A Shiver in the Leaves
(BOA Editions, 2022)
One of the more impressive books of 2022 is A Shiver in the Leaves, a debut full-length collection of poems by Luther Hughes. Published by BOA Editions in September, each of the thirty-eight poems gathered here showcases a young, vital voice that already possesses the maturity and assurance of a seasoned writer. “It’s a book that I’ve been working on for nearly ten years,” the poet explains in our discussion below: “That’s seriously thinking of a book to its publication.” Devoting such extensive time to the project allowed him to lay a complex foundation from which to raise brilliant, enduring structures.
Of an elegiac disposition, Hughes draws heavily upon memory, visual art, and hypotheticals; considers important cultural conversations; and engages existential longing. His are serious, sometimes brooding poems that confront exasperation and despair with a persistent honesty that celebrates hope and endurance. Evocations of Black death, depression, and physical abuse are balanced by an abiding tenderness in which the poet sings the healing ecstasies of sex and honors the enduring power of various kinds of love.
“I trust Luther Hughes with the body,” Danez Smith wrote in their blurb to Hughes’s 2018 chapbook Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press). “The bodies here, be they black, queer, animal, living, or recovering, are given an authority only possible in poems, and only executed right in the handles of a capable poem.” Smith’s assessment can be applied to the poet as well as the poems he writes. An ongoing mindfulness one finds everywhere in Hughes’s poems is reflected in his precise, caring, and careful contributions to our discussion. Throughout five-days of email exchanges, he showed a great respect for language and was tuned into its capacities for discovery and truth.
A Shiver in the Leaves is not only thematically absorbing but visually and sonically stunning. Every (yes, every) poem in the book foregrounds Hughes’s eye for detail and evinces his deep love of craft. Presented throughout are a range of forms and styles that complement one another like exquisite cuttings in a centerpiece. Flowers, though, are formed from earth. Hughes’s best poems achieve greatness because they—no matter how carefully culled and arranged—recall the loam from which they came.
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): Hi, Luther. Congratulations on the recent publication of A Shiver in the Leaves, your first full-length collection of poems. It’s a compelling and assured debut that deserves love and attention. As far as I can tell, only “The Sound of Hunting” (originally titled “Trayvon”) has been brought over from your 2018 chapbook Touched; but some of the themes and images from that earlier work are threaded into the poems here. Before we discuss A Shiver in the Leaves in more specific terms, I was hoping you might share the story of how this book came into being.
Luther Hughes: Hi Tony, thanks for the congratulations—it still feels pretty wild to have a book in the world after dreaming of it for so long; it is/was a lifelong dream, so having accomplished it is something I’m still digesting.
There wasn’t a super particular way A Shiver in the Leaves came into being. It’s a book that I’ve been working on for nearly ten years—that’s seriously thinking of a book to its publication. During those early years, I was in undergrad and, of course, having a book seemed like something I was “supposed” to do if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. So, in those years, I wrote poems with a project in mind, thinking that the book would largely be about my father. Touched came into play my last year of undergrad when I started thinking about my childhood and abuse. I was working on my thesis project and these thoughts pretty much took over and my thesis was quickly changed from poems about my father to the very early version of Touched. In grad school, I finished Touched. However, alongside editing the chapbook, I had begun writing poems for my graduate thesis which, over time, became what A Shiver in the Leaves is today, and stemmed from the scrapped undergrad thesis. However, as I studied more poetry and began developing my craft, my interests began to develop. My thesis did largely address my relationship with my father, my body, Blackness, desire, sex, etc., but it sort of ended there. I had friends who looked at different versions of the book and gave awesome feedback and I was able to shift things and change things as I continued writing. However, the book took a big shift when I told myself the book was done, and I wanted to move on to writing the second one about love; I began writing love poems thinking it was a new project. But the more love poems I wrote, the more I saw the book shifting to include these poems, and eventually, the book I wanted to write next became the book I was working on at the time. Soon a version of the current book was created, edited, consulted on, and boom—A Shiver in the Leaves was done. The book underwent small revisions from time of acceptance to the publication date, but largely it was the same as it was when BOA Editions first picked it up.
