Southern Identity, Poetry Education, and Horror: A Conversation with Christian J. Collier

Fierce, tender, and full of ghosts, Christian J. Collier’s debut collection, The Gleaming of the Blade, explores what it means to be a Black man in the South. The collection contains poems that expose the harsh truths of survival in places filled with hatred and violence:

Caution must be a second language kept        at all times                close like the fine hairs hunkered on the cape of the neck.

There is anger and grief, but there is also hope here:

Let us bow our heads & dream a life that loves us better.                         May it be gold-hued.

Christian J. Collier is a Black, Southern writer, arts organizer, and teaching artist who resides in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Grist Journal, and elsewhere. A 2015 Loft Spoken Word Immersion Fellow, he is also the winner of the 2020 ProForma Contest and the 2019-2020 Seven Hills Review Poetry Contest. The Gleaming of the Blade was named the 2021 Frost Place Competition Editors’ Selection.

We recently had the opportunity to email about this collection, Christian’s editing process, and his education work in Chattanooga.

What has been the most surprising or wonderful part of working on publishing this collection with Bull City? What was the process of choosing the cover art?

I think the most surprising and wonderful part is that the collection was published at all. I’d been working on the manuscript for years and it went through many incarnations. The fact that the one I submitted for the 2021 Frost Place Chapbook Competition got picked up by one of my dream presses was a very pleasant and wonderful surprise. It’s literally changed my life.

Do you have a favorite piece in the collection or a piece you don’t get to talk about as much as others?

I very rarely have a definitive anything. I always have favorites, but very rarely do I just have one absolute. “Quiet Storm” has become a favorite poem of mine. It was one of five or so pieces that ended up being added to the manuscript after it was accepted. I enjoy reading it to audiences and seeing their reactions. A lot of the poems in the chapbook can be read forwards and backwards, and whenever I read “Quiet Storm,” I read it both ways to kind of show the people listening that it works in that manner.

Could you talk about the difference between writing and shaping poetry for the stage versus the page? Is it a different experience to read from your chapbook than to perform?

Sure. I think the goals are the same for poems that work on stages and those that largely live on the page. The objective is to impact the person on the other side of the poem. In my opinion, the biggest factor with both is time. In a slam or open-mic, there’s a good chance that that’ll be the only time a certain number of people will encounter that poem, and they’re only going to be hearing it. An audience doesn’t have the luxury of going back over the poem, so there are certain things that mostly have to be in place so it can be received in one listen. A poem on the page can do some different things, take some different risks, etc., because a reader can return to it, see the text, the container it’s in, etc.

It’s not really a different experience for me to read from the book. For the most part, whenever I’ve done long sets, I’ve always incorporated poems on the page, too. Also, my objective has always been the same when I approach a reading or opportunity to be in front of an audience, and that’s to keep them engaged from the beginning to the end. Whether I have a book in my hands or not, that goal remains the same.

“Candace” (one of my favorite pieces) seems to be an evolution of a poem called “Acceptance” you performed for your TEDxChattanooga talk, among other performances. What was your editing process like? Do you feel that a piece is ever completely finished?

Good catch! I do think a piece can be finished, but I also think a finished piece or a part of it can have more to say. In 2019, I got really into the artist Mark Bradford and the way he works. He’ll build a piece up, then strip things from it, tear it apart, and build it up again, then tear more of it apart, and when he’s finished, you get these really interesting, beautiful, textured works of art. I saw that and had an epiphany. It dawned on me that, if text is the medium I’m using, then all text I produce and encounter is malleable, and that realization gave me so much permission to take poems I’ve finished and gut them, reshape them, take lines from them and recontextualize them, etc. It’s opened so many doors for me.

Around the time I had this epiphany, I was either starting to or about to start taking the manuscript apart again. I don’t really like just editing one piece in a collection, because once you do, you’ve changed what that poem is saying and what it’s potentially saying to the others, so I always dive back in and rework everything. This gave me a different approach to use with the poems.

“Acceptance” had been in the manuscript for years, but I wanted to see if I could strengthen it some and deepen what it had to say. I feel like I was able to open the poem up more, and I think it’s a more interesting piece now.

