“Maybe Not Everything Can Be Universally Good”: An Interview With Devin Kelly

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In “Prayer for My Father’s Hands,” a standout poem from Devin Kelly’s second full-length collection, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, he writes “I want / to walk the long road of family as another means / of prayer, to believe in prayer as another word for crying. // Maybe to love another enough to touch them / is to risk cruelty or healing all the same.” Kelly’s collection is that long road, full of family, love, hurt, holiness. He explores the external forces that act upon us, that are built into our hard wiring. He does so with a gentleness, with a vulnerability that risks in order to transcend, and in many of these poems, becomes holy. I’ve always been an emotional reader first, so there was something in Devin’s work that resonated with me immediately, and I was eager to talk to him about it. I caught up with him in Harlem shortly after the release of In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen. We sat down and talked about the book’s origins, writing about love, when to know when a poem is finished, Terrance Hayes, and so much more, over a lively discussion on a cold November night.

All right, so first, let’s talk about the title. Did that come from a poem or was that something that you—

No, it didn’t come from a poem—

Not, like, someone else’s poem but one of your own, at some point?

Yeah, I thought about that when I was looking at the book, at the end. There’s no poem that’s the title of the book, and I know that’s usually a thing. I thought about changing the title of the very first poem to the title of the book. But the title, my first instinct is to say, it just came to me. I know that sounds really like—

No, it’s poetry!

It did! I was thinking about what the poems meant to me as a whole, and that phrase came to mind. I like that the title is long. I’m a big fan of long book titles, even though it doesn’t make it any easier to say. People ask what your book’s called and I’m like, “OK, it’s called InThisQuietChurchofNightISayAmen,” but it touched on the sort of themes I was trying to address—whether it be spirituality, or whether it be faith, or grace, Amen is, like, I come to terms with it, and so, to me, this book was about coming to terms.

One of the things going through my mind while I was reading this book, because it’s so family oriented, and there’s so much—the word violence, for example, comes up a lot in this book, but also the word love, also the word prayer. And there’s such care taken with the language and with the subjects, that the love is really what comes through. And James Baldwin said with his first book, that “This was the book that I had to write if I was going to write anything else,” and to me, it had that kind of feel. Like, we’re going through so much with the speaker and kind of coming out in this place that is different from where you started, and yet at the same time, it’s still sort of orbiting that place.

That means a lot that you’d say that. This feels like my first book. I had a book come out last year, Blood on Blood, and it’s technically my first book, but this book is like you say—I’m not like Baldwin. He’s too good, but it is the book I had to write to do diligence to my family, and to myself, and to people I love and loved. And so much of this book is about me understanding myself, if that makes sense. And understanding what blood means, and what love means, and what violence means, and all of these very heavy things that you start thinking about when you’re, like, fourteen. It’s hard for me to write about anything else, or when I was writing it, it was very hard for me to write about anything else.

That leads into the next question: When did you start writing these poems, and was this always something you were sort of like, “One day I’m going to write a book of poems, and it’s going to be all about my family and this part of my life,” or was it more something you drifted into? Also, another thing I’ve noticed about your work, especially being a male—or I should say, one criticism of male writers is that we’re not able to write about love in a meaningful way—is that you write about love in a way that really moved me, and it seems to start maybe through your family, and there’s a poem of yours, “Yesterday When I Was Teaching I Nearly Cried” that really broke my heart. Was that something you were conscious of while you were writing, because there’s such an expectation for men to do it badly?

This is a heavy question [laughing]. My friend Hannah told me yesterday, I think, that my book is a lot about “a new masculinity,” and I might be butchering their phrase, but I now understand that one of the things I write about, and embrace in my writing, is masculinity, and it’s not the conception of masculinity, like you say, that a lot of cis-male writers have, like about being hyper-physical, or untender, or oversexed—I don’t know, like, these kinds of things. To me, I was writing about the way I loved, and the way I do love. And this has very little to do with poetry and more to do with myself, but when I am in love with someone, whether it be my father, or someone romantic, that love is funneled through so many different understandings of love. And so, in that love of someone romantic, there are ways in which I see that same romantic love played out in the way I love my father—not in a sexual way, obviously, but in a way through which we often associate tenderness with romantic love. Like we do tender things to win someone over—and that’s also kind of dated, but I associate tenderness with the way I love my father. Even though, if you watched us interact, I don’t know if you would say there is something tender about it, but to me there’s always been something tender about it.

