An Interview with F. Douglas Brown and Douglas Manuel

Dexter L. Booth

Dexter L. Booth: Two Dougs, one interview! I finally made it happen. I appreciate you both taking the time to have this discussion. I want to start by asking why we haven’t seen the 3-D book tour yet? When are we going to read together? Even better, when are we going to see D+, where all the Black poets named Doug roll out around the country blessing us with poetry goodness?

F. Douglas Brown: Wow a 3-D Tour! I’m more than ready for this. A friend of mine once told me she participated in a poetry event for JENs vs. JENNIFERs. That is, all the features were named Jen and/or Jennifer, so obviously there’s a precedent. I think we could call it The Name Drop: a reading series examining names and naming.

As you both know, thanks to Beyond Baroque and Wyatt Underwood, 3 Doug Night was a thing, featuring Doug Knot, Doug Kearney, and myself. We then added Lil bro Doug Manual and we became A Fourth Doug Night!

Douglas Manuel: My dear homie, Dexter, I don’t even know, yo! But I really want to! I would be so humbled and honored. I’ve had the blessing and super dope opportunity to read with the two OG Dougs in Venice at Beyond Baroque. So, I mean, I’m down to do it whenever. Holla at me, F. Douglas, holla at me! Haha.

And, Dexter, you KNOW I’m down to read with you anytime, too. I mean, what if the 3 Black Dougs and you Dexter Booth hit the road in this new brave world after COVID. Now that, my dear homies, would be dope!

D.L.B.: I’d be honored to do a post-COVID tour with both of you! That would be a crazy event. How have you both been holding up this past year? What’s new with your writing? How have your poems changed since your last books? What are you working on now?

F.D.B.: This year. Where to begin. In many ways, I have, as the situation dictated and demanded, isolated myself. This was the world — nothing different. However, this isolation became an opportunity for me to properly mourn my mother. She died in 2018, one month after my second book, ICON, was released. Two months after, I had a baby, Simone. And three months after, a colleague committed suicide. To say “roller coaster of emotions” would have been the understatement of the year.

This past year, I reflected on the two moments of ICON: the last months before finishing the MS, and the early months of the book’s publication. In each, I consumed myself so I could finish on time. I had been granted access to the Huntington Library and used that as an excuse to bury myself in the process of learning about Frederick Douglass, my namesake and focus of the book. After it was done, I did reading after reading, events and more events. I think y’all see where I’m going. I used the work to deter me away from what was right in front of me: my dying and eventually dead mother. Don’t get me wrong, I was attentive and doted on her accordingly. But when the longest relationship you’ve had ends, do you rewind and say, “I should have done this; I could have done that.” This last year I took time to revisit those “should have” and “could have” moments. And it wasn’t in and of itself therapeutic, but the active way writing works on me, got me up. Writing makes one pay attention, and I became attentive to the fact I need to do some things to address how I was feeling about the loss of my mom.

If ICON was a distraction, then I need to figure out how to flip that, or else I would have stopped writing altogether. The current work, A DJ Spins The Blues: Mixtapes, Liner Notes, & Samples (y’all can weigh in on this title), addresses this by taking music, my usual source of recovery, to poetry. That is, music would be a referential tool or device. Instead it is centered the way it is centered when at a party or when someone asks you to listen to a song. Or that mourning tune that played in the background after the funeral, after a breakup, during a pandemic. I’m reaching toward music’s ability to heal or embrace a shared experience.

D.M.: As is true for everyone, last year was really a trip. I’ve been overwhelmed so long that I don’t even remember how not being overwhelmed feels. Exhaustion is not even an accurate enough term. Every day I fluctuate between depressed, hollowed out, distant apathy and extreme anger and motivation. I try to make space for and to attend to each of these states, but it’s really a lot. Let me be like so many others and quote the late great Fannie Lou Hammer: “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Yet I also often find myself in deep states of gratitude. My inner circle of people and family haven’t been severely hurt by COVID, the recession, or the race wars, so when I look at my life with that more macro and mature view in mind, I really can’t complain. The sharp teeth of these times haven’t sunk as deeply into me and mine. When my life feels the most shadowed and dark, I remind myself what these times are like for so many, and I usually have the strength to stumble back into the light.

