avery r. young vs. the Page

October 17, 2017

Danez Smith: She's a restaurant that has Tabasco and hot sauce, Franny Choi.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) And they're the sum total of all of Missandei’s looks on this season of Game of Thrones, Danez Smith.

Danez Smith: Damn, that’s a high honor. Welcome to VS…

Franny Choi: Well.. I like you!

Danez Smith: ... the podcast where poets confront the ideas that move them.

Franny Choi: Presented by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness!


Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) I didn’t know where you were going, but I was there for you.

Danez Smith: Yeah. Yes. You gotta be along for the ride, girl. How you doing, Franny?

Franny Choi: I’m doing okaaaaaaay…

Danez Smith: Uh-huuuuuuuh?

Franny Choi: Yeah. How is your heart, how is your writing? How is... your writing hand? 

Danez Smith: My writing hand… It’s good. It's also, like, my fork hand and sometimes my ice cream cone hand too. Uuuuum…. yeah, it's doing good. How about yours? 

Franny Choi: It’s… my writing is good. I mean, I've been writing more on the computer lately. I used to write everything by hand first and then transfer it to the computer. You write on the computer, right?

Danez Smith: Both, by hand and computer, I’ve been trying to write by hand more too. Wait, where is the weirdest place you've ever wrote? 

Franny Choi: Oh. Like, physically what I've written on? Or in the situation? 

Danez Smith: I'm open to both.

Franny Choi: OK. Last year, a professor who shall not be named was a very boring professor and spent a lot of time speaking nonsense that was not actually helpful for my education!

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

Franny Choi: And it was a five person class….

Danez Smith: Oh shit.

Franny Choi: ...and I decided… 

Danez Smith: That narrows it down. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: OK, a professor at some point in my education was leading this class and I wasn't gonna waste, like, 3 hours of my week every week. And so what I would do was write. But because of the fibers in class you can't just, like, sit in the back of the, like, you know, lecture hall writing. So I had to, like, look him in the eye and nod as he said some stupid shit and then pretend I was writing down what he was saying, but I would just write a new line of the poem.

Danez Smith: Damn. 

Franny Choi: But that was the first time I've sat through…. you know, 6 feet away from someone and then tried really hard to act like I was listening to them and then was just on a completely different thought. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Aspiration… goals, girl, goals, goals.

Franny Choi: Thank you.

Danez Smith: That's how my marriage will survive. 

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: I think the weirdest place I ever wrote... I'm tempted to say, like, receipt paper but, like, I think every poet with a job has done that before. If you worked in some type of book service industry or, you know, whatever. But I think it's literally my thigh. This one time…

Franny Choi: Like, on your thigh?

Danez Smith: Like, ink the thigh girl. 

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Like, temporary tattoo type shit. So I was driving. And look, sometimes when I drive and a poem comes to me, I try to, like, record it. But I couldn't do that. But I had a pen in the car and so whenever I got to a red light I would just, like…. and I'm in shorts. So I would just write, like, a little bit on my leg. Every time I was at a red light, I’d get a line down. So then I got home I just sat down and stared at my hips... (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: ...and wrote the poem. Tried to type it out. It was cool. 

Franny Choi: (MEANINGFUL WHISPER) The poem is written on the body…

Danez Smith: Yeah, you know…

Franny Choi: (MORE WHISPERING) … my body is the text. 

Danez Smith: ...the word made flesssshhhhhhh….. 

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: And I'm excited to talk to our guest today, aver r. young, cause heeeeeeee…. be writing poems on some weird shit.

Franny Choi: Yeah, it's really kind of redefining what the boundaries of poetry are. You know, writing in new media on new media...

Danez Smith: Mediums. 

Franny Choi: Media? 

Danez Smith: Mediae?

Franny Choi: I don’t know, I don’t… English is a bad language.

Danez Smith: It is, yeah.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) I think we can all agree.

Danez Smith: But throughout this conversation, we go there, we talk about, like, enclaves, we talk about community… You’re about to hear it. So... yeah. And a quick note in the recording of this, we actually had a few technical issues, so if I'm…. Franny sounds a little weird…

Franny Choi: Just don’t…

Danez Smith: ...then blame that on God. 

Franny Choi: Don't say anything. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Yeah. Just don't say…

Franny Choi: Don't make it weird. OK? And don’t think I’m weird. Just go with it.

Danez Smith: Best known as a poet, songwriter and performer, multidisciplinary artist avery r. young is also an award-winning teaching artist who mentors youth in the crafts of Creative Writing and Theater. He has been an Arts and Public Life Artist In Residence at the University of Chicago, and has written a curriculum for Columbia College Chicago, Leeds Young Authors in Leeds, England, Truestar Magazine and Chicago Public Schools Arts Integration Department. young's poems and essays on HIV awareness, misogyny, race records and arts integration have been published in The BreakBeat Poets, The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, Inprint, and other anthologies. His album “Booker T. Soltreyne: A Race Rekkid” combines poetry and sound design to discuss matters of race, gender and sexuality in America during the Obama era. avery’s work and performance and visual text and sound design has been featured in several exhibits and online publications, notably the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, the Museum of Contemporary Art [Chicago] and the American Jazz Museum. He currently works as a teaching artist mentoring Rebirth [Youth] Poetry Ensemble and performing with his band De Deacon Board. Y'all! Get ready. For none other. Than that motherfucker. De-don-do-dah. avery r. young. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: avery r. young.

