Living Your Truth
A conversation with Justin Phillip Reed
Talking with Justin Phillip Reed was, for me, a little like rolling on the jiu jitsu mat with a more advanced (and thereby charitable) partner. That is to say, I think it made me better. We discussed the role of creative writing heading into a Trump presidency, the notion of capitalism's opposition to the spiritual, pursuing the diabolical as imaginative weaponry, and peers whose work he's grateful for.
Many writers seem to have been creatively clogged by the night of November 8th—doubtful as to the value of "playing make-believe" or "engaging in acts of self-expression" while Rome looks like it's burning. On the other hand, many in the literary community have had a fire lit under them and feel acutely called to communicative action. Do you feel—climate being what it is—that your work should amplify a particular voice in the cacophony, or transcend the cacophony somehow?
I’m certainly not doubtful about “playing make-believe.” Resistance, revolution, and futures demand fantasy, require exhaustively challenging the imagination, no? Everyone who right now, to their own misfortune, wants me and the people I love dead, detained, or deported vividly imagines a world without us. If I am not at least as creative as my oppressor, then I suffer a failure that does not belong to me. On the other hand—though I believe they are the same hand—I am a whole ass person in the white heteropatriarchal West: I have to allow myself time and space to consider this—structured futility?—because that, to me, is the haunt of utter dissatisfaction, which is a refugee space, a mood I only know to call “home.” Anyone who delimits the emotional range allowed me disbelieves that I am a person, and is ill.
Putting white supremacists in leadership positions is a US pastime. As far as I’m concerned, the role of creative writers in this moment is the same role it has been—only now we see the cracks where we’ve been negligent. It is what my friends term “living your truth.” It is the resounding echo of what Baldwin, in 1962’s “The Creative Process,” supposed was the difficult calling of the artist. To be fucking contemptible. To expose the belly of the cacophony by exposing the contents of our own stomachs. To be residents of that place others want to forget exists. It’s unromantic. What can a writer transcend? (Certainly not reproach.) Let’s say that for every writer who thinks themself above the noise, there are twenty more people ready to architect awesomely dehumanizing soundscapes out of that noise. Let’s say that.
So, if I'm reading you right, the impulse is not so much to counter counter-arguments, ad infinitum, but to reside, turn inside-out, imaginatively compete... Two things are coming to mind, for me. One is your poem "When I Am the Reaper," which may or may not be an aside to the second—that what you're describing (and what I think may be there in/as said poem) sounds, in some sense, like spiritual work. Or work that can be traced back to—I don't know what to call it—a spiritual urgency? I'm thinking this as opposed to the materialistic brand of tit-for-tat harangue that rules political discourse. Would you take issue with that characterization?
Could you clarify what you mean by a “spiritual urgency?"
I don’t want to pretend I can define the spirit. It’s one thing to do so for the sake of a poem, and another to do it for the sake of argument. My first encounters with what was called “spirit" were in church, at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church in Marion, South Carolina. These were loud, terrible, contorted, overheated, extralingual, experiences. People “in the spirit” were inconsolable and unmanageable. It resembles a dance but with the form visibly falling away.
I will say that, connotatively, “imaginative competition" and spirituality bring me to this: capitalism and its extension, whiteness, seem diametrically opposed to what I recognize as spiritual.
Both my parents are ministers in a Spirit-filled church here in the Bay Area, as is my brother-in-law in a church down in Memphis; I'm the family's lone opt-out when it comes to Sunday worship. I guess with a desperate term like "spiritual urgency" I was just being a reader— positing my worldview inside of your poem, which is, I'd guess, kind of a conversational wash. Being informed and repelled by a Christian upbringing, and feeling that if I have any "spiritual" work to do it has to be done in the form of written conversation, I get a little giddy when (I think) I see the possibility of similar divisions at work in someone else.
Your last sentence brought to mind something Flannery O'Connor wrote in a letter to John Hawkes: "Your idea of the devil seems to be mine of God." Of course, O'Connor also said, when asked about the marginal roles of black characters in her stories: "I don't understand them the way I do white people. I don't feel capable of entering the mind of the Negro. In my stories they're seen from the outside. The Negro in the South is quite isolated; he has to exist by himself."
That empathetic failure O'Connor admitted to is still very much at play, not just in the South, or in America as a whole, but globally. Does your work care about rectifying this at all? Or are people with this problem simply not the audience you're concerned to connect with?
No, I don't think that rectification is my work at all. My friend Phillip B. Williams has characterized the kind of people who suffer this failure as "diabolically unconvinced," and I have no interest in killing myself repeatedly to persuade them.
What's funny to me about O'Connor's feeling incapable of rendering Black subjectivity is that her stories were some of the bread of early creative writing courses in which I showcased (a word I use loosely here because it was not rarely occasioned that I should do it but in fact the expected standard) my ability to write white characters. I doubt that I have ever questioned whether I know the interiority of white people to an efficient degree; since grade school, it has been my business to know it.
