Gary Copeland Lilley, a poet, creative writing teacher, musician and regular Kahini teaching faculty answers this week’s 5 questions. He will be visiting New Zealand in January 2016 to teach at the Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat
1. What drew you to writing?
The act of expressing my youthful rage and the confusion I was experiencing after moving from New York back to the rural south of North Carolina when I was 12 years of age. Up until then I lived in a very diverse and close-knit neighborhood and had not experienced that overt racism of the American south. The frustration led me to writing, to try to understand this beautiful but flawed world in which I had landed. I started writing my stories. Later I discovered the amazing power of poetry to convey what is was like to be black in that setting. In America the act of writing by women and people of color is an inherent political statement.
2. I was really interested in the quote you made to open the Kahini Race, Class and Place workshop and particularly a follow up point that “…poets write poems, and to me art is never subordinate to the political.” Can you talk about how you negotiate these tensions in your work and your writing practice?
I really became radicalized (much as other youth did) during that time of political turbulence and racial violence. Much of what I was going through, and my family was going through, my community was going through could be examined through the lens of race, class, and place. These factors influenced my entire world in this segregated society, so I guess to see these things surface in my art was a given. I did join the protest, and later ownass roots organizations that served to ensure the survival of my community. But I eventually learned to separate the political organizing from my art. Political I could write manifestos and statements that represented the collective voice. But as a poet, art is personal to me, and it must sit at the head of my table, and even while embedded into the continued political struggle of an under-served African American community, I felt like my art could speak for me, and hopefully the universality would reveal an entry point, a resonance, a connection for others.
3. I know you also play music, could you talk about the relationship between your music and your poetry and blues in particular?
When I was a kid living in New York, of course the blacks in our church, and friends of my parents were all people who had migrated from the south. And they brought that music with them. So I was around it, as conscious of as a kid can be to the “background music” of grown-ups. But moving back to North Carolina (where my mother and father were raised) dropped me right in the middle of it. I was immersed in the blues: my grandmother sung those old-time gospel songs that I still sing, a sacred blues: my folks were sorely tested, the family is a Christian family, they were worried about what was considered to be my lack of faith, which was really my distrust of religion, particularly one that had been used in the south to justify the enslavement of African people; before I could legally drive I talked older boys into giving me rides to the juke joints where I loved to dance and listen to the secular blues and the blues people. The musicality and the narrative language of most of my poems reflect that. It was an aesthetic choice to create art that was representative of where I was from.
4. What are you working on now?
Right now, I am working on a new manuscript that I am deep enough in it to tell you the title (something I won’t do unless the work is at a certain stage of development). My working title is ‘The Bushman’s Medicine Show’. In it there is a blurring of the sacred and the secular, the presence of black spirituality in the everyday walk around world, the presence of humanity maybe where it is not readily expected, and I get to reveal things from my life more directly, but understated because I love the power of understatement. I have lost both parents in the last few years which has taken me into a closer look at mortality and a desire to work with the complexities of parental relationships, and the follies of the ancestors, devout or criminal. Because that god/goddess force is somewhere in all of us. I want to show that in this collection of poems.
5. Tell us a bit more about the workshop. What are you hoping to impart and what should people expect?
What does it mean to be a poetic witness? I have a mentor who told me to teach what I do, my process in creating the poem. I hope the preceding alludes to some of that process. I want the participants to know that they are continually registering what it means to be in the world in which they walk through daily, and their individual take, how things move and affect each personally is a microcosm of that world. And within that is the gravitas of universality that opens that particular poem to everyone. That’s what I want them to be ready and willing to work towards.