the subject known as jayy dodd is a blxk trans womxn from los angeles, california—now based in Portland, OR. she is a artist, writer, & curator. her work has been featured in LitHub, Poetry Foundation, Oprah Magazine, Ms. Magazine, The New York Public Library among others. she is the Executive Director for Dovesong Labs (a development of Winter Tangerine), editor of A Portrait in Blues (Platypus Press 2017), author of Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press 2017) & The Black Condition ft. Narcissus (Nightboat Books 2019). she has been a Pushcart nominee, co-editor of Bettering American Poetry. she is a Lambda Literary Fellow & a PICA Precipice Grant Recipient. she is also known in Portland’s Ballroom Kiki/Club scene as Lady Tournament. find her talking trash online or taking a selfie.
This conversation was conducted in October 2019.
S. Yarberry: Your collection is titled The Black Condition Ft. Narcissus—what interested you in the myth, and/or the figure, of Narcissus? Narcissus becomes this character that comes in at different times—
jayy dodd: The frame of the title, The Black Condition Ft. Narcissus, is an homage to a band from the ‘70s called Rufus ft. Chaka Khan—Chaka Khan is a soul R&B vocal diva, but before she was a solo artist, she was in this band. When this band came out it was interesting, to me, since she was featuring, yet they put the band’s name first—it’s more typical of a band to be like PERSON and the xyz’s. This flip was a notable shift. The way that Chaka Khan has made a name for herself in a more recognizable way also allowed me to imagine that even though there is definitely a front of this larger band’s work, The Black Condition, there is also Narcissus who is this singular voice—this voice that can run on its own both since and before the book. The title, like I said, is this homage to this band in its framing structure and it also locates this idea of a soloist in a collective—the collective being the vehicle so that Narcissus has these spotlight moments, featured moments, throughout the book. I imagined that the album is otherwise instrumental, whereas when Narcissus comes through, there is a vocal track. Narcissus is definitely the band’s vocalist, but there is such a distinct voice that Narcissus had to be named. Additionally, there are things that I personally wanted to navigate that I didn’t want to necessarily get lost in the Black condition, or conflate with the Black condition, but are still intrinsically linked to my Black condition.
SY: As far as those Narcissus poems go—were those poems something you were working on as a project or a sequence that turned into this book?
jd: Sure! Those are words that people use for things that I may have done. Yeah, I mean in the least millennial way: I hate labels, you know? I definitely do write series, and they usually happen unintentionally, but the moment I smell one I either burn it down or bring it to life. In all truth, Narcissus began as really, really dark notes. The first Narcissus I ever wrote was “narcissus #17” and I was feeling so out of my body, out of the world, out of meaning, out of worth, out of so many things that I literally just had to list what was going on around me to ground myself—whenever I read that poem I go back to my room in Detroit, and I look out my window, and it all comes back to me in a really necessary way.
Writing that first Narcissus poem really, truly, in the least hyperbolic way, saved my life. I had finally given a voice and a perspective to how out of myself I felt. Making that voice a fatal reflection of myself allowed me to put so much more onto that reflection and off of myself. I was then able to build a much more whole self that could walk away from that river—Narcissus dies there and I couldn’t. That being said, I started Narcissus out of desperation, unlike other series that I’ve started. All of that language, like series or sequences, feels more true for other things that I’ve written, but with Narcissus it was like, If I don’t write this then I’m not going to be alive, and so I did it. It wasn’t over night and writing this one poem didn’t make me think, Oh I’m better now, but whenever I would get to those difficult places, or find myself reaching for those places, I would start documenting in that same way. Narcissus is trying to see themself in the river and cannot, so what are the muddled things in the river that they see instead? The project became very much about where I was living, about my block, about the liquor store, about the market, about the bars I was in. It became about this “everyday,” yet I was in this exile; I was in this wilderness; I was in a new place of trying to see myself. The way that my real life bent into the myth was too good to me. It was too good! It was too good—and I was so grateful to have found it and to be able to parse it out. But! Again, the myth ends with the motherfucker by the river dying, so I couldn’t end that way. This meant I also had to build a way out. In many ways that is what the book began as—a building out of that place—and as I gave Narcissus life through the voice, through the development of the work, and as the front person of The Black Condition—I definitely felt a safe distance from the darkness and the sadness of the work, yet I am still able to hold it and talk about it as authentically as when I wrote it.