One thing I found especially beautiful about a lot of the poems is that there is even a tenderness in the violence, and there’s this acceptance from the speaker. In “Prayer for my Father’s Hands,” it ends with the tercet:

& a word can be a hand on the face.

& a hand on the face can be a kind of violence.

& a kind of violence can be a kind of comfort.

I’ve sent this to a few different people, they’ve all had strong reactions to it, but especially to that last tercet.

That poem is one that might mean the most to me, because it’s one of the most honest. I mean, I want all of them to be honest, but that one feels alarmingly honest. When I wrote that tercet at the end, I had that feeling where it’s like, “I know I mean this, but I almost don’t want to mean it, especially when you say something like “a kind of violence can be a kind of comfort.” That’s such a dangerous line. But I think that poem, and a lot of the poems, come from this “love first” philosophy, where I need to find the love in something.

I think it’s in exploring, or coming to know the ways in which we love, and sometimes the ways in which we’re conditioned to accept something as love, and even the ways in which we see ourselves almost traumatizing others with that love, whether it’s just by being overbearing or whatever.

That’s good. Yeah, just because you’re in love doesn’t mean that you can’t do wrong, and I think that’s such an interesting fact to me about human life. And being in love doesn’t excuse your wrongness. I mean, it’s just heavy. We’re taught so often that love is universal and good, or universally good, and yet we are sometimes in love with people who do us wrong or do us harm, and we have to leave those situations, or we have to find the good in them. And this is why family is so tough, because you can’t leave. I mean, you can physically leave, but you can’t. Even if you never talk to that family member again, you still haven’t left the family, and that can be a tragic thing, and that’s the kind of stuff I obsess about. Maybe not everything can be universally good, and that’s what makes poetry such a great medium to express these things, because poetry has room, in my mind, for nuance, and room, in my mind, to say that thing that you feel really scared to say. And you can play with it, or leave it there and let it stand and see if it stands. It’s heavy, though [laughing].

Well, the book is pretty heavy [laughing].

Yeah, my friend T.J. texted me today, and he was like, “I want to say that I’m enjoying your book, but I’m not really enjoying it [laughing]. And I was like, “Yeah, man, I feel you.”

Well, I think that there are definitely poems that delight in that kind of way that I think that some people like to read a poem to, like, get them going for the day.

Yeah, to get that joy. I’m all about that joy.

And I do think that there’s a lot of joy in the book, but to be completely honest, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, there’s a lot of quiet, there’s a lot of silence. But there’s something to it, there’s a music in it. There’s that line, “father, you taught me that quiet can be a kind of poem.”

Yeah, I grew up teaching myself piano, and playing the piano is awesome—especially if you’re playing a real one—because there’s so much space, and there’s different kinds of space. Like, there’s the space between the literal note you’re playing, and then when you pick up your hands and you play the next note or chord, just like a line break, right? And even in that space, though, there’s resonance. So, in what other people might call silence, and sometimes what I call silence, there’s still things happening. And I love that. The choice of the word “quiet” in there is very intentional, because quiet does not mean noiseless, just as silence doesn’t mean absence. There’s always something happening. Being in New York City is a great reminder of this. Even when you’re in bed, there’s so much noise. Like, sometimes if I’m not in the city, I have a hard time sleeping because it’s literally quiet.

And it’s a little scary.

It’s very scary! But I think music doesn’t just exist as rhythm or melody. Music still exists between the gaps, and that’s really important to me. It can be a hard thing to relay on the page, because it’s hard to relay that same sort of gap that you would get while you’re hesitating to find a note on a piano, but I really admire poets who do that. That’s why I really love music, in general, and I love improvisation because I love moments of hesitation. I love that kind of vulnerability there.

That’s interesting, because I was noticing a lot of your work is written in prose, or prose-like blocks, but there’s also a good amount of experimentation, and so I was curious as to how that works, like, if you have a certain form that you’re comfortable with when you start writing. Like, for me, lately it seems to be tercets and couplets.

And some of those experimentation poems, the ones that are a block of text but with spaces between them, are things that used to be prose, or used to be tercets, or used to be long free-verse poems, and they felt—I only recently became concerned with the way a poem looks on the page—and when they were so long like that, they felt sort of stifling, or unapproachable. And I think that was an important realization I had. I got my MFA in fiction, you know?

