Interviews

jayy dodd

A jayy dodd poem is a jayy dodd poem: singular, wrought, rhythmic, pulsing. Their new collection, Mannish Tongues, equal parts testimony and performance, both sings and mourns the Black body, the church, the spaces we inhabit, our identities. In the book’s opening, some kind of processional, jayy writes: “Because there is always a body in a poem, my body is Black, soft / some kind-of-attempt at here.” Here, yes, is where jayy forever is in Mannish Tongues: as boy, as Black, as poet, as survivor, as so much. Which is why this book lives as prayer, offering, testament, testimony, guide, play, memoir, poetry.

It is a shame that so much is necessary now – it always was, but we as a collective public are only just using the word. But Mannish Tongues is as necessary as jayy is. Which is to say, a great deal.

jayy and I spoke via email over the course of a few days. Below are my words and theirs. 

 

First of all, congratulations on this collection. It’s blood-soaked – warm, resonant, fierce, gorgeous. I want to ask what your favorite part of this work is. Like, sell yourself. Which lines are you most proud of – the ones that make you kick back and say “damn, I wrote that?”

lol the whole book is me selling myself, no? i’ve already shown a delightful amount for free. but hmm, a line i am particularly proud of, hard to say. i think one of the poems i’m most proud of for the lineation & construction would be “What Do You Call a Collective of Niggas?” it’s this pastoral that creates a natural taxonomy for the Black subject.

 

Before the meat of things, some questions:

 If your poems could be a color, what would they be?

a plum that would almost look black in other light.

 

If this book could be a house, a home, an apartment, a room – what would it look like? What would it overlook? Where would it be?

it would be a covering in a wilderness, where folk gather to dance & tell tales, with no walls, vulnerable & holy.

 

Who’s making the soundtrack to this book, the accompanying music?

it’s a 90’s gospel, diva house ballroom track, with a californian mumblecore singer-songwriter folk remix

 

Hah, I like that. Now, your first words of the book are, “If there is always a body somewhere in a poem, imagine the mouth of my poems, licking their own lips.” The body is at the forefront of your work. Sometimes sensual – “My hands were caught feeling myself,” or wrought – “My body is a parlor trick called survival,” or scarred – “if this body be a land / its language be howl & debris,” yet still sometimes hopeful – “He will make home of his own skin.” When I read your poems, I’m always conscious of your body in the act of writing and living alongside these lines. How do you approach writing about the body, through the body, with the body?

i question poems without bodies, i hope there is a body in every poem i read, whether literary or a subject, a site for myself as the reader to read through. the body is a text but not all text supports the body, so i think that’s the sacred work of poetry— to use text to create new bodies to read from.

the body i present in my work, is a body (sometimes literally my own, other times a body i need to hold dear, like my own) that i want to create an archive of possibility. i believe documentation of the body (one’s own & kin) is urgent to survival & sustenance. i believe creating new languages & allowances for the body is urgent.

i consider my own body, how i have seen it has changed since the beginning of this process. i’ve begun transitioning from male-identified to non-binary, & i’m working on physical & professional shifts with that transition. so one of the bodies that is most present in the text is a Black boy body i have begun to kill quietly. many boy bodies die & hurt in my work, not always mine but i’m putting these bodies to a kind of rest with this work. but like tongues i know the body is never truly far from me.

 

Your poems in Mannish Tongues are written across a range of stylistic forms. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Untamed (a memoir on grandmothers)” utilizes these long, sprawling lines that turn over and over upon each other. Another, “Constellations,” is split into lyric horizontal sections and can be read many ways. And “Infinite Monkey Theorem” rocks footnotes, multiple-choice questions, and a long riff on the word “infinite.” I’m wondering how you approach your poems – what moves you to arrange a given poem in a certain way?

it's funny those few pieces really do stand out for me also because they each took a different sort of intention in creating. for each of those poems i wanted them to function differently as a stand alone text or they had to have some other instance needed and then I just had to transfer that concept to what I considered a poetic form.  

i really do like the poems that i feel abandoned or disregarded form and still quake with the power of good poetry. i am someone who personally really appreciates form as structure for the poem. though i have seen my poems shift whole forms in the revisions so i definitely believe in like becoming flexible. i also believe form poems can hinder a poet’s voice. it’s about a level of urgency.

