Interview: Writer Robert Lashley

Editor Matty Byloos, Interview, July 19th, 2013

"...my severely self-destructive behavior was dominated by my past..."

Robert Lashley
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This interview was conducted over email between Nailed co-publisher Matty Byloos, and writer Robert Lashley, over a period of several months. What appears below is their complete, unabridged conversation.

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NAILED MAGAZINE: Let’s start simple. How did you find writing? What did you think that the act of writing, or the role of being a writer in society, would do for you, or what could it give you access to that made it initially attractive? And where did you go from that initial thought, in terms of your development, as a writer?

ROBERT LASHLEY: I found writing — particularly the discipline of writing poetry — because of my uncle Moe. Literature has been a central part of my life. My mother, who graduated from the University of Washington in 1973 with a major in Latin American Literature and a minor in African American Literature, is one of the finest and toughest literary critics I know. My adopted aunts, Marilyn, Pam, and Pat, each had English degrees. My grandmother on my father’s side was an avid reader. Even my father, in those rare times when he was sober, read Walt Whitman and Shakespeare. Because for a good deal of my life I didn’t have much money, literature and the discourse of it played a very important part of my imaginative life.

It was the influence of my uncle Moe, however, that helped me become a poet. My uncle was born in 1920, on a farm in Mississippi they called Valley Ridge. In 1942, he bought a book called The Golden Slippers, the first anthology of African American poetry in American literature, and decided to become a poet. He wrote about 9 poems, about subjects ranging from the number of lynchings he witnessed, to the nature of the farm he grew up in, to his love for a local young woman. They were lyrical, yet with a fine eye and ear, and influenced by Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and James Weldon Johnson. If he didn’t go to war and return an alcoholic, he would have had a good shot to get a national name. If my children want to publish them someday when I’m dead, they have my permission, but not when I’m alive. He only shared them with a handful of people after his illness, and it would be too painful for me to violate his confidence, even when he is passed away.

My uncle didn’t write a poem for the last 49 years of his life, but when he was healthy, he read, read aloud, took brilliant, copious notes, and was full of ideas. As a poet, he couldn’t deal with a post war literary world that slobbered over Ezra Pound, who slandered a country that he lost his mind in battlefields defending. But he didn’t fail. Just because he didn’t get a New York Times book review cover, doesn’t mean that he failed. His example taught me a great deal about a literary life in full, the joy of the exchange of ideas, the meaning of work, and the meaning of taking poetry seriously.

So when I decided to become a writer, his influence weighed heavy. Like many people, I started writing poetry out of therapeutic reasons: I had seen a lot of horrific shit in Tacoma, both in Hilltop and the suburb I was bused to, and later lived in. But it was his voice in my head, one that kept telling me, “Work. Work. Read. Read.  Develop your craft. Try to understand your experience in the place of the general world,” that drove me to be a better poet, and will drive me to write till the day I die.

NAILED: There’s an interesting confluence of seemingly opposing elements in your work. Maybe there’s something going on there that we can talk about, and the blend of influences will end up making a lot of sense, as it often does with a bit of illumination. The formal vehicles at play in your work are strong, and don’t seem like little experiments in any way. Villanelles, maybe even a rondeau — you’ve captured the words into these bottles of tight, lyrical form. But the delivery when you perform is ecstatic, and has the weight, enthusiasm, and conviction of a preacher’s sermon. Which is not informal in the least — maybe just another kind of formal assemblage of words and meaning. Can you talk about the influence of form, and what you’re thinking with the content and subject matter you choose to spend time with in your poetry?

LASHLEY: When I wrote Anti-Elegy, I saw something in form that appealed to what I understood about call and response in the black church, and it spurred me to examine my and my family’s relationship with the language of the bible, as well as its rhetoric. In doing so, I decided not to limit my imagination.

The more I studied, the more I came back to the page poets who were influenced by the music and rhetoric of the church. Rhapsodists of every stripe get me. Of course there are the poets I grew up with: Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Robert Hayden, Rita Dove, and especially Gwendolyn Brooks, whose books taught me that where I grew up was worth writing about. But I also found Dylan Thomas, with his Welshman preacher’s cadence, W.B Yeats and Edna St Vincent Millay, with their obsessions with music and form, W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin, who worked diligently to make a high music out of plain speech, and Federico Garcia Lorca, who showed me that one could synthesize aspects of folk culture beautifully into the constraints of form.

I’m a greedy writer: if something is good, I want in. I want to read it. I want to understand it. I want to learn from it and become a better writer. I’m still going to be a neighborhood kid and rep where I came from, but I want people to understand its relationship to all the literary cities in the world worth going to. My uncle Gerald said that my relationship with the reader can be described in a sentence: “Get your ass in here.”

NAILED: We all grow up in a country, or a time, or a culture that tends to call a lot of things out based on visible differences — I’m thinking of this as a different way to understand racism, in addition to other divisive political issues. Do you see writing, or specifically poetry and its performance, as a vehicle of enlightenment?

Calling out “the other” tends to limit the way we know each other as human beings. As a potential remedy, it’s possible that having insights into other cultures, races, groups of people who look or act different from the way we do as single subjects peering out onto the world — that poetry and writing in general can be used as a tool to educate through willful sharing. Can you talk about these ideas, or share your thoughts on the politics of being a writer for you?

LASHLEY: Philip Rahv once said something to the effect that the question about politics isn’t whether or not politics should be in art, but what the artist does with politics as a subject. And I try to hold myself to that. What I go through as a black man in America is part of the fabric of my life, and I’m not going to deny the particulars of my experience. However, it is not the whole cloth. I don’t want to tell anybody that they aren’t welcome to try and understand my experience just because I’m a black man. Milosz never said in any of his poems that I couldn’t understand his experience because I wasn’t Polish. Gjertrud Schnackenberg never said in any of her poems that I could never read her because I was a dude. I try to follow the same way of thinking.

