Audio

Luther Hughes reads "Tenor"

December 3, 2018

Don Share: This is the Poetry magazine podcast for the week of December 3rd, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On the Poetry magazine podcast, we listen to a poem or two in the current issue.
Don Share: Luther Hughes is the author of “Touched,” a collection of poems that came out this year. Hughes is also the founder of The Shade Journal, executive editor for The Offing, and a columnist for Frontier Poetry.
Lindsay Garbutt: His poem in the December issue, “Tenor,” draws from a painting of the same name by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hughes told us that in college, he saw a documentary about Basquiat and the artist became one of his muses.
Luther Hughes: He was so free of kind of societal norms and how a black artist should kind of live and present themselves. Also, he was poor, so it was interesting to me how that never stopped him.
Don Share: The painting, from 1985, depicts four black bird heads circling around a monstrously oversized rodent.
Luther Hughes: I love crows. I really have an obsession with crows, and being from Seattle and living back in Seattle, there are so many crows here. So when I saw this painting, I was like, oh my gosh, he has a painting with crows.
Lindsay Garbutt: After seeing an image of the painting for the first time, Hughes told us that he started looking around his apartment.
Luther Hughes: And I had these paintings in my living room that had a bird in it, that had a picture of a boy in it. I saw a mirror. And so everything seemed to collapse into each other. And I remember one day, seeing a rat in a crow’s beak, walking home from the bus stop, and I was, like, whoa, this is kind of perfect. How do I reckon with all of this perfection? How do I reckon with the muse telling me, Luther, Lu, sit down, write this poem, write it.
Don Share: Here is Luther Hughes reading “Tenor,” After Jean-Michel Basquiat. 
Luther Hughes:

Crows
               and more crows.
One crow
               with a rat
                              hanging
               from its beak,
sloppy
               and beautiful.
Another crow
               with its wings
                              plucked
               empty.
I wanted
               so much of today
                              to be peaceful
               but the empty crow
untethers
               something in me: a feral
                              yearning for love
               or a love that is so full
of  power,
               of  tenderness,
                              the words
               fall to their knees
begging for mercy
               like tulips
                              in wind.
I don’t wear the crown
               for the times power
                              has tainted
               my body,
but I can tell the difference
               between giving up
                              and giving in.
If  you can’t, ask the crow
               that watches me
                              through the window,
               laughing as I drink
my third bottle of wine.
Ask the sound
               the tree makes
                              when the crow has grown
               disgusted
with my whining.
After years of repression,
               I can come clean.
                              I was a boy
               with a hole
other boys
               stuffed themselves into.
I have wanted
               nothing to do with blackness
                              or laughter
               or my life.
But about love,
               who owns the right,
                              really? Who owns
               the crow
who loves fresh meat
               or the crow who loves
                              the vibration
               of its own throat?
Everything around me
               is black for its own good,
                              I suppose.
               The widow,
the picture of the boy
               crying on the wall,
                              the mirror
               with its taunting,
the crows
               that belong
                              to their scripture.
Can you imagine
               being so tied to blackness
                              that even your wings
               cannot help you escape?
About my life,
               every needle,
                              a small prayer.
               Every pill, a funeral
hymn.
I wanted the end
               several times
                              but thought,
               Who owns this body, really?
God?
               Dirt?
                              The silly insects
               that will feast
on my decay?
Is it the boy
               who entered first
                              or the boy
               who wanted everything
to last?

