Aaron Coleman

“For me, a definitive ‘home’ or ‘identity’ can’t be as clear-cut as we might sometimes want it to be.”

coleman

St. Trigger (Button Poetry, 2016) 

What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?

Before anything else, thanks so much for this opportunity to look back at this chapbook and think about what it means to me now that it’s out in the world.

I probably obsess too much about the intersection of memory and imagination. How we think about memory and imagination has so much to do with how we think about identity, experience, lies, and truths. Consequently, I don’t know what to do with Americanness (not just the United States, but all of the once-called “New World” as colonized spaces that hold such chaotic, convoluted, and unearthed histories/myths/stories). My understanding of blackness as a transnational double consciousness, running with DuBois’ sense of the term and having lived in the U.S. and outside of it, often makes me look at location (geographical or even one’s emotional location – I guess we say “I am angry,” similarly to how we say “I am American,” don’t we?”) and the idea of home with a certain suspiciousness. For me, a definitive “home” or “identity” can’t be as clear-cut as we might sometimes want it to be. St. Trigger aims to unearth some of that messiness of unbecoming, becoming, and belonging.

More to the point: I’m obsessed with figuring out what home is and can be. What faith is and can be. What love, violence, masculinity, kinship, desire are and can be…

Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

I think “Viciousness in Ends” is representative because of its content and form. The differently fragmented phrase “blood and trust in my mouth” at the beginning and end of the poem feels so crucial to the complicated, restless faith at the core of this collection— and what it wants to question and explore. You can read the poem in its entirety here.

Why did you choose this poem?

Sometimes there’s this kaleidoscopic complication and emotional blurriness that I feel when I really go back into my memories and begin to think about what they mean to the present moment. The poem’s form enacts that complication and blurring as it bends back over itself as a kind of palindrome (like the word “racecar”), so we go through all these thoughts, this fragmented narrative moving through youth and masculinity, and yet we come back to “the changing same” (I believe Amiri Baraka coined that term) as the first words return to us, and I hope the reader feels compelled to ask herself something along the lines of, “Where did I start and where am I now? What happened in between?”

“Viciousness in Ends” approaches belonging, love, shame, and violence as a young black American man coming to terms with such cavernous terms like masculinity, violence, Americanness, blackness, love, etc…All of the poems are trying to understand and reify those terms’ complexities in the realm of my own memory, identity, and imagination…Reading what I’m typing, this is already sounding pretty heady, but the poem arrives at these thoughts via the concrete actions of backyard boxing and metal bb-shooting teenage boys, as having grown up and through experiences like those. This poem and this collection are so tense and fraught because I think they’re all this way – a precarious balance of contemplation and physicality – and of course I feel that tension in my own life.

How did you decide on the arrangement of your chapbook?

Speaking of obsessions…I spent a lot of time thinking about common themes, unconsciously oft-repeated words, and how different poems would echo next to each other. I didn’t want to pin down a narrative progression as much as I wanted to think about intensity and momentum and silence.

The collection consists of two 11-poem sections and I wanted them to subtly mirror each other. On their surface and beneath it they contain something of the spirit of the poems that surround them— and/or they question and respond to one another. But at the same time I think each section aspires to be its own whole, and the poems that comprise each section also speak back or forward toward the other section that is their reflection.

For example, the two definitional poems, “Rich” and “Through,” inspired by A. Van Jordan’s form in M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, speak to each other across the two sections. Also, there are two “saint” poems that are in conversation with one another across the two sections. I don’t know which side is the reflection and which is “the real” – I’m not even sure how to make that distinction – and I don’t care to know at this point. But that fragile equilibrium felt right for a collection titled St. Trigger, a collection so concerned with, again, a precarious balance and unconventional faith.

What inspired the title of your chapbook?

I settled on the title before I could articulate the logic or reason behind it. On some level it just felt right. At first it was titled St. Trigger Lovestruck but I think the adjective/surname that I attached there was too heavy-handed in that it distracts from the shock of a saint coming in the form of a trigger (whether that be of a machine or weapon— or the metaphorical trigger of an action or moment that functions as an initiating event). Saints, as I understand them, are such interesting figures because they’re not angels, yet they’re not quite human anymore…they can be totemic and ethereal…there’s this paradoxical intimacy and distance. And I think faith’s intimacy, how personal and nuanced it is, and distance, how it can be blind or beyond reason, is something that factors into how I approach poems, and even how I approach relationships, and narrative, and identity. What has happened in our country and world can sometimes feel absurd or beyond reason, and yet here we are, products of and potentials within that mess. The catastrophic and the miraculous have happened (and continue to happen), and somehow we have to figure out how to deal with such daunting reality.

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I haven’t read a lot of chapbooks. But one that stands out for me is Mark Strand’s Mystery and Solitude in Topeka just because of how unabashedly it is itself. The prose poems and the lithographs feel so precise (not to mention how the two forms speak to each other in this subtle but undeniable way).  By precise I don’t mean necessarily resolved or complete, but precise in how they do what they do.

Another one is Hadara Bar-Nadav’s Fountain and Furnace. It feels really potent to me because of the series of worlds it creates through its objects, and how well-suited those poems are to her self-contained chapbook form. It creates a kind of strange cosmology of objects (a motel, a bedroom door, a thumb, for example) and locates and expresses the life or lives stirring in them.

