Featured Poet: Douglas Manuel

Interview by–Natalie Solmer

When featuring poets in The Indianapolis Review, we usually choose someone residing in Indiana or with a connection to the state. Douglas Manuel is not currently residing in Indiana, but he was born a Hoosier– in Anderson, Indiana. He is a talented poet I admire and call friend, and I’m so happy to finally feature him in The Indianapolis Review! He also contributed two new poems, which you can get to by clicking on ‘next page’ at the bottom of the interview.

Douglas Manuel is currently a Middleton and Dornsife Fellow at the University of Southern California where he is pursuing a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing. His poems are featured on Poetry Foundation’s website and have appeared or are forthcoming in ZyzzyvaPleiadesPoetry NorthwestThe Los Angeles ReviewSuperstition ReviewRhino, North American ReviewThe Chattahoochee ReviewNew Orleans ReviewCrab Creek Review, and elsewhere. His first full length collection of poems, Testify (Red Hen Press, 2017), won an IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for poetry. In 2018, he traveled to Egypt and Eritrea with The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program to teach poetry. In 2020, he received the Dana Gioia Poetry Award and a fellowship from the Borchard Foundation Center on Literary Arts to travel to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico to write.

NS: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview! I have been wanting to interview you for The Indianapolis Review since we first launched, and I’m so glad we’ve finally managed to do that. You and I first met years ago while attending Butler University’s MFA program, and I know some of your background already: you grew up in Anderson, Indiana and left Indiana to get your BA in creative writing from Arizona State University. It was there where you first studied fiction before shifting to focus on poetry and later coming back to Indiana for your MFA in poetry. After Butler, you went out to California and earned your PhD in literature and creative writing at USC. Can you talk a little about when you knew you wanted to be a writer and how you decided to pursue that path in undergrad and beyond?

DM: First off, thank you so much for this amazing opportunity. I absolutely love and adore the super dope work y’all do at The Indianapolis Review. So please know I am just so humbled and honored to be speaking with you and so very proud of you for establishing and maintaining such an amazing publication. So much praise and respect due!

Okay, when I knew I wanted to become a writer. Hmm–I read somewhere a long time ago that Jane Hirshfield always answers this question by replying, “When did you stop wanting to be a writer?” I really dig the idea of us all always being innately writers from the get-go. It feels democratizing and empowering, you feel me? But yeah, I’ve always been scribbling in some notebook or journal and telling stories to myself. I was kind of an only child because my brother is so much older than me, so I was tasked with entertaining myself a lot. I remember riding my bike to Chief Anderson’s Lookout in my hometown and writing little descriptions and pieces of language about the White River. And because of hip-hop’s absorption and saturation into pop culture during my coming of age, I was always writing little rhymes: “Doug Manuel / that burning candle / no one can handle.” Hahaha! I remember writing that sometime when I was young and feeling as though I was the best writer who ever picked up a pen.

Like some many teenagers, in middle and high school, I wrote tons of moody love poems. However, I don’t think I really thought I could really, really be a writer until undergrad. At Arizona State University, I started to notice that I was only doing well and getting praise in my creative writing classes, so I figured I should just focus on that. I was pretty restless and directionless in undergrad, so the stability of forming a writing routine and the praise from my mentors like Sarah Vap and Bob Haynes really did a great deal for me. Bob Haynes convinced me to apply for MFA programs, and I’ve pretty much been driving in the academic lane since then.

NS: You published your first full length book of poems, Testify, in 2017 with Red Hen Press. Right now, I’m remembering the release party Butler had and how much fun it was! Your reading from the book was enchanting, as your readings always are, and it was a beautiful thing to see so much of your family there. Three years later, I am enjoying delving back into Testify in preparation for this interview. Most of the articles I’ve read about your book explain that it is primarily about your identity and your family, which is true, but I also feel that you are a poet of place. Your writing is detailed and rich with specific imagery, and in poems such as, “Best Act Like You Know” and “We Had The Second Biggest Gymnasium In The Nation,” you clearly describe not only the family members that raised you, but the place that raised you: Anderson, Indiana. Do you have any thoughts about incorporating place in your work or the challenges of doing so for any poet?

