The PEN Ten: An Interview with Jubi Arriola-Headley
1. What was the first poetry collection or poem that had a profound impact on you?
Back in undergrad (1988 or 1989), the Black Student Union on my campus invited Gwendolyn Brooks (!!!) to give a reading. I didn’t at that point in my life think I “got” poetry, and I had only a passing familiarity with her work—I’d read, and thought I appreciated, “We Real Cool,” and not much else. On my own, I’d read that poem pretty prosaically, without any particular sense of its craft—I read the sentences as sentences, basically: “We real cool. / We left school. / We lurk late.” And so on. But when Gwendolyn Brooks read it, she read it like the poem was an atom bomb. This is how I heard it (as much as it can be represented on the page):
The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.
Reeeeal cool. We
Lef’ school. We
LurK laTe. We
StriKe straighT. We
Singggg sin. We
Thinnn gin. We
Jaaazz June. We
And the “We”—she hit the “We” each time like it was a sucking in of breath, like it wasn’t coming out so much as she was summoning it back in. So tight. So tight. I think the experience of me hearing Gwendolyn Brooks read “We Real Cool” undid so much of what I thought I knew, up to that point, about poetry—admittedly, almost nothing. It felt like I was put under a spell. So much of what’s important to me to get right in my own poems—voice, vernacular, cadence, syntax, line breaks—I began to learn in that moment.
2. What’s it like, being a poet in 2020?
How do I put this: not enough? I understand and believe in the power of poetry. “Poetry is not a luxury,” so sayeth Audre Lorde. I love writing poetry for this and many other reasons. It may not show on my face in the moment, but know that on the inside I’m damn near bursting whenever I have occasion to say I am a poet. And yet. . . I feel this drive to do something more—tangible? Immediate?—to change the circumstances in which I and so many like me find ourselves. Vote, yes. Donate, yes. Write poems, yes. But also: disrupt. But also: unmake. But also: transform. Poetry can do that, in many ways. But can poetry defund the police? Can poetry do away with the Electoral College? Can poetry keep another Black body from harm? Yes. Perhaps. I believe so. But also.
3. What’s the most audacious thing you’ve ever put into words?
I participated in a poetry workshop with Willie Perdomo a few years back—he gave me some (deceptively) simple writing advice: “Write the hard poem.” I took that shit as gospel. For me, every poem needs to feel like it’s as “audacious” as it can possibly be, in whatever way it feels like that audaciousness needs to be expressed to get to what that poem is trying to say. That said, for the sake of honoring the spirit of the question—the poem “Every God is a Slowly Dying Sun” (from original kink) is effectively an apology that took me 30 years to accept that I needed to make, much less write.
“Vote, yes. Donate, yes. Write poems, yes. But also: disrupt. But also: unmake. But also: transform. Poetry can do that, in many ways. But can poetry defund the police? Can poetry do away with the Electoral College? Can poetry keep another Black body from harm? Yes. Perhaps. I believe so. But also.”
4. Writing is an intimate process. On October 12, the poems that make up the collection will also belong to readers. How do you prepare for that opening?
It’s a somewhat odd question, to me, because I’ve never felt a particular ownership of my poems, really. I’m trying to check myself here, to make sure I’m not being self-righteous or smug—but yeah, I mean that. And yes, writing is an intimate process, but I have always found it necessarily and crucially a collaborative one as well. By that, I mean I’ve been in classes and workshops and residencies and had other writers and poets serve as trusted readers and critics and cheerleaders, read and reveled in the work of other poets, and discussed the work of other poets with still other poets. That part of the writing life been as essential to me as, in the solitude of whatever moment I choose, putting pen to paper (or more often for me, fingertips to keyboard). I think I mean to say that I’ve always thought of the process of writing poetry as one of exposure, as a laying bare, as an offering, even. (I know, I know—cue astral music here.) So, once I write a poem, I feel like it belongs to the universe. The book is basically the package in which the poems will move through the world.
5. What does “original kink” mean to you?
Blackness, as innovation on a received form. (H/T to Dawn Lundy Martin for that brilliance.) Finding wonder in our bodies. Intellectual and sexual and emotional exploration. Fucking with/fucking up norms and externally determined roles and structures and systems. The erotic as power. (Referencing but one of so many Audre Lorde essays that should be required reading, IMHO.) Sisters with naturals. (Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem on the subject comes to mind.) Nappyheadedness all around. Queerness. Vulnerability. Relentless, unabashed vulnerability. Joy, period, full stop.
6. What has surprised you about the publishing process?
I think when we talk about “the publishing process,” we’ve got to parse what we’re talking about—there’s the “big” or “major” presses, which I assume (from what I’ve heard) must be quite a different process from publishing with a small, independent press like I’ve done. And then we could talk about the differences between publishing poetry and fiction. What’s surprising to me is the extent to which independent presses operate, often on the thinnest of margins (to the extent that a “margin” even exists) for the sheer love of it—poetry, that is. Someday, I’d love to live in a nation where poetry is valued, and funded, as if it was essential. That’ll be a happy day, when it comes.
I should also note that my experience with Bryan Borland, founder and publisher of Sibling Rivalry Press, has been a goddamned dream. I’ve heard stories, but my experience has been nothing short of supportive and nurturing at every turn. That’s perhaps not surprising so much as a blessing. Or a testament to Bryan and the wonderful church he built.
“I’ve always thought of the process of writing poetry as one of exposure, as a laying bare, as an offering, even. . . So, once I write a poem, I feel like it belongs to the universe. The book is basically the package in which the poems will move through the world.”
