The title of your book, Telepathologies, is extremely attention-grabbing, especially as you use the word’s different meanings to introduce each section of the book. For instance, you define it as the “internalization of implied falsehoods” and you mention media and sociology as sub-terms, or even aggravators of telepathology. What has your experience been with telepathology and your own identity, particularly within our current political climate?
First, before I can even begin to truly address your question, it’s important for me to call attention to the traditional definition of telepathology. Telepathology, as you can gather from a routine Google search, is the practice of pathology at a distance; it is the leveraging of telecommunications technologies to enable transfer of image-rich pathology data between distant locations for the purposes of education, research and diagnosis. In other words, it is the application of technology in order to improve the study of disease. And, as flipping through the collection shows, I’m also obsessed with the study of disease, in a sense, but my fixation is on social diseases―racism, sexism, classism, etc.―and their relationship to one another in addition to the ways media (read: technology) both allows us to study those diseases and simultaneously relays the pathogens through its images and writings. Likewise, I also acknowledge in choosing this title how innocuous harmful messages are. They aren’t merely encoded in media but observable in the smallest, most routine of human interactions; I can see so many things at play in the way people simply respond to my body’s observable blackness and maleness occupying the same space of them. That’s all a part of this. That’s all a part of my existence, from birth until this exact moment. Simply put, this collection is both an interior and exterior study of why my life is what it is: why I define myself along a certain prism and am likewise defined by others along certain prisms, why I experience things such as pride or anger or fear, why I always see something hiding behind, well, everything. In our current political climate, I believe such inspection is completely necessary, not solely in regards to the ways we understand racial identity and racial conflict, but looking at the range of human experiences all together. This is merely my offering of one example of how that work was and is being done. This is the compiling of some of my “research findings,” though my research is still ongoing. I want people to do their own as well, and for us, collectively, to know the value in doing so and what that process of discovery can mean for you or me individually, for all of us as citizens of the world.
You dedicate many of your poems to specific people– “Facing the Music,” “Meditation on Black Death Ending with an X-ray,” and “Six Shots on Ferguson, Missouri,” just to name a few– and several of the individuals for whom you write are not in the past at all. In regards to “Charleston,” especially, that horrific event has continued to be covered by the media. How do you cope with these losses through poetry and in real-time?
The murder of the Charleston Nine (a large part of which was the political assassination of State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney) has been something I haven’t been able to escape and, quite frankly, never will. For me, there’s just so much… there: the fact that the church, an irreplaceable cornerstone not only of African American culture but of African American politics and resistance for so long could be defiled in such a calculated manner, the fact the Black church served such a pivotal role in my own personal development and self-definition, the fact that it happened in a city that shares my name and the fact the fate of the nine slain that day could, at any moment, be mine for the exact same reasons it was theirs. It’s a lot to process, and the onslaught of publicized murder after murder after murder of Black men, women and children stirs me into a frenzy of blue emotions and hyperconscious thought. Poems help mediate the madness, for certain; they slow me down and get to the heart of what my heart is at that time, but it takes tremendous effort to pen them. Interspersed with the writing of word after word, line after line, I take pauses to indulge in simple pleasures. I watch creative programming (not the news), I eat comforting foods, I dance to songs in my head. Sometimes I just sit in silence, because that, for me, is therapeutic. The only way to continue to be rightfully outraged at the loss of life is to also remind myself why life is worth living, why loss matters or means anything at all. So, really, it’s the gaps between the written work that is the most important work I do. It’s the work nobody sees, except for a few who share intimate moments with me.
While reading your poems, there are incredible amounts of fear and rage, whether that be directed at the police, at the proverbial “other,” or at one’s self. What has your experience with these emotions and the way society receives their expression, especially from people of color?
