Hip Hop Poetry with Adam Day

Adam Day’s forthcoming collection is Model of a City in Civil War (Sarabande Books, April 2015), and he is the recipient of a PSA Chapbook Fellowship for Badger, Apocrypha, and of a PEN Emerging Writers Award. His work has appeared in the Boston Review, Lana Turner, APR, Poetry London, AGNI, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. He coordinates The Baltic Writing Residency in Sweden, Scotland, and Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest. Rachel Barton, a member of the Roanoke Review reading staff, speaks with Adam below. 


In your poem “Weezy, Down-Low” you exchange feminine pronouns for masculine pronouns in popular Lil Wayne rap lyrics. Why did you recreate the lyrics in this particular way? 

I both love hip hop and am fully cognizant of the misogyny rotted in much of it, so I wanted to write a poem that was as playful as Luke Skyywalker, Wayne, Angel Haze, ODB, or Slim Thug are, but also satirize that misogyny by keeping the highly sexualized language, but tweaking the voice from a cisgender/cisnormative approach to one that is broadly queer. This isn’t to say that this switch makes the way in which the speaker addresses the other any less problematic, but it does add some nuance to what is either taken for granted (the prominence of misogyny in hip hop), or dismissed altogether (hip hop, in general, because of its tendency toward misogyny). I have written often from the position of the queer perspective. Which speaks to my own queer tendencies, however minimal, and my support and respect for members of the LGBTQ community, as well as an attempt at empathy and understanding. Though, there is often a thin line between attempts at empathy or understanding and cultural appropriation.  

I really like the way you use popular music to play with themes of love and desire in this poem. What role does love, desire, and media play in your writing? 

Well, that’s a big question. What comes to mind are two things. The first is a series of what I’ve called Mock Centos where I took the language of sexuality and copulation directly from texts by Franzen, Updike, Styron, Puzzo, Henry Miller, Mailer, DeLillo, and Roth and funneled it into poems that work parodically, pointing out not so much the misogyny of the language, though that misogynistic language is certainly present, but to illuminate the very absurdity, ridiculousness and sad hilarity of such writing. In the “Weezy” poem, Wayne is portrayed as queer/bisexual/bicurious; in the Mock Centos the speaker is usually a woman speaking to a male the words of the above male novelists. I think I’m in danger of sounding, or making the poems sound, hyper-PC or polemical, but I think all of the “politics” are buried deep enough in the imagery, language, humor, flow, &c. of the poems, so as to avoid any such heavy-handedness, instead foregrounding enjoyment of the poem and its playfulness.  

The second thing that comes to mind are a broad bunch of poems I wrote in indirect response to reading The Letters of Samuel Beckett just after the end of a very long relationship, and I found myself writing unconventional narrative or non-narrative poems in which the speaker is hard to pin to the author, and which gesture at themes and ideas rather than addressing them by way of the direct or directly symbolic rhetoric of the concrete, linear poem. Beckett’s own strange, visceral, darkly humorous writing about loss of various kinds sparked my thinking about loss, which is, of course, inseparable from desire.  

I don’t tend to write if I’m not consuming film/theatre, music, or writing. Though, I rarely write in reaction to poetry. It’s usually fiction, nonfiction, or film that gets me writing. Contemporary and late-modern literary prose in translation is massively important to my writing and thinking, including Jakov Lind, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Camilo José Cela, Georgi Gospodinov, Mikhail Bulgakov, &c. Open Letter, Dalkey Archive, New Directions, New York Review of Books Press, Yale University Press, Archipelago Books, and Melville House are some very good presses for modern and contemporary fiction in translation. And film from people like Fassbinder, Wong Kar-wai, Truffaut, Tarkovsky, Loach, Goddard, Buñuel, Almodóvar, Antonioni, Cassavetes, have been wildly invaluable to my writing, both the content and the form of it. 

Lil Wayne lyrics are not an obvious source of inspiration for most poets. What about rap music inspired you to write this piece? 

I’ve spoken/written about this elsewhere. But, I identified early on with both the “barely getting by,” and the socio-political, ethos of the music. I grew up in a part of Louisville that was relatively run-down, had a low-education rate and a substantial jobless/quasi-jobless population, but otherwise was very working class—picture mullets and corn rows, professional wrestling, Quiet Riot and Public Enemy, Trans Ams and draped up Cutlasses—with the requisite trailer park up the street, and where there were some gangs. My neighbors belonged to one. And I’d see or hear about fights involving table legs, bike chains, pool balls in tube socks.  