Yeah, we kind of got into that a little bit—

So, I got my MFA in fiction, and I wrote poetry on the side, and I didn’t take myself seriously as a poet until my friends who were poets began to really encourage it, and they looked at my work, and I read a lot of poetry—I think you should read stuff that’s outside your genre—and so I felt comfortable knowing what a poem might look like or what a poem might sound like, or what it might do. But I approached the poem in the same way that I might approach an essay or a story, which is that I did want to tell a story. And my favorite poets to begin with were poets like Larry Levis, or Steve Scafidi, or Levine, Sharon Olds, who were telling stories in their poems. I loved the progression of thought that comes in a story, where you begin in a moment that might not seem related to how the poem ends. So, to me, a narrative poem is not a narrative just of something happening, but a narrative of a mind going through something happening. Where we begin in the mundane, we begin in the ordinary, but as we progress, the ordinary becomes mysterious, or it becomes beautiful, or it becomes sorrow-filled. I really cherish that, and it’s a part of me, and I don’t want to change it. Like, sometimes I look at my poems and I think Well, you could have started that ten lines later. That’s where the meat of it starts.

Oh (or oof?) man, there’s always that.

But I’m like “No!” To me, I feel very devout about the fact that everything that’s happening wherever the poem should begin is completely dependent on those ten lines before it. And I, as a person, want you to be in there with me, in the ordinary, in the mundane. And if you’re not there with me, you’re not going to be there for the whole poem.

I think in “This, a Gospel” the line is “If I am to be in possession / of anything, I want it to be my state of witness.”

Yeah, and to me, a person bearing witness is the definition of a poet, or a writer—someone who first, and foremost, bears witness.

I like that. It reminds me of something Whitman said about poets being the only true lover of the universe because of the passion they have in knowing it.

Which is really beautiful. That’s why he’s Whitman.

So are you still writing fiction?

I stopped for a while. I think I’m just understanding myself now as a poet more than a fiction writer. It took a few years, and now I’m sort of getting to the point where I miss fiction. Prose is what I love, to be honest. I mean, I love it all, but prose is where I feel the most in control of what I’m doing. And this applies a lot to nonfiction now, too. The essay, to me, is where I’m having the most fun as a writer because I like the structures you can play with in an essay. I like the ways you can model the form of an essay, and I feel more comfortable doing that with nonfiction and fiction than I do with poems, because poems still feel like mysteries to me, and I think they always will. And I hope they always do.

Right, like there doesn’t have to be that sense of abstraction but there is always that sense of wonder, which is elemental to your poems, and which I think can be used in other forms, and I think that is the beauty of having poetry as a base, and being able to apply that sense of wonder to the sentence, which is something I think Denis Johnson did incredibly well.

Denis Johnson is a hero of mine because he did so many things so well. He could do concise well, in both fiction and poetry—not just in Jesus’ Son, which is often talked about, but he had this novella called Train Dreams, which if you could pick out, like, the perfect 90 pages, it’s totally up there with some of the best novellas ever written, but then he could also do Tree of Smoke, which is long, and plot heavy, and full of twists and turns. And then some of his poems were just beautifully tender moments of free verse, and then others were, like, these explosive sonnets, which I really love. Terrance Hayes is someone else who has that kind of range. Like, the stuff that he’s putting out now that people are getting so excited about is so explosive, and so tightly-wound, and music-driven, but then he writes poems like “The Same City,” where it’s free verse, and it’s got his languid, musical style, where there’s a music to it but it’s soft. And the first part of the poem is about this moment—it’s a narrative poem—is about his dad and his son, and the poem turns on this one line: “Let me begin again. / I want to be holy.” And I love that poem because it’s two poems, and it’s a poem that tells you how weird poetry is. When he says, “Let me begin again,” he’s playing with everything that happened in the first, and he’s almost self-correcting. And there are probably people who would—Terrance Hayes was Terrance Hayes when he wrote this—but there are probably people who would’ve said, “Oh, you started the poem here where you said, ‘I want to begin again’ and everything you said before that is fucked,” you know?

Oh, I know a few people who would say that. [laughs]

And he does it, and that’s one of my favorite poems of all time because it shows you how mysterious our own minds are—not the poems we’re writing, but our minds, and how our minds will correct for us. And sometimes we just have to respect that change.

I’m thinking of that poem in your collection where you say, “I’ve tried to do better things in my life than write,” which I think is a beautiful sentiment because I know what you’re all about, outside of poetry.

It’s true! [laughter]

It is true, and then at the same time, it’s like but I must write, so let me continue this poem for—

For a really long time, right? It’s a long poem.

