Douglas Manuel on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Douglas Manuel by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission).


[download audio]

Biographical Information—

Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana. He received a BA in creative writing from Arizona State University and a MFA from Butler University where he was the managing editor of Booth: A Journal. He is currently a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California where he is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing. He has served as the poetry editor of Gold Line Press as well as was one of the managing editors of Ricochet Editions. His work is featured on Poetry Foundation’s website and has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, Rhino, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, New Orleans Review, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. His first full length collection of poems, Testify, was released by Red Hen Press in the spring of 2017.

“In his breathtaking debut, Testify, Douglas Manuel charts the raw emotional complexities and the impossible daily reckonings that confront a young black man coming of age today in America. Faced at every turn with condescending, fixed assumptions about his ‘proper’ role in his community and culture, the speaker faces each indictment with a stunning and searing intelligence. Each powerful testimony in this collection stands as evidence of an eloquent and dramatic new voice in American poetry.”
—David St. John

“In Douglas Manuel’s Testify the act of witnessing is by turns burdensome and bittersweet, narrative and lyrical, ecstatic and irreverent. Here the holy words are the ones that offer no easy epiphanies yet grant us dazzling, off-kilter compassion and a strange, surprising grace. These potent poems testify to those ambivalent moments that might rend or right us, as when an interracial couple drive past a truck with a Confederate flag painted on its back windshield and from which a little boy turns to smile and wave: his ‘blond hair // split down the middle like a Bible / left open to the Book of Psalms.'”
—Anna Journey, author of The Atheist Wore Goat Silk

_________

Testify

I swear on the melody of trumpet vines,
ants feasting through animal crackers, Burt’s Bees,
Tyler Perry movies, my daddy’s .38 slug, footie-socks
inside high-top Jordans, disidentification, drag
queens, blond dreadlocks, headstones
salt-and-peppering the grass, vanilla wafers
in banana pudding, Zeus-swan chasing,
blunt-guts, sharp thumbnails, keloid scars,
cash-only bars, R&B songs, on what the pot
called the kettle. I put that on my mama’s good
hair, on playing solitaire with a phantom
limb, the white woman I go home to,
my auntie’s face when she says: You know
he always loved them pink toes. I put that on
everything, on the signifiers I gobble up,
candlesticks blown out by whistling lips.
I put that on dervishing records scratched
on down-beats, empty beehives,
fresh-fade head-slaps, hand claps, bamboo shoots,
liminality, mestizos, the purple-black crook
of my arm, split sternums, on You can’t save
him now. I put that on skinny jeans, get rich
quick schemes—Gotta get that C.R.E.A.M. Know what
I mean?—freckled black faces, leafless trees
throwing up gang signs, phlegm hocked
onto streets. I swear I catch more stones
than catfish. I lose more collard greens than sleep. I think
nothing is here but us darkies, high yellows, red bones,
cocoa butters. Someone, no, everyone has jungle fever.
Don’t touch my forehead. Blond
as moonshine, mute trombone choking.
I put that on Instagram. Post me to the endless chain
of signifiers. Strawberry gashes on kneecaps, Let me
get some dap, Newports, Kool’s, and folding
chairs instead of barstools, that white drool
caked on your face. Mommy please wipe away
the veil. I thought I was passing into the eye
of the streetlamp. I swear. I promise on frondless
palm trees, long pinkie nails, sixteen years, serve eight,
and Miss Addie’s red beans and rice, Ol’ Dirty Bastard
and the brother on the Cream of Wheat box. It don’t mean
a thing if it don’t buckle your knees. Open your hands.
I’ll give you a song, give you the Holy Ghost
from a preacher’s greasy palm—When he hit me, I didn’t
fall, felt eyes jabbing me, tagging me. Oh no he didn’t!—
give you the om from the small of her back.
I put that on double consciousness, multiple jeopardy,
and performativity. Please make sure my fetters
and manacles are tight. Yea baby, I like bottomless
bullet chambers. I swear on the creation of Uncle Tom—
some white woman’s gospel. She got blue eyes? I love
me some—on Josiah Henson, the real Uncle Tom, on us still
believing in Uncle Tom. Lord, have mercy!
Put that on the black man standing on my shoulders holding
his balls. Put that on the black man I am—I am not—on
the black man I wish I was.

