A Cave Canem alumnus, Tommye Blount is the author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue (Four Way Books, 2020) and What Are We Not For (Bull City Press, 2016). A graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from Kresge Arts in Detroit and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Born and raised in Detroit, Blount now lives in the nearby suburb of Novi, Michigan.
At the end of Callaloo in 2016, Vievee Francis gave every poet in my cohort a chapbook. She handed me Tommye Blount’s What Are We Not For, and so his poetry accompanied me as I said goodbye to those two weeks of growth with other Black poets.
What Are We Not For and Fantasia For The Man In Blue both ache freely, and locate self in that ache. “Of course it wants to / touch them. Why not // their skin, the splendid / bruises, the wounds, the sweet // wounds?”
There is so much to find when wandering this rich Fantasia. What a generous gift.
Noor Ibn Najam: What surprised you most about writing your first full-length book of poems?
Tommye Blount: The length! The book is about 139 pages plus notes, front, and back matter. One of the things I struggle with is taking up space. During the editing process, I fought hard with myself not to apologize or entertain the thought of a smaller book. The truth is this book would not have worked if it was smaller. Fantasia for the Man in Blue wonders and wanders. The peripatetic, or the walking poem, is a tradition that the book troubles. This task demands large and unencumbered space on the page. I owe a great deal to Martha Rhodes, poet and my editor, and Four Way for letting me frolic in this project. Before this book, I had no idea that audacity to both take up space and earn it was within me.
NIN: I’m stunned by how close these speakers feel as I read your work. What would you say is the role of vulnerability in your poetry, and how did you come to define what vulnerability looks like in your work?
TB: In order for there to be vulnerability, there has to be some inherent sense of consequence. In other words, there must be knowledge that something valuable is at stake. This is the task I always charge my poems with: there must be something (a way of life for instance) the speakers within the poems are not afraid to lose in the name of feeling whole and human. It’s also why I am drawn to the lyric mode. Within the lyric mode, a problem or question becomes the engine behind the poem; the motor that keeps the machine of the poem chugging along. Ellen Bryant Voigt, in The Flexible Lyric, considers the lyric as being that mode in which much of the narrative happens beyond the poem. The lyric poem is simply an event along that narrative line—I am paraphrasing of course. Anyway, this is why I am drawn to desire and its penchant for an elliptical and obsessive logic. The act of desire is an act of grief. In desire, one feels something was lost when in fact they never possessed the object in the first place. Perhaps that closeness you hear, Noor, emanates from the open and shameless embrace of obsession that exists in the poems, but I want to say more.
One of the ways that I envision this book operating is as theater. In Detroit, one of my favorite theaters is the Slipstream Theater Initiative. The building is nothing fancy: a storefront that’s been refashioned into a black box theater. What gets me each time I see one of its productions is that they use the space differently each time. In a standard proscenium theater, one has a ticket that corresponds to a seat number located along the house’s floor. With Slipstream, I never know how I am to move through the space and what will be asked of me. In Fantasia, I mean the poems to make such demands on the reader by using myself, or the lyricized self in the book, as a conduit. Looking at the book’s approach to point of view, the membrane between “you” and “I” is very delicate. What I mean is the roles of subject and observer get fuzzy. The reader, I hope, experiences that sense of closeness to the speakers and the events happening. When the poems call out my name, it is also a placeholder for “your” name. With all of that said, I (as the poet) have as much at stake as the reader has invested in the poems. Although the book employs various personae and voices, it really is a kind of self-portrait that relies on the reader to complete. I think all of this too aids that sensation of vulnerability.
NIN: When is it most difficult for you to be vulnerable?
TB: It’s always very difficult for me to be vulnerable. If there is no difficulty or fear, what is called vulnerability is really an insincere performance. I see it at bad readings when the author wants to stage vulnerability. Although irony definitely permeates my work, sincerity is important to my practice. In my day-to-day, I hold my business close to me; I mind my business—as we say. I am very protective of my inner life. It isn’t until I am inside of a poem that my guard comes down. Writing (read: revising) a poem seduces me. In revision, I get so lost in the exploration of the poem’s many possibilities that any fear, shame, or ego disappears until, finally, I look up and see an alien version of myself staring back from the page.
NIN: I’m compelled by the fluidity of the power dynamics in these poems. These issues also seem to converse across the manuscript. What craft decisions do you think do the work of determining and conveying these shifts in agency?
