Darnell “DeeSoul” Carson is a black queer poet, performer, and educator from San Diego. He is a co-director of the award-winning Stanford Spoken Word Collective and editorial assistant at the Adroit Journal. A two-time College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) finalist, his work has been featured or is forthcoming in Write About Now Poetry, Button Poetry, The Adroit Journal, The Unified Anthology, The Oakland Arts Review, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a degree in cultural/social psychology with a minor in creative writing at Stanford University, where he has also led poetry workshop courses.
DeeSoul’s poetry springs forth from the intersections of race, sexuality, and family, among others. In his work, he uses the curation of images and the expansive nature of personal narrative to draw out the universal truths hiding in our everyday experiences. He believes not just in the power of our storms, but also in the joy of standing in the middle.
You can find more about his work at deesoulpoetry.com, and find him online on Instagram or Twitter @deesoulpoetry.
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Bailey Bujnosek: You’re the co-director of the Stanford Spoken Word Collective, and you’ve done a lot of work in spoken word. How did you get into that?
Darnell Carson: I started writing spoken word, let’s say, freshman year of high school, and it wasn’t as refined as it is now. But I wrote a lot of poetry in high school, and one of my humanities teachers was like, “Hey, I think this is really great, you should do this at our assembly.” My high school did this tolerance assembly every year. It talked about different issues that students dealt with, the importance of them, recognizing them, helping address them. I was the only kid at my school who really did poetry or spoken word, so I was used at many assemblies. I became known on campus as the poet guy, among other things.
As far as influences, like what made me even want to start writing poetry: my uncle. His name is Kendrick Dial and he’s a part of this spoken word fusion band in San Diego. He’s also really good friends with [spoken word poet and author] Rudy Francisco, so I got to meet Rudy. San Diego in general has a really strong spoken word community with so many great poets, and that really inspired me to get into it.
BB: Would you say your process for writing spoken word is very different from when you’re writing for print, or is there a degree of overlap?
DC: I would say it has evolved. My style started out spoken word. When I write in spoken word, I focus less on how it looks on the page, how it reads on the page, because I know that I’ll be the one reading and performing it. My interpretation is the one that people have to go by.
As I’ve become more of a page poet, I’ve retained the speech that I want to convey. When I write poetry for the page, I always read it aloud, and if it doesn’t sound natural coming out of my mouth, I don’t write it down.
But writing page poetry definitely is a different beast. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable writing on the page. I’ve had some really wonderful workshop leaders here at Stanford, and among my peers. I definitely see a very stark difference in the way that I write my spoken word and the way I write my page poetry. Although the lines between even those things are blurring.
BB: You mentioned workshops. I saw from your bio that you’ve led two quarter-long poetry workshop courses. Has being on the teaching side of things and leading a workshop changed how you view poetry?
DC: Oh, for sure. I think for one, it’s definitely easier to read poetry in a group setting. I love reading poetry in general, but it’s a different experience when you can discuss poetry with other people. You can gather different interpretations, [see] how it impacted people in different ways. That’s the beauty of poetry: it doesn’t hit everyone the same way. Different people will notice different things. Leading poetry workshops has helped me to do exactly that—notice new things. When I lead my workshops, I’ll always ask people what they like, what they don’t like. I’ll ask them what they notice. And I ask them to point out even the most basic things, rhyme scheme, things like that. Because sometimes people will notice things that may seem basic to them, but you have never even considered how it impacts the poetry.
BB: How did you find out about Adroit?
DC: Over the years, I’ve had some friends who have submitted to Adroit. One of my friends was a semifinalist in a previous year for the The Adroit Prize, so hearing about that got Adroit on my radar.
I’ve read some of Adroit’s issues, and I cannot call specific issues to mind, cause my brain just doesn’t work that way, but I liked the poetry that had come out of it. There’s one poem in particular, Franny Choi’s “Introduction To Quantum Theory.” I absolutely love that poem. I have it on my wall here.
As far as small presses go, I’ve seen a lot of good things about The Adroit Journal. So I was like, you know what, why not? I’ll submit to this and I’ll see what happens.
BB: What made you decide to join the team as an editorial assistant?
DC: I’ve been wanting to try my hand at working in some sort of editorial role at a press for a while, just to try to get myself in that world and see what that process looks like from the other side. Not the submission side, but the editorial process, basically.
So, lo and behold, Peter [LaBerge] sends out that newsletter that’s like, “We’re looking for applications.” And I’m like, great! It’s the summer, and I already have things to do, but I want this one as well. So I sent my application, I got an interview with Heidi [Seaborn]. Heidi told me that the position I was interviewing for already had someone, but then told me about the editorial assistant position. And I was like, oh, well I would love to do that. Adroit was already a publication that I loved, so it was a pretty easy choice.
BB: What are your responsibilities as the editorial assistant?
