43.1 Feature: An Interview with Kamden Hilliard
Kamden Hilliard resists colonization. He’s got good vibes from The Ucross Foundation, Callaloo, and The Davidson Institute. Kamden prefers Kam and is an editor at Jellyfish Magazine. His first chapbook, distress tolerance, is forthcoming from Magic Helicopter Press. Find Kam’s work in The Atlas Review, Heavy Feather Review, Redivider, Word Riot, and other sunspots. He has no chill and wonders if you’ve got some to spare.
Interview by SHELLEY FELLER
Black Warrior Review: The first thing I noticed about “Many Men Make” is the title, which evokes—perhaps invokes, 50 Cent’s song “Many Men,” and especially its chorus: “Many men wish death upon me / Lord I don’t cry no more / Don’t look to the sky no more / Have mercy on me.” Repeated throughout the poem, the phrase, “many men,” becomes a sort of refrain, performing with each unique iteration an impressive range of expression for such a compact poem. What was the impetus behind this allusion, and how did it come to be a central axis around which the poem torques?
Kamden Hilliard: this poem started as a challenge. i don’t do really do compact work. i spend enuf time wrestling the desire to be compact, to accommodate the comfort of white folx. however, i’m realizing that there’s such power within the springy clip of compression. think topping from the bottom. think power bottoming. think bottoming. i wondered how to compose lines that occupied the mind by virtue of their terseness. not size, but sway. i wondered how i could lavish in the act of squishing myself against the walls of my own poem—how could i grant myself power while gazing toward whiteness?
i generally make longer, whitmanesque, manic work—fat on crashing syntax. so this poem was a departure. i figured, if i could strip this poem down to the bone– really interrogate its supposed needs—i could make something unique and i think i did.
this all seems like the long winded way of saying while i do love my boy, 50, he’s not quite the impetus of this poem. the germ of this poem, outside the petty motivations of content, was really dear ol’ Tom Cruise. for some reason, months of a particularly consuming sadness ended with a viewing of Tom Cruise’s A Few Good Men. so i figured i owed his abstraction one and set out to watch every film he ever made. this path took me right to the heart of darkness—Risky Business. there’s a scene which offers the viewer Tom Cruise in these tiny little cutoff jean shorts—fap fodder for weeks. but desire is a complicated motherfucker. it’s hard to want when your wanting is, in part, a product of colonization (white men, desire, etc.) so i think this poem came out of a desire to complicate my own petty desire.
50 showed up late but he showed up with a six pack, ya know? the track itself gave me the necessary linguistic punch to connect desire and media and gaze and whiteness and blackness. he also allowed me to access another kind of desire—go check out the cover of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ lol. you’re welcome.
BWR: The poem goes on to make a few more allusions, including the Million Man (and Woman) March, Tom Cruise in Risky Business, Tyra Banks’s infamous “smize,” Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and probably others I’m not aware of. And all of this is done so compactly and fluidly. I’m wondering, how do you approach using/fusing history, literature, pop culture, etc. in your work?
KH: it’s all data, ya know? i had the fortune of studying at Sarah Lawrence College for the majority of my undergraduate career and when i think of my approach to cultivation and craft—it really did spring from work in American Studies (something between lit, econ, nationhood, idk). it’s all intersectional. it’s all interdisciplinary. like, 50 Cent and Tom Cruise in Risky Business aren’t hella disparate after all. “Many Men” comes off of 50’s seminal Get Rich or Die Tryin’, an album which engages, amongst other tropes, the wish, the intense desire to live. Cruise’s shitty lil’ character in Risky Business is engaged in a similar, yet pettier pursuit. he wishes to live a fulfilled life. he wants Princeton not The U of I. yet, i, painfully, i get that. my malaise is petty on the world wide scale of trauma. i’m a bit too Revolutionary Road for my own good (thx, dream of ascension). class is real and it’s intersectional. i went to a prep school then on to SLC and while money don’t stop bullets, it’s afforded me the language to advocate for myself. class, for me, is my telephone voice or my dislike of Kraft cheese. it’s gross-uncomfy to discuss, but as an upper-middle-class black body my sensitivity to violences sometimes align me to petty, embarrasing forms of pain—like the anxiety of college admissions.
this is all to say that living requires many tongues. language is a way to obfuscate, to survive, to impress, and to keep safe. different languages come with their own strange lil’ associations. my learned brain hears “many men” and pushes toward whitman’s 29th bather. other brains consider 50 Cent or Ellison or Tyra or—the only allusion you missed, i think—maybelline.
