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Poet Rickey Laurentiis Challenges the Classics

We spoke to Rickey Laurentiis about what he recommends reading, watching, and listening to.
Rickey Laurentiis.

Rickey Laurentiis.

In his poetry, Rickey Laurentiis puts an imaginative spin on the predominantly white, male, and heterosexual Western artistic canon, re-casting beloved tropes and archetypes to reflect the diversity of the real world. In his debut collection, Boy With Thorn, which won the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Laurentiis dissects the legacy of slavery through the tradition of Southern Gothic, with its mix of the austere and the baroque ("Southern Gothic"), and stares at a Georgia O'Keefe painting while considering the pressure on queer men to desire female bodies ("Black Iris"). In the 2016 poem "Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame," Laurentiis plays on the poetic convention of addressing a reader or listener with "O," turning the syllable into a cry of pleasure during a scene of homosexual intercourse. And in "Lord and Chariot," published in 2014 in The Kenyon Review, Laurentiis takes the myth of Persephone and Hades and recasts Persephone as a black slave boy and Hades as his white owner. In this way, Laurentiis, the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the Lannan Literary Fellowship for poetry, makes the argument that artists in a more enlightened age can and should enjoy the classics—but also challenge their dominant interpretations and fill in the gaps as well.



Frank Bidart's "Ellen West"
"Ellen West," a poem from Frank Bidart's 1977 poetry collection The Book of the Body, centers one of the most famous eating-disorder cases in history: that of Ellen West, a patient of Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger. Written as a dramatic monologue interspersed with observations from a case study, "Ellen West" details its subject's cravings as well as her internal struggle not to disappoint her young husband by betraying her condition. Laurentiis taught Bidart's poem in his 2016 Columbia University course "Sustained (Re)vision: Carl Phillips, Jorie Graham, and Frank Bidart."

"One student spoke about the poem very provocatively and insightfully: Though Ellen West was not a transgender person, the student called it a kind of 'pre-' or 'proto-trans' poem. I thought that was a really great moment showing what poems can do: It was written in the late '70s, before, one might say, there was a fully articulated discourse around trans [identity]. So the student thought of this possibly as one place where you could find trans identity moving. I would recommend it for everyone.”

Gwendolyn Brooks' "The Boy Died in My Alley"
Decades before the March for Our Lives, Gwendolyn Brooks' "The Boy Died in My Alley," a poem dedicated to someone called Running Boy, addressed the effects of gun violence on black men. When the narrator discovers a boy has died in her alley without her knowledge, and a policeman asks her whether she knew him, the narrator bleakly comes to recognize her passivity and complicity in the face of tragedy. "I joined the Wild and killed him / with knowledgeable unknowing," the narrator thinks.

"If anyone read that poem today, the great tragedy of the poem is that they would think that it was written yesterday and not 50 or 60 years ago."



Carl Phillips
Carl Phillips has written over a dozen books of poetry that meditate on spirituality, the natural world, and the Southern Gothic literary tradition. What they often have in common is long, loping, precisely punctuated sentences, and a focus on desire and sex—especially sex between male lovers.

"[Phillips'] topic is the ever-changing, ever-evolving, ever-betraying ideas of desire upon our lives. And I think he makes it work because his actual syntax, the way he fills his sentences, they come back and forth, they tease and pull, they're very long sentences. There is something about the language itself, before you even realized what he said, that is seductive."


In the Wake: On Blackness and Being
Using the central allegory of a transatlantic slave ship, Tufts University English professor Christina Sharpe's 2016 In the Wake: On Blackness and Being reflects on how their enslaved ancestors' first voyage still haunts black Americans and Caribbean peoples today. Sharpe organizes the book in four parts—"The Wake," "The Ship," "The Hold," and "The Weather"—to examine how slavery's still-unfolding legacy manifests in the deaths of black men at the hands of policemen, ethnic cleansing in the Dominican Republic, and former President Barack Obama's scolding of black fathers in America.

"It's a brilliant but also disturbing—in a positive way—look at what happened in the aftermath of slavery. It didn't end; it just revised itself. There's still a wake that we move with."

