"My brother Terrence came by to see me the night I came home. He asked me about Grandma’s funeral, about the food and the weather, about who would take over her house and her dogs, if I found any pictures of us as children there, if I would ever go back." —from "Songs for Another Man's Kids," Winter 2017
(Vol. 59, Issue 4)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I always remember writing, as far back as I can remember, always trying to write poems and plays and songs. I remember my parents bought me this little Yamaha keyboard when I was maybe six or seven, and I wrote a song for my brother. And I remember it being the first thing I composed from start to finish, and I played it for my family. I even remember I rhymed the word “planet” with “dammit” but that I sang a censored version and didn’t curse, and everyone laughed and thought it was so cute.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Certainly [James] Baldwin, who shaped and continues to shape the way I see myself as an artist. Junot Diaz is another voice I am so thankful for. Toni Morrison, Denis Johnson, August Wilson, Terrance Hayes, and Yukio Mishima are also writers whose work lives within me.
What other professions have you worked in?
Ditch digging, acting, door-to-door knife sales, music, telemarketing, film production, landscaping, group-home work, bartending,
black market services, entrepreneurship, and early-childhood education.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I always wanted to be a writer, but along the way Ialso wanted to be a professional basketball player, a multi-weight-division boxing champion, an Olympic long jump champion, a rapper-slash-actor, and a spy.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I interviewed the poet Devin Kelly about his new book, and one thing we talked about was how important it is as a writer to be in “a state of witness,” to use his words. It was very important for me to be a witness for these characters, because, quite frankly, the things that are happening to them are true.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
This story has two fictional cities based on real places in which I grew up: Worcester, Massachusetts, and DeRidder, Louisiana. It’s easier to call them Westview and West Orleans in my fiction because there’s a freedom to not having any pressure on real-life anecdotes or people. But in other stories, I write about San Francisco, Oakland, Ghana, and New York. In a lot of my stories, characters are coming and going from one place to another.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I used to write the majority of a story (or poem) in my journal, wherever I was in the world, and then start typing at home when I had enough to really work with, but these days I tend to write first in the Notes app on my phone. I’ve been really enjoying it, although I miss being able to see my handwriting. I no longer doodle, either. But I can write standing up on the train, or with the lights out! And, if you lose your phone, it’s already backed up in your email account! And we always have our phones in our hands anyway, so why not use that to our advantage as writers?
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’ve been lucky to have worked in music, theater, and film, in some capacity, but I always wished I had the ability to draw and paint. The closest I came to that was a few years of doing stencil graffiti in San Francisco, but all my real artist friends were disgusted by it.
What are you working on currently?
I’m always working on a million things at once. I’m in the final stages of editing my second film, which we’re looking to send out to festivals, I’m sending out poetry chapbook manuscripts, always writing, and then some other stuff that I don’t want to jinx.
What are you reading right now?
I finally picked up Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, which is incredible. I always have a few books of poetry in my bag. Right now there’s Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, Devin Kelly’s In this Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen, Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, and the new issue of Poetry.
KWAMED OPOKU-DUKU is a poet, fiction writer, and filmmaker. His work is featured or forthcoming in Booth, Gigantic Sequins, Perigee, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Flock, and elsewhere. His fiction piece "Stay Up" was recently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Kwame was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and lives in New York City, where he attends Columbia University. Alongside the poet Karisma Price, he is a founding member of the Unbnd Collective, and he tweets @kwamethethird.