Amaud Johnson is a poet and a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His first book of poems, Red Summer, won the Dorsett Prize for poetry. This past spring, I took a workshop with Amaud and was led on a journey through the heart of African-American poetry. Each week we gathered around the table, Amaud set the tone for unpretentious, serious, yet humorous discussions of poetry. He nurtured us in a creative space where there was an infinite sense of possibility--it was freeing and reflective. This interview is an extension of some of the ideas we ruminated on in workshop.
NAOMI EXTRA: My first question is about your background. You grew up in Compton, and when you were a child, you wanted to be a beat boxer before you wanted to be a poet. Is that true?
AMAUD JOHNSON: Gosh, no. I wanted to play football as a kid. I was pretty serious at running track and playing football and really didn’t think about education at all. There was a kid in my neighborhood who got a scholarship to Oklahoma, and so then I was excited about college because I saw that that was the next step in terms of like, he was on national television, you know. And I knew the kid. And it just blew my mind; I was pretty young still, and I just thought that that was what you did. And I learned all these colleges just based on where people play football, and that was kind of my investment, but I barely read as a kid. I was mostly illiterate, and so it wasn’t a thing where I thought about education at all.
NAOMI: So was there a particular point where you became interested in poetry?
AMAUD: Well, in my senior year in high school I took both a speech class and a creative writing class and had my first real exposure to poetry. But I fell in love with speech; I was on the debate team, and it was kind of this awakening. The summer before, I read the autobiography of Malcolm X. It was kind of the first real book I ever read on my own without being assigned a book, you know, and being forced to read it. It really blew my mind, so then I kind of went into my senior year with all of this political might based on that. My creative writing class allowed me to use some of the speeches that I was writing as creative writing, so I started to think about voice based on that. How do you write something in terms of written speech, like a way of creating structure and repetition, imagining an audience? I didn’t think about it so much as poetry, although we were beginning to talk about poems, but it was kind of this window. So, in that sense, I think I kind of fell in love with the idea of written speech. Or the relationship between the spoken word and the written word. And that was a big turning point; I didn’t realize it at the time that that was the thing that created the chain reaction that ultimately made me want to be a poet.
NAOMI: And so where does the musicality come in? Because there’s a lot of music in your writing, a lot of movement, a lot of rhythm.
AMAUD: Well, my mom . . . I have young parents. You know, my parents were sixteen when I was born, which meant that my mother had this famous forty-five collection, so she was always playing the Shylights and the Delfonics, and she was always singing around her house. Dancing. You know, so just in terms of my home life, while there weren’t a lot of books around me, there was a lot of music. We would constantly be singing. And when I was really little I used to sing, until my voice changed. And then I just couldn’t catch up with it. Whatever happened with my voice, it didn’t come out as music anymore. But when I was really young, I really loved to sing. I think when I began to write more or just think about poetry, I was still trying to connect to that part of me that loved music. I couldn’t play an instrument; I couldn’t hold a note in the same way. My voice would crack if I tried to do that, so it was an opportunity to connect to all of those rhythms, channeling that R&B sound, you know. I don’t know how I felt about music, too. It just felt like a transformative thing. So yeah, I’m a poet because I can’t play an instrument. If I could play an instrument or if I could sing, I wouldn’t write.
NAOMI: So in some ways, is it as if your voice is your instrument, your words are your tools?
AMAUD: Yeah, everything I read aloud. When I’m writing, I’m constantly saying phrases over and over. It’s almost as if I’m waiting for a sound to be right, to kind of click. The meaning is there and I’m trying to communicate something, but I have to say it a certain way. If it’s not there, then it’s unsatisfactory. There’s a musical register that I’m aware of. You know, it’s not like I’m scanning around work, kind of thinking about if something’s iambic or trochaic. It is like I am kind of playing an instrument and thinking of a line in the same way someone might think of a line in music.
NAOMI: And how does that then translate onto the page for you? To make that music then stand on the page?
