10 Questions for Tommye Blount
- By Edward Clifford
Garnet like the edges of Bible pages—
no, not that dark, think brighter, more
sacred, less symbol of hatred, more
of the revered called to repair this
land's flag bothered ragged by those
cured with the devil's mark
—from "Hydra," Volume 63, Issue 3 (Fall 2022)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Not one of the first poems, but definitely a pivotal one. This was the early ‘00s when I worked with the poet, and my dear friend, Vievee Francis. Kevin Young’s Black Maria, an amazing lyrical take on film noir that is still one of my favorite books of poems, had just come out. Clueless about the amount of skill it took Young to make it look so easy, I became fascinated by the femme fatale archetype.
As an assignment for Francis, I wrote a poem with a woman in peril subjected to violence at the hands of a man. Oh! It was quite misogynistic. Just wretched. When Francis read that poem, thank goodness for Vievee Francis, she immediately urged me to look into myself to see where that came from.
After I got through my initial horror and embarrassment, I discovered what I was avoiding; my own late coming out as a gay man. The subject I was really after was not about femme fatales, but about my own troubled relationship with men. That woman had no business in my poem when I was clearly the imperiled one struggling with men.
Since Francis’ push, my work (mostly) has all to do with what happens when men are placed in close (psychic and physical) spaces then forced to deal with each other. Violence, sex, Eros, and love were, and still are, the lenses through which I explore these ‘homo-masc-dynamics.’
Although the questions I’m asking now, at 43, are more nuanced and would be foreign to that twenty-something Tommye from years past, those filters I mentioned (violence, sex, Eros, and love) still show me strange and terrifying corners of myself. It is that terra incognita I search for each time I return to the page.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
As evident from my previous answer, I would not be the poet or person I am today without Vievee Francis. Sure, I would still be writing poems, but not with this hunger for risk and imagination that I possess now. I always tell people: in the end, I don’t care if I (as its creator) come across unscathed in my poems, I only care about the integrity of the poems. This is what Francis taught me all those years ago and what she continues to show in the daring works she creates today.
Another major influence is Carl Phillips—a poet I learned about all those years ago through Francis. Phillips helped (and helps) me to find a space for my own little ugly-beautiful life; to be fearless on the page. My love of sentences, the wonder of their elasticity, the thrill of their breakage, comes from my constant return to Phillips’ work.
Of course, there are my teachers at Warren Wilson who still serve as beacons for me: Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Martha Rhodes, A. Van Jordan, and C. Dale Young. These are poets who are not satisfied with just writing brilliant work, but they care about poets and poetry.
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I did not mention countless others: Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Robert Hayden, Susan Mitchell, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricotte, Eduardo C. Corral, Atsuro Riley, Spencer Reece, and so many more that I am blanking out on right now.
What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was a child about 6 or 7, this was in the ‘80s, I wanted to be Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy Huxtable) from The Cosby Show. I can remember my mother telling me that if I did my homework, got good grades, then I could be on TV like her.
The acting bug got stronger when The New Mickey Mouse Club started airing on The Disney Channel. You don’t understand. I wanted to be on that show so bad and was convinced Tiffini Hale (I wrote a fan letter to her and she wrote me back!), Dee Dee Magno, Rhona Bennett (now in the current iteration of En Vogue), and Roque Herring were going to be my friends once I made it into the cast. They held auditions in Detroit once, but I find out after the fact via the evening news. Seeing all those precocious tweens and teens dancing really pissed me off. Ha! So, yeah, acting was a thing I really wanted to do when I was little.
These days, don’t ask me to dance. I can’t even imagine stepping on a theater stage then being expected to remember lines. Memory is tough for me, which is why I always tip my hat to poets who can slam. Still, I suppose all of that thespian energy goes into my poems. There is so much in my work driven by personae and ekphrasis. Poems are little theaters to me in the end.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Over the past five years or so, I have been fascinated by fashion. Not in a trendy sense, although that intrigues me too, but the histories around fashion—particularly American fashion. While snooping around on the internet, inside some article on the history of hoods, I saw mention of there being a mail order catalog used by the Ku Klux Klan. Then I learned that once women were allowed into their ranks the robes were made of softer material—such care, right?! So wild! I had to know more about the terrifying industry of the Klan robe. D. W. Griffiths’ film Birth of a Nation galvanized the KKK; got them to get organized nationally. Nation also gave cinema, and my lyric universe, Clare West—the costume designer for the film.