DM: Yeah, as Richard Hugo talks about in that old book The Triggering Town, most of us have an imaginative space of memory with an image inventory that we sometimes return to again and again, our “triggering town.” In many ways, Anderson is my triggering town. When I limn an image, Anderson and its dilapidated city streets, brick cottage houses, front porch bungalows, murky rivers, and moaning mosquitoes is where my mind first goes. I think that somewhere I’ve said that Anderson is pretty much a character in the book.

The older and older I get, the more and more I see the power place and geography have over our thinking and meaning-making systems. I know my brain is different now that I’ve been a west coaster for so long, and I have been enjoying exploring the ways I’m changing because of that in some recent writing sessions. Somewhere Kurt Vonnegut said something about Midwesterners being freshwater people. I have been thinking about what that means a lot. Out here in the LBC, I often write by the ocean, and I wonder how being in this space, how trying to be a receptacle and vehicle for poetry in this space is different from when I did this almost exact same thing in front of the White River back in Anderson, you know what I mean?

NS: In an interview with Lisa Grove for Poetry LA (which I highly recommend people watch/listen to), you discuss the theme of intimacy and belonging in Testify and how it relates to family and to Black culture. You say: “This book is a way to reach out and be touched by the family and to feel included by my family. And not even just blood family but by the Black community at large, which I’ve always felt kind of on the periphery of.” I am wondering if you are willing to share your thoughts about the life of your book since it came out three years ago, and if you feel that it has achieved some of that reaching back and touching your intended audience? Did it happen in the way you expected? Were there surprises? Poets often say that they have to release their books and just detach and let the book have its own life–an audience will interpret it as they wish. So many of us writers (myself, included, ahem) long to publish that first book or that next book. Is there anything you can share with us about that process of the book’s life after publication and your own experiences regarding intention and audience?

DM: The way that my family, so many old friends, and a lot of the west side of Anderson supported my book really touched and moved me. I didn’t think the hood would support me like that and show me so much love. So in that way, I suppose the book did reach back and touch its intended audience. My Auntie, the woman who raised me, and my father were both just so lovely about everything and that really surprised me since the book is my recalled, invented impressions of so many aspects of their lives as well. Their excitement, praise, and pride sustains me whenever the blues are coloring my thoughts.

And when it comes to audience and reception, I just always try to remember that I’m not writing for everybody. I am writing for that reader who needs me, that reader who needs my voice, my poems, for whatever reason at that moment. I believe Rita Dove has said something about us writing for our ideal reader. So that I don’t go insane and am not crippled into not writing by my massive insecurities, I just try to keep this idea of an ideal reader in my mind. If I don’t, I start to second guess myself, self-edit and critique myself in unproductive ways, and I can’t do the real work that is writing.

NS: Something else I didn’t see many people writing about in reviews was the humor in your work. I immensely admire poets who can make an audience laugh and cry within the same poem, which is something you achieve all the time! You are often writing about such heavy subject matter: your mother’s death when you were only eight, your father’s health problems and issues with drugs in the past, and your struggle to find your identity within the Black community. These subjects are the backdrop to your work, but what jumps out from those sorrows are the wise and hilarious snippets of things said by family members. For example, the voice of your Auntie in poems such as, “Loud Looks” and  “Testify,” and your father’s sayings in poems such as, “Washing Palms.” There are really two questions I want to ask you here: do you have any thoughts on including humor in poems (and why it’s usually so difficult for the rest of us?!) and what are your thoughts on quoting loved ones and getting their voices right?

DM: Haha! Thanks for this compliment, Natalie! I really appreciate it. I’ve never really thought of myself as a funny writer. I mean, I can sometimes be kind of laugh-worthy in person, but in my mind, I’m not funny on the page. However, I must admit that you’re not the first person to say that they laughed lots while reading Testify. So yeah, being funny on the page is really a trip to me. I don’t know if I have any thoughts about how to do it. I just try to listen to my poems, to attend to their needs, and to give them whatever will make them sing their fullest truth.

