Welcome to the Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.
Today, we’re talking with Aaron Coleman!
When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write?
The first poem that really made me want to be a poet was Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B.” I think I was about 16 years old. Hughes’ poem was so plainspoken and yet so musical and, most importantly, emotionally nuanced. I saw something of myself in the young man who is the speaker in the poem, how he was reconciling race and the city and love and his dreams. Before, during, and after discovering that poem, I was listening to André 3000’s album “The Love Below” and the brilliance of his lyrics and the radical creativity of the album – the way it defied any genre labels – opened up my idea of what a black artist could create. Together, Hughes and André 3K got me writing. I wanted to create worlds out of words like they did. And I hoped that I could write something that might move someone the way that their work moved me. I remember being stunned by the fact that their work could feel so personal and so important to me, especially as a young black kid, and yet they had no idea who I was, and they’d never know that I was reading or listening to them! I felt inspired to write because it felt so uniquely powerful, and full of a subtle faith: “just maybe, these words will be of real use to some other person in my lifetime or long after it.” That kind of realization still kind of blows me away.
What was your experience with poetry in high school? If you wrote poetry as a teenager, who were your influences then and what did you write about?
I’m so glad you asked this question. In high school I played football, basketball, and track (discus and shotput to be specific), and it took a while for me to really realize that poetry was something that I could use as a tool for self-expression and connection with my local community. There can sometimes be a lot of pressure on teens to focus on one kind of extracurricular, especially as a young black man, and I think that led to me drifting away from reading, choir, and theatre because I wanted to really be the best athlete I could be. But I’m so glad that I found my way back to poetry, first through Hip Hop (Outkast, The Roots, and Mos Def were everything to me at 16) and then through a book report I had to write on the novel Invisible Man. I actually thought I was picking the sci-fi novel by H.G. Wells but, luckily, I was mistaken. Reading Ralph Ellison during my senior year changed everything for me. To know that black people, and black men, could write about their lives and express how they felt about race, class, desire, fear, loneliness, intimacy, family, love…that book let me know that it was not only okay that I felt complex emotions – it was important that I felt them. It proved to me how valuable and powerful it is to share those emotions and insights with other people. I was introduced to A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and read some of Langston Hughes, but Invisible Man was the book that really changed things for me. I think my poems as a teen were about dealing with the changes I felt as I moved away from childhood and into young adulthood. I was trying to figure out how to think for myself, how to deal with the expectations of others, and how to decide on the expectations I had for myself. I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, with family ties to the city (especially via Church every Sunday) so I always felt like I was kind of in between worlds. One of my best friends in high school was an aspiring film maker – he just loved movies – and so we’d watch all kinds of films (blockbusters and indie stuff) and just talk about ‘life,’ I suppose. We were earnest. And you know, I think that was a good thing. I also want to add that, even though my poems have evolved so much over the years, I have a lot of empathy for the big ideas and the emotional desperateness that fueled those first poems. If I can dare to offer some advice: whatever you’re writing – just keep writing! And keep reading! And let yourself grow.
What are you looking forward to most at this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival?
I’m really excited for the unique community that the Dodge Poetry Festival brings together. I think we need more and more creative intersections for people of all ages, educators of all levels, and poets of all kinds. I’m excited to spend time attending readings by poets I admire, and to meet young people who are just finding their way into poetry. My first full-length book, Threat Come Close, just came out with Four Way Books earlier this year, so I’m really thrilled to get to share not just the poems but the process of creating a book as young(ish) poet. I’m also really interested in the translation of poetry (especially from Spanish) so I’m hoping to connect with other people who are interested in poetry, translation, and the wild possibilities of writing across languages.
What is something miscellaneous from your life that you would recommend to other people? It could be a person, a habit, an idea, anything that brings you happiness right now that you would like to recommend.
I think two random things that are really working well for me right now are taking long walks and caring for some amazing house plants. Very simple things, I know, but each of these is so grounding in the midst of the stress of the day-to-day. Just getting outside and walking through Saint Louis – its parks, its old neighborhoods, and its new, evolving ones – lets my mind start to wander in a way that relieves my stress and sparks my imagination. There’s something about the pace of walking and just setting out to follow your curiosity with no destination in mind – it feels freeing. And it fuels my curiosity to see the differences along streets and neighborhoods, to notice the sounds and weather at different times of day – it really makes this city feel more and more like home. And my plants are so great just because they’ve taught me to slow down and pay attention in new ways. We all spend so much time looking at screens, but noticing how my different house plants change – giant aloe veras and tiny jades and everything leafy in between – is so subtle yet so amazing. It’s comforting to have so much living green around me even when I’m inside. They grow and move (slower than we humans are used to noticing) depending on light and water, not to mention how they adjust to the changing seasons. Spring blossoming is an event! The flowers and new leaves always catch me off guard. A mentor of mine has a houseplant that was her grandmother’s and my first plants were from the funeral of my grandmother; I just love that gentle reminder and connection. Also, when my friends have moved away, they’ve left some of their plants with me – so each plant is full of so many memories, even as they continue to transform and grow. They’re the perfect low-maintenance roommate.
Aaron Coleman is the author of Threat Come Close (Four Way Books, 2018) and the chapbook St. Trigger, selected by Adrian Matejka for the 2015 Button Poetry Prize. A Fulbright Scholar and Cave Canem Fellow from Metro-Detroit, Aaron has lived and worked with youth in locations including Spain, South Africa, Chicago, St. Louis, and Kalamazoo. Aaron’s poems have appeared in journals including Boston Review, FENCE, and New York Times Magazine. As a poet and translator from Spanish, Aaron has received awards including the American Literary Translators Association’s Jansen Memorial Fellowship, the Tupelo Quarterly Poetry Contest, and the Cincinnati Review Schiff Award. Aaron is currently a PhD student at Washington University St. Louis, studying 20th Century literature of the African Diaspora and Translation Studies in the Comparative Literature Program’s International Writers’ Track.
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