I also want to talk briefly about the differences between Touched and A Shiver in the Leaves, because you’re right that the two share similarities, but I want to be clear that they’re not the same. Yes, both address broad themes like desire, violence, Blackness, and the body, but the difference is why they are approaching these things. In Touched, the cause is molestation, and everything seen through the lens of the book is because of that violence. In A Shiver in the Leaves, however, the cause is wanting to escape, and the speakers of the book use everything to try to do so. This is why “Trayvon” couldn’t live as its initial self in this collection—for this book, the poem about Trayvon Martin needed to match the cause of the book.
Rail: One of many compelling aspects about A Shiver in the Leaves involves the ways in which death and desire seem to be intertwined in your ruminations and observations. On one level, this is a universal theme common to a lot of lyric poetry, but the pitch of intensity here is quite powerful, sometimes unsettling, yet ultimately affirming. I thought of it as a kind of contemporary reframing of Freud’s Eros-Thanatos. How might you clarify this aspect of the book?
Hughes: Oh, interesting, I’ve never thought of the book speaking directly or even indirectly to Freud’s beliefs. I have to admit, I quickly googled his ideas on life and death, but I honestly google everything. Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said that’s what I was aiming for or writing towards, because it’s definitely not. How I’d describe what my book is doing, or what I was trying to do, was simply to be vulnerable. I think what people find in the book that’s—in your words—“powerful, sometimes unsettling, yet ultimately affirming,” might simply be vulnerability and honesty. It’s a book that actually scares me even though I’ve written it because it opens a door into my own personal experiences that I haven’t really shared with many people, and it grants access to me. Now I’m not saying I’m a deeply secretive person and this book is like a diary, because I chose to write these poems, publish them, put them in a book, and signed up for publication. But because these poems tend to jar me and scare me, I suppose it would make sense for others to feel the same thing. I’m not entirely sure what Freud wrote about the relationship between Eros and Thanatos outside that people tend to fall into one or the other category (or something), but the book’s main concern is simply life, and life doesn’t exist without death, which is why the two are pitched highly in response to one another—not against but working together for the greater “something” of these speakers. I keep saying “speakers” and not “myself,” because I’m trying to make it clear that not everyone writes from personal experience, but I can be honest and say that this book is written from my personal experience.
Rail: “You’re only a matter of time” you write in “(Black) Boy, Revisited.” Throughout A Shiver in the Leaves, we see Black men face life-threatening violence on a routine basis. Such brutal “repetition” is visualized in “The Dead Are Beautiful Tonight” by analogy: a crow found “headless in the bush” cannot be brought back to life. From this knowledge, despair blossoms into a kind of prayer for “everything black around me to live.” Earlier, in “Tenor” you ask: “Can you imagine / being so tied to blackness / that even your wings / cannot help you escape?” Part of the reason this theme is so palpable to your readers, including those who otherwise could not understand (or “imagine”) the weight of this reality, is because of this very analogy. Would you discuss your decision to engage the crow (and other black birds) as metaphors in A Shiver in the Leaves?
Hughes: I’m always curious how people will bring up the crow (and black birds) when thinking of my book because I think there are so many entryways. The crow doesn’t and possibly can’t represent one thing because crows—like Black people—are not one thing. Sometimes the crows represent depression and sometimes they (loosely) symbolize Black death. “The Dead Are Beautiful Tonight,” is a poem that wrestles with death (suicide directly and homicide indirectly). The lines about the crow headless in the bush and about wanting everything Black around me to live are and can be easily read through the lens of police brutality, history, and Black death in general; however, whiteness or police or the exact violence(s) are not (purposefully) stated so I could get away from centering the acts of violence and the (white) people that may have committed them.
Overall, though, these are birds that I just love. Crows are intelligent and in Seattle there are so many crows that, because one of the book’s themes is Seattle, they had to be in there. I’ll admit there are many times in the book that other birds are mentioned, and sometimes that’s because I was telling myself to stop using crows for everything, lol—which says a lot given there are still so many crows in the book.
