Interview with Poet Kimiko Hahn, By Taylor Caron (2017)

Photo: Colleen McCay

Kimiko Hahn is a nationally recognized and accoladed poet with 10 diverse collections of poetry to her name. These include Volatile, The Artist’s Daughter, The Narrow Road to the Interior: Poems, and the recent Brain Fever. One can track the trajectory of her career by observing the variety of poses and forms her work has taken. Hahn was born in Mount Kisco, New York to a Japanese American mother and a German American father. The rich synthesis of traditions and languages of her background becomes apparent upon reading her work. One collection of poems is inspired by the Japanese form called the zuihitsu, while other poems rely on more Western mythologies and writers. I had the privilege to interview Hahn over email and ask questions about the liminal spaces in her writing, her process of inspiration, and the current political implications to being a poet. Hahn is also a distinguished professor in the MFA program of Queens College, a fact which I’m sure the reader can sense given the generous engagement with her answers.

Taylor Caron: Many of your poems, including the titular piece of Mosquito and Ant, seem interested in the sounds that words produce from a multilingual perspective. I know some writers, such as Junot Díaz, have expressed a feeling of isolation from having to oscillate among different languages. You seem to be endowed with a heightened sensitivity to the common sounds of different languages. How much of that do you credit to your background?

Kimiko Hahn: The playfulness has all to do with my odd background: Eurasian mix, the first two years of my life living in Rome and so I was around Italian, my material grandmother who spoke Japanese and pidgin, … then Romance languages in public school. I’ve always been aware that there were multiple ways to express oneself – and realized that at times a Japanese word didn’t exist in English. Or a word in Spanish such as enero sounds so Japanese that I’m inclined to use it for ‘January’. On the other hand — and I think this is true of many children growing up in households where more than one language is spoken — my relationship to English feels hindered as though I will never be fully articulate. Fortunately, I have a stubborn/confident/shameless streak that mitigates against self-censorship.

TC: I’ve noticed you mention letters or the art of letter writing a few times in your work. Some of your poems even feel like a letter written in verse, as if being addressed to just one person. Do you find this focalized or personalized approach allows you to write more freely? How aware are you of an audience when writing?

KH: The epistolary pieces in Mosquito and Ant, and some of the zuihitsu that contains, say, emails, were written with a real or fictionalized reader-listener. I’m not sure if I am customarily that focused. Perhaps psychologically or incidentally. I think I mostly talk to myself during the initial draft, then revise and consider others in revision. I had a family member stop speaking to me for five years and so I am acutely aware of the writer’s dilemma. However, as far as my personal life, the only people I worry about are my two daughters. A mother’s obligation is to protect. They are both quite indulgent of me and have told me in one way or other that they are proud of me but probably won’t read my poems (“TMI”).

TC: A somewhat related question: The poet Henri Cole once made a distinction between an autobiographical poet and a confessional one. I was wondering if that binary held any meaning for you, particularly in relation to your book The Narrow Road to the Interior. I’m really fascinated by your admiration of the zuihitsu form in relation to the confessional mode. You express this in your poem “The Orient”:
“I love the unabashed first person-it almost risks the confessional / quality that a diary exudes, or that diary-like information can con / tain in a conventional poetic form.”

KH: I suppose an autobiographical poet literally uses her/his life whereas a Confessional one (capital “C”) will write poems that hit an autobiographical tone, as if the material were real. Which it may or may not be. I am not sure if one of those binaries uses poetic license more than the other. I am interested in expressing the Truth of my experiences, not the truth of document. If a red jacket works better in an autobiographical poem than the real black one, then poetic license permits red. This craft device is crucial, changing what was “real” in the service of expression, of the Truth of feeling. It is also a Japanese value. Basho’s famous poetic diary, The Narrow Road to the Interior was actually a combination of two journals that he drafted together to create the more True pilgrimage. Real/unreal is a Buddhist tenet as well. (This altering is strikingly different from our President’s alt-facts!)

TC: Do you begin a poem with a specific source of inspiration or image, or is it more based on word play? A captivating poem like “Translating Ancient Lines into the Vernacular” requires a reader to suspend expectations the title might indicate, but the metaphor clarifies and communicates profoundly. Many of the poems in your more recent collection Toxic Flora operate in a similar way though I can imagine the process of inspiration being more concrete for that book.

KH: I am increasingly fascinated by severe juxtaposition. Titles are part of that sort of juxtaposition, how the title will set up then disrupt the reader’s expectations. I have been rereading post-war Japanese tanka translated by Makoto Ueda:

somehow this impulse
to ask about your birthplace
as I walk with you
through a dusky hallway
at the aquarium         Tawara Machi [1962-]

Back to your question! I like to start with a word or phrase and see where it leads me. Then in revision, to see how to break the poem open – for its emotional essence — by using juxtapositions. Erasures are good for this, too! In “Erasing Love” I composed a long piece on the subject of love; the original article was on oarfish, but because one of the marine-biologists was named Dr. Love, the original text presented incredible potential.

TC: Speaking of Toxic Flora, the way the speaker comes to identify with the natural event is very effective in that, in some cases, there seems to be no separation between the observed event and observer. It’s almost a kind of reverse-personification wherein the speaker’s inner life is animated by the non-human qualities of the animals, insect, or flora. How intuitive was the writing process for those poems? Was it an exercise in poetic discovery, or did you know what the science would metaphorically signify before writing?

KH: I’d say the latter. I began with a word or phrase from a Science Times article and, again, then I’d see where it led me. The difficulty was in trimming out fascinating information on, say, marine birds because it didn’t fit the poem. That book was ten years in the making partly because I clung to the unnecessary material that was actually holding back the lyric. I guess you could say it was one of my discoveries of the lyric.

TC: The poem “Space” is a favorite of mine. By beginning with, literally, a universal perspective in which the speaker cannot conceive of the vast nothingness of space, and relating that incomprehension to the loss of a loved one seems to inherently evade clichéd, comforting answers. Are you more concerned with being evocative over didactic in a poem like this?

KH: The hard work of play lends itself to discovery through association – through what I like to think of as “portals.” I/the reader begins with space and ends up thinking of the dead mother. Or begins with information on size vs. evolution and ends up with the speaker’s husband reaching for things in a high cabinet. … I’m not sure I can write a good poem that is didactic.

TC: A similar question: Do you think poetry is the primary vehicle by which difficult questions can be commented on without having to give definitive answers? I find at least one commonality between your earlier modern zuihitsus and the science inspired poems to be a sense of comfort with the unknown and contradictions.

