Donte Collins, author of the forthcoming chapbook Autopsy, the 2016 Most Promising Young Poet Award Recipient by the Academy of American Poets, winner of the 2016 Mitchell Prize in Poetry. Donte was part of 2013 and 2015 Twin Cities BeHeard Slam team as well as the 2016 Unified National Slam team. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
SONNET ON SWEET
after Tarell Alvin Mccraney
back then they would have tied me to a post
gave the whip to the sweet boy i wrapped
my lips around until he wept the most
brackish prayer: he dripped like maple sap
each tthh-wack opens a small sky in my skin
he swings softly & avoids my old welts
Lynch say beat the slave out of the sin
so massa’ take pride in my lovers help
can’t produce slaves if men lay with men
can’t run free when massa stole your feet
plantation can’t afford no cotton-gin
when two black bucks is worth a pound of meat
so massa rubbed warm sugar in my scars
& left me til my black swelled bright as stars
every black woman with grey hair is your dead mother you collapse in walmart knees buckled at the sight of an electric scooter you wrap yourself around yourself & wail into a naked mattress your lover’s hand is placed like heated stones along your heaving back you don’t want to be touched & want to be touched everywhere you show the dean the death certificate & are allowed to stay another semester drowning would be easiest you think as rain draws razor thin lines down your bedroom window you throw a mug across the kitchen you want to die but don’t want to leave a mess memory is a ruptured organ memory is a ghost begging for new flesh memory taps a gun to your inner skull & demands you bring back the dead every word your mother last spoke scuttle like mice in your deserted head grief is a paper cut at every bend in your body grief shaves each bone down to a shriveled white flag
WHITENESS SHOPS FOR A PRAYER
how do you pray / does it involve a keyboard / it is in 140 characters / or less / does it have a barcode / does it have a wikipedia page / is it in english / is it tax deductible / does it include all lives / is your prayer gluten free / is it safe around children / is there an abridged version / is your prayer an all purpose cleaner / natural selection / can it get out the black / can it clean up the tough stains / is your prayer running for president / can your prayer run / does it do yoga / is it active / i don’t understand can you translate / can you teach me / can your prayer teach / is it articulate / where can i get one / where is it from / is it in right now / is it spicy / will it burn my tongue / does it come with anything else / compound interest / buy one get one free / is it exclusive / can i join / do i have to close my eyes / or can i just post it / does it hang well / polyester / silk / is it safe online / does it have a facebook option / paris filter / does it love it’s country / it has to love it’s country / was it born here / is it pre washed / will it attack: my opinion / does it come / with a leash / how much / is it reusable / which religion / can i crop it / one size fits / all / where was it made / can you prove it / is it carbonated / is it domestic / is it domesticated / is it sharp / is it natural / where is it from / does your prayer have papers / does it come with instructions / how does it look / does it bite / how does it look / does it fit / how does it look / how does it look / how does it look / does it come / in white
A Conversation between Donte Collins and Phillip B. Williams
Phillip: Thank you so much for your patience. A lot has been going on (all good things) and I needed to tie a few knots before moving on. I want to thank you again for this brilliant poems. Returning to them to come up with these questions was a gift.
In “Sonnet on Sweet,” the queer and the historical are paired in ways that ae usually avoided, usually called ahistorical as if the presence of the homoerotic is always already an implant of racism. But here, the speaker recognizes how the lover was seen as a deterrent to labor in the “massa’s” eyes. This goes counter to what people believe as male-to-male rape being equivalent to any homoerotic presence in Antebellum history and used to break slaves into better servitude:
“Lynch say beat the slave out of the sin
so massa’ take pride in my lovers help
can’t produce slaves if men lay with men
can’t run free when massa stole your feet”
Can you speak to how you went about juxtaposing slavery and homoerotic desire? Did you ever feel at risk in composing this poem, this beautiful sonnet that is also a form known for being in conversation with the amorous?
Donte: No worries. Thank you for taking the time to ask such thoughtful questions. Sonnet on sweet is such a risk. It challenges the conventional wisdom that homosexuality is “un-African”. It suggests that homosexuality predates colonialism. It hints at the idea that Africa, specifically Nigeria, specifically the Yoruba people have had language and rituals celebrating same-sex love for years. I love that you conjured the word “risk”. That, for me, is the heat of this poem. I could not possibly write about the history of “sweet” without also talking about slavery — as male-to-male rape was a tactic used to “make a slave”, the placing of sugar cane in the wounds of gay enslaved Africans was a torcher tactic used to maintain “order”. As far as form goes, I wanted to try out a Shakespearian sonnet and this topic lent itself perfectly.