__________
Douglas Manuel, “Testify” from Testify. Copyright © 2017 by Douglas Manuel. Reprinted by permission of Red Hen Press.

Douglas Manuel:              Reads poem “Testify”.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/143506/testify

Lois P. Jones:                     From the studios of KPFK Los Angeles, Pacifica Radio. Welcome to Poets Café. Douglas Manuel is a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California, where he is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing. He has served as the Poetry Editor for Goldline Press, as well as one of the Managing Editors of Ricochet Editions. His poems are featured on Poetry Foundation’s website, and have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, the LA Review, Rhino, North American Review, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere. His first full-length collection of poems, Testify, was recently released by Red Hen Press. Welcome!

Douglas Manuel:              Well, I’m happy to be here.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yeah.

Douglas Manuel:              Thank you very much.

Lois P. Jones:                     Your book Testify really got me looking in a lot of different directions. It’s  such an interesting combination of conflicts and religion versus non religion, or non-belief, responsibility, neglect, black, white, culture, culture vs. culture, and I was thinking in particular, because this is sort of a melting pot of so much in this opening poem, Testify, that the whole book is really a testimony in its way. I started thinking about Josiah Henson.

Douglas Manuel:              Oh, yeah.

Lois P. Jones:                     The story of Josiah Henson, Uncle Tom was based on him as a character, it was based on a true hero. He escaped to Canada and started a settlement for former slaves who fled from the US and I wonder how do we view the past in this context? Do we look to him as somebody who had a life of integrity and honor? Or is his name forever stigmatized because of the way, in theatre for example, they took the plays and they changed this character into sort of subservient, disparaging-

Douglas Manuel:              No, to say the least. That’s all 100% true, and I think this poem in a way is me trying to reclaim not only him and give him agency in his own kind of self-determination, as well as reclaim the term Uncle Tom. For a long time, I attempted to write a poem called, Confessions of an Uncle Tom. And I think it’s one of the many burdens that I wear of not feeling black enough. I think authenticity means so much, like the turn of phrase, “To keep it real,” happens so often in the black community. And one of those things, you know, kind of the worst thing that you can level against somebody isat least from around the way where I’m from, is to call them Uncle Tom.

And so to kind of do the little research and see you know, where this whole kind of idea of an Uncle Tom came from, from you know, the notion of that great novel and too, the kind of, the way that we’ve used it in a contemporary context. It’s something that I wear and that I buck against. I worry about not being the kind of black man that is part of the narrative of the early 90s, coming-of-age multiculturalism movements of the strong black man who’s so pro-black, you know, who ain’t going to take no stuff from no white man, no cops, no nobody. And that kind of racial imagination, like, so many ways I fall below that kind of standard of black male-ness, which many of my mentors from pop culture and in my family, adhere to so much.

So in a lot of ways, the titular poem is dealing with that, and I think that’s kind of the whole book’s agenda, is trying to carve out and speak for a space of black-ness that maybe does not align with all the kind of received notions, at least what I receive.

Lois P. Jones:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Douglas Manuel:              Like, my notions of the kind of black male that I exist as is legible and does exist. But as far as what I was shown growing up, there wasn’t that many exemplars of how to be that kind of black man, so I found myself aligning myself with people who like my family, kind of the conversations around would be looking down upon saying, “XYZ person, you know he an Uncle Tom. He think he’s white. You know, he talk proper. He forget where he from.” All these kind of ideas, and you know, being a Catholic school kid and having a lot of white friends, my god parents played integral role in my upbringing, all those kind of narratives all kind of have their nexus in me.

Douglas Manuel:              And so it made me very conflicted growing up about which way to go. The Midwest is so binary with race, at least at the time I was growing up, that it felt like they’re like, “You’re black or you’re white,” and that was it. So it’s just me searching for another way to be, I guess. And problematizing all of the ways I’m shown to be.

Lois P. Jones:                     And, not only speaking to your weight or responsibility as a black man in society, but also thinking about how you can be pigeon-holed by your own culture.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     And stereotyped by your own culture.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     To be a certain way. I think all cultures are guilty of that to some extent. And how we’re hindered from embracing other aspects. It’s almost like the other voices that are in us, and we all have them.

Douglas Manuel:              Right.

