Dustin Pearson Talks Telepathologies With Poet Cortney Lamar Charleston
Dustin: After reckoning with the bulky physicality of your collection, a quick thumb through of its pages, and a careful look through of its table of contents, I knew reading the whole book would take some serious mental and emotional endurance (I don’t know how I just waltzed right past the cover image, but perhaps that’s instructive, too). I was happy to take some comfort from the instruction of “Blackness as a Compound of If Statements” on page five. Oftentimes I get anxiety over the publication of intimate and candid meditations on black life. I wonder about the audience for such publications at different moments and the spiraling consequences of certain moments falling on unintended audiences (I’m thinking of Chappelle’s show, movies like Life, Friday, Bamboozled, and other publications popular culture grabbed a hold of and used against that publication’s intended purpose and audience). Your poem seems to offer some relief. It privileges its black audience at the same time it offers clear instruction for audiences that fall outside of the spectrum of blackness. Can you relate to or comment on the anxiety I mention and perhaps talk about how you see the poem working toward that end and others?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: You’ve definitely touched on a continuous source of concern for me as it pertains to producing work that in any way deals with blackness (which is, well, most of my work!). As black creatives, we know the (white) gaze is upon us at all times, and we also know the gaze often has harmful intentions; it would certainly love to turn my works (our works) into weapons that can be used against me (us), so to speak. Because of that, I’m always working in a context in which I’m looking to explain away or subvert the gaze. I believe the poem you’ve called out here―“Blackness as a Compound of If Statements”―troubles the gaze’s ability to weaponize, as it clearly draws lines along the basis of experience by using language that is instructional and leading. If you are someone who hasn’t lived through any of the experiences discussed in the poem, I’ve tried to position things in such a way that you can’t look anything other than foolish for trying to read past the words, make assumptions, or attempt logical gymnastics to turn them against the speaker or the community of people they are concerned with. The meanings of every word are only knowable, I think, through blood and bone, and while they can be appreciated by anyone, I believe it’s the living of the words that make this poem understandable. In fact, if you’ve stayed true to the instructions, then most of the poem should consist of silences for a reader where normally the gaze would assert its presence. Maybe that’s why, as you describe it, the poem seems to be offering relief. It’s a clear moment where you’re not being talked over as a black person, where a lie isn’t being told on you while in a moment of vulnerability.
Dustin: A lot of the poems in your collection exhibit a journalistic quality, except they make poetic what the media might render coldly, sensationalize, or otherwise exploit. The poems often break from that form to feature your poetic speaker, who empathizes and otherwise muses on himself and his actions during, after, and in relation to such happenings. Can you talk about your poetic speaker and these moments of empathy? Do you feel like the poems themselves are an interruption of the treatment of black death and injustice in the media? Regardless, can you talk about your process or perhaps why it was important to you to render these events in poetry?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: I find it interesting that you’ve labeled the poems “an interruption of the treatment of black death” in the media. It’s a way, honestly, I haven’t thought to explain them before, but I do think the statement rings true. Essentially, these poems have tried to make people realize that black death is, in fact, the REAL death of black PEOPLE―an erasure of human beings with real lives, with real hopes, with real dreams, and, yes, sometimes with real troubles; I was simply tired of having the essential human element of our national discourse on racialized violence continuously removed from the equation, thereby making sure that black men, women and children died twice or even three times over beyond their physical demise. What I wrote can be described as poetry, I think, only because I had a modicum of success in doing so, with empathy, sometimes even sympathy, being the bridge that allowed me to cross over the murky waters to tell how things are as I see them, and, likewise, what seeing them does to me as a person who could at any moment be reduced, instead, to just another thing. I mean, I’ve been consuming black death, the packaged product, for as long as I’ve been alive and nothing has made me feel more worthless or helpless or hopeless than its mass-marketing, which I suppose is the true reason why these poems exist, as a way of affirming my humanity, quite simply. I believe they take a journalistic view because my eyes have been trained since birth in the art of cool, “objective” observation; ultimately, it allows me an access point because I likewise know where the eyes of others are going to be trained to look, allowing me the opportunity and giving me the responsibility to scramble the traditional signals upon which we perceive, learn and normalize violence perpetrated against (or by, or both by and against) black people. That’s the interruption.
