interview: jayy dodd
jayy dodd is a poet between worlds. An editor and a writer, their work tackles the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender with grace, insight, and style. dodd’s work has appeared in Teen Vogue and Entropy, and they work as an editor for Bettering American Poetry. We spoke with dodd to discuss their book Mannish Tongues, white boy love poems, negative capability, and how a Twitter DM spurred the conception of their forthcoming release, The Black Condition ft. Narcissus.
When did you first get into writing, and what inspired you to do so?
jd: My mom’s a poet. She’s been a poet for most of her life, so when I was younger we would go to open mics in our neighborhood. I wrote a little kid chapbook when I was very, very young, like not even 10, just trying to be like my mom. But I was a dancer, so I was doing a lot of things: poetry, basketball and track, and then saxophone. I was trying my hand at things because I needed to be active, but I was always drawn to the arts and creativity more. When I stopped doing sports and music, I focused on dance and performance, so I ended up stopping writing, too.
I started writing again in high school. The poems that I did for class I didn’t really care about, and I was just sort of seeing if I could do it, but I wasn’t really in a space that fostered it. When I went to college, I took some poetry classes and liked it and felt good about it, and I wanted to be a poet, but I didn’t see a lot of poets like me. I didn’t know how vast the contemporary Black poetry world was yet, and I wasn’t very familiar with slam as a thing that I wanted to do, so I wasn’t thinking about that world and its utility to Black poetry in large. Not that all contemporary Black poets are slam, but it’s a good entryway because there’s a lot of great crossover that helps you cross that border.
So I didn’t start writing for a public in any sort of regard until college. I started writing essays for regional blogs for the area my school was in—we had a culture blog that I wrote for, and I wrote for some political blogs, and then I got picked up by Huffington Post and I started being a contributor for them, and that built some sort of name for my writing. But I feel like Huffington Post writers are sometimes just people who can write, you know? So I got a lot of visibility, but I don’t think people knew me as a writer. So that’s what that was, and I was like, Well, I approach work and approach language in a way that’s closer to poetry, and I want to write poetry, but I can just write essays.
I didn’t think about writing seriously until college, and then I didn’t do my writing professionally until I graduated and I was in this nine-to-five job that I just did not like. I started submitting poems and working at The Offing, which was owned by The LA Review of Books, and that kind of dropped me into this world all of a sudden, behind the curtain of this literary world. I was reviewing work before I was getting published, and so getting that and seeing that, I sort of built my name this other way—again, not around my writing, but I was just like a person who knows words. Honestly, I don’t feel like I was a real “poet” or writer in the way that I am now until probably the end of 2015 or 2016. I had just sent out my chapbook for review, to see if someone wanted it. It was mostly poems from college that I hadn’t really touched in two years, so I felt like this was my test run, but once that got picked up and I became this editor person I was like, Oh, I am a something, I am a thing of this world, so I’m just gonna claim [myself to be] a poet and an editor. Since graduating from college I’ve devoted a large portion of my life to writing, and then the last year it’s been poetry, but I’ve had essays come out almost every three months—usually to make money, because essays pay what poems don’t, so that’s a big motivator. But I can’t not call myself an essayist because I do it more so to eat, because I do care about those essays. But I do like to work on myself daily as a poet, and that’s sort of the way that I approach my writing. Art is always gonna be this broken apart, abstracted thing. I feel like I always had writing as a tool of mine, but only in the last two years have I really focused it and made it what I am and what I do.
Being behind the scenes really gets you deeply invested in writing. I review poetry submissions, and I’m impressed all the time by the quality of work people send in—I’m like, Damn, I wish I could do that. It’s a really inspiring feeling.
jd: It’s sort of an odd way to get better, because I feel like there are some editors who just have good taste, and they’re good readers and have good analysis and they’re good editors. They don’t always have the desire or maybe even just the instinct to craft poetry the same way, but the poetry definitely reads to their intellective editorial ability. I love really good editorial poets—I kind of hope to be one, honestly. I think that sometimes when people who are more editors than poets find that and realize that and are just critical in the field, if you are sort of on the cusp, being able to see a lot of work of varied quality really helps you notice things about yourself. You can notice patterns. Seeing trends in poetry always freaked me out. I’m reading 100 submissions, how did 20 of you have a “Self-Portrait as a [Blank]” poem? I don’t even hate the poems, necessarily, because I’m like, Y’all could have just named this anything else, you could have named it “Star Light Star Bright,” it would have been just as good a poem, but you had to name it “Self-Portrait as the Window Open in my Bedroom” and I’m like, No, don’t do that. [laughing]
I see patterns in forms and approaches, and there are a lot of people writing after people in the canon of poetry, but I feel like some people want to reapply someone’s form to their own experience, which can sometimes work if the form is really strict, but if you’re just dropping in your personal drops to what they already did, that’s not work in my opinion. I mean, I’ve written a few, but usually when I write a poem after someone it’s never a poet. It’s a person or a piece, some sort of moment. One I wrote was called “The Subject Was Faggots,” and the title of the poem is taken from the Gil Scott-Heron poem of the same title. He’s this dope, really phenomenal Black poet—I mean, he’s a cishet Black dude, so there are a thousand problems that I’m sure he also has, and his language reveals that. But what he did for Black poetics and sound and rhythm and music and rap—he was pre-rap. But [this poem] is a really honest account of him accidentally ending up outside of a drag boat ball in New York in like 1970 or whatever—I don’t know, he’s older—and all he’s doing is just recounting the scene, and that’s literally all that he’s doing. And he’s like, you know, biased, but it’s not like, Oh, this is disgusting, it’s just like, What in the hell is going on here? It’s a very honest spectacle. So I use his form, but also because of where I’m speaking from, I speak in a whole different location, and so when I say “faggots” it’s a whole different thing, there’s a whole lot less distance. In my poem I’m not talking about a drag scene, I’m talking about getting carded at the gay club for the first time after transitioning. In this space, anything could have happened; the spectacle was me. So if you’re writing after a work, re-imagine the position, either take the language and re-imagine the point of view or the other side. Just using what people built for themselves for you just doesn’t feel authentic or necessary or like art to me. It’s so opposite in submissions, though. I’m like, You could be a good writer if you could actually just write your own poems. Maybe. I hope.
