Conversations: Rion Amilcar Scott and Bro. Yao

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rion-scott-2-rebecca-aranda-photo-creditRion Amilcar Scott


I’ve attempted many times to render as fiction my first conversation with Hoke Glover III (or Bro. Yao as many know him). Such a scene has always failed because the reality of our conversation was a fever dream beyond any hyper-reality I have been able to draw on the page. It was late August in 2008 and I had just begun teaching English at Bowie State University where Yao had been teaching poetry and composition for a number of years. I visited his office to get the lay of the land and we both discovered in the other a shared affinity for literature and the ideas often carried and miscarried in a beautiful line of poetry or sentence of prose. I don’t recall speaking much. Yao’s rapid-fire intellect shot off in multiple directions connecting far-flung ideas. There was talk of the I Ching, black identity, a chain of bookstores he once owned. I couldn’t catch it all, and at the same time, adding to the unreality of the moment, my head throbbed, my skin burned, and my heart raced.

A day or so later in an emergency room I’d discover the headache and the fast-beating heart and the fever that caused racing thoughts day and night was the result of malaria, which I contracted a month previous in Ghana.

Since 2008, Yao and I have had many conversations about literature, fatherhood, teaching, blackness, and countless other topics, and they often feel like intellectual fever dreams only slightly less fevered than our initial malarial (at least on my end) conversation. Yao’s debut poetry collection, Inheritance (Willow Books), and my debut story collection, Insurrections (University Press of Kentucky), share themes of family, race, and striving to connect. Here we add to this ongoing conversation.

—Rion Amilcar Scott


Rion Amilcar Scott: It’s hard to know where to begin. Reading your collection, Inheritance, I feel a kinship beyond the friendship we’ve shared in that, like myself, you write about the things that have been passed to us by our forebears when we are young and scarcely have the faculties to understand them. These things can be glorious or they can be unfortunate, but they’ve often been handed down through time like heirlooms.

I asked you recently if you were a student of Robert Hayden’s work because so many of your poems remind me of the clarity of his most famous poem, “Those Winter Sundays.” You share that voice in many of your poems—a boy-turned-man slowly realizing all that has been sacrificed in his name. What did you hope that voice would invoke in your readers?

 

yao

Bro. Yao

Bro. Yao: Most of those poems are personal in a way that challenges the idea of testimony or witness. One speaks with a scorched tongue. Though it is a risky thing to say, my focus was primarily on reconciling an inner trajectory with language. My hope was that readers would be able connect with the experiences and understand the balance between the obvious and secrecy that exists in all of our lives—especially with our family.  To mention Hayden and “Those Winter Sundays” is an honor. It is one of my all-time favorite poems. For me, family is the center of consciousness. Not in a dominating way, but in the practical sense of locale. We arrive there into life and must sift through experiences that are rooted in what we share with those folks.

My father died while I was still a young man, around the time my first child was born. I have grieved and learned about him through my own journey toward parenthood. Inheritance has a long arc that covers over twenty-five years of poetry and writing. The oldest poem is “Amen II” written upon the birth of my first child. It is my hope the long arc of the book enables readers to see the evolution of consciousness that comes about as one grows older within the context of a family.

I talked to a friend last night who shared with me an experience from the ’68 riots. He and his brother eyed a Highs convenience store with other folks from the street while black owners of other businesses protected their stores with guns. His brother was first in and threw him a tub of ice cream. Naturally, I thought of Insurrections. One of the things about family and the intimacies contained therein is the accurate depiction of morality in Insurrections.

I know that morality is a heavily-charged word. But the site of the riots, the rage, and the acknowledgement of a larger crime within the public domain relates to the consciousness of a people—what it makes you do and feel—and seems the crux of the matter.

I am interested in the intimacy of the relationship you have with your own father. What he says and did not say, and how that affects the story “Three Insurrections” and your art in general.