AMAUD: Well, it varies. When I started writing, it used to be kind of a hard syllable count, like a certain range. It’s not as if I’m thinking about the pentameter or anything like that, but it was about control; how many syllables, how much alliteration or assonance did I use. The relationship between an image, like the way you see a word when it’s said and when it’s read versus hearing it and then trying to match those two things. So if something has a certain kind of weight in terms of sound but also creates an image- something visual simultaneously. That became key. So I would just create these word lists that I loved and wouldn’t have anything to do with the poem. Sometimes it may just dance around an idea. But you know, I fell in love with my thesaurus. And not because I was trying to find big words or complicated language or anything like that, but just the word as it sounds and then those layers of meaning. So it’s like building something around a simple definition, all the different ways you can experience language. So, yes, sound became part of it.
NAOMI: There’s a lot of texture there.
AMAUD: Oh yeah.
NAOMI: I kind of want to go back to your childhood and the space you grew up in. I’m curious how growing up in Compton shaped your work, how you view that space as shaping your work, if at all.
AMAUD: You know, I think it shaped it tremendously in terms of a historical and political awareness. There were things about the community that I couldn’t understand. I realize that the world is different. And Los Angeles is profoundly segregated; it’s one of the most segregated cities in the country. I once had had this conversation with a friend about Koreatown, and how if you live in Koreatown, you really don’t have to speak English at all and you can eat all Korean food, and that there’s a generation now who’s grown up there only eating Korean food and only speaking Korean. There’s no need in terms of public education, in terms of real travel, that they have to do anything to interact with people. It’s a sustained community. The black community in Compton was very much like that. I just, I kind of saw white people, but I didn’t really know the difference between white people and upper middle class Mexicans. They just seemed…they were not black. So that was a difference. In that sense, it’s that idea of identity and aesthetic based on saturation was kind of there. But I think I also wanted to understand what made a place like Compton possible and what that represented historically. It was an incredibly violent place. It wasn’t necessarily like that in my early childhood, but in my teen years we would have weekend murder counts. We’d walk out of school and people would just shoot up the front of the school just for sport. There’s no fight, just drive-by shootings, like kind of random gunfire. I think back now, and it seems kind of ridiculous, but at the time I really thought about the possibility of being shot everyday when I was just coming home from school. And getting off the bus and walking down the street- that the way you interact with people, the way you thought of cars as they moved by- there was really this anxiety that represented that time. And you didn’t have any control over it, so I think that fear, but also that desire to process what was behind the issue really shaped a lot of my early education. You know, I was interested in poetry, but I was also interested in African-American history and comparative politics. But because I was fairly illiterate, I had to learn how to just write a sentence. I felt like language was a building block for me to take on other things, and then in the midst of that, I fell in love with language. You know, and that’s kind of brought me pretty far, I guess.
NAOMI: Some of what you were saying about that kind of violence, for some reason, led me to think about Red Summer and the connection between history and violence. Can you talk a little bit about that, how you engage with history in your poems?
AMAUD: One of the things, and you know, I think this is an extension of the last question. In some ways, I wrote around the violence in Compton. I couldn’t address it directly, I just didn’t know how to do it. But rather than do that, I wanted to try and make violence historical, because it’s not about a particular community. America’s violent. American’s profoundly violent, and I think the real trick has been to try and erase that. If we think of riots in a contemporary way, it’s often connected to black communities. The Watts riots, the riots after King’s assassination, the riots after the Rodney King verdict. When I left college, I left in ‘92 just after the King verdict, and kind of the last real memories I have of living in L.A. has to do with my neighborhood burning. If you think historically about this idea of rioting, that has a great deal to do with white Americans terrorizing black communities. It’s just the term itself, you know. These lynch mobs and the nature of people moving through different spaces and being hostile to people who don’t look like them. And the more I studied that to try and put my own experiences into context, the more I began to understand that who we are as Americans is incredibly complicated. I think black people are capable of the most horrific acts