Danez Smith: Wow! OK, OK, OK, we have a guest. We have a guest. 

avery r. young: We do, we do.

Danez Smith: We have somebody at our house, Franny. Avery! Thank you for coming.

avery r. young: I’m not company, y’all. I’m family.

Danez Smith: You’re my uncle. 

avery r. young: OK.

Danez Smith: Yeah! Thank you for coming here.

avery r. young: Thank you for inviting me.

Danez Smith: I know you're busy busy busy, making this schedule. I feel, like, any time you could be creating something. I feel, like, you have wings that I secretly don't know about, too, but that's just my own imagining of you.

avery r. young: Oh, OK. I could.

Danez Smith: They’re not, like, extravagantly, they’re like chicken wings on you back. They’re kind of, like…

Franny Choi: [Inaudible because of technical issues]

avery r. young: I do.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: Nothing of what he said was a lie. Nothing of what she said was untrue. 

Danez Smith: I tells the truth. 

avery r. young: If there is going to be wings, they will be definitely chicken. 

Danez Smith: Uh-huh, uh-huh, you are a lemon pepper angel.

avery r. young: Oh, no! I’m real black. That’s that new black. That’s that new black!

Danez Smith: You don’t like a little pepper wing?

avery r. young: Noooo! No, no, no crystal, no crystal….

Danez Smith: We'll change some letters around …

avery r. young: I need hot sauce.

Danez Smith: I’m gonna take new black and change that into new book… keeping the podcast on track.

avery r. young: Yes indeed.

Danez Smith: So you have a book, that will be in the world at some time. 

avery r. young: Yes.

Danez Smith: There are details that we can not say yet… But tell us about this book that shall not be detailed at the moment. What's coming to the people. 

avery r. young: I mean, we talk about getting to the real teeth? (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: We’re getting right to it, oh my goodness!

Danez Smith: So, what did you do?

avery r. young: Alright, so. The script that I'm working on currently is something I'm desiring to call Neck Bone. Right now, it is just really formulating... these collections of moments that kind of informed my blackness. And I'm glad to say a lot of these moments have nothing to do with whiteness. (LAUGHING) 

Danez Smith: Amen! Which is… a lot of people struggle about how to really talk about blackness divorced from whiteness, you know. 

avery r. young: Yeah. It's very important to see yourself in a lense that's not attached to whiteness. Especially as a person of color, right. Because a lot of people of color have learned to live and function without intersecting with whiteness at all. And it's crazy. A lot people have figured it out. Even in a land called America. There's a lot of folk that have managed to do that. A lot of it requires you to be politically insensitive. Like, a lot of it requires you not to give a fuck. Yeah. About a lot of things that is not concerning you and who you look like. Or people who look like you. Which I say is complicated, because your world at that point is very isolated. 

Danez Smith: Hmm.

avery r. young: Isolation can then become a form of whiteness. Which is really damn crazy.

Franny Choi: Ooof!

Danez Smith: (WHISTLING) 

avery r. young: The ultimate point of whiteness is... we don't want brown babies in this country. Keep black seed out of white flowers. That's the root of all this joint. Keep white blood pure. Then we understand and we can't socialize with folk. Meaning we can’t integrate, we can’t intersect. And what happens when you isolate yourself, right. You do the business of whiteness. 

Danez Smith: Right. You self-select segregation.

avery r. young: You self-select segregation. And a lot of these communities of color have thrived. Going about their business. But it is really about self-selecting segregation. 

Franny Choi: (GASPS)

avery r. young: But you get to talk then about anything outside the realm of what it is to be black, and the conversation gets a bit difficult. You start to hear out of these people’s mouths prejudiced stuff against other folk. And that stuff that they’re saying is rooted out of whiteness. It’s not rooted out of anything that they've experienced. I was telling the story the other day. I have at some point brought some sushi to the house of my big momma. 

Danez Smith: Big momma house?

avery r. young: Yes I did. 

Danez Smith: Uncooked fish? 

avery r. young: See, this is what I’m saying! And she’s, like, what’s that? And I’m, like, sushi. And she just said, she went, you’ve been around white people too long. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: Oooh, I mean, she’ll admit that not only did it come from a bone. They’re a problem with being around white people for too long. Like, it’s something that you need exorcised out of you. Like we need to gather the prayer warriors. And I went to say, but, it’s actually... And I probably got shul out of my mouth, and she popped me real quick. She was just, like, we don't do that in my house. You’re smelling yourself, boy. 

