“recall the repose / of your curling posture in my thick arms / my thumb praising your eyebrows / and forehead your baby skin your hand / around my pinkie as I move gripping / solid as in–safety as in–safety”
~ Brown and Davis in “Second Sleep”
Poetry isn’t my finest skill. I am a writer of short fiction and essays, a laborer of novels, a dreamer of stories from beginning to end. But I am drawn to writers who master the art of condensing life and experience into the lyrical style of stanzas and breaks, who form a new understanding or seal an image onto the reader’s mind in just a few lines with the same strength found in the weight of a 300-page novel. I am drawn to poets who give witness to Meena Alexandar’s claim about the purpose of the genre when she says, “the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.”
Cave Canem Poetry Fellows F. Douglas Brown and Geffrey Davis shine with such “tenderness and grace” in their new chapbook, Begotten, one of three collections of poetry published in the Floodgate Poetry Series Vol. 3 (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2016). Begotten turns a poetic lens on fatherhood, examining how fathers and sons thrive, how they falter, how they learn.
I’m honored to host Brown and Davis for a Q&A. And I’m grateful to Upper Rubber Boot for sponsoring a giveaway. Enter HERE by Dec. 6th for a chance to win a copy of The Floodgate Poetry Series Vol. 3, which includes Begotten, as well as Anders and Kai Carlson-Wee’s Northern Corn and Enid Shomer’s Driving Through the Animal–three chapbooks in one!
Now welcome, F. Douglas Brown and Geffrey Davis!
CC: In the Notes at the end of Begotten, you talk about the process of writing these poems, saying you “borrow from one another’s poems, both in structure and in dialectic,” you “lift lines to create new lines.” What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing in tandem, as well as the greatest gift?
F. Douglas Brown (DB): Well, in many ways we BEG, BORROW, and STEAL. We BEG and plead with God, history, our own fathers, our kids, each other— in hopes to revise what has been said or experienced. As parents, we are not afraid to throw up our arms and exclaim, “God help, us.”
We BORROW, mostly from each other or other Cave Canem folks. We appropriate and/or subvert forms, lines, titles from one another’s books and poems. Sometimes I will read Geffrey’s work and I slam the book closed, “Goddamn, he’s good!” A line of his will strike me down, and when I use it, his works electrify the piece; either the actual words or my attempt to raise my work to the level of that which I borrowed.
Also, poets are somewhat competitive, and we are writing in a time where the poetry that is being created is at an all time high. The amount of first publications is staggering but they are really that good. Our Cave Canem brothers and sisters are leading the way, so in many ways what we write pays homage to them, their voice, the work they are doing. I guess that’s us borrowing energy and effort, which is different from African American and POC writers of other generations. They had to support each other not only for the merit of the work, but because the world wasn’t reading or publishing the titles as readily as today.
We STEAL, not often, but mostly from those we admire or see as guiding lights. Our first books, we both took from Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” From Hayden we took the regret, the venerable speaker who is trapped at seeing a narrow sliver of who his father is, and the famous line, “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices.” In Begotten we use a gesture from Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. Geffrey explains this best.
Geffrey Davis (GD): The gesture that Doug’s referring to is the influence of Van Clief-Stefanon’s punctuation—in particular, her combination of the em-dash and the colon (“:—” or “—:”) throughout her book Open Interval. If we think of the em-dash as having a stronger pulse forward and the colon as having a stronger pulse backward, this grammatical push-pull on language simultaneously confirms and yet questions the progressions toward meaning—in our case, urgent and yet uncertain conclusions about parenthood.
And I think the biggest challenge of collaboration was ultimately the greatest gift. For a long time, I couldn’t see very far beyond the most fraught shades of my experience of sonhood and, as a result, didn’t really trust what I thought I had to say about the word Father. Hell, the idea of Father still terrifies me. I only found a path to my first book by way and light of poets (like Cornelius Eady, Terrance Hayes, Stanley Plumly and Sylvia Plath) who challenged me by showing me ways of speaking about reality according to a fuller range of emotional and intellectual perspective, especially when engaging a difficult or troubling father figure. In no small way then, for me, poetry was a kind of collaboration from the jump. Really, though, it was working together with Doug on Begotten that highlighted, extended, and dynamized how I understand poetry’s integrity—like parenthood—to be the product of collaboration, challenged by internal and external connection, leavened by internal and external combat.
