October 25–31, 2021
Courtney Faye Taylor is the author of Concentrate, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2022. It is the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize selected by Rachel Eliza Griffiths and was a finalist for the National Poetry Series. Taylor is also a winner of the 92Y Discovery / Boston Review Poetry Prize and an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is a recipient of fellowships and residencies from the Charlotte Street Foundation and the Mae Fellowship. Her poetry can be found in the Nation, Poetry, Best New Poets 2020, the New Republic, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review and elsewhere. On Thursday, October 28, Courtney will read online as part of the Brooklyn Poets Staff Picks reading series.
after Larry Levis
My youth? I spent it all between
the knees of hairbraiders, begging kanekalon
to name me a debutante or mistake me
foreign. Those knees I matured between
worked weeks at Kween of Kinks
Braid Boutique, which was an old U.S. Cellular, behind
which my boyfriend’s Chevrolet vanished under sleet. And
Southern magnolias in hibernation pulsed like sea channels, or
seemed to channel, a yearly seedy casualty all over. I cleaned
for the braiders on Fridays. They sprawled
their slippered feet on the shampoo bowls whenever I
brought the vacuum around and hummed my 2010 urbanite
tunes: Bedrock, Bottoms Up, No Hands—sexist verses I saved
for the bathroom while lemon-scenting the shitter and
spritzing some Chanel No. 2 down my bloomers, blooming
where you know it blooms exactly. Still even when
I smelled good, I smelled busy. And I hated high school.
Novembers I rode the 60 to Wauwatosa Mall just to sniff
the food court’s teriyaki and auntie sugar pretzels. Those
bus rides were so boring that I pretended to smoke candy
canes, clicking an inkpen in front of the sucked pointy end to
imitate igniting. Sometimes boys with flies undone
jittered past me towards the Rosa seats
without my noticing. And from my window
I watched trashcans of all purposes blow their hearts out
across crosswalks. I had a knack for telling city garbage
from residential garbage: Tampons, Crown Apple, tattered Crisis mags
or playbills for Fences, gold minute hand of a wristwatch,
jaybird bones. So why not admit it? I was petrified
then. I had the sort of shoulder chip this nation usually
only nicks into eugenicists who break news, who
arrive at megaphoned fame just to disrupt or
distrust it. I didn’t trust my boyfriend driving past
Decorah where the boy scouts camped. His
Chevy must’ve seemed Xzibit-pimped to the fist-
headed campers whose kickballs and cameraphones too
often sought the hood. Their curiosity left no dent, but say
it had; no boy would pay. Our hood isn’t their hood
to heal. Hella girls at my high school from hoods unhealed
aced parabolas, sailed me on by to ivies and housewifery.
All night they enthralled my jealousies with nothing on
but the height of their nipples. Mine, Eiffel-tall
in my father’s chilly condo, which stayed chilly so that
my hardness gave a show as I lazed
towards the kitchen in a camisole for some Minute
Maid. Had I known what my upper half
was making this man do for temperature
I would’ve laughed. I was a damn good merry maid.
Bleach licks. Pocketed fro picks. Egregious tips. A life
like that? It seemed to kill me forever.
—Originally published in Ploughshares, Winter 2019–20.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I read “The Poet at Seventeen” by Larry Levis and admired the way he laid out a portrait of a young life. I thought about some of the moments that defined my youth and Black girlhood in general: hair care, music, vulnerability, definitions of love, admission of fear. Just like Levis, I started with “My youth?” and the narrative went on from there, following his arc but replacing his scenes and touchstones with ones from my own background and understandings.
What are you working on right now?
I’m editing my debut collection, Concentrate, which will be out from Graywolf Press in November 2022. It’s a meditation on the precariousness of Black girlhood, primarily through the story of Latasha Harlins, a fifteen-year-old Black girl killed by a Korean American grocer named Soon Ja Du in 1991. Her death, along with Rodney King’s beating, served as a catalyst for the 1992 L.A. Uprising. By considering Latasha and Soon Ja, I explore the history of solidarity and tension between Black and Korean American communities, specifically how white supremacy is the inventor and instigator of that tension.
What’s a good day for you?
The sun is out. I’m by a bunch of windows—my sunroom or a coffee shop. Wherever I am it’s relatively quiet, or my earplugs and headphones are doing the job. I’ve got a vanilla latte in a mug. I’m writing, and all the right words, perspectives and voices are coming at me.
That sort of day is pretty rare, so I’ll say a “good day” has as least three of those components.
Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Home is Kansas City, Missouri, right now. I’ve been here for three years. I like that life in KC feels well-paced and manageable. The city is small and easy to navigate; traffic isn’t horrendous. I can usually find a table at a coffee shop or a restaurant.