KH: The word “contradiction” rings in several ways for me. One is the kind of ying/yang in Eastern thought. The second I trace back to my Left wing roots, in the Marxist use of dialectics. In both, contradiction is natural and useful. I encourage my students to consider themes in their or their classmates’ poems, then to see if the opposite is also in motion. I train my graduate students to think and critique in terms of contradictions. And not simplistic hot/cold; black/white. More, black/gray or black/bone. Contradictions create energy. Especially through repetition and reversals.

TC: Do you think much about the trajectory of your career, or how you’ve progressed as an artist? What made Brain Fever the logical follow-up from Toxic Flora?

KH: After Toxic Flora, I vowed no more science. But the writing life doesn’t always give way to “vows.” I wasn’t blocked. I just didn’t feel engaged — so I made up assignments taking one science article and “scribbling” a number of short pieces. I ended up with several sequences triggered from the field of cognitive science.

TC: Your poem “Porch Light” is very powerful in its simplicity and minimalism. Like in other poems, the speaker seems to simultaneously express admiration for a child’s appetite for wonder, while the language works to replicate how a child perceives and makes connections.

KH: In the back of the book, I’ve included triggering quotes that dropped away from the poem, even as an epigraph. For example, “Porch Light,” is a response to: “Theologians have likened this state of pre-awakening to sleep, to darkness, to life underground.” (“The Riddle of Consciousness,” Benedict Carey, NYT, 2/7/10.) The phrase “life underground” brought me back to the myth of Demeter and Persephone. The title places the reader in the present and although there isn’t a set point of view until the sixth stanza, I hope there is a growing sense that it belongs to a mother. And of course “his underground vow” refers to Hades who kidnapped Persephone then permitted her to visit her mother during the spring and summer, hence our warm seasons. I wanted the sense of despair that a mother feels when her daughter leaves. It’s a favorite myth – so painful.

TC: I wanted to ask if you think a poet has a specific moral or political obligation. You have a beautiful poem on your reactions to 9/11 called “Trading Words” in which one of the concerns seems to be the distortion of language under conditions of social upheaval and political catastrophe. Many people felt a similar sense of doom and terror on Nov. 9, though of course the wound was more self-inflicted. Does Auden’s line “All I have is a voice / To undo the folded lie” still resonate with you?

KH: Yes, that line is incredibly moving. And Auden’s close:

May I, composed like [the Just]
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

I have words and a personal vision, even a private vision, but do I have the guts to express? I believe my obligation is to be a citizen. And as a writer, I can offer what I am able — which includes words and platform.

TC: Apologies in advance for the generic question, but is there any advice you have for young poets? I know there are many at UConn, and I was curious if you had a moment similar to what Rilke describes in Letters to a Young Poet when you knew this would be your life.

KH: Toss out the map.

TC: Thank you very much for your time. And thank you for your work. Your poems strike a very difficult balance of being both experimental and humane. Formulating these questions has been a true pleasure.

Interview by Taylor Caron

“The things that hold you back can often help you”: An Interview with Poet Allison Joseph, By Taylor Caron (2017)

From left to right: Parker Gregory Shpak, Sean Frederick Forbes, Allison Joseph, Breanna Patterson, Betty Noe, and Jameson Croteau. (Photo taken at UConn, February 2017, by Sydney Lauro)

It’s been said that expectations are best kept low when meeting a brilliant writer. This advice makes sense when one considers that a writer is presenting their best, most polished self on the page. The real thing should inevitably yield disappointing. I feel privileged in being able to verify that this is not the case with renowned poet Allison Joseph. The distinct idiosyncrasies and tonal qualities of her voice on the page are to be found in conversation. It became less mystifying to me how one poet could publish works as diverse as In Every Seam, Soul Train, Imitation of Life, My Father’s Kites, and the recent chapbook Multitudes after speaking with her. Her chameleon-like ability to speak in the most sublimely high register or slangy conversational tone is unique to her specific background and literary diet. She was born in London, England to parents of Gernadian and Jamaican heritage, and was raised in the Bronx, New York City. She lives in the Midwest where she is Associate Professor of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and is the editor in chief and poetry editor for the Crab Orchard Review. Her honors include the John C. Zacharis First Book Prize, fellowships from the Bread Load and Sewanee Writers Conferences, and an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry. While the subjects of her writing range from love poems, political poems on race, or the heavily imagistic, at least two commonalities remain: her abundant humor and generosity of spirit. She kindly agreed to be interviewed by me for the Long River Review journal during her visit to UConn in February, and I hope that readers can sense those qualities as she indulges my various questions.

Editor’s note: The text below is the unedited, full transcript of Allison Joseph’s interview.

TC: Yesterday when you were reading “Pedestrian Blues” and “To Wanderlust” you mentioned being a “handicap walker,” but as you were reading I could sense the movement of the poems. There’s a sense that when engaging in walking you are able to discover new things but also reflect on events past?

AJ: Yes, I run and I walk a lot. And I became a runner basically for health reasons, but walking is really meditative for me. It opens up my mind and as I’m passing through new places. In those moments I may have a line or reflection come into my head. I think I’m just taking advantage of that. More recently I’ve been thinking about my late father-in-law who had Parkinson’s. His ability to walk was taken for him and that was horrible, having to witness that of a loved one. So lots of time when I walk or run I think about him and how many of us abled body people take the capacity of motion for granted.

TC: Yeah, you seem to bring a consciousness and intentionality to the activity that I think eludes most able-bodied people. It reminded me of Thoreau’s essay which is just called “Walking”. For him, being able to move through nature was essential for writing. Do poems come to you during that time?

AJ: Not so much when running, usually because I’m on a treadmill or with music on, but definitely. I was just walking around here and [UConn] is a great walking campus. I saw a lot of lovely people running and walking about so when the weather isn’t punishing you this could be a great place for regular walks (laughs). And you mention Thoreau, that’s a very New England kind of idea which I feel quite comfortable with.

TC: This might be a somewhat related question: I was thinking of your poem “Sleepaway Camp” while you were reading “The Black Santa” last night. I was wondering how you view the role of memory in your poems. These are sometimes distant memories from your childhood and yet you’re able to conjure this vivid detail of the moment. Do you feel memories are partly constructed or even created when writing?

AJ: Yes. I am very cognizant when writing nonfiction, and I’ve published some nonfiction, that it has to be verifiable. I wrote an essay about my father and his relationship to 70’s television shows. One of his favorites was All in the Family, which was peculiar to me because Archie Bunker was a stone cold racist. Everything I wrote in that essay I felt I had to research. But when I’m writing a poem a sort of reverie takes over. In the moment of creation, I’m convinced that somebody’s sweater was blue. There’s no way for me to verify that, but for the purposes of that poem it’s going to be blue. That’s the distinction for me. Poetry is a kind of fiction, it’s a fictive activity. A world is created in the poem, but when I’m writing it I think to myself “This is the God honest truth.” But who knows? I always don’t. I feel that what I’m invoking is true even if it isn’t literal truth. I always tell my students: if in your poem you want it to be a rainy day but it was actually sunny, you can make it rainy.

