Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the author of three poetry collections, Red Summer, Darktown Follies, and Imperial Liquor. His honors include a Pushcart Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Dorset Prize. He directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
John Murillo: Our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. What other events—personal or historical—shaped the writing of your book, and how does the current moment make you read or think about your own book differently?
Amaud Jamaul Johnson: I was born in 1972, which makes me a member of Generation X, but I’ve always questioned the nature of these categories, particularly along lines of race, history, and political struggle. My grandparents were not Baby Boomers; they were the Civil Rights Generation, and my parents were disciples of the Black Power Movement, and because I was born after King’s assassination, and the riots of ’65, ’68 and ’69, I’m a child of the Dream. Echoes of revolution and heartbreak run through my blood; my subconscious burns. I open this book from both a state of unrest and reflection. While I hesitate to call anything confessional, the speakers of these poems are much closer to the intimate experiences that shaped my early life in Compton. Obviously, I couldn’t understand this at the time, but I was born into a period of long mourning, a product of silence after a nation hit rock bottom. The struggles we’re facing today, this string of deaths from COVID-19, which are disproportionately Black, which tragically and ironically include the generation that “walked with King” rips my spirit. While this is a new low, it’s an old story. Every week feels like a kick in the gut. Every week is a new worry. The recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, at the hands of white supremacists and racist cops, modify what we understand about this illness; how it’s uniquely American, how this moment should be remembered as COVID-1619.
This book is reminiscent of riots, and their aftermath. But rather than address rage, I wanted to examine how political and economic struggles complicate love. When I think about our current crisis, I’m thinking about the pressure this pandemic has placed on relationships. What does love look like in this moment? I’m also thinking about children born into this. If I’m a child of the Dream, and the cultural product of my generation was Hip Hop, a sound that emerged from the ashes of the South Bronx, what will become of this new generation? How will they write their manifestoes? What will be the unique cultural products of the twenty-first century: more memes, Gifs, Tik Tok videos?
JM: Right now it seems as if people are turning to poems more than ever. What single poem from your book—or what theme or quality that runs through the book—would you most like to offer readers in this moment? Why?
AJJ: It’s true. During moments of profound uncertainty people turn to poems. Poets inhabit the margins between known and unknown worlds. This is why Keat’s notion of “negative capability” continues to be relevant. When we are reminded of evil, sometimes we are at a loss, trying to figure out how to respond. Thinking of the murder of George Floyd, the most horrific part of that video is the calmness of Officer Derek Chauvin’s face. He didn’t smile or squint or frown. He kept his hands in his pockets. He looks as if he’s posing for a prom picture, posing as if a Black man’s body is a bearskin rug. I am at war with that facial expression, the vacuousness of his eyes. That look, that emptiness, was present in so many of my coworkers and grade school principals. This is a theme in my book. Yes, this is about racism, but the roots of evil, this spiritual brokenness, is a desire for power.
JM: What do you miss most about, or what has felt like the biggest loss of, not being able to share the book in person, through travel and doing readings, and are there ways you are finding to counteract that loss?
AJJ: I’ve often joked that I’m a poet because I’m too moral to be a politician and not moral enough to be a preacher. I crave the soapbox and the pulpit. When I write I imagine a crowd. This isn’t about ego. I love the expressions, the smiles and raised eyebrows. The light on their faces. A poetry reading is a form of “people watching” with a time limit. While the act of writing is solitary, there are things I want to say, things I struggle to introduce in polite, casual conversation. I really struggle with chit chat. I find it’s easiest to talk to one person or to an auditorium. Both require the same degree of intimacy and intensity. Someone told me a long time ago: as a poet every book you sell you touch. Poetry readings pulled me out of my shell. While I’m not heavy into astrology, my birth sign is Cancer and most of what I’ve read seems spot on: I’m loyal, introverted, and moody. Financial considerations aside, I miss expanding my circle. I miss meeting new people. The best part about a reading is what happens after the reading—going out for dinner or drinks, falling into random conversations, or that feeling of being the center of attention in a crowded room and then suddenly anonymous and alone. I can’t duplicate that on Zoom.
JM: This feels like your most personal book to date. After Red Summer and Darktown Follies, these many years into your writing career, why this book, why now?
AJJ: Some years ago, shortly after Red Summer was published, Tony Hoagland cornered me after a reading, and said he thought I was hiding behind history, that I was essentially wearing a mask, that persona poetry was a form of blackface. Well, he didn’t say, “blackface,” but he wasn’t trying to compliment me. I can’t remember how I responded, but I’m sure I smiled and worked to shake free of that conversation, which wasn’t a conversation. His voice was like someone firing a .22 at long distance. I was aware of danger, but I didn’t feel compelled to run. I came to poetry through history. I owe a great debt to Elizabeth Alexander and Rita Dove. Through their poetry, I was reminded to always drawn energy from the lessons handed down by our ancestors. It’s a mistake to think our struggles are unique. When I started writing I felt a responsibility to honor them. My first book, Red Summer, concerns spectacles of violence, but those poems were shaped through a lyric history, a dreamscape. I’ve often thought about what it might mean to dream historically. Sure, I’m writing about the past, but the past is personal. We don’t escape these narratives. In Darktown Follies, writing about Black folks performing in blackface, I was more aware of a desire to speak intimately to a small circle of friends, but I felt under surveillance. I think I was trying to figure out how to build a different form of armor, so I Blacked up. In some ways, Darktown Follies was also a critique of the mainstreaming of African American culture in the early 2000s. What makes someone smile and dance might be an attempt to sidestep violence. I’m not interested in clowns, but clowns are scary for good reason. Imperial Liquor does feel personal. My father read a poem, and said: “so you decided to name names.” I dedicated that book to my parents. I think I wanted to construct a voice where the images and diction are stripped back, are less ornate. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I’m tired of playing games with people. It’s not so easy to smile. Twenty-five years ago nothing would rattle me, but now I’m less patient. I’m afraid that I might cuss somebody out, and I find it easier to cry. Maybe this is what it means to get old.
