An Interview with St. Louis Poet Aaron Coleman
When I read Aaron Coleman’s poems, I think of each as its own soliloquy—a single voice compelled to speak, to convey itself with forceful vulnerability. Through a cast of first-person speakers that includes saints, athletes and freed slaves, Coleman’s first collection—”Threat Come Close” (Four Way Books)—treads through the craggy terrain of race, masculinity, sexuality, history and faith in poems that don’t shy away from their emotionality.
A former football player at Kalamazoo College, Coleman left the team when he realized it was clouding his ability to focus on poetry. Now a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis, he focuses on Spanish translation in addition to his own poetry. “Threat Come Close,” published this year, is a percussive and lyrical collection that compels us to look freshly at ourselves, our surroundings and our histories.
Below, Coleman talks about writing through personae, authentically connecting with readers and the process of publishing his first collection.
Photo courtesy of Katherine Simóne Reynolds.
What was the process of completing your first book, and what has it been like doing interviews and readings now that the book is out?
It’s such a strange time in terms of looking back on my work and also looking forward to where I’m going. I feel like a couple years from now I’ll look back on this time with a lot of curiosity. It’s worked out well that I’ve been in a Ph.D. program, so that in the midst of all this there are some very serious day-to-day realities of class, preparing for exams, trying to put a committee together. Those kinds of things have kept me focused, really trying to be pragmatic about how to balance it. If anything, the writing and reflecting on it is what brings me the most joy, even just holding the book, because I’m so thrilled about it. It’s not perfect, you know–nothing’s ever perfect, but it feels like a time capsule of who I was in my twenties. Most of the poems are from my MFA, but some of the key ones started before. So when I think about this book and what went into it, it’s like an anchor in this present moment.
The publication process is longer than I’d realized. My MFA thesis was also titled “Threat Come Close.” And during my third year teaching fellowship, I revised it a bunch. I was submitting it and getting rejections, submitting it, sometimes becoming a finalist, and then getting more rejections. Then one September day I got a great phone call from Four Way Books. There were a couple months where I was working on revisions with Martha Rhodes, the director of Four Way Books. She is phenomenal, as a person, a poet and a reader. She trusted my vision and pushed back in ways that made me feel like she was trying to make the book the best it could possibly be. To me, that felt really valuable, because I hear about different editorial processes where a book is accepted and then boom, it goes out. This is my first full-length book, so I wanted to make sure it was the best it could be.
It’s so much easier to see a book through someone else’s eyes at that point. That’s when you really have to account for every single word, line break and piece of punctuation.
I’m glad I took my time with this book, and I want to stay dedicated to taking my time and living the process. Lately things have seemed sped up, but I’m looking forward to settling more into the writing. That’s what I’ve been doing a little bit this summer–at least these past ten days! I’ve just sat my ass down [laughing] and I’ve been working on some poems about race and sport and what it was to be an athlete and what it means to be beyond that now, to see myself as not an athlete anymore, but still examine what the culture meant and means to me.
The book has been an anchor in the midst of everything else. I’m so grateful for it. I love the writing of the poems, but I also love embodying them in the moment when I’m reading them aloud because I think the sound, momentum and community of it is something that is ancient. You know, people sharing themselves that way in person, there is a certain vulnerability and spontaneity that to me is not so different from the sort of high I used to get from playing sports.
You compare giving readings to sports. Is it the pressure of performing? There’s competition to sports, but I don’t know that I’d say the same of poetry and readings.
I don’t think it was that. Even for me the thing about sports wasn’t necessarily the competitive part. It was about pushing yourself to your utmost limit, physically and mentally in terms of determination and focus. But with poetry it feels like I’m pushing myself to my utmost limit in terms of vulnerability, in terms of earnestness and thoughtfulness, or maybe transparency and transformation.
When I read your poems, I can hear them in your voice because we know each other.
Not always the case with readers, though!
Right! But for me at least they do seem like poems written for voice. So I’m curious to know if you write more for the page or if your poems are meant to be spoken aloud.
Where I’m at now, I don’t even want to believe in that sort of duality. For me, I hope the poems are fully embodied in sound, but that without my voice, they also still exist fully and wholly on the page. And I think the way that happens is via craft, revision, technique. All that’s happening on the page is hopefully its own structure and scaffolding, so that if someone is reading it, it’s not going to be how it is in my own voice, but it is going to be its own complete map of guideposts and insinuations. So, I don’t really see it as one or the other, I want the poem-as-sound and the poem-as-visual object to play off of each other, to both reinforce and add nuance to each other; two co-constitutive ways for the poem to be.
When did you come up with the conceit of the saints and what was the process of expanding your chapbook, St. Trigger, into your full-length collection, Threat Come Close?
So the first saint poem was “St. Inside and Not,” and I actually wrote that days after Michael Brown was murdered in the summer of 2014. I was thinking about St. Louis and this idea of a place named after a saint. I grew up with a deeply religious background, at least on one side of my family. A saint is so different from an angel, more like a totem, and saints are also crafted out of the human in a different way than an angel or any other sort of being. So, the saint poems, as sort of persona poems, became a really interesting sort of masked way to speak from a different vantage point and with a different authority about the personal, the emotional, the social. The titles hopefully reflect that; “St. Seduction” dealing with desire and lust and perception and how that works in America, thinking about race and masculinity and sexuality. The end lines to that poem are “I do not believe in righteousness./ Such lonely power.” I think that I’m maybe a little too afraid to say that, that I don’t believe in righteousness, but in the poem, via that persona, St. Seduction, I’m audacious enough to say that. I think I’ve learned from that audacity. The saints became a way for me to speak beyond my own voice.