Lois P. Jones:                     Are muted, because of identity, because of a fear of losing identity.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     But I know that’s not the only part of it. I know that because the black community has been oppressed for so long, there’s also the need and the continual need to stand in that space of being present for one’s own race, or one’s own legacy.

Douglas Manuel:              And therein lies the guilt, right?

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

Douglas Manuel:              Therein lies my heavy laden guilt, because I mean, I know that people lost their lives from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean and the Middle Passage, people lost their lives for me to be able to kind of live the life that I live, and speak, and write the way that I want to write. And to feel as though my lifestyle or anything that I do disrespects those kind of notions is something that I wear with me, similar to my Catholic guilt from my Catholic upbringing. Morally I think, my race guilt from the Afro-centristic notions I received from family members and pop culture during my maturation process I think, or just my obsessions, you know? They say writers return over and over again to obsessions.

And I would definitely say my ma’s passing, my relationship with my father, my relationship to the black man that I wish I was, as I say in this poem, versus the black man that I am. And my relationship toward what’s sacred, I think are the obsessions of Testify and continue to be my obsessions to this day.

Lois P. Jones:                     And speak to it so eloquently, I think embracing all of those aspects, I’d like to get in our next poem, that talks about your dad. If you’re just tuning in, this is host Lois P. Jones, I’m here with our guest Douglas Manuel. And we’re talking about his new book out on Red Hen Press, a fabulous collection called Testify. Do you want to talk about this poem, or do you just want to read it?

Douglas Manuel:              I guess all you need to know for this is my father’s on dialysis. So that’s quite the process. It’s one of those things that I intellectually understood, but actually to see it happening is quite the ordeal. I think all people understand that you know, it’s taking the blood out the body and cleaning it and then returning it, but it’s just quite the thing to see all the tubes and how one looks when that process is happening to them.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

Douglas Manuel:              It’s a lot and that coupled with the relationship I have with my father, he’s in prison a lot of my life, and I was raised by other family members, so it’s always been complicated. So this is me, a kind of reckoning with all that. And I think that’s all you need to know with this poem. It’s entitled, The First Time I See My Father’s Blood Cleaned [reads poem].

Lois P. Jones:                     Such a beautiful poem of presence and the struggle. I think when you read all of the poems, you start to see the poet who has all these identities, and has these relationships, and specifically with your mom and your dad, and that conversation and that dialectic. There’s always this opposing side, one that’s the loving son toward the father, and the bond. And the other side that’s maybe really torn by the type of father he’s been, or not been. And there you are. You’re in the hospital and he’s vulnerable and maybe something you hadn’t observed about him before.

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, my father’s a big man. I’m only like 5’9″, he’s significantly larger than me, and I just remember as a child holding on to his arms and him lifting me up and such. So his physicality means so much and meant so much to him, so to see him, you know, without his legs, to see him “old,” is you know, like with anybody that’s a lot. But especially with him, it matters. So my dad, as with other poems, like Little Fires Left by Travelers, my dad, I’ve made him a myth in my head. Made him bigger than life, because he always is. And his role in our community was the same way. There was a social media meme on Facebook before I retired from Facebook, that was like, “I’m so Anderson.”  And so the users would say, “They’re so Anderson,” because they remember certain details of Anderson, Indiana. And one of the, “I’m so Anderson,” quotes was remembering my dad being a drug dealer in the community and such. “I’m so Anderson, I remember when Big Doug did X.” From back in the day, and that’s how woven he is in the community. So to see a man who has that kind of stature be in a bed getting his blood cleaned like that, that vulnerable, is a lot. And you know, Toni Morrison talks about tough love and how good art can help you to participate and fall to tough love and that’s how I think my relationship with my father is, tough love. The kind of love that you keep on working with, and I guess all love is like a process. So it’s a process that I do, and that I have to work on and attend to.

Douglas Manuel:              Just like anything else. And so I think this poem is me becoming more willing and giving and open toward giving that kind of attention.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right. I wanted to put this more in context, also by bringing in this other poem as well, and we can talk a little bit more about it. But the one called, I’ll Leave Your Ass Here?

Douglas Manuel:              [Reads I’ll Leave Your Ass Here.]