TC: I’ve been thinking about this recently. How much does a poet identify as a memoirist or a fiction writer? I help edit LRR’s nonfiction panel and we’ve received some autobiographical poems which led to an interesting debate.

AJ: With “The Black Santa” poem I looked at the photo of him, and I think I made him look a little sickly looking. I went back and looked at him and thought: Hmm, Black Santa doesn’t look too bad! But I swear to this day that he either smoked too much or drank too much or both. But hey, it’s a department store Santa job, I probably would do the same (laughs).

TC: I was thinking last night during your reading, you know some poets can be captivating on the page but the reading can be a bit sort of droning…

AJ: Narcoleptic?

TC: Yes, exactly!

AJ: This is an area I’ve gotten more interested in. Bringing in videotape or audio tape. Sometimes it’s inspiring and really throws you. In my graduate class we heard some recordings of Sylvia Plath who as a poet I deeply admire, as a person I don’t think I would have liked her that much.

TC: Or be like her?

AJ: Right. But her voice was so off-putting. It sounds like a put-on to us. It’s this overarching New England, Boston accent that sounds like a parody of itself. It sounds contrived. And after she married Hughes, you know, and made recordings for the BBC. There, it sounds like she’s putting on an England on top of the already New England accent (laughs).

TC: I’ll have to find those tapes and give them a listen. I have to say though, when you read it sounds very authentic. It almost reminded me of a kind of slam poetry in the way you were engaging with the audience, making eye contact, or making a side comment. And it was very funny, there was a lot of laughing going on.

AJ: Well a lot of people are convinced poetry readings are supposed to be very somber. When I did a reading from my book My Father’s Kite which are a series of elegies for my late father. The first time I read from that book I read them all the way through and people were crying by the end and I thought, oh God.

TC: You didn’t feel good about that?

AJ: I did, in a way. It is kind of a rush to know you can manipulate people’s emotions like that (laughs). But the next couple of times I read from it I would intersperse more comments to give people’s emotions a break.

TC: Well last night was interesting in that regard because many of the poems were quite compelling. But I found, not just at the reading but when I was alone going through your work, I would laugh in the most beautiful kind of way – the kind of wholesome laugh that as you’re laughing something profound is activating.

AJ: There’s a poem I wrote called “Weeping at Someone’s Funeral” which is the kind of phenomena of people going to funerals as an athletic event where they’re crying more than the bereaved. I read it recently and people approached me saying they didn’t know whether to life or cry. And I thought, that’s it! That’s exactly what I’m trying to evoke.

TC: How do you find that tone? Does it have to do with wordplay?

AJ: Yep. I think of writing in general as playing with words. For some writers writing is definitely work. And I definitely feel that when I write prose. I think to myself: This writing in sentences business is really work. But poetry allows you to play with language not just from the figurative side, but sonically. If you spent a lot of time, and I know there are lots of elegant prose stylists, but if you spend so much time you’ll never get to the plot or characters. With poetry you have more latitude.

TC: Interesting, this might not be relevant but I heard Joyce Carol Oates once say that she couldn’t be a poet because when she thinks of an idea it’s a character or story.

AJ: Right, and she’s lying because she’s written a lot of poetry. Many prose writers have, like Margaret Atwood and Louise Erdrich. A lot of people who people think of as just prose writers have written poetry. Erdrich was a very fine poet until she committed more fully to prose.

TC: Does that have something to do with the Faulkner line that novelists are failed poets?

AJ: Perhaps. But there are writers who I have claimed as poets that are not literally poets. Like Tennessee Williams, who did write poetry but it was dreadful. However, there are passages in his plays that are so charged with beautiful language that you let him in the poetry club.

TC: I wanted to ask you about issues of formalism. I was reading your book of sonnets called The Purpose of Hands in which all poems follow the strict rules of meter and rhyme that a sonnet requires. But then there are other books in which a lot of the poems are more free verse. There seems to be a debate right now that poetry is becoming to formless and then there’s the new formalism trying to combat that notion.

AJ: Well I know poets who essentially are prose poets. They don’t even write in lines. I think you have to figure out what it is you’re willing to teach yourself. I did write a lot of free verse early in my career and then I started teaching a lot of poetics courses. The course I’m teaching right now is on forms of poetry. I’m the kind of person that in order to teach something I have to do it myself. What became obvious to me is that the more formal verse I wrote the more free verse I wrote. It wasn’t one or the other. I could formal verse to generate ideas that I could use in free verse and vice versa. For me it’s all poetry. I will say I don’t write much prose poetry because when I wrote prose I want to write a character or about an issue that might be too big for a single poem. The essay on my father and television made me realize it was not going to be one poem. I wanted to talk about the various aspects of him as a black man being attracted to these negative issues. It was more idea based.

TC: So when you do write more formal poetry, whether it’s a sonnet dedicated to your husband or an elegy dedicated to your father, do you set out to write a poem in those forms? Or does it slowly become apparent which form is the most appropriate?

AJ: With My Father’s Kite, after his death I found that I couldn’t write free verse. That the elegy was a kind of mechanism to control the emotions because it was a painful death. And I did a lot of work cleaning out the house, settling his affairs, so there was something about the mechanism of 14 lines giving me a kind of control I began to rely upon. And there were other forms and poems in that book, including some free verse.

TC: But the restrictions helped?

AJ: Yes. The things that hold you back can often help you.

TC: You mentioned that you would assign your students to write a poem about the most insignificant subject possible. I was wondering if you challenge yourself to do that because, for me, your kind of writing is almost superior to reality. Time becomes slowed down in your poems and you see objects in a clearer way, almost as if for the first time.

AJ: I’m going to risk sounding like a broken record. But part of the reason I don’t drive is the world offers you the best materials in bus stations, airports, on the train. You see people in transit emotionally. I also believe in eavesdropping. I hear phrases and steal pieces of dialogue. I believe that if we are aware to the world around us — you know some young writers believe you have to suffer this terrible life or hardship in order to be able to write. There have been writers that do things like go off in search of adventure to have something to write about. I never felt that way. I always trusted the universe would provide for me, poetically speaking. You can ascribe religious meaning to it but I’m convinced that if I keep my eyes open there will always be enough.