 

That’s an interesting answer. Can you speak more to what you consider a poetic form? The possibilities seem infinite – how can you borrow from the outside world, from theory, from other art, etc, to create vessels that, to use your words “still quake with the power of good poetry.”

 i think forms utilize the language with a code or a structure for the reader to gain meaning, sometimes clarity, sometimes to disrupt. i think of forms like The Golden Shovel by Terrance Hayes that completely reimagine another poet’s words while committing to a frame for them to fit. I think classic forms of couplets & tercets & sestinas & ghazals & haikus are excellent vehicles for contemporary work. While contemporary forms that experiment with parameters, punctuation, visual poetry allow for a different kind of need to be met through the work.

 

Much of this book revolves around the divine and the spiritual. In “There’s Something Bout Being Raised in Church,” you write, “my first tongues were communion, / the body was sacrifice to be broken.” As I was reading the Testimonies section of this work, I thought of this Terrance Hayes line, something like, “Let me begin again. / I want to be holy.” This book, Mannish Tongues, is holy. There’s something biblical about it, in its prayers and myths and re-tellings. How do you use your knowledge of religion, and how are you affected by it? How does it move and challenge you?

as more eloquently detailed in the text i was raised by two ministers, so the ritual act of religion was part of the geography of how i learned about the world. i spent a long time in church & my mother is a religious scholar so i was raised interrogating faith & its symbolism & weaponization. i’ve also see how faith in Black church contexts invokes so much ritual from decolonized faiths. so my work to undo the sacred from a strictly Jeudo-Christian (colonized) narrative is an attempt to queer it, as the Black subject does already in practicing such faith.

considering the body in my work is often a physical one, i attend to it with the new myths & rituals i know. i believe the spirits & divinities i call to are as holy as any other. i just want to offer new scriptures.

 

It’s strange/unsettling/interesting, too, then, the way in which ritual serves a different purpose in regards to context. I grew up devoutly Catholic, but that ritual, at least from a predominately white church – I’m realizing this more now – was from a place, like you say, of colonization, anti-queerness. It was ritual for ritual’s sake. Ritual as monotone. Here, if your book is a hymnal, a queer testament, a queer mass – it’s a ritual that seeks to disrupt at the same time as it seems to provide a sort of salvation.

the colonization is anti-Black in many ways before anti-queer because the rituals that Black subjects have crafted have long been queer despite a silencing of language. this work could be a hymnal but it’s not for any-body to read, or the songs won’t sound the same. there is a Black church kid i want to read this in the back pew hoping for a miracle. i think my work is more wilderness revival than congregation.

 

That’s a gorgeous image. Now – I want to talk about language. You toy with it. You twist it, make it gorgeous. You utilize different diction, slang, whatever. Amongst so much, the book offers a sense of permission. It’s like, you can do anything in a poem if it’s real or honest. Can you say more about your use of language throughout the book? And maybe something too about how you give yourself permission?

the first art i truly loved was dancing. i danced from age seven to twenty-two. for a long while i thought i would be a famous dancer, then i began theater, & thought i could be on Broadway, luckily I found writing, but anyway. i believe i’m insufferably performative. as an only child most of my socialization was centered around performance of some kind. i think my writing with each poem, in its intention, i see how it looks on the body. i see the scene. i try to use language that points you to the scene i see. i want you to know something about the speaker. i want you to hear the room. there is something i believe in archive work that relies on the referential. my language is an attempt at authentically creating the scene or space i’m imagining.

 

It’s fitting you bring up dance, because there’s so much movement here, physical and not. Movement of place – from coast to coast, and in between. Movement of age – from “the biggest nine year old...target of foul touch / & shove” to “this body once boy now man, once full now frame.” Movement of identity, masculinity, sexuality. The title, too – Mannish Tongues, which calls to mind that Muddy Waters song “Mannish Boy,” which is very hyper in its masculinity. How have these varied movements of your life altered your art, your work?

yeah, the dance thing is critical to how i see poems, especially explicitly body poems. i learned my body through dance. i was a “dancer boy” & that came with its own kind of policing. i also did sports for too long (lol sorry mom). so the body as an interactive site was heavy & it was policed around different kinds of boyhood.

in the movement across the coast, i lived with all young men of color in a boarding school situation, i was on scholarship doing theater, the whole shebang. but i had never lived with boys & learned new masculinities & masks. i had to navigate the dominance of white boys but i’ve always been large so even my boy body had this feature that offered liminal protection & various kinds of vulnerability.

i’m on record saying this book features “masculine death” & i think that’s really at the heart of it. there’s a shitty misogynistic meme of like “ladies your should take the time to build your man up” i’m like both the lady & man but i’m killing him & showing up to his funeral. i expect i’ll leave me everything in the will.