I actually thought a lot more about mixtapes and EPs rather than chapbooks, especially Kendrick Lamar’s, Frank Ocean’s, and J. Cole’s mixtapes prior to their debut albums. I loved how they felt like premonitions to me, how the uniqueness of the songs (their craft as much as their sensitivity as much as their bravado) felt like new voices were coming, ready to add something nuanced and different (at least to the range of music that I was listening to at the time). Those mixtapes felt like purposeful, in-depth introductions through the creation of soundscapes and landscapes filled by the range of their vulnerabilities and desires.

Does the chapbook form have an impact on the poems that appear inside it?

Chapbooks aren’t just shorter versions of books to me, at all, but they are more compact canvases wherein everything is in closer proximity, so things echo differently. A long poem is that much longer and a succinct poem bears even more weight. Maybe there’s a different immediacy or urgency that comes with the more concise scope of chapbook-length projects.

From the beginning, I was thinking about how creating and organizing St. Trigger might prepare me for the process of my first full-length collection. And in so many ways, it did.  St. Trigger as a whole is deeply in conversation with, and shares poems with, Threat Come Close, which is my first full-length collection, forthcoming from Four Way Books in Spring 2018. The chapbook was a launch pad and experimental space where I first began to think about how these poems could speak to each other. I began to think about that distance and intimacy around the idea of a saint, and of different valences of faith, and their metaphorical potential.

Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?

“[American Dream] See” was a poem that came out of the grief and confusion I found myself feeling in the summer and fall of 2014, for a few reasons that included the killing of Michael Brown while living here in St. Louis. Looking back I think I was trying to find a way to access my sense of power and possibility after yet another example of state-sanctioned violence against black bodies. This strange poem just came out of me:

[American Dream] See

two black people [what] in an alley naked
[am i] having sex frantic in a cop car
with the cop lights chaotic [silent?] circling
across the walls [what]. See two black

people in an alley naked having
sex in a cop car cop lights writ frantic [am i]
across the walls [gone]. The sirens fracture
shadows, whir, near – unsilent [?] – drawn.

I still can’t explain it, but its images continue to haunt me usefully, and I hope I figure out what is so compelling to me here, so I can continue to pursue it.

What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

Button Poetry has been really great. I’m deeply thankful that this was my first experience bringing to life my own collection. Sam Cook, Dylan Garity, and Michael Mlekoday all were really thoughtful, supportive, and kind in the process of helping me sharpen my vision for the work, revise the manuscript, and release it into the world.

Nikki Clark designed the cover and the first time that I saw it I was just floored. We had talked about some of the covers of books and chapbooks that are my favorites, along with words that I felt were descriptive of my chapbook, but Nikki really conveyed my abstractions and emotions better than I could have expected. The way that light and dark are working in the cover, and the hidden intricacy of the stained glass…the cover still captivates me.

I’d spent quite a long time with the poems before it won the Button Prize (Thank you, again, Adrian Matejka), but I still feel like I gained further clarity around what I wanted the project to be during our editorial process. I especially have to thank Michael Mlekoday for great notes and conversation.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

This might seem a bit off base, but my question would be “What happens to chapbooks and literary art in general within the spaces and gravity of social media?” I’m not sure how to answer that but I find myself thinking a lot about what it means that our art, something that I think many of us cherish and value as a unique means of communication, becomes a particular kind of commodity and is often fragmented into screenshots, short quotes, etc. I’m not saying these changes are bad – I want poetry to endlessly find new useful spaces to express itself – or that there’s any past I’m interested in returning to…it just seems to be something that we’ve accepted and acquiesced into without contemplating its effects or consequences.

What are you working on now?

I’ve become more and more interested in translation, from and into Spanish and hopefully sooner than later I’ll be capable of working with French, too. I spent a few years living abroad in Spain teaching English, a summer in South Africa working with young people that were writing seamlessly in isiZulu and English, and I also worked with a lot of Spanish-speaking youth during my time with Literature for All of Us in Chicago. So I’ve been curious about the translation of language and culture for a long time but I’m just now beginning to understand how that curiosity factors into my writing. Without saying too much prematurely, I’m working toward a book-length collection of translations of a Cuban poet.

What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?

Hm, advice? Do whatever it takes to let yourself be yourself on the page. Giving in to vulnerability and cultivating compassion, toward others and toward myself, has fundamentally changed who I am as a person and writer and perhaps meditating on the power and potential of those concepts might be useful for you, too. Read, read, read and also live, live, live! Get comfortable with silence. Respect experience and respect imagination. Imagery is crucial. As Mary Jo Bang once told me, when you revise, try to read your work as if it were the writing of a stranger (this is still hard for me, but often it is incredibly useful).

You don’t have to take anybody’s advice, but the ability to openly listen to it, try it out, and say yes or no to it for yourself is a lifelong practice and skill.

If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?

Ecstatic emotion lives inside music so seamlessly sometimes…I think I’d want to be a Prince- or Andre 3000-style musician, able to play a range of instruments and write songs, all that fun stuff.

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Aaron Coleman is the author of St. Trigger, which won the 2015 Button Poetry Prize and Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, forthcoming 2018). A Fulbright Scholar, Cave Canem Fellow, and graduate of Washington University in St. Louis’ MFA program, Aaron has lived and worked with youth in locations including Kalamazoo, Chicago, St. Louis, Spain, and South Africa. Winner or the Tupelo Quarterly TQ5 Poetry Contest and The Cincinnati Review Robert and Adele Schiff Award, recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Apogee, Boston Review, Fence, Southern Humanities Review, and elsewhere.

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