TC: So is paying attention the best advice you can offer a young poet? Do you think being glued to one’s phone impedes that kind of concentration and participation required?

AJ: It can. And it’s very seductive, we all do it. But sometimes people will say something online that will trigger something for me into a poetic idea.

TC: That’s interesting. Something unrelated I wanted to ask you about has to do with two things you’ve mentioned in your writing and yesterday: Odes and Pablo Neruda. Neruda seemed to write an ode about practically anything: numbers, bees, etc. Did he expand the possibility of the genre for you?

AJ: It stands in stark contrast to Keats who had a very set rhyme scheme with specific movements. I do teach “Ode to Autumn” just so my students know where this notion of praising comes from. But I do an exercise with Neruda’s collected odes, and I’ll assign them a certain number in the book and make my students write an ode about whatever he wrote about. So yeah, in addition to being deeply involved in politics and having his own literary spats with poets.

TC: My question is about your odes being directed at, not necessarily yourself, but a part of yourself. It’s sort of an expression of self-love. Did Neruda open that up for you?

AJ: Not necessarily, you know his sonatas really helped me in that way. It’s just trust that anything the world shows me is worthy of praise, I am going to go there.

TC: We were talking about wordplay earlier, and at times it can be very whimsical and fun but also quite serious. There’s a line from your poem “On Being Told I Don’t Speak like a Black Person”: “Now I realize there’s nothing more personal than speech.” I wonder exactly what you mean by personal.

AJ: It’s like an imprint the way that you speak. I speak in different accents a lot as a Caribbean immigrant and then living in New York, and now I’m married to a Southerner. I’m just interested in the human voice, period. And if we don’t maintain interest in the way we sound and try to mute everybody and smooth off all the difference, how boring will that be?

TC: That line about the importance of the individualized nature of speech, but some of your poems have more of a political or social bent. Many do not, but considering the actions of the current executive administration, I find it interesting to track the way language is being used.

AJ: Yes, it’s been driving me nuts. And it has been driving me to write. I wrote a poem that people have been spreading around, and it was the day that Kellyanne Conway invented the phrase “alternative facts.” It started as a kind of joke like, well, now cake is celery. Laughter can be a good way of getting through these things. Anyway, the poem ended up on Lit Hub, and then I was contacted my NPR and they asked me for a recording. That proved to me a couple things, there are people who are interested in language as it should be used, and they don’t to be deceived. It also let me know language is going to be crucial for our political survival. And I don’t consider myself an overtly political person, but it’s a matter of what pushes buttons and what I can do with humor. There were a lot of writer’s resistance events and I didn’t immediately join those because I was still stunned and waiting to see what was going to happen. It’s interesting though, growing up in New York everybody hated Donald Trump for one reason or another. He was ruining the New York skyline with these gaudy buildings and taking out ads against the Central Park Five.

TC: So he’s almost the part of the milieu of your childhood?

AJ: Yeah, I mean we all knew the Trump Tower was this gaudy eyesore. And you know the way that people defend things from him that they would not accept from other politicians is something that mystifies me.

TC: But that’s what interesting in relation to political language. Because as you know some poets are more explicitly political while others are less so. But does there comes a moment when a poet has an obligation to language in public discourse. You think of Auden’s poem after Poland was invaded for example. Do you feel that duty?

AJ: (Sighs) I think people are going to be asking themselves that much more than they are used to. I taught a class on poets as world figures and I asked the students whether they thought of themselves as political poets and nobody said they did. There was a kind of stigma that political poetry didn’t have literary value or was just propaganda. But toward the end one of my students wrote a chapbook all mocking Donald Trump. I don’t think he would have written those if we hadn’t read those poets who were killed and jailed for wiring poetry. We talked about Dennis Brutus who was in the same prison as Mandela. I said to my students, think about this: His punishment was to break big rocks into smaller rocks. I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet him when he was at the University of Pittsburgh years later. And there was no sense of bitterness. There was just a desire to want to continue to write. When he was in prison they didn’t want him writing at all, so he write letters to his sister Martha, in poetry. So in times like these, I think of someone like Dennis who under the worst possible circumstances still found that identity as a writer and a poet and found it absolutely intrinsic.

Interview by Taylor Caron

Reflections on Writing, Medicine, and More with Nikki Rubin, former LRR Poetry Editor by Stephanie Koo (2016)

Interview by Steph Koo

I had the opportunity to speak with Nikki Rubin, LRR alum, survivor of UCONN medical school, newly-minted doctor extraordinaire, over video chat this past weekend. Our talk ranged from writing experiences, to her decision to choose OB/GYN as her specialty, to my own anxieties over choosing the pre-medical path. Here are a few things that we talked about, and that I am happy to share with our literary magazine community! Whether you are interested in pursuing medicine as a career or not, everyone is impacted by the decisions of our doctors, and realize that there are more literary doctors than may be stereotypically expected!

On her undergraduate experience:

As an undergraduate, Nikki stayed away from the pre-med group and became involved in her other interests. Nikki’s focus has always been on the people she serves, and she double majored as an individualized major in Human Rights and biology. She has always wanted to be a doctor: “I would watch the show ER as a kid, and my parents would say, ‘Don’t tell your preschool teachers I let you stay up until 10pm!’”

On the lit mag scene:

The writing bug bit her in her middle school years, her first experience with literary magazines. Back then, it was “a typewriter, a copier, and a bunch of staples” holding their work all together. She continued writing throughout high school, and came to UConn, looking for a writing community. After friends and winning a couple of the Creative Writing Department’s contests brought her into the Creative Writing community at UConn, she became involved with the Long River Review. Nikki spent her sophomore year on the poetry panel, and her senior year as poetry editor — Long River Review 2010 and 2012. Her prize-winning poetry can be found on our website in LRR 2013, 2011, 2010, and 2009.

When she entered UConn Medical School, she found that she was not the only one in her class with a creative flair. “The medical community is far more creative than the stereotype of a medical professional lets on,” she said, accounting for the musicians, writers, and artists she met in the next four years of her life.

She was a part of the founding of UConn Health’s literary magazine, Anastomoses*, meaning the reconnection of two previously connected branching structures, like blood vessels (link: Anastomoses is an online-only literary magazine for the UConn Health community. She describes Anastomoses as “a different experience from Long River Review. We were a smaller magazine and were less selective.”