Danez Smith: That’s the ultimate, that’s the ultimate…

avery r. young: You’re smelling yourself. I fried my fish. Served it with greens and hot sauce. I say, yes, you do, ma’am. Yes, you do. That was it. And I mean, rightfully so. She was born in 1923, grew up in Lexington, Mississippi. You talking about a segregated South. She can’t walk on the same side of the street as white folks, so she learned to figure out your way through this maze. And in anything that's foreign of that, what is perceived to be, black experience. There is some level about how you were introduced to a white world. How else would you know what sushi is? How do you know a taco, you don’t… I don’t have a Mexican friend. And I’m, like, Mexican food is so much more than tacos. (LAUGHING) They get down! They get down like we do! Trust and believe! (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: They make a lot! (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: Yes, and what they serve at gringos is not right. You got to get the real deal. 

Danez Smith: And it's… it's cultural too, right. Because, like, you know, I always think, like, somebody has to be black as fuck so that there are always going to be black people, right. So we have, like, that reference point of, like, what does, like, black, like... That enclave blackness that we’re talking about, right? Like, people living outside of institutions of whiteness, like, you need those institutions. Even so that those of us who move in and out of that still always have a reference of, like, this is what, like, that unadulterated us looks like in a beautiful way. Because I think it's very difficult for writing to find black letters that are divorced from the white gays, or divorced… At least, I think. Like, even for me, I find myself to be a black-as-fuck writer. Whiteness still rears its head when I'm writing about black people, in a way. And you started out at the beginning, talking about that isolation too. When you isolate your community. Did you experience that isolation in the writing of the poems?

avery r. young: I will say this about the isolation part. That's one way of dealing with whiteness, right. For me, experiencing life in an enclave is… it’s why then, when I get around whiteness, I will still be black. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Right.

avery r. young: I’m not gonna do this code switch. Because that doesn't make sense. 

Danez Smith: This is my code.

avery r. young: Right. This is my code. Because I have to learn yours! I grew up in a Baptist church reading the King James Bible. Nobody I grew up with says “the” [pronounced “thee”] and “thou”. (LAUGHING) Nobody talks like that. Nobody. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” You know? And he read the verse and did it again until he said, did y’all hear that? (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: I said Gawd! Because I think that's also the point of my book that I'm making. The language is optional. Those Ts, those Ds, those Rs, those Ls… They’re optional. We didn’t talk this shit, coming over. I am representing these letters and it’s language that there are parentheses around my Ts and Ds and things of that nature, cause again, it's the option. I necessarily did not think of it as isolation. As more I thought about as sanctuary. So I didn't think about what I was closing myself from. But what I was opening myself to. 

Danez Smith: Hmm.

avery r. young: And that's always the way in which I'll look at writing. And especially about writing this experience. About, you know, this black experience. Because when I think about blackness, I think about... us being folk who have no agency of voice, our bodies, anytime when we are in the moment, right, of.. singing, dancing, fucking, praise, we are, like, in the act of liberation. If you didn't take that act of writing—especially writing, specifically writing—and speaking to tell another black person what they can and cannot do with their body. 

Danez Smith: Hmm.

avery r. young: You just changed the color of the oppressor. As a matter of fact, you just did. I don't want no chocolate-covered oppressor, I don’t want an oppressor at all! (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: I ain’t need a motherfucking chocolate-covered don’t do shit for me! (LAUGHING) Oh, OK. Yes, master, you black, I do what you say. No! No, no no! That can’t be right. That's not what I believe liberation is. Liberation is the elimination, the annihilation of oppression. 

Danez Smith: Hmm.

avery r. young: Like, all this shit got to be thrown out... 

Danez Smith: And need something completely new. From scratch.

avery r. young: ... and then burned, because we gotta purify shit. (LAUGHING) Right? A lot of the writing too, for me… I believe I'm most effective in creating when I'm listening. I feel like they're made for me. 

Danez Smith: I hear what you’re saying. You want the story to happen naturally and kind of inevitably. So, like, a character must die, as opposed to: I’m gonna make her dead.

avery r. young: I look at it like a performance. And this is really just coming from a tradition of church, you know. Baptist upbringing, you know, let the Lord use you. (LAUGHING) Well, I come in my own way. Just as the idea of duende, holy ghosts, spirit, that I am just documenting the series of rituals that passes through me. I write, the way I perform…

Danez Smith: By the way, if you've never seen avory perform, just run to YouTube. Bless yourself. If the camera can keep up. 

avery r. young: Right! Right, right. (LAUGHING) And I’m real. All of that is Baptist preaching. All of that is em... a little bit of a blues man, you know. But to me, all that's just in the tradition of how expressing ourselves as black folk had to be in a vein of spirituality. Cause we can't do that in the regular world, so we gotta zoot up and go somewhere. If I open myself, then this thing will happen. That is basically my approach to the act of writing. It involves myself, but listen. This poem will come. It won't be... and it is... so, Danez says there’s no such a thing as writer’s block, right. At some point it’s just harder hearing.