Some of that was racial violence, though most of it wasn’t. One of my aunts and her sons lived in some projects a few blocks from our house, and those were the most racially diverse place you could find in that area of town. Though it was an area that also attracted a lot of immigrants new to the States—Vietnamese, Laotians, then Central Americans (many escaping U.S. proxy wars: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, &c.), then people from the former Yugoslavia, then Sudan – you get the idea. It was more of a simmering to boiling pot than a melting pot, I guess. Walking home from the bus stop was often an “adventure.” 

As I got older—by middle school (about 1989)—I was skateboarding and going to local (punk and hardcore) shows, two things that went hand-in-hand, and listening to a lot of hip hop: N.W.A., Eric B and Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, X Clan, Geto Boys. This was crucial for me, this time—I became so aware of social issues and politics through both genres of music. In addition to those rap artists I was listening to punk/hardcore bands like Born Against, Minor Threat, Big Black, Operation Ivy, Bad Brains—that spoke to sexual violence, U.S. intervention abroad, racism, the monotony of a certain kind of adult/domestic life, poverty, corporate exploitation of the workers and the environment, &c. 

Anyway, the common theme throughout all I’ve said is, primarily, financial disadvantage. You got low-income kids, with parents who are frustrated because they can’t pay the bills or afford their families the lives they wish they could, and that frustration gets taken out on their kids or is simply present for their kids to stew in; and because their parents are also working their asses off and/or are under-educated, and because their local schools blow (as is common in low-income areas), their kids are largely mentally unengaged and bored, and all of that frustration and anger is going to find an outlet somewhere: whether it’s through starting a band, finding a cause, dealing, moving to California to turn pro with Blind, beating the crap out of someone, or becoming a poet. 

What was your writing process for “Weezy, Down-Low”? How did you go about finding the lyrics, deciding how to arrange them, and detailing the final piece?  

I know the tracks I utilized by heart, basically, so I just cherry-picked the lines and phrases I wanted to use and then shaped a kind of narrative poetic monologue. Detailing the final piece basically just involved discarding phrases that were too over the top.  

You coordinate The Baltic Writing Residency in Sweden, Scotland, and Bernheim Forest in Kentucky. Tell us a bit about this residency program and why you got involved with writing residencies. 

The Baltic Writing Residency was co-founded in 2008 by myself and attorney, Aleks Karlsons. Though, born and raised in the States (San Francisco, primarily), Aleks is of direct Latvian descent (my understanding is that his parents were born and raised there), and his family had some properties in Latvia. One of them is a luxury, boutique hotel: Hotel Bergs, in Riga’s Old Town. Our mutual friend, Ellie Schilling, and I approached Aleks about donating a room once each year for a month to a visiting writer, and he agreed immediately.  

Our main goal was and is to ‘nurture the literary arts by offering talented writers—both emerging and established—a comfortable and rich cultural environment in which to immerse themselves, and a substantial amount of time in which to begin or further significant projects.’ 

The residencies focus on offering time and a special cultural environment for both emerging and established writers all over the world. Each year, one writer is offered a month-long residency in Stockholm, Sweden (though we started out in Riga, Latvia); another writer is offered a week-long residency at a historic croft cottage in Brora, Scotland; and another writer is offered one to three months at Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest, just outside of Louisville.  

I think it’s hardest to write when one is too close to things. More often than not it seems that the mental, creative context for writing is created by being able to step back from life. I often feel, as I’ve heard others say too, that the plain old every day is just right in your face, all the time. Not to state the obvious, but getting some distance is just enormous, not that a residency is necessary to do that, but of course, a residency certainly doesn’t hurt. And I think going abroad or simply finding oneself in a situation that is not one’s norm—going from Manhattan to Montauk—or just going for a damn run, can provide a lot of material for writing, in addition to providing that context.  

As the Sweden residency goes, in specific, it’s different in that there just aren’t that many writing residencies in Europe outside of the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Also, we specifically urge our residents to spend their time abroad experiencing the place, the people and the culture, rather than battening down in their room and writing endlessly. We hope that they’ll take a deep and broad range of experiences home with them, and make writing out of those experiences, rather than miss out on being in unique spaces.  

