May 17–23, 2021
Oak Morse lives in Houston, Texas, where he teaches creative writing and performance and leads a youth poetry troupe, the Phoenix Fire-Spitters. He was the winner of Pulp Literature’s Magpie Award for Poetry in 2017, and in 2020 was a finalist for the Witness Literary Award as well as a semifinalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. Currently a Warren Wilson MFA candidate, Oak has received a Pushcart Prize nomination, a fellowship from Twelve Literary Arts and the Stars in the Classroom honor from the Houston Texans. His work appears in Strange Horizons, PANK, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Nimrod, Cosmonauts Avenue and Solstice, among others. This past spring, Oak was named a Brooklyn Poets Fellow for study in Darrel Alejandro Holnes’s Writing Revolutionary Love workshop.
We were all one beautiful blend
of mama’s love. My brother,
the color of ecru, the other one
sepia, and me, ebony.
My grandma was from the
before Brown vs. Board,
back when there were bright
no-trespassing stripes between
coal and pristine places.
Southerners saw life
through a dirty shade of sage
and my grandma did especially,
even through the late ’90s,
shouting to Mama the reason
you show the youngest more love
is because he’s light skin.
I had no idea light skin
was sapphire and gold,
no idea that one could
be loved in various weights.
No idea my treatment
was neutral due to the
onyx in my skin.
The sun dimmed to dijon;
my future got dark, darker
than the hole I wanted to
crawl into. Mama told Grandma
she loves us all the same.
Grandma said she couldn’t
because we are different people.
I wondered how different?
Like cobalt and boysenberry,
or crimson and ruby?
Grandma baptized me
into a whole new world of color,
hoping I would come out closer
to sandcastle than chestnut.
I grew out of the grey area
and looked into Grandma’s penny-
colored past. Grandma is a descendant
of an overworked slave
with rusted hands who wouldn’t let go
when the proclamation was posted,
all because master treated his slaves
like they were all coconut-hued.
My grandma knows privilege
comes in porcelain colors
and she knows that the more midnight,
the more undesirable.
Does she know where it all ends?
Many elderly I know
of mauve and royal jade
live with flames in their throats
and blaze any crossover that could
get us to the other side.
My grandma is a beautiful,
beloved, coffee-colored woman
with a fiery red voice bleeding
through generations. I just pray,
when I turn grey, that the red
will never show up in me.
—Originally published in the Lascaux Review, December 2020.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
Once the pandemic hit and we were locked in, I knew this was a prime time for me to get back into writing poetry regularly. I wanted to eventually start back submitting poems to contests, fellowships, etc.; that’s one of the things that drives me to write when my lazy kicks in. I stumbled upon one poetry contest about writing on colorism. It excited me, even though the contest deadline had passed. So I set out to write a piece involving my Grandma’s fiery red voice and her story of my brother being a lighter-skinned tone. I explored as many colors as I could. As I wrote it, I felt like I was rolling around in paint and playdough, trying to be extremely precise with pinning the story, colors and emotions together.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently challenging myself, after learning through a beta reader that my stories carry a lot of pain, oppression and victimization. I am experimenting with spunk, sarcasm, edgy themes through various styles and forms: persona, anthropomorphism, found poetry and block text. They are coming out wilder than I thought and as time passes, I fall deeper in love with them. I recently submitted some for summer workshop for my graduate school residency at Warren Wilson. I am proud to say I am a Wally and start full-time in the fall.
What’s a good day for you?
As clichéd as it may sound, a good day for me is either when I complete a poem, or come up with a killer idea for a new poem, or get a kick out of an old poem. Outside of that, it will be going to bed positive, grateful and proud of myself and my progression in life. Also knowing my family, people in my life, including myself, are in good health and doing well.
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?
