It was the first full collection of poetry I read and, though my aesthetic sensibilities have changed quite a bit since that time, it still remains an important book in my life if only for the fact it told me, “Yes, you can do this.”

Implicit also in the act of my mother giving me that book (though I wouldn’t realize this until later) was an understanding that not only did modern people write books of poems, but that people also read those books. My mother was proof. For so long I thought the only way to be a writer, to write books, and to be read was to be one of those comic strip writer/artists or to write fiction. The day my mother walked into my room with that slim pink and slightly worn book, just as whatever day it was my grandfather first pulled me into his lap, was life-changing.

NEA: At age 24, you’ve already received fellowships from the NEA, Cave Canem, the Poetry Foundation, among others. What has it been like to receive this level of recognition at such an early age?

LAURENTIIS: Humbling---that’s the only word, really, that comes close to encompassing all my feelings in regards to the recognition I’ve received. Of course, one could take another road, could turn quickly toward arrogance or bravado, believing that such honors at such a young age means that they can do no wrong, that they’re superstars. But most true stars, I’m told, have been dead for millions of years before their light takes effect on our planet. This other road, I think, can actually be detrimental to the essential work of the poet, which is at the end only to write honest poems. I have to hear in these awards and fellowships I’ve been honored to receive a “Yes,” an insinuation of trust, trust in my work and the promise of my work, and this keeps me motivated. But in that “Yes” is also the responsibility of the artist, the kind of responsibility James Baldwin speaks about in his essay, “The Creative Process,” which is a duty to show the world those parts of itself it rather not see. I hear in it not an opportunity to get big-headed or, worse, some idea that I’ve “made it” and can and should stop pushing myself---which is to say, stop pushing my poems---toward greater clarity of those truths. I hear, instead, in that “Yes” a charge: “Okay, so we’ve given you this. Now what are you gonna do with it? What are you gonna make with it?”

This may all sound very up-and-the-air, flighty, or what have you, but it’s really what I believe. All the recognition, especially one like the NEA, has only humbled me, the kind of “humbleness” that Robert Hayden’s Nat Turner returns to at the end of his famous ballad. If I can be most honest, it’s sort of a terrifying state. Certainly, anxious. I don’t want to let those who have seen promise in my work enough to celebrate it---I don’t want to let those people down. I still have work to do.

NEA: You re-visit a number of different themes in your work, including water, sexuality, and religion. How do you use poetry to bring fresh insight to these themes, not only for readers but for yourself?  

LAURENTIIS: Poet Saeed Jones interviewed me once for THEthe Poetry’s blog, and in an answer to one of his questions I said, “I have questions. My poems come here to persuade me the childish belief that I might answer them.” I still believe that. That’s still the principal way I see my poems and poetry in general working in my life. I go to poets I admire to appreciate their skill with language, yes, but also because they’re leading me toward answers to the questions I’m struggling to answer myself. If when I go to them and find no sufficient answer, or if I find an answer but it doesn’t seem total to my experience, that is when I might pick up my own pen and risk egotism by suggesting, “Well, maybe it’s also this.” Like sentimentality, I think maybe the risking of egotism is fine as long as it’s tempered. The risk is productive. I mean, why write at all if one didn’t think they had something to say?

Bringing fresh insight, as you describe it, to these old themes and others is just a matter of admitting three things: 1) you’ll never fully know anything total about any given thing, 2) you don’t need to know anything total and yet 3) for this brief moment you might allow the poem-in-process to convince yourself that you do know. Basically, what I’m describing is a state of knowing and not-knowing and learning to be comfortable in the discomfort that produces. Negative capability 101, sure, but it’s still useful knowledge. When a poet understands that she can’t fully know, then she becomes so much more available to surprise---the surprise of discovery---the discovery of a new way of saying it, of getting the thing put down---and that, to me, is what “fresh insight” is about. With water, sexuality, religion I’m no closer to understanding these things as I was when I first began obsessively writing about them, and for this I’m glad. To return to something I said earlier, this is part of the work I still have left to do.

NEA: You’ve self-described as a gay person of color. What does this mean for you as an artist?

