Racial constructs and writing rituals: Conversing with Miles Hodges

I’m late for my second interview in a row. This time the interview is with MILES HODGES, one of my favourite poets, and a part of The Striver’s Row Collective. Yes, the very same Striver’s Row to which Safia Elhillo- a woman at whose altar I worship belongs. This is not the type of impression I want to make on a man who, should I throw enough hints at, might mention me to my idol; and although I’d like to blame my recent and very inconvenient foray into phonelessness or the fact that I live way out of town, I know that it is entirely my fault. I was doing all the wrong things before my interview: leisurely letting my sunscreen and shea butter combo set on my skin, doing everything BUT picking something decent to wear, and buffering dancehall videos on Youtube. I end up running a full hour late- three parts walking and two parts running into The Avani hotel flanked by my very irate editor; fingers, toes and braided tresses crossed that I haven’t missed a priceless opportunity.

I get to the poolside at Avani to find, to my relief, a very relaxed looking Miles with Zimbabwean Lyricist Synik, Miles doting a cigarette in one hand and a glass of white wine in the other. There’s ice in his glass of chilled wine, at once a pet peeve of mine and a welcome icebreaker. I begin to lecture him on putting ice in wine, he calls me bougie. We playfully go back and forth until we are certain that we are comfortable enough with each other to begin the interview. Miles is rakishly good looking. His demeanor is every bit the city which raised him- New York. He’s in an all black outfit, and what I assume to be a trucker cap (headgear is not my forte). His eyes are a colour- although I can’t exactly say which, but they look like a season between winter and spring settled in them- icy and lush at the same time. There are stretched out silences after every question I ask, followed by idiosyncratic hand gestures and slight head bobbing when he fervently gives me my answers. It is almost as if he is performing the answers the way he performs his poetry.

I know you’re a New York City Public Library Ambassador. I’ve always felt like libraries are a hub for information, culture, wisdom and imagination and that’s why we have an obligation to support them- even in a world that increasingly exists behind the screen of a tablet, or computer, or kindle. Is that why you took the position?

Great question, the New York Public Library is the second biggest library in the world. We have a hundred million dollar budget, 4 billion books in circulation. It is more a museum quite frankly, than a library. It is a museum that built and runs 94 libraries in New York City, and an institution that tends to fund art festivals much like the Maitisong Festival, in addition to other initiatives.

Unfortunately, it is an old institution- the people that founded it are the founding fathers of the USA. They asked me to take their brand and make it more accessible to younger people and to people around the country. So they have me creating festivals, and networking with my friends and my larger artistic network in NYC with the hope of making literature and art culture a cool, more colourful thing in NYC.

 

This past December you visited Riker’s Island (a piece of information I came across while reading the New York Times, who wrote about his involvement with the programme). Riker’s is a notorious prison; even down here, we hear about it often and there you are, performing your poetry for these prisoners and teaching what many would call “hardened criminals” how to write and perform poetry. Can you tell us a little more about that?

It wasn’t just one time. I have a residency, for the lack of a better word, at Riker’s. It is a large prison-THE prison of New York City which is the largest city in USA. It holds 10 000 men and women. I go there, I perform for, I make friends with men and women who spend all of their days locked up. Mass incarceration is a salient, if not the most urgent issue that the United States is dealing with. Four percent of the world population is in the United States, about 320 million people today; we have 25% of the world’s prison population- around 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated. 80% of them are people of colour. It is this disgusting “third rail” in our culture that people are afraid to talk about.

As far as my involvement goes, my art and my purpose in this world are to take my poetry and use it to change things. I could use my poetry in places that are cool like The Apollo or Kennedy Centre, or small bars, or I can use it to get sex, and that’s all great. Ideally, however, you need to think about what you’re saying and what your artistic medium is and how you can use that to change lives. That why I go to Riker’s; and I’m not the only one, either, there are other artists that are working with the prison, like John Legend.

 

So you do think that poetry can be a tool for rehabilitation?

Yes. Absolutely

You have been hosting creative workshops here, as part of the Maitisong Festival. Do you have a decontextualized approach to teaching? Is a workshop here the same as one you would teach at Riker’s?

I don’t think so, well….. in some ways, the situation is a lot different. One of the things that I have been embracing and can semi-relate to as well is that there is a sense of community here, people are down to be a part of conversations so it’s much easier to be at a private school in Botswana  teaching- the students are not in chains. For example in Riker’s you can only have a pencil this big **he measures around 5 centimetres with between his thumb and index finger** otherwise it can be turn into a weapon. So everybody has these small pencils is in uniform-jumpsuits in this vomit green colour. So the two are worlds apart, but the message is the same, it is about how you take your story and learning various ways to articulate it in a captivating way so that your story doesn’t get lost in the air. You often lose your right to vote or the rights to social benefits such as food stamps once you’ve been incarcerated, and for the most part people just say screw you. You are not allowed to become a functional member of society. I teach young women, and I teach grown men. I perform for grown men, in their 30’s – murderers and young women who have engaged in sex work, or murdered somebody. What we do is we find the good parts in their stories, and find ways of articulating it, so that when they get out, society can be able to listen to them so they have something to offer to the world.

 

Do you have any writing rituals?