it’s about who is allowed to relate to what and how they’re permitted to do so. who is allowed to gaze queerly? who is allowed to queer? who can gaze? who can love white men and who can love white men only to hate themselves? i’ve been struggling recently with how it means to let oneself experience desire. desire is a shitty thing. desire will have one’s ass disavow politic, ignore the self, and offer multiple avenues to regret—if there’s a reason to be complicated with desire. dissonance helps with this. there’s a tweet that exists in multiple iterations— “decolonizing in the streets / white dick in the sheets,” and it’s funny / uncomfy because it’s hella accurate! as much as we all’d like to be killin’ the responsible politic 24/7, it doesn’t always happen. sometimes you watch a rando Tom Cruise flick and there his lithe ass stand—those goddamn cutoff jorts.
BWR: Your poetry in general is formally quick-footed and linguistically playful in a way that feels improvisational, hitting multiple registers in single lines and even words. I’m interested in how you do this—could you speak a little about your process?
KH: poetry operates in units, lines, dick jokes, clauses, phrases, colors, sentences, metrics, thoughts, moods, movements, and on and on. these units don’t always play nicely. in fact, they often exist in direct opposition. how does the dactyl or spondee do with the knock knock joke? do they see each other? do they want to? when folx ask me about the ever haunting ideal reader, i always wonder why-how there could be one answer. when folx meet this poem i hope some notice the Ellison allusions, and others notice the 50 Cent references, and others notice nothing but the metric play. a poem must be an eternal well and the best party of the summer. that is a hard thing to do. but i think the poet must try for it.
as such, my most successful poems (including this one, i think) operate in such a way that most readings feel incomplete. most readings offer a new space on the next pass. i sometimes think of poem making like how video games have easter eggs—features that are not immediately apparent, but reward the most curious and expedient users among us.
it’s also a question of denial. a willingness to keep the self from pleasure. most of my first drafts start as pseudo-soapbox kind of things. the speaker is hurt and wants to convey that hurt. the speaker is all about didacticism. the work, for me, is peeling that pettiness from the poem, or at least complicating it.
BWR: I saw that you recently guest edited Issue 8—“Crash the margins”—of the James Franco Review, which aimed to promote experimental work by POC and QTPOC poets. First off, I want to hear more generally about your work as an editor—what excites you, what annoys you. Second, in the submission call you define “experimental” as “whatever that means,” which humorously gets at the problem of deciding what is, or what feels experimental. So, I’m wondering, what feels experimental to you in this Moment we are living? And, as a follow up to that question, I would love to hear your thoughts on the supposed divide between “experimental” work (just to be clear, I do not mean “conceptual poetry,” which has long-ago dug its own grave), which is often accused of being “inaccessible,” and the more widely proliferated lyric poem that seems to be poetry du jour in many lit mags. But maybe this last question is boring/cynical.
KH: well let’s see. i’m currently a poetry editor at Jellyfish Magazine (squad luvvvv) with luminaries like Gale Marie Thompson and Anne Cecelia Holmes. they’re excellent. we have different tastes and sweet spots which usually ends with one of us manically pitching a poem to a stoic skype conference, but that’s the fun, innit? i’m also a reader for Gigantic Sequins which is a lovely experience. Jellyfish is a very different experience (print vs. online, aesthetic differences, etc.) but I love just reading-reading-reading. i’ve worked on campus literary magazines for Sarah Lawrence College and the like, but this endeavor with The James Franco Review was challenging, exciting, and mad-stupid anxiety worthy.
working with other readers at GS or with Gale and Anne helps me temper myself, kind of like pacing a long run. but working on the JFR—alone and blind—was a new kind of challenge, but it did, as you inquire, help me codify my taste.
