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Do We Define Our Space, or Does It Define Us?

Do We Define Our Space, or Does It Define Us?

So, I have this issue as a writer. Once upon a time, a teacher asked me what my favorite subject was to write about. Now, let’s keep in mind here that I am a privileged, cisgender, white chick. Besides being a woman, I’ve pretty much got it made in the world. And everyone’s always saying to “write what you know.” But I can’t help it. Every time I sit down and write, I take on some other identity. I’ve written a poem from the viewpoint of a Latino, immigrant woman working in a shoe factory. The last story I wrote that won an award was about a displaced Nigerian boy living in Detroit. And last Thursday, I gave a presentation on the complications of gender binaries and transgendered identity. Believe me, I get flak for these choices. When I wrote about trans* identity on my blog, I received a number of super pissed off comments about “co-opting an experience” that was not mine to talk about. And in a way, these people are righteously angry.

BUT I CAN’T HELP IT. I put so much research into these works, take so much time to get the voice and the experience to (what I believe to be) somewhat right. I’m not saying I know what the hell I’m talking about. I’m not saying I get it. I’m not pretending I don’t have a shit load of privilege in this world. But I can’t help but want to give voices to those who have been silenced in the past. Anyway, the point is, I’ve been thinking a lot about occupying spaces in this world that are perhaps not mine to occupy. And this was the mood I was in as I wrote up my interview with Adrian Potter a few weeks back. His responses are beautiful, and I have to say (although of course I always enjoy hearing people’s responses) Adrian’s answers and this interview is probably my favorite yet. You can look up the poem we talked about, “Epiphany,” in our first issue of burntdistrict. Here’s what happened in our e-chat below. I hope you guys enjoy it. I know I did.

Adrian, first I want to compliment you on the subject of your poem, “Epiphany.” I really love this concept. One of my favorite epiphanic authors is James Joyce, who always manages at the end of his works to leave me breathless. Were you inspired by any other author’s epiphanies before writing your own?

Thanks for the compliment. I haven’t read much Joyce, but your mention will have me in the library checking out his work. The poetry I enjoy most has epiphanic aspects. Some don’t have true in your face “Eureka!” moments, but a softer epiphany still leaves a reader with that breathless feeling. Often these epiphanies open up other questions that linger after reading the poem.

One of my favorite poems, Elizabeth Alexander’s “Race,” strikes me as an example. It starts as an anecdote of her family history. It intertwines with other topics that show sensitivity to race and culture with respect to the emotional weight that one of her relatives must feel as he “passes” for another race to get ahead in society. With its humor and ironies, it ends up as a poem about race and family, about how poems tell stories, and about how race influences the stories poems tell. The poem left me with a sudden realization of race and the perceptions it creates. But it also opened up larger questions about how we have learned to read any poem: about how we make, and whether we should avoid making, assumptions about race and voice, race and speakers and characters, whenever we read any poem. That’s what I like – a literary epiphany that draws my attention, makes me realize something that’s always been there, and leaves me with other burning questions to ponder.

When would you say that this poem came to you? Was it in your own epiphanic moment? I really love the line, “But really I wanted moments of chaos strung together in series like Christmas lights.”

When it comes to poem creation I tend to, over a few days, collect notes, fragmented thoughts, random ideas, and then sit down to forge them into poem. It usually takes a few hours, and then I incessantly tweak it for about a week. When I first started writing, I’d sit down and simply pen poems. Now, the development owes much more to a sort of collage approach from which a poem is assembled, similar to the formation of some visual art. It makes writing more fun and less like work, a form of play where I never know what I might end up with.

This was how “Epiphany” was birthed. I assembled and arranged related bits of text that abstractly dealt with personal confusion, angst, and misdirection. After I had painted myself into a corner with these concepts, the only way to go was up. So I concluded with the idea that I can transcend struggles once I realize that the burden on my shoulders is of my own creation. Once set, I refined the poem, tinkering with word choices to add deeper meaning.