SY: Narcissus is a fairly famous myth, but I hadn’t thought about it in a long time—so I was reading some different versions of it online. I noticed that Narcissus isn’t usually written as a very sympathetic god, or demi-god, and that they are being punished for Echo’s death. Were you thinking at all about Narcissus’s characterization as somewhat villainous in the myth?
jd: I think that is an unfortunate, reductive reading of the myth—though, of course, the most popular one. The myth begins with Narcissus’s birth between a demi-god and a mortal man, which has its own implications of that of access and how that relationship came to be. Even Narcissus’s birth comes from this fraught, yet still divine place. I don’t think I am trying to write a sympathetic character, but I also don’t think we tell the truth enough—and demonizing is too easy. So from the start we have this fraught divinity of Narcissus and the mother, the nymph, takes Narcissus to the oracle. The prophecy is that the child will live forever as long as the child never sees themself, so generally people understand this as in “to look in the mirror” but there were no glass mirrors! The way we understand the myth, the way we are translating it, is putting a very, very modern twist on it. Narcissus could never know how enamoring they were—beautiful is the easy word, but really it was more engaging and mystifying. Narcissus could never know their appeal, is the way I have understood it. They could never know why people like them—they could never know that they were beyond this earth. They could never know it. So they were living their whole life fucked up, fucked up, fucked up—adored and cared for but never quite getting it, never understanding it.
The reason Narcissus was even in the woods that they had exiled themself to take a break from people—the language used for when Narcissus enters the woods is a kind of self-exiling. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I just want to take a walk in the woods.” It was more like, “I need to get away; I need to clear my head.” In exile, someone who is already cursed decides to try to engage, to try to play, not even maliciously, but just to genuinely try to connect. And so Narcissus who has never known a good goddamn thing about anything, why anyone cares, is being teased and taunted by a place where he had found peace and exile. With that being said, when Echo reveals herself to Narcissus, they dismiss her, they reject her, not because of whatever-whatever, but because of torment. He had been tormented by running around these woods trying to find this voice only to be surprised by someone who could not speak.
Due to Narcissus’s rejection—Echo was crying and Nemesis sees this as an injustice. Nemesis then puts a river in front of Narcissus’s path—there are a lot of translations, and paintings, that then just have Narcissus looking at themself in the river for the rest of their life—but in the text that I cited, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (A.S. Kline’s version, Book III, “Echo sees Narcissus”), Narcissus caught a glimpse of themself for the first time, and they spend the rest of their life clawing at the water trying to see it again—trying to capture what they only got a glimpse of. It’s not that they were enamored by a reflection, but that they were obsessed with something that they got only a slight glimmer of—and that’s what really compelled me. I want to believe that all y’all like my shit for some fucking reason; I want to believe that y’all follow me online for some reason; I want to believe what my mom tells me about being the sun and the moon; I would love to believe it. And every time I do, it terrifies me. For a long time, I felt like not believing it was all that could keep me going. It kept me isolated. It kept me in exile. It kept me in these destructive kind of self-reflections. I really was self-reflecting. It was really helpful for my transition to be faced with this realization of: if I don’t decide to either wake up from this attempt of seeing myself, or see something of myself here, then I am going to die here. I am going to be obsessed with this need for a glimpse for the rest of my life. I didn’t actually believe everyone. That isn’t true. But I decided what I needed to believe. I understand things differently about myself.
I think I have said this in an interview before, but someone called me a narcissist and it literally hit me, not in the way when I get offended by something, though; it felt like someone had called me hot. I had to check in with myself—I was like, Whoa. I was like, I hate myself and you think I am a narcissist? I was like, Oh bitch what? I really had to look at the myth, after that, and unpack these behaviors. There are absolutely ways that I try to watch and manage the worst parts of it—narcissism. In the most literal, and rhetorical way, I am absolutely a narcissist. And if I don’t take care of myself I will absolutely die trying to figure out who the fuck I am. It’s ironic that the same person who called me a narcissist also called me an alcoholic—and I could not hear that nearly as clearly at the time, but now that I am over a year sober, it’s this really special thing where it’s like, wow this person who I don’t speak to (and who definitely tried to ruin my life) told me two truths about myself that I absolutely needed to hear.
SY: The collection has an A Side and a B Side: it starts with a demo, ends with the bonus track—it is a collection that is not only lyric, but is also musical, whether that be the sound of the lyre in “lyrebird,” or Busta Rhymes in “Put Your Hands Your Where My Eyes Can See.” How did music play a role in writing your collection? Were there certain musicians, or songs, you were listening to?
jd: I grew up wanting to be a dancer—I thought I was going to be a dancer my whole life. I am not going to go into the story about why I am not a dancer, because that’s a whole long thing. Anyways, I also grew up in a church with two pastors, two ministers, as parents, which meant that I was around a lot of performance, art-based culture, and also this orator-musical-language-based tradition (my mom is also a poet, and my dad is a phenomenal teacher). My approach to language, more so than my approach to teaching, comes from my mother and her power around lyric. She loves music and she definitely passed that on to me.
