Featured Writer: Douglas Manuel

Douglas Manuel was born in Anderson, Indiana and now resides in Whittier, California. He received a BA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University, an MFA in poetry from Butler University, and a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Testify (2017) and Trouble Funk (2023). His poems and essays can be found in numerous literary journals, magazines, and websites, most recently ZyzzyvaPleiades, and the New Orleans Review. He has traveled to Egypt and Eritrea with The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program to teach poetry. A recipient of the Dana Gioia Poetry Award and a fellowship from the Borchard Foundation Center on Literary Arts, he is an assistant professor of English at Whittier College and teaches at Spalding University’s low-res MFA program.

Interview by-Natalie Solmer

NS: You gave us a lovely interview (and two new poems!) only a couple years ago, but I am asking you back again! Thanks for doing this on such short notice. I do believe you are the first featured writer that I have asked to be a feature again. We have not started to repeat writers. . . yet. What happened was this: I read your new book, I was overwhelmed by how AMAZING it is, and I immediately wanted to ask you some questions about it.

In your last interview, you talked about working on poems for this new book, Trouble Funk, and you even shared two poems which are now in the book (it’s always a thrill to see Indianapolis Review on an acknowledgments page, by the way!). Trouble Funk is a prequel of sorts to your first book, Testify, and it reimagines your parents’ love story in Anderson, Indiana in the 70’s and early 80’s. The book is written from the third person, and each poem in the book is titled after a song that your father spun while DJing during that era. In addition, each title also contains the year in which the narrative action took place. This also gives your reader a soundtrack to accompany the book (which you encourage the reader to listen to and which I think is super cool!)

I am not always a fan of a book that is what you might call a ‘project’ or that has one specific situation that it is responding to, but this book does not feel like a ‘project’ or something as basic as that. The reason, I think, for that is that EVERY poem is so incredibly strong and stands on its own. Also, the poems are taking on enormous subject matter: Black culture, music, relationships, Black love. . . . I read this book very quickly, wanting to see what would happen next in that wild love story, but I also want to go back and read the poems over and over again because they are so richly layered and beautiful sonically.

How did you conceive of the idea for this book? Did you ever feel hemmed in by its structure or was it freeing? There is an excellent interview you did with Ruth Madievsky for Bomb Magazine, and you talked a bit about why you wanted to write in the third person and get away from the first person “invented self” that you wrote from in your first book. I’d also love to hear a bit more about that as well.

DM: First off, thanks so much for this totally awesome and dope opportunity, Natalie. It is really a pleasure to be the first author featured twice. On the reals, thank you. Thank you so very much. I’m so very humbled and honored. I promise I am, yo!

Okay, now on to your great first question: I think I started writing Trouble Funk–in my head, at least–when I finished editing “The Cripple and the Crackhead,” the final poem in Testify. There was just something about the way that poem called my speaker to be a voyeur that really intrigued and enlivened me. There was something about being outside the narrative for once instead of being the narrative, instead of being immersed in it, instead of speaking it, instead of  having it be from my/the speaker’s perspective that unlocked something in me, made me hungry to write more poems. Third person felt good, felt right. I needed distance from myself and the self I created in Testify. I needed to tell a story without me to find me, to find my beginnings. Then, there were also the phone conversations with my father. Every time we talked, our conversations would always return to my mother, their life together, how they grew apart. For me, the reason for these conversations was simple: I’m always searching for my mother, always trying to learn enough about her so that I can recall her voice and/or be blessed with a clearer vision of her. For my father, I suppose these conversations were nice slow-rolls and corner-turns down memory lane, or maybe he knew that I would stay on the phone longer if our talk stayed on this ground. Maybe he knew he had something I needed and wanted to give it to me. Maybe he just wanted to talk to his son who lives across the country and hardly ever visits. I don’t know. But I do know that during every single one of those conversations he would mention a song he enjoyed spinning and that he would talk about how that song connected to the story he was telling, his and Mama’s story, my origin story. So after one of those conversations, an early draft of “Let’s Get Small, 1986” and a few other drafts presented themselves to me, and I scribbled them down, typed them up, and then brought them to workshop at USC. That’s how the book began for me; that’s how the conceit came to me. I realized the titles of his favorite songs could be poem titles and that each song could kind of serve as accompaniment to each poem.