The line you mentioned loosely comes from an analogy I see between humans and Christmas lights. One burned-out bulb in a parallel system does not affect the other bulbs. But in a series system, a burned-out bulb opens the circuit and shuts off all the lights. People seem to be wired in series, so that a single moment of chaos in part of their lives keeps everything else from lighting up to its potential.

Lately I’ve been learning about how different writers and poets from many backgrounds feel as though they occupy a certain “space” in the literary world. For example, as an opinionated female poet, I feel that I occupy a perhaps feminist space. While I am a poet first, and a female poet second—for better or for worse—this is how I have been “branded.” What space would you say that you believe you occupy? Do you resent these titles?

I think what you described happens because people tend to place others in a category instead of really trying to understand them. As an African-American, much of my identity is framed by my ethnicity. But the entirety of my writing does not need to revolve around my race or any other aspect of who I am. In other words, I am a Black poet, and will be a Black poet – but I refuse to be constrained by that label.

When I started writing, much of my work revolved around race, cultural issues, and social consciousness. I would say that’s the space my early writing inhabited. My poems from that period read much like spoken word on the page. I had a lot to say about the world and its injustices and crafted my work in a manner that sung to those who needed to hear those lyrics.

And I still write poems that speak of the struggle of getting-by and transcending injustice when they come to me. But after years of writing on these subjects, I had pretty much made my point. I still felt strongly about these issues, but I had written my peace on them, at least for the time being. My work rate declined and I realized that I needed to write about new subjects: grief, love, relationships, fear, and who-knows-what. And later, my writing interests again shifted towards more abstract and disjointed prose poem creations like “Epiphany.”

To me, all these works have traces of my identity. So I simultaneously accept and resent categorization. I accept who I am as a writer and what my lane is, so to speak. However, I refuse to allow labels to limit me, just in case I want to change lanes at a later date.

Do any particular authors really inspire you or have a profound influence on your work? Any works you can recommend to me?

I find a something inspirational from nearly every writer. Even work that I don’t care for can provide inspiration, because it aids the evolution of my style and taste. Current favorites include Terrance Hayes, Alex Lemon, Ed Bok Lee, Elizabeth Alexander, and Natasha Tretheway. I see things within their work I want to try, and one day, with enough practice, I will.

I love poetry with a soulful vibe. Two books along this line I truly enjoy are Cornelius Eady’s The Autobiography of a Jukebox and Patricia Smith’s Teahouse of the Almighty. I re-read these periodically because of their musicality. They represent cases where not only the poems but the entire books themselves are works of art and feel more like albums than paperbacks.

I recently read a collection of flarf poetry by Katie Degentesh called The Anger Scale, and found it intriguing. The content of the poems were gleaned from Google searches, and the poems were each titled with a question from the MMPI psych test. The concept of the book is thought provoking and original. I admire its ambition and have racked my brain trying to come up with a comparable concept that I could take on myself.

There are a lot of aspects of poetry that I think poets concentrate on. For example, in Robert Hayden’s work, “Those Winter Sundays,” the sound is what truly furthers the poem and makes the message stick. For Plath, I believe the strongest aspect of her work is her ability to create imagery and metaphors. Would you say that you concentrate specifically on any of these techniques?

My lyrical poetry definitely focuses on sound. I went through a phase where my poems sounded like blues in poetic form, and I spent much time revising them so they sounded just right. Imagery is not always my strong suit, but I am working on developing this in my work. But metaphors are paramount to me. Much of what I pen into notebooks for future use is metaphors that come to me randomly during the day. I collect pages of metaphors that I bring to the table when I am actually crafting a poem, and am often able to place unique ones into a larger work that I wouldn’t if I was composing from scratch. I really like using this technique with my prose poem work, which has been a bit more abstract and quirky.

