How Do You Exist In a World that Sees You As Monster or Ghost?￼
Christian J. Collier's poetry collection "The Gleaming of the Blade" uses horror to explore what it means to survive the South as a Black man
In his debut collection The Gleaming of the Blade, Christian J. Collier resurrects a history that was never truly buried for the Black men whose lives continue to be shaped by its violence:
builds its monsters
from the bones of experience. Blood
records & remembers everything it survives.”
From persona poems that assume the perspective of Candyman to elegies that want again and again for an alternate ending, Collier’s collection draws from elements of horror to show how America made Black men into monsters in order to justify the atrocities committed against them.
Cast to play the role of monster or as ghost, the centuries of dehumanization experienced by the speakers in The Gleaming of the Blade raise the question: What would it look like to survive? I spoke with Collier over Zoom to find out.
Sam Risak: In your book, images of ghosts and monsters combine with violent descriptions of the body to depict the longstanding effects of intergenerational trauma. Given that trauma affects most—if not all—aspects of one’s life, you could have placed these ghosts within a variety of contexts. What made you decide to ground them back in the body?
Christian J. Collier: The body is a route or touchstone in my work. I’m always interested in what the body has the capacity to do, what hovers around the body, what happens to the body after the spirit vacates it. And while combing over the poems, once I paired them together, I realized they started to say different things about the ways that, specifically, a Black body is and is not seen in different capacities and environments.
SR: Do you ever feel the South has been disproportionately targeted when it comes to conversations about race and white nationalism? That the region has become, in a sense, a scapegoat for issues that are happening on a national and international scale?
CC: It depends. For my book, much of it was inspired by real life, by things that actually happened to me. So it can’t be needlessly targeting the South when the South gave me these experiences. But outside of the work, I think it is easy to point to the South and see it a particular way. We look at George Floyd as a tipping point of what’s been dubbed the racial reckoning, and that that did not happen in the South. That not only produced protests all over the country, but all over the world.
It is easy to lay these things on the South without interrogating the different components of the issue. And race is such a complicated issue, one that’s further complicated because we have never really been willing to collectively have an open and honest conversation about it.
SR: Your collection frequently interweaves the sacred with the monstrous. In your poem “Candyman Blues,” readers assume the persona of the iconic horror figure Candyman who describes how the brutality of others made him both their monster and god. Can you talk a little about this duality and how it might relate to the roles America has carved out for Black men?
CC: In the Candyman film, you have this Black man who was really just the victim of the time. He’s a visual artist who ends up falling in love with a white woman. He’s brutalized and becomes a supernatural being who comes and murders you once you speak his name. There’s a lot to investigate there. His only crime was loving somebody that society said he could not love, and as a result of that was made into a monster. Nobody thought to question what to call the people who thrust this upon him.
SR: In “When My Days Fill with Ghosts,” the names of the Black men that the speaker has lost are blacked out because—as I read it—the names that could fill those spots were too numerous to list. Pain then becomes a defining characteristic of the speaker’s reality, so much so that he grows afraid of losing it, “afraid of the release, of feeling empty if it all oceans out.” Seeing as poetry requires one to be vulnerable, I was wondering if you experienced such fear yourself. In writing this collection, you wrote against the stoic Black male stereotype; did you ever worry that, by doing so, you risked losing a sense of yourself?
CC: That’s a good question, but no, not really. When I’m working on poems, I come at it from a perspective that I am essentially a director behind the camera, and I’m crafting a particular shot for whoever is on the other side of it. I want the audience to see and feel something very specific, but I also want to leave a little bit of room for them to walk around and fill in some of the blanks. I want them to feel a little bit of that tension. That danger. Because so much of that encapsulates the Black experience in America. A lot of our capacity to make it from one day into the next means that we not only have to be in absolute control of our emotions, but also how our emotions are perceived. And that’s a certain kind of pressure that your average white person doesn’t experience in their days. I wanted to put people in a seat, and if that’s a new experience for them, then I think that I’ve partially done my job. And the way that we get there is through that vulnerability and through wading into that emotion.
And if I feel like I’ve ever gone too far, then that poem is probably not going to leave my computer. As much of my experience that I’m trying to bring into the work, I’m also trying to be cognizant of how that could potentially affect people outside of it.