7. In original kink, you work outside of traditional forms, while referencing them. What does breaking with tradition allow you to do? Do you utilize any rules of your own making when writing?
While I love a good sonnet or ghazal, I felt like my project for this particular set of stories I wanted to tell (in original kink) was to present the poems in vessels that folks might not typically expect to find poems inside of. I was at the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Voices in 2017 and heard my workshop leader, TC Tolbert, read a poem (or series of poems?) he titled “Word Problems.” If memory serves, this was structured pretty much like those word problems you had to deal with in high school math class. It was—they were—surprising, stunning, and gutting. I think that, as much as any other moment, was when I thought to look outside the forms that folks are typically taught as poetry for structural inspiration for so many of the poems in original kink. Hence multiple choice, hence “fill in the blank” essays. Hence recipe poems. Hence poems as definition. There’s a bit of form referenced throughout—particularly haiku, I feel—but I got some of my most satisfying moments in the process that turned into original kink when I was making lists of things.
Beyond this, as for specific rules: I try to minimize the use of adjectives. I’ve read many poems that use adjectives effectively—to wondrous effect—but for me, I find myself wanting to use them as a shortcut to a deeper dive into a moment or image, so I shy away. Also, I lean into line breaks. I live for a great line break.
8. Which historical writer or artist do you most identify with?
Who can choose one? I’ve been spending the pandemic catching up on movies and music and Zooming—“Zoom” as a verb is the new “Google”—lectures, readings, and writing classes. What’s stuck in my head at the moment? Movies: The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Daughters of the Dust. Watermelon Woman.Television: I loved every minute of I May Destroy You. (I don’t care if folks think the word genius is thrown around too loosely—Micaela Coel legit is one.) Zoom stuff: I took a class at the end of September,“Meaningful Machines,” with Lillian-Yvonne Bertram (author of the National Book Award-longlisted Travesty Generator), which broke my brain. As did a lecture, that same weekend, by Douglas Kearney: “I Killed, I Died: Banter, Self-Destruction, and the Poetry Reading.” I think it was recorded—go find it, get your brain also broken. Music: Sault—all their albums. I didn’t know I needed Sault ’til I heard 5 and 7 and the TWO (!!!) albums they’ve released in the last few months: Untitled (Black Is) and Untitled (Rise). I’ve been deepish-diving into Black queer musicians especially: Brittany Howard, serpentwithfeet, Qhairo, and The Illustrious Blacks stay on repeat nowadays. Art—this is where Instagram shines. When I get lost on social media, I’m most likely stumbling upon some artist whose work I’d never known but floors me.
“What’s surprising to me is the extent to which independent presses operate, often on the thinnest of margins (to the extent that a “margin” even exists) for the sheer love of it—poetry, that is. Someday, I’d love to live in a nation where poetry is valued, and funded, as if it was essential. That’ll be a happy day, when it comes.”
9. Where do you write? Some poets have special routines or talismans they keep close by when they write. Do you?
I can write anywhere. I’ve written poems on the train, on my phone while walking down the street and trying not to trip or bump into anything or anyone, in the bathroom, in the back of an Uber, on my front porch, once at a party that I emphatically had not wanted to attend. (Those folks probably will never invite me to anything again. But I tend to shrivel and wilt at large parties anyway, so.)
What I do find—in terms of ritual or routine—helps me to get to a place where I have something to write about, is long walks. I take long walks—three or four miles, or longer—as often as possible. Usually regardless of the weather. Sometimes more than once a day. The seed for the poem “Zero Gravity” (from original kink), for example, was planted on a walk. I was walking after dark (while Black, it should go without saying) on a busy street when I heard a siren and I stiffened as I felt a police car speed by so fast and so close I could feel the wind it was stirring up. About 50 feet in front of me, a woman—who I perceived as white—was standing outside a store and looking at her phone, and maybe she was so engrossed in whatever she was typing or reading that she missed the siren and the wind, but she didn’t flinch, didn’t break her concentration, didn’t look up from her screen. What weightlessness it must be, to presume tailwind, not pursuit. That line came into my head, just like that. And the poem sprouted from there.
10. What advice do you have for emerging poets?
Write. You don’t need permission. Don’t worry about audience. Just write. Write what’s hard. Write the truth as you know it. Write whenever and wherever you can. Keep writing. Continue to write, even when you think that everything you’ve written is trash. Write past the point where you think you can’t possibly have anything else to say. And read. You don’t exist in a vacuum. One of the great privileges, I think, of writing poetry especially, is having your work be in conversation with other poets. Read other poets, novelists, memoirists and the like and pretty soon, you’ll have something new to write about, I’ve found. Write your history. Write what you see around you, right now. Imagine your tomorrow and write that, too. Then, rewrite. Revision is your friend. Revision is your salvation. Find yourself at least one good fellow writer to read your work. Ideally, more than one. Ideally, a community. You’ll never know love and support like you can find from another poet. At least, that’s how it’s been for me.
Jubi Arriola-Headley (he/him) is a Black queer poet, storyteller, and first-generation United Statesian who lives with his husband in South Florida and whose work explores themes of manhood, vulnerability, rage, tenderness, and joy. He’s a 2018 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, and his work has been published in Ambit, Beloit Poetry Journal, Nimrod, Southeastern Humanities Review, and elsewhere. His first collection of poems, original kink, is available now through Sibling Rivalry Press.