Poet Of The Week

Chris Slaughter

     December 7–13, 2015

Chris Slaughter has an MFA from Hunter College and a bachelor’s degree in English from Medgar Evers College. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, Brooklyn Poets and North Country Institute for Writers of Color. Having previously been a barber for 20+ years, Chris has merged his personal life and the barber’s life into a narrative. He is presently a director at Eagle Academy for Young Men of Harlem while chipping away at his first full-length book manuscript.

Author photo by Werds of Art Photography

Dear Barbershop,

        Is this a barbershop? If we can’t talk straight
        in the barbershop, then where can we talk straight?

                                                                            —Eddie Cedric

I come from you: every argument, debate and dare—
every hand-me-down bet that taught me to run

from nothing while fading the world down small enough
to doubt. No one else understands the gravity

in the way a chair turns after a fight, and blood stains
hair and hardwood floors. Music somehow tells the story

better than us, mirrors turn away, but I saved
the dirt from my nails. I’m not hard currency

to you—anymore. I’m no longer steady handed and perfect for slang.
You say, with every chair in the shop full, “What happened to you man?

You even look at customers like they’re not good enough anymore”
—but I’m made from discussion, contradiction, and cheap cognac. Cussing

in every sentence just to get points across the room. I’m a glass bottle
on the ledge of some mantle that built a ship inside of itself (and the ghosts
     it holds).

I’m against the same grain as I’ve always been, believe in
the same sharp line and burn. I’m the same crazy bastard

that called the pizza man a racist, with mute Omar by my side
waving his arms—don’t forget what hurts,

what makes our blood agree, how women come in alone
with their boys and listen to us go on about presidents, one-night-stand sex,

and Kobe’s fade-away; they listen to us throw nigga and bitch around
like natural terms of endearment—         I just want my name back.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem was born out of being a barber for 20+ years, then deciding to pursue a higher education. The subject matter is about being forced away from home by friends (consciously and unconsciously) when I decided to go back to school, and while being in college being looked at as too “hood” by classmates. This is a position I tussle with in many of my poems: the construct of home.

What are you working on right now?

I’ve been writing a lot about my three-year-old daughter, and the fact that my own father has no hand in my journey. In many of these poems, I’m experimenting with form; I’m finding that the form is helping me get to the place that I need to be, then I’m breaking the form in my edit.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me is making breakfast for my daughter, she and I going swimming, and writing until something catches.

How long have you lived in Brooklyn? What neighborhood do you live in? What do you like most about it?

I’ve lived in Brooklyn my entire life (38 years). I was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, raised in Bushwick and I’ve been living in Bedford-Stuyvesant for the past 18 years. What separates the two neighborhoods is the J train, which runs down Broadway Ave. I hope this doesn’t sound cheesy (which it probably will), but the two neighborhoods were like parents. Bushwick was the wild parent that taught me how to fist-fight, survive and jump the turnstile without getting caught by the police, while Bed-Stuy taught me how to think and understand how to juggle priorities. Both neighborhoods are being gentrified and losing their true essences.

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad or in between.

One defining moment was the summer when I was thirteen years old. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I wound up with a pair of clippers in my hand, cutting a friend’s hair in my boy Tyrone’s hallway. The haircut looked pretty good, and before I knew it, everyone was asking me to cut their hair. Tyrone’s grandfather gave me a pair of trimmers, my other friend’s mom gave me a pair of faders, and the rest is history. Oh, and that was the summer I lost my virginity.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

In no particular order: Biggie Smalls, Big Daddy Kane, Jay Z and Gregory Pardlo (mentor). Why, you ask? Because all of these gentleman shaped the landscape of Brooklyn.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Both of my favorite Brooklyn bookstores are now closed. Brownstone Books was on Lewis Avenue, and Nkiru Bookstore which was on Washington Avenue. Black-owned bookstores were once Brooklyn’s pulse. The readings, the story time for babies, the discussions …

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Brooklyn Swirl, Tiny Cup, and Prospect Park on nice days.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

I love taking my daughter to the playground located on Stuyvesant and Fulton. Seeing her (Marley) grow out of the section for the smaller children to the section where the bigger kids play is simply magic.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Gregory Pardlo—Digest

Terrance Hayes—How to Be Drawn

Tracy K. Smith—Life on Mars

Mary Jo Bang—Elegy

Christopher Gilbert—Turning into Dwelling

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate tomorrow,
And what I hope to see, you already know,
For every ounce of laughter, as good as the galaxies in you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

Ode to 3am

I’ve seen a dopefiend nod to a awkward sin,
sour tunes bent him away from a troubled love.
I’ve seen an addict nod, listening to Biggie

on Broadway and Quincy where tracks moan. Pen
behind ear, cigarette hung from lip. If you exist, father
forgive him. Sleeping in back pocket was Jack,

a bastard bottle of staggered dreams. You robbed
him of his pipe to blow the hemorrhaging blues,
the filter is all that hung. Why, Brooklyn?

Why Brooklyn?

Brooklyn has one of the biggest personalities on the planet. In fact, it is a planet. I take it with me everywhere I go: the toughness, the art and the beat.