Avery R. Young, a fixture in Chicago’s poetry scene, has expanded into visual and performance art. If you see him perform with his band Da Deacon Board, you hear a broad range of influences, ranging from classic soul and R&B, funk, gospel, and even Crucial Conflict’s 1996 hit “Hay.” Although he is known to many youth throughout the city as a teaching artist and a Rebirth Poetry Ensemble coach, Avery has published in literary journals as a poet for many years, with intriguing turns of dialect and putting a special stamp on “blk” as a moniker of pride. Newcity spoke with him about “neckbone,” his debut collection of visual poetry and its companion soundtrack album, “Tubman.” The conversation traversed an abiding love for black women, African-American artists’ lives, the inspiration of poet Nikky Finney and artists like Billie Holiday and James Baldwin, the art of “the read,” and how each person embodies intersections that make complex human beings.
If you had to describe this book to someone who has not seen it, how would you describe “neckbone”?
I’ve been describing this book as a way to present poetry as art. I use words like visual poetry, concrete poetry. When they ask what is it about, it’s about navigating adjectives within blackness, intersections in a completely black world and recognizing ways in which this young dude figured out how to move. I set out to explore thirty-two moments in black culture that define where black people are in this moment in time, and then realized I was writing about me.
It’s also about how these poems link together multiple narratives of blackness.
Yeah, being in workshops with Nikky Finney, her joint was, how do you connect the personal narrative, the local narrative and national narrative to a more universal narrative? From that moment in that workshop, where she explained and drew this map of these connections, I knew because there’s a way of growing up black in a city like Chicago that is different from growing up black in Seattle, or growing up in a place where there are not a lot of black people.
One of the blessings for me was growing up in a setting where I was surrounded by people who looked like me. There was something about me that always found them interesting enough to present who they are as people. Or at least think that something about them is worth my words, or the time to construct this life, and the way they talk, and to figure those things out because these people are absolutely precious to me, [even] if they are not to anybody else.
You know, the interesting part for me is that I know some people will be excited to see that there are plays on Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, James Baldwin and Billie Holiday. I was more interested in Mama Mary as a character. You’re not relying on celebrities, you’re relying on people you know personally.
Right. I was trying to make those connections. I started the book with Billie Holiday. As I started to put pieces together, I discovered that I had to figure out [laughs] Billie Holiday because Holiday lived a quintessential black life. Although she was a celebrity and cultural icon, she lived this quintessential black-in-America life, and she lived it in front of a lot of people before we even knew or realized what celebrity was. She saw ways in which you could utilize celebrity simply with the recording of “Strange Fruit.” She also lived a very rough life. She also knew when people came to see her, they didn’t come to see her sing. At some point, she believed people were coming to see how fucked-up she was. I think that is the quintessential state of black America. People, outside of us, don’t view us as people worthy of Carnegie Hall. The thought is “When is this n-gga gonna show up?” I hope that is the one thing that people get from this book is that the white gaze is the last thing you need to be worried about in the world because we are super-duper. It’s not enough to say that we are super-duper. It’s also about saying we are complicated, and can you navigate through what makes us complicated, right?
Black folks can be a very hard audience on other black folk. I’m presenting the modifiers that make me a hard audience to other black folks, not all of them, but enough. There are references to things rooted in our culture as far as Aunt Esther combined with Josephine Baker. There’s Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. There are stories of Uncle Shot and Mama Mary, Nina Baby and Lil Blk Errythang—people who’ve impacted me. My work has been informed by people I know, listen to and read, whose life and art I’ve admired.
Right, it seems like a lot of people think about celebrity, but they also don’t think about mythology.
Were you thinking about constructing these stories that are archetypes or myths that sometimes defy the myth people think they are?
Yeah, because I was thinking the Bible the whole time, and how the Bible functions in the culture. Like the story of Moses is a methodical story, but there was a Moses that lived. You can look at it as the story of this man’s life as the basis of faith, like Nina Simone is a person who lived a life, but her music struck certain things in me that make me revere her, and a lot of it is surreal in the way that I’m presenting it. Even in the Billie Holiday poems, I spent this huge amount of time with Holiday, why does she resonate with me? As a black artist who does a lot of work in black subject matter, I find myself confronted with race in ways in which folks say race staggers a career. I remember how my uncle was like, “She hung out with white boys, and they ate at restaurants that she couldn’t eat in.” None of my friends would’ve did that. If I can’t get in the restaurant, they not gonna eat at the restaurant, and what kind of sad life that is. That moment after watching “Lady Sings the Blues” with Diana Ross, when my uncle said that, that was deep. That’s why there’s so much time invested in black mythology, black folk, and the way in which I create a world where both intersect because our folk heroes do become larger than life to us.
