- 2019 Finalist NAACP Image Award – Literature
- 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize
- Pushcart Poetry Prize
- 2015 College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI ) Best Poet
- Callaloo Fellowship
- Boaat Fellowship
- Watering Hole Fellowship
- Curator – Winter Tangerine Review: Lineage of Mirrors
FAIL BETTER: LIVING IN THE AFTERMATH WITH POET JULIAN RANDALL
· AUGUST 22, 2018
Race, parents, sports, sexuality, mental health, the Midwest—the territory Julian Randall explores in his debut poetry collection, Refuse, is vast. However, the book navigates this terrain with skill, showing how each piece intersects. The result is not so much a book of separate poems. It’s a moving bildungsroman, with the poems progressing chronologically, for the most part, to span the protagonist’s childhood through college years. The challenge in this story—the struggle of being queer and biracial in middle America—is no small feat. “I’ll lay it flat: I am Black and Dominican and Bisexual,” Julian writes in “On the Night I Consider Coming Out to My Parents.” Not feigning faux-heroic resolve, he adds: “I am afraid to belong to another thing, to become still more no man’s land.”
Trauma, resulting from the constant images of unarmed black bodies on the news, is met with formal experimentation, including several poems mimicking academic article abstracts and four poems titled “Palinopsia.” This series, titled after a term for visual images that continue to return even after the stimulus has departed, begins with a long prose poem and then offers three erasures. The final version transforms a discussion of getting rid of flies in the first version to an honest confession: “I know / I didn’t have the energy to kill / myself though I wanted to.” However, the book does not wallow in hopelessness, but a criticism of society. The speaker in “Variation on a Theme of Genetics” sums it up best: “just my luck to be born just a few years before / the end of the world.” As the title implies, Refuse is both an imperative for what we must not allow and a meditation of what we have had to leave behind.
Refuse, which won the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, will be available September 18, 2018, from University of Pittsburgh Press. A Chicago native and MFA candidate at the University of Mississippi, Julian has garnered fellowships from Callaloo, BOAAT, and the Watering Hole, and he was named best poet at the National College Slam in 2015. His creative work has appeared in Puerto del Sol, Prairie Schooner, BOAAT, and Word Riot, among many others. He was kind enough to talk about Claudia Rankine, Kanye West, and the navigating the disorienting path forward after accomplishing a lifelong dream.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Julian Randall: At the risk of being too hard on my present self and maybe too merciful to my early stuff, it was a fairly recent poem that’s not in the book but whose later iteration may end up in my thesis. It was this roughly 5 page long abecedarian called The Book of Yeezus, I could say it was about Kanye West and that would be partially true. But the conditions of that partialness are exactly the problem, honestly. But I’m lowkey getting ahead of myself.
The more pressing question is why a poem whose form is theoretically 26 lines long ends up being 5 pages long? Frankly, I was doing the most because I was afraid. The thing it feels as though nobody tells you is that after a first book (in my case Refuse) is actually accepted it’s easy to feel almost completely unmoored from the artist you were before this seismic event took place in your writing life. After all, what would Sisyphus do if he ever actually got the damn boulder up the hill? You’re free from that moment on to be anything, which leaves you equally open to be nothing and that’s terrifying.
So anyway back to the abecedarian, I was supposed to have been working on it all semester for workshop, and I entered the workshop feeling that I was losing my grip on who I was, what I wanted from a poem. But I knew that I had gotten as far as I had by grinding and being very extra, so I imposed on the original attempts to work on this weekly (like I was supposed to) this extremely convoluted rule system that I can’t even remember (the original subject was Tyler, the Creator whose particular masculinity has often disgusted but always fascinated me, especially now) and it just was not working at all. Ultimately, with the deadline closing in and me worrying that perhaps I was a fraud who had one book and only one book in him and may never write another worthwhile poem again . . . Kanye put on a MAGA hat. And something in me kinda snapped. Kanye’s extravagance, his sweeping production has always been an influence in how I held beauty in a poem. So, I chose to do a different version of “The Most.”