Dustin: As a follow up, in “Meditation on the Casual Use of Hands,” a poem written for Eric Garner, your speaker’s life takes center stage and the circumstances of Eric Garner’s death become peripheral. I love the poem because it illustrates how like incidents build tension in the black psyche and create a powerful subtext for how we think about and interact with whiteness and the white people we know and like and love, and how those relationships might ultimately change: “When I get off the train in Jersey, I can hear my girlfriend’s sister’s white boyfriend playing violin on the train platform. Usually, I just think of him as my girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend, or as himself, but there’s a thin wire in me that’s been tripped, and not in the name of classical music.” I think what these incidents and this moment in the poem illuminate is how automatic it can be for black people to repress, and (arguably) against their better judgment, in order to like and love what so often ends up hurting them (systemically speaking) in massive and permanent ways. I know these injustices provoke a violent ambivalence inside me when I have to interact with whiteness, white people and the emotional investment I find has formulated in at least the latter entity, but I haven’t found a way to have that conversation outside of my head yet, or at least not inside the academy with the white people it’s appropriate to have that conversation with. Can you speak to this phenomenon, or at least your take on the moment I’ve cited from the poem?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: I believe the moment you’ve called to from the poem really gets to the heart of, perhaps, the greatest everyday struggle many face in a racist society: the fact that we must associate daily, by social design, with our oppressors. And not simply associate, but furthermore know them intimately as friends, and family, and lovers, and coworkers, and on and on and on. In my most valuable and important relationships with white people, I feel an inherent pressure to try, through means that sometimes border on illogical, to absolve them and remove them from the construct of whiteness for the sake of my ability to love and care for them. I think this is a parallel motion to what may happen in their own minds, as they disassociate me from the specter of blackness, its perceived inferiority or criminality, but the tolls we each pay to do so are different in nature and disproportionate in magnitude due to the fact that they are enveloped in racial privilege/supremacy while I am not. In short, there is no way to square that relationship without admitting, in some capacity, I may be committing an act of violence against myself. I am trusting that my white companion(s) will not harm me, intentionally or unintentionally, when they will have every opportunity to, and, in fact, may be programmed to simply via their upbringing in our racially and ethnically contentious society. And in those moments when the walls appear to be closing in, when we’re forced to confront the reality of all the imagined violence we could experience, it builds tension further into our relationships with white people if they don’t greet and address us with a genuine care and concern. As I’ve seen in my own life, more frequently the reaction has been for white acquaintances, sometimes friends, to avoid pointing to the knife’s shadow, but it’s only made me more leery and nervous of opening myself up to them. That’s not an act of bigotry on my part; that’s an act of self-defense and self-preservation. That’s also a central concern of the poem in question: the process by which I and many other black people respond to black death by becoming apathetic or agnostic toward building and maintaining relationships with white people. Now, that’s not necessarily a realistic or practical or even desired course of action on our part, but the rationality that underscores it presents itself over and over again over the course of our lives.
Dustin: I love the poems in your collection whose titles take the form of questions. The poems present a series of answers that remind me of collages—ones that amass conditions of black life in a way that’s familiar, powerful, and unifying. Do you think of these poems as collages? Was it your intention to structure the poems that way?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: In many respects, yes, I did conceive of the poems as a type of collage whereby all of the various answers to the title question created the (fractured) image of a certain lived experience. These poems, in fact, perhaps best encapsulate my reason for penning this entire collection in the first place; with all the violence surrounding black people, and with its ubiquitous promotion across all forms of media, I was searching for answers as to why events were playing out in precisely this way and, what, if anything, could be done to stop it. By asking the question, I’m looking for a personal action that can be taken or a decision that can be made to do exactly this, prevent my unjust victimization, but am confronted at every turn by the fact my agency does not extend as far as I may hope or even think (because racism), and thus, my strategizing is largely a pointless exercise. Hence the poems’ questions are met with a myriad of answers that are not definitive, but are instead suggestive. The truth is there are no right answers because the presentation of respectability cannot guarantee genuine respect of one’s humanity by people and institutions of power. There are so many illogics stood against that from happening that what we’re left with is the confusion between the answers, the place we’re cursed to live in that the poems archive.
Dustin: I’ve seen several people taking pictures with your collection as a show of support—some smiling, some reading, some in other poses or simply holding the book, but given the cover art, my imagination has me thinking of the implication of taking such a picture or rather what the implication of picturing or seeing someone hold your book in their hands might be. Is this something you’ve thought about, especially in relation to your book’s title or the treatment of black people and blackness in the media?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: I have to say, you, sir, are the smartest for raising this question. This is definitely something I’d thought about ahead of time due to the nature of the cover painting, and the sharing of it across social media has become a part of the book’s experience, at least how I conceive it as a complete work. It’s all so meta! Even when we have the best of intentions behind our actions, it demonstrates the ease with which we (anybody) can commoditize and commercialize black death, black suffering. Most of us wish only to broadcast these images as a way of saying, here, look at this extremely real pain and suffering we must eradicate, but in doing so, we’re still taking time to offer up reproductions of human beings being violated or even killed. In the same way, people have shared the book’s cover (either the digital mock-up or a photo of the physical copy) as a way of voicing support for me personally as the author or the content inside its pages, or both, and still, there’s the unconscious commercialization of black suffering, though in this case, the painting is an imagining rather than an actual artifact. It serves to remind me, frequently though tangentially, of the difference between the performance of advocacy and allyship versus the taking of actions that define being an advocate or an ally. I think it begs us to take a closer look at that relationship, to do the hard work of interrogating our actions, though I wonder how many folks who have seen the book or held it in their hands have had that thought rise to the surface. For those whose minds that thought has crossed, I feel they’re engaging with the material along a slightly different dimension, and if even a few do in that way, particularly if they are not a black person, then it’s a reassuring thought for me.
