Concerning Craft: Alan King and His Sources of Inspiration

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and shares some insights on writing well. Our latest comes from Alan King, who writes that his “creative process” is a “meditative one.” “Poetry still asks me to prove myself, to take it to the next level,” King reflects, and he makes that push in part by “pull[ing] inspiration from two contemporary poets,” Patricia Smith and Tim Seibles, a.k.a. (to King) as Rogue and Iceman.

King’s poem “The Journey” appeared in LPR’s Winter 2018 issue. (In the video above, King reads his poem at LPR’s issue launch.) He is the author of Point Blank (Silver Birch Press, 2016) and Drift (Willow Books, 2012). A Caribbean American whose parents emigrated from Trinidad and Tobago to the U.S. in the 1970s, he is a husband, father, and communications professional. He is a Cave Canem graduate fellow and holds an MFA in creative writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine. King is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee.

Two weeks ago, I read at the Oliver’s Carriage House in Columbia, Maryland. I was among the contributors helping to launch Little Patuxent Review‘s Winter Issue.

It’s exciting when the list of contributors for a publication I’m in is a reunion of sorts. The reading was no different.

I enjoyed rocking the mic podium with the Black Ladies Brunch Collective. I also got my first face-to-face meeting with folks, who until that moment, I only knew on Twitter and Facebook.

After the reading, thumbing through the pages, I smiled at the Editor’s Note:

“I’d even go so far as to say that poems, stories, and essays” – LPR’s Editor Steven Leyva writes – “when paired with the striking iconography of various visual arts, form an aegis against ‘a boogeyman’s appetite for innocent things.’”

The “boogeyman” quote is a nod to my poem, “The Journey,” which appears in LPR’s latest issue.

The poem, which I started writing in 2015, resulted from a trip my wife and I took to Berlin, Maryland.

My creative process, lately, has been a meditative one.

When the impulse hits and the words come, I keep myself open for how the poem wants to guide me.  (My poems usually come to me as a series of images from recounted experiences.)

My wife knows that trance-like look: me staring off somewhere. In those moments, my mind is a planchette the poem moves along the ouija board of possibilities.

The experience was no different for the “The Journey.”  The piece speaks for itself, so I won’t go into the inspiration behind it.

But that look! When my wife sees it, she knows to give me space while the poem and I work some things out.

I’m often surprised at where the poem takes me, which is good since that means it won’t be predictable to the reader.

To Steven’s point about art creating an aegis against any kind of injustice, I couldn’t agree more. The protection comes from the artist calling out oppressive forces in their work.

And I do that in my latest collection POINT BLANK, which started out as my thesis in the Stonecoast MFA program.

The narrative poems explore various black male archetypes resulting from racism, classism, and related economic disparities. These poems show the archetypes’ humanity in a way that invites the reader to reconsider what s/he thought s/he knew.

It’s my hope that POINT BLANK speaks to injustices committed by or against people left in the margins. I’m grateful to my mentors, Joy Harjo and Tim Seibles, who helped me get the collection to its current state.

I’m also grateful for my fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Garrison. She assigned us poems that we had to memorize and recite back to her.

I didn’t appreciate that then because of the consequences. If you couldn’t recite the poem from memory, you spent your recess on the wall, watching your friends have fun.

That was my introduction to poetry.

If you asked me then what I thought of it, I would’ve told you he was no friend of mine.

I would’ve also said he was the kid the teachers never caught picking on his classmates. He was the kid who got everyone in trouble.

I’d learn later that he was misunderstood, and only did what he did for attention. After a few more encounters — in middle school, high school and college — we became friends.

While I’m a long way from that nervous fourth grader, poetry still asks me to prove myself, to take it to the next level.

To do that, I pull inspiration from two contemporary poets. If they were X-Men, Patricia Smith would be Rogue, Tim Seibles would be Iceman.

Contemporary American Poetry is the Westchester mansion where they hone their powers for the betterment of humanity. But Patricia and Tim aren’t mere poets. Their mutant-like abilities set them apart from others in that camp.

Rogue can absorb psyches and abilities of individuals or several beings at once. In Patricia’s case, she takes several poetic forms — like the villanelle and sestina — and spins them on their heads with ease. As if the sestina wasn’t complicated enough, Patricia doesn’t break a sweat executing the double sestina challenge.

Every time I read her work, I’m inspired to push myself harder in the craft. “While she writes from the ‘I,’ she writes selflessly so,” according to the Book of Voices, an online library of poetry in spoken word, performance and text.

Like Rogue, Patricia also absorbs and reflects anyone’s memories, knowledge, talents, personality and other abilities in her own poems. “The audience is free to step into her shoes as they will, trying on her point of view as her writing slips into the identities of others,” the Website states. Those muscular poems seem to breathe, sing and dance on their own while possessing an “enlightened, worldly political conscience” I wish I could accomplish in my own writing.

Sometimes I catch my poems trying to be as cool as Tim “the Iceman” Seibles. Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in Hurdy Gurdy, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, titled “For Brothers Everywhere,” Tim compared the streetballers to “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.”

Every poem I’ve written since fell flat at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” poet Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are as slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.

Tim’s work also has a “streetwise” lyricism that gives his poems a conversational tone. It’s that same lyricism in my own work that puts my poems in conversation with his. My poem, “The Sweet Urge,” was an unsuccessful attempt at mirroring the intensity in some of Tim’s poems.

Another technique I’ve borrowed from Tim is humor.

“It’s important to weave really substantive issues into poems that have pronounced humor in them,” Tim wrote to me in a December 2006 email. “It catches people off-guard, so they really hear something before they can go into the ‘denial zone.’”

When I’m not writing poems, my wife pushes me to complete my other projects.

That includes me developing a business plan and starting a communications firm. The mission includes helping authors with video services, media outreach and more.

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