January 26, 2023
By Douglas Manuel, poetry faculty
When I was giving blood for rent, adjacent to flunking out of college, flipping burgers at Whataburger, chasing intoxication, and more loyal to my body’s wants and needs than any morality, I never thought I’d live beyond thirty-five, the age my mother died. Now, I have a PhD, a tenure track job, a son, and my second book arrives in April. In reverie, I find the past me, and I know he’d be proud and skeptical of me.
For so long, skepticism was my best pose, that and feigned apathy, my favorite kind of hiding. I hid from myself for such a long time, and now in Trouble Funk, my second poetry collection, I’ve ensconced myself again. The “lyric I” I spoke from in Testify bruised me in ways I wasn’t expecting. When folks think they know you, think they see you, they think they can own you or at least a piece/pieces of you. To be seen is to be vulnerable, precarious. I’m a Black man in America. I don’t need any more precarity, but I also don’t know how else to write, how else to be the me I’ve been developing without leaning into vulnerability and figurative nudity. So here I am skinny-dipping in Keats’s negative capability, in uncertainty, while also doing the backstroke in contradiction. Because, of course, I want to be seen, to be read, to be loved, to be known. Me, the attention-seeking writer, pleading for you not to look at me while begging you to look at me and my scribblings! “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Shoutout to Whitman. I quit social media years ago. You’ve never seen a single Tweet from me.
Baldwin wrote that “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.” With Testify, my confession was direct and less oblique; I plunged headfirst into the confessional mode. With Trouble Funk, my confession is oblique and less direct; I’m swimming against the current of my usual writing, my usual impulses. I told myself no first person, no me. Instead I sought a disembodied speaker, invisible in the narrative, yet telling the narrative and somehow knowing the narrative–the narrative here being how my parents got together, my origin story. See! Even when I try not to write about me, I’m still writing about me. “All art is a kind of confession . . . .”
My father DJed in the time before scratching, before beat-juggling, when only New Yorkers knew about Kool Herc, when dope song selections and loud speakers were a DJ’s only tools, when the Parliament’s cosmology wore a crown, when guitar chords were mostly sevenths, ninths, and twelfths, when the bass was in the lead, when syncopated drums ghosted and shuffled all over the track, when coke had almost everybody’s nose dirty and crack was pending, approaching, and on the way. My mother stood on Guide Lamp’s assembly lines for hours before she was the paraplegic you meet in Testify, and she loved my father. Why, was always a mystery to me, just as she has always been a mystery to me, dying when I was eight. I think Li-Young Lee once said something about all of his poems searching for his father. All of my poems search for my mother.
In Trouble Funk I continue that search. With only family stories, hearsay, and a few memories, I invent a world like my parents’ in Trouble Funk. I flash back to Black America’s ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Since song always helps Black folks get along, and since my daddy was a DJ, I decided to title each poem in Trouble Funk after a song my father liked to spin. This gesture spurred me to speak with my father, to listen to my father, to learn from my father, to realize how much I’m like my father, to realize how he hurts, has been hurt, to understand why he hurt me as he did, as he does. And when I finished the last draft of Trouble Funk, I saw what I had failed to see for so many years: like most sons, I’m more like my father than I want to be. For so many years, like my father is all I ever wanted to be. “Do I contradict myself? . . .”
My son’s eyes are my eyes, and his skin’s color is closer to porcelain than midnight sky. My father has only seen him on video calls. My father hasn’t read Trouble Funk. I told my father the book is and is not about him. I tell him it’s a truth and a fiction. He adored Testify and seems to understand. I hope he understands. I hope my words don’t sear him, as they’ve seared me. When everybody asks me about my second book, I say I’m trying to tell a truth, not the truth; or in other words, I’m lying and still hiding.
Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana. His first full length collection of poems, Testify, was released by Red Hen Press in 2017. His second collection, Trouble Funk, is due out in April 2023. His poems are featured on Poetry Foundation's website and have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, The Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, Rhino, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, New Orleans Review, Crab Creek Review, and elsewhere.