**Miles guffaws**

Lord, I don’t know if mine are necessarily appropriate for an Afrolutionist interview. What I will say is that every writer has a certain type of ritual. Mine is different from a lot of writers such as Toni Morrison. She gets up every morning at 6am, puts on a full face of makeup gets dressed to the nines and takes an elevator and goes to the basement and create stories. That is her routine. Mine is not that, I kind of digest my day and create over time. I do think that that is wrong and should I want to be a writer for the rest of my life, I should get a more serious routine going- outside of smoking weed.

During your workshops in order to make everybody comfortable with sharing their poetry you mentioned how we all have secrets…

Do not ask what my secrets are!

I won’t as what your secrets are, because for the sake of fairness I might have to reveal mine; but I think when many people write because writing is a sort of catharsis, they often do put their secrets in their writing, which understandably can make someone scared to share their writing. That or the fear of revealing too much limits the extent to which they express themselves. Is there anything out there that you feel limits your expression for a performance or when you’re writing?

I’m an American, right? I think art is about getting to the core of who you are. What makes it difficult to perform? A whole bunch of things, I can’t even name one right now. But you’ve got to get over that. There’s nothing that makes it difficult for me to perform that is more important than the performance itself. With performance if you’re an artist, you have to believe that the performance is more needed and necessary than the obstacle. If you don’t believe that then you don’t believe in your artistry.

**During the interview my editor and I make a joke about how we are probably getting uncharacteristically great service because Miles- a white passing, mixed race man is sitting at our table**

A lot of the poems you have written, like “Maskless” or “15 Cracka-Nigga Thoughts On A Wednesday” are an exploration of your identity. You have a white mother and a black father; you grew up in Harlem, New York. In the United States, your identity is completely different from what it is here, where nobody would consider you black, although it is a delineation you’re more likely to fall into back home. Where have these explorations brought you to?

That’s an ongoing question. It’s my responsibility to know what it means to be in Africa with my phenotype; it totally shifts when I’m here. When I’m in Botswana I’m a white dude, but when I go to Johannesburg, I’m ‘coloured’. Race is one of the most influential and omnipresent constructs on planet earth. It comes down to how willing you are to engage with that as a discourse, or whether you don’t want to think about it, whether you want to exist in ignorance. Either is fine until one, which is the ignorance, pushes you into violence. No matter how many poems I write, I will never solve my racial identity crisis. Poetry does give an opportunity to work through that in an artistic lens. It also gives me an opportunity to put it down on page for people to criticize.

I wrote 15 Cracka-Nigga thoughts high, and I wrote it in 7 minutes, when I was 17/18. There are more stanzas in that poem than there are the minutes it took to write the thing. That does not represent what race means in my own mind. What race is in my mind is almost too large of a concept and almost too much because I didn’t get to the core of what it actually means.

Do I feel different here with you all? Do I feel like there is something that is something potentially preventing me from being a true part of the community? Yes, absolutely. But I also know everything that my father went through… to say that I’m 100% privileged because I am what most people would call white passing is false. Maybe that will change in 5 years, maybe I’ll write some BS song like Macklemore or LL Cool J about “one race”, or maybe I’ll write the opposite and be so confirmed in my blackness… I don’t know. What I think the poems are healthy for is that they give a holistic account of various points in my life. I’m an honest motherfucker at the end of the day, I’m not afraid to admit my privilege and I’m not afraid to champion my blackness. In the United States 200 years ago I wouldn’t have been able to vote. I would’ve been considered two fifths of a human being. Sixty years ago my parents wouldn’t have legally been allowed to have sex. So that history, those realities are a part of my experience for sure.

Poetry is the fluff of my experience. The real stuff is my experience.

I have been a keen diarist for the greater part of my life although for reasons that would take this interview on a completely different trajectory, I have stopped. Every time I read some of my old journals, however, I’m mortified at who I was- from my perspective to how I expressed myself. Do you ever feel that way with some of your work?

I just cringed at your mention of that very old poem (15 Cracka-Nigga Thoughts on A Wednesday). I mean, it’s stuff I wrote when I was stoned as a teenager. To me I don’t understand why those poems…  *he pauses, furrows his brows and sits up*….now that you’ve mentioned that poem I’m going to have to go online and delete all of those old poems.

You are well aware, as you have just mentioned it that you have a significant amount of fame. One of the places where I found some of your old poems is on www.genius.com . Your whole oeuvre is on that site, and people comment and talk about how you’re their favourite poet, or how your poems changed their lives. Do you ever get used to that. Has it shifted your way of being in any way?

*Chuckles* I’m actually questioning your taste if you say I’m your favourite. Fans asking for selfies and things to that effect I have become more familiar with, more so than someone telling me I changed their life. None of it bothers me, though. I like people, too. I love learning about people. It’s an important thing for me.

The end of our interview segued seamlessly into a conversation about life, his and ours, New York, hunting as sport, music (he chortled at the proclamation of my love for Spooky Black’s angsty R&B ) and everything in between. It felt as familiar as evenings I had often had with my own friends, sprawled across my favourite quilt under a starry sky in the garden, drinking generous amounts of wine and talking to and over each other.

 I didn’t want it to end, and instead of going home, I found myself packed into a Sedan with Miles, my editor,  Synik and a friend on our way to the  Thapong Visual Arts Centre where he was scheduled to perform that night. On our way there we all cracked jokes, there was banter,= coloured with a little coquetry as well as what I honestly believe to be the best acapella rendition of Chaka Demus and Pliers’ “Murder She Wrote”. Watching him perform for that crowd that night, a whole audience suspended in time, sucking in breath every time he delivered a powerful line, the realization of the honour that was that day finally settled in me