Editor and writer Valerie Wetlaufer invited me to answer some questions about what I’m working on and my writing process.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?
I’m working on a series of epistolary poems addressed to my father, whom I last met when I was about three years old. The whole project started when my mother asked me if I wanted to write to him in Guyana on my 33rd birthday. Not knowing what I wanted to say, I wrote poems to find my language.
There are moments in your life when are ready to do the deep work. Everything just seems to fall in place. Throughout my years, in my intimate relationships, I’ve been witnessed to partners and friends actively working to heal their relationship with their fathers. My wife, since her teens, has put so much effort in building her relationship with her biological father, she is truly an inspiration.
dear Gearld has allowed me to ask some difficult questions about my father’s whereabouts and goings-on during my life, personal and collective responsibilities, and to re-vision the stories told to me, which have been the foundation for my attachment and understanding of him, and of myself.
When we hurt, we pass on the hurt to others. He was without a father—he only had a ghost of a father. So he is a ghost-father to me. I’m the next generation who inherits this sadness.
There’s a quote by the poet Terrance Hayes, which I can’t locate, where he says something about how being a bastard uniquely positions him to have love for everyone—not knowing his father, anyone can be a relative. Many people have stories and unresolved pain associated with fatherlessness, which gave me the idea to invite people to write letters to the fathers they do not know, who left them, and/or who have not taken part in their lives. The dear Gerald letters I’ve received so far, remind me of Hayes’ quote. Through our fatherlessness, we have become kin.
HOW DOES YOUR WORK DIFFER FROM OTHER’S IN THE SAME GENRE?
I don’t think it differs very much—most poets are driven by personal concerns and find their poetry to be a means for investigation. We are all trying to get to something deeper, to arrive at place we didn’t know before, to make discoveries that shock us into a more authentic expression of who we are individually and collectively.
One of my concerns as a poet is what happens once the book is made. Here is this thing I’ve been spending my time on, it’s in book form, now what do I do with it? How do I make it relevant to others? How can the poems inspire or create or instigate something else? What new relationships can be formed as a result?
More than doing a reading or going to give a lecture, I’m interested in my poetry stimulating collaborations. I want my poetry to be in conversation with other artists, my various communities, and for it to be a bridge. The writing process is a lonely process, so when the work is done, I’m ready to play.
Post Pardon: The Opera came out of this sentiment. I adapted the chapbook into the libretto and collaborated with the composer Jessica Jones and she created the music. Post Pardon: The Opera is an exploration of the psyche of a mother who kills her child and then herself. It lent itself to operatic expression.
I’m currently at Headlands Center for the Arts on residency, for which I originally proposed to work with a choreographer and theater director to re-imagine my second collection, A Penny Saved, as a dance-theater production. But since one of the collaborators got a new job, we’ve decided to postpone the start of it.
I’m always thinking, what else can the work be? Since our American populous isn’t the biggest readers of poetry, thinking this way expands my audience and readership.
WHY DO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU DO?
Sometimes I want a fancy answer for these kinds of question. A fancy-dress answer that you commit two whole paychecks to purchase. And when I put it on, turn around in Wonder Woman-style, I’ll feel like a warrior. That is why I write: to be brave and confident in speaking up and putting my spin on it. It’s the drama of the gifted child—abandoned, she wants it to be known, fancy dress and all, that she’s here.
HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?
I’m always sparked by something: an event, a news item, overheard dialogue, or I’m pissed off and poetry helps me sound far more eloquent than if I spoke that anger. The process of writing is a balancing process, where I return again to my center calm.
What has been interesting about the writing process for dear Gerald is that as I contemplated my father’s absence, I thought about the various losses in my life. His abandonment revealed to me the contents of my broken heart. And taking an emotional inventory like that helps me, in my daily life, to be accountable.
In a very practical way: I start writing my poems, longhand, in a journal. I’m sure to label, in the upper margin, the name of the project. I often seem to be working on a few projects at a time—it’s how my mind is working lately, and I have to develop the systems to keep track of all the inspiration. I believe that your last project teaches you how to write your next stage of work. Post Pardon (and The Opera) gave spark to dear Gerald, and now dG is giving rise to Barnard & She, a hybrid text, biomythography—choreopoem meets Morrison’s Jazz and Lorde’s Zami.
And once I’ve reached that saturation point, I begin transcription. I really like the support of a community to do transcription, so I sign up for The Daily Grind. It’s an online writing community where, for a month, everyday you send writing to your assigned group of writers. There’s no feedback; it’s just you showing up for your craft each day.
Typed up and printed, I can begin to experience the poems in relationship to each other. The themes become visible and repeated words and phrases become apparent, so I take stock of the personal clichés I’ve formed. I feel through the collection, and assess what is emotionally too much, what needs support, and what is emotionally absent. This information guides my revision process. I may ask for outside feedback (from a mixture of folks who are poets, laypeople, and fiction lovers), depending on my level of security with the work.
At the point when it becomes clear that I have a collection, I begin to apply to residencies. The quiet, minimal distractions, and a new environment, during the revision process, helps me to see even more possibilities for each individual poem and the whole manuscript. I have refreshed myself to refresh the work.
When I’ve reached the stage where the work feels stable—it’s doing and saying what I intend for it to do and say, I send it out for publication to journals and book contests and see what comes of it.
Since I am self-publishing dear Gerald—the first time I have done such a thing on this scale—I have Jai Arun Ravine doing the book design and layout and my friend Soma Mei Sheng Frazier will edit the collection. With their help, and with funding from the Center for Cultural Innovation, dear Gerald will make its debut in the fall.