Danez Smith: And I think that's what I was talking about earlier. We were talking outside. I meant that, like… You know, even that, like, if I savery r. young: I'm writing for the next three hours, I'm not literally writing for the next three hours, but I'm allowing myself the space and stillness to allow whatever it is to come. So maybe only an hour of that is actually putting words to the page. And the other part is, like, allowing myself to get distracted and remember to pull myself back. 

avery r. young: OK.

Danez Smith: I have a question for you though, Mr. Vessel. Wanted to tell you that a poem could be made out of tar, because your poems... I remember you, like, starting to investigate some of this stuff because we were Facebook friends and we had been roommates at Cave Canem, so you would be doing a 30 30, trying to write poems, and I would be, like...Wait that n*** made a thing! (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Like, I sat at my computer for five minutes today. This n***, like, went out and got some wood chips and it looks, like, a strawberry, like, a radish and a goat. So, like, when did the poems become multi-textured? I don't know? 

avery r. young: Yeah.

Danez Smith: What said: avery, go get some wood. (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: The burning bush.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) 

avery r. young: avery… 

Danez Smith: And did you listen immediately?

avery r. young: (LAUGHING) Actually—cause this is, like, my whole theme about this book—was that real, like, Big Dick Willy about poetry is art. And that poetry has to be more about just writing and reading. Because I've read poems that I felt, not heard. Whatever energy went into that language transferred in me as I read it, and I'm, like, well, how can you be a bit more technical about that. That things happen to us and…. ink and paper not there. But this band-aid. This here. And how can I use this as... ink. And I was, like, OK well, I got to be more transparent about the revision process. Generally, people think art is just, I guess, just whimsical. So we walk around until there's a shake. And then we start shaking. (LAUGHING) We gotta go find wherever it is, to shake up out our ass. I need a book, I need a book, I need a pen, I need a pen, I’m feeling it, I’m feeling a poem, give me a book and a pen. And something about creating a visual poem is evidence of a process. I have a series of Billie Holiday pieces and that’s just what it was. I'm just gonna be very transparent about… when it’s not the word I want. When it's not the word. I misheard. 

Danez Smith: Right. And the edits stay in the poem that way. 

avery r. young: And the edits stay in the poem. And then it went, this woman suffered a lot of hurt. Let me express that with a bunch of band-aids on this sheet of paper. It’s so much more work. Your actual hand is more invested in the story. You spend more time in it, and it spends more time with you. You know, a lot of times I can't perform Emmett Till, the remix, because… I don’t want to deal with Emmett Till for, like, the next five hours of my life. I got shit to do. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Hmm.

avery r. young: It don’t leave because you got another poem to read. 

Danez Smith: Yeah.

avery r. young: It’s ultimately about the ways black folk suffered through. Like, I'm hurting right now, it’s not even, like, emotional pain, or mental pain, like. Physically, something is wrong with me. But I have to do this. You know? The last piece of the Billie Holiday series is her at Carnegie Hall. And at night she had.. she was so nervous that she took the stick pin of the flower she put in her hair and she pierced herself with it. 

Danez Smith: Oh no.

avery r. young: And she was bleeding the whole concert. Which was almost the name of the book, Nobody Noticed The Blood On The Black. I was talking to somebody and he was just, like, I like Neck Bone more. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: Neck Bone got some seasoning to it.

avery r. young: Right, right, right. He was like, it is more easy. I was, like, OK. Nephew Nate was, like, you wanna think about what’s easier to search. 

Danez Smith: Yeah what’s Google…

avery r. young: Yeah, Google, right. I’m, like, oh, OK. That's very branding of you, Nate Marshall. (LAUGHING) 

Danez Smith: You gotta sell them books.

avery r. young: Gotta sell ‘em, gotta sell ‘em. (LAUGHING) But that was my joint. It looked like what people do. And black women specifically. The pain was again... unfortunately...what’s been marketed to us as, this is what it’s gonna be. And my whole joint.. the freedom is never anything that someone else gives you. It’s not outside. The system ain't ever meant to work in your favor. And you can't force the system to work in your favor. But you sure can tell that motherfucker, put one more hand on me, you gonna get something. And see, I like that. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: (LAUGHING) I like that shit. I’m going to the West Side of Chicago. So that shit—look, you do this one more time, you motherfucker, and we’re gonna see what’s gonna happen. And I like that. I really do. Not that I think it’s a better way, or a more effective way. But it's different. (LAUGHING) But it’s different! It’s natural. I've mentioned this to a lot of people and a lot of this is: how do we fashion our reactions as responses. Right. But, you know, I say fashion our reaction, I mean, I still want us to react. (LAUGHING) You know. Cause responding, to me, is like watered-down Kool-Aid. It's effective. It's a thought process. It’s doing something... you know, responding is a reaction with a thought process. And reaction to me is guttural. It's what the fuck you feel. (LAUGHING) All emo. All emo! I work in school systems, right, where as black as I am, I'm the white motherfucker who argues with the black kids I’m looking at. I might as well be white, because nothing that they see of me, they signal is black, because in their cultural milieu, that says black is more girly. Than I am. I’m black in front of this laughing and smelling. You know.