LAURENTIIS: There’s an interview with James Baldwin in which the interviewer describes Baldwin when he was just beginning as a writer as “black, impoverished, a homosexual,” and he goes on to wonder if Baldwin would have, because of all these categories, seen himself as completely disadvantaged. But Baldwin responds quickly, almost slyly, “No, I thought I hit the jackpot!” I return to this moment in my head often, not only since all those categories would fit me as well (with the added “Southern”---a world of its own) but also because Baldwin’s response to it, exactly, matches my own. Why not celebrate these supposed disadvantages? Put another way, why not see where some would see a cage---a restriction of freedom---a door, however narrow, toward new paths of knowledge? It’s like how a sonnet, for instance, with all its restrictive limitations, with its sense of containment (maybe, at times, claustrophobia), precisely because of those limits can often produce wildly original content, turn of phrases, arguments. Maybe that’s how we could re-imagine identity, as the little sonnets we carry. It’s an idea, at least.

For me, being a gay person of color, who’s also from the South, puts me into a large, still growing, tradition. I take liberally from Jean Toomer as I do, say, Mark Doty. I learn from Mark Twain as I do from Nella Larsen. Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison both sit by my bed. That’s not to say I don’t move outside these traditions. Anyone who speaks to me regularly understands my deep (if at times difficult) affinity for Wallace Stevens, for example. With no attempt at erasing or ignoring the very real, material hindrances that such an identity can produce, whether in publishing or in simply walking down the street, I still prefer to see the productive potential in that identity. It’s true, the identity I claim and that has been claimed for me, like other identities, has been historically marginalized. But isn’t it also true that one often sees much better, clearer, sees more from the margins than they would if in the center?

NEA: In Final Poem for the Body, you wrote, “Soon language won’t be enough, if it was ever enough.” Can you elaborate on your views regarding the social role of language?

LAURENTIIS: I wrote that in a little prose statement that the editors of Poets for Living Waters wanted each poet to include after their poem. I think at that time I was just a bit more than frustrated that many poets and writers were writing what I would call “a poem of disaster” without doing more. And “doing more” could be lots of things: literally, going out to help affected victims with your own resources or, literarily, putting oneself in these “poems of disaster.” I have to be clear what I mean by this last point. At that time, it just felt as if much of that kind of poetry was only involved in witnessing a kind of destruction, describing it viscerally, speaking, yes, to the atrocities that may have created it but with no mind for the poet’s own role in those atrocities. There was a kind of voyeurism happening, a speaking-for the victims as oppose to letting the victim (when they could) speak for her or himself. And then there was this impulse to make everyone, absolutely, a victim! In short, it was the expression of a lot of privilege. And, in the end, I’m not sure how beneficial that is. I’m more interested in discovering, in a poem, why a poet from Minnesota is interested in, say, the tragic events of the earthquake in Haiti a few years ago than I am in simply that Minnesotan drafting a poem that merely describes the tragedy. The former hypothetical poem is harder to do, I think, but more honest; the second is less so. These days, I’m having these kinds of frustration with theory or, rather, criticism. Literary, political, discussions of Tarantino’s Django Unchained to discussions about gay marriage: much of it seems stilted and ultimately unproductive, not inventive, rehearsing familiar knowledge, writing that seems disconnected from the body that made it, boring.

I wonder, though, if I still agree “soon language won’t be enough.” This is the issue with attaching prose bits to poems, at least for me. Sometimes they’re just not accurate. I do place a lot of faith and trust in language. I do see it as our primary (if not exclusive) means of actually communicating to each other and performing our identities. But there’s also been a time in my life, as expressed in “Final Poem for the Body,” when I was speechless, and language seemed unavailable.

NEA: Can you describe your creative process? Do you begin with a word, a phrase, an idea? How many drafts/hours does a poem typically require?

LAURENTIIS: I’ll begin with something---usually not just one word, but a phrase, or an image, or a question that’s in my head. I enjoy ekphrasis, so sometimes I’m engaging with a literal piece of visual art. Other times I’m engaging with a less tangible emotion.

I write by hand. By time I get to the computer screen, the poem’s nearly on its way to being done. But it’s also true that by the time I get to a notebook the poem has significantly evolved. I write a lot in my head, often on walks. Sometimes I record myself using my phone, but not very often. I’m of the mind that to make poetry memorable it should, on some level, be memorizable. So, as I’m walking if I can’t really recall the line I either just thought up or thought up minutes ago then I let it go. If it comes back to me, maybe it’s meant to be in the draft of the poem. If it doesn’t, then it wasn’t meant to be.

