Praise, Even in Fallibility: A Conversation with Dexter L. Booth

By Douglas ManuelAugust 1, 2022

Praise, Even in Fallibility: A Conversation with Dexter L. Booth
DEXTER L. BOOTH IS a poet’s poet. For years, his work has challenged and delighted me, and I must keep it real and admit that at times I’m envious of his poems and low-key wish that I wrote them. He can just do so many things that I can’t do on the page. I’m envious of the way his poems leap and shift through time, tossing notions of linearity aside in favor of multiplicity and simultaneity. I’m envious of the way Booth’s sentences heed James Baldwin’s call to be clean as a bone. I’m envious of the way his long poems never bore me and instead reward me for continuing with them. From his first collection, Scratching the Ghost (Graywolf Press, 2013), which won the 2012 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was selected by Major Jackson, to his chapbook Rhapsody (Upper Rubber Boot Books, 2019), and now in his newest collection, Abracadabra, Sunshine (Red Hen Press, 2021), Booth’s poetry has always concerned itself with suffering and love, and how the human body, psyche, and soul responds to these phenomena. Knitted together with lyrical repetition that leads to revision and reimagining, the poems in Abracadabra, Sunshine not only display switchblade-sharp insight into the human condition, but also a writer at the top of his game.

Recently, I was blessed with the opportunity to speak with Booth about Abracadabra, Sunshine, his writing process, music, and his life in general during these trying times.


DOUGLAS MANUEL: Dexter, my dear homie, how you been?! You surviving and thriving? Thanks for agreeing to chat with me about Abracadabra, Sunshine. I am super digging it. You really did your thing with this. Much respect due! Thanks so much for writing it. First things first, can you talk a little bit about the role repetition plays in this book’s structure? More specifically, I’m thinking about how repeated lines oftentimes serve as transitions and crochet your longer poems together. I’m thinking about your recurring titles as well.

DEXTER L. BOOTH: Repetition offers transition but also an opportunity for recontextualization. Resetting. Meditation. Pondering. Each time a line or title is repeated, it hits differently. I think of the lines of some poems like elements in a still-life painting. They can be observed from various angles and still be the same objects, but each vantage point brings something unique into focus, highlighting an element that may not get as much attention if the perspective is shifted. For example, the line “They were just words” in the poem “Absent Love” is meant to function this way. So are the recurrent titles for poems like “Nothing in Reverse,” “Loneliness. Speak Through Me,” and “Pixel Sky.”

Sometimes the speaker of my poems repeats things because they want to believe repeating can make reality, repeating can will a thing into existence. Sometimes, it’s an attempt to embody a moment or belief, like when you put your new favorite song on repeat to learn and memorize the lyrics. I hope readers experience this as they read the book, particularly if they read it aloud.

There’s also an element of trying to find the right way to say things in situations where there often is no right thing to say. Beginning to speak, stalling, then beginning to speak again and each time finding a new way forward, a new path toward consolation, compassion, love, or hope. It’s ultimately an obsession that I believe acts rhythmically and metaphorically to guide readers into the mind of a speaker working their way through the difficulties of life.

Can you talk about the choice of working in the epistolary form so often? Did the form impose any challenges for your craft, and if so, how did you negotiate and handle these challenges? And conversely, how did this aesthetic move free you up and empower you?

I didn’t know when I began working on the poems that Abracadabra, Sunshine would be a collection of epistolary poems, so it wasn’t a choice, in that respect. For years I’ve resisted the idea of writing a project book — it felt too prescriptive and I enjoyed discovering the content, shape, and form of each individual poem through the writing process, along with the surprise of realizing you may be on to something when you’re 20 poems deep and notice a thematic, emotional, or formal thread between pieces. I wrote a lot of poems in the process of creating this collection. The majority weren’t epistolary (some of them went on to make up the Rhapsody chapbook) and most of them no one will ever see. I think “Body Garden” was the first completed poem in the book, and, like the rest of the poems, it came as the result of compulsion, a sudden bodily urge to acknowledge the complexity of a moment, a relationship, a person, an experience, to commemorate them. It wasn’t until I finished “The White Dwarfs” that it even occurred to me that I might have the beginnings of a manuscript and that it might be a series of letters.

When I read your work, I’m always deeply impressed by your vulnerability on the page. In Abracadabra, Sunshine, I was especially moved by the following from “Loneliness. Speak Through Me”: “Am I to say this heart skips like a gazelle, / or that loneliness taps its walking stick against my ribs?” I adore the simile here and the way images here are both kinetic and of the body. Will you please elaborate on the role vulnerability plays in your work, and why corporeal imagery finds its way into your work so often in the most surprising and engaging ways?

Aren’t we all vulnerable and corporeal beings? Our apartments, our hats, our shoes, though nuanced by societal influence, aren’t they meant to mask our vulnerabilities? We want to be protected from the elements, protected from the piercing gravel, from the feral hunger of nature, protected from the discomfort of inevitability. So often we shield ourselves, physically and emotionally, from each other, from ourselves. For me, being vulnerable is a practice of mindfulness and acknowledgment.

A blank page doesn’t judge you for mistakes you make on its surface. It doesn’t shame you for your predilections, your fears, your desires. It doesn’t dictate or police what you say or feel. It accepts and reflects. Nothing more. Sometimes a word is a hat. By this, I mean that I can protect or expose myself when I write, often in a way that conflicts with societal expectations. Tell a person to be vulnerable and you’ll likely notice an immediate anxiety. We worry about saying the wrong thing, about hurting others, about opening ourselves up to criticism or harm. We worry about mortality. We see it stalking in the field from the corner of our eyes, but what shame we feel if it sees us, what guilt. It always sees us.