And, wow, how have my poems changed since Testify? Hmm — well my current project imagines the America in which the speaker of Testify’s parents got together. The project has been really cathartic for me because it’s helped me reconnect with my father and ruminate and reach for my mother who died when I was 8. This project also differs from Testify because none of the poems speak from the “lyric I” and instead make their meaning, reveal their stories, and find their truth through the employment of a 3rd person omniscient POV. Moving to this style really opened up my creative spirit and has moved me to eschew many of my usual moves and really try new and exciting aesthetic gestures. I love it.

And, for the record, I super dig that title, FDouglas!

D.L.B.: I think A DJ Spins The Blues: Mixtapes, Liner Notes, & Samples is a rad title! You both make great points about suffering, healing, and how we, collectively, can (and maybe should) both grieve and be grateful in these times. It’s part of the healing process. What’s inspiring you both right now? What’s exciting you in the poetry world? In the little free time I have I’ve been really digging Douglas Kearney’s new collection, Sho. (We should add Kearney to the D+ tour.)

F.D.B.: YES! I have yet to dig into Sho … waiting for mid summer, but there is no D+ Tour without DK. Other mid summer jams to get to, Honoree Jeffers (love all of her) and Michael Torres. Right now I’m knee deep into Ross Gay’s, Be Holding. Just read it with my students, and they seemed to thoroughly appreciate Ross’s meditation. The idea of observation is important as I mentioned, especially for nascent writers. They tend to keep their looking on the surface or singular because they don’t want the uncomfort. That is, they stick with what is working and fear venturing out to see again. And I think, if I’m reading it correctly, Be Holding forces us to relook, but then asks: “What am I paying attention to and why?” “What is the obligation of that vision?” “How ought a body to be perceived if it is portraiture?” “How ought a body be perceived when it is confronting me in the utmost of human and humane ways?” Ross takes my teaching methods of observation to another level.

Two other books that rocked me over the past year in a very similar fashion were Obit by Victoria Chang and Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen. Obviously, I went to them to study elegy but like with Be Holding, I resurfaced understanding observation in entirely different ways.

D.M.: Yeah, that text is dazzling! Goodness, does he always come fierce and correct. You’re so right, Dexter, Sho is super dope! With each text, Kearney just keeps on deeper and deeper into Black vernacular and keeps making language newer, fresher, and more urgent, compelling, and arresting! I can’t even with him. He’s truly a treasure and one of the most exciting and real people writing.

Other than Sho, I’ve also really been into Ross Gay’s Be Holding and Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ The Age of Phillis continues to thrill and delight me as well. I find myself returning to it often and then going back and reading some of Wheatley’s poems. The feat of Wheatley creating poetry from her subjective position in that America is staggeringly amazing to me. When I consider our moment and our current discontents, I am fortified by the songs of ancestors like Wheatley. Lately, I’ve also been reading the work of Jupiter Hammon, George Moses Horton, and Lucy Terry. I suppose I hope that reading these ancestors will provide me with some armor for these trashfire times.

D.L.B.: What are you thrilled or soothed by in music, art, film, or any other medium? We all just spent a year indoors. What’s filled your time?

F.D.B.: As I said it’s been ALL music. Lots of Prince, actually...lots of 1999 Prince. I wrote a poetic series on the album. It was pre-apocalypse music that was trying to say love was the only hope for the future.

Lots of Kid A, too. Kid A is the sound underneath this manuscript. I ‘m trying to ride the wave of Kid A’s experimentation, its wailing, its attempt to make sense out of the world’s nonsense which gaslights you as the crazy one … Yeah, Kid A holds up, son!