Dustin: What’s your current relationship to Telepathologies? What’s the relationship of your current writing to Telepathologies?
Cortney Lamar Charleston: Telepathologies and I, right now, have a complicated relationship. I appreciate it. I’m proud of it, but I already find myself, in some ways, wanting to distance myself from it because of what I subjected myself to in order to write it. Even though I didn’t center myself as the speaker within every poem, I still had to sit among the dead every day to craft the poems I did, and that’s an intense and exhausting process, whether we’re talking mind, body or soul. Now that it’s finished, and available to be read, I find that, to make it more palatable for myself, to make it easier to read when I do voice selections from it for an audience, I try to think about the poems more on an intellectual wavelength than an emotional one. I’ve also invested a certain musicality into a lot of the words, and that music helps soothe me even as I, admittedly, belt out very blue notes. I suppose I also have trouble recognizing the book as beautiful, which is an interesting dilemma as well, though I can’t explain why that is. With all that said, it has undoubtedly altered my practice and the work that I’m writing and editing now. By it appearing as my first published collection (full-length or otherwise), it is creating the initial context through which my future work(s) will be received regarding comparisons of style, subject, political orientation, etc. To begin with a treatise of sorts hasn’t been limiting though. If anything, I realize that there’s so much room for further expansion and exploration, and currently I’m trying to do so by touching more on my own personal narrative. At this time, I feel like the same call to action that lead to Telepathologies will likely anchor my work for as long as I’m writing. I’ll simply be approaching it from different angles, with different tactics, hoping to show how frustratingly complex our social constructs are, and how much they complicate our lives and breed room for calamity. Said differently, I haven’t said everything that needs to be said nor have I learned everything that needs to be learned.
Dustin: Feel free to ask me any question as a reader of your collection.
Cortney Lamar Charleston: How did you feel about the juxtaposition of poems where the perpetrators of violence are (presumed to be) black people in a collection that speaks very overtly to violence being perpetrated against black people? What did you think about that relationship?
Dustin: I think my biggest anxiety about that juxtaposition stems from those who I know would use it or be tempted to use it as a justification for the acts of violence and other injustices black people sustain, endure, or perish behind. Me personally, I recognize that those poems relay and exhibit the multifaceted nature of the oppression black people face—the complexity and deep permeation of systemic influence over our lives and how that influence often manifests or is expressed within our communities. I remember studying Etheridge Knight in a literature course. I don’t remember the name of the poem, but it featured several incarcerated black people having a discussion about how best to escape their imprisonment. A peer of mine raised his hand and commented that he felt the poem was really representative because it showed how black people suffer because they argue with and against each other instead of uniting. I remember being at a social gathering a year or more later discussing the incident when an outsider to the original conversation commented that she felt what my peer from the literature course had said was true, and I’m not trying to deny that sometimes that is or might feel true, but it’s a reductive and racist assessment because it ignores a whole history and collective trauma and set of socio-economic factors and casually levies a critique at an entire race of people as though the same phenomenon doesn’t occur within all races. We are an oppressed people, but the unjustified and ignorant ease and vigor with which outsiders say these things illustrates how oppression encourages more oppression and perhaps empowers others to further oppress. I don’t think the poems in your collection do that by any means, and at my most chaotic, I don’t think the poems in your collection could empower someone to oppress without completely manipulating or ignoring the implications of your collection as a whole, even if that’s something we both recognize that happens to our creative works. We often talk about the audience for poetry and the assumptions we can make about those who readily engage with poetry. The incidents I mention happened within the academy, by people who consider themselves active, engaged and open-minded readers, and people who aspire to put their own creative works into the world. This kind of thing is not even rare. I don’t really know what I’m getting at here besides to say I think we can afford to take the study and practice of poetry more seriously. We should treat it as having as much stakes as the misguided understanding of the peer I described—the stakes of his misguided understanding being allowed to spread. It’s not enough to read and engage these works in the academy, we need diverse and knowledgeable instructors to help ensure these works are considered for the full complexity they embody rather than allow them to be co-opted and harmfully presented as a fraction of themselves.
Cortney Lamar Charleston: I know exactly what you're saying. In writing the poems, I needed to make sure that they were collected with everything else so my truest intentions could not be obscured or misappropriated without the culprit being looked at skeptically. But it does speak to that larger challenge. Where we see nuance, others will see reinforcement of dominant and violent narratives. We really do need more serious consideration and instruction of poetry that is more intricately tied to the insights that come from historical, sociological, economic, political-scientific disciplines.