Rail: In “The Death of a Moth” you borrow the title of one of Virginia Woolf’s famous essays to name one of your own poems, in this case one that explores a tense, potentially-menacing moment where a policeman pulls two gay Black men off the road ostensibly for a non-working taillight. What inspired you to title this poem, in which “moth” is never mentioned, after Virginia Woolf’s essay? The choice feels right but I would love to know what factors went into your decision to do this.
Hughes: I titled the poem, “The Death of a Moth,” to sort of be cheeky. I remember attending a festival called The Conversation, created by Nabila Lovelace and Aziza Barnes, where about ten to fifteen poets travel to different cities across the south doing workshops and readings together. It was a fantastic experience. Anyways, in a reading Justin Phillip Reed read his poem, “Leaves of Grass” from his latest collection, The Malevolent Volume. When he introduced the poem, he said something like, “I just wanted to title this poem ‘Leaves of Grass’ and have nothing to do with Walt Whitman’.” I found that so funny and inspiring, so I tried it out myself. So, here’s the thing, though—it does work given both pieces’ conceit. In Woolf’s essay, she observes this dying moth and begins thinking about mortality and choices (if I remember correctly). In my poem, observation also happens and one’s own mortality comes into play. More so, though, the reason I wanted to title it this is because I wanted to trick the reader, which is also why the poem starts with, “You know the story before I tell it.” I’ve announced a way to enter the poem—which, for those who know the essay, will automatically think of Woolf and her thoughts; it was important that I shifted the expectations and removed “whiteness as default” when it came to observation, choices, and mortality.
Rail: In “Stay Safe” one lover sees his partner off to work and worries that “they will / take him from me.” I hear the echoes of a well-known Irving Berlin standard called “Suppertime,” about lynching. In that song, a wife laments that her husband will never return to her and their children. Your poem focuses on a male lover who dreads his man’s entry into the unsafe world outside of their apartment. Were you thinking of Berlin’s song while writing “Stay Safe”—or are the overlapping stories a kind of uncoincidental coincidence, where your poem’s speaker and that song’s widowed wife are together tapping into a persistent, ongoing story?
Hughes: I wasn’t thinking about “Suppertime” when writing this poem, but, after having listened to it, I can definitely see how the two pieces converse with each other. Actually, the song would be a good addition to the playlist I made for the book, so thank you for bringing this to my attention. This poem comes from a very real experience and conversation I’ve had with my boyfriend, but also comes from my upbringing where my father, brothers, friends, lovers, etc., would tell me to “stay safe,” whenever I was leaving. But, given the topic of the song, your question makes a lot of sense. However, there are dog poems I was considering when I wrote this poem like “White Dog” by Carl Phillips, “The Dog,” by Gerald Stern, and “The Dog” by Gabrielle Bates.
Rail: When I first read the poem, I immediately thought, “These two men are married; they’re husbands beyond any legal definition or traditional custom.” This was probably the reason I was connecting it so strongly to “Suppertime,” which also involves a married couple. Although “husband” is never mentioned in the poem, I thought of this because their lives are shared and they make plans together, as when they talk about getting a new dog. I’m glad you mentioned the dog in your response because that whole dimension of the poem I wasn’t able to address in my previous question. I was shocked to read their previous dog was killed by neighbors pouring “searing water onto his body”—it’s such a ghastly act. In any other poem, this detail might be so overwhelming that it dwarfs everything else. Ironically, in “Stay Safe,” it doesn’t: the contemplation of acts not yet committed, of violence imagined but not yet realized, looms still larger. “We are always one bullet away from the graveyard”: this is true for all of us, and yet, here, this threat always seems to inch towards promise.
Hughes: I do like this idea of using “husband” in the context of two people planning their lives together. And yeah, this is a poem, or this subject matter has been one I’ve been working on years before this poem came to—my dog dying. For more context, the dog dying actually happened to me (and my mom) when I was roughly five years old and for the longest I kept trying to write that scene, but one day it just clicked and I realized it wasn’t the scene that needed to take center stage, but how the scene made me feel like twenty-ish years later, which was unsafe, sure, but more so concern for the (living) things I loved. This is a poem I feel most people tend to feel devastated by given there’s a dog dying in it. But I think it has impact because there’s a dog dying pitched against—and I think “against” is the right way to say it for this poem—a lover possibly dying. The lover presumably being Black—although that’s clearly written—creates another layer of devastation for the poem. The poem is actually one of my favorites in the book given these complexities and tensions. One tension because of this poem and how it’s received is the comparison to how people feel about dogs being mistreated more than human beings. It’s not something to really get into, but in relation to this poem, I think about the phrase, “shot down like a dog in the street.”