At my core, home for me is Atlanta. I was born, raised and been there my entire life until four years ago when I moved to Houston, where I am living currently. I was granted the opportunity to teach creative writing and theatre at a performing arts middle school, and since then I haven’t looked elsewhere. So it’s safe to say I am becoming, if not already, a Houstonian. What I enjoy about it out here is the job market is great, the diversity, the hospitality, the cost of living is low, and just the artistic opportunities that are enabled here for an artist like myself, coming from an arts-heavy entertainment city such as Atlanta.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
I have spent time in Brooklyn, been there twice to visit friends. I remember wide sidewalks and clusters of people outside enjoying life. The city that never sleeps; I definitely see that. I remember working out at one of the gyms deep down in Brooklyn and I recall it having four floors. I said to myself, I’ve never been to a gym with so many stairs. I enjoyed myself during my stay. I wouldn’t mind riding the ferry again and looking up to the Statue of Liberty.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
For me, poetry community means having places or platforms where poetry can exist and I can be comfortable with sharing. Here, I found that in Houston’s local open mics as well as online through virtual workshops. I recently was immersed in community from Warren Wilson College. As I was admitted, so many current and alumni writers called, emailed, texted to get to know me. It was an exciting time.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
One Brooklyn poet that killed me softly is John Murillo. Thanks to a workshop last summer with George Abraham, I was introduced to a poem titled “On Confessionalism” which made me catch the holy ghost. The poem delved into a breakup which led to an attempted murder. Murillo’s method of unfolding the story was quite skillful. The narrative, hip-hop allusions, imagery, voice, refrains, emotion all woven together created a memorable and impactful impression on me, so much to where I used that poem for my literary analysis for my graduate school application. Another Brooklyn poet that caught my attention is Tyehimba Jess, whose essay “Ancestral Wealth: The Sacred Black Masculine in My Life,” did a number on me. The essay covers a wide spectrum of black historical figures and how he uses them to approach the page to write. The piece gave me such deep, Southern, Motown, folktale vibes; it reminded me of a fifteen-minute James Brown song that I don’t want to stop. Poets like these two influence me to create excellence and to keep drawing out the music in the poem.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
This question is always a bit funky to answer because my biggest inspiration is music. I find so much poetry and emotion in R&B, blues, jazz, neo-soul and hip-hop, particularly from the ’70s, ’80s and my era, the ’90s. I regularly listen to and admire the songstress/poet Anita Baker, who fuses gospel, jazz and blues with inspirational lyrics. Too, I am shaped by Musiq Soulchild, Outkast, Mariah Carey, Drake, Miguel, the Isley Brothers, Kendrick Lamar, Maxwell, Alicia Keys and The-Dream. When it comes to poets, I enjoy Ntozake Shange’s compositions, her method of blending music, rhythm and drama to explore love, pain and struggle. Bethsheba Rem’s work has also influenced me, with her ability to tell the story with vivid, compelling images. Funny, the poem “Ecru” was a blueprint poem that really shaped my style of poetry. However, nowadays I follow the road I lay for myself and the last piece I wrote influences the next poem.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I like to snoop and read up on finalists in contests. One day I was reading the work of a finalist from the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships and I stumbled upon a poet by the name of Brayan Salinas. I clicked on his poem “what reality?” and once I read it I was super jealous, in a good way, of course. There was a wide array of killer descriptions and references in the poem. Plus, I’m a sucker for a provocative list poem. This poem was just it. The simplicity, the rhythm and alliteration hooked me. I was thinking, Damn I wish I wrote this! But really, I enjoyed it; it inspired me to run to the page.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
One book I am planning to read is Beloved. I hear it is a phenomenal piece of art, written by the one-and-only Toni Morrison. I saw the movie years ago. The ideas and concepts in the movie were striking, but I hear the book is even more captivating. Oddly, yet enjoyably, I have this affinity for reading pain painted in a beautiful way, just like in many of my poems.
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 am a heavy poetry reader. I read what I find online by many an artist. The worldwide web is one endless book itself; let’s give thanks to technology! I am subscribed to print journals such as Cream City Review, the Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, Rattle and Boulevard. I like to read them at work during duties and breaks sometimes. I dip in out of them bit by bit until I feel fulfilled. For many of the poems that stick with me, I write down the author’s name and read up on more of their work.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Interesting question. I would like to try creating interludes (or short poems that relate to the next) for a sequence, like many music albums had back in the day. I often see myself as a ’90s R&B artist, and every collection of poems is an album for me. I am even thinking about writing a producer credit page attributing the songs I listened to on repeat as I wrote them.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
For me, home is best. I feel when I am out, perhaps at a residency, my focus isn’t there. It seems I am more excited about seeing the area than writing about it. Many of my thoughts come while driving, something about that music sinking in my body while riding down the road. I once wrote a poem while driving. I would pull over every opportunity to jot down the upcoming lines. I burned a lot of gas that day. I can read anywhere comfortably, especially when I am patiently waiting on something.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
It has to be some of those good pizza eateries, New York–style. I can’t leave Brooklyn or simply New York without stopping and getting a slice. Some people say it’s New York’s water that creates the delectable taste. Who knows! I’d be sure to wear my loose pig-out pants when I go out in New York. Yum. Yum. Yum!
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate the lunatics and the loners, we all are either one
And what I need for you to do is put your right hand together with your left
For every applause for me is as good as an applause for you.