It’s a beautiful poem, and I think what’s brilliant about that approach is giving yourself the ability to claim that space as an artist, as a writer, and say “I’m going to keep going, and there’s something cumulative happening, and if you keep riding with me, you’ll get the bigger picture.”

That’s something I tell kids that I work with, especially. The first thing I talk about is giving yourself permission. Permission is one of my biggest words for kids, whether or not they’re writing, or doing anything in life, one of the most important things in life is to say yes to yourself. Not to say yes to other people but to say it’s okay for me to be this way or do this thing or write this thing. And the other thing is to believe that the thing you’re doing is worth doing—and it sounds really simple but if you don’t believe the thing you’re doing is worth doing or sharing, why would you expect someone else to feel good about it? And this is heavy, too, because so much of life is just dealing with all the things that are trying to make you stop doing the thing you’re doing, so I get that. It’s difficult. But there has to at least, to me, be some belief in your heart that the thing you’re doing is good and fair and just and right. And I believe that about my poems, or I wouldn’t have written them.

So do you usually have a first reader, or do you just send them out?

No, I sent them out. When I was in my MFA program, toward the end, I started sending my stuff to those types of journals that just pop up, and it was a way to get some kind of feedback, and then I sort of progressed through it, and at first I got rejected a lot.

There’s always that part of being a writer, of course.

But I don’t necessarily know when a poem I write is good, because there are a lot of poems in this book that have only been rejected, and I will always say that publication isn’t a measure of success, so, yeah, it’s hard to know, if something is good.

And I think that knowing that there are certain people who edit certain magazines and knowing that there are certain aesthetics and understanding that you can get rejected from a million magazines, and it might be just because someone fit their aesthetic like one or two more percent than you.

And also, maybe someone is just having a good day or because someone is having a bad day. Like, you could get accepted because someone was having a shitty day and you gave them that poem that really resonated with their shitty day, or you could’ve someone could be having a really awesome day and you hit them with a downer, you know?

I’ve never really though about it like that.

Because they’re people. It’s all people, and I try not to get to upset about any of that. Publishing, especially now, is happening at such a rapid rate, and it’s really awesome that we are getting exposed to so many things that can touch us and give us a sense of joy or sorrow or mystery. At any given time, I can go online and find something that moves me within, like, five minutes—from someone I know or admire, or from someone I’ve never heard before. And I think that’s an amazingly good thing. I also think it’s an incredibly intimidating thing for writers just starting out, or just getting into publishing, who might feel the need to stay consistently relevant, or to be consistently on fire, right? Just banger after banger after banger of poems. I think about that every day, what it must be like for people to be on Twitter and read these amazing poems online. They’re probably so inspired to write, and then there’s probably people who say, “I can’t do it. This place is too filled to the brim with goodness that where’s the place for my goodness?” And it’s something that I struggle with, too. I often have to breathe and take a step back. In the end, I hope that the poems that we’re sharing and writing are not necessarily toward a greater art, but toward a greater good, and if they’re for a greater art, then there might be some damage there. I don’t know. When I write—this is the shit I don’t really say very often, but I’ll stand by it—some of those poems are first drafts, and some are poems I sat with for a very long time. And some of those poems, you might definitely say, are first drafts but to me a poem is done when it has moved me or surprised me in a certain way, not when it has done what I wanted it to do, because that’s too intentional for me.

Right! It’s funny because what you want from it could be, like, so many things, like winning the Pushcart, or…

And I think a lot of people get turned off from poetry because poets talk about poems in that way. They’re like—or I’ll say we—we’re like “I listen to the poem. I was listening to what the poem was telling me to do,” and I understand it, and sometimes I laugh at it, and sometimes I’m like “Oh, I fucking know what that feels like.”

Of course. [laughs] Well, it’s kind of like saying, “I have to listen to my body,” right? Like, it’s one of those things that will always make people sort of…

I know! And I think a lot of writing is developing that kind of—in the same way that you might develop that physical intelligence to listen to your body—developing an emotional intelligence, or a kind of poetic intelligence, to be able to listen to things that weren’t speaking to you before, but are speaking to you now. But I first and foremost want my poems to surprise me and move me, and all these poems did that for me. Most of them still do. I mean, some of them I’ve read so many times that I’ve started moving away from them. But most of them I look at and I say, “Yes, I know now that feeling that I was writing it from and I still feel that feeling. Or I’ve moved past that feeling but I know it. That poem reminds me.” Yeah, it’s all moments of growth or setbacks or reconciliation, or coming to terms. It’s hard, man. It’s hard to talk about your own poems.

