A Cup of Coffee With Dexter L. Booth (Interview by Kevin Hanlon)
Dexter L. Booth showed up late, frazzled, and having just come from the preparation committee meeting for a friend’s surprise birthday party. He apologized, and we laughed. Planning surprise birthday parties alone would be enough work for most people, but Booth keeps busy and uses every second of the day to his advantage.
A couple of years ago, Booth was still polishing his manuscript and hard at work getting his writing published. “I entered it into a bunch of contests,” he says, “That’s kind of what you do. You enter, you wait, and you just hope someone likes your stuff.”
It didn’t take long for Booth–a graduate of the MFA program at Arizona State University and an alumnus of Hayden’s Ferry Review [ed. note: Booth served as poetry editor for issue 49 & 50]–to get noticed. In 2012, his poetry collection, Scratching the Ghost, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. The following year, the book was published. These days Booth is on tour, giving readings and promoting his work while still teaching undergraduate English at ASU.
But Booth is humble. He never intended for any fame or recognition, although he remarked that it was nice to be acknowledged for his writing. He hopes he can inspire others to read and write through his work both in the classroom and on the page.
Scratching the Ghost explores childhood memories, growing up, and everything that comes with life and afterwards. Booth has produced honest and passionate poetry that reveals tender and universal truths of life. It dwells in the areas most people fear to address.
We sat down for nearly three hours and chatted about technology, ghosts, and what it means to be a black poet in the 21st century.
Kevin Hanlon: Where does (your) poetry take place?
Dexter L. Booth:
Somewhere between the real world, where our feet are on the ground, and the sort of mental space that I won’t say is necessarily religious, but somewhere between the real world and that dream state. You know, when you wake up and things are kind of hazy, you’re still sort of dreaming, and you’re not quite sure if someone is next to you or not. I think my poems take place in that space. They try to figure out the self: the waking self and the daily self.
KH: In your poem, “Letter to a Friend,” from the section entitled Our Famous Shadows, you write, “I always come back to these woods/feeling guilty under the accusing/leaves. How everything changes–/a mother again loses her son to the stream.” Where is the line between influence and experience in your work?
I don’t know. I was a visual artist in undergrad – a painting major. I have this visual part of my mind, and I think that sometimes that helps my poetry because I can see things in a way that’s a little different than people that don’t have that background. I try to write from experience, partly because I like confessionist poetry, and partly because this was a time in my life when these things needed to be addressed. So I think those two things are very closely connected in this book.
KH: What are Our Famous Shadows?
That was actually an alternative title for the book. A lot of the poems are about childhood and this idea that you become infamous for the things that you did in your childhood. There are these huge events in our life you’re like, when I as a kid a kid, I did this thing, and it’s awesome. Then you get older and you realize it wasn’t really that great. And then sometimes you have strange events in your life and you’re like, oh this thing happened and it was weird, and you look back and think, What? I survived?
I think childhood becomes the shadow that follows you around. You’re not always going to be the same person, but the things you did in your childhood–the friends you made, how you were raised–those are the things that stick with you. In some ways, those are the things that get artists some sort of attention. I think childhood is one of the key elements to writing poetry and staying creative. The most creative people I’ve ever met are children. That’s one part of myself that I never want to let go of: that freedom that children have to imagine things the way that they do.
When you’re little you’re like, oh there are no rules, you can do whatever you want. You draw whatever you want–you can make yourself purple if you want. Then you grow up, and especially if you go to art school they say, “Well there are these rules, and you have to color in these lines.” I think we get accustomed to working in these structures that we forget that there is a sort of freedom in not following the rules.
KH: You moved here from Virginia, and it comes out a lot in your poetry. Can you tell me about that?
I was born and raised in Virginia, and pretty much my whole family is there. No one has really left…ever. When I came to Arizona for my MFA I was the first one in my family to move out of Virginia. I got in my car with my cats and some art supplies, and I just drove across the country. I had never even left the state. It was terrifying. And so again, you can see that reference to the title [of the book]. Virginia as a state doesn’t have the best history, and so literally there are lots of ghosts in Virginia’s history that I felt followed me across the country. In some ways, I had to come to terms with those.
There’s a poem in there for my friend John where we talked about race. The poem is entitled “Queen Elizabeth.” It was very strange leaving Virginia and then coming here. I met people who would say, “I’ve never had a black friend,” and, “What’s it like to be black?” It was very strange.
KH: In that poem, “Queen Elizabeth,” you talk about being a black writer. What’s that mean?
What does that mean? I think that’s the question for the 21st century: What does it mean to be a black writer in poetry? For me, I just want to make my own path. Obviously, in the book, about 95% of the stuff actually happened. That was a real situation [in “Queen Elizabeth.”]. I was at a poetry reading and I heard a younger black kid say, “I don’t want to be a black writer.” That was something that bothered me because I had thought that same thing previously, before even coming for my MFA. Back then I said, I want to go do this thing. I want to write poems, but I don’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want people to assume that I wrote like Langston Hughes or was a slam poet. I guess in some ways that poem is me coming to terms with the fact that what it means to be a black writer is whatever I do with my writing. Every day that I wake up I’m going to be my heritage, and so I have to take that and move forward. I can’t worry about those things when I write.
KH: We live in an ever increasingly technological world. Why write? Why poetry?
I write because I don’t know what else to do. I’ve been writing and making art since I was little, and that’s the only thing that I enjoy. I have always wanted to affect people’s lives, but I don’t trust myself enough to be a doctor and cut someone open. That’s just not a thing that I should do. But with poetry, I can affect people and I never have to meet them–there’s no recovery time. They can’t blame me if they walk away from the poem and they’re like, “Oh my lungs hurt,” you know? I have nothing to do with that. I just don’t know anything else that I’d be doing with my life other than writing and teaching. I love it.
KH: What is the state of poetry today?
I think that we are entering a kind of a renaissance, at least in my mind, with technology, with slam poetry, with rap music, with all of these things that are branching out from traditional poetry, as we knew it. Especially with the Internet and self-publishing there are people who can publish their poems everywhere. There are people who stand on corners and sell their poems that they staple together. I think a lot more people are writing now, which is good. I hope that means a lot more people are reading.
KH: Do you think it’s important to unplug?
Yes, definitely. When the weather’s nice I go out to Hole in the Rock by myself with a computer or a notebook and write. Even if I’m at home writing, I cut off the Internet because I do get distracted. I’ll wonder, “Oh what are people doing on Facebook?” and that’s just not important…ever.
KH: When do you know a piece is finished or whole?
When I can’t fix it anymore. With Scratching the Ghost, I can’t do anything to the book now that it’s published, so it’s just done. Once it’s published that’s as close to finished as it’s going to get.
KH: What is your greatest source of inspiration?
Now I get it from other people, from watching the world. After the book, I was tired of writing about myself, so now I write about other people and things that are going on in other countries. The world sufferings, I guess you could say.
What’s next? What are you working on?
Right now I’m working on a collection of poems that are letters to different friends. They’re letters to friends, but they’re letters to the world that address a larger issue.
Dexter L. Booth reads tonight (April 9) at 7 p.m. at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Scratching the Ghost is available from Graywolf Press