imaginable. I believe the same is true of white Americans, which then complicates the way I understand America in that it is precarious, and you can say the wrong thing to the wrong person regardless of race or skin color and that could be your last day on earth, and that’s the truth of this history. So I think a part of what I was after in that book was thinking about the nature of violence. It’s kind of passive; it’s about the spectacle of it. What it means to see these things and not have what you need to process them, which in some ways maybe represents a mirror to my childhood. Proceeding violence, understanding everything going on around me but not having a real context for it, so poem by poem there’s sort of a consciousness that’s present and disconnected. In many of those poems, race is somewhat ambiguous. You know, I’m not necessarily thinking about the black body or the white body or the black imagination or the white imagination. It’s kind of blurred, because what I hope to do is put the reader in a position where they have to evaluate how they see race and identity. If someone’s being burned, do you immediately assume that person is black because they’re being burned? Maybe that says something about the action itself, that there’s certain racial acts of violence, that only particular things happen to people of color. Maybe that’s particular, right. Or guilt or anxiety, is that particular? How do we understand that based on geography, based on gender? So I remember reading another two books, Toni Morrison’s Paradise. The novel begins where they kill the white woman first, then there’s no reference to race after that. She almost makes the point of kind of signaling race and then erasing it to then put people in a position where they have to think through how they understand racial politics and social interactions in terms of race. So, now you kind of puzzle people. Who’s the white woman, where’s the white woman, how does this work in terms of black communities and white communities in power? If you strip all of those coded terms, in terms of how we understand identity, then you have to use other things to begin to have to talk about social interaction, and then you see that those lines are kind of blurry or they’re not, and then that’s powerful because you understand that people may be treated different ways. The second book, the author is Daniel Goldhagen, and it’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which was an analysis of the SFs and thinking about the SFs not necessarily as murderers but thinking about them as ordinary Germans. Sometimes when we think of violence it’s so easy to demonize people. We see this when we think about the Civil Rights Movement. Somebody uses a racial epithet and that makes them a racist. Or you’re sicking dogs on people and they’re racist because they’re doing that. But you know, your average citizen who’s just watering their lawn and sending their kids off to church, they’re not doing anything that’s particularly racist, right? What Goldhagen argues in this book is that there’s something about the average citizen, you know, in Germany at that time that made the SS possible. That these weren’t people who were particularly evil. This is an important argument, because I think we have to understand how we are capable- ordinary people are capable of horrific things, the worst things imaginable. That they could be sucked into it. So in that sense, in the book I invite the reader to be a part of the mob. And, you know, I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel about that. Maybe you’re a little excited. You know, this is the thing about when you see a car accident on the side of the road. You slow down. And emotionally it’s complicated. You don’t want anybody to be hurt, but at the same time you want to see something you’ve never seen before. This is being human, right. This is what’s complicated about how we’re made up emotionally, and I think that same impulse can affect a great deal, understanding that impulse historically. In the last two thousand years, we haven’t evolved that much. We have iPods and there’s a great mobility just in terms of what technology has created for us, but emotionally and psychologically, we are still full of greed and lust and envy. As people, we’re not really that advanced. There isn’t any real kind of spiritual change that has separated us from the last hundred years. Maybe we’re even less sophisticated in terms of social norms than we were. Maybe not. So I think part of what I’m interested in as a poet is understanding that and speaking it out.
NAOMI: I’m thinking about this kind of displacement of race and how you locate humanity within the work even when the poems are violent. You engage the reader with their own humanity. With one of your poems that really struck me, and I apologize if I mispronounce this, it’s “The Manassa Mauler.” I wrote down part of it.
“By the end of the first,
blood, sweat and saliva
pooled at their feet, swirled like
dashes of hot sauce in a bucket
of egg whites, fell first in drops
then by the drum.”
It’s so visual. I was just taken aback by it; it was just so sharp and jarring, in a way. And upsetting, too, at the same time. I was wondering, how are you engaging with the visual in your work?