Lois P. Jones:                     If you just tuned in, this is host Lois P. Jones. We’re at Poets Café, and I’m here with our guest, Douglas Manuel. We’re talking about his wonderful book Testify, out on Red Hen Press. This poem moved me so much, because I thought about the layers of lying. And how as a boy, do we believe that? Do we know it’s a lie. How does that seem later? When he says that you’re the only person mattering in the world, that’s a beautiful line, by the way. You know, “Daddy, why does the moon keep following me?” I ask, rushing to catch up. “Because you’re the only person who matters in the world.”

Wow, is that a truth? And can you keep that truth, you know?

Douglas Manuel:              I think that’s truth for him. I think that’s a truth that I hope to believe.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yeah, I mean, because of his past history and his dealings with drugs, and so one has to separate the parent somehow, from these actions that are not really the true self, if that makes sense.

Douglas Manuel:              I think it’s a truth that both of us need to believe.

Lois P. Jones:                     Okay.

Douglas Manuel:              So, and I think that’s the way big meta-narratives go, right? Like, I think this is beyond fact and object kind of truth. I think this has to be a story that him and I can tell each other, so that we can work in the process of tough love.  You know? But it’s just something I remember often, walking with him. And we took many night strolls, and many strolls in general. Things that I remember from my youth, and some of the beautiful times. And he would always say those kinds of things. I think the biggest reasons that I’m a poet is because of his love for language and the kind of ways that his turns of phrases, I think often throughout the text, I use his words directly. He just has so many turns of phrases that always shock and surprise. And so, I think in a way you know, he opened me up to the possibilities of language. And that’s something I’ll be in debt to him forever for, as well.

Lois P. Jones:                     And did he come to appreciate your writing, or?

Douglas Manuel:              Oh, yeah. No. My dad loves this book.

Lois P. Jones:                     Oh!

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s one of my biggest fears about the project in general. I think I’ve written an essay about that before, is the people that think we have like this awful relationship, or he doesn’t read the work. But no, he’s my biggest fan and cheerleader. He tells everybody very quickly-

Lois P. Jones:                     That’s great.

Douglas Manuel:              About what I do and stuff. Again, it’s a work in progress. We fight a lot, and you know, we have a more platonic kind of relationship, instead of the usual power dynamics of a father and son.

Lois P. Jones:                     Sure.

Douglas Manuel:              But that’s just from his absence and such. We work at it.

Lois P. Jones:                     Your mom died when you were just eight.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     And so that was obviously a huge loss in your life, and then you had a father struggling with his issues, then. And yet, you came out of this focusing on your doctorate now, how were you able to move beyond you know, your history?

Douglas Manuel:              Luck and love. I don’t think anybody, “makes it,” what everyone wants to define that to be. I guess, achieve some kind of level social mobility from where they are from, without you know, some love and some backing, you know, my auntie, my Aunt Bet, as I say in the gratitude page of the back, really made my life to where I didn’t know how little we were doing so much with. From a whole choir of aunties in the community, to my god parents as well. Like I say in the book, calling them you know, my Fairy White God Parents, they also helped a lot with things. And that’s what leads me to these ideas of doubleness, as far as embracing both black and white side, because there’s no way I can turn my back on that, you know, the boy says something about, soul of black folk, the African-American says it can’t turn their back on their American-ness or European-ness as well.

Douglas Manuel:              So I think all that comes into play with me as well. Because of feeling in debt, because of how big of a role. You know, me being in Catholic school saved me a lot too. You know, so many elementary school teachers. Like I remember Mrs. Hummel, and Miss Welding, and Mrs. Wetmore and so many people who would work with me with reading, who showed me poems, you know, early on, just so many things like that. I think everybody who pays attention to children and education and all those people did a lot, and sports as well.   Like many black men, sports keeps you out of trouble, you know?

You ain’t in the streets if you’re playing basketball somewhere, or if you’re at a track meet or something. So between strong academics from good old Saint Mary’s to playing sports all the time, and a lot of love and luck.

Lois P. Jones:                     Are you actually teaching now? Do you have students?

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, I have two sections for Introduction to Poetry class, at USC. So I have two sections of them.

Lois P. Jones:                     Okay, so I was reading something on the Butler MFA site, that you’d written, you said, “I care about talking to you, I care about talking to me. I care about words.”

Douglas Manuel:              Oh, whoa, yeah.