The committee of judges of The Baltic Writing Residency is composed of one member of the English Department of Harvard University, one poet of recognized standing, and one fiction writer of recognized standing. Even in America, the writing community is small enough that it behooves everyone, ethically, and otherwise, to keep the judges anonymous (other than in the case of the chapbook competition). Our judges read across genres. We like it that way. I don’t believe in mono-genre readers.  

I’m a big rap music fan myself—what are some of your favorite rap artists and songs? 

Recently I’ve been listening most to Earl Sweatshirt, Bun B., Danny Brown, Ghostface, Big K.R.I.T., MF Doom, Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, Run the Jewels, Flying Lotus, Vince Staples, Slim Thug, Killer Mike, Jay Electronica, Big L, Z-Ro, Chamillionaire, Three 6 Mafia, Schoolboy Q, Young Thug… 

What are you currently working on? 

I just completed, a couple of months ago, a book-length poem that is deeply concerned with the lives and locations connected to the recent years of turmoil in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, it is also very much a poem rooted in America. It is titled The Great Game (chosen tongue-in-cheek because it is also a phrase used to describe the battle between the British and Russian Empires over Afghanistan, Persia, and beyond, from the early 1800s to the early 1900s, and was derived from a Rudyard Kipling novel). The poem utilizes the style of a series of travel articles that regularly appears in the New York Times called: “36 Hours in ______.” Over that template is written a complication of that article’s context: portraying contemporary Iraq and Afghanistan with all of the excitement, detail and “glamour” that is traditionally used in those articles to portray Miami, Milan, Dubai, Bangok, or Buenos Aries. The poem is spoken in 5 registers. 

As a young creative writer, I often wonder what writers wish they knew about writing as a 20 or 21 year old. What would you tell a younger version of yourself? 

First, if you’re still writing the same basic kinds of poems or fiction at 32 that you were writing at 25 then you need to punch yourself in the face. My work has evolved, for better or worse, and I’m happy for that. But I know so many writers who seem either terrified of, or incapable of, evolving as writers – their work exists as replication, largely. It’s something we’re all in danger of. And that’s where I think consuming art, film, news, human interaction, diverse writing (in genre, aesthetic, content, style, &c.) is so key. Those things can have real power to tilt our view, catalyze change. I had a professor who once argued that Glück is inherently a greater poet (whatever “greater” means) than Hass, specifically because, as he argued it, her work had remained consistent in its style and concerns across her career, while Hass had ranged here and there, experimenting with different style and content. I can’t think of anything much more idiotic than prizing a writer for their capacity for stasis.  

Beyond that, I would tell a younger version of myself that the average age of debut publication is between 32 and 35 years of age (or about 7 – 10 years after one generally completes their MFA, regardless of age); thus: what will one do with oneself for those 7 – 10 years while they write, so that they might do better than just get by, so that they might not be frustrated or miserable while trying to write? This of course, doesn’t take into account that even once a writer has published a book, publication in no way guarantees obtaining a job: i.e. a tenure-track professorship, and that if publication does lead to a job, it seems to take 2 – 3 years after the signing of a publication contract/actual publication to obtain such a job. So, now: what will one do with oneself for 9 – 13 years to earn an income that is more than adjunct pay (24K – 32K per school year (with no benefits), if teaching 4 courses a semester (pay which is equivalent to entry-level income in most fields), to be happy while earning an income? 

In turn, I would tell a younger version of myself that the MFA experience is invaluable, at least mine was, but that if you have a passion in addition to writing—especially one that might coexist with a good job market and/or a an income beyond that of the average adjunct—then you should, very soon after completion of your MFA, pursue a graduate degree in that other field. For instance, I’ve always been extremely compelled by the idea of working as a therapist (there are three in my immediate family), and I am passionate and have been active, on and off throughout my life so far, in advocating for individuals and groups, like migrant farmworkers, for instance. My younger self would have earned a Psy.D. or MSW and become a psychologist or therapist. Fields which, incidentally, would not only not prevent one from writing, but might in fact feed one’s writing. I can only imagine how constricted American poetry (and prose) have been by having so very many of our writers working in academia. There’s nothing wrong with academia, especially if teaching and/or scholarship is your passion. But, I do think American writing would be richer if we had more writers or alum of MFA programs working in medicine, studio arts, engineering, security, industry, not for profit management, politics, over-the-road trucking, &c. I’m thinking not just how a greater variety of life and work experience might enrich writing, in general, not thinking just of the content it might provide for writing, but of the diversity of worldview and conceptions of form it might inform.