AMAUD: Yeah, the visual. Again, sound is important for me, but it’s the relationship between sound and image. I can’t distinguish them. It’s the right word partly because it has both elements. It sounds a particular way and it creates enough pictures, so there’s a sound system right, you know, the music of the poem. And then there’s an image system. So if you think of traditional verse forms, we’d have end rhyme, you know, there’d be rhyming couplets and things like that. Well, what if you had a parallel visual rhyme, so then if there’s red here, then maybe the next image would be of blood or fire. Then you’re taking something and then you’re making a connection visually, and then that creates its own structure. So there’s the music and there’s the image system, and this works to pull the reader through the poem. And it has to have some impact. The connections are fine, but if it’s empty then it’s like, wasn’t that pleasant. And you move on to the next thing. So I think a part of it is there’s a system of the poem, and then there’s the impact of the poem and with a poem like the “Manassa Mauler.” And you know something about that book in general, you know, I think I was really interested in food. Yeah, in a way, the only way to affect a reader in terms of what it means to be human is to think about the senses. So what it means to think about taste, like “hot sauce in a bucket of egg whites.” You get the color there but you also taste hot sauce; you think of the egg whites and visually it’s nasty. But you know, it’s kind of strange because you get spit and saliva and blood, all this stuff mixed together, and that is all happening in your own mouth as you read it. Just in terms of how you work to make sense of it. So then that’s the intimacy in that moment; now you’re trying to process what that means, and you get the larger emotional reaction that’s actually necessary to move through the poem. Yeah, so I really try to do that; that’s probably the most important thing, trying to create those layers.
NAOMI: When I was reading “Red Summer,” I was guessing to myself that Hayden, Robert Hayden, was an influence of yours. And I was wondering how he influenced you and also what other poets, writers, artists, people…
AMAUD: You know, Robert Hayden was a major influence, I think, partly because the first time I came across his work when I was in college, it was difficult. I didn’t understand everything that was going on- there were some big words there and some complicated images- so it was a challenge. I like challenges. I also liked the idea that there was this incredible range in his work. He could write about Nat Turner or he could write about a runaway slave, but then he could also write a poem about a flower and maintain the same level of intensity. I didn’t know you could do both; I thought that if you wrote about slavery, you were supposed to write about slavery. Like, that’s your gig. That’s what you do, you signed up for the slavery bus and now you’re on it, just in terms of your aesthetic. Or if you write about flowers, you are…
NAOMI: Flower poet. [Laughing]
AMAUD: Yeah, you are a flower poet. Yeah, but the nature of the pastoral, there it is. And, you know, he was capable of doing both, and I think it was in that moment where I thought that as a black poet there were different ways of being. You know, that there are different ways of kind of identifying what you’re capable of. You know, I became an inner city kid who still liked nature walks. And l liked the way things smelled, but at no point did I feel like I had to perform anything. The nature of being in a black community, being comfortable in a space where you don’t have to think about blackness in the abstract, it’s just who you are. I mean, as a product of a black college, that was the case. You know, in the times when I was the only one or one of a handful, I was president of the Black Students Association. I was at the forefront of the protest, whatever that was. I had the megaphone because I had to. You know, there were only so many people; somebody had to step up. I became the voice of the race in that moment of isolation. When that’s not the case and everybody’s black, it allowed me to do whatever strange thing I was invested in. Then I could be kind of ridiculous and kind of obscure in that circle. When I was in school, I wasn’t the president of anything. I just happened upon a journal that I began editing in the latter part of my time there. I just went to school and it was just whatever I was interested in, and that was okay. In the dream world that should be the case, there should be a kind of freedom to do things and not be thought of as, “Well, that’s kind of strange for a black man. You know, I didn’t know brothers did that.” It’s also possible to find people with similar interests, just like strange kind of obscure…
AMAUD: Yeah, community. My best friend, who is also a poet who I met at Howard, you know the reason we became friends is- I’m not math phobic, but I struggled in math when I was in college, and there was this, I’m almost embarrassed to say this, but there was this option instead of chemistry we could take a class called “Computers in Society.” [Laughs]
NAOMI: I think I took one of those classes.
AMAUD: Yeah, one of those classes. So I’ll make up the chemistry class at some point in my life. So I’m taking that class, it’s a softball class, I mean it’s pretty simple. And Doug, Douglas Kearney’s in that class with me, so we’re just talking and I find out that he’s interested in poetry and I’m interested in poetry. And it just kind of made sense. So sometimes these obscure interests or alternative ways of thinking through things help to create these greater connections. So I definitely loved that about that space.
