Genius Awards 2016
Poems rocket off the page.
Southern roots. Northern shoots. Tools to turn the blues different colors.
To sing lead vox in a parody R&B cover band.
Amateurs find art therapeutic because it allows them to "express themselves," but poet Robert Lashley finds therapy in work itself. For him, high-sounding descriptions of a love lost or a tragedy endured don't heal as much as crafting the correct metaphor does. Allowing yourself to "feel feelings" doesn't move as much as shaping a wild rhythm does. In this way, though Lashley's poems often emerge from personal traumas and daily observations of his neighborhood, drafting a poem is closer to refurbishing an alternator than it is to writing a diary entry.
He inherits his approach to poetry from his uncle Moe, who was born in 1920 in Mississippi. According to Lashley, Uncle Moe was a wonk. "He didn't believe in 'first thought, best thought.' He believed in 'hundredth thought, best thought.'" And he was a "rhapsodist," Lashley said, "in the way that the Harlem Renaissance poets were rhapsodists"—they had to find the right music. "He would stutter, he would t-t-t-try to find the right words when things were too much."
Lashley stutters when it gets too much, too. Like his uncle, he's a rhapsodist, finely fashioning the language as it leaves him. He'll get caught up on a word or a sound until he catches the path of the sentence he wants. Lashley walks you through luminous ideas, gorgeous vignettes, or disturbing stories from his past buttressed by lines from writers such as Saul Bellow, Czeslaw Milosz, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Thom Gunn. If you ever find yourself talking to a writer and they drop a line from Gunn in the same breath as a line from Brooks, you can assume that writer's working with a deep bench.
Lashley was raised in a house of scholars. His mom, his grandmother, and his aunts formed a babysitting pact. He describes them as "second-wave feminist English majors from the Deep South." Those women and his uncle offered him stability during his father's reign. The "it" that gets too much for Lashley is the trauma he experienced as a kid. "I'm a survivor of violence and sexual abuse," he says. "I'm on disability, I'm a caregiver, and I'm schizoaffective. I've had some blues." But then he paraphrases a line from James Baldwin: "You think you're the only person who suffers in this world, but then you read."
In his books—The Homeboy Songs and his forthcoming Up South—Lashley cuts high-lyric lines with the language of his Tacoma Hilltop neighborhood in a way that makes you realize the false distinction between the two. He writes love poems, elegies, and poems of daily observation. He eschews what he calls "masturbatory obscurantism" and favors political poems that don't lecture. "In making a poem that does nothing but lecture you, the writer is subconsciously telling the reader that their life is unworthy as a subject," he says. That's the heart of his work—bringing to bear his deep knowledge of the traditions of poetry to explore the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual complexity of the people he grew up around.
And to hear him read! You know how some poets speak with poet voice? Lashley doesn't speak with poet voice. He speaks quickly and loudly. He embodies the pain and joy in the poems—sometimes he seems ecstatic, sometimes he seems fed up at the world, sometimes he'll even sing.