In the poem you mentioned, “When My Days Fill with Ghosts,” one of the reasons that the identities are blocked out is because the people who’ve passed away can’t consent to being in the poem. So how do I preserve their identities? How do I respect that? How do I establish these boundaries? Poems aren’t journalism. Real life things can, and I think in a lot of cases should, inform the work, but they’re not the work. The work is the work. And maybe there is some emotional protection in that.
SR: Several other issues surrounding masculinity arise in the collection, including the hypersexualization of Black men. In “Induction,” the speaker is a bull who sought out by a white couple for sexual acts. While the fetishization in this poem is clear, its tone does not feel angry; in fact, it resolves with the speaker describing the experience as holy. How and why did you decide to end on such a note?
CC: I don’t write in a linear fashion. I’m not sure if you are familiar at all with the artist Mark Bradford, but I got really big into his work in 2019. His process blew my head apart. I had an epiphany: all text is malleable. And once you have that idea, then everything is fair game. I’ll take poems that I’ve written or had published, and then I’ll completely remix them. I’ll gun them. And human beings, we’re hardwired for narrative. For instance, if I were to take this bottle of vitamins, and put it next to a rock, somebody’s going to walk by and be like: Well, I wonder why these two things are close together. What’s the story here? I like putting different things together because you’re building connections that you consciously would not. “Induction” was a result of that process. At some point, I was dealing with something sexual, and then the bull thing happened, and I was like, Oh, this is interesting.
Another thing I’ve been trying to do is to incorporate more magic into my work. And once you introduce something that’s magical—be that God or prayer or a dead loved one—you can kind of go wherever you want because you’re no longer dealing in the linear world. So once God popped up [in “Induction”], I thought Well, how can I come back to the bull in an unexpected way?
I started researching bull fights. At the end of the fight when the Bull has been slain, the arena is filled with all these roses. And in the poem it goes from “would you believe me if I said it was holy? While sinew & bedspring were pushed to near fracture, / she chanted the word God so many times, He hovered into the room, a pale flame with no shadows” to “Would you believe”—not would you believe me, but “Would you believe if I said, when we finished, the light vanished & / forty cut roses were bent in prayer on the carpet.” With that small removal of “me,” it becomes a matter of belief, period: Would you believe in this this divine entity?
That gave me the chance to continue the bull imagery and also hearken back to the spirit. If I were consciously mapping it out, that would not have happened. And I figure, if it’s something that surprises me, there’s a good chance it might intrigue somebody else.
SR: The bull is one of many references to the monstrous in your collection; another appears in your final poem “Eulogy for Julius Gaw,” which is a nod to Friday the 13th Part VIII. What drew you to this work? To horror more broadly? What about the genre inspires you and what more would you like to see from it?
CC: The Friday the 13th film fascinated me for a number of reasons. For starters, a good part of it takes place in New York, which I think is interesting. But also, Julius is the only Black character in the film, and—I swear that they did not intend this to happen—but Julius ends up bucking that trend in, not just horror, but in Hollywood films, of the Black character being stupid, buffoonish. Cowardly. Julius realizes this is probably it for him on the rooftop. He is out of options, but he doesn’t try to run around Jason and get back down the stairs. Julius squares up. Only after he’s truly exhausted himself, does he look at Jason, and is like: Do what you have to do. I thought that that was such a bold move. I’m sure it went over the head, no pun intended, of most people who watched that film for over thirty years now, but I was just so taken by that.
So that film was fascinating to me, but so are movies where Black characters just live at the end. Like in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you have the truck driver who stops, and then a woman runs out, and then so does Leatherface, and what does he do? He grabs a wrench, hits Leatherface in the face and runs and leaves the truck. And in 28 Weeks Later, there’s the Black character who flies the helicopter, trying to pick up the characters, and then the infected come, and he’s like, Get off my chopper. These are just little things that real Black people would probably do, but so often, when we look at horror films or films that deal with the future, you don’t see Black people there. We’ve been a part of the story the entire time, so why would we not be there and actively contributing? Our influence has been sewn into the fibers of America—be that through music or what’s cool or the dialect–and still you have those parents who are complaining about critical race theory; I mean, what’s the soundtrack to their kids going to school? It’s crazy to say that, deep into the 21st century, for Black people to be able to think and act their way out of a situation is profound. But I guess that’s what I’m looking for: a future where Black life exists.