Being a person of color (or perhaps, of any marginalized identity) means that the full range of human emotion is not to be afforded to you by social convention; in the same way our normalized codes of behavior limit the political freedoms of certain populations, so too are those same populations’ emotional freedoms limited (it makes sense, dehumanization is an attack against the entire being, after all―mind, body and soul). If I put forth anger, I am met with an oppositional force that tries to explain why it is unjustified. If I put forth fear, I am met with the suggestion that I am delusional. If I put forth, say, pride, I am met with the charge that I am resentful, hateful even, of those who are not like me. If I put forth love, I am met with rhetorical praise but physical and emotional indifference. There is never any path for me to relay a message that is completely palatable on a massive scale. The consequence of being born into a system that oppresses you is the reality that there will always be a force acting against your progression in any context; it’s just there, like gravity. As such, and as with Newtonian Law, I am left only with the option of pushing harder, speaking louder and farther than our great social inertia: this is the learning from my living.
Sexuality plays a huge role in some of your poems. Particularly in “The Barbershop,” “Homophobia: The Fear of Sameness,” and “I Think I Know One When I See One,” there is a strong negative view, it seems, of homosexuality within certain cultural contexts. Where would you say that comes from?
Well, let’s get a little more specific in regards to your question. Given the content/context of the collection, we’re talking about intolerance within a larger Black, American body (politic) for the fluidity of sexual expression. I don’t have a causation to expound on here, but I do have a correlation, a theory that I’m speaking to by inviting this into the collection through certain poems: I find it unsurprising that one would find the instinct to marginalize within a population that is likewise being marginalized by the outside. Removing the influence of Abrahamic religious dogma, removing the impact of a larger American culture that is far from queer-friendly on the whole, I think the oft-discussed homophobia of the Black community and its hold to traditional gender roles is driven by the need of Black men to exert and affirm their humanity and power while living underneath a racist system that has and continues to emasculate them, and the way by which power (as Black people see it used against them) is expressed through the ability to control the freedoms of others to your advantage. This is at the core of masculinity and patriarchy―which speak first and foremost in the language of violence (which I’m speaking of as not exclusively physical in nature). This characteristic obviously cuts across race, cuts across class, and yes, even sexual orientation and gender identity. But within this collection of poems, we’re at least taking a peek at what consequences have arisen from a specific group of men not having full access to their male privilege due to racism, as the collection, taken in the whole across its three sections, is very much oriented by the Black hetero-maleness of its author. Toxic masculinity, coupled with racial oppression, I’m arguing through verse, contributes to the normalization of a toxic hypermasculinity that escalates violence further at the margins of an already marginalized group (and this can be extended to other communities as well, obviously). The adverse impact is that it makes organizing a collective racial resistance that much more difficult; it’s the society’s macro-design ensuring that it’s carried out in the places where that design most needs to be challenged. That seems to be in line, to me, with discussion of intersectionality, though I’m only beginning to understand the full weight of what that word means. Stated differently, I’m still uncovering and diagnosing all the ways I am both endangered and endanger others. I’m trying to make myself less of a weapon to be used against others and used against myself.
You use biblical imagery significantly throughout your poems. Why do you choose to integrate aspects of religious texts into your work, especially given the culture and the experiences you are speaking about?
I touched upon this somewhat in an earlier response, but I believe my incorporation of religious texts into the collection really ties back into the church being a cultivator of my fascination with the world. I was raised in a Black, Baptist church, and so its customs, its language, its imagery are second nature to me and color my lived experience, and will do so for the remainder of my life. In drawing from personal experience for at good amount of the content here, and in acknowledging the unique perspective I have of the world, there was no way some of that religious imagery and sentiment wouldn’t creep into the writing. Likewise, given the aims I have of connecting the contemporary and the historical across these poems, I thought it vitally important that I interrogate what role religion in general and Christianity in particular have played in the Black American experience. Religion (generally) has been savior to many in the Black community and also a sword wielded against us to all (Christianity, used to uphold racial subjugation). Thematically, I like the duality that presents, the reality it presents, actually. It reminds me that nothing is inherently good or evil, even the construct of organized religion. It reminds me there is a limit in importance or relevance of one’s “good” intentions. It reminds me we are all implicated when something is wrong; it makes me responsible, in part, for the well-being of others (which sounds ironically Christian in this discussion right now…) .
With the current threats being made to funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, a major funding source for many writers, how would you articulate poetry’s role in American society today?