It’s funny—I make music and I don’t think that my mom has listened to anything that I have made—and if she has, she didn’t like it because she would have told me that she liked it (I think), but that’s totally fine! I am making experimental electro-noise music, so I am not making my mama jams per se—but you know they’re club beats, so whatever. The point is, I am glad that I have my poetry to show my family how their music inspired me, since I know my current musical taste and musical production does not do that.
It is also funny because I can tell a lot about the person interviewing me based on what musical references they list—since there’s a lot more, not like, “Oh, you missed them,” but what’s plucked out I think speaks to the music that you know. The second poem in the book, for instance, “I Know I Been Changed” is a Negro spiritual. When some people first saw it they were like, “Oh, this is going to be a whole song book,” and I was like, “Yeah, I mean it’s not, but it is.” They read the collection differently after reading “I Know I Been Changed,” even with seeing the “demo” before it, which I hadn’t considered. I had actually decided to switch the order of those two and put the demo first—in case someone didn’t know that “I Know I Been Changed” is a song. I thought they might not get that this is an album-album in this way—so even just thinking about the order of those first two poems is important to me.
I come from this very deep musical tradition that starts with gospel, which includes soul and R&B before, like, 1980, and then I just love pop music. I love hip-hop and rap in this very specific way—there are so many poets that I love who I think love hip-hop and rap so much differently, know about it so much differently, and utilize it to its highest quality in their work—so much more often, and so much more intentionally, than I do—so I am always curious when hip-hop is read onto my work in a particular way, not that I have a problem with hip-hop, obviously. Out of all the Black genres, though, that’s the one that I am curious about getting pinned to the most. I personally feel like I have much more jazz and gospel qualities in my work.
Okay, so gospel, jazz, and electronic music—electronic music is my favorite kind of music in the whole entire world. I love house. I love vintage Detroit, Chicago, club music. There are a lot of Black artists, Black women, Black femmes, who are making phenomenal new club music that is super post-sound noise shit—just, like, bumpers. The lyricism comes from the sort of language that I grew up with, but the approach of how I manifest it comes from being raised in the digital age of electronic kid adoration. Then the whole demo, unplugged, mixed tape format—I wanted to give a deluxe drop sort of vibe. I really wanted it to feel like a concept album, because it is my second book; I really wanted the construction of the book to feel like an album drop. I have compared the marketing and structuring of my books (as in not my body of work) to Beyonce’s early albums. Manish Tongues was my Dangerously in Love—so, not experimental, very in-my-pocket, things I knew I could hit on—even if parts of it are obvious. Some of those poems I know I can read in ten years and they’ll still be slappers the same way there are still tracks on Dangerously in Love that can go on forever, where I am like, Oh girl, it is 2003, we hear it. You know what I mean? Beyonce’s second album is actually my favorite album, whereas The Black Condition, I think, is already not my favorite book—again, I am not literally trying to compare these bodies of work. B’Day was the first time she released a visual album. It was the first time she had videos with nearly the entire album, and I think the only songs that don’t have videos are on the deluxe album. With that being said, for The Black Condition I made a whole film, a whole soundtrack, I made a whole thing around the book, so I could see it differently. I set up the book the way it is so that it would be like an album drop and I created the world around it to make it feel as such—it is a gospel-jazz-electronic album that appreciates hip-hop and was dropped at midnight.
SY: To go back to what you had brought up about religion—your collection seems to also engage with religion—there’s this mash-up of Greek mythology and a more contemporary Christianity. How did religion inform your writing of these poems in form, content, or both? One example I am thinking of is “faggot rap,” where you use the conceit of “verses”—which, of course, is musical verse, but also Bible verses—
jd: Well, first off, great like unpacking of that—that’s great. You know, I haven’t talked to anyone about “faggot rap.” I have told people it exists, but I have never talked to anyone about it—so I am really happy you just asked about it. I fucking love it—like, I really do love it. I feel like it’s one of my more ambitious poems, and literally nowhere is brave enough to publish it. Nowhere. Like as a stand-alone poem, who has the audacity to publish this? You know? Like it kind of made me mad, and I sent it to Nepantla, and they instead just took an obvious, shitty one.
