COG: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wasn't sure. I grew up in a very working-class family and a proud working-class community, and I was the first in my family to go to college. So, although I loved music and the arts, I never thought that anything in that arena was an option for me. I was captain of my high school marching band, and I still play trombone, so I wanted to do that for a living, but I knew that wouldn't fly at home. So I took a journalism minor in undergrad, which allowed me to pursue a field that I thought held some creativity. I was a journalist for years before I went to get my MFA; I was 30 when I entered Warren Wilson College.
COG: How did you become you instead?
Ha. I like the way this question is worded: "How did you become you?" I think I was always myself, but it took me a while to give myself permission to be myself in public. After a while, I realized that I could have a steady job with benefits teaching Creative Writing. When I met Cornelius Eady, it really dawned on me that there were these guys in the world who looked like me and who had similar backgrounds—black men who grew up in blue collar communities—who were artists. I had never seen that before. So, in a way, meeting him gave me permission to drop the facade of being something that I wasn't.
But I always felt like I was a little different from my peers growing up. I liked music and all the arts, but I was straight, which may not seem like I need to make that clear, but in the black community in Akron, OH, in the '70s and '80s, it's an important detail. But I could fight, I wrestled and I boxed, so I could have anyone I wanted as a friend, and no one messed with me. I went to an all-black, inner-city high school, so I did grow up fighting, mostly because I was always myself, but I also could handle myself, so people just let me be me. I ended up being pretty popular by the time I was in high school with friends from the football team to the science nerds—but the nerds were really always my people. I mean, after all, I was captain of the band.
COG: Fave lesser-known hero (personal or fictional)?
Joe Bolton. He died by taking his own life after turning in his MFA thesis. His book, The Last Nostalgia, was brought out by Donald Justice, University of Arkansas Press. His poems are heartbreakingly vulnerable and, as a result, beautiful.
And Rodney Jack. He was another poet we lost too soon. We went to our MFA together at Warren Wilson. He also took his own life. His poems have a formal foundation that holds up an incredibly nimble emotional terrain. His book is Machine of Love & Grace, which was edited by Wayne Johns and Cate Marvin. Beautiful. Sarabande Books.
COG: What’s the most enjoyable aspect of your work; the least?
The most enjoyable aspect of my work is sharing it with others. The least enjoyable is the struggle to make it.
COG: If you were a hybrid, what would your two halves be?
I think we all are already hybrids, often of many parts. Too many people don't accept that.
COG: Describe a teacher, student or colleague you hated (or hate, you big meanie); why?
I can't think of anyone I hate at this point in my life. There's too much I love in the world for all of that. I used to hate my high school guidance counselor who tried to get me to enlist in the Army after I became a National Merit Scholar, but I've even let that go. He was just misguided himself.
COG: In desktop publishing, a character tag is embedded code defining the style of a word or phrase. But in the literary lexicon, “character tags” refer to fictional characters’ habits, catch phrases or other distinguishing marks: Yoda’s syntax. Hello Kitty’s bow. Clint Eastwood’s rugged squint. What’s your character tag?
A. Van's questions.
COG: What’s the last thing that made you laugh, cry or cuss?
Laugh, cry, and cuss all at once: Overhearing a table of people, three white folks and one African American man, talking about why Donald Trump was good for America.
COG: Describe your ideal road trip.
A cross-country train trip with my wife, which we took to see the Grand Canyon. Later that night, we went back out to look into it. At night, The Grand Canyon feels like a black hole in space, like God is pulling you into it. Scary and thrilling.
COG: What problem, large or small, are you hell-bent on solving?
Bigotry. I think when I hear people say that we're past this time or that time that they're somehow deluding themselves. Even when things get somewhat better here, there's another community or another country or some part of this country in which people—women, people of color, people who identify as queer—are not safe. There's work to be done.