NAOMI: Well, I guess that transitions me into a very direct question on identity. You know, even in class today we talked about being a black poet versus being an African American poet and being a black poet versus being and just a poet. Do you see yourself as an African American poet or do you see yourself as…a poet. [Laughs]
AMAUD: Oh, you know I’ve always liked blackness. I like the symbolic nature of blackness. Not necessarily blackness in opposition to whiteness, but just like the blackness of the universe, the black diaspora. Blackness, in terms of absorbing all colors into a solid mass, that can be beautiful. I’m a black poet, you know, I identify that way partly because I am invested in the tradition. I believe that I am a product of something that happened before me, and there are profound physical sacrifices that people have made that made my life possible both before I was born and after I was born. So, in that sense, I do feel a responsibility to that; I think if you want to talk about the larger American problem, the larger American problem, poetry and otherwise, is ahistorical. A disconnect from the past. You know, like people who wake up in the morning, put on their underwear, and think that the world’s brand-new. Black people don’t have that luxury. If we don’t remember how we got here, if we don’t try and maintain those connections within family and across generations we’ll fall apart, because then we get sucked into the same traps, kind of used and abused in different ways. So yeah, I identify as a black poet because I believe in the tradition of black poetry, of African American poetry and the sacrifices that African Americans have made, and I’m not caught up in being the first of anything. I think that, as an exercise, is kind of bankrupt, but I do believe in a kind of trajectory. Some people say that we can’t use “us” or “we,” but I still want to do that. I still want to believe, even if it’s not a physical geographical collective, that we still have an identity as a people and artistically we can represent that range within that identity. But, yeah so…
NAOMI: Well, that answers that. I have two questions in one, and I’m trying to separate them. I want to ask you both about where you think we are now in terms of African American poetry, and I want to ask you where you position yourself within that- if you do.
AMAUD: I think in the context of history, the last twenty years have been profound, partly because. if we think of different literary periods within the African-American continuum, they’ve only ranged a decade at best. You know, the Harlem Renaissance from the publication of Cane in- I forget if it’s 1921 or 1923- into the early ‘30s, maybe stretching depending on how we think of Sterling Brown and Zora Neale Hurston, somewhere around ‘35 or ‘36. But you know, a decade more or less in terms of that as a boon. The depression obviously affected that, but you know, black people never had that much money, so it could only affect us so much. It’s about audience and publication records. The Black Arts Movement was not a decade long; it was still somewhat close. The political might of the movement and the way it affected history is clear and profound.
I think part of what’s interesting about what’s happening now is the way African-American poets are deconstructing the center. They’re not necessarily making up their own rules, but they are competitive in spaces where they normally wouldn’t be competitive in terms of established institutions and MFA programs, as assistant professors teaching in MFA programs, winning major book prizes, being published by major publishing houses. Black poets are competitive in these larger American institutions more so than ever. I think there was a time when there was the black poet in the corner, and I’m not sure if that is the case as much. It’s still the case to a certain extent.
Where I place myself in that, it’s hard. I don’t have complete perspective. There are things that I have done that I have been pretty proud of and understand the historical context of it, you know, because I think about that sometimes. It doesn’t make writing poems easier. When I sit down the page is still blank and I still feel absolutely worthless. And it doesn’t matter what I’ve done or who I think I am. You know, I just pray that something’ll happen.
NAOMI: Are there people you are in dialogue with, past and present, in your work?