First off, I think that all “form poems” are an attempt at trolling. Because I am already speaking English and so using a form feels like extra slavery, and I don’t need it. I don’t need it! So if I do use a form, it’s because I’ve decided I need to do it—that it is the only way I can write that poem. You asked me a more meaningful question than what I am going to impersonate right now, but people will be like, Oh, why did you choose to write a sonnet? And I’m like, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t realize it had fourteen lines, I can’t count, shut up. You know? With the Ghazal, I really love people who can elevate it: Angel Nafis… sam sax… Casey Rocheteau has a beautiful ghazal, “Grave Cleaning Ghazal,” that I read today on Winter Tangerine. People can elevate the shit out of a Ghazal—not that it’s low brow. The Ghazal, like all forms, can be obvious if you keep it strict, but when you breathe life into it, it can be really gorgeous or awkward and ugly.
I love the word faggot for a variety of reasons—how it sounds in my mouth, how it’s all spongy and chewy. I just want to chew it, but I also love how, for me, it’s like this Litmus test on where anyone queer, gay, or LGBT, is—and unfortunately “queer” in this weird way has become an even safer way to do this test. I mean if someone doesn’t like the word “queer,” then “faggot” is out of the question. If someone is like, Queer is a slur to me, I just can’t get past it, then I am just like, Well I can’t undo that hurt for you, and so I guess I just won’t say it around you, but also like, you don’t see me—you do not see me, friend—good bye. It’s just like, what? You’re worried about a word? Of course this is not to say “words don’t matter.” That’s not the point. If we’re thinking about the world we’re living in—thinking about the word queer, which has been so institutionalized and normalized and you see that as a slur? I mean, I feel the same way about Black people who say “African American.” I mean, I get it as opposed to another ethnicity, but African Americans who are like, Don’t call me Black. It’s like, what? I have just learned that all that is, is a Litmus test of where someone is in their own life. Faggot is a little bit of a more hardcore one—like, I can be friends with a queer person, but my friends are faggots, you know what I mean? And I can like love queer people, and not—I mean, I do love queer people—by-and-large and in community—but the people I expect to bleed and bleed for are faggots. It is like this personal Litmus test. It is, to me, de-racialized and de-gendered in these ways, which I find powerful. It also just costs more to be a faggot than it does to be a queer person. You have to own it if someone decides to call you it, you have to own it if someone decides to weaponize it against you.
With that being said, I didn’t want this to be how many times can I use faggot in a poem, but at the same time I did kind of want to see how many times I could use faggot in a poem. The Ghazal felt the most urgent in that way compared to other forms. I wanted whoever was reading the poem to have to say “faggot” in their head all these times. Either they get over it, or they put the book down and give it to someone else who needs it better. If you can’t get through it, then you can’t get through this book, and that’s okay. Because now we know. And now you know. And now I know. And don’t come to my fucking show and say that “faggot rap” didn’t speak to you—I don’t give a fuck. Then it wasn’t for you, friend. If it gives you enough reason to pause so that you have to pause, then, again, I’ve done my job. You know that pink cat from those 1950s cartoons? I think it’s called like Snufflepuss… It’s very dandy-like, very caricature of this gay sing-song affect that I was imagining this whole thing written in… Like when the child’s eyes wander onto this here faggot… Like very Cheshire cat-type shit. I wanted to have this pitch, or tone, because if you’re going to say it, you can’t just say it any way. You have to say it the way I want you to say it. It has to appear this many times. You have to use it here, you have to really lean into it in the refrain. The shock is only fun if you have somewhere to wind up afterwards. I don’t want to just get people excited, scared, or uncomfortable, so where do you go with this? Hanging all of this other language, all these other intentional sounds, and rhymes around the “faggots” were to help couch it. There is so much to help the reader get through, there is so much lubrication on this poem to get you through the faggotry. If you can’t get through it, then this book, I, my work, is not for you. Guess I’ll live.