TB: Yeah, Noor, that shifting agency has to do with my approach to point of view. As I stated earlier, this book keeps a delicate membrane between “you” and “I.” This knowledge is key in understanding the overarching relationship the book means to map—an exchange of power between the watcher and the watched. All the voices in the book are one kind of performer/actor/subject or another. Today, I streamed this Facebook panel discussion given by Stratford Festival. It featured many of the Black Canadian actors who have performed in previous seasons. Beck Lloyd, one of the actors, said, “My body tells a story that I am not necessarily in on.” That’s my book in a nutshell! The people in Fantasia for the Man in Blue are also pondering Lloyd’s statement. Each performer/actor/subject finds themselves being watched on one form of stage or another—for instance: a lynching tree, a television set, an actual stage, and others. It has been my job as poet, and thus instigator, to give these people the music and maps with which to navigate, and maybe survive, these moments—a Daedalian task.
NIN: Do you think readers have a role to play in the power dynamics of Fantasia for the Man in Blue?
TB: I wanted there to be many ways the reader could move through the book. Now, I do not dare fall into the trap of prescribing how and what audiences should feel and do. But I hope the readers of the book bring themselves to this work. When I write, I do not write toward a definitive answer. Or if there is a definitive answer, I resist a linear logic of getting to that answer. This may be foolish of me to make this pronouncement, but I aim to write poems that are accessible enough to let the reader inside. Once inside, all bets are off. This is how I arrived to a poem like “My God, Lick Him Clean.” How readers leave that poem depends on their level of engagement. It has been thrilling to hear how white people read that poem and how POCs, especially Black people, read that poem. I love this kind of dynamism. I liken it to the reception of Sebastián Silva’s movie Tyrel. In the movie, a Black man called Tyrel goes for a trip in the woods with a couple of white friends. As the movie progresses, more and more white men pop up and make things interesting. I won’t spoil it, but things happen. After watching the movie, I looked up reviews. Many white critics I read were underwhelmed, while many Black critics I read saw it as a flawed but effective horror. Anyway, I’m sure I am stealing from Toni Morrison, but I mean for the reader to insert themselves within the poems. The reader, in the end, is the final component to the collection.
NIN: Many diverse performers (The Lady Chablis, Castro Supreme, Luther Vandross, and others) speak in this book. What would you say is the role of performance in Fantasia? Does this relate to your use of persona?
TB: Fantasia, among other things, is concerned with personae wrestling with the narratives around their bodies. In my chapbook, What Are We Not For (Bull City Press, 2016), I was concerned with the body as something to be suspicious of, something to be handled carefully. Fantasia broadens this conversation to include the presence of audience/spectator. Inherent to performance is a contract between the actor/performer and audience/spectator: the actor is poised to be watched; the audience signs on to watch. That’s boring. Like the Slipstream Theater I mentioned earlier, my favorite pieces of theater, movies, and dance performances are ones in which the contract gets broken, rewritten, or thrown away. In the book, there is no such contract and agency is up for grabs. Who, finally, gets to watch who becomes the true performance. And how that gaze calibrates can make the difference between life or death, pleasure or pain.
NIN: How do drag performances of gender and trans/queered gender play into the performance(s) of Fantasia?
TB: In the collection, I’ve planted poems that are reaching toward a future collection (I hope it comes together one day). Poems like “The Lady Chablis as Herself,” “Dear Latrice Royale,” and even “Framing Debra Shaw” are outcrops of my own personal reckoning with diva worship. Diva worship, the sort of gay deification of women and femmes, on the surface is a well-meaning gesture. Beyoncé in Homecoming, Diana Ross caught in the rain at her 1983 Central Park concert, Angela Bassett smoking a cigarette after burning a car filled with a cheating husband’s clothes in Waiting to Exhale, and Shea Couleé calling out Valentina on a RuPaul’s Drag Race reunion show—I too love it all. But that love is still fraught with many problematic presumptions inherent in the cis male gaze. As I have stated a few times, in different ways, the personae in the book are all grappling with the narratives around their bodies. These poems, seated in the realm of trans/queerness and gender performance, seek to trouble, and thus expand upon, that discussion.
Additionally, to pull this scope back out a bit further, I think of queer identity as a constant dance between who the self, performed self, is and how this existence gets misread by outsiders. I’m also thinking in terms of queering architecture and landscape. Within the book is a sort of mapping of Detroit—where I was born and raised. Those who are from the area will recognize many names and locales found in the book, but that is where the recognition will end. For example, when you mention Palmer Park to most Detroiters, they think of barbecues and picnics with families. But when Palmer Park is mentioned to me, a Black gay man, I think of late-night cruising culture and sex in the woods. At the center of the book is the tradition of the peripatetic poem—a mode canonically attributed to white men. With poets like Frost, Wordsworth, and Whitman, there is the presumption that land can be traversed without consequence. In Fantasia, traversing the land is fraught with so many consequences because of the mere existence of the speakers. So more than just meditating on queer identity, I think the book is also interested in building a Black queer landscape; a Black queer pastoral. My way of world building.