On writing:

I asked about her own writing. Among working, studying, research, and extracurriculars, Nikki describes herself as “not the best model for regimental writing,” but she has found that writing has always come across accidentally. She notes that as a medical provider, “it’s a lot harder to write poetry when you’re used to writing medical writing, which is often restrictive.” She recounted looking forward to journaling for a class during her first year in medical school, which allowed medical students to reflect some things they may not have been ready to process. Narrative medicine often helps with processing and contemplating upon the experiences that people experience within medical situations, from seeing a cadaver to watching a suffering patient or having your first patient pass away.

On Medicine:

I was interested about picking a specialty, and Nikki gave me an overview of her decision making process. “I came into medical school thinking about pediatrics, but being able to choose

The stimulation of the OR (operating room) was something that peaked her interest before deciding on the OB/GYN path. “As a woman with an interest in surgery, I felt as if I had an obligation to pursue my interest,” she said, but ultimately, “my interest in human rights, and the interactions I had with my patients, were more important to me.”

Nikki said that if she wasn’t a doctor, she would maybe be a teacher, do social or nonprofit work, or work within public health. We also discussed that if she could change anything about th emedical system, she would remove barriers patients and doctors have to healthcare, such as the large influence by money-driven insurance companies. “There’s always a third party in the room, and they’re not as invested in patients as you are. They are driven by the numbers.” This effects how a doctor can interact with their patient, from the types of healthcare practices that can be implemented to the amount of time a doctor can see a patient.

For a student who wants to become a doctor like myself, this may be the most comforting piece of advice: Do what you want to do, not something that you think you’re supposed to do. Your passion and your interests will carry you through.

“You have a rapid shift in identity in medical school,” Nikki said. “You’re in this really weird world where you’re not a layperson or a doctor.”

Steph Koo is a third year student majoring in English and Biology. She is the editor of the Fiction panel of Long River Review.

An Interview with Dr. William Jelani Cobb by Sten Spinella (2016)

This is the unedited transcript of Dr. Cobb’s interview. The edited version is printed in the Long River Review’s physical copy.

Dr. William Jelani Cobb is a nationally-known intellectual who has written books, essays, and anthologies on everything from the history of hip-hop to the Cold War to racism and to current events, who has been outspoken on TV and radio, and who is a professor at UConn as well as the Head of the Africana Studies department at the university. This lowly Long River Review interviewer managed to extricate an hour of the Howard graduate’s time to hear his thoughts on history’s place in his writing, racism, hip-hop, and a host of other topics that basically amounted to his general philosophy. We met in the conference room of the Africana Studies Department across from Cobb’s office. Posters adorned the walls – I remember one of the Apollo Theater – and a long, regal wooden table sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by chairs. Cobb strode in with blue jeans and an imposing frame after briefly talking to his assistant, whereupon his boxer-glove-hands, the large size of which he has occasionally referenced in his writing, enveloped mine. He wore a dark green business jacket, under which was a green, V-neck sweater. While I was, admittedly, intimidated, it was not because of his appearance, or his bass-heavy voice. Rather, it was his mind, that practically sprung from his bald head and salt and pepper beard, that was daunting. A mind that during our conversation, like in his writing, could jump from the current state of hip-hop to American affronts to black people to his personal life, writing, and influences, then to the history of Islam. A mind that introduced extemporaneous metaphors, idioms, and historical allusions as easy as if he were preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was a memorable hour.

Sten Spinella: I read that you added Jelani to your full name back in college in order to connect with a more African tradition. Would you mind elaborating on that?

William Jelani Cobb: I was named after Saint Anthony, and I no longer was Catholic, so it wasn’t that I had to reject that name, but it didn’t have as much affinity to me anymore. And then when I was like, ‘Oh, I think I want a different middle name, I think I’d like something that was directly from Africa.’ It’s interesting because at that point, it wound up having a long, huge impact, but I was 20, so I didn’t give it that much thought, I just said ‘I’m gonna change my middle name, and I want to have something that connects me to my African ancestry,’ and I picked this name. It’s funny because, when people ask me about it now, I kind of want to say it was some profound, well-thought out thing, but it was just something I did one day.

SS: So do you think it’s been reflected in your writing?

WJC: What I’m interested in has been kind of these questions of diaspora and the relationship of people to each other throughout this diaspora, and the way that race is factored into it. So being a black American, what do you have in common experience with a black Jamaican, or a black Brazillian, or a black person in the UK. How has race differentiated and how has it been consistent in all of those places. And I wouldn’t have articulated it that way, at that point, but it was something that was intriguing to me, and I wanted to understand it. Also I grew up in New York, so in my community there were Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, you know, some Africans, and then a good number of black people who had migrated from the South, you know, black American migrants, and they were all interacting in this community. My sense of the world and what it meant to be African-American was more complicated than maybe if I had grown up in a small Midwestern town where everyone had kind of similar stories.

SS: Yeah, I liked that essay, you said your family kind of tried to recreate a Southern community in Queens.

WJC: Yeah, that’s also a common thing, if you read The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabelle Wilkerson’s book, she talks about that. Like most migrants, or immigrants, they tend to seek each other in the new location, and they tend to replicate, at least some, of the things they left behind there. In my community, as a young person, it was normal to me that like, all the adults had southern accents, even though I grew up in New York, and later on I noticed that this was actually a notable thing. It was because they had all been Southerners, and they kind of kept the same traditions and we ate fish and grits and we went to churches that were heavily Southern-influenced, even though I was raised Catholic we sometimes went to like Baptist revival churches. Those kinds of things that people do, of course that story is replicated lots of times, there’s a Chinatown, there’s a reason that people have come together to create that, or a little Italy, that kind of story. But I don’t think I understood it that way at the time.

SS: I want to address your career, which I find fascinating because, you started writing for One, that little periodical, next was the Washington City Paper and YSB, so I was wondering, how has your writing changed from when you were writing for these kind of small publications compared to your novels and The New Yorker now?

WJC: Not changed.

SS: Not at all?

WJC: It’s just evolved. So here’s like, one of the things, there’s the old I guess sports principle, where when you get to the playoffs, or you get to the World Series, you do the same thing that you’ve been doing. You know? What got you there is the thing that helped you succeed. And so, when I change in different venues, I learn things along the way, but everything that I did at The New Yorker were things I was being taught at One and the City Paper. I found that to be the case throughout, that I learned things in various places in the world and in my life that turned out to be applicable to other kinds of experiences. I always tell young people that the crappiest jobs tend to be the most educational, and certainly the most interesting. You meet generally more interesting people in crappy jobs. Not that those were crappy jobs! I should not say that. Those kind of introductory places where I learned, I met really different people, people who I would not have met otherwise, and I learned things that are useful to me now.