Lois P. Jones:                     Et cetera, yeah. “No matter how imprecise they are, when it comes to clothing our thoughts and feelings, that’s why I try and I want you to care too. So I keep trying, hoping that something I write means something to you. Hoping to meet you somewhere, shake your hand and see that look in your eyes that only connection gives. Hoping that you hear my prayers, and that hopefully they were never mine at all, but instead they were yours too. That they were ours.”

What a fantastic and all-encompassing mission for poetry to have. I like it so much, because it allows for different types of voices, it is not focused on a particular type of pedigree or voice. I read an interesting article recently about a woman who was speaking, but feeling that she had to teach poetry to a white audience, rather than being able to take in all the aspects of her and herself and her culture, that her MFA was geared toward that voice. And how that statement to me just, is more of a direct response to what we want to feel in poetry.

Douglas Manuel:              One of my big things is just, for my own sanity and just for a mode of how to exist in the world is thinking of this, that’s there’s enough room for all of us.

Lois P. Jones:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Douglas Manuel:              I think the thing that’s so incredible about American poetry, you know, there’s all these debates about, can poetry matter? And poetry doesn’t matter, and it’s this, you know, isolated academic endeavor. Or we only see its manifestation in song writing and hip hop. All those kind of arguments, and I think my world view is not to get caught up in those kind of things at all. I think life necessitates poetry. I think poetry matters always because our subjective inner feelings and workings and reactions and the stories we tell ourselves will always matter. I think that people will always be trying to express those subjective feelings, and I think each sliver of those expressions matter. And I’m paraphrasing lots of things that people way smarter than me have said, but I feel though you know, the world is hardly ever worse off because somebody put a new poem into the world.

Lois P. Jones:                     Let’s hope not, yeah.

Douglas Manuel:              Again, hardly ever. Again, you know, I’m very sure that I can make an argument about some kind of racist, fascist, xenophobic, homophobic poem that’s created that’s problematic, but for the most part, you know, and then maybe even that wouldn’t be problematic. It started a dialogue that we react or resist against, a narrative that we can talk to. So all that’s to say is you know, I care about our utterances, and how we utter them to each other. And I think that poetry, to me the best way that you can walk it up to a person metaphorically and be able to be like, “Oh, let me take a look inside there to see how it’s going on for you. I know how it’s going on for me over here,” but I think it’s still the best vehicle for that.

Douglas Manuel:              It’s why I still go back to the Confessional Poet, writers who are just willing to give themselves. I think people will always care about that. So it doesn’t matter if you’re a poet of indeterminacy or a poet who’s not trying to you know, mean anything and is more interested in the velocity of thought and the sense of sound, and other kinds of post-modern notions like that, or just the way language fails us. It doesn’t matter. I think there’s enough for all those utterances. There’s enough. I don’t have to write that way. I don’t have to teach those poems. And people don’t have to teach poems that I write or that I read.

But all this is still part of this kind of song that is America, you know? If we’re going to yoke it all the way back to Whitman, I suppose, or even yoke it back to all the poems that have ever been written. It’s all a drop of water into that big ocean, so.

Lois P. Jones:                     What do you think about being allowed to express those different voices, within ourselves? As a body of work.

Douglas Manuel:              I think it’s just different approaches towards a telling or towards forming the sound, or forming, or kind of orchestrating the poem. And so I use whatever works. I don’t like to you know, say I’m post-confessional-

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

Douglas Manuel:              Or say that you know, I’m a language poet or say that I’m a this, or say that. I’m for doing whatever I need to make that poem work. And I think each poem demands its own craft and its own kind of scaffolding. And so I’m willing to embrace all of them. That’s the really awesome thing about the PhD program, is you get exposed to so many different ways to make a poem enact meaning, or not enact meaning I suppose. Both are available. And so you know, with more and more exposure. I wanted to try different things, you know?

A lot is seeing that after you write so many narrative poems, or after you write so many tight lyrics, or you do a list poem, you want to see what else you can do as well. You know? And I think that’s also one of the challenges of what being an artist is.  What else am I capable of? And what do I need to make this poem get close to the emotional tenor that I’m trying to color? And that takes lots of approaches. And I, I try to read as widely as possible, so I can know all the ways to make, you know what I mean?

Lois P. Jones:                     Yeah, well, that’s evident in your work.

