- 2019 Finalist
NAACP Image Award – Literature
- 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize
- Pushcart Poetry Prize
- 2015 College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI )
- 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.
Q: Where do you currently live/reside? I’m a third year MFA candidate at Ole Miss so Oxford, MS
Q: How do you self-identify?: I’m a Biracial Black and Dominican artist. I’m bisexual and I identify as Afrolatinx. I’m from Chicago (Logan Square) and I use He/Him pronouns!
Affiliations: Piel Cafe Poetry Collective, No Name Poetry Collective, Callaloo, Cave Canem, The Watering Hole
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the poem above?
Bet, I know we are not supposed to have favorite children but “In the Netflix Trailer Obama Says ‘I Don’t Fit In Anywhere’ While Anthony Hamilton Pulls a Burning City Out of His Mouth” is one of my favorite poems in the whole collection. A fun fact is that I often start with a title as a kind of scene setting and then just leave that word doc for like two weeks and if I’m still thinking about it then I know I should write the poem. This one in particular is based off of the trailer for the Netflix original movie “Barry” which is a biopic about Columbia era Obama and his time briefly dating this white girl and trying to fit in all over early 80’s New York.
It’s probably important to note that I LOVE trailers, in another life I would make trailers for a living. Trailers are a kind of form poem to me, there’s maybe what? 3 minutes and some background music to tell all the highlights of this 2 hour excursion? That’s amazing when it’s done well! The trailer for “Barry” is to me one such trailer, I couldn’t stop watching it and really intensely hoping that the movie didn’t suck. And of course most if not all looking is about what we see of ourselves, the most extreme example being Narcissus who is also in the book but I digress.
Anyway Obama was elected president in the middle of my sophomore year of high school and I was really deeply in love with the idea of him. In many ways he seemed like the natural evolution and success story that would emerge from my particular torments. Here too was somebody Black and also biracial, smart and “articulate” and forever surrounded by white people trying to undercut him at every turn. That was how I felt, all the time. Other people saw it too and so Obama was actually my nickname with several people in my life throughout high school and it’s a kind of coded language right? This affectionate way of saying “You are the exceptional other” At the end though those paths have to diverge, the speaker of Refuse can only get but so close to what Obama was and is. In some poems you’ll find this feels like failure, in others the speaker can recognize it is a blessing to not have been afforded the disposition to be so American as that.
A final note is that this poem brought me into first contact with the homie Tiana Clark because it was the one she selected for publication in the Nashville Review. This was especially dope because month’s later we are pressmates and her BADASS collection “I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood” drops the exact same day as mine which to me makes them cousins!
Q: How did you get your writing/performing start?
Noel Quiñones lived two floors above me in college and on a rare night where my work was actually finished came to ask me if I wanted to come to this open mic. I had already finished catching up on Breaking Bad so I said, Eh why not? The feature that night was Jamaal May, he went by Versus back then but regardless the moniker that pen game was immaculate. Meanwhile during the open mic portion all the other minority homies are out here spitting these poems and I was enamored and also lowkey thinking Well if they can pull this off I could prolly do a lil something too I went to the next writing collective meeting (O.A.S.I.S. all day, every day) and from there me and Noel went on to slam on the same team at CUPSI in 2013 and 2015. That’s my best friend till the death of me not least of which because this chance interaction changed the trajectory of our lives with each other. Plus you add in that unbeknownst to us until that summer me and Noel had briefly met in high school with him coming off the stage at a talent show at a minority student conference? Destiny, no denying it.
Q:Use a metaphor, simile, analogy or other literary device to describe your writing style:
Wow, this is a challenging question and I love it! I feel like my style shifts underneath me a lot, pulling me in many new directions especially right now. I aim to not be the same person from poem to poem and especially not project to project. So in that sense let’s go with “It’s like Kanye West if Kanye could bring himself more frequently to tell you what is *actually* bothering him.”
Q: How does your identity shape or influence your work, writing process, or writing life?
So when you tell someone “Ayo I’m biracial” alot of people’s default is to think I’m half white, which I am not. I say that to say that belonging to both Blackness and Latinidad leads to people having an almost comically consistent desire to partition you into what parts of you they feel that they need or want to be around. I think much of the early momentum of Refuse was built out of a desire to build my own personal vocabulary to refute that, a desire to be multiple things and be equally sharp and honest in all the registers that invited. I never saw a character I fully saw myself in on TV, in a book, nada; instead I kind of just patched together an understanding from Taina and That’s So Raven, Fillmore, The Brothers Garcia and whatever my parents could bring into the house in terms of reading material. I mentally remixed a lot of presumably white characters in books to actually look like me, so Black Hermione was actually not a huge leap of faith for me.