Lindsay Garbutt: There is so much about this poem that I love. I think it would be easy to read this poem without knowing about the Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, but it adds such a beautiful layer onto what this poem is talking about. Specifically the one mention “I don’t wear the crown / for the times power / has tainted / my body,” because Basquiat was well-known for putting crowns in his paintings as a way of honoring somebody that he cared about, and also in his own self-portraits to kind of honor his own body and his own talent. And I love how this one mention of the crown in Hughes’s poem both pays attention to honoring his own body, but also to talk about power in the way power can turn us into both, like, a saint and a martyr at the same time. And so that crown sort of echoes out throughout the poem for me, because the word “crow” is also within the word “crown”...
Don Share: Mmhmm.
Lindsay Garbutt: ... and so is the word “own,” which is also repeated throughout the poem. And so I love how all these different themes are tied together in that way, the way a Basquiat painting does similar theme-tying-together, visually and textually.
Don Share: Yeah, and on the page the poem is in stepped lines that, I suppose, will remind readers of William Carlos Williams’s, except that this is like the perfect fulfillment of Williams’s American way of laying out lines in steps, because it doesn’t just have that kind of crow-like movement through the poem, the stepped lines, and not just the breath that Williams talked about, but it has those other internal sounds and rhymes that you were describing, that I think Williams never quite got in or didn’t want to. And so to me this is a great fulfillment. It’s a great American poem for this reason. And then of course another crow poem, or book of poems, comes to mind, from another poet named Hughes.
Lindsay Garbutt: Hmm.
Don Share: I always like it when a poet and a poem comes along and kind of displaces what we think we know about a subject. And so, for most people, a poem about a crow is gonna call up something about Ted Hughes. And then for me, like you say, this poem absorbs all these influences, but it actually flies well above them too. I really like that. It’s like: now we have a new, brilliant poem that takes on a way of thinking about and visualizing crows. And also, it creates a landscape that to me is very intriguing, because it’s kind of like… when you think of a crow, you don’t always think of a crow as being in flight. Because actually a lot of their time is spent kind of calculating and moving and looking at things and …
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: ... doing things. (CHUCKLING) They’re very busy and they’re very clever and ingenious, and of course they are very striking as well. I mean, it looks like crows are always yearning for something, they are working on things, they have a kind of power. Using the figure of a crow for a kind of power and authority is really compelling in the poem. It’s something that allows the poet to really think about how to live in a different way. To realize, for instance, as the poem says, “After years of repression, / I can come clean.” It’s really creating a kind of iconography for poetry and love.
Luther Hughes: About love, / who owns the right, / really? Who owns / the crow / who loves fresh meat / or the crow who loves / the vibration / of its own throat?
Lindsay Garbutt: I love that section where it says “the crow who loves / the vibration / of its own throat,” because it’s a sort of hearkening back to the title of the poem, “Tenor,” which is, you know, both like a sort of a melody or pitch of a man’s voice, but it can also be related to metaphor. It’s the object that is being described in a metaphor. And I love what you were saying about crows, too, because the part in the poem where the speaker says “If  you can’t, ask the crow / that watches me / through the window, / laughing as I drink / my third bottle of wine. / Ask the sound / the tree makes / when the crow has grown / disgusted / with my whining.” Crows always seem, like, so observational to me, like, they are really watching you and really aware of your movements, and some people say that crows have a really excellent memory, that they really do remember people when they see them. And so the idea of the crow, sort of, being a conscious or god-like figure in this speaker’s life, of being, like, I see you, I see what you are doing, and I see how you are failing …
Don Share: Mmhmm.
Lindsay Garbutt: ... and I’m pushing you to do better, is such a beautiful moment in this poem. And I love how it expands outwards to be everything that is surrounding the speaker, so “The widow, / the picture of the boy / crying on the wall, / the mirror / with its taunting“, that this whole scene becomes involved in the speaker understanding themselves and understanding their own life a little bit better.
Don Share: And there is real power and liberation in that too. It’s very moving when the poem says, “Can you imagine / being so tied to blackness / that even your wings / cannot help you escape?” These questions that arise, especially towards the end of the poem, which ends on a question …
Lindsay Garbutt: Mmhmm.
Don Share: ... really have a kind of muscular movement to them. Which I think allows us to imagine asking questions about things and about our lives and about our bodies. And, sort of, almost become more muscular in our response to the questions. Become strengthened by asking them, by having to ask them.
Luther Hughes: Who owns this body, really? / God? / Dirt? / The silly insects / that will feast / on my decay? / Is it the boy / who entered first / or the boy / who wanted everything / to last?
(CHIME)

Don Share: You can read “Tenor,” after Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Luther Hughes in the December 2018 issue of Poetry magazine or online at poetrymagazine.org.
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all December episodes all at once in the full-length podcast on Soundcloud.
Don Share: Let us know what you thought of this program. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org, and please link to the podcast on social media.
Lindsay Garbutt: The Poetry magazine podcast is recorded by Ed Herrmann and this episode was produced by Curtis Fox and Rachel James.
Don Share: The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Don Share.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt. Thanks for listening.

The editors discuss Luther Hughes’s poem “Tenor” from the December 2018 issue of Poetry.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
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