 

There’s a line in “The Returning” – which might be my favorite poem of the collection – where you write, “How is knowing end times as / regular occurrence gonna get kinfolk free?” This line, along with many others, seem like these touchstones for the collection that ground it and reckon it with the political moment. There’s despair and grief and anger. Obviously, everything is political. From the poem itself to the body writing it and everything in between. I’m trying to frame a question out of this, but mostly, if possible, I’d like to know it’s been for you to write in an environment where your body is very much under attack. And how you view your art interacting with this moment and the world at large.

hmm, yeah. i think much of my politic is poetic which only has so much resource. i believe in leaving space for the unknown, the uninformed, the dissenter. i think it’s interesting that these are considered touchstones, cause they are sort of the canon in many ways. yes, Black poets can / have / poetry across various levels of visible politicization. but i think of this work as political as my simply being alive is. there’s this work i’ve been toying with for over a year now that’s a found poem series from Christopher Dorner[1]s Facebook Manifesto, & that’s uncomfortably political for me; as in i had to stop working on it because i had a dream of a line of black cops surrounding my house for nights on end. this work was a different kind of labor, my daily politic is a different one. that i’m able to speak myself into existence even here is enough.

 

That’s a harrowing sentiment. I’m wondering, when you speak of the Dorner found poem series, how you approach the potential of your work. Like – how did that become something you wanted to do? And how does daily life offer up itself as something that might become a poem, a project?

well, i would have to be honest in that i’m still developing a healthy writing practice. i write across genre & intellectualize publicly on Twitter so I’m both constantly writing & not in some regards. with focus on my poetry, or more creative writing, i’m most inspired by language i see & hear. if someone frames something in a particular way or i’m in in conversation & synthesize a point really well, those are my usual beginning places. headlines also really “trigger” me. for example “Human /Error” for Tamir Rice was inspired by a headline.

beyond that, my early engagement to poetry was through found poetry & erasure, it was the easiest to teach at my school in some ways, & i found being able to curate meaning i wanted from text really fascinating. this Dorner piece was my first real attempt at that form since undergrad & i knew i wanted to learn as well as create, so i created a process for approaching the work. this included but was not limited to: researching the un-redacted manifesto, annotating the entire work, as a military & law enforcement person he used many short-hands & acronyms, & putting as many faces & footnotes to the names he mentioned. the whole story was complicated & dangerous, moreover it was a psychological labor, but i have this newfound intimacy with Dorner as a Black subject.

i think what drew me most to Dorner is the dearth of critical / creative work around his story. i really want to create work that fills a needed space, there are so many possibilities within the Black subject, considering the fraught & visibly tenuous time we are documenting, his story feels urgent.

 

Performance and testimony are things that came to mind while I read through Mannish Tongues. These are open-ended questions, but here: what is your performance? What is your testimony?

My performance is future ghost acolyte.

My testimony is i am a dream come true for too many & can only hope to imagine beyond for each of us.

 

Who were you reading while writing this collection? Who do you love? What’s going on in the literary world that you’re getting behind? What are you not fucking with at all?

i read Danez Smith’s [insert] boy, Ai’s Sin, Morgan Parker’s latest whatever, some DA Powell, some Shane Mcrae, John Keats, Sam Sax, Clint Smith, Shakespeare, The Apostle John, others… I love my mom, she really motivated the heaven into me for this book. Gotta show love to Winter Tangerine who I’ve been able to work / grow with over the last year. I’m now their Workshops Director, so we have some dope things planned for 2017. ALSO, i’m really ecstatic the publisher of Mannish Tongues, Playtpus Press just started a daily section featuring some really dope contributing editors curating great literature. Love also to Pizza Pi Press, an indie press based in the Boston area run by some dope WOC, putting out excellent chapbooks with breathtaking art.

 

[1] Christopher Dorner was a black police officer that went on a killing spree after being fired for combating corruption in the LAPD. It was the largest manhunt in California history. He died in a cabin in the wood.