NS: I would also love to hear about the crafting process of the poems in this book and their order within it. Sometimes the poems are in couplets, sometimes quatrains, sometimes one long stanza, but they seem to be evenly distributed (like the couplet poems are not all next to each other, for example). Also, the poems are not in chronological order, as evidenced by the dates in their titles. Even though you jump around chronologically, stylistically, the book still works so well as a whole, and I’m really impressed by that. Could you talk about the process of putting the book together?

DM: Aw! Thanks for those props, Natalie. I impressed you, huh? Very cool–especially from a super dope and discerning reader like you. Thank you. It really means a lot, homie. But yeah, as far as the individual poems’ forms go, as I do whenever I write, I just tried to find the best vessel/form for each poem, the one that connects to, enriches, and enlarges the poem’s content the most. Sometimes that means tons of monostiches, sometimes that means couplets, sometimes that means lots of white space, sometimes that means jagged enjambments, sometimes that means mostly end-stopped lines. I just try to fully listen to each of my poems, and, then to the best of my ability, give them what they need.

As for the book’s sequencing, I knew that I didn’t want to tell a linear narrative. All the postmodern theory I’ve read makes me suspicious of simple story (simple story here meaning events told in chronological order), of lineary, of teleology. For my purposes, these methods and notions felt too sterile and stuffy to tell my parents’ messy and tumultuous love story. So I decided to start near the end of the narrative. The narrative action of the text’s first poem is 1986, which is the next to last year mentioned in the book. And once I knew I was starting near the end, I knew I had to let the reader know how they got here, so I knew I would be able to work with flashbacks. I also knew that I wanted to end the book a little further from where it was in the beginning: so that there was almost the unity of the work being bookended, but the ending would be different. I was trying to create the same with difference, analogous but distant, repetition with revision. That’s why the book begins and ends with Denise’s birthday, but the difference between her birthday in 1986 versus 1987 is pretty substantial, at least in my mind, and hopefully for readers, too. And hopefully the poems between those two poems, the scattered stories of Damon and Denise, take the reader somewhere new that builds meaning and psychic weight. 

NS: In the Madievsky interview, you also spoke about the precariousness of writing about real people and presenting your inventions and impressions of them upon the page. I stress out about this, hard, especially when it comes to loved ones. Gratefully, you have stated that your family has been incredibly supportive and receptive to your work. (I will never forget the GIANT amount of love in the room from your family at your first book’s release party!) You also stated in our previous interview that writing this book was a chance to talk to your father, connect, and hear more stories about your mother, who sadly passed when you were a child. Can you share how much of a collaborator your father was for this book? Did you share with him that you were writing the poems at the time you were asking him for stories?

DM: Trouble Funk is totally a collab with my father. That’s why I dedicated the book to him (I also dedicated the book to my Uncle Jamie, my mother’s brother, who, when he learned about the project, told me he wanted to write an introduction for it. Sadly, he passed before the text was finished.). There’s no doubt in my mind that I could not have written Trouble Funk without those conversations with my dad. And, yes, I totes let him know I was writing about our conversations. Sometimes I would even call him and ask him for specific narrative details when I couldn’t conjure/create something that felt real or authentic enough. But the book is also almost impossible without the pictures that my auntie mailed me. My auntie, the woman who raised me, sent me all these family photos of my mom and dad. These photos enabled me to imagine events and stories that helped me fill in the gaps of the narratives my father was telling me. Moreover, listening to the songs my dad talked about also did a great deal. Oftentimes, the songs–their lyrics, their rhythms, their solos, their breakdowns–would help me find the form for poems, would help me with syntax and diction, would help finish drafts that I thought would be abandoned.