Wilde in America: Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Modern Celebrity
Before Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, there was Oscar Wilde, who preceded his written works with a flamboyantly self-promotional American tour that brought him wealth and notoriety and launched his international literary career. Wilde was originally sent across the Atlantic by Richard D'Oyly Carte to help gin up American excitement for Patience, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta lampooning literary dandies; the joke ended up being on the producers when Wilde used the tour to land meetings with the American literati, soon becoming much bigger than the show he was meant to be promoting.

"Wilde in America talks about the origins of a particular kind of journalism that we know today—actually, like this conversation—which talks to artists to get their opinions. It was a very fun book."

Visual Artists

Shikeith Cathey
Through photography, film, and sculpture, multidisciplinary artist Shikeith Cathey examines how history and systemic oppression have shaped black men's conceptions of themselves and others. In projects like #Blackmendream—which collects answers to the question, "When did you discover you were black?"—and his photography exhibition This Was His Body/His Body Finally His, Cathey shows black men co-existing, as he puts it, "outside of the binary."

"[Shikeith's] work engages the consequences of having a body read as black and male within a world that often doesn't want that body, so makes it into a monster or hyper-sexualizes it—if it doesn't try to erase it. And because of all this I find that [Cathey's] work is always already queer work because it treats a body that, at birth, is necessarily trying to negotiate a world that seeks its ending. At the same time, Shikeith's work explores new ways of becoming and being, not harmoniously within but as if despite this cruel world."


Devan Shimoyama
Pittsburgh-based mixed-media artist Devan Shimoyama redefines black masculinity, creating portraits of black men and adorning them with glitter, jewels, and shimmering materials in vibrant colors. In a series about barbershops, Shimoyama confronts queer men's discomfort in a traditionally heteronormative space.

"Speaking for myself, the barbershop occupies a pretty fraught and dangerous but sometimes also—and this is all a joint phrase—healing space for black men, particularly queer black men. When I look at [Shimoyama's] work, it makes me think, oh, he's trying to reclaim the space and make a queer argument of the space and say, 'I should be in that space too.'"


The Crown
Netflix's ambitious historical drama The Crown, currently in production on its third season, is telling the story of Queen Elizabeth's life from the first years of her reign to the present day over the course of six confirmed seasons. Launched in 2016, the series has garnered accolades for the title performance by Claire Foy, who, in Season Three, will pass the crown to an older version of Elizabeth, now played by Olivia Colman.

"I confess: I'm obsessed not so much with royalty, but with the idea that people believe in royalty. If you acknowledge this, if you really face the belief that people all over the world really think other people in the world are 'royal' and so, historically, had a 'right to rule' and, presently, should at least be considered as worthwhile news, then all the other social constructs that we have—race, gender, whatever they may be—suddenly come into clarity. I'm always fascinated to see how this belief in royalty is being reinterpreted and being talked about."


Feud: Bette and Joan
FX's anthology series of famous conflicts throughout history kicked off in 2017 by dramatizing the infamous battle between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, which began on the set of their 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The second series, called Buckingham Palace, is set for release this year and will focus on the conflict between Charles, Prince of Wales, and Diana, Princess of Wales.

"The whole show is as though a documentary about Bette Davis was made in which she never appeared. I just think it's so smart. Once you take hold of the actual discipline of the medium you're in and notice the limits of the form, you can actually fold those edges back and do something with it. And that's what I think Feud showed me you could do."



Mfoniso Udofia's The Ufot Cycle
Mfoniso Udofia has said that she began writing plays because she wasn't seeing enough immigrants and first-generation Americans onstage. With The Ufot Cycle, a collection of nine plays chronicling the lives of one Nigerian immigrant couple and their children, Udofia offers a powerful statement about the breadth of immigrant stories that are dying to be told. The first play in the cycle, Sojourners, follows a Nigerian woman who is unhappy in an arranged marriage as she adjusts to American life. Other titles follow later stages in the woman's marriage and relationships, and in the life of her daughter.

"Sojourners finds poetry in a way that I think poets find it: in the in-between, almost throwaway or ignorable places. There's something about the level of the language in the play—it was funny at times, it was somber at others, it was musical to the rhythm I hear in black peoples' voices from all over the world, it was deadpan and serious when it needed to be. I felt entirely full when I walked away, not because I had been 'seen,' per se, or 'represented,' but because I had been heard."

A version of this story originally appeared in the September/October 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now to support independent journalism in the public interest. It was first published online on August 31st, 2018, exclusively for PS Premium members.