SS: Great. So I kind of want to switch tack a little bit. I definitely want to talk to you about your creative nonfiction writing, a little bit about hip-hop and history’s influence on your writing, but I also want to ask you some questions about race. First thing I was wondering is, when you write about race for something like The New Yorker, do you have an audience in mind? Like a white liberal, black America, a racist, or do you just write, because.

WJC: No. I try not to have any audience in mind, even though I know the audience of The New Yorker is different from One or the City Paper, but you also have to have a faith in the kind of basic intelligence of the people that you’re writing for, that if they agree with you fine and if they don’t agree with you, they at least respect the thought that you’ve put into drawing the conclusion that you’ve drawn. Sometimes you’ll think about the voice of the publication, so there’s a very distinct New Yorker prose, is not the same thing as Esquire prose, which is probably not the same thing as Vanity Fair prose, you may think about that a little bit, but for me, I don’t think about the audience. Most of the people I know, most of the writers I know, tend to put the audience out of their heads. Because, one of the things is, it can turn you into a trained seal, where you’re doing things for applause.

SS: Does it maybe corrupt your writing?

WJC: Right. The trained seal does a trick and you give it a treat and people applaud. You don’t want to be that person. You want to be a person who’s independent, who’s kind of speaking their mind and saying the way they understand the world, and that has to fall on the side of if people love it, great, if they hate it, too bad, and if they think about it – the goal is not for people to love it or hate it, but to really think about it.

SS: I mean, that’s something I’ve found interesting about your career. You’ve always been an independent writer, whether it’s a novel or you’re just writing for different publications. I guess I should ask a question about that, because the dream is to be a freelance writer, right, when you start out? So how were you able to maintain that?

WJC: Because I did other things. I start out, going all the way backward, when I was undergrad, I was a double major in history and English. I didn’t know which of those things I wanted to pursue, if I wanted to be an historian or if I wanted to be a writer. Then I decided that at some point those two things didn’t have to compete with each other, that I could do both of those things, and while I pursued the academic track, I wound up writing on the side, and in the summers and so on, and that was more amenable to doing freelance stuff. Then in graduate school it was very simple because I was poor. Graduate students don’t have any money, so I just wrote on the side so that I could eat. I got in the habit of eating. So that was how that came about. I thought about those two things as very separate, I had two very different lives even though I was writing under one name for both of them.

SS: I definitely want to get back to that later, because I’ve loved the historical allusions throughout your writing. Something that you addressed directly in things that you’ve written, and has kind of been, whenever I read black writers, percolating in their minds, do you feel as a black writer, pressure, or a burden, to write about race?

WJC: Sometimes. Sometimes. I think, I’m interested in other things. I wrote a thing about drones. I’m into drones now. I have a drone in my car, quad copter.

SS: Really?

WJC: Yeah.

SS: You doing research like that?

WJC: No, I just like flying them. That’s an interest of mine, and the politics of the Cold War is an interest of mine.

SS: Your foreign policy writing…

WJC: Yeah, the other stuff, there’s lots of stuff, but there’s an urgency I’ve found with race that hasn’t relented. If you had asked me when I started at The New Yorker if I would have written about Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Charleston, Ferguson, Baltimore, Eric Garner, I think I’ve wrote about all of those things that were happening. I didn’t set out to do that. But at the same time those were things that had to be discussed.

SS: Absolutely.

WJC: I did have a facility in discussing them. I understood the dynamics there, and there were things that I had written about previously, in previous outlets, when you look at the span of the stuff in The Devil and Dave Chappelle. Most of that stuff is about race. Some of it is about family, and those things are maybe inflected about that experience of race, but yeah, there’s sometimes an urgency when you feel like you have to respond to things, even though, probably the next thing that I write, may be about just straight American history, and Donald Trump and where he comes from in American history, and where that relationship is to men with similar outlooks, that have come before.

SS: That urgency you mentioned, this is kind of a selfish question, I’m asking it for myself in a way, but you talk about this intellectual bunco squad of writers. How can – what’s the place of the ally in anti-racist literature, when it comes to that squad, policing everything that goes on, the urgent matters that need to be discussed.

WJC: You know, I’ve never been really a big fan of the “ally” language because, it seems constraining to me. Like, they’re people of conscience. What you call yourself doesn’t really matter to me. The people of conscience and the people who are invested in trying to have a world where people are treated with equality, dignity, respect and so on. I think that sometimes with the language of “allies” it becomes more about appearances, or agreement, or being 100 percent in line with a particular argument, and I don’t think that that gets anyone anywhere, so there are things that I may disagree with on a particular issue, but I’m still fundamentally sympathetic to the cause of human beings being treated with humanity. I tend to shy away from it. But what kind of things do you write? What kind of things are you interested in writing?

SS: Me, personally?

WJC: Mhm.

SS: I mean, this year, there’s kind of a joke inside the Daily Campus office that I’m the race correspondent.

WJC: (Laughs)

SS: But that’s just because there’s a million things to write about when it comes to that.

WJC: There’s no shortage of it, right. It’s like ‘They keep pulling me back in,’ that line from Die Hard three, ‘Just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.’

SS: I wanted to ask you about that. Is it frustrating for you, because, when I was reading The Devil and Dave Chappelle, I saw these essays about police brutality in New York in the 90s and stuff like that, then also a lot of Katrina essays about how black people were failed by the government. So does it just frustrate you now to see these things still happening, and Flint, Michigan for example, and the Eric Garners of the world, how do you keep addressing the same topic?

WJC: So that’s what becomes difficult. You brought up the adjectives, like you’re saying, ‘What can I say about this new situation, which is not a new situation?’ that becomes frustrating, yes, definitely. At the same time, when I look at the burden that other people had to deal with – it’s not even comparable. And those people, you did see change, between the point at which they lived, if we’re talking about the middle of the 20th century or the beginning of the 20th century, the middle of the 19th century, you do see change over time, but it’s because people of conscience who put their shoulder to the wheel of history and said that ‘This is the world that we want to live in.’ For me, being tired of writing about the same sort of problems, is not the same thing as being tired because you’ve been a sharecropper. You know? So I can’t. Or you’ve been someone who worked without the benefit of the eight-hour-day, or the minimum wage, or workplace safety standards or any of those things.

SS: That’s a good point.

WJC: Relatively speaking, I have a wind at my back.

SS: I want to talk about your creative nonfiction writing for a little bit. Do you prefer writing – because I was fascinated by your Rio research piece –

WJC: (Laughs)

SS: I was wondering if you preferred writing long-form research-based essays, or something like a personal essay.

WJC: I don’t like personal essays.

SS: Why’s that?

