The Process of Self-Naming: An Interview with Malcolm Friend

Center for African American Poetry and Poetics intern, Drue Denmon, interviews Afro-Caribbean poet Malcolm Friend on the eve of the release of his full-length debut collection of poetry.

The Process of Self-Naming: An Interview with Malcolm Friend

Interview Conducted by Drue Denmon


DD: So I read both Mxd boy mixed tape and Our Bruises Singing Purple. And they both, especially mxd boy mixed tape, centered around the relationship between music and poetry. Was [that] … the way you wanted the form to be? Because it was like a mixed tape?

MF: … I think about music and poetry a lot. In part ‘cause my first readings in poetry were like Langston Hughes, and the blues poems. Those were the first poems that I actually sat down and was like, “I like these! I can read these! I'm okay!” So definitely the interplay between music and poetry was always on my mind. Similarly, there's an Afro-Puerto Rico poet, Tato Laviera, who is a huge influence on my work and a lot of his stuff too is similarly structured around that interplay between poetry and music, so … a lot of my poetry [is] like I'm thinking about that interplay between the poetry and the music.

DD: Does that help you with the writing process? When you write, do you listen to music?

MF: Almost always … if I'm thinking about a specific song or a specific artist then I have to listen to that song or that artist like on repeat until the poem is done. If I'm not thinking about anything specifically I try to listen to music because it helps me sort of get distracted from any… negative thoughts that I might have during the writing process. And it puts me at ease a little bit more. … I know that a lot of people don't like listening to music when writing because they see it as a distraction but me, sometimes I need the distraction. Just so I'm not too focused on everything that could go wrong when writing a piece.

DD: Definitely another big part of mxd boy mixed tape was this naming that other people do of black people a lot. …Putting their names on people, basically. … Specifically the way that you were named by the world around you. How does this inform your writing? Like the way that other people name you?

MF: Right, I mean, part of what I'm trying to do with my writing is … let people know how I name myself. Trying to sort of state an identity, claim an identity in a society that often wants to identify me as whatever is most convenient at the time. Whether that's through erasing certain parts of identity, ignoring certain parts of identity, conflating certain parts of my identity with other people … really trying to … say that, no this can't happen you have to take every single part of my identity … at the end of the day, I get to choose who I am, you don't really get to choose who I am.

DD: How does that, you … claiming your identity for yourself … inform your relationships with the cities that you come from? … In your writing, too, you talk about Seattle a lot, and, I guess, here. I also get the thing where people are like "Oh, you're this person's kid, aren't you?" It's a very interesting thing …

MF: … I think that it's an interesting sort of event when that happens. Usually there are two ways when something like that happens … One, is that someone who is not black will say that I am this other black person and it's like, “Oh, wow, you can't tell us apart? Really?” Something interesting happens when other black people do it. Particularly when it's someone that they're somewhat close to, not someone that they are as close to or even just you remind them of someone that they're close to. …There's a certain degree of kinship in that. Like, I am looking for someone like me, I am looking for someone who I have this relationship with. Which, a lot of times, is essential in the world of a black person. Having to have people behind you, having to have a support system behind you. … I guess sort of to speak to the specifics of city by city. …[In] Seattle, there's not a lot of black people in Seattle. A lot of black people are focused in the same areas. And of course, this is something that happens in a lot of cities where you weren't allowed to live in certain parts of the cities and you had to find other places? And in Seattle that gets so much more dramatic because there are so few black people there. The spaces that have historically been where we are, have been ours, can sort of blind you from what the rest of the city is like at certain points in time. And really for me personally it wasn’t until I left certain parts of the city I left, growing up going to high school in another neighborhood that's when I realized that it wasn't a city that was really kind to black people. It wasn't a city that had a lot of black people in it. There were just these little pockets here and there that were sort of safe spaces. And even then not really. But, [in] the rest of the city I was not the norm. I was not someone who the city had as their face.  

DD: What are your major poetic inspirations for your work?

MF: …Definitely, Langston Hughes, Tato Laviera, Sandra Maria Estevez. Going back into sort of one poet who has made me feel seen as a writer? …Particularly like African American poets, Afro-Latinx poets, and especially the new Puerto Rican poets. Which were my first foray into Puerto Rican literature. So definitely… some of those folks who made me feel seen a lot earlier in my writing. More recently, I would definitely say John Murillo, who his first book, Up Jump the Boogie, was huge for me, as far as looking at …How we can remix form to a certain degree. Probably I would also say someone like Aracelis Girmay. Again…her first book, Teeth, was something that really spoke to me, as far as how we capture everything around us. How we document all of the spaces that we come from and all the spaces that we occupy.

DD: As a mixed person, how do you see your identity in your poetry?

MF: It's interesting, to me, cause like, obviously my father is mixed race, and so I guess, by default, I am also mixed race. But, I, more often than not, I choose to say culturally mixed. Or even, I guess ethnically mixed instead of racially mixed. My parents are of African descent. My father just by way of the Caribbean and my mother by way of the U.S. And so, before anything else, I'm black. That's a reality that has stuck with me in a lot of different spaces that I'm very quickly reminded of in different spaces. …When I enter a space my body sort of announces itself as black. And so, in terms of identity, racially, although technically my father's mixed race, I would technically also be mixed race, like I see myself first and foremost as black and then it just goes into sort of the different cultural spaces of blackness that my parents occupy. When looking at my mother I go more specifically into African American, black American, when I'm looking at my father I go more specifically into Puerto Rican and Jamaican.

DD: I love that “culturally mixed” … I think it's an important thing … definitely in the naming like in your book, people will say "oh you have a white mother" just because they assume … from [you] visually … we have all these naming policies now, but everyone still defaults to the same strict parameters.

MF: … I think it says a lot about how race sort of functions in America and how often the default is to go to black and white. As opposed to one, recognize that black covers a lot of different things. Whether that's through skin tone, eye color, hair texture, whatever. It covers a lot of different looking people. But also just that there's room for more than just this very strict sort of black and white, like, obviously other people exist that don't necessarily fall easily into one category or another.

DD: … The final [question] that is on all of our blog posts: Which is, what are you currently working on?

MF: Oh no! I mean, mostly I have taken a break from creating new work. I'm mostly just working on getting the book together … Just, sort of, pressing pause for a second and just let's just, have this moment for a second. It's okay to take a little bit of a break … There are other non-me-writing-poetry projects that are sort of in the works with other folks, um, and currently trying to put together sort of a, this show with another Caribbean poet of mine, JR Mahung. Trying to put together sort of a show that focuses on sort of our identities as Carribbean poets. And sort of what that means in different spaces. That's sort of the big thing right now that I'm working on right now. That Black Plantan show and sort of looking at Afro-Carribean poetry.


Tuesday, November 13, 2018 - 09:45