Rail: There is an enormous generosity in A Shiver in the Leaves, a sense that the speakers in these poems care about readers. I’m thinking, for instance, of a moment in one of my favorite poems, “Into the City, I Become Become,” when he recalls that his mother is pleased to know her son’s boyfriend is “God-fearing.” “I know, I know” the speaker says. To whom? Himself? Possibly. But I also sense in a Whitman-like way you are anticipating your readers, imagining their reactions, not ignoring them. Touches like this contribute to a sense of your book being part of a larger dialogue with others. Am I off base here?
Hughes: I don’t think you’re off base at all. There was actually a moment while writing this book that my idea of “audience” shifted from myself to those who aren’t poets but readers in general—those who love to read and not just those who have studied writing. This happened because I was beginning to share a poem or two with my boyfriend every once-in-a-while and, since being stuck at home due to the pandemic, because I was doing readings in his presence, he wanted to listen in, I wanted poems he could listen in on. So, poems like “Into the City, I Become Become” sort of came out of that shift where I began thinking about my readers. But, honestly, that poem, and that moment in particular, was simply me saying fuck it (can I cuss in this interview, lol), and just trying something new out. I got the idea from a similar move that I did in “Prayer,” where I begin asking questions about people jumping out of the World Trade Center and then saying, “never mind.” I don’t know, I just wanted to think loudly on the page and offer different ways to engage the reader and to create an intimate space for the reader. I’m not sure if that’s completely accomplished, but I did enjoy writing those moments a lot.
Rail: Earlier you mentioned that the city of Seattle is a theme in A Shiver in the Leaves. Indeed, several of the poems are located there—and in those poems are some startling passages. In “It is February” you write: “Isn’t it irresponsible / to raise a child in this city of mammoth hills // and Mt. Rainier teething away at the sky? / I think I will die before I get the privilege. / Sometimes I slush through this city / and feel like I have died already.” In “Prayer” you write: “I want to die with the city / pouring onto my deathbed, to the floor, then out / of the room….”; and in “Dearest”: “I am worthy, I tell myself. I touch my face / for a brief moment and the city begs me to live.” Clearly, for you Seattle holds great importance and so—as the chosen location for some of the book’s most potent insights—I’m hoping you will shed some light on what it means to you.
Hughes: Heavy question, lol. I’ll start by saying that Seattle is my hometown, and it was where I lived until I was twenty-two or twenty-three before I ended up moving away for undergrad and grad school. (I took a two-year break from school after finishing community college.) Given that it’s my hometown, I have—like others have with their home—a complicated history with it. Seattle is the site of a lot of my trauma—abuse, violence, rape, harassment, etc. So, at times, I look at Seattle through this lens and it becomes difficult. However, at the same time, I find Seattle to be the most beautiful place on earth. This is also the place I fell in love with my current boyfriend when I moved back. This is the place I’m able to healthily process that trauma. This is where I’m really understanding what it means to love. And so, it’s complicated, but I guess it’s also not. “It Is February” probably speaks to this complication more than any other poem in the book. “Prayer,” however, is a poem I wrote while living in St. Louis and like “(Black) Boy, Revisited,” I imagine my death in Seattle. This is also a little weird, right? Not imagining my dying but imagining my death in a specific city. For me, it’s like I can’t see myself dying anywhere else nor do I want to. I’m reminded of how people sprinkle their loved one’s ashes in the place they’ve requested. In the book it’s like I’m saying, “Sprinkle my ashes across the city.”
Rail: Once, at a reading I attended, Jericho Brown, who provides a back-cover endorsement for A Shiver in the Leaves, was asked who inspired him and served as a kind of teacher/mentor as he developed. He reframed the question in an intriguing way, saying when he writes he does so with the knowledge that two or three of his most beloved and valued predecessors are with him in the room. Do you imagine anyone in the room as you write—poet or otherwise? Whose voice was (or voices were) most instrumental in guiding you towards your own?