WJC: It’s easy to be analytical, but the first person essays invariably, even if you’re writing first person narrative about travel, the reader is learning about you. If people are learning about your ideas, or your argument, or how you see the world, that’s one thing, but learning about you, specifically, that’s a different kind of thing, even though I’ve written some of those things. It can be kind of intimidating because you don’t know what the world will do with that kind of information. Especially now, because we live in an era in which social media brings out the best and the worst of us. I wrote about being divorced, and someone will say ‘Oh I read about you being divorced!’ or something like that.

SS: Off-handed comments you don’t really want to address.

WJC: Yeah, you really don’t want to go there. But some people are good with that, some people are much better at that. Almost by genre, poets seem to be way better about that than nonfiction and prose writers.

SS: So you feel more comfortable commentating on events rather than looking inward, I guess?

WJC: In print, yeah.

SS: Not necessarily by yourself.

WJC: No, I mean the memoir is a beautiful form. The first person essay is one of my favorite forms to read. The other thing I think is that as you study writing you notice that each one has its own particular quirks. What is good for a first person writer may not be good for a kind of analytical essay, or may not be good for an op-ed kind of structure, and it’s like carpentry, where you develop different sets of tools. This person might be really good at building staircases and this person is really good at building cabinets, those different skillsets. Sometimes one of the good exercises is to push yourself out of your genre and make yourself do something you wouldn’t normally do just as a writing exercise. Try different things. One of the people who – I edited this collection of Harold Cruse’s writing – Cruse was a phenomenal polemicist. He wrote these polemical essays that were just beautiful. I mean, they were horrible in terms of what he was saying about people, but if he was going to make a lacerating argument, there was nobody who could get close to him. I read his fiction, his unpublished fiction, and you realize it was unpublished for a reason.

SS: (Laughs)

WJC: Unreadable. I read his plays, he wrote drama as well, and ehhh, it was better than fiction, but it wasn’t anything you were rushing to see produced on Broadway.

SS: Now why is that, do you think? Is it because the political message came across as clunkier in fiction? I feel like that’s hard to do.

WJC: It takes a lot of discipline to learn different styles. It’s just like tennis where some people are better on clay and some people are better on a court. Asphalt. Is it asphalt?

SS: I don’t watch tennis.

WJC: Or, the better example, there’s some people in baseball who are better at hitting left-handers. It just winds up being, one, what you have a natural inclination for and two, what you work at to cultivate a grasp of.

SS: You mentioned this a bit, I’m an English/political science, but like I do this journalism thing –

WJC: Grass! Clay and grass. Alright. Don’t know what’s wrong with me this afternoon.

SS: I was wondering, did you ever have a feeling that you had to choose in your writing, I know you had a feeling you had to choose between history and English, but did you ever have to choose between journalistic and creative? Because it seems that you’ve been able to combine the two.

WJC: I never did. One of the things is that, I was influenced by a lot of poets, and I saw that the people who were combining poetry and prose, like taking the elements of a line that you might not know offhand if it was a poetic line or a prose line. More than anything else, I think poetry can teach the prose writers that you should have a sense of rhythm. A sentence should have a kind of bounce, or meter, the way that poetry does. When I’m clicking, when I have it together, I can actually do that. I’ll have a short line then a longer line and I’m kind of playing with those things. That may not happen when I’m on a deadline, I’m just trying to get coherence, but I’ve never seen those two things as being in conflict. I think it’s also unfortunate that we don’t teach journalists that. We teach them to get the facts straight, that’s important, but there also is an artistic part of journalism.

SS: It’s a story.

WJC: Yeah, it’s a story. Crafting it, and the structure that you put a story into, dictates how a story flows.

SS: I’m just gonna move to hip-hop. I loved your whole difference between an emcee and a rapper thing. How similar is that to – you mentioned in the intro to Dave Chappelle – that there are these plastic prophets and genius visionaries. Is that the same thing as a rapper and an emcee.

WJC: Kind of. Although I think that distinction has broken down more. I think there are fewer emcees, and rappers are just generically what we see now, for the most part. I think at one point it was easier to make that clean distinction.

SS: Early 2000s?

WJC: Yeah, but now what would you say a Kanye West is? He’s himself. He’s a lot of things. Drake you could say, ‘Oh, Drake is a rapper,’ but he completely annihilated Meek Mill, which is something an emcee would have done.

SS: But, did he write it?

WJC: Oh you know, that’s neither here nor there.

SS: I thought that emcees were supposed to write original material.

WJC: Right, but I say that’s neither here nor there because you’re never gonna know that.

SS: True.

WJC: Then there are people like Jay-Z, who’s super-commercial, but writes all his rhymes in his head, he doesn’t use pen and paper. I think the distinction’s broken down a little bit, it’s not as clean as I once thought that it was.

SS: You did talk a little about rhythm and meter and how that affects your writing. I wanted to know if you think that modern day hip-hop has the same political clout that the genre used to have. Do you think that it’s still something that can shape culture?

WJC: It shapes culture. It is political in particular ways, it may not be self-consciously political in the same way that, I think that people set out to make political statements, and now they wind up making political statements by default. Hip-hop’s sexism is political. Its misogyny has political implications, it’s just that people don’t think of that as political. You have voices, you have people that critique, but by and large, hip-hop is part of the establishment. It’s an industry, it kind of has standard-bearers, it’s part of advertising. At one point it was kind of hip and novel to see someone who was using hip-hop in advertisement. Now? Ehhh. They had a ‘Hotline Bling’ commercial in the Super Bowl and nobody really noticed. You have rappers – I saw this thing about Drake, that he performed at a bar mitzvah for 250,000 dollars – hip-hop is accepted in these kinds of ways. I think one of the things that its lost along the way is this insurgent idea of being the voice of people who were outside the establishment, or people who were outside the comfortable parameters of American discussion. We’re gonna talk about things that nobody wants to talk about. Not as much anymore.

SS: You compared yourself to Chuck D in the beginning of The Devil and Dave Chappelle. I was wondering if that is who you would still compare yourself to as a writer, if you were to compare yourself to a rapper, or an emcee.

WJC: No, it wouldn’t be, but I don’t think that I would compare myself to a rapper anymore. When I first started writing, Chuck D, you’d listen to how he’d approach a record. The second he got on a record, you knew, even the opening lines, you could just have this list of his opening lines, with ‘Welcome to the Terrordome,’ like ‘I got so much trouble on my mind.’ Boom. He’s gonna go from there. I wanted to jump into an essay in that same way, announce myself, and say like ‘These are my sixteen bars,’ which was good for a particular voice at a particular time. I still have the Chuck D voice in my head.

SS: When you need it.

WJC: When I need it. Sometimes you have the Miles Davis voice, when you need that, or you might say I want the Aretha Franklin voice.