SY: To stay on this topic of form, you have some poems, most poems in this collection, that use fairly conventional lineation and then other poems that use the prose block with a “/”—can you talk about that decision and what the difference in effect these two methodologies have in your work?
jd: Yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about, and it seems really essential to my poetic practice across work. It’s not a feature unique to this book, so I am curious to think about, and through this, with you. As an example, “narcissus 17” is a straight up block, compared to “narcissus unplugged” which is line line line. I use the concreteness of the block to offset how immaterial I feel in that poem. The more material I feel, the more traditionally lineated the poem is. The more clear and direct I know the form, being, shape, and body of what I’m doing—the more likely I am to traditionally lineate it. When I have a bit of uncertainty, or when I am trying to hold something in my mind together, that block is what I pour things into. A lot of my poems begin as blocks and then I lineate them out. I also sometimes try to fake it, like in “narcissus, on kissing,” which is basically a block, but I just cheated with these line breaks and cut outs from the side. Even “lyrebird” is a kind of a block that gets carved out. Whenever I have these more block-like poems, there is this uncertainty. I feel like I know the exact amount the container can hold—when I look at all the possible containers I have for any one poem, or any one thought, the block is that size bowl where, no matter what I need to pour in there, it is probably going to fit. If I can’t fit it into a block—it’s an essay. It is literally an essay. If I pour it in, and it’s only two lines, then that needs a different container. I usually pour into a block first to see how it looks and then go from there. There are poems that I will hand write and then type them up lineated. It’s funny looking back at all these Narcissus poems because I can see that they started as blocks. The lineations make sense, but I can tell they were written in this other way.
SY: That makes a ton of sense—thinking about the relationship between how to form something that feels ethereal versus material—how to go about parsing those out.
jd: I just realized I never answered your questions about the mash-up of mythology and religion. I can answer that with looking at this poem, “first corinthians without love.” I wrote this poem with, maybe not these exact line lengths, but definitely lineated. I remember I copied the whole 1 Corinthians 13 into a Word document and translated every line, so this poem was line-based from the beginning. I then manifest, or not manifest—I say manifest way too much—I constructed it. I have felt like I was able to get into belief, divinity, power, greater things, since I was a child. I don’t have a particular propensity for Greek mythology by any means. I happen to know a lot about Narcissus, because I like Narcissus—and various modern retellings. I know a lot of people care about mythology, but not me. My background as a church kid, which goes back to why the collection is so lyrical, is because I grew up reading the Bible. I read it every Sunday. I learned to read from this very hyperbolic, story-telling, over-dramatic, end of the world ass writing—while also in the most beautiful lyric—with songs, love stories, and magic.
When I approached this poem I couldn’t just rewrite Bible verse from my perspective because I don’t have one right now. The impetus for writing this poem in particular is that in the Bible verse, the line goes: When I was a child I thought as a child but when I grew up I had to put away childish things. It is one of the most passive aggressive things that, I don’t know about all Christian parents, but definitely Black Christian parents would tell their kids. Things like, You know what put away this childish shit whatever-whatever. My mom wasn’t even like that, but I heard it from other church folks that were always saying people needed to “put away childish things.” It felt more like a threat then. The point I was at in my transition when writing this poem, that I understand better now, is that this narrative of “I was born in the wrong body” is so linear, and flat, and unhelpful in understanding, and not needed for understanding, trans lives. I had to reconcile with: I did not hate being a boy. Being a boy did not suck, or it sucked for a variety of reasons since being alive sucks, and being a Black boy sucks, and being a whole faggot sucks, but I cannot pin all of that on simply boyhood. I was like, if being a boy didn’t suck, then what about adulthood, and manhood, felt impossible? I thought, Okay, I was never supposed to be a man. I was supposed to be a boy, and I was supposed to be a woman. Those are two separate existences that can both exist. That is my way of understanding how I needed to exist in this world. In this poem, I then had to retool what “putting away childish things” means. It was a putting away of certain comforts, or certain reliances, using my body for as much possible good. When returning to that Bible verse to get the context for “childish things,” I found that the context is so much more verbose. That verse didn’t speak to me in any way other than the childish things line. I realized that I couldn’t base the poem off this actual verse, since I didn’t care. I asked myself, What can I take out of this verse that I can put what I need to back into it? There’s all of this stuff about love and adoration—and I wasn’t in love with anything outside of… Well no, I wasn’t in love with anything. Full stop. This was me two and a half years ago—I often try to qualify my feelings then with how I feel now, and I do feel better now, but then I was just not good.
Like I said, I started by copying the entire verse into a Word document and then I cut the word “love” out, then just jumbled each sentence—just moved the words around and tightened it up from there. It started as an extraction of love from the whole text and then a shuffle of each line. I took each line as its own new attempt at language. Then from there, I just refined it down. By the time I got down to the childish things homage, I could just drop in what I needed, since I had retold the verse in the language that made sense to me. Which is how I have basically treated religion and mythology my whole life.