JM: To my mind, Imperial Liquor is to Compton what Magic City was to Bogalusa. Not that it’s at all derivative, but it definitely inherits, and advances, the tradition of the black bildungsroman. Both collections have the ring of wisdom, of a grown ass man looking back on a life and the lessons gleaned therefrom.
AJJ: I miss home. Like DC, Detroit, South Side Chicago, and parts of Atlanta, Compton was a Black planet. Compton was a bubble. We had our own police force, fire department, school district, a downtown shopping center, an Eastside and a Westside. Yes, we were in Los Angeles County, but I didn’t hangout in Hollywood, or Culver City. I didn’t know Silver Lake existed until it was gentrified a decade ago. I think it’s accurate that Compton is my Bogalusa, my Magic City. It carries a similar spiritual energy. Of course, Komunyakaa has written the soundtrack of my father’s generation, all the pleasure and pain. His heart is so heavy with blood that it’s a miracle he has the strength to stand. But that’s the Blues. That’s the Deep South. But hell, almost everyone from Compton has blood ties to Texas and Louisiana. All you need is to look at a movie like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. Compton and Watts were versions of the new South. That’s why we loved cars and stood on our front porches, or in our front yards, watching the sunset, until people started getting shot.
Now because I’ve been gone for more than twenty-five years, I can see the city clearly. I should say I can see myself clearly because I’ve changed and the city is different. I left for college three months after the LA Riots in 1992, but the Rodney King verdict was my education (that and the murder of Prince Jones at Howard). My last images of home are of buildings burning. But everything about my childhood seemed to lead to an explosion. It’s hard to accept because I never thought I’d be gone this long, but I know that’s a chapter in my life I’ve closed. Whatever I know about being grown, I know now that I’m a stranger in Compton, which means that I’m a stranger in the world. If Imperial Liquor is personal, it’s a reckoning.
JM: But the distinctions of time and place, I believe, are crucial. Compton, California, in the late 70s/early 80s, was its own planet. In many ways, you’re wrestling with a lot of the same questions as Yusef–inherited, and often problematic, notions of masculinity; complex family dynamics made even more so by systemic racism; etc.–but can you say a few words about your (our) particular milieu, and how it shaped you? As a man? As a poet? As a father?
AJJ: There was this window between the end of white flight and the eruption of gang violence when Compton was a utopia. Someone asked my father once at work, “what was it like growing up in a ghetto,” and my father was both confused and offended. He was like: “we lived in a house, had a gardener, my father and grandfather had graduate degrees. Does that sound like a ghetto?” How people thought about Compton was different from how we saw ourselves. My early childhood memories of the city are romantic. Everybody had Afros and we dressed in beautiful bright colors. It was all sound and style. The soundtrack of those years was stacked with love songs; music from groups like Blue Magic, The Delfonics, and The Chi-lites. Sometimes I wish I could climb back into that sound. The emotional center of Imperial Liquor is this era of music. Yusef draws from Jazz and the Blues in Magic City. But for me, there’s something about R&B, about a falsetto, that tears me apart. Then it was as if a bomb went off in the early Eighties. All that romance was laced with cocaine and started to smell like cheap wine. A falsetto is the sound of a pretty thing broken.
So much of this, this Dream, is tied up in narratives of Black masculinity. This was the dogma handed down from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements; that the health of the Black community was tied to the strength of a Black man. Of course, patriarchy is a cancer because it replicates a system of oppression. What I understood about systematic racism was the effect it has on relationships. Like a wounded dog, a wounded man is the most dangerous, and while I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, I had a wealth of bad examples. As a child I didn’t understand anything about history or politics, but so much pain surrounded me. I wanted to run as much as I wanted to understand it. If there is any wisdom found in Imperial Liquor, it’s that all forms of escape lead you back to greater pain. Leaving Compton meant confronting Compton because I carry the city with me. My stories, my joys and scars, make me unique. Place is also tied up in my memory of childhood. Yes, nostalgia is dangerous. It’s easy to sanitize the past because whatever happened to us, the humor or horror we carry, becomes our path to the present. And the present is bound to hope.
I still have difficulty saying I’m a poet. A third book feels like a turn. Since every poem I write feels like the last poem, I find this stage of my journey amazing.
Find Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Imperial Liquor here.