In Conversation: Tariq Thompson

Tariq Thompson is a Black poet from Memphis, Tennessee. He attends Kenyon College, where he is both an Associate & Social Media Intern for The Kenyon Review. He also serves as the Social Media Editor for Shade Literary Arts. He is the recipient of the 2020 Adroit Prize for Poetry and the Academy of American Poets Prize from Kenyon College. Aside from poetry, his loves include Pokémon, Studio Ghibli, and The Last of Us franchise. His debut collection of poetry, LONE LILY, explores Black communal history as a remedy for loneliness.

We spoke in late March about the allure of sonnets, poetry communities full of friends, and LONE LILY’s arrival. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Can you tell me a bit about where you are coming from, and how you came to poetry? I ask where you are coming from generally—as in a place, a sound, an artistic lineage, a specific archive of work, whatever comes to mind. 

I am, I think, coming from a place of music. It leaves me in awe, witnessing musicians and singers being able to improvise and work with music. I have grown up around music my whole life, especially being from Memphis. The poets that I admire the most, or try to model myself after the most, I always see as very musical. So like Terrance Hayes, for example. Hanif Abdurraqib. 

How does music arrive or factor in your writing process? How do you get to your creative rhythm? 

I’m always singing and kind of making sounds, making little rhythms and melodies. I’ve always been fascinated by the musicality of words and how different writers approach that. You know, for example, Toni Morrison’s work I find to be very musical. I remember the first time that I read Sula, I was just so enamored. And this is not a jab to prose, right. I think prose absolutely can do this, and you know, does this often, but to see a prose writer sustain that musicality throughout an entire project, or throughout an entire body of work, is incredible. 

I think in my own process, I just kind of follow the feeling and also the sound. I start off most of my writing practice by just free-writing and doing a lot of word association, and kind of letting the sound and the feeling carry me somewhere. I find writing to be, for me, yes, very intentional, but also very subconscious. It’s sitting down and being like, what are you feeling today? What is on your mind? So often, we get in our own heads and aren’t really listening to ourselves. Writing for me is a time where I’m actually listening to myself. I guess when I listen, there’s music there because that’s what I’m gravitating to. That’s what I love. And that’s what I think really elicits feeling out of a lot of people. 

That’s beautiful, thank you. Regarding form, you work a lot with sonnets. I’m curious, what about this poetic form draws you in? How do you play with it and its constraints or possibilities?

I did not used to be a very formal poet and sometimes I don’t even know if I would call myself a very formal poet because really it’s just sonnets these days. But, I remember when I first read American Sonnets, what poetry can be changed for me. I think that before sonnets, I was using poetry, and this is not an incorrect way to approach it, but I was using poetry mostly as a kind of diary or just a very direct way to process my emotions. Reading Hayes’ sonnets showed me that poetry is very future-making, or is about future-making in my mind. 

I think the sonnet form has really allowed me to kind of dig into life, or sit with life, and see that for myself. I wrote the birthday sonnets kind of to come to terms with my place in the world and in history. 

After listening to this brilliant episode of the “VS” podcast, “Morgan Parker vs. Now”, where Parker was talking with Danez Smith and Fanny Choi—this has stuck with me for two years now—Parker was talking about how she doesn’t feel lonely because she has all of this work around her. Isaac Hayes’ music, Lucille Clifton’s poetry, Toni Morrison’s novels, right? Like these are extensions of these people. When you’re reading this work, or you’re listening, or you’re dancing to it or whatever, you are actually with them—at least that’s what I got from that. 

And so, these sonnets were very grounding for me. It’s just a really atomic form. It’s like I’m playing, not with my life, I don’t want to say that, but I’m playing with what’s possible or configuring what’s possible. Writing something like “ON THEIR BIRTHDAY, SUGE KNIGHT & MY DADDY DISCUSS FORGIVENESS” for example, it’s almost otherwise impossible for me to engage with how I feel about that particular relationship without thinking about other possibilities, or thinking about it in an imaginative space first. And not to say that this is to run from feeling or anything, it’s more about chasing feeling. 

Can you speak about the spiraling of time in your poems?

For me, in these poems, there’s a passage of time, but I’m present. And specifically, I think entering these poems through birthdays helps me feel connected, helps these figures feel connected. Cause you know, Malcolm X and Lorraine Hansberry also have a birthday together, and they may have met a few times. I don’t know how close they were per se, but they were in the world together. 

Thinking about how connected we all are is the source of these poems too. And that transcends time, that even transcends space in a lot of ways. Every year when I celebrate my birthday, someone is celebrating Malcolm X’s birthday for him, or he’s celebrating his own birthday. The idea that we’re coming into these similar experiences at the same time, in wildly different places, whether that’s a physical place, or different spiritual places between life and death and everything, I just can’t wrap my head around it fully. And so I guess, some of this is me trying to get at the fact that we are not alone. Especially because as a Black person, as a Black writer, it’s really easy to feel alone. And yeah, it just brings me a lot of solace. It makes me smile a lot. 

Thinking about your work, where you are right now and where you’re going, what does the world around you look and feel like? Where do you feel yourself going in your poems? 

