Monday, July 20, 2009

Everything is Everything: Mitchell Douglas' Cooling Board (Part I)

Photo by David Flores (dflo.net)
You couldn't tell Misstra Knowitall I wasn't going to change the whole game up when I first stepped up on that campus in Bloomington, IN. I going for an MFA, but I was going to show them Hoosiers something! I had my scholarship check (nobody told me it had to last all semester) and was about to let them square suckers know what was up! I thought I was too cool! That was, until I met Mitchell Douglas--who taught me what a for-real, smooth-writing-brother looks like.

Douglas' debut collection, Cooling Board, was published recently by Red Hen press. When I read that it was a "long running poem," I have to admit that I (briefly) thought: "Kneegropleeze. No way I'ma sit here and read a whole book of poetry in one sitting."

Next thing I knew: I was sitting there reading a whole book of poetry in one sitting.


Needless to say, it's dope and you need to get it (as in, buy it, not text message Mitchell to see if he's got a copy you can "check out"). It's all about the life of singer Donny Hathaway, a personal fave of mine. It's funky and soulful and beautiful. Just like Mr. Hathaway hisself.



I asked Mitchell some questions. He had some answers.


Taking the leap like you did with this book, investing so much time and creative energy into a collection that surrounds a single figure, must have made you nervous. What makes Donny Hathaway such a compelling figure for you?


My initial idea for the book was to have an entire collection devoted to my musical heroes. The catch was that they were all dead and the poems were a kind of commentary on their lives. The more I thought about it, the more I hated the idea. I stopped thinking about writing Hendrix and Cobain poems and narrowed the focus to Hathaway. The choice was easy because he was the artist I knew the least about. Also, there were plenty of books about the other artists I wanted to write about and none, at that time, about Hathaway. I wanted to give him his due. I did worry about doing Donny justice and writing poems that would capture his spirit , but the more I got into my research and talking to people that knew him, I stopped being afraid.



In your acknowledgments you big up Kevin Young, particularly his long form poetry class at Indiana University. How did the experience in that class inform your approach to Cooling Board?

That class was the start of the book. We had a great reading list: The Spoon River Anthology, Berryman’s The Dream Songs, and a book that opened my eyes for Cooling Board, Langston Hughes’ Montage of Dream Deferred. Kevin explained that Hughes intended the book to be a long poem and we discussed as a class if he succeeded. With each poem as a treatise on a different resident of Harlem, we decided that Hughes’ single focus in many poems/layers constituted a longer poem or narrative. What was also fascinating to me is how he used persona. There was, for example, the Southern dialect in the epistle “Letter” and a voice that could be considered a heightened sense of Hughes’ own in poems like “Harlem” and “Theme for English B.” Hughes taught me how to raise the hollers of many tongues to speak for one cause. We had the option of doing a research paper or turning in our own long poem as a final project. I chose the latter, and turned in 30 or so pages of Cooling Board. This was about four years before the book was published.

One of the things I admire most about this book is the breadth of voices that speak in these pages. I'm really interested in the way you begin by telling Hathaway's story through the voices of all these people who loved him (Miss Martha, Eulaulah, Roberta Flack, Curtis Mayfield), but then it seems like you start to mark his depression by introducing other "uninvited guests" that represent the voices of Hathaway's schizophrenia. What were you trying to achieve with this dynamic?

Donny was who he was because of love. I’m a father, so when I see kids and a parent is telling them to shut up, I wonder what their lives would be like with someone who took the time to say “Hush, baby. It’s time to be quiet.” He was nurtured as a musician early on by his grandmother, Martha Crumwell. Miss Martha had Donny on a stage at revivals playing the ukulele at three (she was known as a strong gospel performer herself). His mother, Drusella Huntley, wanted the best for Donny, so she moved from Chicago to St. Louis to be with her mother (Crumwell). If she hadn’t done that, the world may have never known Donny. So starting the book with the voices of those who loved him, as you note—his grandmother, his mother, his college sweetheart Eulaulah, his college friend Roberta Flack—was a way to show where he came from.


By introducing the “uninvited guests,” and the more frequent appearance of alternate takes, I hoped to disorient the reader and show him/her what living with schizophrenia was like. I think Donny was fiercely independent and, from what I’ve been told by family and friends, he didn’t like to take his medication. There is a published account by a friend that says in his last days, Donny would talk in one voice in the studio and answer himself in another voice. Sometimes, I think I could have added even more of the “uninvited,” but what is there now, I hope, gives everyone a sense of Donny’s struggle.


Next...

Everything is Everything (Part II): How do poets get all that money!?

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