AMAUD: Yeah, there are certain things that I’ve been a part of that I identify as significant. The Cave Can workshop which I mentioned was transformative for me. It gave me a community and an audience that I imagine. Like when I wrote “Red Summer,” I really imagined that group almost sitting on the other side of that desk waiting for me to write those poems, and I felt that as a push. For a long time, I was a part of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference every summer; being in staff there and taking workshops there gave me an opportunity to work with very established writers from across the country and interact with emerging writers. So I had some sense of what my peer group was in two ways, within a black space, which is what Cave Cane represented, and within an integrated space, which is what Bread Loaf represented. I remember when I was in- this may sound strange- when I was in junior high school, I did pretty well academically. Junior high school in Compton, in my grandmother’s home, was really kind of transformative for me. I had a lot of confidence; I believed in my ability to do well in school. When I went to high school, my father sent me to a high school in Long Beach which was more mixed. Part of his argument was, “Oh, you did fine at the black school”, but it was like, “let’s see how well you do at the real school.” Also, the sense of the white man’s ice is always colder. Like whatever you understand about a black space, you’re still kind of waiting to be in this white space to understand it completely. It’s like, how good am I? It’s like now I can take this show on the road. If white people love it, then I’m a real poet. If I can be a poet around white people- which is bankrupt and complete bullshit, and I criticize my dad for planting that seed in me when I was young. But the reality is, I think, understanding how to be the same person in all of those spaces was key for me. To understand how I was as a poet within a black community, to understand the kind of poet I was in a white community so I wasn’t code switching. I didn’t have to do that, and that gave me a certain kind of authority. And then the time I spent as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University was key just as a national springboard. I completed “Red Summer” there and published it at the end of that fellowship. And that’s a fellowship that historically connects me to some of the most established poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Really kind of big names. I don’t know what to do with that, it doesn’t mean anything to me in terms of anxiety I feel about my work or what may be possible for me. But it’s how we recognize awards and fellowships, how we internalize them; it’s complicated and particular, and I feel like I’m only as good as my next poem.
NAOMI: I want to probe a little more, and this question may not be answerable because it’s maybe too soon. But I keep thinking about aesthetic, is there a definable aesthetic of contemporary African-American poets? Or I shouldn’t say contemporary, of African-American poets of your generation? That’s kind of a broad, too big of a question.
AMAUD: Well, in some ways I think there’s a movement away from a particular aesthetic and more of an investment in community as a replacement. So it’s like, is it possible for black poets to hang out and get along without telling each other what to do. And this is a dance, just on we can speak to each other, we can appreciate difference within a community. And that can then be about a range of aesthetics.
NAOMI: Well, slam poetry and Def Poetry Jam, in terms of a definable aesthetic, because that’s kind of like if we break down African-American poets of a particular generation into different…
AMAUD: Yeah, even with that. I think that slam poets can get the tension between the page, and the stage is partly connected to black poets, but not really. I think there’s something about academic poets being thought of in a particular way and community poets being thought of in a particular way and then seeing slam poets as an extension of community poets. So if you’re not invested in publishing in journals and you’re fine making your own books and selling them during readings, that is a legitimate life and identity as a poet. You have a community, you’re engaging people, but part of what’s tricky is how people see careers, how people see acclaim. All of this is amorphous, what makes you famous, what makes one poet better than another poet when you begin to throw aesthetics out the window. What’s nice about clear aesthetic values is you can say okay, this is what makes a poet a poet. It’s like, here’s the aesthetic. You don’t match that, therefore, you’re a bad poet, therefore, you’re no good. Your poems don’t look great on the page. The aesthetic is form and meaning and content. If that doesn’t work for you, recordings don’t count; you’re out of the group. If there’s range, then it becomes precarious.
I think what’s exciting about where we are now in American poetry is that there really isn’t a major poet. I mean, there are big poets, people who are obviously Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award winners and so on, but year-to-year they’re completely different. There isn’t one particular voice that’s in control. I mean, the way we think of the past were Frost or Pound or Elliot or Hughes. They were all dominant voices of their generation. The way we think of Ginsberg. It’s just not the case anymore. There are more prominent poets, and you can think about that in terms of categories of race. But I think it speaks to something in American poetry, not African-American poetry, not black poetry, where there isn’t a single voice. You have language poets and narrative poets, poets who are invested in jazz, poets who are confessional, you know, the nature of gender and sexual orientation. All of these things are present and no one’s winning or losing. I think, in general, there’s a strange tension because MFA programs are growing, and there’s a real institutional investment in poetry. I’m not sure how that’s transferring to the general public. Are people reading more? No, I think people are trying to read less. They’re trying to figure out how to get around reading, which is kind of the technological advance. It’s like, how can I read quicker and have a less passionate experience with a book. It’s like, I want to make my book electronic so I don’t have to really turn the page. I don’t want to do that anymore, I just want to see the text…
NAOMI: Yeah. [Laughs]
AMAUD: …on my phone maybe. I think the world may be going in a completely different direction than the direction poetry’s going in, and I don’t know what that means. If one world is about sensory detail and a kind of sensuality, another world is about efficiency and uniformity; something’s going to fall apart. There’s a need somewhere that’s going to undermine the other, and I don’t understand that yet but it’s pretty clear. ,
NAOMI: Yeah, it’s a really interesting time that we live in. And I don’t have any answers; that’s why I asked you. [Laughs]
AMAUD: Oh, I don’t know either! If I knew the answer to that I’d be buying stock somewhere. [Laughs]
NAOMI: I think I just have one more question, which is, what’s next for you? When can we expect another book? What are you working on?
