Bluesy Way of Life: A Conversation with Synnika Lofton




I HAD THE HONOR of interviewing award-winning poet Synnika Lofton. Lofton and I co-authored the poetry collection American Reverie, which was published by Thera Books on July 4, 2020. Raymond Luczak, author of A Babble of Objects (2018), has praised the collection, saying that “the musical dialogue on the pages of American Reverie pays homage to those lost to police harassment and violence. The poems in American Reverie offer us all a much-needed fresh reminder of what it means to be an American right now.”

It is in this spirit, and with the goal of sharing our love for righteous transformation and healing, that Synnika and I took on the project of creating a book, a living document, that we hope sheds light on what it means to stand tall in contemporary urban America. With American Reverie, we hoped to create a call-and-response structure, with each poem speaking to every other. And so, our words below — my questions for Synnika and his insightful responses — continue our musical dialogue, with an eye on the complexities of Black freedom and identity.

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DONNELLE MCGEE: What drew you to the call-and-response structure of American Reverie? Can you explain how the concept of the book originated?

SYNNIKA LOFTON: The concept for the collection originally happened shortly after the African American Visiting Writers Series in 2015, at Mission College. I thought it provided a great opportunity to collaborate with another talented poet. I was excited to see what type of manuscript we could produce, especially when combining our different voices and experiences. I believe you sent the first poem in May 2017. We started a really unique call and response that lasted for three years, up to the publication of American Reverie in 2020.

Many of the poems in the book create space for dialogue — for discussion and transformation. We both write about topics most writers shy away from, yet we always approach those topics compassion and a sense of the complexity of what it means to be human. Can you tell us how compassion informs your writing?

Compassion plays a huge role in the creative process, and approaching each poem with the same type of energy is the most difficult part. It’s hard to write about the struggles of living in America without a way of channeling the complex emotions and attitudes. Poetry is my refuge. Poetry is my sanctuary. Without acknowledging the journeys and experiences of others, we can’t move forward toward a common goal. I use poetry to tell my stories, as well as the stories of the voiceless.

Via your imagery and attention to history, the reader is given sharp glimpses of a people who are fragmented but also whole. We are reminded that police brutality, hatred, and racism will not halt truth. How do you approach the writing process when you know your words will take you to places you may not want to go?

The African American experience is a bluesy way of life. It offers times of beauty, misery, reflection, and self-discovery. The poem is my way of finding clarity. I commit myself to exploring a vulnerable state of existence. I find moments of peace and understanding, but I also give myself space to explore rage, violence, and civil disobedience. Allowing myself to be vulnerable to every human emotion has been a valuable resource in my writing. I think poets have to have the courage to be witnesses to changes in society and use that courage to offer loud critiques of society.

What do you see your role being as a writer in the world? And how, in your view, does American Reverie fit into the poetic canon?

I see myself as another loud, obnoxious oral bard who screams his poems into the world, hoping to leave experiences in the shape of words. Most of my poems are spoken-word recordings, so amplifying my voice has been the objective for the last 20 years. However, I never discount or minimize the power of books. They can start and continue narratives that last for generations. American Reverie is a tender collection of love and rage, empathy and identity, truth and compassion. I see it as a continuation of the Beat generation of the 1950s and the Black Arts generation of the 1960s. Every generation has to deal with its environment, politics, and shifts in culture. American Reverie attempts to wrestle with that reality.

Do you start each poem with a specific form in mind? Or do you let the story and images guide you? For example, how did you approach your powerful poem “Baby Girl Needs Me To Park”?

I really don’t have a particular form in mind when I approach each poem. I simply allow the poem to take shape as I’m writing it. That’s been my method for a long time now. The content, pace, and line length are all determined by how the poem naturally stretches down the page. Even the way some words form can change the presentation of the poem, allowing it to find its own rhythm and space. “Baby Girl Needs Me To Park” was literally a shift in perspective and content. Sometimes I get bogged down in certain themes, and I literally have to assess my intent before writing some poems. I wanted to change directions, so I made the experience less complex. Focusing on the moment helped me break away from a monotonous headspace. I tend to focus on family and everyday experiences when I want to step away from issues of social injustice, racism, politics, and oppression.

Your poems — and here I am thinking of “Dreamer” — never shy away from trauma, from those experiences that haunt the body. How do you approach trauma in your work? 

I honestly let the poem roar onto the page, and I quickly try to control its movement with light punctuation and line spacing. Sometimes the ideas and images appear in fragments. If I don’t give the reader/listener enough information, I may just use more space to give the reader’s mind time to adjust and reason. Ultimately, I just let this poetic wave continue until it crashes into “land” or just a period. “Dreamer” definitely has that effect. I intentionally play with the shifts in pacing, spaces between words/ideas, dashes, and lower-case letters. It’s all a part of how I approach the poem. Each poem is a different creature, so I just have to manage my expectations and control the chaos of creation.

American Reverie pays homage to those who have demanded change for Black people in America. Could you discuss the importance of referencing the words and sounds of people like Chuck D, Nina Simone, Sonia Sanchez, Chris Rock, Muhammad Ali, Colin Kaepernick, among others?

Poets, like all artists, are products of their environments. The Black experience in America has special roots. It’s a movement that forces you to acknowledge different people, different stories, and different strategies. Even though poetry is extremely subjective, the voices of others often play intriguing roles in crafting poems. I think acknowledging others’ unique perspectives reveals cultural context and shared experiences. 

What was your motivation for undertaking a collaborative effort, and what is your hope for how the book will find its place in the world?

Like a member of a band, sometimes I just want to get into the recording studio and play my instrument or record something from start to finish. That’s a rush, unlike any other. I do this quite frequently in my home recording studio, and when I want to be social, or if I want a challenge, I may call my brothers in Black Lion Insurgents, an indie hip-hop group I co-founded in Chesapeake, Virginia, and schedule time to record our latest songs. This gives me an opportunity to jump into the process of collaborating with others, since the act of writing poetry is such a subjective experience. American Reverie plays that role for me. It’s the equivalent of a friend saying, “I’m performing some poems at the coffee house down the street. Why don’t you stop by and read something?” It’s hard to refuse a good opportunity to perform or jam with friends.

What do you want readers to take away from their reading of American Reverie? 

I hope readers experience the complicated layers of Black freedom and identity. I hope they see the book and the current protests in the same way. Our experiences directly reflect the way we live our lives and the art and literature we produce. These poems reveal a specific love/rage that currently manifests in American life. This love/rage is responsible for the way we resist, raise our children, and conduct ourselves in public. Every act of civil disobedience and every act of righteous anger plays a role in the bluesy tradition that we honor, celebrate, and cultivate. American Reverie is more than a book — it’s a symbol that has the ability to entertain, inspire, and educate.

What will you create next?

I live on the edge of my creativity, so I’m constantly planning out the next projects. I recently released my latest spoken-word album, I, Resistance, and my EP State of the Union, Vol. 3. Both projects are available at my official website. I’m currently working on a new series of recordings called Vibes and Laps that combines spoken-word poetry and lo-fi hip-hop music.

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Donnelle McGee is the author of Ghost Man, a novel (Sibling Rivalry Press); Shine, a novella (Sibling Rivalry Press); and Naked, a collection of poetry (Unbound Content). He serves as the Lead Poetry Editor for Clockhouse.

 

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