The Next Big Thing: Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Yona Harvey tagged me to do this self-interview. 
Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the author of Darktown Follies (forthcoming, Tupelo 2013) and Red Summer (Tupelo 2006), winner of the Dorset Prize. Born and raised in Compton, CA, his honors include a Wallace Stegner fellowship at Stanford, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference fellowship, and Cave Canem. His poetry appears in Narrative Magazine, Harvard Review, Anti-, Eleven Eleven, Gulf Coast, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book?
Darktown Follies is the title of my new poetry collection, forthcoming this summer.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’m fascinated by jokes that aren’t funny; particularly, what it means when humor fails or reveals something unintended about our character. Imagine someone tells you a racist joke, and because you are not racist, or minimally, you are aware of the conversations around civil rights and social justice, which have shaped the last 150 years of American politics, because of this awareness, a racist joke offends you. However, because you are “polite” and maybe the joke catches you off guard, and you don’t want to make a scene, you laugh; you laugh, hoping to defuse the tension, hoping, too, to change the subject (or escape). But quickly, you realize that your laughter makes you complicit in the joke. I wanted to write a series of poems that would place both speaker and reader in that moment of political and emotional ambiguity. 
I started reading old joke books, listening to Vaudeville tunes, looking at film and comic strips from the 1890s. There’s a comic series called Darktown versus Blackville at the Library of Congress. I didn’t find any of this entertaining, but I guess this book was written at the intersection between humor and horror. I want to understand laughter. Maybe we laugh because we’re uncomfortable, or we feel delightfully surprised by a simple truth, managed in time. In comedy and poetry, timing is everything; timing is form/style. I wanted to think about the impulse, when someone laughs so hard, he cries, compared to the Blues-like laughter drawn from pain. Yes, two sides of the same coin, but there is still mystery in the material. While writing these poems, I heard my grandmother’s voice, saying: “boy, don’t you leave this house and make a fool of yourself.” Foolishness is poetic risk.  I hoped to find recklessness in Darktown Follies, as well as release.    
What genre does your book fall under?
I wish I could sing. I can still Beat Box and Break Dance a little. Of course, age, back pain, and dignity are slowing me down. This is a collection of poems.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Darktown Follies is full of actors and singers: Butterfly McQueen, Lincoln Perry, Bert Williams, Butterbeans, Ernest Hogan, Pigmeat Markham, Mantan Moreland, Clarence Muse; Clarence Thomas even makes a guest appearance, as well as LeRoi Jones and Joe Louis. Rather than film, the Vaudeville stage is my imagined platform. I’ve always loved history, and I think these poems reflect a lyric history; I often wonder what it means to dream historically. The actor imagines a mask, but the audience also plays a role. I love watching people watch movies, to see how their expressions change with each scene. I’ve written these poems from behind or around a series of masks: who speaks, who listens, who sings, who laughs—this is the work, my point and point of view are constantly “on the move.”
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Darktown Follies is an act of self-sabotage, a poet’s willful attempt at recklessness, abandoning the “good sense” God gave him, as an effort to explore the boundaries and intersections of race and humor.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 
Tupelo Press was kind enough to agree to publish this manuscript. My first collection, Red Summer, won the Dorset Prize and was also published by Tupelo Press.  
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I can think of poems as drafts and when I began writing these poems, but it’s harder to see a manuscript in drafts. Well, let me back up. Before I wrote the first poem in Darktown Follies, I imagined the entire manuscript. I even typed out a table of contents. Of course, none of those poems were written. Most of my poems are written in the margins of imaginary poems. The poems in Darktown Follies were written while waiting for others to “arrive.” I love false structures because I need something to knock down, something to abandon. 
I want poetry to remain a guilty pleasure, a vice, a minor act of infidelity. When my wife says she’s married to a poet, people sometimes respond: “you poor, poor girl.” I’m not ashamed of the time I’ve spent with these poems. We’ve held hands for at least four years now.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Influences are tricky. I’m not much of a fan of Billy Collins (which isn’t saying much, I guess). Of course, I’m afraid of him, just as I would never want to offend Oprah. Years ago, Collins read to a house of thousands at Stanford. The organizers made the mistake of opening a Q&A at the conclusion of the reading. Someone asked Collins if he considered himself a clown. He deflected this, and played it for a laugh, which maybe answered the question, but I could tell he seemed troubled. I can trace the thought that lead to Darktown Follies back to this moment. I can’t write a funny poem. As a poet, I feel uneasy by the concept of entertainment. As a reader of poetry, I started asking questions about humor and wit and absurdity. Douglas Kearney, Terrance Hayes, Harryette Mullen, Tim Seibles, A. Van Jordan, Shara Lessley, Tyehimba Jess, Jennifer Michael Hecht, John Berryman, Patricia Smith, and Larry Levis influenced this work. 
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Hesitations and the possibility of being misunderstood inspire me. I think I write poems because I’m always afraid of saying the wrong thing. I’m horrible with small talk, chit-chat. I always want to call the words back into my mouth, which means I’m often silent. I weigh silence against the threat of regret. Different subjects create different hesitations. I wrote this book because I wanted to create a framework for those hesitations regarding race and power. Jokes are rarely funny, but we are still so desperate to laugh. Anita Hill didn’t share Clarence Thomas’ sense of humor, and twenty years later, the joke’s still on us. 
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I hope my readers feel a little off-balance. There’s no sucker punch; no whoopee cushion here. Trick candles are funny at first, but aren’t we embarrassing the people we love? And inevitably, the birthday cake ends up covered with spit. No, thank you. I wish my readers luck.
Amaud Jamaul Johnson
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