Douglas Manuel:              Well, thank you. I mean, I really hope so. And I hope they keep on changing. I don’t want to write Testify again.

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

Douglas Manuel:              You know? I could, of course there’s the argument that all the work should just be Testify 2, Testify 3.  Everybody’s writing Leaves of Grass over and over again. Oh, goodness. Whitman’s coming to my psyche to much these days.

But yeah, so that’s why I think there’s so many different approaches, and my pedagogy as well, I want to expose. Because a poem doesn’t have to do anything except make its meaning and its way of expression. That’s all I ask of a poem. And I try to meet a poem and my writing process on its own terms like that. Not saying, “I’m just going to sit down and write this poem about when my dad did this.”

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

Douglas Manuel:              Or, “I’m just going to sit down and have that poem where I was at the cemetery, and I saw all these little, cool birds.” It’s like, I’m not going to write that poem, you know? I try to trust the writing process, and hope that I can get something that matters.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yeah, I mean Rilke  talks about poems having to come from need, and one feels that need within the poem, and it testifies, or speaks to its authenticity, and honesty. But then, there’s persona poems, you know?

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     And how do you inhabit those voices and make them your own? And make that need present? Those are all interesting questions that I’ve been thinking about lately.

Douglas Manuel:              You know, Merwin talks about things like the act of listening is you know, like kind of the first act of a poet. That sounds like butchering of one of his quotations, but yeah, I believe in that. So like, I’ve always listened again to my dad’s turns of phrases, family members’ turns of phrases.   I’m from the first generation to have hip hop their whole lives. So this whole time, I’ve been getting this dynamic, awesome rhyme schemes, metaphorical literary language thrown at me all the time from hip hop, you know?

So just taking all that in and always listening. I think two of the things, you know, there’s so many ways to be a poet or to make meaning, but two of the ways is totally, totally listening, listening, listening. And going from there. And then the other I think attention I think. One of the things poetry can do is make the world matter by paying attention to it. And so I guess I could connect those ideas by making the world matter by listening to it, and by paying attention, which are of course the same kind of things. But it seems like paying attention – the physical look, and the gaze.

So those two things of being I guess, in tune or attune to the world, and making it matter through that. So, those kind of go into my process. When it comes to a persona poem, I just want to hear it. Just how like when I come to say a, quote unquote, in quotes, “lyrical I poem,” I want to hear that I. I also want to hear the “I” of the persona poem, you know? And be loyal to that voice and so again, you’ve got to write. You’ve got to write a lot, and you’ve got to make your date with your writing time and your process, and hopefully, the muse or whatever it is that’s up there, you can grab it down a couple times, whatever magic that becomes a poem. So just keep on listening and keep on jotting down, keep on paying attention and keep on jotting down and every now and again, you know, you can grab one.

Lois P. Jones:                     Are you pretty disciplined as far as your own writing?

Douglas Manuel:              When I’m good to myself. When I’m good to myself. I’m a slow writer, always, always. Very slow and attentive with that. But as far as carving out the time, I’m a better person when I, when I’m off—when I’m off—it’s because I’m not.

Lois P. Jones:                     Because those poems are percolating in there.

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah.

Lois P. Jones:                     They’re an energy, and they need to be extracted in some way.

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, totally agree.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yeah, extracted sounds like a strong word, but you know what I mean.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     Filtered out. So that they have a place for expression. That paying attention is also something that I admire about your work, and there’s a particular poem that struck me, called Heading Down.

Douglas Manuel:              Oh, yeah.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yeah. And I wondered if you’d talk about that one for a minute, and read it.

Lois P. Jones:                     If you just tuned in, this is host Lois P. Jones, and we’re here with our guest, Douglas Manuel, and we’re talking about Testify, and all the things that have to do with the art and the act of poetry.

Douglas Manuel:              Heading Down’s become a poem that I read a lot, that’s become one of the Doug poems, if you will. Doug Manuel poems. This is the Midwest, our scars of race are still very deep, as well as they are in the South, in the Midwest. This is me kind of seeing how porous in our minds that we think those kinds of acts are restricted to the South. Malcolm X has that great quote that anywhere below Canada is the South in America.

