Poetry News

Travis Nichols Goes Into the Vortex with Paul Killebrew at Huffington Post

By Harriet Staff


Travis Nichols talks with Paul Killebrew about his newly published second book, Ethical Consciousness, at Huffington Post.

Why did you call your book Ethical Consciousness?

Fair warning, I'm going to give you a really roundabout explanation for this. When I wrote these poems I worked at Innocence Project New Orleans, where I represented prisoners who were actually innocent of the crimes for which they'd been convicted. A recurring character in that work is the eyewitness who got it wrong--someone who sincerely believes that the person on trial is the murderer, but he or she is mistaken, as DNA testing or something else proves decades after the trial. There's been a lot of research into why eyewitnesses are wrong as often as they are, and, to no one's surprise, race can be a factor--they call it "cross-racial identification", meaning that people are sometimes better at identifying faces of their own race than another. The effect is especially pronounced in areas where races are heavily segregated. To me this lines up with two other ideas about how race works right now, the contact hypothesis and implicit bias. (You'll have to forgive me for getting all social science-y, but these are things I think about a lot, and I'll try to explain how it all hangs together with my sense of myself as a poet in a minute.) The contact hypothesis says that a powerful way to reduce conflict between an oppressive majority group and an oppressed minority group is through interpersonal contact. It can backfire, but it has also proven out time and time again. Implicit bias is a term that's become fairly common, and my understanding of it is the negative mental impressions you might associate with people of other races, despite your understanding of yourself to be tolerant and unprejudiced. Many, including me, would argue that implicit bias is the bread and butter of racism today, and however it comes about, I believe that it relates to our unwillingness to acknowledge basic things about ourselves and how we perceive.

This is a lot of jargon, and I recognize that language like this can be distancing and abstract, so let me be clear that I don't consider myself somehow above any of this; I feel entirely implicated. I grew up in a heavily segregated environment in the South in which racism was often explicit and unapologetic. I went into this at length in a podcast not too long ago, but the private school I attended from first to twelfth grade has a deeply racist past. My neighborhood and the street I grew up on weren't entirely segregated, and luckily my parents were pretty good about explaining right and wrong, but I don't think you can overstate the complexity of race or its presence in one's perceptions and decisions. Or anyway I can't. [...]

Poems work with all that--a particular word following another particular word creates a certain mental state, and the choices we make about the placement of those words--their order, where they appear spatially, and so on--gets close to ordering the reader's perceptions. Poets talk all the time about the ethical dimensions of those choices. So it all--consciousness, ethics, and poetry--felt like a vortex to me.

Read on at Huffington Post.

Originally Published: October 14th, 2013