Rickey Laurentiis was named one of the top ten debut poets of 2015 by Poets & Writers Magazine and one of 31 contemporary poets to read by Buzzfeed. His poems have appeared in several journals, including Boston Review, Callaloo, Feminist Studies, Fence, Indiana Review, jubilat, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The New York Times, Oxford American and Poetry.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Laurentiis will return to the city this week to headline this year’s New Orleans New Writers Literary Festival. He will give a keynote reading for the festival at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 10, at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (2800 Chartres St.). Fiction writer Carlus Henderson will also read.
Laurentiis currently resides in Brooklyn and teaches at Columbia University. He answered a series of questions recently via email.
Room 220: Boy with Thorn invites its readers to reimagine histories, images, and myths, questioning all the while why value is ascribed to some texts over others. I can’t recall reading many first collections that are so assured in their ability to unsettle the reader, to destabilize our understanding of history. Can you talk a little about your speakers’ obligation to create an atmosphere of questioning?
Rickey Laurentiis: I know it’s probably most proper for me to say that the speakers that inhabit the poems of Boy with Thorn are distinct from those that inhabit all my various, literal selves–but the truth is much messier than that. That atmosphere of questioning you’ve noticed in the book is, mostly, the atmosphere that defines my manner of thinking. Just ask my family, I’ve always been a questioner, unsatisfied with the simpler “because I said so,” or at least wondering why it is we say or do or believe such a thing. Sometimes, the eventual answer is simple: “We don’t play with fire, mostly, because of the possibility we’ll hurt ourselves.” But other times, maybe most of the times, the answers aren’t that simple–it’s just that we imagine that they are. So, then it became for me this question about the imagination: what’s it for, what positive things have come by way of it, what crueler things?
Rm220: I’m interested in your approach to ekphrastic and persona poems. You seem to often reimagine the artwork addressed by your ekphrastic works so that it either includes the speaker or places the work in conversation with the body of a black queer cisgendered male. I’m wondering if you could talk about your relationship with these traditions and the ways in which your speakers utilize their gazes to reframe canonical works and contribute to an intersectional queer poetics.
RL: The first time I read–or maybe I heard in an interview–Toni Morrison assert that she wrote her books without the white gaze I was electrified. Just as with her books, you don’t read something like that and come out, by the end of the sentence, exactly the same. Of course, there are all the other gazes to consider or be considered by–the male gaze, the straight gaze, et cetera. At some point–as I was trying my best to follow Morrison’s prompt and, really, who can know if one ever succeeds in that–I became as interested in turning my gaze back on the so-called “masters.” What happens when two gazes meet each other? This is probably a strategy I learned–in fact, I know it is–from queer theory, specifically the notion of “queering” or reading queerness into a text, this idea that one can turn back on supposedly the various discourses that have meant to erase you and argue yourself there. Then who’s in control? Then what is control?
Rm220: You were born here in New Orleans, and the influence of this landscape and its history are present throughout the book. There’s also a clear engagement with the genre of the Southern gothic that you play with/against throughout the book. You’re currently living in Brooklyn, and I imagine that distance has played a vital role in your figuring of this landscape. Can you speak to your relationship with the city and the South now?
RL: Distance, I like to say, adds clarity. Distance, it also seems to me, can also lead to distortion–that is, of the details, of memory. So, there’s a paradox there: leaving New Orleans, leaving the South, granted me the clarity with which I could better understand and certainly appreciate what it is I left. But, having left, I’m also prey to forgetting the specifics or, worse, exaggerating, inventing details in the gaps, dealing with fiction. So it was my attempt to stay true to both these facts, which is what brought me (in one sense) to the Southern Gothic. I think of that form as precisely dealing with the truth, with “reality,” as much as it plays with (and is transparent about such) the fantastic, with “dreams.” Especially in a place like New Orleans–a city that continuously is and historically has been overwhelmed with various “fictions” about it, and a city that was more recently revised following Katrina–it seems important to me to regard both these impulses: to tell the truth and to lie, two things I think the South, in particular, and the U.S., in general, does very–if also dangerously–well.
Rm220: There are a number of motifs in the book, most notably water, shadows/darkness, and trees. What’s clear is how these images are so prevalent in your examination of the ways in which the black body in pain has been depicted over the course of history. These images are constructed, deconstructed, and refigured throughout the text. I’m wondering if you could speak about the repeated intersection of desire, pleasure, and violence in your work and what you find vital about exploring that territory.
RL: It’s just that desire, pleasure and violence seem connected in my mind–for better, and especially for worse. Better said, the discourses and epistemologies that we use to understand desire, pleasure and violence–these seem connected, gnarled in a kind of knot, almost as if each depends somehow on the other. I don’t think we can really begin to understand the specific horror that was Jim Crow and the lynchings that characterize that period, for instance, until we understand the need for that display of violence (for photographing it) involved some sort of psycho-sexual gaze. Baldwin really gets to this in his story, “Going to Meet the Man.” Less extremely, I think it’s important to recognize–not necessarily justify or celebrate–the daily violences we either conjure up in our heads or, simply, deal with in pursuit of our desire or pleasure. It may not lead to anything we care to admit about ourselves, just as looking honestly at history often admits something we’d rather not be spoken, but it’s really the only possibility for substantive change. “Substantive” meaning not just superficial change, but something deeper: discursive change, a change in the way we think, create metaphor, understand ourselves and each other, hopefully toward some future that is less violent but no less pleasurable.
Rm220: There is a fearlessness both in your speakers’ willingness to address the political and in their ability to remain vulnerable while doing so. Your work walks a fine line, exploring complex issues and staying clear of a tone that’s didactic. The title poem, “Boy with Thorn,” exemplifies the collection’s social consciousness and self-awareness, balancing the imaginative work of the piece with a profound demonstration of poetic craft. What do you believe is the role of lyric poetry (or art, more broadly) in larger conversations around social consciousness?
RL: I read somewhere that the lyric poem, perhaps, defines it around the “O!” That is, that the lyric poem is that vessel for articulating the ecstatic or the sorrowful or the elated or angered self. What I like about this definition of sorts is that it suggests that the lyric poem reveals and perhaps establishes the vulnerability of the self, in delight or agony or any emotion in between. I think that mode is important when engaging political or social conversations, insofar as it humanizes the conversation. I wouldn’t say this is a mode writers should exclusively dominate in order to persuade us their ideas, because I do find the didactic, the argumentative, the unruly, et cetera, to have their place in poetry. But the lyric mode is surely a significant one. We need to be able to see each others’ wounds.