Is O'Connor's response complicated? Many factors influenced the apparent isolation of Black people in her South, not limited to regulatory terrorism, mistrust, legal and extralegal segregation, and what was likely a white desire to never see Black people unless they were useful—whether the use was entertainment or atrocity, which, we know, were not (are not) mutually exclusive. But thinking of O'Connor's work, this response seems authentic. “Everything That Rises Must Converge” showed that she understood white Southerners well enough to know that Black presence is intimately revelatory of that interior. (Whether she did or did not understand them well enough to know what of herself that story reveals is another debate.) Toni Morrison, in Playing in the Dark, reflects on a text by Marie Cardinal in which she writes autobiographically of being, for a moment in the late 1940s or early ‘50s, possessed by panic and terrifying anxiety after encountering what Morrison later calls the “Africanist presence”—a break similar to the misfortune of Julian’s mother.
What specifically made you think of the line about the Devil and God? I’m interested in what O’Connor writes to Hawkes regarding the Misfit and the grandmother of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and their exchange of capital-g Grace: His shooting her is a recoil, a horror at her humanness…
When you mentioned capitalism and whiteness being diametrically opposed to what you recognize as spiritual, I thought about the opposition—of how capitalism is credited with a continual decline in global poverty, with China's newly emerged middle-class and the Soviet Union's dissolution often held up as exemplars (and supposedly even most of Africa is experiencing economic growth that's decreased poverty, albeit more slowly than the rest of the world). Then of course with "whiteness" all anyone has to do is open the dictionary and find "moral innocence" or "bursting with delicious pudding" or whatever it says under white these days.
Safe bet that line of O'Connor's was a response to Hawkes' essay "Flannery O'Connor's Devil" where he writes of the "employment of the devil's voice as a vehicle" being more or less what she was up to. It seems to me that capitalists and/or white supremacists (whether they think of themselves in those terms or just live them as axioms), if we can make a monolith out of them, might see your work that way—as diabolical, unconverted. I'm sure that's as it should be.
What's missing in my imagining of an enthusiastic capitalist reading your work is his ability to see that you don't have the blindspot he does. That no marginalized voice can be indifferent to white concern (it is, as you said, our "business" to know), where the reverse is white supremacy's ongoing, defining sin.
I'm not delivering any news here, obviously.
I want to give you the space to respond, but as a relative outsider to the poetry world, I also wanted to ask you: Who of your peers are you highest on right now? And would you be willing to talk about any current personal obsessions that might give a clue to where your own work is heading?
If access to wealth and distance from economic deprivation meant access to the spiritual, I wonder, would we care as much to troubleshoot a world post Trump’s election? Anyway, much of Africa would not be starting from a baseline of poverty but recovering from an epoch of plunder, profitable genocides, and alien political imposition; “growth” seems merely contextual, no?
“Bursting with delicious pudding” is shade that I’m here for, but it’d be responsible of me to elaborate for those who think I just make weird, rude-ass generalizations. By whiteness, I of course mean the global socioeconomic project by which a population identified as that one most fit to perpetuate and benefit from the established form of capitalism homogenizes multiculturally in order to expand its access to the resources—as well as the means of acquiring and protecting them—which keep that population, well, fit to perpetuate capitalism.
The spiritual, to me, presents itself at the cooperation of communion and vulnerability—and I mean being in vulnerability, at peace with the certainty of loss and change, of being made different. Capitalism necessitates mistrust and privacy and therefore ousts true communion. Whiteness, a myth of communion, is fundamentally against change, is optimization against loss—how does that enter vulnerability? At the very least, I find worker alienation and systemic racism irreconcilable with revelation.
Related to this, it’s lately my obsession to pursue diabolism, to imagine the form completely fallen away and the dance of the spirit loosed upon the unconvinced / enthusiastically capitalist / whiteness—en masse. This vision of the Black demonic is surely neither mine nor new, but having appropriated it from a familiar imaginary, I want to exhaust the possibilities of its exorcism, beyond which lies the real work: to envision a world without those forces.
I get hype about poets whose poems I wish were mine. I’m so glad to step forward into a world in which Jay Deshpande is writing. His first book, Love the Stranger, is unbearably beautiful—such that I’m slowly wending through it. The speaker of the poems is so tonally sincere I feel tricked into a kind of intimacy that is actually just my willfully suffering the complexity of the senses; I’m surprised to be persuaded and refreshed to feel surprise. I’m also grateful for the work of Solmaz Sharif because it holds me accountable in my complicity in such systems as capitalism (it’s a mindfuck to be a poet and question the cost of beauty), and I really appreciate her contributions to discourse around didactic poetry.
Justin Phillip Reed's first full-length book of poetry, Indecency, is forthcoming from Coffee House Press in 2018. His work appears—or soon will—in African American Review, Best American Essays, Callaloo, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Obsidian, PEN Poetry Series, and elsewhere.
You can find more from him at justinphillipreed.squarespace.com