There were four saints in St. Trigger and nine saints in “Threat Come Close.” I’m still going. I see it as an ongoing thing. I’d love to do a full hagiography. I’m sure one of these readings I’ll do an all saints reading. But anyway, I see “St. Trigger” as the mixtape and “Threat Come Close” as the album. “St. Trigger” were the poems that began “Threat Come Close,” and many of them changed by the end.
How about the structure of “Threat Come Close?” There are four sections of poems, and there are so many different patterns and repeated forms present within the book. How did you go about putting things in order and what about the structure is satisfying to you?
I’m so glad you said that. No one has really asked about that. That was really important to me—the layering. I see the multiple layerings as waves rolling in and rolling out. But it’s not like one wave rolls in and the other is completely gone; they spill into and overlap with each other. And I think memories function that way, too. I found that structure through the recurring words and themes that kind of emerged unconsciously.
There were poems I wrote that just weren’t ready or just didn’t fit, poems that are essentially done from that time of writing. It wasn’t that I was writing and I got to fifty poems and said, “OK, it’s a book.” I had more poems that were ready than what made it into this one. But I saw the way in which certain poems were speaking to each other, and those were the ones that started to be this nebula of “Threat Come Close.”
There’s are the recurring saint poems, then there’s the way “Very Many Hands” is separated to start different sections. Another sort of sneaky thing is there are a lot of sonnet-like forms that pop up throughout the sections. Even my Iola Leroy ‘translation,’ “Shadows Uplifted,” moves in fourteen parts. Then there’s the “On Acquiescence,” “On Surrender,” “On Disembodiment” poems … it sounds maybe over-earnest, but I want to believe in the book as its own experience. It’s not just a compilation. It’s its own crafted structure and experience that’s whole unto itself.
There are also many “I” speakers in these poems, who are sometimes you and sometimes the saint personas and other characters. I wonder how you inhabit these speakers, how you oscillate between them?
I don’t want to get too Whitman-esque with it, but I can’t help but go back to “Song of Myself,” those lines that end with “… I contain multitudes.” The poems are me in one way or another. Even the ones that explicitly deal with personae, I feel like those voices are part of the multitudes that are within myself. That sounds weird to say, but I mean that I hope when people see the “I” they don’t just see me but see that as an opening to see themselves there. I hope that “I” is open or vulnerable enough that people can see something of themselves in it.
Publishing has become slightly more diverse in the last decade or so, but it can still feel as though readers often look to writers who belong to any minority group as a spokesperson for their entire race, religion, sexuality, etc. How do you subvert, or embrace, or shrug off that impulse when you’re writing?
When I’m writing, the idea is to look so closely at the situation or the feeling that that stands before any concerns of being representative. But at the same time, my blackness and my maleness are never excluded. Everything I do and see, that’s a part of it. I remember I was talking with a friend once and he asked, “Do you think you would be different if you weren’t black?” [laughing] That’s like saying “Would you be different if you weren’t a cisgender, heterosexual male?” It’s just integral to who I am—and so are the many other elements of my identity. My hope is that because the poems are trying to go beyond the clear-cut representational, readers will be able to see something of their own life in a new light, that readers will be able to incorporate something of this one black male viewpoint into their empathy and perception.
The commodification of identity is maybe a wave that’s cresting right now for our generation. Because there’s such a history of not allowing people to inhabit their identities fully in the United States and elsewhere, that now there seems to be something of a corrective. I understand that, and at the same time my goal is to connect with the worlds I consider home and the worlds beyond them … it’s hard work–and I guess it has to be … so, making my identity a commodity is not what I’m after. Inhabiting my full self, the capaciousness of blackness, hopefully recovering something capacious within masculinity from all of the shit around it and the rot inside it–the idea of trying to recover something useful and whole and full there–is something that I obsess about, really.
“risk a bridge,” the title of the fourth section of poems in “Threat Come Close,” had me thinking a lot about the risks that come from connecting with others. Can you speak to how that risk of connection plays into your work and what type of connection you’re seeking with readers?
I think what I care most about is trying to authentically connect, touching or moving a person in a meaningful way. Poetry, trying to be an educator, the translations I’m working on, all of those are tools or instruments for that. It’s useful that I’ve been working on a lot of revisions lately, because it’s through revision that I try to open up whatever feelings I was feeling while writing the original poem, whatever images were just shocking me, I’m asking myself how I can make those most available in the poem. Where do I create doors for readers to walk into the poem, where do I create windows for them to look in, what are the lights in the poem that illuminate certain sections of it? That might be an image, a certain rhythm.
The goal of the poem is to shake or shock someone–or really to touch or move someone–in a way that gets them to think about their own life and possibilities; and their own relationship to this American mess that we’re all a part of.
All photos courtesy of Aaron Coleman. Top photo by Angelina Litvin.