AMAUD: I have a new book that I just finished called Dark Town Follies, and part of it is a response to vaudeville. There’s kind of this idea that began the work. Let’s say someone tells you a racist joke and it catches you off guard, and you’re so caught off guard, you don’t know what to do, so you kind of laugh to diffuse it. You’re just trying to take the bite out of it and you just want it to go away. I just want to be done with this, I’m just gonna laugh, I’m not going to say anything about it. Just ha, ha, ha. But the laughter makes you complicit, by now you’re kind of a part of the joke. Now the person who said the joke thinks, “Oh, you think I’m funny. You’re not the kind of person who would blink if I used a particular word, a phrase,” or whatever. It’s that moment emotionally, of what it means to be complicit, that I think I’m really interested in. It’s like in the same way, let’s say with “Red Summer” in seeing a lynched body, you’re horrified by it, but you also don’t have any emotional context to manage that at all. I think humor can work in the same way. I think I have a sense of humor, but I was always pretty serious.
It’s this strange thing, some jokes I just don’t get, in all honesty, when other people get them. But what’s great about language and history is that things lose their context. If you think about what made something funny in the ‘70s or the ‘80s or in the ‘20s, it may not be funny now. Culturally, it’s different, so the references may be lost. Comedy is all about timing, something that’s kind of hot. Comics are visionaries, in a sense, because they have a clear sense of what’s going on and they can just get ahead of it. And that’s what makes them special as people. We laugh partly because we’re uncomfortable, because we can’t believe that that person said it in that way, whatever it is. So with these poems it’s partly about that, pulling apart these jokes that I actually find horrific and offensive. Certain things, like “he’s his own grandfather” as a joke, which about like rape and incest if you think through it because it’s a riddle, what they call conundrums. So some of the work is that, there are other poems that are kind of performative meditations. Many of the African American poets gaining notoriety around 1910, while they were black they were still forced to perform in blackface. So you are African American, but then you are painting your face to look African American. It’s absurd, right. But part of it [is] that that’s the point. They can’t see you for who you are, so [you] are performing based on their interpretation of you. So it’s this tension in terms of perspective. So there’s how you see yourself, how people see you as yourself, and then how people see another layer of you as a stereotype. So there are all these different points of view- talk about a life that’s schizophrenic- and then to perform that. Burt Williams and George Walker’s famous show called “Two Real Coons,” this is like, we’re going to give you something really authentic in terms of absurdity. So what it means to master something you don’t own that is actually a production of white people in terms of race. I’ve been doing a lot of work with that. And part of it is just the difference between the historical and the personal. I couldn’t do that work without also being invested in the idea of making a fool out of myself, just in terms of vulnerability, because a part of it is you can’t really understand those risks, like what [it] meant to perform the self in a variety of ways without also participating in it, so I think with this book I’m trying to understand that. I can hear my grandmother’s voice, it’s like, “Make a damn fool of yourself,” you know.
NAOMI: I can’t wait to read it. Will it come out this year?
