Douglas is on a mission. He feels we have forgotten Donny Hathaway.
Many of the poems are the same poem, rewritten, reformed, re-done. Like jazz or mornings. Spun off into new territories, into improvs and pops and jams.
I was impressed. I told a student: “I want you to read his book and interview that poet.” A perk of teaching college is that you can assign such notions and the student pretty much will follow through. Grades are involved and so on. The student is named Aaron. This interview appears in the 2010 Broken Plate. And now online below:
1. What inspires your writing?
Music, failing—living. Everyday things are at the heart of all I do. I want to illuminate the ordinary and praise it, or eavesdrop on a good conversation and fill in the rest of the story. I’m always amazed at what I find when I tune in to the world around me.
2. How or when did you realize that writing was an important aspect of your life?
In grade school, like fifth or sixth grade, I wrote a series of short stories that got a lot of attention from my classmates. It was fun to have my friends anticipate my next story. Somehow, it was poetry that won me over. I think it had a lot to do with the music I was listening to at the time, punk rock, and another round of recognition in school. This time, I was 13 in the eighth grade and I wrote a poem that was used in a school newsletter. Thanks to my new found identity as a punk—the only black punk in Iowa City that I or my friends new of—I was expressing my growing pains in short bursts of verse that mimicked the songs I was listening to. I felt empowered.
3. Can you discuss a little about the Affrilachian Poets and what they mean to you?
I will let you check out the history of the group at www.affrilachianpoets.com if you haven’t already.
The Affrilachian Poets raised me as a writer. I was pretty green when I helped start the group in 1991, but a creative writing class with Nikky Finney (a cofounder) taught me that a writer had to have a work ethic. That was new to me. I was 19 and writing poems whenever the mood hit me. Nikky Finney didn’t stand for that.
It’s hard to be in a group like this and not excel if you are serious about writing. Looking at what your peers accomplish rubs off on you. You want to publish; you want to contribute to the black/urban/rural/political/contemporary poetic tradition. You want to show the world the voice of Affrilachia.
4. The art is in the revision is a quote that we use frequently in writing, can you talk about the revision process you used on Cooling Board?
Initially, revision was difficult. Cooling Board started out as my final project in a long poem class taught by poet Kevin Young at Indiana University Bloomington. It was 30 pages or so, and for a long time I was stuck on those pages. I actually entered book contests with a manuscript that was half Cooling Board and half autobiographical family poems from my master’s thesis. It was a mess.
As an MFA student at IU, I drove to St. Louis in 2005 to conduct research for the poems. Ultimately, I wrote more poems and revised the initial poems after returning to St. Louis for more research in 2007. I wanted to be as close to Donny’s voice as possible, so I had to go back to St. Louis, talk to people who knew Donny, and walk the streets he used to walk. Also, the more I listened to Donny’s music and listened to my poems, I was convinced the manuscript didn’t have enough music. In my final edits for Red Hen Press before the book was published in February of 2009, I reviewed the poems and looked for places that were missing music. The process was exhausting, but rewarding.
5. Cooling Board was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, the Outstanding Literary Work-Poetry, what does this mean to you?
It’s hard to put into words. Two friends, Adrian Matejka and Camille Dungy, have also been nominated. They are fellow Cave Canem poets, and I love their work. And then there’s Nikki Giovanni; she is nominated in the same category for her book “Bicycles: Love Poems.” Nikki Giovanni, who wrote my favorite poem “For Saundra,” a poem that for years has made me consider a poet’s responsibility in discussing social and political issues. When I found out Ms. Giovanni was nominated, I was floored. Knowing my competition, I mean it when I say the nomination itself is an honor.
6. What was the hardest part about putting Cooling Board together?
I can’t really say that establishing the order was difficult. The book is guided by a strong sense of narrative, so the events of Donny’s life presented themselves chronologically and I listened. It was a joy to assemble.
7. Music is a prime influence in Cooling Board. Can you discuss the relationship between music and poetry?
Poetry is a condensed musical language that appeals to the senses. It doesn’t matter how you create music in a poem, it has to be there. This is what I love about it. When you understand that a poem’s concentrated language leads to this rhythm—one that is so different from the prose we read and write by virtue of what’s missing—crafting poems becomes fun.
8. What sort of relationship do you have with your editor/s and your publisher?
Kate Gale and Mark Cull, the managing editor and publisher of Red Hen Press respectively, are great to work with. When I brought them the cover I wanted—a collage I commissioned from Chicago artist/poet Krista Franklin—they were immediately on board. They were so in tune with my organization of the book as an album, they suggested making the book square to compliment the appearance of the cover art and make it look like a record jacket. I’ve had a lot more creative input in terms of the format and appearance of the book than a lot of authors get, and I’ve been grateful for all of it. It’s proof that I found the right press.
9. How did you go about getting Cooling Board published?
I entered a ton of book contests over a period of about three years. Going the contest route is customary for a poet looking to place a first collection. When I submitted Cooling Board for Red Hen’s Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, I got an e-mail from Kate Gale. She told me if my manuscript didn’t win, she would hold on to it and contact me. In 2007, we met at AWP and began discussing the possibility of publishing the book. They made it happen two years later.
10. What advice would you give to any aspiring authors?
When you have an idea you believe in, one that feels right, don’t let it go. I was about to give up on Cooling Board until it was named a finalist and semi-finalist in several book contests (Kent State’s Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, the Blue Lynx Prize, and the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award among them). That kept me motivated. I knew I was on to something, and with each rejection I revised, added new poems, and continued to make the manuscript stronger.
11. Are you at work on any new projects?
I’m taking a break from persona poems and finishing a book of poems about my family. After that, I have two projects in the works that I can’t discuss. I don’t want someone to beat me to the punch, and the less everyone knows, the bigger a surprise the book is when it arrives. I want to talk about both projects, but its better that I don’t.