So I think about that in the context of this poem. But at the same time it problematizes and shows how porous those kind of borders are, because you know in Indiana, you can be in southern Indiana and suddenly feel very much so like you’re in the South, out of nowhere. Or you’re feeling very much so in a city, and feeling like that you were far away from that, then very quickly you can be kind of snapped into a world that many of us forgot exists during the Obama administration. Many of us, were lulled to sleep, and felt safe and this was festering the whole time and I think what we’re seeing right now is a lot of that festering did pop over, but to many of us, you know?

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

Douglas Manuel:              All these things were always there. Always and already, you know?

Lois P. Jones:                     And just to the point of Malcolm, you know, it wasn’t until he’d done his pilgrimage, and went to Mecca-

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     That he could see that not all white men felt the way he had been treated. You know, his encounters with white men changed after that. I mean, I think that’s interesting for any race.

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, no.

Lois P. Jones:                     To get out of that insular aspect.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     Especially in the United States.

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, times like that, that’s why it’s so awesome, like some of the stuff that Baldwin says about him, you know? Because it’s easy to just think that one’s crazy for thinking that extreme of view, but you know, Baldwin points out that too many African-Americans at the time, they hadn’t met a white person who wasn’t, you know-

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

Douglas Manuel:              A draconian, racist, all kind of, whatever kind of terms we want to throw at it. So it made sense. So they get that kind of exposure and then change one’s mind.  It’s one of the reasons to always respect and look up to Malcolm X, and why his death was such a tragedy in itself as well. But that’s the kind of thing, you know, Malcolm X freely called people Uncle Toms in his day.

So that’s another one of the ones, you know? James Baldwin even talks about almost kind of feeling, he doesn’t I think say Tom-ish directly, but feeling very insecure when he gave a speech in front of Malcolm X.

Lois P. Jones:                     Oh, interesting.

Douglas Manuel:              And you know, there’s that great moment in the Fire Next Time, where Elijah Mohammed attempts to give James Baldwin his Muslim name, and James Baldwin refuses it.  I actually talk about that in, Me In the Boondocks, her Southpark poem, talk about that kind of moment. But all that’s to say is this poem’s about a reminder of really how deep the wounds of race are in this country. And me, that kind of truth being thrown in my face.

Douglas Manuel:              [Reads Heading Down.]

Lois P. Jones:                     That’s so powerful. How you brought in all the different layers, the confederate flag, the young boy who, he’s waving, I mean, he hasn’t really been inducted into that type of thinking yet.

Douglas Manuel:              Right. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     I mean, maybe in subtle ways.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     Because he’s growing up around it. And then the man who’s driving is not even looking at you as you pass. And I love just the language, the way he’s described, split down the middle like a Bible, left open to the book of Psalms. Oh, this is just beautiful.

Douglas Manuel:              Thank you.

Lois P. Jones:                     Beautiful language. And I think also of how again, we’re destroying these symbols of oppression, on the one hand, the Confederate flag symbolizes slavery, and the other, some say it’s a symbol of Southern heritage. But of course, that heritage is layered with oppression, you know? And so it’s very complicated, when I think about how we’re going to be able to, years down the road, separate out those threads, so that people can see the truth.

Douglas Manuel:              It’s interesting that you used the word the truth right then, you know, thinking about alternative facts, thinking about fake news, thinking about those kind of you know, so long in our education in higher levels, we’ve been talking about trying to avoid falling towards the problems of being relativist, things still have to be true, you know? And so what I try to talk about is, that there are stories that we can have, and those matter more than what is factually true. So I think we’ve just got to learn to be able to hold the stories in our head, and then take a step forward and say that it’s okay for those stories to be aligned.

We’re having problems of trying to hierarchize what story matters more, and it is time for the attention to be paid to the other narratives, but then if you’ve been told a story that’s made your life matter over and over again, like Baldwin talks about, nobody gives up power willingly. And so to totally have to really let go of a narrative of the South rising again, or this is one of the times-

Lois P. Jones:                     My great-grandfather served in the war, and was a hero.

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, you know, he was fighting just for his people and his land. If one believes that, it’s hard to reckon with that. To know that you’ve built yourself based on those stories, it’s hard to walk away from that. But at the same time, I think we just have to hope that we can have conversations where people can believe that that can be one story of America, but there’s another too. And hopefully, like my position with poetry and aesthetics, as far as approaches that we can hope to know that there’s enough room for more than one narrative in America. And that we should embrace multiple ones of them.