NIN: There’s this relentless tension in the questions of humanity/animality in this book. The end of section II struck me with its heightened focus on bestial images and concepts in comparison to section I (starting with “Bareback Aubade with the Dog” and continuing with “And the dog comes back,” “The Runts,” “Lycanthropy,” “The bug,” “Fable of the Beast,” and, a few poems later, “What sort of bird.”) Would you speak a little about the role of this shift in the image system of the section, and what it might facilitate or emphasize as the book progresses?
TB: When I was younger, I used to read a lot of African-American folktales. I remember there were often ghosts and guides disguised as animals, especially a dog or a bird, trying to reveal something to the main character. The specter of these animal guides is absolutely in not just this book, but my work in general. In my poems, though, the animals are leading back into the speaker’s body in order to reveal something about the speaker’s true nature. Also, I am a poet with a tendency to write about many things through the lens of sex, thus I often reach for the accoutrement of sexual fetishism—dog masks, collars, whips, restraints, et cetera. When these two sets of symbols (folktale and fetish) clash in the book, the products are poems like “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the dog comes back,” “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy.” The second section begins with porn actors, my fathers of hunger, shaping the political narratives around the usage and presentations of their bodies. The latter half of the second section is interested in positioning talk of desire back into an interior (psychological) space in which danger and pain are cheap prices to pay in the name of satiation, wholeness, and beauty. That is why, at this point in the book, poems like “The Bug,” “The Weather, the Weather,” and “Fable of the Beast” find their places.
NIN: You seem to pay a lot of attention to structure in these poems and when talking about your writing; are there any other poets or poems that use form in ways you find interesting?
TB: To my mind, structure and form are two different considerations. When I am thinking of structure, I’m concerned with the information, or the news, of the poem and in what order that information is released. Form, on the other hand, leads me to questions of line and stanza length, open or closed stanzas, rhyme schemes, sonic structures, et cetera. With all of that said, some of my favorite poets and poems play around with the relationship between structure and form. What jumps to mind immediately are the poems in the “Soliloquies from the Village of Orphans and Widows” section in Tarfia Faizullah’s Registers of Illuminated Villages. There, concrete poems seem to reveal their shapes (forms) only until I have made sense of the poem’s information. Another poem that comes to mind is Diane Seuss’ “Beauty Is Over,” from her book Four-Legged Girl: Poems. In that poem, the ghostly baas of a jarred two-headed lamb reverberate, and underscore, the volley of images that end the poem:
the three-eyed, the four-legged, like twelve-fingered Lucille, with her bad
kidneys, bad teeth and bad breasts, her bad hair, her two-headed poetry, my
titanium leg and screws, my stretch marks and wide caesarian scar, my overt
and covert badness, my bad shoes and bare ankles, my badbadbadbad poetry.
NIN: Does the consumption of art other than poetry influence your formal decisions?
TB: Yes, I actually look to other disciplines more so than poetry for new tools. Fantasia’s structure owes a lot to movies. One of the film techniques I love is the long take. It’s when a camera follows, usually, a single character through an intricately choreographed shot that never cuts away. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma has many stunning shots like this. The obvious place where this long take is apparent in the book is in my approach to sentence construction. I love long sentences. Many of the poems in the book are one sentence, or they strive toward one sentence. When Tracy K. Smith read at Detroit Institute of Arts, she said you know a poem is about time when it is made up of one sentence. Yeah, there is something so powerful about being able to, at least on the page, manipulate time. It’s thrilling for me to see how much a sentence can hold without losing its integrity. Heck, it’s also exciting for me when a sentence’s integrity fails.
NIN: How do you care for yourself emotionally when writing?
TB: With all that is going in my life and the larger world, I have not been able to write. I need to figure out something. I will say that when I am in the act of revision, that is my joy and care. Revision takes the chaos of an initial draft and whips it into order. In the making of a poem, the elements on the page are within my control—as much as a poet is in control of their poems. Whatever question or moment that initially struck me gets sorted out and put in its place. I don’t know. When revision is going well, it’s almost as if my poems say to me, “Give me your madness. Let me help you make sense of it all.”