P: In “Grief, Again” we follow a speaker who has mourns their other at the site of “every black woman with gray hair.” There is a sense that matriarchy is everlasting if the community remains intact. But quickly the speaker realizes that mourning a mother is like fighting an illness, like fighting grief itself:
“you want to die but don’t want to leave a mess memory is a ruptured organ memory is a ghost begging for new flesh memory taps a gun to your inner skull & demands you bring back the dead every word your mother last spoke scuttle like mice in your deserted head”
What is the connection between the difficult task of remembering and the seemingly more difficult task of healing? How do you see this prose poem form expressing the speaker’s unpunctuated, unstoppable expression?
D: It’s wild. Nothing in the world could have prepared me to lose my mother. Nothing. It has almost been a year and I still avoid the street I grew up on. The first time I visited her grave was to bury my sister beside her months later. It’s impossible really. Grief. Memory. Nostalgia. Right after my mother’s passing, I would spend all day sifting through each conversation we had — each argument. I would apologize aloud for any offense I had done — even in public, I would have to bite down on my teeth as to keep myself from speaking to her. Or I’d laugh in class at the thought of her dancing as she would when I was young — I’d have to excuse myself. Memories would begin to move my physical body — as weeping would. I have never felt more haunted. Somedays I can welcome her ghost — her memory. Somedays it is too much to bear — the thought of her no longer existing in the world. It’s impossible to accept. I am not sure, now, if I’m healed…I have certainly become more open to listening to what my brain decides to conjure. I can acknowledge her without breaking down. I can visit my childhood home. I can visit her grave. I wished for this poem to document the unflinching presence of grief and the untethered landscape is makes of memory. It wouldn’t, for me, make sense for this poem to have punctuation or a beginning or an ending even — as my grief has none of these things. It’s all hovering & swarming & sharp.
Phillip: Is it fair to say that the intensity of this remembering keeps the “I” from surfacing, leaving the “you” to take on the burden of the poem? So much of second person feels like a mirror for the one who creates, but I imagine that even after time has passed and healing has occurred that there are still remnants of the past in which our selves no longer want to or no longer can dwell.
D: Oh man. I just went back to reread the poem in the first person & could hardly get through it — maybe that is a truer gauge for whether or not healing has begun. I suppose it’s easier to place the burden on the ‘looking-glass-self’ rather than the ‘i’. Though even that’s a bit weird because both are, after all, me or me interpreting me. I think I had to step outside of myself in order to understand what was going on — in order to truly document the scenes objectively. But also…that’s like impossible because, in either case, I inhabit my body — my brain. Hmm…I think the ‘you’ is a braver Donte. Someone that I created who, in my brain, had already survived, someone who could forge a map for me, the ‘i’, to follow.
P: Maybe all poems carry braver versions on ourselves. Can you recall the sensation of writing any of your poems? I sometimes feel a bit of amnesia when I read some of my own poems. I can’t remember not even one point in several drafts where I wrote a word but there it is the completed poem.
The poem as part of a physical experience is always something that is on my mind. We use the brain, our hands and arms, our breath, our eyes, sometimes even taste depending on if one indulges in a drink or anything really while writing. Many times our poems are about the bodies we inhabit. There is the mirror again, showing us some version of ourselves. In what ways, if any, do you see your poems connected to your body?
D: YoOo, I almost threw my computer! Yes! I think about this often. Well first, I can hardly write without being on my feet. My writing process is very physical — I am usually in my room or somewhere spacious that allows me to move. I have a background in Tap and Swing dance and love allowing my physical vocabulary to inform or open up my literary one.
And as a theater major, in rehearsals, we talk about the body as a primary source. My director once described tension, in the body, as stone and explained that vibrations — sounds — language cannot move through stone. We hum to break down tension — to relax — to become more open to receiving. I love this relationship that language has to my body. The proposal is that when I am on my feet — blood flowing — engaged — I am able to speak (physically) from a more grounded place but also that I, when writing on my feet, have access to a larger word bank of language — that my mind begins to consider language — images in a new, uncharted way. My body definitely informs my body of work.
This might be a stretch but recently I was talking to my friend, a local composer, about how sometimes sexual energy or the initial impetus behind arousal can prompt writing — or composing — creativity in general. We came to no solid conjectures though I have been thinking about that as well. How the architecture of a space can inform what happens in that space — how the architecture of the body (in any state) informs what the inhibitor of that body creates.
P: That is incredibly fascinating. I know that when I write I rock back and forth to the pulse of the lines. Wherever there is a beat I move forward as though I hear drums. I try to tell my students that the line requires the body, requires actual breath to read. I do this in hopes that they will not only read their poems aloud but with the intention of making them perform a kind of breath space that is readable in the first place. It also makes sense that you have a dance and theater background.
In “Whiteness Shops for a Prayer,” the speaker seems to be so aloof about their body, their questions acting as a weapon, a divisive way to insinuate the inferiority of who’s being interrogated.