I don’t write often. I have very close friends who write daily, and in my head I’m always amazed by this feat. It just seems so exhaustive to me, but that’s just me. I also don’t guilt myself that I don’t write daily or even more than once a month. You know, living, going out into the world, is a part of writing, and I hope to be as equally good at living as I am, perhaps, at writing by the time my tenure on this planet is done. It’s important for me to be balanced.

The shortest I’ve written a poem from concept to final draft was in one day, and this was the one time a poem came to me in a dream in a way that I felt needed to be exactly replicated in the poem itself. Other times I will get inspiration from dreams, but it’s like getting inspiration from anywhere else and the task becomes how to work it into a poem. The longest it’s taken me to write one poem was with a rather long one that took about two years to complete. I’m happy to say that poem will be appearing in the world very soon.

NEA: You’ve also collaborated with musicians and visual artists. How do you view the intersection of these art forms and your own?

LAURENTIIS: I’ve been having a conversation recently with another close friend about art. He’s a singer. I’m a poet. We have other friends who are dancers or visual artists. Our conversation has been about the arts and, specifically, if it can be said that one art, over another, is “truer,” more “total” or “complete.” In short, if one artistic medium is the ultimate medium.

I don’t agree that any one is greater or lesser than another or that any one is closer to “truth” than another. It’s just that each art form comes to it differently, exploring or exploiting different media, making different use of the human body and mind. The mere fact, as my friend and I have agreed, that there exists different art forms suggest that none, on their own, are total. They each have their limits and, in those limits, each have their possibilities. I also brought up the idea that while describing one art form we frequently move into the vocabulary of another to describe it. We talk about how a stanza of poetry is musical, for instance; there’s the cliché that dance is poetry in motion; some visual art is said to have a rhythm. There are other examples. This suggests to me that no one art form exists in a vacuum; they depend upon and build off each other.

So why not take advantage of that? I see the intersections all the time and I’m always interested in seeing how I can take an aspect of one art form and enact it in a poem. Of course, it will only be an approximation. But a good approximation, inside another artistic medium, can be the pathway to something new entirely for that medium. It’s a play with trial and error that, even if it doesn’t ultimately produce a successful poem, can be fun and useful for the poet.

NEA: What are your five favorite words in the English language? Which words would you ban from the dictionary?

LAURENTIIS: I wouldn’t ban any word from the dictionary. There may be words I severely dislike, such as “normal” or “natural,” but even there I’m mostly raging against how those words are often and have historically been used, not the words themselves. I get slightly annoyed when people (my students included) often go to “moist” as their least favorite word (you’d be surprised by how many people claim displeasure with this word!). Many cite the way it sounds as the reason. To me, that makes it an amazing word! “Moist” sounds moist---wet, slippery, maybe a little gross depending on the context. That’s a fabulous word that can enact, in its sound or image, what it means.

As for my favorites, they vary. I’ve always stayed close to the word “womb,” though I’ve yet to use it in a poem. Here again is a word that, at least to my mind, sounds a bit like what it means. Say it aloud.  The ‘w’ is light and breathy, but the ‘omb’ of it has a way of vibrating, buzzing, in your mouth. To me, that seems like a warm buzzing, circular, protective. Doesn’t it remind you of our understanding of a womb? Now replace the ‘w’ with the harsher ‘t’ to make ‘tomb,’ which is an enclosure just as contained, as close to the body, but without the upward breathiness that the ‘w’ affords. You aren’t about to be born in a ‘tomb,’ not exactly. You’re about to be brought down---your material body anyway---in the same way the ‘t’ seems to clip down the mouth. Perhaps all of this is idiosyncratic, but it’s reason I give for why I enjoy these two words all the same.

NEA: Where do you look for inspiration?

LAURENTIIS: It can come from anywhere. As I said earlier, dreams, but also overheard speech, an emotion, a question I have in my head. Inspiration, if we take it etymologically, is something that breathes into you, so one can’t be sure where it will come from or exactly when. I don’t resist it when it happens, or I try not to, but I prefer most often to think in terms of obsessions. What obsesses me, what am I constantly wondering about, what image or images dominate my thinking---this is what I most often put pressure on when attempting to write new material. Even though I don’t write daily, this method seems less stressful to me when I do come to write since I already know what I’m obsessed with. I just don’t know, not fully, why. That’s the poem's job to tell me.

NEA: What are you currently working on?

LAURENTIIS: Just poems, one at a time. And living. And always working on myself.

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