I also think that overtly political poets, those who center their work on “lecturing white people,” need to think long and hard about the subtext of their work, who their audience is, and how it resonates — or how ill it resonates — in different communities. In other words: a lot of political and slam poets do not understand how condescending they are to a lot of black people. To some, the didactic political message might be, “Let me guilt trip you into a submission of something.” To others, it might be “This is what I think of your tradition.” And to people who thought long and hard about that tradition, people who understand just how much work has been done, just how much sweat and blood has been poured into that work, and just how little one thinks of it when they reduce that history into a ramble, that kind of poetry will set them off.

NAILED: How does place influence your writing? Have you traveled much, and to where, and how did that sense of the other, in terms of culture, or geography, or history, factor in to the work that came after your trip? Alternately, is there any place in the world that you have on your list, where you know that an extended stay in that city or country would yield a new body of work?

LASHLEY: I went to Mexico twice. The first time, I was too young to remember. The second time, I was 16, I went to Toluca, Mexico City, Cancun, and Ixtapa De la Sal. When my father smoked and drank up his business and left my family destitute, my mother made herself into a genius selling fine jewelery, so much so that 8 years after, we were on Section 8, and we had a house in University Place. So by 1994, we had a bit of extra money and she wanted me to see where her best friend in college lived. So I was there for three weeks. I would like to tell you it changed me, but the month before, my grandmother had died a very violent and very complicated death at the hands of my father (in a drug and alcohol frenzy, he had shook her wheelchair and the result was that she fell down the steps and hurt her head and hip). Seven days later, she was dead. It was something that I will never really, fully, and completely recover from, and a culmination of a series of unspeakable acts that my father did, that I struggle to comprehend everyday (I wrote about it here). When I went to Mexico a month later, I wasn’t in any shape to completely take it in. The snippets of Mexico I have in my mind, however, are wonderful: the endless lights of Mexico City as I looked over it in an airplane, the markets in Toluca, the beautiful churches in Ixtapa De la Sal, the blue water in Cancun the moments I wasn’t drinking to get the voices out of my head. I want to go back to Mexico someday. There are so many “pie in the sky” sojourns, so many dream pilgrimages I have in my head (London, Dublin, Berlin), but I want to go back to Mexico.

NAILED: When was the last time you nailed it? Like, really really nailed it.

LASHLEY: The last time I nailed it was when I decided to get my shit together this year. I quit drinking, and actually decided to seek counseling for a lot of the shit that was going on with me. For the longest time, I had been playing a role — the sweet yet tragic black male artist archetype, and I didn’t want to play it anymore. I’ll tell you a story that might not seem germane at first, but bear with me. Last year, my Uncle Gee demanded I do two things. The first: re-read Blind Faith, the story of Lula Mae Hardaway, Stevie Wonder’s mother. The second:  listen to Talking Book, the first of Wonder’s staggering 70’s albums. At first, I didn’t necessarily get why he wanted me to take these two in together: I was horrified by Wonder’s pimp of a father, moved deeply by Wonder and his mother overcoming horrific obstacles, and moved by the genius of that album. And I didn’t know what he was getting at. Then I listened to “Blame It On The Sun,” one of the several love songs he wrote about his breakup with Syreeta Wright, (particularly the bridge).

But I’ll blame it on the sun
the sun that didn’t shine
I’ll blame it on the wind and trees

I’ll blame it on the time that never was enough
I’ll blame it on the tide and sea
But my heart blames it on me

And with that last line, it clicked for me. In owning up to his own mistakes in “Sun,” Wonder not only wrote a great song, he took agency of his own life and any power his father had over his. Listening to the album afterwords, the motifs from that song pop up over and over — an artist growing to be an adult, making his own decisions, willing to learn and grow from failure, and not letting the past speak for individual mistakes.I am tired of letting Bob Lashley speak for my mistakes. In so many ways, I had let him dominate the actions in my life. From the incident that led to my grandmother’s death, till I was 23 and a half, I was a self-pitying asshole. Even when I started to do the complex, continuous work of being a male ally worth a damn, my severely self-destructive behavior was dominated by my past. Yes, I was doing a lot of good, and had a lot of good qualities, but by being this sweet-sad/drinky/druggy black man with one foot in the grave, this person who was hurtful toward himself instead of other people, I had hurt the people who loved me as much as I did before, if not moreso.I didn’t want to hurt them anymore. I didn’t want to hurt myself anymore. I had repeated sexual contact with my father from age 9 to 14, and the man did enough traumatic, epically abusive shit outside of that. The sentence is hard to write, hard to even read, triggering for friends to hear, and unspeakably difficult to have as a reality. But I want to live. I want to show love to my friends. I want to grow as a writer. I want to grow as a person. I want to add, not take from the world. I want to find some kind of happiness everyday.

I still got things I need to work on, obstacles I need to overcome, and a brain that’s frazzled beyond belief because of trauma, but that doesn’t stop me anymore. My issues are MINE and MINE ALONE, and I will keep improving as an individual. Bob Lashley doesn’t speak for me. I can’t find the words to the joy I feel in that sentence. That’s one of the reasons why I keep writing.

NAILED: Thanks for being the realest, Lashley. Great talk.

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If you liked this interview, you might like to read a suite of poems from Robert Lashley here.

robert lashleyA semi finalist for the PEN/Rosenthal fellowship, Robert Lashley has had poems published in such Journals as Feminete, No Regrets, and Your Hands, Your Mouth. His work was also featured in Many Trails To The Summit, an anthology of Northwest form and Lyric poetry. To quote James Baldwin, he wants to be an honest man and a good writer.

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).