I attended a reading years ago on the bottom floor of Starline Books when you talked a lot about monsters, and it’s stuck with me since then. There are two poems in this collection, “Candyman Blues,” about the Candyman story, and “Elegy for Julius Gaw,” about the character from Friday the 13th. What draws you to “monsters” and the horror genre?

I love this question. I think, when horror is most effective, it has something to say about us as a society. My brother introduced me to horror when I was a child, and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed, but only started to seriously interrogate within the past four or so years.

In order for horror to work, it has to exist within a confined space. Once you’re aware of that, you can use that same lens and apply it to the real world. To me, it’s always worthwhile to explore what truly scares people. It’s also fascinating to examine why people have the fears they do and to consider if those fears are rational or not.

In your recent Electric Literature interview, you talked about blocking out the identities of the folks in “When My Days Fill with Ghosts” because those people weren’t able to consent to being in the poem. This can be a difficult issue for anyone writing about loved ones. How do you consider the concept of consent in your poems beyond folks that have died? Have you had to have difficult conversations with folks you wanted to include in your work?

Consent is something I’ve thought a lot about for a long time, and I consider it regarding the living and the dead. Both appear in that particular poem, so using the redacted blocks allows me to still maintain some privacy for the subjects, but it also grants the reader the chance to fill in some of those blanks for themselves.

I think, primarily in my work over the past few years, I’ve been interested in honoring the people I love. Even with that aspiration, it can be uncomfortable for the people you’re writing about or, if you’re writing about someone who has passed, the living who cared about that person, to see certain things.

I have had to have some difficult conversations. Thankfully, there haven’t been many. There’s a poem in the chapbook that briefly mentions someone, and when that poem was published a few years ago, it made that person uncomfortable. We had to have a talk about intention and what was happening in the piece, and once that was out of the way, they felt much better. It’s always sensitive territory though, and I try to navigate it in the most respectful way I can.

The South is problematic in a lot of ways that have been especially clear over the last couple of years, but there’s also so much to love. What does it mean to you to be Southern, and what do you most love about the South?

For me, to be Southern means a lot of things. I feel like there’s a certain obligation to carry the people, stories, etc. that have made me with me. I’ve been interested the past couple of years in bringing people, places I’ve known, and more into my work, and I think that’s a gesture of love and documentation. I feel like that is a pretty Southern aesthetic.

As far as what I love about the South, that’s a long answer. I love the cuisine, particularly the seafood in different parts of the region. The music of the South is something I enjoy a great deal. So many of my biggest inspirations and influences were made and molded in the South, too.

Tell me more about your education programs, like MANIFEST Voices and The Plug Poetry Project – what do you love most about teaching people about poetry?

I was in Boston in 2015. I’d just won a slam up there and was in my Uber heading back to my hotel when I started thinking about all the good fortune poetry has granted me. I thought that if I had the opportunity to travel back in time and do something to help fifteen-year-old me, what would I do? MANIFEST Voices and all of my programs since have emerged from that questioning.

I developed a curriculum for teens to give them a foundation in terms of reading poetry, analyzing poems, writing effective poems, bringing them to life in front of an audience, etc. and called the program MANIFEST Voices. I ran it from 2016 until 2019. I made the decision to take a break to spend the summer of 2020 on my manuscripts, and little did I know that the world would change, so the program has been on hiatus since, but I would like to bring it back later this year or next.

The Plug Poetry Project began as a docuseries where I was working to feature local writers. While I was developing that, I had the opportunity to start a reading series where I would bring a writer to town to workshop with the local community and then give a featured reading. I brought Julian Randall, Jericho Brown, and Jose Olivarez before the pandemic began.

Since the pandemic hit, I pivoted and used The Plug to provide submission opportunities for journals, contests, prizes, etc., workshops and virtual seminars, and more. I also started hosting a regular virtual open-mic. That’s given us the opportunity to remain in community with one another, and to share work and support one another.

What are you reading and/or listening to right now?

I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts that I enjoy. I really like Snap Judgment and Spooked. My editors from Bull City have a podcast called The Chapbook which is great. I’ve also been on a kick lately of listening to any and everything Kiese Laymon is on. I really feel like my work, even beyond the chapbook, is in conversation with him and his work.

It was great to chat with Christian, and you can find a playlist for his collection on Spotify.

The Gleaming of the Blade
By Christian J. Collier
Bull City Press
Published February 22, 2022