Yeah, you know, someone on the spot asked if they could read some of my work, and I was like, “Yeah, you can Google something and check it out,” and they were just, like, reading it on the spot and engaging me in my work, and I immediately wanted to clam up because, for me, I always feel like I’m saying something stupid or shallow that they probably already got in the first place, which—maybe I am, maybe I’m not—but there’s always that fear of talking about yourself and worrying that you’re doing justice to what you wrote.

Yeah, but in some ways I think that self-doubt is almost necessary to be a writer. I think that self-doubt and sharing strangely go hand-in-hand.

Yeah, and at the same time, like you were saying before, the world’s forces are against you. No one wants us to be writers. Nobody wants us to be able to live in New York off of our writing, so in essence, we have to have so much belief and confidence with everyone saying no to us at every turn. Even just, like, a good week as a writer is getting, like, an 80 percent rejection rate. That’s pretty depressing. [laughs]

Yeah, and that’s wild to me. That’s so wild that we literally talk about things like rejection rates as like—What’s your rejection rate? Oh for the past month, I’ve been rejected only 60 percent of the time—you know? It’s like batting averages.

[laughs] Yeah, it is like batting averages. And it’s so weird. It’s, like, easier to get into Harvard than some of these literary magazines—

Like APR or Poetry.

Which are publications that most Americans don’t read or have never heard of. So being, like, “Oh hey, I got into whatever prestige magazine”—the majority of people that you meet, it’s just going to go right over their head, and they’ll be happy for you, but no one really cares that the work is out there. So there’s that sense of “I’m not doing this for the love and affection of the masses.” I’m doing this for myself and the people who will connect to it, but also I’m doing this for a couple of editors whom I’ve never met.

A hundred percent, man. I think it’s really important to always reflect and ask yourself why. Because I think the deeper you get in the poetry world, the harder it is to step out. I’ll be on Twitter all day, and I’ll be with people sharing poems, and I’ll think that the whole world cares. And I’ll step away and for two hours, and I’m in the world, in the physical world, I’m in New York City, and the world doesn’t know who I am, doesn’t know who all these people are, and hasn’t read these poems. And I have to remind myself, yes, that’s okay. And I would love more people to read more poems, but at the same time, I’m not doing it for that. And to your point, when you said that thing about Harvard—I worked as a college counselor. It’s one of my roles now still, but for a couple of years, I worked as a college counselor for public high school students, and I think Harvard’s acceptance rate is at, like, four percent right now, which is pretty good for a poetry journal. I think Poetry’s acceptance rate is less than one percent.

Yeah, a lot of them are. And poets are going to be like, “Oh, you got into whatever university magazine from the Midwest or something” that, to us, means a lot, but to most people…

And what’s interesting is that in my job I’ve worked with hundreds of kids, some of whom got into Harvard, and talking to a 17 or 18-year-old about college is one of the things that gives me a great deal of perspective. And there are many 17 or 18-year-olds that I’ve encountered in New York City who are just looking to get into community college, and then there are other kids who want to go to an Ivy League school, and feel the kind of pressures that those kids feels to get into Columbia, or get into Harvard, or get that full ride, or get that scholarship. I’ve been around the kids who’ve just missed it, I’ve been around the kids that got in, and I’ve learned very much. I’ve had to tell them—and I wouldn’t tell them this if I didn’t believe it—but I tell every one of them that, first of all, this isn’t the end or beginning of your life. This is just another choice in your life, this is just another moment in your life that you’re moving from. And that just because you got into Columbia doesn’t mean it’s all going to happen for you, or just because you didn’t get into Columbia doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen for you. And I’ve worked with kids who had 2.0 GPAs and went to community college for two years, reapplied to college and got free rides to all these amazing colleges, but I see kids internalize this desire and need to just be accepted, accepted, accepted, and it’s something that I often have to talk them through and say, “You have to believe in yourself first before you believe in the institution, before you believe in the goal, or the prize, because if you’re judging yourself by the merits and standards of other people—and I’ve heard this so much from other people—but if you’re judging yourself based on these sorts of standards or prizes, or these colleges, then when are you going to step back and become yourself, and what about you do you love?” And again, this is all so full of nuance, too, because I do want the kids I work with to get into all the good schools. But it’s given me a lot of perspective when I, say, get rejected from a magazine, or when I feel like the stuff I want to happen isn’t happening. We go through so many different births in our lives, you know?