Danez Smith: They don’t have the language for that. 

avery r. young: And talking about Nina Simone, they talking about… (LAUGHING) Nina Simone? 

Danez Smith: That’s some white shit to them. 

avery r. young: Yeah! 

Franny Choi: Wow.

avery r. young: And a man. (LAUGHING) Who is he!? No! Nina, motherfucker, not Nino, Nina! Man! I mean, woman! 

Franny Choi: And it’s really weird to figure that out with them. Cause watch this. I’m gonna ask you a black question. And guess what you ain’t got the answer to. Guess what you don’t know shit about. You all don’t know shit about black shit. As black as you are. And as white as you try and tell me I am. You know? Mr. Young? Avery? I’m like, yeah! We come in averies, yes we do.

Danez Smith and Franny Choi: We come in averies. Hmmm.

Danez Smith: It happens. It happens. It happens, Shalisa. It happens. (LAUGHING) And Shalisa’s like OK.


Danez Smith: OK. So we kind of talked about, like, seeing yourself and that kind of stuff, and I wanted to make sure we get to talk about the Floating Museum. 

avery r. young: Oh! That's right. My life right now. It’s the Floating Museum. 

Danez Smith: It’s your life right now, so tell us about your life right now. Where does it flow, how it flow. is it runnier? What’s up. 

avery r. young: Yes. It is all of that. So the Floating Museum is the work of five other individuals outside of myself. We have four directors. I'm one of one director. Then we have two lovely, lovely, amazing women, Meghan and Kate, who do all the work, like, usual. (LAUGHING) You know?

Danez Smith: There’s the folks that dream it up, and there’s the folks that get the shit done.

avery r. young: That’s right, that’s how it works. Nah, nah, everyone’s putting in crazy time and efforts to get this started with this concept, of us, Faheem and Jeremiah, we had this idea of why don’t we just float a barge and have the sculpture that floats up a body of water. And it really... the idea of the work… floating is in its literal sense… We had a hundred foot barge that had a river assembly or this installation of 66 crates that were to represent various communities in Chicago, about 20-odd artists bedazzled these crates, and we put them on this barge. There is a bust of the settler, of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. So the idea is, like, this Floating Museum is that the world itself is a museum and various neighborhoods and people create different installations, like galleries, in this museum, and the function of the museum is not to go into a space and say, hey, this is what we’re gonna put here.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

avery r. young: Our approach to the work is, hey, what do you do. You keep this space quite well. How can we now put a yellow string around it and present it as art in a way in which folks don't think of it, right. They don't think of this as art. Art is always foreign to people, it’s something that's brought to people. Not things that just happen. Because people are art. You know, people don't make art, they just realize the concept. People take dirt and water and make a statue out of that. What makes the statue differ from just dirt and water is the vision of the imagination. So the hope is that people will then, like, sort of, like, leave that barge to be able to see the sort of museum aspect of the art in, like, their daily living. 

Danez Smith: Yes.

avery r. young: I went and saw hundreds on this barge, you know. And I went and saw a box that included my neighborhood, and the hope is that now to go back to that space and maybe be able to see…. To leave the museum, the Floating Museum, with, like, your looking transformed. So that there’s not a one way of looking at that. So.. cause.. the floating museums that started from the hunters… already know that about itself. It really doesn’t need us to say, oh, this is what you do, and it’s art. It’s just us recognizing that. And asking, can you share that with the people over here in Rogers Park? Right? Who may not know what happens, because, you know, we live in a city that tells people, don’t go no further south than Roosevelt. Shit be in brochures. (LAUGHING) I mean, in brochures! That shit is fucked up. And recently have people really been checked on that, not this part, not this part. And anybody that lives in Chicago is like, no! That’s where you go. What are you doing. Ain’t anybody gonna fuck with you. (LAUGHING) They really don’t. They believe in self-fuckage. (LAUGHING) 

Franny Choi: Self-fuckage….

avery r. young: They fuck with themselves. They ain’t gonna fuck with you. They fuck with themselves. The idea is to also show that there are many creators who navigate through all these space. 

Danez Smith: Hmmm.

avery r. young: I was telling someone I had... it kind of reminds me too of Louder Than A Bomb, which is the team slam here. And the concept of Louder Than A Bomb was to bring all these voices together in one spot. But the biggest complication of that is, do we bring these voices together in this downtown space? Cause it’s very down. It's not, like, let's bring all these voices to the South Side, or let’s bring these voices all the way to the North Side. Let's bring this joint Downtown. Let's bring them Downtown and put this pain and hurt and misery from these neighborhoods on display. Right, but then they gotta go back into these neighborhoods. (LAUGHING) And they gotta exist. And so, for me, the Floating Museum is about their world, about what they go back to. 

