“Poets are the oracles — they just know things, and though we may not always be able to decode what they said, the oracle, they absolutely know things,” said Associate Director of the Archaelogical Museum Sanchita Balachandran when she introduced poet Rickey Laurentiis to the stage on Tuesday, April 16 in Mudd 26. Laurentiis, tall with long braids down their back, took the microphone and started with a poem.
The title “Conditions for a Southern Gothic” is as descriptive as it can be. The narrator wrestles with their status in a place through images that are distinctly both Southern and Gothic: crows flying in minstrelsy, being alone in a wet black field, a torn-off head, a sky that mocks with the suggestion of freedom. Laurentiis read it quickly, exposing the consonance and sharp syntax throughout the poem. Every sentence was dark, dream-like and informed by references to history. This interaction between history and identity was an introduction to the kinds of poems that Laurentiis specializes in.
“I like to start with a poem because that’s the reason I’m here and the reason you’re here,” Laurentiis said cheerfully.
They then thanked all those who helped plan the event.
“Everyone is involved, from the black hole to the tree outside,” they said, joking about the seven sponsors for the event ranging from the Hopkins Archaeological Museum to the Office of LGBTQ Life.
“It’s amazing because a poet is another word for maybe oracle, but probably a better word for that is nerd, and I never imagined that I would recognize that I’m as deeply interested in antiquity and archeology as I am in syntax, as I am in dynasty, as I am in Project Runway,” Laurentiis said, smiling. “A line of a poem is a collision of all those things at once. It’s a great satisfaction to see this sponsored by, well, everybody.”
Tears came to their eyes.
“I’m gonna cry so if you’re going to get uncomfortable with that you might as well leave right now,” Laurentiis joked. “I’m gonna try to keep it together but I can’t promise. I have a Pisces moon.”
The reading became emotional at several points as Laurentiis talked candidly about the way self-esteem fluctuates when on tour for their books.
“You have to go around the country and read [your book], and you fall in and out of love with yourself. Oh, that person is smart; that person is stupid.” They mentioned that they were reading from their book, Boy with Thorn, because they fell back in love with the material and the person who wrote it.
The poem he read from the book was titled, “I Saw I Dreamt Two Men.” The narrator spoke to the anti-homosexuality bills in Nigeria and Uganda, the violence of conservative America and the silence of the American South.
“I stayed with southern silence,” Laurentiis stated, recognizing their own inaction.
“I feel like I’m back in Catholic school translating in Latin class,” Laurentiis said, referring to the syntax of “I Saw I Dreamt” and the way it reads like Latin translation. Laurentiis explained that someone at a reading once pointed out that the construction of their poem was similar to the Latin poems of Sappho.
“I remember reading [Sappho] at some point, and then going back to [my poem] and realizing that’s the exact same construction that I used. And where did that come from? It came from the dead. So thank you, Sappho!” Laurentiis said, considering the way education stays in the recesses of the creative mind. “That’s what education is about. Even at the moment when you’re like ‘I don’t know why I’m reading about Sappho. I didn’t care anything about no Sappho.’ But then later you realize that she’s with me and she’s guiding me.”
Laurentiis explained that they’re a poet who often writes ekphrastic poems or poetry that engages with pieces of artwork but doesn’t want to be read like art history, pointing to the techniques of the painting.
“I want to show what it made me see, and what it made me re-see,” they said.
The first ekphrastic poem, called “Vanitas with Negro Boy,” explored white supremacy in art and the reclamation of art by the black viewer. “Why trust the old masters?” the speaker of the poem asked.
“I like that question, why trust the old masters,” Laurentiis said. “No one has the answer for me.”
Laurentiis also read a new poem called “2019,” titled after the current year, a year that historically is 100 years from 1919 — or the year of the Red Summer, when one thousand lynchings happened across the country.
“Wow, we’re one hundred years from that time, and basically everything is happening again,” Laurentiis said, laughing uncomfortably and referring to the political unrest of our current time. “We have riots; we have fascism coming to power; we have wars across the world. Everything is lining up. It should be beautiful. But it’s not. America’s been on fire since at least 1919.”
“I’m not trying to be dark in my life,” Laurentiis said, responding to the darkness of the poem. “I don’t try to be brutal. That’s what the reviews call me: brutal… I’m just throwin’ it back. I’m literally telling you what happened,” they said in reference to the brutality of history.
They mentioned that they’re thinking specifically about black bodies when they said this and the black bodies featured in their works.
“As much as violence has been put upon that body, our bodies are also sights of incredible joy and portals to pleasure, despite, in spite, and sometimes because of that violence.”
In this Laurentiis addressed the sexual politics of the violence and the way they use the erotic in their lyrical poems to put these things in conversation.
“But I was interested in the pleasure too,” Laurentiis said. “We fuck! Let’s talk about that too!” Mentioning the title as recognizable via the famous Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj song, Laurentiis transitions into reading the poem “Feeling Myself.”
“My body became a conservatory. A way of knowledge,” the speaker in the poem said in reference to a sexual encounter.
Laurentiis remembered in 2014 when Ferguson, Mo. was on fire, seeing the image of Michael Brown and being struck by the lack of agency given to Brown in the distribution of the image.
“I don’t want to reproduce the image. So how do you write about it? What do you do? And I’m still figuring that out.’’
In their poem “Continuance,” an elegy to Brown and an ode to Ferguson, Laurentiis strikingly wrote: “I cannot say what a bullet says when it enters a child’s skin.”
It’s this kind of change in focus from the joy of life to the sheer horror of historical occurrences that Laurentiis is a master at.
Every poem balances lightness and gravity, revealing the complexity of the human experience and the honor in finding joy in difficult moments, a difficulty that is brought about by identity.
It’s poetry that’s queer in its scope, questioning and considering all the ways of being. Laurentiis confirmed this queerness of poetry to the many sponsors of the event, referring to the way different subjects must come together to describe their poetry.
Laurentiis is the inaugural fellow in Creative Writing at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and a Lannan Fellow.
I would definitely recommend you make sure to catch them next time they read in your area.