SY: One of my personal favorite things is to listen to poets talk about how they constructed an individual poem. I find that fascinating, so thank you. This poem, too, is one of my favorites in the collection. I didn’t grow up religious at all, but there was something about this poem that really resonated with me. So getting to hear you talk about this relationship between “childish things” and adulthood really illuminated a lot. I am also trans, I am transitioning now, which has led me to reflect on my childhood, my girlhood—like you were saying, it was a time that I am not particularly ashamed of, or struggling with, but while moving into adulthood, as you said, there was something about it that felt impossible.
jd: Exactly, and there’s somehow no language for that experience, or not no language—some queer folks joke about how early they knew or make these allusions to possibility in youth. And it’s like, yes, but also, all kids are basically queer and then it stops. We need get to a place where we are all queer until we grow up and decide what is going on for ourselves and go on with our lives. There is this quiet stigmatization of not hating being a child. Which is upheld with this narrative of “I was born in the wrong body.” I just wonder, how useful is that? How reductive is that to our bodies—
SY: I completely agree. Well, to stay in this conversation on form—I was wondering if you wanted to talk about the Bonus Track section. It’s doing something quite different than the rest of the collection, using collage and whatnot. Also its placement is at the very, very end—after the acknowledgements, which was surprising.
jd: The Bonus Track, the Bonus Track. I am thinking about this whole process. The poem exists online with the original screen shots at Tagvverk. Wow, my memory… I have been sober for a year now, and there are some things in my semi-recent memory that aren’t even a blur, it’s just that I don’t have chronological memory anymore—the last few years of my life. I can’t remember which came first—this one poem or the first Narcissus; either way, they weren’t in conversation with each other until a few Narcissuses were written and this was already its own thing. The point is, they weren’t connected until I connected them. For the life of me I cannot tell you which came first. Anyways, I had thought about doing a Narcissus chapbook once I had a few of them written. Let me give you a timeline which will help me. My first collection Manish Tongues came out February of 2017, and I have been writing poems for The Black Condition essentially since that collection got accepted—probably in the late summer of 2016. I had about a third of The Black Condition swimming around in documents and pages awhile before my first collection came out. Then Manish Tongues came out, and it sent me to a really bad place, and I spiraled down. Oh yeah! Narcissus did come first. Abso-fucking-lutely, Narcissus came first. I was not doing well when my book came out, so I had to write something new that felt urgent to me. As I was doing interviews and press for Manish Tongues, this person came into my DMs and started this interaction. I had originally started with the triptych, figure c. I started by taking screenshots, posting them, and talking shit. Then the first art-thing I made, the first part of “i am interested in…” formally that I made was the triptych. The first thing that I made of this seven pound piece was the triptych, and I just shared it online with the people who were following me and talked shit about this dude. Then I got frustrated with myself—one, since I was a drunk and mentally unwell and everything I did made me sad; two, I was giving this white dude all the words. The whole poem was his words. I erased some, but they were all his words. Now it was after Trump came out, or LOL, that’s not what I mean, that’s terrible—I mean this was after Trump got inaugurated. I had done an erasure of that poem that someone wrote for him that went kind of viral, and I was like, Oh no, I hate this, I added to the Trump media machine. I am the problem. Everything I did made me sad at the time—having just gone viral for giving Trump more language, and then giving this random white dude bro language over, you know, the Black condition. I was like, if I can’t undo what I have done, my impetus is to become obsessive and to start clawing at it. I clawed at it, like Narcissus essentially. I posted the screenshots of the entire conversation. I posted the question to my entire Facebook audience. I just wrote myself around it. I just clawed out every single feeling I had about it, from all these different points. It became this comprehensive seven page work. I have performed this work live with the video around the book preceding it. It is this whole living, breathing, project.
With all of this in mind, it doesn’t not-not fit in with the rest of the book, yet there is nothing else in the book, to me, that is like it. There’s no other collage work. There are so many poets that do collage work, and I didn’t want the book to feel like a sad attempt at that. This poem was not thought about for a book; it was thought of as a digital essay about being consumed and obsession. It was rendered not for publication; it was rendered for the Internet. I had to decide how I wanted it to exist in the book, once I realized how important it was to have in print somewhere. There were some issues with the photos—and I was like, It’s a book, you can just recreate those photos! The images in the book aren’t the actual screenshots they’re these great re-creations done by the artist at Nightboat—which I was super happy with; they don’t look that different, sure, but it is one less thing of him. It’s my book’s rendering of this thing for my collection, it becomes even more mine. In terms of the placement of the piece—my editor, Andrea Abi-Karam, who’s brilliant, wanted to put it first, but it is so not an overture in my opinion. It is if you made it this far, here’s your gift. It is like when Beyonce does “Halo” at the end of any live show. Out of any of my poems, I cannot say that I have enjoyed any of the public discourse around them as much as I have around “i am interested in the black condition.” This poem came out and there were so many people who I hadn’t realized I’d been speaking to, people who were like, Oh shit, this is why I fuck with you. The way this poem has challenged people, the way this poem has inspired film work, and music work, has made it so important to this book. I wouldn’t have made the book without the poem. Deciding to accept this obsession for as long as I could was the best decision of my life. I knew that it had a fixated point—it wasn’t an ever flowing river—there was going to be a book at the end of this. Once I realized that this poem had an impact, that it could have an everlasting impact in print, it became the easy bedrock of the collection.