Hughes: I like this frame of thinking because it’s one that my friends and I joked around about a little bit during grad school—that our teachers were on our shoulders whenever we sat down to write. During that time, yes, that definitely was the case, and I could hear my teachers’ voices or suggested edits or lectures in my head as I wrote and revised my work. It was a little thrilling to think about. I say the same most likely happens now, but I think it’s more unconscious; what they’ve taught me will never leave me and has become part of how I write a poem.
But to move from being a bit woo woo to being more grounded, I do intentionally invite others into my space when I write a poem. Not their physical bodies, but their words/works. When I sit down to write a poem—and I do know when I sit down to write a poem, I do so with intention—I find poems or books and put them around/in front of me and read them. I do this because I know that what I’m writing towards has been done in some way and this is just my own personal take on it. I also do this because I just need to know how the hell people do this, lol. Like, I get that I’ve written a book and a ton of poems over the years, but sometimes I just need to revisit a poem to learn how this happens again. It’s important to be reminded of this, I think. For me, at least.
Rail: A salient feature of A Shiver in the Leaves is the beauty with which these poems are crafted. While most of the poems are not adhering to traditional forms, many of them appear to be shaped from a self-created structure in which you are attuned to lineation, cadence, and rich, vivid imagery. On almost every page of my copy I have penciled in notes such as “great lineation,” “tightly-braided imagery,” “vivid turn,” and my favorite: a multi-purposed exclamation mark in the margin! The poems are so finely wrought that it has turned this reader into an eager, humble student of craft. I’m wondering if you could discuss your views on craftsmanship and perhaps share a secret or two…
Hughes: I owe a lot of my attention to various tangible craft elements to teachers and mentors. Each of them made me think more intentionally and with care about things like lineation and imagery that have stuck with me over the years—and that I teach in the rare times I lead a workshop. For me, these elements are what make poetry thrilling. A line break can create multiple meanings within a poem, and thus, the poem becomes immediately more complex. A fine-tuned image creates a robust landscape. (Not “landscape” as in “nature,” but “landscape,” as in the poem’s manufacturing.) These and other elements of craft are what make a poem a poem.
Poems are gestures. And so, when I think of craft, I think of what elements can strengthen this gesture. What elements are important for this gesture? What does my gesture need?
I also just like craft! I like editing and revising an image so that it feels exactly fresh. I like revising line breaks until I feel as though it matches the breaths I take when I read it aloud. I like flourishing a metaphor or tamping it down depending on what the poem needs. It’s just fun, you know.
Rail: Another distinctive feature of your use of language is how you create unexpected verbs from words that most people traditionally consider nouns. Years ago, when I studied the surrealists, I learned that using one grammatical form in place of another is called enallage. In some surrealists’ hands, the decision felt conscious, forced. Your practice is entirely different. When two men “monkey into the shower” for sex (“Inside the River, I Covet”); when a man “shaves // back a smile” while seducing a sexually inexperienced boy (“Descent”); when the water “serpents” behind the body of a naked man walking into the river (“The River”); when police cars “thicket” outside a bank (“He Went Away Without Saying Goodbye”)—in these instances, the verbs animate the language, create apt resonances that would not have been there without them. I sense your process is both intuitive and consciously logical. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about this and/or other ways in which you surprise the language in your poems.
Hughes: Thank you for noticing this! This was something that my teachers noticed that I did, too, and I really didn’t think of how or why I did it then. Only that I loved to do it to excite my thinking of the language, the sentence, the image, the poem, etc. However, just yesterday I read a brilliant article by Alina Stefanescu called, “The Failed Azaleas,” on the Poetry Foundation about reading, illegibility, and the failure/promise of language. After reading this, I started thinking about your question and really pondered why I did “verb the noun,” so much in poems. To say the least, it’s because of this failure and promise of language. A majority of the time I verb the noun because I’m trying to say exactly what I’ve imagined, the scene, whatever. However, because language can only do so much, I have to find other ways to get it. In the poem, “The River,” when I write, “and the water serpents behind, // humming: Come,” I’m trying to pen the exact image of what the water is doing and what I’m feeling the water is intending. And okay, why didn’t I use an actual verb like “slithers” or “follows” or “trails”? I felt as if those words (and others) were too emotionally passive. Yes, “slithers” might’ve been the same visually as “serpents,” but a serpent comes with certain connotations and in this poem, those connotations are equally important as what’s imagined. This, for me, is important probably across the board in A Shiver in the Leaves—“this” being the pressure of wanting exactly what’s imagined and what’s felt. Since the book is dealing so much with personhood and feelings, I had to make sure the language and craft matched.