Franny Choi: Hmmm.

avery r. young: And again, it’s not, oh you people from the North Side, come over here to the West Side to see how West Side people live, right. It’s, A, North Side and West Side people live too. You ain’t gotta come here just .. for the grand gesture of coming, but understand people understand in which an article or a poem can never really fully articulate. 

Franny Choi: We’re talked about, kind of, like, the beauty of the enclave and also the limitations of the enclave. What I'm hearing in hearing you talk about this project is, like, a way to sort of travel across those lines without losing something about that enclave, right?

avery r. young: Right. So it’s more like transport, or transfer. Transfer means, at some point I have to let something go in order to enter another space.

Franny Choi: Like a transaction…

avery r. young: Right, there’s a transaction. It's a give and take. Transport is more like, beam me up, Scotty. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: And I'm gonna be into space, as I am, and then mmm-nnn-mm-nn-mmm, Scotty, and I’m back. (LAUGHING) 

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: Into this space, the space as I was, who I was, before I was transported out into space. I don’t know if that, that..

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: That’s just one way of thinking about it, as some Star Trek shit. Right, right, right. And it’s a way in which to connect and not believe in the fact that we can only connect once we become soup. Right? That, you know, the whole melting pot theory is that we all are the same, so we all should get along. And that shit is just not true.

Franny Choi: Right. There’s gotta be something that decides..

avery r. young: I should be able to keep my texture, I will still be a tomato. If I come in as a motherfucking tomato, I should still be a tomato. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: Right? And, you know…

Franny Choi: Try being a salad. 

avery r. young: So it's more of a salad than a soup, because the lettuce still get to be lettuce, the onion and cucumbers, and we work in harmony, right. We can be very nourishing. And the effort to assimilate and or melt, is this idea that I have to lose myself or compromise a part of myself, so that this motherfucker won't be offended. Or be more comfortable. I won’t even say offended. Just comfortable, right, because again, colored shit America ain't really colored shit if it ain’t of how uncomfortable white folks are around colored shit. (LAUGHING) Right? Cause color folk don't think nothing about it, it’s our shit! It’s the way we talk, and the way we sing, it’s the way we do this, the way we do that. It’s the way we speak, it’s the way we ...You know, it only becomes a subject or something to change or modify when white folk are made uncomfortable. Speaking of poetry, that happens a lot of… I can’t tell you how many writers have told me, and I found myself telling this to people, well, just read the work of whoever is judging the book prize. And, you know, write what you think they would respond to. That’s what I’m saying! I would write a book that they would pick like the book I would write. Because I read their shit. I’m just flying. 

Franny Choi: Aaay!

avery r. young: (LAUGHING) I’m just saying, I don’t conceal it, I’m telling you the truth. That’s on expertise alone. And it is flying, because that’s been named Vatagosi. I white this shit up so I can get a trip to the university and sell books and that shit gets real deep. And I very am not like playing when I say, white this shit up. I want to white. This. Shit. Up. Because white universities usually have a big-ass check. (LAUGHING) So real shit only on this poetry show right now. So, they do this dance, and that’s cool. To each his own. And I’m in no way that you have to upsassing someone’s hair with your shit. You know. But there’s only so much water this pack of Kool-Aid can hold. (LAUGHING) When you start putting too much water in his motherfucking Kool-Aid, you are gonna get one motherfucking pack. It gets a water flavor, we know the difference. Between a good Kool-Aid and that watered-down Kool-Aid. And I’m just saying, that shit is recognizable. And I’ve had people ask me to submit, to their joint, and I sent them what I was gonna submit, and they go like, ehm, our viewers may not understand… the language. Then I go, well, I’ll take my poem back. (LAUGHING) I’ll take it back. Thank you. But do NOT—I’m doing like you’re big momma, smacking your motherfucking mouth—do not smell yourself and correct me. That shit you don’t put on a motherfucker. 

Franny Choi: Hmm.

avery r. young: It’s just the way it is. I’ve been doing this shit for a whole long time. And my process of revision is crazy.

Franny Choi: You were talking about, like, discomfort earlier. Is there anything that can be productive about making white people uncomfortable?

avery r. young: I don't know. Because I don't see white people changing because they’ve been made uncomfortable. (LAUGHING) I just see, when white people get uncomfortable, they get uncomfortable. And they don’t go, well, I should stop. 

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Cause that’s the goal maybe, right?

avery r. young: I mean, again. I think there's too much focus. Please. If uncle Avery can impart anything to any writer of color. Please don't fashion your shit just to make a white motherfucker uncomfortable, that’s given them too much… That’s given them too much. They ain’t shit. They ain’t shit. They won’t do all that. Because, one, you gotta trust your work. The work will make people uncomfortable anyway. If you speaking you shit on a solid-ass rock.