I will say I was a little bit uncomfortable having the collection called The Black Condition. Hearing not-Black people, especially white folks, say “The Black Condition” to me—it sometimes troubles me to hear it come out of their mouths. It’s like, they will whisper “The Black Condition” and then scream “Narcissus”— it’s like, Oh. Alright. Or just call the collection “Narcissus.” When I was thinking about titling the book, I was really glad to see that Morgan Parker had already had Magical Negro forthcoming. I thought, If she can get away with Magical Negro, then I can definitely get away with The Black Condition. I have no idea what her take is, or how people say it to her, but I have seen people say like, “Morgan’s latest,” or “Magical,” or like, these other ways that are really interesting. With mine, again, it is this kind of Litmus test: How does the word Black come out of your mouth? It shouldn’t be a problem. How does it come out of your mouth? Why is it hard for you to say “The Black Condition”? Why is it hard? Why is hard for you to say it to my face? You reference it, haven’t you? Since you have the book? And that’s the thing—when someone has said to me that they have read my book but can’t say the title of the book to my face in their full voice—that shit, that’s my kink, I don’t know, I love that shit. I’m like, Oh bitch, how are you reading my book if you can’t name it to my face? Tell me. Tell me. I mean don’t. But like, please. Tell me! Because they can’t and they wouldn’t and that’s an unfair question. That is a tension I got to build into my book. I have this beautiful, beautiful translucent shield where you can see all that is going on, but will reach a barrier if you don’t acknowledge it. I had to recognize its impact on people who I cared about. The placement of the piece became this beautiful armor for the rest of the work, for this very vulnerable body of work. Narcissus is a fatalistic, suicidal character, and that voice needed to be safe, to feel protected, to feel how they felt—and also to get out of it. “i am interested in the black condition” had to have a little more antagonism—a little bit more of a bombastic approach to those topics. “i am interested in the black condition” is like the gang around Narcissus to make sure you don’t beat up on the little sensitive flower wilting by the river. The way it shows up around the epilogue to the book is sort of like walking out of a concert and seeing exclusive merch. That’s what it is. It’s this gift for making it to the end of the book. It’s this hyper-curated poem. If you got to the book by way of this poem then you’ll like the book, and if you manage through the book to it then it’s this huge gift. It is so direct. It is so obvious, and not obvious in a bad way, there’s just no “tambourines make mouths come in,” there’s none of that. It’s none of that. I am not ashamed of how I write, but I get tired of myself. I want people to like what I am saying even without me explaining it—not to you of course, but I mean the average human. But if you made it through this whole book, this poem is like, Oh shit—if you can get through this poem, then you can get through this whole book. It might take you a different amount of time, but if you can get through it and feel compelled by that speaker, then Narcissus won’t scare you.
SY: The last poem before the acknowledgements is “narcissus unplugged” and it has this last line—i hope to die knowing my mystery will become myth—which is very beautiful, very lyric, and has a very different tone than, as you called it, this more bombastic, more obvious, piece that ends the collection.