Well, about the world, I’m in the midst of a lot of change. I just got a job. I’m going to be a teaching artist in Philly for the next year and possibly next two years, depending on how life goes. I’m gonna be working with kids, teaching and writing poetry together, which is really exciting. So there’s that happening. I’m graduating in May, and so I’m leaving and going somewhere at the same time, which I guess you’re always doing, but, I don’t know, there’s just something particular about graduation and also starting a job and everything. I feel very, I think unstable is not the right word, it’s not that I feel unstable. I feel grounded. Um, shifty is also not the right word. The thing that’s jumping into my mind right now, is I kind of feel like a wave.

I think it was difficult too because I spent so long with this manuscript. I was supposed to finish this last spring and have it published by Sunset Press, April 2020, and then the pandemic happened. And all of a sudden it was like, I am with this work for another year, which I’m very grateful for, to be able to sit with this work more. But I’m coming to a point where I’m so present with these past poems and these past feelings, that I’m not quite sure where my poems are going right now. I guess I’m just excited. I think that this version of Tariq has given everything that he can to this project, and I’m going to take a step back from it and be very proud of it and excited and happy to share with the world. But I probably need like a little break [laughs] . . . something like that. 

I think that I need a break from sonnets too. There’s this phenomenon that happens where I write a poem and I get really, really into it, and it’s taken me a while and everything, and then I get to, not the end of it, but the end of the draft and I’m like, “okay, bet, what is this poem?” And then I count the lines, like, “oh my god,” I just made another sonnet. Which was really cool at first, and then increasingly became a little bit frustrating. So yeah, right now [I’m] very much still stuck with the sonnets, but I’m looking forward to trying new things and also taking a bit of a break. 

You mentioned your debut chapbook, from Sunset Press, which I think I saw somewhere is titled LONE LILY . . . is that right?

Yeah. Yeah. The rollout for that has been really wonky just because of pandemic stuff and, you know, everyone is just having a hard time. LONE LILY, it’s coming out May 8th. More details on that soon, but I’m so excited about it. It’s really odd ‘cause again, this is a project that was supposed to look wildly different a year ago. It’s like an amalgamation of pre-pandemic Tariq, everything that he was contending with, and intra-pandemic Tariq. It’s really fascinating having two different versions, not on my Frank Ocean [laughs], but having two different versions of this manuscript and being able to compare them. The birthday sonnets look very different in that version, for example. 

How did the book conceive itself? When did you begin building the collection, and how did it take shape?

I was really nervous at the start of this because I think that, at that time, I was very insecure about myself as a poet. I was feeling very stagnant as a poet, not very formally inventive, not very thematically inventive, and felt like I needed some kind of push. And so, the beginning of the book was really, really difficult. I had never really put together something that was thematically consistent, or never even written that many poems in that time span. I think that I was still anxious when April was coming around in 2020. I felt like the chapbook could be more. And then the pandemic happened, and all of a sudden I had all this time. 

So I just let myself breathe. Sometimes I wouldn’t write a new poem for a month, two months at a time. Throughout this entire process, it was friends, it was people. Edward and Gabby, workshops with Kaveh, and talking with my editor, Ky, and you know, talking with friends—just like living life, I think is what ultimately allowed this chapbook to take place. I mean the book is about people, and so, living and loving people for two years really, really grounded me. I think that without them, I would just kind of be floating and would have put out a kind of mess of a project that didn’t have a core that was propelling it forward. 

Book Cover with image of 12 flowers in rows of squares. The lower right corner is red and all the others are yellow. The cover reads Lone Lily  Tariq Thompson

How does study and play work in your practice? I know you’ve touched upon this throughout our conversation, but if you have any more words on collaboration, I would love to hear them. 

Absolutely. So my partner, Gabby, and my friend, Edward, we actually call ourselves BLKMAKE. It’s about, again, loving each other, living with one another, talking with each other—it’s just friendship. But, we all happen to be writers, and so that leads to really wonderful conversations. 

We have a little folder that we drop poems, and short stories, and micro fiction, and all types of things in. We’ll get on calls with each other and talk about the work with each other. What’s beautiful is that it is never just about whatever work is in front of us, it is always about the life that we’re living and the experiences that we’re having. I genuinely don’t know where I would be without a community like this. 

Same with the Kaveh Akbar workshop, “Breaking Your Poems.” I got into that workshop and have made so many friends just in that way. We actually had this group chat that has become this kind of celebratory chat where, one of the students, Susan, keeps tabs on everyone and we’ll be like, “hey guys, today’s so-and-so’s birthday” or “so-and-so has this poem published here.” That workshop, which was all about breaking form, turned into this very consistent community. None of us, or very few of us, had met each other, but we shared this common bond of wanting to be loved in the world and wanting to love each other and support each other’s work. 

I think the common theme in communities like BLKMAKE or “Breaking Your Poems” is it’s people first. These aren’t groups or communities that are just about whatever poem was just published, they’re about, “hey, how was your day?” Or, “I saw this really funny tweet.” Like, I just want to laugh with you. I think that I’m very fortunate, because I feel like I have an abundance of that. Having these friendships even on the one-on-one level, I think has just been immensely important to my work. ‘Cause it’s nurturing me, you know, it’s like I’m a little plant [laughs]. 

You can buy LONE LILY here:

Asiyah Herrero writes from Brooklyn. They/she are currently pursuing a B.A. in Creative Writing from Wesleyan University. You can find their work in Wax Nine

Vagabond City Literary Journal

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