 

RAS: I could have dedicated my book to any or all of the five people who raised me (my parents, my grandmother, and my two older brothers who I grew up with, but were old enough to hip me to things along the way). I chose my father because I noticed that fathers kept popping up in story after story. I have to think that has something to do with my father’s place in my life. “Three Insurrections” is the only story in which I actively invoke him, creating a sort of alternate reality version of him flitting through D.C. during the ’68 King riots.

I think I composed it the way I did—by sitting down and interviewing him—because he could be sort of stoic about his past. Writing simply gave me an opportunity to sit and talk with my dad.

Growing up, I heard little to nothing about my grandfather. He passed when my father was young. He shared a close relationship to his father that seems to me similar to the relationship I share with my father. My grandfather, I came to learn, didn’t talk much about his past because of some pain there—pain my father only got a chance to learn a little about. Another thing my father and I share in common is that we both use our imaginations to fill in gaps and bring us closer to our fathers.

I’m lucky in that I got to reach out and ask my father about his past, a thing the universe didn’t allow my father. Since my dad is not a writer, he builds a story version of his father and keeps it in his head, an act of creation that I hope brings him solace and comfort. I got to create something, and I don’t think I needed solace or comfort, but I got something unnameable from writing that story.

 

BY: It seems sort of strange. Interviewing your father: formally interrogating someone who raised you, that you have lived and spent so much time with; it’s a profound gesture. There are so many things in a house you hear, but do not hear. So many things you see, but do not see. As we learn to craft our work and becoming more serious and indulged in writing, we are fascinated by seeing and listening in different ways. The gesture to return to a father or mother and attach the formality of our skills at a certain stage of development is humbling and clarifying.

In some ways, Inheritance is a record of an interrogation of my own memory of my mother and father with hindsight. In similar fashion to interviewing, it returns to the raw mental experience of earlier times. I go to the places where it seems my mind was stuck imagining that something was one way and try to apply age, wisdom, and craft to the memory to see differently and to reconcile. My father died young, so the overall process with him is part of my grief. My mother, on the other hand, is still alive and in the poems that address her, I am trying to remember the words, actions, and sensory experiences of living with her for many years in often difficult situations.

I want to ask about “Juba,” my favorite story in your collection. Can you talk about the process and development of writing it?  What strikes me most is how much it moves beyond the opposition encountered with the police and the case of mistaken identity.  It is a story about so many things, but the journey is enjoyable and as with all of Insurrections we manage to recognize people we know in our own lives. Cross River is like that—doused in the everyday with mythic notions of an insurrection in the past, history, and culture. I guess I am interested in Cross River and “Juba?”

 

RAS: “Juba” is one of those stories that came out, not fully formed, but fully formed in chunks. I think of “Juba” as a celebration of language, particular the versions of Black Vernacular English I’ve known (and the story features flashes of an invented version spoken in my invented town).

In essence, I wanted to play on the ways in which we as black people are often lumped together even though there are various cultures and approaches to being black. It’s the range of blackness that most black people know well and even see in their own families. The narrator is somewhat disconnected from the mythic history of Cross River, and Juba is so mired in it he can’t escape from it. Which is how we all are, I think.

We are all shaped by historic and societal forces we don’t necessarily always fully understand or have access to, and at the same time we are often completely disconnected from history and society, just plowing forth, trying to survive. This second way of experiencing life is an illusion though.

 

BY:  We imagine blackness to be a range that we know, though it is rarely rendered with the complexity you bring to your collection. It is the thing that makes Insurrections so rewarding—the ability to see the complexity of our humanity in a realm that is considered “black.” Even the way you articulate it, suggests who we are is more important than the opposition that is inherent in the idea of black as opposed to white. It seems to me family provides the grounding element in many contexts. Family presents us with an undeniable complexity that can help refine our sense of accuracy. It is strange, race is integrated into Inheritance as part of everyday life. It is one of the codes that is always there, but within the context of the family, it is not as dominant as the larger society may suggest.

 

RAS: Your poem “Valentine’s Day” is so intense and has so many observations about race and love that are also strewn about the collection. You discuss race and love (familial and otherwise) as constructs that nevertheless have consequences. And you compare our relationship to race with a person’s relationship to a rat in a glue trap. It’s just a complex, bittersweet poem. What did you want to get at with all the juxtapositions (“Race is an idea, but a man possessed / With it converts it to instinct. Them lions / Look trained but they’re still animals.”) in this poem and elsewhere in the collection?