You say you started dabbling in writing in college. Were those writings or poems at that time also of a similar thematic nature to Mannish Tongues? How and when did you start becoming comfortable addressing the themes present in that collection?
jd: Great question. So the best of my college poems are in my first chapbook, [sugar in the tank]. I’m very self-conscious of my work in Mannish Tongues and [sugar in the tank] and all my basic stuff before this upcoming book, because there is this boy body that’s always been there that I sort of killed off in Mannish Tongues. I feel like I’ve been thinking about it a bit like a narrative: I’ve been marking very clear steps in my gender, my racial consciousness, my use of language. [sugar in the tank], the college poems, are the very beginnings of how I put my language around prayer and meditating. I feel like it was sort of the mixtape to get my sound out, and I definitely use those tools much better now, and I’m happy with how I’ve matured. It’s not stupid writing prompts from some white dude, they’re just coming from the earth, they already are coming from a more urgent place. But the tools that I was able to garner with that first book, the things that made me explore, I’m glad that I got them out then. A lot of them are about loving white boys, and What does it mean to be Black and gay?, which is not a bad thing to talk about, but it’s a little bit like, He is not whole. You know, there are new ways to talk about it, and new entrances besides This is who I am, this is two parts of me. I mean, I wasn’t that bland, but reading it now, it feels that bland.
I definitely have been laying a language lexicon groundwork for myself since the beginning because my parents are both ministers, because there’s so much faith, and there’s always going to be this ritualistic, divine sort of presence in my work. There are a few boy bodies in this new book, The Black Condition, but they’re all already dead. They’re all already dead or not mine. But there’s this thing that I’m still curious about, that I’m still conscious of, because I’m not a trans woman, I’m a trans femme, and I’m a trans person, because I am transitioning. I’m going to change my body, but womanhood is not my end goal. I just want to be like a non-binary, whatever post-gender word we’re going to choose today. I’m not going to be a woman, but I’m going to be a more feminine being. I love Black women too much to just bring a Black woman’s body in my work. So I feel like my own body is much more present in The Black Condition ft. Narcissus, but because of the character that I’ve built with Narcissus, there is this devastating distance—I don’t feel as vulnerable, but it’s a much more vulnerable take because there’s a lot less distance between myself and the subject in any given poem, but also there’s this lack of pretense with trying to make sense of the boy body. In a way it’s like the boy body is gone, so now all you’re seeing is not even the real, all you’re seeing is the rawness, the core-ness. It’s like, Alright, I’ve been waiting to use the tools that I have to talk about some core shit, and I’m glad that I got all of my white boy love poems out. Mannish Tongues to me is like—I’m happy it’s my debut. It feels a little like a debut, but I’m glad I don’t feel like a one-book wonder, you know what I mean?
Definitely. It’s an excellent collection, and none of the poems feel unnecessary, which first collections sometimes feel like. A lot of poems in debut collections feel like they could have been in another book or chapbook. This all felt cohesive.
jd: Good! Good. One of the things I did for the blog I wrote for was make a playlist, and I really love ordering things, I love curating and I love setting a scene. I also did theater for a long time, so setting wasn’t very new to me. For my birthday last year, I told everyone to leave me alone, and I holed up in this big room in my house and printed out my whole manuscript and put it all in order. All day just sat there, stoned and drunk, just retried things, redid sections, renamed poems, just dashed that whole shit up. Long for short is I love ordering things because I don’t want it to ever lag. I don’t think poetry is boring. I think sometimes editors are boring. I think even like a quieter poem cannot sound dead if you put it in the right place. I think that my natural desire to have flow in narrative, in movement, helps me when I’m writing poems, because I don’t ever feel like I have to write a poem in order. I like that each poem that I have, I know where I am in my whole writing space, and it’s just going to come up from here. I like that I can separate order from my creative process but I love it almost equally. I just edited this anthology for the publisher of Mannish Tongues and I just put all the poems in order and it was just two hours of pure fun.
Let’s talk about the title, Mannish Tongues—it can refer to a literal body part and its relation to human sexuality, but you also reference Biblical verse and your religious upbringing throughout the collection, so I’m wondering if there’s a connection there. Why did you choose this title?
jd: I am a for-real Internet troll nerd. I fucking love puns, I’m not even kidding, I love puns. I’ve loved double entendres since I was a kid; I like tongue-in-cheek. Whenever someone praises my wordplay, I’m just like, Nah, I’m just making a joke with this. The way I queer any sort of phrase or idiom, I’m just making this sound flipped and make it sound like Is that right? So puns are perfect; double entendre, perfect. Also, double entendre—the implied erotic part that you know is always functioning, with tongues it’s kind of just too easy, because it’s like, Hey Mom, I’m talking about Jesus or tongues or like this actual thing in my mouth that is forcing me to present to you right now. There are levels.
The rest of this interview can be found in our autumn/winter 2017 issue.
Poetry by jayy dodd: "narcissus reads (1 Corinthians 13, Without Love)" "narcissus, on the new year"
Interview by Sunny Leal.
Photography by jayy dodd (top) and Bree Gant.