interview: Jayson P. Smith
Jayson P. Smith is a Brooklyn-based dancer turned poet who has transferred the art of movement of the body into the stark, hypnotic movement of words on the page. A skilled commander of space and style, Smith writes in ways that are both aesthetically captivating and intellectually engaging, exploring the representation of the self and how to present that in ways that go beyond mere autobiography. Smith’s poetry has been published widely and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he was recently named one of Brooklyn’s top “30 Under 30” creatives by Brooklyn Magazine. Poet José Olivarez spoke with Smith and their fellow poet and friend, Aziza Barnes, to discuss honesty in poetry, how Smith got his start, and “how to not be a wack poet in 2015.” The year may have changed, but the advice still applies.
How’s it going? What have you been up to today?
JPS: Oh man… furniture shopping.
Furniture shopping? What are you buying?
JPS: I’m in the market for a bed right now, which is annoying and really stressful. What else did I do today… I wrote a poem, so that was nice.
What was the poem about?
JPS: What was it about… What is it always about? My sad queer boy things.
What do you mean by that?
JPS: I guess more recently I’ve been focusing on ekphrastic poems.
Can you explain what ekphrastic poems are?
JPS: Ekphrasis is when a poet—well, specifically a poet, in this case—looks at a body of art and interprets it as a witness, or interprets it in however way they choose. So it’s basically the poet acting as witness to this body of art, in this particular context. So yeah, that’s what I’ve been working on for the past month.
What artwork have you been looking at?
JPS: A lot of photography. I’ve been looking a lot at the work of Lorna Simpson. I’ve been looking at Glenn Ligon’s visual art, and Carrie Mae Weems also. But mostly this month has been Lorna Simpson, so I have about four poems that I’ve been editing on her work.
What about Lorna Simpson’s work calls to you? What do you see in it that compels you to write?
JPS: I think, for every artist that I’m really interested in, it’s the way that they interpret subjectivity and how they view the self and how they construct the self—whether that’s placing that on other people, or placing themselves at the center of their own work. And Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems do that specifically in a very interesting way that I want to tackle and kind of inhabit in my own work: the idea of the self on display.
Tell me more about that, what you mean when you say that they put themselves on display in the center, and what that means to you as an artist, to try to put yourself on display. What exactly do you mean, and how does it play?
JPS: Ever since I started writing poems, I’ve been very interested in the idea of the “I” and what that means. I think that, for a long time, it was really hard for me to write narrative poems or poems that were close to my own life. I think a lot of times I’m really uncomfortable being a subject that I myself am looking at. If I ever feel too visible, it makes me nervous. And this is my way to investigate that and place a self that feels accurate on the page—that feels complicated, in a way that resonates with me and hopefully resonates with the reader. I think this ekphrastic work is just a way of looking at my own complication in a way that’s safe for me to do and do every day, in a way that I don’t necessarily have to attack the hardest or most awful or complicated thing about myself in this one particular poem or this one particular moment. I think I’m really interested in this idea of multiplicity right now, and just allowing for that in my work.
Give us a taste of that. What multiplicity is most charming to yourself right now? Like, for myself, when I think about the various complications of myself, I think that one of the things that most makes me giddy with a type of happiness is how silly and funny I am on Twitter. This morning, I was riding the subway with a father and a daughter, and the daughter was playing a video game, and all I could think about was how much better I was than this little girl at playing video games.
JPS: That’s a trash thought to have, for a child.
It’s a very trash thought. I can be a very trash human being sometimes.
JPS: We all are.
So I’m just sitting there laughing to myself, because I’m like, This kid needs to pass the sticks. Get away from me, I will totally beat your daughter at this! And I’m an educator, I work with children—I’m supposed to be helping young people develop! [laughing]
JPS: It doesn’t matter. If they need to get smacked in Mortal Kombat, then they need to get smacked in Mortal Kombat. She may not be old enough to play Mortal Kombat, but whatever.
She was playing Subway Surf. It’s a game where you dodge the subway.
JPS: I think I’d be really good at that.
I’m excellent at it. I was very sad at one point before the summer, and I played it almost nonstop, and I got very good at it. So that’s something that amuses me about myself. What types of multiplicities are amusing to yourself, that you want to represent on the page right now?
JPS: I guess I’m just invested in exploring all of them. Because here’s the thing: I’m a brown queer kid from the Bronx who happened to go to a really dope school, and I decided I wanted to dance for the rest of my life, and then changed route and wrote poems. I’ve been telling people recently that I’ve lived a lot of lives, and I’m just trying to honor that in my writing as best as possible. At my core, that’s what I’m trying to do—to put every part of myself on the page as best I can, and as close to me as I can do it. If that makes sense.
For sure, it definitely makes sense. For you, the poems that you’re writing right now—it sounds like you’re saying that they’re definitely personal. Are they also an attempt at sketching out a version of yourself? Because what I’m thinking about is that, a lot of times, the “I” in poems is not necessarily the writer. Right now, are you writing from your perspective a lot in poems?
JPS: Oh no. I lie a lot in poems.
You lie a lot in poems?
