Wordplay: Minneapolis-based Poet Chaun Webster
Chaun Webster grew up in North Minneapolis and still lives within one mile from his childhood home. “North Minneapolis is read as Black space, which is used as a convenient shorthand for poverty, crime and other kinds of deviance. It’s more of this white gaze on Black life. These are things I’ve been thinking about for a great deal of time,” he says.
In a poem titled “U.S. Urbanity: a folktale,” Webster writes:
our concentration marked us vile
so we elected ourselves bandits
The piece will appear in Webster’s second book of poetry, called “GeNtry!fication: or the scene of the crime.” The image on the book’s cover is an aerial map of Minneapolis, which looks like it was torn from the kind of atlas that every motor vehicle was seemingly always equipped with before the invention of GPS, before everyone had a cell phone. “I’m interested in how people think about place, how it’s racialized and how memory is attached to place. When you think about places like North Minneapolis, whose memory of it survives?” Through the lens of Webster’s poetry, the answer is not hard to deduce.
Webster founded the publishing company Free Poet’s Press in 2009 as a platform for authors of color, and also co-founded Ancestry Books with his partner Verna Wong, a local bookstore and community space centering around the narratives of authors of color.
But it hasn’t been easy. “I still take a number of odd jobs. I have three kids, one who is not school-age yet. It’s important for me to be at home with our youngest child. There is instability in this kind of life, which is leading me to consider going back to school to get my Ph.D. I don’t want to try and live life without health care.”
He grew up fascinated with rhetorical gesture and language play, an inclination fed by the church environment in a variety of forms. Webster and his two sisters were primarily raised by their mother in a strict religious home. “I grew up in the Black church environment. I was interested not so much in the doctrinal matters of the church as I was in the performance that was happening during sermons, the songs and the kind of life of that music as well as that oratory. Those are places where I first got interested in poetry.”
Webster’s deeply rooted intellectual understanding of the world grew as he became exposed to the many writers and philosophers he brings up in conversation: in his teenage years, he discovered the world of Black poetry, delving into the works of writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, Amiri Baraka, bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Édouard Glissant.
Webster had mostly been exposed to white authors in school and had trouble reconciling their perceptions on the page with his experience of the world. “That was very difficult—to try to pair what I was reading in school with what I was experiencing,” he says.
“And finally, when I discovered those other authors, I was able to relate what I was seeing on the page to the rhythms of my upbringing. There was a poetry to the way my mom played with language when she was praying and what the preacher did while delivering a sermon.”
Through the eyes of his linguistic heroes, he began seeing the accouterments of the Black church not only as rituals but as discourse—contributions just as worthy as those of a great literary scholar. “Édouard Glissant talks about this notion of ‘den,’ of the scream, this howling mixture of noise and how that’s thought of as something outside of discourse. But what’s really remarkable about Black folks that I learned from the Black church environment is that there is a strong discourse present. That’s what Glissant would say: the howling and the humming, and those deep moments of exhilaration of pain or grief. That they represented a kind of discourse. I try to represent that within my work.”
When asked about how his understandings of race began to codify, he says it began back in elementary school, where the majority of his classmates were students of color. “Our teacher population was predominantly white. I came up against a lot of assumptions about what my abilities were and about the kind of changes that take place when you become a teenager. You’re not cute anymore. Instead, you’re a threat. I had a number of experiences where I had to start to think about what that meant outside of the insular space of my home and church. But my Blackness was mostly politicized in college.”
After graduating from high school, Webster attended the University of Northwestern – St. Paul, a Christian college where he began as a pastoral studies major and planned on a religious profession. However, it was also the scene of massive shifts within and around him. “It was one of the most overtly racist places I’ve ever experienced. There was a conscious understanding of the political meaning of my Blackness there and the ways it was negated at every single turn. Going there forced me to seriously think about what that meant, which helped me develop a more critical lens. That can happen at a place like Northwestern—not because of, but rather in spite of, it.”
Brought about by a deep process of interior questioning, he left Northwestern no longer desiring to work in a religious field. Webster describes the letting-go process of his preconceived religious beliefs—and his belief in God—as he took in his surroundings and drew his own conclusions. He raised questions like, “Why is there no recognition of women as ministers in the pastoral studies major?” Women, particularly Black women, had been an integral part of the church environment he experienced growing up. “That posed some large concerns for me. Being raised mostly by my mother and not being broken as a result led me to question this notion that someone without a father is somehow injured or not whole.”
He doesn’t describe the process as mourning so much as arriving at a truth. “As people develop this idea of who they think they are, that plays into their deity and what their deity represents,” he says, describing many of his classmates whose experiences were radically different from his own. “That drew a lot of concerns for me. And eventually, I just thought, ‘Wow. I don’t believe any of this anymore.’”
Webster always loved bibliographies and footnotes in the books and novels he read, which connected him to a number of writers he admired. It inadvertently led him to transform that creative impulse into a way of living, particularly when connected to other Minneapolis-based creatives and writers. “That, as a practice and a discipline, helped me to carve out a space for writing,” he says. “I had to find what gave me life.”
His children know he is a writer, and he does talk about race and racism with them, which informs so much of his work. “They live their life around a lot of artists. But I don’t know if we lay into it hoping for a complete understanding. I’m 33, and I don’t know if I’m at a complete understanding of things that happen in our world,” says Webster. “We try to be very open with them. We have to be, in particular as it relates to police authority. We had an extrajudicial killing of a Black resident by police less than a mile from here. Those topics are very present and real in the conversations we have with our kids.” Minnesota, and Minneapolis—which Webster says are often perceived as flyover country due to its abundance of farmland and agriculture—don’t show their diversity at first glance. But the many populations they hold—like West African, Latino, Somalian—fuse into the kind of inspiration that moves Webster forward each day. “I felt like I was shaped by that,” he says, of growing up around so many different human experiences and their overlapping geographies.