I, like so many others, am deeply alarmed at the Trump Administration’s plans calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA makes it possible for many of the great works of art that we appreciate, and which compel us toward a more just and empathetic society, to exist; it provides organizations and individual artists through those organizations and beyond the financial flexibility to devote themselves to creation. The loss would be tremendous, and I believe these plans are being made in order to silence political opposition and critical thought, but art lives on because it must. Poetry lives on because it must. We appear to be heading into an increasingly oppressive era, not only in the United States, but across the globe; this is precisely when people are going to turn to art in general, and poetry in particular. Poets have always had a way of explaining the unexplainable, of mapping what we experience as human beings on a different plane that is just as real, if not more real, than any other. Poets never have more power than in a time of human crisis. Poets are never more sought out, never listened to more than in times of human crisis. And so, while we must fight to preserve visibility and vital financial support for the arts and for poetry we likewise must dedicate ourselves even more to craft and to creation. Even if we are not sure we can give anymore of ourselves to it, we must. Wounded, fatigued: we must. This is our moment. The world is counting on us even more than we already know, and it’s scary to have that sort of responsibility, but we’re capable. We are beyond capable.
for the innocents massacred at Mother Emmanuel AME Church
Nine confirmed dead: the blue backlighting
from the computer screen underscores their black faces
and the rows of teeth therein lit like vigil candles.
Tonight, genuflect seems the fool’s gambit —
I recite their names one by one in the shape of a circle,
but I don’t receive an acknowledgement in thunder
from above; I’m left only with the begging of two palms
pressed together and the proof it wasn’t enough.
My body, a stack of mirrors, falls through itself.
I am several nouns over the course of descent:
her silver whistle, her public library card,
his set of starter hair clippers humming
into the darkness with no plugs in a wall.
I crash through the grey of the matter, go
cleanly through the roof of the church without
making a hole tracing a curious sparrow,
but like a holy bird, I land softly on my feet.
All the expected ornaments are here, I see —
the stained-glass windows overlooking the pulpit,
and two paintings of Christ on the adjacent walls,
Crucifixion and Resurrection, and all nine
of their bodies on the ground, not quite cold.
I pick up an annotated student Bible, looking
for Jesus’ words for Lazarus, but struggle
because all the text inside is red, still fresh.
I move through the heart of the building, noting
the belongings that will house their ghosts.
Here are the church fans for Sunday service
next to her foot. Here is the sentimental wallet,
holding the pictures of two blossoming girls.
Here is a small wooden cross affixed to a ring
of keys that could open any of many doors.
Here, their scuffed glasses. His navy backpack,
his Chicago Bulls snapback, his black and red Sony
headphones, familiar-looking, looping lyric — Nina,
voice strained through wire, singing blood on the leaves
blood on the leaves, blood on the leaves, the bright
face of his jukebox glowing unattended:
Missed call: Tyrone.
Missed call: Torrence.
Missed call: Dominique.
Missed call: T.J.
I pick up all their many things
and lay them in a line at the altar.
I find cloth that had been reserved for clergy
and choir in a closet close by, draw them over
the six women and then the three men. I weep,
and I weep and I weep. And I ask the rhetorical
question why?, but this time, receive an answer:
I’m here to kill
black people, he says —
standing behind me. I sweat a bead of blue light.
The thunder enters the back of my head and exits
my mouth in a manner of prayer. I disperse
like a cloud split like lightning, charged electrically
by race: I’m erased. Surely. Completely. Gone.
Like I wasn’t even there
like I wasn’t
Cortney Lamar Charleston completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania and has earned fellowships from Cave Canem and The Conversation Literary Festival. His poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Journal, Pleiades, River Styx and many other publications. He is originally from Chicagoland and currently resides in Jersey City, NJ.
Blake Plimpton is a student of Eastern University and resident of the Philadelphia area. She writes poetry, never sleeps in, and hopes to study robots forever. After studying at the University of Oxford last spring, she is looking ahead to graduation while serving as the Editor-in-Chief of Inklings Literary Magazine.