Kansas City is changing, like many other cities, through gentrification. I live on the corner of Troost Ave, a street that’s considered the racial dividing line between East KC (predominately Black) and West KC (predominantly white). Now there are luxury apartment buildings and specialty coffee shops popping up on the street. Gentrification is slowly inching toward the East.
Compared to other places I’ve lived, Kansas City feels less progressive and less diverse. It takes more time to find the queer Black art community I’m looking for, more time than it did in, say, Atlanta, where I went to undergrad. But because it’s more difficult to cultivate, I cherish it much more when I do find it.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
I think a strong poetry community has literary citizenship at its core, the idea being that folks give more than just their writing; they give their readership, their advocacy, their voice in support of others. But in turn, they’re also open to receiving, which requires vulnerability—putting ourselves and our work out there to be held and understood by others.
I’ve found most of my Kansas City community through poetry readings. I keep in touch with poets I’ve shared stages with. But online communities have become increasingly important to me, too. I’ve connected with writers via virtual fellowships, Zoom readings or just from sharing their work on Instagram and Twitter. I love the fact that by interacting with writers online, I’m perhaps building communities across the US and the world.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Douglas Kearney: his work is an amalgam of performance, music, history and other disciplines that I never knew could sit together on the page. As I’ve been exploring collage and visual poetics, he’s been a huge influence and teacher for me. I just listened to his interview on the podcast VS. I love the way he talks about the motivations behind his work; definitely check that episode out.
Toni Cade Bambara (a novelist and essayist) grew up in Brooklyn, among other places. The poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon once gave a craft talk at my MFA program and introduced us to this Bambara quote: “‘What are you pretending not to know today, Sweetheart? Colored gal on planet earth? Hmph know everything there is to know, anything she/we don’t know is by definition the unknown.’” That quote has been with me ever since.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
My earliest mentors were teachers and professors. Their influence was mostly in that they gave me space to do me; use my languages, speak my truths, examine my world. They supported me by removing the limitations and barriers to what was possible. I’m reading The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez right now, and I’m realizing just how much that simple act of making space for possibility is critical for writers of color, so I thank my educators for that.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just read speculation, n. by Shayla Lawz. The poems in that collection are paired with audio and video experiences you can access by QR code. I love the way Lawz is challenging the limits we traditionally place on poetry, giving the genre a new texture and life beyond our standard conception of the page. One of my favorite lines from the collection: “I understand living and dying as fact, but the body that refuses death is a star.”
I’m in the middle of reading Negotiations by Destiny O. Birdsong. Every line in that book hits! It makes me go back to my own work to see how I can make sure every word holds weight and power. I love Birdsong’s balance of political reflection and humor. Some favorite lines, from the opening of “Ode to My Body”:
you were born in the year of the rooster
& the dismembered grandmother
your mama’s first christmas alone, trying to guess
how much sugar to put in the pies
& how much can kill.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
So many, but top of mind: Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford and Reparations Now! by Ashley M. Jones.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I often get pulled into two poetry collections at once. I read cover-to-cover to honor the sense of order and arrangement that the writer intended, though on subsequent reads, I do jump around, going back to specific poems that moved me or made me question something.
I always take notes while reading. I’ve tried to turn that “thinker and teacher” mode off, but I’m accepting the fact that it goes hand-in-hand with my “pleasure read” mode. They’re inseparable. It’s how I digest work.
I’m definitely into physical books. Holding them, dog-earing the pages, that little serotonin rush you get when you see how many pages you’ve read so far—a sense of accomplishment. It’s an experience unique to physical literature.
My favorite way to get my next read is through recommendation. When a friend says “you gotta read this,” I’m going to make sure I put that book on my list. Ashley C. Ford’s Somebody’s Daughter was one of those recommendations.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I’ve seen a lot of poets writing pantoums lately. I love forms that require repetition but reinvention within that repetition. I tried to write a pantoum a few weeks ago, and I love the process it took me through. The final poem ended up being free verse, but I’d love to return to this form and stick to its rules.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I love reading and writing in coffee shops. I used to do that exclusively before the pandemic. I also like writing in museums, at live performances and other artistic spaces. Like many writers, witnessing other art forms inspires me, and I’m usually jotting something down during the experience.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the only soft memory I have of you,
and what I gain from the memory, you gain from sitting here
watching me remember it. But let me be clear: You have been,
for most of our lives, unimaginably cruel.
“Well girl, I’m not for everybody.
Some people see me as good as they see
air in the sky. You must be one of those people.
I can’t help you.”