But honestly, there is an entire soundtrack weaving with the poems the way any mixtape should. Minnie Riperton, Joy Division, Stevie Wonder, join the likes of Khrungbin, Raphael Saadiq, Brittany Howard, BJ the Chicago Kid (who’s song with Kendrick Lamar, “His Pain,” is low key, the anthem of this whole volume) in helping me to examine or reexamine my current state of missing my mother. I was loose with many songs and poems, but a few keys tied it all together for me. The first, KCRW’s podcast Lost Notes: 1980, hosted by Hanif Abdurraqib. As y’all know Hanif is such a fantastic poet and renowned music-phile. His introspection into a particular artists — Ripperton, Wonder, Ian Curtis of Joy Division, made me do the same. KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic has a new set of hosts, Novena Carmel and Anthony Valadez. Their sets have helped move toward healing completely off the page. I love their show so much so I based the first section on it. They play Soul Music of all kinds. Soul Music is healing even when lamenting. Look at the first lines to Harold Melvin and Blue Notes song, “Bad Luck”:

You're downhearted and confused
Because baby, you've been startin' to lose
Losin' out on everything you might try to do
Bad luck, fella, 's got a hold on you

This was early to mid ’70s, early disco, when I was born — and here is where I was from 2018 and 2020. Seemed appropriate since I was already going there while thinking about my mother.

D.M.: When I was in Eritrea in 2018, everywhere we went there was this music playing or being played that was a dope fusion of jazz, funk, and afropop. When I asked locals about it, they called it Tizita. The word loosely translates to nostalgia, and from what I can glean, it’s kind of Eritrea and Ethiopia’s equivalent of Black American blues. So yeah, during quarantine times I’ve just been listening to tons of Tizita. Currently, the Ethiopian artist Mulatu Astatke is my favorite. I’ve been banging anything I can find by him on Spotify. I know things have been super awful in Ethiopia and Eritrea, especially for the people in Tigray, so I just want to take a moment to send strength and power that way. But yeah, that's what I've been soothed by lately.

D.L.B.: I feel like we have to make a 3-D playlist on Spotify to go along with this interview. Great, great list of artists from you both. I hope anyone who reads this is taking notes. I didn’t expect you two to come and give our audience homework! For the last six months I’ve had Ambrose Akinmusire’s Origami Harvest on repeat, but I’m waiting for both Kendrick Lamar and Jamila Wood’s new albums. I’ve also been really into Douglas Kearney and Val Jeanty’s Fodder and Ross Gay’s Dilate Your Heart with Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver fame, which I mention because For Emma, Forever Ago still rips my guts out), harpist Mary Lattimore, Angel Bat Dawid, Gia Margaret, and Sam Gendel.

F.D.B.: Yep. Yep.

D.M.: I can’t wait for all of those, too!!!!

D.L.B.: Let’s talk a little more about music for a minute. I know it’s particularly relevant to both of you in your writing — both on a formal level and as a subject. Do you listen to music when you’re writing? How has your musical ear changed over the years?

F.D.B.: Being a DJ is part curator, part archaeologist, part mad scientist, part trend-setter and trend disruptor. Being a DJ is part Bartender, too! Mixology that wakes the mood. For years, I kept the DJing and the poetry separate. The fall to NYE was for DJing. By the fall, music settles away from the tunes of summer-mixes mayhem. Listeners can discern and take in an entire album. There’s magic in that connected to harvesting and change, introspection and maturity. Fall is about preparing ourselves for the end of one thing or another. I love making Fall mixes because I select songs hidden from one’s summer bbq-ears.

Winter and spring were for poetry, reaping all that the fall begat: readings, new work, etc. This past year there were little opportunities to do either, so it made sense to let the two mix together (plus all of aforementioned). I was actually DJ’ing poetry sets because of Zoom, because I did not trust that I could create the intimacy the poems I was writing needed. I felt more of a need to entertain than to deliver what was on my heart. In this way, my ear was changing. Since I’ve been a DJ, when I hear a song, I immediately try to think about what mixes with it, thematically, tempo, beats per second (bpm). To DJ the poems, I was considering not only the audience, but how to blend the poems so the audience would get a full reading.