There’s this Toni Morrison quote I love “If there is a book you want very badly to read, then you must write it.” I like the urgency of that, because the work felt that urgent as I did it. Consider that for many years, my favorite Bible quote was “My name is Legion for we are many” (I encountered this playing Mass Effect 2) and I felt wildly seen. Months later my dad told me that the scene itself was about Jesus coming upon man possessed by a ton of demons, the legion in question. It was urgent then, to write my own mythos of self, on my terms, because I was for months unwittingly identifying with a demon as a means of explaining to myself and others who I was.
Now that I’ve completed an iteration of that work, it’s been interesting thinking about my relationship to that quote, in my thesis I’m trying to explore a different relationship to Badness and its relationship to Multiplicity, in the story it is sad to see the man Jesus is trying to save because he is possessed by Badness that is not his own, his locus of control is external to the demons. I think this is fairly analogous to how powerful institutions discuss Afro-Diasporic folk no? That we are possessed by some evil and we are animalistic, disposable for our inability to control ourselves. I’m thinking towards a different register of Bad tho, because to me so much of the archetype of “Good” is, to borrow from Aziza Barnes, based around having been “Goods.” So yeah, I’m Legion, I’m many but it’s a Badness I own, that is native to me, Badness is my favorite citizen of my body.
Q: What’s something you LOVE about being Afro-Latinx/Afro-Caribbean?
I mean at a foundational level right it gave me one of my best friends. Piel Cafe gave me and Noel an opportunity to travel, to tell our stories, I got to do poems with my brother for a living because AfroLatinidad in ways large and small gave our ancestors a means by which to push us together. There’s also just the sheer joy of having language for an energy, a sound pattern I had been engaged in all my life that people said all my life did not exist. It’s always nice to know at some level that something inside you has been inherently right all along.
Q: Tell me about your (new book/current project):
My current project is my thesis which I am trying very hard to divest myself from the idea that it has to be perfect and has to be a book because frankly writing a book is exhausting and I’m just finding new ways to push through exhaustion and still get better everyday. On Aimee’s advice I have been trying to think less about the whole project and more just focusing on a little neighborhood of things in my writing that I wish were sharper. On that front I have really been trying to stretch my landscape descriptions (Aimee is vindicated on this as she has been telling me for years that I should flex myself a little harder on this front). I also have just been working, as I will for the rest of my life, to be a more expansive reader. The very vague vision of what my thesis is pulling me towards is taking from a lot of sources and I imagine can only be sharpened by reading more.
Q: What else are you working on or what future projects do you have in mind?
So, an unintended side effect of Refuse getting picked up when it did was that I still have to turn in a thesis in the Spring…oops. But nah seriously it’s been a really interesting and also very frustrating pivot to try and execute at times. I have been having a lot of work to do on understanding how my particular artistry responds to the completion of a major project.
When I arrived in Oxford I had some unrealistic expectations of wanting to leave with three book manuscripts. That wasn’t the particular strain of wonder that happened and I’m learning to be ok with that. All this to say there is a thesis that is required to be/trending towards book length but it will be a long time until it’s ready to be anything you can hold. A general sketch would say it’s pretty different from Refuse just in the register that it’s delivering its questions to me.
I wanted to work a bit more with trying to have more forward momentum in the poem, having poems that play offense where I feel that often times the speaker in Refuse feels he is running out of time/playing defense on his heels. I’ve also been thinking a lot more explicitly about masculinity in these early poems. It’s aiming at bringing together a lot of elements that I think will be dope when they are finished but at present if I know anything it’s that I’m just in the foyer right now of what I’m ultimately hoping to accomplish. Oh also, there’s a lot of Kanye because there’s a lot of Kanye in my head I am wrestling with.
Q: What have been some of the highlights/defining moments of your writing/performing career?