DC: Basically, I’m the assistant to our executive editor, Heidi Seaborn. She’s the one I answer to, besides Peter. I help to schedule meetings; I help to organize information for them. If needed, I’ll take notes. I’m here for whenever she needs something.
BB: You have a poem forthcoming in the October issue of Adroit. Can tell me what it’s about, and maybe give some insight into your process behind writing it?
DC: The name of the poem is “Poem Always Having To Repeat Itself.” I wrote this poem in response to a poem by Kara van de Graaf, and that poem is called “Poem Traveling In A Circuit.” Context for that poem in particular: my workshop that I was in here at Stanford was with a poet named Richie Hofmann, an amazing poet, just an amazing person in general, but also an amazing workshop leader. He’s good friends with Kara van de Graaf. He had her come to our class, and when she came he was like, “Okay everyone, I want you to read this packet of Kara’s poems, and I want to pick three of you to write a poem in response to any of the poems in the book.” So, he picked me and two of my peers, and I was like, okay, well, I want to write something that’s in response, but also mine.
When I saw “Poem Traveling In A Circuit,” it was a very interesting piece because it almost mirrors itself. But it doesn’t mirror itself in the way that a poem like “Myth” by Natasha Trethewey does, in which the sentences are basically exactly the same but there’s a change in punctuation. In this one, there’s a lot more room for innovation. There’s the same words every line, but you have a lot more agency with how you want those words to arrange themselves. I think that really lends itself to this poem that I was trying to write.
“Poem Always Having To Repeat Itself” is a poem about the aftermath, the after scenes, of police brutality. Especially as a black person living in the U.S., you know, we wake up, and on the news we see another person was lost to police brutality, to police violence. So this is one of those times wherein the form amplifies the content. The fact that it’s written in a backwards format and it kind of mirrors itself, it’s trying to speak to the cyclical nature of police brutality. We protest, things get quiet again, someone gets killed, we protest. Or someone gets killed and we remember them, and then we get quiet, and it keeps going. It’s a cyclical thing, and that’s why “Poem Always Having To Repeat Itself”—you know, this is something that we say over and over and over. But it doesn’t always seem that something has changed.
BB: Could you tell me more about your poetic concerns, the things you find yourself coming back to a lot in your work?
DC: Yeah. I’m currently putting out a chapbook called Running From Streetlights, and the whole idea of that book is this idea of, black people live in a constant state of being in danger, so how do black people live their daily lives while under that constant threat? And so I talk about blackness, obviously, but something I also focus on is God and holiness in general. I make a lot of connections between blackness and holiness. I was raised in a Baptist church. My grandfather’s a Baptist preacher, my dad is a deacon, my uncle is a pastor. I’m surrounded by plenty of religion, and I think a lot about my relationship with religion and black people’s relationship with religion. Because it’s really—the black church is a cultural thing. I’d be remiss to not acknowledge that.
Five things that I go back to a lot are blackness, my family, God, the topic of sexuality, and then also I’m very much a poet of the present. And what I mean by that is I think a lot about things as they are currently. That makes writing poems that are imaginative, that are more of what could happen or what will happen or what I wish to happen, a little harder. It’s something I try to push myself to do a little bit more now.
BB: Are there any specific books or collections that have been particularly influential to your work?
DC: Oh man. I think the easiest one that I can think of is Don’t Call Us Dead and Black Movie by Danez Smith. Porsha Olayiwola has a really good book of poetry called I Shimmer Sometimes, Too, and that’s from Button Poetry. Rudy Francisco has always been a really big influence on my style of spoken word, and he has a book called Helium. I think he has a new book coming out called I’ll Fly Away, but Helium is the one that I’ve read and that I really take a lot of inspiration from. And those are my big three, off the top of my head. I have a bunch of other poets that I really look up to now, after meeting them—sam sax, Safia Elhillo—but those three that I mentioned are the big three right now.
BB: What advice would you give to new poets who are just starting out, either in print poetry or spoken word?
DC: I think what I would say, first and foremost, is keep writing and keep reading. Reading is half the battle. You don’t really find your poetic voice until you realize what voices you don’t like, and which ones you really do like. So keep reading. Reading helps to do your poetry immensely.
Don’t get discouraged when your publication isn’t picked up at the age of nineteen, or thirty-five. There are great poets who get rejected all the time. Poetry is subjective. Just because one piece didn’t work for one press doesn’t mean it was a bad poem. It just maybe wasn’t part of the aesthetic or the vision that they were looking for. There are always opportunities to grow and there are always opportunities to submit.
In the realm of spoken word particularly, I would say keep watching. That’s very similar to the “keep reading” rule. A lot of what I learned about spoken word, I learned by watching how really great spoken word poets present their work—what things stood out to me about their performance, and what things fell flat. A lot of poetry is seeing what you like and emulating that.