Rail: “A majority of the time I verb the noun is because I’m trying to say exactly what I’ve imagined, the scene, whatever. However, because language can only do so much, I have to find other ways to get it.” I love this response. Like all master crafters, you’re using your tools and inventing new ways to use the tools. I think of plasticity in the visual arts, the way painters and sculptors will mold figures in individual ways to reach what they’re after—like those Modigliani portraits where his models have such long necks. Anyway, this association leads me to my next question. Two of your poems from A Shiver in the Leaves (“Tenor” and “Fallen Angel”) and one poem from Touched (“Riding with Death”) respectively cite the Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings of those titles as sources of inspiration. But these do not seem to be solely ekphrastic poems. What draws you to Basquiat’s work and compels you to write from it?
Hughes: Oooh, I like that—that makes me think of my own poetry in new ways. The three poems written “after” Jean-Michel Basquiat came from a small stint of obsessively looking at his work, writing poems about it, and so on. My interest in Basquiat started when we watched the documentary on him and his work in undergrad. I think what I liked, then, was how he talked about art, thought about it, and honestly, I think I began glamorizing his life or at least the life they presented of his in the film. Around the same time, I had read Boy with Thorn by Rickey Laurentiis and Thrall by Natasha Trethewey, two books (and poets) who wrote marvelous ekphrastic poems. And so having these three thinkers in my mind at the same time, I stole away into my own practice of writing ekphrasis. I like that you said that they’re not “solely” ekphrastic poems, and I agree that they aren’t the typical ekphrastic poem that describes the artwork. I’ve written poems like those and at one point had them in a very early version of the then-manuscript. I initially took them out and kept these ones in because I felt as though “Tenor” and “Fallen Angel” represented the emotional landscape of the book more and, in some ways, represented Basquiat’s work more. What I love about his work is the emotional layering and self-portraitizing. It’s not only meant for us to get a small glimpse into his psyche, but through these glimpses we’re also understanding how he’s wrestling with perception and how he sees the world. Both of the poems in the book are attempting something similar.
I’ll also add something Robin Coste Lewis talks about in her book, Voyage of the Sable Venus, and that’s that anything can be considered art and therefore anything written about it from this point of view can be considered an ekphrastic. There are other poems in the book where ekphrasis can be broadened like “The Sound of Hunting” or “Video: ‘9/11: The Falling Man’.”
Rail: How fortuitous that you mentioned “The Sound of Hunting” and “Video: ‘9/11: The Falling Man’,” since originally, I was going to ask you about the audio/video clips in these poems and how the speaker plays them, rewinds them, and how such looping seems, among other things, akin (but not identical) to the obsessive attention one might pay to a photograph or painting, or some other art object. “I imagine” the speaker says in “The Sound of Hunting”; and in “Video: ‘9/11: Falling Man’” repeated views allow him to observe fresh details. The horrible realities captured respectively in audio and video enable the speaker to grapple with the incidents they record. But this does not necessarily lead to clarity or certainty. “If I understood his pain,” the speaker says in “Video: ‘9/11: Falling Man’,” “I would turn off the video.” And in “The Sound of Hunting,” the voice declares, “I am trapped by the anchor of [Trayvon Martin’s] dying.” I’m wondering if you are making some connection between understanding tragedy through the study of visual artifacts and an intense investigation of art. Maybe I’m reaching, but your previous comment about how these poems can be considered ekphrastic made me curious.