As immediate or personal as my Big Mama is, Big Mama is still a myth in black culture. People have high regards for the matriarch of the family, and that’s an archetype, right? What I wanted to do with that archetype was present a woman. The first time I read the book, and I was crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, I found myself saying “That woman loved me.” [laughing hard] If I can’t say nothing else about life, I know I was loved by that woman. It wasn’t that the thought was unusual, but when I think about the cover of “Tubman,” it’s clearly a photograph of women in my life. That woman really showed me the ways in which black women are the black man’s best fucking friend.
I thought about that and how you have this thread of black women as creative agents, as the matriarch, as the friend. I honestly feel a lot of men who are artists pay lip service, but in teaching and creative communities, you’re one of the men who has been critical of misogyny in ways that should have been discussed a long time ago. Does that inform the poems?
It informs the poems and how I present women in my work. A lot of times we only know them and often only have the capacity to look at them through this very narrow lens. They our mommas, our sisters, our lovers. It’s not easy for black men to see the human in them because they spend so much of their existence trying to prove that they a man, but I beg to differ. You gotta check and recognize the humanity of sisters around you, especially when it comes to Mary Booker (Avery’s mother). When the white doctors told her that they had to cut my feet off, she said that was not her decision to make because she recognized something in me that was going to walk with these crooked-ass feet anyway. It wasn’t her call. She wasn’t gonna play God with me. To me, that is her extension of her humanity to me. I return that extension of humanity to her and black women. And ain’t we tired of misogyny? Ain’t we tired of upholding the same? Ain’t we tired of throwing away clearly what has preserved us? That don’t make no sense.
No, it doesn’t.
When you clean chitlins, you clean away the trice [waste from pig’s intestines]. Why do we keep treating black women like the trice? Remember, I was in the classroom and asked the kids who was smarter—boys or girls? As soon as the girls were given the opportunity to speak, they were quiet, then one little girl came up to me and said, “Mr. Young, boys don’t like girls who are smarter than them.” And remember I called you immediately after and said “This girl said…” and you said “Yeah, it’s around that age. You figure it out.” But they stupid! [laughing] It wasn’t like the boys said anything nearly as intelligent. It was totally rooted in ignorance, and what they’ve been bombarded with through media and toxic masculinity. I was like, this girl may grow up to be ninety-three years old. She will have lived with this piece of knowledge for eighty-three years of her life. That’s a long time to carry something like that and they begin to manicure their actions around that moment.
You describe the book as concrete and visual poetry. Some of the work looks like traditional poems, but there are other poems like documents from everyday life. Some favor dictionary entries or a quiz about why you are no longer hosting the family reunion, which is one of my favorites.
That’s shade. [laughing]
Yes, it just gets funnier as the poem progresses. It’s talking about how this person has forgotten their roots, but it gradually sneaks in on them. If you’re not paying attention and reading the poem linearly, you may think it looks cute since it looks like a handout that a kid might do at school, then you’d miss a lot of subtext.
It is the READ. You have to read it. [chuckling]. As you read the poem, you know you’re dealing with this person who is trying to be as far removed from the negro [of herself]. As you read it, you figure out how much negro she still is.
And that’s not just black folks. I know you remember the classic documentary “Paris is Burning” when Pepper LaBeija breaks down “a read,” and as the reading dramatically gets nastier. I like that dramatic build.
It’s a read, and a chance for the person to figure out that they failed miserably. Every answer they got, they got wrong. As the reader, it gives you the opportunity to pick what was more at stake. Was it the fact that you combed this child’s head because it wasn’t combed enough? Was it really because we had to come in a church van because there’s nowhere to park, and your neighbors thought we were there to collect old clothes? And your husband is culturally inappropriate. And he a blind bat if he think that kid is his! [laughter]
It went from you and the seasoning have fallen out with each other, and then they turn off Frankie Beverly & Maze? This is not going to get any better. [laughter]
You cut off “Before I Let Go”? Oh no. The more you read, it gets deeper. And ultimately, remember when we were there for you? We were there for you, and we always show up for you. When the poem resolves, that’s what it boils down to.
That’s why I chose the last choice on the quiz! No, that’s why you no longer host the reunion! [laughter]
And you can’t keep hosting if your husband keeps disrespecting your father. You can’t keep doing that. This is reading for filth. When I look at the book, that poem and “the receipt,” those are the poems that I am most proud of because they have to work as poems, and I put a lot of brain trust into those, especially “the receipt,” about two family members who argue over neckbones. Everything on that receipt matters. Why you wasting words? Those little poems and the visual poems, I found interesting. I did most of those poems when I was an artist-in-residence at the Arts Incubator with University of Chicago, especially the Billie Holiday poems. I wasn’t sitting in front of a computer or a notebook, I had space to make big poems, bigger than a computer screen and my normal journal. I was trying to figure out language as a material. How do you present language as a material and the different materials that you can use so that poets and readers of this book understand language as an art with boundaries and ways in which it can be expressed? We don’t live a life where everything starts at the top left and ends at the bottom right of the page. There are poems where you have to figure out how to enter, and get invited to enter in any way you choose.