To say the least, all of this fascinated and horrified me. The way innovation (Birth of a Nation is considered a cinematic marvel because of its length and scale—the first of its kind) and imagination (Clare West is given some credit with giving shape to the Klan robes known today) was, and still is used, in the name of terror, xenophobia, and racial intimidation.
I am of two minds: it makes my skin crawl to see how we still hold on to historical ephemera, as if through possession and/or public exhibition we’d be enabled to course-correct past wrongs—clearly [Tommye gestures toward the Proud Boys and QAnon grinning on the news] we can’t; but also, a student of Robert Hayden, I am quite drawn to, and driven by, this meta paradox: am I not too holding on to that ephemera from the past, creating a public exhibition for it, by writing these poems in hopes that the poems will last? And as a Black man using my hard-earned bag of craft tools to, once again, put image to this horror, who do I think I am?!
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I used to think not, but after the publication of my first full-length collection Fantasia for the Man in Blue, I think there is more for which I must answer. Detroit is my home. Although at this point I have lived outside of the city longer than I have within its limits, its Baaaadness (à la the Detroit Piston’s “Bad Boys”) and its badness have absolutely shaped the poet and person I have become. Of my book, I always say, there is a ghost map of Detroit demarcated within its pages. There are places that any native Detroiter picking up the book would go, “I know exactly where this poem is happening!” But there is also another layer. A queerer one.
The poem “Palmer Park” is one such locus in my book’s ghost map. Most Detroiters experience this massive bucolic park as a place to which families frequent for reunions or picnics. But I too know this place as a Black queer haven in which another type of family, and lovers, find each other.
So Detroit, as this kind of layered place, influences my work. The city’s insistence on one conservative way of life forced me, in its restriction, to carve out the best queer life I know how. The circumstances that pop up in my book—closeted husbands, sex cruising in parks and rest areas, internalized homophobia, mis-translations of beauty, race play’s contentiousness with deeply rooted Blackness—are all too by-products of the complicated city in which I was born and raised.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I must leave my apartment and go to a café to write. It can’t just be any café though. There are specific ones I frequent in and around Detroit. Also, there is a self-assigned seat in each location. And if I should go to one of these cafés and see some fool sitting in my seat, I leave disgusted. It’s that serious for me.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My friend, and poets, Tarfia Faizullah and Scheherazade Washington Parrish get an earful when I have new poems. These are usually the first two people who see many of my poems.
One of the other things I have grown to value is trying out new work at readings. You know how people say something like “audiences want nothing but for the performer succeed?” That is true. But, against their well-meaning visages, audiences are also more brutally honest—through their silences, breaths, yawning, just body language—than they realize.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Playwriting is miraculous to me. I’m a huge fan of playwrights, but I am too squeamish to attempt writing a play. Dialogue is so difficult for me. In my poems, I mostly succeed at avoiding dialogue.
I also think dancers are not of this planet. My flat feet and stiff body just won’t allow it. I follow a lot of dancers, of various styles, on Instagram and the “vocabulary” these people come up with is just miraculous to me. To step into a space, then transform the utility of that space by reimagining the way a body moves through it, just excites me.
Screenwriters, actors, and directors are deities to me also. Maybe one day I will be brave enough to give one of these a go, but for now poetry (already difficult enough for my puny brain as it is) is a genre in which I can at least flirt with all of those art forms.
What are you working on currently?
I am not working on anything, just writing poems. This is how I have always worked, poem by poem. Sometimes, I get in a rut in which I compare myself to other poets’ productivity; whine about how they’re able to work on several books at once. Even answering this question makes me feel a tad bit guilty for not having some major project in the works. All I do is read and write a poem when it happens. Perhaps I am not living enough. What can I say?! Writing poems is so very difficult for me.
What are you reading right now?
Lately, I have been submerged in the universe of Robert Hayden. It shames me to say, but as a poet from Detroit I hadn’t done a deep dive into Hayden’s work and life before this year. Now, I’m obsessed. I was telling a friend, it’s as if he has been guiding me in my own work all this time without my knowing. I am also making my way through the work of his influences; this week, it’s Countée Cullen’s collected poems edited by Major Jackson.
A Cave Canem alum, TOMMYE BLOUNT is the author of the chapbook What Are We Not For—published by Bull City Press in 2016. His debut full-length collection Fantasia for the Man in Blue, published by Four Way Books in 2020, was finalist for numerous awards, among them the National Book Award, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry, and others. Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye now lives in Michigan.