DB: The Bop as a form seems to be a gift of collaboration as well. It sits somewhere between that which is lent and a theft. However, to lift a song lyric that is not yours so it can be reshaped into a new mode of understanding, is a bit of hip hop sampling. The samples become reimagined as lyrical poems, but like our nods to Eady, Hayden, Hayes, Plumly, Plath, and many others, the samples also pay homage to the challenge these writers (as well as the music) present to their readers. Personally, I think Geffrey stepped up to the challenge before I did. He sent me the Bop, “No More Your Mirror: My Wife’s Fugue,” which floored me to the point I was asking myself was I really there in the poems I was writing. Am I hiding within the form, or is the form helping me to be my most honest, real, and/or venerable self on the page?
CC: While the chapbook as a whole is rich in lyrical and conversation between father and child, I am particularly drawn to “Love Letter to Rashida Jones,” which pushes the discussion past the intimacy of family and into the hearts of those in the distance:
when she speaks / of you she verifies your facts to hers / she dreams they are a dandelion away / I know this is supposed to be a love letter / and so I’ll beg:–I need you Rashida / please tell her that black bodies are a blessing / like rain–: / like cinnamon–: / like Tupac and Sandra Bland.
This poem is powerful and important; its meaning clear even in the few lines above. But I imagine there’s more you’d like to say. What else do you hope readers will take away from your poetry, as written and spoken and shared among other fathers, sons, mothers and daughters?
DB: Thank you for the kindness and keen eye. Love Letter to Rashida Jones attempts to use what poet and friend Marcus Wicker sets up in his Love Letter poems from his collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing. One of the ways Wicker uses this vehicle is to address pop icons directly, starting first with humor, and then taking a subtle turn to more serious or delicate matters: lost language, revised masculinity, sex. This swipe is an imagined plea, and a variation of real conversations I have had with my daughter regarding being mixed. I am a product of the sitcom generation, a latch key kid whose tv protagonist not only saved any given episode day, but also dropped some knowledge or infused morality (at times cheesy knowledge and Brady Bunch morality). The poem tries to step out of the facade of tv-land and into the reality of the day. As African-American/mixed fathers ourselves, there is an urgency needed in the discussions we have with our children. Often, as parents, when the world seems to be spinning out of control, we are supposed to make sense of it for our kids. Many times we can’t. We don’t know why 2014, 2015 and 2016 became a killing season for blacks by police officers. We don’t have answers for our kids other than to stay vigilant, and be as aware as possible.
Lastly, as teachers, we have been trained to seek relevancy as we discuss a particular subject. Video games, movies, music, social media, “the internet”— offer relevancy, and yet these are vilified by parents, and marked as either distractions, pacifiers, or a boon to win favor. All that being said, what I hope is that maybe parents can use the “vehicles” presented before us, as triggers or springboards to talk to their children about real matters of the day. Our hope is that all the poems help parents re-imagine particular instances, especially the moments when silence unfortunately takes precedence.
GD: Word. And help—I want readers to understand we need more help, in poethood as in parenthood. I hope they see this as another of many contributions to the ongoing imagination, an imagination that they too are responsible for flooding with more healthy light and questions.
CC: With this chapbook released and out on bookshelves, what new projects are you working on?
GD: I’m working on finishing my second full-length book of poems, which I think will be called Anything but Hunger. I’m also shopping around a critical study of twentieth/twenty-first century American poetics, called Idiomatics, that explores the languages between poetry and criticism. Most recently though, while at the Vermont Studio Center earlier this year, I started a collection of personal essays that meditate on my experiences as an angler.
DB: I too am working on my second full-length. I am examining the abolitionist and my name sake, Frederick Douglass as seen through the work of Harlem Renaissance painter, Jacob Lawrence. Many of the poems have been published or forthcoming in journals. Some of the newer poems will be collaborations with poets, but nothing to the extent of what Geffrey and I have compiled in Begotten. I think collaboration is necessary and appropriate because it mimics the work Douglass was doing with others, as well as how I imagine the process Lawrence delved into as he imagined Douglass.
CC: Who is one poet that you turn to again and again for sustenance or for relief?