And I come from a family of super dope storytellers and people who just employ language in such fascinating and incredible ways. My whole life, my Auntie, my father, my brother, and so many of my other family members have been cracking me up. When we’re all together, everyone makes fun of and roasts everyone else. It gets brutal sometimes, especially if you’re the youngest, nerdy one, but I think hearing these jokes and hearing grown folks talking so much growing up really influenced my writing voice. Besides the imagery of Anderson, little sonic patterns and rhymes, I think my family members’ voices, jokes, and their stories are my other biggest triggering town, the gardens from which I harvest my language. Shout out to Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens!

NS: Speaking of humor, I have to take a moment and appreciate one of the best uses of an exclamation point I’ve seen in a poem. In “Feels Like Rain,” you open with these lines: “Dead black cat on the porch, / tongue out // I touched it!” Your poems are so good at surprising us with changes in tone, subject and sound. How do you work at achieving this? What is your revision process like? I know this is a question that poets get asked a lot, but I find the processes of revision difficult and fascinating.

DM: So my writing process has layers of revisions/filtration embedded into each step. I start out by journaling, like writing by hand in a notebook, moleskin whatever. On my phone, I’m always typing out pieces of language, images, sonic patterns, etc., so I usually start my journaling session with some of that material, which is the first level of revision/filtration. If I’m keeping up with myself, doing well, and acting right, I do this process everyday for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. During this step of my process, I try not to edit, erase, or change anything at all. Really, I just try to write as much as possible as fast as possible. I never do any lineation during this step of the process.

Then when I feel as though I have some evocative, arresting, compelling material in my journal, I try to type out that material on the computer and to find some type of form for it. I start playing with line breaks, looking for images I can put in conversations with one another, creating sonic patterns, and searching for portals into new storylines and places. This is the next level of editing/filtration, and this process usually takes an hour or two if things are going well; days, weeks, months if the magic isn’t working. After this tinkering, I usually let that draft set a week or so, sometimes a month, and then I return to it again and print it out and edit it by hand by writing all over it.

All of this editing leads me back to the computer, and then I type up the poem again. I repeat this process over and over until the poem is where I want it. Sometimes this all happens very quickly. Sometimes I don’t write a “real/finished” poem (“A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.”–Paul Valery.) for months. Sometimes a poem is already a poem when I first write it in my notebook or even when I first type it on my computer. You know how the writing game is: it’s all routine, luck, magic, and effort.

NS: Another subject I find difficult and fascinating is writing about being in an interracial relationship. I struggle with writing about my own experiences within my own, but you very successfully write about your experiences with your White partner in poems such as, “Me, The Boondocks. Her, South Park,” and “Heading Down.” You and I have talked about this before, but do you have any thoughts you’d like to share with readers about how you were able to approach this subject or how writers might/if they should?

DM: I approach this subject matter the way I approach all of my poems: I try to listen to the story the poem wants to tell instead of imposing the story I need/want to tell. I try to be as honest and as vulnerable as I can with my readers and with myself on the page. In many ways race is the protagonist of our American story, so I feel as though I would be remiss and in a way irresponsible if I didn’t write about race and my interrracial relationship. I’m always telling my students to go to that place they don’t want to go in their writing. And for so long, race and my feeling about having a white partner were something I avoided writing about because I felt like an Uncle Tom and a sellout. I still remember being called that growing up in Anderson. All of those moments of not feeling Black enough really wounded me and informed so much of my thinking. I suppose it still does. No, I know it does. So yeah, I don’t think I could even write if I didn’t write about race. So I suppose what I wonder is not how might/if writers should write about race; I wonder how can’t writers write about race. As Toni Morrison wrote about in Playing in the Dark, race and delinations of power are always present, and as Claudia Rankine has urged, white writers need to approach this subject matter more purposely, alertly, and responsibly. We all do. We all have to do the work to make this country and world better and more equitable when it comes to race and power. We have so many rough battles ahead of us, but I think this one is perhaps the most crucial when we think of the state of our democracy. As Ta-Neihisi Coates and many others have articulated, W.E.B. Du Bois’ declaration from 1903 still rings true in this century, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” 

NS: I know that you left social media several years back, and I wonder if you would be willing to talk about some of the pressures that writers and poets face to be on social media. Because of my involvement as an editor of a literary journal, I feel I can’t go off of social media even if I wanted to. I have a love/hate relationship with it, as I think most people do. It’s done so much for poetry, and at the same time can do so much damage. I admire the fact that you are an active, publishing poet, but you have been able to not give in to those pressures to be super available to all, 24/7. Any thoughts on this?

