As the journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates has become a household name over the last year with his National Book Award–winning memoir Between the World and Me and his MacArthur Fellowship, he has often been compared to James Baldwin. That comparison—made by the likes of Toni Morrison—is thanks to Coates’s intellectual dexterity, the elegance of his prose, and his uncompromising moral vision. But the two men have something else in common: poetry.
Coates started writing “bad poetry” (his words) in high school, but he took it up with more seriousness in college. When he arrived at Howard University, whose community he calls “the Mecca,” he fell in with poets that included E. Ethelbert Miller, Elizabeth Alexander, Joel Dias-Porter, Terrance Hayes, and Yona Harvey. Coates became a journalist, of course, not a poet. But in Between the World and Me, he writes about how understanding poetry taught him to write: “Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away, and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.”
Coates spoke with the Poetry Foundation from Paris, where he and his family are living through the end of the summer. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
You were recently in the news for writing about Bernie Sanders and reparations, so in some ways it feels odd to call you up to talk about poetry.
It's always a good time to talk about poetry. What people don’t understand is how you write those things always matters. When you take that Bernie Sanders post, I had to repeatedly go over every sentence. And that post actually doesn't meet my standard for writing. It is not quite as tight and concise and as powerful and as taut as I would like it to be. I learned those values as a poet.
It's unusual for a writer who is interested primarily in politics and history to put such value in poetry. How did that begin for you?
When I was in 11th grade, I had to read Macbeth, and I didn't get it. I failed English. In 12th grade, I had to reread it, and it was really the language that gave me entrée into the play. The murderer says, “I am one, my liege, whom the vile blows and buffets of the world have so incensed that I am reckless what I do to spite the world.” The poetry in that! “The vile blows and buffets of the world.” Who talks like that? But I got it. Not only did I get it, but I was like, “This is a hard way of talking, but I know exactly what he's talking about.” Do you understand what I'm saying? I’m like 500 years removed from Shakespeare, but I can feel exactly what he—I can put on some hip-hop, and it's the same thing. It occurred to me that, put the drama aside, the words themselves could evoke things.
There's a great passage in Between the World and Me where you write about being pressed by poets you were exposed to at Howard to push past generalizations in your writing. Tell me about how poetry sharpened your skills not just as a writer but also as a thinker.
That's always the challenge. “What precisely do you mean to say?” That's always the fight. You know what I mean? That's whether you're writing about poetry, or you're writing anything. You have to have in your head clearly what you mean to say. And for poets, this is so important because there's just so little space.
I'm writing comic books for Marvel, and I have to tell you it's the closest thing that I've had to going back to writing poetry again because there's a limited space to say what you need to say.
That reminds me of Between the World. I've heard you talk about how you wanted it to be even shorter.
I did. The first version was 20,000 words. I was like, “We're done.”
Do you see a connection to poetry?
Oh, hell yeah. That is all my training as a poet in that book, right there. The kind of lyricism I was trying to evoke. The repetition of the body. The repetition of the people who think they're white. All of that comes out of my poetic training.
There was her poetry, in and of itself, but there was also this theory behind the Black Arts Movement that she was participating in which was, within your own history, within in your own culture, within your own experience, there is great beauty, and you can pull from there. The black world, in and of itself, is beautiful. You don’t necessarily have to go back to ancient Greece to get your beauty. You don't have to go to Paris, where I am right now, to get your beauty.
I probably was active in really trying to write poetry for four years, and I read that poem repeatedly over a course of four years. One realization I had was that even though that poem claims to be about slavery, it actually is about white people. That's a poem about white people. All the voices are white. Every single one of them. Usually we're interrogating ourselves, as black folks. What's wrong with us? What was done to us? And he says, “No, no. I'm going to turn the camera on you and say, ‘Here is what was done to you.’”
Wikipedia says that you published a poetry collection in 1990. Is that right?
Actually, it was probably about '96. I self-published a chapbook, which is out there somewhere and which is just horrid. Horrid! Most of my poetry was failed attempts to either express politics beautifully or express love beautifully.
Did it ever seem like a viable career path to you?
No, no, not at all. I got accepted in a workshop at Provincetown that Yusef Komunyakaa was leading. He's my hero, one of my literary heroes. I went up and it was me, Joel Dias-Porter was in that workshop, Yona [Harvey] was in that workshop, Terrance [Hayes] was in that workshop. That was about 20 years ago. The way Yusef took apart those poems, took apart everybody's poems, it just—when I left, I was like, I don't have it.
Do you ever consider taking it up again?
All the poetry I have goes other places. It's still with me. When I think about black lives, or the Black Panther comic, I'm thinking in a poetic sense.