Mitchell L. H. Douglas
In Conversation With
Mitchell L. H. Douglas is the author of three poetry collections: dying in the scarecrow's arms, /blak/ /al-fə bet/ (winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky / Editor's Choice Award) and Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem (an NAACP Image Award nominee). He is cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets, a Cave Canem graduate, and Associate Professor of English at IUPUI. I heard Prof. Douglas give a spellbinding reading at AWP last March; it made me wish we lived in the same neighborhood, so I could sneak into his classes and drop in on his office hours.
Tom Simpson: How do regional sensibilities—southern, midwestern, Affrilachian—inform your work?
Mitchell L. H. Douglas: Being a cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets in 1991 was the first time I ever thought about region as it pertained to my poetry. With a name like Affrilachian, we were intentionally announcing our allegiance to a newly imagined psychic region and an existing geographic one. The poems we produced were essentially saying, "This is what Affrilachia sounds like," what people of African descent are concerned with in the states touched by the Appalachian Mountains. Now that I have officially lived outside of the Affrilachian/Appalachian region for more than a decade, the question is “What is my regional identity? What place does it have in my poetry?” Kentucky is where I was born, but Indiana (Indianapolis to be exact) is home now. It’s not just where I live, it feels like where I am meant to be. I write about what is close to me, the trials, triumphs, and consequences. That doesn’t mean my poems can’t drift back to Kentucky, it just means Indiana is my first concern.
TS: How do heritage, sorrow, hope, and resistance interweave in your poems?
MLHD: It doesn’t matter what I’m writing about, I want my reader to see it as potentially through the eyes of a black man. Unless my use of persona is obvious (my first book, Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem, was a collection of persona poems about one of my greatest musical heroes, Donny Hathaway), I want you to consider the dreams, fears, and emotions of a black man because I am (we are) human and worth that consideration.
I’m used to fear. I’m used to a look people get when they aren’t sure what to expect from me. It doesn’t matter how “professionally” I’m dressed (whatever that means), there is fear. And after a while, I’m just tired of it. Like, little old lady in the grocery store: I am here to shop, not harass you! And so the frustration of being tall black target me bubbles into my poems. But I also want you to know that there is joy, and a reverence for family, and LOVE (caps needed), and a really deep disgust at the ideas that pass for politics and presidencies in this country and the world. I am complicated, I am a range of wild emotions and imaginations, and I want you—the person curious enough to dive into a book of poems—to acknowledge all of this.
TS: Talk about the form, and the feel, of the "fret."
MLHD: The fret was part of challenge I made to myself to invent a new form with each book. In Cooling Board, I worked with alternate takes that explored new ideas each time a poem was revisited. For my second book, /blak/ /al-fə bet/, the challenge of writing about a familiar topic in a new way drove my creativity. The book was focused on the story of my grandparents and their Southern roots, part of which, for my grandfather, included sharecropping. I didn’t want the reader to reject the discussion of sharecropping and perceive it as some trope of the Southern black experience. I needed readers to see all of who my grandfather was, so I pushed myself to write in a form that would embody the ache of the blues but carve its own path. Since the guitar is the heart of the blues, the form is based on the layout of a six-string guitar neck low e to high (EADGBE). The name of each string would be the first letter in each word that started a line. Additionally, the poem resembles guitar tablature and shows what appears to be a guitar neck sectioned into three parts with a visual caesura that breaks the line twice. Since the poem was meant to talk about struggle and the guitar neck was its external form, the Fret was a logical name. The form will return in my next project.
TS: Whose music—poetic and instrumental—are you listening to these days?
MLHD: I’m a little (a lot) obsessed with jazz right now. I grew up with a father who had Coltrane playing all the time, but it never moved me. I was too young to get it (but I’ve loved Parliament/Funkadelic since the first grade—go figure). I refer to jazz as the only math I understand. If McCoy Tyner or Wayne Shorter is involved, I’ve got to hear it. I’m amazed at their longevity and relevance in so many eras of jazz. I want to write poems like that.
In terms of poetry, I stay amazed by Ross Gay and how he embodies the sense of wonder when approaching a poem that Lucille Clifton spoke of. I love Clifton, too in the way she lays loss bare on the page like no one I’ve ever read. I’m always asking how does she do that? It’s like a punch you never see that knocks you off your feet. Aziza Barnes utilizes language that sings very honestly of her unique west coast self. It pops rhythmically and stings with truth. I’ve also been really appreciative of the work of my Persea Books pressmate Molly McCully Brown lately. The poems from her debut collection have made me rethink my approach for a project I’m working on now.
TS: Who's the punk rocker, or the comic book superhero, we desperately need for this cultural moment?
MLHD: This is not a fair question because we need both punk rock AND comic book heroes right now! I refuse to pick one or the other!!!
Sometimes I wish Poly Styrene was still here. Is that weird? Or I wish people would realize that punk, not just rock, is black music. Bad Brains was one of my favorite bands in high school, but to learn later that Death and Pure Hell preceded them was mind blowing. Or that a black woman, Styrene, was leading the X-Ray Spex and a contemporary of the Sex Pistols. It’s the perfect time to embrace heavy, purposely chaotic music. This presidency should be causing a new punk renaissance like the Reagan 80s. This is resistance music.
I love that we’re in love with everything Black Panther right now (I’ve been a fan since grade school). And it’s a beautiful thing to see comic book companies give us more women and girls of color as heroes: Ms. Marvel, Shuri, Okoye, Ironheart, Moon Girl, Abbott. We’re never going to have enough of this.
My daughter is a devoted Moon Girl fan and we love to talk about the stories, watch superhero movies, and imagine what’s ahead. She started drawing her own comic recently with a friend at school, something I did on my own as a kid, and I love that she’s inventing her own heroes. Maybe the hero we need is still waiting to be created.
TS: What's next for you?
MLHD: I’m a little superstitious when it comes to talking about the next writing project. It’s been simmering with me for a few years, even while I was wrapping up my last book, dying in the scarecrow’s arms. I should say that I’m kind of feeling my poetic voice out right now like a singer attempting a note just out of reach. The process is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.