When I look at poems by Evie Shockley or at Tyehimba Jess’ book “Olio,” they’re asking us not to just look at poems from left-to-right, top-to-bottom fashion.
Right. Life doesn’t happen like that. As a poet, I ask, what am I bringing to the canon? What can come out of my hand that can’t come out of nobody else’s hand? What I need to offer to the canon is something that is unique and undeniably mine. This book, even when you get down to the handscript, don’t nobody write like I do! [laughs]
If there was an Avery font, that would be it.
Yes, isn’t it like a poet to think about their work as if creating a font?
It’s an original signature.
I’ve always been impressed by writers who, if I didn’t see their name on a sheet of paper, I know who wrote that. I can recognize who wrote it by the style. As a poetry teacher, poems given to me by students require the quick discernment of who wrote the poem. One way is by their handwriting, so I wanted to incorporate my handscript into the presentation. What usually happens with the babies is we tell them to write it down and type it, especially from working with Rebirth. There is so much of what shapes my blackness and its adjectives there—James Baldwin, Claude McKay, Billie Holiday, Uncle Shot and more personal characters. James Baldwin doesn’t teach me to pee. Uncle Shot teaches me to pee. James Baldwin teaches me the difference between my blackness and my queerness. In the vein of what Nikky Finney was saying, how do you make those connections, even when you’re writing something personal, even as it’s introducing cultural clues and telling a more universal story.
That’s the beauty of black culture. Our families teach us things, but people who have made contributions to the world teach us so much about ourselves. That’s why black people value that because we see us, especially in a world that does not always put us in the center or the front.
Right. It’s how me growing up black in this country is how I can take the lesson of learning how to pee and layer it with toxic masculinity and Jim Crow.
All these things happen at once in the black body. This dude is like, “No, you stand up and pee.” [chuckles] Sitting down must make you something other than a man, but it’s framed by what he learned. He was teaching me how to use the bathroom on the South Side of Chicago, but he knew growing up in the South that there was a bathroom he could go into and there was a bathroom that he couldn’t go into, and he took those moments that he couldn’t go in as rebellion, as a way in which to resist the situation, and again, playing with his life. [laughter]
The way that reads in the book is serious when you see the two signs in the book (one reads “BLACK” and the other “WHITE”), but to see how that sign changes at the end of the poem…
With the “Y” [laughter]
With the “Y” at the end of the “WHITE” and I could just see a little kid doing that because they’re angry at that situation and nobody’s looking.
Right! It also dispels the narrative that people were complacent.
And they were not, not all the time.
Not all the time. In growing up black, I remember sitting with Big Mama and we were watching “Eyes on the Prize” and the Emmett Till story. She was like, “And What about this one, this one, and that one, and you know at night, Mu’dear used to count the boys…” What? “You know, we would count the boys to make sure they were all in the house and accounted for because they would wake up the next day and someone would be hanging from a tree.”
If we have relatives who can tell us stories like that, then it’s not old history. It’s a history that still has repercussions. We are still touched by it, even if we may not realize that. It’s so important to share. How did you start on “Tubman” as the “neckbone” soundtrack?
One of the earliest readers of the book commented about it being rooted in black voice and black maleness and how that works in the world of black girl magic, or in the shifting of culture toward black girl magic. When I read that, I thought, “Dang, this black woman loved me.” There were pieces in “neckbone” that I thought could be extended sonically, so I did. I extended some poems via sound, song and rhythm, and that’s how “Tubman” came to be. I wanted to honor Big Mama and black women. She’s not a representative of my Big Mama, she represents a lot of black women I know.
That’s gonna be part of your font. If you tell some people Avery does poetry, visual art and song, there are still people asking how is one person doing all that. We’re in an age where people are commodified around specializing and doing one thing.
They ask you “Do you want to do a book tour or do you want to do a record tour?” I want to do both. The record and the book go hand in hand. We can figure out what that looks like. Why can’t I read a poem at the Poetry Foundation, then go across the street and jam at the House of Blues with Da Deacon Board? There is a way in which the work in this book performs anyway without me having to read anything from it. There’s also this responsibility to teach black children that they are okay. I want them to know from the beginning, being black is not something you can wash off. This book can be my version of “Young, Gifted & Black.” This is a city full of intersections and people are full of intersections. There’s not just one way to be us.
Avery R. Young and Da Deacon Board return to perform at The California Clipper on November 23.
Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.