jd: True, true, true. I mean, literally in the book I am like, If I die, remember me. It’s really fucking sad. It’s not lost on me how sad I am—trust me. I don’t mean like you, but like people who are like, We get it you were sad today, bitch, we understand. I like that you acknowledge that line and I wanted something to happen after that point—because I am after that point. Even thinking about that poem order—I thought about putting the “narcissus unplugged” first and the “narcissus (demo)” last. I was thinking about how psychically different it would be to start with a poem that ends with i hope to die knowing my mystery will become myth and then go on to tell you a two-part myth. I was curious how that would affect the book. That didn’t feel accurate though—this poem felt like the summation of the entire collection. I wrote it, though, somewhere in the middle. It was not the last poem I wrote, by any means. The last poem I wrote for the book was “narcissus on resurrection,” and to be 100% honest with you, I regret it. I regret it. It is the only Narcissus poem that I wrote in California after moving out of Detroit. The Narcissus I was seeing from there was just different enough that when I read it in the collection, when I first got the book, I was like, Oh, oh okay. I actually haven’t written a good Narcissus poem since then—not in any bad way. I am glad I don’t feel like I need to write in that voice anymore. That’s the only poem I regret, and I don’t regret the poem itself, just that I tried to squeeze it in—since it was a Narcissus poem. There was some situation where a different poem was cut, and I wanted to fill the space. Again, I don’t think it’s a bad poem—it’s just when I read it, I know how far from the other poems it is. Reading this poem feels like watching the reboot of some series twenty years later—it is so far away from the other ones.
SY: Another aspect of your collection, that stood out to me, is, of course, the body—
jd: The body.
SY: The body.
jd: Literally everywhere I go, all I’ve got. All I’ve got is the body.
SY: I was thinking, specifically, about one of the ways the body is talked about in the collection, where there seemed to be this tension between being seen or not seen. Two poems that come to mind are “narcissus, away from the river” and “narcissus goes to the market.” In the first poem there seems to be a desire to be seen, to be wanted, at this party, whereas the latter poem seems to explore the dangers of being seen. And here’s a quote from one of your poems that I really liked, this is from “narcissus (demo)”: seeing oneself can be a dream realized—though I have always had more faith in fantastic things unseen.
jd: I forgot about the small pleasure of having someone else read my words to me. It is so rare. Thank you for reading that to me—wow, my heart is so full. I never hear someone read my own words. Whoa—okay, “the market” is one of my favorite poems that I have ever written. I am so grateful to Tiana Clark, for her edits on it, it’s just a little bit tighter than it was—and I think it’s better, or I know it’s better. I am 6’ 5” for context. I am a 6’ 5” human. I am built like a basketball player or a dancer, depending on who you ask. Basically anyone who is built like me, across genders, is going to be read as a man—especially in a Black body. There are tons of Black women who are not presenting in a hyper-feminine way that are constantly misgendered. There’s this thing where I can only hold anything so so so close to my heart around how I am presenting or how I am going to be seen. I can only care ever so much. I have disconnected this idea of someone literally seeing me and enjoying me or engaging with me from the idea of someone caring for me, someone liking me, or having my safety in mind (which is necessary). I have also noticed that there was this invisibility when I was read as just a man by men. Even my queerness was just sometimes read down as being whitewashed or like “bougie” or something. Even different parts of me that could have gotten me into some kind of danger were just read as some kind of class-based difference. I was very limited (I went to a white ass boarding school) in navigating how I was being seen in Detroit, which was more like my home in Los Angeles than in my boarding school and college in Connecticut and Boston—I was living around many more Black people. There was this sort of liminal thing where I was either masculine enough to be invisible, like faggot enough to get a few looks, but as long as I wasn’t bothering anyone, no one would bother me, and vice versa. But then some days, I looked trans enough to get engagement that was terrible. I had a gun pulled on me in a liquor store just for talking about some shit about some dude liking my nails. He saw my nails. He saw that I was something else. Which is all true. All things that I find pride in. All things that he felt were a valid reason for pulling a pistol on me. I love being seen. I love being out. I love being proud. I love having my acrylics on and my heels up and my shit poppin,’ sure. I also like to live and sleep and be alive. No one should be held to any sort of measure on that shit. I am someone who likes being seen, and I am constantly trying to see myself in this world where I am supposed to be inspiring and am supposed to be making so much better, or whatever. I teach a lot. I was the workshops director for Winter Tangerine for the last three years and only left to start a new branch of Winter Tangerine and hire a new department—all beautiful things. I have had to realize and accept that I have taught over 500 students—that I have given syllabi and work to all these people. It’s unfathomable to me. I don’t see this literal impact I have in this world that I am literally living in. I do not see that. I have to be shown numbers. I have such a hard time seeing my impact, because in my everyday life it’s a total crapshoot. It’s a total crapshoot for someone to see my gender, to see my desired self, to call me by my name. Visibility is unfortunately not neutralized. I am seen regardless if I want to be or not. Here we are just being alive. I see visibility as having no valence, good or bad. The person seeing you has to be accountable for what they know and don’t know. There is no theory, no essay, no lesson, there’s nothing in any one fucking moment that can navigate visibility. If you are seen and realize you are being seen, all you can do is decide to look away, or not.