NS: In the Bomb Magazine interview (shout out to Ruth Madievsky because I obviously adored all her questions!), you said your favorite poem in the book is the opening poem, “Let’s Get Small, 1986.” In addition, this poem gives the title of the book, as it’s the band, Trouble Funk, who performs this song. This is also one of my favorite poems in the book because it encompasses so much: not just love relationships or your parents’ relationship, but the generational trauma of slavery and racism and how that has affected Black love. Yet, you incorporate all of this flawlessly: “the same scream they began with, the same / scream will end them. But, really, / it’s older than that, deeper than that, and oh so Black. // The same scream since Middle Passage, / since slavery, / since Reconstruction, / since Jim Crow, / since Great Migration, / since redlining, / since Civil Rights. // so many screams slicing love. // Music, the stitches.” I have struggled myself to write about how slavery and racism’s generational trauma has affected my relationship with an Afro-Caribbean man and of course my positionality makes that even more precarious. I just want to say I admire the hell out of the work you do in this book! You have said that writing in the third person also helped you to write about these larger topics and go beyond just your parents’ story. Are there any other thoughts you can share about your process in taking on these enormous and complex subjects?

DM: Stop it, Natalie. Your praise is really hitting me in the feels. Thank you! Because this is my second book and it’s doing something so different than my first, I really feel a little uncertain about it, so again, please know that your admiration really means so very much.

As for your question, I guess I’ll just say that when I look back at Testify I’m a little disappointed in myself. I’m a little disappointed that the text does so much navel-gazing and is so insular. I’m a little disappointed that the speaker I create doesn’t speak to the larger racial, political, and socio-economic conditions that lead to my father and brother’s incarcerations and drug addictions. I’m a little disappointed–no, I’m mad at myself for taking my father and brother to task more than I take the United States, white supremacy, and capitalism to task. Put plainly, I’m horrified by how in Testify I didn’t connect the personal and the political, which of course whether we like it or not, believe it or not, I feel is always and already connected. So I knew I wouldn’t make the same mistake in Trouble Funk. I knew I would attempt to show at least some of the ways that the political tries to thwart Black love, the Black family, Black selfhood, Black self love. I mean, what do the old-heads and OGs always say, “Crack doesn’t grow on trees. We didn’t make the game.”

NS: You are incredibly busy: you’re a father, a husband, a professor, and you’re involved with many projects in the literary community. How are you managing it all now with parenthood? Will you be doing a big book tour for Trouble Funk?

DM: Yeah, I wear a lot of hats right now. How do I do it? I don’t know, and I don’t know how well I’m doing any of it. Mostly, I almost always feel as though I’m drowning. I kind of feel like the character in Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning.” I’m being hyperbolic, of course, as I often am, but on the reals, I don’t know how I do it. I guess I do how anyone else does it. I keep trying, get lots of help, and am loved. Nobody does anything without being supported and loved. My wife is awesome and does so much, and we just keep on grinding. During undergrad, I thought I’d never graduate. During my MFA, I thought I’d never publish a book. During my PhD, I thought I’d never get a tenure-track position. Most of my life, I thought I’d never be a good enough, honest enough, stable enough man to have a wife and family. I just keep trying though. I just keep trying and hoping for the best. The ancestors went through too much for me to quit. 

As for the book tour, I’ve been fortunate enough to read in Quebec, Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, Boston, New York, Northern Cal, Central Cal, and all around LA. I’m so very grateful for each and every date. I’m so thankful that anyone listens to or reads my work at all. 

NS: My last question is always about Indiana and the Midwest. I’ll try to make it a little different this time around. How has your perspective on the Midwest and on Indiana changed since you have been living on the west coast? In addition, do you think it’s easier to write about a place if you no longer are in that place? Some writers say it helps to have that perspective. If you moved away from California, would you suddenly find yourself writing about it?

DM: Hmm. I don’t know if my perspective on the Midwest and Indiana has changed that much. I think I’ve just changed. I still love the Midwest. I still reach for its settings when I need an image for a poem. As Richard Hugo would say, it’s still my triggering town. However, I suppose I’m more saddened by the Midwest and Indiana now though. Being in Indiana hurts me in ways I’ve just now started to reckon with. When I come back, I don’t stay long for this exact reason.

I don’t know if it’s easier to write about a place once you’re no longer there, but I know I find myself doing just that all the time. When I was in Arizona, I wrote about Indiana. When I was back in Indiana, I wrote about Arizona. Now that I’m in California, Arizona and Indiana own most of the real estate in my poetry. I guess what some writers say is true, at least for me. I guess distance does grant perspective–like how sometimes the further you are away from something, the more of it you can see. So yeah, considering my pattern thus far, I have little doubt that I would write about California if I moved away.

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