Franny Choi: Right. But if that's the only goal…

avery r. young: If that’s the only goal, you missing, you missing the point of the work. I don't set out to make white folk uncomfortable. I just know that it happens. I know it happens. And again. Let me see, I’m gonna reach in my bank of zeros... Guess what, there are none there. Zero fucks. I’m out of them. I’m out of fucks to give you.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: I'm looking, I'm looking at my bank account for the fucks. None is there. None. At all. Look. I’m deficient in fucks. Totally. I’m deficient in fucks, totally. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: It's craziness. But I don't think about making white people uncomfortable. Because I'm also thinking about … my work is my house. And I wanna invite you in my crib. To make you uncomfortable. That wouldn't be the purpose of letting me bring you to my crib. If I want to make you uncomfortable, I will fight your ass on the street. I’m not gonna bring your ass in my motherfucking house, cause you’re gonna get shit on my goddamn new furniture.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: You know. I’m not trying to fuck up my new, my new shit. I’m still paying on it. 

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: But on the street on the concrete, yeah, you can be over there all the goddamn day. I think a lot of folk give white people too much shit. Or whiteness. You know, because there is white people and there is whiteness. They put too much everything, too much energy in it. There's nothing about whiteness I want to be. The shit that you sit near. That's personal. Lot of times, uncomfortability is just the work that you haven’t done. You know, it's not them that's making me uncomfortable, it’s just the shit that I ain’t worked through. I didn’t process this yet. And now I’m in a space where I gotta confront it. So a lot of it really is, that folk ain’t doing the work. Which ain’t on me, as the artist. That you didn’t do the work. So, I’m gonna do this, I didn’t mean to make your uncomfortable, I don’t care. (LAUGHING) That you are… I can hug you. I do that. But I’m not about to sit and have this conversation about why I shouldn’t make you uncomfortable, I’m not gonna do that, I’m a grown-ass man. My momma don’t tell me stuff… My momma don’t tell me what not to do, she looks at me and go, that’s my baby. (LAUGHING) And that’s how I wanna look at it, that’s the poem. Hollar at the work. And I believe if it’s made you feel a way, like, feel a way, it’s doing the work. Works are not supposed to be flat. I guess, I keep getting back to the first first first question, like, what am I doing with this work. I’m just trying to prove that poetry isn’t flat.

Franny Choi: Hmm.

Danez Smith: Hmm.

avery r. young: You know, the thing about looking at a book is that I can take a book and I can run my fingers across the page. And it’s very smooth. And then people think that’s what it is. But it’s not, it’s not. Poetry and the art of writing and, you know, has become so detached from art because of a lot of the ways in which it is sold to people, through academia, is the difficulty of teaching it. To kids. Cause, I don’t get it. And I’m just like, it’s not for you to get. It’s for you to recognize images, and see. 

Franny Choi: Hmm.

avery r. young: Can you see it? And have you seen anything near it. In your experience. I was in Cabrini-Green one time, at a school. This was the assignment, look out of the window right now, and just list the things you see. And all the young people in this classroom, all the young men in this classroom, wrote down: broken bottles. Needles. Now, I don’t know how you can see a needle from a third floor window, but it was on their list. At that point, there was this young man, swinging his son on one of these things, and nobody put that on the sheet of paper. I said, y’all see this dude swinging his baby, and the baby laughing, like, having a good time, with however this man is, to him. I’m like, y’all didn’t see. I do see the broken bottle. I do see the garbage. But I also see these other things, right. So let us figure the whole. But how much more complicated. And advanced is the poem if you talk about the needle. The poem is more interesting if you are talking about this… and then there is this dude stepping on this broken bottle, swinging his son back and forth, and the son is elated, smiling, and there is the sky and there is this framework. Like, the poem is so much more interesting for me. Right? I’m way more interested in how you can find your unique way of expressing and image.

Danez Smith: Word. 


Franny Choi: Let’s get in some poems.

avery r. young: Ah, fuck, I forgot my poem! 

I totally forgot.

Danez Smith: (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

avery r. young: Oh shit, I forget. I forget that part.

Franny Choi: Every episode we ask our guests to bring in a poem that they've written that they'd like to share for our audiences. So, avery, do you have a poem that you'd like to read for us today?

avery r. young: Yes. I do. That piece is Tubman, and it goes something like this: (BEATBOXING / SINGING / IMPROVISING).


Danez Smith: avery, thank you so much for being on the show and just blessing us with a lot. So where can people find you at..

avery r. young: Oh my goodness, you can find me on Facebook @avery_r_young, same situation on Instagram @avery_r_young, and.. I think I have a Twitter account, yeah, I still have a Twitter account (LAUGHING).

Danez Smith: You got a website?

avery r. young: Yes,, be black.

Danez Smith: Damn.

Franny Choi: That was an incredible conversation with a avery r. young.

Danez Smith: It was…

Franny Choi: Oh my gosh, his brain... It's hard for me sometimes to keep up with his brain. It goes so many places.

Danez Smith: Wonderful places. I mean, if you let him go, he gets there.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Sure he does. I loved also, like, what he was saying about enclaves and, like, communities where we feel most at home, like, whether artistically or, like, literally just, like, in our lives. The neighborhoods that we occupy. Danez, you and I are like we ...perhaps...maybe come from, like, different, um… enclaves. 