SS: I love that voice.

WJC: Yeah, exactly. You’re going for those voices and you have different things, like if you’re writing about Birmingham and what it meant for my family to leave, I can’t use the Chuck D voice for that, but you can use it for different things. I think it goes back to the toolkit, where the old saying – if all you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. If you have a hammer and a wrench and a screwdriver, and pliers, and all these other things, then you can actually do more complicated and nuanced things. Every so often I’ll be like ‘I need the ‘Welcome to the Terrordome’ voice.’

SS: That’s cool. You mentioned the toolkit, your expertise in history I think adds this element to your writing that I don’t usually see in essays in general. How important a tool is history in getting to the truth of modern day events in your writing?

WJC: Indispensable. It’s indispensable, to me. It’s the only way that I know how to understand the world. It was a revelation for me when I was 18 and I started taking my history classes and things started clicking, like pieces started coming together. There are other things that do that, like some people’s literature will do that, and some people find it through religion, but for me it was history. I was like ‘If I think in this way, the world will make sense to me.’ We tend to be an ahistorical society. One, we’re a young country, but also, if we talk about fifty years ago, it’s like ancient history, where some societies you’ll be talking about things that happened in the last millennium, and you have this long sense of who these people are, what there purpose was, like in the Islamic tradition, very often people will be thinking about standard-bearers in the faith that died five or six hundred years ago, and what their impact was. The West? We don’t really think like that.

SS: Why do you think that is?

WJC: One, because America was designed to get away from history. The people who founded this country were trying to make a break with the past. It also became a place where you were not supposed to be trapped in lineage, where Europe was, with ancestry and barons and title-holders and wars and decries and all these things that had kind of created the state of affairs that made people want to leave in the first place. People like that, we kind of worship the idea of novelty here, and the idea of starting anew. We think of ourselves as exceptional, in that regard. What gets lost in that is the capacity to understand yourself in the long term, to see the tragic repetition of things, to see triumphs that people have wrung out of difficult circumstances previously, I don’t think we think about the past very much here.

SS: Is that clearer in any way than that whole, you wrote about that ‘Just get over it, way of thinking, when it comes to bringing up reparations for example.

WJC: Oh, absolutely. I mean there are a few things at play there. For instance, we have this thing called Black History Month, right, which every February someone writes an op-ed saying we should get rid of it, but it’s also the biggest organized confrontation that we have with American history, period. We don’t engage with World War II in a structured fashion, we don’t engage with labor history in a structured fashion. Maybe the History Channel does a whole lot of stuff on World War II, but only a small sliver of the population watches that channel. So people don’t know that February was originally American History Month. The Daughters of the American Revolution declared that February was going to be American History Month, I think in the 1940s, and it went nowhere. People just started ignoring it after awhile. In 1976, this group said that we’re going to make Black History Month in February, and it took off. It became this tremendous thing. To the extent that anywhere on the calendar year, Americans actually grapple with any element of our history in a concentrated, concerted fashion, it’s usually February. Part of the ‘Get over it’ idea, when people say that, it’s that we don’t really know what you’re asking people to get over, we don’t understand that. We’re not even just talking about slavery. We’re talking about the kind of things that are a generation back, like my parents were in Jim Crow and everything that came with being in Jim Crow. So it wasn’t simply that we’re denying you social access to white people, it’s more like we’re denying you tangible, material resources and education and employment.

SS: A slice.

WJC: Right. A slice. We’re denying you a part of this equation, this pie. And to say ‘Just get over it,’ is almost like saying, ‘Okay, I’ve pushed a boulder down a hill and then walked away from it, and because I’ve walked away from it, that boulder is no longer rolling down the hill.’ We’ve just kind of broken with the past. Yeah, that becomes frustrating in lots of ways, and if I wanted to extrapolate beyond that, I’d say yesterday there was a shelter, an immigrant shelter in Germany, that was set on fire. We’ve seen this upsurge of nativist resentment in France, and we’ve seen extremely Anti-Muslim rhetoric in this presidential election. At the same time, we’re looking around and saying ‘Does this not remind us of the way the early 20th century, people associated Jews with Communism, with Bolshevism.’ Internationally people were looking at the Jews and saying ‘They’re all Bolsheviks’ in the same way that people are looking at Muslims and saying ‘They’re all terrorists.’ The ugliest parts of our present have analogues in the past, and we refuse to see that.

SS: I couldn’t agree more. Why are people acting like police just started murdering black people?

WJC: Right. Evidence. I was talking to a police officer over the weekend, a retired police officer about this, and he was like ‘Yeah, these things happened all the time, and I did it too.’ It’s a guy that was a cop in the 70s and 80s, retired in the 90s and he was like ‘Yeah, you know, this sort of thing happened and we – it was just what you did.’ Now of course people have video. He, of course, said he only did it to – like he arrested a child molester once who abused this child horribly and he was like ‘I’m gonna kick this guy’s ass before I put handcuffs on him,’ or another guy that had given heroine to an eleven-year-old, so, I mean people who you would, on the far end of the spectrum of human darkness. At the end of the day, it’s still like, that kind of behavior facilitates lots of other violence. What’s different is the indisputability of video. Richard Pryor had a routine about it in the 70s. He was talking about how black people wind up being brutalized and white people were like ‘Oh, stop resisting arrest.’

SS: Still said.

WJC: Still said. And it’s almost like the common marker of our humanity, like can you see yourself in someone else’s shoes, and can you believe that someone’s behavior, even if it seems to be irrational to you, might have some underlying logic. If you lived in this person’s circumstances, would this action make more sense to you? I think it’s that humility that allows people to really grapple with each other’s humanity. I’ll say this: Stanley Crouch, who is a writer that had a great deal of influence on me, said that the purpose of art was to get us beyond our xenophobic inclinations, that we look at someone and we don’t relate to them whatsoever. When you have a novel, or a film, or a painting, or a poem, or whatever it is, it allows us to grapple with this person’s humanity by proxy. He felt like art was the great civilizing force between us. You could also cite it in religion. In Judaism and Christianity and Islam, there are all these references to how you treat strangers, like you’re supposed to treat strangers with kindness, and you’re supposed to extend yourself, and that’s because deep down we have a dark, nativist, suspicious kind of nature –

SS: That we have to say something like that.

WJC: Right. That we have to push ourselves beyond. If there’s been any one thing that I’ve tried to do in writing, it’s been trying to present a brief for the humanity of people whose humanity has been often overlooked.

Sten Spinella is a junior English & political science major at the University of Connecticut. He is Interviews editor of the Long River Review.