I ended up doing a 7-sentence prose stanza for each letter and hammered this out with maybe a week to go until we had to all present our poem in the class. People surprisingly liked what I had made, but I had a bad, empty feeling in my gut about it even as folks were being very encouraging. In my heart I knew that the poem was suffering under the form I had put on it, the poem was suffering because I wanted the form to triumph so I could prove to myself I was capable of writing something complex. After Refuse was done, I felt suddenly a lot of conversation around a second book, a pressure to outdo and reinvent myself.
In short the initial draft of that poem doesn’t trust its obsessions. It doesn’t trust itself to be obsessed with Kanye and grief, or parental loss, or the communal trauma of the slave trade. It’s a poem that is trying to support this excessive structure by being about everything and ultimately ends up feeling highly lyrical in the places it is most keenly aware that it is dangerously close to not being about anything at all.
I feel like it’s worst thing I ever wrote primarily because once I actually edited it, there was a pretty great poem in there. In fact there were the foundations of at least 3 really good ideas and questions, but I felt nauseous with pressure to respond, to remake myself in a way that was disingenuous to what I wanted but was instead trying to further what I thought people expected from me. I wasn’t trusting my obsessions because I was afraid I had gone through them all in Refuse. To still want to talk about Black men, about grief and all its music would mean I was stagnating if I wasn’t also completing this formal challenge that was serving nothing but my need for validation.
So how have you learned to trust — in the power of the process or in your abilities as a writer — that you can continually create something new from your old obsessions? And how is this struggle showing up in your current project?
JR: To quote the opening line of one of my favorite works in progress in the current project, “history only becomes more unmanageable the longer it goes on” and I think that’s not even necessarily a condition of collective history or national history but also the history of obsession. Luckily Black men keep doing things that astound and touch and befuddle me every day, so I’m never out of inspiration but only out of alignment in the moment to capture it.
Trusting obsession, or relearning to trust obsession, is a faith that you will survive it. As we get closer and closer to the publication of Refuse in September, I am getting closer to living in the aftermath of saying a number of previously unutterable things. I survived having said them, and I get a little closer everyday to reconciling that I will survive them having been read. I’m learning to trust living in the aftermath of that, and maybe the sentence can also end earlier; I’m learning to trust living. Folk think I joke or that I exaggerate, but I hadn’t really planned to make it this far, to live this long. It’s scary work, this survival, but I understand it a little better every day I think.
Obsession is another lifetime, both parallel and part of my physical living. Having survived saying something, like how a teenage me felt devastating loneliness in private school, allows me to pursue the next phases of that loneliness; most pressingly how one can be lonely even among the ghosts that I feel near me in Oxford. Maybe, and I am only just thinking this as I write it, but it feels right to say, it is always baffling to me how closely intertwined loneliness and the realities of wealth and wealth building are. I have lived near wealth in the schools I attended, observed it, occasionally pitied its beneficiaries, etc. I grew up on a bunch of rap videos where it seemed like wealthy Black folks (I understand now that they were rich and those are different things but stay with me on this) never had to be alone. I coveted that kind of pursuit of capital as a kid as a potential resolution to loneliness (but look what that’s done to Kanye), and that’s definitely one reason why the word “gold” has been popping up a lot in these poems.
Nowadays, I live near one ground zero of that wealth building and the terror and violence that are inextricable from it. I live as close as I have ever physically lived to the slave trade, and I see that even with all that some of them have stolen, they are so lonely that it’s driving them nuts; the quiet is killing them, just at a different velocity than it is killing me. That’s an obsession I live in. (Maybe it’s a bit like this brilliant interview between Aaron Coleman and Claudia Rankine, it’s “the history behind the feeling.”) I am writing to y’all from the midst of The Zero Country, seeing what I find.
And that definitely has a lot to do as well with lineage (another overt obsession of mine) as it offends me that there is simply a point where the written English history of my family stops. Somewhere nearby my great grandfather was born, I can’t tell you when because nobody ever wrote it down, nobody ever told him, they didn’t think it was important for him to know. This is not ancient history, and even if it was that doesn’t mitigate that a violence took place. It doesn’t mitigate that from that violence and a litany of others emerged the possibility of my life. I’m learning my language for these things; as they were, as they are and maybe even a bit of how I hope to make them in my own hands. It’s a mess right now, but I trust that I’ll survive to see it all become something needed; something that flexes as if it were alive, because it is.
Jasmine Mendez Platano Poetry Series