 

BY:  “Valentine’s Day” is the strange convergence of reflection, race, and a striving toward intimacy with the trope of an America and a young white woman. The book’s grounding in family is, I imagine, a way to subvert the codes of race. For all the talk of universality, the concept of mother and father are for the most part constant regardless of race. I guess the other thing about “Valentine’s Day” is the jazz approach to the trajectory. Trying to get at a solo line that allows one to move in and out of the many different ways of talking about something without being confined to simply narrative or the incident.

I think jazz stands as one of the best examples of a way to juxtapose ideas, melodies, rhythms, words, concepts. In “Valentines Day” and “Science of Forgetting,” in particular, the idea form is musical and attempts to get at a musical trajectory that somehow mimics jazz. That music in particular is the legacy of my mother. It is rarely invoked as a theme, but Inheritance aims to present its musicality in the same way she presented it in the house.  Perhaps that’s a way to transition into talking about the musicality of speech—in particular what I would call black speech through Insurrections.

I also have to throw in sheer narrative power, the plot-driven approach. In every story there is a mystery that seems present from the beginning. The idea of where we are going as bread crumbs in the forest. I think my favorite story is “Everyone Lives in a Flood Zone.” I know I already said “Juba”; but so be it. In a similar way to “Juba,” the dominating question is, Who is this? Where is your brother? I keep eyeing my copy of Eight Men on the shelf anxious to go back and reread Wright. I often say in the old days that narrative force was much more essential to a novel before T.V. Yesterday, I let someone read the first couple of pages in a story, and they were hooked.

How do you balance rhythm, pace, and sound in your stories toward readability?  Does your reading of poetry inform that?

 

RAS: I read poetry daily so that the musicality gets into me and comes out without having to pull at it too much, and I try to eye each sentence with sound in mind. I think the mystery in the stories relates back to how I view life. When I was a kid, I used to believe that when you passed away everything was revealed to you. I didn’t have to worry about the ways the government was or wasn’t involved in the killings of JFK, MLK, Malcolm X: I’d live another eighty years or so, and I’d find out. Now my concerns are larger, and I figure they’ll never be resolved—that’s the nature of life. So I put that into the structure of my stories.

What are you working on now (literary or otherwise), and how do its concerns differ from the concerns of Inheritance?

 

BY: I am always headed toward Free Black Space. You know the blog. Dr. Valerie Prince and I have been working on expanding the idea of “Hospital for the Negro Insane.” The approach is similar to Inheritance.

If I were writing poetry it would be about haints. In the story a “Friendly Game” you get at a similar idea. The woman traumatized by the loss of a child and the young boys who do “mean things.” It sounds odd—mean things, or rather fucked up shit. We experience that in Insurrections and it unsettles us, but we are not ashamed or destroyed by the sight of it.  And maybe that is the place to end.

A final question: How do you write the difficult?  I am thinking about the review that suggested there was something frustrating and unsettling about the stories. I buy that, but how do you respond to a reader who suggests such about your work?

 

RAS: I welcome all responses, particularly the feeling of being unsettled, even in myself while I’m writing or rereading.

We should all be unsettled by stories that suggest it’s easy to destroy one another, and then we should be unsettled by the fact that it’s so easy to destroy one another.

 


 

Rion Amilcar Scott teaches English at Bowie State University. He earned an MFA at George Mason University, where he won both the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award and a Completion Fellowship. His work has appeared in publications such as the Kenyon Review, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, Fiction International, the Washington City Paper, The Toast, and Confrontation. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Bro. Yao (Hoke S. Glover III) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Bowie State University. His work has been published in Crab Orchard Review, African American Review, Ploughshares, Rattle, and other journals. His essay “Hospital for the Negro Insane” was a finalist for the John Guyon Literary Non-Fiction Prize in 2015. A collection of his writings and musings can be at freeblackspace.blogspot.com.

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