I’ve talked different authors who are in varying stages in their career, and I remember the first time someone told me that I could Google their work, and being like “Whoa.”

And you’re there now. [laughs]

And then being like, now I need to get to this point. And talking to people who have the careers that I think I want and them being like, “Now that I’m here, I want this and this, and sometimes I feel sore that I haven’t won this,” and learning how to manage expectations.

Managing expectations is huge. The day my book came out, I had to teach for three hours and then take the train and go work for eight hours, and then I came home and made dinner like I always do. And no one was reading my book on the train.

[laughs] And you were walking down the streets and people weren’t bowing down to one knee or anything.

[laughs] And I don’t need that. I think about this a lot. All I want as an artist—and I think this is what we want—is the security and safety to practice my art, and I want to be taken seriously as an artist. And I think that’s it, and if I want any more than that, if I want that prize or that recognition from one person, then I need to check myself, like, “No, that’s not what you want, Devin. That could be great, but it could also be terrible. It could be not what you want, you know?” Every time I find myself getting too high on myself or whatever, I say, “What do you have right now?” And I’m lucky. I have two jobs. I teach. I can practice my art. I make enough to pay rent.

Not an easy thing to do in New York. [laughs]

I mean, I don’t make enough to save money, but I do make enough to pay rent. And my hope is that a few people take me seriously, you know? Would I want more people to take me seriously? Yes. And I think that’s what the prizes are for. I think that’s my biggest sort of—I don’t know. I wish I could articulate what I’m doing with my body right now. But that’s my biggest, sort of, hesitancy. That is what the prizes are for. We see the person who won the prize, and we’re like “Oh shit, I respect that publication, or I respect that prize, or that press, and now I respect that author.” And I think that’s good and bad because those prizes are still judged by gatekeepers, and these prizes can be very hard to submit to. Some of these prizes cost 25 dollars to submit to.

I’m right there with you.

And none of them are necessarily indicative of who the best poet is—but again, I don’t know if I’m looking for the best art, but (I think I meant but? Instead of or) what moves me. And there’s so much of that out there. In the end, no matter how critical I might sound, I’m first and foremost unbelievably grateful to be writing in this time and reading in this time—mostly reading in this time.

Same, and I’ll say one of the big reasons for me that I started as a fiction writer is that I’d always just kind of identified black voices in poetry with people like Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes, and it was very lovely to have that influence, and I was born with that influence, but the people who were exciting me on a sentence level, on a word level, were fiction writers—people like Junot Diaz. And so now to have young poets of color in every being of existence, I feel seen in a way I never had. Like, I always thought poetry was something that I wasn’t included in, so to have that be a part of the amazing contemporary poetry happening right now—

Yeah, if you are reading this year—fiction, poetry, nonfiction—and you haven’t read a book by a person of color, then you’ve failed as a person. Not just a book, but half a dozen or a dozen. I don’t know, obviously, what it’s like to be a person of color, but I do know that this is a moment that’s a long time coming, and it’s a good thing. And it’s a beautiful thing. It’s not just that people of color are getting more representation in fiction and poetry, it’s that they are some of the defining voices, as it truly must be.

I think one of the pitfalls about not having enough representation is that sort of thing that I noticed happen a little with Ta-Nehisi Coates, where he becomes the African-American voice in nonfiction, and then Toni Morrison said he was the next James Baldwin, so even myself, as a Baldwin lover, was like, “Oh, who does this person think he is?” Like, it’s automatically that mentality. And I’m not even necessarily trying to make this about him, but it doesn’t have to be that wild “yea or nay” mentality with every writer because if you don’t like writer A, you can just go down the line until you find writer X or Y, and you’ll find something that you love.

And I don’t think that’s something that people—especially white people—think about often when they consider representation in literature. It’s not just the way in which the literature world—and the world at large—has treated people of color, but how difficult it must be to be someone like Coates, or when Baldwin was alive, to be someone like Baldwin, and be expected to shoulder and be articulate about the struggles of so many people simply because you are singular—because you are the one, or one of the ones. And that’s another reason why we need more voices of color in literature. Not just because we need more of them, but because there shouldn’t be a singularity of voice. I couldn’t imagine how Coates must have felt when he heard that.

Well, he moved to Paris. There’s that. [laughs] Devin, this has been really fun. Any other thoughts?

It’s really awesome to talk to someone—not just about my work, but about the work in general. And I was stoked seeing that you marked up your copy of my book. [laughs] It’s wild.


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