I want my work to be accessible, yet challenging, particularly on an emotional level. If I drop my guard and walk to my reader exposed, it is my hope that they feel comfort in this and we can be open to the beauty of acknowledging our shared experiences. We all have bodies, and the limitations of these bodies find their way into my work as a form of praise — even in fallibility.

I guess the simple answer to your question is that, for me, vulnerability can lead to a necessary acceptance of the self and the self’s place in the world (both our physical world and the world of a poem). The corporeal imagery is just one manifestation of a host of reminders to accept, accept, accept.

I feel as though poets are hardly ever asked which poem in their collection is their favorite and/or the one that means the most to them. At least I know that people hardly ever ask me that. So yeah, my dear homie, can you please let me into your poetry kitchen and tell me which poem in this collection is your favorite/means the most to you and why?

That’s a great question! No one has ever asked me that, either. If I have to pick one, I would say it’s “The Lazarus Project,” in part because that was originally the title poem for the book and I held onto that for a long time. I changed it because there’s already a fantastic novel by Aleksandar Hemon with that title, but also because I felt it didn’t quite capture the nuance of the collection’s themes and concerns. However, it’s my favorite poem in the collection because it was a turning point in the writing process. It was the first poem where I allowed myself to have fun with the weighty subject matter I was tackling. That sounds crass, so I should clarify that I’m speaking of fun strictly in the generative sense, that to relay content in the poem in a manner that wasn’t overly sentimental I had to create layers of sound, imagery, and metaphor that were interesting and uplifting, or at least engaging enough for me to contend with the density of the poem. The title, of course, speaks to Lazarus of Bethany and his resurrection in the Bible. It’s also the name of a group of scientists in Australia who have been attempting to revive extinct animal species. The intellectual and spiritual weight of these two things gave me a lot of space to navigate the realities the poem addresses. I found real beauty in that.

Now, I get asked this one a lot, and I’m sure you do, too, but what poem in this collection was the most difficult for you to write and why?

“The Lazarus Project,” for sure, was the most emotionally difficult poem to write. Sometimes a poem gets stuck in my body, and I carry that energy around until I can figure out how to transmute it. It’s a process of purging, which isn’t always negative, but can be overwhelming. That’s why the poem ends with the line “don’t let it wreck you,” which took a long time to arrive at as a conclusion, but is a moment where the speaker is talking to themselves, the person the poem is dedicated to, as well as the reader. To me, all of the themes throughout the collection — love, hope, loss, mortality, morality, etc. — come to a head in that single poem.

All right, all right, enough poetry talk. Let’s talk about music for a hot bit. Since we last talked, I’ve still been almost exclusively bumping instrumental hip-hop beats. But, I’m also really starting to enjoy anything by The Budos Band and Menahan Street Band. What you been bumping and loving musically lately?

Lately, I’ve been returning to Ambrose Akinmusire’s catalog, particularly Origami Harvest and on the tender spot of every calloused moment. I like records, immersive experiences, rather than singles. I can’t keep up with all the new musicians and I find myself returning to albums that speak to me. I’ve been replaying Open Mike Eagle and Paul White’s Hella Personal Film Festival, Milo’s Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!, and L’Rain’s Fatigue. When I’m in an instrumental mood, I put on Mary Lattimore’s Hundreds of Days; Madlib’s new project Sound Ancestors; Promises by Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders and the London City Orchestra; as well as Kamasi Washington’s Heaven and Earth.

Okay, back to poetry and writing, what’s next for Dexter Booth? What new projects are you working on and excited about?

I’m currently working on a book of poems steeped in African and African American mythology and folklore, antebellum history, minstrel shows, and the traditions of early 1920s cartoons. The book is structured as a three-act minstrel show and is a reaction to the overlapping histories of Thomas Rice (considered the grandfather of minstrelsy), popular children’s animation’s stereotypes of Black people, and our current cultural zeitgeist.

I don’t have much to say about it since I’ve taken a bit of a break from writing during the pandemic and writing a project book like this has been quite a bit of emotional lifting. Things change all the time and the book might evolve into something else, so I’m making a point of staying quiet and letting the process guide me. I’ve also got some ideas for short stories and essays, but mostly, I’m reading, researching, and letting things simmer in the pot.

And finally, how has your writing and scholarly life been in these times of COVID, race wars, culture wars, economic woes, and climate crises? I know I’m mostly just editing older work, doing low-stakes writing like 10-minute free writes and daily journaling, and trying not to be too hard on myself. Are you managing to stay productive, busy, and healthy? How are you taking care of your personal and poetic life?

It’s an overwhelming time to be in a body, I’ll say that. I tend to absorb energy from the world and people around me and I can usually use that as fuel for writing, but it’s a bit much lately, so I’m taking time to fortify my spirit by reading. Mostly, I spend my time when I’m not working either meditating or exercising. Taking a lot of deep breaths and remembering to practice compassion. I’m doing a lot of listening and thinking. Like you, I’m editing some older work and making notes and trying not to be too hard on myself, but productivity is at a standstill, which maybe is necessary at this moment.


Douglas Manuel’s first collection of poems, Testify, won an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for poetry, and his poems and essays can be found in numerous literary journals, magazines, and websites, most recently ZyzzyvaPleiades, and the New Orleans Review.

LARB Contributor

Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana, and now resides in Long Beach, California. He received a BA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University, an MFA in poetry from Butler University, and a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. His first collection of poems, Testify, won an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for poetry, and his poems and essays can be found in numerous literary journals, magazines, and websites, most recently ZyzzyvaPleiades, and the New Orleans Review. He has traveled to Egypt and Eritrea with The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program to teach poetry. A recipient of the Dana Gioia Poetry Award and a fellowship from the Borchard Foundation Center on Literary Arts, he is a Bayard Rustin Fellow at Whittier College and teaches at Spalding University’s low-res MFA program.  


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