“how do you pray / does it involve a keyboard / it is in 140 characters / or less / does it have a barcode / does it have a wikipedia page / is it in english / is it tax deductible / does it include all lives / is your prayer gluten free / is it safe around children / is there an abridged version / is your prayer an all purpose cleaner / natural selection / can it get out the black”
And that’s what it’s really about in the end, the ceaseless questions as a way to navigate around Blackness while occupying the space of not only Black people but people of color writ large. There are so many questions here that point to an inflexibility that we see with gentrifiers who will move into a neighborhood that has its own culture only to complain and use their money to erase the community culture that predates their own arrival.
Can you speak to how this prose form’s expression uses the forward slash, so different from the lack of punctuation in “Grief, Again”? How do these questions, that in some odd way double as commands when I notice the lack of question marks, operate in the world off the page?
Donte: Word, for sure. That’s exactly right. “Whiteness Shops for a Prayer” is written after Morgan Parker’s “Two White Girls in the African Braid Shop on Marcy and Fulton“. I first heard Parker read this poem via BRIC TV’s “Brooklyn Is Masquerading As The World | Ep 5” and later, after hunting it down (there was no title or link to text available), found it published in Pen America.
Before seeing how the poem looks on the page, I was in awe of how much work was being done in so little time and with so little language. After seeing the text, I was able to study how the poem worked and where the energy came from. For me, the mechanism of a question was specifically profound when paired with a period. Parker writes “Why did you come here. What do you want.”– and I fell apparrrttt. That’s wild. I was in a conversation recently about white folks asking ‘where are you from’ and how, often, if we undress that language — ‘where – are – you – from’ (in this context) isn’t a question at all. It becomes ‘you – don’t – belong – here’ or ‘ I – am – scared – of – you’ or ‘go – back – to – where – you – came – from’. This undressed rhetoric of what could be disregarded as harmless questions are, at their root, statements or even commands.
The period, for me, in Parker’s poem, tells me this. In “Whiteness Shops for a Prayer” I wished to position a series of questions with the forward slash to achieve a similar composition though to also communicate a certain air of alarm to the reader. The speaker of the poem is spent – tired – completely over whiteness & white supremacy and remedies their aggravation by dragging the hell out of it. I think it’s fun. The questions aren’t questions –right, the speaker knows whiteness well enough to use its logic against it.
The forward slash does so much for me. Its latent function, in this poem, is to communicate that something isn’t correct or is out of place to the reader — that something strange is happening. It breaks apart thoughts though can also stitch thoughts together. While, visually, it can be a kind of guide to the eye as you read along — tossing you to the next line, vocally, it interrupts. It causes the reader to pause, to guess, to perhaps even reconsider. I like it. Also, for me, it has a weird like…relationship to the web which I like. I think it adds to this notion of…glitchiness but also an unreliable archive.
As far as off-page. Hmmm — these ingredients allow me to have fun performing this poem. Tone, stress, breath — I can be mad annoyed or extremely sarcastic. I can place any vocal punctuation anywhere I would like. I can become whiteness and mock myself or be myself throwing knives at white supremacy. It depends on the room really or even the event. I might perform this poem at a slam differently than I might at a reading.
The poem itself was written with two thoughts in mind. The first being that after 9/11. In his address to America, George Bush told American citizens to “go out and shop” as a coping mechanism. The second being social media’s selective “pray for” filters.
P: I’ve watched these videos a few times and I love how dynamically different they are while considering the same subject matter. Have you spoken with Morgan about her work? I am sure she would love it.
Who are some other poets who inspire you? As a younger poet, how important is having a mentor?
D: I haven’t. I haven’t actually met her yet. I would love to speak with her. She’s everything. I am ridiculously excited about her new book.
Ahh this question is always hard for me. I always have the urge to list off every writer who has ever moved me: Jamaica Kincaid, Sandra Cisneros, Nikky Finney, Jhumpa Lahiri. Right now, I am deeply transfixed by the work of Hayan Charara, Jericho Brown & Sharon Olds.
Having mentors is vital for me. I’m not sure where I would be without people like Danez Smith or Tish Jones. People who invest in my personhood as much as they do my poems. I feel so incredibly lucky to be apart of a literary community that continuously provides opportunities for young writers to sharpen their craft. One that encourages us to build a strong work ethic within the poetry world.
P: Are you working on a longer collection? Where can people find more of your work or keep up with you?
Thank you so much for your patience, Donte. Did you notice how we both have Baldwin quotes signing us off??
D: I am! It’s title-less and existing in different journals & google docs but is slowly coming together. I am really enjoying this chapbook -life right now though honestly.
These three poems will be in my first chapbook ‘Autopsy’ that I am self-publishing this month! The release party is on the 20th at my college here in Minneapolis. I am as nervous as I am excited. All the details can be found here.
I did noticeeee!! It made me smile. I am trying to figure out where it might be from. Baldwin is one of my first literary loves. I am JUST starting to read more of his essays. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” was the first novel that I remember thoroughly enjoying. Tish recommended it when I was 15 actually.
Thank you for giving these poems such a beautiful home Phillip. This has been super encouraging.