One other thing I focus on is alliteration. I’m a sucker for it. I don’t go out of my way and destroy the flow of a piece to achieve it, but if I can add alliteration into a poem naturally I will. I read a lot of my work aloud while editing, and the poems that tingle my tongue are often the ones that have alliteration sprinkled in them.

I see that you published a chapbook, Survival Notes, in 2008. Did the poems in this chapbook have a connective theme? Has the subject of your work changed in the past four years?

Survival Notes contains nine short stories & flash fiction pieces, and it won the 2006 Červená Barva Press Short Story Chapbook Prize. The stories aren’t exactly linked, but there’s a theme of desperation and persistence in them all. They touch a variety of subjects: domestic violence, male identity, bar fights, divorce, racism, bad dates, and lap dances, among others. Weaved in there is a downhearted blues aesthetic that loosely connects it all together.

Survival Notes was my early experiment in forming a manuscript and I admittedly spliced it together like a sloppy but well-intentioned mixtape. It sparked a part of my evolution as a writer that now has me thinking in terms of book or chapbook preparation nearly every time I write. This creates a more coherent feeling to the work I’m doing. It’s also a great exercise in confidence-building since it gives me a sense of destination.

I’d say whether in poetry or prose, my subject matter has remained static. I tend to describe uncomfortable and unfair scenarios; the ones people don’t always like to approach in art, to examine that narrow bandwidth of emotion between frustration and self-pity. I joke that I have a talent for sadness – but really I do express feelings of melancholy, grief, and hard luck far better than glee and cheer. I relate to struggle and survival more than I do sunshine and happy endings, so that undertone will likely always haunt my work.

Where do you go to write? Do you feel that writing is easier in the morning or at night? As you get older, do you think it’s harder with the increased levels of responsibility of adulthood to keep up with your writing?

Where do I go to write? Nowhere special. I keep paper & pen or my laptop handy in case inspiration arrives. I’m not a writer who requires quiet to work – in fact I crave background noise or even music. Revisions happen in silence, but I’m likely to write with music playing – jazz, rap, old soul, blues, or rock – plopped down on the sofa at home with football on the TV. I have a truncated attention span and have learned not to fight it, so I keep my distractions nearby. It sounds unconventional, but I eventually get down to business and focus on the task at hand.

I’m more of a night writer. I don’t hop out of bed with an abundance of creativity – I tend to be task-oriented upon waking. But with this endorsement of nocturnal writing comes risk, for I bank on having sufficient energy and discipline to sit down and write after handling everything the day has hurled at me. Needless to say that doesn’t always come to fruition.

My productivity in the writing arena waxes and wanes, but I’ve been steady lately and have some interesting things to show for it. How to balance one’s writing life with work, social life, and family is a challenge, and yes, it gets tougher with time. Lately I’ve been allowing my writing efforts to be flexible. On days when I don’t feel overly creative, I focus on necessary tasks: sending out submissions, researching, blogging, revising works-in-progress, or reading literary journals to get a feel for their aesthetic. Sometimes this provides secondhand inspiration and jump-starts my writing. When I feel creative, I fluctuate between giving myself small assignments or just going with the flow and seeing where ideas take me. I’m at peace with the fact that I’ll never control my muse, and that I’m truly at its mercy. It’s better to allow it to tell me whether it wants to be guided and focused or unrestrained and feral.

Adrian S. Potter writes poetry and short fiction. Despite the silly questions people ask, he is not related to Harry Potter, but would pretend to be his cousin for a lucrative book deal or a pitcher of beer. Adrian is the author of the fiction chapbook Survival Notes (Červená Barva Press, 2008) and winner of the 2010 Southern Illinois Writers Guild Poetry Contest. Recent or upcoming publication credits include The Poet’s Touchstone, Ginger Piglet, Off the Coast and the I-70 Review. Additional propaganda can be found at


1 Comment

  1. webmaster
    June 21, 2014

    EEK. I just saw this. For some reason it went to my spam. I’m going to take a look. They seem to be loading fine on my end. Thanks for the heads up!!

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