AMAUD: I’m excited about it. Next year. Some publishers are reading it, so I’m kind of waiting to see what comes out of that. You know, I’m excited about it. It’s the nature of work; you kind of get to a certain point and then you say, “Well, it’s a book.” You know, move on to something else. Whatever happens with the book happens. It’s kind of like, the experience with old work, it’s still alive, the book is still alive, but it’s a little like seeing an old girlfriend at the mall. [Laughs] It’s like, “Hey, it’s good to see you.” And everyone’s watching you have this conversation, so it’s somewhat awkward, and you remember how good it was and all this stuff, so you get lost in nostalgia a little bit. But you also have something kind of hot at home waiting for you too, so you’re excited about your new work in a way, so it’s always kind of difficult to move back and forth between the two. It’s always a little sad when a book is done because it’s over. There’s the experience of writing it and you’re not really sure what’s going to happen, and then there’s this moment when you realize that you have to push away. So, it’s fun.
NAOMI: Can we look out for any prose from you?
AMAUD: You know, a lot of these questions I’ve thought through in different ways. I think I do have a few essays in me. I mean, I used to say that there’s not a prose bone in my body. I look at a blank page and think, why would you ever fill that up with words! It makes no sense at all. It’s like, make a line break, make some decisions! I think I am really curious about this idea of a post-soul poetics. I talked about my mom being young and all the music in our house. She moved to Texas a few years ago, and one of the times I visited her we went to a Frankie Beverly and Maze concert.
NAOMI: I don’t know Frankie Beverly and Maze.
AMAUD: No? Oh, well Frankie Beverly and Mays are kind of an offshoot of that old R&B sound. Frankie comes out usually dressed in all white and the rest of the band is kind of there. And it’s Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, kind of this idea of like the front man and the group accompanying him. But it was one of those concerts where everyone knew every song. I don’t think they’ve had a hit in like twenty-five years. At least twenty years. Everybody in the audience knew every song and everybody just sang and they held each other and just rocked back and forth. And it reminded me of- it was still before my time- what R&B and the blues, what soul music represent. We can say all we want about the larger kind of political things that black people fought for; what made us healthy, what sustained us is a kind of love. A kind of way in which we held each other and what music did for us. In the same way it kind of worked in the church; why we sang so much in the church is because that song was transformative, to see that but in an erotic way which is kind of the nature of what R&B was. To take gospel and to eroticize it; it’s like the famous thing with Ray Charles, right. So seeing this and thinking about the idea of soul and a secular kind of church. Like the juke joint as a secular church. [Laughs] You know, it’s horrible to say.
NAOMI: [Laughs] Yeah.
AMAUD: But the nature of it is wanting to be transformed through the music, through the body. So this idea of learning to be transformed through that. And so I thought about this and I thought about it in terms of a generational shift. Like what hip hop represents and what was different for this generation. We didn’t have that- dancing was distant, we didn’t slow dance. The only dancing they really did was slow dancing, and it was about touch and that intimacy. All the music was R&B; there was very little that was upbeat. It was slow jam after slow jam after slow jam with a couple dance upbeat songs to mix it up a little bit. This was just what soul music was; it was slow groove, steady beat. Hip-hop, it’s acrobatic. People are doing back flips and wind mills, there’s no touch involved, and it’s aggressive. Culturally, from graffiti art to rap, it was combative. It took all of those old R&B songs and it scratched over them. It took the sentimentality, all of that, the desire for touch, and it turned it inside out. Now you have what seems to be a real critique of that as a need. For some reason, I don’t understand the shift; part of it may be the nature of integration really taking hold or the instability of urban spaces, the idea of a post-industrial identity. Those kids, the kids I grew up with, they were not invested in that same kind of sentimentality. They rejected it profoundly in ways that my parent’s generation didn’t. They were still very much invested in the politics of the body and slow groove, and the music was an extension of that. I think part of what I’m trying to understand is- I think that is a profound cultural shift within the black community. We moved away from the aesthetics of the church and the aesthetics of the secular church, which was the soul, that kind of movement. So when that was gone we created something entirely different. Hip-hop has its ups and downs, but it’s still over thirty years old. That is longer than any of these artistic movements; it’s been able to sustain an identity in different spaces for that long. It says something about a real cultural break for a people, and the same way we don’t really understand what black poetry is, we don’t really understand what’s going on with us aesthetically in terms of music. So, I think I’d like to write an essay about that.
NAOMI: I think there’s a piece there. I’m pretty sure.
AMAUD: I think next year I’m going to write it.
NAOMI: Well, thank you. I’m going to stop here.