GD: As a teacher who influences reading practices and, by extension, reading possibilities, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my own reading developed. Like many newcomers, I used to read blindly (which is to say, abstractly) and had a reading list largely populated by teacher recommendations or what our literary institutions had determined was of quality. Today, however, my reading practice is increasingly embodied; I can’t even keep up with the books published by the writers that I meet or that I know. This might seem like I’m answering a wholly different question, but since Cave Canem and since being out in the world as a poet making contact with other working poets, I find myself in the fortunate position of having several individuals in my personal life who are both wonderful people and wonderful writers, and I experience those live connections as invaluable extensions or continuations of the sustenance or relief I gain from them on the page. Which is a long way of saying, more than anybody else, I have that communion with Doug, and it’s saving my life. Because I need there to be less of a boundary between art and life, because art and life are of a similar survival for me, there’s no greater sustenance or relief than the conversations and meals we share between his poems.
DB: This kindness you started Christi is spreading…It’s true, I really lean on Geffrey just as much— his keen intellect and scope, as well as our general kinship and brotherhood. We hold each other accountable on and off the page, and it is good to have someone like that. We trust our process, and our ability to meet a deadline (most of the time); we trust the directions in which we push each other’s work, that is, the care of each other’s eyes and hands when handling early and late drafts of poems, or the agony of arranging poem order of a manuscript. I have worked with collaborators before, but it has never been this holistic and generous (from the beginning until now).
In terms of other poets, I know we both have plenty of poets we go to over and over, many of them mentioned, many of them friends. Mostly because we are teachers, our goal is to expose our students, and burst the seams of their writing wide open with long lists of poets, which is growing every publication or award cycle. For me, I teach an African American poetry class, so that list is largely made up of POC writers who are either Cave Canem or Kundiman poets. However, thanks to this Floodgate collection, my new go-to poets are Anders and Kai Carlson-Wee. These guys really mesh with what Geffrey and I are attempting to capture: brutal honesty, reimagined or broadened masculinities, how to find or revise language, what brotherhood and family and place engender. There is so much heart-work in their poems that it feels right to be connected to them, forever, in this slim tome.
F. Douglas Brown of Los Angeles is author of Zero to Three (University of Georgia 2014), the 2013 Cave Canem Poetry Prize recipient selected by Tracy K. Smith. He also co-authored with poet Geffrey Davis, Begotten (November 2016), a chapbook of poetry from Upper Rubber Boot Books as part of URB’s Floodgate Poetry series. Mr. Brown, an educator for over 20 years, teaches English at Loyola High School of Los Angeles, an all-boys Jesuit school. He is both a Cave Canem and Kundiman fellow. His poems have appeared in the Academy of American Poets, The Virginia Quarterly (VQR), Bat City Review, The Chicago Quarterly Review (CQR), The Southern Humanities Review, The Sugar House Review, Cura Magazine, and Muzzle Magazine. When he is not teaching, writing or with his two children, Isaiah and Olivia, he is busy DJing in the greater Los Angeles area.
Geffrey Davis is the author of Revising the Storm (BOA Editions 2014), winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Finalist. Davis also co-authored, with poet F. Douglas Brown, the chapbook Begotten (Upper Rubber Boot Books 2016). His honors include fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center, the Anne Halley Poetry Prize, the Dogwood Prize in Poetry, the Wabash Prize for Poetry, the Leonard Steinberg Memorial/Academy of American Poets Prize, and nominations for the Pushcart Prize. His poems are forthcoming or have been published by The Academy of American Poets, Crazyhorse, The Greensboro Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, New South, The New York Times Magazine, Nimrod, and Ploughshares, among other places. Davis grew up in Tacoma—though he was raised by much more of the Pacific Northwest—and now teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
About the book: Published by Upper Rubber Boot Books, Floodgate Poetry Series Vol. 3 collects three chapbooks in a single volume: brothers Anders and Kai Carlson-Wee’s Northern Corn invites us on a trip across an America of dust, trains, poverty, dignity, and dreams; Begotten, co-written by Cave Canem fellows F. Douglas Brown and Geffrey Davis, bravely and tenderly explores fatherhood in the era of Black Lives Matter; and Enid Shomer’s Driving through the Animal lovingly moves between unflinching witness of destruction and hope for the future.