Naomi Day: Your poems invoke many numbers: dates, measurements of time and space, etc. Does this represent anything personal for you? Is this intentional?
Ryan Black: I don’t know if it represents anything personal other than my want of documenting the histories of these spaces. And by histories I mean the constructed histories, both personal and public. And there’s so much I’ll get wrong, so I can at least get the numbers right. Mostly.
ND: You track time in fascinating ways in your poems. You do it with different speakers, points of view, different times, etc. Does this reflect how you experience time yourself or is it the way you process in writing? Do your poems come out in this fashion or is the timed structure set up later, during the editing process?
RB: You’re right. Time is, perhaps, the recurring preoccupation of the book. It loops. It overlaps. It runs ahead and trails behind. It’s an experience of time as a kind of simultaneity, a past that “is not even past,” as Faulkner says, or something like that. I think of many of the poems as reckonings with history and place. If Queens is a model of where our nation is heading demographically, which has been long been argued, then an honest interrogation of its past feels paramount to me. Honesty has never been our national inheritance.
Joanna Cleary: Your poems drastically differ in form, from couplets in “Skip to My Lou” to less traditional aesthetic styles in “Why Bother” and “Not Once.” Do you have a poetic style that most resonates with you? How do you go about determining the way in which a poem should be written?
RB: The book’s longer poems are mostly written in tercets. I feel most comfortable in that form. I think tercets allow for the weaving of time I mentioned earlier. Or at least it feels that way to me. They look back as they move forward. They’re discursive, open to digressions. And they braid time like a fabric. A textile.
The couplets in “Skip To My Lou”were the form I found for a sequence of ballads spaced throughout the book. Each poem in the sequence takes for its title a different traditional American song. I was interested in how the folk tradition, with its narratives of misogyny, racial strife, class struggle, and sudden, inexplicable violence, might be adapted to contextualize hyperbolic and fetishized representations of Queens within an America steeped in sensationalism. The material for these poems is stories of petty crime (the hustler in “Skip To My Lou”), or murder (the racial violence of “Stagger Lee,” the misogyny of “Ommie Wise” and “In the Pines,”) or failed responses to natural disaster (the disrepair of post-Hurricane Sandy in “Home By the Sea”). If we pay attention to consistencies in the representation of urban spaces, we might recognize these as rhetorical spaces, that is: spaces made by rather than creating modes of representation.
Forgive me. I didn’t answer your question about the couplets. I’m not sure why couplets other than that tercets weren’t quite right.
JC: Regardless of the extent to which your poems are autobiographical, you write about extremely vivid characters, such as Bobby in “Not Once.” Who are your muses?
RB: Bobby is a muse, for sure. The people I would see everyday as a kid living in South Queens. The places in New York City I’ve known intimately. And trains. Elevated trains. The J train is the elevated muse of “Not Once.” It’s my favorite train in the city.
ND: You mentioned constructed histories and interrogations of the past, and many of your poems explore those themes by looking at what’s already happened. Do you ever write forward, with an eye to envisioning what the future might look like based on these past experiences, or do you find the honest exploration of bygone events more impactful?
RB: I would love to write poems that envision potential futures. I would love to write speculative poems like Cathy Park Hong or Eve Ewing. I’m just not there yet. I’m still mining the past for truthful ways to talk about the now. The closest I’ve come to writing “what the future might look like” is the final poem in the book, “A Gun to the Heart of the City,” which imagines an alternative past, one in which a planned protest—a protest that never actually occurred—of the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens did in fact happen. A stall-in that disrupted opening day, forcing the city to confront its continued racist practices.
ND: Your poems often have an unidentified “we”. Is this intended to pull the reader into actively occupying the space you’ve set up, or do you have a specific “we” in mind — or is it something else entirely?
RB: I think I often have a specific “we” in mind, or a “you,” at least. Many of the poems come out of an epistolary tradition. The intimacy and logic of letter writing seemed right for the kind of work I wanted to do in the book. I worry about writing out of a “we”, of speaking for someone else. I certainly don’t want to adopt an Olympian tone, but sometimes “we” just felt necessary.
RYAN BLACK is the author of The Tenant of Fire (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), winner of the 2018 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Death of a Nativist, selected by Linda Gregerson for a Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship. He has published previously in AGNI, Blackbird, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly, and elsewhere, and has received fellowships and scholarships from the Adirondack Center for Writing, The Millay Colony for the Arts, PLAYA, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Queens Council on the Arts, and the T. S. Eliot House. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York.