Andre Hoilette had a great uncle with super powers. His uncle had a black belt in roots magic. Hoilette spends a lot of his psychic energy avoiding duppies. Hoilette is a Jamaican born poet and Cave Canem alum. He took a decade plus away from writing and poetry and has a wicked interest in music and music lore and art. He is also a comic con and music festival operational ninja.
Interviewer: What is poetry to you? Do you believe that some poems are better left in the dresser, unseen and unheard? If so, what are those poems? If not, why?
Andre Hoilette: Some poems are better unseen and unheard, though not permanently. At times the poet arrives decades or centuries ahead of the audience. The audience is not ready for what the poet has to offer but gains understanding with time and the change of their society. Then like a majority of artists, their praise arrives after they have died and we laud their genius onto their already deafened ears. Imagine John Ashbery in the time of Keats or Eliot in the time of Amiri Baraka. I don’t think their ideas would be accepted in either world, but they are no less valid than the contrasted poet’s work. So for me, poetry is an expression of the human condition, however, I think all the poems have already been written. They are floating around us on another plane. The poets of each time channel the poems out through their gaze, a gaze shaped by their time period, their language, and their experiences.
I: I have never thought of it that way. I do agree that poetry causes the human condition to manifest itself. The phrase ‘write what you know and write what you don’t know’ asks for a poet to reveal what one knows as fact (in their eyes) and their curiosities. Your statement that poets “channel the poems out through their gaze” made me think of that teaching. Do you believe every poem has some sense of kairos then, even if the timeliness of that poem is long after it is initially written? Is this possibly due to what you were saying about all poems already being written?
Andre: Yes, I agree that each poem has some sense of kairos, an innate mechanism for its relevance to the audience. That quality is separate from the poet. The poet has no control over its relevance. Their relationship, the poet and the poem, is symbiotic. When the poet forces a poem, its essence is lost and it feels blunted rather than artful. The best that a poet can do is to have the right tools to shape the poem that presents itself to them. Those tools may include their experiences, language, their relationship to wordplay or any other quality that they can draw upon to help the poem into the seen world.
I: I couldn’t agree more with your response. This is something I think all poets should understand. In your poem “summer”, the format/structure seems vital to the flow and understanding of the poem. I believe it is this device (paired with others) that led me to draw multiple meanings and connections once I reached the last stanza of your poem. How important is the format of a poem? What steps do you take to decide the right format for your own poems?
Andre: I do a lot of free writing first. Usually, pen to paper rather than a screen. When I come back to what was written I decide what form if any will be used. Sometimes the look of what was written on the page can steer me towards a form or if the poem can be worked into syllabic forms, I may attempt that. As we discussed at your reading, prose is also always an attractive option. To answer your original question, I lean towards valuing the content of a poem over form/style. If the intent though focuses on form then the focus becomes writing the best poem for that form.
I: That makes sense. Every poet is different and I think most would agree that content is the most important. Do you believe some of your work contains “spiritual” overtones? I ask this keeping “Plenilunium”, “Spell Casting: Absolution of the Constant in Loneliness”, and “I Killed Trayvon Martin” in mind. Each is, of course, different in content and message. However, each appears to have statements about one’s mortality.
Andre: A lot of my work does contain themes that are spiritual or otherworldly. I am interested in the sacred and the profane and their intersections. I am also interested in what role this sort of spiritualism has played in our histories, myths and origin stories. I am careful not to play into the “magical negroes” trope, but rather to highlight some of our history that has been lost or suppressed by Christianity and the other two monotheistic religions (Islam and Judaism).
I: Do you find avoiding that “magical negroes” trope easier said than done? The idea is so ingrained in society that thoughts about the correlation between spiritualism/religion/belief and a minority are grossly generalized.
Andre: The magic negro is hard to avoid. The white audience and writers who are beholden to them have used the trope to make their art. Knowing that it may be hard for the audience to accept a person of color in their stories, the writers/directors bridge the gap by making the negro magic. That magic negro can now be considered, pitied, championed, empathized with by the audience or any other white identified character. The “magic” in this case is humanizing.
In clarifying, I would point out that the “magic negro” is a device to elicit an emotional response from the white identified reader/viewer. If the same character is placed in a setting that is all black, then the trope does not hold true. There is no need for the mystical nature of the character to appease other characters or the audience. The audience already had some identification with the character, allowing the magical/mystical/spiritual aspects to be examined on their own. Character examples, like those in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, Anthony Winkler’s The Painted Canoe or Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
I: This is a great response. It kind of piggybacks the idea that people are only interested in something that is or appears “special”. They feel if they identify that special person/thing then it, in some way, makes them special or enlightened. It is exactly like you said about the magic being humanizing in certain cases. Magic could end up being a lot of things. Thank you.
I read an article by Rebecca Hazelton that said a writer should be able to return to their work and have “a complicated re-engagement with the self.” Do you agree with this statement? If so, how has your own writing done this to you?
Andre: I needed some more context, so I took some time to read Hazelton’s piece on persona poems. I only halfheartedly agree with her sentiment. I think as a device of learning where a writer chooses different perspectives then, yes I agree. Those writing from other points of view should re-engage with the self while still maintaining the perspectives they have gained through the study of other voices. Where I do not agree is with the teaching of poets to find “their” voice…their singular voice. The pursuit of this lie limits poetry. The self, the voice that comes through in your poems, should be able to change as one’s perspective changes. Too many poets are forced into that unique, singular voice construct. I believe that poets should use many voices, just as there are many possible points of inspiration for poems.
In my own work, yes, when writing persona poems, there has to be a return to the self, even if the self is a construct of the point of view that you have chosen. In a persona poem that I workshopped but never revised, the voice was that of a Haitian black, female spirit. I am none of those things, but still, I am the voice that is creating the persona. So it is difficult to escape the self completely, but in the instruction of poets and poetry, I feel the singular voice model should be less emphasized.
I: That is a very insightful thought. Thank you for sharing that.
This is my last question. What are you currently working on? Is there anything we should be looking out for from you?
Andre: Thank you for taking the time to interview me.
I have had writer’s block for about 10 years. Honestly, I am working on writing as a consistent discipline in my life. So I am reading a lot and writing what I can. If I can get into the rhythm again, there are a couple manuscripts that I would like to finish. If I get the opportunity to read again, I would ask people to look out for that, and with some hard work and luck, perhaps the manuscripts will be published.
I: Of course. I really enjoyed doing so. I am excited to see what else you come out with. 10 years of writer’s block gives plenty of time for creativity to brew. I am not sure who said it, but I really love the quote “Discipline gets books written. More than inspiration, more than motivation, you need discipline.” Is there a way for people to follow you? I wish you the best in your writing endeavors.
Andre: Thanks. In terms of website, not yet. But you are welcome to follow me on Facebook.
Editor’s note: You can find Andre on Facebook under André Ex.