Hughes: I think, yes, I’m definitely using art and these clippings to understand tragedy. Ultimately, the book is obsessed with trying to understand things—the body, love, depression, tragedy, violence, hope, etc.—through what’s given to them, which is art, clippings, birds, the city, and so on. In the poem “Passed Down,” death and family are trying to be understood through my grandfather’s ring the same way the speaker in “Bird in the House” by Natasha Trethewey is trying to understand grief by way of a dead bird—Trethewey’s poem gave way to “Passed Down.”
Okay, what am I saying? I think it’s very human of us to turn to what’s around us for answers to the questions life provides. This is especially true for art and why many people love art—they begin to unlock something in us, for us, and create new ways of seeing. “The Sound of Hunting” and “Video: ‘9/11: The Falling Man’,” were written during a time when I was overly obsessed with recordings of tragedies. The audio recording of Trayvon Martin’s death really started this because it was so clear to me what had happened to him, and I found it utterly mind-blowing that there was debate about it. So I kept listening to it over and over again. I wanted to see where the confusion was, and in turn, this obsession trickled into how I began to debate my own body in relation to others. “Video: ‘9/11: The Falling Man’” came while taking an image class in grad school and we watched and talked about the documentary, and like the audio of Trayvon’s death, I was taken by what I witnessed; I stole away into the library and watched the man fall over and over again.
Many poems in the book are obsessive in their attempt and they are obsessive because I’m trying to understand something.
Rail: Since we have been talking about your attention to craft, your study of art, and your ekphrastic poems, another observation comes to mind regarding some of the poems in A Shiver in the Leaves: occasionally, desire is linked through vivid word choices with images of building or dismantling. In “The River” (another one of my favorite poems in the book), when the speaker observes the naked man before him, he says: “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen desire / assembled like him. Sometimes when I sculpt desire // a face, it’s my face calling into the night…”; in “The Dead Are Beautiful Tonight,” the voice of the poem “unthread[s]” as his lover “arranges me // on the bed…”; and in “Making the Bed,” the speaker wants his lover’s “making to end / with a kiss on my forehead.” Is this a conscious association? If so, could you speak to it?
Hughes: Oh! I never noticed that. This was definitely not a conscious decision as in I didn’t mean to do this as a way to connect poems or themes—it was conscious in the sense that I pored over which words to use in each poem. If anything, these images of building or dismantling come up possibly because of trying to diversify ways to describe the body or what the body is doing, and because I’ve often thought of the body as being constructed—that is able to build and tear down—it’s no surprise to me, I guess, that this is threaded throughout the book.
Rail: Luther, you have been terrific to work with this week. I have just one more question for you before we end our conversation. Somewhat related to a previous moment in our discussion, where we addressed your powers of sympathy and engagement with others, there are, throughout A Shiver in the Leaves, several powerful moments of identification, in which the speaker’s connection with that which he studies and/or desires reflects himself. “I can’t help but study / things that bare my resemblance,” the voice says in “The Dead Are Beautiful Tonight.” Although the following line reads “and that makes me a narcissist” I can’t help imagining a much broader resonance. Would you agree? I am eager to hear your thoughts about this.
Hughes: The line, “and that makes me a narcissist,” in “The Dead Are Beautiful Tonight” or, “never mind. I don’t want to go there,” in “Prayer,” or even, “Look at me. I’ve fallen to haze,” in “Into the City, I Become Become” are selfish nods to myself where I’m forcing myself to look at what I’m writing and acknowledge it or change subjects because I’ve been stuck on this one thing a little too long. The same can be said about the title, “Leave the Crows Out of It.” I’ve done these moves because of exactly what you’re saying but in a different tone: I’ve spent too much time being selfish, let me place my attention elsewhere. In a sense, I’m sort of dragging myself simply because I love the move. I’m thinking of when TV shows have lines that make fun of the main character for being the main character. Do you know what I mean? They’ll have someone talking to the main character saying something like “You always think it’s about you” or “The whole world doesn’t revolve around you” or something that dogs the main character for being the main character. That’s kind of what I’m doing, but to myself. And the line about not being able to help but study things that look like me is true for the book, and it’s necessary and one of the main points—everything in the book, the speaker feels connected to. This is the only way the speaker knows how to begin their wondering and wandering, their questioning and challenging, their journey.