I suppose there’s the obvious ones which are the prizes which I’m mad grateful for and still stunned by on occasion (every once in a while somebody asks me how it feels to win a Pushcart and I forget they are in fact talking to me) but I think there was never a moment more defining than my one on one with Vievee Francis at Callaloo 2016 (shoutout to my cohort, home to all the baddest ones!) I was explaining this feeling that my way of being Latinx felt deficient to be included in Latinx spaces and how I thought I wouldn’t fit in or be allowed to try. And Vievee told me this very kind anecdote before pivoting into asking me if I knew who I was. I said I did, but it turns out that she saw so much more in me than I could so in reality, I didn’t. The main takeaway quote is this, I think about it every day “You are situated by virtue of your intersections to understand so much, to give so much to where The Great Conversation is headed. Julian, you are a vanguard; are you prepared to act like it?” I ask myself every day at least once “What would Vievee do?” It’s never led me wrong, I don’t think it could.
Q: Who are some of your biggest influences and/or mentors?
I owe Vievee Francis my life, she has changed it beyond any measure. Also Greg Pardlo who taught me how to not settle for my first honesty but just to keep diving deeper until I arrive at what I need to. Vision, my first slam coach, brother and mentor taught me so much of what I do when I’m teaching; he gave me the tools to save my own life. Derrick Harriell, Aimee Nezhukumatatil and Kiese Laymon been holding it down for ya boy at Ole Miss, they inspire me everyday with their generosity and how much they are utterly themselves I do what I do by the grace of their love. I’m sad because I will inevitably miss a ton of people but shoutout to Kyle Dargan, Jericho Brown, Tara Betts, L. Lamar Wilson, Nate Marshall, and Mr. Hegg. So many more, honestly I could go on forever.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give new writers/performers?
I kinda went really overboard on this information in the next question (I’m a bookseller so this is just kinda par for the course, this is why I am single haha) but you have to read. Honestly, read everything and put aside the notion that only the art that you enjoy is teaching you something. If you aren’t enjoying it, make sure it taught you something at the very least. This kind of practice ideally makes you not just a better writer but a better resource for your artistic community. There’s a lot of poems that I find incredibly boring but knowing specifically how they work and what was effective or ineffective for me has allowed me to put it in conversation with folks I like who often to my eye improved on the concepts I found effective.
If you don’t feel like you have access to how to read critically like that, the resources are often closer and cheaper than they appear. I reference youtube videos of craft talks as often as I reference anything else. Poet’s House has an extensive audio archive of the talks, panels, readings and Q+As that go on at one of the largest public libraries of poetry in the world. VS the Podcast? Fantastic! The Poetry Gods? Sensational! MFABlkGrls? Will never not slap! The resources are there homies, you have to know your craft if you’re ever to learn how great you can actually be.
Q: Who/what are you reading now?
And my copies of Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith, Notes from the Divided Country by Suji Kwock Kim and In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae are never far from me at all
I also work in a bookshop right now so I have been using my discount to buy all the “collected works” I could never afford or justify otherwise so I’m also reading through the collected works of Yusef Komuunyaka, Carl Phillips, June Jordan, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Bei Dao and the GOAT Gwendolyn Brooks. I’ve been trying to teach myself meter and Ms. Brooks is guiding my hand, as always.
Prose wise I just finished Zinzi Clemmons’ “What We Lose” and am in the midst of Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”! Can’t recommend Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing Unburied Sing” enough, same goes for Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” and am always in support of Hanif Abdurraqib’s “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” also being charmed out of my socks by Nafissa Thompson Spires’ “Heads of the Colored People”! I also have been trying to get through a couple of interviews or craft essays a day and reading some Fred Moten or Claudia Rankine interviews will certainly change the course of my day for the better!
Q: What’s your favorite platano dish/recipe?
Gotta keep it OG and say my mom’s Maduros, nothing bangs that hard and I will entertain nary an argument to the contrary entiendes?
Q: What else should we know about you?
My first official action if I ever won a fellowship for a large amount of money would be to purchase a pair of Jordan 19s whose design I have loved since I was 12 and are the one thing I always felt would be a sign that “I made it” whatever that means.
Fun Fact 1: I’m planning to get my first tattoo sometime in the fall, my favorite Gwendolyn Brooks quote “Say that the river turns and turn the river”
Fun Fact 2: My hobby is watching failing TV shows and talking at length about what I would do if I could two or three episodes to right the ship. I’m Olivia Pope in my own mind, which is ironic because Scandal…def was a major part of the hobby