JPS: When I say that I lie a lot in poems, I’m not saying that I’m drawing from experiences that are not mine. But whatever needs to leave or come in to serve the poem, I’m trying my best to be open to. Because staying true to a moment really doesn’t do shit for the poem, in most cases, unless it’s a really transformative moment and a really transformative experience, in which case, most times, you don’t have to write the poem. You’re writing the poem as a trajectory out of something, right? Not necessarily a trajectory out of something bad, but just moving from one place to another, and I’m just trying to honor that trajectory. I just think that, when it comes to truth-telling in a poem, a poem is its own kind of truth, because it’s being created to achieve something that’s bigger than whatever the moment was that it was talking about or describing. So I wouldn’t say that my speakers are super close to me—my speakers are not holding me. The “I” that I’m writing is not holding me, but it’s representative of something that is either very close or that I’ve directly experienced, and it’s all speaking to those moments in a way that feels truer than what I could do in that moment.
It’s interesting that you bring this up, because I was thinking about this a lot when I was in Oxford—I went to Oxford to see Aziza [Barnes] not too long ago—
Oxford, Mississippi. Shout-out to Mississippi.
JPS: Shout-out to Mississippi, shout-out to Kiese Laymon, shout-out to Aziza Barnes, Nabila Lovelace, all those folks.
[José's phone rings]
Hold on, one second. Hello? Hold on, I have someone that needs to talk to you right now, hold on. [Puts the phone on speakerphone] Alright Aziza, you’re on speaker.
JPS: Aziza Danielle Barnes.
AB: Oh my god, hi!
JPS: Here’s the thing, Aziza. I’m sitting with José, doing an interview in a coffee shop, and literally thirty seconds after I mention your name, you call his phone.
AB: No! No! No!
Nah dude, not even thirty seconds. We said “shout-out Mississippi, shout-out Aziza Barnes, shout-out Kiese Laymon, shout-out Nabila Lovelace,” and immediately the phone rang and it was the one, the only, the kid, Aziza Barnes.
AB: No! Oh my god.
We stay conjuring you, and we stay loving you and bringing you up in conversation, and you called just as we said your name.
AB: I’m going to cry.
JPS: That’s amazing. That just made me so happy.
Aziza, let me ask you, while we got you on the phone—we’re recording this interview right now, just so you know, you’re being recorded as you speak.
AB: Sounds like a podcast. [laughing]
This could be a podcast. You know, Jayson was just talking about how the “I” in his poems is not wholly representative of himself, but the poems are working to achieve something beyond just himself. And one of the questions I have for you, Aziza Barnes, is how to not be a wack poet in 2015. Can you tell us some of your secrets?
AB: [laughing] That’s my favorite question that I’ve ever heard in my life. It works every year—how to not be a wack poet in 1973 is very different than how to not be a wack poet in 2015.
Scratch the Best American Poetry joint. Let’s just—how to not be a wack poet 2015, and on and on and on.
AB: Word. How to not be a wack poet? I think, scratching Best American Poetry, since that covers a lot of answers that I had… That covers about 90 percent of whatever the fuck I was going to say. Don’t lie about yourself. Because what can happen in your poems—which is why I think you have to be honest in your personhood—is that, in your poems, you can become a liar. Any ill of yourself can be magnified in the work. So if you’re a white man saying, “Oh, I wish I was this Asian cat, so I can get all the awards and prizes” in the poem—that’s interesting, actually. As opposed to, in life, you’re just a liar? That’s not interesting, that’s upsetting. So you want to be honest in your personhood, so you can open this terrain in your writing. To extend yourself—that’s where your self can get extended and manipulated. But how not to be a wack poet in 2015… hm, good lord.
JPS: Also, Aziza, can I just say that I appreciate how you said the word “honest” and not “good,” because I think a lot of people get it fucked up and think that in order to be a successful poet, you have to either present yourself as or become a saint, and no, you just have to be yourself.
AB: Yeah, the word “good” is so fraught with every bad thing about America.
JPS: It’s so loaded.
AB: Everything bad is in “good.” I just got out of workshop, and they were using words like “normal,” like “ordinary,” like “eclectic”… there was one part in the story where a woman said chutney was described as “experimental,” and I was like wow. And of course everyone’s white. And I’m like What is “ordinary” in the white gaze? What is “normal” in the white gaze? What is “safe” in the white gaze? It’s just white on white on white. I think how not to be a wack poet in 2015 is it to be a specific poet in everything. Just be fucking specific! Tell me where the fuck you’re coming from, tell me what the people look like, tell me what the food smelled like, tell me who cooked it. Just give me the roots! Because I’m not going to be able to see what you see if you tell me a thing is “good”—I don’t really know what you’re talking about. Unless you’re fucking up the concept of “goodness” in terms of like, Okay, I’m a Black person in White America, and “goodness” came from the church, so when I try to invoke “goodness” I’m actually invoking a self-hatred that comes from religion, then that’s interesting. You’ve made “good” specific.
JPS: You’ve given “good” a meaning, if you will.
AB: Yep. I think that’s how. I think I’ve answered your question.
The rest of this interview can be found in issue 5.
Interview by José Olivarez. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jayohessee. Photography by Nadia Alexis. More of her work can be seen at nadiaalexisphotos.com.