DM: I think social media is super dope! It has done so very much for social movements and the writing game. However, it’s just not the best place for me. I’m far too sensitive and insecure for it. When I had it, I found myself comparing myself to my peers too often and being too caught up with who won what award, who got what fellowship/grant, etc. I found that I was paying more attention to that stuff and the gossip than I was to my own poems. So for me, it was really a matter of mental and emotional health. I am just a better, stronger, and more productive person if I don’t see all of that stuff all of the time. I’ve had to work really hard at time management most of my life, so, to be real, I just don’t have time to be tweeting or IGing multiple times a day. And I’m not witty enough to produce content all day. So yeah, I just quit one day several years back, and I haven’t looked back. I don’t know if this move would be the best for everybody, but I know it’s the best for me.

NS: Can you share anything about what you are working on now? I know that progress on a second book is being made. I also know that you have been researching flowers! Is there anything you want to share with us about forthcoming work and what’s next for you?

DM: Yeah, I have been trying to learn all the names of the flowers I see growing around the neighborhood when I walk the dog. During these trash fire times, it feels good to slow the world down by stopping to take pictures of flowers and really examining them. I always try to look at each one for at least thirty seconds so that I can really take it in visually. My dog hates it and always just wants to continue the walk. Haha! She’s all like, “Here he goes with that silly flower stuff again!” 

And my next book is coming to fruition. Right now, it’s tentatively called Trouble Funk, and it is an attempt by me to understand, reimagine, and recreate the world in which my parents grew up and fell in love in Anderson, Indiana in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My father was a DJ during a lot of this time, so I decided to title every poem after a song he liked to spin. The manuscript’s title is the name of Washington D.C. go-go band from the era.  The project has been a good way for my father and me to stay in touch, talk, and connect, and it has helped me learn more stories about my mother, which is really important to me. I read somewhere that Li-young Lee once said something like that most of his poems are searching for his father. I suppose most of my poems are searching for my mother in some type of way. So in a way I guess this next book kind of acts as a prequel to Testify. One thing that I’ve found super fascinating about this project is that the late 70s and early 80s rhyme with our current political moment in so many ways, so it has been super dope making those connections and kind of reverse engineering not only my own self, path, and past, but also our country’s. So yeah, Trouble Funk is next, and then after that, who knows. My brain is only big enough to hold one project at a time.

Also I recently received a fellowship from the Borchard Foundation Center on Literary Arts to travel to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico to write. I don’t know how being in that space will influence my work, but hopefully a new project arises from that.

NS: My last question for my featured poets is always about Indiana and the arts, specifically poetry, of course. You have lived in very different parts of the country, such as Arizona, and you currently live in California. What do you think people misunderstand about the Midwest, specifically Indiana, in relation to the arts? Also, are there any favorite spots in Indiana that you want to shout out?

DM: Haha! People always think we’re just about basketball and corn in Indiana. So yeah, people sleep on how much of an artsy city Indianapolis is. I adored the poetry scene surrounding Butler in Nap (Shout out to Alessandra Lynch, Chris Forhan, and Robert Stapleton!), the one in Bloomington because of IU, and the one in West Lafayette because of Purdue. When you think about it, it’s really a trip that Indiana has such a thriving scene considering how small the state is. There’s also dope stuff happening in Muncie at Ball State and in Terre Haute, and Evansville, too. Indiana also has so many small liberal arts colleges that make for exciting art enclaves, too. I’m always having to remind my west coast homies of Indiana’s fecund writing history. Shout out and much praise due to OGs like Mari Evans, Etheridge Knight, and Kurt Vonnegut.

And as far as local spots to shout out goes, I gotta show some love to many of my former writing spots in Anderson. Shout out to Mounds State Park. Shout out to Shadyside Lake. Shout out to Chief Anderson’s Lookout (I believe that is torn down now.) And shout out to the corner and Nichol and Arrow in Anderson, the heart and soul of the west side of hood!

Next Page (Douglas Manuel)

Previous Page (Welcome to Winter 2021)