D.M.: Hells yeah, I listen to music while I write! I almost always write to either hip hop instrumentals or lo-fi beats. And if not that, then I’ll play some jazz. Right now, I find myself scribbling to Hank Mobley’s Soul Station and Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder the most. But yeah, pretty much, I just need whatever I’m bumping to be instrumental, and then I can get my write on. Lately, I’ve even found myself listening to classical music. For instance, I’ve really enjoyed listening to Anthony Mcgill play Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s old compositions. When I was younger, I pretty much only listened to hip hop and sad, indie singer-songwriters, so my musical ear is, for sure, changing as I get older. Now, I’m finding myself less drawn to pop rap because of the misogyny and less drawn to most indie singer-songwriters because of the privilege pouting. Instrumental music has been calling my name more and more. I’ve even started listening to house and electronic music more, anything without lyrics.

D.L.B.: Thoughts on Falcon and the Winter Soldier?

F.D.B.: Good. Super good. But it took too long to make the point.

D.M.: Yo, I’m so wack! I haven’t even seen either yet! My bad! Hahaha!

D.L.B.: Are either of you excited for the next 50 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

D.M.: Yeah, if they keep on making more Black characters, and if they don’t do Chadwick Boseman’s legacy dirty in the new Black Panther, I think I’ll rock with them, ya feel me!?

F.D.B.: Ha! True DManuel, but at least Marvel is trying to use authentic voices to tell the stories. The fact that writers like Ta Nehisi Coates, Roxanne Gay, Eve L. Ewing and Yona Harvey are all writing comics is HUGE! I think of the Darkroom Collective, and how many of them became the gatekeepers of the poetry world. What is the comic world going to look like since these folks are at the threshold?

D.L.B.: On a more serious note, how has the last year (the pandemic, police violence, systemic injustices) changed your writing? Has it? Maybe it’s too early to tell?

F.D.B.: For me, it has validated the directions I have been taking. As you both know, the reading series I have coordinated have been the testament of my belief in community work and writing. I am from the blight and my success is due to many hands. I’ve never forgotten that even now as someone way across in the privileged areas I inhabit. So as a writer it is just as important for me to do community gigs as it is to do the LA Times events. It is important for me to use my access to celebrate emerging voices or those who seek to be emerging. I want to publish in independent presses and journals as much as I want to do the major publishing houses. Gwendolyn Brooks is our prime lead, but sister Mahogany Browne is also a great example of this possibility. She’s on a major press but is able to write into her contracts who else she wants to publish with.

I prefaced my answer with that because the last year exposed us all to how far we were from being 21st Century folks. AND how white supremacy is intertwined into what we do as writers. What I needed to do, and what helped, whether I was writing or lesson planning or playing music, was to be creative in all my approaches and decisions. Period. I’m not trying to broker for the now. I want to broker for all voices at all times, and so I need to rethink, relook, reevaluate the situation, so that creative solutions can be made possible. In most instances of community, creativity is flourishing. In most incidents of white supremacy, little or no creativity exists. Derek Chauvin can only see George Floyd in one, singular way, and thus we know the result.

D.M.: I think it’s probably too early to tell, but I know one thing for damn sure: I’m never going to shut up about the plight of minoritized folks in my work. If anything, I think this last year has only emboldened me and made me more open in radicalness and aggression in my want for equity and change.

D.L.B.: F.Doug, since you mentioned Derek Chauvin should we address the elephant in the room? I know it’s painful to keep these wounds open and on public display, but with us all being black men it seems like a fault not to at least say some of the names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Daunte Wright, Adam Toledo, Ma’Khia Bryant, Angelo Quinto, Andrew Brown Jr.

D.M.: Amen, my dear brother. I am so glad you said this, but I’m also so hurt, not only for them all being gone or the bullshit state of things, but also because by the time this goes live I know that this list will be way longer.

D.L.B.: Then let us end with their memories. Thanks, gentlemen, for taking time to talk with me. Always a pleasure.


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