Danez Smith: Uh-huh.

Franny Choi: Sometimes I feel like people look at us and they're, like, how are they friends?

Danez Smith: Yeah, it's very true. That make no sense. (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: And yet. Somehow... 

Danez Smith: Somehow…

Franny Choi: ...they have something to talk about. (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: So I'm wondering what enclave-type, like, community or group of people where you feel, like, most at home or, like, maybe weirdly at home?

Danez Smith: I think most at home... It's, like, definitely, like, the Selby neighborhood in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where I’m from. Which is a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. Which is very sad to see, but I still feel very home there, and it's, like…. It means something to me when I can sit in a place and, like, see people that I've known my whole life, that know a lot about me, that know about my mom, that can say how's your grandma doing, because they know her, like, that type of place feels good. I think also... I've always thought of myself as, like, a very urban person, but when I visited the rural south, especially places where, like, black owned farms, cause that’s the type of space my grandparents are from, I feel oddly at home and at peace and, like, I'm okay with being away from urban life at that moment. I’m just like, oh, I could be happy where there are people that look like me that are caring about themselves in the land.

Franny Choi: That's so beautiful. I grew up in a lot of different… we moved around a lot when I was a kid. So I lived in four states by the time I was, like, thirteen. In different regions of the U.S. And so I don't really have, like, that sense of, like, home. And my parents were, like, immigrants, you know. I was, like, a fetus when they came to the U.S. So I don't really have, like, that kind of, like, sense of home in a particular geographical place like you do. But I do realized recently that, like, “my people,” like, my people are queer nerds of color. So, like, wherever in the room a queer nerd of color is, like, that's, like, the person that I…. And I looked back at, like, a class photo from seventh grade. Shout-out to Worthington Hooker Elementary and then Middle School in New Haven, Connecticut, hey!. And it was, like, a really diverse class. I realized, like, I was standing in a corner with, like, the nerds of color. Like, there's, like, the white nerdy kids over here. There was, like, the not nerdy, like, kids of color over here, and then in the corner was, like, me and, like, the one kind of femme black nerd and another, like, butch girl who was, like, awkward and out of place and very smart. And I was, like, these are my people. 

You know in my very low. No I was just there I was me. And then later I was, like, OK that was me.

Danez Smith: You’ve known who are for a very long time.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) No, I didn’t know, I was just there, I was me, and then later I was like, oh, that was me.

Danez Smith: You knew you before you knew you.

Franny Choi: Oooooooh! Fake deep.

Danez Smith: Fake. Deep.

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING)

Danez Smith: It sells books! (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: Alright, well let’s get out of here. Let's get to this here studio, with these nicely foam padded walls for sound protection. We got some people to thank.

Danez Smith: OK. Today I would like to thank Master P for giving us rap snacks, which are literally chips named after rappers, and…. 

Franny Choi: Oh, I love those!

Danez Smith: They’re so good, and I can't buy them anymore. I finally found a gas station in Minnesota that has the chips, and so I've been snacking on these, like, fabulous flavored barbecue chips… And I really just like eating out of a rapper’s face. It’s the best thing ever. So, like, Master P, you gave us P Miller and rap snacks, shout-out to you, my n*g. 

Franny Choi: And there were so many years where I didn't even think about Yung Joc at all until I saw his face on a bag of chips. 

Danez Smith: Exactly. And I say you probably said in your heart, it's going down. 

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) I would like to thank. Nermeen Shaikh…

Danez Smith: Who?

Franny Choi: ...on Democracy Now. Who is often, sometimes, like, Amy Goodman’s co-anchor, but she holds it down with, like, her slightly stank voice and her great eyebrows. Thank you, Nermeen Shaikh. 

Danez Smith: We would also like to thank Ydalmi Noriega and Elizabeth Burke-Dain for the Poetry Foundation.

Franny Choi: We’d like to thank Postloudness, we’d like to thank our producer, Daniel Kisslinger, hey, hey, hey.

Danez Smith: And most of all we'd like to thank you. Hey, you! You! You! You go, you! (LAUGHING)

Franny Choi: (LAUGHING) Make sure to subscribe to VS on Soundcloud and iTunes…

Danez Smith: … and the NPR One app. And you can follow us on Twitter @VSThePodcast, check out the Poetry Foundation’s website, they have a lot more content for listening there, check out Poetry Off The Shelf, all those other type things, and… until then, we will see you next time y’all. 

Franny Choi: Goodbye.

Danez Smith: Peace.

Franny Choi: Forever

Danez Smith: Ever.

Franny Choi: Just kidding. Come back next time.

Danez Smith: Or maybe…

Franny Choi: In, like, two weeks or so.

Danez Smith: Yeah, we’ll see you then.

Franny Choi: Alright, bye.

Danez Smith: (AIR KISS SOUND)

Chicago legend avery r. young comes through the VS studio and takes poetry off the page with Franny and Danez. The discussion bounces from writing in an enclave, to pain and survival, to holding his mule. Plus, a very special performance.

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