But I think the times have gotten so dire to where we almost do have to say that certain narratives are truer than others. One of the ways is just to be really honest about these kind of things. And the honesty that this poem tries to convey is that, one can be in an interracial relationship and want to spray paint a black fist over a Confederate flag. And be mad at a person who has a Confederate flag on their car, and then also love their white partner more than anything in the world. But also, at that moment, feel almost angry at their white partner as well. All those things can just happen.

And it’s going to be that messy all the time. Real life is that messy, and I don’t know how-

Lois P. Jones:                     And it is that messy.

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah.

Lois P. Jones:                     I mean-

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah. But I don’t know how to teach people to be okay with that kind of, I guess to use the old term, negative capability. You know? I don’t know how to make people comfortable with that. But I think those are the kind of truths that we’re going to have to start grappling with, if we’re going to be okay with things, you know? That kind of nuance.

Lois P. Jones:                     I think it’s incumbent upon each generation to filter through those stories.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     And to be able to separate out that love that they have for the individual.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     And the experiential.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative). Because you can love your grandfather, and the fact that they fought for the family close, and still also know that slavery was one of the ugliest truths of human history. It just seems like it’s so frustrating to me that people have trouble understanding that kind of nuance, because on the other side, you know, as black people, we … I hate any kind of gesture to speak for black people. I hate that kind of even rhetoric. But I think that people of color have to rationalize and understand dominant narratives way more than people who are of the dominant class have to understand them. And I think that’s one of the –

Lois P. Jones:                     That’s true.

Douglas Manuel:              Huge problems, is that kind of lack of awareness. Just think for a second that while your family was fighting for their land rights and their heritage, that the land that they were working was worked by somebody else and was owned by another group of people. Yeah. Can we just have those kind of moments of awareness?

Lois P. Jones:                     And there are all these narratives existing, I mean, just to move the subject slightly to another topic, when you look at the narrative of war.

Douglas Manuel:              Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lois P. Jones:                     And how there’s so much pride, and the legacy of soldiering, and what that means to an individual.

Douglas Manuel:              The oldest lie, right? The oldest lie.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yeah. And yet, it continues on-

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, what’s that World War I poet? That English … Duce? Decorum?

Lois P. Jones:                     Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Douglas Manuel:              Yeah, that poem. I think it’s Owens maybe? But yeah, talking about the oldest lies about the glory of war. I think he then goes on to describe them going to the front and mustard gas falling and then watching one of his comrades die in the mustard gas. And then talks about war, that it’s the sweetest thing to die for one’s own country. I can’t remember the name of that poem, exactly. But yeah, that kind of narrative, fighting that kind of narrative, that’s what you’re I think-

Lois P. Jones:                     Right.

Douglas Manuel:              Talking about, as well. It’s … all I know is we’ve come a long way.

Lois P. Jones:                     Yeah.

Douglas Manuel:              And I think that right now, even having moments of these kind of conversations happening are small steps, or to go all the way back, people have this kind of conversation, then go do poetry workshops. And they go, say this to you know, a little kid who is in a Catholic school who happens to be listening. And that maybe they write a book, or maybe they go to USC for a PhD later. Those kind of things are the kinds of things that keep me going, even though as we speak with the government shut down, and with the horrible narratives and such around DACA and such all happening, those are the kind of things that keep me going and keep me writing poems. I’m going to teach at some high schools, and teach at you know, USC and hopefully talk about things that shed light on narrative that are getting ignored.

Lois P. Jones:                     And why the conversation must continue.

Douglas Manuel:              You ain’t lying one bit.

Lois P. Jones:                     All right.

Lois P. Jones:                     Our show is winding down, and I wondered if you could take us out with one of my favorite poems in the book, it’s called Lost Sight of Loss.

Douglas Manuel:              I don’t read this one that often. I don’t know if I’ve read this publicly at all, actually. So, Lost Sight of Loss.

Douglas Manuel:              [Reads Lost Sight of Loss.]

Lois P. Jones:                     This is host Lois P. Jones  and our guest has been Douglas Manuel. Thanks to our inimitable chef, Marlena Bond. Look for us on the Poets Café fan page on Facebook, you’ve been listening to Poets Café on Pacifica Radio. For all of Southern California and beyond.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll Up