tacky things: poems that look like they’d do quite well in a workshop (you know, poems with resolutions. poems that seem to resist that yummy ambiguity/cloudiness found in the work of bangers like Matthew L. Thompson or Jonathan Jacob Moore); thoughtlessness (the poem is nothing if not intentionally fucky. recklessness is not unacceptable but when your poem is out here flipping tables and speaking pyglatin ya best have an explanation); poems by cismen (now i know this might seem ~whatever~ but it’s accurate. if i wanted the gaze i’d read Madame Bovary again or i’d open my eyes lol)
lovely things: sound (Plath’s problematic ass describes the poem as “a little music machine.” i agree. the poem’s first concern should always be song! elsewise why are we here? the fuck is this? prose?), awareness of visual space (how does the poem exist? is the poem pure text? collage? left justified? centered? in 13 point yellow comic sans? is the poem pure audio and unpinned to the page? these are the questions. this is the work.), aggression (which isn’t implicitly aggressive. not in the common usage, anyway. i think a poem should be, as a friend remarked, an “advocate for the self” and must defend and argue for itself viciously. this world is terrifying and i want to meet poems with a vinegar and honey. a switchblade and flowers.)
mmmmmmm—the experimental. my initial response is that if your poem isn’t experimenting you can’t sit with me, but that’s not the most helpful, is it? really, if we are to consider poetry a landscape, the language does present us a possible response.
imagine poetryville population 30,000. there’s a town square with older white men and women, Billy Collins, couplets, and the like. then there’s the fringe of the town. there’s that which faces displacement. flood zones. fire zones. mountains and cabins in the mountains. whole uninhabitable lakes. that’s where i find the experimental. what has one’s imagined community relegated to the margin. this kind of experimentalism then doesn’t rely upon craft or subject—but also nationhood and gender and sex and ableness and deviance and vulnerability and language and systems of meaning. think Sesame Street:
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?
Did you guess which thing was not like the others?
Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?
If you guessed this one is not like the others,
Then you’re absolutely right!
imo, it’s about nonnormative existence. how disrupting is your poem willing to be? what is it willing to disrupt?
BWR: What does the present—or future—hold for you and your writing? What projects are you working on now?
KH: anxiety, girl. anxiety.
i’m trying to finish up my undergrad but i think this fucker might try and kill me first. i’m an American Studies major at The University of Hawaii at Manoa. sometimes i think i only did it because Jed Bartlett majored in American Studies, lol.
my first chapbook, distress tolerance, came out with Magic Helicopter Press last spring and my second, perceived distance from impact, is forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press. in the meantime i’m crying away at a new chapbook and a full length collection of poems. the new chap is about food politic, GMOs, racist science, and food deserts. the full length is, tentatively, called Educational History?, and that focuses on why undergrad finna kill my ass, lol.
aside from that i’ve been teaching myself how to code in hopes of being remembered as an autodidact.
BWR: What have you been reading as of late? What are some books/chapbooks/journals/writers you want to tell the world to read right now?
KH: white men. haha, get it? reading? heh.
i’ve been rereading a lot of first books lately and I kinda fell in love with Terrance Hayes’ Muscular Music and Rickey Laurentiis’ Boy with Thorn. they’re hella different but they both seem intensely aware of themselves, so much so that they develop those accidental quirks of the body. it’s almost like those books have birthmarks and pimples. they’re so actualized that they almost seem organically cultivated. i have these two Greywolf editions of D.A. Powell and Harryette Mullen’s first three books which are just awesome. ever watch an Olympic Sporting event? same thing with these. it’s beautiful to see brains at work over such a period, even if every poem isn’t a kill.
not even sure how to say the next part but I’m obsessed with just about any/everything Alice James Books and Omnidawn has/is putting out.
been reading much prose also—O’Connor’s stories, Foster Wallace’s essays, Baldwin’s essays, the Federalist Papers, and Orwell’s essays.
there are, of course, some really tremendous lit mags doing the work right now: Muzzle Magazine, The Offing, Nepantla, Vetch, Sixth Finch, Vinyl Poetry, Voicemail Poems, Fog Machine, Alien Mouth, The Journal, Pinwheel, Fugue, and so many others.
I don’t read journals with all white / cis mastheads or issues. i gotta love myself out here.
i’m terribly excited for full length collections forthcoming from Robert Andrew Perez, Devin Kelley, Tommy Pico, Morgan Parker, and Ari Banes.
lastly, we have poems from Talin Tajin and Chase Berggrun in the next issue of Jellyfish Magazine and every time i remember they’re real i get all teary happy excessive. strap in :).
BWR: What are some of your favorite things/activities that ostensibly have nothing to do with poetry?
KH: navel gazing, playing Rollercoaster Tycoon 3, watching Mr. Robot, watching Gossip Girl, watching The West Wing, playing the clarinet, getting wasted on goose island and dancing, being alone, drinking very very cold water, dialectical behavioral therapy, a good glass of strawberry milk lol.